Theosis in the Sermon on the Plain? An Intertextual Exploration

Is it possible that Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is an “intertextual echo” of Psalm 82:6?*

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Plain, says that those who live cruciform lives will be “sons of the Most High.” The wording recorded by Luke directly parallels the language spoken by God in Psalm 82:6 as He indicts the “gods (elohim), sons of the Most High” for participating in unjust actions. Is the Lukan Jesus alluding to this Psalm, and if so, what sort of reading would this create?

There are a few reasons that might lead one to see an intertextual echo here. First, “Most High” is a relatively rare epitaph for God in the New Testament, found 9 times (7 of which are in Luke-Acts: Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48 and 16:17) and only here on the lips of Jesus. Thus, one might be allowed to wonder whether its usage is intentional and not simply standard language. Second (and here we enter into questions of the historicity of the synoptics and John), John’s gospel presents Jesus as not only familiar with Psalm 82:6, but also as directly quoting it as a key text to defend his identity and ministry (see John 10:34). This could again be seen as evidence that Psalm 82:6 was not only available, but extremely important in the minds of Jesus and the gospel writers.

Ultimately, while Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is fully coherent without the intertextual echo of Psalm 82:6, hearing this allusion adds layers of depth to the text. An imaginative canonical and theological reading would find a richness in “discovering” the presence of Psalm 82:6 in Luke 6:35. This is even more true considering the importance which Psalm 82:6 played in patristic exegesis and theology – primarily in the development of the doctrine of theosis.

The Church Fathers regularly referenced Psalm 82:6 as the crowning verse displaying the hope of theosis, or deification: participation in the divine nature of the Triune God. This classically Eastern view of salvation paints redemption as less of a legal act of forgiveness and more of a relational and transformative union. God’s people are given the gift of sharing in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father through the Spirit and are thus transformed, taking on divine characteristics (such as holiness, incorruptibility, etc).

If we read Luke 6:35 in conversation with Psalm 82:6 and in light of the theology of the Fathers, our reading takes on a new shape. Namely, one can read Jesus’ statement as a revelation of theosis: a transformative experience whereby disciples share in the enemy-loving nature of the Father.  Psalm 86:2 speaks of the moral (injustice) and ontological (enslaved to death, corruptible) deficit which reveals the need for deification. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks of the moral shape which will characterize those who are united with the Father just as the Son is united to Him. Indeed, Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the penultimate “son of the Most High” (Luke 8:28 – from the speech of a demon). In the Sermon on the Plain, the disciples are promised nothing less than the same title which Jesus eternally holds. The axiom of theosis might then be reframed in this way: the Son of the Most High came so that we might become Sons & Daughters of the Most High.

It is worth noting that the moral standard of sacrificial enemy-love is emphasized here as the center of this sharing in the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus, revealing both the nature of the Father and the essence of relating to the father as a Son of the Most High, is the archetypical enemy-lover. His disciples, as they participate in the divine nature and receive their status as children of the Most High, follow Jesus’ path of cruciform love.

What do you think?
Does Luke 6:35 echo Psalm 82:6?
Do you find it edifying to read Luke 6:35 in light of
Psalm 82:6 and the Patristic doctrine of theosis?

* Psalm 82:6 – “I said, “You are like gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”

* Luke 6:35 – “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part Three: Evaluation)

In two previous posts I have examined and analyzed the evidence for an intertextual relationship between Micah 7:8-20 and The Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1-18.

Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part One: Evidence)
Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part Two: Analysis)

I would like to now evaluate the results of Micah’s transformation of the Song of the Sea. In particular, I believe that Micah is utilizing intertextuality as a countercultural and prophetic act.[1] His refiguring of the imagery from the Song of the Sea would have been unexpected to his audience, challenging their traditions and hopes. The Israelites had been conditioned (by the Song of the Sea, no less!) to see their enemies as the foreign nations who oppressed them. Yet Micah’s revisionary tune would have subverted their nationalistic hopes, violent tendencies, and eschatological expectations for YHWH’s act of salvation.

