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BibleProject Podcast
BibleProject Podcast
Deuteronomy Scroll • Episode 11
When Do Words Become a Blessing?
64m • December 12, 2022

How do we know the biblical authors intended to link certain words and stories? When do someone’s words become a blessing? How do sacrifices actually atone for sins? In this episode, Tim and Jon respond to audience questions from a year’s worth of conversations about the Torah. Thank you to our audience for your questions!

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QUOTE

Death is the surrender of life. What did Adam and Eve not do? They didn’t surrender what their version of life was. Rather, they took a version of life that was good in their own eyes. If someone is willing to surrender their life, Yahweh can work with such a person. The problem is, none of us want to surrender our lives… Jesus is set on analogy to both goats of atonement in the letter to the Hebrews.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The capability of humans to convey a blessing is connected to their identity as God’s image bearers––an identity that comes with real authority and responsibility. Yahweh is the blessing-giving God, and to bear his image, humans must be able to bless others too.
  • In the tenth plague, firstborns are not redeemed from God, but from death. It’s no coincidence that Jesus timed his crucifixion to coincide with Passover. The New Testament writers talk about atonement in the same way––not that followers of Jesus are redeemed or rescued from God, but actually that God rescues us from death.
  • In Leviticus, when animals are sacrificed for atonement, it’s not that the animal is being punished. Rather, the animal acts as a righteous representative who surrenders its life to ascend into Yahweh’s presence. Leviticus is setting up the need for a righteous representative who will surrender his life and renew humanity from the inside out.

How Do We Know the Biblical Authors Used Hyperlinks?

Ben from California (1:19)

You’ve been talking a lot about biblical connections in the Genesis scroll. How do you decipher between biblical connections the authors intended to make versus connections we fabricate or force that weren’t intended to be made?

It’s helpful to pay attention to how Jesus and the apostles quoted from, interpreted, and synthesized the words of the Hebrew Bible. Because they had grown up steeped in study of these texts (and the culture and language for which they were intended), if anyone is going to know where to draw the line in connecting various passages, it’s them.

When we survey the ways Jesus and the apostles interacted with the Hebrew Bible, it becomes clear that they had grown up in the midst of an entire culture that saw the Hebrew Bible in a certain way. Something the later biblical authors do all the time is set up their writing in a way that the pattern of the narrative or the language used is meant to send your mind (we call this linking) back to an earlier story.

How do we know the difference between an author deliberately linking passages and us as readers just “forcing” a connection? There’s more than one way to determine this. However, the most common way we know an author intends to connect passages is by repeated words.

Some passages contain so many repeated words it’s almost impossible to miss how the biblical author is linking one story to another. Other times, the repeated words are fewer, and those just take time and meditation to discern. In either case, the words are just a signal, and as readers we must use wisdom to see the whole picture being created by the author. Does the picture painted in one story parallel another, or perhaps, is it the inversion of another? Is the comparison or contrast between passages reinforcing a message we’ve seen before or adding an additional dimension to the mosaic being created in the Bible? As we re-read and meditate, what an author is doing becomes more apparent with time. As always, it’s helpful to read the interpretations of other scholars, including the perspectives of Hebrew Bible readers from other cultures and eras. If they saw some of the same things you’re seeing, chances are you’re both seeing something the biblical authors intended for you to see.

When Do Words Become a Blessing?

Christine from Connecticut (13:47)

What makes a set of words that someone speaks a blessing? What gave the patriarchs the ability to bless people, and could they say whatever they wanted? How or why was Isaac constrained from taking back the blessing he gave Jacob and giving it to Esau?

The capability of humans to convey a blessing is connected to their identity as God’s image bearers––an identity that comes with real authority and responsibility. Yahweh is the blessing-giving God, and to bear his image, humans must be able to bless others too. The patriarchs specifically end up with the ability to bless because the family of Abraham are God’s chosen conduits of his Eden blessing. In its most basic form, a blessing is a connection to God’s own divine life that results in abundance––the words themselves don’t have magical power, rather, God gives the power to bless to his chosen image bearers.

In the case of Jacob and Esau, Isaac couldn’t take the blessing from Jacob and re-gift it to Esau, nor could he share it with both sons because both actions would defy the logic of how God was working through the family of Abraham at that time. As the narrative progresses, God continually selects one out of many, and Jacob was the chosen son. Further, since Isaac blessed his second-born son, it would make sense for us to wonder, why doesn’t God intervene here and bless the firstborn son himself? The answer to that is God has not given feigned authority to humans, but real authority. In other words, he really chooses to allow humans to make these decisions, including his choice to let Isaac bless whom he would bless.

