Critical Theology

“The path from illusion to its critical denunciation is the very core of philosophy” – Slavoy Zizek, Less than Nothing, p. 10.
I have found that some of the greatest contributors to modern theology are the most vehement enemies of faith and revelation. One of these of course is Zizek. He is an atheist communist post-modern philosopher in many ways – although his philosophy is hardly described adequately by these labels. Reading Zizek is like walking through the debris of a train wreck: one cannot even imagine what a perfect “whole” must look like. But what is left after the explosion that is a Zizek-text, can become a building block or a stumbling block in one’s own thought.
The quotation I started with is such a block. It reminded me of the famous saying by Rudolph Boehm, that philosophy is essentially a critique of culture and that the only ground of legitimacy for that endeavor resides in the fact, that the object elicits this critique itself. What is lacking, drives the attempt to show that it is lacking. Zizek says somewhat the same when he continues:
“…which means that succesful (“true”) philosophy is no longer defined by its truthful explanation of the totality of being, but by successfully accounting for the illusions, that is, by explaining not only why illusions are illusions, but also why they are structurally necessary, unavoidable, and not just accidents.” (Ibidem)
Can we apply this idea to theology, which was already defined by Hegel as a science of the Absolute, akin to the philosophy of the Absolute? Is theology a constructive approach to reality, a systematic design of truths, or is it perhaps a deconstructive exercise, dealing with the ‘necessary antinomies” and contradictions that all theology runs into?
At first glance I would propose three ways in which theology can realize its critical potential, and I take them as three stages that it must go through. The first of course is its Kantian stage: as a self-critique of theological reason. The second is its Hegelian stage: the systematic construction of a theology that deals with God, the world and man. The third should be its post-Hegelian stage, in which it finally reaches the ultimate form of a critical theology.

First stage: the critique of any theology that is not just theology, but a philosophy in disguise. Philosophy entered the tent of theology like Yael, and nailed biblical untruth through the head. Its disguise was warranted. She could never have approached Siserian theology (which I take to mean Constantinian theology, the basic form of a theology that allows itself to be defined by culture) without the disguise of a faithful servant, a bondwoman, a servant girl. Philosophy was for many centuries the ancilla theologiae, but it was more like Yael than like Martha. The split between philosophy and theology that was the result of her deathly stab – hammering a nail to his head while sleeping, so by stealth and not in an open confrontation – began already in the third century and became an open revolt only in the Enlightenment philosophy of Diderot and Voltaire and the like. It somehow also freed theology from the shackles of philosophy. The death of philosophical theology turned out to be a step in the right direction: now the idea of faith came into its own right – Schleiermachers proto-liberal theology profited deeply (and tragically) from this.
But at the same time the act of Yael was an act of liberation. During all of the ages in which theology developed as a pseudo-philosophical system, there was opposition and rejection by groups that found a way to harness the biblical potential to become a counter-cultural force. The Radical Reformation, despite its vagaries, was such an attempt, to a lesser degree the great reformers like Luther and Calvin, and Puritan theology afterwards. Biblical truth was in the hands of the judges in times when truth was simply what anyone thought to be right. (Isn’t the book of Judges really about post-modernism before modernity?)

Second stage: because theology was now relegated to the realm of personal belief, not in the least by Kants transposition of basic biblical beliefs into ethical principles, it could flourish again. Systematic theology or “dogmatics” became ultimately a function of the believing community, the Church. The emancipation of theology from its servitude to philosophy was the counterpart of the emancipation of philosophy as a mere servant of theology. Philosophy and theology now took up adjoining residences. Like Amalek and Israel they quarreled, yet it was clear who was who. But philosophy invaded constantly into theology’s domain and ultimately we got Jezebel and the introduction of Baäl service in Israël. Now the danger came from the inside. In order to be meaningful to an ever changing culture, theology had to become like that culture: fluid, changing, adaptive, rational. Theology in the 20th century was distinguished as phenomenological, existentialist, Marxist, neo-Marxist, post-modern. Because of that move toward reconciliation, another part of theology got separated from the motherland by adapting itself to the strictest demands of the modern humanities. Instead of the construction of a biblical theology we got the sciences of biblical literature, fragmented into document research, the study of biblical languages and literary forms, hermeneutical theory and the like. Faith became separate from its own history and traditions. Dogmatics became a historical science and biblical doctrines of Gods commandments turned into a separate section of theoretical ethics. The destruction of theology was now caused by the inner urge to be the rational counterpart of postmodern, inner and subjective faith.

