Category Archives: Difficult Bible Passages

Did Jesus Drink Alcoholic Wine?

In John, chapter two, Jesus converts approximately 120 gallons of water into wine during a seven-day wedding feast. By performing this sign, was Jesus condoning the drinking of alcoholic wine? Biblical scholar Andreas Köstenberger tackles the issue of Jesus and alcoholic wine in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible). First, he explains the different kinds of wine that existed in first-century Palestine.

Fermented wine (oinos; e.g., Eph 5: 18; not from the most recent harvest) was usually mixed in the proportion of two or three parts of water to one part of wine (b. Pesahahim 108b). New wine (oinos neos; e.g., Matt 9: 17; Mark 2: 22; Luke 5: 37– 38; cf. Hos 9: 2; Hag 1: 11; Zech 9: 17; 1QS 6: 4– 6; 1QSa 2: 17– 18, 20; 1QH 10: 24) was made from the most recent harvest and was not fermented. Finally, there were wines that were non-alcoholic due to the process of fermentation being stopped by boiling the unfermented grape juice (called ‘must’). Wine was also, though less frequently, made from pomegranates (Song 8: 2) and raisins (b. Baba Batra 97b) along with apples, dates, honey, herbs, and figs.

Did Jesus drink fermented (alcoholic) wine?  Köstenberger argues “yes.”

The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as drinking fermented wine (Matt 11: 19; Mark 14: 25). The latter passage also intimates that wine will be drunk in heaven. In stark contrast to the portrayal of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’ and was promptly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matt 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). This shows that Jesus was known to have drunk fermented wine regularly while associating with his contemporaries.

What about the miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana?

The current passage in John recounts Jesus’ turning a large quantity of water into wine (oinos) at a family wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first of a series of messianic signs selected by John for inclusion in his Gospel. There is no indication in these verses that Jesus would have turned the water into non-alcoholic wine. Instead, the use of oinos combined with Jesus’ use of fermented wines throughout the Gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus turned the water into wine containing alcohol. That the chief servant made comment about the tendency of hosts to set out the ‘inferior’ wine last, after the guests have ‘drunk freely,’ confirms this conclusion, for if guests have drunk freely from non-alcoholic wine, they would not be duped by the inferior wine that followed (John 2: 10).

Whether a Christian today should drink alcohol depends on many factors that are outside the scope of this essay, but it seems unwise to argue that Jesus mandated abstinence from drinking alcohol. The evidence for this position, according to Köstenberger, is simply not there.

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.

Did the Census Reported in Luke 2 Actually Occur?

One of the thorniest historical problems in the Gospel of Luke is the census that Luke reports in chapter two, verses 1-2. Here is the wording in the NIV: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”

Here is the problem. Extrabiblical sources indicate that Herod the Great died in 4 BC. Biblical texts indicate that Jesus was born before Herod died, between 4-6 BC. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD 6 and ordered a census that year. So how could there be a census decreed in 4-6 BC if Quirinius wasn’t governor for ten more years? Did Luke make a mistake?

The first thing to note is that Luke seems to be aware of the census ordered in AD 6, as evidenced by Acts 5:37. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Luke had his facts mixed up. So how do reconcile the data?

Several suggestions have been made, although none definitively solve the problem. Darrell Bock writes, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible),

One option for solving the problem is to claim that Quirinius was governor twice, with his first governorship occurring prior to the well-known one that was initiated in ad 6 (Ramsay 1898, 174– 96; 1920, 275– 300). Ramsay argued that Quirinius served as governor of Syria from 11/ 10 bc to 8/ 7 bc, as well as in the later and firmly documented period that began in ad 6. Ramsay further argued that prior to the close of his first governorship Quirinius set in motion the census that Luke placed in Palestine in 6 bc.

The basis of Ramsay’s argument for two governorships is his contention that an inscription known as the ‘Lapis Tiburtinus’ refers to Quirinius. There is a noteworthy weakness to this approach: the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription is fragmentary and mentions no names. Thus Ramsay can suggest the inscription pertains to Quirinius only because the portion of the inscription that specifies who is being referenced has been lost. Based as it is on the anonymity of the inscription, Ramsay’s theory is impossible to establish as fact. Possibly he is correct, but there is no way of proving it unless we discover the missing portions of Lapis Tiburtinus.

