Redeeming Church Conflicts (book review)


 

Redeeming Church ConflictsREDEEMING CHURCH CONFLICTS
By 
Tara Klena Barthel & David V. Edling
Baker Books. 249 pages. £10.99
ISBN 978 0 801 014 284

(view online article here)

Conflict is a given in the life of the church. Just as the devil had a vested interest in disrupting and dividing the order and the beauty of God’s original creation when he stirred unrest in Eden, so he continues to do so in God’s new creation, in the shared life of his people in the church.

That does not mean that conflict should be condoned in the life of the church, or that pastors and their people should be complacent about it. Quite the opposite; when we step back and see the dynamics of conflict in broader perspective, it not only gives us our bearings on how to handle such situations, but it provides the ability to prevent church conflicts turning into church crises. This book sets out to provide that perspective.

From experience

Its authors write, not from the detachment of armchair theorists, but as those who have experienced the pain of conflict in their own church family. More than that, as they faced the challenge of working through that conflict with the different factions caught up in it, they went on to discover the joy of conflict resolution. That background injects its own unique flavour, not only into what they write, but in their entire approach to writing. They have carefully and deliberately crafted their book in a way that draws their readers in and persuasively engages their hearts and minds as they work these issues through.

Threads

The book’s format is quite distinctive, almost like a tapestry with different threads thoughtfully woven together from beginning to end. One of the main threads is the retelling of the story of church division that made such an impact on its authors. The church in question is discreetly given a fictitious name, but the contours of the disagreement it faced, the way they approached it and their use of Scripture to guide them to a more than happy conclusion are clearly mapped out. The authors break the story up into six segments through the book as a whole. Turning this narrative into a motif in this way provides a great incentive to keep reading to the next installment.

The key thought, however, around which the entire book is structured and which ties in to the conflict situation out of which it was originally born, is the role of Acts 15 as a biblical model for dealing with church divisions. Chapter by chapter we are taken almost verse by verse through this passage, seeing it not merely as a paradigm for how a potentially disastrous dispute was handled by the early church; but also how it provides us with a very real theology of conflict management. Many of these chapters are rounded off with an ‘Apply this to your Church Conflict’ section.

There are other little recurring features in the way the authors develop this model of dealing with difficulties. One of them is the many ‘Mini Case Studies’ that are included. These reality sound bites are engaging and provide a vivid glimpse of how the principles articulated in the book have been tried and tested as they are worked out in practice.

The kind of issues addressed in the pages of this book are all too common and their fallout all too painful, both for churches and for the people who belong to them. All too often conflict wins in church life because those embroiled in it have not stepped back to see it from a more sane and balanced point of view. This book provides such a viewpoint and is the kind of book that should be read before the clouds of conflict start to gather. But, even if that point has been passed, here is a book that is well worth reaching for in the storm!

Mark G. Johnston, Northern Ireland

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe for monthly updates.

 

Am I a consumer Christian?


AmIAConsumerChristian(view original article here)

Richard Lacey, lead pastor of Woodgreen Evangelical Church, Worcester, asks the question

I was recently given a sabbatical by my church.

During this time my family and I visited ten different churches. It was eye-opening to experience churches as a ‘punter’ rather than a pastor and to realise afresh how daunting it can be to attend a new church – even as a Christian.

However, the most significant thing I noticed during this time was how easy it is to slip into approaching church as a consumer.

As I reflected on this, I became more and more convinced of how destructive and damaging this is, not only to the church community itself, but also to the cause of Christ. What has concerned me even more is that I’ve also become convinced that this is the dominant way most Christians – of all ages – approach church today.

Sinful church attendance

Which is a problem, because a consumer approach to church is sinful. Yes, I did just use the S-word. A consumer approach to church is sinful because it couldn’t be further away from the Bible’s understanding of what it means to be part of a community of God’s people. Being a consumer is inherently self-seeking and therefore at odds with Jesus’s example of self-giving. As a consumer, I go to church for what that church offers me, but the Apostle Paul said true worship involves offering ourselves to God: ‘Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12.1-2).

