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On Gen 32:22-31; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5

The NT reading for today ranks high on a list of oft-abused biblical texts. At stake is the status of scripture and its proper role in the intellectual life within the modern Church. A close albeit brief reading of the text will pave the way towards presenting a minimal position on the question of ‘thinking biblically.’

The text assigns eight attributes to scripture: sacred, able to instruct towards salvation, G-d-breathed, useful for: teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping for every good work. First, it is sacred, or set apart. Although of the writing of books there is no end and despite the human scribal origins of the scriptural writings, they are for us a different kettle of fish to other ones. Second, the primary reason and import for this sacredness is that they instruct us towards Jesus. This may seem patently obvious, but it is important; a reading method which does not further salvation is missing the mark. Third, the collection is not merely interesting, it is useful. For what is it useful–primarily for moral and ethical training. Note that of the four ‘useful’ aspects mentioned, three are moral-ethical and only one is knowledge-based. In addition to these three, the text tells us that the scriptures also enable every good work. It must be stressed what the text does not include among the functions of the canon: it is not a lawcode; it is not a textbook; it is not dictated. This leads us to the description ‘G-d-breathed,’ which the NRSV translates as ‘inspired by G-d.’ What does this phrase mean?

The first pertinent thing to note is that in Hebrew the same word covers breath, wind, and spirit (רוח; See Isa 11 for examples of it meaning all three). It is the רוח of G-d which hovers over the earth in Gen 1:2. It is the רוח of G-d which inspires Bezalael to provide metalwork for the Tabernacle in Exod 31:3. It is the רוח of G-d which enabled the elders of Israel to prophecy in Num 11:25. The רוח of G-d empowers, creates, destroys, inspired oracles of salvation and doom. Although 2 Tim is in Greek, it is likely a similar conception which lies behind the term ‘G-d-breathed’ (θεόπνευστος) as the related noun πνευμα is used by the LXX to translate רוח. The pertinent thing to note is that the Hebrew scriptures utilize this term to describe how G-d empowers his people to proclaim his message, not to describe how particular words ended up on papyrus. It enables proclamation of the G-d who is and proper response in the light thereof.

What does this mean for reading the text? How should one approach it, to ensure it still encourages towards salvation and ethical action? Today’s OT passage, Gen 32:22-31, provides the answer. In this aetiological passage where Jacob is renamed Israel, the text provides us a powerful metaphor for our encounter with our traditions’ experience of the Divine. In this laconic text Jacob wrestles with G-d. He wrestles all night and refuses to stop until he is blessed. Three things about this text appear noteworthy to me. First, the struggle was long and difficult; second, Jacob was ultimately blessed while his self-sufficiency was damaged; and lastly, all his questions were not answered. The quest for understanding is one that does not come easily, and one for which we must fight. It is one in which we will be forced to give up some painful things: our sin, our pride (it ought to be remembered this struggle of Jacob’s is placed just before his encounter with Esau, the brother he had cheated and fled). It is one in which we will never fully explain G-d—Jacob never even gets a name out of G-d. Nevertheless, Jacob is blessed and becomes an important chain in the collective witness of G-d’s workings.

If this text is taking for a hermeneutical model, we find that the scriptures call us to wrestle with G-d, to ask the hard questions, and not to give up even when it is apparently hurtful. In the end, blessing will come through it and we will be changed, even though our questions may remain.

An image of a stenographer deity laying out his plot in intricate and exact detail hardly matches the G-d who meets us where we are in our journey, allows us to strive with Him, and blesses us nonetheless. While other believers may be threatened by our questioning and searching, G-d is waiting to be found when we need Him.

 Jason M. Silverman
17 October 2010
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