Bock continues:

In an alternative theory, A. N. Sherwin-White suggested that Quirinius was a legate between Publius Quinctilius Varus and Gaius Caesar from 4 bc to 1 bc (Sherwin-White 1963, 162– 71). He was able to postulate this because this time frame coincides with the only governorship gap we have in the historical records. Thus, though Sherwin-White denied that a census was undertaken in the period of Herod the Great (ended 4 bc), he saw it as possibly legitimate for Luke to make reference to Quirinius in this period.

Bock, however, thinks that Sherwin-White’s hypothesis needs to be modified.

Variants of Sherwin-White’s proposal may offer the best explanation. Given that a Palestinian census under Herod is possible since it fits with Roman census-taking activities known to have occurred in this period, might it be that Varus was the one who began the census, with the full results and taxation emerging only later, under the governorship of Quirinius in the period Sherwin-White proposes (4– 1 bc)? If so, Quirinius’s name was understandably attached to the census since the census’s impact was felt chiefly during his governorship. A variation of this theory is that Quirinius administered the census prior to being governor, later became governor, and thus in a kind of literary collapse of the event was referred to as the governor responsible for the census (Hayles 1974, 29).

Bock offers further hypotheses from lexical-syntactical scholars:

One lexical argument says that prōtē should be translated as ‘earlier’ rather than ‘first.’ This meaning is found in John 1: 15, 30, for instance. If this is a legitimate rendering of prōtē, Luke was saying that the census he has in mind occurred earlier than the Quirinius census known to have taken place in ad 6. This view is possibly correct, but the difficult syntax of Luke 2: 2 leaves the matter unsettled.

A second lexical solution holds that we should translate prōtē as ‘before.’ In this case Luke is saying the census took place before Quirinius’s governorship (Higgins 1969, 200– 201; Nolland 1989, 101– 2). It is questionable whether Luke used prōtē in this unusual sense, but possibly he did (Hoehner 1977, 21– 22).

These alternative renderings of prōtē may not be necessary. If prōtē is best rendered ‘first,’ then Luke was calling this the ‘first’ census that occurred during Quirinius’s governorship. This could indicate that Luke knew of two governorships for Quirinius and two censuses associated with him. The fact that in Acts 5:37 Luke referred to a census best identified as the one that occurred under Quirinius in ad 6 strengthens this possibility. Thus if Luke meant to differentiate between two separate censuses taken by Quirinius, it is best to assume that the census he discussed in chapter 2 of his Gospel is not to be confused with the better-known Quirinius census of ad 6.

Bock concludes:

None of these proposals is guaranteed to be correct. Uncertainty about the succession of governors in Syria prevents us from making anything more than suggestions. The best possibilities are (a) that Varus (during the time of Herod the Great) began the census, but the full effects were not felt until the governorship of Quirinius, (b) that Quirinius served as a high-raking administrator of the census prior to his governorship, and (c) that prōtē is best translated as ‘before.’

Why Doesn’t the Author of 2 Kings Mention Manasseh’s Repentance?

In 2 Chronicles 33, the author records the capture of Manasseh by the Assyrians, his subsequent imprisonment, and then his repentance and return to Jerusalem. None of this material is recorded in the parallel account of Manasseh in 2 Kings 21. Why might this be the case and, secondly, is the account in 2 Chronicles historically plausible? Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe tackle the first question in When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties:

Apparently the author of 2 Kings did not record the repentance of Manasseh because of the lack of influence it had upon the steady decline of the nation. The Book of 2 Kings concentrates primarily upon the actions of the covenant people of God as a whole. The repentance and reforms of Manasseh did relatively little to turn the nation around from its path to judgment, while his sinful leadership early in his reign did much more damage to the nation. Even in the 2 Chronicles passage we find this statement: ‘Nevertheless the people still sacrificed on the high places, but only to the Lord their God’ (2 Chron. 33:17). Even though the people dedicated their sacrifices to the Lord, they were still committing sin, because sacrifices were to be made at the temple, not upon high places which were originally altars to false gods. Despite the efforts of Manasseh, the people would not totally dedicate themselves to the Lord.

