About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The "Revolting Peasant Theory" of Israelite Origins

I read an interesting article by Anson Rainey (Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University) in the Nov/Dec 08 edition of Biblical Archaeology Review.

In a nutshell Rainey was taking to task a theory very popular in Biblical Studies - what he calls 'the revolting peasant theory'. Here is a quick sketch of his argument.

In 1962 George Mendenhall proposed that, contrary to what the Bible says, the Israelites who settled in the hill country did not come into the land from east of the Jordan river. Rather, they were local Canaanite peasants from the coastal plains to the west who rebelled against the Canaanites city-states. The origin of the Israelites was therefore an internal revolt amongst the indigenous population. The Israelites were displaced Canaanites.

This theory was influentially built on by Normann Gottwald, in his book The Tribes of Yahweh, who applied a Marxist paradigm to interpret the origins of the Israelites.

William Dever provided, at last, some archaeological evidence to support the theory in 2003 and it is this evidence that Rainey is unimpressed by.

Dever says that the pottery of Iron Age I hill-country settlements is developed from that of Late Bronze Age Canaanite areas of the coastal plains. Rainey replies that the same pottery traditions can be found in Transjordan (evidence with Dever does not take into account) so Dever's argument shows nothing.

Dever notes that whilst the domestic house constructions in the hill-country differ from those on the coastal plain similar houses have recently been found on the plains. Rainey replies that they have also been found in Transjordan so Dever's argument falls short again.

Against the 'revolting peasant theory' Rainey also argues that

(a) the animal bones excavated on the plains shows that the Philistines and Canaanites kept pigs whilst the people living in the hill settlements did not (and pigs could very easily be kept in the hills). One would expect them to keep pigs if they came from a pig-keeping culture to the west. However, if they came from the non-pig keeping cultures of the east (for pigs are harder to keep in the heat and if on the move) it makes sense.

(b) Hebrew has more affinities with Transjordanian languages (e.g., Aramaic and Moabite) than Phoenician (i.e., coastal Canaanite). He discusses this point at some length. It strongly suggest that the Israelites dwelling in the hill country had come into the land from the east and had not come from the costal plains (pace Mendenhall, Gottwald, Dever).

(c) whilst the 'revolting peasant theory' was built upon the application of models from anthropology, Rainey thinks that the application of such models should have led in the opposite direction. There is plenty of evidence, past and present, of pastoralists seeking refuge in settled areas in times of stress (e.g., drought and famine). Also, at that period, there is evidence all across the eastern Mediterranean world and the Near East of massive invasions of sedentary areas by outsiders who found new homelands for their ethnic groups. Why could not the origin of the Israelites in Canaan be similar?

(d) as Dever himself notes, coastal Canaanite sites reflect a continuity of occupation from 13th to 11th C BCE with no evidence of any 'peasant revolt'.

In sum, Rainey concludes that 'there is no reason to doubt the principal assumption of the biblical tradition that the ancient Israelites migrated as pastoralists from east of the Jordan' (p. 50).

Well, I am no archaeologist and am simply not trained to assess the evidence. I have also long since learned to treat the pronouncements of archaeologists with caution (simply because the evidence is so ambiguous and the joining of the dots can be done in more ways than one). Nevertheless, at very least I think that Rainey gives us good grounds for being very suspicious of the revolting peasnat theory and that is no bad thing.

He also has the big advantage that his reading of the archaeological evidence is consistent with the traditions passed down by the Israelites. It all fits together. The attempt by some archaeologists to ignore biblical data as irrelevant to the task of constructing of a history of ancient Israel has always left me close to speechless. I mean, how absolutely ... you cannot be .... but you don't seriously mean to suggest ...




Sunday, 25 January 2009

Do Dolphins Carry the Cross?

