Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

When times are critical

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The primeval story reaches a cataclysmic climax. Genesis 5:32-6:8 introduces Noah in the midst of a world on the edge of apocalypse. And indeed the language is apocalyptic, straight out of a science-fiction movie. There are “sons of God” who seem to be angelic beings that come down to earth to take earthly women as brides. There are Nephilim on the earth, mighty men, giants perhaps, as in the Greek Septuagint translation of Genesis (γίγαντες). And God decides that because there is so much evil on the earth, human life spans are no longer going to be 800 and 900 years as in the genealogy we read yesterday. Man would now live only 120 years! And yet, it’s “sons of God” who are messing up God’s orderly creation, by mingling with earthly women!

Who are the Nephilim? And how is it that so quickly after Eden that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”? And what could possibly justify the decision to destroy all the life that God had created and pronounced good, even “very good” in the first chapter of Genesis? What kind of all-knowing God would regret having made human beings (Gen 6:6)? It’s the language of myth again, and an etiological explanation for a cataclysmic flood. Most ancient cultures of the Middle East preserved accounts in their mythologies of a world-wide flood in primeval times. The author or authors of Genesis could not ignore such a memory; it was too dramatic and too often told to simply ignore. The only thing that made sense was to say God caused the flood as punishment for human evil. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”

Isaiah 7:1-14 also pictures a situation that is on the verge of disaster – a disaster less cataclysmic than the flood to be sure, but a disaster for the chosen people of God to be sure. God’s people have split into two kingdoms, Judah and Ephraim. Syria has formed an alliance with Ephraim, the Northern Kingdom, and is ready to attack the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Ahaz, the king of Judah, is told to ask a sign from God; Ahaz refuses out of pious concern not to “test” God. And God, with some frustration in his voice (verse 13), goes ahead and gives a sign: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.”

Okay, I really have to confess that these texts from Genesis and Isaiah are not easily meaningful to me. I know they are important in the mythology of the Bible and in the Christian consciousness, especially the “prophecy” in Isaiah 7:14 about the young maiden who will give birth to a son whose name will be Emmanuel. The flood is important, Noah is important, and Emmanuel is all-important. But I cannot understand the vile picture of humanity and God’s decision to destroy humanity in Genesis. And as for the Isaiah “prophecy”, scholars question whether it has to do with Jesus Christ – even though Matthew quotes it from the Greek version of the Old Testament (Matthew 1:23).

Isaiah 7:14 is one of numerous cases where authors of the New Testament take passages from the Old Testament out of context and apply them to New Testament events and realities. I personally think that the typological approach taken by Paul and the Orthodox tradition is more appropriate to passages like this. We would respect the original context of Isaiah 7:14 if we said it prefigures – is a type of – a similar event that would happen seven centuries later, namely the birth of Christ from a virgin. The typological approach is more holistic than taking Old Testament passages out of context and calling them “prophecies” of Christ. But regardless of how one treats such passages, all of Christian tradition, including the Orthodox, is committed to accepting the way prophecies are declared to be “fulfilled” in the New Testament, even when the context appears to be problematic. And I leave the subject there.

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