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ISSN 0888-8513 December 1993 Vol. 8, No. 3
Must We Obey the Law?
Stewart E. Lauer
Among those churches which accept the Bible as the very word of God, and accordingly strive to make it their only rule for faith and life, perhaps the most fundamental question with which we are faced today is: "What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?" To put it more simply, "How are we to read the bigger half of our Bible; and how, if at all, does it bind us today? Are we to apply it today at all?" The answer to this question affects not only our life at church but our daily lives as well. For example:
Why may a Christian freely eat pork or shellfish?
Why may Christians work on Saturday?
Why do some, who believe the Bible, baptize their infants while others do not?
Why may a Christian take only one wife when many faithful saints of old had several?
Why are the affairs of some churches, on a human level, overseen by elders, others deacons, others by vote of the whole congregation, and still others by a single bishop?
Is a Christian who serves in government bound to the law of the Old Testament? May he serve at all?
Does modern Israel possess Palestine as a fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham?
These and a myriad of other questions, which divide churches and influence our daily lives, cannot be answered without thinking about the authority of the Old Testament for Christians today. Sometimes this may be done implicitly, without consciously considering the question of the Old Testament's abiding use. Some Christians simply reject the Old Testament's authority, calling it "The Law." Nevertheless, whether knowingly or not, all who submit to the Bible as God's word face this question.
As Protestants we believe that since "Scripture cannot be broken," only Scripture can infallibly interpret Scripture. It is not the church, not my favorite seminary or Bible school teacher, much less a voice inside my head, but the Holy Spirit himself, speaking through Scripture, who infallibly interprets other Scriptures which he has also written. Therefore, we must allow Scripture to teach us how we are to read, interpret and obey the Old Testament.
Perhaps Jesus' most clear and explicit teaching on the subject of the Old Testament's use in his kingdom is found in Matthew 5:17, 18. Jesus spoke these words as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore to grasp fully their significance, one must look at them as a part of the whole sermon, Matthew's gospel, and the flow of redemptive history. Correctly interpreting this foundational passage is surely a necessary first step toward solving the problem of the relationship between the two testaments.
If one surveys the various current interpretations of this sermon, it seems that many churches interpret the various key parts of the Sermon on the Mount differently (often radically so). Are the "poor in spirit" to be seen as the contrite of heart, or are they Christians with empty wallets? Are all poor everywhere blessed? May we take oaths and vows? Why did Paul do so? May we serve in the armed forces, or protect our families from violent attack? All theologians taking their stand upon this one sermon can be found staunchly defending opposing sides on these various questions. This passage is pivotal for understanding the world's most famous and perhaps most controversial sermon. By properly discerning the function of this passage in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew, and its context in the flow of redemptive history, this difficult text should become more clear, providing guidance for the problem of the relation of the Old and the New Testaments.
To begin, let us summarize the obvious meaning of verses 17 to 20 as
Jesus did not, in any sense, come into this world to abolish or abrogate the authority of the Old Testament, rather he came to reveal its true meaning and to bring that meaning to pass.
As our first point, we will look at the part of this passage which is easiest to understand, that is, at the negative statements which Jesus makes in verses 17 and 18. Whatever may be said about the rest of this passage, the following point is clear from that which Jesus denies:
1. The coming of Christ and his kingdom in no sense was to abolish even one requirement or teaching of the Old Testament—at least when the Old Testament is properly understood.
Jesus makes this denial plain in easy to understand language. Were it not for the implications of this point, surely none would say otherwise. So if it is true that the coming of Christ and his kingdom has left the Old Testament legal structure in place, then this means we must obey it fully. However, most Christians have thought that significant portions have been either radically changed or, for all practical purposes, rendered moot by the coming of the Kingdom of Christ. In fact, the phrase "Kingdom of God" does not appear in this section; only the words "I came" are recorded. But a quick overview of Matthew and the other gospels would reveal that one cannot separate King Jesus from his kingdom. The coming of Christ and the coming of his kingdom are one and the same. Thus, it would seem that we are justified in understanding Christ's denial ("Do not think that I came to abolish, but to fulfill") as meaning that within the Kingdom of Heaven, the Law of Moses and the Prophets remain in force, even down to the last jot and tittle.
The unity between Christ's coming and his kingdom's arrival is seen clearly by a couple of examples. Matthew begins, "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David" (1:1). Thus, Matthew introduces Jesus to us as the heir to David's throne. Christ came as king; he came to establish a kingdom. John, too, records Jesus confessing this truth as he stood before Pilate, facing what humanly speaking would have been the end of hope. When interrogated he replied, "My kingdom is not of this world" and again,
"My kingdom is not of this realm" (Jn. 18:36). Pilate then asked, "So you are a king?" Jesus affirmed his question: "You have said correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come" (Jn. 18:37). Thus, Jesus' coming and the coming of the kingdom may not be separated. Likewise, the Sermon on the Mount is preceded immediately by the statement that "Jesus went about preaching the gospel of the kingdom." The Sermon on the Mount is intended by Jesus to portray for us the content of that good news which Jesus was preaching. We may rightly understand Matthew 5:17 to read "Do not think that I have come, or that I am establishing a kingdom in which disobedience to Law and the Prophets will be tolerated."
Returning to the central point of 17 and 18, we are not permitted to consider that because Christ has come, because a new kingdom has been established, that the bigger half of our Bible has been abolished. While it is admittedly a sticky question as to just what it means that he and his kingdom are "come to fulfill," we surely know what that phrase does not mean! The coming of Christ and his kingdom in no sense was to abolish even one requirement or teaching of the Old Testament—at least when the Old Testament is properly understood. It should be noted that the natural reading of Christ's declaration would include even the so called "ceremonial" aspects of the Mosaic Law ("all which . . . are now abrogated," declares the Westminster Confession of Faith.).1 Surely, we must seek to explain the obvious absence of continued offering of animals, practice of dietary laws, etc., by some means other than those directly denied by our Savior in verses 17 and 18!
To this point we have looked at what Jesus denies. We have seen the way of thinking which Jesus forbids to us, his disciples, i.e., any thought that in his kingdom the Old Testament (Law and Prophets) commands are abrogated. Verses 17, 18, 20 also record the positive side of Christ's teaching regarding the Old Testament.
v.17 "I have come to fulfill"
v.18 "All of the Law is to be accomplished"
v. 20 "Regarding the Law's teaching: "your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees."
Obviously, when the people of God passed from the Old Testament era into the New, change—major change—occurred. In order to answer the question of just what that change was, let us first think about the word "fulfill" in verse 17. Remember that Christ himself forbids to us any interpretation which amounts to abrogating the Law's authority.
English translators are virtually unanimous in rendering this word as "fulfills". The only exceptions which I found were: "completes" or a paraphrase such as "makes their teachings come true." In fact the word "fulfill" is near perfect, since as with the original, its root meaning is to fill a vessel. Literally or figuratively the word describes the act of providing that which is lacking, so that the object (in this case the Old Testament) attains to its ultimate purpose. For example, it is used to describe a cup being filled with liquid, or an auditorium being filled with people. Thus, Jesus' use here implies that prior to his coming, the Law and the Prophets, i.e., the Old Testament, was in some sense incomplete or imperfect. The coming of the kingdom fulfills it.
Now to say that the Law and the Prophets were previously unfulfilled does not mean that they were flawed. A cup cannot fulfill its purpose without water, but lacking water it is not thereby flawed. Jesus has come not to destroy, abrogate or abolish the righteous requirements of the law, but to bring about the true purpose for which they were given by God. In other words, their ultimate purpose is to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. God gave his people the Law on a mountain through Moses. Jesus himself ascended another mountain to give his people a better word, but not a replacement. In this way he fulfills the Law. Even though the country in Palestine, heretofore existing under the Old Testament, was truly of God and hence was rightly referred to as "Kingdom of God," it was nevertheless established by the Law given through Moses as a temporary and provisional nation. Both in his teaching and in his person, Christ reveals and brings to pass the true meaning of Moses' Law by establishing, upon the throne of David, an eternal kingdom—one which is not of this world. This new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is the true meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Verse 18 says that before even a tiny piece of the Old Testament passes away, all of it must be accomplished, or more literally "all must become." All will become
at the consummation when the full work of the Spirit of Christ is realized and the church is perfectly complete (I Cor. 15:24, 25). Christ brings this about through his death, resurrection and ascension to the throne over his church, and ministry to it by the Spirit. In doing so he does not repair the cup (the Law and the Prophets), he fills it to the brim.
Verse 18 reinforces verse 17. It too teaches that the Old Testament remains in force, "until all is accomplished." All will be accomplished when the full eschatological kingdom is realized (Rev. 21, 22). Since the "law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners" (1 Tim. 1:9), in the new heavens and the new earth (after the consummation), the commandments will become redundant since, "for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death . . . and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it." Until that time, our king teaches unequivocally that every jot and tittle remains in force, i.e., is to be obeyed.