I recently read a fascinating paper by Michael Northcott with the wonderful title, "Do Dolphins Carry the Cross?" With a title like that I had to read it!
Northcott is reflecting on Alasdair MacIntyre's book Dependent Rational Animals (1999). In that book MacIntyre seeks to ground an account of the virtues in narratives of dependent, as opposed to autonomous, existence. In this he is continuing to develop his revolt against Enlightenment ethics begun in After Virtue.
However, says Northcott, he has now moved away from the pure Aristotelian account of heroic virtues to a more Thomistic account grounded in an understanding of human embodiment. Humans - from birth to death - are biologically and emotionally dependent on others. We are dependent, vulnerable and weak and this is fundamental to understanding the virtues. Our moral lives are nurtured in communities in which we depend on other to acquire the skills - especially that of practical reasoning - that enable us to become mature individuals. And even as adults we need to acknowledge our ongoing dependence on others. The communities that we need for the formation of virtues are "networks of giving and receiving".
But a stress on embodied human life will lead one to note the similarities between humans and other animals (as Aquinas did). And some other animals, including dolphins, are "goal-directed animals who recognize a number of goods - such as child rearing, communication, skill in hunting, play, and socialbility - and are able to choose between them. Dolphins are therefore capable of elements of what humans call practical reasoning" (quoting Northcott's summary of MacIntyre)
Now MacIntyre acknowledges that it is only through the work of Aquinas that he has been enabled to see ethics in this way. He did not simply read the account straight off 'the facts'. What he does not mention, but what is central to Nortchott, is that Aquinas only saw things in this way because he was steeped in the Christian scriptures and, in particular, the narrative of creation and of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So whilst Northcott sees in MacIntrye's work an account of ethics that comes close to, and is compatible with, Christian ethics - an account which takes nature as 'the book of God's works' seriously as a means of revelation - he is not suggesting that one can rightly interpret this natural revelation without Scripture. It is the biblical story which opens up the meaning of the creation.
For the Christian the story of Christ is central to any account of the good life. That story gives moral priority to the weak. Christ is the key for making sense of the reality of creation and embodied life. The book of God's words (Scripture), through the cruciform narrative of Jesus, and the book of God's works (nature) sing from the same hymn sheet and the former provides the clue to the interpretation of the latter.
So - coming to the heart of the question: what are Christians to make of animal moralities? Northcott suggests that we can see something of a pre-Fall social order in dolphins. They "have not given themselves up so fully to the law of sin and death, violence and domination, as have the ancient and modern empires of human history." Dolphins may do something analogous to sinning but it appears that they do so far less than humans. Dolphins also need redemption (he does not elaborate on this claim but redemption from human abuse may be partly what he has in mind).
Christians should love dolphins because "they are in their exuberant playfulness, and richly communicative and intelligent lives, exemplars of a generous God who shared godlike qualities of community and intelligence well beyond [humanity]."
"Do dolphins carry the cross? Well, clearly no, they do not carry crosses, they have not heard the gospel, they do not, as far as we know, have the concept ... of God. But do they reveal, do they share in the hidden meaning of reality which the cross shows forth, and are they exemplars of the moral priority of the weak? Well yes." The community lives of dolphins exemplify something of the self-giving, 'cruciform' nature of the cosmos as a whole and, in that sense, they do carry the cross.
Interesting stuff. Any thoughts?

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The mainstream Jewish Rejection of Jesus as an act of fidelity to Jesus' God