Third stage. Is there a third stage? What keeps me amazed is the resilience of the Bible to its modern critique and its adaptation to modern culture, when read as it wants to be read, as Gods Word, as an “instruction from above”- Lévinas. We cannot deduce from it a nice theological system, that is ready to overthrow all other theologies because it is a full expression of truth. That was the first (Constantinian-Siserian) stage. We cannot reject philosophy on the one hand and let it re-enter through the backdoor, as the second stage did with Kant and Hegel. But we can and must move from the Bible as the textbook of dogmatics and ethics, to the Bible as the (divine, disturbing, accusatory) speech that determines the limit of all (human)speech; the Bible as the supreme teacher that corrects our thought and puts our culture – including our Church culture – under the gaze of the Absolute Other – to coin a Zizekian phrase. The idea that this Absolute Other does not exist, as Zizek says, is actually quite helpful. The Absolute Other is “other-than-being”, as Lévinas argued.)
Biblical theology is the application of biblical truth to the illusions of our faith and culture. It must explain how these illusions came to be, so it must develop an hamartiology, a doctrine of sin. It must also explain why in the history of theology so many antinomies were developed and why they are also illusory – like the opposition between justification by grace and sanctification; between election and conversion; between Gods infinite power and human finite freedom. It must develop the grammar of these illusions. In these considerations it is never about the construction of a whole system of theological metaphysics again. Never again! But it is about “unleashing Gods Word, one verse at a time”, it is about the exposition of Gods Word, that we finally allow to contradict us at the deepest level of our being.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.

January 12th – Healing Forgiveness – Matthew 9

It is Friday, January 12, 2018! According to our schedule, we should read Matthew 9:1-17, and Genesis 29, 30. I discovered the flaw in my project. I am able to read these chapters, but I am not able to comment on them each and every day. There is too much to be said and too little time and space to say it. So I have to skip a lot of passages and I am not going to catch up.

