Mike Pence is Terrible, but in a Totally Acceptable Way: A Lament

Preface: Mike, if you happen to read this, I’m sorry that you became Example 1-A for my lament. You are a public servant, however, and I just happened to see your ad one too many times. Good luck in the race, and I hope you’ll give some thought to that He-who-made-a-way guy, if elected.

How does a particular amalgamation of mainstream politicians become so appallingly atrocious that I will likely vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election for a scruffy-bearded ex-contestant on Survivor, CBS’ never-ending reality show that must nowadays refer to its few remaining viewers? Well, unfortunately, I can’t say much about the systemic causes of the ever-deepening rot of America’s political ruling classes/parties, but I can gawk at and lament about the trainwreck produced incessantly by the election cycle’s inescapable death march toward November.

Meet Mike Pence, Indiana’s very own Flat Stanley, a shockingly boring and vanilla Republican candidate for governor, and the current Congressman from the state’s sixth district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Go ahead, clickthrough to his website; my post will still be around when you wake up from your nap.

Recognizing that some numbers sound like English words, Pence’s campaign, ever-so-cleverly named “Pence4Indiana” on YouTube, is responsible for this excruciatingly generic drivel of a “campaign ad.” It airs on just about every commercial break during the Olympics, but I’ll only ask you to waste 30 seconds of your time watching it.

Great, eh? Indiana has somewhat of a significant National Guard, and some people choose to serve in it. Good for them. Nevermind that the National Guard is not the active-duty Army, even though our military adventurism of the last decade turned them into that on a de facto basis.

But this post is not about the people who choose to join the National Guard or any other branch of the armed forces, their multitude of reasons for doing so, or the like. It is about the jarringly annoying way politicians use rhetoric for perceived gains, especially when weighed against banal statist obeisance to the supposed religious principles of the majority.

(Please, read that previous paragraph again if you have to. This is not an attack against people who join the armed forces. It is a much, much broader lament about a society that both desires and permits injustice and rewards politicians who fail to question the reign of death posed by our foreign policy on the encouragement of the military-industrial complex and the fear machine. Deep breath.)

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Let’s start with the absolute basics. I was elected as a delegate earlier this year to the Indiana State Republican Convention, and if you know anything about me at all, you know that I went solely in support of Ron Paul. The state party did everything in its power to ensure that our voice was silenced, using its night-before-the-convention emendations to parliamentary process to silence the strong minority of us who were attending not to schmooze with powerful people in button-down shirts, but to challenge the legality of a clause preventing any debate about party-appointed nominees. Instead, we could only vote yea or nay to their slate of party-line-towers hoping for political careers. This, America, is how you get your politicians.

Anyway, on the second day of the convention, we had the distinct privilege of listening to people speak for 3 hours. These people included one Mike Pence, the party’s uncontested candidate to replace Mitch Daniels as governor. Here’s part of Pence’s riveting speech that day, just after he spoke about “faith,” “morals,” and how to “renew our land”:

Two centuries ago, as our pioneer forebearers labored to carve a home in the woods that was Indiana, they did not labor alone. And I believe with all my heart that He who made a way through that dense and dangerous forest, through harsh elements, toils and snares is with us still today.

I start with this not because those comments sounded particularly stupid to me at the time, but because his snoozer of a speech as a whole, and these excerpts, reveal enough about the candidate’s perspective to illustrate a basic theology: God is with Us, Jesus is on Our Party’s side, He will help us navigate this stormy political climate, and it’s a Good Thing for my candidacy if I sound this way when I speak to Hoosiers.

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Now, back to the advertisement.

I’m not sure it’s fair to label it as an advertisement, actually. The information it contains is not especially relevant to Pence’s gubernatorial campaign. If I was in high school again and asked to judge the few statements that Pence makes for their communicator’s purpose, I would have to say “to inform.” Of course, Pence did not sit down and film an ad, involve creative firms to produce an ad, and pay immense sums to NBC Universal to air an ad every waking hour of the day just to inform Hoosiers that their National Guard is the fourth largest in the country. There are deep, persuasive elements at play in the ad, and Pence wants you and I to know that he thinks about the American military exactly as we common people do.

As if we had any question about that.

But beyond the feel-good background music and the silhouetted imagery of glorious assault rifle barrels, what do we learn about Pence as a candidate here, other than the fact that he doesn’t mind taking regular Congressional junkets (on the American taxpayer’s dime) as photo ops to shake hands with our troops?

