This Sunday I will be preaching from Mark 5:21-43 concerning the raising of Jairus’ dead 12 year old daughter and the healing of the unclean woman with 12 years of bleeding. Such stories are all the more striking in light of the OT and Jewish traditions regarding purity. To touch the dead (as Jesus does with the girl) and to be touched by the unclean (as Jesus is by the woman) should defile Jesus. However, these stories don’t describe such (taking for granted the obvious nature of such). Instead, they point to the restoration, cleansing, and healing that is conveyed.
While Jesus would indeed be defiled by touching the girl and being touched by the woman, the radical nature of these stories points in the opposite direction: the cleansing and wholeness being imparted from Jesus to the girl and woman. In fact, I would contend Jesus offers cleansing precisely through his self-sacrificial taking on their uncleanness.
In light of this movement by Jesus, it makes the taking of communion (or Eucharist) all the more powerful. The Church is instructed to consume Jesus’ body and blood in the elements of bread and cup. This would be an ultimate defilement for this community grafted into Israel. And yet this very act constitutes a testimony to the cleansing, healing life of Jesus constituting this community by His Spirit bringing to bear His presence in their midst.
“In the OT the partaking of blood in any form, even blood in meat, was strictly forbidden….However, in the Eucharist, the meal that commemorates the making of the new covenant, believers partake of the bread and wine, elements that represent the body and the blood of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24). By eating these elements a believer shares in the benefits of Jesus’ death (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:25; Heb. 9:15-22). The discourse in John 6:52-59 is amazingly radical in its vivid imagery. Jesus boldly speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood …. The intent of these words in John is … to pronounce boldly that in partaking of these elements a believer commemorates Jesus’ death and enters into the deepest communion with his Lord.” (John E. Hartley, Leviticus [WBC 4; Dallas: Word, 1992], 279-280)
The bearing of the unclean (his flesh and blood), by the grace of the Lord, becomes the receiving of cleansing … and the communion of saints is made saints by the Spirit of Holiness imparting the life of the cursed one hung on a tree, buried, and raised. Further, in his resurrection, Jesus did not pass through any cleansing rite upon being raised, yet shares meals with his disciples repeatedly and invites faith-confirming contact. How could Jesus be clean? It is the uncleanness of his death that cleanses and gives life in the testimony of God raising him. Jesus is declared (and even made) clean by his being raised. The very nature of his being cursed and unclean willingly has become the very thing which the Father uses to heal and make clean. In the book of Acts it is the testimony of Son and Spirit to Peter that what God has made clean should not be called unclean (Acts 10).
In Christ Jesus a new day has dawned wherein bearing uncleanness is the way to cleansing. And this is the faithfulness of our Great God and Savior! And this is the testimony of the Church in the midst of the world!
“…on earth as it is in heaven…” While we might consider this from the trajectory of the revelation of the God to Israel preceding Jesus’ statement (which would be a fitting approach), we might also consider this statement as embodied in the one leading the prayer: Jesus the Christ. Such a reflection (drawing from the New Testament) offers several hearings of this text leading to praying and doing.
We might understand by “heaven” not an ethereal disembodied sphere of existence “out there” or even “above here”, but as wherever the kingdom of God is present. Wherever God reigns is most properly to be regarded as “heaven”. While God’s reign is not fully experienced “on earth” it is coming to bear “on earth” even as it has from the beginning of creation and the planting of the garden.
Considering such a view of “heaven” we might define “on earth” as that sphere of existence wherein God’s reign is less fully yet being realized.
There is a strange movement that occurs here. It is never as if “earth” is not where God reigns, nor is “heaven” to be regarded as itself such bliss that nothing more could be added to it. No. The kingdom of God is yet more realized in both heaven and earth by the two becoming the kingdom of our God and His Christ. This is not to suggest something essential lacking to the reign “in heaven,” but to appeal to the grace of God towards, in, and for us in his self-giving love embodied in Christ Jesus.
Christ Jesus brings heaven to bear on earth. Or more properly first, the Holy Spirit brings heaven to bear on earth in the virgin Mary. This is “God with us”. God being toward us, heaven toward earth (even in the earth).
