Irony in the Extreme
 by Lois Tverberg

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. Luke 7:28

Some statements of Jesus and Paul make us scratch our heads, because they seem to be insulting something that we thought was otherwise good. For instance, when Jesus says that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist, our question is, "What's wrong with John the Baptist?" But Jesus himself points out how great John is. He is making an extreme comparison to show that when God's Spirit is poured out on those who believe, they will be even more empowered to preach and convict than John! Wow!

We find this throughout the Old Testament as well as among the rabbis. Comparison and exaggeration were often employed to describe the awesome power of God, like in the following statement:

On that day the LORD will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them. Zechariah 12:8

As in Jesus' comparison above, we might misread this statement and ask, "What's wrong with King David, that he's being compared to the feeble?"  Instead, we should say "Wow!  In the end times, what amazing glory God's people will have!" Yet another example is in the following proverb where we see contrast and exaggeration to make a point:

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty warrior, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. Prov. 16:32

The point isn't that warriors are bad — in fact, warriors like King David were considered the greatest heroes of their day, and women filled the streets with dancing and singing when they came home from battle (1 Sam. 18:6-8). We only really understand the power of such a saying when we see the irony of elevating someone who can simply control his own anger to the same level as a national hero!

Rabbis often did this too, combining the habit of making "how much more" comparisons (called kal v'homer) with the tendency to exaggerate for emphasis. The following is an example:

Greater is the day of rainfall than the day of resurrection. For the latter benefits only the pious, whereas the former benefits pious and sinners alike.1

Here again, the "day of resurrection" will be when God's greatest glory is seen, when the faithful will be rewarded with eternal life. But the idea here is that God's mercy on earth is even more amazing, because every day that he sends rain, he shows his kindness even to people who hate him, by providing for their need for water — essential in the dry land of Israel. We see God's mercy every day of our lives, and his justice will only appear at the end.

It is most important for Christians to see this strong bent toward irony as we read the New Testament writings that compare the kingdom of Christ to the glory of Israel. For instance, in Hebrews, the giving of the covenant on Mt. Sinai is compared to the heavenly Jerusalem:

Heb. 12:18-24   For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them... But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem...

Once again, this passage makes the event on Mt. Sinai seem very negative. But in the Bible, the meeting of Israel with God on Mt. Sinai was considered a wonderful event, where he made his covenant with them to be his people. It was remembered with great awe and reverence, when the true Creator of the Universe manifested himself on earth, and it was a source of pride that the living God spoke to their nation personally (Deut. 4:33-36). Still today in Jewish tradition it is thought of as a "wedding ceremony" where God betrothed himself to his people. The point of this passage is not to say how terrible it was to have been at Mt. Sinai, but as glorious as that was, the coming of God's kingdom in Christ is even more!

Often Paul employs this same irony in his letters, and it is critical for Christians to recognize it so that they don't become anti-semitic in their disparagement of Israel. For instance, Paul uses it in Galatians 4:22-28 when he compares Israel to Hagar and Ishmael, and the Gentile believers to Sarah and Isaac. His point is to reassured the Gentiles that even though they weren't born naturally into the Jewish nation, God had accepted them as his true "family." Just as Hagar despised Sarah, (Gen. 16:4) they were being persecuted by the Jews for not being the true children of Abraham.2

We often read Paul's statements about the law and God's covenant with the Jews as negative, not realizing that in Paul's own mind, these are extremely positive. He is using building on them by using strong irony to say that as great as that was, the new covenant in Christ is even greater. Only when we see that will we comprehend the comparison his is making, will we see the glory of what God has done for the world through the coming of Christ.

1 Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 7a.

2 See The Irony of Galatians, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2002) by Mark Nanos, a Jewish scholar, who points out that the flavor of much of Paul's letter to the Galatians is ironic.

6 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All rights
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