To further understand Jesus' meaning that he has come to fulfill the Law, let us examine several current interpretations of verse 20. Here Jesus begins to apply this teaching that the Law is fulfilled by his coming. He compares the obedience of his disciples (in the kingdom) to that of the Scribes and Pharisees (who fall short of the kingdom). There are various interpretations of this verse. I mention three.
Under the first, Jesus in verse 20 is chastening the laxity of the Jewish leaders in obeying the law. He then requires better, perhaps even perfect, obedience to the Old Testament. By this interpretation, Jesus is then a more strict rabbi. This interpretation fails to realize that in the remainder of chapter 5, Jesus does not merely teach a greater scrupulousness in obedience, but rather a radically transformed understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament. For example, in his kingdom, even nasty words and hatred are to be judged as violations of the statute, "Thou shalt not kill." Neither Moses himself nor David, "the king after God's own heart," ever applied or should have applied the commandments in this way. Jesus is not chastening the laxity of the Jews, he is exegeting the statutes in a brand new light, the
light of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The second suggested understanding of verse 20 is that Jesus is attacking the Jews' attempts to justify themselves by their own works, and he is, instead, teaching that the righteousness suitable to the kingdom comes through faith. While this statement is very true (and elsewhere Jesus takes a Pharisee to task for self-justification), it also misses Jesus' point in verse 20. Again, looking at the following passage, Jesus does not mention justification by faith in any way, shape or form. Indeed, verses 21 through 48 are very much concerned with our actual obedience to God's revealed will. While Jesus brings out of the Law a depth of meaning and a standard of righteousness that undoubtedly makes clear that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," there is no evidence of Christ's directing the disciples' attention away from actual obedience to the Law toward an imputed righteousness. The fact that elsewhere in the New Testament the Pharisees exhibit a tendency toward self-justification does not in and of itself warrant our reading that problem into Matthew 5. It will not do for us to read our argument with the Roman Catholic Church back into this passage.
A third common understanding of Jesus' declaration about surpassing righteousness is just a bit different than the first, and it is reflected in this quotation:
"Why must one practice and teach the details of God's Law? Because then your righteousness will exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees who have no part in the Kingdom . . . If a man is to be truly law-abiding, he must keep the law as delivered by God and in the way specified by God . . . The Pharisees appealed to the law in a way calculated to help them escape the real and original demand of God." (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, pp. 90, 91)
In other words, the problem with which Jesus is concerned is not the Scribes' and Pharisees' dependence upon their own works, or their laxity in obedience, so much as their twisting the Law's original meaning. If they had understood it the way that Moses did, then their righteousness would have been sufficient for the kingdom. This interpretation is closer to the mark.
Unlike the first interpretation which we considered, Dr. Bahnsen's view recognizes that Jesus is demanding a change from the contemporary understanding of the Law, and not simply a quantitatively stricter application. Despite the improvement, this view, too, is inadequate.
The radical advance in righteousness that comes in Christ and is commended to us in verse 20 is also reflected in Paul's comparison of his standing before God under Moses and Christ. In Phil. 3:5, 6, he says, "Before the Law I was blameless!!" Please note that he does not say, "before the Pharisaic misinterpretation of the Law." He says before the Law, i.e., before Moses. Although it may be that the Pharisees did indeed misinterpret the Law, and it may be that they tried to justify themselves, these are not Jesus' concerns in Mt. 5:20. No, there is another problem which Jesus has with the righteousness of the Jewish teachers.
We must see that it was not only Saul of Tarsus and his legalistic cohorts who fell short of the kingdom, since even the greatest of those of the Old Testament era could not enter the Kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 11, Jesus tells us that John was the greatest man on earth, prior to the kingdom (see Mt. 11:11). From this passage we can discern the weakness of the third interpretation, and be guided toward the actual meaning of Jesus' words concerning the problem of the Scribes and Pharisees. According to Jesus' clear, albeit difficult words, John the Baptist was not in the kingdom. Yet from other passages, we know with certainty that from the womb he was both filled with the Holy Spirit and a true and faithful prophet of God. John testified of Christ and his kingdom even to the point of martyrdom. The man was saved! He is surely with Christ in heaven now! So why does Jesus teach that he was not in the Kingdom of Heaven?
As long as John walked the earth, he was a man of the old era, the Old Testament age. Like Moses and Abraham and David, John lived as one who preceded and thus looked forward to the coming of the kingdom in Christ. Like all of the saints of old, he faithfully served God by preaching a kingdom which was to come. Even though he himself saw the Christ, baptized him, and was thus pre-eminent among the men of old, he was, nonetheless, an Old Testament prophet, ministering under the old order. In preparation for the new kingdom, he baptized Jews to restore them to Moses, to the
temple and to the throne in Jerusalem. He did not in any sense baptize them into Christ and the kingdom which he would soon establish (cf. Acts 18:25; 19:3-5). Although the greatest of the prophets of old, having seen the promise in the flesh, he nevertheless possessed a revelation which was, as Hebrews describes, "in many portions and in many ways." Or, he was, as Peter declares, among those "prophets who made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow." This is why he never really understood the full significance of Christ's person and work. It is why he asked Jesus if he was the "Expected One," or whether they should "look for another yet to come" (Mt. 11:3). He, like the others of old, expected more of an earthly king who would in some way re-establish David's throne in Jerusalem. Bound to Moses, he could not see clearly beyond Palestine and its institutions to lay hold of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The writer to the Hebrews also recognized that even the greatest of the Old Testament saints lacked something which we now possess (Heb. 11:39-40). Those described as "all these" in v. 39 or "they" in v. 40 are the saints of Hebrews 11—sometimes called the 'honor roll of the faith.' They are commended to us at the start of chapter 11 as models of true and living faith, exhibited in their righteous lives. Yet, we are told, they too, like John, lacked something. As prophets they could see it coming in the distance, but, "apart from us they should not be made perfect;" not because of our inherent wonderfulness, not because of our superior faith. It is clear that these Hebrew-Christians, who were still in need of milk, possessed no such quality. No, the reason is not tied to the ethical superiority of the individuals of our present age but to the arrival of King Jesus; Christ and his kingdom have now come down out of heaven. Two verses later Hebrews goes on to say, "fixing our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith." He is not only the one "before Abraham," but the one who perfected the faith of Abraham. Christ's coming, the establishment of his kingdom, has perfected that which was lacking for Abraham, Moses, David, and even the greatest of old, John the Baptist.
So let us return to the original question. In what sense must our righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if we are to enter the
kingdom? The Jewish leaders failed to recognize the new kingdom and its king; they continued instead to pursue the old, earthly kingdom and its righteousness. Such righteousness is now, as Paul goes on to say in Phil. 3, "rubbish," since the promised Christ and his kingdom have now come (vv.7, 8). Before the coming of King Jesus, the ultimate, true purpose of the Law and the Prophets could not be seen, nor did God intend that it be clearly seen, else men such as Moses, David, and John would surely have seen it. Only with the coming of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom did the ultimate purpose of the Law and the Prophets appear. Only in the Kingdom of Heaven are they truly satisfied. Must you obey them? YES OF COURSE YOU MUST! Christ fulfills them; he in no sense abolishes them. Our righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes, Pharisees and even John, because our prophet, priest and king surpasses theirs. He reveals God and his will to us to an extent and a depth of which the men of old could not even imagine. He intercedes, mediates and makes atonement so as to truly save; and he effectively rules us, writing the Law in our hearts, and punishes the enemies of the kingdom with a righteousness which causes even the demons to tremble. He and he alone is the reason why our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Similarly, he is the sole reason why "he who is least in the kingdom is greater than [John]."
Prior to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom in which the Law and the Prophets have their ultimate fulfillment, Moses and David, following the will of God revealed in the Law and the Prophets, built an earthly kingdom in the land of Canaan. Solomon, likewise, built a temple following the revealed will of God. All of their deeds and works were done in obedience to the will of God; their deeds were righteous. Their administration communicated the grace of God to Israel unto the salvation of the elect. But all was done as a shadow. The kingdom which they built and the temple which Solomon erected were but an earthly shadow of the kingdom which Christ has now begun to build. They were like a tadpole that is destined to become a frog. They contained the rough, earthly outlines and suggestions of the future mature kingdom. Like the tadpole, the old forms had a real existence and meaning, albeit temporary. However, by just looking at a tadpole, one who has never seen a frog would hardly be able to sketch a clear picture of the tadpole's future destiny. Similarly, the old kingdom of shad-
ows was intended to prefigure and point to the Kingdom of Heaven, the temple which is made without human hands. Through the kingdom in Palestine, men of old exercised faith in the Savior who was to come, but they could not actually participate in his kingdom before that kingdom actually arrived. Despite the divine glory of the old kingdom and its various ministries, it was weak and ineffectual by comparison to the real thing.