Christ Jesus bears heaven on earth as the light burdens being given in place of earth’s heavy burdens. He seeks and saves that which is lost as a light blazing in the darkness. Earth cannot be regarded as wholly other to heaven. Unclean spirits are cast out. Disease and even death itself is demonstrably overcome on earth as it is in heaven. And these are all laid to bear on the cross as one raised up from the earth and lifted up into heaven in shamefulness. Yet the Father sees fit to not leave his Son buried in the earth, but raises him up to ascend into heaven to His right hand as King Jesus. And from there the Father pours out Jesus’ Spirit upon all flesh to fill the hearts and mouths of the saints with heaven on earth until the earth should be filled with the fullness of the glory of God.
And heaven shall be opened and the Christ descend bearing heaven to the earth. At last the kingdom shall come in fullness as his reign continues without end. His throne (the throne of God and of the Lamb) established in His city now come down from heaven and established upon the new heavens and the new earth. It is here, in the two joining, that we are praying toward as Jesus taught us to. It is here, in the two joining, that we are working toward as the Spirit compels and empowers us to. It is here that we (and all of creation with us) are moving toward: the day when the Father in heaven’s name is holified, His kingdom come, and His will done “on earth as it is in heaven”.
Today I had a student that I am mentoring who mentioned something I said in one of my classes: “Grace is life”. I had said this as part of my response to a student’s sermon addressing grace, but never defining it in any sort of substantial sense. It seemed taken for granted. I had offered that the preaching student consider “Grace is life”. I only briefly added to this a few comments about that life being the life of God in and for us. Then I moved on with the class. This student in my office, however, wondered just what I meant by it.
Being a dad I’m good at giving far more than someone asks for. 🙂
I opened with clarifying that for me this statement flows from my readings and reflections on the work of Karl Barth. I walked the student through the basic idea of God’s freedom for, to, through, and in (and even against) us. This, for me, is grace. God remains always free in his own self-giving. We find ourselves taken up into this in God’s own self-giving in Jesus the Christ. Here is Man given freely to and for God and to and for creation. Here is God given freely to and for God and to and for creation. And always and forever this freely flowing life of God is given in God’s own love for God and our being taken up into that movement by the Spirit of Jesus.
And then tonight as I sat down to do some evening reading I happened upon this statement by Barth regarding election that seemed related to my discussion with my student:
… in the name and person of Jesus Christ we are called upon to recognize the word of God, the decree of God and the election of God at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of our own being and thinking, at the basis of our faith in the ways and works of God. (CD 2/2 p. 99)
For myself (and I pray for my students as well), I find tremendous help in these ideas for pastoral care and praxis. Grace becomes both the opportunity and possibility of life … and that life is in God’s own life. What do you think?
This quote speaks (in part) to Bonhoeffer’s notion of the world “come of age” and a “religionless Christianity” that has only spoken to God where human knowledge is at its limits. Such cannot be the case. He wrestled with the notion of a positive Christology over and against a simply negative Christology in his lectures while at Finkenwald. In this later development of his thought, he seems yet further arguing for the need to positively construct our theology based on what is known (eg, revealed).
This becomes all the more significant in a world that presses the boundaries of our knowledge yet further and seems to find less need of providing any “theological” explanation for existence and experience (a world which Bonhoeffer found himself wrestling with). Theology cannot be a “stop-gap” to fill the holes of our knowledge. Theology must be located as such in the very concrete (objective and yet subjective) person and work of God in Christ Jesus.
In Sunday School this week we covered Genesis 1. Something that struck me was verses 29-30:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.
And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it–I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30 NIV)
Whereas some have taken this as some sort of Pre-fall diet plan to get healthy (it isn’t), I realized it is making a VERY significant claim theologically. In the ancient Near Eastern stories of the creation of humans (see Atrahasis Epic), people were made to feed the gods. They did feed themselves, but only as they would “sustain the gods”. And the gods (Igigi) were said to toil hard at making food and led (by their rebellion under the toil) to the creation of humans.
In the Genesis 1, however, it is the God of Israel who feeds people and creatures alike. There is not even a mention of God eating (to be fair God is described as eating later in the canon). Now THAT is a theological claim we should not miss. This God, the god of Israel, is the one who feeds all of creation and has created in order to care for creation. And the work was not toilsome to begin with, but simply attending to the garden of God (Gen.2-3). And it was God Himself who watered the dwelling of humans and gave them freely to eat. This is the God of Israel. This is the God of the Church.
Now that’ll preach!