Contrasts to think about

As I’ve examined my own heart, I’ve found it helpful to contrast a consumer approach to church with a Christlike approach to church.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I come to be satisfied. I am at the centre of the ‘experience’. My needs, expectations, preferences, tastes, hobby-horses and opinions become priorities and so I am vocal about them. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I come to bless, encourage and spur others on. My priority is what Jesus desires and so his command to love others therefore trumps my own desires and needs and I am vocal in expressing gratitude.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I come as a critic, assessing and judging the quality of the welcome, music, sermon, coffee and _______ (fill in as appropriate) according to my preferences. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I come to edify others. I look for the good in everything and everyone. I overlook imperfections, spur on those who are growing in their gifts and treat issues of preference or disagreement with grace.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I come to be served. I expect others to meet my needs. I expect the service or activities or pastor to tick all my boxes. If not, I may decide to complain to the management or to fellow consumers. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I come to serve. I realise God has given me gifts to build others up and I consider it a privilege to use them. My focus is on blessing others by fulfilling the role he has given me within the body of Christ.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I come to be entertained. I do not want to be challenged or – God forbid – rebuked. I expect to be uplifted, stirred, moved and affirmed. To be bored is a cardinal sin, to be offended even worse. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I come to grow. I expect to be challenged by the ministry because I know I am a self-deceiving sinner and my greatest need is to be sanctified and made more like Jesus. I humbly accept the diet God chooses to give me from his Word through those who minister to me.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I come as an individual. Interacting with others is an inconvenient necessity. I therefore don’t hang around long after meetings, or if I do, I only speak with a small circle of friends. I am uncomfortable with small groups because they involve participation, scrutiny and close personal contact. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I come to be part of a community. While at times I find it challenging, I count it a privilege to be part of a fellowship of diverse people with whom I can share my life. I welcome the accountability and scrutiny that comes from close contact with members of a small group and I seek to be an active participant in one, praying for and pastoring others.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I attend, but I don’t commit. I prefer the fringe to the core. I prefer to spectate rather than participate. I pick and choose the meetings I attend. I cannot be relied upon to turn up. I do not willingly volunteer, take on responsibility or contribute to church life. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I commit myself to my brothers and sisters and show this by my attendance and attitude to service. I embrace my calling to be a partner and co-worker with them for the gospel and I do whatever I can to support church initiatives. I therefore give sacrificially of my time, energy and money.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I come to be ministered to. I expect the church leaders to service me. I expect them to visit me, know all about me, have time for me whenever I require them, and be skilled in offering spiritual tlc. If they don’t fulfil this, then I feel my rights have been infringed. in a Whereas, when I approach church Christlike way... I come to minister to others. I recognise that there will be many unseen pastoral demands on church leaders that are greater than my own. I recognise that I have a responsibility to care for my brothers and sisters and so am proactive in watching for opportunities to minister to others.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I resist change because it involves personal discomfort. Church exists to meet my needs and so I oppose changes that inconvenience me or require me to flex or adapt. The status quo is good because it’s why I was attracted to that church in the first place. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I support change when it benefits others or has a gospel motivation. I gladly accept personal inconvenience if it means others will be blessed. I embrace changes that mean church is able to communicate the gospel and make disciples more effectively. I trust those who make change decisions even when I cannot see the need.

• When I approach church as a consumer… I will eventually end up leaving the church, either in body or in spirit. The younger I am, the more likely I am to leave physically and go to another church. The older I am, the more likely I am to leave in spirit and become detached and disillusioned, critical and cynical. I approach church in a Whereas, when Christlike way... I will end well, leaving a legacy for younger generations who will thank God for my example. I will have been a unifying influence, rather than a divisive one. I will have been a kingdom-builder rather than an empire-builder. I will have been a contributor rather than a consumer.

The big question

Which best describes your approach to church? That’s the question. Like me, do you need to repent of being a church consumer and resolve to be a more committed, selfless, Christlike contributor?

This article was originally posted on Richard Lacey’s blog: woodgreenpastor.blogspot.co.uk

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: I couldn’t move a fly!


Music Exchange

(view original article here)

The letters column struck back!

Thank you to Dave Kimber for the response to my previous article, which shows that the Word versus Spirit issue is very much alive and kicking.

I need to answer a couple of points, in which I may have been misunderstood. First, I’m not sure from my article that anyone could deduce that I’m a cessationist. I’m very much convinced that the gifts of the Spirit are as useful for the building up of the church as they have ever been. As I said, I prayed earnestly for the gift of tongues. The prayer may have been answered in the negative, but I don’t know yet! All I know is that if it would useful for the building-up of the church, then the Lord will equip me with whatever gift is needed to glorify him.

