Not really a PhD Update

I’ve wanted to do a PhD update for a while, but I’ve been too busy doing a PhD to deal with writing one, so this just a brief post, with a pretty picture, to stand in its place.  ???????????????????????????????

I’ve just finished my work on Exodus 3-7 and have moved on to Sinai, to where Moses brings Israel to God in chapter 19-20. This a really intriguing chapter with a lot of going up and down the mountain, and a lot of making absolutely crystal clear how unapproachable God is in his awesome, not to say dangerous, holiness.

As I turned to the commentaries on this passage I’ve found comments that drive me to frustration, especially when commentators try to “improve” the order, or smooth out difficulties.  However I’ve also found comments that are wonderfully encouraging so I thought I’d share this quote, from Childs’ commentary on Exodus as he reflects on how the New Testament relates to the picture of God in Exodus 19-20:

“The new covenant is not a substitution of a friendly God for the terror of Sinai, but rather a gracious message of an open access to the same God whose presence still calls forth awe and reverence”

In a day where many seem to try and drive a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the gospels this is a wonderfully refreshing comment to come across.  Old and New it is the same God, but in the New access is given to all who will come through Jesus.  Or, to put it in the words of the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 12 – read this after Exodus 19):

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. …

28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.


Knowing the LORD

This post has been sparked by an article I was reading on Friday for my research.  The essential argument of the article was that we misunderstand Exodus 1-15 if we think that its writer wants us to celebrate God’s deliverance of Israel.  Instead, this article contended, we should understand that Exodus 1-15 should make us suspicious of God.  It should make us suspicious of God because it reveals that God’s motive for deliverance is actually much more self seeking – it is all about God’s reputation, and God seeking his own glory – he isn’t really that concerned for people at all.  I struggled with reading the article.

I struggled on the level of detailed analysis of texts.  One of the points used to justify this was that the promised blessing of more numbers that gets the people into trouble in Egypt in the first place (Exod. 1), and they have to really groan before he even bothers remembering that promise (Ex 1-2).   However it seems much more straightforward to see that one of the key things conveyed by Exodus 1-2 is that God is a God who has genuine compassion for his suffering people.   “God remembered” his covenant does not imply that he ever forgot it, but rather he is now going to act (just as he remembered Noah in the flood).

But those details are small compared to the fundamental problem as I see it with the article – its underlying assumption that God seeking the growth of his own reputation is somehow opposed to God delivering his people out of genuine care for them.

It is true, this is a common stumbling block people have in many different ways as they come to understand more about God.  After all, it is true that if I was to declare that I would act so that people would know me, and magnify my name you would rightly conclude I was a meglomaniac.  Therefore the question – Why does the same not apply to God? – is one people naturally ask, and I remember asking it myself.

I think there are three levels of answer to this, which give an increasing depth to the answer:

1. Since God is a being of supreme greatness it would be wrong of God to not aim supremely at that greatness being displayed.  If it is idolatry for us to worship anything less than God, and have any lesser aim than to see God glorified it would be wrong for God not to have that aim as well.

I think this is true, and right, but it seems rather abstract – it could still apply to supreme  being rather than the God of the Bible – and why it should be  good news for me, rather than just impose another duty is also unclear.

2. God is Trinity – so the Spirit and the Son glorify the Father above all, while Father and Spirit glorify the Son.  God is a community of love, and therefore the desire for God’s name to be glorified that God has is explained in terms of Trinity, and the love each member has for the other.

This is an improvement, but needs an extra level before it can be seen as good news for us, and so we come to the next level of answer

3.  God’s desire that people might know his name and that he might be glorified above all else is another way of talking about his desire to rescue us and save us.  He isn’t content just to bring his people out of Egypt.  They are brought to Sinai.  Brought to worship him.  This is good news because God’s name, his essential character is one of mercy and grace.  He is the God who will be gracious, and will show mercy.  He is the God who delights to share his goodness.  The Trinity form a community of love which delights to share that love.

So when God says that he wants to save a people so that they will know that “I am the LORD” that is in fact the supreme good for anyone.  To know that “I am the LORD” means to know God as the God of supreme mercy and goodness, the God who delights to bring about his salvation.

There is a sober side to this good news too – Pharaoh and the Egyptians do come to see that “I am the LORD” – they see that God is a God who brings salvation to his people, but they see it as those who have rejected and opposed that salvation.  There are those in Egypt who ally themselves with Moses (it is a mixed multitude that come up out of Egypt) – but those who reject God’s purposes face the agony of seeing the results of God’s goodness with themselves excluded.