Is the account of Manasseh being taken by the Assyrians plausible historically? J. A. Thompson, in vol. 9, 1, 2 Chronicles, The New American Commentary, attempts to answer this question for us.

A historical question has been raised in regard to Manasseh’s captivity in Babylon, taken there by Assyrian forces, since there is no extrabiblical documentation for these events. This fact is not, of course, a sufficient reason for rejecting their historicity. Assyrian records are by no means sufficiently comprehensive to allow any argument from silence to decide the issue. There is valuable circumstantial evidence which has persuaded a good number of scholars that historical events underlie the Chronicler’s narrative. The Assyrian records mention Manasseh. He is listed among twenty-two kings of Hatti, the seashore, and the islands, who were summoned to Nineveh by Esarhaddon (650–669 B.C.) to bring building materials for a new palace. Asshur- banipal (668–627 B.C.) mentions him among vassal kings who participated in a campaign against Egypt.

In these references Manasseh appears as submissive to the Assyrian king. The question is asked regarding what historical circumstances would have brought about his humiliation and punishment by Assyria. Various proposals have been made. Manasseh quite possibly may have been on the side of Shamash-shum-ukin, who revolted against his brother Asshur-banipal. The inscriptions of both Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal abound in references to Egypt and the Palestinian states in the time of Manasseh, who reigned for fifty-five years.

One other important Assyrian source is the vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon dated in the year 672 B.C. The crown prince of Assyria, Asshur-banipal, was inducted at a special ceremony where representatives of all the lands under Assyrian control were present. These representatives were sworn not to arouse the anger of the gods and goddesses against him and to serve Ashur as their god. They were bound by fearful oaths to support the crown prince after the death of his father. These treaties are not entirely intact, and the name of Manasseh does not appear. But the interest and activity of both Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal in the west may well have forced compliance with their demands on Judah. Naturally vassals took opportunity to deviate from the treaty obligations laid upon them and even to rebel. In fact, numerous rebellions are attested in the reigns of Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal.

By all accounts, the Chronicler’s narrative is historically reliable, but it of course includes a theological wording.

Is the Story of Jonah Fictional?

Some Bible scholars believe that the Book of Jonah is a fictional tale written purely for teaching purposes by its original author. They argue that the original author never meant for the story to be taken as real history. While it may be impossible to know just based on the contents of the book itself, there is one important person who seems to have considered the events in Jonah to be historical: Jesus Christ.

Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page write, in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary):

Finally, there is the witness of Jesus Christ, which apparently was the basis for the early church’s linking the historicity of Jonah’s experience with that of Jesus, especially his resurrection. Although it would be conceivable that Jesus might have been merely illustrating in Matt 12:40 when he associated his prophesied resurrection with Jonah’s experience in the fish, it is much more difficult to deny that Jesus was assuming the historicity of the conversion of the Ninevites when he continued in v. 41 (cf. Luke 11:32).

‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.’

This is confirmed in the following verse (cf. Luke 11:33) when Jesus parallels the ‘men of Nineveh’ with the ‘Queen of the South,’ whose visit to Jerusalem is recounted in 1 Kings.

‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.’

Clearly Jesus did not see Jonah as a parable or an allegory. As J. W. McGarvey stated long ago, ‘It is really a question as to whether Jesus is to be received as a competent witness respecting historical and literary matters of the ages which preceded His own.’

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add:

[T]he most devastating argument against the denial of the historical accuracy of Jonah is found in Matthew 12:40. In this passage Jesus predicts His own burial and resurrection, and provides the doubting scribes and Pharisees the sign that they demanded. The sign is the experience of Jonah. Jesus says, ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ If the tale of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish was only fiction, then this provided no prophetic support for Jesus’ claim. The point of making reference to Jonah is that if they did not believe the story of Jonah being in the belly of the fish, then they would not believe the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As far as Jesus was concerned, the historical fact of His own death, burial, and resurrection was on the same historical ground as Jonah in the belly of the fish. To reject one was to cast doubt on the other (cf. John 3:12). Likewise, if they believed one, they should believe the other. . . .