That is why today I only want to make a few comments on the passage in Matthew.
Obviously, the first seven verses remind us of the healing of the paralytic in the gospel of Mark. If that is the case, that this paralytic is the same as the one in Mark, it is interesting to note that Matthew does not pay any attention to the crowded house and the hole in the roof. He seems to be more interested in the dialogue that takes place.
As elsewhere, I believe that the power of physical healing that Jesus displays here is meant to give evidence of Jesus’s authority for redemption. Notice that the people who bring the paralytic to him, merely expect a miraculous healing. When Jesus sees the extent of their faith, I think he realizes that they misunderstand the real problem the paralytic is facing. It is one thing to be cut off from ordinary life as a paralytic would be. But it is another thing to be cut off from God as well.
In his social environment, there will be many people who would blame him for his paralysis, reasoning that he must have done a particular sin to earn a divine judgment in the form of his almost complete paralysis. But even though there is not a hint of Jesus affirming that you, the healing that he provides does address the problem of sin and not just his medical condition. Against those who would argue that the paralysis is caused by his sin, as well as to show that the problem is not our physical suffering but our estrangement from God, Jesus proceeds to pronounce forgiveness.
Now notice, that she does not pray for the man to be forgiven, but actually proclaims forgiveness as one who is its source. It is a declaration by which a new condition is achieved. “Your sins are forgiven” is the act of forgiveness itself.
Therefore it is understandable, that the “experts in the law” say to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming. Unless Jesus is God, they are quite right. How could Jesus know, however, that they were saying that to themselves? It is suggested in the third verse, that Jesus supernaturally hears their mumbling to themselves. The fact that he can hear that, refutes their charge against him.
Jesus certainly has the authority to forgive sins. He does not connect that authority to his divine status however in Matthew. The sixth verse shows in referring to himself as “the Son of Man”. As in Daniel 7:13-14 this Son of Man actually received divine authority. The image of the Son of Man in Daniel mixes human and divine imagery – he rides a cloud which only God can do. That is the basis of his authority. I doubt very much that we find here an Aramaic “bar enash” which simply would be the equivalent of a first-person reference to himself, just “I”.
Jesus now interrogates the experts in the law. His first question is piercing: “why do you respond with evil in your hearts?” Why weren’t they just happy with this pronouncement? Maybe first of all, because this decree of forgiveness could only be given by God, through the ritual in the Temple maybe. And the evidence for God’s forgiveness would be the miraculous healing, that is, God taking away the punishment for this sin. How could it be possible that Jesus forgives, outside of Temple ritual, usurping divine authority, and without showing that by removing the punishment? All of which leads to the conclusion that Jesus is indeed blaspheming and speaking words without any force. In a sense they are saying, that a mere statements by a human being that sins are forgiven is indeed easy. No one can tell whether or not that statement has any foundation in reality. In that sense it is easier. If however only God can forgive sins, that statement must be the more difficult. Only someone with special divine authority would be able to say it without blaspheming. To say “stand up and walk” is more difficult because it requires visible evidence. In another sense however it is easier, because it merely addresses a bodily problem.
The demonstration of the authority of Jesus now comes with an accommodation to the expectations of his audience. In itself there is no need to heal the paralytic. That seems to be presupposed here. The only motivation for his healing, is the necessity to demonstrate Jesus’s authority in the proclamation of forgiveness.
Again we find a demonstration of the divine power and authority of Jesus, now in the method of healing. Jesus commands – “stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” The healing is instantaneous – “he stood up.” The response is complete obedience – “[he] went home.”
In contrast to the experts in the law, the crowd seems to understand, at least to some degree, what has happened. “They were afraid and honored God who had given such authority to men.” It may be that this reflects the fact that the crowd took the meaning of “Son of Man” as the Aramaic term for me, person. Where Jesus refers to his exceptional authority, the crowd merely looks upon him as an example of something generic.
This must give us pause. It may be better to be an expert in the law, zealous for the honor of God than to be ignorant and merely impressed by a spectacular miracle. Even though the experts in the law contradict Jesus, and deny his status, they do understand the implications of these words and actions. That may lead them to conversion. The relative indifference and ignorance of the crowd, however, remains focused on the incident itself, without being led to an encounter with the divine person performing the miracle.

January 9th – The Confusion of Languages – Genesis 11

Reading for January 9th (MacArthur Study Bible):  Matthew 7; Genesis 10-14

Now I am a bit in trouble. I spent so much time commenting on the first chapters of Genesis – hardly scratching the surface – that I’m way behind in my reading. So for the next few weeks, I need to read more of Genesis to catch up. And I have skipped the rest of the Flood narrative. Hope this will still work.

The Narrative of Babel

What a great story! It is as deep a philosophy about language as you can desire, and yet it has such vivid images that it reads like a film script. It has, despite its brevity, a highly complex structure as shown in the figure below. Besides that, it is wonderfully chosen as the interlude between the genealogies of Eber-Joktan and Eber-Peleg.

a. The Genealogical Context

Let’s start with that first. Chapter 10 gives us the generations of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. When the list comes to Eber, we find two sons: Peleg “for in his days the earth was divided”, and his brother’s name was Joktan. Is this “divided” earth the result of the confusion of languages? It might be. In Genesis, we often find that first the events are mentioned and only then the explanation is given. We read indeed in verse 31 that this is a list of descendants of Shem “by their languages.”  So before the plurality of languages is explained, we find mention of the phenomenon.