Considering the placement of the ad–during Olympic commercial breaks when our pro-USA excitement is generally pretty high–can we accept the its intentional nationalism (at best) or blatant jingoism (at worst)? Isn’t the Olympics supposed to be apolitical, to foster a sense of respect and togetherness for humanity, and aren’t we supposed to be affected by seeing the faces of The Other who, though he or she happened to be born in some other region of the world, wishes to live a fruitful life, just like us?

How do we square the dichotomy of military bravado with the command to love one’s neighbor, and especially the example of nonviolent resistance to oppression and corruption given by one Jesus of Nazareth?

How is signing on to destroy human life, or worshipping those who do, a “blessing”?

What do “service” and “sacrifice” actually mean?

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I’ve often thought that we, as American Christians, should be far more forgiving to Pontius Pilate. After all, he was just a lad born into the undisputed, uncontested, unchallenged and unmistakeable ruling empire of his day; the world had never before seen such a thing as Rome. Personally, he had aspirations of power and political greatness, and was doing his best to work his way up the chain of command, even if that meant toiling as Prefect of Judaea. Now, I don’t have any insider access to his personal thoughts, but I think it’s fair to say that he probably went about his life without ever questioning the morality of the use of force against oppressed peoples, which meant he had no problem using brutal force against those who his empire dominated violently, even for the most benign of reasons. He, like Rome in general, was not especially critical about who made their way onto his kill list from these inconsequential lands.

Through the armed-forces-worship, this is exactly what I hear from Pence’s advertisement. Only, it’s not in an explicitly abhorrent sort of way, whereby he cheerleads the deaths of people who happen to be on the wrong side of our armed drones, or superimposes the number of dead Middle Easterners all over the screen.

It’s in an I-know-the-American-people-are-totally-cool-with-this sort of way.

And that, to me, is far worse.

The Jonah Fable

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of January 31. Enjoy!

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For the modern critical scholar, both the book and the person of Jonah are difficult to date, relate, and investigate for a variety of reasons. The contents of the book of Jonah do not exactly lend historical credence to its narrative elements, perhaps leading to a suggestion that the text was intended solely as moral literature. A clue useful in pinning down the prophet is offered outside of the book bearing his name, as Old Testament readers also find Jonah delivering a message of expansion from Yahweh to King Jeroboam, son of Joash. Speaking of King Jeroboam II, the 2 Kings texts reads, “He restored the border of Israel from Lebohamath as far as the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of [Yahweh], the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kgs 14:25 NRSV). So how does an easily forgettable character, known only for prophesying to an unfavorable king of Israel, end up famous for a strange amphibious encounter to possibly being mentioned within Jesus’ ministry for his σημεῖον, or sign (Mt 16:4)? In his examination of the Jonah narrative’s insight into Old Testament Israel’s conception of mission, Daniel C. Timmer wonders aloud if the surviving literature is “as much a rogue as its main character, playing havoc with the theological expectations of the canonical reader.”[1] As this reflection paper explores, very little of the “rogue” Jonah narrative follows a “normal” or “expected” path.

Jonah and the "Great Fish"
Here’s a rendering of what probably didn’t ever happen.

Careful readers are immediately confronted with the amount of liberties taken within the text, from the points at which it simply lacks specificity to instances of abject hyperbole. For example, J. Gordon McConville writes that Jonah’s depiction of Nineveh’s size hardly matches current archaeological observations, and, moreover, that the literature is unlikely to reflect the actual system of government within the city.[2] So while the original author of Jonah would have undoubtedly known about Nineveh, a sense of distance from the city—both in proximity and theology—accompanies the text. Meanwhile, a number of other details range from improbable to outrageous, including Jonah’s manic depressive behavior, the suggestion of knee-jerk city-wide repentance, to even pondering the anatomical features and requirements of a fish great enough to swallow a man. Finally, one has to wonder at the gullibility of the Ninevites. In his supposed travels through the town’s streets, Jonah was hardly specific about the prophecy he received or even the one from whom it had been received, and yet the inhabitants of Nineveh either follow the king’s lead in mourning and fasting or beat him entirely to the punch. The king’s speech suggests that Jonah may have even obscured the name of Yahweh as he prophesied, as the generic ‘elohim is used: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind” (Jon 3:9 NRSV).

Perhaps the most significant unexpected element of the narrative is the repentance of Nineveh, which was acceptable to Yahweh and qualified Jonah as “the most successful evangelist in history,” per Victor H. Matthews.[3] Given that the historicity of the Jonah story is deeply in question, the temporal salvation of Nineveh would have been a lesson to the author’s first audience, and it may have been as shocking as the Beatitudes or the parable of the Good Samaritan were to those gathered around Jesus. As Matthews and McConville document, Jonah reads as a coming out party for universalism, or the availability of Yahweh to people groups beyond Israel, though it should stand equally as a caution against both evading the call of God and expecting certain outcomes from one’s ministry. Despite the problems that pervade Jonah, the inherent theological lessons are not diminished by the possibility of pure literary origin.