The problem of the Jewish leaders is that despite the arrival of Christ and his kingdom, the Pharisees continued to pursue the earthly shadow and its righteousness. Hence, their righteousness was inadequate for the Kingdom of Heaven. Continuing to demand circumcision when the "reproach of Egypt" (Josh. 5:9) has already been perfectly rolled away by a divine circumcision (Col. 2:11) is to again reject Christ and put him to shame (Heb. 6). It is to forsake the righteousness from God and pursue a righteousness of this world. Because the Jewish leaders rejected the true king and the true kingdom, their righteousness, though maintaining a form of godliness, fell short of the Kingdom of Heaven. The earthly kingdom in Canaan had value only so long as that which it was designed to foreshadow had not appeared. The ambassador is of interest to a foreign head of state only until his own head of state arrives in the foreign country. Once the president arrives, the host must turn his attention to him. To continue dealings with the ambassador once his president has arrived is to slap the visiting president in the face, and to miss the very point of the ambassador's preparatory visit. By ignoring the true temple and the true kingdom and clinging to the old (Jn. 11:48), i.e., by continuing to read Moses and the Prophets as having a binding focus upon the earthly nation, they pursued a righteousness which was inherently short of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yes, in the old era God himself, through the Law raised up the nation of Israel; then through the former prophets, Israel became a kingdom. Then, through the latter prophets, God began to point both to the weaknesses and imperfections of that kingdom. He pointed to a better kingdom which was to come; in other words, to the Kingdom of Heaven. The earthly kingdom and its institutions, themselves, were in fact designed to point to that future kingdom. Hebrews 10:1 says, "The Law has only a shadow of the good things to come." The context in Hebrews indicates that the writer has one particular
institution in mind, namely Israel's religious system, with its earthly temple, imperfect priesthood, and animal sacrifices. This is because his readers were apparently in danger of abandoning the church and reverting to that kind of earthly form of worship (cf. Col. 2:16, 17, 20). Nevertheless, it is not just the rituals of Israel that were intended as a shadow of the good things to come. The whole of the nation which was established in the land of Canaan according to the Old Testament was similarly a shadow of the good things to come. The good things have now come! The shadow has passed away; the earthly kingdom with all of its institutions, religious, ethical and civil, now have meaning only as they point us to and teach us about King Jesus, his heavenly kingdom, and its temple—the Church of Jesus Christ. Only when we recognize this change and thus read both our Old Testament and our New Testament, can our righteousness truly exceed that of the Pharisees, who insisted on pursuing the old kingdom.
The validity of this understanding of Jesus' fulfillment of the Old Testament is borne out when we look at Jesus' exposition of the Law which follows beginning with verse 21. Seven times, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to the ancients . . . but I say unto you." That which the ancients were told is the teaching of the Law and the Prophets, not the man-made traditions for which Jesus rebuked the Jews at other points (Mt. 15). While Jesus does not deny the truth or validity of the Old Testament's demands; he expands upon that truth or validity of the Old Testament's demands, he expands upon that teaching, developing it in accordance with the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. In doing so he gives us seven examples of how the Law is fulfilled in the kingdom, seven examples of just what our tadpole now looks like in maturity—or in other words, how we are to apply the Law both today and until the consummation. Let us look very briefly at one of the more knotty examples which Jesus gives.
In verse 43 Jesus replaces the Old Covenant understanding of the Law's teaching about the enemies of the people of God with a new understanding. In the Old Testament kingdom, perfectly in accord with the revealed will of God, Joshua and the sons of Israel tried with all of their might to kill their enemies. This they were commanded to do by the Law and the Prophets, and they were reproved when they disobeyed (i.e., when Saul spared Agag). In a
sense the ancients were told, "Hate your enemies." Here hate is not fundamentally an emotion any more than biblical love is at root an emotion. "Hate your enemies" refers to the behavior which they were commanded by God to exhibit toward the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Philistines, etc. Jesus tells us that we must now love these human enemies of the kingdom.
Similarly, Paul tells us that our battle "is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." Israel and her enemies were but an earthly shadow of the real battle which is raging against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Our enemies are not flesh and blood; they are spirit. Christians who take up arms in an attempt to establish or defend the Kingdom of Heaven wage a futile war, and disobey this command of Christ. Pacifists who apply this passage to the wars between earthly nations similarly miss Christ's point. "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" is Christ's application of the Law and the Prophets to the new people of God. When we are persecuted for the sake of Christ's name, we must not resist, but we must stand with our Lord as did Stephen in Acts 7, and we must pray with our Lord, "Forgive them for they know not what they do." In this way we conquer our earthly enemies by plundering their fortresses (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Rom. 12:20-21).
As the church of Christ, we engage in holy war, not by striking our flesh and blood attackers, but by praying for those who persecute us, and conquering them with the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. The language of battle of the Old Testament remains binding, but now applies to spiritual, not physical enemies of the people of God. In the same way all of the Law and the Prophets must likewise be obeyed. Jesus does not give us a verse by verse commentary concerning how each and every Old Testament statute is to be applied and obeyed today, but he does, in very strong words, command that his church pursue such study. This is because in his kingdom, the Law and the Prophets are not abrogated. Quite to the contrary, they are transformed from above. The primary focus of Old Testament statutes has been redirected from earth to heaven. Everything from our worship to our warfare has been 'reborn from above.'
In verses 18 and l9 our final point appears:
Until the Old Testament is completely fulfilled, that is, until the end of the world, every part of the Old Testament remains in force.
Verse 18 begins with an oath often used by Christ: "For truly I say to you." He frequently begins very important, often difficult teachings with this phrase. Thus we must listen with particular care to what follows, and we should expect to encounter teaching which is particularly hard to understand or obey. Verse 18 answers two questions which naturally arise from verse 17. First, how long will it remain in force? And second, how much of it remains binding?
To the question of how long it remains in force, Jesus first answers with what in Greek is a very emphatic statement—Until heaven and earth pass away, it will not pass away. The grammar here sharply contrasts the perishability of heaven and earth (cf. Heb. 1:10f.) with the imperishable nature of the Law. At the end of this verse Jesus repeats the point and at the same time explains why this is so: all that is written must be accomplished. The Old Testament, when properly focused through the old kingdom/temple, provides the blueprints and the ethics for a kingdom which will continue to be built right up to the return of Christ when he will finish the job. Until that time not even a tiny bit of the Law will pass away. No builder would ever dream of throwing away his blueprints before completing the house. Jesus is telling us that the statutes of the old earthly kingdom are integral pages in the total blueprint for the house which he has employed us to help him to build, prefiguring its government and worship. They are binding at least as long as the laborers build.
It is important to recognize that Jesus' view of the Law at this point is not merely ethical, but constructive. The Law is in force not only to bring about ethical behavior on the part of the king's subjects, but also to construct the Kingdom of heaven itself. Those seeking to bind modern earthly nations to the letter of the Law vehemently deny this very point when they insist that we must not confuse "the question of what ought to take place in the world (ethics) with the question of what will in fact take place in the world (eschatology)" (Bahnsen, No Other Standard, p. 52.). "All is accomplished" (Mt. 5:18) only when the city sought by Abraham is complete: "the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10). The word
of God will not return void. It will accomplish the purpose for which God has sent it. This is true not simply on a personal level, but in cosmic terms. The Lord established the Law with a view to the work of Christ. His purpose is not merely the ethical transformation of individuals. It is certainly not to perfect the kingdoms of this world (Jn. 18:36). To attempt to impress the legal system of Old Testament Israel upon the fallen kingdoms of this world is like trying to plant a seed in cement—it will neither go in nor ever take root. Christ's purpose is to redeem his people from the nations, and to transform them into a temple-kingdom which will be a suitable dwelling place for God. In this sense the law is eschatologically constructive, and not merely ethical.
This then brings us to the answer to the second question. How much of the Old Testament remains in force? The words which in my version are translated "smallest pen stroke and letter," actually refer to the smallest Greek letter, and to the tiny projection on certain Hebrew letters which distinguish one from another. Christ's point here is surely not the physical durability of the New or Old Testament manuscripts, but to emphasize vividly the fact that the whole of the Old Testament remains binding upon us. This is true at least until the end of this age.
Because of this emphatic teaching of Christ, the writer to the Hebrews goes to great length to prove to us the validity of Christ's High Priesthood, and he does it from the Old Testament itself. Even the rituals of the Old Testament are not abolished; they are fulfilled; they are obeyed in a superior way by a greater High Priest who serves at a tabernacle made without human hands. The earthly tabernacle was destroyed by the judgment of God. But, the commandments of the Old Testament by which it was originally erected remain fully binding. Thus the writer takes great pains to show that we have a legally legitimate High Priest who continues to satisfy every sacrificial requirement of that Law on our behalf. We have a king who sits crowned at God's right hand ruling his kingdom through earthly agents called elders they and they alone can satisfy the political demands of the Law and the Prophets. They "bear not the sword in vain," the sword of the Spirit that is. Hebrews 12 indicates to us that their application of that Law is far more awesome than the death by stoning which was employed by the elders of old
(cf. Heb. 12:20, 25).
Finally, Christ warns us in verse 19 against teaching that any part of the law has been abolished. He who does will be least in the kingdom. We dare not simply dismiss even a bit of the Old Testament as irrelevant because Christ forbids us from doing so. Instead we must diligently ask ourselves "How does this statute or teaching apply in the light of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven?"
