Tag Archives: propitiation

Three (Specific) Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Typically on these lists I’ve addressed concepts and categories instead of actual Hebrew and Greek words from the Bible. This blog is meant for public consumption, so I rarely delve into scholarly minutiae. But here are some specific words from well-known biblical texts that are begging to be revisited and reconsidered.

Luke 2:7: The Greek word kataluma doesn’t mean “inn”

We’ll start with this one since it’s not particularly controversial, though it has the potential to completely transform the way we read Luke’s nativity story. The familiar reading sees Mary and Joseph turned away by an innkeeper with no vacancies, forced to birth their baby in a filthy barn among the livestock. While this is a suitably ironic and dramatic setting for such an important event, it also strikes us as a tad melodramatic and harsh. Were first century Judeans really so cruel as to force a pregnant women to deliver in a pigsty?

The word kataluma doesn’t connote an inn or public place of lodging, instead it refers to the “upper room” within a family home where guests stay and share meals with their hosts. This is the same word which describes the room where Jesus and his followers celebrated the “Last Supper” (see Mark 14:14).

In this clarified reading of the story, Joseph returns to Bethlehem to find his family home full of visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins in town for the census and holiday. The kataluma is already at capacity. His family doesn’t toss Joseph and Mary out back in the barn to fend for themselves, rather they invite them into the main living quarters of the home, where the host family resides and where the spotless sacrificial animals are kept and cared for, and where stone hewn mangers are carved into the very structure of the house. The context and circumstance of Jesus’ birth were indeed humble, but he was actually born in a place of relative honor and comfort, according to Luke. It is not difficult to see the theological implications of what the gospel writer is doing here.

Isaiah 7:14: The Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean “virgin”

Now things get a little more dicey. Christian apologists will deny and fight this one until their last breath, but it’s pretty clear that the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 does not refer to a virgin but simply a young woman of childbearing age. In the specific context of Isaiah, the prophet is clearly forecasting the natural birth of a child in his own immediate future. The point of the verse is not the mother or the birth but the child that will be born, and he will be a king who will defeat the Assyrians (7:20). That king was born, and his name was Hezekiah.

When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in the third or second century B.C.E., almah was approximated with the Greek parthenos, which does not necessarily refer to a sexually pure virgin, but usually refers to a young, unmarried girl. By the first century C.E., the Jewish authors of the New Testament were using that Greek translation (called the Septuagint) as their primary scriptural source, and the writer of Matthew used Isaiah 7:14 as one of five Hebrew Bible “fulfillments” in the early life of Jesus. This point is this: Isaiah once said that a parthenos would give birth to a savior child, and it is happening again.

People often misunderstand what I’m arguing here. This discussion has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin or whether the author of Matthew is “wrong.” The point is that Isaiah 7 was never about a miraculous virgin birth in its original setting. Matthew performs a hermeneutical maneuver (band name!) based on a reading of the Septuagint to compose Jesus’ origin story. I assume that this author understands perfectly well what is really going on in Isaiah, and exploits parthenos as a license to draw a connection between two stories about two kings.

(SIDE NOTE: You’ll notice that conservative and complementarian Bible translations like ESV make a point to always translate almah as virgin in the Old Testament, which sometimes results in creepy renderings of verses like Proverbs 30:19.)

Romans 3:25: The Greek word hilasterion doesn’t mean “propitiation”

“Propitiation” refers to the appeasing of an angry deity by means of sacrifice or ritual. Blood is spilled or life is taken, and the wrath of the god(s) is satisfied or abated. The King James Bible translated the Greek hilasterion as simply “propitiation,” which rendered Romans 3:25 as “Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” This verse, more than any other passage in the New Testament, became the “smoking gun” for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which understands Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice which appeased the wrath of God, if only for those who will believe in it as such.

But the word hilasterion, admittedly difficult to define succinctly, has more to do with “expiation” than “propitiation.” Both concepts deal with the problem of humanity, sin, and God, but while propitiation refers to a godward flow of appeasement and sacrifice, expiation connotes an outpouring of forgiveness and pardon from God to humanity. It has to do with the removal of guilt and the application of mercy rather than the satisfaction of a divine bloodthirst. In the Greek text of the Torah, hilasterion is the name of the “mercy seat,” the footstool of God (and the “lid” of the ark of the covenant) from which God dispensed forgiveness and blessing.

Given all of this and the greater context of Romans 3, it seems that the cross (for Paul) is not the place where God’s wrath is poured out on the innocent Jesus, but rather the place where God’s mercy confronts and forgives human sin and evil. It is precisely by absorbing wrath, not dispensing it, that God’s mercy is made known through the cross.


Called to Suffer?

This is adapted from a sermon I presented at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church on October 18, 2015.

Two of the lectionary readings today relate to the topic of suffering. Isaiah 53 is a poetic rumination on suffering and deliverance in the Jewish exile. And in Mark 10:35-45, when Jesus’ followers want to be his henchmen in the new world order, he rebukes them and declares that suffering is his true vocation and that of anyone who follows him.

