Antichrist: the words behind the name

Jesus and antichrist manuscript illustration

In certain circles, the nature and identity of the Antichrist exercises immense amount of interest, excitement, and speculation. I’m not writing here to talk about end times speculation around this enigmatic figure. Rather, I want to take a step back and consider the Greek word of relevance: ἀντίχριστος (antichristos). What does this word mean? More pointedly, I want to look at how our usage of “antichrist” in English obscures certain important facets of what this word means.

⚠️Reader beware: this post strays into what is called etymology—that is, how words are formed and why. Nothing too technical. You have been forewarned. ⚠️

On making up words

The word antichrist (Greek, ἀντίχριστος) is a Christian innovation. First John contains the earliest recorded use of the word and no one besides Christian authors bothers to use it after that. We can treat antichrist (ἀντίχριστος) as a brand-new word emerging in the particular social and religious context of early Jewish-Christian circles.

When John mentions antichrist in 1 Jn 2.18, he mentions a figure the readers are already familiar with. Both he and they already know what the word is intended to mean. This doesn’t help us that much in figuring out what John intends to communicate. In such a case, we can observe how the word is built (etymology) to help understand it.

There is a potential problem with this otherwise sensible procedure.

A problem in the prefix

The problem is straightforward: the prefix anti- in English is far more limited in meaning than the prefix αντι– is in Greek. Said a little differently: when we see an English word with anti- on the front, we have only one main meaning possibility; Greek words with anti- on the front had many more.

The venerable dictionary.com defines the English anti- this way:

a prefix meaning “against,” “opposite of,” “antiparticle of,” used in the formation of compound words (anticline); used freely in combination with elements of any origin (antibody; antifreeze; antiknock; antilepton).

The English anti- has one core sense: against. When we as English readers encounter the word “antichrist,” we only have one meaningful option for what we assume the word means: “against Christ.”

English borrowed anti- ultimately from Greek, but most directly through Old French and Latin. These borrowings only brought one nuance of the meaning of αντι- from Greek.

When we read “anti-” in “antichrist” we do so with blinders on because anti- only has one meaning. When we read ἀντίχριστος (antichrist) in Greek, the ἀντι- (anti) part has a variety of possible meanings.

Summary of the problem

When we read antichrist (ἀντίχριστος) in 1 John, we need to be aware of a couple things:

  1. it is a word made up for a purpose
  2. the parts of the word, while both meaningful in English, have a greater range of possible meanings in Greek than they do in English

In short, John’s reason for using the word antichrist may be lost in translation to us because the way our prefix anti- functions is much more limited than it was in Greek.

So, what does anti- mean, anyways?

As a Greek preposition, ἀντί does not really mean “against,” in the sense of “adversarial.” Here is a summation of its basic usages, from The Cambridge Greek Lexicon:

  1. referring to physical location: opposite (side of)
  2. referring to comparison or preference: equivalent to, in preference to
  3. referring to substitution: in place of, instead of
  4. referring to exchange of goods: in return, in exchange for

The Greek anti- relates two entities to each other in a variety of ways. At its deepest, most abstract meaning, it probably envisions two objects in space facing each other, say on opposite sides of a valley, wall, or tree. This basic idea extends through a variety of uses into meanings which are more specialized, but still involve relating two entities together in space, in valuation (more in a monetary sense), or in how they are esteemed.

👉As a preposition, anti- in Greek most basically refers to “against” in a spatial sense, not as an adversary.👈

There are Greek words where the sense of “against” as in “adversary” occur. The core idea of “against” each other in space naturally extends to a sense of adversary. Two armies who are opposite to one another in physical space are also in opposition to each other in metaphorical space as well. We see this meaning appear in words like (the hyphen makes clear the anti– part of the Greek word):

  • ἀντι-λέγω “I contradict, speak against
  • ἀντι-λογία “contradiction, dispute”

Summary: antichrist and the many meanings of anti-

In some Greek words, anti- means “against” as a hostile action, something like “in opposition to.” This is the portion of meaning that the English anti- comes from. However, this meaning is far from the only way that the Greek anti- worked in forming words. Consider this list of ways it is used to form words (taken from LSJ, a standard Greek reference dictionary). Anti- can mean:

  • over against, opposite (spatial)
  • against, in opposition to (adversarial)
  • one against another
  • in return
  • instead of
  • equal to, like
  • corresponding, counter

When John’s Greek-speaking audience ran across the word “Antichrist,” had a variety of possible options of meaning for what that word might mean. We only have one.

‘Antichrist’ as ‘substitute-Christ’

I want to suggest a broader nuance of meaning for the word “antichrist.” It does not only mean “against Christ.” It would be better to think of Antichrist as meaning something like “substitute-Christ, a counter-Christ.” The idea from 1 John and the other relevant NT passages (the man of lawlessness from 2 Thess. and the beast passages of Rev. being the most notable) is that antichrist is not just a person fighting against Christ; antichrist is a rival. Antichrist is like the leader of an opposite army and like a rival presidential campaign. Antichrist is not just fighting against Jesus, but is striving to achieve the same position as Jesus. Antichrist aims to be a substitute-Christ.

Being on the watch for antichrist is more than looking for pentagrams, Satan-worshippers, schock-rockers with bizarre costumes and make-up, or other things like that. “Substitute-Christs” come in all shapes and sizes. And a lot of those shapes and sizes look attractive within the church. Remember, in 1 and 2 John where the word “antichrist” occurs in the NT, the main concern is people within the church. The antichrists are those who deny Jesus as the Christ, which implicitly means setting up someone or something else in his place.