[1] Daniel C. Timmer, “Jonah and Mission: Missiological Dichotomy, Biblical Theology, and the Via Tertia,” Westminster Theological Journal 70, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 160.

[2] J. Gordon McConville, A Guide to the Prophets, vol. 4 of Exploring the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 186.

[3] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 165.

What About Mark? John?

What about Bob?As Christians, we generally ignore these two gospels around Christmas time unless they are otherwise advantageous to us. Mark serves us… well, by having served Matthew and Luke enough to finagle Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. (The birth story wouldn’t have been quite the same if Mary texted her midwife and gave birth to Jesus in the spare room of her Nazarene home, right?) While we can always count on John for a spoonful of divinity-speak, Mark and John certainly don’t say anything about the supposed Bethlehemic birth of Jesus, which is what we tend to be celebrating.

Or are we? Is there anything about our Christmas celebration that would indicate we’re celebrating something more than Winter Solstice (or Festivus)? We like to think so, but we’re easily susceptible to the trap of materialism (believe it or not) and traditionalism.

Something I look forward to around Christmas and Easter is the broadcast of religious-themed programming on TV stations like the History Channel and National Geographic purporting to explore the history behind our traditions and the historicity of the holidays in general. I was reminded last night about the pagan roots of our celebrations, from the “Christmas” tree to the candles to other nonsense that has nothing to do with the birth and life of Jesus.

But these hour-long features are a topic unto themselves. Since we have no footage from many thousands of years ago, actors and actresses are hired to reinforce the stereotypes that scholarly types eventually come on screen to refute. And anytime some sort of Hebrew or Greek translation error comes into play, it is drawn out and treated like a major revelation. Six to eight minutes of solid information is stretched out into 47 minutes, and after you solicit advertising, you’ve got yourself an unnecessary hour-long block. But that’s not all! Some sort of ambiguous ending is always thrown in, so you are left with no clue why you just spent an hour of your time learning nothing in particular.

But back to those not-so-Christmasey gospels. For all of the affinity that pastors have with John (hard to ignore those way and truth and life Ἐγώ εἰμι statements), it just throws a wrench into the Bethlehemic birth story. Jesus wasn’t just God’s divine son, but he even preexisted with God before coming to Earth! While the common “good” Christian thing to do is meld these accounts into an über-Gospel, it’s important we recognize that John’s community put their gospel into writing not to augment the Synoptics, but to supplant them.

For Mark, it was enough that Jesus was and Jesus did. But predictably enough, the communities that heard his gospel started asking questions, and started thinking of him in terms of the history of Israel. Was Jesus the one who was to come? Was he “Emmanuel,” God with us? Certainly a man so knowledgeable and gracious had an eventful birth.

I’m not going to pretend like I have all of the historical answers, but we can’t deny that those people who Jesus interacted with on a daily basis didn’t ask and didn’t care where he came from, how he was born, etc. The disciples didn’t whisper to each other about it in their spare time, and they didn’t entertain such gossip about him from outsiders (biblically speaking). Either they all knew and accepted his upbringing (which would have made it into Mark) or they didn’t care. I subscribe to the latter interpretation.

Which would mean that the message of Jesus is in his message, not in his person. Not in his birth.

Which would mean that we’re wasting a lot of time worrying about the acceptance of our nativity scenes.

Which would mean that on his “birthday” (I say that very loosely), shouldn’t we be stressing his message – his vision of the Kingdom – rather than fables that were crafted after his death?

Merry Christmas, and may we come to understand what that really means.

One Semester Down!

Well, I made it.

Academically, this surely will not have been the hardest semester of my postgraduate experience, but it will probably come to be the hardest one logistically.

 

A squirrel hanging from a birdhouse has nothing to do with this blog entry, but it was one of the first photos that came up on a Google Image Search for “whew.”

 

The actual truth of the matter is that my semester ended eight days ago. But for the last week or so, we’ve been frantically packing our apartment so we can move to campus just after Christmas. I feel fortunate enough to blog about it all now that I’m with family to celebrate Christmas or Winter Solstice or whatever it is that we celebrate this time of year (more on that tomorrow).

