Zephaniah and Thresholds

Every so often I come across a passage that illustrates well why students–and really, Christians in general–need to actually read the Bible. At our Wednesday evening high school gathering this week we tackled the question of how to read the Bible. Our students have been asking some great questions about how to read and apply the Bible recently, so we decided to spend some time doing exactly that.

We divided students into groups of three, then gave each group a passage that they had to read and answer some questions about. One of the groups had Zephaniah 1.4-9. They actually did a pretty good job of grasping the background, and also trying to figure out how the passage might affect us. As we were discussing the passage I asked students if verse 9, which says in part, “On that day I will punish all who leap over the threshold.” So, I asked students if that meant that we should be sure to step on thresholds as Christians.

We had a brief discussion in which students admitted it looked like God didn’t particularly like non-threshold-steppers. Obviously, this was a somewhat perplexing realization. I quickly pointed students to 1 Samuel 5.5, however. That verse is park of the Ark narratives in 1 Samuel 4-6. It recounts how, after an unhappy encounter with the Ark of the Covenant, Dagon’s image ends up broken upon the threshold of his temple. Thus “to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any other who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.”

The issue ends up having nothing to do with stepping or not stepping on run of the mill thresholds. Rather, those who leap over the threshold out of some misbegotten devotion to a god other than Yahweh are violating the single-deity devotion with Yahweh demands. The issue isn’t the way people enter buildings, but rather a violation of commandment #1. Now, if someone has never read 1 Samuel, it’s fairly unlikely that they will understand what the Zephaniah passage is trying to explain.

It is safe to say that reading the entire Old Testament multiple times is hard work. Most worthwhile things are. But when we begin to know the ins-and-outs of the story, we begin to understand other parts much better. When we understand the story better we’re able to understand God better and understand ourselves better. People have often asked me why we need to bother with the Old Testament as Christians. The answer, of course, is that our story as the people of God begins in the Old Testament, and the God we serve is the same God they served.

Being Shaped

One thing that has always fascinated–or, more honestly, frustrated–me about youth ministry is picking a curriculum. In fact, I’m normally so frustrated by the process that I simply design my own. This isn’t overly efficient, however, especially when I am not the one solely responsible for teaching. Teaching is a hugely important part of ministry, and what and how we teach is a vital aspect of how we do ministry.

In youth ministry, I want my students to be shaped by the Bible. I want them to discover this amazing story of which they are a part. I want them to own that story, and I want them to get to know the God who is revealed in that story. The problem with this is that sometimes the story is messy. Sometimes we don’t understand the God who is revealed in it. Perhaps worst of all, for a society that thrives on instant gratification, it is often difficult to see how we are being shaped by this story until we look back from a vantage point miles down the road.

So, it is no surprise that most curricula–and, indeed, many youth pastors–throw out the story in favor of topics. We know students want something relevant so we teach about sex and dating. Maybe we feel that our students need to learn more about service, so we teach on service. We determine what our students need and then we fish around our holy book and find what we think best meets that need. This is the worst possible way for our students to be shaped by the story of God. In doing this, we forget that if we teach the story as a story, we’ll get to all those parts eventually anyway. What’s more, all those parts will make infinitely more sense and fit into a larger whole.

I had a professor in seminary who argued constantly and persuasively against topical teaching and preaching. His argument was very simple: if you preach topically, no matter what you do, you will always spend most of the time on your own soapboxes. Instead, he encouraged students to teach or preach through whole books of the Bible. That’s a step in the right direction, though I think we need to go a step further still. I’d like to suggest that as youth workers we need to leave aside our precious topics, turn from our idol of relevancy, and teach the story.

If we want the story to shape us and our students, then they need to know what that story is. Not what disparate parts of that story say on an assorted range of topics, but the story itself. The best way to do this is to start in Genesis and continue until we get to Revelation. I’m not proposing that the canonical order is the best order to teach in, but it would–more or less–communicate the story. It would certainly communicate it better than we generally do. Sadly, even some curricula that are supposed to do exactly this jump from one big ticket Bible story to the next, leaving the story feeling disconnected at best and impossible to follow at worst. Even if we don’t go through every single book in the Bible, we ought to move through the Pentateuch, former prophets, some of the writings, the gospels, Acts, some of the epistles and Revelation; and we ought to move through them without skipping huge chunks just because we find them odd or irrelevant (I will except here the census data in various books, as well as the legal codes–those are all important, but it’s a fight I know I won’t win).