Jesus went on to mention the significant historical detail. His own death, burial, and resurrection was the supreme sign that verified His claims. When Jonah preached to the unbelieving Gentiles, they repented. But, here was Jesus in the presence of His own people, the very people of God, and yet they refused to believe. Therefore, the men of Nineveh would stand up in judgment against them, ‘because they [the men of Nineveh] repented at the preaching of Jonah’ (Matt. 12:41). If the events of the Book of Jonah were merely parable or fiction, and not literal history, then the men of Nineveh did not really repent, and any judgment upon the unrepentant Pharisees would be unjust and unfair. Because of the testimony of Jesus, we can be sure that Jonah records literal history.

Why Did Elisha Curse a Group of Young Men?

In 2 Kings 2:23-24, the prophet Elisha curses a group of young men, seemingly just for calling him names. Even worse, some translations indicate that these were small boys. What is going on here?

First, Hebrew scholars tell us that the words used to describe the boys can indicate an age anywhere from 12-30 years old. It is highly likely, given the context, that these were adolescent young men, at a minimum, and maybe even older than that.

Second, they weren’t simply calling him names. What they said was, “Go on up, you baldhead!” This was a direct reference to Elijah’s going up to heaven, and thus an insult to Elijah and Elisha’s ministry. The term baldhead could be a reference to the hair style worn by prophets of the day, but scholars aren’t sure. It could also refer to lepers who would shave their heads, indicating Elisha was an outcast just as lepers are outcasts.

In the end, God decided that the threat to Elisha and his ministry were serious enough to warrant an attack on the young men, causing 42 of them to be seriously injured and possibly even fatally wounded by two bears.

Norman Geisler and Tom Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add these thoughts about the passage:

First of all, this was no minor offense, for these young men held God’s prophet in contempt. Since the prophet was God’s mouthpiece to His people, God Himself was being most wickedly insulted in the person of His prophet.

Second, these were not small, innocent children. They were wicked young men, comparable to a modern street gang. Hence, the life of the prophet was endangered by their number, the nature of their sin, and their obvious disrespect for authority.

Third, Elisha’s action was designed to strike fear in the hearts of any other such gang members. If these young gang members were not afraid to mock a venerable man of God such as Elisha, then they would have been a threat to the lives of all God’s people.

Fourth, some commentators note that their statements were designed to challenge Elisha’s claim to be a prophet. They were essentially saying, ‘If you are a man of God, why don’t you go on up to heaven like Elijah did?’ . . .

Fifth, it was not Elijah who took their lives, but God who alone could have providentially directed the bears to attack them. It is evident that by mocking this man of God, these young men were revealing their true attitudes toward God Himself. Such contempt for the Lord was punishable by death. The Scriptures do not say that Elisha prayed for this kind of punishment. It was clearly an act of God in judgment upon this impious gang.

Should We Execute Non-Christians?

During King Asa’s reformation in Judah, he convenes a covenant ceremony during the Feast of Pentecost where all of Judah is called to seek after the God of Israel, the one true God who rescued them from Egyptian slavery centuries before. During this ceremony, they are also reminded that “all who would not seek the LORD, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.”

Two questions immediately arise: Where did this command originate and does it apply to us today?

To answer the first question, we must go back to the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. The book of Exodus teaches Israel to not worship other gods in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Chapter 22 then spells out the punishment for worship of other gods: “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.”

In the book of Leviticus, chapter 20 prescribes capital punishment for particular religious violations. Any person who gives their child to Molech, a pagan god, was to be executed. Likewise, any person who was a medium or spiritist was to be put to death.

