The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Bible Study (page 1 of 21)

Imitating the Devil

Introduction

A central Christian teaching is that for those who are in Christ, our lives are spent in the process of sanctification—in conjunction with our own efforts and desires, God’s Spirit works in us to transform our lives into conformity with that of Jesus Christ. In short, we seek to imitate Christ, and the Spirit helps us to do that.

While this is the goal, the sobering reality is that if we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves imitating someone very different—the Devil. That perhaps seems like a sensationalistic claim—what Christians actually set out to imitate the Evil One? By intention, it may not happen, but by action, it happens all too frequently. Let me explain.

Titles, Not Names

It will be surprising to some to hear that the Evil One mentioned in Scripture is nowhere given a name; he is repeatedly given titles and descriptions: the dragon, the serpent, the devil, the father of lies, etc.—even Satan is not a name—in the original language, it is used with a definite article (“the Satan”).[1]

What I think is helpful about realizing that this murky character is only described with titles is that these titles tell us something about his character—a character that Christians can emulate if we are not careful.

The Father of Lies

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

(John 8.44)

This one is pretty obvious: the Evil One is a liar. We see it in his deception of Adam and Even in the Garden, and we see it on a regular basis as he whispers to us that the ways God has laid out for us aren’t really the best ways, or that we are too broken to be loved by our Creator and to be used by Him. He is a liar and the father of lies.

And here is the scary part: when we lie, not only do we fail to imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the father of lies. Being people of integrity is such a fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ disciples that He specifically addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.33-37), but we easily resort to being people of evasion, partial truths, and outright dishonesty. When we do this, we may not be intentionally imitating the Devil, but in our lack of careful intention to be people of absolute integrity, we imitate him nonetheless.

The Devil

This one may be less obvious to us because we tend to associate devil with a red creature with horns and a pitchfork, but really, the Greek word that is translated devil is διαβολος (from which we get our word diabolical), which means “the slanderer.” Obviously, this term is also related to the notion of dishonesty, but slander is more specific. Slander is “the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.”[2]

Interestingly, this same word is used in Scripture to describe people:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

1 Timothy 3.11

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

2 Timothy 3.1-5

Depending on translation, this Greek word can be rendered as “slanderers” or “malicious gossips,” but the basic idea is clear enough: talking bad about people is diabolical. The Evil One is a slanderer. He is the Devil.

And here is the scary part: when we slander, when we talk badly or share untrue statements about people, we do not imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the Devil. Being people who consistently speak in God-honoring ways is a huge challenge for followers of Jesus, and Scripture is full of admonitions regarding how we use our tongues and words (Ephesians 4.15; Colossians 4.6; James 3.6). This does not mean that we can never say anything negative about another person, but I do think it means that we should refrain from saying things about people that we wouldn’t say to them, that we should make sure that what we say is true, and that we should make sure that what we say is said in love. 

The Satan

This one may be the hardest of all for us to see initially, because we are so used to thinking of Satan as a name. But it is actually a title. Ha satan (הַשָּׂטָן) literally means “the adversary” or “the accuser”. It can be used in a general sense:

And the LORD raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite.

(1 Kings 11.14a)

The Angel of Yahweh is referred to this way:

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary.

(Numbers 22.22a)

But when the term is used with the definite article (“the”) before it, it specifically refers to the rebellious spiritual being who has set himself in opposition to the will of God. This is how he is described at the beginning of the Book of Job, as he brings the case of Job before God and stands as an adversary against Job, accusing him of possessing a love for God that is shallow and deficient. We see a similar characterization in the Book of Revelation, where the evil creature variously described as the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil and Satan hurls accusations against God’s people day and night (Revelation 12.9-10). The Evil One is an adversary of God’s people, who lobs accusations against them.

And here is the scary part: when we oppose and accuse God’s people, we are not imitating Christ, but rather, are actively imitating the Satan. This is challenging for me. There are a lot of believers who are different than I am in various ways. Some of these differences are significant, and at times it is tempting for me to magnify the differences and question the hearts and motive of people with whom I disagree. But this is dangerous spiritual ground to occupy. I am sometimes humbled by the words of Jesus in Mark 9.40: “For the one who is not against us is for us.” I struggle at times to know how to apply these words, but I know that my perspective is often closer to that of the disciples than Jesus. And I know that I don’t want to be an accuser or adversary of God’s people. I don’t want to imitate the Satan.