But starting next semester, I won’t have to wake up so early for my early classes! I’ll still wake up early, and hopefully go through the gym routine before classes begin, but I’m most excited about not having to waste time (and gas) on the drive to and fro. That will free up time to do coursework at a more reasonable hour, cook dinner more often, sleep longer, devote some time to a community ministry and hopefully have a free weekend every now and then for some recreation. Like all of that will ever happen like I imagine.

To recap from the year that was, all of my classes ended excellently… a 4.0 semester! I certainly didn’t expect that, but I’ll take it and try to repeat it again in the spring. Two of my classes – Greek and Old Testament – essentially continue in the semester to come, and to that I will add the history of the Church of God movement (I’ll call it CHOG History) and “Christians and Old Testament Theology,” which has interested me throughout the past semester of Old Testament class. It will be exciting to interact with the beliefs of the Israelite fathers and prophets and understand how Christians can more faithfully apply that to a well-rounded base of faith.

Other than the big post-Christmas move, I have two major personal goals during the break. Those are…

  1. Read for fun! I have been reading Jesus the Riddler by Tom Thatcher for the greater part of the semester, and am almost finished with it. It has been a great read, even if my wife has ridiculed me for enjoying such “boring” books. The good news is that I’ve also checked out Thatcher’s other book, Why John WROTE a Gospel. I have another about the history of Messianic expectations, but I probably will not get to that until next semester.
  2. Apply for funding to go to Israel this coming summer. Through a fellowship, Anderson University funds a student to travel to Israel for an archaeological dig each summer, and I want to get that either this summer or next… but preferably this summer. I have picked out an interesting dig site (Tel Hazor) and need to fulfill the application requirements, including an essay, before January 15.

And besides those things, it would be nice to add some new and fresh content to the blog for the new year. I’m sure I’ll hammer out a blog post or two once I’m settled in Anderson!

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 4

For Old Testament this semester, I had to complete a 12-page exegesis on some passage of 15 verses or so from Genesis through 2 Kings. Given that I have always enjoyed the story of Joseph, I chose the pericope of the young, svelte servant man and his master’s wife. You are reading Part 4 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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5.  Commentary Body (v. 20-23)

Verse 20 Skipping ahead ten verses, readers know that Joseph is not thrown into jail for refusing to fornicate with Potiphar’s wife, but rather on her accusation of rape.[1] Though it is learned at the conclusion of verse 19 that Potiphar became enraged, the fact that Joseph escapes a harsher sentence is especially significant, perhaps signaling that “in his heart [Potiphar] was really convinced of Joseph’s innocence, and only for the sake of his honor” was Joseph removed from the house.[2] Furthermore, the prison to which Joseph is sent is actually a royal prison among the house of Pharaoh, and is not appropriate for a Hebrew slave accused of rape.[3] Perhaps Joseph himself is never a prisoner at all, but rather is reassigned to a less sexy post as a manager of the prison, where he can remain useful.

Verse 21 Joseph’s reassignment from Potiphar’s house does not come at the cost of Yahweh’s presence, which returns to him immediately at the beginning of this verse. Moreover, Yahweh shows the clearly wronged Joseph the covenantal language of hesed (translated in the NRSV as “steadfast love”), but readers must ask: how can the narrator make these claims when “what actually happens in the story hardly suggests in any direct way that Yahweh was with Joseph or that he ‘extended him hesed’?”[4] This hesed does eventually lead to favor in the eyes of the prison keeper. Perhaps, however, the narrator’s intent is not a to provide a sound reasoning for God’s actions, but rather to mirror verse 2.[5] In both cases, Joseph is anchored in a place, given Yahweh’s presence, and granted some measure of success.

“Hey Joseph, the whole town is going to start wondering about you if you just wear your pink outfit everwhere.”

Verses 22-23[6] These final two verses feature the entire rainbow of themes and key words already addressed in the passage, including the kol of duties twice placed in Joseph’s hands, the sight of the prison’s keeper, and Yahweh’s presence with and blessing upon Joseph. Linguistically, these verses repeat and reflect one another while also providing the perfect lens through which to understand both the events in Potiphar’s house and the royal prison scene to follow. Readers are left knowing that Yahweh is still on Joseph’s side and that the events of the passage were “possible because Yahweh . . . gave success to all that he did; [the narrator] repeats the refrain not just for the sake of the framework of ch. 39, but as his theological introit to the Joseph narrative. What is said here holds for Joseph’s rise as a whole.”[7]