Countercultural Attitudes & Actions

First, Micah’s audience would be challenged to see and respond to the world differently. The hatred they felt towards their socio-political enemies, which fueled many aspects of their political goals and eschatological hopes, would be exposed as shallow and futile. If Israel’s sins were the true enemy, God’s people would be called to replace their hatred with humility, recognizing their complicity in the evils of the world and their own state of exile. Likewise, Israel would be called to repent of any hopes or plans of violence against their enemies. Such actions would only be a distraction from the real problem and a waste of energy. Instead, the appropriate action for those who recognize their enemy as sin is that of repentance and transformation.

Countercultural Image of God

Second, Micah’s reconfiguration of the Song of the Sea presented a new and somewhat surprising image of God. While the Song of the Sea portrays a violent God committed to spilling blood for his people, Micah ends his book with a forgiving God who will use his rightful authority and power as the Warrior-King to forgive, instead of kill. This is a fitting end to both the textual unit of Micah 7:8-20 and the book as a whole. It would appear that YHWH’s war-like action towards his people’s sin is Micah’s ultimate prophetic answer to the problem of destruction which Israel faced in Micah 1:5 – “All this for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel.” YHWH would act again as the Exodus-God, but this time there would be no mass killing of Israel’s enemies. Instead, even the foreign nations would have some share in the life to come (Micah 4:1-5; 7:12).

Canonical Coherence

Finally, Micah’s identification of sin as the ultimate enemy of God’s people has clear affinities with the larger context of the Christian canon. Micah is simply one of the earliest in a long line of prophets to call attention to this truth. Jesus does this in the Gospels by calling Israel to peaceful interactions with Rome and to repentance of her own sin. As N.T. Wright says, “Jesus called Israel to repent of her nationalistic ambition and to follow him in a new vision of God’s purpose for Israel. Resistance to Rome was to be replaced by love and prayer for the enemy. Israel’s plight was radically redefined: sin, not Rome, was the real enemy.”[2] St. Paul echoes this sentiment with his frequent personification of sin as a power that enslaves and an enemy that must be conquered. He states in Ephesians 6:12: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces in the heavenly places.” I believe that Micah would be tempted to give a hearty “Amen” to statements such as these.

The book of Micah thus ends with a prophetic invitation to see the world through the lens of a new Song of the Sea. It was still a song of victory, though its militaristic and nationalistic themes had been prophetically re-interpreted. Perhaps, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, we will find ourselves listening to Micah’s new tune and responding with the dances of faithful, repentant, and peaceful lives.

[1] I draw the concept of “intertextuality as a countercultural practice” from Richard Hays’ work in his article “The Liberation of Luke-Acts: Intertextual Narration as Countercultural Practice” from Reading the Bible Intertextually (p. 101-118).
[2] Wright, “Jesus” in The New Dictionary of Theology, 348-351. See extended discussion in his Jesus and The Victory of God, 451-463.

Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part Two: Analysis)

“The rising crescendo of salvation oracles [in Micah] climaxes surprisingly in praising I AM as a forgiving God, not as a Warrior as in Moses’ Song of the Sea with which it has striking intertextual links. The change is profoundly insightful.” – Bruce Waltke[1]

In a previous post I presented the evidence of an intertextual relationship between Micah 7:8-20 and the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:1-18 [“Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part One: Evidence)”]. However, when one pays close attention to Micah’s use of the Song of the Sea, it becomes apparent that he is doing more than simply repeating the Song. Instead, it appears that Micah has transposed the Song into a different key altogether. The most striking feature of Micah’s allusion to the Song of the Sea is the way that he transforms the meaning of the Song from its original context in order to stir up his audience towards faithfulness to YHWH.

Micah’s New Metaphor

The dominant conceptual metaphor that Micah employs throughout the first three stanzas of 7:8-20 is YHWH IS A KING.[2] This is a common metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, serving to map the concepts of royalty (traits of authority and power, roles of protector and administrator of domestic affairs) from the domain of human kingship to that of YHWH. Thus, YHWH is seen as executing judgement [v. 9], building and expanding the walls and boundary of his people [v.11], shepherding his people [v. 14], and dealing with other nations [v. 16-17].