There are at least two unhelpful, would-be-Christian ways of explaining suffering. One is to imagine that suffering was something that happened once to Jesus so it need not ever happen to his “true believers.” This is built on the ancient notion that suffering is a punishment from God to be avoided by the righteous. Another approach, more honest about reality but still ultimately harmful, acknowledges that suffering is unavoidable, but sees it as a sort of “down payment” on reward in the afterlife, as a commodity or currency which garners favor with God. These are both based on the fundamental notion of God as the author of suffering.

Both of our readings today challenge aspects of these unhelpful ideas. Isaiah’s “suffering servant” (perhaps a once or future king or a representation of Israel itself; embodied and fulfilled by Jesus according to Christian tradition) does not suffer instead of Israel, he suffers with them, and by sharing their suffering delivers them. And Jesus does not tell his followers to sit back and watch him put an end to suffering, he warns them that they will inevitably suffer, as he must, if they persist in following him.

In the ethos of his message and in his death, Jesus refutes and corrects slanderous notions about God and suffering. Time and time again, Jesus rejects the idea that sickness and calamity represent God’s punishment of sinners. A man is not born blind because he or his parents sinned, but so that he and his neighbors can see God when he is healed (John 9). Insurgents killed by Rome are not being judged by God, they are victims of their own choice to follow the path of violence (Luke 13). And on the cross, Jesus nonviolently enters into the very belly of the imperial beast, the heart of human suffering, and dies with us and for us.

In the religious tradition into which Jesus spoke (and in many corners of the religion which worships him), God’s position and role in relation to suffering is as persecutor or punisher. In the divine vision of Jesus, however, God is found inside human suffering, in the midst of those who hurt and want. The Bible may not give a satisfactory answer regarding the source or purpose of suffering, but in Jesus God is found in willing solidarity with those who suffer, as friend and deliverer, not as avenger or nemesis.

Jesus says that those who follow him will suffer, but this is not (as too many have imagined) because suffering is somehow good or noble or effective in and of itself. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. But when we follow the Way of peacemaking and empathy and advocacy and charity, we are on a collision course with suffering – our neighbor’s and our own. Only when suffering is separated from this ethos and context does it become some kind of ritual or currency.

It is only when we choose to be like Jesus and to suffer with those who suffer that there is hope for salvation for them and for us. But if I’m honest, this is the war that rages inside myself. Between the path of comfort and security and the avoidance of suffering or the path of co-suffering love and solidarity, I’m ashamed at how often I choose the former.

Suffering is not a punishment from God or a currency by which He can be sated or manipulated. It is a tragic but ubiquitous reality, an experience which, when shared, allows us to transcend the status quo and encounter the divine in transforming and powerful ways we could otherwise not. In our best moments, our church embodies this perilous vocation. This is why we feed and clothe and shelter our neighbors, why we advocate for those without a voice, and why we choose to suffer with those who want and hurt. Because that is what our Lord did for us. That is what God is like.

Father, we do not understand why there is suffering, and sometimes the burden is so great that we lose hope. Forgive us for looking for religious solutions to suffering, for trying to explain suffering away or to place blame instead of following the example of Jesus, who suffered with the suffering and died for the dying. Forgive us for seeking to avoid suffering instead of helping our hurting neighbors by sharing the load. May we understand our vocation to hurt with others for their salvation and our own, until your kingdom comes. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Atone Deaf Part Six: Atonement After the Bible

Latest in a series of posts about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In five previous posts we surveyed the key Bible texts which deal with the death of Jesus and paid special attention to any meaning (expressed or implied) that they assigned to that event. We concluded that the Bible’s primary metaphor for interpreting the death of Jesus is a “ransom” model in which Jesus’ death constitutes a payment for the release of captives. The payment is his life, and the captives are human beings enslaved by the powers of sin and death. Perhaps just as common, though, is a “victory” model in which Jesus’ act of will in going to the cross accomplished a decisive defeat over those powers. We might understand these in terms of cause and effect; The powers that enslaved and corrupted us were disarmed and destroyed, with the result that we are liberated from both captivity and guilt.

While most Christians today would give a hearty “amen” to everything in that paragraph, many believers – especially those in Reformed and/or Evangelical traditions – might call this an incomplete view of atonement. Where is Penal Substitution (PSA)? Where is propitiation? Where is punishment and wrath? These are the dominant factors in most conservative formulations of atonement today, and we kept these questions at the forefront as we examined the relevant Bible texts. We concluded that, while vicarious suffering and wrath are indeed elements of the biblical presentation of atonement, they have been seriously misplaced and misrepresented in the PSA model. Jesus’ death is called a substitution, and God is said to exert wrath; But Jesus took his “punishment” from the worldly powers of sin and condemnation, not from God, and God’s wrath burns against those forces of evil, not against their human victims whom He created and loves.

So where did PSA come from? When, how, and why were the ingredients of atonement combined and configured in such a way that this is the only framework in which most Christians today are able to conceptualize and explain the death of Jesus? Here is a brief look at the interpretive history of atonement, from the earliest days of the church until today. Continue reading