6.  Commentary Conclusion

Several chapters later, Joseph excuses his brothers for their wrongful actions, as he insists that God was behind his rise to a position of status in Egypt (Gn 45:5-8). If given the opportunity, perhaps it would be within the character of Joseph to show Potiphar’s wife the same introspective forgiveness, as by taking “the outcome into account, Potiphar’s wife has functioned as an agent of the transformation, for the result is not only betterment of Joseph, but long-term betterment of Israel.”[8] The narrator of this passage indicates that, in reality, Yahweh was involved in the very details of Joseph’s servitude to both Potiphar’s household and the royal prison. The entire introductory and concluding sections of this passage, which reflect one another in both themes of Yahweh’s presence and totality—as well as key words like hands, eyes, blessing and favor—are learned by way of the narrator’s report. The characters never directly interact or converse. And though it features dialogue between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, the body section also includes these same themes, supposedly spoken by Joseph. It is unavoidable and unmistakable that the passage appears to be a novella created by a creative narrator, not unlike the traditions of Samson (Jgs 13-16) and Esther and Mordecai (Est 1-10).[9]

Without regard to its historicity, the passage has much to say theologically about the character of Yahweh, the personal god of Joseph’s fathers. The narrator names Yahweh eight times over the course of thirteen verses, indicating each time either that Joseph had the benefit of Yahweh’s presence or was given success and favor from Yahweh. But Yahweh does not, or is unable to, protect Joseph from a false allegation of rape, which “indicates that the ways Yahweh is with Joseph are not immediately obvious.  Yahweh certainly does not keep him out of trouble.”[10] When wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is apparently allowed no freedom to respond and is left with no one to help him but Yahweh, which is “to say that God can be with a person even in the course of a fall.”[11] Using modern-day terminology, the reader can conclude that Joseph had an exceptionally close personal relationship with Yahweh.

7.  Application

In order to fulfill the covenant with Abraham, Joseph has been hit over the head with the presence of Yahweh. But if he had not yet learned as much when his brothers sold him into slavery, “Joseph must experience that God’s presence does not smooth the road before him; a serious fall follows the first step upwards.”[12] Perhaps it is this perspective that allows him to forgive his brothers so easily, and in a sense, so preemptively. And while clearly the passage is speaking foremost to its main character, it can also be applied more obliquely to Potiphar, who in verse 3 is able to perceive the presence of Yahweh as the reason belying Joseph’s successes in life.

Historically speaking, the passage has been applied to stress virtue in the face of temptation; indeed, throughout rabbinic exegesis Joseph received titles like “Temperate” and “Righteous.”[13] But when viewing the passage as a whole, boiling it down to this one quality is far too simple. It is hard to say with a straight face “that if you just keep your ‘virtue,’ everything will turn out all right for you; after all, Joseph keeps his and goes to jail.”[14] Yet clearly, retaining one’s chastity and making correct sexual choices are inherent to the passage, and are likely the most accessible lessons for the layperson.[15]

Looking back to my upbringing, I tended to pay more attention to the introduction and conclusion portions of this passage than the sexually charged body section. My interpretation of the message is that without regard to one’s current position or lot in life, increased responsibility and success are the fruits of steadfast reliability and trustworthiness; rather, that keeping honor is a path to reward from God. This, I submit, is more true to the narrator’s original message, wherein Joseph does not abuse Yahweh’s favor and thus continues receiving his favor abundantly. But these alternate interpretations of the passage serve as a microcosm highlighting the undeniable beauty of the Bible: pericopes are infinitely useful to reach and teach almost any audience, and as a teenager grows to become a man, so too will his appreciation of this passage grow. What once instructed him to remain abstinent in a sexualized and lustful world eventually came to teach respectability and honor in the workplace and utter faithfulness to the God’s presence. It is as Humphreys’ epigraph says, “not what happened once in the past, but what happens.”[16]


[1] This skipped portion, Gn 39:10-19, contains significant exegetical meat begging for further study.

[2] Hirsh, 564.

[3] Eskenazi, 223.

[4] Humphreys, The Character of God, 211.

[5] Alter, 225.

[6] These verses reflect one another to conclude the passage and set up a new chapter of Joseph’s life.

[7] Westermann, 69.

[8] McKinlay, 75.

[9] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 18.

[10] Humphreys, The Character of God, 211.

[11] Westermann, 68.

[12] Westermann, 69.

[13] Kugel, 25.

[14] Bruce W. Jorgensen, “Scriptural Chastity Lessons: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife; Corianton and the Harlot Isabel,” Dialogue 32, no. 1 (March 1999), 29.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Humphreys, Joseph and His Family, 28.