Finally, the book of Deuteronomy reiterates the teachings of Exodus and Leviticus in chapters 13 and 17. False prophets were to be put to death and anyone in the community who was participating in or promoting worship of pagan gods was also to be executed. Therefore, there is clear precedent for the command in 2 Chron 15:13.

Does the command to execute anyone who is worshiping false gods still apply today? No. These commands were only applicable to ancient Israel who was in a unique covenant relationship with God. As Christians living today, we live under a different covenant with God.

The NT clearly states in several places that the Law (embodying the covenant with ancient Israel) was fulfilled by Jesus and no longer applies to Christians. Here are a few passages proving the point:

“By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one [the Law] obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Heb 8:13)

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal 2:15-16)

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.  So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the Law].” (Gal 3:23-25)

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code [the Law].” (Rom 7:6)

These verses and others clearly state that Christians are not under any obligation to follow the divine commands given to the Israelites as they left Egyptian slavery and journeyed toward the Promised Land. As my seminary professor used to tell us, the Old Testament was written for us, but not to us. It was written to ancient Israel.

Who Is Responsible for the Division of Israel?

In 1 Kings 12, Rehoboam foolishly decides to threaten the northern tribes rather than agree to lighten their tax burden. This leads to the division of united Israel into the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah.

In verse 24, the prophet Shemaiah tells Rehoboam that the division of the kingdom is God’s doing, so don’t we have a contradiction here? Whose fault is the division? Rehoboam, who spoke foolish words, or God?

The truth is that both God and Rehoboam are responsible for the division.  There is absolutely nothing contradictory about an infinite God being in control of every little electron in the universe, but creating creatures in that same universe who have a special power of free will.  God can accomplish everything he wants to accomplish in human affairs through human free will.

While He commands volcanoes to erupt and water to flow as inanimate objects, He commands humans as free creatures.  He works in coordination with human freedom, not without it or against it.

Philosophers refer to this as primary and secondary causation.  God is the primary cause of all activity in the universe, but He uses the secondary cause of free will to accomplish his purposes with human beings.

Some say that this concept of human free will takes away from the glory of God, but claiming that God cannot create free creatures and still bring his plans to fruition is really the position that takes away from God’s glory.

How Do We Interpret the Proverbs?

Some readers of the Book of Proverbs have raised objections to its contents. First, some proverbs seem to command a certain behavior, but then others command a different, incompatible behavior. Second, some proverbs appear to make promises that other parts of the Bible seem to contradict. Third, some proverbs make what appear to be comprehensive statements that seem to be contradicted by the realities of life.

Edward Curtis, in the Apologetics Study Bible, offers the following guidance on how to read and interpret the Book of Proverbs in light of the objections above.

The types of sayings found in Proverbs reflect a way of thinking and teaching that has been largely abandoned in modern Western culture. Proverbs are general statements of truth rather than invariable promises or laws, and an individual proverb normally captures a tiny cross-section of truth rather than making a comprehensive statement about a topic.

For example, ‘A gentle answer turns away anger’ (15: 1) constitutes one component of the broader topics of using words wisely and dealing with angry people. This single principle is one small piece of a much larger mosaic, and the task of the student is not only to put together the broader mosaic piece by piece but also to learn to apply these principles skillfully to the complexities that one encounters in life.

The goal of the wisdom in Proverbs is to develop skill in living according to the order that is embedded in God’s creation. Most proverbs state a single general truth with little attempt to note exceptions and qualifications. Such an approach effectively emphasizes the principle taught by avoiding the distraction of qualifications.

The authors of proverbs also emphasized the points they wanted to make through the use of idealized examples and hyperbole. While the sluggard, for example, is a real character, he is described in exaggerated terms that set his basic characteristics in clear relief. One would probably never find someone who perfectly fits the descriptions of a sluggard, because the person whose picture emerges from putting together the various pieces of the sluggard mosaic in the book is a stereotypical character. The same is also true for the excellent woman in Proverbs 31 and for the wise man and for the fool described throughout the book.

When a pair of proverbs seems conflicting or even contradictory, the first proverb moves the reader in a certain direction, then the contrasting proverb provides a balancing principle to point the reader toward another dimension of the skill of living in a complex world.