Here is a highly controversial and thought provoking thought from Mark Kinzer. It comes from his book Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism (perhaps the the most fascinating theology book that I have read in the past five years). This is one of his more controversial claims
"In the light of Christian anti-Semitism and supersessionism, the Church’s message of the gospel comes to the Jewish people accompanied by the demand to renounce Jewish identity, and thereby violate the ancestral covenant. From this point onward the apparent Jewish “no” to Yeshua expresses Israel’s passionate “yes” to God – a “yes” which eventually leads many Jews on the way of martyrdom. Jews thus found themselves imitating Yeshua through denying Jesus! If the Church’s actual rejection of Israel did not nullify her standing nor invalidate her spiritual riches, how much more should this be the case with Israel’s apparent rejection of Yeshua!"
So the Jewish rejection of the gospel - once it was tied to a supersessionist framework - was fundamental for preserving Jewish identity (something about which God is very much concerned - or so I think). Thus by rejecting 'Jesus' Jews were - perhaps ironically - showing their fidelity to the God of Jesus.
This is not to suggest, by the way, that Jewish rejection of the gospel when it is not tied to a supersessionist, anti-Semitic framework is necessarily an act of fidelity to the God of Israel.
That said, the rejection of even a non-supersessionist version of the gospel (e.g., Paul's) is still within the providence of God (see Rom 9-11). The (temporary) rejection of Christ by mainstream Judaism is all part of God's purposes.
Sadly supersessionism still rules the roost in Christian theology so is the ongoing Jewish rejection of that 'spin' on the gospel a good thing?


Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Alexandra Burke's not-so-broken Hallelujah

My youngest daughter recently persuaded me to listen to Alexandra Burke's version of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" (2008 Christmas number 1 in the UK). You can watch the video here


I have to say that Alexandra has a beautiful voice and does a magnificent job. In one way I think I'd even say that I prefer her version to Cohen's and Jeff Buckley's (both on youtube).

But, that said, I think I have a problem with the Burke rendition.

Perhaps I misunderstand the musical genre that her version makes use of and my hesitations reflect that ignorance, but I must say that Burke's 'Hallelujah' simply does not sound broken enough for me. The AB 'Hallelujah' sounds beautiful and, as it progresses, increasingly happy and triumphant. I could imagine the congregation in our church swaying along to the chorus with faces turned towards heaven, eyes closed, and hands raised and the occasional "Jeeee-sus" and "Thank you Lord."

This impression is certainly reinforced by the video (see link above) which is a celebration of the emotional story of AB's journey to success on the X Factor TV show. At one point in the song there is even an audio clip of the announcement of her triumph and the roar of the crowd.

The problem for me seems to be a serious disjunction between the form and the content of the song. The rendition is communicating one message and the words are communicating quite another.

Now the mismatch between form and content can be used to powerful effect. Think of the way in which some movies will present a scene of horrible violence with a calm, beautiful piece of music overlaid over the top. The effect of such unexpected juxtapositions is jarring - and deliberately so. But there is no way that anything that intelligent that is going on here.

To me it appears that those who produced this version simply liked the tune and could see just how well Alex would be able to sing it, but they were not bothered about the lyrics. In so doing they have created a song that artistically shoots itself in the foot and perhaps trivializes the profound. It is, in its own particular way, a triumph of style over substance.

The moral of this story is not new - medium and message cannot be pulled apart without miscommunication. Or, as Mr Content once said in a husky snarl, "You mess with my girl Ms Form, and you're messing with me!" What God has joined together let no one pull assunder.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Wise words on Gaza from Salim Munayer

Here are some thought-provoking words from an amazing Palestinian Christian I know called Salim Munayer. Salim runs a reconciliation organization called Musalaha.

To both Israelis and Palestinians, the current conflict in Gaza has brought nothing but pain and suffering. It has also caused friction among some believers as they choose to pledge sole allegiance to their own people group. Some are even expressing an unabashed hatred for the other side through articles, e-mails and graphic content on Facebook.

From the Israeli point of view they pulled out of the Gaza Strip in the name of peace and an Islamic regime took over. Israel’s justification for going to war was to protect its citizens against Hamas launching rockets on the communities in the Negev. Soldiers continue to mobilize along the Gaza border as they prepare to defend their people and country against terror. They claim that others would have acted more quickly and aggressively. Their reasoning is that it is necessary to attack now before Hamas has longer-range missiles.

The Palestinians claim that though Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2006, the army is still controlling the borders making it the biggest open-air prison in the world. In the last 18-months, 1.5 million Palestinians have been under siege and were prevented from receiving sufficient water, medical aid and food supply. For the Palestinians, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was just an excuse to expand their control in the West Bank and build further settlements. The Palestinians also believe they have a right to self-defense. For them, the Israeli reaction is disproportionate. The number of Israelis killed cannot be compared to the hundreds of Palestinians killed.