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: An Exegesis, Part 3

For Old Testament this semester, I had to complete a 12-page exegesis on some passage of 15 verses or so from Genesis through 2 Kings. Given that I have always enjoyed the story of Joseph, I chose the pericope of the young, svelte servant man and his master’s wife. You are reading Part 3 of that study. Enjoy!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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5.  Commentary Body (v. 1-9)

Verse 1 In reconnecting readers with the end of Genesis 37, Joseph is transferred from the hands of the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, for whom the verse ascribes an unusual amount of descriptors.[1] While it would seem obvious that an officer of Pharaoh would be an Egyptian, this could be specified “because there were non-Egyptians in service to the Egyptian court, as indeed Joseph will shortly be.”[2] A more likely possibility is that Potiphar and, by association, his house, are identified as Egyptian “to be played off against [Potiphar’s wife’s] derogatory identification of Joseph as ‘a Hebrew man’” in her accusation that follows (Gn 39:14).[3] As such, this reversal of status from Abraham and Hagar sets the social stage not only for the chapter to come, but also for the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt.

Verse 2 Yahweh, the personal name for Joseph’s god, is used here for the first of eight times in thirteen verses. Each time, Yahweh is named to indicate divine presence with or blessing upon Joseph, though the name is never spoken in conversation and should be appropriately understood as originating from the perspective of the narrator.[4] Certainly, if Yahweh spoke directly to Joseph to indicate his presence, the narrator would be sure to indicate as much. As it stands, however, “the repetitious use of the phrase imparts coherence and meaning to what superficially appear to be merely random events.”[5] Therefore, because God was with Joseph, he became a successful slave inside Potiphar’s house, where it was more likely that his good works could be observed by the master and his inner circle.

Perhaps the attribution of Yahweh’s presence with Joseph, which could have only come from a backward-looking overview of the pericope, was necessary given that this is the “first revelation of God in any Egyptian circle.”[6] With Joseph alone in a foreign land, and for God to fulfill his covenant with Abraham, his “special care and protection” was the only impetus that could secure success for Joseph, the favor of Potiphar and protection over Jacob’s house from eventual hardship.[7]

Verse 3 This verse is highlighted by the somewhat preposterous notion that Potiphar himself observed Yahweh’s divine presence unto Joseph. Rather specifically, the narrator does not say just that Potiphar “sees that Joseph has a golden touch”[8]; instead, the narrator ascribes Potiphar a unique awareness among non-Israelites of Yahweh’s presence.[9] The verse also makes dual use of the “lexicalized metaphor” of body parts and bodily function[10]—Potiphar perceives with his eyesight that Yahweh is with Joseph, and matters in Joseph’s hand are made successful by Yahweh.

Verse 4 The narrator essentially repeats verse 3, adding only that Potiphar becomes fond enough of Joseph’s success to promote him as an overseer of the entire estate. The verse again contains mentions of both eyes and hands, specifically that all things owned by Potiphar are given into Joseph’s hands, and that Joseph’s favor comes as a result of the perception of Potiphar’s eyes. In doing so, the author is cleverly hinting at what will befall Joseph when “the master’s wife becomes obsessed with him.”[11] For Joseph, the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar are both a blessing and a curse.

Verse 5 Perceptive readers will have taken notice of the narrator’s meticulous and repetitious method by verse 5. This intentional recapitulation is a “device which has the effect of retarding the action” and increasing its suspense.[12] As the verses mount, the narrator repeats the same themes—Yahweh’s blessing, the master-servant relationship, and the concepts furthered by the hands and the eyes—while adding only minute new details. In this case, the reader finds that after Joseph’s promotion over the house of Potiphar, Yahweh’s blessing is extended beyond Joseph to everything within the scope of the household, twice directly through the use of the Hebrew kol.[13] This is buttressed by the literary device of “in house and field,” a phrase that “combines two contrasting elements to express totality.”[14] In widening Joseph’s blessing, the narrator is essentially speaking for the character of God where God himself has not spoken. “The narrator simply presupposes that the blessing can flow over from the one whom Yahweh assists to a foreign people and adherents of a foreign religion precisely because of the one whom Yahweh assists.”[15] This, too, must have been rendered with the benefit of hindsight.

Verse 6 This verse is split between the passage’s introduction and its main body. First, the narrator explains that because of the blessing now applied to Potiphar’s house, everything remains in Joseph’s hands, though for the first time Joseph’s authority is limited: he is not to be in charge of Potiphar’s food. The question becomes, “Is one to understand that Joseph supervises the entire household, but Potiphar still has to see to his own lunch?”[16] This can be taken to fit Egyptian ritual practices or to merely “indicate his private affairs,”[17] but the more accepted understanding is a euphemism standing for his wife, especially given the verses that follow. The takeaway is that Potiphar has either intentionally, or by means of accepted social norms, restricted Joseph’s hands from touching his wife.