However, Micah disrupts this metaphor with his allusion to the Song of the Sea (which climaxes in the imagery of “YHWH casting his enemies into the depths of the sea” in v. 19). The reference to Exodus 15:1 and 15:4 serves to echo the metaphor that is undergirding the war language in the source text: “YHWH IS A WARRIOR”. The disruption serves a positive purpose here as the warrior metaphor is brought in to supplement and further fill out the royal metaphor. The king will now also take on the role of a warrior – fighting a battle for his people and securing victory on their behalf.

Micah’s Transformed Metaphor

The real significance of Micah’s introduction of this new metaphor lies in his identification of the enemy to be defeated by YHWH. The enemies in the Song of the Sea are Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chosen officers – in short, they are the socio-political enemies of the people of Israel who have oppressed them in slavery and terror. The enemies in Micah 7:8-20 have been unnamed up until this point in the text (v. 8 – “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy”) and scholars have attempted to identify them in various ways as the Assyrians, Babylonians, or even the Edomites. One of these people groups would certainly seem like the expected reference for Micah to employ given the historical background of his ministry and rhetoric. However, in a stunning move, Micah does not name socio-political enemies as those who will be defeated in this new Exodus but instead identifies the great enemy as the sins of Israel.

Interestingly enough, it appears that no scholars take this explicit statement from Micah as holding weight for retrospectively identifying the enemies throughout the textual unit (v. 8-20).[3] I see two possible reasons for this: a lack of attention to the intertextual ties with Exodus 15 and/or a thin understanding of metaphors as simply descriptive language instead of a more robust understanding of the cognitive nature of metaphors. When Micah changes the identity of the enemy for YHWH the warrior, this creates a fundamental change in the conceptual map of the entire royal-warrior metaphor. Micah is calling for his people to recognize their true enemy as sin – a recognition that will reshape the nature, location, and weapons of the battle.

Micah thus sings the Song of the Sea, but inserts a shocking twist into the tradition. His revisionary employment of the warrior metaphor in Exodus 15 serves as a critical appropriation of the Song. If indeed YHWH is to act again in a way similar to the Exodus, his people would be expecting him to defeat their current socio-political enemies. Micah rejects this expectation, declaring instead that YHWH will fulfill his role as Warrior not in the killing of Israel’s enemies but in the forgiving of her sins.

[1] Waltke, A Commentary on Micah, 450.
[2] This analysis assumes an understanding of metaphor (Conceptual Metaphor Theory) which is different from the “traditional” understanding. CMT understands metaphors as a cognitive (not linguistic) phenomenon – see this post by Chad Chambers: The Nature of Conceptual Metaphor: Embodiment.
[3] For instance, see James D. Nogalski’s article “Micah 7:8-20: Re-Evaluation the Identity of the Enemy in The Bible as a Human Witness to Divine Revelation (p. 125-142). Nogalski postulates an intertextual relationship between Micah 7:8-20 and Isaiah 9-12 and the traditions surrounding Hezekiah in order to argue for an identification of the “enemy” as Assyria. Nogalski throws out Micah 7:19b as a later insertion into the text because of the change of the pronoun in v. 19b, saying that it would be “difficult to explain theologically.” (Nogalski, Literary Precursors, 152-153). However, Nogalski doesn’t recognize the intertextual ties to Exodus 15 which (I argue) provide the theological explanation he lacked in order to incorporate v. 19b into his interpretation.

Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part One: Evidence)

It’s a mistake to think of biblical interpretation as an activity that only began once the canon was closed. In fact, the Bible contains many examples of biblical authors who are interacting (often in surprising ways) with earlier sacred texts. Scholars call this intertextuality, or “the embedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one.”[1] The prophet Micah is one such example –  a biblical author who was also an artful interpreter of Israel’s scriptures.

One of the most spectacular examples of Micah’s “inner-biblical exegesis” is found in Micah 7:8-20 (climaxing in v. 18-20).  In this passage, Micah echoes (and subtly changes) the infamous Song of the Sea from Exodus 15:1-18 [see the texts side-by-side here]. Close attention to the way that Micah alters the lyrics of this salvation-song reveals a powerful countercultural and prophetic call to see the world rightly, think about it properly, and act in it faithfully.

