My other little blog

I have another little blog that I imagine very few of you will like.

EPIOUSIOS - Bread for tomorrow?

I have heard several preachers (including a guy at the recent MTS Challenge conference) argue for a different the meaning of 'Give us each day our daily bread'. Often it is boldly claimed that the verse literally reads 'bread for tomorrow'. What do we think?

  1. Like a lot of claims made from the Greek text, it is a little inaccurate to claim 'oh it literally says this', because a literal word-for-word translation doesn't necessarily convey the phrase's intended meaning in social/literary context.
  2. How much more inaccurate is this claim when this particular word is so rare in ancient literature that Origen could suggest that Matthew and Luke (or Jesus?) coined the word.
  3. It is true that quite a few early commentators interpreted this request in an eschatological way - bread for tomorrow = spiritual bread = foretaste of heaven. But we must be careful with early church exegesis. Sometimes early church commentators can claim a spiritual/eschatological meaning of the text without necessarily denying its immediate literal meaning. See Paul's discussion of Oxen in 1Corinthians 9 as an example.
  4. The Lord's Prayer becomes a very limited prayer if 'daily bread' is interpreted spiritually. It becomes: "God be praised. God's kingdom come. God sustain us spiritually, restore us spiritually and protect us spiritually. Amen". It's possible, but it feels a little narrow.
  5. The prayer is otherwise quite prosaic. It is strange to find a slightly obtuse metaphor in the middle of it.
  6. Eschatological bread is not a really explicit and dominant theme in either Matthew or Luke.
  7. The spiritual importance of daily provisions as we serve God in this life is a dominant concern in Matthew and Luke.

It's hard to cope with God's relative silence on issues that we feel so strongly about: slavery, abuse of women, rape, torture, war, genocide. Richard Dawkins already struggles to believe in God already, it's even harder for him to accept that the Bible is his Word, when it remains silent, condones, or at least permits a stack of grisly things.

Four things have occurred to me since reading The God Delusion. I write them here, fearing, but also expecting to be confusing to my readers and misunderstood by my readers. Well, I'll do my best:

1. In his dealings with humanity, God chose to take to task the most important issues. These issues are the ones about which God is adamant in the OT: the worship of God alone, the honouring of human life, the importance of justice, and so forth. God comes to the human race in the midst of their sin, confusion and corruption. He doesn't build a perfect society through the Law. But he introduces good and right laws that rightly respond to the state of human and social sinfulness and corruption at that time.

This reminds us that although we feel strongly about certain issues (racism, slavery) that this doesn't make them the most important and fundamental issues. The most fundamental ethical issues remain the same.

2. It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied (Mk 10:5). This is a helpful principle for grasping the OT legislation, and God's interaction with humanity in history. God tolerated, permitted and restrained human evil. This does not mean God is supporting or condoning, much less commanding, these things.

3. In reading Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by C. Wright, I was reminded that OT ethics are not just culturally determined in their actual content (permitting slavery, warfare etc) but in their literature. And this is the challenge. Ancient people wrote about warfare, for example, with a triumphalism and extravagance that we find offputting. Ancient writing had different literary assumptions and styles.

4. On another level, our modern horror for things such as slavery, limited women's rights, warfare, the death penalty and so on has an in-built historical snobbery. This is explicit in Dawkin's book when he speaks about a moving (and progressive) zeiteist which develops human morality over time.

In doing so, our extreme reaction against even slavery or warfare or the death penalty relegates the vast majority of human history to immoral, unethical barbarism. A naturalistic evolutionary framework may sit comfortably with that. But is it really a good idea? Are we really going to say that modern women's rights or modern pacifism are so extremely morally important as to declare most human civilisations as barbaric?

On the other hand, the fundamentalist can tend to assume because God permitted it at one time in human history, therefore we must do preserve it in our age. God used monarchy then so we must, God used the death penalty then so we must, God's people spoke about warfare with bloodthirsty boldness therefore we must.

What middle ground might there be? Well, we must temper our modern over-reaction to OT legislation. We must be willing to bear the thought of slavery, or curtailed women's rights, or war, or the death penalty. We mustn't so oppose them in our day that our rhetoric takes over our emotions and our mind. And yet at the same time, we must be open to the fact that over time certain things have become clearer to us, or our context has enabled us to develop our morality in certain ways. Therefore what God permitted in the past need not be preserved in the present.