Each player in the conflict places the full responsibility of the cycle of violence on the other side. There is a general unwillingness to enter into peace talks on ideological or political grounds. For example, Israel will say Hamas is an ideological religious organization that doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians, on the other hand, say the Palestinian Authority has entered into concessions and nothing substantial has evolved; all that increased were settlements and checkpoints.

So, what is our role as believers in this situation? How can we be a model of Messiah as we move forward in the reconciliation process? Are we too busy challenging the moral and ethical position of the other side that we are unwilling to take responsibility? Because our societies have chosen war and violence, there is a great need for reconciliation. We can accomplish this through taking on a priestly role of intercessor and prophetic role of speaking the truth.

While the conflict has divided some believers, there are those taking a stand and fulfilling their priestly role. I was greatly encouraged last week to hear a Messianic pastor lead his congregation in a prayer of repentance, especially emphasizing that in a time of war, repentance is necessary from both the Israelis and the Palestinians. We must begin by examining our own sins, failures and shortcomings and seek God’s forgiveness and direction.

Applying Joel 2, he read, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12-13). God desires us to grieve from within and turn our hearts back towards him. As we as believers intercede on behalf of the people in our societies we need to invoke the nature of God and beg for his mercy and compassion to fall upon us because we have sinned before him. We must also cry out for God’s mercy and compassion to fall upon the other side.

In time of war we are also called to take on a prophetic role. The prophet was a representative of God who brought a message primarily to effect social change. The prophet spoke the truth and reminded us to care for the widow, orphan and stranger. When speaking the prophetic word, we need to be blunt without any hidden messages, and we need to have the courage to speak out when our people are wrong. In the prophetic role we are reminded that we must not only speak out against the injustice which has been committed against our own people, but also against others. We have a duty to speak out against the misuse of power and the blood of the innocent shed whether it is Israeli or Palestinian.

The world views war as war. Some will say, “in war the innocent also die and we cannot help it.” My son was greatly distressed when his friend told him exactly this. I shared with him that in war we need to speak up for the innocent. We cannot justify the act of killing innocent people and say it was in self-defense. Yet, we cannot justify killing someone with a weapon just because they’re holding a weapon. Even killing in war for self-defense should be taken with caution and reverence. The enemy carrying the weapon is also a person who has also been created in the image of God. Especially in a time of war we need to speak louder and clearer against the misuse of power by our governments and their justification of power and violence. War doesn’t mean giving a free hand without any moral and ethical boundaries and limitations.

So, while we are in the midst of war, we need to honestly seek the will of God and be discerning. We must become intercessors for our nation, our leaders and the other side and ask God to pour out his mercy and compassion. We must also become the prophet and convey that message of injustice happening in our societies. We need to attempt to relieve the pain of the innocent even if we feel our side’s reasoning for war is justified. Instead of pointing the finger, let us look within ourselves and repent. Then let us look at the other side with compassion and love, with a love that transcends societal boundaries, rocket fire and airstrikes.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Resurrection and Hope

There is so much in the world that is just not right. There is so much darkness and tragedy. Sometimes I really struggle with why God does not stop it. The future is opaque - will it be brighter or darker still? People, animals and ecosystems can be so fragile - so easily broken.

What gives me hope - deep hope - is the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. I come back to it all the time. Here, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has already brought about the future of creation - proleptically - in the person of the Christ. In Christ all creation is gathered up and represented in his risen life.

So the gift of salvation, of eternal life, of redemption, resurrection, the kingdom of God, of new creation is already present in Christ's resurrection. It is simultaneously the means by which creation's redemption is brought about, and a promise that it shall be.

So we who hold on to the risen Lord do know the future of creation. Sure, we don't know everything about it (!!!) but we know something. We know that in the end God wins. That all will be well. That God's last word is given not to the crucifixion of his world but to its resurrection. And nothing ain't gonna stop it now because the gift has already been gifted - the risen, transformed body of our risen Lord!