Now in chapter 10, the genealogy of Joktan, the son of Eber is followed. It even suggests that it is the descendants of Joktan that migrate to the east. But after the Babel narrative, we find from 11:18 on, that the line of Peleg is followed. From his descendants came Terah, and Abram who is the main character in chapters 12 and further. Besides this context of the genealogies of Shem, we find echoes of the Shemite history in the fact that the word “name”, which is shem in Hebrew, plays such a great part in the Babel narrative. We should be mindful of the fact that Babel was founded by the Hamite Nimrod according to 10:10. Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, was cursed because of the sin of his father, the younger son of Noah. The Canaanites, maybe because of this curse, trying to make it as difficult as possible to force them to submit to Shem (9:26), dispersed – verse 18. 

The narrative of Babel is therefore supremely important for the future of the family of Shem, out of which Terah and Abram would come. To mention just one striking element: chapter 10 gives us a list of nations and chapter 11 tells us that people had the urge to move eastward, away from the land of blessing. But in chapter 12 Abram is called to leave his nation and family, and move to the west – to return therefore to the land of blessing, the vicinity of Eden and the blessed land of Canaan. 

b. The Attempt to Achieve Self-sufficiency and Autonomy

What is going on in Babel? In the mass migration of peoples to the East, they found a plain in Shinar – probably close to the Ur of the Chaldeans where Abram lived. They Settled there. They stopped wandering and took this plain as their possession. The groundwork for autonomy was laid. But what is the goal of this migration? We find that out through their own words, in the common language of Mankind.

The text reads:

Then they said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” (They had brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar.) 4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth.”

So first we have the new technology of baking the bricks instead of letting them dry in the sun. They would be bricks without straw included, so the result would be like stone. The baking process made the bricks much stronger and allowed buildings that had more than one or two stories. Of course, stone would have been even stronger, but in the plain, that was not available. Technology had to come in to make this possible. Apparently, tar was in plentiful supply and could be used as cement, even stronger than the normal mortar. 

It’s the technology that now makes it conceivable that a strong city is built. Not content with a dwelling place – that as a city would have fortified walls to protect it from enemies and to keep its own citizens inside – they were also contemplating erecting a Tower. It seems to have been thought of as a religious symbol, expressing not so much their piety towards God but celebrating their own achievements. 

For that reason, the goal of both city and Tower is now expressed as to “make a name for ourselves.” Such a Name would be in competition with the Name of God that was supposed to be worshipped. Replacing God’s Name would imply forgetting the basic fact that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. It would be expressive of the attempt to reach towards the divine world, instead of waiting patiently and with confidence for Divine assistance reaching us from above. 

The ultimate goal, however, is to establish a unity that cannot be divided, to prevent dispersion by which this city would lose its autonomy. Notice that the autonomy and self-sufficiency is now a trait of a society and no longer the aspiration of an individual. But this fear of dispersion is nothing less than resistance to Gods purpose in Creation. The safe homogeneity that is established, implies a forced cohesion, social coercion, and mechanisms of oppression by imposing conformity. The unity of the language allows for all that. 

Technology makes the building of a city in the plain possible. Cooperation by coercion allows for huge building projects that celebrate the glory of the builders. The unity within society that is demonstrated in the Tower, is a religious symbol. It is a new kind of religion that under the guise of worshipping divinities that are above humanity, actually reveres the idealized image of their own humanity. 



The chiastic structure of Genesis 11 shows the precision with which God answered the ambitions of the citizens of Babel.













c. Gods Answer to Human Social Rebellion

While Babel builds a Tower that reaches into heaven, God comes down to them. That already should remind us that God in His care for humanity will come down to them – as He also walked in the garden and stood before Abel and Cain. But this time He comes not in love but in judgment. 

A wonderful element of the narrative is the congruity between the two expressions, the first of the people “let us build”, and then God’s reply “let us go down.” It is as if the people in Babel try to perform a human version of God’s creative words in Genesis 1:26, “Let Us make man.” Just as Man is the being that expresses God’s sovereignty and character, so the city and its tower are supposed to reflect the people’s sovereignty and character. It is the quintessence of idolatry in its social form.

Then we find a diagnosis. 

“If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.