Conclusion

This has not been an exhaustive post—there are other titles of the Evil One (like, for example, “Evil One”!) that we could look at, but I think the general point has been established. Rather than talking about an evil figure named Satan, Scripture uses lots of titles to describe this character. These descriptions let us know what he is like and what his motives are, and should also provide conviction for us that, if we are not careful, we can in a very real sense imitate the Father of Lies, the Devil, the Satan. For those of us who are instead called to be imitators of Christ, this obviously will not do.

Father of mercies,

Forgive us our sins and shortcomings.

May your Spirit,

Day by day,

Transform us into the image of your Son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.


[1] I don’t have issues with people using Satan as a name; I am just pointing out that this is not a name in Greek or Hebrew, and is not how biblical authors used it.

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slander

The Story of the Bible

Beginning in September 2017, our Sunday morning adult Bible classes at Farmington began an 18-month journey through Scripture called The Story of the Bible. This biblical survey is based on videos from The Bible Project, and in addition to providing background information on each biblical book, it also discusses key themes of each book and offers points of application for our lives today.

This was a major undertaking for us, and is actually part of the reason that I didn’t get to write as much here at The Doc File as I wanted to over the last couple of years—it took hours and hours to write and edit lessons for this project.

We finished this series this past week at Farmington, and I am pleased to offer both the Old and New Testament books for free download on the Resources page. The Story of the Bible is all about digging into Scripture in order to better see how it is a unified story that points us to Jesus and the redemption of creation; I hope it is beneficial to you!

Reading in 2018

It’s that time of year again, when people talk about their reading from the previous year and the best books they read. As someone who (a) tries to thoughtfully reflect on things and (b) obsessively keeps lists of things, I always enjoy reading lists from other people and sharing my own.

Here is my own list from 2018:

  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  2. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan
  3. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N.T. Wright
  4. Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, edited by John Dillenberger*
  5. The Marburg Colloquy, edited by Hermann Sasse
  6. The Knowledge of God the Creator (from Institutes of the Christian Religion), by John Calvin
  7. The Necessity of Reforming the Church, by John Calvin
  8. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, translated by Anthony Mottola*
  9. The Racovian Catechism*
  10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
  11. The Reasonableness of Christianity, by John Locke
  12. A Discourse of Miracles, by John Locke
  13. Proposals to Correct Conditions in the Church in Pia Desideria, by Philip Jacob Spener
  14. Decision Points, by George W. Bush
  15. Divorce, by John R.W. Stott
  16. Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, edited by Milton C. Sernett*
  17. Woman in the Pulpit, by Frances Willard*
  18. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
  19. Jesus: A Study of the Life of Christ, by Shane Robinson
  20. The Five Books of Moses & The Former Prophets, by Bibliotheca
  21. The Making of George Washington, by William H. Wilbur
  22. Creating a Lead Small Culture: Make Your Church a Place Where Kids Belong, by Reggie Joiner, Kristen Ivy, and Elle Campbell
  23. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
  24. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, by Michael S. Heiser
  25. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  26. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day, by Justo L. Gonzalez
  27. The Faith of the Presidents, by Anne Schraff
  28. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
  29. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis
  30. The Latter Prophets, by Bibliotheca
  31. Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, by Michael Wear
  32. Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith
  33. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  34. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
  35. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, by J. Richard Middleton
  36. The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace: God’s Antidotes for Division within the Churches of Christ, by Jay Guin
  37. Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman?, by Eleanor Updale
  38. The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele
  39. History and Background of the Institutional Controversy, by Steve Wolfgang
  40. Crispin: the Cross of Lead, by Avi
  41. The Ghost Hollow Mystery, by Page Carter
  42. Letters To The Church, by Francis Chan
  43. The Writings, by Bibliotheca
  44. Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors, by Monte Cox
  45. Alexander Campbell, Apostle of Truth, by William Blake
  46. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch
  47. The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
  48. How To Be A Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide To Flawless Spiritual Living, by The Babylon Bee
  49. Priceless, by Jeremy Myers
  50. The Apocrypha, by Bibliotheca
  51. The New Testament, by Bibliotheca
  52. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard
  53. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ, by C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes
  54. Traces of the Kingdom, by Keith Sisman

A few observations before I talk about my favorite books of the year:

  • My reading total increased from 52 books in 2017 to 54 books in 2017. And this included a couple of very large volumes of 650-800 pages. I see other people who read 100 books or more a year, but at this stage of my life, it seems that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 is my limit.
  • I enjoyed my reading in 2018 more than in 2017.
  • There were two big disappointments in my reading this past year. The first was the Bibliotheca series, which I used to do my daily Bible reading in 2018. There was a lot of fanfare about this translation when it came out, and indeed, it has many admirable qualities: an elegant typeface, beautiful binding, and a page layout that should lend itself to readability. However, the translation itself was wooden and awkward, and I simply did not enjoy it at all. Also, Traces of the Kingdom was a book that I had looked forward to for a few years, but I really struggled with it. Although the author puts you in touch with some extraordinarily rare primary sources that are hundreds of years old, the writing is poor, and much of the logic and argumentation is stretched. It was a disappointment.

My favorite books from 2018.

Regarding my Top 10 books for the year, here are some brief thoughts on those (presented in order of when I read them, not ranked 1-10):

  • Beneath a Scarlet Skyby Mark Sullivan: This is a novel, based on a true story, set in WWII Italy. It is a gripping tale of a teenage boy seeking to navigate the warring factions of Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascists, Allied forces, resistance fighters, partisans, and the Catholic church. It is a gripping tale and compelling read. Fans of All The Light We Cannot See will appreciate this book, which is better.
  • Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Senseby N.T. Wright: N.T. Wright is the preeminent living Christian thinker, and this is his basic presentation of the Christian faith (it has been called the Mere Christianity for modern times). In my opinion, nothing that Wright writes is truly “simple,” so, despite his intentions, I can’t say that this is the easiest read for the average Christian, but it is a great book.
  • The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bibleby Michael S. Heiser: Heiser makes the basic claim that modern believers do not read/hear the Bible in the way that ancient believers did, who believed in a robust array of spiritual beings who operate “unseen” and greatly influence the lives that we experience. This becomes the prevailing paradigm for how he interprets Scripture, and especially if you are not familiar with the biblical motif of the Divine Council, much of what he says will shock you. Ultimately, I think Heiser draws some conclusions that are not warranted, but on the whole, I think he makes a very compelling case. This book has been somewhat of a game-changer for me.
  • The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russiaby Tim Tzouliadis: During the Great Depression, thousands of down-on-their-luck Americans were lured to Stalinist Russia with the promise of work and prosperity available to all in the Communist Utopia. Within a few short years, they (along with millions of others) would be killed in the Stalinist purges and, adding to the tragedy, they were largely abandoned by the US government. Not to get too political in a brief book review, but in an era when I increasingly witness many people (especially those generally around my age or younger) pay lip service to the idea that socialism and even communism are benign or even preferable politico-economic systems, this was an important read for me. When it came to murdering people, Stalin made Hitler look like an amateur, and I don’t say that lightly.
  • A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatologyby J. Richard Middleton: Middleton argues that the Biblical text teaches that God will redeem and restore His creation and will dwell with His people for eternity on a New Heaven and New Earth. This is not some form of premillennialism, but neither is it the popular notion of the Christian hope being getting to escape from this earth and “go to heaven when we die.” This interpretation will be challenging for some, but I am convinced that this perspective is fundamentally correct, and Middleton’s treatment of it is excellent.
  • Letters To The Churchby Francis Chan: This was a convicting read for me. Chan is a Restorationist’s Restorationist, and this book basically encourages Christians to thoughtfully return to the model of the church as described in the pages of Scripture. Simply put, there are some basic ways of “doing church” that really need to be evaluated and, quite possibly, jettisoned. This book left me uneasy in a good way.
  • Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors, by Monte Cox: Dr. Cox was one of my favorite teachers at Harding, and this book is basically a written version of his “Living World Religions” class (one of my favorite classes). It is a helpful overview of various world religions, and would make an excellent resource for a Bible class.
  • The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Placeby Andy Crouch: Technolgy is increasingly present in our lives, and for all of its positive benefits, there are negative side effects as well. Crouch offers some helpful (and at times, extreme) perspective on how families should treat technology and strive to create home environments that cultivate wisdom and courage.
  • The Great Divorceby C.S. Lewis: I’m not sure that I have ever read something by Lewis that I didn’t like, but this is one of my favorites. Lewis’ allegorical take on hell is, in my opinion, both brilliant and helpful.
  • A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard: I had really not read/heard much from Dr. King before, other than his “I Have a Dream” speech or snippets of quotations from other sources, and that was a mistake, because King’s speeches evidence not only beautiful eloquence, but also profound theological insight. I plan to do additional reading from (and on) Dr. King in the future.