Similarly, we dare not do as did the Scribes and the Pharisees, i.e., we dare not continue to read our Old Testament as if it still speaks to an earthly kingdom (in Palestine or Washington). It does not! Those who fail to realize this put themselves in the same danger against which Christ warns us: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
1. Chapter 19:2-5 of the Westminster Confession attempts to categorize the various statutes as ceremonial, civil, and moral as a means of summarizing their use in the New Testament following the cross. This approach produces a reasonable description of what Christians must obey today, but the breakdown lacks New Testament theological underpinning. Consequently, while the Confession declares large portions of the Law to be abrogated in Christ's Kingdom, King Jesus states that all remain in force.
Narrative and Paradox in Jonah
Among the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Jonah presents a peculiar challenge to the biblical-theological interpreter. The prophet does not take up the pen himself, as those traditionally named "writing prophets." He has no dream, no oracle to announce. He enacts no didactic drama before his people in order to teach them of their God. He has been named the reluctant prophet because he runs away from his prophetic charge. The name, Jonah Ben-Amittai, is mentioned in relation to the military conquests of king Jeroboam II (2 Kgs. 14:25). Jeroboam was not a particularly praiseworthy leader: "He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord." But "the Lord had made no threat to blot out the name of Israel under heaven," so he fulfilled a promise delivered by Jonah Ben-Amittai to reestablish some lost protective boundaries. The words of this prophet are not given. Nothing more is said of him.
Why do we then find Jonah among the writing prophets? The prophet himself—not his message—is the focus of the narrative. Unlike the earlier prophets, the power of the prophet as word-bearer for YHWH to a particular generation of his chosen people is not the foundation of his ministry. Unlike the later prophets, the power of the word of YHWH to create new spiritual realities, higher worlds of hope and redemption for a shattered nation, is not his focal point. And the paradox, the strangeness of this story, confronts the reader with kerygma.
Jonah begins in an intertextual world. That is to say, in order to find footing in the narrative we must construct a topography from the sparse references given. These references consist of only seven proper names. We
have no clear reference to time, as in Isaiah ("In the year that king Uzziah died...," 1:1). Our indicators refer to person and space: YHWH, Jonah BenAmittai, Nineveh, Joppa, Tarshish, Elohim, Sheol. Other than these proper nouns, we travel by relative markers: up, down, in, out, etc. Thus these proper names are the primary means for the construction of a realm of meaning. After the name of the prophet, the city, Nineveh, which the prophet considers his enemy, is the most particular signifier in the topography of the book. The city was founded by the marvelous hunter, Nimrod (Gen. 10:11). It conquered and humiliated Israel (722/21 B.C.). It threatened Judah (cf. Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah), but it was eventually overthrown itself by the Babylonians (612 B.C.). The conjunction of the prophet Jonah and the city of Nineveh places the book in the context of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) in its final decline, under the shadow of its conqueror.
A narrative reading of Jonah will accept the text in its own system of referentiality. Most modern criticism divorces the book from its own intertextual referentiality. The desire for univocal or literal origins draws interpretive discussion into the post-exilic historical world, and dismembers the text according to various schemes of evolutionary development. The narrative approach advocated here is not meant to deny the usefulness of such criticism, but I think that something important is lost by denying Jonah the voice of its own referentiality. The author speaks to us assuming a certain knowledge of the scriptures, which he, in turn, assumes we will accept as the reference-points of the narrative. Let us listen to him!
The first loss that is suffered when Jonah is related immediately to either an extralinguistic world (through historical criticism), or to a purified linguistic system (as in structuralism), is that the book's paradoxicality is too easily overcome. Rather than either of these approaches, the paradoxes developed in Jonah ought to be reinforced and extended. For the desire to overcome paradox is an anti-kerygmatic search for either the stability of a non-metaphorical world, or the moral comfort of a world without fundamental dialectical tensions. The first way is the historical approach; the second, the religious. Both miss what Robert Alter sees as the essential project of the ancient Hebrew writers:
The ancient Hebrew writers, as I have already intimated, seek through the process of narrative realization to reveal the enactment of God's purposes in historical events. This enactment, however, is continuously complicated by a perception of two, approximately parallel, dialectical tensions. One is a tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events, or, to translate this opposition into specifically biblical terms, between the divine promise and its ostensible failure to be fulfilled; the other is a tension between God's will, His providential guidance, and human freedom, the refractory character of man.1
I submit that in Jonah both of these dialectical tensions are reversed. It is God who upsets the order of divine providence by saving Israel's enemies. Jonah, on the other hand, desires an orderly, unilateral application of the divine plan: for Israel only is God's mercy. Secondly, Jonah is shown to have no freedom; try as he may, he must fulfill the charge. God, on the other hand, has the freedom to "change" his mind. By invoking, and then reversing these dialectical tensions, Jonah both reinforces the nature of the tensions, and extends them—the only way they can be extended—through paradox.
The book of Jonah consists of only four chapters. Each chapter is a discrete scene, with its own beginning and ending. The book can also be seen as a structure of doubling, namely, an AbaB form. The two capital letters are juxtaposed with the two small case letters to indicate that chapters one and four are the places where inner character is revealed in a deeper manner. The anguished decisions of the sailors in chapter one, and the mind of the prophet (and of God) finally revealed in chapter four are the pivotal events of the book. Chapters two and three are not thus unimportant. They not only develop their own itinerary, but also inform their doubles. This process of informing by repetition has been cited in support of the unity of the book as well.2 This structure of double repetition will be followed in our interpretation of the text. First, chapters one and three will be treated, then chapters two and four.
Chapter one begins with the call of the prophet. This call is hardly distinguished from the message to be delivered. It is stated that the word of the
Lord came, and juxtaposed to this fact is the word. It is a message of condemnation: "Go to the great city of Nineveh, go now and denounce it, for its wickedness stares me in the face." A literal rendition reveals more sharply the suddenness, the violence of the call: "Get up! Go to Nineveh, the great city! And cry out against her, for their wickedness has risen up before me!" In this translation, the force of the two verbs ("rise" and "get up") emphasizes how radical is the response of Jonah which follows; indeed, is juxtaposed to this word of the Lord. He gets up. The verb (qom) is repeated, but in the past tense now, since it is the narrator who speaks. And then it is related, without further comment, that Jonah has gotten up not to obey, but to flee to Tarshish, to flee "from before YHWH." Like the wickedness of the Ninevites, Jonah is before the Lord, as if he too had risen to that terrifying place. And he flees! He goes down to Joppa, to begin that horrible descent from the face of YHWH which eventually finds him at the bottom of the sea.
Chapter one is a descent. Jonah goes down (jared) to Joppa; he pays his fare on a ship bound for Tarshish, the geographical antipode of Nineveh. He then goes down into the ship. At this point the reason for his departure is given again, in reinforcement, that he was fleeing from before the face of YHWH. Verse three is thus enveloped with this phrase, a picture of Jonah enveloped in the hold of the ship, for what reason we do not as yet know. And then the word that follows is again YHWH: "And YHWH threw a great wind [or breath, or storm] upon the sea." Once more the style is abrupt and without comment. As the sea grows wild and the sailors grow frantic and call for help, Jonah has done the very opposite: "but Jonah had gone down (jared) to the lower parts of the ship and he lay down and fell deeply asleep (jaradam)." The verbal repetition in vv. 4 and 5 is striking, and the technique continues to reinforce Jonah's descent. But another theme now begins to arise, when this technique is used to link the sailors to what Jonah's response ought to be, in contrast to his strange behavior. Also, the captain goes to Jonah in a mock calling scene that repeats verse 1: "Get up! (qom) Call on your gods! (qara)." Verse 6 will be echoed as well by the king of Nineveh when he deliberates aloud with his "Who knows?" in 3:9.
Now when the storm is raging, the sailors continue their frantic efforts in contrast to the inert Jonah. YHWH throws the wind on the sea; the sailors
throw cargo into the sea; soon they will throw Jonah into the sea. But Jonah's whole response is contained in only two answers to the sailors' anxious questions. He is, in fact, asked eight questions, and it is evidence of the sailors' fear and agitation versus Jonah's bizarre detachment that he only responds to two. The sailors leave no avenue untried in quest for survival. They are equally perservering in their commitment to the well-being of their passenger. They first lighten the ship, rightly valuing life over profit. They cry out to their gods, they cast lots, searching for the cause of their misfortunes. The lot falls on Jonah. The sailors now inquire for the reason, as if the lot could somehow be mistaken. Moreover, the narrator interjects to tell us that the sailors already knew what Jonah was up to. They are all the more frightened by the prophet's theologically impeccable response to one of the five questions they fire at him. The sea grows rougher. They turn to Jonah again, now asking what they ought to do, implicitly accepting his authority, and his god, over their own. His reply is astonishingly calm; he merely tells them to throw him into the sea. Again they try to avoid the now inevitable. They try to row to land. And then, even as they are giving up hope, they cry out (qara) to YHWH (for they know his name now), and their profession of repentance and plea for mercy is all the more poignant in comparison with the laconic and resigned prophet. In the end, all turns out well for the sailors. They are saved from the storm, and they offer sacrifices to YHWH. They fear YHWH with a great fear.