Christ is risen! Hallalujah!

Thursday, 15 January 2009

A Brueggemannian Interpretation of 2 Sam 21:1-14

A couple of days ago I read the manuscript for a forthcoming book by Walter Brueggemann called Divine Presence Amid Violence (another commissioning triumph for my good friends at Wipf and Stock).

The book is focused on the question of how we can discern divine revelation in the very brutal and violent texts of the OT. How could there be a word of the LORD to Israel amid such violence and how can it be a word of the LORD to us in our different contexts today?

Brueggeman proceeds by way of a study of Joshua 11 and I found his reflections to be genuinely helpful. I will not tell you what they all were - you'll have to read the book for that when it comes out (it is a very short book so a nice, quick read).

Anyway, this morning I was reading 2 Sam 21:1-14. The story goes like this.

1. There was a famine in Israel for 3 years
2. David inquires of YHWH and YHWH tells him that the famine has come because Saul slew the Gibeonites (non-Israelites with whom Israel had a peace treaty - Josh 9). This was a bloody violation of a binding treaty agreement.
3. David summons the Gibeonites and asks how he can make amends.
4. They ask for seven of Saul's sons so that they can hang them. David agrees.
5. The seven men are executed by the Gibeonites.
6. Rizpah, the mother of two of the dead men, kept vigil over the bodies
7. David hears of this and is motivated to gather the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and those of the seven hanged sons of Saul, and to give them a dignified burial in the sepulchre of Kish, Saul's father.
8. Then God ends the famine.

I have always found this one of several objectionable texts that I have had to struggle with. Possibly Saul's sons had been involved in the massacre, but as far as the story is concerned their main 'crime' is being the sons of the man who committed the massacre. Punishing the sons for the sins of the father is an objectionable notion for us (and not only for us - the Law of Moses forbids it).

Anyway, inspired by Brueggemann I made a couple of simple observations that helped mea little.

1. God did not authorize the killing of Saul's sons. Strictly speaking the only direct divine revelation in the chapter is in 21:1b and there God simply pointed out the root cause of the problem and (implicitly) called David to do something about it.

2. The execution of the men did not end the famine, indicating that things had not been put right. That only ended when David treated the house of Saul with dignity and gave a propoer burial to all 9 dead men.

The story distances God somewhat both from the killing of the men and indeed from approving of the killing of them men. All we know for sure is that God disapproved of Saul's massacre of the Gibeonites and that David needed to make recompense. The death of the men was indeed an act of recompense but did not, of itself, solve the problem suggesting that God was not unambiguously satisfied. Only when David treated the Saulites with more respect did God relent.

Of course, this does not dissolve all the problems in this story nor does it deal with other stories. However, it does suggest ways in which the text might speask afresh into our contexts ... but I'll leave you to think about how.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Tom Wright's interpretation of Humpty Dumpty

I stole this from the "Euangelion" blog also but it is very funny (at least it is if you are familiar with the work of N.T. Wright).

Thanks to Jason Hood for writing up this funny little gem of a story.

Tom Wright reads Humpty Dumpty (In the Spirit of Bultmann Reads Mother Goose)

Written in Durham Cathedral, dedicated to Rowan Williams.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Clearly the writer alludes to the Temple. This echoes other lines in early 2nd nursery literature, such as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard (the “storehouse” of the Temple) and the bone (resurrection life) which she sought for her dog (“Gentiles”). “But when she got there, the cupboard was bare and the poor little doggie had none.” The temple had nothing to offer the Gentiles, and they thus remained in their state of Adamic sin and decay. So here, too, one suspects the Temple and its “wall” are bankrupt. The next line, then, does not surprise:

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Again, this is patently an echo of the Temple’s destruction, doubtless with the intent of leading the reader to ponder the eschatological recreation of the Temple. Since Humpty stands for the Temple, he seems to be sharing in the divine identity, functioning as the locus of God’s presence, not outside, but within creation. Of course, this fall is an exile of sorts, a removal from the locus of God’s presence. The tension is palpable: how will humpty’s story not turn out dumpty? In other words, this line presupposes what I have called elsewhere the great metanarrative of humpty, not least the promise of resurrection.