In a recent conversation, I noted a particular question that was posed about “blessing the food” when we gather to eat. Here are my reflections: We do not ask for the food to be blessed, per se, but we bless the Lord and we give thanks for the food.
“We do not ask for the food to be blessed, per se,…” – What I mean by this is that the “food” does not need “blessed” (I’m never quite sure what that is supposed to really mean in many of our contexts). I have been witness to prayers offered for God to bless by making nutritional what was self-confessed by the one praying as not nutritional (think Twinkies). The food that we eat is our choice and responsibility. If we should not consume it because of health issues then simply don’t consume it. However, we do well to not ask for some “blessing” for what we already know to not be blessed by the Lord. However, if it may be “consecrated” (another factor in being “blessed”) then we do well to do so in faith. Whatever we eat or drink must be done in faith. If we can do such, then we may “consecrate” (or “bless”) the food given by the Father for our enjoyment and His good pleasure (cf. Matthew 26:26; 1 Cor.10:16).
“…but we bless the Lord…” – If any blessing is to be requested and/or given, it is a blessing of the Lord for His grace and mercy in provision. We do well to bless the Maker of heaven and earth. We do well to bless the Father of Lights who knows how to give good and perfect gifts (Matthew 7:11; James 1:17) to those who ask Him.
“…and we give thanks for the food.” – In everything we give thanks, because we recognize ourselves to be the undeserving children of God. Let us give thanks as our Lord Jesus gave thanks in sharing the supper with his disciples (Luke 24:30).
ברוך אתה ה’א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ.
“Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Let it be said by God’s people: “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deut.8:10 – NRSV)
I was struck by a re-reading of Exodus recently as I meditated on just what the overarching theology of Exodus might be. The Scripture that struck me most strongly was Exodus 4:22 (NET):
Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn…‘
In light of the wider book of the Exodus, one encounters a god (Yahweh) who is able to deliver His people (His “firstborn”) from all other powers and authorities and, thus, from the gods of Egypt. This sheds light on the death of the firstborn of Egypt and thus the preservation of Israel and all who gathered in obedience in each home dedicated to Yahweh’s provision.
Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There will be a great cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. But against any of the Israelites not even a dog will bark against either people or animals, so that you may know that the Lord distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.’ (Exo.11:4-7 NET)
The preservation of the children of the god of Israel was a revelation of that god as true God, and the name of Yahweh as that God who had and was making covenant with Israel among all the nations. The children delivered from captivity (Exo.1-6) , preserved through judgment (Exo.7-13), passing through the waters (Exo.14-15:21), provided for in the wilderness (Exo.15:22-18:27), trembling at the mountain (Exo.19), and attending to the glorious, gracious, and holy presence of Yahweh in their midst (Exo.20-40). In all of this, and through all of this, the revelation of Yahweh as Yahweh (God of Israel) stands at the forefront…and as God of Israel, Yahweh is self-revealed as Father of Israel in every respect. Israel begins in the narrative as slaves building houses for the gods and rulers of Egypt and ends with building the tabernacle for Yahweh as sons and no longer slaves…as those brought into covenant relationship not simply as subjects, but sons of their God under the cloud of smoke and fire, eating and drinking at the table of their Lord and Father (Exo.40:34-38).
And thus at the first we read:
God answered, “I will be with you. And this is your sign that I am the one who has sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this very mountain.”
But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?” God replied to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.
This is my eternal name,
my name to remember for all generations. (Exo.3:12-15 NLT, emphasis added)
And at the last:
Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh.The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,
“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
even children in the third and fourth generations.”
Moses immediately threw himself to the ground and worshiped. And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exo.34:5-9 NLT, emphasis added)
I have continued to be more deeply convinced that giving undue historical emphasis in explaining texts leads in a direction not normally intended by the writers of Scripture. A case in point came to mind in a recent conversation with two of my students. One was reading a volume Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C. Cook, 2013) by J. Warner Wallace. I have not read this volume so I can make no claims about its contents. It simply spurred the conversation. We were discussing the historical intent of the crucifixion narratives of the various writers and specifically we discussed John’s account of Jesus death and how when the Romans came to him they found he was already dead so instead of breaking his legs (as would be necessary to bring about a quick death due to asphyxiation which might normally take days for the crucified to succumb to under normal conditions) one of them pierced him with a spear and the text says “blood and water flowed out immediately” (John 19:34 NET, emphasis mine). Why does John emphasize thatblood and water flowed from Jesus side? He is after all the only writer of the story of Jesus in the canonical accounts to mention this. John states right afterward that “the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe” (John 19:35 NET). He writes with theological intent to convince his audience to trust in the Lord Jesus and also to know that this particular witness is trustworthy. So why does John tell us that “blood and water” came from Jesus side? Why doesn’t he just say “blood”? Is he trying to saying something more specific about the death of Jesus?
