Chapter 1: Marked Up Bible. 3, Discoveries and Questions

On another day, I sat at my desk with my books, which remained on my desk for several more days of pleasant reading, study, and discovery, with favorite music in the background.

Did you know that Elhanan killed Goliath? The Bible tells me so (2 Sam. 21:19). Of course, the Bible also says David killed Goliath (1 Sam. 17:50).  But not so fast: 1 Chronicles 20:5 indicates that Elhanan killed Lahmi, Goliath’s brother. The 2 Samuel passage seems to be a copyist’s error.

I absolutely love discovering interesting details like this. To me such details show the wonderful providence of God in bringing these human writings, errors and odd things and all, to their eventual canonical fruition so that, in every generation, we can hear God’s Word and receive God’s power.

I flipped through my old Bible for other discoveries from years past.  I knew that God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and replace them with Moses’ descendants but that Moses begged God to spare the people (Ex. 32:7-14). But I hadn’t thought about Moses’ actual descendants until something I read called attention to the fact that they’ve very little role in subsequent biblical history (1 Chr. 23:14-17, 26:24-25).

Did you know there are unicorns in the Bible? Actually the King James translation includes dragons—Psalm 74:13, Ezekiel 32:2, and in Revelation—and unicorns.[1]  A friend told me that one of the youths in her church class had heard from a friend that there are unicorns in the Bible, and she wondered what I thought. Checking for her in my Bible dictionary, I found nine references to unicorns, but in the older King James Version: Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. In the newer translations call them “wild ox,” and one of my books says it was a now-extinct kind of ox native to Syria, not the mythical equine creature we think of.

And speaking of animals, did you know that one of the Ten Commandments is concerned about animals?  It’s the fourth, concerning the Sabbath, which demands a day of rest for animals, too.[2]

Numbers 16 records the rebellion of the Korahites against Moses, and God’s accompanying plague that killed many thousands. But in spite of this infamous occasion, Korah’s descendants are recorded as authors of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, and Samuel himself was a descendant of Korah (1 Chr. 6:18-22). Such details are “stunning,” writes Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “much like learning that a descendant of Benedict Arnold became a president of the United States.”[3]

Did you realize there is a beating—and perhaps a rape—in the middle of the Song of Songs?  Or perhaps it is a terrible dream.

Making their rounds in the city
            the sentinels found me;

they beat me, they wounded me,
            they took away my mantle,
            those sentinels of the walls (5:7).

Here, the woman does not open her door when her beloved knocks, until he has already left. She went out into the city to find him, unsuccessfully—and then verse 7.  The violence is so brief that it is easy to miss.  Commentators suggest that the removal of her mantle (or cloak) may imply a sexual assault.  Is it all a dream (5.2), or was she actually awakened by her lover’s knocks?

If you hope to read the Bible through during a particular time period—a year, for instance—you might read too quickly and miss interesting passages like this. But the Bible is so long, any detailed study requires commitment—but more than commitment, a feeling of pleasure in studying the text, on par with following a favorite sports team or mastering a game or pursuing a beloved hobby.

Rabbi Telushkin describes a connection I’d never thought of: Mordecai of the book of Esther, and Joseph of Genesis. Like Joseph, Mordecai is a “Hebrew who achieves high power under a non-Israelite king and who remains totally loyal to his people.”[4] See, for instance, his high status in Esther 10:2-3.

Still on the subject of Joseph, I’d never noticed the unnamed man with whom he conversed, immediately before his brothers seized him (Gen. 37:15-17). It’s an odd little exchange; who is the man, simply wandering? How does he know the family? He appears in the narrative to route Joseph from Shechem to Dothan, where his brothers take him. Is he meant to parallel the unnamed man whom Jacob wrestled (Gen. 32:22-32), in other words, is he an angel or divine manifestation?

I never thought too much about the story of Jabez (1 Chr. 4:9-10) prior to the best selling book of a few years ago.Darn it!  Why didn’t I read it more closely and write a popular book with big royalties?  I’m being humorous, but the prayer of Jabez phenomenon makes me wonder: what other Bible passages might we be overlooking?