But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again.
So the Temple will be built again, but not by human hands. Many have undertaken to suggest that this passage runs counter to a belief in resurrection. But this atomistic reading of the text lacks imagination. Of course, it is the king himself who will put humpty together again, so that the metanarrative will not fail. After all, Humpty is the place where he is resident with his creation. But the failure to recreate Humpty does not negate all human effort for creation, which should be done in light of the proleptic nature of the king’s restoration of humpty and all creation.

Augustine, Calvin and Barth joke

Here is a joke I stole from the "Euangelion" blog:

Augustine, Calvin and Barth find themselves waiting outside the throne room on the Day of Judgement.

Augustine goes in first, and after half an hour comes out and says to the others: 'It was wonderful! I had all the mysteries of sin, grace and salvation explained to me!'

Next, Calvin goes in, comes out an hour later and says to the others: 'It was wonderful! I had all the mysteries of election, predestination and divine sovereignty explained to me!'

Finally, Barth goes in.
After two hours, God comes out and says to the others: 'I've still got no idea what he is talking about!'

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Questions not Scribbles

So here I am sitting thinking to myself, "C'mon mate! Post something profound."

But nothing comes.

Every topic I care to cast my mind to has more questions for me than I have answers. So I could write down lots of questions about all sorts of things from the 'big issues' to detailed textual issues to do with specific biblical texts. My life is full of questions.

But do I have anything really profound to say right now?

Not really. But I'll let you know when I do.

In the meantime here is a silly little textual puzzle (one I have not really thought about but just briefly wondered about)

Isaiah 63:7-64:12 is a wonderful prayer of praise and petition. It looks like a model prayer in many ways.

But Isaiah 65-66 seem to be God's equivalent of a rejection of the prayer. "No I will not redeem Israel in the way that I have been saying that I will throughout the latter part of the book of Isaiah and in the way that you have asked me to. They are too bad and I have had it with them! Instead I will save a sub-set of Israel and damn the rest!"

So whilst I find Isaiah 65-66 wonderful in many ways they do seem on the surface to undermine a key element in the divine promises thus far.

But this is simply a reflection on a superficial read. I am sure that on closer inspection it will all make sense (it is interesting that Paul applies Isaiah 65:2 to the bulk of Israel in his own day and yet he hold out a more universal hope for the salvation of all Israel - including the currently 'rejected' bulk that Isaiah 65-66 seem to.)

I notice that Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer has argued that 63:7-64:12 is quoted in order to refute it but that by including the full text readers might relativise 65-66 in the light of it. Hmmmmmm. Not at all sure about the hermeneutics involved there but it is an interesting suggestion.

All thoughts welcome.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Darwin at 200 and The Origin of Species at 150!

Happy Anniversaries Charles! A doubly whammy this year! You are 200 and your book is 150.

I thought that you might be interested in reading a couple of Paternoster books coming out in 2009 (one in the first half and the other in the second half)

Debating Darwin:
Two Debates - Is Darwinism True, and Does it Matter?
Graeme Finlay, Stephen Lloyd, Stephen Pattemore, David Swift

This one does what it says on the packet - it contains a debate on whether your theory is compatible with orthodox Christian faith (Finlay and Pattemore say 'Yes' and Lloyd says 'No')and another debate on whether current science supports (so Finlay) or undermines it (so Swift).

Theology After Darwin
Edited by R.J. Berry and Michael Northcott

This one starts from the working hypothesis that you were right and asks how Christian theology can accomodate it. Lots of high flying theological thinkers seek to take your theory seriously in their theological reflections on topics from theological anthropology to theodicy; from original sin to eschatology.

Have a good year