That was my reading for 2018. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

As always, I have a bunch of books lined out to read in 2019, and am already in the midst of two good ones right now.

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

*Books that I did not read in their entirety, but read significant portions of.

Long Gratitude

It frequently works out that I get to preach right around Thanksgiving, which is something that I enjoy. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and I like getting to call attention to our collective need to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. Furthermore, I especially like to preach about Thanksgiving using unusual texts that may not be the first that come to mind when we think of thankfulness and gratitude. The following is an edited version of my Thanksgiving sermon for this year.

As I have written before, I believe that the Bible is a literary masterpiece and that we read it better and more faithfully when we pay close attention to the ways that certain stories are told and the techniques that are used. In keeping with that idea, I want to look at three seemingly random stories from the Old Testament, see how they connect with one another, and then see what we can glean about the idea of gratitude.

Judges 19-21

The first story comes from the Book of Judges, and is the narrative surrounding a civil war that happens during this lawless period of time in Israel’s history. For the sake of length, I’m not going to include all of this text, but it is a very graphic story, and to me, this may be the darkest, worst chapters in all of Scripture. 

To quickly summarize, there has been a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and rest of the tribes of Israel. A city in the land of Benjamin had acted very wickedly, their Benjamite cousins refused to punish them, and as a result, the rest of Israel engages in a bloody civil war with them.

The tribe of Benjamin is greatly outnumbered, and they are almost wiped out, down to only 600 men by the end. At this point, the rest of the tribes of Israel, though they have been very angry with Benjamin, suddenly realize that one of the tribes is on the verge of extinction, and this isn’t acceptable to them. 

So they talk, and they realize that when it came time for everyone to gather together to fight against the Benjamites, one town from the tribe of Gad—Jabesh-Gilead—didn’t join in the fight. As a result, they decide to punish Jabesh-Gilead: they attack the town, destroy it, and kill all of the inhabitants except for 400 of the young women, and they forcibly give these women to the remaining Benjamites so they can repopulate the tribe (Remember, I told you that these are awful chapters, and this is a very lawless time).

The author of Judges doesn’t try to argue that this is a good thing or that it is what God intended (just the opposite); he just reports what happens. 

But here is the key idea: the town of Jabesh-Gilead becomes the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin.

1 Samuel 11

We have to fast forward in time a good bit to get to our next story, which is in 1 Samuel 11. The Book of Judges is not strictly chronological, so it is hard to place Judges 19-21 exactly on a timeline, but based on a few clues in the text, I think we are safe in saying that there are at least a couple hundred years between the events of Judges 19-21 and 1 Samuel 11.

In 1 Samuel 11, we are now out of the period of the Judges, and at the beginning of the united kingdom. Saul was anointed and proclaimed king in 1 Samuel 10, and now in 1 Samuel 11, he faces an early test of his leadership.

Let’s take a look at this text:

[1] Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” [2] But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” [3] The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” [4] When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud.

So the villain in this story is Nahash the Ammonite, who comes to lay siege to the town of Jabesh-Gilead. Now, remember, it has been a few hundred years, but this is the Jabesh-Gilead that was significantly involved in the salvation of the tribe of Benjamin.

Nahash is too powerful for Jabesh-Gilead, and so they basically sue for peace: “let’s make a treaty together, and we will be your servants.” But Nahash, who kind of seems like a jerk, basically says, “Sure, we can have a treaty, here are my terms: I’m going to gouge out your right eyes and bring shame to the whole country.”

This doesn’t seem like a great offer to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, so they ask for a little time to consider and send urgent requests for help throughout Israel. Some of these messengers come to Saul, the King of Israel, who, by the way, is from the tribe of Benjamin: 

[5] Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. [6] And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. [7] He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the LORD fell upon the people, and they came out as one man. [8] When he mustered them at Bezek, the people of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. [9] And they said to the messengers who had come, “Thus shall you say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you shall have salvation.’” When the messengers came and told the men of Jabesh, they were glad. [10] Therefore the men of Jabesh said, “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you.” [11] And the next day Saul put the people in three companies. And they came into the midst of the camp in the morning watch and struck down the Ammonites until the heat of the day. And those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.

