Dona Incognita

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
(Isaiah 11:8 )

“The Unknown Gifts”

Reading Matthew 7, I came across Jesus’ words concerning the goodness of God as our Father in heaven.

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? (Matthew 7:9-10)

At face value, this is simply an exhortation to expect good things from God. The problem is that Jesus uses stones and serpents as examples of bad things, and our Father in heaven has long history of doling out stones and serpents to His children. Since that is the case, how can our Father in heaven possibly be good?

Firstly, as always, there are clues in the Covenant-literary structure of the passage. These words of Jesus are not “isolated proverbs” as many Bible teachers (and Bible translators) would have us believe. They are part of a carefully constructed speech, part of a stream of thought. If we isolate them, they lose most of their meaning, and our “hermeneutic” is reduced to the wisdom of a child who insists on playing snakes and ladders without first understanding the rules.

Ask, and it will be given to you; (Day 1 – Ark)
seek, and you will find; (Day 2 – Veil)
knock, and to you (Day 3a – Altar)
it will be opened. (Day 3b – grain and fruit – Table)
For everyone who asks receives, (Day 4 – Lamps)
and the one who seeks finds, (Day 5 – Incense)
and to the one who knocks (Day 6 – Veil opened)
it will be opened. (Day 7 – bread and wine – Shekinah)

This one puzzled me for a bit, but it turns out it is a recapitulation of the Creation Week. At first glance it seems to be a THREE + THREE arrangement, but it is in fact a FOUR + FOUR. This is THREE + FILLING and another THREE + FILLING. The first “filling” is a promise of the greater one at God’s Table.

Ask! (Day 1) He who asks (Day 4)
Seek (Day 2) He who seeks (Day 5)
Knock (Day 3a) He who knocks (Day 6)
Opening (Day 3b) Opening (Day 7)

So, the first half consists of imperatives (external law, stoicheia) and the second half is the fulfilment of those imperatives (internal law). Israel was being divided into two camps: those who only appeared to seek God outwardly, and those who truly sought Him from the heart.

The interesting thing is that, like the Creation Week, it works both as a parallelism and as a chiasm.

Jesus now moves from a Genesis motif (the Adamic Mediator/High Priest at the Veil) to an Exodus motif.

Or which one of you, (Transcendence – Initiation)
if his son asks him for bread, (Hierarchy – Delegation)
will give him a stone? (Ethics – Purification)
Or if he asks for a fish, (Sanctions – Vindication)
will give him a serpent? (Succession – Representation)

We know from Jacob and Moses that graven “stones” are the tablets of the Law, and unhewn stones are the Altar where that Law is satisfied, or the “teeth of the Land” which gnash upon and devour murderers and adulterers. When God gave Adam the Law, it included access to the Tree of Life (living bread). Jesus’ point here is that when the Father gives the Man stones and serpents, they will be transformed into bread and fish only by faith. This explains Jesus’ refusal to end His fast at the word of the serpent. His success gave Him dominion over the bread and the fish, Day 3 and Day 5, or the Land and the Sea, Jews and Gentiles.

The Covenant structure of the stanza is interesting. The serpent appears at the end rather than at the centre as usual. This means that it refers to the “serpentine wisdom” which Adam should have gained through his obedience, the wisdom of Jacob and Solomon, who were tricksy for God: wise as serpents but harmless as doves.

The Levitical motif plays upon the tithe, the Firstfruits. If Israel was faithful in giving their 10% to the Levites, and the Levites were faithful in giving 10% of that to the priests of God (as the head), God would pour out the rest of the harvest (the body) at Pentecost.

If you then, (Transcendence)
who are evil, (Hierarchy)
know how (Ethics)
to give good gifts (Sanctions)
to your children, (Succession)

Ascension/Day 3 corresponds to the “Hierarchy” of the Ten Words: the Land-and-womb firstfruits (Sabbath / mother-and-father).

how much more (Transcendence: true authority)
will your Father (Hierarchy: true circumcision)
who is in heaven (Ethics: law of love)
give good things (Sanctions: blessings and curses)
to those who ask him! (Succession: true sons)

The Testing of Adam was to give him serpentine wisdom. The serpent desired to hijack Adam’s seed (hence the attack upon the bride). The link between children and serpents is found throughout the Old and New Testaments, and includes Jesus’ naming of the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers” rather than the seed of Abraham. The “Land and womb” were opened to Adam by God once his sin was atoned for. The prophet’s promise of a Land where Abraham’s children play without harm near a snake’s nest is a wonderful swipe at the devil and his “seed”, presumably because the nest is empty.