As I pondered why the article I read missed this point it seemed to me that it was because of a failure to read in the context of the bible narrative as a whole, and a failure to see good for what it really is, almost a determination to find the worst in things.  It reminds me slightly of the dwarves in the Last Battle, who have so convinced themselves that they are still in stable they taste only hay in the feast Aslan has prepared for them.

The more positive side to reading the article was that seeing the centrality of knowing the LORD to the story was a reminder that it is not ultimately our story.  It is about us finding our place in God’s big story.   And that is even better news for us than God delivering us from disaster – because it is about knowing the God who made everything.  Who loves us – as the hymn writer puts it – “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be”.

PhD Update – what’s in a name?

The first stage of the PhD journey has been completed – my “RD1 form”, a kind of project proposal has been accepted (barring all a but a couple of minor ammendments), so I thought it was time for another update.  I have to apologise right now for being personally responsible for ending the British Summer – I took the camera into college on a fine sunny morning, in a row of sunny days, and it rained – and  the cloud hasn’t really gone away since – so it still looks quite similar to February only greener…  The two photographs are therefore from the start of PhD applications, and a fun day out in the Forest. The first photograph is not taken from a battle field, but is (of course) taken from outside our window in January 2012 at St Andrew’s Hall.  A large hole had been dug in the courtyard at the front of our houses, and now this machine was being used to drill holes horizontally under our houses.  Earsplitting.  Earth shaking.  Unpleasant.  Indeed so unpleasant that my only way out was to develop appendicitis and spend 3 nights in hospital.  The deep hole, and drilling was necessary so that the large tower block that is now nearing completion will stand firm when any earthquake comes (as is apparently likely in the next century or so).

100_1906 The past year has been my version of building a foundation for the project.  I wrote a “proposal” just over a year ago now for my original application, which I’ve come to view as a kind of guess of what I might like to study, and after 9 months or so of study I was then in a position to understand more fully what I wanted to do, work out a particular angle of approach to the question, and give some indication of where it might lead – and so write a new and more precise plan for the project.

The ultimate aim of investigating the way aspects of God’s character interact with the significance of his name in Exodus, the OT, and ultimately the whole Bible has remained the same, but the particular angle of approach has somewhat altered.  Somewhere back in November-December conversations between my supervisor and me lead to the idea of looking at the whole issue through the lens of the Moses-YHWH relationship as portrayed in Exodus-Numbers.

This work is driven by the conviction that the name as revealed to Moses at the burning bush is massively significant for revealing YHWH’s character.  I like this quote from Lord of the Rings about the Ents which sums up the basic point.DSCN0618

“I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”

Real names tell you the story of things they belong to.  I think it is clear that we understand YHWH’s name better as we understand the story of the Exodus.  “I will be who I will be” is a phrase that speaks of YHWH’s presence, and yet also of his self-sufficiency.  How those things work out and work together is seen in the story.  What also becomes apparent is the means by which YHWH’s self revelation is made known to YHWH’s people, and also the way in which Moses’ growing relationship with YHWH seems to be the context in which YHWH makes known more about himself.

Understanding how all this works will involve understanding how the fact that the dialogues between Moses and YHWH are (1) dialogues, (2) involve God and (3) set in the wider narrative (story) of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land impacts on how they are understood.   This will be followed by a look at how the name YHWH and it’s significance have been understood in wider Biblical Theology.

Once I’ve done the preliminary work of working out how each of those three things will impact on the interpretation of the particular texts – hopefully completed over the summer, I will then use the fruits of what I learn to analyse the dialogues themselves, and the difference seeing them in context makes to how the name and character of God can be understood.

I hope that by looking more closely at what the Bible actually says more light can be shown on how biblical scholars usually talk about issues such as the relation between God’s mercy and God’s punishment, and between God’s self sufficiency and his presence with and for his people.  I think there is a danger that sometimes we approach these OT texts with a preconcieved idea of what God must be like so that we cancel out an aspect of God which we are uncomfortable with.

One example could be that because he is God he couldn’t possibly ever need to change his mind, so if the text says “God repents” it must mean something a bit different.  At the opposite extreme there is the danger of saying God must be so loving and compassionate that when it talks about God punishing that must mean something a bit different.  Others just claim that there are simply complete contradictions in how the Bible speaks of God that we just have to live with.  I’d like to think that by looking at the wider context of these passages it would be possible to show how they do talk positively of God and gives us a rather richer picture of God than some.

I hope that gives you some idea of what I’ll be up to next.  As always if you’d like further details do get in touch. If you’d like to support in any practical ways that is always welcomed – we continue to pray that God would provide all that is needed for us to be able to complete all 3 years.  The aim is that once I get the PhD I would look to teach in some kind of bible college/training institution, somewhere in the world, and we continue to pray that God would guide us to the right location (one also where the next steps of Joshua’s Tree could be taken – see separate page).  You could always check out my Amazon PhD wishlist- !