Enemies on the Journey Towards Joy

man boxing against his much larger shadow

There are enemies on the road. If 1 John is a journey towards Joy, one of the things which will come up again and again is that there are enemies on the journey towards joy. Not all goes easy. Not every step is uncontested. In more conservative and evangelical branches of the church, we tend to have a heightened sense of the enemies on the journey. The enemy is the culture. “Those people out there” are enemies hindering our journey. Those policies, the loss of moral values, “people don’t go to church anymore,” the slide (or head-first, breakneck run) down into all sorts of depravity—those are the enemies on the way. And while that is true, an obsession with “those enemies” can blind us to what is probably the greater enemy: the person in the mirror.

A biblical scholar put it well when he said:

“Both the Old and the New Testaments make it painfully clear that God’s people are often their own worst enemies, worse by far than the “world” outside the church, when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.”

Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 3rd ed

The last part of the quote is key: “when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.” When it comes to living comfortable lives, then a changing culture is definitely a major enemy on the journey. To the degree we associate joy with what our culture calls “the good life,” to that degree changes in the culture hinder our joy. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, there are increasingly many ways that it is getting hard to be both a follower of Jesus and pursue the “good life” of the American Dream.

But…

Gospel Appropriation

Appropriating the gospel is a different concern. There are plenty of cultural hardships—and more appear to be coming—but these are not the only thing which keeps us from joy. The joy which is of highest concern in the Bible is a joy that can be experienced in want and in plenty, in persecution and in power. It is a joy that challenges many of our assumptions about how the world ought to work and many of the assumptions of what “the good life” is.

It is undeniable that there are many external enemies towards our joy.

But ask yourself this question: “What is hindering you from having the vibrant relationship with God that you desire?” While there are many factors hindering us, it is hard to conclude that outside influences have the ultimate say. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that my own lack of desire and engagement is the biggest hindrance in having a vibrant relationship with God.

Targeting the right enemies

We can address wrong beliefs. Those are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

We can address wrong actions. Those also are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to make advances when our attempts to address these issues aim mainly outward. The self rages against obedience to the gospel. The self hamstrings our own efforts on the journey towards joy by constantly directing our efforts in the wrong direction.

As we consider enemies on the journey towards joy, don’t forget that in many realms of life, you are your own worst enemy.


Do What You Wish

a medallion of two snakes eating each other leaning on the book the neverending story

“Do What You Wish” (or, the original German, Tu Was Du Willst), is the message found inscribed upon the mystical medallion called AURYN in Michael Ende’s fabulous fantasy novel The Neverending Story (German, Die unendliche Geschichte). This mystical medallion plays a central role in the unfolding of the story as Bastian Balthazar Bux, the main character (more or less), enters the world of Fantasica and receives AURYN and its powers. For those interested in these types of stories, read this book. Sparing the details of how the story works, the phrase on the back of the medallion is intriguing: “Do What You Wish.” As the book unfolds, Bastian finds out that this seemingly obvious message is more complicated than it first appears. What you wish, it turns out, is not so easy to understand.

Check out Searching for Something for some more thoughts on the search for something everyone is on.

The meaning of “Do What You Wish”

In short, The Neverending Story plays on two related but distinct meanings of the phrase “Do What You Wish”: (1) do whatever you want or (2) do what you truly want. Bastian, on first reading the message, assumes it means (1) do whatever you want. He travels throughout Fantastica following his creative whims, making the world his own story however he pleases.

Each act of “doing whatever he wants,” though, steals a small part of Bastian away. He is rescued in the end when he finally learns that “Do What You Wish” means “you must find what you truly want and do that.” Finding what he really wants leads him back to the normal world, peace with himself, and a restored relationship with his father.

The Neverending Story is a clever fantasy retelling of the perennial story that finding what we actually want is counterintuitively more complex than merely following what we want.

What do you want?

What you wish for is not simple. In line with the recent sermon series The Word Still Speaks, I have been thinking about how God’s word relates to “what we want.” To put it into a question: do we engage with God’s word because that is what we want, or do we engage in God’s word as part of the process of finding what we most deeply want?

Neither of these is wrong but engaging with Scripture merely based on our whims is not a sufficient approach. In Scripture, God asks us to surrender in the most profound way: to surrender our (sense of) control over our own lives and instead move into the world that truly is, where God reigns and all things happen in line with his intentions. Even for those who have made the initial step in following God, this sort of surrender is often not enjoyable, not what we want in sense (1) from above.

When we think about engaging the Word of God—and all of life, really—we must be careful about how we look for “what we wish.” The easy and intuitive answer of “what I wish” to do right now may be, and often is, completely at odds with what you really wish in life.

At any given moment in life, most people would be able to answer the question “what do you want to be doing right now?” without a moment’s thought. As I am writing this, I would like to be sitting out in the beautiful sunny day. That is what I want right now, in the sense of (1). But going from one thing we want to the next in this way would resemble a cat chasing a laser dot in a hall of mirrors: something always looks worthy of chasing, but there is little hope of ever getting anywhere. Part of the journey into adulthood is learning the fact that we often must do something other than what we wish at any given instant.

But growing up in this sense doesn’t mean we ever learn to question why we wish what we wish.

Finding “what you wish”

The Scriptures work more on the sense (2) from above. It speaks to the “you must find what you truly want and do that” part of life. A key reality of God’s word is that it serves to guide our hearts to understand what is truly desirable. The more we surrender to God in his word, the more our heart opens up to realize what it truly wants but hasn’t been able to put into form.

