The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.


[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.


Crime and Punishment in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Sexual Consciousness, Unnatural Sex Acts, and the Primeval Couple in Genesis 3:4-7

For years readers of Genesis have been drawn to the stories found about the primeval couple in the mythical Garden of Eden. From the beginning of the narrative arch to its climactic ending, the story appears to be a self-contained unit. The beginning is marked by God’s divine command to ’adam in 2:16-17, in which YHWH commands: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”[1] The middle of the narrative is the tension-filled discourse involving a snake, Eve, and Adam (3:1-7). A conflict scene in which YHWH confronts the primeval couple regarding their disobedience then follows (3:8-13). The climactic conclusion is the punishment meted out by YHWH. It is, then, when read in its final, canonical form[2], a story of “crime and punishment.”[3] What is the primeval couple’s crime? In this paper, I will primarily focus my attention on Genesis 3:4-7, in particular I will be analyzing various interpretations of the phrase “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which occurs as the official name of the tree in 2:9. What does it mean? In lay circles, it has come to mean that the primeval couple gained moral consciousness by eating of the tree’s fruit. Other scholars have argued that the “knowledge” had more to do with “mastery of one’s existence.”[4] I find all such interpretations to be unconvincing. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that the tree of knowledge of good and evil had to do with sexual consciousness. Moreover, I will argue that the punishment in this tale of “crime and punishment” has to do with the crime of “unnatural sex acts.” I believe that such an interpretation, while it may not convince everyone, explains virtually all of the data, making sense in the biblical context and its Ancient Near Eastern context.

Traditionally, especially for those of us who have graduated Sunday School, the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with their freely made decision of choosing their own way over God’s way; the couple chose to disobey God to discover some separate way of “knowing.” In other words, Adam and Eve wanted to abide by their own rules; and, so, as a consequence of eating of this tree’s fruit, they were awakened to moral consciousness. Leon R. Kass interprets the narrative in this way. He writes, “For a human being, as for any human child, the possibility of choosing for oneself lies always within reach. To be a human being means that judgments of good and bad are always in one’s mental garden…”[5] In other words, for Kass, the story has to do with Adam and Eve’s obtainment of moral consciousness.[6] For Kass, the knowledge of “good and evil” should be taken to mean—as the Hebrew phrase וָרָע טוֹב actually suggests—knowledge of “good and bad.” “Bad,” in this case, includes things like pain, sickness, and disorder.[7] In other words, to bite of the tree is to voluntarily begin participating in the experience of “bad things,” such as cancer, earthquakes, and heartbreaks. But does this make any sense, even in the context of Genesis? I don’t think so. For example, the text states that prior to Eve’s biting of the fruit, she already perceived the tree to be “good [טוֹב] for food,” a “delight to the eyes,” and “to be desired to make one wise” (3:6). How could she know that the tree was “good” prior to obtaining Kass’ moral consciousness? Kass, in an ingenious move, writes, “[T]o reach for the forbidden fruit is already to have tasted it.”[8] In other words, Eve, by reaching for the fruit, already tasted of it, and somehow—and this remains unexplained—was able to make judgments on her own prior to reaching for it. Ultimately, in the tale, the primeval couple proves that “a free choice is not necessarily a good choice, not even for oneself.”[9] This means the point of the tale was to demonstrate to its readers that—sometimes?—it is better to listen to God’s divine imperatives, to live by His commands, rather than make autonomous choices.

Does Kass’ interpretation make sense in the biblical context? It does not. The curse that later follows the crime on its heels has to do with a woman’s childbearing experience. And, as most of us know, sex precedes childbirth. The crime, as my paper will later show, has to do with sexual deviance. However, I have spoken too soon. Next, we will look at another unconvincing interpretation: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “mastery of one’s existence.”

Claus Westermann argues that the entirety of the final narrative contained in Genesis 2-3 is “a story of the breaking of a law and punishment.”[10] God commands the prohibition (i.e., “do not eat…”) directly to the ’adam. The couple[11] does not listen, breaking God’s command. The story is a “direct confrontation between humans and God” in which “God himself discovers the transgression, conducts the trial and pronounces judgment.”[12] In the narrative, according to Westermann, the primeval couple attempts to eat of the tree because it represents “knowledge (or wisdom) in the general, comprehensive sense.”[13] Following a thesis proposed by J. Pedersen, and citing it, Westermann believes the reason that God felt threatened by the couple’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had to do with “the god’s zealous maintenance of their absolute superiority.”[14] In eating of the fruit, the couple chose their “craving for more.”[15] In Westermann’s words, it is this that “leads to conflict with God or the gods.”[16] “Human beings are created in such a way that they are capable of advancing their life and of advancing their knowledge… There is a difference between these two human aspirations. To aspire after life comes in conflict with the inexorable barrier of death; to strive for wisdom or knowledge meets no such barrier.”[17] All of this leads to what Westermann believes the author of Genesis is particularly ascribing to the primeval couple: a desire “to be like God” (3:5). Comparing this text with Job 15:7-8, Ezekiel 28:11-19, and Sirach 49:16, Westermann articulates the view that the primordial myths all reveal a primeval person (or persons) “grasping after wisdom to which the creature has no right.”[18] Once the primeval couple disobeyed YHWH, they were punished. The punishment of the woman is of particular importance. She is “cursed” with increased birth pains. Why? Westermann, being unfriendly to the “sexual consciousness interpretation” of this text, remains utterly silent; he does not even address the “why.” Instead, he writes, “[J]ust where the woman finds her fulfillment in life, her honor and her joy, namely in her relationship to her husband and as mother of her children, there too she finds that it is not pure bliss, but pain, burden, humiliation and subordination.”[19] The punishment is harsh. (And Adam, along with the snake, is likewise punished.) Westermann cannot explain why this curse and not another on the woman. He cannot explain it[20]—and does not bother to—because his interpretation is wrong: the text is dealing with sexual consciousness and unnatural sex acts. It is to this interpretation that I now turn my gaze. But before I examine the biblical evidence in favor of a sexual interpretation, I would like to discuss some of the text’s Ancient Near Eastern “relatives.” Such “relatives” will make us aware of the kind of stories the ancients told about the primeval man…

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu—created as a “double” after the failed creation of the demi-god Gilgamesh, who ended up becoming a tyrant. But Enkidu, too, has problems. He is wild. He runs around naked and lives like a jungle animal. Anu then sends a cult prostitute who seduces him into a night of hot sex. Overnight, after, I assume, several orgasms, he awakens a brand new man: he is now civilized and tame. The animals abandon this new version of Enkidu—“it was not as before; but he now had wisdom, broader understanding.”[21] He returns to the harlot who enticed him. He is now willing to listen to her. She tells him, and I quote, “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!…”[22] In this tale, which definitely has parallels with our Genesis text, the “wisdom” that Enkidu obtains is gained by sexual intercourse with a woman. The woman makes a man who he is. It is she who makes a man civilized, for lack of a better word, by means of pussification. Like the “Harlot of Gilgamesh,” Eve, too, forces Adam to bite of the fruit; she is the one who initiates him into sexual consciousness. Adam, like Enkidu, listens to her voice. In the final scene, much like Adam’s placement of the burden of guilt upon Eve in 3:12, Enkidu, too, blames the harlot. Enkidu becomes aware that sexual consciousness, having made him (a) awakened to life and (b) aware of death, is very much a blessing and a curse. And, so, he curses the woman; he curses the harlot. “Such motifs as sexual awareness, wisdom, and nature’s paradise are of course familiar from various ancient sources,” writes E.A. Speiser.[23]

In another Ancient Near Eastern text, known as the Adapa Myth, the god of wisdom, Ea, creates a man called Adapa. One day, while fishing, Adapa’s boat capsizes due to the wind. Adapa finds himself drowning. In the process of falling into the sea, Adapa breaks the wind’s wings, stopping it from blowing for seven days. The sky god, Anu, is enraged by this. He calls for Adapa to appear at the divine council. Ea, the creator-god of Adapa, instructs Adapa on how he should behave in the presence of the god Anu. He tells him, moreover, that he should not drink of the cup which Anu may present to him, nor eat of the food, for it is the drink and food of death. (In reality, the drink and food contain the gift of immortality.) In the end, Adapa refuses to drink and eat, and is sent back to earth to toil and live as a mortal.[24] The story is ultimately a story about Adapa being deceived into not obtaining immortality. Much like the Genesis story, in which the additional punishment is forever being forbidden to eat from the “tree of life,” the Adapa myth tells of a primeval event in history where man was tricked out of eternity. While the Adapa myth does not give us anything “sexual,” it does tell us something that does not sit well with Kass and Westermann’s interpretations: the ancients viewed primeval man as being endowed with wisdom from the get-go. In the myth, Adapa is described in the following poetic manner:

Wisdom… His command was indeed… like the command of Ea. Wide understanding he had perfected for him to disclose the designs of the land. To him he had given wisdom; eternal life he had not given him.[25]

Like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Adapa in the Adapa Myth, Adam in the Garden of Eden was endowed with wisdom before eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here’s the biblical evidence.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam, prior to the eating of the fruit of the tree, gave names to every living creature (2:19-20). Robert Gordis writes, “It is a truism that in ancient thought, including the biblical world-view, knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[26] In another biblical text, which appears to be speaking of Adam before The Fall, describes him as being “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). “Semitic, biblical and post-biblical [sources] are at one in conceiving of primal man as endowed with supreme wisdom and beauty before his misadventure.” Gordis further adds: “The theory that it was the fruit of the ‘tree of knowing good and evil’ that conferred the knowledge of the world and intellectual maturity upon Adam is therefore decisively ruled out.”[27] There go Kass and Westermann: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil does not have to do with either moral consciousness or, in a similar vein, “mastery of one’s existence”; instead, the tree has to do with something entirely different: sexuality.

Right from the beginning, the sexuality of the text was bursting at the seams. The phrase used in Genesis 2:9 to describe the forbidden tree in Hebrew is וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב הַדַּ֖עַת וְעֵ֕ץ [“and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”]. This includes the construct noun, with the definite article, הַדַּ֖עַת [“the knowledge of”]. The verbal form of this word [“to know’] is used in the Hebrew infinitive as a euphemism for “to have sex.” In fact, it’s a euphemism for sex in Arabic, Greek, Akkadian, and Latin.[28] Therefore, when the text states that this is the tree of knowing good and evil, it really is saying that the fruit of this tree cause one to become sexually conscious. But what does the phrase “good and evil” refer to then? The biblical texts suggest that this, too, has to do with sexual matters. The phrase וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] “may have originated in the two aspects of sexual experience, the normal (טֹ֥וב) manifestations of the impulse and the abnormal (רע).”[29] In Judges 19, there is the odd story about a Levite, his concubine, and an old man who took them both in. In the biblical episode, the Levite and his concubine are on a journey home, and stop at the town of Gibeah, being taken in by an unnamed man. At nightfall, the townsmen demand that the old man hand over his male guest to the townsmen. They want to rape him, essentially. “In each case, the host replies אַל־תָּרֵ֣עוּ[30] and expresses his willingness to offer up instead a woman to their lust.”[31] The phrase cannot be translated, as many translations do, “Do not act wickedly”—for “violating the chastity of an innocent women is surely an evil.”[32] Therefore, it is better to render the verb for רע [“to do evil”] here as “to act unnaturally.” In this case, the word refers to the abnormal sexual act. The opposite word טֹ֥וב, and its verbal forms, would mean “to act naturally.”

In another biblical passage, no other translation of phrase “good and evil” is possible but the sexual. Second Samuel 19:35 reads:

Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not [וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב]? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?

The phrase translated by the NRSV as “pleasant and what is not” is actually וָרָֽע טֹ֥וב [“good and evil”] in Hebrew. In this passage, King David is lamenting that he can no longer enjoy life. In fact, he is so old, he cannot delight in women and wine, song and dance, and “good and evil.” But in this case, the phrase should probably be a reference to sex. King David didn’t have access to Viagra and, hence, found life to be a bore with all the babes around in the King’s Court. As we have seen, it’s not anywhere near mere conjecture when I say that the phrase “good and evil” has sexual overtones. And, most importantly, it could also mean, in some cases, “natural and unnatural.”

It is neither a stretch of the imagination nor a crime of biblical eisegesis: the fact that Adam and Eve’s, the primeval couple’s, sexual consciousness blossomed after eating the fruit can no longer be denied. Even the snake in the Garden of Eden functions as an object that inspires thoughts of sex. O. Loretz writes, “[T]he serpent in Gen 3 is one of those mythical serpents that represents life and death together. It stands…as a symbol of the Canaanite fertility cult and as such promises life.”[33] In addition to this, some scholars view the snake as “a phallic symbol.”[34]

We are now in a good position to read the pericope this paper is ultimately trying to make sense of. Genesis 3:4-7 reads:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves (NRSV).

We’ve already ploughed most of the ground for a fertile interpretation of this text. We know that the snake represents the phallus. We’ve discussed what “the knowledge of good and evil” means (and the related phrase “knowing good and evil” used here); it means something along the lines of “sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural sex acts.” We’ve also looked forward into the text and saw that the “curse” directed at the woman only makes sense if the crime in the Garden were a sexual one (as sex results in conception and childbirth). At this point in our exegesis, it appears that the primeval couple performed some kind of unnatural sex act that would have upset YHWH. In addition to this sex act, they also disobeyed YHWH by eating of the fruit of that tree. We are left with two more key ideas to explore. The first is the enigmatic phrase “you will be like God”; the second is the realization that they were “naked.” To those two points in the text I will now turn.

What does it mean to “be like God”? If we are correct that this has something to do with sex, the natural reading of the text would suggest the following interpretation: to “be like God” means “to be immortal like God by means of sex, which results in progeny, implies that your name will live longer than your mortal body—and that is immortality.” As Gordis points out, “[P]artaking of the tree of knowledge afforded the eater the vicarious immortality which comes from the procreation of children.”[35]

What does the text try to communicate when it states that immediately after their eyes were opened, they became aware of being naked? It doesn’t require a PhD in sexology to recognize that something lewd is going on here. After being told not to eat of the fruit of that tree, the couple—albeit completely butt naked—eats of the fruit, fruit which conveys sexual knowledge of natural and unnatural forms of intercourse. Immediately, as their eyes open, as this new knowledge grabs a hold of them, they engage in sexual intercourse. In addition to sex, they recognize something about sex: it takes two butt naked people to engage in it. But that recognition that sex and nudity go hand-in-hand leads the couple to recognize that outside of sexual intercourse, they probably shouldn’t be naked. Nudity turned Adam on. It might turn YHWH on too; it did, several chapters later in Genesis 6, make the “sons of God” engage in sexual intercourse with “children of men” after all (v. 4). The couple, now informed that nudity should be saved for the master bedroom, hides from YHWH. And so, the ancient text introduces us to civilization, society, and clothing. In a vein similar to Enkidu, Adam becomes civilized after his rendezvous with Eve. She makes him a better man.

We must now come to the climactic ending, which, in a strange turn of events, occurred after Adam and Eve had already climaxed their way through orgasm.[36] YHWH finds the primeval couple, gives them clothing, curses them, and kicks them out. Scholars think that there were originally multiple sources at work here, and that two stories were mixed to create this one.[37] Originally, the punishment must have simply been either the curses or the expulsion from the Garden; one story, such as the tree of life tale, must have concluded with curses, and the other, such as the tree of knowledge tale, must have concluded with the expulsion. The final product, as it now stands, must be interpreted on its own terms. What we know, despite what the source critics say, is that the text ends with some form of punishment. YHWH punishes the couple for a crime they had committed. Having engaged in some form or another of unnatural and natural sex, the couple posed a threat to YHWH. At the very least, they simply disobeyed orders. But if our interpretation is correct, the couple, by means of progeny, was also able to live vicariously through them. In a sense, they had disobeyed YHWH and had tricked him. By means of children they, too, would live “forever”—whether YHWH liked it or not. Whether he liked their illicit sexual behaviors or not, they would live forever. But why was YHWH concerned with unnatural sex? The dichotomizing themes of pure/impure, natural/unnatural, have a long history in the Old Testament.[38] It was a way for the Jews to keep themselves set-apart and different from the rest of the ancient tribes. Having said that, the crime, however you look at the text, is clearly an act of disobedience. The question is: was it a sexual act? I think, as this paper has tried to show, the answer is probably a “yes.” It’s a tentative yes, not a dogmatic one.