Have you ever noticed the disciple Demas, mentioned in the New Testament?  In Philemon 23, Paul lists him ahead of Luke.  In Colossians 4:14, he mentions Luke first, and then Demas.  In 2 Timothy 4:10, he says, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Years ago I read a Harry Emerson Fosdick sermon that suggested a progression of sentiment: first he is important and listed first, and then he seems to drop in importance, and in the end, he abandons Paul’s ministry.

Perhaps that isn’t fair; perhaps Paul wasn’t easy to get along with! That’s not difficult to believe. But one’s devotion can certainly flag; hence Paul’s many admonitions not to lose heart (2 Cor. 4:16-18, Gal. 6:9). One hopes that Demas found other chances to be a disciple, just as we all hope that God continues to work in our lives when we weary or drift.

One pretty afternoon, I had a whim to consult my grandma’s Bible dictionary for “trees in the Bible.”  The scripture is quite arborous, with many different kinds of trees mentioned in different texts.[5] But I was struck by the connection of trees with life and salvation: the Trees of Life and of Good and Evil in Eden, the cypress wood that formed the saving Ark, the acacia wood used for the Tabernacle and its various components (Ex. 25, 30, 36-39), the Lebanon cedar and other woods used in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5-7, 2 Chr. 2-4), the wood of Christ’s manger, the cross (the “tree” on which Christ took our curse: Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:3) and finally the restored tree of life of Revelation 22:2.

As you read and study the Bible, even a familiar story can yield something new. The Good Samaritan, for instance (Luke 10:25-37): too often we make simple conclusions from this story, like the Jews in the story were hard-hearted and yes, of course, we should consider everyone our neighbor. But I certainly would not stop to help someone in a dangerous area: would you?  Not only that, but every day I pass by people holding up signs for financial assistance: I don’t stop because I’m concerned that they’ll scam me.  The Good Samaritan’s story calls us to have compassion on the needy but doesn’t prescribe certain actions; we’ll have to use prayer and common sense to figure out what we can do. But a deeper meaning of the story is the overcoming of barriers. Samaritans and Jews had ethnic and religious differences. Do you include people of other religious and ethnic backgrounds in your prayers?  Do you have friends from among other backgrounds than yours? Although Christ’s story states no inner motives, we assume that he Samaritan did a daring, difficult thing; he let his heart be changed. [6]

I recall, or have indicated in the margins, some of my questions about the text over the years. My reference books have helped me sort out details. The Bible leaves much opportunity for speculation, discovery contemplation, and scholarly consultation.  For instance, Adam and Eve ate … what?  I’ve underlined in my old Bible the words “food” and “fruit,” but the text doesn’t specify what. The Latin words for “evil” and “apple” are both malum, perhaps creating the long-time association of apples with temptation.

How long were Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3)? A long time? A few hours?  The text doesn’t say. How long can you go before temptation gets you in trouble?

Did Adam and Eve eat animals?  No cookouts for our first couple, except for veggie kabobs. For a long time I never noticed the detail that humans were vegetarians prior to the Flood, and only afterward does God permit the eating of meat (Gen. 9:3-4).

An old question: Where did Cain get his wife, if (by a literal reading) we’re down to only three people on earth, after he kills Abel (Gen. 4:17)?  And whom did he fear might kill him (Gen. 4:14)?  If you read the Bible literally, you can bring in Genesis 5:4 as proof of other children of Adam and Eve.

Did Methuselah die in the Flood? The text doesn’t say, but a hometown friend calculated from the years given in the text (Gen. 5:27) that the Bible’s oldest man died at the same time as the Flood.

Did people laugh at and mock Noah as he built the Ark (Gen. 6:11-22)?  Genesis never says that, but we’re accustomed to thinking so.  It’s okay to use your imagination as you reflect upon Bible studies. If you think how quickly folks criticize and comment on even minor things that are none of their business, you could imagine how the construction of a huge boat would invite ridicule.

Did Moses have horns?  Michelangelo and other artists depicted him that way. Exodus 34:29-35 tells us that Moses’ face shone with light as he returned from the mountain, but the Hebrew root qrn could be translated “horn” or “radiant light,” and so early mistranslations of the word led to a tradition of depicting Moses with small horns.  I suppose you could thereby discern Moses from among other robed and bearded biblical heroes.

