Words I Hope I Never Hear Again – Part 4
Christadelphian Cliches, Misquotes, Pat Phrases, Wrested Scriptures, and Legalistic Formulas
This month’s installment takes on three more longstanding Christadelphian sayings with more history than Biblical accuracy:
- Citing Numbers 14:21 as a proof text for the Kingdom on Earth,
- “Time and Chance,”
- “He who shall be manifested in a multitude of mighty ones.”
Let’s start with a veritable foundation of our faith, Numbers 14:21.
This venerable verse, a Christadelphian standard for generations, has acquired status even beyond its use as a proof text for the doctrine of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is a banner text, a flagship verse for a fundamental Bible truth. How could anyone cavil with its use?
What’s wrong with it? It’s not about the Kingdom Age. That’s what’s wrong with it. Context directs it elsewhere.
What’s at stake? The practice of careful Bible exposition.
How can it be fixed? Use Isaiah 11:9 instead to make the point of God’s Kingdom on earth, and possibly Habakkuk 2:14, though the latter context is difficult to establish. Apply this verse as its context dictates.
Discussion: Widely quoted and just as widely misused, this verse suffers from being a form of red herring. It says what we know is true and what we want it to say. In reality, though, its scope is limited; it does not address a global manifestation of the Kingdom.
The context is the return of the twelve scouts mandated by Moses to survey the land ahead of the Israelites’ occupation. All twelve agree it’s a fruitful and agreeable place to settle, but ten advise against taking possession on account of the inhabitants. They conclude, “They’re giants. We’ve got no chance against them.” Joshua and Caleb hold the minority opinion. They faithfully maintain that the Israelites will inherit the land if they trust God. The ten persuaded the Israelite camp to their pusillanimous perspective, even to the point where the Israelites were ready to stone Joshua and Caleb.
With yet another rebellion brewing, God proposes to wipe out the Israelites with pestilence and start over with Moses. Moses pleads to God that his name and power will be sullied if He (God) cannot complete His stated mission of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and into their land.
God relents and pardons the Israelites. Nonetheless, there’s a stiff punishment. They will all die in the wilderness of Sinai. Only after a forty-year purging will their descendants cross the Jordan to fulfill God’s promise. God smites the ten faithless spies with a plague, and they perish on the spot.
The declaration “All the earth shall be filled with the glory of yhwh” is an aside in all this drama. The thrust of God’s proclamation is the consequences of unfaithfulness. However, despite the refusal of the Israelites to move forward, God’s purpose will not be thwarted. The land of promise will be filled with God’s glory.
Note that “earth” in verse 21 is the same word as “land” in verse 23. The context demands it be restricted (as is often the case) to the immediate land of promise, Canaan, later Israel. Giving proper heed to context, there is no way that “earth” can mean the entire globe. Further, there is no reason why God would invoke far-reaching plans in this scenario.
Likewise, the “glory of yhwh” also has a contextual restriction. It is what the Israelites saw, primarily God’s manifestation in the pillar of cloud/fire, as it appeared at the tent of meeting (v.10). The unfaithful had seen “my glory and my miracles which I did in Egypt,” therefore they will not see the promised land. God pardons their sin, but the consequences abide. His guiding pillar would lead Israel into this land, but they wouldn’t be there to witness it.
Careful regard to context and key words is the same procedure we regularly employ when others cite Scripture, such as Isaiah 14, to support erroneous teachings. We can’t forgo careful exposition when a verse taken prima facie supports our teachings.
God’s will will be accomplished when our Lord comes again, and his full glory will fill the entire earth. That’s still true. But don’t use Numbers 14:21 as your proof text.
Time and Chance
This direct Bible quote (Eccl 9:11) is often used to express that God directs only the big events in our lives; the smaller daily affairs “just happen.”
What’s wrong with it? There is no chance that’s what this verse means, regardless of how Providence works. Both the immediate context and the overall context of Ecclesiastes preclude that view. Also, the English word “chance” is misleading here. The Hebrew word has no connotation in any of its senses of “randomness.”
What’s at stake? A lot, or not much at all, depending on how the idea “time and chance” = randomness fits in with your understanding of how God controls (or not) human affairs.
How can it be fixed? Disconnect the phrase “time and chance” from any conception of “stuff happens.” It means something like, “In the long run, your earthly striving will come to naught.”
Discussion: The phrase “time and chance” occurs only here in Scripture, and outside of Scripture, does not seem to have gained much traction as an idiom for “random stuff happens.” It is not listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Hebrew word translated “chance” occurs in only one other place, 1 Kings 5:4, where it is translated “evil occurrent” (KJV), “evil occurrence” (NKJV), “disaster” (NIV), and “misfortune” (ESV). The cognate verb occurs in some forty places, with various meanings, but all centered on the core notion of meeting or encountering. In no instance is there even a whiff of randomness. Each instance does imply an intentional act.