Romans cures doubt

Second, is a defence of my use of Romans 8.16. Dave suggested that this is a non-Word reference to the work of the Spirit. However, I chose this verse because Romans 8.16 is very much the Word of God. In Romans 8.16 the Spirit is stating clearly in the Word of God that I am born of God. It was Romans 8.16 that I needed at my time of doubt. The Spirit may have spoken to me outside the Word of God to convince me, but as David Cook (Australian preacher) said to me just last week, ‘anything you hear outside the Word of God is a hunch’. Just a hunch. Only the Word of God tells me that I am a child of God because Christ has made me righteous by his blood. Praise the Lord that his Spirit, through the Word, gives us real assurance and therefore real life.

Can’t sing? Not a Christian?

I’m keen to follow this up because, as a church musician, I’ve seen countless young people who have their assurance of sonship based solely on a musician’s definition of the Holy Spirit – one chap doubted he was a Christian because he couldn’t sing, so didn’t experience the presence of God in the same way all his friends seemed to. Even more seriously, if our definition of the work of the Spirit is derived by any other means than God’s Word, we are in serious danger of creating God in our own image.

Of course, we are all limited and fallen in our understanding, especially me (as Dave Kimber correctly implies) but as I said in the last article, I’m going to hold on to the truth that Jesus’s words are spirit and life, because I don’t trust the other ‘spirits’ who try and convince me otherwise. A hunch is worse than second best. However, holding to the sufficiency of the Word of God as the way the Spirit works gives freedom rather than constraint.

Stott stood firm

The Word/Spirit dichotomy was well illustrated in a book by Jean-Jacques Suurmond, called Word and Spirit at Play, where the Word and Spirit play a game together – the Word brings order, and the Spirit brings life and vigour. The same idea was encouraged in the UK when a chap called Michael Harper (1931-2010) believed he had received the baptism of the Spirit in 1962 (a second baptism, as he was already converted). Noticing dull and lifeless worship in evangelical churches, he was keen to encourage these churches to become more open to the Spirit to bring things to life. Fortunately, John Stott and others stood firm and kept their confidence in the Word of God as the means by which the Spirit works, although others followed Harper’s lead. Harper himself ended up as an Archpriest in the Antiochan Greek Orthodox Church.

Spirit at work

Church musicians, when the Word of God is spoken or sung, the Spirit is powerfully at work, whether there is any immediate outward manifestation or not. I’m deeply thankful for this assurance, because sometimes I feel the music I produce wouldn’t move a fly sitting on the piano strings, let alone a tired and discouraged congregation member. His Word will not return to him empty, so keep teaching and singing the Word of God, because ‘the words I speak to you are spirit and life’, (John 6.63, ESV).

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: BBC turns fact to fiction


Unapologetic Christianity

(view original article here)

The BBC’s latest religious documentary is a two-part series, The Bible Hunters.

Jeff Rose, an American archaeologist, takes us on a tour of Egypt following a quest for early Bible manuscripts. Riding his motorbike through barren desert scenery, there were times when it felt closer to an episode of Top Gear. Why did he not just save the fuel and ride with the camera team in their car? But more pertinent questions are raised by the programme’s narrative. The selected scholars who are interviewed for their sound-bite opinions are all carefully chosen, or their words edited, to contribute to the general impression that the biblical text is unreliable.

Fascinating stories

The filmmakers should be complimented for accurately retelling some fascinating and historically accurate stories of discovery. Egypt has the right dry, desert, environment to preserve ancient manuscripts. Many have turned up there. The first episode included the story of the Smith sisters and their discovery of an early Syriac edition of the four Gospels. The second episode gave another platform for the usual quasi Da Vinci Code conspiracy nonsense about the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi, in Egypt.

Earliest complete NT manuscript

The documentaries helpfully cover the discovery by Tischendorf in 1859 of the Codex Sinaiticus at St Catherine’s monastery. This includes the earliest complete Greek New Testament, dating to c.350 AD. It was an astonishing discovery. It helps us to compare the New Testament manuscripts used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible with those written 1000 years before. I have only ever heard Christians give a positive appraisal of this discovery. But in the hands of this BBC documentary the manuscript is spun as ‘a discovery to shake the core of Christianity.’ A great aid to apologetics is apparently ammunition for the critics!

Rose informs us that ‘Christians believe that the Bible is the unchanged and unchangeable Word of God.’ Therefore, these manuscripts pose a problem. There are many scribal notes of minor changes throughout the text. Our host conspiratori-ally tells us that the longer ending of Mark, found in the King James Version, is missing from both the Codex Sinaiticus and the Syriac Gospels. Of course, his charge is weak. Christians believe that the Bible, as originally given, is the Word of God. No Christian scholar ignores the need to root out errors that may have crept in during the process of transmission or translation. Even the translators of the King James Version knew of manuscript variants. Rose defeats nothing more than a straw man.

