Friday, November 21, 2008

ZECNT 3 - Worship Service or Christian Court?

Another feature of the ZECNT series is the "In Depth" sections. These are shaded boxed areas which treat a specific topic. These are really nice and I found myself wanting more. Today I want to look at James 2:2-4. James talks about showing favoritism to those coming into the "assembly" who happen to be in fine clothing. The question is what is the context of this scenario. Most lay people would read this as a worship service. (I checked several study Bibles and none of them indicated anything other than a worship service. I mention this because for many lay people a study Bible is closest thing they have to a commentary.) Blomberg and Kamell (hereafter B/K argue that it is probably better understood as a "courtroom setting." Why a courtroom? 1) The use of legal language ("favoritism," v1, "you have discriminated," and "judges" v4), 2) The use of the term "synagogue" instead of the usual word for church (ecclesia, which is found in 5:14). 3) The probably allusion to Lev 19:15 which is in a legal context. 4) Parallels to later rabbinic texts which also condemn favoritism toward the rich in a legal setting. 5) Finally, the mention in v. 6 of the rich dragging poor Christians into court. B/K conclude "The Jewish parallels, legal language, and background in Lev 19:15 prove most decisive." (111)

This is not a new interpretation and the more recent commentaries address the issue. I think B/K have got this one right. This is one of those cases where a surface reading of the text can lead you one way but in fact the details, when properly understood, point in another direction. But the question becomes what difference does it really make? Isn't the point the same no matter what the original context--don't show favoritism!

In one sense this is true. It is possible to wrangle over details of interpretation and then miss the main point. On the other hand if our goal is to understand the Bible and to explain it accurately then we can't simply bypass these issues. And while in this case the application is not affected one way or the other, this may not be true in other passages. Competent application is always built on solid exegesis. Sometimes faulty applications are read back into passages and therefore skew the interpretation. I'll give one brief example. Often we see Gen 31:49 "May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other" as a divided pendant worn by two people as a sign of their love for each other and to trust God to care for them in their absence. The problem is the context of the passage is one of distrust! The next verse Laban says to Jacob, "If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me." (Note the NIV Study Bible text note says, "May . . . other. The so-called Mizpah benediction, which in context is in fact a denunciation or curse." (en loc)) But we are so used to seeing the verse applied in a loving context we assume that's how it was originally intended. With that said, I think it is worth understanding the original meaning of the text. That's why I read commentaries!

Back to ZECNT. In summary these "In Depth" sections, few as they are, are an added bonus in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite commentaries to recommend to pastors and small group leaders.

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