When Saul hears the news, he becomes very angry and promises to deliver the town. He raises an army and goes and defeats the Ammonites. Saul’s rescuing of the town of Jabesh-Gilead serves to cement himself as the King of Israel, and also provides a clue that there is something special about the relationship between the people of Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin.

So, here is the situation:

  • Earlier, the town of Jabesh-Gilead was the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin;
  • Now, hundreds of years later, Saul, a Benjamite, saves the town of Jabesh-Gilead.

1 Samuel 31

For our final story, we fast forward again, now to the end of Saul’s reign, 40 years later. Saul’s kingship, which had begun with so much promise, has completely unraveled. Because of Saul’s disobedience, God has rejected him as Israel’s king. He is currently waging a war against the Philistines, and it is not going well: three of his sons have been killed in battle (including Jonathan, the friend of David), and Saul takes his own life after being badly wounded by an archer. It’s a devastating defeat for the Israelites, and it gets even worse:

[8] The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. [9] So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. [10] They put his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

The Philistines treat the bodies of Saul and his sons dishonorably, cutting off his head, taking his armor off, and using his body as a trophy. The put his armor in a pagan temple, and hang his body on the wall of the city of Beth-shan.

It’s at this point, some 40 years after Saul had rescued them from the Ammonites that the men of Jabesh-Gilead make their appearance in 1 Samuel 31.11-13:

[11] But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, [12] all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. [13] And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.

When the men of Jabesh-Gilead hear what has happened to Saul, they remember the debt of gratitude they owe him, they walk all night into enemy territory, retrieve his body, and bury it honorably.

To recap the three stories:

  • First, the town of Jabesh-Gilead was the means of saving the tribe of Benjamin;
  • Then, hundreds of years later, Saul, a Benjamite, saves the town of Jabesh-Gilead.
  • Now, Jabesh-Gilead treats Saul and his family with kindness and honor.

Long Gratitude

This connection, between the town of Jabesh-Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin (and Saul in particular), is one that is easy to overlook in Scripture, but once we see it, it’s easy to explain. Arising out of some shady circumstances, Jabesh-Gilead becomes the means of saving the small remnant of the tribe of Benjamin and repopulating it. This is a story that would have been passed on for generations. By the time Saul comes around, even though it had been a couple hundred years, it seems likely that he would have known all about the story of the connection between his tribe and the city of Jabesh-Gilead, and so when the news reaches him that Jabesh-Gilead is in trouble, the debt of gratitude that he owes compels him to act immediately, and he brings deliverance upon the city.

This same connection and the gratitude that is tied up in it explains the actions of the men of Jabesh-Gilead 40 years later. It seems likely that some of the valiant men who made the journey that night to recover Saul’s body weren’t even born yet when Saul had saved their town, but they knew the story, the felt the gratitude, and they were willing to risk their lives to protect Saul’s honor.

In this season of Thanksgiving, as we reflect on these three stories, here is the point that I want to make: gratitude is not a fleeting emotion; it is a practiced habit. It is not a feeling; it is a lifestyle. It is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is not short; it is long.

Too often, I think we can be guilty of living our lives with a “What have you done for me lately?” attitude toward God, forgetting that God has done everything for us, as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things. We live, move, and have our very being through Him. 

The repeated theme of Scripture is that God, in His grace, has initiated all sorts of good things toward us, and in response, we are to live a lifestyle of gratitude. Not a short, fleeting emotion, but long gratitude: a practiced habit. A way to live. 

A lifestyle of gratitude means that we acknowledge that God first loved us, so in return, we love God and others. God showed grace to us, so we show grace to others. God offers forgiveness to us, so we offer forgiveness to others. God blesses us in so many ways, so we use those blessings to bless others.

Long gratitude is a mindset; it’s not a desperate attempt to pay God back for something that can never be repaid, but it is mindfulness that is constantly aware of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives, and a desire to show appreciation for those things by the way we live and treat others.

Scripture As Story: Women at the Well

Introduction

In the Scripture as Story series, we have been talking about how God reveals Himself to us in a story. That is true in the sense that the Bible itself is a grand, overarching story about who God is and what He is doing in the world, and we best understand Scripture when we look at it as the ongoing story of what God is doing and how we supposed to respond to what God is doing, how we connect our story with God’s story.