Simply untrue

The general claim of the documentaries is simply untrue. The discoveries of early manuscripts did not ‘shock the faithful’. The opposite happened. Prior to their discovery, the critical tradition had already emerged, giving us theoretical reasons for not trusting the transmission of the Bible. The documentaries cover only a handful of the ensuing discoveries. There is no mention of the Codex Vaticanus, the Chester Beatty Papyri, the Bodmer Papyri and the countless much earlier fragments such as the John Rylands fragment held in Manchester. Even Oxyrhynchus only gets a mention because we are told the Gospel of Thomas turned up there. The documentary fails to mention the large number of New Testament fragments found at Oxyrhynchus!

In the light of these many discoveries, scholars became confident that we could reconstruct the New Testament to within a whisker of what was originally written. All modern translations reflect the best of this scholarship. Many of the sceptical theories of a couple of hundred years ago have found not a scrap of material support for their claims.

Reactions to the documentaries have been mixed. Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan enthused, ‘it was wonderful’. The Daily Express review described it as ‘a brilliant story … to thrill and delight.’ But I prefer the observation of Larry Hurtado, one of the scholars interviewed in the programme. Of the finished product, he wryly commented: ‘Seems that TV people find fiction more watchable than facts’.

Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Letter from America by Josh Moody: Death of a… communicator


Letter From America

(view original article here)

Arthur Miller’s famous play, Death of a Salesman, has come to mind recently in a somewhat facetious, but applicable way.

The first time I was aware of it was when a then-famous preacher asked me what my role was at College Church. This in itself was not particularly unusual. Titles for positions of church staff are sometimes opaque, and it makes sense to delve a little further.

Before I had a chance to reply though, he interjected, ‘Are you “the communicator”?’ I was caught off-guard, for while my main role is indeed preaching, I had never thought of myself as quote, unquote, the communicator. I mumbled a hesitant, ‘Uh, yeah, I suppose so…’ and the conversation continued along other lines that are not pertinent to the point of this article.

What we call preachers

Since then, that conversation has continued to ring in my mind as I have observed various labels related to preachers develop in popular Christian subculture in America. The most obvious is the category known as ‘gifted communicator.’

I ask myself these days what that actually means. Obviously, I believe in there being different gifts given by God to edify the body and reach the world. Equally obviously, I do not think I need to look through the particular list of gifts in the NT (such as in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians) and specify a particular gift by name in order to include it in the pantheon of giftedness today. God’s grace gifts are gracious, and I am sure there are more gifts than specifically mentioned in those lists, overlapping and exemplary as they probably are.

Paul, the gifted communicator?

The concern I have is not so much with the category of a gift which cannot itself be found in the gifts of the Spirit in the Bible; though that causes me to pause. I can comfort myself that different translations of different gifts could be expressed in various ways in the vernacular, and that there are surely more gifts present than are listed there.

No, my concern is that I am suspicious that the category of ‘gifted communicator’ actually falls more naturally, within the NT’s descriptions, in a somewhat negative rather than positive light. After all, when you read through 1 Corinthians, you find that Paul – no doubt self-aware of being a gifted speaker, in some sense, and a gifted writer – was heavily criticised for his lack of spectacular gifting in these areas by the Corinthian church. In fact, as the category of ‘gifted communicator’ goes, he seems pretty determined to distance himself from that idea.

In retrospect, I probably should have answered the question ‘Are you “the communicator”?’ with: ‘No, I am a preacher of God’s Word by God’s power, not human rhetoric’. It seems to me that that is closer to what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians.

The relevant passage is worth quoting in full, for while you can no doubt find it in your own Bibles, I would especially like to draw attention to the way that Paul frames his understanding of his purpose as a preacher of God’s Word in God’s power. It is inescapably polarised against preaching with the rhetoric of the standard schools of rhetoric (read, ‘communication theory’) of his day:

‘When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power’ (1 Corinthians 2.1-5, NIV).

Dr Lloyd-Jones

In case you think this is an interpretation of this passage that suggests that preachers, therefore, should not attempt to communicate well, should not do their homework, should not try to structure their talks and writing in ways that are most likely to persuade, consider Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Surely he, of any of the 20th-century preachers, was at times given to preach with God’s power, and had, most would say who heard him, an unusual communication ability. Yet he did not view preaching the same as having perfectly-crafted, gifted communication. Sentences were not always grammatically accurate; structure was not always perfect. He lived in a different time and had different issues against which to contrast his ministry, but the point I think is well taken in our context.