Allow me to summarize my results and the conclusions I have drawn from them. I first looked at two interpretations of this text that I did not agree with, Kass and Westermann’s, respectively. I have revealed that they do not make sense of most of the data in the text. I then proceeded to show that the Ancient Near Eastern myths, which parallel our own text, reveal: (a) the primeval man was full of wisdom from the get-go; and (b) especially in the Epic of Gilgamesh, primeval man was tamed—brought to civilized life—through sex and sexual consciousness. I then proceeded to demonstrate that even the biblical text reveals to us hints of primeval Adam being endowed with wisdom from the start. In addition to this, I discussed that “to know” was a euphemism for sex; that “good and evil” could also mean “natural and unnatural [sexual acts].” I then grounded my study in the biblical texts themselves. Finally, I have tried to let my interpretation make sense of the “curse” on woman, the setting, and the surrounding biblical context itself. I would like to conclude by stating that, whatever one may draw from the individual premises themselves, and whatever one may ultimately think of the conclusions reached, this interpretation holds, at the very least, some—if not a lot—of water: Adam and Eve gained sexual consciousness in the Garden of Eden, disobeyed YHWH, performed natural and unnatural sex acts, and were ultimately expelled from the Garden of Eden. The myth was a tale of love and romance, nudity and sex—of crime and punishment.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 


Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Myth of Adapa.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 23, 2011. /article/216/.

Speiser, E.A. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.


[1] All biblical citations in this paper will come from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] I want to point out that I have decided not to make this paper a paper on sources for several reasons: (1) The scholars virtually all disagree as to where one such source begins and where it ends; (2) contrasting P’s account of the primeval couple’s sexuality (e.g., 1:28) with J’s (thought to be 2:4ff) does not really work as we don’t have enough data in Genesis to give us a holistic idea as to what they agreed upon and what they disagreed about; therefore, (3) the previous points make the excurses in the sexual views of J or P more of a highly speculative and highly tentative enterprise. Finally, I simply chose to deal with the final, canonical form for the simple reason that the final editor, whoever it may have been, chose to weave the tale in such a manner. I am attempting to make sense of what it was that this author (or authors) was/were trying to communicate.

[3] Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 193. While I ultimately disagree with Westermann’s interpretation of Genesis 2-3, I agree with him that it is—in its final, redacted form—a tale of crime and punishment.

[4] Ibid., 248.

[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 66. Italics original.

[6] Ibid., 63. “[T]he name [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] suggests rather knowledge of how to live, of what we would call practical knowledge, including but not limited to moral knowledge” (ibid.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 193.

[11] Here it is evident that the final product of Genesis 2-3 involved multiple sources. In Genesis 2:16-17 it is the man given the command not to eat of the fruit. Another source in the pre-history of the text must have dealt with a “couple”—and not a single individual; hence, Genesis 3:2-7 involves Eve breaking a command she had not heard! Such “roughness” in the text reveals its own subtle disunity.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Cited in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 245.

[15] Ibid. Citing J. Pedersen here again.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 247.

[19] Ibid., 263.

[20] Ibid., 261-3. He spends three pages on “The Sentence of Punishment of the Woman” without so much as bothering to connect the punishment with the surrounding narrative.

[21] Ibid., 247.

[22] Cited from the “Enkidu Episode” (Tablet I, iv 26-34, ANET 75) in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 247.

[23] “The Story of Eden,” in Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), 26.

[24] Joshua J. Mark, “The Myth of Adapa,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified February 23, 2011, /article/216/.

[25] Cited from Tablet A, II. 2ff. in Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 128.

[26] Ibid., 125.

[27] Ibid., 129.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Ibid., 131.

[30] “You all (masculine plural), do not do evil!” (my trans.).

[31] Ibid., 133.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Quoted in Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 244.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 130.

[36] Of course at this point in my paper, I have now resorted to a creative interpretation of the text. What I mean by that is, after having done some biblical exegesis, I am trying to understand the message of the text. That is, I am interested in presenting a robust and cohesive version of the story as I see it. I am trying to fit all the pieces of the text together into a cohesive, believable whole. And the “sexual interpretation”—the one I am espousing—seems to make a lot of sense of the data.

[37] For an excurses on sources, see Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 186-196, esp. 195.

[38] Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” 123-4 and 132-3.


The Historical Jesus on Divorce: An Examination of Mark 10:1-12 vis-a-vis Matthew 19:1-12

The historical Jesus almost certainly never made the comments regarding divorce which the author of Matthew says he made. In the following analysis, I will examine Mark’s Jesus and Matthew’s version of Jesus. We will then compare and contrast the two characters, attempting to figure out what the historical Jesus would have really said regarding the problem of divorce. As all scholars know, the quest of the historical Jesus is a very real and perplexing problem in biblical scholarship; many take seriously the problems posed us by having differing accounts of a single personality. In what follows, I will briefly comment on some general themes in Mark and Matthew before diving into the problematic verses.

The Gospel of Mark was written sometime around the “late 60s or just after 70.”[1] Mark was written for Gentiles with the intent to portray “the person and mission of Jesus Christ for Roman Christians undergoing persecution under Nero.”[2] Given this likely context, Mark has a very suffering Son of God, especially beginning in the 8th chapter of the Gospel and onwards. Jesus’ life is best understood as “victory through suffering.”[3] And Christians should learn from Jesus’ example. This, in sum, is the general thrust of Mark’s thesis.

When we come to our pericope (Mk 10:1-12), we find a story regarding Jesus’ encounter with a group of Pharisees questioning his position on divorce. Jesus, coming out of northern Galilee, entering “Judea beyond the Jordan [=Perea],” finds himself surrounded by “crowds” with Pharisees quickly coming to “test” him (v. 1). The Pharisees ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees may have asked Jesus this particular question knowing full well that John the Baptist was beheaded on account of denouncing Antipas’ marriage to Herodias. If this is the historical context—which I think it is—then “Jesus is being asked whether Antipas was justified or not in divorcing the daughter of King Aretas to marry Herodias.”[4] Whatever the context, though, the “test” the Pharisees are performing is practical and existentially applicable to every Jew living in the first-century: does Moses allow divorce? For the Pharisees, divorce was a no-brainer: you find it in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus replies by saying that, in fact, even Moses did not think this was the case; Moses merely allowed it due to their “hardness of heart” (v. 5). Jesus then appeals to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, saying, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” and “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (vv. 6-8a). Jesus then adds the additional comment: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b). After laying out the premises, Jesus reaches his conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus essentially gives the Pharisees—and the crowd around him—his answer: No.

After this very dramatic reply, even Jesus’ disciples cannot believe what they just heard. When they reach somebody’s house, a disciple wants to make sure Jesus meant what he, in fact, said. Jesus replies, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (vv. 11-12). The disciples were correct to be worried—for this was a new teaching indeed. During the first-century, the divorce policies were divided essentially into two camps, following two rabbis: Shammai and Hillel. Shammai allowed divorce only on the grounds of unchastity, according to the Mishnah. On the other hand, Hillel allowed divorce for any and every reason—even if a wife burnt a dish![5] Jesus disagrees with these two leading rabbis and says both are wrong: no divorce is permissible. Nada. Never. Ad infinitum.

At verse 12 of chapter 10, Mark concludes Jesus’ lecture on divorce. Immediately after this pericope, Mark has Jesus bless little children. (Continuing the pro-family stance of Jesus.) Writing possibly several decades later, Matthew reworks this Markan tradition of Jesus categorically against divorce and changes things radically.

Matthew wrote his gospel sometime after the year 70, probably between the years 80 and 90.[6] The gospel is 18,300 words (50 percent longer than Mark’s [11,300 words]).[7] Matthew is normally thought to have been written for a very Jewish audience; Jesus is ultimately presented as a type of “new Moses.” The gospel generally tends to follow Mark, so it is inductively thought that Matthew copied Mark and elaborated extensively upon Mark—hence the significantly larger text. Matthew is divided into five sections, mimicking the Jewish Pentateuch.[8] Jesus delivers five “sermons” or “speeches” in Matthew. That is, Matthew typically has Jesus deliver a “sermon,” concluding it with some such phrase as “and it happened when Jesus finished instructing the twelve disciples…” (7:28-29). He does this five times, probably consciously seeing Jesus as a “new Moses.” Our pericope on divorce (following Matthew’s earlier saying on the same subject in 5:31-32) stands as Jesus second statement on divorce, following the so-called “Sermon on the Church” (which is found at 18:1-35). This second statement of Jesus’ on divorce is more elaborate than the first, brief comment found in Matthew 5. In Matthew 19, we find an almost verbatim lifting of Mark 10:1-12, with some very noticeable differences.

Matthew, like Mark, has Jesus (explicitly) leaving Galilee and coming to Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds follow him. He is then met by some Pharisees who test him. They ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (v. 3). At this point in the text, Matthew adds the phrase “for any reason.” Matthew is probably reflecting Jewish rabbinical tradition at this point—Shammai versus Hillel. This phrase “might serve as a sweeping summary of the Hillelite view, which was probably the more influential among ordinary people.”[9]

Next, Matthew has Jesus quote Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He reverses Mark’s original order in which Jesus moved from divorce (the negative) to the way God intended marriage to be (the positive). In Matthew, Jesus first begins by dealing with the ideal (the positive), only later moving on to the negative.[10] Also, as evidence that Matthew is indeed following Mark, Mark’s idiosyncratically redundant comment “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b) is repeated in Matthew verse 6. Moreover, in Matthew, the saying regarding a husband leaving his family and clinging to his wife is attributed to God not Adam (as in Genesis 2:24).

Another significant change is going on between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, the Pharisees present the issue of divorce as something Moses “permits”; while Jesus speaks of a “commandment” of Moses. In Matthew, these verbs are reversed: the Pharisees see divorce as a “command,” while Jesus sees divorce as merely being “permitted.”[11] “While the Pharisees refer to Moses’ commandment (ἐνετείλατο), Jesus speaks simply of Moses’ permission (ἐπέτρεψεν)—of a concession in light of the people’s disobedience and ‘hard-heartedness.’”[12] In such a way, Matthew does not have Jesus contradict Moses; rather, the Pharisees, by seeing divorce as a “command,” are the ones contradicting God himself (as seen in Genesis 1:27)!

Some more differences. In Mark, Jesus states that marriage formed a union in which the two became one flesh “from the beginning of creation” (v. 6). Matthew drops the term “of creation” (v. 4) and instead goes with “from the beginning” (a phrase he repeats again in verse 8). Matthew, unlike Mark, also includes the strange sayings of Jesus regarding “eunuchs” (v. 12). In Mark, Jesus allegedly forbids even “wives” to divorce their husbands (vv. 11-12)—a fact that supports the hypothesis that this gospel was written to the Romans; in Rome, it was permissible for a wife to divorce her husband. In Matthew this particular comment of “Jesus” does not appear, as Jesus probably never made it (since he would have been talking to an audience who would not have imagined a wife initiating divorce). Matthew eliminates this (probably) Markan redaction primarily because—for his Jewish audience—the comment would have been meaningless and superfluous. (Despite my observations, some scholars do in fact argue that in Second Temple Judaism [the Elephantine community not being counted] women were allowed to divorce their husbands. However, this is very much disputed.)[13]

Finally, in Matthew, after Jesus is done talking with the Pharisees, the disciples at home conclude that it is better for a man not to marry at all (v. 10). However, this conclusion is not warranted. Had this been the conclusion to Mark’s version of events and sayings, it would have made sense. But something radically different is happening in Matthew: Jesus is not actually forbidding divorce categorically. In fact, Matthew adds the idiosyncratic phrase “except for unchastity” (μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ)—an “exception clause” which only appears in Matthew’s redaction of Jesus’ sayings on divorce, both here and—with slightly different wording; “except on the account of unchasitity” (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας )—at 5:32. Matthew is certainly the author of this phrase—it only appears in Matthew (twice) and does not feature in Mark, 1 Corinthians 7, or Luke 16:18.

As to why Matthew, in particular, would insert this phrase only seems obvious: the sociological reality of first-century Jewish Christianity was that divorces occurred whether one liked it or not. Jesus notwithstanding.

Matthew probably has other reasons, too. Matthew was certainly written later; probably at a time when the reality of Jesus’ expected sooner-rather-than-later “Second Coming” began to be reinterpreted. People weren’t so sure about an imminent end of the world. This meant that the Christians had to build laws and codes of conduct—not bomb shelters. Matthew’s gospel reflects (almost certainly) this reality. In fact, Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel which explicitly talks about the “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) [see 18:17]. This was a gospel written for people who were going to keep living on earth. And on earth there were certain events which occurred commonly. “Divorce was a widespread phenomenon through the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, just as it is a widespread phenomenon throughout the modern world.”[14]

Jesus’ comments on divorce were spoken to a community which was grounded in the Old Testament—a fact I already briefly touched upon. The Old Testament has very little to say regarding divorce, in fact. A much quoted text by Christian fundamentalists—Malachi 2:16—is actually textually suspect. The text does not say “For I hate divorce”—it only “says” this if reconstructed. In fact, to the utter dismay of fundamentalists, the Qumran community interpreted the text as commanding divorce. Their text—with lacunas—probably read: “[B]ut if you hate [her], send [her] away.”[15]

Contrary to the legalistic and dogmatic stance of the Pharisees, the other much-quoted text (allegedly supporting divorce), Deuteronomy 24:1-4, actually has virtually nothing lucid to say about divorce. Summarizing the Jewish literature thoroughly, Meier concludes, after dealing with Deut. 24:1-4, that “the law codes of the Pentateuch have precious little else to say about divorce.”[16] Deuteronomy 24:1-4 essentially deals with a man taking a wife who ends up having (committing?) “a shame of a thing” (עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר). This “shame of a thing” has been interpreted to mean, well, anything and everything. The man is instructed to hand her a certificate of divorce. Finally, if she goes away, marries another, gets divorced from the second husband, returns to the first, the first husband is not allowed to take her back. Meier thinks that the phrase “shame of a thing” is “purposefully left vague in order to permit wide latitude for the husband’s judgment within a patriarchal society governed by the codes of honor and shame.”[17]

The historical Jesus almost certainly did not make the “exception clause” statement. Contrary to Matthew, “the historical Jesus was categorically against divorce.”[18] Meier succinctly states: “I think there is sufficient reason for holding that the historical Jesus forbade divorce.”[19] Moreover: “By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows—and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery.”[20] What is significant, however, is that Matthew retains the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ “new teaching” on divorce—which he categorically forbade. This reveals an ironic Matthean slip-up; on the one hand, Matthew is editing Jesus, on the other, he is revealing his own editorial hand. Contrary to Matthew, Mark presents us with a more radical Jesus—a Jesus that was crucified by both the Roman elite and the Jewish Sanhedrin. In this particular pericope, Mark is clearly the more original version (excepting his addition relating to Roman divorce law). The theological question for us today is not only “What Would Jesus Do?” but “Do We Agree With What Jesus Really Would Do Anyway?” Are we ready to follow Jesus, the real Jesus?