There are numerous accounts I have read and heard where it is proposed that John is simply saying that Jesus was truly dead and this is typically followed by an attempted forensic pathology discussion of how one’s body reacts post-mortem. However, this seems to do an injustice to John’s specific intent. Not that it isn’t John’s intent at all to speak of the certainty of Jesus death (it seems to be a part of it) and therefore the certainty of resurrection, but to treat the account as if this is all it really is saying. John seems to be doing more than simply providing some historical claim to “blood and water”.
The following note found in the New English Translation is helpful in placing John’s comments within their greater Johannine context:
101 sn How is the reference to the blood and water that flowed out from Jesus’ side to be understood? This is probably to be connected with the statements in 1 John 5:6–8. In both passages water, blood, and testimony are mentioned. The Spirit is also mentioned in 1 John 5:7 as the source of the testimony, while here the testimony comes from one of the disciples ( 19:35). The connection between the Spirit and the living water with Jesus’ statement of thirst just before he died in the preceding context has already been noted (see 19:28). For the author, the water which flowed out of Jesus’ side was a symbolic reference to the Holy Spirit who could now be given because Jesus was now glorified (cf. 7:39); Jesus had now departed and returned to that glory which he had with the Father before the creation of the world (cf. 17:5). The mention of blood recalls the motif of the Passover lamb as a sacrificial victim. Later references to sacrificial procedures in the Mishnah appear to support this: m. Pesahim 5:3 and 5:5 state that the blood of the sacrificial animal should not be allowed to congeal but should flow forth freely at the instant of death so that it could be used for sprinkling; m. Tamid 4:2 actually specifies that the priest is to pierce the heart of the sacrificial victim and cause the blood to come forth. (NET)
When we look at a sampling of the Church Fathers on this passage we discover a decidedly unhistorical intent rules their exegesis (or better, a decidedly theological intent rules their exegesis). None of them denies the historicity, but each in turn recognizes a greater theological intent to John’s including this detail.
Tertullian (On Baptism XVI) writes: “For He had come “by means of water and blood,” just as John has written; that He might be baptized by the water, glorified by the blood; to make us, in like manner, called by water, chosen by blood. These two baptisms He sent out from the wound in His pierced side, in order that they who believed in His blood might be bathed with the water; they who had been bathed in the water might likewise drink the blood.”
Augustine (Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John): “Three things then we know to have issued from the Body of the Lord when He hung upon the tree: first, the spirit: of which it is written, “And He bowed the head and gave up the spirit:” then, as His side was pierced by the spear, “blood and water.” Which three things if we look at as they are in themselves, they are in substance several and distinct, and therefore they are not one. But if we will inquire into the things signified by these, there not unreasonably comes into our thoughts the Trinity itself, which is the One, Only, True, Supreme God, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, of whom it could most truly be said, “There are Three Witnesses, and the Three are One:” so that by the term Spirit we should understand God the Father to be signified; as indeed it was concerning the worshipping of Him that the Lord was speaking, when He said, “God is a Spirit:” by the term, blood, the Son; because “the Word was made flesh:” and by the term water, the Holy Ghost; as, when Jesus spake of the water which He would give to them that thirst, the evangelist saith, “But this said He of the Spirit which they that believed on Him were to receive.” Moreover, that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are “Witnesses,” who that believes the Gospel can doubt, when the Son saith, “I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me, He beareth witness of me.” Where, though the Holy Ghost is not mentioned yet He is not to be thought separated from them. Howbeit neither concerning the Spirit hath He kept silence elsewhere, and that He too is a witness hath been sufficiently and openly shown. For in promising Him He said, “He shall bear witness of me.” These are the “Three Witnesses,” and the Three are One, because of one substance. But whereas, the signs by which they were signified came forth from the Body of the Lord, herein they figured the Church preaching the Trinity, that it hath one and the same nature: since these Three in threefold manner signified are One, and the Church that preacheth them is the Body of Christ. In this manner then the three things by which they are signified came out from the Body of the Lord: like as from the Body of the Lord sounded forth the command to “baptize the nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” “In the name:” not, In the names: for “these Three are One,” and One God is these Three. And if in any other way this depth of mystery which we read in John’s epistle can be expounded and understood agreeably with the Catholic faith, which neither confounds nor divides the Trinity, neither believes the substances diverse nor denies that the persons are three, it is on no account to be rejected. For whenever in Holy Scriptures in order to exercise the minds of the faithful any thing is put darkly, it is to be joyfully welcomed if it can be in many ways but not unwisely expounded.”
