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Response to Diglot’s Review

Kevin, over at the illustrious book-review blog Diglotting, has written a very fine critical review of my book, The Human Faces of God. The review is in two parts, with part one covering the first seven chapters of the book, and part two tackling the last three chapters.

Kevin’s review is, I think, overwhelmingly a positive one, and he picks up on several aspects of my book that I think are very important. I won’t repeat his many points of agreement with me here; instead I will respond to the few criticisms that he made. I think they are important ones, and I am grateful to him for raising the issues.

First, in reference to my chapter on human sacrifice in the Bible. I argue that human sacrifice was acceptable orthopraxy for much of Israel’s history, until it came to be condemned by a handful of prophets in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Kevin writes that “overall this chapter did not convince me of the proposal regarding child sacrifice but Stark did make some salient points.”

What can’t be denied about the evidence is that Israelites did practice human sacrifice. We need no archaeological evidence for this; the evidence is in the text itself. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel would not have condemned the Israelite practice of human sacrifice if Israelites weren’t practicing it. So, as Kevin no doubt understands, that it happened cannot be disputed. The question is whether the practice enjoyed religious sanction or not. It is clear that in Micah 6:6-8, the sacrifice of one’s own child is held up as the ultimately example of sacrifice; Micah’s rhetoric would not have worked if his hearers didn’t share that assumption. But the most problematic text is Ezek 20:25-26. Ezekiel wishes to condemn the institution of human sacrifice, but in so doing plainly admits that it was commanded by Yahweh to the Israelites in the wilderness. Ezekiel’s way of resolving this problem is to claim that Yahweh only did so as a form of punishment. Israel doubted Yahweh, and so as punishment, Yahweh demanded that they sacrifice their firstborn sons to him as a first-fruits offering. That this is what Ezekiel says cannot be denied (the NIV’s best efforts to do so notwithstanding). So we are left with two options: either Ezekiel was right and Yahweh did command Israelites to sacrifice their children to him, but not because he really wanted it, rather only as a way of punishing them for their children. But of course, this would go against Ezekiel’s claim elsewhere that Yahweh does not punish the children for the sins of their parents. The other option is the one I think far more reasonable, namely that Ezekiel was stretching to explain away a troubling tradition that even he couldn’t deny was in the Law of Moses. The fact that he references the wilderness laws is also good indication that what we now call Exodus 22 was being appealed to by those who practiced child sacrifice in support of their brand of religiosity. So we have evidence that (1) Israelites practiced child sacrifice, that (2) they appealed to the law of Moses in defense of their practice, and that (3) Ezekiel affirmed that the command was indeed in the law of Moses. I am not sure which part of this is unconvincing to Kevin.

Perhaps he remains unconvinced for a different reason. A later criticism he raises with regard to this chapter has to do with the sparseness of my citations. Kevin writes that “there is not a great deal of footnotes to back up his assertions. I think that this could possibly make the reader assume it is just his own conjecture and not a widespread idea in scholarship. I’m not saying there are no references (as he does provide them at times), but I would have like to have seen more.”

This is a valid criticism as far as it goes. The challenge I faced was in trying to balance making the book accessible (which often involves not overloading the reader who is not used to pages full of footnotes) with making each argument as thoroughly supported by the secondary literature as possible. No doubt there are some instances in which I ought to have included more citations, and that is not to say that I couldn’t have provided them readily. No doubt, conversely, there are other instances where I may have used too many footnotes. I tried to make the best judgment I could with readability for the non-academic as my primary guiding light, but no doubt I made some wrong choices throughout.

That said, with reference to the chapter on human sacrifice, as I pointed out, much of my argument in certain sections was indebted to the work of Jon Levenson. So at the beginning of each pertinent section I would include an all-encompassing footnote, referring to Levenson’s fuller argument. Levenson engages the counterpoints of dissenting scholars in much greater detail in his academic volume than I was able to do my in my semi-popular treatment. Moreover, Levenson hardly represents a minority in this regard in terms of critical scholarship. So while Kevin is certainly correct that to some readers, it will appear as if my argument is weak due to lack of sources, I think that the few references I did provide are sufficient to support my argument, should those who are not convinced choose to chase down my sources.