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 164.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 10.

[3] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 126.

[4] Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 300.

[5] Ibid., 299.

[6] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 217.

[7] Ibid., 171.

[8] See Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 173.

[9] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 715-6.

[10] See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 716. He also notes how Matthew does a similar reversal at 15:3-9.

[11] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 490.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 459-464.

[14] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 74.

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Ibid., 80.

[17] Ibid., 79.

[18] Eben Scheffler, “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce,” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 3.

[19] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 112.

[20] Ibid., 113.


Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. The Anchor Bible Reference LibraryNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. Mark: A Commentary. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: A Commentary. Translated by James E. Crouch. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Scheffler, Eben. “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce.” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 1-6.


Miracles and Falsification: The Myth of Miracles

I had heard about miracles ever since I had been a child. I have heard—and continue to hear—about people being healed of diseases, big, bad, ugly diseases. People pray on many continents asking for a miracle. A two-year-old struck with leukemia—that demon of the blood. A five-year-old run over by a car by his own mother. A twenty-one year old girl, fresh out of college, killed instantly in a head on collision by a drunk-driver. A boy diving during the hot summer season strikes a rock, losing control of his upper and lower body forever. A missionary bitten by a mosquito suffers for weeks on end, fevers paralyzing his shaken body. A terrorist enters a building someplace in the Middle East, blasting hundreds to smithereens; hundreds who either were killed or who would spend the rest of their lives in dark misery. Then there’s the little girl living in Iraq who happened to be in a particular time and place in which a particular foreign empire (read: The United States of America) decided to drop bombs on her place of residence. Her only question, while hospitalized, with her body torn to shreds—yet with breath in her lungs—“Why does America hate me so much?”[1]

I, too, have dreamed of miracles.

But miracles seldom come.

The little girl suffering from leukemia dies, being buried on a damp April night under torrential rain. Her parents huddle closely, aching for death to take them too. They mumble prayers to the sound of raindrops bulleting the last of their hopes. Their god leaves them to their sorrows, offering them not so much as an ounce, a flicker, of comfort; a god who only wears black. The parents listen to the monotonous sermon being preached to the monotonous thunderclaps under a banal sky. “What a eulogy!” they think to themselves. “This, this is what we get for bringing life into this world! An entire two years of manipulative baiting. God, yes God, he baits us with illusions of happiness, of family—then his claws take all that has life away!” But those thoughts, yes, those faint glimmers of truth, remain unspoken. Forever they are silent. The mother goes back to her mundane day job. She goes through the motions. She listens to the repetitive sermons…of hope. Some future kingdom where tears remain fossilized forever, relics of the god-forsaken, fuck-inducing life upon a pathetic planet we used to call earth. It’s only after the sermons end. After all the bullshit stops—the lies, the longing for miracles, the promise of something good—it is only then that she goes home, as Jesus so tactfully recommends doing, and prays behind closed doors. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6 NIV). And still. What is asked in the quiet of the home remains—unbeknownst to the world—in the quiet of the home. It is as if Jesus knew that what she would ask would be impossible. Incomprehensible. Why ask in public if it’ll never happen publicly? Keep your prayers to yourselves! Your hope for the Promised Land is just that: hope. It is wishful thinking. The mother spends her days reminiscing of what could have been. Maybe her two-year-old could have graduated college. Maybe she could have gotten married. Maybe the two of them could have spent time together, sipping coffee under a red-soaked sun.


How many more such maybes will there be? How many more such mothers? Fathers? The prayers never end, along with the problems. The disasters. One disease leaves you the moment two take over. Or maybe it was three? You walk restlessly between states of health and epochs of madness.

God never comes to you. You never hear anything anymore. Not from God, that is. You hear the piercing cries of mothers and fathers in your church, synagogue, mosque, temple—all gasping, as if for the first time, for some miracle.

Then you have the children. The thirteen-year-old girl whose father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wants her daddy to be there at her wedding. So they throw her a make-believe wedding (almost as make-believe as the miracles, the gods, the hopes of a better world). She walks down the aisle drenched in tears. A day of rejoicing, they said, it would be. Her little hands holding—no, clenching fiercely—the strong arms of a soon-to-be-dead father. She is only thirteen. She doesn’t know what it all means. Not at all. All she knows is that daddy will never be there. There won’t be another Father’s Day for her. There won’t be another walk in the rain with him. There won’t be that excitement, those nights where she runs home to tell him about the boy she just met. There’ll be none of that.


That’s what religion promises.


But all you see, all you really feel and hear is nothing but the hum-drum preaching of the eulogist. But what were we all—really—expecting? Could it really be that God the Healer was a hoax? Is it possible that god wears black, day in and day out, preparing eulogies?

“It’s all too terrible,” they say. “Don’t make us think of it. Stay silent. What you are describing is heart-wrenchingly suicidal.” “Don’t make me sit here and put up with your rants,” someone thinks. “Is it really so?” a thought flashes through another’s mind.

The existential problem of miracles is, perhaps, the most persuasive. One could not but be moved by the stories. I, too, have dreamed of a miracle. However, there is also the philosophical problem with miracles. I turn to this particular issue now.

Religious people—be they Muslim, Hindu, or Christian—claim that their god is capable of miracles. But what is a miracle? By definition, a miracle is a supernatural event. By definition, a miracle is a supra-natural event; it is an event which is “above nature.” It is an event that does not go in accordance with the known (and unknown) rules of physics. It is something that happens which no physical law could explain. A miracle is not the disappearance of a headache. It happens to the rest of us all the time. A miracle is not the curing of cancer—it happens enough of the times. A miracle is not the healing of insanity. A miracle is not the healing of fractured bones. All of these things happen naturally. So what is a miracle?

A miracle would be a person who walks on water without the aid of any kind of special shoes, footwear, or underwater bridges (you get the point). A miracle would, most simply, be an amputee with their amputated limb appearing, rematerializing, spontaneously. (Notice that I did not say “re-growing.” It will probably be possible, in the future, for us to do that.) A miracle would be such an event which, again, by definition, would convince any person capable of seeing and thinking along physical lines that this is not normal; that the event is strange, unheard of, physically impossible—in other words, simply in violation of natural law. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, would, theoretically, constitute a miracle.

Given such a very loaded, strict, and robust definition of miracle (by “strict,” I mean that it excludes [possibly] every event that has ever occurred in history—excepting the origin of life and of the universe), how is it that people today still speak of miracles? You hear it all the time.[2] I have discovered one of the reasons. It comes from one of Christianity’s greatest liberal theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Schleiermacher defined miracles in an unfalsifiable way. When someone makes something, like miracles, unfalsifiable this means two things: (a) every event becomes a “miracle” and (b) there is no way to prove nor disprove the event. Schleiermacher writes:

“Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant. To me all is miracle. In your sense the inexplicable and strange alone is miracle, in mine it is no miracle. The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.”[3]

I could not have said it better. Schleiermacher and I agree: religion makes everything a miracle. Because everything becomes a miracle, nothing is miraculous anymore. Because everything becomes a miracle, the term “miracle” becomes devoid of meaning.

People do experience miracles today. Believe me, they do. All of life may be seen as one continuous miracle. From the Big Bang to the evolution of human life, all of this, even by a skeptic, is seen as a miracle. But miracles are not really events that happen; they are not singular events occurring in history on a daily, interventionist basis. Miracles are probably things like the origin of DNA. They are isolated events that appear miraculous. For just a moment. And then the scientific mind—be it religious or secular—finds a way to unravel the miraculous and make it the mundane.

Such is the world we live in. It is full of mystery, of pain, of suffering, and of miracles. While the miracles we experience are probably non-existent, the one miracle we can claim is the miracle of today.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] This is my own retelling of the story. For this, and other such stories, see Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), esp. 163-175.

[2] I have purposefully used the verb “hear” many times in this article. The reason being that miracles are, in my opinion, non-existent; they don’t happen. This means that nobody has documentation, empirical evidence, etc., of a miracle to date. All you have is hearsay. Hence my use of the word “hear.”

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 88.

A Tale of Two Problems—Human Sacrifice and God’s “Bad Commands”: Jeremiah 7:22 vis-à-vis Ezekiel 20:25-26

Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide us with a glimpse into the theology of meso-exilic[1] Israel. With the Temple on the verge of being sacked and the people either in a foreign land or headed there soon, prophet and priest alike wanted to explain to the people how this had occurred. How could Israel, God’s chosen people, be overcome by a foreign God and foreign power? How could God allow this to a people who sacrificed to him and who allegedly followed his commands? Jeremiah, at first blush, appears to argue that God never did command the people to offer sacrifices; Ezekiel, on the other hand, appears to argue that God did indeed make the command to sacrifice but that He did this to “defile” the people and make them unholy (implying that they were no longer His people).

Jeremiah argues that God made no such command to offer sacrifices. “For when I brought your fathers out of the land of Egypt, I said nothing to them, nor gave them any command regarding burnt offerings and sacrifices.”[2] Bright argues that “It is unlikely…that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.”[3] In other words, the words in this passage should not be taken literally. Craigie et al. argue along similar lines that Jeremiah was really condemning a form of sacrificing to God that was not approved of—namely, the fact that the burnt-offerings were being eaten by the worshippers (v. 21). Again, according to some interpreters, the passage is not to be taken literally.[4] On the other hand, Hyatt argues that scholars who run away from this issue are actually not reading Jeremiah the proper way, that is, literally. “[I]t is best to take Jeremiah’s words here at their face value and see in them his belief that the sacrificial system was man-made and not willed by Yahweh…”[5] According to Hyatt, then, Jeremiah is completely contradicting what Ezekiel has to say about sacrifices and what the Pentateuch has to say about them. This is the uncompromising message of Jeremiah against the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, argues that all of the evil which befell Israel was bound to happen anyways because Israel chose not to serve God and did not follow all of the commands which he had commanded. Following a long section on rebuking Israel and its forefathers, Ezekiel states, writing in the first person for God, “And I also gave them laws not good and rules by which they could not live, defiling them by their gifts, in that they delivered up every first issue of the womb, so that I might desolate them, so that they might know that I am YHWH.”[6] Greenberg comments that the year is 591 BCE and that Ezekiel is arguing, according to his interpretation, Israel disobeyed God and that God, in his anger, decided to give Israel bad laws instead of good laws. “The shocking idea that God misleads those who anger him into sin, for which he then destroys them, already appeared in 14:9 (the misled prophet)…”[7] He further argues that Israel really did offer up their firstborn son in child sacrifice up to God! “These [bad laws] are then exemplified by child sacrifice, at once a murderous pagan practice and an abomination worthy of severest condemnation…[b]y this anti-gift, God only confirmed the people in their choice of laws countering God’s…”[8] Allen argues that these so-called bad commands were “[n]ot of God, they were given by God! Theologically the divine policy is akin to the role of prophecy in Isa. 6:9-10, where the prophetic word is given to seal the people’s fate by giving them an opportunity to add to their sin by rejecting that word. Judgment had already been passed and the gateway to life was locked by his providential judgment. The covenant goal of recognition of Yahweh, unreached by positive means (vv 5, 7, 12, 19, 20), had finally to be attained by a life-denying encounter with his judgment.”[9] These laws were not “of God” in the sense that they were “godly”; rather, these laws were simply given by God, for He knew beforehand that the people would choose evil instead of the good—thus bringing judgment upon themselves by means of freewill. In more blunt language, E. L. Allen put it this way: “In accordance with Hebrew usage, Ezekiel tends to ascribe to God whatever happens. Here he has in mind the perversion of religion at the entry into Canaan. He describes the evil practices which the newcomers took over from the original inhabitants. Most atrocious of these was the custom of child sacrifice. He carries this back to a definite divine command, though he modifies this by saying that the command was given as a punishment for previous sin.”[10]

It is quite obvious by now that scholars do not know what to do with these passages. In this paper, I will be arguing that there is no contradiction between Jeremiah and Ezekiel—they are both actually saying the same thing. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel acknowledge God as the giver of these allegedly “strange” and unappealing laws regarding sacrifices. Moreover, I will somewhat briefly put forth the argument that the law does not command the sacrifice of human firstborn children,[11] as some scholars have horrendously suggested.

Let us first begin by examining Jeremiah’s strange passage. Jeremiah uses the normal negating adverb לֹֽא  (“not”) followed by the verb דִבַּ֤רְתִּי (“I commanded”), making the normal translation read “I did not command…” However, לֹֽא is not always a negating adverb; it can also be used as a Hebrew idiom which roughly translates into “not-only.” Thus, the following translation would emerge for the introduction of Jeremiah’s words: “Not only have I commanded…” There are many such uses of לֹֽא in the OT where, if taken literally, the adverb would make the verse contradict what the rest of that particular verse demands to be so.[12] For example, in Exodus 16:8 the people along with the entire congregation murmur against Moses and Aaron and wish to stone them both. However, Moses replies that the people have murmured not (לֹֽא) against him and Aaron but against YHWH. The use of the לֹֽא would indicate, if taken literally, that the people did not murmur against Moses and Aaron. However, if it is an idiom—which it really is—then the verse states that the people murmured not-only against Moses and Aaron but also against YHWH. In Joshua 17:17 a very clear-cut example of the use of this particular idiom is given: “You [Joseph] shall have not-merely one portion.”[13] According to Whitney, “Thus did Joshua pronounce a blessing on the house of Joseph. If the ‘merely’ is to be omitted and the verse taken out of context, it could be misunderstood as saying that Joseph would not receive even one portion.”[14] All this goes to say that the use of לֹֽא does not indicate necessarily that the adverb negates any following verbs. Another such use of the Hebrew idiom is found in Ezekiel 16:47. In the passage, Ezekiel writes that Israel had not-only (לֹֽא) walked in the ways of their heathen neighbors but went above and beyond their corruption—so corrupt was Israel. If the לֹֽא is taken literally, the passage would contradict itself. In the crucial interpretive verse of Exodus 6:3, the use of the Hebrew idiom comes into play on a more significant scale. In reading the Pentateuch, one notices that the name of YHWH occurs quite frequently, appearing as early as Genesis 2. However, in Exodus 6:3 we read—literally—“ I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name [YHWH] I did not make myself fully known to them.”[15] This flies in the face of the entire Pentateuchal narrative! If taken literally the verse would imply that God did not reveal himself as YHWH to anyone prior to this incident in Exodus 6:3. However, we know that He did. If this is not the negating use of the adverb לֹֽא then this may be the Hebrew idiom meaning not-only. What further corroborates this is a passage in Genesis 32:29, where God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. God says that Jacob’s name is not (לֹֽא) Jacob but Israel. However, in Genesis 35:10, God[16] allegedly says “Your name is Jacob.” Whitney writes, “The qualification ‘not-only Jacob, but also Israel’ parallels that of ‘not-only Yahweh [YHWH], but also El Shaddai.’”[17] After dissertating somewhat at length about several other examples, Whitney comes to the passage in Jeremiah. He argues that the passage is “the most extreme criticism of the sacrificial system in Scripture.”[18] However, he continues, “This alone should make us cautious of founding too great a structure on it as a base.”[19] He argues that this “tradition of prophetic criticism of sacrifice” is as old as Hosea 6:6 and even 1 Samuel 15:22.[20] Thus, there is no reason for us to suppose, if this argument is to be taken seriously, that Jeremiah contradicts Ezekiel. This brings us to the final question: did God, according to Ezekiel, command the Israelites to offer firstborn children as sacrifices?