Back in terms of The Neverending Story, each of us has a similar fate to Bastian. We embark on life, receive AURYN and its “Do What You Wish” message and have to figure life out. Finding that can be hard. Getting lost and distracted along the way is easy. It is easy to get so lost in “doing whatever I want” that we miss out learning what it is that our hearts really want.

One of the many ways God gives us to learn what it is that we truly wish is the Scriptures. The Bible intends to be the norming story of our lives. It lays down the guidelines and guardrails to lead us along. But rather than thinking of it as a book of rules for life (and it certainly has its share of rules), we can think of the Bible as a guide. Words whispered—sometimes shouted—from the heart of God to draw us back to him. Because only in finding our way to God can we learn to “Do What You Wish.”

Some Bible Reading Plans

There are many plans designed to help guide reading through the Bible. Anyone with a little time on their hands could come up with their own variants. Different plans have different advantages, so I will point three main categories to think about.

Check out this collection of reading plans. Not all the links on the page are current, but this gives you lots of good options and some ideas on what else to search for if you want something different.

Read the Whole Bible

The classic (for good reasons) approach to Bible reading is to move in a structured way through the entire Bible. Whether starting at the beginning and reading through to the end, reading in multiple locations each day, or any variation therein, these plans aim to engage the entirety of Scripture.

Common variations will involve reading through the NT at a faster rate than the OT, say 2x per year as opposed to 1x per year, or reading Psalms and Proverbs more often. Of course, you don’t need to follow a year schedule. But having a checklist to mark boxes off is really helpful.

The major drawback of such plans is that, for many people, the idea of reading the entire Bible through is quite daunting. It is a large book. If you don’t feel up to this yet, consider a couple other approaches.

Read Key Stories

Various plans focus on hitting the high points of Scripture. These plans take you more quickly through the main stories and events which help give the big picture into which everything else fits. A trip through a reading plan hitting the highlights of the Bible pays great dividends in coming to understand what is going on in this world and what is going on in God’s plan.

These sorts of plans are especially helpful for getting a big picture and, since they are selective rather than comprehensive, they are a less daunting way to get into the habit of regular Bible engagement.

Read Key Themes

Another way to engage with Scripture is through thematic readings. Many Bible studies and reading plans take a thematic approach. Want to know more about the Holy Spirit? What the Bible has to say about race? How to respond in times of personal crises? People have complied important passages into plans dealing with these and scads more topics.

Reading plans organized around themes can be found online, in tandem with a book study, or as part of a Bible Reading app.

On Bible Apps

There are lots of Bible reading apps. Far more than I have ever bothered to use, let alone look at. So I will just tell you here that the one I have on my phone is YouVersion. It is a good app with lots of different versions, a variety of built in reading plans and, one of my favorite features, many of the Bible versions even come with streaming audio! Want to read another language, or know someone who needs a Bible in a different language? YouVersion has thousands of language version available. And everything on it is freely available.

Personally, I still prefer to read my Bible as an actual book. The appeal of a codex has not worn off on me. But, reading (or being read to) on an app is a great way to help engage with Scripture.

Just Read Something

As a final plea, whether shooting for reading the entire Bible in a year, the NT in a year, or hitting the major stories of the Bible, just make sure you are shooting for something. Whether reading or listening, make sure you are engaging in God’s word.

Is New Testament Greek Precise?

Although I am a New Testament scholar of sorts, I keep in the background most of what I do with Greek. But, I want to share this recent article of mine for Bible Study Magazine, “Is New Testament Greek the Most Precise Language Known to Mankind?” It is a non-technical article about an issue which floats around in a variety of pulpits and Bible studies: the idea that Greek is super-precise in how it communicates.

I’m excited about it seeing the light of day. Check it out if it sounds interesting.

Meditating on Scripture

contemplating a flower

There are many reasons to talk about Scripture. Personally, I need regular reminders of the importance and benefit of engaging with Scripture. Like most healthy things in life, inertia kicks in over time and my practice starts to wear out. There is so much to do, things to read, good things to listen to and watch, and the primary easily becomes the secondary. This current sermon series, “The Word Still Speaks,” is in part a personal reminder to make the main things the main things. If Psalm 1 were to say that the blessed one meditates on Christian literature, or the most recent binge-watchable TV series phenomenon, then we would have more reason to get out there and engage with those things. But the path of blessedness is not in those things. So, here again is a short plan and plea to join in meditating on the Scriptures and to excel still more.

Meditating on Scripture 101: four steps

Here is a four step approach to Scripture meditation. These steps are easy and this is an easy place to start with meditating on Scripture. Although easy, the practice is deep and will grow with you and be able to sustain you into maturity. When Jesus compares the word of God to bread (quoting from Deut. 8.3), he gives an important image. Just as you never grow up to a point in life where eating becomes irrelevant, so too you never reach a point where chewing on the Scriptures is irrelevant. This practice of meditation, simple as it may seem, can (and should) become as central to your daily life and health as eating. While meditation is not a race, this practice can be done in 5 minutes.

What I am laying out here is my own version of what I was taught in seminary by Dr. Donald Whitney. He discusses meditating on Scripture, and many other valuable practices for spiritual health, in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I recommend it.

Step 1: Read

Start with reading something in Scripture. We all probably should read more of God’s word than we currently do. That is a truism. But start somewhere. If a chapter a day seems too daunting, then start with a paragraph a day. If that is still too daunting, then start with 1 verse a day. You will not grow very strong on a diet of one verse a day, but the choice for one a day will be at least 365 days of spending time steeping in God’s word in the next year, which I wager is more than many of us have done this past year.