No doubt there are other cases throughout the book (I don’t think the human sacrifice chapter is one of them necessarily) where I made claims that were not supported with secondary literature. But this was usually done consciously, on minor points and for the sake of readability. These are unfortunate choices that those who try to distill academic information for a wide readership have to make, and every choice one way or the other is a sacrifice (no pun intended).

Kevin does suggest that the book would have been much better served if I had included a subject bibliography at the end of each chapter, and that is a very valid criticism, and to be honest, the thought never occurred to me, but should have. He’s right about that. However, that would have raised the price of the book by a few dollars, since Wipf and Stock determines retail price according to page number. That is the very reason we chose not to include indexes in the book.

The second part of his review devotes by far the most space to my eighth chapter, “Jesus Was Wrong,” in which I argue that Jesus as presented by the Synoptic Gospels was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted that the final judgment of the world would occur within the lifetime of his first-generation disciples.

Here, Kevin agrees in broad strokes with most of my argument, but was not fully convinced that my thesis applied to every portrait painted of Jesus in each of the synoptics. Kevin discloses that he holds to a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, which essentially means that Jesus did not predict the end of the world, but rather just the destruction of Jerusalem. The preterist position sustains itself through a metaphorical interpretation of much of Jesus’ apocalyptic language, and it is a position that I devote no fewer than twelve pages in this chapter to refuting, particularly as it is expressed in the work of N. T. Wright.

Kevin agrees that my portrait of broader Jewish apocalypticism is accurate, but is not convinced that Jesus fits squarely within that apocalyptic script, as I argue he does. Kevin writes:

While I would agree that the apocalyptic worldview expected a restored paradise wrought by a decisive display of divine deliverance, I am not so convinced to attribute that worldview to Jesus (in its entirety), as I think the synoptics show that Jesus had an alternative and quite unconventional idea regarding the nature of the kingdom of God and what it would entail (e.g. Luke 17.20-21).

Kevin rightly notes that I anticipate this objection, the idea that Jesus had radically different ideas about the coming of the kingdom than did other Jewish apocalypticists. In my chapter I show what accounts for these differences, and that they aren’t radical. Indeed, the Qumranites shared the same variant on the standard apocalyptic script that Jesus did. Like Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God was already breaking into the world through their agency, but that it was yet to come in a concrete and universal way, and imminently.

But Kevin cites Luke 17:20-21 as evidence that Jesus had a radically different view of the coming of the kingdom. Let’s look at that, and then we’ll see why it doesn’t reflect the radically different script that Kevin, and other preterists, suppose it does.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

On Kevin’s reading, this means that for Luke at least, the kingdom of God is something different than what other Jewish apocalypticists supposed it was—that it was not a worldwide judgment and divine regime change at the “end of history”; rather it was a new way of existence breaking into the midst of the old.

I chart out on p. 166 how Jesus (and the Qumranites) saw the kingdom breaking in now among them, and yet still expected it to break in soon on a global scale. But let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 in its broader context.

First, note to whom Jesus is speaking. He’s not speaking to his disciples, he’s speaking to the Pharisees, his opponents. These are the ones who constantly seek a sign, the kind of sign Jesus refused to give them. Note in Luke 11:14-20, Jesus exorcises a demon and his opponents asked him for a further sign that the kingdom of God was coming through him. Jesus refused to give them any further sign than the obvious signs that were staring them straight in the face. This culminates with Jesus’ warning: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

This is what scholars call the “proleptic” presence of the kingdom; Jesus’ ministry is a sign that the worldwide kingdom of God is imminent. It is not to Jesus’ disciples that these claims are made, but to Jesus’ opponents. He does the work of God, but they continue to disbelieve. They are missing the signs of the coming kingdom, even while they pretend to be open to seeing them.