Ezekiel 20:25 uses the Hebrew phrase רָ֑חַם כָּל־פֶּ֣טֶר בְּהַעֲבִ֖יר (lit.: “in causing to pass over [i.e., “to sacrifice”][21] all the first issues of the womb”). According to Hahn and Bergsma, the passage does not necessarily refer to sacrifices offered to the god Molech simply because it uses the Hiphil form for עבר (this word is used in Ezekiel in contexts that have nothing to do with Molech). “Ezekiel himself uses the term frequently in contexts having nothing to do with such practices (5:1; 14:15; 20:37; 37:2; 46:21; 47:3-4 [3x]; 48:14).”[22] Moreover, they point out that Molech never required firstborn sacrifices. The Hebrew, if taken extremely literally, means “every opener of the womb.” In Exodus 13:12 we have the same expression followed by אָדָ֛ם בְּכֹ֥ור וְכֹ֨ל (“and all the firstborn of adam/man”), which are to be excluded from the sacrifices. This means that the passage “distinguishes human firstborn from ‘every opener of the womb’ in order to exclude them from being offered” and “the context makes clear that human sacrifice is not the referent.”[23] Lastly, “there is no biblical archaeological evidence for the practice of child sacrifice to the LORD in ancient Israel.”[24] Regarding Ezekiel’s comment that God gave the people “bad commands,” one can merely note that the ancient Israelites attributed virtually all activity to God—be it good or bad; however, it does not appear that the commands flowed out of God Himself, but rather these commands flowed out of the deuteronomic contractual covenant which the Israelites had broken. In breaking the covenant, the Israelites brought upon themselves the “evil commands” of God.[25]

Ezekiel and Jeremiah, it appears, are actually arguing very similar things. The people of Israel have abandoned God and have begun to serve themselves. They no longer follow God and his ethical categorical imperatives. They only “serve” God superficially; their hearts do not reflect God’s laws nor the goodness of God’s nature. Theirs is the “prophetic criticism” of gibberish forms of worship which merely pay lip-service to God and His demands. Isaiah 1 could be seen as a summary of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s statements: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” (v. 13) and “Stop doing wrong” (v. 16)[26] because what essentially God requires is the commitment to His ethical imperatives.

Such “prophetic criticism” is never too out of date. Even today many of us would fall into the category of the “sinful.” How many of us go to church simply because it is the sociologically complacent thing to do? On the other hand, how many of us actually come to God with an immediate sincerity that asks God to come into direct existential communion with us? The beauty of Jeremiah’s critique lies in what follows the critique itself. “Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you” (7:23).[27] The point of the passage is not to simply criticize, put down, and harshly condemn; no, the point is that God wills people to be His people and He wants them to merely obey His commands. Why? For out of the goodness of Him who offers good commands flows goodness itself. The critiques ends not with a curse, but with a blessing: “that it may go well with you.” The laws of God, as God sees them, are not burdensome or “bad” for people; they are actually good and life-giving.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20-48. Dallas, TX: Word, 1990. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Bright, John. Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 21. New York: Doubleday, 1964. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Craigie, Peter C., Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard. Jeremiah 1-25. Vol. 26. Dallas, TX: Word, 1991. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 22. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Hahn, Scott, and John S. Bergsma. “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2:201-218.

Whitney, G. E. “Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22.” Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 151-159.


[1] Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon”—in which 7:22 feature—is dated to 608 BCE by many scholars, which is just prior to the Babylonian Captivity. However, the Assyrian dissemination of the Northern Kingdom (Israel/Samaria) had already occurred in 722 BCE. In other words, Jeremiah, here, is probably pre-exilic but his message is already similar to post-exilic messages; namely, why did evil overtake us, the children of Abraham? See Peter C. Craige, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard, Jr., Jeremiah: 1-25, vol. 26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 119.

[2] Translation taken from John Bright, Jeremiah: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 21, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 53.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Craigie, Jeremiah: 1-25, 124.

[5] James Phillip Hyatt “Jeremiah: Exegesis,” in Jeremiah, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 875.

[6] Translation taken from Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 22 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 361.

[7] Ibid., 369.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, vol. 29 of Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 12.

[10]E. L. Allen, “Ezekiel: Exposition,” in Ezekiel, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 172.

[11] This is in reference to Ezekiel’s “first issue of the womb.”

[12] The following examples are taken from G. E. Whitney, Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22, Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986):151-159.

[13]G. E. Whitney, “Alternative Interpretations,” 154.

[14] Ibid.

[15] New International Version (NIV).

[16] The name of God in this passage is elohim.

[17] G. E. Whitney,” Alternative Interpretations,” 156.

[18] Ibid., 157.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Hebrew expression הַעֲבִ֖יר  is in the Hiphil (causative) form (with a preposition בְּ) from the root עבר which means “to pass over.” This later became a euphemism for sacrifice.

[22] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2: 211.

[23] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good,’” 212.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 205.

[26] NIV.

[27] NIV.

Arguing with God: Deuteronomic Paradox and Habakkukian Critiques

The prophet Habakkuk was active sometime around 605 BC. He was most likely a contemporary of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. The context within which Habakkuk issued forth his complaints against YHWH is essential to understanding his message. Twenty-four years prior to Habukkuk’s complaints against YHWH, the prophet Jeremiah began his own similar activities in 629 BC. It was not until a few years later, in 621 BC, that the “book of the Torah” was found and brought to the attention of the youthful king of Judah, Josiah. The “book of the Torah,” usually identified with (probably) Deuteronomy 12-26, was brought to the prophetess Huldah. She exclaimed that the curses within the “book of the Torah,” which faithless Israel had brought upon herself, would come upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:15-20).[1] Josiah responded by seeking to go back to a more conservative and less “modern” Mosaic religion. “[T]he paganism against which Zephaniah had protested (Zeph. 1:4-6) was abolished…”[2] Moreover, “[t]he practices of sacred prostitution, child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, and the consultation of mediums and wizards were discontinued.”[3] The most novel response being the centralization of YHWHistic worship in the Jerusalem Temple. While Josiah was on a rampage to restore primitive Mosaic faith, Assyria was losing its clutch on power; in a decisive battle, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was overthrown by the combined forces of Babylon, Scythia, and Media in 612 BC.[4] Three years later, Necho, the ruler of Egypt, seeing an opportunity to help out Assyria, sent his troops in 609 BC. On their way north to Assyria, Josiah decided to play dice and come to Babylon’s rescue—he attempted to prevent the passage of Egyptian troops. Ultimately, he ended up dying and Judah would become a temporary vassal of Egypt.[5] For roughly another four miserable years, Judah is a slave to Egypt. Then, in 605 BC, the epic battle of Carchemish takes place, in which Babylonian troops put to waste Egyptian troops. In a matter of time, Judah is made a vassal of Babylon, and would remain so until its utter destruction in 587/6 BC. Thus, within a mere twenty years of Josiah’s initial reform, Judah is once again a slave to evil empires.

The theology of this period has been dubbed by modern scholarship “deuteronomic.”[6] It is a very retributive theology that is cut-and-dried: if you obey YHWH, good will follow; if you disobey YHWH, evil will follow. “In the popular view, Yahweh’s justice meant that good consequences would came from good actions, that obedience would result in security on the land, victory against foes, and abundant life. But the cruel facts of history seemed to contradict this belief.”[7] Within a matter of years, Jeremiah’s hopeful approach towards Josiah’s reform and deuteronomic theology withered away and became a bittersweet song; “[h]e came to see that  it did not result in a circumcision of the heart or a breaking up of fallow ground.”[8] Habakkuk, likewise, was greatly frustrated by this “health and wealth gospel.” How could it be that the children of YHWH, who did commit righteous acts, be visited by an utterly evil nation? Where was the deuteronomic righteousness of YHWH? Within these profound, paradoxical turmoils were born the complaints of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk wrote his complaints just after the battle of Carchemish.[9] “No one living in Jerusalem about the year 600 could fail to see that world-shaping events were already in preparation.”[10] Yes, he probably did witness the collapse of an evil Assyria—but that evil empire was soon replaced by one no different than it: Babylon. Habakkuk was not sure how one could approach this deuteronomic God. If evil is the result of disobeying YHWH, is it possible that those who were deemed “righteous” were somehow deceived? Maybe evil followed them precisely because they unknowingly sinned. But such thinking surely fled Habakkuk’s mind; he knew that the righteous were righteous—and, yet, they were being punished by the unrighteous. This deuteronomic paradox forced Habakkuk to cry out to YHWH: “How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?” (1:2). Habakkuk expects a message from YHWH precisely because he knows that he is righteous. His contemporary, Jeremiah, likewise reiterated this fact: “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the message[11] from the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What message? I will forsake you, declares the LORD’” (23:33 NIV). Habakkuk had received a “message” and knew that, for whatever reason, he was not yet forsaken by YHWH. In the same vein, Job would cry out:

               הֵ֤ן אֶצְעַ֣ק חָ֭מָס וְלֹ֣א אֵעָנֶ֑ה אֲ֝שַׁוַּ֗ע וְאֵ֣ין מִשְׁפָּֽט

“Though I cry out ‘Violence!’ I get no reply; I cry out for help and there is no justice.”

Virtually the same language is used in both verses. Habakkuk cries חָמָ֖ס (“violence”) and so does Job; Habakkuk later (1:4) sees this as an attack on מִשְׁפָּ֑ט (“justice”) as does Job.[12] Job, it is presumed, was a righteous man.[13] Like Habakkuk, he too could not understand why YHWH would allow such a thing. How could it be that righteous men of YHWH could not get a response from YHWH?

Habakkuk was surely confused: isn’t YHWH too holy to behold any atrocities being committed against the righteous? “Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…” (1:3). Surely, YHWH was aware that “dispute and quarreling” were “going up” (i.e., being witnessed) by him. Habakkuk then calls to YHWH’s mind his own torah (“teachings”): “Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted” (1:4). Habakkuk is directing his anger at YHWH, using his own torah, “Your very own laws, YHWH, are now paralyzed. They are no more. They are ineffective. You who defined yourself as just[14] have let justice fail. Justice has been perverted!” In what seems to be a statement vis-a-vis Deuteronomy 32:4, Habakkuk exclaims: “(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous (צַדִּ֥יק) than him?” (1:13).  The YHWH who defined himself as being “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק) in Deut. 32:4 has allowed those who are like him to perish.

Out of this “doom and gloom,” in contrast to the “health and wealth gospel” of Habakkuk’s day, YHWH revealed something entirely new. “Behold,” YHWH tells Habakkuk, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ) even if you were told” (1:5). The root for “believe” being used here is אָמַן. (It is the same root word that is being used to describe the “righteous” in Habakkuk 2:4.) What YHWH tells Habakkuk shocks him. YHWH is the very one who is raising up the Babylonians (1:6). For what is he raising them up? To execute justice? We are never told. All that Habakkuk gets in reply is this: “Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness (בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו) in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH)” (2:4). Habakkuk was given a חָזֹ֔ון (“vision,” “revelation”) and YHWH expects Habakkuk to simply place his faith in it.

While it is true that an explicit answer is never given to Habakkuk as to what exactly YHWH would be doing that people would “not believe,” there are some clues in the text that may suggest a slightly different version of events. Some scholars argue that the answer to Habakkuk’s critiques lies in the fact that the first part of the book is addressing internal problems, while later passages address external (i.e., Babylon) problems. Because Habakkuk uses such words as חָמָ֖ס (“violence”), אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל (“iniquity and trouble”), and שֹׁ֥ד (“death” or “pillage”), some think that this indicates “native oppression and not a foreign invader.”[15] In other words, it may be that the “revelation” which Habakkuk is receiving from YHWH is that YHWH will destroy internal evil, within the gates of Jerusalem, by the hands of external—and more evil—Babylonians. Even if this may be the case, the problem still remains for Habakkuk: will YHWH punish the righteous along with the wicked? And even if justice will come, how long must one wait for that to happen?

In the most critical time of his life, Habakkuk was told by YHWH what would come to pass. Against all expectations, Habakkuk received what appears to be a “non-answer answer”: simply put faith in my revelation. Later on in the book, Habakkuk reminds YHWH of his previous deeds and actions. He wants YHWH to act as he had acted in the past. “YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…” (3:2a). He is attempting one last try, one last argument he is offering YHWH. This one is an argument of old; it was used so many times, YHWH was probably tired of hearing it. “Do what you have done in the past,” begs Habakkuk, “Please!” The author of Psalm 44:2 used a similar technique:

                        אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבֹותֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽ֝ימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם

“Oh God, with our ears we have heard, and our fathers have recounted to us deeds which you have done in their days, in the days of old.”

The ability to remind YHWH of his previous actions was founded on the assumption that YHWH was “reliable.” He was, as Deut. 32:4 put it, אֱמוּנָה֙. Anything that was not אֱמוּנָה֙ was not constant nor reliable. It is precisely because of this that Jeremiah likewise could say (15:18):

                        תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמֹ֣ו אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ

“Will you be to me like deceptive waters that are not reliable?”

The word for “unreliable” is the same root (and derivatives) we have seen being used before; it is the Niphal stem of the root אָמַן. In this particular case, the waters are not “reliable” in the sense that they are not “continual” or “lasting.” The expectation is that the spring or creek would have water whenever one would approach it; for Jeremiah, it is this “un-lastingness” that makes the waters “unreliable”—at one time there’s water, at another there isn’t. Like Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Habakkuk expects YHWH to be reliable (אֱמוּנָה֙). A derivative of this root אָמַן is the noun/adverb אֱמֶת, which basically translates as “true” or “trustworthy.” In Psalm 119:43, the Psalmist exclaims:

                        אַל־תַּצֵּ֬ל מִפִּ֣י דְבַר־אֱמֶ֣ת עַד־מְאֹ֑ד כִּ֖י לְמִשְׁפָּטֶָ֣ יִחָֽלְתִּי

“Do not utterly take/rescue from my mouth the word of truth, for in your judgments I have hoped.”

When the Psalmist uses this particular word, he “celebrates Yahweh’s torah and commandments as [אֱמֶת]…he does not just mean that they are true as opposed to false, but that they also have the character of being trustworthy and reliable for people to base their lives on.”[16] To be a trustworthy God is to be אֱמֶת. In fact, this particular derivative of אֱמוּנָה֙ is used in reference to God quite often. One can see the use of this word in one of the most divine statements in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:5-7, where God himself reveals his character and describes himself as וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת (“abounding in love and faithfulness”). To fully appreciate the moral uprightness of this word, one can look at its synonyms and antonyms, as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used in conjunction with חֶ֫סֶד (“covenantal faithfulness,” “love”), as was seen in the Exodus passage cited, צֶ֫דֶק (“righteousness”), and מִשְׁפָּט (“judgment,” “justice”) [e.g., Jer. 4:2, Ps. 15:2]. Its Hiphil form appears in parallelism with another Hebrew word בָּטַח (“trust”) [Micah 7:5]. The word is contrasted with שֶׁ֫קֶר (“lie,” “deception”) in Proverbs 12:22. The word אֱמוּנָה֙ (and its derivative noun אֱמֶת) has quite a moral character in the Hebrew Bible! It is no wonder, then, that Habakkuk could place such great faith in YHWH. If YHWH is the opposite of “deception,” if YHWH is equated with “reliability” and “steadfast love,” how could he allow a righteous person’s prayer go unheard? “Israel assigns to (or recognizes in) Yahweh elements of constancy and substance that make Yahweh in some ways knowable and available to Israel.”[17] And, yet, the strange thing about Habakkuk’s message is that YHWH does not really work in a way that seems, at least to Habakkuk, consistent with his character. In the words of the Psalmist, the deeds that YHWH had done were done (past tense) “in the days of old.” And that, precisely, is where they remained.