The reader is then struck by a surprise mention of Joseph’s looks, which stands out in Scripture given that “no other male is so described.”[18] In this instance, the NRSV doesn’t do appropriate justice to what is, “literally, ‘good looking and good to look at.’”[19] Jacob’s favorite son is beautiful, and receives the same gender-adjusted description as his mother Rachel (Gn 29:17)[20]; essentially, Joseph is a modern-day Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom stuck in service to Potiphar’s house. But Joseph’s allure would not be featured so emphatically if it had no purpose in the following verses: “Attentive readers know something is about to happen when they hear a reticent narrator uncharacteristically give a physical description.”[21]

Verse 7 Some time has passed since Joseph was given the keys to Potiphar’s house, and finally the master’s wife can no longer withstand what her eyes have seen in Joseph. She propositions him with a two-word imperative in the Hebrew, which is “not so much an invitation as a command.”[22] Her order is extraordinarily blunt, with “no verbal preliminaries, no expressions of love.”[23] Readers would expect an actual seduction to first include significant nonverbal appeals to Joseph’s eyes and second, more flowery language, but the narrator is literarily making a point: Potiphar’s wife is crass, a slave to lust, while Joseph masterfully controls his temptations. Indeed, “It is a remarkable deployment of the technique of contrastive dialogue . . . to define the differences between characters in verbal confrontation.”[24]

A modern-day interpretation of Joesph and Potiphar’s Wife, as shown from a recent adaptation of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat via MLive.com.

 

Verses 8-9[25] Joseph counters the wife’s command with a flowing, reasoned thirty-five-word response.[26] In the heat of the moment, Joseph makes no reference to his own possible sexual feelings, but unloads three distinct reasons why he will not take the order: first, because Potiphar trusts everything in the estate to his hands; second, because she is Potiphar’s wife; and third, finally, because the command carries some unspecified sin against God.[27] In the absence of specificity about the nature of this sin, it is unavoidable that this third reason is directly related to, and possibly dependent upon, the first two. Rather, that primarily “the sin against God would be the breach of trust,”[28] thereby endangering God’s presence with Joseph and the house of Potiphar. Secondarily, if at all, the command requires the sin of adultery, which although not yet given in the Decalogue was understood by both Israelites and foreigners.[29] Joseph has remained faithful, though his faithfulness could predominantly be toward either God or Potiphar.[30]

Unless the qualification of Joseph’s authority in verse 6 is understood as euphemism, Joseph’s response contradicts the earlier portion of this passage. In view of Joseph’s other reasons for challenging the mistress’ command, however, it seems to both support the euphemism and cast light on the narrator’s questionable use of repetition. “For example, when presenting his reasons for declining Potiphar’s wife’s invitation, Joseph repeats almost verbatim the narrator’s prose comments in the earlier verses (as though perhaps he had read them!).”[31] Among the phrases apparently spoken by Joseph are the master’s lack of concern for his house and the master’s trust of the household in Joseph’s hands, both from verse 6. Either Joseph himself is the Yahwist, or the narrator-as-novella-creator argument holds significant water.


[1] Potiphar himself is not mentioned by name after the first verse, leading scholars to suggest that the inclusion of his name is an “editorial patch.”  Redford continues: “Very early . . . the figure of Joseph became connected with the Egyptian name P3-di-p3-r, ‘Potiphar’; but the connection was never explicit.  One tradition ascribed the name to Joseph’s father-in-law, another to Joseph’s master.  An editor, plagued by a bent toward completeness, inserted them both.” Redford, 136-137.

[2] David W. Cotter, Genesis, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 290.

[3] Alter, 221.

[4] Sarna, 271.

[5] Ibid.  This “phrase” identified by Sarna includes “was with him,” indicating The Lord’s presence.

[6] Samson Raphael Hirsh, The Pentateuch: Vol. I Genesis, trans. Isaac Levy, 2nd ed. (London: L. Honig & Sons Ltd., 1963): 560.

[7] Ibid., 559.

[8] Westermann, 63.

[9] Humphreys, The Character of God, 209.

[10] Alter, xix.

[11] Cotter, 290.

[12] Redford, 77.

[13] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 518.

[14] Sarna, 272.

[15] Westermann, 63.

[16] Kugel, 74.

[17] Westermann, 64; Sarna, 272; Eskenazi, 221.

[18] Sarna, 272.