The emphasis should be put on “this”, they have begun to do “this.” What is “this”? The common language makes it possible to build a city that is religious, zealously devoted to enhancing its reputation, establishing a Name, and itself in a permanent dwelling – linking the life of the people to a soil – Blut und Boden. The result is that human beings will no longer be seen as the bearers of God’s image, but the collective, the city as a whole will fulfill that function. Individuals will then be simple members of the social organism, expendable and submissive. The “let us” is a phrase that includes also those who do not desire to do, what authorities propose. 

The diagnosis is, that people will indeed be able to do this. It is not the technology, not even the social structures that allow for such a grandiose human achievement. It is the language.

Now language in a materialistic society is merely descriptive of realities and prescriptive in the context of labor and justice. Indicatives and imperatives form the dual method of communication. Language is highly functional for social cohesion. Language in an oppressive society – but maybe that is an oxymoron – can become ideological and to some extent always is. Words can function as directives without specific contents and without an identifiable human agent that is responsible for its contents. They can function as shibboleths that identify you as belonging to a certain group and excluding you from others. They can function as passwords, allowing you access to social goods – gaining acceptance, showing yourself to be well adapted and suited for the role you have been given. Words like equality, democracy, freedom, justice, but also words like young or racist can function in such a way. 


If there is some general agreement on the meaning of such words, without the ability to put the concepts they express to the test, language can become an instrument of oppression. As George Orwell’s book 1984 eloquently illustrates with his idea of “newspeak”. 

So what is God doing about it?

Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.

The confusion of languages is now precisely the taking away of this unexpressed and oppressive mutual understanding, that makes technological domination possible through description, and human manipulation and slavery possible because of its prescriptive force. To speak without the ability to hear – in the translation it says “understand”, but literally it says “hear” – implies that obedience becomes impossible and so is any attempt to achieve something great through the forced cooperation of the many. 

The result is the breaking up of this destructive unity and the dispersion of the people of Babel. Their attempt at unity and their refusal to be dispersed is now thwarted because the necessary condition of their attempt was taken away: the unity and simplicity of linguistic communication. Now we need to really listen because other people will express a different culture and history in their language. The dispersion leads to the celebration of differences. Any attempt to achieve this kind of homogenous unity is just a way to lead us into a destructive – ultimately fascist – uniformity. 

In the end, these people that would make a Name for themselves, that expressed their power and unity, get a name. God gives them a name. They are called Babel, which in itself reflects the confusion of languages. Maybe they would have liked it to mean Bab-El, the gate of God, but the Hebrew language knows better: it is Bavel, confusion. 




January 8th – The Second Fall of Man – Genesis 9

It is obvious that the narrative of the flood reflects the narrative of creation. After the land had dried up, Noah planted a vineyard – reminding us of the garden that God planted for man to enjoy. The covenant of 9:17 and the blessing of 9:1 – including the commandment to be fruitful and multiply – is reminiscent of Genesis 2. The outcome of the narrative is similar to the outcome of the story of the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the garden like Noah ate of the fruit of his orchard, and they became naked. The pure enjoyment of the gifts of God could not be sustained in paradise, and could not be sustained by man after the flood. And in both narratives, the effect of sin is immediately apparent in the nakedness. It is a parody of man’s original state when Adam and Eve were both naked and they felt no shame – Noah in his drunkenness uncovered himself in his tent.
Ham looks upon the nakedness of his father. Lacking all moral integrity he, instead of covering his father up – which is what Adam and Eve tried to do and what God did by providing them with clothes – goes out and tells his two brothers about it. It is a remarkable demonstration of lack of respect for his father and ignorance about the meaning of nakedness. This is not a story about a boy accidentally walking into his father’s bedroom, Ham is pictured as a grown man over 100 years old. Seeing his father’s nakedness is a major offense. To us, it doesn’t seem like a big thing. We are used to nakedness in our society. The cultural background of the narrative however makes looking upon another’s nakedness an abomination.
The two brothers, Shem and Japheth, act like Adam and Eve, and God himself. God did not look on man’s nakedness but covered it with coats of skin. Ham did not take their actions as his example. Now Ham is the father of the Canaanites. The priests of the Canaanite religion sometimes acted naked before their altars. It has been said that the prohibition of Exodus 20:26 is specifically directed against Canaanites religious custom.