Cyril (in his Catechetical Letters) writes of baptism (water) and martyrdom (blood) as the referents in this passage. This doesn’t mean he understood it as a non-historical event, but only that he saw in John’s comments something more. In fact, he saw a theological agenda intended to speak to the place of the Church in the sufferings of Christ: identifying with Christ through baptism and martyrdom. John of Damascus writes in the context of the “water and Spirit” (drawing a link to John 3) that these two (blood and water) refer to “water for our regeneration, and the washing away of sin and corruption; and blood to drink as the hostage of life eternal.” This is a decidedly sacramental (baptism and eucharist) hearing of the text. Again, this is not to suggest that John of Damascus denied the historicity of this event, but to note he hears something more in the words of the Gospel writer. John of Damascus also places this firmly within the context of the endowment of the Spirit in connection with the washing of the waters of baptism (not identifying Spirit and water baptism, but connecting them as both essential features of the Christian life; perhaps this is a reflection of the later theological gloss in 1 John 5:6-8).
Jerome (A Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed 23): “It is written that when the side of Jesus was pierced “He shed thereout blood and water.” This has a mystical meaning. For Himself had said, “Out of His belly shall flow rivers of living water.” But He shed forth blood also, of which the Jews sought that it might be upon themselves and upon their children. He shed forth water, therefore, which might wash believers; He shed forth blood also which might condemn unbelievers. Yet it might be understood also as prefiguring the twofold grace of baptism, one that which is given by the baptism of water, the other that which is sought through martyrdom in the outpouring of blood, for both are called baptism. But if you ask further why our Lord is said to have poured forth blood and water from His side rather than from any other member, I imagine that by the rib in the side the woman is signified. Since the fountain of sin and death proceeded from the first woman, who was the rib of the first Adam, the fountain of redemption and life is drawn from the rib of the second Adam.”
So I guess what I’m getting at is that there may be a “thicker reading” of the text (see Kevin Van Hoozer’s numerous works on this term) than simply John making a historical claim (which he is). He may be heard to make the claim of Christ’s fullest provision for the sanctification of His Church in the outflow of blood and water from his side. It is these that bear witness to us: the blood and the water.
__________________ Related articles: Beyond the Historical Grammatical Malaise On Theological Interpretation and Authorial Intent Hearing Scripture Together
Yesterday I preached from Matthew 15:29-39 about the feeding of the 4,000 (men, less women and children and not to be confused with the feeding of the 5,000 men plus women and children [Matthew 14:13-21]):
29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. 32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” 33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” 34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” 35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 38 The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (NIV)
These are a few of the questions and thoughts I had in my study (and some made it to the message):
* Why did Jesus wait “three days” before the miracle? Or why only wait “three days”? (v.32)
* Folks would be coming and going over the course of the “three days” and it struck me that Jesus chose to act at that point in time with the folks who were gathered at that moment.
* How many of those gathered might be thought to be so hungry and weak that they might “collapse on the way” to get food elsewhere? (v.32) Most, I would imagine would be perfectly fine, but apparently the compassion of Jesus was sufficiently strong toward those who were too weak to go longer that he chose to feed everyone in order to care specifically for the immediate needs of the few.
* Jesus had already fed crowds, now he does it again. Was he really teaching his disciples about the nature of the “God of Israel” who healed the mute, crippled, lame, and blind, and then would feed the masses? (vv.30-31, 36)
* How many of the folks who ate this time had been present for the earlier feeding of the 5,000?
*Whose lunch was taken that day to make lunch for everyone? And why did Jesus only ask about bread, yet his disciples offer bread and fish? (v.34)
* How long would it have taken the disciples to serve all those thousands? How long would it have taken to disperse with the “seven basketfuls of broken pieces left over” to still others who were not present for the initial feeding (since they couldn’t eat all that before it would go bad)? (v.37)
* If the food could be multiplied sufficiently to feed 4,000 men plus women and children, then what was the intention of seven (large) basketfuls of leftovers?