Is the Genesis 3 Curse Part of a Covenant?

Carl from Wisconsin (20:31)

I have two questions. In the creation account in the Genesis scroll, no covenant is ever explicitly made between God and humans. Why, then, when the humans eat from the Tree of Good and Evil, is there a curse? Furthermore, why is it the ground that has to bear the curse, and not humanity itself?

Whenever God engages humans after the Garden of Eden, the relationship is always formalized by a covenant (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, etc). All of these covenants have to do with drawing up formal terms that both God and the human(s) in question agree to. While the word covenant is not used in the Eden story, all the elements of a covenant are present.

Tim believes that the absence of the word covenant from the Eden narrative is intentional and meant to convey that after the flood, relationship necessarily had to get more formal between God and humans. There’s an agreement made between God and Adam and Eve in the garden based solely on taking each other’s words––humans agree to take God at his word, and God takes them at their word that they will adhere to his parameters. This is more like how the prophets and New Testament writers describe the new covenant forged between Jesus and his followers––it’s intimate, based on something internal that takes place in and through God’s Spirit.

Because the covenant in the Eden story was less formal (i.e. Adam and Eve got to enjoy God’s blessing, but no curses were outlined for them), the curse fell upon the ground and the snake. Cain is the first human to come under a curse. If Adam and Eve had been cursed, all of humanity would have been goners from the get-go. Instead, Cain’s line is cursed because of his choice to murder, and Seth’s line is chosen as the family from whom the snake-crusher will come.

What’s the Significance of Passing Through the Waters?

Melisha from Arizona (27:58)

Exodus 14 reminds me of Genesis 15, when at night Yahweh, in the form of smoke and fire, passed through the animal halves to demonstrate his covenant with Abram. There are similar and inverted language and images that connect these two passages. However, what is the significance of the people passing through the death waters versus Yahweh passing through the dead animals?

In Genesis 15, God shows up to make a covenant with Abram as an assurance that he is going to make good on his promise to give Abram a son. This is the first time God appears in fire and smoke. During this covenant ceremony, God also foretells Israel’s enslavement in Egypt.

Genesis 15:13-14

God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.”

After Israel leaves Egypt, they come to the shore of the sea, and it’s night (just like it was when God appeared to Abram in Genesis 15). As Israel passes through the “halves” of the sea, God appears in fire and smoke to lead them. The severed animals and the split sea both represent death and God leading his people through death to life. The setting of both stories is at night, Abram sleeps, God tells Israel to be silent and inactive––there are many details in these two stories that parallel each other. The main (and important) difference is that in Genesis 15, God passes through the narrow place alone. In Exodus 14, God leads his people through the narrow place. These stories begin a motif of God saving his people from a narrow place.

Why Do Firstborns Have to be Redeemed?

Kari from Washington, D.C. (35:36)

Reading Exodus and Numbers this year, I noticed that God requires the firstborn be “redeemed,” saying they belong to him ever since the tenth plague (Ex. 13:11-16). The Levites in particular seem to be caught up in this in Numbers 3. What happened during the tenth plague that made this ongoing redemption necessary? And honestly, when every other instance of the word “redeem” seems like a rescue, how am I supposed to think about people being redeemed from God?

Right before the tenth plague, Yahweh repeatedly warns that he is going to take the life of all firstborn sons in Egypt. There is one exception to this pattern.

Exodus 12:23

For Yahweh will pass through to smite the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, Yahweh will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to smite you.

The language here is mysterious and seems to suggest that there is some kind of death force that is what actually strikes the firstborns during the tenth plague, and Yahweh’s relationship to the death force is whether he will stand in its way or not to protect the house in question. Notably, the word for the destroyer used here in Exodus 12 is the same word used to describe the flood waters in Genesis 6-9: mashkhit. There are numerous words repeated throughout Exodus 12 that link the story to the flood narrative and picture Passover as a flood itself––the cosmic handing over of Egypt to the death forces they themselves had been perpetrating in the world.