Habakkuk is no different than any one of us today. We are, to be blunt, all in the same boat. The fact that Pentecostals pray all day long, exceeding the volume of a rock concert, virtually does nothing to the way things really are. Even the good people are still falling prey to cancer at age thirty, dying in car accidents committed by drunk fools, or simply losing their jobs to more ruthlessly conniving individuals. The “faithful” people today still see the loud mouth, die-hard atheists using their vocal cords to cast curses upon YHWH. Just as in Habakkuk’s time, we still have our deuteronomic theologies—though they go by fancy names like “health and wealth gospel” or “success theology”—which teach people that, if one follows God, one will inherit the pearls of the Kingdom right here and right now. We still have our Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinns, regurgitating a worn-out theology; a theology of mere cut-and-dried retribution. Whether we like it or not, this sort of thinking was accepted by Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Moses, and a thousand others. It is the initial theology of all school children. But then we all grow up. Like Ecclesiastes, we shed our teenage mentality and we see that “things are not so.” Maybe along with his version of the categorical imperative—אַל־תְּהִ֤י צַדִּיק֙ הַרְבֵּ֔ה (“Do not be righteous too much!” [7:16])—we, too, will find rest in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will suffer. You can be good or bad, fat or thin, American or Russian, white or black, believer or atheist, you will still probably get cancer at some point in your life, and you may, or may not, live to see your grandchildren. One could relate to a lament made by people within Zephaniah’s time, a contemporary of Habakkuk’s, who had the audacity to say that YHWH “does neither good nor evil” (1:12). Von Rad makes the following remark about Zephaniah’s contemporaries, “[T]hese were no atheists, but they no longer reckoned with divine action in the present day; and when the storm broke, and the Southern Kingdom suffered the same fate as had the Northern, and saw its upper class deported to Babylon [in 586/7 BC], the question of Jahweh’s relationship to his people became completely uncertain.”[18] In Habakkuk’s time, deuteronomic theology became a theology of paradox—it could not even stand on its own two feet. And when the Babylonian captivity took place, after Habakkuk’s time, it completely fell beneath the weight of human experience. As I’ve stated earlier, even in the time of severe personal crisis and doubt, YHWH gave Habakkuk no real answer. “[T]he answer to the question why there should be such great and mysterious suffering is so remarkably veiled and obscure that it makes one feel as if Jahweh were retreating before the question, and withdrawing into ever deeper seclusion.”[19]

Habakkuk’s three-chapter book is one long sustained argument with YHWH, with a number of interjections made by YHWH. The prophet attempts to get YHWH to recognize that justice must be served at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. YHWH responds by making Habakkuk aware of, what appears to be, an uncertainty principle. Habakkuk is to trust that YHWH is, essentially, in control. All one has to do is trust in YHWH despite any given circumstances. No longer must one judge oneself as good or bad in relation to what one has or does not have. YHWH is not really about rewarding the righteous people, after all—at least not on planet earth. The methods Habakkuk uses to argue with YHWH are standard Old Testament methods that sometimes work (Moses and the Children of Israel in Exodus 32) and sometimes do not (Abraham and Sodom in Genesis18-19). We can plead with YHWH all we want, but Habakkuk is right, “the righteous will live by placing their faith in YHWH’s vision.” In the end, YHWH wins and you lose. You can either be on YHWH’s side or you can hold a sustained argument against YHWH, but it will be faith that gets you through on either side. As Paul once remarked, “Everything not done in faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To argue or not to argue, to use Kierkegaardian language, “you will regret both.”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Translation and Textual Notes

עַד־אָ֧נָה יְהוָ֛ה שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶזְעַ֥ק אֵלֶ֛יךָ חָמָ֖ס וְלֹ֥א תֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

לָ֣מָּה תַרְאֵ֤נִי אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל תַּבִּ֔יט וְשֹׁ֥ד וְחָמָ֖ס לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וַיְהִ֧י רִ֦יב וּמָדֹ֖ון יִשָּֽׂא׃

עַל־כֵּן֙ תָּפ֣וּג תֹּורָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יֵצֵ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח מִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֤י רָשָׁע֙ מַכְתִּ֣יר אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֵצֵ֥א מִשְׁפָּ֖ט


טְהֹ֤ור עֵינַ֨יִם֙ מֵרְאֹ֣ות רָ֔ע וְהַבִּ֥יט אֶל־עָמָ֖ל לֹ֣א תוּכָ֑ל לָ֤מָּה תַבִּיט֙ בֹּֽוגְדִ֔ים תַּחֲרִ֕ישׁ בְּבַלַּ֥ע רָשָׁ֖ע

צַדִּ֥יק מִמֶּֽנּוּ

הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה[20] לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשֹׁ֖ו בֹּ֑ו וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו יִחְיֶֽה

יְהוָ֗ה שָׁמַ֣עְתִּי שִׁמְעֲךָ֮ יָרֵאתִי֒ יְהוָ֗ה פָּֽעָלְךָ֙ בְּקֶ֤רֶב שָׁנִים֙ חַיֵּ֔יהוּ

How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?

Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…

Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted.

(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than him?

Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH).

YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13; 2:4, 3:2a)


Bibliography and Works Cited

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Janzen, J. Gerald. Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances. Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2. (January 1, 1980).

Moberly, R. W. L. “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. von Gemeren. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israels Prophetic Traditions. Trans. D. M. G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Ward, William Hayes. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.



[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), 348-349.

[2] Ibid., 349.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 362.

[5] Ibid., 363.

[6] Ibid., 362-364.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Ibid., 360.

[9] Ibid., 364.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 263.

[11] The word for “message” here is מַשָּׂ֖א. This is the same word which is used to introduce Habakkuk’s prophecy (1:1); it is a מַשָּׂ֖א (“message,” “pronouncement,” or “revelation”).

[12] Another interesting parallel is that both use the same word for “crying out,” צָעַק.

[13] Though the technical word for “the righteous” (הַצַּדִּ֔יק) is not used in relation to Job, similar adjectives are applied to him. He is called “pure and upright, fearing God” (תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים).

[14] Deut. 32:4 defines YHWH’s actions as “all just”: הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳלֹ֔ו כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק ויָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא. YHWH is called “pure” (תָּמִ֣ים), “just” (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט), “faithful” (אֱמוּנָה֙) and “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק).

[15] William Hayes Ward, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 4. For a similar line of argument, see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 786-792.

[16] R. W. L. Moberly, “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. von Gemeren, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 428.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 229.

[18] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 263.

[19] Ibid., 267.

[20] The Pual imperfect 3rd person feminine singular verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה (“she/it is puffed up, proud”) has been taken to be, by some, as corrupted. Janzen offers the suggestion that it be reconstructed to a noun to read עָצֵ֑ל (“sluggard”). I do not think that such a change would greatly impact my reading of the text, which is why I have not bothered to emend the Masoretic Text. See J. Gerald Janzen, Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances, Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1980): 67-70. Numerous other, somewhat ingenious, emendations have been proposed by virtually any scholar who knows Hebrew, for those guesses, I refer the reader to any critical commentary on Habakkuk. As a rule, for every scholar there is an idiosyncratic emendation.

May 6, 2014

Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

Sin—and its ugly cousins, guilt and atonement—are not very popular topics. Christopher Hitchens called the atonement—that “ancient superstition”[1]—Christianity’s most immoral sin. He succinctly put his thoughts on atonement into clear words, probably reflecting the views of many modern people:

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.”[2]

Hitchens is not alone in viewing the vicarious death of Jesus as morally repulsive. Many secular moderns feel very similar emotions. The atonement sounds like a bunch of hogwash. But why are the concepts of atonement, both within Judaism and Christianity, so morally repulsive? I believe this increase in disgust towards religious concepts of atonement is inevitably linked to modern man’s denial of the concept of sin. And the concept of sin is further denied because sin is impossible without God. A secular man who denies God is a secular man who denies sin; a secular man who denies sin is a secular man who denies any such thing as atonement. The Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, acutely aware of this problem, correctly writes that “sin is so difficult for modern, secular man to accept.”[3] Moreover, those concepts which are most closely related to sin—namely, guilt, punishment, and atonement—are rendered meaningless once sin itself is eliminated. Therefore, there is a “reluctance to speak of guilt and punishment, concepts that many today find psychologically unhealthy.”[4]

In light of the comments made above by Hitchens regarding the idea of atonement—predictably coming from a man who has zero training in theology and is an anti-theist—I believe that a more nuanced approach towards sin, guilt, and atonement must be taken. In what follows, I will look at these three concepts from a Jewish perspective, mostly engaging with Wyschogrod’s illuminating essay “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” which, I hope, will further deepen our understanding of Christian understandings of these concepts (having sprouted out of Judaism anyhow).

Wyschogrod begins by observing that Judaism has long been on the defensive regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. He sees Jewish theology obsessively slaving away under the pressure of Christians and secular people. The Jewish theologians were too busy trying to make distinctions between that which was Jewish and that which was Christian; that which was Jewish and that which was secular. Instead of taking this approach, Wyschogrod takes a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish approach in which he mostly engages, first and foremost, with the biblical texts themselves. Wyschogrod is mostly trying to address the issues of atonement and sin from a thoroughly Bible-centered perspective.

Regarding sin, Wyschogrod writes that the Jewish theologians had to compose their theology reacting to Christianity’s stance. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, the idea that flourished was the sinfulness of humankind at the expense of God’s mercy. That is, the Christians were more prone to elaborating upon humankind’s absolute sinfulness before God than they were at speaking about God’s mercy and the beauty of God’s creation. In such a way, Judaism was seen to take a more positive view of the world; whereas Christianity took a more negative view towards the world. Where the Christians exalted celibacy, the Jews exalted marriage; where the Christians preached rejection of material goods and their (almost) inherent evil, the Jews saw everything material as being good because God said it was (Genesis 1:31). “[C]ondemnation of the material came to Christianity from Platonic and Gnostic sources which were and are in sharp conflict with the life-affirming realism of Judaism, for which celibacy is not only not a virtue but—if the word can be used—a sin.”[5] Wyschogrod sees Christianity as essentially deviating significantly from its Jewish roots. Moreover, the Jews, by recognizing that the Christians rejected this world (or, at least, that is what the Jews perceived Christians were doing) were rewriting their own theology—they began downplaying the sinfulness of humanity and the goodness of marriage and the material world. Wyschogrod argues that, still later, the Jews accepted secularism’s anti-sin stance hook, line, and sinker. “It is the secular spirit of our time that finds talk about sin objectionable.”[6] in modern times it is this culmination and combination of various factors which have led to modern, liberal Jews taking an anti-sin position—sin no longer is a popular or even a “gentleman’s” topic. Sin is something that our dumb ancestors came up with; it is high time to shed such superstitious beliefs.

But what exactly is sin, and why is it something which “liberal” Jews and secular men find repulsive? Wyschogrod believes that sin is contingent upon God’s existence. Once we eliminate God out the picture (as Hitchens does) it is impossible to speak of sin. No such thing exists. He writes that sin is, simply, a “violation of the command of God.”[7] Moreover, Wyschogrod believes that secular folk commonly assume that sin is to be identified with wrongdoing and vice versa. However, sin is not wrongdoing per se. Sin is only possible when there is a violation of a command which came from a lawgiver. That is, sin is an attack on the personality of God; it is an attack on God’s authority. It is to say to God, “I know you personally, I know what you hate, and I choose to do that which you hate.” Sin is committed only against those who have personalities. On the contrary, the secular folk, who deny God’s existence, simply exchange sin with the word “wrongdoing.” For them, any kind of technical error is wrong and hence is a “wrongdoing.” But this makes “sin” (i.e., “wrongdoing”) analogous to committing an error when solving a mathematical equation. It is paramount to claiming that sin is nothing more than just a human error. Big deal? A man answered the question What is 2+2?with 5.The problem with secular conceptions of sin should now be obvious: the principles underlying such conceptions are inherently atheistic and presume the nonexistence of divine commands coming from a personality. Wyschogrod argues that the secular conception of sin can only lead to “regret” not (religious) guilt. How could a person solving an objective mathematical equation incorrectly feel guilty? Such a person feels mere regret. That’s it. “[S]uch a violation does not constitute sin.”[8]

In what ways does a Jewish conception of sin, which is inherently religious, differ from a secular conception of “wrongdoing”? We have already noted how Wyschogrod makes a distinction between religious sin/guilt and secular wrongdoing/regret. We have also already looked at the importance of God and personality. I will now attempt to synthesize a thoroughly Jewish and biblical perspective on sin—the gospel according to Wyschogrod.

Wyschogrod takes us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve a divine command which was rooted in Him—rooted in His divine personality—“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for on the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 KJV). Wyschogrod succinctly summarizes this narrative theologically:

“The implication clearly is that eating of the forbidden tree will result in man obtaining knowledge of good and evil. Instead of simply obeying the divine lawgiver, he will then be in a position to know why the good is good and the evil, evil. It seems that God does not wish man to have this knowledge. He is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God, whose command he has broken. The violation is, then, directed at God. And because it is directed at God, it constitutes a break in a relationship between God and man and requires remediation.”[9]

Now that Wyschogrod had defined sin according to the Hebrew Bible, he has laid the foundation for us to what will now follow: the concepts of guilt and atonement.

Because sin is a transgression of (1) a divine command issued by (2) God who has (3) a personality, this means that sin inevitably leads to a broken relationship, which further results in (a) guilt and, later, (b) (possible) atonement.

In the Garden, “[m]an’s first sin is thus an act of disobedience whose aim is to obtain a knowledge that will make man God-like.”[10] Apart from this knowledge, prior to the eating of the fruit, humankind was entirely dependent upon God, both for morality and guilt. If God did not tell you to feel guilty, you couldn’t possibly feel guilty. Humankind had been given the choice to live according to God’s idea of right and wrong, and, ultimately, God’s idea of good and evil. However, humans had decided that God was acting capriciously when handing down commands. In this way, “[m]an not only disobeys God but signals his determination not to accept permanently the status of a creature of God dependent on God for instruction as to what is permitted and forbidden. He is determined to make his own judgment as to what is good or bad and thus become God-like.”[11]

Once Adam and Eve decide to make their own morality, not grounded in God but in their own (limited and sin-stained) reason, they discover that they are naked and feel ashamed (i.e., guilty). They start to think that there is something wrong with being naked. But how could they know? “God immediately recognizes that Adam and Eve are making independent moral judgments that are not derived from any divine command, and that can only mean that man has disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”[12] Here is the decisive moment: Adam and Eve had discovered their own morality, grounded in nothing but capricious disobedience to God their Maker. Here they were at the epitome of reason!

