Tag Archives: ESV

Study Bible Roundup: Ezra

Today I’m introducing a new feature called Study Bible Roundup. In these posts, I will select a challenging story or passage from the Bible, and then survey the commentary in four popular “study Bibles”: The NIV Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible (yes), and The Extreme Teen Bible (yup).

If you grew up in a conservative and/or evangelical church tradition, I don’t need to explain study Bibles to you. For everyone else, these are giant tomes which contain the full text of a popular Bible translation along with commentary from editors, usually pastors and apologists. Study Bibles often claim to be objective and scholarly, but typically cater to specific markets or denominations. These are the only safe and approved educational apparatus available to many Christians.

My goal in this exercise is to see how these commentaries handle the text in question. Do they consider history, language, and politics in their analysis? Do they acknowledge potential issues in the text and, if so, what responses do they offer? I’m not expecting them to reach certain conclusions, I’m just looking for a well-rounded and intellectually curious presentation. For this first installment, we’ll piggy-back on our previous post about the book of Ezra. Will our study Bibles acknowledge and address objections to the content of Ezra, specifically the mass deportation of women and children? Let’s take a look.

NIVNIV Study Bible

While I give the NIV commentary credit for a fair amount of historical detail (mostly geographic trivia), its exposition of Ezra 9 and 10 is basically a covert apologetic. Covert because it never openly acknowledges any potential difficulties in the text, yet it consistently builds a case for the necessity and propriety of Ezra’s edict about “intermarriage” (the word is used pejoratively). 

Two rationalizations are offered for Ezra’s deportation, one scriptural and the other historical. First is an appeal to Malachi 2, in which the prophet condemns Judah for figuratively shacking up with a foreign god/wife. Next is the non-biblical cautionary tale of the Elephantine settlement, a community of Jews in Egypt roughly contemporary to Ezra which was eventually assimilated into the greater population. The sense is that Ezra is right about Judah, that intermarriage is both a sin and a threat to national security, and that the shame and repentance of the people was the only fitting response.

The only crack in the veneer is a comment on chapter 10 verse 15 which acknowledges that Ezra was opposed by four other priests, possibly because they found his measure “too harsh.” However, the commentary also wonders if these men might merely be acting out of self-interest.

ESVESV Study Bible

Like the NIV, the ESV commentary speaks of “intermarriage” as a serious problem and the chief sin of the men of Judah. There is no ambiguity or restraint in this analysis: the foreign women are “wicked” and “idolatrous” by nature, and Ezra’s deportation program was nothing less than faithful obedience to God’s command to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). There is no view to a political battle or any wider historical perspective. There is even an attempt to neuter the meaning of 10:15 (about the opponents of Ezra’s plan).

I would characterize the ESV commentary as intensely unapologetic in its insistence that Ezra represents a god’s-eye-view of an authentic and exemplary revival. Ezra himself is seen as a bold and godly leader, a Phinehas whose zeal for the Lord led him to perform drastic deeds of “righteousness.” There is no room for sympathy for the banished women, who were inherently evil, or for their children, who paid the price for their parents’ sin in accordance with God’s “justice.”

APBThe American Patriot’s Bible

Whereas the NIV represents a covert evangelical apologetic and the ESV an intensely Reformed theological buy-in, the “American Patriot’s Bible” (APB) is an unabashed flag-waving midrash on the entire Bible, reimagining it as a textbook about American greatness. Under that banner, the little book of Ezra is actually a big deal: a tale of restoration, reconstruction, and bold leadership. Hey, just like America!

The APB does not provide verse-by-verse commentary like the NIV and ESV, rather it interjects short inspirational blurbs throughout the text. Between 9 and 10, the chapters detailing the deportation, there is a short profile of the 19th century evangelist Peter Cartwright, who baptized and converted thousands of people in the deep south. The implication is that Ezra has performed a similar function, convicting the men of Judah of their sins and providing the way “back to God.”

Elsewhere in Ezra, comparisons are made with U.S. presidents from Washington to Reagan, and (I kid you not) figures like Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. To give the APB an ounce of credit, they are specifically referring to Ezra leading people out of the slavery of exile. But given the parade of refugees this book leaves in its wake, those might not be the wisest comparisons to draw.

ETBThe Extreme Teen Bible

The Extreme Teen Bible (ETB) is a hip and totally-in-your-face study Bible for young evangelical Christians. I really wanted to make fun of this thing and exploit it for laughs, but I must confess that it completely surprised me. Not only does it go out of its way to explain to kids that the Bible comes from another time and culture, it is the only Bible on this list that anticipates and directly addresses objections to Ezra’s pagan purge. I may not be on board with their answers, but I applaud them for even making the attempt.

In a blurb labeled “Intermarriage,” the ETB says the following: “Intermarriage wasn’t a moral problem. People are people no matter where they are from. But intermarriage was a spiritual problem. All the surrounding cultures worshiped idols. Marrying someone doesn’t mean you will take on all their beliefs and practices, but it does mean that you will be influenced by them.” And a comment later in chapter 10 stresses that the intermarriage crisis was not about “race” but about “worship.”

Wow. While I think this is ultimately a poor response to the objection (racial discrimination is immoral but religious discrimination is not?), I am nonetheless heartened to see an affirmation of basic human dignity in this conservative Bible aimed at young people. Despite its goofy cover and outrageous fonts, the ETB manages to be more thoughtful and open-hearted than any of the other Bibles on this list. Too bad that it ultimately falls back on unsatisfying answers.

What did you think of this feature? Would you like to see more posts like this? Let me know.