While I’m still in the Torah … I read in my Torah commentary that Abraham and Isaac never appear together in the text following the Akedah, the “binding” (Gen. 22) until Abraham’s burial, when both Isaac and Ishmael joined to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, where Sarah was already buried (Gen. 25:7-11). Does that mean that Abraham and Isaac were estranged following the incident?The text doesn’t say. But we should be careful; arguing a point from the “evidence” of silence is a logical fallacy.

Speaking of cruelty to children, I leafed past the story of Jephthah the other day.  Did he really kill his daughter?  I read an argument that, no, he didn’t; the daughter merely remained a lifelong virgin.The text says, though, that he “did with her according to his vow” (Judges 11:39). Interestingly, the story mentions a mourning custom (verse 40) to which the Bible never refers again.

And as long as we’re on awful stories, we find another “binding” story in Ezekiel, where God orders the prophet to lie on his left and right sides for 390 and 40 days, respectively. The prophet is tied to keep him in place (Ez. 4:4-8). Surely he didn’t stay in that condition for so long. When I read that passage, I recalled old cartoons where the bully ties the damsel to the railroad tracks—an image, unfortunately, consistent with the sometimes bizarre and violent images of God in Ezekiel.

The longer you study the Bible, the more you uncover so many interesting questions. Why do Ezra and Nehemiah never seem to meet and acknowledge each other, even though the text presents them as working at the same time (e.g., Neh. 8:9)?

What is the purpose of the strange, ethically ambiguous story of the two prophets in 1 Kings 13?  The theologian Karl Barth puts the moral implication of the story in the background—the lies of the prophet from Bethel—and focuses upon the objective nature of God’s word, which is true and trustworthy regardless of human behavior.[7]

Were the wise men kings, as in “We Three Kings?” No. Matthew’s gospel (the only place they’re mentioned: 2:1-11) calls them “magi,” or wise men, and tradition indicates that they were probably Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.  Did they have names?  Church traditions have named them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  And were there three?  The gospel doesn’t number them, but the traditions are part of our Christmas observance.

Did Jesus ever laugh?  We’ve only instances of Jesus’ laughter (and his smiling) in non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Philip and the Apocryphon of John. In such writings, his laughter and smiles are ironic and knowing.[8]  Artistically the Buddha is often represented with a slight smile. Jesus is, too, in some paintings (for instance, in the serene Head of Christ by Warner Sallman). Hypothetically, one might argue that the suffering of Jesus for our salvation takes precedence over his happiness. But that would be limiting, for didn’t Jesus have a broad, full (though short) life filled with all the emotions we experience?  Certainly Jesus loved, and one needs psychological security and depth to be able to love as he did. Joy and laughter, too, require a sense of security.  Not only that, but Jesus wanted his joy to be in the disciples, so their joy would be complete (John 15:11).

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? The Bible never identifies her as such. Luke’s gospel mentions an unnamed “sinner” woman in 7:36-50 and then introduces Mary a few verses later (8:2-3) as one cleansed of demons.

In Acts 15:36-41: what was the problem with John Mark?  Earlier he had returned to Jerusalem, without explanation (Acts 13:13-14). Whatever happened, Paul objected to him accompanying them on a missionary trip.

Was Paul “conceited”? “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). If we back up to 1 Cor. 10:31-33, we realize Paul is talking about humility and flexibility in one’s witness.

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10)? Wouldn’t we love to know! The text praises God for his strength and grace, and that is enough.  If we knew that his thorn was epilepsy/migraines/ sexual temptation/regret for his past/bad eyes/other possibilities, his sufferings might lose their universality to our own experiences.

Why does Paul rarely cite Jesus’ teachings? Bart D. Ehrman notes that Paul refers to a few facts about Jesus (Roman. 1:3, 15:8, 1 Cor. 11:23-25, 15:5, Gal. 1:19, 4:4), and refers to his teachings twice (1 Cor. 7:11, 9:14), and possibly alludes to Jesus’ teachings in Rom. 13:7 and Gal. 5:14.[9]  But Paul communicates nothing about Jesus’ birth or early life, or his baptism and temptation, or Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his trail, or about Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God.[10]  Perhaps these traditions about Jesus were common knowledge for both Paul and his congregations, and thus Paul stressed Jesus’ person and work.  Or perhaps Paul did not know very much more about Jesus.[11]

At the end of the Bible: Does the book of Revelation say that people will approach us in the afterlife and thank us for leading them to Christ/contributing to missions work/teaching Sunday school, etc.—or, alternately, for being a stumbling block for them?  It’s a common image, used in songs and preaching, but I’ve found no biblical references.  It’s nice to imagine, if the people are grateful to you.