Start with something you can do rather than something grandiose. You will almost assuredly fail at a  grandiose goal and then the sense of failure will hamstring your efforts and you will stop doing anything at all. So, start reading a manageable chunk of Scripture. Surely you can find space—make space—in the day to read one paragraph from the Scriptures. If that is more than you have been doing, then start there.

Step 2: Choose

Second, as you read through—whether it be one verse, one paragraph, or several chapters—pay attention to what strikes you. Now, I’m not suggesting that whatever sticks out to you in one reading of a passage is going to be the key to some profound and subtle understanding of a given passage of Scripture. That is not the point of starting out meditating on Scripture. We are working on chewing on the Scriptures as daily bread. Learning to engage with a 7-course meal is a different thing.

As you read, there is bound to be something in the passage that strikes you. Something in the text which presents a startling or comforting or challenging thought. Of course, you could use more elaborate methods of choosing a passage to focus on, and there is merit in that once established in meditation. But start where you are.

Step 3: Steep

Third, mull on the passage which stuck to you. The goal here is to go back to it and spend some time letting it steep in your mind and heart. What should you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • reread it several times (try putting emphasis on different parts of the verse)
  • ask questions of the verse (you don’t need to answer them; the goal here is to spend time with the passage, not figure everything out)
  • consider how it could impact your life today

Step 4: Pray

Lastly, spend a moment in prayer shaped by the truths you just focused on. Meditation should open up a conversation with God. After all, since the words come from God it only makes sense to speak with God about them

“Meditation must always involve two people—the Christian and the Holy Spirit. Praying over a text is the invitation for the Holy Spirit to hold His divine light over the words of Scripture to show you what you cannot see without Him.”

Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 55.

Step 5 of 4

The fifth step: repeat tomorrow.

Final encouragements

While meditation on Scripture is simple, it is not always easy. That’s ok. Keep at it.

Meditation is not a race! It is a time to find spiritual food for the day.


Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

Revisiting the threshing floor: how an odd passage in Ruth speaks today, part 2

ruth and boaz at threshing floor

In Part 1, I discussed the overarching perspective on the threshing floor scene I am arguing: that it is actually a redemptive scene. On the threshing floor, Boaz and Ruth model a path of behavior which eschews using sexual manipulation to get what they want. At the same time, the scene does not deny the reality that humans are sexual beings. In the last post, we looked at Naomi’s plan. She sends Ruth to the threshing floor with the apparent intention that Ruth use her sexuality to secure a better future for herself—to whatever extent that be necessary. We also examined the odd part about the feet in the whole plan. In this post, it remains to look at what Ruth and Boaz did. After examining the text and the canonical background, we will move to some application of this narrative. What stands to the fore here, I believe, is that sexual manipulation is not the only way.

Ruth and Boaz: getting things done at the threshing floor

Ruth goes down to the threshing floor and follows Naomi’s instructions to the “t.” As we read through the narrative, it is not immediately clear what she did when she “uncovered his feet and lay down” (3.7). That requires some close attention to what the text says.

Where Ruth lays

Verse 8 is important here. Boaz wakes up and rolls over, and only then is he aware that there is another person there—which he recognizes is a woman.

Note that it is not until Boaz moves that he is aware of Ruth’s presence, suggesting that Ruth is not touching him (at the least, Ruth is not actively attempting to seduce him). This shows that Ruth interprets “(place of the) feet” as laying on the ground somewhere other than on Boaz with the point of having sex. We can assume that she resumes this same position again after they talk, and that that is what Boaz means for her to do (3.13).

What Ruth does there

Beyond merely not trying to seduce Boaz before he wakes up, Ruth continues along this same course of action. Rather than trying to engage in sex, she talks to Boaz. Namely, she identifies herself and proposes marriage. Intriguingly, we are never told anything about what Ruth looks like. Other women in the OT are described by appearance—such as Rachel (Gen 29.17)—so there may be significance in this omission.

Ruth is known only through what she does; she is not reducible to a body. Her moment to shine is when she claims the identity of Ruth, your servant, but your servant who wishes to become your wife.

For readers with a strong sense of the Bible, Ruth’s actions are exactly opposite of what happened when Ruth’s great-foremother, Lot’s daughter, seduced her father in the cave (Gen 19.30-38). Ruth has the opportunity to get what she wants and needs by seducing Boaz, but instead she talks with him.

What Boaz does

Pulling on the hints in the text and the canonical background shows that Ruth performs marvelously. But what about Boaz? Here we see more of the same.

Boaz notices that a woman is lying there. His response is one of surprise. The real key, though, is what Boaz says. He asks, “Who are you?” When faced with an unknown woman in the dark, rather than assuming she is a prostitute rendering her services, he asks the all-important question. This question allows the two of them to figure out the right way to treat each other.

Again, for readers sensitive to the bigger story of the Bible, compare this to the way Boaz’s ancestor, Judah, acts in Gen 38. There, on seeing his daughter-in-law Tamar dressed as a prostitute at the side of the road, the first thing he says is, “Come, let me come in to you” (Gen 38.16), which is a euphemism for having sex. This sets up a discussion about the price for the tryst. By contrast, Boaz’s question indicates he does not presume to have a right to sexual access to the woman laying at his feet. Rather, he seeks to find out who she is so he knows the right way to treat her. How differently the life of Judah and Tamar would have gone if Judah had asked that same question in Genesis 38!

The “heated” discussion

Finally, the sexual tension largely fades away as Ruth and Boaz move into a discussion about the technicalities of marriage law. The depth of Boaz’s honesty in this passage is significant. He does not hide from Ruth—who apparently doesn’t know—that according to their laws there is another relative who has the first opportunity to marry her.