Break Your Bible: Jeremiah 7 and What God Never Said

The first post in this series was met with almost deafening silence, but I’m forging ahead with this second one. I know I am pushing fairly hard against the grain of how most Christians have been taught to read their Bibles, but I don’t do so lightly or flippantly. On the one hand, there are surely more pressing issues facing us today than how we interpret the Bible. On the other hand, the way Christians respond to pressing issues is deeply affected by our traditional interpretations of scripture. This type of exercise might be the first step to laying a new and healthier foundation for Christian thinking and living.

Whereas the previous post explored the way we interact with the many streams of thought and belief represented in the Bible, today’s post concerns how the Bible interacts with itself. If Numbers 25 raised questions about how we identify and assess divergent voices in the Bible, our passage today unsettles our simplistic notions of biblical authority and uniformity. Jeremiah 7 is not only a major prophetic watershed in the Hebrew Bible, it is a text frequently quoted and alluded to by Jesus (it contains the bit about the Temple becoming “a robber’s den” and Jeremiah’s descriptive history of Gehenna). But before we can confront the surprising implications of the prophet’s words in verses 21-23, we have to take a moment to clarify what they actually say.

When Translators Attack!

Here is the text of Jeremiah 7:21-23 according to the 1985 update of the JPS Tanakh translation of the Hebrew Bible:

21 Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat!
22 For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice.
23 But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

But those of us who grew up in the evangelical tradition were taught to stick with our familiar and safe NIV translation, which renders the same passage like this:

21 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves!
22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices,
23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.
[Emphasis added.]

The comparison of these two translations of the same Hebrew text highlights just how many choices a team of translators has to consider when producing an English version of the Bible. No two translators will ever make the same choices, and no single translation will ever capture the complete essence of what was originally written. But in addition to the stylistic variations between these two texts, there is one word in the NIV on which our entire discussion will hinge. Did you catch it? Right there in the middle of verse 22, it’s the word “just.” Four letters, one syllable, which completely changes the meaning of the passage.

What Did God Really (Not) Say?

In the JPS translation (based on the Masoretic Hebrew manuscript tradition) God via the prophet says, “Go ahead and eat up your own meat offerings, because I never said anything to your ancestors about burnt sacrifices. I just told them to obey me and walk with me!” But the NIV version tells a different story. Here God says, “Keep those sacrifices coming! But remember that I didn’t only give you commands about burnt sacrifices, I also told you to obey me and walk with me!” This is no minor discrepancy. In the JPS, God is utterly disinterested in burnt sacrifice, in fact He denies ever having asked for it in the first place. In the NIV, God demands uninterrupted burnt sacrifice.

Why would the NIV translators take it upon themselves to alter a text in this manner? How could the Bible of choice for fiercely conservative and “biblicist” readers justify changing an original author’s clear intent? What do they gain by tweaking the “word of God”? (I note here that even the ESV and King James Version render this passage according to the manuscript witness.)

I can think of at least two motivations for the NIV’s decision to alter Jeremiah 7:22. First, and most ironically, it preserves the appearance of consistency and inerrancy. You can’t have one part of the Bible saying that God never said or endorsed another part of the Bible. But more specifically, this verse threatens a precious evangelical theological assumption, namely that God demands blood payment for sin. This is a non-negotiable premise for certain configurations of atonement theory, for example. All translation is interpretation, and the NIV translators knew the interpretive expectations of their audience.

For more on questionable translation choices in the NIV, see this link: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/

The Uncomfortable Implications of Jeremiah 7

Is Jeremiah claiming that the animal sacrifice laws in the Torah are illegitimate, a product of men and not God? What happens when a prophet seems to be saying that another part of the Bible doesn’t fully represent God’s word? I don’t offer any decisive answers to these questions, I just think it’s of paramount importance that we allow them to be asked. This is not about the reliability of the Bible, it’s about recognizing that a conversation is going on among the diverse texts of our tradition. I know inerrantists fear that questions like these will lead to doubt and undermine faith, but I don’t see how ignoring or neutering them is a healthier alternative to working them out in candor and hope.

It’s helpful, perhaps, to consider that Jewish interpreters have not found it necessary to edit or redact Jeremiah 7, and yet if the Temple were still standing they would surely resume making burnt sacrifices. Jews are (historically) more adept than Christians at allowing the Bible to speak, even in tension with itself, and yet living and flourishing within that tension.

The Beautiful Implications of Jeremiah 7

For my part I appreciate Jeremiah 7, both for the way it forces us to consider some heavy questions about how we read the Bible and for what it seems to be saying about God. This may be a disorienting text, but it’s certainly not the only voice in scripture suggesting that God is more concerned with integrity and mercy than He is with sacrifice. In fact, it’s a prophetic theme picked up by Jesus himself. How might such a clarification about God’s character alter or inform our understanding of Jesus, his death, or of our own relationship to God and other humans?

Jeremiah 7 is not a happy text. It’s a warning of calamity and coming judgment. But judgment comes not in the form of fire from heaven, it comes as a military enemy. The reason you face war and exile, says Jeremiah on behalf of YHWH, is not that your blood sacrifices were insufficient or insincere. Your problem is that you have not obeyed my commandments to honor your neighbor and care for the outcast. The God of Jeremiah is not impressed with religion and ritual, He is not thirsty for the blood of sinners or their animal substitutes. He longs to walk with humans in the way of selfless love.

The words of prophets are intended to ignite their hearers’ imaginations with possibility and hope. How can they do this if they cannot surprise us, if we refuse to let them diverge from a predetermined theological script?