Chapter three begins exactly where chapter one began. The word of YHWH comes again to Jonah. The message is the same, except that the wickedness of the great city is not mentioned, and Jonah is told to cry to her, not against her. This slight softening of the message is a clue to the response it will receive, and it is to be added to the clue we have already been given in the sailors' response to the word of YHWH. This time Jonah gets up (qom) and goes (halek: neither up nor down, just 'go'). The narrator tells us something about the city in v. 3: "Now Nineveh was a great city to God, a visit of three days." These three days are right away important because Jonah, when he arrives, only begins his mission into the city before he turns away again from his calling. He begins to go into the city, a journey of one day. He speaks five words (in the Hebrew text), and then he turns around and goes outside the city to sulk. "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" is
all it takes for the Ninevites to turn in the most extravagant repentance. They declare a fast immediately. When the news (the word) reaches the king, he rises (qom) from his throne, takes off his robe and sits down in the dust in sackcloth. The decree is issued that all, man and beast alike, should put on sackcloth and ashes. All should fast, taking neither food nor drink. All should call (qara) on God, and give up their evil ways (raq'a). Like the captain, the king says, "Who knows?" And God, seeing this, relents of the evil (raq'a) he had planned against them, for they turned from their evil (raq'a).
In chapter three Jonah only speaks five words. He says even less than he does in chapter one. The other characters act extravagantly, and the process of their turning is quick: the people act, the king acts, the king speaks. The suddenness and the extravagance of their actions have been foreshadowed in a way by the anguished actions of the sailors. In this way, chapter one is the stronger of the two. The narrator has given us the psychological detail that can carry over into chapter three and make it flow into the narrative imagination more easily. The logic of these two chapters now looks clear: Jonah's mission is a success. The people to whom he is sent respond to the word of YHWH, and they respond by turning from evil to worship the living God. He is the most successful of prophets, evidently beyond what he himself would want. And this is the point: Jonah has not wanted any of this success.
The further difficulty with Jonah's mission, besides its extravagant success, is that the paradigm is applied to the wrong people. The theme of God's providential care being attached to repentance through confrontation with the prophetic word or kerygma is a theme attached to Israel. Yet here is the prophet of Israel turning away from the face of YHWH, running away from him, while the heathen and the enemies of Israel are turning towards him, and away from evil. Jonah's descent in chapter one is mirrored by the antithetical ascent of the sailors toward repentance and faith, and love for their fellow man. In chapter three, Jonah's paltry beginnings at obedience spark a massive act of repentance.
In the second pair, chapters two and four, two brief acts of YHWH envelop an extended lyric utterance from Jonah, and Jonah and YHWH enter into a dialogue of speech and action. The two brief acts refer to the fish in
chapter three. YHWH sends the fish. He speaks to the fish and it vomits Jonah up onto dry land. These actions are introduced as perfunctorily as the actions of the laconic Jonah. The sailors throw Jonah overboard, and the fish is sent to swallow him up. He is in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. This figure cannot but resonate with that expression of greatness for the great city Nineveh, the city of the three day journey. The word "great" (gadol) is repeated many times in the book, and it emphasizes the dramatic character of the events portrayed.
In the belly of the fish Jonah prays to God. It is noteworthy that only Jonah prays to God (palal). He does this twice, here in chapter two and also in chapter four, when he complains about YHWH's mercy to Nineveh. When the sailors and the Ninevites address God, they cry out to him, but Jonah merely prays, even in the belly of the fish. The prayer is itself in the form of a psalm; in fact, it is a pastiche of psalms of deliverance. One recognizes formulae that are almost cliches in the psalter. A recent critic has identified "the most flagrant borrowings:" v.3 (2 in English versions) = Ps. 18:7; 120: 1 (identical); v. 4 (3) = Ps. 24:2; 42:8 (identical); v. 5 (4) = Ps. 31:23 (identical); v. 6 (5) = Ps. 18:5; 69:2 (identical); v. 7 (6) = Ps. 30:4; v. 8 (7) = Ps. 107:5; 42:5; 88:3; 5:8; v. 9 (8) = Ps. 31; 7, 9 (identical); v. 10 (9) = Ps. 42:5; 3:9 (identical).3 Only two verses have no identical phrases borrowed from other psalms, and these two verses also have equivalent counterparts.
There is a double irony in this psalm. First, it is ironical that the form of the psalm of deliverance, with its apocalyptic imagery of Sheol, the pit, the deep, the psalmist sinking into the floods—that all this lyric energeia—which is used to transport the suffering psalmist into an apocalyptic realm—is here almost a literal description of a man sinking into the sea. The imagery is never referential in this sense in the Psalms, yet here Jonah is actually put into the sea. The sea itself is a "lower abyss," whose bottom borders on Sheol. It is a place of primordial combat with spiritual forces in the mythology of the Near East, and the biblical imagery exploits this conception both in the Psalms and in the apocalyptic literature.4 The narrative of Jonah puts the hero in this element, and it is both natural that he should use this imagery, and strange that the images are now, paradoxically, natural.
The second irony is in Jonah's use of the psalm of deliverance which has no mention of repentance when repentance is needed. The sailors were saved by their obedience; now Jonah is saved by reciting formulae. There is even a proud condemnation of the disobedient in vv. 9-10 (8-9). Further, the psalm is given as a prayer, but it refers to an accomplished deliverance. The technique is common in the Psalms, but the psalms of deliverance are not framed as in Jonah. The technique of proleptic praise (v. 3), looks forward to an accomplished redemption, by praising and announcing it in the first verse. But in Jonah the entire song is sung before the deliverance comes. The form of a song of worship, used to recount the mighty acts of God, is part of a liturgical memory for Israel. In this sense, the irony is that Jonah uses a collective form for an individual action. This utterance is thus very much like the other confessions Jonah makes: they are formulae, in stark contrast to the emotional and personal cries of the sailors and the Ninevites.
In chapter four, Jonah is angry because of the Ninevites' response to his condemnation: "But it was displeasing (y'rach) to Jonah with a great displeasure (racha g'dola)" (v. 1). The repetition of the word "evil" (racha), which occurs three times each in both chapters one and three, is juxtaposed with similar root (rach’ch). The evil from which the Ninevites had turned away toward their own salvation, is now attached to Jonah. This is the first time that the narrator intervenes to tell us anything about the inner state of the prophet. It is also the first time that the prophet speaks about his actions. The long-awaited disclosure comes across as an "I told you so." "And he prayed to YHWH, and he said, 'O YHWH, was not this my word while I was still at my home? On account of this I was quick to flee to Tarshish . . ."' (v. 2). At home, his "word" was opposed to the "word" of YHWH which came to him. Finally we are told of his strange actions. But this "I told you so" is followed by another traditional formula, the formula of praise for the chesed, the covenantal faithfulness of the Lord.
Jonathan Magonet offers a suggestive parallel to v. 2 in Joel 2:13-14a.5 The passage in Joel even combines the chesed formula with the "who knows?" question we have seen in Jonah. The prophet now speaks: "And rend your heart, not your garments, and turn unto YHWH your God; for he is
gracious and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repenteth of the evil. Who knoweth whether he will not turn and repent" (Joel 2:13-14a). But Jonah is not comforted and encouraged by the chesed of YHWH. He is sure that YHWH will repent of the evil he has promised against Nineveh. This assurance is a kind of extravagant belief in the covenant mercy of YHWH: Jonah is sure that the mercy will extend to anyone to whom YHWH sends a word, even those outside the covenant. The "who knows?" potentiality is oddly enough a certainty for Jonah. Jonah is not only opposed to the pagans with whom he comes in contact, he is also opposed to the prophetic tradition, which speaks oracles of doom against Israel's enemies, never once fearing that they will turn and be forgiven.
The remainder of chapter four is a dialogue of words and action between YHWH and Jonah. In this respect, it parallels the dialogic action between YHWH, the storm and the sailors, and the strange dialogue between YHWH, the fish and Jonah. YHWH causes the elements of creation to "speak" to Jonah, and he responds. Jonah's actions are by now typical: he flees, and he encloses himself. He goes out to a place east of the city and there he builds a booth (suqqot). With the biblical tradition in mind, the booth is an important part of the festival liturgical life of Israel. The feast of booths, Sukkot, is the festival of the last harvest of the year. The booths symbolize the nation's experience in the desert. This forty years of wandering was a judgment on an entire generation. In the writing prophets the final apocalyptic judgment is sometimes referred to as a harvest, as it is in the gospels. Also, the final scene in Ezekiel is one where the remnant of Israel are in the desert, a camp surrounded by their enemies, when the army of YHWH comes down suddenly to usher in the new era with an apocalyptic blow. Is this what Jonah is hoping for here, a lone Israelite in the desert, as he sits and waits to see what YHWH will do to Nineveh?