If it were Boaz’s main intention to have sex with Ruth on the threshing floor, this seems like an odd piece of information to share. In effect, Boaz both acknowledges Ruth’s proposal for marriage and at the same time distances himself from the ability to carry out the marriage at this instance. In terms of the “rights of sexual access,” Boaz is not the first one in line.

In making this point, Boaz effectively guards himself against any intentions Ruth may have had to try to have sex with him that night (whether she did or not is a moot point). Boaz tells her, “I will marry you, provided the other relative does not do so first.” This puts a tryst off the table for the evening.

Technical aside 

While it may sound odd to our ears, scholars of the Bible—and other cultures with similar practices—often talk about who has “sexual access” to a woman within the legal system of the culture. The default view of modern Western culture is that a woman can have sex with whoever she wants—though it is generally looked down upon for someone in an active relationship to have sex with someone other than their partner without consent. The default view of many non-Western cultures today (and of Western culture throughout most of its history), by contrast, is that there are clear limits on who a woman’s prospective sexual partners could be. Boaz alludes in this passage to the system called Levirate marriage (or to something like that system). The main point of relevance here is that, once a woman married into a particular family, the potential pool of future mates, in the event her husband died, was limited to specified kinsman of her husband. Who has “sexual access” to a woman is spelled out in the laws and customs of the culture. 

This whole way of thinking is rather foreign to us, but it is important in this text. By pointing to the other kinsman, Boaz is effectively saying that regardless of his or Ruth’s intentions, he does not have the right to sexual access at this point. For that to happen, he must first develop the clever legal scheme at the gate in chapter 4.

Summary

While the text itself does not come out and answer the question whether Ruth and Boaz “did” anything at the threshing floor, the hints in the text point to them sharing a chaste night. Both are cast as responding differently from their ancestors in Genesis. Rather than turning to sexual manipulation to get what they desire, they turn to talking, sharing dignity, and concern for what is proper under the law. In other words, both Ruth and Boaz reject sexual manipulation as the path to follow and engage in redemption. They redeem humanity one little bit from the well-trodden path of sexual trickery.

Against this backdrop, we can make some sense of why Boaz tells Ruth to lay back down rather than go home for the night. Now that they have worked out an appropriate way to relate to each other, the threat of something going wrong is much reduced. However, if Ruth is seen or caught making the journey back home in the dark, there could be major problems. At least if she is traveling home in the morning with grain, she can plausibly pass herself off as an industrious worker out and about early.

The threshing floor and today

Following this line of thinking, we are in position to let this text speak an appropriate word of judgment into our current life. Sexual manipulation and trickery are rampant today.

One thinks immediately of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has brought to public light how pervasive sexual abuse. In answering the question, “who has sexual access to a woman,” many people answer “anyone with the power to take it.” The prevailing message in porn says the same thing: sex is about men taking what they want from women. By contrast, Boaz stands up in this story with a word of rebuke to our culture. Boaz’s question “who is it?” proves the noble and necessary response to the world of #MeToo and rampant pornography. This question, set within the bigger story of Scripture, shows awareness that the power and ability to take sexual access is different from the right to do so.

Ruth’s approach to the situation is admirable as well. The image of a woman using her sexuality to get what she wants is deeply engrained in Western popular culture: movies, TV, music, etc. Sexuality is considered a form of power to use in securing a desired end. Whether that end is the personal attention which the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” philosophy of life seeks, or other goals, it makes no matter. Rather than try to manipulate Boaz with her sexuality, Ruth is open about her identity and her aims, trusting Boaz to act.

In the historical particulars, it would be foolish to try to reenact a Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor kind of evening. However, read within the bigger story of Scripture, it sounds a welcome message for us today: sexual manipulation need not be the way to get what we want. The virtuous and upright choices of Ruth and Boaz lead to blessings and provision from God. By contrast, the stories of sexual manipulation—both in the Bible and again and again ever sense—are shot through and through with destruction and heart ache. There is a better way to walk. Ruth and Boaz model it.

Revisiting the threshing floor: how an odd passage in Ruth speaks today, part 1

ruth and boaz at threshing floor

The threshing floor passage in Ruth 3 is one of the oddest parts of the book.

For sermons on it, see here and here.

It is a story foreign to us and it seems like it is modeling all the wrong things. In this and the next post, I will make the case that the threshing floor scene is actually relevant to us today because it models a way of living together as men and women that is sexual but not sexually manipulative. In our cultural context where focus on human sexuality is a premium, this is a good message to hear. Revisiting the threshing floor allows us to consider how humanity as sexual beings can relate to one another in redemptive rather than selfish and destructive ways.

To see this, we will walk through a few points:

  1. Naomi’s intentions
  2. Ruth’s actions and Boaz’s actions
  3. The biblical background which the scene plays out against

Let’s begin with the Naomi, the architect of this questionable plan.

Naomi’s intention for the threshing floor

I assume that Naomi’s plan involves a sort of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, ya’ know what I mean, ya’ know what I mean” element. Said differently, Naomi tells Ruth to “take care of business” without spelling it out in so many words. There is wiggle room in her plan, depending on how Ruth interprets it and how Boaz responds. But the general suggestiveness implies Naomi sees the solution to their problems in a seductive evening. Of course, this is a long and storied solution to all sorts of problems in the Bible—and a solution which brings more problems than solution in its wake. Sexual trickery and manipulation are woven throughout the story of humanity. It would be nothing exceptional if Ruth were to join the club.