On the one hand the seculars have their Platonic doctrine of “sin.” That is, humanity is essentially seen as comprised of knowing beings who act according to what they know. Moreover, they generally tend to do that which they know to be good. In Plato’s conception of reality, sin is merely a person doing that which they do in ignorance or ignorantly, again, confuse the good with the bad. In Plato’s conception of sin, those who commit it are not necessarily “evil,” they are merely “ignorant.” If ignorant, one may not necessarily be punished; rather, one is to be pitied. Clearly, Plato’s conception of sin is not what the Bible has in mind. The Bible does have things to say about sins committed in ignorance (Num. 15:22-24), however, the Bible sees sin as ultimately disobedience to God. God alone is Good and Just; he is the one who ultimately knows what is good for you, for He has made you. Wyschogrod argues that, contrary to Plato’s idea of sin, the Bible’s approach is very different. “The focus of attention is not on the particular nature of the act, its inherent wrongness or immorality. The focus is on the giver of the command and the damage that the sin has done to man’s relationship with the being who is behind the command.”[13] On the flip side, “obeying his command is to honor God, to recognize his authority, and to proclaim oneself dependent on him and subject to his will.”[14]

Now we must ask the simple question which many are probably dying to hear: is God in charge of reality or does man have free will? Wyschogrod makes a brief comment here that tends to give us a sense of what the Bible seems to be saying holistically. “[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bile understands that, by and large, people do what they do because they want to do it and that they could have done other than what they in fact ended up doing.”[15] Given this underlying presupposition, it is easy to see why the Bible could place so much punishment upon humankind for their sins. This retributive justice, inevitably, brings to mind feeling of guilt, shame, and remorse. Only a man facing his own very real sin can claim to feel repentant and, ultimately, guilty. In this way, Christianity brings guilt upon humankind in full force and with unabated fury. While Wyschogrod agrees with the Christians that humans are sinful and should feel guilty, he believes that this sort of approach is extreme. He also is weary of the Jewish counter-reaction which resulted in sin being downplayed, along with guilt and shame. Summarizing his views of Christianity, he writes:

“Since the fall, man is naturally depraved and headed for damnation, from which only faith in Jesus as the messiah can save him. The net effect, at least to the Jewish observer, has been that Christianity seems to have emphasized the sinfulness of man far more than does Judaism.”[16]

In this way, “Christianity tends, far more than Judaism, to generate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”[17] In such a way, the Jews believe that Christians have a “rather unhealthy view of human sexuality.”[18] Because the Jews wanted to present their faith as being different from Christianity, they made sin virtually nonexistent in Judaism (unfairly, according to Wyschogrod). “[S]in in Judaism plays a much less central role than it does in Christianity…”[19] Wyschogrod argues that Judaism’s response was not fair to biblical theology, especially prophetic conceptions of justice, sin, and atonement. “The dreadful possibilities of sin and the catastrophic consequences of sin are integral and fundamental parts of Judaism, both biblical and rabbinic.”[20] Despite Wyschogrod’s comments about the centrality of sin in the Bible, he believes that Jews are, nonetheless, much more optimistic when it comes to thinking about human nature. “The terror of total damnation, of total rejection by God is thus absent, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which enables Jewish optimism to coexist with profound understanding of the sinfulness of man and the reality of punishment.”[21]

But is Wyschogrod fair to Christians? After all, as a Christian, I can interpret the Hebrew Bible along the exact lines Wyschogrod does. I can further add that humans are worth so much in God’s eyes that God had sent His only Son to save them. Isn’t that more optimistic than Wyschogrod’s claim that only the Jewish conception can be so “guilt-free” and “optimistic”? Personally, while I agree with Wyschogrod, I do not think his observations regarding Christianity are entirely fair and correct. While he may be right about some (or even many) Christians, his statement is certainly not the last: the Christians can have certainly just as much optimism (if not more) than the Jews. For the Christian has the same Hebrew Bible as Wyschogrod…and then some.

We now come to the subject of atonement. Why is atonement theology in so much disgrace amongst the secular people, liberal Jews, and liberal Christians? The answer, according to Wyschogrod, is relatively straight-forward: we have succumbed to a thoroughly rational ethical system—we love Kant a whole lot. “[B]ecause the moral law is not a person, it cannot forgive anything, just as mathematics cannot pardon those who add incorrectly or drop an integer in a subtraction.”[22] With an objective moral framework, sin simply is impossible. Humans are seen as rational beings who merely make mistakes vis-a-vis the moral law. “The past can be learned from and the repetition of the mistake can be avoided, but the past mistake cannot be erased.” Because this is the case, “there is no place for a doctrine of atonement in autonomous human ethics.”[23] Once a human makes a mistake within a strictly Kantian moral framework, one is simply aware of how wrong one was; one is not obligated to feel guilty or shameful. One merely says, “Oh well, I committed adultery and I do not wish this act to become a universal categorical imperative. Next time I will not commit such an act.” In such an ethical system, there is no need for atonement. In fact, atonement would be impossible where sin does not exist. But with God all ethical systems change. The rules change. The game changes.

With a personal God who has a personality, wrongs committed against Him in disobedience to His divine commands constitute sin. And God, if He so chooses, can, as a personality that has relations to His creatures, forgive. “God tells sinning man that, in a sense, the past can be changed.”[24] According to rational ethics which do not have a personal God with a personality, sin is impossible and hence forgiveness is not really an option. However, in a religious framework, sin occurs and so does forgiveness. But how is one forgiven? How does one atone for one’s sins?

In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in the year seventy, the Jews were faced with a dilemma: they could no longer offer sacrifices to God. What were they to do? Wyschogrod shows us that the Jews went back to the Hebrew Bible and found texts which emphasized the point of sacrifices. The point was not the mere external act of offering God a sacrifice; the crux of the matter lie in the issue of whether such sacrifices were offered in a state of repentance. That is, a good sacrifice was good in so far as the heart offering the sacrifice was repentant before God. The Christians, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the contingency of Judaism—being useful only with a standing Temple and endless sacrifices. They thought that Judaism surely would collapse. After all, the Jews no longer had a way to become “at one” with God; without the sacrifices and the Temple, they were always in the wrong with God. The Jews responded to this: “Not so fast,” they said. They began “to stress the power of repentance.”[25] They turned to the “prophetic texts that spoke with very little admiration of sacrifices unaccompanied by the turning of the heart.”[26] In such a way, repentance was sufficient for atonement of sins. God accepted a repentant heart. In this way, the Jews were able to maintain their faith, its distinctions, and were able to refrain from falling prey to the clutches of the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. Who needs the atonement of Jesus when one has (sufficient) repentance?

This is the gospel according to Wyschogrod; in short, these are his reasons for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus is not necessary for salvation. However, contrary to the opinions of the secular folk, he maintains the existence of sin, guilt, and atonement (by means of repentance). In a very memorable sentence, concluding his article, Wyschogrod writes:

“By pronouncing ‘It was very good,’ God takes responsibility for the totality of his creation in which sin, as well redemption, becomes possible.”[27]

Wyschogrod is content with Judaism, so long as it is grounded in the Hebrew Bible in an authentic way. He believes that dialogue with Christians is possible—and should continue. Likewise, dialogue with those secular folk should continue as well. While he may not convince me regarding the so-called “pessimism” of Christianity, he does partially persuade me that Jesus may not be, by necessity, the answer for Torah-observant Jews.[28]

All in all, Wyschogrod attempts to think both critically, sincerely, and robustly regarding sin, guilt, and atonement both in Judaism and Christianity. He tries to formulate a theology that is relatively fair (with some objections) both to Christians and Jews. In this sense, perhaps, his article is of utmost importance. He engages Christianity, he seems to understand good portions of it, and still stays faithful to his own Jewish convictions. His article is illuminating to Christian readers, those who may find it difficult to understand why a Jew rejects Jesus. Moreover, his clear presentation of the nonexistence of sin and guilt in modern ethics is very brilliantly and succinctly written. For this I do commend him. I have yet to read a better rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah than this.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key. ed. by R. Kendall Soulen.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.


[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 209.

[2] Ibid. Italics original.

[3] Michael Wyschogrod, “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 55.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics mine.

[21] Ibid., 68.

[22] Ibid., 69.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 74.

[28] See his article “”Paul, Jews, and Gentiles” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 188-201.

Predestination and Free Will in Islam and Christianity: A Comparison

People the world over like to know about ultimate meaning in life. They want to know whether God exists, whether life has some ultimate end-goal (i.e., telos), whether there is life after death, etc. But if God—whichever God that may be—exists, they want to know whether He/She/It influences their lives. If God is driving history—all history—to some greater ends, some yet-to-be-seen Grand Finale, where is God now in all this? If there is some sort of final end point at which God is driving all history, how is God accomplishing all that in the here and now? To put the related question in different terms: is God influencing
my day-to-day existence? If so, how much of the influence is out of my control (that is, am I being predestined?) and how much of my life is of my own free will (that is, free of God’s, or anybody else’s, control)? Both Islam and Christianity attempt to address that issue. Both have things to say about predestination and free will. And, finally, both, I dare say, do not offer an absolute, universally agreed upon answer. What we have are various attempts at answering the question. We have various ways both Islam and Christianity attempt to make sense of both God’s omnipotence and humankind’s autonomy. In a world which appears hectic, inexplicable, utterly evil, and full of useless suffering, people everywhere ask the question: where is God in all this? Am I damned to suffering? Did I create this hell I’m living in? Was it chance? I will begin by looking at Islam’s attempt to answer some of these questions. After looking at Islam, I will look at Christianity’s response to the issue. Finally, I will compare and contrast the two religions, and, ultimately, offer my own theological reflections.

Islam on Predestination and Free Will

Islam teaches that Allah created the world out of water (30:21) and humans out of clay (32:7). (It should be noted that some commentators combine the different statements and amalgamate the texts to teach creation from both water and clay.) Humankind, then, is seen as a creation of Allah. Being Allah’s creation, Allah had given guidance to humankind—from Moses’s Decalogue, to Jesus’ Beatitudes, to Muhammad’s final miracle: the Quran, the concrete guide for all life on earth. In the Quran one finds what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”; the Quran is the epitomizing definition of Jesus’ teachings. The devout Muslim sees the Quran as the inspired word of Allah. By it he lives, breathes, and guides all his actions. But from whence do these actions arise? Does Allah cause a man to be a good Muslim or does a man simply, on his own, using rational reason, choose to follow Allah (by means of following the Quran)? A devout Muslim, naturally, would, again, turn to the Holy Quran for guidance. What does the text say about Allah’s will and how it relates to humankind?

There are numerous verses in the Quran that speak precisely to this issue. In 18:28, for example, the Quran states:

And keep thyself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening desiring His goodwill, and let not thine eyes pass from them, desiring the beauties of this world’s life. And follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance, and he follows his low desires and his case exceeds due bounds.[1]

The verse addresses, paradoxically, both issues. On the one hand, Allah is commanding the readers to follow those who are desiring His goodwill. This implies that humans have the ability both to hear the word of Allah and do it. However, in the second part of the verse, notice the paradoxical phrase “[a]nd follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance.” So Allah is the one who, like the YHWH of Exodus, “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh. So do those who do evil have a choice? I mean, the text does say that “We have made unmindful” of the commands of Allah those who are evil. (The “we” is known as a “royal plural,” which is used in Semitic languages when a king or a god speaks, even though the speaker is singular.) What appears to be most mind-boggling is the following verse, which continues the illogical paradox:

And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve. Surely We have prepared for the iniquitous a Fire, an enclosure of which will encompass them. And if they cry for water, they are given water like molten brass, scalding their faces. Evil the drink! And ill the resting-place!

Not only do the evil have Allah (We=Allah) intervening and causing them to be “unmindful,” they also have Allah serving them canisters of molten brass! In an understandable move, the sectarian[2] commentator Mualana Muhammad Ali refrains from commenting on predestination and free will in both verses; however, to his credit, he does elaborate theologically on the torments of the Quran’s “hell.”

These two verses from Surrah 18, known as The Cave, are not the only ones one finds about predestination and free will. In 76:29-30 the Quran states:

Surely this is a Reminder; so whoever will, let him take a way to his Lord. And you will not, unless Allah please. Surely Allah is ever Knowing…

Here, again, one finds two apparently contradictory ideas being made back-to-back. On the one hand, Allah is allowing the readers to “take a way”; on the other hand, you will not actually will to do anything unless Allah allows you to will. So who or what is ultimately responsible for humankind’s actions? If those who choose the wrong path are ultimately caused by Allah to make that evil choice (and are later punished for it), why are humans responsible for their evil actions? In this case, Muhammad Ali is somewhat helpful. “The meaning is that true and sincere believers have so completely submitted themselves to the Divine will and are so completely resigned that they have no desires of their own, and all their desires are in accordance with Allah’s pleasure.”[3] Muhammad Ali is on the free will side in his commentary (in opposition to a deterministic interpretation). He argues that “man has not been constrained by God to adopt a particular course, whether for good or for evil.”[4]

Are we even reading the same text? Because I am honestly baffled. Does he ignore Allah’s complete and sovereign omnipotence? Al-Ajurri, for example, disagrees with Muhammad Ali. He takes a strong deterministic (=predestination) interpretation. The renowned Islamic theologian Binyamin Abraham writes concerning al-Ajurri, “[W]hen dealing with the problem of predestination and free will, al-Ajurri is very careful to select verses which fit his doctrine of predestination which is very probably dictated by the traditions.” [5]Abrahamov sees this sort of theologizing as being more grounded in Hadith and tradition rather than Quranic theology. Al-Ajurri virtually ignores verses that contradict his deterministic view of history. Verses such as 2:26, 14:27 and 40:74, all which tend to emphasize human free will, are ignored. For example, 2:26 reads:

…Then as for those who believe, they know that it is the truth from their Lord; and as for those who disbelieve, they say: What is it that Allah means by this parable? Many He leaves in error by it and many He leads aright by it. And He leaves in error by it only the transgressors.

Muhammad Ali, commenting on this verse, writes: “It is a plain fact that Allah guides people or shows them the right way by sending His messengers, and therefore He could not be spoken of as leading them astray.”[6] By “plain fact” what Ali really means is “that which accords with my own opinion.” As is evident, people like al-Ajurri vehemently disagree (and rightly so!). The Quran does speak of predestination, whether you like it or not. In fact, al-Razi, a 13th century Islamic philosopher, “considers the Qur’an a weak device for attaining certainty with regard to theological problems in general and on the issue of predestination in particular.”[7] More pointedly, he considers such verses as “contradictory.” Despite these contradictory verses, al-Razi believes the Qur’an is inspired with mere uncertainty regarding such peripheral matters as predestination and free will. Here is certainly an interpreter one can respect. A man who calls the bluff on those who believe they have found a “solution.” He says it clearly: no certain solution exists.[8]

“Free will inside a radius of determined environment creates an obscurity,” wrote L. Housman.[9] Despite all of these problems, some scholars and theologians continued trying to figure out Quranic theology on this issue. Abd al-Razzaq wrote that “the act, which is decided upon, is free; but in so far as the totality of causes, named the complete cause…its production is determined.”[10] If I understand him correctly, using what seems to be Aristotelian philosophy, al-Razzaq is suggesting the nuanced but absurd idea that individual acts are “free,” whereas their collective totality is somehow predetermined. That is, while I may choose freely different routes to drive home (individual actions) the fact that I arrive at home is determined (i.e., this being the “complete cause”). Allah is in charge of “complete causes”; I am in charge of choosing freely. This really pushes the problem forward. One could then ask, what point is all of my free will (let us say that I am attempting to lead a peaceful life), if Allah had already predestined me to some murderous “complete cause”? Am I really free to lead a peaceful life if I had been predetermined to murder somebody at some final point?

Against the above view, another theologian, Wasil b. ‘Ata, offers a different approach:

“The Creator Most High is wise and just, so that it is impossible to attribute to Him evil, or wrong, or that He will for His creatures the opposite of what He commands, and judge and punish them for that. The creature is the doer of good and evil, belief and unbelief, disobedience or obedience, and is requited for his action. The Lord Most High has enabled him…for it.”[11]

In this view, it appears that Allah had made man rational, he is able to competently do the good or the evil. Given this presupposition, humankind is then judged accordingly. God is not responsible for where humans ultimately end up. All evil is on their hands.

With all of these various approaches, where does that leave the devout Muslim, the one who is aching and pining away in the trenches of existential reality? Is he or she responsible? Allah? Both?

I do not think that Quranic theology gives us a concrete answer. As we will later see, in Christianity one is faced with relatively similar problems. Theologians there have come up with ingenious ways of “solving” the issues.



Christianity: Free Will and Predestination

Christianity presents us with problems very much similar to problems examined earlier in Islam. Predestination and free will feature much in today’s Christian discussions. In fact, in my experience, whether one has any theological training or not, almost everybody has an opinion on this issue. As Adam Neder once said, “There’s good theology and there’s bad theology, but there’s no such thing as no theology.” Growing up, I found passages such as Exodus 9:12, where the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, perplexing.