Whether or not Jonah is expecting an apocalyptic judgment, he sits in his booth while YHWH engages in a dialogue with him. "Is it right for you to be angry?" says YHWH in vv. 4 and 9. This phrase is a response to Jonah's "now YHWH, take now my life from me, for my death would be better than my life!" This is the petition of his prayer, after he has revealed the reason for his disobedience (v. 3). He repeats the substance of this petition to him-
self in v. 8, which is the occasion for the repetition of YHWH's question. Meanwhile, YHWH has provided a blessing, the vine for shade, and has taken it away. YHWH also sends a scorching east wind to torment Jonah. The verb usually translated "provide" occurs once in chapter two, when YHWH "provides" the fish. It occurs three times in chapter four, when YHWH "provides," in turn, the vine, the worm and the wind. It can also simply mean "to send." Each of the things YHWH sends to Jonah provokes a response. In chapter four, the narrator intrudes into Jonah's heart and tells us his response to the vine and its loss in terms of how he feels, as well as by means of an interior voice.
In chapter two, Jonah's response is formulaic. In chapter four, his answer to the provisions of YHWH is volatile and contingent. When at last we are led into Jonah's heart, we are shown how it changes. In contrast to the Jonah we only knew from the outside, who spoke in the timelessness of formulae, this Jonah is supremely mutable. He responds according to the changing conditions of his world, not according to law or tradition. Now the scene is prepared for YHWH to make his point. The vine sprang up in a night and died in a night, and Jonah responded to this change. Should not YHWH tend to the great city of Nineveh and respond to her changes? Jonah was concerned; he showed compassion (chus, the root for the noun chesed) for the vine. Should not YHWH be concerned, show compassion for Nineveh, the great city of 120,000 souls? And these people and beasts, who demonstrated such an extravagant repentance, do not know their right hand from their left. Jonah knows all the right thing to say.
Jonah is led through the steps of a change of heart by an object lesson. But at the end, we are left hanging, like the word of the Lord when Jonah fled. We are not given a response to this final word. Does he have a word in his heart? We are not told. It is left to us. We are simply left with the paradox of the thing. Jonathan Magonet offers four antitheses after his study of the book which formulate the thematics of Jonah: (1) knowledge of God / disobedience of man; (2) particularism / universalism; (3) traditional teaching / new experience; (4) the power of God / the freedom of man.6 I believe that the first and the fourth, and the second and the third, can be combined. In this way, the book reduces to the double paradox I have spoken of above. Thus
the knowledge and power of God are in opposition to the disobedience and freedom of man, and the particularism of the traditional teaching is opposed to the universalism of the new experience which confronts Jonah and, at the end, us. To return to Alter's twin paradoxes, Jonah reverses expectations by reversing the terms of the usual paradox. The man who knows God is the disobedient one, the one who tries to thwart God's purposes in the world. But the plan of God in the world is also reversed. Instead of chesed for his covenant people, YHWH's chesed is lavished on the enemies of Israel.
The book of Jonah accomplishes its purposes through evocation of its own relationship to the world of biblical prophecy. The fact that this relationship is paradoxical does not destroy these relationships, except in ways that kerygma destroys all expectations: in order to evoke the "beyond" of them. The freedom of God is opposed here to the fixity of human traditions, to which Jonah is attached. Indeed, the paradoxical nature of Jonah is peculiarly suited to the paradoxical nature of that era on the threshold between two ages of prophecy. Jonah stands between the period of exclusive covenantal prophecy, where the message to the nation looked forward to her restoration, and the universalism of the later prophets, who looked forward, like Jeremiah, to a new covenant.7 On the way to this new world, the chosen people pass through the tragic destruction of Israel. This Jonah cannot accept. Thus he flees. Yet the word of YHWH pursues him and drags him reluctantly toward the future.
"Ship-mates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah's deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet!" So speaks Father Mapple to the sailors in Moby Dick. And his final word is: "But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is sure delight . . . "8 In the judgment there is repentance, and in the suffering there is joy. That is the paradox Father Mapple discovers. His interpretation of the story does what I have been trying to do: it extends the paradox of it. What I have striven to avoid is an interpretation that solves the paradox, that reduces the story to a dull repetition of moral or psychological or historical explication. Father Mapple does not explain, he thunders!
1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 33.
2. Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 423.
3. Robert Couffignal, "Le Psaume de Jonas (Jonas 2,2-10). Une Catabase Biblique." Biblica 71/4 (1990): 542-552, especially p.545.
4. Xavier Leon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology (New York: Seabury, 1973), vide "Sea".
5. Jonathan Magonet, Form and Meaning in Jonah (Sheffield: Almond, 1983), 77.
6. Ibid., p. 90.
7. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 189-90.
8. Herman Mellville, Moby Dick (New York: Hendricks House, 1952), 40, 47.
The Sign of Jonah
James T. Dennison, Jr.
However bold the following statement may seem, I believe it is an accurate reflection of the history of interpretation—the book of Jonah continues to perplex and bewilder the church, much as the prophet himself who seems so unnerved by his commission. Interpreters of this little jewel have often left their hearers (and readers) with questions rather than with answers. Why did Jonah flee to Tarshish (1:3)? Why was he angry at God's relenting (3:10-4:1)? Why did he wish for death (4:8)? I am not suggesting that answers to these questions have not been advanced by preachers and commentators; nor am I suggesting that the answers tendered do not contain elements of truth. Yet, it seems to me that those wrestling with the dilemmas of the book of Jonah have not fully appreciated two essential considerations. First, what significance does the inclusion of Jonah in the sacred canon of Israelite Scripture have in interpreting the events of the book? Second, what significance does our Lord's remark about the sign of Jonah have as a clue to the meaning of the book?
Rationalistic and liberal commentators have no ultimate resolutions for the difficulties of this book for they reduce the work to a parable or semi-mythological construct. Hence, the historicity of this canonical work as endorsed by our Lord Himself remains problematic. Orthodox commentators have not adduced this difficulty, but still they leave us where the book ends—with questions (cf. 4: 11). Let us take a fresh look at the book of Jonah in the light of the two considerations above.
When the worm gnaws its way into Jonah's gourd so that it withers (4:7), Jonah responds with anger and bitterness. His fury at the loss of his
gourd is a parable of his anger with God who failed to destroy the Ninevites. The poet has represented the hillside scene as follows.
Oh greenly and fair
in the lands of the sun
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew
While he waited to know that his warning was true;
And longed for the storm cloud and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and the red fire-rain.
Jonah is not usually remembered as an angry prophet. Generally, we associate him with the great fish as we emphasize the stupendous miracle of his preservation and deliverance. The truth is, Jonah is the most furious of the prophets and insofar as we fail to understand the context of his anger, we fail to understand the meaning of his book. And if we fail to understand this angry prophet, we fail to understand: (1) why a book which apparently has nothing to do with Israel is included in the canon; and (2) the remark of our Lord (Mt. 12:39-41; cf. Lk. 11:29-30, 32).
This angry prophet manifests his displeasure on three occasions. When he is first commissioned to go to Nineveh (1:1, 2), he flees from his duty in angry rebellion. When the great fish spits him back upon the right path, he goes to Nineveh and preaches the sermon God directed, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown" (3:4). That sermon—surely one of the shortest in the history of the church—is the instrument of a marvellous work of conviction and humiliation. The Ninevites give themselves up to the mercy of God while acknowledging the just deserts of their sins (3:5ff.). Shortly after this, Jonah becomes angry with God for the second time as he watches in vain "for the rush of the whirlwind and the red fire-rain". While he awaits the fireworks from his hillside campsite, God provides relief from the burning sun by means of a shade gourd. But when the worm kills the gourd, Jonah is angry with the Lord for the third time (4:9).
Superficially considered, the prophet's anger appears easily explainable. He did not want to go to Nineveh—hence becomes angry when commissioned to that task. He did not enjoy preaching one thing (destruction) and finding God doing the opposite (sparing the city). He did not like the sun beating upon his head and the death of his shade inflames his fury. Yet if we
look below the surface of Jonah's anger and probe more deeply the fury of this prophet, we discover a common thread woven through each of the three incidents. Something is gnawing at Jonah! Something continues to chew away at his soul whether he is on his way down to Joppa, preaching his way through Nineveh or sitting under his shade gourd. Even before "the word of the Lord came to Jonah" (1:1), he was angry. What was the source of Jonah's anger in every instance of its manifestation? I would suggest that it was related to the fact that Jonah was a prophet of, to and for Israel! Jonah was a home-born Jewish prophet—son of Amittai of Gath-hepher (2 Kgs. 14:25). He was commissioned to preach to the Israel of Jeroboam II (ca. 793-753 B.C.); hence was a contemporary of Hosea and Amos (cf. Hosea 1:1, Amos 1:1 and 2 Kgs. 14:23, 24). Jonah was a prophet for Israel. While he prophesied prosperity for Israel (cf. 2 Kgs. 14:25, 26), it was a prosperity derived from the grace of God. Israel in the days of Jeroboam II was not godly (cf. 2 Kgs. 14:24; Hosea 4 and Amos 5, 6). Thus we may imagine Jonah pleading with an affluent society to remember her covenant Lord. For all her prosperity, Israel was decadent, perverse and idolatrous. Jonah undoubtedly raised his voice with others urging Israel to return to the Lord, forsake her idols, humble herself in sackcloth and ashes casting herself upon the mercy of her Sovereign. But she would not!