This is all good in theory, but it presents two difficulties in practice. The first is how we manage it programmatically. The Bible is a rather large book, after all. How do we realistically create a space in our youth ministries to teach it as a story, from beginning to end? I have always found it helpful to devote one of my main teaching programs to going through the Bible. Normally this is our Sunday morning program, but it could work just as well at a midweek small group or a Sunday evening large group gathering. The point isn’t the venue as much as that we actually work our way through the story. At the same time, I also understand that sometimes our students really do need a topic addressed with some immediacy. Most youth ministries have at least two teaching times a week, whether one is large group and the other small group, or one is “Sunday school” and the other “youth group.” The point is that in my experience, I’ve found it helpful to devote one of these times to helping students learn the story, while allowing the other time to be more topical, or to touch on sections I might not touch on in the other (such as the Psalms, or the wisdom literature).

The second problem is that, sadly, many of us aren’t familiar enough with the story to actually facilitate others. I’ve met youth pastors who wouldn’t even begin to know who Joab or Jael were, let alone Ahitophel or Athaliah. This creates an issue: if we aren’t familiar with the story ourselves, we can hardly tell it to others. We might even think that some of those stories in the Hebrew Bible aren’t actually that important. After all, we’re Christians, and we follow Jesus. Let’s get to those parables, because those are stories, but they really touch on some great topics! The problem is that Jesus shows up toward the end of the story. He’s the plot twist, as it were, the big moment. Without him, the story unravels. But we still have to get there first. Those stories in the Hebrew Bible teach us a great many things about God, about human beings, and about how the one relates to the other. In short, they teach us who God is and who we are as humans and as his people. We need those stories, now as much as ever.

As youth workers we need to do the hard work of learning the story ourselves so that we can tell it to others. It won’t be easy. But most of us have already realized that being a Christian isn’t supposed to be easy, and being a youth worker even less so. If we want our students to be shaped by the story of God, we need to start sharing the story with them, from beginning to end. We need to avoid splitting it into easy bits or proof texts, but allow them to experience it whole and uncensored. That might require us to do some hard work ourselves, but it’s worth it. After all, this story is our story and without it we miss part of what it means to be us.

Encouragement

This has been one of the most encouraging thoughts on youth ministry I have read recently. The idea that in ministry we sometimes just keep plugging away is an important one to be reminded about. I was recently talking with a number of staff people from my church and we were discussing how ministry is often tough. You often end up feeling like you aren’t really accomplishing much. Our encouragement came from Isaiah 49.4, knowing that even the servant/Deutero-Isaiah/whoever feels that he has labored in vain. Ironically, God’s response appears to be to give a larger mission to the servant. Be that as it may, it’s encouraging to know that people who have ministered to others throughout history have also struggled with the seemingly impossible task before them.

Disruption

So, Marko thinks we need some painful disruption in youth ministry. As it happens, I agree. The problem is that I don’t particularly like pain. Nevertheless, I thought I’d take a whack at offering some suggestions based on the questions Mark asks. Although it’s probably the height of hubris for me to enter this discussion, someone can always feel free to smack me back down to earth. To that end, here are three broad areas I think need to change and–if they did change–would cause massive disruption to the status quo in youth ministry.

1. Youth Pastors, learn Hebrew and Greek
I realize I am an oddball. I’m a youth minister who has an MA in Biblical Languages. That’s weird. I get that. But, because I know Hebrew and Greek, I know the Bible far better than most of my peers. I know the cultures of the Bible and the ancient near east far better. I’m able to answer questions about the Bible with more acumen. Right now, a standard undergrad youth ministry program requires a bunch of classes in youth ministry (these are important), a few classes in psychology and/or counseling (also important), your core gen ed classes (still important!), and perhaps a couple Bible survey courses. Learning how to do ministry is important, but learning Hebrew and Greek is far more important. In fact, learning any dead language is a huge help in teaching yourself to think critically. If youth ministry programs started requiring Hebrew and Greek, or if churches started expecting their youth pastors to know Hebrew and Greek, I think we’d see a huge disruption in the way things are. The other advantage to this is that, when one has learned Hebrew and Greek it is fairly natural to have a more theologically and philosophically nuanced approach to youth ministry. Very naturally youth ministry ends up being about more than games or some vague idea of influence and becomes a theologically grounded enterprise that is of vital important. Oh yeah, and you actually know what our holy book says, as opposed to having some vague idea of the chronology of what happens without ever having truly studied it.

