Quotation Marks

Originally written as a series of tweets:

Quotation marks were invented around 1700. The Bible was written without them. All quote marks were added later.

Look at Genesis 12:1-3, God’s promise to Abram. Abram obeyed the command to leave his native land, setting out for distant Canaan.

But what did Abram hear and when did he hear it? We see quote marks and we assume a literal utterance. We assume a current conversation.

Remove the quotation marks and the matter is much less clear.

Genesis 12:1 begins, “Now the Lord had said to Abram....” The past perfect tense, “had,” indicates time had passed since God spoke.

Maybe a lot of time? God might have spoken to Abram slowly. Abram’s understanding might have come gradually.

The Bible says he was 75 when he said Yes and set out. What if he heard back when he was 25?

Maybe Abram spent 50 years trying to figure things out, trying to live his own way, trying to be successful in other people’s eyes.

Finally he became weary enough to give in. “OK OK, God. Let’s try this crazy thing that I have always felt like you’re asking me to do.”

Within your own life, do not demand that God must speak inside of quotation marks. This is a way to hide, a way to make yourself deaf.

Are you waiting for God to speak? Perhaps he has. Maybe he spoke with such devoted slowness that one sentence took years to fill your heart.

Maybe the longing that never quite leaves you is the whisper that has waited for you to listen.


Not only does the Book of Exodus give us the Ten Commandments, it also includes the Bible’s earliest reference to a person being filled with the Spirit of God. (I am grateful to Richard Foster’s Steams of Living Water, a wonderful book, for making me aware of this detail.)

A man named Bezalel was the one about whom God said, “Look, I have filled him with God’s Spirit” in Exodus 31:3.

Why do this? To what end? Even after this filling, Bezalel was no mystic, no orator, no miracle-worker, no champion. Bezalel was a craftsman.

Specifically, he was appointed by God to work metal, cut stone, and carve wood. See Exodus 31:4-5.

That means scripture’s first reference to the Holy Spirit working through a man is a reference to a tradesman applying his mind, skills, strength, and tools to make something of material value.

Our productive abilities are gifts, and our skills are divine. Our work is holy. Both our jobs and our art are sacred—if we choose to see them that way.

Jesus was a carpenter.  This would seem to be the model for the significance of our earthly work, except there is a model for this significance that is even greater and even more basic than Jesus’ example. In Genesis 1, the creation story, we see a maker doing material work.

In the sequence that Genesis 1 describes, God made day and night, then the sky, then the land and sea, then vegetation, and so on. At every step, God took hold of worldly matter and he crafted it into something better than it was.

The work was worthy even to God himself. According to Genesis, he kept on pausing (Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, and so on) in order to notice that the work was good.

You and I still live within that same material world. More, you and I work here. We are called to keep on adding value to the world, arguably as part of that same creation process that now continues under human stewardship.

And as we remain true to this work, as we continue in it according to the opportunities and gifts we are given, I don’t doubt that we still give God pause.

Presumably, God still responds to worthy work the way he has responded from the beginning. He notices the work done with love and devotion, and he sees that it is good.


Is God real? Part of me tries to answer that question with reference to my little life. The divine realm seems insubstantial, distant, ethereal. When I pray to be saved from car trouble and I am saved from car trouble, the happiness I feel is a product of relief. God did this "real" thing, so I am reassured that he is real.

However: Am I real? Arguably, I am the insubstantial one. I am a cloud. So are you. This is a physical fact—the nucleus of any atom that composes one of us is minuscule, while its electrons, relatively speaking, orbit far away from it. There is nothing in between the two. As a result, if you could take a pointer as tiny as an electron and point it at any part of your body, that pointer would almost certainly point at nothing. It would point to a spot of emptiness that bears no indication of you.

Meanwhile, we are just as absent within large-scale measurements. Take the sweep of time from beginning to end. Take the span of space within reach of our telescopes. My life, including the impact of my life, is so tiny as to have no measurable reality within either of these contexts.

Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth. The meekness of appreciating our own minuteness and insubstantiality is a prerequisite for understanding the world as it truly is. If I am "real," as I like to imagine myself to be, then God must be hyper-real. He is the possessor of ultimate reality—the reality more real than me, more real than the earth I stand on. I come closer to God, closer to peace, when I see my life as a vapor that will melt away in the presence of his reality.

About Time

The sixth commandment speaks against murder. Jesus said we violate it by committing murder in our hearts (Matthew 5:22).

The seventh commandment speaks against adultery. Jesus said we violate this by committing adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:28).

The ninth commandment speaks against slander. Could it be that this commandment, too, reaches deeper than what I say or do? I break the ninth commandment whenever I commit my thoughts and emotion to an unfounded conclusion about someone, even if I restrain myself against speaking that conclusion aloud.

The text of the ninth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Adults translate this commandment to children as, “You shall not lie.” I think that translation lacks something significant. The easier way to slander someone is not to lie, but to tell the truth about them. That is, we tell a selective version of the truth that emphasizes the incendiary facts while ignoring perspective and context. When I slander someone in my thoughts, I do exactly this same thing. In my indignation, I focus on the one or two facts I find objectionable, without giving any space in my mind to the competing facts that might provide balance or allow this person a defense.

The remedy is to seek the fuller truth. Yes, this person said X against something that I hold dear. But did he really mean to imply all that I took from his statement? Yes, that person did Y, which caused me to suffer a problem. But did she have any idea that this would be the effect, or did she have any reasonable choice other than what she did?

Viewed this way, the ninth commandment is seen to be a commandment about time. There is no way to understand someone—let alone love that person—unless you are willing to give time to that pursuit. Relationships are built up through many moments together, and the essential ingredient of all of those moments is time.

Notice that the ninth commandment lines up with the fourth commandment when the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are placed side-by-side. If the first tablet has commandments 1 through 5 and the second tablet has commandments 6 through 10, then commandments 4 and 9 are side-by-side. The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Thus, time is the current that runs through both commands. The ninth commandment says give time to people, as the fourth commandment says give time to God.