Yep. I tend to have a LOT of random questions and thoughts as I read Scripture. And it just makes me hungry for more. So what questions do you have about this passage? Do you take the time to ask questions of the text and allow a “sanctified imagination” to work through such texts? Do you find certain questions more helpful than others?
The wisdom of Solomon (not meaning, the ancient book by that name) is something of an ambiguity. And perhaps that is the nature of wisdom, recognizing ambiguities and trying to steer the right course. Take another look at the all-too-familiar first demonstration of Solomon’s wisdom: 1 Kings 3:16-27: *
Some time later two prostitutes came to the king to have an argument settled.
“Please, my lord,” one of them began, “this woman and I live in the same house. I gave birth to a baby while she was with me in the house. Three days later this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there were only two of us in the house. “But her baby died during the night when she rolled over on it. Then she got up in the night and took my son from beside me while I was asleep. She laid her dead child in my arms and took mine to sleep beside her. And in the morning when I tried to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t my son at all.”
Then the other woman interrupted, “It certainly was your son, and the living child is mine.” “No,” the first woman said, “the living child is mine, and the dead one is yours.” And so they argued back and forth before the king.
Then the king said, “Let’s get the facts straight. Both of you claim the living child is yours, and each says that the dead one belongs to the other. All right, bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought to the king. Then he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other!”
Then the woman who was the real mother of the living child, and who loved him very much, cried out, “Oh no, my lord! Give her the child — please do not kill him!” But the other woman said, “All right, he will be neither yours nor mine; divide him between us!” Then the king said, “Do not kill the child, but give him to the woman who wants him to live, for she is his mother!” (1 Kings 3:16-27 NLT)
We think we know this story, but do we? Let’s have another look.
First, there are two “prostitutes” implying these women should be put to death themselves (according to Torah – see the proscriptions against sex outside of marriage in Lev.20:10-16) and not simply have a dispute settled. Does “wisdom” pertain to knowing when not to apply torah? We are also intentionally given this detail to cause us to question their character (and thus whatever they might say) from the beginning.
Second, to help clarify some details let’s label these women “A” and “B”. “A” is the prostitute who claims to have had her live newborn switched in the night for prostitute “B”s dead baby. “B” claims that the dead infant was indeed “A”s baby, and thus that “A” is lying. Our problem is that we tend to believe the first one to speak (“The first to speak in court sounds right…” Proverbs 18:17a), but forget that there is always more to the story (“…until the cross-examination begins” Proverbs 18:17b). We seem to automatically act unwisely in such readings where we have given the benefit of the doubt to the first claimant (A) and denied the words of the second (B). So how could one wisely discern who is speaking the truth, especially when the character of both is questionable (at best)?
Third, Solomon’s answer is to kill the living baby and give half to each of these women (both of whom are themselves actually worthy of death). We acclaim Solomon for his “wisdom” in this because it seems apparent to us that this makes it clear who the real mother was. But the ambiguity of wisdom is that Solomon did not really know how these unsavory women would respond and his only answer appears to be a death sentence to the baby. A strange “wisdom” if you ask me.
Fourth, note the ambiguity of the text where neither “A” nor “B” is identified as either woman: the one willing to have the baby cut asunder and the one wanting the baby to survive if even as the child of the other woman. The text does not clarify for us which woman said what. It uses the terms “the real mother of the living child, and who loved him very much” contrasted with “the other woman”. This calls for wisdom (with all its shades of ambiguity). It is apparent to the writer that the “mother” is not simply the “mother”, but also “loved” the child “very much”. The portrayal is of one who indeed is the mother (according to the narrator) and whom Solomon chooses because this woman “wants him to live” and thus (at least functionally) would be “his mother”.
So what is wisdom and where is it required? In the ambiguous moments where one is uncertain and needs to know what to do and how to do it. It is certainly not a “clear” way, but the way that demands that we ask of God for it (1 Kings 3:10-11; James 1:5).
* See the helpful analysis of this account in Richard S. Briggs, The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Studies in Theological Interpretation; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010). It was Briggs work that first alerted me to note these ambiguities in this wisdom text.