And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed.

We read in Exodus 28 specifically that the priests should cover their bodies before God in the sanctuary:

Make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked bodies; they must cover from the waist to the thighs.

Ham and his descendants, the Canaanites, have no moral integrity, which is symbolically demonstrated by their acceptance of nakedness, specifically in worship. 

The sons of Noah are here shown to belong to two groups of mankind, those who like Adam and Eve hide the shame of their nakedness, and those who like Ham, or rather the Canaanites, have no sense of their shame before God. (EBC)

January 7th – Praying This Way – Matthew 6

Reading for today: Genesis 6-9, Matthew 6

5 “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward.

Jesus does not give a commandment to pray; he assumes that his disciples understand the necessity of prayer and like all devout Jews pray three times a day. What he is teaching, is the authenticity of prayer. There is a difference between true prayer and the “prayer of the hypocrites.”
Now, he is not against public prayer. It is true that in synagogue worship someone could pray publicly, in front of the arc. There were certain occasions when prayers were offered in the streets. For instance in times of drought when the harvest was in danger. What Jesus rejects is not the posture of people in prayer, nor their position, either in the synagogue or on the streets. His rejection of the prayer of the hypocrites is based on their motivation, so all emphasis should be put on the words: “so that people can see them.” If in prayer you are aware of the fact that others can see or hear you, you might attempt to make a spectacle of yourself. You want to impress others with your devotion or the poetic depth of your language. We might be concerned more with our reputation for piety, then with piety itself. Human praise becomes more important than God’s approval.

6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

I do not believe therefore that verse 6 is about the place of prayer so much. Every time we pray, even when we pray in public, it should be AS IF we are in a completely private place as if only God can hear us – implying a full sincerity and truthfulness. So the image of the private prayer room is not used to prescribe a space, but to illustrate an attitude.

7 When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

There is a second necessary condition of true prayer. Prayer should not be a “babbling”, which means an idle or useless display of rhetoric, or a mere repetition of phrases and divine names. Now, this does not mean that all repetition in prayer is forbidden, nor that Jesus is against long prayer. Jesus taught his disciples that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). “His point is that his disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers offered under the misconception that mere length will make prayers efficacious.” (EBC) the reason that he refers to pagan practices, does not imply that this prohibition is directed to pagans. It is called pagan prayer, because that was the way prayers in other religions were conducted; pagan gods thrived on incantation and repetition. The essence of the pagan prayer is giving our father in heaven information about our needs. As I once witnessed, that someone in a public prayer said: “God! We have read in the newspaper that people in Sudan are suffering because of a failed harvest.” That seems to imply that we needed to tell God about this, just in case he didn’t read the paper.

9 So pray this way:

The model prayer, that we call the Lord’s prayer, is not an example of Jesus’s own prayer – we have a fine example of that in John 17. Here we have a problem when we compare the text in Matthew 6 with Luke’s version in chapter 11 of his Gospel.


Do we have the original prayer in Matthew and does Luke give us a simplified version? That strikes me as odd, because so many times Luke refers to Jesus’s habit of prayer. Why would he use a condensed version of the whole prayer? Or is it the other way around? Luke might be giving us the original, and then Matthew expanded on it? That is the way the historical-critical method deals with this kind of thing. Because they assume literary dependency, they need to talk about expansion or condensation of one version in relation to the other.
There are many other theories. Some say that Matthews version is designed for public worship, and that he tried to make it look more like the prayers of the synagogue. The similarity with the Jewish prayers, however, are found more in the general style than in the wording of the prayer. As someone observed, extemporaneous prayers in evangelical churches have the same similarity in style without being dependent upon each other. The Lord’s prayer is merely using current forms of piety and it is to be expected that Jesus prayed in accordance with the literary custom of the time.
It seems obvious that Jesus has talked about prayer on several occasions. It seems to me that Matthew could record one such occasion and Luke another. The fact that we have two separate traditions which in essence support each other, makes it plausible that this is truly the teaching of Jesus himself – which I did not doubt in the first place.