2. Less accommodation, more Jesus
This could take many forms. Sometimes we accommodate the least common denominator in terms of maturity in our ministries. We play games and spend 90% of our time on recreation because we are convinced that it’s a sin to bore a kid. But in so doing we really don’t offer students anything different from what they could get anywhere else. Accommodation also takes place in our own lives. It becomes very easy to try to live the American dream. We want raises. We want a nicer house. We get involved in the Church’s version of the rat race in which many of our parishners are involved. In so doing we somehow lose the way of life that Jesus has called us to, a way of life that puts others before ourselves. This happens in the lives of youth workers first, and when that happens then it obviously happens in the youth ministry where we’re involved. We need to learn to accommodate our culture less (and here I don’t mean getting rid of secular music, not watching TV, or whatever, I mean learning to set aside the trappings of our culture such as the need to succeed, consumerism, nationalism, placing the US flag higher than the Christian flag–metaphorically, I could care less about literal flags), and instead allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and those in our churches, not only in our youth ministries, into members of the Kingdom of God. Of course, this will make many people nervous and could be a painful process.

3. Less influence, more being
It started when I read Contemplative Youth Ministry (by Mark Yaconelli) and I’ve become even more convinced because of reading Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (by Andrew Root), but I don’t think youth ministry needs to be about influencing students. We need to just toss that out of our vocabulary and our ministry methodology. Instead we should talk and plan to be with students. On the surface this might not look much different. We still go hang out, we still enjoy concerts with one another, etc. But instead of doing it to earn street cred with students, we do it because we want to be with them. Because by being with them we embody Jesus to them and, what’s more, they embody Jesus to us. This makes youth ministry messier. It means we have to be more open and vulnerable. At the same time it may mean that we have to learn how to be closed and set boundaries so that we really are in relationship with students and not merely a commodity that they consume whenever they want. Being with students is far more messy than the alternative, simply seeking to influence them to live better lives, or be more like Jesus, or whatever. But being with students is a far more Jesus-like way of doing things.

I’m very interested to see where this discussion goes on Mark’s blog and around the youth ministry blogosphere. This is a conversation that we need to have, and I think we’ve avoided having it for far too long. Moreover, this is a discussion that our churches need us to have if youth ministry really is the R&D branch of the church.

P. Kyle McCarter’s Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible

I fully realize that this book is from 1986, so it may seem a bit late to be writing a review. However, you’ll have to forgive me since I was only 2 when the book originally appeared. This is one of the required texts for my Textual Criticism seminar at Harvard this semester. I’m looking forward to the seminar, and this book was short so I decided to go ahead and review it before the semester gets underway. I should also point out the fact that I am hardly an expert when it comes to textual criticism. Keep in mind that this review is very much from a student’s perspective.

The first thing that deserves comment is the size of the book; less than 100 pages, including appendices. As a student I’m extremely thankful. The book is good, it says what needs to be said and then moves on. McCarter excels at being concise in his statements. These are all things that hit the mark, as far as a student is concerned. At the same time, it means that McCarter’s book will never be the only text in a graduate seminar on textual criticism. This is fine though, since it serves well as an introduction (which is really all its supposed to do).

Something else that jumped out at me in the book is that McCarter is quite witty. Having an author who is easily able to inject wit into a textbook always makes for a more enjoyable read. In Textual Criticism this is done with style. I lost track of the number of places I chuckled as I read through the book. A question for any of you Johns Hopkins students, is McCarter this witty in class?