Faithful obedience to the external law leads to the opening of one’s eyes, to “Pentecostal” filling, a great harvest. But it also involves sifting like wheat. It is no coincidence that these “lights” from God correspond to the dark night of the soul, the suffering of the Covenant faithful in the wilderness. It is only through obedience that the mind of God is opened to us, and those things which we perceived as curses are suddenly made apparent as great blessings because they transform us into His likeness. The stones and serpents were gifts in disguise, given to get us out of our comfort zones, to trust in our Father that we might be true sons. It was, after all, the perseverance of the saints during the 40 years between Pentecost (AD30-70) which made apparent who were the true Jews. “All these things” came upon that generation.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Romans 8:18-19)

I know I come across in my blog posts as pointy, but I’m really a big softy. Writing this brought tears to my eyes.

How else can we apply this? In our culture, the Bible is portrayed as the source of all our problems. We desired freedom from the constraints of the Law of Moses and expected great blessings, dominion over the Land and Sea. Instead, we now have multiplied tomes of legislation and a brood of vipers in government over us. All this came because of our distrust of God, who gives only good gifts. The issue here, as it was in Eden, is faith in His character despite immediate circumstances and outward appearances. The Word of God is not the source of our problems but the means of our deliverance, always. Only Christians are able to take, by faith, the ridiculous legislations (the multiplying “leaven” of the Pharisees) and lawless rulers of our day (like the Herods) and turn them all once again into bread and fish for all people. As at Pentecost, godly revolution only comes from the top down, from our Father in heaven, in response to our submission on earth.

So whatever you wish (Transcendence)
that others would do to you, (Hierarchy)
do also to them, (Ethics)
for this is the Law (Sanctions)
and the Prophets. (Succession)

It amazes me what comes out when a familiar passage is “parsed.” Deuteronomy is about legal witness, very often “two witnesses.” Here we have the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, whose ministry of legal witness was given to Christ (Matthew 17:3-5), and then at His ascension (Luke 24:4; Acts 1:10) to the apostolic church against the Sodom and Egypt of Herodian rule (Revelation 11:6-7). Once again, that which was intended as a great blessing (the witness of the prophets) was perceived as a curse. Once again, Israel “blasphemed” the glorious ones (Jude 8).

One final thought on this. The prophetic ministry often involves riddles, bread and fish disguised as stones and serpents. Jesus’ parables were exactly that, as is the entire Bible. It is written to confound the faithless and strengthen the faithful. Those who will not submit to God will never understand the Bible. It is pearls before swine. In fact, it will enrage them, increase their rebellion and hasten their destruction. If the world rejects our testimony, it is rejecting the “unspeakable gift.” Instead, the “gift” becomes the priestly knife of Ehud.

Enter by the narrow gate.
For the gate is wide
and the way is [broad]
that leads to destruction,
[and many are those
who enter by it].

The “gate” references here are to the gates of cities during conquest, to the veil opened on the Day of Atonement (notice the correspondence in stanza 1) and also to the exposure of the harlot (whose legs are open wide under her priestly garb) and the vindication of the bride. Babylon was conquered because although its river had gates to keep out invading troops (who might divert the river, as indeed they did), all the gates were left open. [1] This stage in the Covenant pattern is also the willingness of the “body” to follow the “head.” Christ Himself is the narrow door. Notice that line 7, (the inheritance, Succession, Glorification, Representation) is missing.

For the gate is narrow
and the way is hard
that leads to life,
and [few are those]
who find it.

Just “many” were destroyed by our Joshua at the Conquest of Jerusalem, there was indeed a faithful remnant who entered through the torn veil. Now we have analyzed the “fractal” structure of this passage, we can see that these were those who “asked, sought, knocked.”

So, Satan disguises death as life, while God disguises life as death. Only those who trust and obey can discern light from darkness as God does. This explains the words of the apostle James to the Jewish saints who were suffering persecution from false brothers. Because they were earthly vessels for the heavenly gifts of the Spirit, their pain was merely a carnal wrapping on an eternal inheritance.

Do not be deceived, (Genesis)
my beloved brothers. (Exodus)
Every good gift and
every perfect gift is from above, (Leviticus)
is from above (Transcendence)
coming down (Hierarchy)
from the Father of lights (Ethics)
with whom there is no variation (Oath/Sanctions)
or turning shadow. (Succession)
Of his own will he brought us forth (Deuteronomy)
by the word of truth, (Joshua)
that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
(Judges – Images of God)
(James 1:17)

ART: Wayne Forte, Isaiah 11:8
[1] See Gate Rape.

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2 Responses to “Dona Incognita”

  • Matthew Pfeifer Says:

    My three-year-old daughter said, upon seeing the picture, “Those are snakes. Snakes are a type of worm. I don’t like to play with snakes.”

    Thanks for this; interesting as always.

    Romans 8:18-19 is indeed wonderful (and I don’t blame you for becoming misty-eyed); Christ indeed saves the whole world – we too wait and groan for the revelation of the sons of God (macro level) – 1 John 3:2. There is a humanity re-integrated with the creation, at least in spirit, anticipating the unification of all things, and Christ shall be all in all. Etc.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Matt – Thanks for reading!