Being able to speak for an hour without notes and make everyone laugh as you do so, all the while keeping within the bounds of conservative, reformed evangelicalism, does not necessarily equate to preaching with the power of God. In fact, perhaps, if we take Paul’s writing above carefully, on its own it cannot.

Josh Moody is the senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

I’m fine! – removing masks and growing into wholeness (book review)


I’M FINE!ImFine
Removing masks and growing into wholeness
By Wendy Billington
Bible Reading Fellowship. 176 pages. £7.99
ISBN 978 1 841 018 713

(view online version here)

The author is the Director of the Sevenoaks Counselling Service, as well as being involved in a pastoral care role in her local Anglican church.

Her listening and pastoral experience shines through in this helpful book. Wendy tries to get behind the usual ‘I’m fine’ response on a Sunday in church when we all ask each other how we are. She tackles issues such as low self-esteem, depression, loneliness, marriage, financial pressures, parenting pain, loss addictions, domestic abuse and fear of change. In such a short volume (176 pages) no subject is tackled exhaustively, but just enough to give the ‘lay person’ helpful insights to enable them to draw alongside someone else in pain. However, the way the subjects are explored means that this book could be safely given to someone in trouble themselves. In fact each chapter contains advice about how people can help themselves , how the Bible and God can help and how the church can help, as well as a short prayer. The author tackles each subject with pastoral as well as biblical insights, and avoids the trap of using the scriptures as aspirins – a pill for every ill. Case studies keep the book grounded in the realities of people’s lives. The author is very insightful, particularly on how problems can affect people’s spiritual lives. A handy book, especially for the pastoral worker .

 

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

 

Ark – eology?


Ark-eology

Dr Finkel holding ‘The Ark Tablet’

(view original article here)

Professor Alan Millard reviews a recent book that has hit the headlines

In 1985 a man came to the British Museum with a Babylonian clay tablet, which his father had acquired in Iraq in the 1940s. The museum’s specialist was astonished as he read the cuneiform signs: it was part of a Babylonian story of the flood!

Alas, the owner would not leave the tablet for study. The expert, Irving Finkel, was bereft! Not until 2009 was he allowed to examine it at leisure. In this book he enthusiastically describes his patient decipherment and growing understanding of a text written almost 4,000 years ago.

Flood stories

After relating the first discovery of a Babylonian flood story in 1872, then jumping to the appearance of the new tablet, Finkel explains how cuneiform writing works and the range of texts now available. He then summarises previously-known Babylonian flood stories, each one damaged and incomplete. The Sumerian flood story (1900 – 1600 BC); Atrahasis (1900 – 1600 BC, 1300 BC & 800 – 600 BC); The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet 11 (800 – 600 BC); Berossos (200 BC); Genesis (100 BC) and Koran (AD 650). The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11, contains the often-quoted Babylonian flood story.

Comparisons between each of these and the Genesis account run through the following chapters. In six pages Finkel presents his translation of the new text, which he calls The Ark Tablet, copied between 1900 and 1700BC. Although the back is damaged, the sense is clear. A god clandestinely instructs Atrahasis (Ut-napishtim in Gilgamesh 11) to demolish his house and to build a boat, with precise measurements. Atrahasis tells how he accomplished his task, listing many elements, ending with instructions to seal the door after he has boarded.

The tablet, small enough to hold in the hand, is not part of an historical inscription, but is an extract from a longer story or an exercise in imagining the conversations and computations; perhaps the work of a student or even a playwright. Here is the novelty: the vessel was to be round! It was a coracle, built of reed bundles bound together, waterproofed with bitumen, about 70 metres in diameter, strengthened with ribs, probably having a deck and cabins. Going back to previously known tablets, Finkel has demonstrated that they, too, described a circular craft, but the Gilgamesh version had misrepresented it as an unseaworthy cube. The Ark Tablet prescribes a ground plan of 14,400 square cubits, close to the 15,000 square cubits of the ark in Genesis!

Coracles have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers since time immemorial. The descriptions of several travellers illustrate their use in the 19th and 20th centuries and some explain their construction. They allow Finkel to take the reader through the construction process described in The Ark Tablet. He supplies a lengthy technical appendix in which, with the aid of mathematician Mark Wilson, he proves the specifications are realistic, although actual fabrication seems impossible.