As we read Ruth, we should also be attentive to the way that it interacts with the backdrop of the rest of the OT before it. According to the accounts in Scripture, sexual trickery is nothing new. In many ways, Ruth mirrors the patriarchal narratives from Genesis where we see sexual manipulation on display in the life of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (that is all the main characters of Genesis). Sexual manipulation appears again and again as a normal strategy for how men and women relate to each other to get what they want.

That’s the background against which to read what is happening. Naomi is saying, without clearly saying, that Ruth should go and use her sexuality to take care of business.

And one more point. Naomi’s instructions that Ruth “take a bath and get dressed and put on perfume” (3.3) probably means that she should prepare herself like a bride.[1] Assuming this is correct—and it makes reasonable sense—Naomi aims to present Ruth as a bride to Boaz and “force” a marriage (without forcing a marriage, because she doesn’t have the power to do that). Does Naomi intend for Ruth to treat this night at the threshing floor as the wedding night and act accordingly, or merely just propose marriage?

The meaning of “feet” here

A brief side note is in order on the meaning of “feet” in the passage. The whole “uncover his feet” is odd, but there is more to it that requires some thought. “Feet” occurs in 3.4, 7, and 14.

The word here in the Hebrew, מַרְגְּלֹת margelot, is not the usual Hebrew word for feet. That would be רַגְלַיִם raglayim. Margelot is used only 5 times in the OT. Four of those are here in Ruth: 3.4, 3.7, and 3.14. The other one is in Daniel: Dan 10.6. The way this rare word is formed suggests that it means “(place of the) feet.” Which is the definition given in various scholarly Hebrew dictionaries.[2]

The Septuagint gives some insight into the word. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT from before the time of the NT. In each occurrence in Ruth, the Septuagint translates margelot as “the things before his feet” τὰ πρὸς ποδῶν αὐτοῦ (3.4, 7) and “before his feet” πρὸς ποδῶν αὐτοῦ (3.14). In the occurrence in Daniel, the Septuagint translates margelot simply as “the feet” οἱ πόδες. The Greek word used in all these translations most basically means foot, but can also refer to the leg + foot, which may be more the point in the passage in Daniel.

Some scholars argue based on this Daniel passage that margelot should be understood as “leg” rather than “(place of the) feet” in Ruth.

So how does talk of “feet” fit here? As one commentator succinctly puts it:

As is well known, the term “feet” could be used as a euphemism for sexual organs (male: Exod. 4:25; Judg. 3:24; 1 Sam. 24:4 [Eng. 3]; female: Deut. 28:57; Ezek. 16:25; etc.) though not demonstrable as a euphemism here, it may have been chosen to add to the scene’s sexual overtones.

Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 202.

Hebrew uses lots of colorful idioms, and one is that “feet” can refer to genitals. While the word “feet” here most likely means “place of the feet” as opposed to “feet/leg,” the context of Ruth 3 is charged with sexual overtones: the threshing floor is associated with activities of prostitutes elsewhere in the OT and several of the words in close context here—uncover, lay down—can mean having sex.

The picture which emerges is that Naomi encourages Ruth to use her sexuality to get things done. What exactly Ruth would do is dependent on Boaz’s response, but the logical implications of what could happen are clear.

Summary and next steps: what will happen at the threshing floor?

Summarizing up to this point.

  1. Naomi intends to propose Ruth in marriage to Boaz in an intimate setting.
  2. The wording and action throughout this passage is rife with sexual ambiguity. It is unclear what Naomi intends and what Ruth will do.
  3. In Hebrew idiom “feet” can refer to “genitals.” Within the context of heightened sexual ambiguity, it is possible to understand Naomi intending the meaning of genitals. At the least, this contributes to the sexual tension of the scene.

This is the backdrop for what happens at the threshing floor. In the next post, I will argue that Ruth and Boaz’s actions in this situation should be seen as redemptive. They act nobly in the sexually charged atmosphere, opening up the possibility of men and women relating to each other as sexual beings but not through means of sexual trickery to get what they want and need. This message is one that is sorely needed today, and worthwhile to take the time to think through in the text here.

That is the argument to be made in the next post.


[1] So Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 202.

[2] For example, David Clines The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, volume 5, Hollady’s A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. These are three standard reference works, with Clines’ being one of the best Hebrew lexicons in existence.

A few thoughts on Roe v. Wade and Dobbs v. Jackson

On June 24, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court ruling in Thomas Dobbs et al. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (which was infamously leaked), written by justice Samuel Alito, came out that:

“We hold that Roe and [Planned Parenthood v. Casey] must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision”

Roe v. Wade (1973) was, of course, one of the most polarizing Supreme Court cases in US history. Given the embattled nature of Roe v. Wade, it is sensible to expect that Dobbs v. Jackson will raise further bitterness. There will be no shortage of outrage, protest, and legislative activity. There are bound to be more Federal (and probably Supreme) Court cases on issues of abortion as a patchwork of laws across the nation come into play. In the meantime, how do we as Christians think about and talk about such a polarizing issue in our daily lives? Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind so that we are ready to think with charity, compassion, and hopefully some biblical framework on the issue of abortion.

As Christians we should…

Be realistic

First, all sides should stop and catch their breath for a minute. Dobbs v. Jackson is not that sweeping of a ruling. Neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice movement finds much substantive victory or defeat here. Dobbs v. Jackson is a ruling on a legal technicality: the constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion and the legal reasoning used in the Roe and Casey cases was underwhelming.