Not really a PhD update

Last time I posted a PhD update  I accompanied it with pretty pictures of autumn.  This time I picked a rather grey February day toDSCN0402 show my working environment. It is April, and the weather has begun to pick up at last – spring may actually be here.  The upstairs window you can see here (top left) is (almost literally) my ivory tower.  This is where I study, although at least now the sense of isolation is broken somewhat by the arrival of new students in the room.

This is not really a PhD update – I will save that until I have my full proposal/plan approved by the university (I submit this to a committee next week, who get comments back to me, which I then have to incorporate before hopefully getting approval at the end of May).  My study will be related to the dialogues that Moses and God have in Exodus and Numbers, and how these relate to God’s revelation of his name.

This post has been hanging around for a while, so I thought I’d share it.  It is a spin off from some of that work – focused on Exodus 5. Ironically this is a chapter where neither Moses nor God say a great deal – in fact Moses seems to disappear after the first 5 verses for most of the rest of the chapter, and God only speaks right at the end.  In the story of the Exodus this is the part where things get a whole lot worse before they start getting better. Exodus 1 and 5 show us the state of the Israelite people at this point.  They are numerous, but that is really all that can be said positively.  Their elders are supposed to go with Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh, but they are not mentioned in chapter 5 (whether their presence is simply assumed, or is supposed to be noted is a matter of debate).

The only Israelite leaders mentioned in the chapter are the “overseers” of the Israelites who seem to be Israelites who have some role in organising the labour force for the Egyptians, under the Egyptian “slave drivers”.  The word used for “slave drivers” comes from the verb “to oppress”, and could almost be simply translated “oppressors”.  The Israelite leadership in this chapter is firmly under Egyptian control, and when the Israelite “overseers” do address Pharaoh they do so as “your slaves”.

The Israelite people never get to speak at all, simply scatter over Egypt desperately seeking straw with which to make bricks. It is a bleak picture, and seems all the worse because it comes after God has announced his intention to rescue his people from their oppressors, so that they can worship God rather than serve Pharaoh (“serve” and “worship” in Exodus are the same Hebrew word).

As far as I can see there never really is any explanation of why this particular incident is necessary in God’s plan of redemption.  I could make one up. I could say that God didn’t know it would happen, that the events took him by surprise. Or I could say that God wants his people to get beaten more so that he gets the glory of rescuing them from a darker situation.  I don’t think either of those things is true (in the first case not at all true, in the second there is an element of truth that needs a lot of nuance).  DSCN0401

It seems pretty faithful to life though. Rubbish happens in life which we see no reason for. We look back and sometimes we see what we think might be reasons. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re wrong. We cannot see what God is doing a lot of the time, and sometimes, especially when it comes to pronouncing on someone else’s life we’re better off not guessing.  We are certainly better off not pretending that something that is bad is actually good.

The Bible is blunt about this too. Evil is called evil. The Egyptian “oppressors” have a slightly grander official title in chapter 1 – “slave masters”, but in chapter 5 they are simply “oppressors”.   In Exodus 3:7 they are called “oppressors” by God.  He sees what is happening, and he knows, and he knows Pharaoh will make things worse for his people.  It isn’t God that brings the oppression, but it is the command of God which stirs up the oppressor to anger and greater oppression.

In Exodus 5 we see Israel coming apart under Egyptian tyranny.  Their leaders are not speaking for them, but begin by being part of the oppression.  It is a hint that more than just escape from Egypt is needed for people.  They need not only to be rescued from Egypt, but also to be re-formed as a people.  They need a new life, not just the end of an old life. That is why they are brought to Sinai – to receive God’s law, to learn what it means to live as God’s people. Perhaps that is why Exodus 18 matters – in Exodus 18 God’s people receive a new way of being organised, a new set of leaders to ensure that justice is done.

It seems tragic how quickly Israel forgot the lessons of Egypt. They sought a king like other nations, and Solomon even organised Israelites into slave labour forces.  So quickly they went back to Egypt.  Isaiah 30 is a powerful warning for us too about the dangers of going back to Egypt – to trusting what we understand, and what we control – the danger of being those who can be described like this:

 10 They say to the seers,DSCN0398
‘See no more visions!’
and to the prophets,
‘Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things,
prophesy illusions.
11 Leave this way,
get off this path,
and stop confronting us
with the Holy One of Israel!’