It is noteworthy that Genesis never calls the ark a ship or boat, whereas the Babylonian texts use such terms. The vessel was a container, not a ship for a voyage! In the Bible, the Hebrew word for ‘ark’ is only applied to Noah’s vessel and to baby Moses’s basket. Linguists treat it as a loanword from Egyptian, where it means ‘box’. Finkel proposes a Babylonian origin in a partly similar word connected with boats, but there are difficulties: one basic letter differs and the Babylonian word occurs on only one tablet, where its meaning is not clear – so he tries to explain the obscure Hebrew word by a more obscure Babylonian one!

Two by two

The Ark Tablet astounded Finkel by adding a new element to the Babylonian account: animals were to enter the boat in pairs! After recognizing the word in this tablet, he saw it could also be reconstructed in the broken Old Babylonian Atrahasis tablet, which the reviewer published in 1965.

Similarities between the Babylonian texts and Genesis have been discussed ever since 1872. The Ark Tablet’s revelations reinvigorate them, bringing Finkel the opportunity to draw on his extensive knowledge of Babylonian texts, and his unrivalled ability to read and interpret them, in a comparative study.

What depends on what?

Following some biblical scholars, he discerns two sources amalgamated in Genesis 6 and 7, seeing, for example, inconsistencies in numbers of animals (pairs in 6:19, 20; sevens in 7:2, 3) and takes for granted that the biblical text is dependent upon the Babylonian. He finds those sources ‘reflect distinct cuneiform versions of the flood story’. Therefore he asks when and how the biblical writers would have met them and concludes that Judaeans in Babylon, taught ‘the literature and language of the Chaldeans’ (Daniel 1.4), could read cuneiform tablets. Exiles concerned to save their national identity composed the Old Testament and adapted Babylonian traditions to fit their purposes, including a list of long-lived antediluvian leaders and the flood story. Another Babylonian tablet discloses apparent monotheistic tendencies by identifying various gods as aspects of the chief god Marduk, so Finkel proposes that such theological currents may have precipitated statements of the distinct Judaean belief in one God alone.

The Ark Tablet adds, he thinks, to the case for dependence with its pairs of animals and its vessel’s dimensions. If Genesis drew on Babylonian legends, when did that happen? Taking the oblong shape of Noah’s wooden ark as a development of the cube in the seventh-century Gilgamesh version is part of Finkel’s case. Yet he has to assume unknown variations to the existing Babylonian versions to explain other differences, so any changes could have occurred much earlier. Despite his strong case for the era of the Exile, the Babylonian texts are inconclusive.

Some commentators take the Genesis flood narrative as a polemic against the Babylonian polytheistic legend. As Finkel notes, there is a strong contrast between the many Babylonian deities, whimsical and often at loggerheads, and the one self-consistent God of Genesis. Those who believe the Hebrew account is the original will have to assume the oblong wooden ark, which was perhaps better suited to a different region of the Near East, was re-imagined as an enormous reed coracle in Babylonia with approximately the same floor area as Noah’s ark. Although no copy of Genesis made before about 200BC survives, that does not exclude a much earlier origin for its contents. Accordingly, the extant Hebrew and Babylonian reports might be seen as deriving from a common ancestor.

Where the ark came to rest

Engaging incidents in Finkel’s work keep the reader’s interest alive. When he gave a volunteer a box of odd fragments to sort, she found a strange one which he saw fitted into the famous Babylonian Map of the World and suggests that the ark rested in the region of Mount Ararat! However, other Babylonian tales placed it nearer to Iraq, in the mountains to the east or north, while Genesis simply says ‘in the mountains of Ararat’ which could suit any of the locations. Noteworthy is another Assyriologist’s discovery of a tablet in the British Museum naming a high official of Nebuchadnezzar who is named with others in Jeremiah 39, which Finkel characterised as ‘amazing… in quietly proving that one named individual mentioned in the Bible who was not a king really did exist’. In fact, other Jeremiah names are known from Babylonian tablets, too.

Experts will discuss details of the cuneiform tablet while biblical scholars assess its significance for years to come. Intelligibly explaining technical aspects, The Ark before Noah relates a new discovery brilliantly, sharing the excitement of a leading expert as he disentangles part of one version of an ancient story.

Alan Millard is Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew & Ancient Semitic Languages, The University of Liverpool, and a member of Myton Church, Leamington Spa
THE ARK BEFORE NOAH Decoding the story of the Flood By Irving Finkel Hodder and Stoughton. 421 pages. £25.00 ISBN 978 1 444 757 057

 

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, check out our on-line version of the paper www.e-n.org.uk or subscribe to en for monthly updates.