Consider what that ruling actually means. The constitution does not guarantee the right to tax-advantaged retirement plans. But we have them. Why? Because we have tons of state and federal laws describing how they work and making them legal. All that Dobbs v. Jackson does is say that the current federal laws created in the Roe v. Wade ruling can’t stand by themselves.

Consider what this ruling does not do. It does not say anything about whether abortion is good, right, or moral. It does not say that abortion is illegal in the US. It does not even say that there can’t be federal laws guaranteeing abortion across the country. It simply says that the law which the Supreme Court de facto passed in its 1973 ruling is not valid.

While in some ways Dobbs v. Jackson is a major win for the pro-life movement, it really is a weak win at best. It is good practice—both generally and in this case—for we as Christians to be realistic in what we talk about.

Be compassionate

This ruling is disorienting to many people. Anyone born after 1973 has never lived in a US where abortion has not been enshrined in federal law…until now. That means that for over half of the US population, this is uncharted territory. Most of the people in the US have grown up with the assumption that—good or bad—abortion was part of US law. In a context where so much in society is shifting and debated, this ruling brings instability to yet another area of society where things seemed generally secure.

To put things into an idiom relatable around here, imagine the Supreme Court ruled tomorrow that the “right to bear arms” in the 2nd Amendment only allows ownership of guns of comparable type to those the Founders knew in the late 1700s. That would rock a lot of peoples’ worlds around here. That would lead to a lot of emotion, anger, frustration, and uncertainty.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade rocks a lot of peoples’ worlds. We should be prepared to be compassionate towards those whose worlds have been rocked. Gloating is not compassionate.

Be sensitive

While it is hard to get exact numbers, realize that approximately 1 of every 4 women of childbearing age in the US will have an abortion at some point in her life. In any gathering of more than 4 women, statistics tell us that one either has had or will have an abortion. While the rate of abortions is not spread equally across demographic groups, in all likelihood you know several women who have had abortions (or will before menopause).

When we think and talk about abortion, this should give us pause. Before waxing eloquent on the stupidity and moral degeneracy of women who get abortions, consider that you know some of them (even if you don’t know that you know them). Being sensitive does not mean not talking about abortion as a wrong, tragic, and ugly thing, but it should temper how we talk.

We can easily substitute a message of condemnation in place of the gospel of grace by the way that we talk to and about other people.

Be helpful

This is an opportunity like hasn’t existed since 1973 for those who speak loudly against abortion to act as loudly as they speak. The situation on the ground differs from place to place. In many states, nothing has changed since the ruling. In some states, abortion rights are set to be expanded. In some states, abortion has been (or will shortly be) banned. Especially in those states where abortion is now illegal, a great burden of responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who have argued and fought for the fall of abortion.

It is easy to yell loudly against something we don’t like; it is far harder to live for what is good and right. The ruling provides opportunity for those who have yelled loudest about the need to do away with abortion on demand to yell equally as loud with actions in helping deal with the repercussions of no more legal abortion in many states.

How can we deal with helping those in crisis? Abortion data tracks pretty strongly along socio-economic lines: the poorer the woman, the more likely an abortion. Obviously, there are other factors in play, but that is a strong correlation. Will pro-lifers turn out to be committed to dealing with the difficulties of life many women face that make abortion a sensible choice to them? Only time will tell that. But ending legal abortion will certainly not end abortion.

As Christians, this ruling invites many of us around the country to consider what sort of social causes are worthy of devoting time, energy, and money towards beyond just overthrowing abortion laws. The underlying logic of abortion grows from many strands of brokenness and sinfulness. Outlawing abortion by itself doesn’t deal with any of these root problems.

Keep striving to change the conversation

There is much more to say on this issue. Abortion is a complicated and tragic part of our culture. The Dobbs v. Jackson ruling does not end the complication and tragedy. If anything, it will probably inflame them further.

There will be lots of legal debates still to come. Elections and laws have consequences, and they will continue to have them going forward.

As we make our way in this post-Roe world, we still need to work to change the conversation regarding abortion. Few people actually like the idea of abortion. We disguise it under talk of choice and rights, but most people don’t like the idea of killing the baby/fetus. For women getting an abortion, it tends to be a cost-benefit analysis type decision. How do we change the conversation from talking about rights and laws to talking about the tragedy that is abortion?

Abortion is a tragedy. How can we work to minimize this tragedy in peoples’ lives?

That question throws us back on the need for the gospel, the need for loving people who are living broken lives, and all those other needs that Jesus presses so forcefully for us to recognize. After all, salvation does not come through passing laws. The wholeness for which all of us were made is not found in defeating abortion laws, but in union with Christ. I hope that many Christians who have fought—and continue to fight—for pro-life legislation will remember that.

A Strange Ride: LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Redemption

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) wrote a variety of poems and humorous fables. Here I share one with you, called “A Strange Ride.”[1]

A man was riding home on his donkey. He had his son run along beside. A traveler came by and said, “It is not right, sir, that you ride and have your son run. You are stronger than he is.” So, the father dismounted and let his son ride. Another traveler came and said, “Young fellow, it is not right that you ride and let your father go by foot. You have younger legs.” So, both mounted together and rode for a while. A third traveler came and said, “What sort of nonsense is this! Two blokes sitting on one weak animal? Someone oughta’ take a stick and chase the two of ya’ off the poor beast.” So, both climbed off the donkey and the three walked abreast along the road, with the donkey in the middle. A fourth traveler came and said, “You are three curious companions. Isn’t it sufficient for two to go on foot? Doesn’t the trip go easier when one of you rides?” So, the father tied the donkey’s front legs together and the son tied his back legs together. Then they ran a strong pole through and carried the donkey on their shoulders.

