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In this column, Ben Witherington III answers questions about:
  • Women's roles at home and in society
  • Christian believers' "inheritance"
  • The kingdom of God
  • Satan in disguise
  • The journey of the Shinar in Genesis 11:2
  • Yeast vs. leaven
  • The translation of Jesus' name
  • Different creation stories
  • Psalm 139
  • God's other names
  • Versions of Adam and Eve's temptation
  • Paul's conversion story
  • Miracles of Jesus: To tell or not?

    I am 24 years old and have been married 3 years. About a year before I was married, my husband and I were in a terrible car accident. He was left disabled and I was forced to take on his role in our family.

    Is there any scripture showing that women of the Bible didn't always have to be completely womanly all of the time? We belong to a Pentecostal church and most of the women there won't even lift a box or anything heavy. They get the men to lift things and do things. My thinking is that I'd just rather do it myself because sometimes the men seem busy or I just don't feel like asking them. --Wisefam

    Anyone who takes this view of women working would have to ignore most of the Bible, where we find women doing all kinds of work usually thought of as men's work. For example, in the Book of Ruth we find women gleaning in the fields. In Judges we find women who are judges (Deborah). In the New Testament we have women who are business executives, such as Lydia (Acts 16), who runs a purple cloth business. There are many more such examples, not to mention texts like Acts 18, which tells of Priscilla and Aquila teaching a famous male apostle named Apollos.

    When the New Testament talks about the believer's "inheritance," is the inheritance going to heaven? Or is it what the believer will receive as a reward in heaven? --S.

    The references to inheritance vary, but none of them refer to inheriting heaven itself--that's a gift from God for those who trust God and his son Jesus. Sometimes the inheritance refers to something one will receive in heaven--a reward, for example. Sometimes the inheritance refers to something one will receive when Jesus comes back--a resurrection body, for example, or a special place in the kingdom when it comes to earth.

    What is the kingdom and heaven of God? Where can I find this in the Bible? --Angel B.

    If you read the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will find plenty of references to the kingdom. When the phrase is used in the present tense, it refers to the saving reign of God in someone's life. When it is spoken of in the future tense (when you hear about entering, obtaining, or inheriting the dominion), it refers to the place when God's rule will be perfectly manifested on earth when Jesus returns.

    My understanding is that the devil disguises himself in order to lure a human being into his trap. I believe the devil alters our perception of what we are doing and when he alters our brain we feel as if we are in heaven. Biblical sources of the devil disguising himself would be helpful. --Michelle

    Actually, there is nothing in the Old Testament about Satan disguising himself unless one counts the story in Genesis 2 about the snake. There is, however, the reference in 2 Corinthians 11:14 about Satan masquerading as an Angel of Light. One could also compare 2 Corinthians 11:3-5 about the problem of deception. To judge from the temptations Jesus was offered in Matthew 4:1-14, it is true that good things can be used to lead us away from God.

    My son and I were studying Genesis 11:2. When the people came to Shinar, did they come "from the east," as the King James Version records, or did they "journey eastward," as the New American Standard Bible and New International Version record?
    --Kathye S.

    It is probably the latter, but you need to understand that the original Hebrew has no vowel pointing. There are only consonants, and so there are various ways one could read the original text. Hence, the various translations.

    I had someone ask me why the Bible says not to eat yeast. Is it because yeast is made from bacteria? --Chris G.

    There was a difference between yeast and leaven. It is leaven that was not to be directly eaten because it was ritually unclean. It could, however, be used as a rising agent to start a new batch of bread that would rise. Leaven in the New Testament is always a cipher or metaphor for something evil or wicked--as we see in Mark 8:15.

    My sister and I have been trying to figure out the controversy of the Messianic believers. They believe that the name "Jesus" is not the English translation of the Hebrew name "Yehshua," but a mistranslation from the Greek name "Ieosus," a pagan god. What's your opinion? --Ncandelario

    The name Jesus does come immediately from the Greek "Ieosus" which in turn is the rendering of the Hebrew "Yeshua." There was no ancient pagan god named "Ieosus"--this is simply a modern misunderstanding. Messianic Jewish believers are mistaken about this.