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְהוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶֽׁה

“And YHWH made strong the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them [and] the word which YHWH said to Moses.”

While we all know the ending of the story—Pharaoh ends up drowning in the waters of the Reed Sea—not all of us think about the potentially implied injustice being done: God punishes Pharaoh after “hardening” his heart. The question then becomes: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s death? There seems to be one potential catch here, however. The word commonly translated “hardened” is the Hebrew word חָזָק (“to make strong, harden”), occurring in the intensive Piel verbal form. Using some liberty, one could paraphrase the text to read: “YHWH made Pharaoh’s heart firm in its own resolution.” That is, YHWH merely made firm that which was already present in Pharaoh’s own heart. In this translation, Pharaoh is not seen as being controlled entirely by YHWH; YHWH is merely making firm that which already there.

While many, if not most, lay readers see this passage as ultimately describing YHWH’s sovereign reign over humanity (he is the one totally in charge of your destiny), passages like 2 Kings 20 seem to add more confusion to the mixture. In this text, Hezekiah prays to YHWH after he is told that he would die. YHWH had decreed Hezekiah’s coming death. Hezekiah responds with petitioning YHWH and YHWH ends up “changing his mind.” Hezekiah, in the end, ends up living fifteen additional years. Here, at least in this chapter, biblical theology points in the direction of free will. For his acclaimed book—being endorsed by the likes of OT scholar Walter Brueggemann and the philosopher C. Stephen Evans—Gregory Boyd begins discussing “open theism” with this passage.[12] He argues that God chooses not to know outcomes and allows humans to exercise complete and total free will. This view, however, does not dismiss God’s sovereignty (God is seen as ultimately giving up his power in a sacrificial, Christ-like manner). Open theism is essentially an “open view” of God—God has left the future completely open. He does not “know” it.

In opposition to this view is the so-called classical view, popularized by John Calvin. In this view, God does not change throughout eternity, neither does his knowledge change, his will change, nor any past, present or future outcomes. Everything is set in stone in unchangeable eternity. God is impassible, too. (In ironic contrast to Christ’s humiliation on the Cross.) God is not affected by human petitions in any real sense (they really don’t change what the Islamic scholar called the “complete cause”). Summarizing this view, Boyd writes: “[W]hatever takes place in history, from events great significance to the buzzing of a particular fly, must take place exactly as God eternally foreknew it would take place.”[13] In the classical view, God’s foreknowledge determines the future (Augustine and Calvin) or, according to Arminius, the future determines God’s foreknowledge. In the end, both takes of the classical view result in a set future. One way or another, God had predetermined a certain occurrence of events. The open view accepts some claims of the classical view, disagreeing that all the events are known and controlled. For example, one could know that tomorrow one would go to the dentist at ten o’clock. Knowing this (a set future) does not mean that one “knows” everything that would take place in between now and the future. The open view, therefore, cherry-picks from several approaches and creates a synthetic approach that makes (almost) everybody happy. One could think of Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads, implying free will, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life (NRSV).” But how does the open view, in which free will is given almost complete free reign, deal with biblical texts that make the future set in stone?

In Isaiah 46:9-10, YHWH declares that he declares “the end from the beginning and from the ancient times things not yet done.” Christ’s ministry itself was “destined before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20, NRSV). While there are multitudes of such passages that deal with this issue, these select and concrete verses do reflect the totality of the views in the Bible; that is, these verses give us a taste of both extremes. For example, the open view interprets Isaiah 46 as essentially saying that God, in knowing what he wills to bring about, will have his way with many uncontrolled, unknown factors. Taking Romans 8:28 seriously, one could argue that God is the one who is “working all things for the good.” God is not saying that all things are good—He is saying that, in this chaos, that is his goal (i.e., the accomplishment of that which is good [the “complete cause”]). He guides history where he wants it, working within a chaotic and unset system. In fact, as Boyd points out,[14] a God capable of dealing with chaos is a much greater being than the being Calvin believes in—a detailed perfectionist incapable and incompetent in dealing with chaos and free will.

Furthermore, take Jeremiah 18:7-10, for example.

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it (NIV).

As plain as day, God is “relenting,” or, to accurately reflect the Hebrew term, “repenting.” God is changing his mind, so to speak. While this, in fact, is the straightforward reading of the Hebrew text, Calvin and the classical theologians used ingenious ways to make the text say something it never said. They “usually argue that texts that attribute change to God describe how he appears to us; they do not depict God as he really is. It looks like God changed his mind, but he really didn’t.”[15] The problem with the classical view, whichever form it appears in, is impossible to disprove. With all the weasel-wording, distortion of ancient texts, and hedge-creation, it is simply impossible to disprove the classical view. “Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us in Scripture that he really does sometimes intend to carry out one course of action and that he really does sometimes change his mind and not do it. How could he tell us this in terms clearer than he did in this passage?”[16] Well, reading the Bible, one should get the impression that God changes his mind and that the future is not—entirely—set (cf. Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; 33:1-3, 14; Deut. 9:13-29; 1 Samuel 2:27-31; 1 Kings 21:21-29; 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; Jer. 26:2-3; Ezekiel 4:9-15; Amos 7:1-6; Jonah 3:10; and scores of other passages).[17]

How then does one go about dealing with the issue of predestination and free will? Personally, I am not sure that the Bible gives us a clear picture. While the verses dealing with an open view (in favor of free will) completely outnumber, anecdotally, verses that imply or support predestination, one is still left quite baffled by the texts when viewed as a whole. For these and other reasons, I believe it is probably safe to say that while an open view may have me and some philosophers happy, it certainly isn’t the final word that is to be said regarding Christianity and its stance towards free will and predestination.

Concluding Remarks

In this brief look at a relatively basic approach towards the issue of free will and predestination in both Islam and Christianity, we can easily see many similarities. Both religious traditions have unanswered—and maybe even unanswerable—questions. Both appear to suggest, at least tentatively, the existence of both predestination and free will. Both may even allow the two to exist in tension. However, both also have unresolved issues; things that many a theologian and philosopher will probably continue to dispute for many years to come.


[1] The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, trans. Maulana Muhammad Ali, new 2002 ed. (Ohio: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc., 2002).

[2] Going with the Lahori-Ahmadi creed, Ali did not accept miracles, had an immense hatred for the West, Christianity and Judaism, all features which I, the subjective reader, can attest to being found in his notes, translation and commentary. Most Muslims do not like this particular translation. However, it is the definitive translation to those of us in America, since a large Muslim population here belongs to the Ahmadi sect. Moreover, as a final remark, I do not believe this particular translation skewed the texts that I will be dealing with.

[3] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 1163.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, ed. Andrew Rippin (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 424.

[6] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 16-17 (26b).

[7] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, 429. Italics mine (added for emphasis).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cited in William Thomson, “Freewill and Predestination in Early Islam I,” The Muslim World, 40: 207–216. 207.

[10] Ibid., 207.

[11] Ibid., 211.

[12] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 7.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 128-129.

[15] Ibid., 77. Italics original.

[16] Ibid., 77-78.

[17] Ibid., 83-87 and 157-169.

Philippians 2:6-11: A Creedal Hymn Reflecting Proto-Trinitarian Theology

Introductory Remarks

Philippians 2:6-11 is perhaps the single most written about pericope in the entire New Testament. In it, one finds a tight-packed theological reflection on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, exaltation and, finally, one finds what it means to reflect Christ’s attitude. It is, in the words of Gordon D. Fee, “the very heart of Pauline theology.”[1] Moreover, being “one of the most exalted, most beloved, and most discussed and debated passages in the Pauline corpus.”[2] This “creedal hymn” has had virtually every aspect of it debated—words, grammar, authorship, structure, redaction, history, etc.—not a single rock was left unturned. Given the fact that such is the fate of this pericope, I will merely selectively mention things that I find of particular importance. I presuppose the pericope to be a creedal hymn that was, in one way or another, either written by Paul or, at the very least, edited by him. Many such things are, at best, speculative, and I will not, therefore, spend much time dealing with them here. My main interest here will be to look at the Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary used in the hymn—at times interacting with other scholars, too. I will, finally, reflect on the theological implications of this hymn and how it relates to Christian ethics and Trinitarian thinking.

Verse 6

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ

“Who, because of his being in the ‘form’ (μορφῇ) of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be seized upon.”

Prior to verse 6, Paul admonishes the Philippians to have a certain frame of mind while being Christian. He tells them to have the mindset of Christ. But what is that mindset? What is it like to follow and be like Christ? Verse 6 thus follows on the heels of an imperative (φρονεῖτε, “you all have this mind set”) and begins by laying out what Paul exactly means. Paul begins verse 6 with the relative pronoun ὃς. “The Christ-hymn proper starts here. Its initial word, the relative pronoun ὃς, “who,” recalls the way other hymnlike confessions in the NT begin (cf. Col 1:15; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3[)]….”[3] Following this is the difficult noun (dative singular feminine) μορφῇ, “form,” which is further modified by the adjectival (descriptive) genitive θεοῦ (“of God”). This noun occurs only twice in Paul (here and verse 7) and once in Pseudo-Mark (16:12). The noun μορφῇ can be translated best as ‘form’ (in quotation marks). Fee argues that it should best be translated as “that which truly characterizes a given reality.”[4] “[I]t denotes ‘form’ or ‘shape’ not in terms of the external features by which something is recognized, but of those characteristics and qualities that are essential to it.”[5] Furthermore, when the hymn will later on say that Christ took the form of a slave, “it is not likely that its author had in mind that Christ merely looked like or had the external appearance of a slave.”[6] That is, μορφῇ does not necessarily retain the simple meaning of “form”—in fact, it cannot. The word should be seen, as Fee suggests, meaning something along the lines of that which truly characterizes a given reality.

            Contra Fee,[7] the author of the hymn—Paul or somebody else—“did not wish to say that Christ was θεός, ‘God.’”[8] Moreover, the author did not say that Christ was “the form of God” (ὃς μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων) but rather ἐν (“in”) in the form of God. Clearly, the author is not saying that Christ is the God.[9] Christ is a preposition away from being θεός. At least in this verse. In verses like these, one gets the sense that the author of the hymn was not, by any means, intending for Christ to be identified with God the Father; rather, the intent appears to be to exalt Christ to divine status—as the following verses will reveal—but not at the expense of having the Father lose His place of paradoxical supremacy. Only Trinitarian theology, I believe, can make any systematic sense of this verse, as we will later see.

And, finally, the author’s use of the participle ὑπάρχων “is a widely used substitute in Hellenistic Greek for εἶναι, ‘to be.’”[10] On the other hand, despite this usage, many argue that ὑπάρχων here has a more precise meaning. “[T]hough often simply be, the exact sense is be from the beginning, w[ith] ref[erence] to God would mean being from all eternity.”[11] Fee, noting that the term ὑπάρχων is interchangeable with εἶναι (the infinitive “to be”), further suggests that the term could mean “to exist (really).”[12] He also disagrees with Zerwick’s A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament and states that “in the koine period the word on its own w[ould] hardly bear that weight [i.e., that the word would imply prior existence].”[13] Because of the disagreements, and the subjectivity of the conclusions, I believe it best to simply translate the participle with the neutral term “being.” There is, however, further ongoing debate about whether the participle is concessive or causal. Concessive participles should be translated with “although” and causal would be translated with the conjunction “because.” “[I]f ὑπάρχων is causal, ἁρπαγμὸν means robbery (“who, because he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as robbery”); if ὑπάρχων is concessive, then ἁρπαγμὸν means a thing to be grasped (“who, although he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as a thing to be grasped”).[14] Daniel B. Wallace believes, grammatically speaking, that “[o]nly the concessive idea for the participle and a thing to be grasped translation for ἁρπαγμὸν fit well with v 7.”[15] Or, if one wants to simply ignore such strict dichotomizing of the grammar, one could—as Fee will below—simply translate the participle as “being”; being preceded with neither an “although” (concessive) or a “because” (causal).

We now come to the difficult term, a hapax legomenon in the NT, ἁρπαγμὸν, which could be translated as “a thing to be grasped” or “robbery.” The noun is from the verb ἁρπάζω, which can mean “I seize spoil,” “I seize a prize by force,” “I snatch away [not in secret]” or “I obtain by robbery”—it can have any of these similar range of meanings. While the verb occurs in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Amos 4:11; Zech 3:2; Matt 13:19; 2 Cor 12:2, 4, etc.), with a range of meanings—not all with the implied meaning of “robbery,” as in 2 Corinthians, where Paul describes his ascent into heaven with the aorist passive participle ἁρπαγέντα (“having been caught, snatched away”)—it is, therefore, unclear as to what the noun actually means. Fee mentions C. F. D. Moule’s argument that the noun, being a noun which end in -mos (the noun ἁρπαγμὸν is the accusative singular masculine from the nominative ἁρπαγμός, hence the -mos ending), should be seen not as a noun referring to the “concrete expression of the verbal idea but to the verbal idea itself.”[16] Carrying this line of thought, Fee continues, “In this view harpagmos is not to be thought of as a ‘thing’ at all…Rather it is an abstract noun, emphasizing the concept of ‘grasping’ or ‘seizing.’”[17] Fee also, rather in a syncretic manner, sees the phrase “not harpagmon” as “correspond[ing] to ‘not looking out for one’s own needs.’”[18] John Reumann points out that W. Jaeger saw the entire phrase as being an idiom meaning to “regard something as a stroke of luck, a windfall, a piece of good fortune.”[19] However, this idiom occurs in much later documents (such as Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story [3rd or 4th century]). Some scholars look for the noun’s meaning in the OT. The phrase τὸ ἅρπαγμα  (Lev 5:23) is used to translate the Hebrew noun  הַגְּזֵלָ֜ה (Lev 5:23), which is from the Hebrew Qal verb  גָּזָ֗ל (“to seize, plunder, steal”). The neuter verb occurs in the singular and in the plural in the OT 18 times (including Sirach [16:13] and the Psalms of Solomon [2:24]). In all the OT contexts, the terms clearly denotes “robbery” and “plundering.”) Finally, the noun could be taken as a synonym of its cognate term harpagma (“booty” or “prey”). If this is the case, it could be translated, in Paul’s context, as “‘a matter to be seized upon’ in the sense of ‘taking advantage of it.’”[20] Adding to the chaos, some scholars see the nouns (harpagma and harpagmos) as being identical; they “were used synonymously in the Hellenistic period.”[21] Despite the difficulties, as it should be obvious by now, the differences between the different approaches are, in some ways, rather negligible. I agree with Reumann’s conclusions: “The difficult (and rare) word harpagmos (6b) is probably to be taken as equivalent of harpagma, ‘a thing seized.’”[22]

It is time for us to look at some interesting grammar issues present in this highly contentious text. In Greek the structure of the clause ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ is a double accusative; that is, the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”) has both ἁρπαγμὸν (“robbery, something to be grasped”) and the definite article with the infinitive τὸ εἶναι (“the to be”) as its objects. “[B]y putting ‘not harpagmon’ in the emphatic first position, Paul indicates that the infinitive that follows refers back to the initial participle phrase, in a kind of A-B-A structure. Thus, ‘in his being in the form of God (A), not harpagmon did Christ consider (B) his being be equal with God (A’).’”[23] Fee then also sees the article before the infinitive not as marking out the infinitive as the object of ἡγήσατο but as functioning as “anaphoric.” Thus, the text should be translated as:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider [τὸ] being in the form of God [the anaphoric definite article functioning here to refer back to “being in the form of God”] to be [εἶναι] equal to God.”

Hence the more paraphrastic translation:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider his being in the form of God to mean that he was equal to God.”