I should also mention the appendices. These short addendums are quite helpful. A glossary is the first to appear, and defines some of the basic vocabulary of text criticism (witness, codex, haplography, homoioarkton, etc). The second appendix is a bibliography of primary sources. For someone who has not done much in depth work with textual criticism, this is a gold mine of information. If this information wasn’t already available on the Internet, its inclusion alone would justify the purchase. Even so, it is still convenient to have the information in one easily accessible place. The final appendix deals with the textual characteristics of each book, or section of books, in the Hebrew Bible. This is another extremely helpful resource for beginning students, and one I’m sure I’ll consult often this semester.

In my opinion, the negatives of Textual Criticism are few. Obviously, because of its brevity, it doesn’t touch on every issue imaginable in textual criticism. It is, after all, more of an introduction than a monograph. You’ll have to move on to Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible for a more thorough treatment of the various issues. The only other negative is one that I’m not entirely sure I’m educated enough to give at present. However, with that disclaimer, I’ll go ahead; McCarter appears to be quite in love with LXX, and often makes very little mention of the DSS. Conversely, Tov mentions the Qumran materials often and even accuses McCarter’s Textual Criticism of adopting “the approach of the period before the discovery of the new data [ie, the DSS]” (Tov, Textual Criticism, 14).

Those caveats aside, I think McCarter’s Textual Criticism is a helpful introductory textbook. It certainly doesn’t offer the depth of Tov, but it provides a way to quickly get oneself up to speed on the necessary material. It’s worth reading, especially for those who only desire an introduction.

Zedekiah’s Escape and Bible Translation

John Hobbins, of Ancient Hebrew Poetry fame, has continued the discussion of English Bible Translations in the Biblioblogosphere. He has produced what may be the best paragraph I have read on Bible translation in recent memory:

…put any translation into my hands, and I will show you within a brief span of time why in this place and that place it messes up, and sometimes badly, within the parameters of the translation’s self-confessed translation technique no less.

Indeed, John is correct–they all fall short in one way or another. As the old adage goes, “traduttore, traditore!” Not that this adage needs any further illustration, but my wife is sitting behind me translating large swaths of Jeremiah, and this gives me a strange, overwhelming desire to talk about Hebrew as well.

So, with this in mind, what does Zedekiah’s escape from Jerusalem (I care not about his subsequent capture, at present) have to do with English Bible Translation? To be honest, quite a bit, as anyone who has ever read 2 Kings 25.4 in the MT can surely attest. This verse has actually become quite interesting to me of late, and I hope to create a more substantive discussion of it (either on my blog, or via a paper) at some point in the future. Today, however, I will be brief. BHS’ rendering of 2 Kings 25.4 and my own rough translation follow (BHS, sans vowels since I’m having trouble getting the vowels to display properly):

ותבקע העיר וכל־אנשי המלחמה הלילה דרך שער בין החמתים אשר על־גן המלך וכשדים על־העיר סביב וילך דרך הערבה׃

“And the city was breached, and all the men of battle, the night, the way of the gate, between the walls that by the garden of the king and the Chaldeans upon the city all around, and he went by the Arabah road (way of the steppe?).”

Now setting aside, for the moment, my deliberately rough translation, read the MT and it becomes quickly obvious that the Hebrew is not much easier to understand. Compare this to any modern translation and you will quickly see John Hobbins’ oft stated point about silent emendation. Most emend the text based on the parallel in Jeremiah and the same passage in LXX. The ESV adds “fled” after “men of war,” following that with various prepositions to make the verse into something understandable. The NASB95 likewise adds “fled” and prepositions, but at least has the good sense to put “fled” in italics. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the MT appears as such for stylistic reasons or because of a textual corruption, these are the kinds of things that translators have to deal with. They need to make these kinds of decisions, which the ignorant masses then take as gospel. Not a job I want, thanks.

To be fair, the text is difficult even in the MT, but you can get the gist of what is going on if you know Hebrew and you don’t even need to have BHS’ critical apparatus at which to look. So, should one even bother translating the Bible? I’d much rather people simply learned Hebrew and Greek. However, since that isn’t going to happen tomorrow I might as well acknowledge that we’ll need to make use of imperfect translations for some time yet.

In the end though, I am forced to wonder why some English translation couldn’t leave this particular passage as we find it in the Hebrew. Targum Jonathan managed to leave it more or less intact. Of course, I suppose that tips my hand–I’m not convinced, at present, that this is an issue of a corruption in the text.