All this is to say that there is no lexical support for “chance” implying chance in the sense of an unintentional, random, “just happened” event. So, how did “chance” get into the Bible?
The word itself predates the KJV. It is found in the Geneva Bible of 1569. However, that edition also had a marginal note cautioning the reader not to take this verse as a lapse in Providence. Possibly, the nuance of “chance” was along the lines of “perchance,” that is, something that might or might not happen, and if it does, it is with someone’s intention.
The overall context of Ecclesiastes is the vanity of human pursuits. This is taught in metaphor, the personal experience of the Preacher, the endless cycles of nature, rhetorical questions, and aphorisms. Specifically, in 9:11, the Preacher gives five (see last month’s article in this series) examples of people who would apparently succeed, but “time and chance” happen to them all. Moreover, in verse 12, he says they don’t know when this will happen. They are like fish caught in a net or birds in a snare.
Fish don’t get caught “randomly.” The fisherman intends to catch them, likewise with the birds and the fowler. Applying that to the examples, the Preacher says that even when it looks like your strength or wisdom is getting you someplace in life, God might have other plans. It might come upon you unexpectedly, but it’s not a matter of pure random chance. And even if you do succeed, in the long run, what do you gain?
In other words, the strong man might win the battle, or God might intervene. But even if He does, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his life?
The “time and chance” warning is about the vain pursuits of humanity. The world has to seem random to us; that is, the righteous will sometimes die young, and the evil will prosper. But only for a time. Serve God and keep His commandments, and all will be well with you in the end.
“He Who Shall Be Manifested in a Multitude of Mighty Ones”
This interpretation of the divine designation of Yahweh Elohim has been around longer than the name Christadelphian. Because of its pedigree, it seems sacrosanct.
But it’s still a wild and fanciful concoction with no basis in Hebrew.
What’s wrong with it? There is no possibility that a native speaker of Hebrew would ever come up with this interpretation. It abuses both the divine name and the title of God. Moreover, there is no contextual indication to manufacture this interpretation.
What’s at stake? A community’s integrity as serious Bible students.
How can it be fixed? Adhere to a much simpler and Biblically sustainable understanding of this designation
Discussion: The designation Yahweh Elohim, or yhwh elohim, (Hebrew orthography has no capitals, and the vowel pointing of yhwh is peculiar) —combines a personal name with a title, as in “President Smith.” The divine title, elohim, meaning “God,” occurs in the first verse of the Bible to unmistakably indicate the single Creator of the universe. This title is used exclusively throughout the creation account. In chapters 2 and 3, where the creation account focuses on the humans and their interaction with God, the combination yhwh elohim occurs exclusively, with one notable instructive exception in Eve’s discourse with the serpent.
In Genesis 4, we first encounter yhwh alone, without elohim. At this point, the text has firmly established that yhwh and elohim both designate the singular creator God, one by title, one by name. This stylistic feature both ensures a monotheistic tone of the creation account and, at the same time, reveals that the Creator of the universe is also a personal God with a personal name who interacts with what and whom He has just created.
The “el” part of elohim almost certainly indicates power or might, “im” is a plural form, so there is that—but there is nothing to indicate a “multitude.” Despite what appears to be a masculine plural ending, there is no indication in Genesis that elohim means anything other than a singular Creator in this context. The word appears as a sentence subject thirty-five times in the creation account, thirty-four with a singular verb. The one exception (let us make is plural) is in the context of family and procreation. Hence, angelic reference is precluded.
This word does occur a few times later where it could mean “judges” or “gods” (lower case, as pagan gods). In no case in hundreds of occurrences could it mean “mighty ones,” much less “a multitude of mighty ones.”
In the creation account, elohim is established as a singular Creator God who accomplishes His will directly via His word and creative power.
Disregarding pronunciations of what the Hebrew consonants yhwh might indicate, it is safe to state that the divine name is a form of the Hebrew verb of being. It is very likely the name intends to convey the idea of eternal existence. Possibly the name means “he who is, was, and will be,” except that Hebrew tenses don’t work the same as we are used to in English.
In the mid-nineteenth century, with early Christadelphians opposing the nonsense notions of orthodox Christianity, particularly the doctrines of the Trinity and the immortal soul, the doctrine of God’s manifestation became a ready tool to express just who God was and what intentions He had for His creation. Locating this idea within yhwh elohim would have been a great coup, but it’s fanciful thinking, not realistic exegesis.
Denver Ecclesia, CO