But it’s also true that God reveals Himself to us in a story in the sense that God inspired humans to write Scripture as literature, and we read the Bible better and more faithfully when we read it as literature and when we pay attention to what the authors are trying to tell us. We talked about some of the specific techniques that we see biblical authors using, and we have also looked at a couple of case studies to help illustrate some of those techniques.

In this, the conclusion to the series, I want to present another case study to help us see Scripture as story, which is the repeated motif we see in multiple places in Scripture of men and women meeting at wells. That might seem like an obscure and random biblical detail, but we’re going to do is look at four different stories in the Bible, notice the repeated patterns, the differences, and then hopefully, see something significant that Scripture is trying to tell us about who Jesus is and what He came to earth to do.[1]

Isaac and Rebekah

The first story we want to look at comes from Genesis 24, which relates the story of Isaac meeting Rebekah. I am not going to include the whole chapter here because it is over 60 verses long, but will instead summarize it briefly.

Abraham is old and is concerned about what is going to happen after he is gone, and he wants to make sure that his son Isaac has a wife and specifically, not a wife from the land of Canaan, but rather, from one of his relatives from back in the old country.

So he sends his servant on a mission to travel to a distant country to find a wife for Isaac. This is a big task for the servant to do and he is feeling some pressure, and he goes to the city of Nahor (where Abraham’s family lives—the town is actually named after his brother) and he takes his camels to a well of water outside the city. It’s evening time, when women go out to draw water, and the servant prays to God for help in finding the right woman for Isaac.

I am not exactly sure what it is that makes the well the ideal place for finding a wife. As we’re going to see, it happens a lot in the Bible so I don’t think it was a coincidence. Today, there are several stereotypical places where people go to meet their spouses: church, bars (unfortunately), online dating sites…it seems like wells were kind of a dating spot of the ancient world.

Abraham’s servant prays, “Let the right woman be the one who, when I ask for a drink, she not only gives me a drink but offers to water my camels as well.” And immediately Rebekah, who is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, comes up with her water jar, and the Bible tells us that she is beautiful and unmarried, and the servant asks her for water and she gives him some and then waters his camels as well.

Of course, the servant is excited and tells Rebekah what is going on, and she invites him to stay at her family’s house, and then she rushes home to tell her family about all of this. The chapter goes on and we get a report of the family showing hospitality to the servant and he tells his story again, there is a betrothal, and eventually, Rebekah travels back with the servant and Isaac and Rebekah get married.

So what we have here is a betrothal story of two people getting engaged, and here are some of the key features:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Genesis 24; we now move on to our next story.

Jacob and Rachel

Our next story comes a few chapters later, in Genesis 29, and centers on Jacob, who is the son of Isaac and Rebekah. And Jacob is on a journey as well, because back in Genesis 28, Isaac had sent him specifically to Paddan-Aram, where Rebekah’s family lived, to find a wife there.

So Jacob travels there, and he goes to a well (perhaps his mother had informed him that this was a good place to find available bachelorettes!). There is a large stone over the mouth of this particular well, and apparently, the people would wait until all the flocks gathered there and the shepherds would get together to roll the stone away from the well so all the animals could be watered.

While Jacob is there waiting for this to happen, Rachel, the daughter of his uncle, comes up with her sheep. This is one of those places where we need to try not to read the text through our 21st-century Western eyes. For us, we realize that Rachel is Jacob’s first cousin and immediately we think that this makes her off-limits. But we have to realize that for Jacob, this actually makes Rachel a great candidate for marriage because he was specifically looking for a relative—he wasn’t supposed to marry a Canaanite girl. When Jacob sees Rachel and realizes who she is, he goes and by himself rolls away the huge stone from the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep (apparently the practice of men showing off for women in order to impress them is an ancient one!). Then Jacob kisses Rachel and weeps aloud, and tells her who he is. Rachel runs home to tell her father, Laban, and he comes out and welcomes Jacob into his home, and they make arrangements for Jacob to marry Rachel.

Of course, there is more to the story and Laban is a pretty shady character and Jacob ends up with two wives and stays with Laban for longer than he bargained for, but that is basically where we will leave off.

Let’s notice again the basic characteristics of these well betrothal stories:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well  ✓
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Genesis 29; we now move on to our next story.

Moses and Zipporah

Our next story may not be quite as well known; it comes from Exodus 2. Moses himself is famous, and the early parts of Exodus 2 are most likely very familiar: Moses is born, and in order to hide him from the wrath of Pharaoh, his mother puts him in a basket in the Nile River. Moses is eventually adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian. After he grows up, Moses one day sees an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew and he gets angry and strikes him and kills him. Pharaoh finds out about this and Moses runs away, fleeing to the land of Midian, and once he is there, he sits down by a well.