Research Interests or My Dream PhD Program

Last week I realized something. At the beginning of September, in roughly 6 weeks, I will begin my second year of study as a graduate student. More over, I intend to earn a PhD in Hebrew Bible or a related field. As I was thinking of this I experienced an epiphany. In one year I will be taking the GRE and within the next 15 months I will be applying to PhD programs for admission in the Fall of 2010 (assuming that all goes according to plan).

Some of you have watched me walk this path (outlined here, here and here, among other places). After this epiphany, Mandy and I began talking about which PhD programs we liked the best. Throughout this process it became apparent that I need to do some thinking about specifically what I’m looking for in a PhD (Mandy has the jump on me here, which you can read about beginning here). This post is my attempt to do that. I realize that to some extent my research interests may end up being fluid. But I need to pin down my broad interest areas. You’ll find this post to be filled with my ramblings, perhaps it may benefit some of you; or at least induce a laugh or two. Feel free to comment on my ramblings with thoughts or suggestions.

I have two areas in which I’m sure I’d enjoy doing doctoral work, and another in which I think I’d enjoy doctoral work. Before I get into those areas though, I want to think out loud about the more general focus or type of program that I want. For instance, do I want a religious studies program at a university? A Biblical Studies program at a divinity school? A NELC program at a university (and if so, what do I want such a program to focus on)? It might be easier to start by talking about what I don’t want.

What I do not want in a PhD program:
1. Theology. I’ll come up with my own, thanks.
2. An unapproachable faculty.
3. Anything vaguely resembling conservative scholarship.

These things are countered by what I do want…

What I do want in a PhD program:
1. Lots of focus on languages (specifically Northwest Semitic languages).
2. Obviously, an approachable and helpful faculty.
3. Lots of work in the Hebrew text of Scripture.
4. A focus on the culture and history of Israel and her neighbors.
5. Did I mention text and languages?

That gives a fairly broad idea of what I’m looking for in schools, departments, and programs. Obviously some of that is quite subjective. I think its safe to say that my desire to avoid theology basically removes most (though probably not all) divinity schools from consideration. At least the ones I’ve looked at (Yale, Harvard) seem to take a more theological track in the divinity schools. I think this is perfectly acceptable, but it is not what I’m looking for. Religion departments probably aren’t completely ruled out, but I find that they tend to focus on comparative religions or similar things. Again, this is fine, even good, but not what I’m looking for, well at least not modern comparative religions. Nevertheless, there could be some programs out there in religious studies that would suite me. So it stays on the list, for now. I think where I probably need to focus the majority of my attention is on NELC/NES programs. My only worry is that such programs may tend more towards archeology and comparative semitics (the latter of which is very cool, the former..eh..in the words of one person, “If what you dug up doesn’t have writing on it, I’m not interested”) than towards Northwest semitics and the Bible specifically.

As for those two or three areas of particular interest that I mentioned earlier. The first is the Wisdom Literature of Ancient Israel. I find Hebrew Wisdom to be absolutely fascinating. There are various facets of this corpus that interest me, but perhaps the most interesting is the poetry and language of Job and Egyptian parallels to the Hebrew Wisdom corpus. The second is the early and pre-monarchic periods of Israelite history. I should quickly note here that I am more interested in the literature that views this area as a kind of “heroic age” than I am with the actual material culture of the Late Bronze and Iron I ages. I’d love to do some work with Hebrew discourse analysis in Judges-1 Samuel (possibly including Joshua). This is one of the areas where I’m not sure a NELC program is the best fit…but that could be my ignorance of such programs speaking. Literary criticism can be somewhat interesting as well, but much of what I’ve read on that has tended to deal with English translation, rather than the Hebrew itself. I’ve yet to see an analytical comparison of Hebrew narrative with narratives of neighboring cultures. Of course, this might be because we have a comparative lack of prose in those other cultures (no pun intended). The third area, and one in which I’m not 100% sure I’d like to do doctoral work yet, is text criticism. The problem is this is a pretty broad area, and I don’t have enough knowledge of the breadth of it at present to really pinpoint if I want to go in this direction.

So, that’s my thinking out loud for this evening. I’m sure I’ll revisit these thoughts at least once in the not-so-distant future. I have quite a bit of pondering to do over the next 15-18 months.