Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How I Got Stumped, and What I Did About It

In our Wednesday night Bible Study tonight, we were moving through Exodus 9 in our customary way when I was presented with a question. How can the hail kill all the livestock (Ex 9:19) when the plague already did (9:6)? While I was elated that someone in the congregation has been studying the text closely enough to see the problem, I had to confess that I was stumped. I had not even noticed the tension between these two statements. While going through Exodus, I am using the NIV Study Bible rather than my usual NASB, primarily because the footnotes were written by my old professor Walter Kaiser, and I like the idea of having his insights handy in case a question arises in our informal study. So, as I usually do, I referred to the notes and found the explanation that only those who were in the field, as opposed to those in shelters, were afflicted by the plague in 9:6. Seems plausible, but did the text make this point clear? I wasn't sure. We brainstormed about a couple of other possibilities (they stole the Israelites livestock, they went out and traded for more livestock, etc.), but acknowledged that none of these were conclusive from the text. Ultimately we moved on from the question, me admitting that I was stumped, but also reminding us that as long as at least one possible explanation could be found for the difficulty, we need not assume that there was a contradiction present. 

Well, after the service ended, I came back into the office and started looking into the question about the livestock. I really don't like to get stumped! So, I turned to the commentaries and the Bible handbooks, the Study Bibles, and the apologetic works. I didn't find the question addressed at all in most of the works, and in the one where it was addressed, the answer seemed weak and indecisive. So, I pushed all those books off the desk and started reading the text. Again. Slowly. From the beginning of Chapter 9. 

Then and there I had a "Eureka!" moment. The answer to our question had been right there in the text all along, and I just hadn't paid close enough attention to catch it. In 9:2, the Lord says, "If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock IN THE FIELD." So, even though verse 6 does not make a distinction between those in the field and those not in the field (i.e., those in the shelter), that distinction was already made in verse 2. While I had dismissed the NIV Study Bible note as unconvincing, it was in fact spot-on. I had simply not slowed down in my reading of the text enough to notice it. 

Here's the lesson learned. Often times when we think we have stumbled upon a biblical difficulty, a conundrum, a contradiction, or some other perplexing issue, the answer may well be lurking there in the text if we will simply slow down, pay attention, and observe the details that are there. I know that. I've practiced that. I have taught that. But all of us are prone to forget it, to take shortcuts, to make assumptions, and to commit other errors of bad Bible study. So, every now and then it is good to be reminded that this God-inspired text is true and trustworthy, and most of all worthy of our very careful and attentive study. 

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Fish University

In the course of my ministry I have seldom walked away from a free book. Sometimes they come in single volumes, and other times in stacks and boxes. Often it is years later that the value of a book that I acquired freely is discovered. Such is the case over the last few weeks as I have been reading through a volume I picked up in a stack of discards at Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute some 15 years ago or so. The book in hand is An Old Testament Gospel, by Charles A. Blanchard. My copy dates to 1918, published by the Bible Institute Colportage Association, which I believe is now Moody Press. Blanchard was at some time the president of Wheaton College. When this volume was published, he described himself as a member of College Church of Wheaton, saying he had been a member there for 55 years. I admire the fact that he lists this first, before any other achievement. He goes on to describe himself as a member of the faculty of Wheaton College for some 45 years, Director of the National Christian Association, President of the Chicago Hebrew Mission, Director of the Chicago Tract Society, honorary Vice-President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Counselor of the Africa Inland Mission. The book, he says in the introduction, was written from a series of talks on the book of Jonah, "so that when I can no longer speak, this truth may yet be uttered." In the spirit of Blanchard's desire for what he has written, I want to share at length from his seventh chapter, entitled "Fish University; Or, Graduate Courses in Divinity." Everything below is excerpted from this portion of the book, so quotation marks are omitted. I will use elipses (...) where necessary.
Jonah had probably been a student in one of the schools of the prophets which Elisha conducted. This is not certain, but it is not at all impossible. ... (B)ut to preach in a great city of three-quarters of a million of inhabitants, in a manner to produce results and secure convictions and conversions, was no light task and since God had called him to this work He proposed to fit him for it. He even used the efforts which he made to get away from the work to prepare him to do it. ... The very effort that Jonah made to get away from his work led him to the place where God intended to complete his education.

He had prepared a great fish. The fish was near at hand when Jonah was plunged into the sea. The fish swallowed him and for three days and nights he remained in him, alive and apparently conscious. At the end of these days, having learned his lesson and become ready for his work, God had him vomited forth on the side of the sea, and started him toward Nineveh, the place where he was to do his work, for which work he was now prepared.