This is how far things can go if you try to please everybody.

Humorous, yes? And yet also touching a central nerve in life: you can’t please everybody. Trying to please everyone ends up doing ridiculous things that don’t necessarily help anyone involved. Or, read a little differently, the parable illustrates that not everyone can be right.

This message is especially relevant for our culture right now where we have decided that everyone gets to be right.

June is—if you’ve missed it—considered LGBTQ+ Pride month. As a culture, trying to follow everybody’s different demands leads to inconsistent nonsense winning the day. In the recent past we have seen the increasing complexity and oddity of living in a culture where sex and gender are viewed as endlessly plastic, subject only to the whims of the sovereign self.

Here are just two areas of tragic irony in the move to “carry the donkey” instead of ride it like usual.

When a man is a “woman” is a “something”

As usual in American culture, sports have led the way in grabbing headlines.

Recently, one headline brought to a head something which pundits have long been talking about. A former-male now transgendered swimmer—who had competed for 3 years in collegiate swimming as a male—started breaking women’s swimming records in collegiate swimming, even winning the 500-meter freestyle at nationals. Naturally, this athlete is competing against biological females

The athlete in question, Lia Thomas, has said this about their relationship to swimming:

“(Swimming) is a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve been a swimmer since I was 5 years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?

“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding.”

I have no doubt that personally wrestling with issues of uncertainty about sex/gender is immensely complicated. That being said, consider how Lia Thomas frames the issue as one of personal identity and personal reward: I am someone who likes to swim (competitively at college) and so I should be able to keep doing that because that is my identity; the rest of the world needs to make space for me to do this as trans, because that is my identity. While this is picking one line from one news article, it is telling that there is no wrestling with the question of whether this former man turned woman competing against women is a fair way to treat the biological women whose identity has also centered on competitive swimming, but who don’t have the advantages of having a biological male body.[2]

Women’s sports has turned out to be a galvanizing issue. Having biological males participating in women’s sports kind of goes against the point of women’s sports to begin with. International swimming has banned people like Lia Thomas from competing in international events. We’ll see how long that common-sense approach holds up.

The prominence of “pregnant people”

On a related front, if you listen to political debates and talking points, you may have caught something recently. National politicians have largely stopped talking about “pregnant women.” They talk about “pregnant people” instead. This goes hand in hand with the highly publicized confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson where she pleaded unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?” As has been pointed out, this inability to define “woman” has not stopped her from using the word in her legal rulings, leading one to wonder what exactly she is ruling about. And the necessity of ruling about cases of sexual discrimination raises problems with this lack of certainty of what exactly makes a woman a woman, but I digress.

Back to “pregnant people.” A simple biological fact is that only human females can become pregnant. Until scientists develop artificial wombs, this will continue to be true. That is a bridge we will probably have to cross at some point, but not yet. In the meantime, consider this statement from Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about why we should talk about “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”:

First of all, if we’re talking about “pregnant people,” that language says to people—to transgender men and to nonbinary people—“we see you.” It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination.

The question which emerges in my mind is this: why should we efface the identity of the vast majority of “pregnant people” (cough, cough, “pregnant women”) in an effort to assuage the difficult feelings of a minute minority of biological women who have decided—for whatever array of personal reasons—to live as a man yet keep their uterus and female hormones largely intact?

Again, I don’t in anyway want to minimize the personal difficulties of individuals who are struggling with their sex/gender identity. I want us to learn how to be compassionate in helping people as best as able. But I question the wisdom of trying to reshape the experience and labels—the identities, really—of the majority (the vast majority, at that) of people to help a few people whose experience is biologically aberrant. One wonders, why should we efface the identity of most women in order to give a few people a sense that their identity as a “pregnant-former-woman-now-living-as-a-man-but-not-really-because-men-can’t-get-pregnant” is right?

The category of redemption

These are just two of many points where the advancing LGBTQ+ agenda is creating a strange situation in our culture—the travelers are carrying the donkey, as it were. In insisting that each individual’s felt identity is sacrosanct (so long as that identity is LGBTQ+), we have created a situation where the majority must be effaced to protect the fragile feelings of the minority.

As Christians, we have something to offer to this strange situation. Namely, an important concept lacking in our culture’s vocabulary and view of self: redemption. Redemption insists two things at the same time: (1) each person is broken and (2) each person is redeemable. When the LGBTQ+ movement declares certain identities as inherently right, they have removed the need for redemption. In fact, they find the idea that LGBTQ+ people need redemption (like anybody else) as offensive.

But one of the beautiful advantages of redemption is it helps us hold together the ability to be loving to other people who are different from us (since we need redemption to) and to insist that not everything is right, good, and desirable. Rather than trying to please everyone and ending up in chaos, redemption insists that we all have aspects of our identities which need to be redeemed by God.

Insisting on LGBTQ+ identities as the standard for the good life leads a culture along the strange ride of the opening parable. Something wrong can be found with every version of the ride. Insisting on redemption as the baseline for human identity and society allows space for people to be different while always insisting that each one of our identities needs some amount of overhaul.

And God is able and willing to redeem any identity through Jesus.


[1] This is a mix between a personal translation of the original German and a bit of retelling on my part.

[2] And lest any consider this point sexist, I merely note that at every level of advanced sports with athletes of comparative skill and experience, the issues is with men going to compete in women’s sports, not vice-versa. There are very few sports where female athletes of comparable level can competitively participate against male athletes in a consistent manner.