January 6th – The Likeness of Adam – Genesis 5

Today’s reading: Matthew 5; Genesis 5

Some remarks on Genesis 5

Giving birth and giving a name is the main focus of this chapter. Here we find what became of Adan, the toledot, the “issue”, whatever came out of Adam is described in what we usually call a genealogy.  In Adam,  it became apparent what the heavens and the earth truly were, and so now we see what was truly in Adam. We find the generation of the flood and Noah as the most important offspring.

NOTE The prologue first redirects the reader’s attention back to the course of events in the first chapter: the creation of the man and the woman (v.1). In so doing the prologue reiterates the central point of that earlier account: the creation of the man and the woman in the “image and likeness” of God. Second, the prologue ties chapter 5 together with the preceding verses in chapter 4 (vv.25-26) by continuing the pattern of “birth” and “naming.” Just as the first parents named their sons (4:25-26), so also in the prologue to chapter 5 God named Adam (v.2); and he, in turn, named his son (Seth, v.3). (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)

Man was created in the image of God – so he’s supposed to be a replica, a “statue”, in the sense that he reflects the position of God, refers to Him. I think that is about “stature”, the position of the vice-regent that God gives to man at the top of the world of the living. But then He also made him “after His likeness”, which I believe speaks of character, the characteristics that are required to function in the position that God gives him. So there you have it, in Genesis 1:26, what man is supposed to be doing: ruling over and caring for the world and equipped with the spiritual character that is required to do that properly.

In Genesis 5 we find this summarized in the simple statement that God made Adam “in the likeness of God.” Likeness refers to character, so the word “after” is most appropriate. The Hebrew in Genesis 1:26 has the preposition ke, which translates as “like”.  The Hebrew preposition be translates as “in”. So it is proper to say that be-tsalmenu should be translated “in our image” and ki-demutenu as “after our likeness.” And that gives us a problem here. What then can “in the likeness”,  bi-demutenu,  mean?

Maybe it is a summarizing statement. Taking the preposition that belongs to the image-position and combining it with the noun that expresses character-likeness. Maybe it shows that image and likeness are synonyms and only in Genesis 1 when combined as a prepositional phrase, do they mean what they mean. Maybe it is the result of the Fall that is expressed here: humanity is no longer suited for its position, but there is a residue: man is “in”, that is, derives his power from, is focussed on, “the likeness”, that is: character of God.

In any case, the point is the contrast between Gen. 1:26 and verse 3, where we read:

When Adam had lived 130 years he fathered a son in his own likeness (bi-demuto), according to his image (ke-tsalmo), and he named him Seth.

It says here that Seth was “in the likeness of Adam”, in contrast to Adam who had been “after the likeness of God” – reflecting His character – and now is merely “in the likeness of God” – focussed on Gods character.

Man is no longer in the image of God and after the likeness of God, he is merely in the likeness. And Seth, and by default, all other descendants of Adam, are like Adam, not like God anymore. We are focused on and dependent on being to a certain degree the likeness of our fathers. They determine our character in the world. So if you want to know what man is, you seek to understand his progeny that demonstrates who their father was. After all, by their upbringing, they become “in the likeness” of their father.

Secondly, the sons of Adam are “according to Adam’s image.” They take their position from their fathers. What they do reflects their father’s skills and ambitions. When we talk about sons who walk in their father’s footsteps, we are talking about position, skills ambition, influence and the like. Any father is a role model, whether positive or negative, for his sons and daughters. But that is not what man is supposed to be.

The only one who in some sense escapes this fatality of being in his father’s likeness and according to his image, is Enoch. He walks with God. As God walked with man before the likeness and image of God was destroyed in them. I believe that he was after Gods likeness and in the image of God to a higher degree than is normal for the children of Adam. That’s why he never died and is by far the oldest man alive:

Gen. 5:24 Enoch walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away.

Some say that this was how God originally intended to deal with Adam: have him live on earth for a thousand years and then take him away to be in heaven forever. Others say that it merely means that Enoch died without his body being found. Quite a contrast!



