Saturday, April 28, 2012

Does Genesis 49:27 Teach Paul was Evil?

"Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey and at evening dividing the spoil." [Genesis 49:27]
Does this verse warn us to avoid Paul of Tarsus as a false apostle and evil man? The reasoning behind this is that Paul was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. Paul said this himself in his epistles:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. [Romans 11:1]

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. [Philippians 3:4b-6]
A conclusion is taken from this: Paul must have been "a ravenous wolf" - a false apostle - who "devoured the prey" of the Gospel, and "divided the spoils" in evil. I am not making this up - someone recently presented this to me as an argument against Paul's apostleship.

Of course, Paul isn't the only descendant of Benjamin in scripture. Who else is? The judge Ehud (Judg 3:15), the king Saul and his son Jonathan (1 Sam 9:21), and Mordecai the helper of Esther (Est 2:5) were all descendants of Benjamin. While one might make a case for Saul, are we to say that Ehud, Jonathan and Mordecai were all wicked men who could not be trusted? In fact, let's go a step further - should any ethnic Jew who descends from the tribe of Benjamin be considered evil? Why does the application of Genesis 49:27 only deal with the apostle Paul? Why isn't it about Ehud? Why isn't it about Jonathan? Why isn't it about Mordecai? Why isn't it about that nice Jewish man you met on the train?

Plus, this isn't the only verse in the Bible about Benjamin. We find Moses speaking in the Law with:
Of Benjamin he said, "The beloved of the LORD dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders." [Deuteronomy 33:12]
Wait a one verse Benjamin is a "ravenous wolf," but in another verse Benjamin is a "beloved of the Lord" and is surrounded by God, and God dwells between his shoulders? Is this a contradiction? Should we trust Paul now, since it is now said that God has surrounded him and dwells between his shoulders? But I thought Paul was a ravenous wolf - now God dwells inside him? As a wise man once said, "This done confuse my thinkin'!" There has to be a contradiction here!

On the contrary, there is no contradiction, because those who use Genesis 49:27 in the manner our diatribe does are misusing it completely. Turn to Genesis 49 and look at the entire context of the chapter - you will find that it is Jacob blessing his sons, and telling them what their descendants will be like. When he calls Benjamin a "ravenous wolf," it is actually meant as something of a compliment, because the descendants of Benjamin (such as Ehud and Jonathan) became skilled at war. Some commentators who discuss this topic:
But [the verse] respects the tribe itself, compared to a wolf for its fortitude, courage, and valour, as well as for its rapaciousness, it being a warlike tribe; and the Jewish writers say, that it is compared to a wolf, because of its strength. [John Gill; from his commentaries]

...he only foresees and foretels this, that his posterity should be a warlike tribe, strong and daring, and that they should enrich themselves with the spoils of their enemies... Ehud the second judge, and Saul the first king, were of this tribe; and so also in the last times Esther and Mordecai, by whom the enemies of the Jews were destroyed, were of this tribe. [Matthew Henry; from his commentaries]

Benjamin is described as a wolf who is engaged morning and evening, that is, all day long, in hunting after prey. He was warlike by character and conduct (Judges 20-21), and among his descendants are Ehud, Saul, and Jonathan. [Albert Barnes, from his commentaries]
This is how the verse has been interpreted during the span of the 2000 years of the Christian church, therefore anyone who argues contrary to this has clearly been given a new revelation no one else has ever received. For certain John Calvin writes of interpreters who wrongfully applied verse 27 to Paul, saying that he went from being a wolf to an apostle, and Matthew Henry does similar as those interpreters when he says that Paul did "in the morning of his day, devour the prey as a persecutor, but, in the evening, divided the spoil as a preacher." In such a case, however, it interprets it as referring to Paul in a positive light, not a negative one. Again, the idea that this verse refers specifically to Paul, and in a negative light, is brand new to the history of Christianity.

Of course, there lies here a bigger problem than the misuse of a single verse, and that is a flawed methodology in reading the scriptures. Rather than reading God's word in context and as a flow of thought, it is read like ancient hieroglyphics, or a system of cryptic messages from which some secret message has to be decoded. Like some Omega Code nonsense, people go through God's word, picking a verse here and applying it to an unrelated verse here, trying to discover some undiscovered conspiracy that will reveal some unknown truth. Consistency seems to not be a concern - one cannot, after all, declare one book of the Bible corrupt but at the same time take their evidence from it. Furthermore, if we confess scripture to be God's divine word, we cannot at the same time declare him a victim of fatalism by saying that bits and pieces (if not outright chunks) of lies have been inserted into His divine truth with God being unable to do anything in the way of preservation. The former is the habit of atheists and Muslims seeking to refute Christianity, while the latter is the habit of liberal Christians seeking to minimize God's authority. In the end, such methodology is opposed to God, not supportive.

The fact is, God has not hidden truths in scripture that we have to search out and unscramble like a kind of divine cryptogram. God's truth has been made plain to us, so that everyone from the theologian with a ThD to the layman sitting in church taking notes may hear it and be edified, if not saved. As the apostle John wrote: "these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). God uses the preaching of the written word to give His general call for salvation, just as the apostle Paul wrote: "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Rom 10:14) Our salvation does not come from looking for Gnostic-like truth hidden deep within scripture, waiting to be discovered and opened up like a Hellraiser puzzle box. Our salvation comes from the preaching of God's word, which is available to all to be heard by all.

If any one treats God's word in the manner I have described previously - looking through it like a hyper-dispensationalist trying to find some secret message to reveal to believers - I seriously suggest that you reevaluate how you read God's word. Meditate on these things, and by God's grace you will realize that scripture is not a magical puzzle box, but the single narrative of God's bringing about salvation for His people. When you discover this, you will truly enjoy the word of God for what it is. God bless.