Therefore when God commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh, his response was maddening disbelief. He had preached to hardhearted Israel without success. The chosen people would not listen. What then was the likelihood of the heathen hearing? Jonah's words had fallen on deaf ears in his homeland; he was angry at the thought of yet more failure in a pagan land. After all, the Assyrians had not been Israel's benefactors! Although he acknowledged the mercy of God (4:2), he balked at the thought of a covenant prophet prostituting his gifts before the Gentiles.
The sovereign Lord has determined the opposite. Jonah is to preach the Word of the Lord to the Gentiles even if God must pursue him with wind and wave to the ends of the earth. Even if God must send a great fish to suck him up off the bottom of the ocean; even if God must give him up to death for three days and three nights in order that he may be vomited out to life anew. God's ways are not Jonah's ways and Jonah must learn the redemptive pur-
poses of God. Jonah is rapidly convinced that this Pursuer is relentless. By the time he has nearly drowned in the Mediterranean Sea; nearly gone stir-crazy from the darkness of a living tomb; nearly strangled on the seaweed floating about his head (2:5)—he has become very cooperative.
In Nineveh, Jonah preaches his sermon, leaves the city, puts up his little booth and camps out to wait for the fire and brimstone. In the spirit of the annual holiday shopping countdown, one imagines Jonah counting 40, 39, 38, 37 . . . As he nears the zero hour, his expectations are more and more aroused—5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . Day 40 dawns, but there is no fiery spectacular. No great balls of fire—no thunder claps of destruction—no smoke and sulphur. Nothing!
The pent up anger of failing again is released. He has preached repentance to Israel without result. He says, "Yet forty days . . ." and there is no destruction. His words have failed to produce the effect he expects. In despair he cries, "I wish I were dead" (4:8). God responds with a parable in horticulture. Indeed, the lesson of Jonah's gourd is an audio-visual entitled—"My Ways Are Not Your Ways."
God asks Jonah to discern his sovereign redemptive purpose in the display of mercy to the Gentiles. And the purpose of showing mercy is reflexive—to provoke Israel to conviction, humiliation and repentance. God gives repentance unto life to the Ninevites so that a sign will be recorded in the canon of the Scriptures of Israel. God gives repentance to the Gentiles through Jonah in order to anticipate the mission of one greater than Jonah.
The key which unlocks the meaning of the mission of Jonah is the comment which Jesus made to another generation of the chosen people—"no sign . . . but the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Mt. 12:39; Lk.11:29). A sign is given to the Israel of Christ's day—it is the sign of Jonah. How is Jonah a sign to the Israel of our Lord's era? Consider the following parallels. Jonah was a preacher of repentance, vindicated (as a messenger of God) by "death" and "resurrection" who brought good tidings to the heathen in order that Israel herself might be stirred to heed the prophet's voice. So it was with the eschatological prophet. Jesus preached to Israel, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17). But she would not (cf. Mt. 23:37). Jesus was
delivered up to death—three days and three nights in the belly of the earth. He was vindicated or justified as the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4; I Tim. 3:16) by resurrection from the grave. He commissioned his representatives to go to the Gentiles and command men everywhere to repent and believe. And lo, the Gentiles do repent and believe. All of this serves God's sovereign purpose to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 10: 19; 11: 13, 14) that she may heed the voice of one greater than Jonah—one in whom the Gentiles come to the light and mercy of the Lord.
The sign of Jonah is a sign to unbelieving Israel. This is the reason for the prophet's inclusion in the canon of Old Testament Scripture. The chosen people in a state of rebellion and rejection are given a sign. A sign now heightened and magnified by the fulness of time. Behold, O Israel, the supreme sign—an empty tomb and the streaming of the Gentiles to the city of great David's greater Son. Behold, O people not a people, the Son of God offers you repentance unto life through his own life, death and resurrection. The harvest begun in the days of Jonah proceeds in these last days. The risen Lord commissions his messengers to go make disciples of the nations. Let Jew and Gentile embrace the Son. For he has given us a sign—from death to life. The death-life of this present evil age passes away; the resurrection-life of the age to come dawns for all nations. Truly a greater than Jonah is here!
(This article is reprinted from the July 1982 issue of The Outlook, published by the Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2475 85th St., S.W., Byron Center, MI 49315. It is used here with their kind permission.)
Eduard Schweizer. A Theological Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991, 170 pp., $18.95 Paper. ISBN: 0-687-41469-5.
Eduard Schweizer may be best known to readers of this journal as a contributor to Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. The purpose of the work being examined here is, according to the promotional note on the rear cover, to offer students of the New Testament "a combination of two standard genres: the 'introduction' and the 'theology."' My English translation of Kummel's introduction contains 554 pages and my English translation of Bultmann's theology contain 603 pages in two volumes. How is it that Schweizer can combine the genres and emerge with a 170 page production? The basic answer is that he does not argue at length (or at all) for his solutions to New Testament problems. He alludes to this in his preface adding that "the usual 'introductions' must be consulted."
This fundamental approach makes Schweizer's book difficult to use and of questionable value for those who either do not share his critical stance or his familiarity with the latest New Testament critical scholarship. The book impresses me as a kind of syllabus which a professor might hand students while intending to add details as needed during lectures. Well thought out, the book is still frustrating to read. The uniqueness of the book is best stated in the author's own words: "the following treatment differs from the usual introduction in that the historical issues serve only as a foundation for perceiving as well as possible the theologically important assertions of the New Testament Scriptures. It differs from the usual theology of the New Testament in that it is not oriented toward concepts, such as sin and grace, but toward individual writings" (p.10).
Schweizer occasionally contextualizes a thought in a stimulating manner, encouraging the student to reflect seriously on the development of the New Testament. He states: "It is a crucial theological act that Mark wrote a gospel at all, and thus took seriously the idea that narrative represents a form of proclamation of God's action that is just as necessary as the formulation of confessions and the call to a decision to believe and to live out of faith.... Mark's undertaking was essential; it resolutely recorded the beginnings of a narrative tradition, above all against the danger of a pure ideology" (p. 127-28). Schweizer indicates that Paul's faith would have been grounded in the "shocking history of Jesus" but that things changed around the year 70 A.D. The church was more remote in time and geography from the place of its historic origins. The narrative form became "the foremost contribution of Mark, and in part also of his predecessors, to the overall message of the New Testament."
The previous line of thought helps us to focus on the interrelationship of theological development and questions treated by introductions. A view about a writing's date or authorship will influence the view of the writing's theological significance. The perceived sophistication of theological development can, in turn, affect the view of a document's historical setting. Biblical theology has a special interest in historical development and its impact on the theological enterprise. One difficulty confronting the orthodox in using Schweizer's book is that historical development is less dramatically supernatural. When treating the paradosis formula of 1 Cor. 15:3-5, Schweizer has Paul receiving the gospel formula in Jerusalem and states: "Thus the community summarized in binding fashion what the core of their faith was" (p. 31). That God's direct revelation to Paul must have affected the formula is ignored and constitutes no small oversight. For Schweizer, historical development in the theological enterprise is more a function of the faith-community. This cannot help but lack the normative power to make settled, nonspeculative theological pronouncements. Schweizer's final chapter (an afterword on canon) makes this problem rather evident. Historical development lacking supernatural direction is less wisely directed and thus less organic. This may account for the disjointed sense I experienced while reading Schweizer's book.
Perhaps one value of this book is the idea of a third genre (i.e., beyond 'introduction' and 'theology'). For such a genre to work, I think it will require more focus or more length or both. Having an orthodox starting point would be most helpful.
Stuart R. Jones
First Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Thomas McComiskey, The Minor Prophets: Vol. 1 Hosea, Joel, Amos. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992, 509 pp., $34.95 Cloth. ISBN: 08010-6285-3 (v.1).
There are three commentaries in this volume: Hosea by Thomas E. McComiskey, Old Testament Professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois (237 pp.); Joel by the late Raymond B. Dillard, Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia (70 pp.); and Amos by Jeff Niehaus, Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts (79 pp.).
Preachers with some knowledge of biblical language, principles of exegesis and theology will welcome the word studies and scholarly exegesis. The layman will appreciate adequate English translations of transliterated Hebrew terms and explanations regarding ancient customs and natural phenomena. Each section of Scripture (New Revised Standard Version) appears in the right column with the author's own translation of the Hebrew text in the left column of the page for easy comparison. The Exegetical section runs concurrently with the Exposition section; they are separated by a horizontal line. The former consists of selected word studies from each verse and each author's discussion of the rationale for his rendition of the text. The latter section brings out cultural, sociological and archaeological facts pertinent to the passage. Related theological and hermeneutical issues are discussed with suggested practical applications.
Raymond B. Dillard, who has already established a reputation for work on Chronicles (2 Chronicles [Waco, Texas: Word Publishing Co., 1987]; "The Chronicler's Solomon." The Westminster Theological Journal 43 : 289-300; "Rewards and Punishment in Chronicles: The Theology of Immediate Retribution." The Westminster Theological Journal 46 : 164-72), has written a highly academic commentary on Joel. His extensive footnotes and bibliography demonstrate intimate awareness of divergent views.