The same motif pertains to Kevin’s passage in Luke 17. To the Pharisees, Jesus refuses to give any further sign, and warns them that the kingdom of God is already upon them, in and through him. But note that just a few verses later, after Jesus had finished speaking to the Pharisees, he turns to his own disciples, and that’s when he gives them the real message of the coming kingdom. He held back when speaking to the Pharisees, but discloses what is yet to come to his disciples:

Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.” (Luke 17:22-27)

In the context of the Pharisees’ question about the coming kingdom, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that it is yet to come, and that they should not be fooled by those who claim that it has come. Jesus tells them that when it comes, they will not be able to miss it, like the Pharisees are now missing the signs of its coming. When he speaks to his disciples, Jesus offers a straight answer. The coming of the kingdom will not occur until after Jesus has suffered and been rejected by this generation.

Note further that in verse 33, in describing the destruction that is about to be heaped upon Jerusalem, Jesus says that “those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” This is a reference to resurrection. Those who lose their life in the period of intense suffering just prior to the judgment (the period of suffering that incites God’s judgment), they will get their lives back when the Son of Man comes.

No doubt, preterists like Kevin will respond that this passage does not refer to a worldwide judgment, but merely to the judgment upon the city of Jerusalem. This is in fact Kevin’s reading of the Olivet Discourse later in Luke 21. Kevin writes, “The preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse is not new – the author of Luke interpreted it this way (see Luke 21, especially verse 20).” But I emphatically disagree with Kevin that Luke reflects an early preterist view. First, Luke 21:20 does not offer a preterist interpretation, not in the slightest. It says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” All that is depicted here is the judgment upon Jerusalem. This is obviously in every version of the Olivet Discourse. What preterists miss is the obvious signs that it is the judgment upon Jerusalem that directly precedes the worldwide judgment.

Note that Jesus refers to the “desolation” of Jerusalem. This is again a reference to the “abomination that causes desolation” (see the parallels in Mark and Matthew) which refers to the desecration of the temple in the second century BCE by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The book of Daniel referenced this “abomination that causes desolation” in chapter 11, but note what the script says, according to Daniel. The abomination that causes desolation isn’t the end of the story. In the book of Daniel, immediately after Jerusalem is made desolate, the archangel Michael rises up and destroys the enemies of God’s people and delivers the people of God, leading them into a period of everlasting peace, where the righteous dead are raised to life, and the wicked are punished. In Daniel, the desolation of the temple incites God to take vengeance on the enemies of Israel. This is precisely what we see taking place in Luke (as well as in Matthew and Mark).

Right after Luke’s Jesus mentions the desolation of Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples at that time to flee to the mountains, just as the Maccabean revolutionaries fled to the mountains in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Then Luke says (v. 24) that Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled. What does this mean? It means that once the Romans attack Jerusalem, their time is pretty much up. When their time is up, that’s when the Son of Man will come on the clouds to avenge his people. There will be portents in the heavens, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and, according to Luke, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (21:26). Note that this describes a worldwide judgment, not merely a judgment on Jerusalem (which has already taken place). The judgment upon Jerusalem is precisely what instigates the judgment upon the world. Luke’s Jesus goes on:

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

I make it clear in my chapter what this means. According to Luke, the redemption of the people of God follows immediately upon destruction of Jerusalem. When the Son of Man comes, that is the redemption of the people of God, not the judgment against them (which has already taken place). Kevin, I think, misses this. Luke’s Jesus concludes the discourse, saying,

Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

If the disciples are able to escape the suffering that will come upon Jerusalem, then they will be there to stand before the Son of Man when he comes to deliver them from the Gentiles, when the Gentiles’ time has been fulfilled. This is precisely the same script we see in Daniel 11-12, as well as the same script we see in Zechariah 14, where God brings the Gentiles against Jerusalem in order to judge Jerusalem, only immediately to turn around and wipe out the Gentiles for doing so, ushering in an era of everlasting peace for Jerusalem and God’s people, and the worldwide hegemony of Israel. This is precisely what we see in Luke 21.

I think it is clear that there is no way to interpret Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse in a preterist fashion.

Now, all of that is said in response to Kevin’s few criticisms of my argument, but his overall review, I think, was very positive. My responses to his criticisms shouldn’t be taken as an indication that I am not exceedingly grateful to Kevin for taking the time to write such a great review! I most certainly am. And it is clear that Kevin and I agree about a lot more than we disagree, and that is always nice.