In our days there is a great insistence on the education of the ministry and there is no question but that the minister has a task to perform which calls for the best training which men can receive. The difficulty with much of our modern ministerial education, however, is that it is not the sort of education which God employs when He is calling men to large service.

If one of us had stood by and watched this series of events, we would have said, when Jonah went into the mouth of the fish, "That is the end of Jonah." The fact is, it was not the end of Jonah, but the beginning of his largest service and, furthermore, it is probably the fact that without that particular course of training, he could never have continued the great task which he performed at all.

If the young men who are in our theological seminaries could be trained somehow to believe in a God who can raise the dead and who calls the things which are not as though they were, they would be far better fitted than now for the impossible tasks which they have to perform. These men must go into little towns and big towns and country churches. They must meet the hard, cold unbelief which has ruined the world. They must not be discouraged when there is everything to discourage them. They must not be defeated when they have beaten again and again. They must learn never to be defeated but always to triumph in Christ Jesus.
Of course, after Jonah had lived three days and three nights in the belly of the fish and then had been returned to the walks of living men, he had no doubt whatever about the power of God to do miracles. ... He was in all probability so humble that he had really a desire to do for Nineveh what God wanted him to do and that he believed it was possible to do.

This was the object of his graduate course in divinity and this should be the object of all graduate courses in divinity and this is the object of graduate courses in divinity so far as those who conduct them know what they are about. When the thought of the teacher is simply to have a large salary, pleasant surroundings, congenial associates, and an easy time, that is one thing, but when his eager desire is to see men saved and see men become saviours of other men and to help those who desire to do this work, in some way to undertake it, then he is in a way ready for the high and holy task of training men to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These courses which prepare men for their work are ... frequently those which involve isolation. Somehow it seems necessary for a man who wishes to know much about God to get apart from men. ... When they had gone away from men they had a chance to listen to God. ... So Jonah, in the belly of the fish, had an opportunity for acquaintance with God which he could never have had if he had remained among the cities and villages of Galilee. Men, even good men, would have hindered him from his divine training. He needed to be alone.

Another fact about the courses in Fish University is, that they frequently involve the element of danger. We are likely not only to be confused by men, but if we attend to them we are likely to be corrupted by ease-loving and place-seeking. I imagine there are comparatively few men used for large service who do not first or last have to confront situations in which their lives are really in peril. ... They have oftentimes been compelled to choose between what seemed likely to be fatal assault and infidelity to God. Dangers as well as isolations are helpful to those who are called to large service in the kingdom of God. As loneliness makes the heart reach out after someone who can always be at hand, so danger makes the heart reach out after someone who is always sufficient for the need and whether the danger be more active or passive, whether it be, for example, from starvation, or freezing, or of death by assault from an assassin, there is always help to a holy man in going into a situation where he will feel that God alone can do for him the thing that needs to be done.

The course of nature for Jonah would have been to be suffocated, then to be attacked by the gastric juice, then to have come into the circulation of the whale and thereafter to have been unknown among the habitations of men. There was nobody to help Jonah except God. ... If Jonah retained consciousness, as it seemed he did, he knew perfectly well that ... he was forced back on God as his only possible recourse.

Again the courses in Fish University oftentimes involve discomfort as well as danger. There is a broad line between the two. A person is uncomfortable when the house in which he lives is displeasing, when the food which he is eating is not attractive and appetizing, when the clothing which he can secure is not gratifying to his aesthetic tastes, when the people who are about him are not agreeable. In all of these and a thousand other ways a life may be uncomfortable which cannot be said to be in danger and which cannot be said to be alone, yet this latter, as well as the two former elements, are oftentimes involved in the training which God gives people who are to be used for large things.
Let the person who reads these words, who is at present taking courses in this great school, be of good courage. They are not pleasant, but they are profitable. No difficulties for the present seem joyous, on the other hand, they seem grievous but afterwards they work out the peaceable fruits of righteousness to those who are exercised thereby.

On the other hand, if you have had an easy time, if your path has been smooth and pleasant, if your life has been unfruitful, look about and see if you cannot find a place where God called you to isolation, danger and difficulty. Seek to recall whether or not at that time you shrunk from the narrow, hard path which opened before you. If you did, believe that that is probably the reason for your unfruitfulness. ...

Fish University will never be a popular school. Those who attend it will not boast of its facilities or its attendance. The instructor is not obtrusive. He does not spend any time in telling what a distinguished person He is, but out from this school come the men and the women who really lift the world. So if you are already a pupil, rejoice even while you are perplexed and suffering, and if you are not a pupil, make haste to register for all the courses for which God is willing to take you on.

Charles A. Blanchard, "Fish University" in An Old Testament Gospel (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1918), pp. 56-65.