The above are my own interpretations of Fee’s suggestions. He does, however, offer up his own version, which reads:

Being in the ‘form’ of God as he was

Christ did not consider a matter of seizing upon it to his own advantage,

this being equal with God we have just noted,

but he emptied himself.[24]

Interestingly enough, Martin & Hawthorne’s commentary also takes this definite article preceding the infinitive as anaphoric. In their view, “a function of the definite article here is to point back to something previously mentioned.”[25] That is, this article is not to be identified as an article that stands modifying the infinitive, making it a direct-object articular “substantival infinitive.” Despite the above views, Wallace maintains that “[i]n this text the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term, ἁρπαγμὸν, is the complement. The most natural reason for the article with the infinitive is simply to mark it out as the object.”[26]  He continues: “This is an example of a direct object infinitive in an object-complement construction. Here the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term ἁρπαγμὸν is the complement, in keeping with the normal structural pattern of object-complement constructions.”[27] Thus, you have this translation: “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.” In this case, the infinitive is functioning as nothing but a noun, which is then complemented by another noun ἁρπαγμὸν (“something to be grasped”). While both Fee and Martin & Hawthorne’s commentaries argue for taking the definite article as anaphoric to μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”), grammatically speaking, Wallace offers some potent critiques. In the same epistle, Paul uses the articular substantival infinitives as direct objects. For example, in 2:13 Paul writes:

θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας

“For the one working in you all both the willing and the working for his good pleasure is God.”

Notice, then, that in the above citation, Paul is using articular substantival infinitives as the objects of the participle ἐνεργῶν (“working”). The problem with Wallace’s position is that not all substantival infinitives take a definite article. However, from the context, Wallace, Fee, and Hawthorne & Martin are correct in seeing the infinitive as an object. To be fair, in the NT direct-object infinitives are rare. J. L. Boyer only lists two such direct-object occurrences (2 Cor 8:11 and Phil 4:10).[28] Wallace goes on to list, in addition, John 5:26, Phil 2:6, and maybe 2:13. Despite their rarity, it is reasonable that the infinitive in 2:6 is most certainly an “articular-less” direct-object substantival infinitive (the article before the infinitive being anaphoric). Thus, we would translate the infinitive as merely: “to be equal to God”; this being equal to God would, then, be functioning as the object of the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”).

Last but not least, to finish this verse, we must deal briefly with ἴσα θεῷ (“equal to God”). The nominative pleural neuter adjective ἴσα is from the word ἴσος (“equal”). As in John 5:18 the adjective is functioning as a predicate adjective, further telling us something about the noun—the ὃς who is clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ. Already in John, Jesus is accused of calling God his own father, thus making himself equal to God (ἴσον ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν τῷ θεῷ). Following a similar vein of thought, the Philippians hymn is stating that Jesus “although being in the ‘form’ of God” did not attempt to consider equality with God as something to be grasped. On the other hand, Jesus took the road less travelled, which brings us to verse 7.

Verse 7

ἀλλ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·

“But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, in the likeness of men becoming, and being found in the likeness as man.”

The fascinating verb ἐκένωσεν is the aorist active indicative third person singular from κενόω (“I empty”). The verb is found five times in the NT (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3; and our passage). Romans speaks of those who are heirs if they depend on the law and not on faith—if such is the case, then the promise is κεκένωται (“it has been emptied”). As one can see from the occurrences in the NT, the word is thoroughly a Pauline word. This would support Fee’s position that the hymn originated with Paul (though he does not think it is a hymn!). But of what did Christ empty himself? “[O]n grammatical grounds it is impossible for ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ to be the object of ἐκένωσεν; the former is separate from the verb by the strong adversative ἀλλά.”[29] Those who argue that Christ emptied himself of his divinity (if that is what ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ implies) are arguing from a much skewed theological perspective (not grounded in the Greek text itself). It is best to simply read the text in a straightforward manner and see it as basically stating that Christ emptied himself in the sense that he took on the “form” or “nature” of a servant/slave.

The phrase μορφὴν δούλου (“form of a slave”) is set into direct contradistinction to the earlier phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”). “It is not as though Christ simply took on the external appearance of a slave or disguised himself as such. Instead, he became a slave, adopting the nature and characteristics of one.”[30] It is for this reason that some would be inclined to translate Fee’s ‘form’ (in quotation marks) with nature instead.

Verses 8-11

καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

“And being found in the appearance as a human being, he humbled himself; becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him and has granted him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, unto the glory of God the Father.”

The rest of the verses are relatively straightforward. The dative noun σχήματι (“outward appearance”) is to be contrasted with the phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ. The noun means “changeable outward shape, contrasted with morphe” which means, according to Reumann, “sphere” or “inner essential form.”[31] This is as close to Docetism as Paul ever comes.

Some interpreters see the textual variant for this verse, which occurs in Codex A, amongst other relatively late manuscripts (5th century onwards), as being the likely original reading. Most ancient texts have—most notably Papyrus 46—the finite verb aorist active subjunctive indicative (third person singular) ἐξομολογήσηται (“might confess”), whereas the variant is the aorist active future indicative ἐξομολογήσεται (“will confess”).[32] In Romans 14:11, Paul writes that κἀμψει πᾶν γόνυ (“every knee will bow”) and καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσεται (“every tongue will confess”), echoing Isaiah 45:23.[33] However, in Philippians, Paul has changed the aorist active future verb κἀμψει (“will bow”) to κἀμψῃ (“might bow”). There is, then, good reason to suppose that Paul changed the second future finite verb to a subjunctive—which further corroborates the idea that Paul wrote this hymn.

Theological Reflections

This creedal hymn is Christian theology in a nutshell. As can be seen from the exegesis, or attempt at such an enterprise (!), one can sense what Paul was trying to do here. First, Paul attempts to place Christ as close to God the Father as possible. He remains a preposition away. Second, however, he goes on to say that Christ while being in the form of God (the only present verb in the pericope), did not think that equality with God is something to be grasped (whether he had it or was in the process of obtaining does not matter much and will probably never be settled). Christ is humble because he is “in the form of God.” Third, Paul, in verse 5, wants the Philippians to attempt to have this frame-of-mind in view. Of course the text is not saying that we, too, should “empty” ourselves by taking on human form—we already are human; rather, the text is saying that if Christ has such a character, what are we to do as his slaves? In this way, Christian ethics are clearly grounded in this passage. Fourth, and finally, Christ is given “the Name” which is above all other names. In his humiliation he is vicariously identified with Yahweh, as in Isaiah 45:23. Thus, though he remains distinct from God the Father, as the preposition so implies, he is, nevertheless, seen somehow as God.

As a side note, theologically speaking, some have seen an Adam-Christ theme being played out in this hymn. That is, unlike Adam, who was made in the “image of God,” Christ, though being in the “form of God,” did not do precisely what Adam did: that is, Christ did not try to be equal to God but, because[34] he was equal to God, Christ humbled himself (actively; he was not humbled by some external means) and emptied himself out. While, theologically, from a canonical perspective, this may make sense—and probably should be seen as a thoroughly possible possibility—as Fee remarks, while this is an “intriguing analogy” it is to be noted that “its basis is altogether conceptual, since there is not a single linguistic parallel to the Genesis narrative.”[35]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev


O’Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Martin, Ralph P, and Gerald F. Hawthorne. Philippians: Revised. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 43. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

Reumann, John. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible. Vol. 33B. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Zerwick, Max, and Mary Grosvenor. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010.


[1] Gordon D. Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 217.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ralph P. Martin and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 43 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 109.

[4] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204. Italics original.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin and Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, 110.

[7] Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204.

[8] Ibid., 110.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010), 595.

[12] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 202, n40.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 634. Italics original.

[15] Ibid., 635. Italics original.

[16] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 206.


[18] Ibid., 208.

[19] John Reumann, Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 33B (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 346.

[20] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 207.

[21] Reumann, Philippians, 346.

[22] Ibid., 367. Italics original.

[23] Ibid., 207, n62.

[24] Ibid., 207.

[25] Philippians: Revised, 114.

[26] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 186.

[27] Ibid., 602.

[28] Cited in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 601, n38.

[29] Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 218.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Reumann, Philippians, 351.

[32] That debate goes on about this textual variant is undeniable, contra the assumption of some scholars, there is certainly a difference between the future and the subjunctive—however tedious the debate may seem, see Reumann, Philippians, 373. Grammatically speaking, does the subordinating conjunction ἵνα [hina] (usually translated “so that”) express purpose (with the subjunctive) and does it later express result (with the future)? Or: should the hina express purpose in both the subjunctive κἀμψῃ and the subjunctive ἐξομολογήσηται. Clearly, the translations would be different.

[33] קְדָמַי תִכרַע כָל בַרַך תְקַיֵים כָל לִישָׁן

[34] Notice my causal translation of the participle.

[35] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 209. Italics original.

God, The Fall, Suffering and Separation

I’ve recently been thinking about suffering and other problems. Not that I myself live in a state of suffering; rather, I am a person who thinks about suffering. I look at people and see all of the imperfections. I look at the happy marriages and see all the turmoil they go through. Sometimes the marriage is perfect whereas the kids are not. Other times, you may have a perfect family whereas the living conditions, from an economic perspective, are almost unbearable. All in all, us humans face problems. One of my recent patients was a young child of 4 who had leukemia. And a stroke. And  then she lost her fingers due to poor circulation. And now she also has a chronic clotting problem. What more could one ask for in this life? She’s received more than her share of suffering.
As you can already tell, I am not complaining about myself. That would by narcissistic; I am complaining about others. My suffering is bearable; it is watching others suffer that is not. At some point in religious studies, one must ask oneself: Where is God in all of this?
I don’t have a good answer, but I have an answer nonetheless. It’ll not solve anything since these sort of “answers” aren’t about “solving” things like suffering that simply cannot be “solved” in this lifetime.
If God gave us freewill that day when He made us–and it is taken for granted that we, as humans, have chosen sin–then we are responsible in part for our current isolation from God. We were given the freedom to choose love over hate and we had chosen hate. We were given the ability to follow God’s imperative commands, yet we chose not to. We all have chosen to follow our own inclinations.
So God gave us over to our own inclinations.
This world that we live in is not God’s doing per se; it is ours.
This world that we see around us is our creation.
The Fall as we know it did not take place in the distant past; it is taking place right now, with every sin that you chose to make your own.
The biblical “answer” (if you want to call it that) merely points to the problem of free will and our desire to choose evil almost incessantly. This world of suffering that we are born into is not God’s idea for humanity; it is humanity’s idea when substituting God.
Christianity today, at least the grace-filled “prosperity gospel” forms of it, neglect to pass on the severity and reality of both The Fall and our fallen nature. Not only that, Christianity in general has forgotten to talk about the isolation we experience in this world from God. Jesus did not cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in a joking manner; He cried out on our behalf too. We live in isolation from God. We chose to be alienated and this is our experience of that alienation, exile, isolation–whatever you want to call it. This world that you live in is the world you have chosen. It is the world full of sin. Sin is, in this view, merely a choice reflecting our own opinion in contrast to the divine will and gracious mandate. God’s will for humanity is not some kind of categorical imperative that goes against freedom of will; in fact, God’s imperatives are commands that merely enhance our ability to thrive. If God commands you to have a single wife and to have sexual relations only with her, that command is in no way meant to benefit God; it benefits only you. The command itself is not even a command really; it’s more of a suggestion that will enhance your own ability to thrive. The command to the Israelites to avoid pork was not benefiting God–neither did it in any way make God Himself “happy”–it benefited the Israelites. They were the ones who were exempt from coronary artery disease.
The moment we have chosen to disobey God’s will for us is the moment that we have chosen to create our own version of life and “the world as we know it.”
The moment the 18-year-old girl has sex outside of marriage with some strange boy, who gets pregnant in the process, who gets abandoned and is left to raise the child alone, who drops out of college to raise the child, who ends up living in absolute poverty, who sells herself to more strangers to make a decent living–this is her version of life. This is an example of humanity exercising its use of free will.
When we are faced with suffering, we must remember our own responsibility. Unlike the early Christian Gnostics who blamed the Creator God for creating “evil” flesh with all of its evil inclinations, orthodox Christians believe in a good God who has allowed us to love and to hate–in His divine wisdom, He has given us the ability to curse Him or to love Him (the choice being completely ours). This was God’s version of the story. You can love me or you can hate me. I have created you for good deeds–but you can choose not to do them.
Gnostics pushed the problem of suffering and evil “upstairs”; they blamed the Creator God.
Orthodox Christians recognize the problem–and the problem is actually us. We are the problem.
God is seen, in our eyes, as the redeemer and savior. He is the one trying to reconcile this sinful world to Himself.
Not only that, God has joined this world and decided to become a part of it.
He is not standing at some distance looking on. He is in the suffering. He is suffering. Not only did God suffer in the past, He is suffering right now in the present.
The Christians proclaim a suffering God who has brought into this suffering world a suffering Messiah to redeem a suffering people from their sin.
Most people today are Gnostics. Whether they like it or not, they are what orthodox Christians in the past have called “heretics.” (And no, I am not using the term lightly here.) They ignore suffering; they treat God like some sort of divine heavenly Santa Claus just waiting to give out presents; they talk about grace and nothing else. But what is grace apart from sin? What does it mean to be graceful to someone? Is grace a commodity? Or is it the price a suffering God pays for a sinful people? Is grace given out of a “Santa Claus mentality” or out of a suffering mentality? Is grace given to sinners as a means of both revealing their sins and drawing them nearer to God Himself?
The crucified God will have nothing to do with the Joel Osteens, the Joyce Meyers, the Joseph Princes of this world. Such amateur theologians (if it is even appropriate to call them that) are inconsistent in their beliefs and unrealistic. When grace is all you hear about in a suffering world, you start to wonder: apart from sin, who needs grace?
Where sin is forgotten, there grace is a relic of the past; where sin is forgotten, there grace is no more.
In a suffering world, humanity must keep in mind why we are suffering.
The answer lies in us–quite literally,
Apart from God, this is the world humans will have.
Apart from God–living in a state of exile and isolation–this is what we get.
Sin has isolated us, it has exiled us into a foreign land where we are no longer welcome. Sin has cast us out of that garden of Eden. Sin has reigned and reigned until it drove that last nail through a dying God’s hand.
Sin is the state we live in.
But even sin has its problems. When a loving God shows up, offers grace to repentant sinners, sin ceases to exercise its authority. Standing in the shadows of love, sin ceases to be.
The Christians don’t believe in a graceful God apart from sin. Such beliefs are held by the heretics and deceivers of this world (who are, sadly, deceiving themselves).
In line with orthodox Christianity, I prefer to preach a gospel that is overflowing with suffering. A gospel that recognizes the sinful state that humans are in. A gospel that doesn’t run from sin and suffering but rather embraces it and swallows it whole. I don’t believe that Jesus proclaimed any other message than a message of the reality of men’s sin and entire dependence upon God. Grace is given to the sinner.
The Christian message of hope is essentially a message that proclaims that God alone will save humanity. But in saving humanity, God will create a new world–a world where God’s will is completely present in every individual. Why? Because goodness is not ontologically or epistemologically dependent upon God–there is no such dichotomy. Goodness is God. To be “in heaven” is to be in a state of absolute divinity. To be in complete harmony with Goodness Incarnate.
The problem with suffering is a problem that is deeply connected to man’s sinful nature. Virtually all problems and evils can be traced to this fountain. I say virtually all because obviously not all evils are caused by man. Hurricanes still kill people.
But even in this suffering–a suffering that asks the question: why?–Christians have a hope for a better world. Not that we have somehow become that hope already, but that we are looking forward towards it and are already participating imperfectly in it.