The genealogical list in chapter 5 is nearly identical in form to that of 11:10-26, the genealogy (toledoth Toledoth; NIV, “the account of”) of Shem. A comparison of the formal elements of the two genealogies shows that the only difference between them is the inclusion of the clause “and then he died” (wayyamoth) at the end of each of the names in chapter 5. Why would the author have felt it important to remind the reader specifically of the death of each of these patriarchs, whereas in the other genealogical lists he allows the matter of the death of the individual to remain implicit in the statement of the total number of the years of his life?
The answer is not hard to find in chapter 5, because in this chapter alone one of the patriarchs, Enoch, did not die. The total number of the years of his life is given, as with the other genealogies, but only here is there an exception. Enoch “was no more, because God took him away” (v.24). In other words, the author purposefully underscores the death of each patriarch in chapter 5 to highlight and focus the reader’s attention to the exceptional case of Enoch. The genealogical list in chapter 5 is nearly identical in form to that of 11:10-26, the genealogy (toledoth Toledoth; NIV, “the account of”) of Shem.
A comparison of the formal elements of the two genealogies shows that the only difference between them is the inclusion of the clause “and then he died” (wayyamoth) at the end of each of the names in chapter 5. Why would the author have felt it important to remind the reader specifically of the death of each of these patriarchs, whereas in the other genealogical lists he allows the matter of the death of the individual to remain implicit in the statement of the total number of the years of his life? The answer is not hard to find in chapter 5, because in this chapter alone one of the patriarchs, Enoch, did not die. The total number of the years of his life is given, as with the other genealogies, but only here is there an exception. Enoch “was no more, because God took him away” (v.24). In other words, the author purposefully underscores the death of each patriarch in chapter 5 to highlight and focus the reader’s attention to the exceptional case of Enoch.
Why does the author want to point to Enoch so specifically as an exception? It is not merely because he did not die. That in itself is reason enough to merit special attention, but it does not sufficiently explain the purpose of the author in this case. The author’s purpose can better be seen in the way he has emphasized, through repetition, that Enoch “walked with God” (vv.22, 24). The phrase “walked with God” (wayyith hallek ‘eth -ha’elohim) clearly means something to the author, for he uses the same expression to describe Noah as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” (6:9), and Abraham and Isaac as faithful servants of God (17:1; 24:40; 48:15). Its use here shows that the author views it as the reason why Enoch did not die. Enoch is pictured as one who did not suffer the fate of Adam (“you will die”) because, unlike the others, he “walked with God.”
The sense of the author is clear. Enoch is an example of one who found life amid the curse of death. In Enoch the author is able to show that the pronouncement of death is not the last word that need be said about a man’s life. One can find life if one “walks with God.” For the author, then, a door is left open for a return to the tree of life in the garden. Enoch found that door in his “walking with God” and in so doing has become a paradigm for all who seek to find life. It is significant that the author returns to this theme at the opening of chapter 17, where God establishes his covenant promise with Abraham. Here the meaning is clear: “Walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you” (17:1-2). To “walk with God” is to fulfill one’s covenant obligations.  For the author of Genesis, “walking with God” is the way to life. As Moses says to the people in the wilderness, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands … and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess” (Deut 30:15-16).
It is important to see that for the author of the Pentateuch, “walking with God” could not have meant a mere “keeping” of a set of laws. Rather, it is just with those men who could not have had a set of “laws” that the author associates the theme of “walking with God.” By choosing such men to exemplify “walking with God,” the author shows his desire to teach a better way to live than merely a legalistic adherence to the law. We must not lose sight of the fact that from the author’s perspective the way of the law at Sinai had not proved successful (e.g., Deut 31:27). A better way lay still in the future (Deut 30:5-6). For him the way to life was exemplified best in men like Enoch (“Enoch walked with God,” 5:22), Noah (“he walked with God,” 6:9), and Abraham (“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness,” 15:6). It is to these patriarchs who lived long before the giving of the law at Sinai that the author of Genesis turns for a model of faith and trust in God.