In this post I will first present the evidence for the intertextual relationship between Micah 7:8-20 and Exodus 15:1-8. In a second post I will analyze the way that Micah transforms the metaphor found in his allusion to the Song of the Sea. Finally, in a third post I will evaluate the remarkable implications that result from this analysis.[2]

Evidence of Intertextuality in Micah 7:8-20

1: Historical References

Micah references the Exodus to prepare the reader to hear the allusion in Exodus 15

Micah 7:17: “As in the days of when you came out of the land of Egypt, I will show them wonders.”
Micah 7:19: “He will again have compassion on us.”

2: Rhetorical Question Concerning YHWH’s Uniqueness

Micah & the Song of the Sea celebrate YHWH’s victory by asking a rhetorical question about his uniqueness

Micah 7:18: “Who is a God like you?”
Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O YHWH, among the Gods?”

3: Shared Language

Micah & the Song of the Sea share a large amount of vocabulary – much of which is pre-exilic, making it all the more unusual in Micah (including some fairly rare Hebrew words)

“inheritance” – Micah 7:14, 18 | Exodus 15:17
“wonder” – Micah 7:15 | Exodus 15:11
“awe” – Micah 7:17 | Exodus 15:16
“tremble” – Micah 7:17 | Exodus 15:14
“steadfast love” – Micah 7:18 | Exodus 15:13
“sea” – Micah 7:19 | Exodus 15:1, 4, 8
“depth” – Micah 7:19 | Exodus 15:5  (extremely rare – 12 times in the Hebrew Bible)
“father” – Micah 7:20 | Exodus 15:2 

4: Similar Poetic Images

Micah & the Song of the Sea share specific poetic images

Muteness afflicting the enemies of YHWH
Micah 7:16: “They shall lay their hands on their mouths”
Exodus 15:11: “They are silent as a stone”

YHWH throwing his enemies into the depths of the sea (completely original imagery to the Song of the Sea)
Micah 7:19: “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea”
Exodus 15:1: “The horse and his rider he has thrown into sea”
Exodus 15:4: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea”

The Intertextual Relationship between Micah 7:8-20 & Exodus 15:1-18

Utilizing Richard Hays’ 7 tests for detecting intertextuality, there is a very strong case to be made that Micah was intentionally “echoing” the Song of the Sea.[3] Far more fascinating than the similarities between these two texts, however, are the differences. It appears as though Micah has intentionally and dramatically altered the Song of the Sea. Unfortunately, while many scholars have noticed the relationship between these two texts, not many have explored the significance of their differences.[4] In my next post, I will detail how Micah’s “revised” song acts as a countercultural and prophetic call.

Update: Find my next post here – “Intertextuality in Micah 7 (Part Two: Analysis)

[1] Hays, Echoes of Scripture, 14.
[2] These posts will be a shortened form of a paper I have written titled “Echoes of Exodus in Micah 7:8-20: Micah’s Critical Appropriation of the Song of the Sea.”
[3] 1) Availability: The Song of the Sea easily predates Micah 7:8-20 and is alluded to in other parts of the Hebrew canon, indicating a high level of availability. 2) Volume: The “volume” of the illusion increases throughout the unit, culminating in the imagery of YHWH hurling his enemies into the sea. At that point it can be said to be a “loud” and clear allusion. 3) Recurrence: No apparent references to the Song of the Sea elsewhere in Micah. 4) Thematic Coherence: Both texts have the Exodus as a background, both celebrate YHWH’s victory, and both use warrior and royal metaphors. 5) Historical Plausibility: The important role that the Song of the Sea played in Israelite history supports the notion that Micah might employ it to speak of a coming act of redemption. 6) History of Interpretation: Modern scholars regularly see the intertextual relationship (I have not researched ancient interpreters). 7) Satisfaction: Intertextual relationship makes sense both historically and in literary context. However this criteria must be reevaluated after my proposed reading is fully argued.
[4] This is a vital part of the study of intertextuality: “One should only speak of intertextuality when one is interested in exploring the effects of meaning that emerge from relating at least two texts together, and indeed, that neither of those texts considered alone can produce.” (Stefan Alkier, Intertextuality and the Semiotics of Biblical Texts, 9).