May it never be!  The Holy One of Israel is not a tame lion.  As I study Exodus, as I read of the interaction of God with Moses, and of his ways with us may I not domesticate this God. I do not want to be one who comes up with “pleasant things” and “illusions”.  We need what is right; we need to be confronted with this God. Ultimately this should be the purpose of biblical studies/theology – displaying the Holy One of Israel in the splendour of his holiness, and the wonder of his love, in the glory of his mercy and in the slowness of his wrath.

PhD Beginnings…

Each month we post family updates, but this post is specifically an update on the start of my PhD in Old Testament (OT) studies
here at Gloucestershire  University.  I’m going to try and post semi regularly about this – maybe once a term or so.  The pictures here are of the college where I am studying in Cheltenham (part of Gloucestershire University). The blue sky is somewhat exceptional – and had become rain by lunchtime!

Not only is the external site beautiful, I even get my own desk space inside – so I can pile up the stack of books and not worry about taking it home at the end of the day! My studies have officially started, and I have begun regular (fortnightly) meetings with my supervisor.  At the moment my efforts are concentrated on refining the exact question(s) to be addressed by my thesis.

I guess the two main questions to answer about doing 3 further years of study are:

Why do a PhD in OT at all?


What exactly in the OT are you studying?

To answer the first question first.  The purpose of doing the PhD is to prepare me for the next stage of ministry which, we think will be to do with teaching and training others to get to grips with God’s word – or rather to be gripped by, and become passionate about what God has said about God, and us, and how to live in response to that.  Whether we do that in the UK or elsewhere is an open question right now – but for most education systems the PhD is the standard route into teaching in that environment.  It should develop skills in analysis and research that will be important in teaching others to examine their faith and see what is good and true, and what has crept in from the world around unnoticed.

As to why OT  – it is vital that we have Christian leaders and followers who have got to grips with the Old Testament.

Without the OT we cannot understand properly what Jesus and the NT authors said and wrote. Without a proper knowledge of the OT we will not be able to handle many attacks on the Christian faith from outside which have to do with misunderstandings of the OT, and without the OT we will not be able to resist so many misunderstandings of what God is like within the church as well.

Perhaps there is a series of blog posts there for the future (at some mythical point when more than 6 hours sleep is happening in a night, and days are not starting at 5 am).

Next there is the question of what exactly – and that is a large part of the start of a research project. I’m currently focusing on Exodus, in particular Israel at Sinai and the aftermath of the golden calf incident, although drawing in from the wider Exodus narrative.

The verses that particularly got me interested in this area were Exodus 33:1-34:9, and in particular 33:17 and onwards.  The verses suggest that God’s glory, name and goodness are very closely tied together and supremely seen in God showing mercy and grace. At this moment of glorious revelation of God’s goodness, however, there is also a hiddenness.  Moses does not get to see everything. He cannot see God’s face and live. And yet he has been described earlier in the chapter as speaking to God “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”.

This was a formative moment in Israel’s history, and is alluded to in many places in the OT.  At the moment I’m doing a close study of Exodus 33:1-34:9 which will help to clarify the next stages, perhaps a particular focus on the relationship of God’s glory, God’s name and God’s presence works out in Israel’s history – especially in how those things help us to understand the mercy and judgement of God.

I love doing this kind of study, and I think the results will be useful for me, and for others, to help to lay the foundations for a biblically well founded view of God. The Bible is where we see what God has to say for himself, and if we don’t begin with the Bible to understand God we are going to go wrong very quickly. Often we are too quick to assume that we already know what God is like from what we have already been taught and do not allow the Bible to correct our understanding.

These chapters of Exodus contain much to ponder on the nature of God, especially in the way he relates to Moses in conversation. I think that both those who use these chapters as part of their framework that God does not know what the future holds until it happens, and those who say that there is at least part of God which is utterly concerned above all else with his own reputation are both wrong to greater or lesser degrees, and that there is a better way to talk about God than that.

I think the clue is that Moses request to see God’s glory is answered by a revelation of God’s goodness which he hears (rather than sees) as a proclamation of the name of Yahweh, and that the fundamental revelation at the heart of Yahweh’s name is that he is a God of grace and compassion.  God’s glory is shown above all else in his mercy displayed to rebels. Which isn’t really a surprise when you think about Jesus walking to the cross to be “lifted up”, and isn’t really a surprise when you see that Yahweh is a Trinity, full of self giving love which spills out to all creation.

I’ll stop the sermon at that point. My PhD will not answer all those questions and issues I’ve raised, but will help to make sure that when I think and teach about such things it will be done in a way that has paid real attention to what the Bible actually says, rather than what I might just guess that it says.  More updates to follow. I’d love to clarify anything that has been left unsaid or said confusingly. I’ve tried to be relatively jargon free, but that might have meant that I’ve oversimplified if you happen to be a speaker of the jargon…