Answers to Chapter Three

by David Crabtree

David Crabtree has provided the following answers to the study questions from chapter three of The Language of God.

Question #1

The Greek word translated “tempt” in James 1:13 is peirazo. It appears in the book of James four times, all of them in verses 13 and 14 of chapter 1. A related noun, peirasmos, occurs twice in the book of James: chapter 1 verses 2 and 12.

What does this word mean? It would appear that verse 14 is providing us with a definition-“But each one is peirazetai when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” The text goes on to explain that the end result of this is sin and death. Now if peirasmos has one and only one meaning and that meaning is “to be carried away and enticed by one’s own lust,” we should be able to substitute this definition into the text wherever the word occurs. Look what happens if we substitute this definition into verse 2 of this same chapter. It produces something like this: Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you are carried away and enticed by your own lusts in various ways. James then explains that this testing of your faith produces endurance leading to perfection and completeness. Is James saying that being enticed by our lusts leads to perfection? This seems unlikely. This raises the possibility that the meaning of peirasmos that is employed in verse 14 is not the same as the meaning employed in verse 3.

The translator of the NASB has recognized this fact and has tried to account for it in the translation. In verse 2 he uses the English word “trials” to translate the Greek word peirasmoi (the marginal reading is “temptations”). In verse 14 the translator uses the word “tempted.” The English words “temptation” and “trial” are very different in meaning. Both involve putting to the test but the latter is indifferent to the outcome whereas the former is not. To tempt is to entice to do evil. To try is simply to test. James is saying in verses 2-4 that it is a good thing when one is placed in a situation which forces one to exercise one’s faith, because it strengthens that faith much like exercise strengthens a muscle. This is good because strengthened faith results in spiritual completeness or maturity. So to be tested is a good thing. In verses 12-18 James is talking about a different thing. Here the issue is not simply difficult or trying circumstances, but rather a situation which is designed to encourage disobedience. James is assuring his readers that God does not lure anyone into doing evil. It is not a part of God’s nature to do such a thing and he cannot be manipulated into doing such a thing. Therefore we can see that the one Greek word peirasmos is associated with both of these meanings. But the NASB translator has done us a great service by recognizing that this one word can have either of these two meanings and has accurately used the correct English meaning to translate the Greek term for each occurrence in this chapter.

Translators do not always make the right determinations. This word occurs in Matthew 4:7 (It actually uses the word ekpeirazo, but this is the same root word with a strengthening prefix. I am proceeding on the assumption that the meaning of the word is not substantially changed by the addition of this prefix to this root). The Revised Standard Version translates this verse: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” As we have already noted the English word “tempt” is within the field of meaning of the Greek word and therefore potentially a good translation. But does it make sense in this context?

If you will recall the context of this verse is that the devil is tempting Jesus in the wilderness. In this particular temptation the devil took Jesus to the corner of the temple and told him to jump off and let God rescue him. Jesus responds with this quotation from Deuteronomy. But jumping off the temple would not be enticing God to do evil. It would not be evil for God to rescue Jesus. God rescues Jesus several times. The evil would be an attempt by Jesus to force God to demonstrate his faithfulness to Jesus by acting to save him. Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16 which forbids the Israelites from testing God the way they did at Massah. The account of what happened at Massah is found in Exodus 17. The event happened during the exodus when God was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. At this particular point in time, God had just led them to a place where there was no water. The people came to Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” Notice how this is worded. As any parent will quickly recognize, there is no “please.” A “please” can be perfunctory, but it is the way we make a distinction between a request and a demand. A request is made when the ultimate choice as to whether or not to fulfill the request is in the hands of the one to whom the request is being made. A demand is when the ultimate choice as to whether or not to fulfill the demand is in the hands of the one who is making the demand. Clearly the Israelites were making a demand. As we see in the account, the Israelites were so insistent that Moses feared for his life. It is inconsistent with the attitude of a request to threaten the life of the one of whom the request is being made if he does not comply. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy to make the point that human beings ought never have the audacity to make demands of their Lord God. Had Jesus jumped from the temple it would have been an unspoken demand. He would have been forcing God to rescue him. This would be wrong, and it would be better to describe such an arrangement as a “test” rather than a “temptation.” Therefore the NASB translation is better than the RSV. The NASB reads, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Question #2

In the chapter the discussion of genre was relegated to one paragraph. Let me expand a little on this topic before I answer the question.