At this point, if you are a Jewish person who has grown up hearing the scriptures and knows the scriptures well, or, alternatively, if you have been reading this blog post with any sort of attention, you should have some expectation of what is going to happen next, at least in a general sense.

And sure enough, while Moses is sitting there, seven young ladies, daughters of the priest of Midian, come to the well and draw water to water their father’s flocks. Some shepherds come to drive them away, but Moses stands up and saves the girls, and waters their flocks for them.

Then the girls go home and tell their father what happened. Their father tells them to go find Moses and invite him to their house so that they can feed him and show him hospitality, and Moses comes, and he becomes engaged to Zipporah, one of the man’s daughters, and she becomes his wife.

Again, let’s review the basic characteristics of these well betrothal stories:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Exodus 2; we now move on to our next story.

Jesus and a Samaritan Woman

Our final story comes from the New Testament, from John 4, and it is the famous story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well. This is a wonderful chapter and there are a lot of different parts we could examine closely, but for the focus of this post, we just want to sum up what happens and look at that in light of what we have already discussed.

John 4 begins with Jesus on a journey. Because of some trouble from the Pharisees, Jesus is traveling from Judea up to Galilee, and He passes through Samaria on the way. He comes to a town called Sychar, and he is tired, so Jesus sits down by the well.

Now, as a side note here, we need to remember that John is writing His gospel to a Jewish (Christian) audience who knew the Old Testament Scriptures. By now, the pattern that occurs with these well stories should be very familiar to us, and it would have been familiar to John’s audience as well. So we have certain expectations of what is supposed to happen next. 

Sure enough, a woman from Samaria comes to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. But instead of giving Him a drink, the woman responds in shock because she can’t believe that Jesus had spoken to her as a Samaritan woman, because Jews and Samaritans don’t get along at all. Jesus then begins speaking to her about this living water that He has to offer and how people who drink it will never be thirsty again, and the water will become a spring welling up to eternal life, and the woman doesn’t really know what He’s talking about but that sounds good to her and so she asks for some of it.

And this whole conversation is a little strange and not really what we were expecting based on our previous well stories. Jesus then abruptly says, “Go, call your husband, and come here,” and the woman responds, “I have no husband.” If you’re hearing this story for the first time, perhaps you think, “Aha, she is not married—she is a good candidate for marriage after all, so maybe the story will turn out as we expected.”

But then Jesus tells the woman her whole marital history: yes, you’re not married, but you have been married five times before, and the guy you are with now isn’t your husband. This blows the woman away: how can Jesus know this? He must be a prophet! Then they proceed to talk a little bit more about the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans and the woman says that she is waiting for the Messiah to come, and Jesus says that He is, in fact, that Messiah.

The woman gets excited about this and she leaves her water jar and rushes back away to the town to tell the people about this strange man at the well who might be the Christ. In the meantime, Jesus’ disciples show up and they are confused that Jesus is talking to this woman, and then they try to give Him some food, but Jesus declines it, saying that He has all the food He needs, in that He is doing the will of the Father and is accomplishing His work.

And the disciples are completely clueless about what he means. Bless their hearts.

Many of the Samaritans from the village believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, and they ask Jesus to stay with them for two days, and many more come to believe because of His words, and they tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

At this point, we should review the key characteristics of these well betrothal stories that have been talking about, and we will quickly notice that John 4 has a lot in common with the others, but that there are some key differences:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well Jesus asks for it; prompts a discussion on living water
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality Yes, but the only food that is mentioned is Jesus’ spiritual food
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows No, at least, not in the way we would expect

Jesus the Bridegroom

So what is going on here? Why is this set up like a betrothal story? What can we learn from the differences?

(1) Water: Jesus probably was thirsty, and He does ask the woman for water, but it seems that what He was actually doing was creating an opening for a spiritual conversation. He was moving the woman away from a discussion of a menial chore that she had to do day after day, and instead was addressing the deepest need of her heart: a life-giving spiritual water that only He possessed, which would lead to eternal life.

This living water was available to her. It was hers for the taking. Jesus gives rather than takes. He offers rather than receives.