    In Genesis 1, God created male and female. In Genesis 2, He created man and breathed into him a living soul. Were there two creations, with the first having no soul, and the second having a soul? Does this explain where Cain's wife came from, and why some people act like they do not know right from wrong? --Clschell

    This is a good question. There are two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, but they are not about two different creations; they are about the same one. It's just that the Genesis 1 version is more generic and all-encompassing, whereas Genesis 2 focuses on the creation of human beings. In addition, it is not the "soul" which God breathes into the first human--it is "life breath." The Hebrew word "nephesh" refers to the animating principle, which could be called "life breath" or sometimes "human spirit." Ancient Hebrews did not believe in the later Greek idea of the immortal soul.

    How literally should I take these verses [from Psalm 139]?
    13) For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
    14) I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
    15) My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
    16) your eyes saw my unformed body.

    First of all, this is poetry from the psalmist and it should not be taken literally. However, its point must be taken seriously--namely that God is ultimately responsible for the creation of all human beings. They are all God's creatures.

    The psalmist believes that what is in the womb is a person with potential who is being formed, not merely a potential person.

    Does Jesus ever call "the Father" by name (i.e. one of Yahweh's Old Testament names)? Are the names "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" ever used by Jesus? --Claudia

    Jesus does not call God by one of his Old Testament names so far as the Gospels indicate, unless one includes the name "Father" or "Living God" or the like. While we are on this subject, the Bible does not, anywhere, call God "Jehovah," which is a combination of two Old Testament names for God--"Yahweh" and "Adonai." The practice of blending the two names together came in Judaism when there was concern about mispronouncing one or another of God's holy names. The consonants of one name were blended with the vowels of the other to come up with a new and non-Biblical name!

    Why does Satan, in the King James Version, tell Eve that she will "be like the Gods" if she eats the forbidden fruit? The New International Version and American Standard Version say "God." Why the change? --Jill

    The Hebrew here is "Elohim," which is a plural and so could be translated "Gods." However this plural was often used of the God of the Bible, who is one, and so is sometimes translated in the singular. In the Genesis 2 story, it is a judgment call as to how to translate it. Is the snake suggesting that Adam and Eve will become like deities? Or is he actually saying the forbidden fruit will make them like the one true God in knowledge? It could be either one.

    As someone struggling with faith, I have turned to scripture. One thing has led me to a "brick wall." This has to do with Paul's apostleship--specifically his conversion story. As far as I can tell, he changes his story three times. Once Paul's apostleship comes into question, so does his legitimacy as a mouthpiece for Christ. I begin to question if Jesus' message was meant for Gentiles since He clearly directs His teachings towards the "lost sheep" of Israel.
    --Sean B.

    Luke presents us with three different accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9,22,26), but they are for three different audiences and so have been nuanced in differing ways. The account in Acts 22 is presented to Paul's fellow Jews while the account in Acts 26 is presented to royal officials, including Roman ones. The account in Acts 9 is Luke's summary account, which he presumably got from Paul himself.

    As for Paul's apostleship, if you read Galatians 1 you will see it was accepted by the pillar apostles Peter, James, and John. And as 1 Corinthians 15 shows, Paul was able to rank himself as the last of the apostles but nonetheless a true one. Notice, too, that there are many things taught in New Testament letters--such as Hebrews, James, and 1,2 Peter--that are not found in the Gospels. This does not make them false. The Gospels are limited summaries of Jesus' teachings.

    Question 1: Many who receive miracles in the New Testament are charged not to tell what has happened in their encounter with Jesus. Why? And why do they ignore the directive? Is it simply human nature, or is there divine purpose in their "disobedience"?

    Question 2: Why does Jesus ask who the people say that He is before he asks who the disciples say He is? Why does He charge his closest friends not to tell that He is the Christ of God?

    Question 3: In the case of the man possessed [by many demons, in Luke 8:26-39], he is denied the chance to be in the company of Jesus but encouraged to tell his story when he returns to his home. This is the only story I can think of in which the recipient of a miracle is permitted to "tell". What is the significance of telling or not telling? --Roni

    These are excellent questions. Several points can be made. First, there were many ideas of what the Messiah would be like in Jesus' day, and Jesus wanted to be able to present himself in his own way--he didn't want to be associated with some of the other views of the day, for example the view that the Messiah would be a warrior king like David who would come and destroy the Roman overlords. Second, Jesus did not want to be pigeonholed into a view that he was simply a miracle worker. Jesus' main mission was not healing, but rather to proclaim the coming of God's saving reign and to bring that salvation to God's people. Healing lasted only for a season, perhaps until death. But receiving the revelation of salvation led to everlasting life.

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