[19] Eskenazi, 221.

[20] Ibid.; Alter, 222.

[21] Tremper Longman III, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 153.

[22] Alter, 222; McKinlay, 72.

[23] Sarna, 272.

[24] Alter, 222.

[25] As both verses encompass Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife, I consider them an exegetical whole.

[26] Alter, 222.

[27] Sarna, 272. “God” in verse 9 is this passage’s only use of the generic ’elohim.

[28] Westermann, 66.

[29] von Rad, 365.

[30] McKinlay, 72.

[31] Redford, 77.

Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 4 of a term paper for my Church History class. And what fun it was to write! If you like learning and reading about heresy, you might enjoy it as well. If new and different perspectives turn you off, then I don’t imagine continuing to read this will be much fun. :)

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IV.  Personal Reflections

As much as such restraint is humanly possible, I have striven to reserve any personal opinions about the Ebionites and those beliefs attributed to them by church fathers from the preceding sections of this essay. On the other hand, in no way do I claim that this section of the exposition will retain a sense of objectivity. For one, I firmly agree that “there is nothing wrong in a natural scholarly sympathy for minority groups that were not destined to be history’s winners.”[1] Rather than existing solely as an interesting factoid in the annals of Christian history, the Ebionites and similar groups labeled as heretics from an early date deserve a voice and a chance to be judged on their merits. Personally, with the extraordinarily limited way in which Jesus was revealed to the world, I furthermore believe that the Ebionites deserve to be praised for their audacity to dissent and to be pardoned for their beliefs, even if they do not align to God’s ultimate, absolute truths. It seems that the Ebionites placed a premium on being intentionally poor as a method to adhering to both Jewish Law and Jesus’ message; this action likely developed more intentional, loving communities in spite of the heresiological claims of early church fathers.

Moreover, today’s Christians must admit that proto-orthodox scribes and proponents had a hand in altering Scripture to suit their beliefs, much as was ascribed to Ebionites and Marcionites. In the aforementioned example regarding the voice from heaven at Jesus’ birth, the Lukan text was eventually changed from “today I have begotten you” to the Markan counterpart of “in whom I am well pleased.”[2] While the Ebionite belief about following Jewish Law may have been a matter of opinion, the adoption of Jesus at baptism was well supported by the original version of Luke, part of which made its way into the Ebionite Gospel. However, once this change was solidified, it was also used to call out heresy among so-called Roman “adoptionists,” who were eventually excommunicated from the church.[3]

Throughout the course of my study of the Ebionites, I continued to find myself increasingly sympathetic toward their points of view. For example, I have always recognized the significance of Paul as a normative and formative writer for the early Christian church. Unfortunately, the ferocity with which he made his claims left little room for nonconformist opinions, serving not only to squelch the perspectives of those who could have been more authentically Christian, but also encouraging equally ferocious and self-serving Deutero-Pauline material, which included unfortunate admonitions about the roles of slaves and women (1 Tm 2:11-15). Additionally, it is inescapable that Paul had no direct, personal knowledge of Jesus. Therefore, I recognize Paul as a commentator on the life of Jesus best viewed on a level playing field with similar writers, his Damascus Road event notwithstanding. In a sense, this viewpoint makes me an Ebionite; furthermore, I am sympathetic to the reasoning behind Ebionite adherence to Jewish Law.

V.  Conclusion

The Ebionites were always a minority group. Perhaps at one point or another they became enough of a minority group—either by their number of followers or by possessing such threatening theology—to encourage early church fathers to write about and denounce their beliefs, but let’s be honest: the Ebionites never had a chance at flourishing as a majority religion. In proclaiming his kingdom message, what Jesus may have intended as a defiant but peaceful Jewish revival eventually became the majority religion of the world, including its most powerful nations. And these empires—whether Roman or American—were never bound to adopt intentional Ebionite poverty and strict adherence to Jewish Law on a large scale. “Had Ebionite Christianity ‘won’ the internal battles for dominance, Christianity itself would probably have ended up as a footnote in the history of religion books used in university courses.”[4] While it feels good to be in power, perhaps Judaism and Christianity alike are better suited as marginalized, minority, mustard-seed-like movements taking over individual patches of land at a time rather than occupying the ivory towers of official (or unofficial) state religion.

Theissen writes, “As a renewal movement within Judaism, the Jesus movement was a failure.”[5] In their own battle for acceptance and survival, the Ebionites also failed. In that sense, Jesus was an Ebionite, too.


[1] Skarsaune, “The History of Jewish Believers,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 754.

[2] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 223.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 110.

[5] Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1978), 112.