For example, Proverbs 26: 4 says, ‘Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness or you’ll be like him yourself,’ while the next verse says, ‘Answer a fool according to his foolishness, or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.’ The student of wisdom recognizes that encounters with a fool require responses appropriate to that particular situation. The student also recognizes that a variety of other approaches between those extremes may be the wise response, and the student’s goal is to become the kind of wisdom craftsman who can frame the appropriate response no matter the situation he faces.

Likewise, the ambiguity that often characterizes proverbs reflects the same pedagogy and goals. The student of wisdom is challenged by the ambiguity to explore the possibilities for understanding the proverb along with the variety of situations in which the principle appropriately applies. The ambiguity also promotes ongoing reflection as to the legitimate limits for applying the principle.

While the book addresses a wide variety of issues, it gives considerable attention to matters such as the contrast between the wise person and the fool, the importance of virtues such as diligence and self-control, the importance of using words wisely, warnings about sexual immorality, the responsible use of money, priorities, and advice about proper behavior in a variety of social settings. Most proverbs deal with the general and the typical, but their goal is to equip people with the skills to apply wisdom to the particular experiences of life.

#9 Post of 2015 – Why Did Moses Separate the Virgins and Non-Virgins of Midian?

In Numbers 31:18, Moses commands the officers of the army to kill all the women who have had sex and only keep alive the girls who are virgins. What is going here? Why would Moses give this command?

In order to understand this verse, we first have to understand the background. The Midianites, under the counsel of Balaam, devised a plan to cause Yahweh, the God of Israel, to turn against his people. The plan, which was executed in chapter 25 of Numbers, was to seduce Israelite men into fornication (single men) and adultery (married men), and then formal worship of the Midianite gods, especially Baal of Peor.

According to Glenn Miller (Christian Thinktank website), the number of Midianite women involved in this conspiracy would have been 6 to 12,000. Yes, you read that correctly. It would also appear that the Midianite kings and husbands of these women were complicit in the conspiracy. They were willing to send their women into the Israelite camp as prostitutes, essentially, to cause the downfall of Israel.

God does indeed turn against his people, given the sexual and religious crimes they have committed. A plague kills some 24,000 children of Israel. The only reason the plague ends is Phinehas’s quick action to put an end to the sordid affair.

With this background in place, God orders the Israelites to subjugate the Midianites, taking vengeance for their moral atrocities. The Israelites easily win the battle and the army returns with thousands of women captives. At this point, Moses commands the officers to “kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

It should be clear now that the females who the army has brought back are a mix of women who participated in the conspiracy and young girls who did not. Moses understandably considers the non-virgin women to be directly culpable for the deaths of thousands of Israelites. Setting this aside, they have shown already that they will turn the men of Israel away from Yahweh and toward Baal, causing further death and suffering in the future. These women simply cannot be allowed to survive.

Given Moses’ command, how could the Israelites tell the women apart? Glenn Miller explains that there were simple visual tests that could be applied:

“1) Was the female pre-pubescent? 2) Was the female wearing any attire, jewelry, or adornments required for/associated with virginity for that culture? 3) Was the female wearing any attire, jewelry, or adornments required for/associated with non-virginity for that culture (e.g., veil indicating married status)?”

He continues:

Because virginity was generally associated with legal proof for blood-inheritance issues in ancient cultures (e.g., land, property, kinship, relationships), virginity itself was often marked by some type of clothing (e.g., the robe of Tamar in 2 Sam 13) or by cosmetic means (cf. the Hindu ‘pre-marriage dot’); as was more typically non-virginal married status (e.g., veils, headwear, jewelry, or certain hairstyles).  Of course, non-virginal unmarried status (e.g., temple prostitutes and secular prostitutes) were also indicated by special markings or adornments (e.g. jewelry, dress—cf. Proverbs 7.10; Hos 2.4-5).

The young girls who were virgins would be taken in and cared for by Israelite families, partially to help replace the population of 24,000 who had died by the plague. The young girls would, like all other Israelite women, be married when they matured.