And speaking of Revelation, did you know that the book quotes or alludes to the Old Testament more than another other New Testament book—about 200 instances? The book’s key images—including the Son of Man, the Book of Life, the kingdom of priests, the differently colored horses, the eating of the scroll, the plagues and droughts, the beasts of Daniel, the “grapes of wrath,” Gog and Magog, and others—these are all Old Testament images.  When I discovered this, it excited me more than the hopeless prospect of interpreting the book for our contemporary time; rather than a series of weird and arcane visions, Revelation gathers up numerous scriptural strands as it brings the Bible to a close.[12]

Link to next section

[1]  Merril C. Tenney, general editor, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), 40-47.

[2] Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out this detail. He notes, “the extensive biblical teachings concerning the kind treatment of animals are generally skipped over by most Bible readers.” The kosher laws of Leviticus restrict the kind of animals Jews should eat, and other Torah laws demand kindness and humanness toward animals, like Lev. 22:28, Deut. 22:6-7, 10, 25:4, etc. Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 499-501.

[3] Telushkin, 134-136.

[4] Telushkin, 378.

[5] Notable trees in the Bible are: Abraham’s tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba (Gen. 21:33), Jonah’s leafy tree (Jon. 4:6-11), Jesus’ illustrative mustard tree (Matt. 12:33, Luke 17:6), the doomed fig tree (Matt. 21:19), Zacchaeus’ sycamore (Luke 19:4), Paul’s figurative olive tree (Rom. 11:17, 24), the palm trees that supplied branches for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:13), the olive trees that stand before the Lord (Rev. 11:4), and many others. Second and Third Isaiah depict the people of Israel as plants that God tends (Isa. 44:3-4, 53:3, 60:21, 61:3-4).

[6] Here’s another story of Jesus’ that opened up to me during these Bible studies. A book I’ve had since college is Joachim Jeremias’ The Parables of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972). Jeremias discusses the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matt. 20:1-16.  About the surprising action of the vineyard owner, he writes, “He sees that [the servant who worked an hour] will have practically nothing to take home; the pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. It is because of his pity for their poverty that the owner allows them to be paid a full day’s wages. In this case the parable does not depict an arbitrary action, but the behavior of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. This, says Jesus, is how God deals with me.  This is what God is like merciful. Even to tax-farmers and sinners he grants an unmerited place in his Kingdom, such is the measure of his goodness” (37). I wonder how many of us completely miss that aspect of the vineyard owner; we focus on the mercy of God, which is Jesus’ point, but we think that the owner is indeed being arbitrary in his goodness.  We miss the owner’s compassion and sympathy.

[7] Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 142-143.

[8] Ricky Alan Mayotte, The Complete Jesus (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1997), 149-150.

[9]  Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 311-312.

[10]  Ehrman, The New Testament, 312.

[11]  Ehrman, The New Testament, 312-314.

[12] Several of these connections can be found in an online article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” at the site, where I find the following selections. The image of “the son of man” in Dan.7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7; the image of “the kingdom of priests” in Ex. 19:6 an Isa. 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6; the dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isa. 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2; the differently colored horses of Zech. 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8; the eating of the scroll in Ez. 2:8-3:33 and Jer. 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11; and much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:15-18, et al.), connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9:7ff.  There are also references to Ezekiel’s restored temple and city (Ez. 40-48); the tribes of Israel (Gen. 49 and Rev. 7:1-8); Daniel’s beasts (Dan. 7:1-8 and Rev. 13:1-7); Gog and Magog (Ez. 38-39 and Rev. 20:7-10); the grapes and the winepress of the wrath of God (Joel 3:13, Isa. 63:1-6, Rev. 14:14-20), and most of all, the connection of God’s good creation at the Bible’s beginning with the earth’s redemption at the end.

A good book concerning Revelation is Bruce M. Metzger’s Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Of course, numerous attempts have been made through history to predict the end times via biblical symbols: George Rapp, leader of the Harmonist sect, William Miller, founder of the Millerites, Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s