(2) Food: In the other stories food is mentioned each time: the main character or protagonist is fed by the woman’s family. But in this passage, food is discussed by Jesus and His disciples. The disciples are trying to give Jesus food to eat, but He says He doesn’t need it; He has eaten already. He is satisfied, He is fed, by doing His father’s will, and by accomplishing the mission that His Father has sent Him on. So clearly, what has just happened is an example of Jesus fulfilling His mission: He has revealed who He is to the woman, and has extended His offer of living water to her.

And in that process, He has been made full.

(3) Marriage: This is the big one, and to see what is going on here, we actually need to flip back a chapter, to John 3. This is one of those instances where the chapter divisions in our Bibles (which were added much later) are not always helpful because they break up the surrounding context of what is happening.

Here we have a story of Jesus and His disciples baptizing, and John the Baptist was also baptizing. Some of John’s followers come to him to tell him that Jesus is baptizing more people than John is, and more people are beginning to follow Him, and isn’t John upset by this? But John tries to correct their thinking: 

[28] You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” 

(John 10.28-30, ESV)

Did you hear what John called Jesus? He called him a bridegroom. John refers to himself as the friend of the bridegroom—the best man—if you will, but he calls Jesus the groom. And John’s point is that at a wedding, the best man doesn’t get upset that the groom gets more attention—he celebrates! He is there to celebrate the wedding of the bride and the groom.

So just before a story that follows the pattern of the Well Betrothal story, John the Baptist explicitly says that the reason people are flocking to Jesus is because He is the bridegroom receiving His bride.

This language of Jesus as a bridegroom is based on a repeated metaphor from the Old Testament of God as the husband and Israel as the wife in their relationship. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah says:

“[1] The word of the LORD came to me, saying, [2] “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. [3] Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.” 

(Jeremiah 2.1-3, ESV)

The prophecy goes on to describe how the people of Israel had been unfaithful to God, how they had committed spiritual adultery by worshipping other gods, and as a result, the people were going to be punished. God actually describes in Jeremiah 3.6-8 how, because of the continuous unfaithfulness, God was divorcing His bride and sending them away. We call this the Exile: both the nations of Israel and Judah were conquered and the people were captured.

And yet, this isn’t the end of the story. In Jeremiah 3.14:

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.

God has not given up on His wife; even though He had sent Israel away, He will come after her and bring her back. In a literal sense, a remnant of the people are allowed to return to the Land of Israel following the Exile, but still, Jeremiah points even further to the future:

[31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

(Jeremiah 31.31-34, ESV)

With all of this background in the Hebrew Scriptures, we can see what John is doing as He sets up this episode from the life of Jesus as a betrothal story. Jesus is the ultimate bridegroom who has traveled into a foreign land to secure a bride for Himself—not literally, but in a figurative sense: He is identifying Himself with God’s mission to call His people back through the giving of a new covenant, written on the heart.

Jesus’ mission is to restore His bride—to reconcile God’s people back to Him.

There are other places in the New Testament that teach us the same thing. The church is referred to as the bride of Christ in the Book of Revelation; in Ephesians 5 the relationship between a husband and wife is compared to the relationship between Christ and the church. 

But here, in John 4, this same idea of Jesus as the bridegroom is told in a clever and powerful way, through the story of His meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well.[2] 

Conclusion

I hope that, throughout this series, you have come to see benefits of paying close attention to Scripture and reading it as a story, and looking for the ideas and theological claims that the biblical writers are suggesting by the way that they write.

In this final installment, we have seen the repeated use of the well betrothal stories in the Bible, and how John uses a similar story to make an astounding claim about Jesus: He is here to accomplish God’s mission of restoring His bride, as He claimed He would do hundreds of years before. As a husband, Jesus will go to extraordinary lengths to love and protect and save His bride; as a husband, Jesus expects absolute devotion and faithfulness from His bride.

The implications for us are clear: God loves us, and He pursues us because He wants a relationship with us. He wants to care for, protect, and save us. But also, He wants us to be faithful—devoted to Him exclusively.


[1] To my knowledge, the motif of well betrothal stories was first pointed out in Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

[2] When studying this initially, I saw the clear connection between John 4 and the Old Testament well betrothal stories, but I was unsure of exactly what the connection meant. Unfortunately, I have lost my notes and am unaware of which source helped point me in the right direction. So, I want to publicly state that the conclusions above are not original to me, and I regret not remembering to whom full credit belongs.

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