The isagogical discourse (3 pp.) on the dating of Joel portrays the debate between orthodox and liberal scholars. The date could be as early as the 8th century B.C. or as late as the post-exilic times. The date is a crucial issue as sociological, religious and political factors, and the cultural milieu of Joel's time are relied upon to deduce the interpretation of the book (i.e., "to provide additional control over the intent of the book," pp. 239, 240, 241). Mention of Phoenicians, Philistines, Egypt, Edom, Greeks and Sabeans (traditional enemies of Israel) (4:4-8, 19 [3:4-8, 19]), and the absence of any reference to the Assyrians or Babylonians (who had the greatest impact on Judah and Israel) suggests the earlier date for the prophecy. This is further reinforced by the position of Joel in the Hebrew canon, i.e., in between the eighth century prophecies of Hosea and Amos. References to the diaspora (4:1-2 [3:1-2]) indicate a postexilic date, though such scattering may not necessarily have occurred only as a result of the actions of the Babylonians (cf. Zech. 2: 1-4 [1:18-21]). The Assyrians also had a routine policy of population relocation. In view of these conflicting factors, the survey proves inconclusive and tilts towards the postexilic period, though a representative list of dates and the various scholars who propose them is provided. Dillard's postulate is that the text is liturgical in nature. Not surprisingly then, the unity of the book is questioned by means of Bernhard Duhm's position of dual authorship. The classification of the contents in 4:4-8 [3:4-8] regarding the nations as "smaller reductional additions" and the assigning of the eschatological passage of 2:1-11 to a later apocalypticist may then be plausible arguments against the unity of the text (p. 244).
On account of the text's ambiguity, the controversial and/or prevailing views deferentially discussed are selectively comprehensive. Discussion of
leading principles and the historical nexus between the different viewpoints for clarification would have been beneficial for the layperson unfamiliar with theological issues. The reader gains the impression that at times the interpretation lacks intensity of conviction or indicates vacillation. Nevertheless, the impressive bibliography of 135 books supports scholarly expertise. Dillard's analytical outline of the structure of Joel is based on the main themes: the locust plague, the day of the Lord, the Lord's answer. Literary narrative art would have lent a different perspective to his understanding of the text (see my article in Kerux 7/3 [Dec. 1992]: 3, 4-24).
The prophecy is described as "a call to receive instruction" in the wider context of a summons to communal lamentation for repeated use in the history of Israel (like some psalms). "Note how the text is 'dehistorized' in reference to the confession of sin: though the text calls for repentance (1:13-14, 2:12-14), no particular sin is mentioned as causing the plight of the people" (p. 243). This opens the text to a vagueness that affords a wide range of applicability.
Liberal evangelical and radical liberal views are discussed—the subjectivizing, evolutionary, naturalistic interpretation of facts, e.g., the naturalistic viewpoint of the locust plague. Without redemptive-historical progression and the eschatological perspective, this leaves one to a large extent face to face with unillumined facts. However, Vos's biblical-theological science of exegesis is sporadically referred to, having form and promise, but it is often curtailed. For example, the imagery of Yahweh and Israel as husband and wife is perceived to be a "possible" intention of the prophet Joel. But the analogy breaks down because "Yahweh does not die". The naturalistic interpretation is then presented as an alternative possibility. It is mentioned that the unfolding revelation of God gradually disclosing the nature of his relationship to Israel formulated theological concepts which may provide evidence for the date of the composition, but the difficulty of the task is conceded and Dillard does not follow through with his suggestion.
The locust plague is linked to the plague in Egypt in the light of the redemptive act of God, but the redemptive-historical plan is not extended eschatologically. Cosmic reflexes are stated to be attendant upon the appearance of God because of its occurrences in this respect in apocalyptic litera-
ture and the description of theophany in general. Hence the description of the Divine Warrior in chapter 2:1-11 is interpreted in comparison with a number of representative positions and intermediate views: i.e., the natural, the metaphorical (of a historical enemy), and the eschatological (of the harbinger of the judgment day of the Lord).
Different representatives of these approaches and variations are sounded as reasonably coherent, plausible scenarios for understanding the relation of the two accounts because of their obscurity. Dillard asks if this is a deliberate product of the author (pp. 277-8). Theophanic language in 2:1-11 is unmistakable and obscure and the allusion to the first advent of Christ is not considered. Dillard alleges the favorite interpretation of chapter one to be a description of a recent historical plague of locusts, which is the harbinger of the eschatological judgment day of the Lord described metaphorically in 2:1-11.
Dillard has written a multi-level commentary with a plethora of suggestions of possible interpretations. The reader must be familiar with higher critical views to comprehend the controversy and the philosophical conflict. Yet, the discussion of imagery, metaphorical language and biblical themes, and its organic connections with the rest of Scripture deserves exploration and analytical study. Would such a study have brought to light the protology and eschatology of the revelation of the Messiah? The relationship of 3:1-5 [2:28-32] and other portions of Scripture, whereby partial fulfillment is authenticated in Acts 2:14-21 illustrates this possibility. The Pentecostal prophetic endowment of men declared by Moses in Num. 11:29 is related to the investment by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and also to Jdg. 6:34 (cf. I Chr. 12:19 ; 2 Chr. 24:20). Much of the eschatology mentioned is considered to refer to the Lord's day of judgment and restoration in the finality of times and this is especially evident in the third and fourth chapters. At times imagery is interpreted with a naturalistic and eschatological view but falls short of Christological significance.
In the final analysis, this is an excellent commentary for an objective, deferential, mountain-top view of the opinions of the theological schools today. The implications of these views are addressed giving insight into the possible interpretations of the text. The word studies are detailed and helpful
and the format pragmatic. There is a glimmer here and there of some illuminating facts and insights that would have been augmented by in-depth biblical-theological (yea, eschatological) treatment.
James M. Ward. Thus Says the Lord. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991, 282 pp., $ 17.95 Paper ISBN: 0-687-41902-6.
Myopia commonly afflicts the eyes, but more commonly afflicts the understanding. In this book Ward attempts to correct this vision problem that readers of the prophets often have. But as an ophthalmologist of the mind's eye he leaves much to be desired, for he suffers from a severe case of the very disease he is trying to treat. To alter the metaphor a bit, he is trying to extract a splinter while his own eye is log-jammed.
The splinter in question is the tendency to deal with the prophets in small pieces, missing the broader themes. We miss the forest while we focus on a lot of fascinating trees. Ward wants us to see the woods once again. He attempts to do so by identifying and describing important themes in the prophets, and by placing these themes within their historical and social context.
His clear writing is one of the chief virtues of the book. The reader feels that he understands what Ward is saying. The subdivisions in each chapter are another helpful feature. One gets the impression that the author really cares whether or not you follow his thinking, and he has not confused murkiness with depth. But content is another matter; the book is fundamentally flawed in several ways.
First, Ward starts with a low view of Scripture. He accepts without hesitation or apology the presuppositions, methodology, and many of the conclusions of the higher critics. Isaiah gets the worst of it. Sliced and diced unmercifully, his prophecy is then distributed among several authors and
editors working at widely-separated times. Jeremiah and several of the minor prophets suffer a similar fate. Daniel and Lamentations are spared because they are not included in this volume, while Ezekiel is left relatively whole. Ward writes that the "strata" in Ezekiel are "difficult to distinguish," and that therefore "(a)n interpreter of Ezekiel must deal with the message of the book largely in canonical form" (p. 173). This would have been a better book if that practice had been followed more consistently with all the prophets.
Not that Ward is as radical as he could have been in his search for strands and strata, nor is such textual criticism the main point of the book. But even a little is more than enough. We can see Ward's myopia in this unwillingness or inability to assert that the canonical Scriptures are the Word of God. To the author, they are prophetic witness to revelation, not the revelation itself. He cannot see them for what they are.
Second, myopia shows itself in the book's lack of appreciation for the broad lines of redemptive history. Once the author has identified to his satisfaction the probable author(s), audience, and time of a prophecy, he seldom moves beyond that point: not to earlier prophets, not to non-prophetic biblical literature. Worse still, Ward seldom recognizes how prophecies are realized in the person and work of Christ. Nor does he seem to see that the Kingdom of which the prophets spoke is a heavenly one, inaugurated by Christ and asserting itself even now in the earthly plane by the Spirit-baptized church. Thus the reader finds himself earthbound and time-bound, dismayed and even claustrophobic in the two-dimensional landscape through which Ward guides him. Myopia here shades into a kind of blindness.
Besides these two are other, less weighty, problems: questionable concessions to contemporary feminism (e.g., Hosea's metaphor of God as husband and Israel as an adulterous wife Ward terms "doubly offensive," p. 221), the shortchanging of some of the minor prophets (Haggai gets little more than a page), and the lack of an index.
This book is not valueless. Ward raises some questions that are worth
addressing and occasionally offers insightful remarks. But everything is out of focus, and the blind spots are many.