Because all firstborns were destined for death in the tenth plague, the blood of the Passover lamb symbolically stood in for the firstborn of each house, with Yahweh himself as their protector. Redemption, in this case, means people destined for and enslaved to death were purchased and set free into the realm of life. From this point forward, every generation owes the lives of the firstborns to this first generation. Passover is a meal in which this story continues to be retold, but the redemption of every firstborn of every family throughout Israel’s history is another way of continually acknowledging that Israel owes their lives to the sparing of the firstborns at Passover. Eventually, the Levites take on the firstborn role within all of Israel as people who represent Israel and God to each other, while entirely relying on God’s generosity for their provision.

The firstborn is not redeemed from God, but from death. There is great complexity here because the reason Israel is enslaved to death in Egypt is because God has handed Israel over to the death forces, like he handed all of creation over to the flood. Just like in the flood, Yahweh simultaneously provides an ark of sorts, a way of being rescued from death. It’s no coincidence that Jesus timed his crucifixion to coincide with Passover. The New Testament writers talk about atonement this way––not that followers of Jesus are redeemed or rescued from God, but actually that God rescues us from death.

How Do Sacrifices Atone for Sin?

Naomi from Scotland (46:50)

I found the image of the laying on of hands to be very powerful––transferring sin from the Israelites to a “blameless” animal. I was looking for clarification on whether the laying on of hands signifies transferring human sin upon the blameless animal (to make the animal carry our sin before God and become “unclean”). In that case, the sin is dealt with when it is burned up on the altar. Or does laying on of hands signify that humanity enters God’s presence blamelessly through the representation of a blameless animal? It makes a huge difference whether I’m transferring my sin onto a blameless animal, and that’s dealing with my sin, or if I'm receiving the gift of life from that animal as I represent myself through a blameless animal. It can get quite confusing.

There is a big difference between an animal taking the punishment due a human, versus the blamelessness of the animal representing a human as blameless in God’s presence. It’s a difference between on the one hand, death being transferred from the human to the animal, or life being transferred from the animal to the human.

In Leviticus 16, instructions are given for two goats to be used in the atonement ritual for Israel. Israel’s sins are ceremonially placed upon one goat, sent off into exile in the wilderness. The priests lay their hands on the other goat that will be sacrificed upon the altar before Yahweh. The phrase “laying of hands” is the same one used when Moses lays hands on Joshua to appoint him as Israel’s leader and also when Paul lays hands on Timothy in the New Testament. In those instances, the phrase has to do with appointing a representative. So in laying hands on the second goat, the priest appoints the blameless animal as a representative for Israel. In this way, the death of the animal is not a punishment for sin. Rather, the animal acts as a righteous representative who surrenders its life to ascend into Yahweh’s presence. Leviticus is setting up the need for a righteous representative who will surrender his life and renew humanity from the inside out.

In the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is analogous to both goats of atonement––he was exiled outside the city bearing humanity’s sins, and he willingly lays down his life to blamelessly represent us before the Father.

Referenced Resources

  • Interested in more? Check out Tim’s library here.
  • You can experience the literary themes and movements we’re tracing on the podcast in the BibleProject app, available for Android and iOS.

Show Music

  • “Defender (Instrumental)” by TENTS

Show produced by Cooper Peltz with Associate Producer Lindsey Ponder. Edited by Dan Gummel, Tyler Bailey, and Frank Garza. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo. Audience questions compiled by Christopher Maier.

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Deuteronomy E1  –  1hr 3m
What’s the Point of Deuteronomy?
1hr 3m
Deuteronomy E2  –  1hr 6m
The Way to True Life
1hr 6m
Deuteronomy E3  –  1hr 13m
Giants and Justice
1hr 13m
Deuteronomy E4  –  1hr 14m
The Law … Again
1hr 14m
Deuteronomy E5  –  54m
How Do We Use the Law Today?
54m
Deuteronomy E6  –  1hr 10m
Jesus, Marriage, and the Law
1hr 10m
Deuteronomy E7  –  59m
Covenant Curses
59m
Deuteronomy E8  –  1hr 27m
Can Anyone Live a Blessed Life?
1hr 27m
Deuteronomy E9  –  1hr 20m
Moses’ Final Words
1hr 20m
Deuteronomy Scroll Q+R  –  59m
Which Laws Still Apply?
59m
Torah Q+R  –  1hr 4m
When Do Words Become a Blessing?
1hr 4m
Deuteronomy E12  –  1hr 16m
Simkhat Torah: Celebrating a Year of Reading
1hr 16m
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