Genre is a very important consideration in the process of interpreting a passage. Every genre has a whole set of expectations that must be taken into account in our interpretation. If we do not come to a passage with the correct set of expectations, we will not interpret it correctly. We are so familiar with the various genres we typically encounter that we automatically take this into account without even thinking about it. Let us say you have two passages on the table before you. Both of them contain the words “seven dwarves.” One of the passages begins with the words “Once upon a time.” The other passage begins with the words, “Dateline-Paris.” You would automatically interpret this same phrase differently in the two passages. In the passage beginning with “Once upon a time” you would immediately envision fanciful characters (probably a la Walt Disney) and you would know that the author had no intention to say that these dwarves actually exist. On the other hand, in the passage beginning with “Dateline-Paris” you would immediately recognize this as a newspaper article and assume that the story is referring to seven real dwarves who actually exist.

Similarly if you were to read in a fairy tale that the girl married a prince, you would recognize this as the happy ending of the story with no hint of unhappiness. If you read of such an event in a newspaper article, you know that is just an event in the lives of these people which will be followed by moments of happiness and moments of unhappiness.

In our own culture we have seen so many examples of each of the standard kinds of literature that we know what expectations to attach to each. When we turn to the Bible, we do not have a large number of examples of each genre that we can read and learn the expectations associated with them. This makes genre studies difficult and the results of those studies tenuous. But we can be sensitive to genre and do our best to discern the characteristics of whatever genre we are looking at.

The early part of Genesis is a case in point. Most of Genesis is in the form of historical narrative. It appears to be a historical account of people who really lived and who actually did the things ascribed to them. But the Creation account in chapter 1:1-2:3 is not in the same literary form. If you look at the description of the first six days of creation (the seventh day is exceptional), they are all described in a manner that is so similar as to be formulaic. Each day is described using the same literary elements, often times in the same order and the same words. Furthermore, whereas the historical narrative describes a series of events linked together by phrases like, “Then it came about that. . .” and “After these things . . .” the creation account merely moves from one topic to the next with the words, “Then God said. . . ” No other part of Genesis is like it, nor, to my knowledge, is there any other place in whole Bible that is like it in form. I am convinced that the Creation account is a different genre from the rest of Genesis-a genre for which we do not have any other good examples.

This puts us at a distinct disadvantage from people who were a part of the culture when Genesis was written. We can only roughly discern the characteristics of the genre-they, presumably, recognized them immediately.

The important thing to note is that the Creation account is not in the form of historical narrative. Does this mean that it is not historically accurate? No. Many genres can be historically accurate even though they are not historical narrative. An epic poem, for instance, can be historically accurate, but it is not historical narrative.

Therefore I would answer the question by saying that Genesis 1-12 is not all the same genre. Most of that section is written in the form of historical narrative, but the first section, the creation account, is written using a very different, formulaic style that seems to indicate a different genre.

Question #3

It is true that one must know the meanings of words in order to understand the passage (context), and one must know the context in order to understand the meanings of the words. This can be one of the frustrating aspects of doing word studies; they raise more questions than they bring clarity. However, this is not a hopeless situation. When I read a passage, I gain some idea of what the passage means. I may not understand it perfectly, but I do have some idea. If I investigate the meanings of some of the more perplexing words in the passage, I will get a better idea of what those words mean. Again, my understanding of those words may not be perfect, but it is better than it was before I investigated them. Now I can go back to the passage with my improved understanding of some of the words in the passage and my understanding of the passage will improve. I may have to repeat the process many times, but the important thing to note is that we are not hopelessly trapped. Progress can be made.

Copyright March 2017 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree