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Why linking Valentine’s Day and a Biblical Book isn’t crazy!

The judgment of Solomon, by Raphael (1483-1520) painted at the Vatican while Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel nearby.

The headline of this blog might be a head-scratcher for you.  After all, Valentine’s Day has its origin in the ancient pagan cultures of Greece and Rome when orgies celebrating romance and fertility regularly occurred. But as the Roman Empire was Christianized, the festival of Juno Februata – the Roman goddess of love, marriage, and women—was replaced with religious festivals to the Virgin Mary and an obscure Saint Valentine.  By 1536 Henry VIII, known for his womanizing, declared February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day and the modern custom of exchanging love messages began.

How does that relate to our Bible?  Because of that perplexing book, “The Song of Solomon” (or “Song of Songs” as it’s also called)–long been thought to be one of the most difficult books of Scripture to interpret.  Is it to be read as an allegory?  A drama?  Literally?  However one interprets it, “Song” is poetry chock full of timeless tips for lovers.  For instance, compliments, not complaints, bind the ties of affection.   A sample might be:  “ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song 1:15).

For all the steamy poetry that appears to be between a country girl and her beloved, a simple shepherd, the book made the ultimate ‘cut’:  the Canon.  Why?  Because the more we understand the love between two individuals, it is reasoned, the more we understand our relationship to God, often depicted as a marriage in the Scriptures (see the book of Hosea, especially chapter 4).

“Song” has no religious beliefs, themes or guidelines for ancient Israel, no plot that seems evident, not even a single mention of God.  And then there’s that erotic and figurative language filled with the longing, love, joy and fear of a man and woman in love.

What a puzzle it has been for Christians through the centuries, which most probably explains why Song ’s most popular interpretation is allegorical.  Couldn’t the references to love, for example, apply to God’s love for His creation, or to the love within a devoted marriage?  For Jews, it might be about God’s love for the chosen people, Israel.  And for Christians, some see it as Christ’s relation to his bride, the Church.

Whatever way one interprets “Song of Solomon”, its name derives from its opening verse:  “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (Song 1:1).  The book concludes the Old Testament’s collection of Wisdom literature – one of the three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the Law and the Prophets.  Like other books in this category, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, all three are attributed to the wisdom of King Solomon.   Scholars don’t believe Solomon actually wrote these books so much as an author wanted to associate its language with the renowned wisdom traditions of Solomon – not to mention, in the case of Song of Solomon, his love of women (see I Kings 11:3).

So this February 14th, perhaps try something a little different: read some love poetry from this rather baffling Biblical book.  Dig deeply to see why it has had a place in the Canon all these centuries and then please share what you discover with your fellow Bible Roads’ readers.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Six Reasons why Abraham is a January Role Model

Jozsef Molnar, Le voyage d’Abraham d’Ur à Canaan, 1850,  Galerie Nationale Hongroise, Budapest

With a new year, who better to look at biblically than Abraham, that Scriptural template for new starts.  His life spans 14 chapters in the book of Genesis (from 11 – 25) and weaves an extraordinary story of faithfulness, mistakes, and renewed efforts.  I’ve loved reviewing the sweeping events of this Patriarch of Israel’s life, not just because he is a key figure in the world’s three great religions –Judaism, Christianity and Islam –or even because his story launches the Bible’s ancestral narratives.

Rather, Abraham embodies timeless qualities we can model today:  flexibility, openness, willingness and especially faithfulness.  As you think about 2019 and your spiritual progress, it’s hard to aim higher than hearing and following God’s direction which requires trust and obedience, qualities that Abraham models – most of the time!

Below are six key events with lessons that yield, like interconnected threads of a tapestry, a life shaped by spiritual pursuits that grow into blessings for an entire nation.  This process of examining some of his pivotal moments has been instructive in discerning turning points that can fill a life with contribution, meaning, and influence.

Please share what these mean to you or add any of the other signposts you’ve noted in his spiritual journey that are helpful on your own.

  1. Abram, his original name, received God’s call (Gen. 12) to leave Ur in Mesopotamia–south of today’s Baghdad, Iraq—to relocate to an initially unnamed land God would provide. The unstated outcome of following this divine directive meant forfeiting his inheritance –all the animals, household possessions and land–from Terah, Abram’s father.  The fact that God promised the blessing of new land still meant turning away (as the expression goes) from ‘the bird in the hand (Ur) worth two in the bush (the promised land)’.  Attributes:  willingness, readiness, humility.
  2. Abram’s faith in God causes him to obey, a singular act so powerful that 2000 years later a young Pharisee-turned-apostle, Paul, will point to it as the model for the faith that new Christ followers (“all who believe”) will need on their spiritual journey (see Rom. 4:11). This obedience is all the more remarkable considering the promise of heirs in spite of Sarai’s barrenness, the central challenge of the Abraham saga.   Attributes:  trust, conviction, faith.
  3. Abram’s story is not just his own but a precursor to the nation of Israel’s experiences as well. In fact, God’s call in Gen. 12:1-3, is considered a ’fulcrum text’, meaning one that is central to both past and future events.  For the past, the text declares that God’s call to Abram will bless ‘all the families of the earth’, meaning those mentioned prior to Abram in Gen. 1 – 11 (Noah, his son Shem, and others).  These verses of God’s call then point forward to the rest of Genesis where the beginning story of the ‘great nation’ commences with the stories of Abraham’s heirs (Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph).  How Abraham answers God will affect all those future children, families, and tribes, although Abraham himself won’t see this.  The patriarch’s positive response to the sudden divine directive of his calling reveals more spiritual qualities. Attributes:  obedience and vision.
  4. Abraham is already in his 7th decade, not exactly the time most people call the moving van and take off!  The journey was 560 miles northwest through the Fertile Crescent, along the Euphrates River to Haran, in eastern Syria. Attributes:  grit, persistence, stamina.           
  5. Along the route of his journey, Abraham is not told where this land or final stop will be, yet he continually builds altars as an acknowledgment of his faith in this God he cannot see. How beautifully this tees up what his grandson, Jacob, will do in Gen. 35, when he too will build an altar, acknowledging the Almighty’s presence every step of the journey: “He has been with me wherever I have gone” (Gen. 35:3).  We can only imagine how Abraham and his family told the stories of such stops and how this thankfulness for God’s blessings carried to subsequent generations.  Attribute:  gratitude.
  6. When in Haran, Abram is again directed to pick up and move the family, flocks and possessions.  Now seventy-five, he is finally told that Canaan is indeed the promised land.  Yet on arrival, he discovers no milk and honey but a terrible famine, one more test for Abram’s faith.  So he heads South to Egypt in order to survive, an act later generations will imitate. Like many life journeys, Abram makes a bad decision to ensure his own survival, positioning the much-desired Sarai as his sister.  (He reasoned that if the Egyptians knew she was Abram’s wife, they would kill him and take her.)  Gen. 20:12 reveals that they actually were half-siblings.  But failing to truthfully acknowledge Sarai also as his wife enables Pharaoh to take the beautiful woman into his home, paying Abram a significant amount in servants and animals as a dowry.

What a terrible price Abram’s cowardly, self-serving actions have cost:  he loses Sarai, and she loses her honor since the ‘marriage’ with Pharaoh was no doubt consummated.  Yet in spite of Abram’s duplicity, the deceived (Pharaoh) is punished instead of the deceiver (Abram).   Although the Pharaoh experiences plagues for his involvement with Sarai, he is a model of generosity, allowing Abram and Sarai to leave Egypt with all their possessions, thus becoming an example of how God is always in charge, saving his children even when they’ve erred.   Attribute: learning from the sin of self-centeredness.

Perhaps this last episode is the nadir of the father of Israel’s life, yet it is also the precursor to what the nation of Israel will itself experience:  the ups and downs of obedience, not unlike our own lives perhaps.   This is one of the dozens of reasons the Bible continues to guide us on our journey from whatever ‘Ur’ we come from to our own ‘promised land’.

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Six Reasons to Celebrate Jesus’ Birth

While answers to this question might appear so obvious that it doesn’t bear asking, I invite you to pause this Christmas Eve and actually write down your own answers.  They probably won’t match anyone else’s list and that’s just fine.  What this simple exercise does is bring the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth over 3 billion people celebrate this Christmas season, into our hearts a bit more.

So as we close another year, it is a joy to share with you, my much-appreciated BibleRoads friends, some of my reasons and hope you will share yours in the comments section below.

  • First, I celebrate that God loved His/Her creation enough to send the son who would not be fooled by what his senses told him was ‘real’ – leprosy, deafness, blindness, etc. His example in busting through compelling physical evidence remains an astonishing example to follow.  And where would we be without it?

 

  • Next, I celebrate Joseph, who had the humility to stay on the marriage track with Mary, since he was legally within his rights to have her stoned for a pregnancy that could only be explained through the ‘overshadowing’ of the Holy Ghost.

 

  • Mary is almost beyond comprehension as a teen whose spiritual-mindedness was so developed that she was receptive to the angel’s extraordinary message. She is a model of listening on tiptoe and then being obedient, regardless of how much the message stretches us or goes against popular custom and others’ opinions.

 

Far left end, lower register of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus (before mid-4th cent.): The Adoration of the Magi

  • The Wise Men are particularly appreciated this season since they symbolize the universal appeal of Christ, the divinity of Jesus’ nature. With today’s technology, we increasingly learn just how interconnected our little global village actually is.  I appreciate these insights from a sermon given around 440 CE:

How did it come to be that these men, who left their home country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in his appearance to enforce such  systematic adoration, offered these particular gifts?  It  was the  star that attracted their eyes, but the rays of truth also penetrated their hearts, so that before they  started on their toilsome journey, they first understood that the One who was promised was owed gold as royalty,  incense as divinity, and myrrh as mortal…and so it was of great advantage to us future people that this infant should be witnessed by these wise men.1

  • The Shepherds are a lesson in preparation. The qualities their profession demanded – to see that those in their care found enough food and water, that they were well-guarded from wolves or thieves who would carry them off, that the animals wouldn’t be overdriven, that the young ones sometimes needed to be carried, not pushed, counting each animal at night as they passed under their hand – were the very attributes they would eventually recognize in the leadership of Jesus over Israel, willing to die for those in his ‘flock’.

 

  • And finally, the foiling of Herod the Great’s scheme to kill off the Christ child before his life’s purpose could be fulfilled. I sometimes forget that the Wise Men journeyed first to Jerusalem and there had that encounter with Herod who thought to use them for his own malevolent purposes. As someone threatened by anything or anyone that would encroach on his power, upend his authority, overturn his sense of reality, Herod is a reverse model for all that we want to rule out of our lives and actions:  jealousy, scheming, deception, and the draining ambition of personal power.  The Magi’s ‘wisdom’ was never more in evidence than when they wisely did not inform Herod of the child’s location and instead returned to their homes, content to have seen him.

This list is far from complete.  Please share what makes you pause this Christmas season in gratitude for all that the Master Christian’s birth means to you.

[1]Sermon by Pope Leo, quoted in “The Magi in Literature”, Robin Jensen, Bible Review, Dec. 2001, Vol. 17, #06.

 

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Thanksgiving Psalms for the Season

Praise the Lord!”  And so begins one of the glorious types of Psalms (Ps. 111) from the Psalter, built on a recognition of God’s many blessings.  What a perfect time of year to consider the Thanksgiving Psalm more deeply and maybe even write your own!

David dictating the Psalms.  Codex binding in ivory, from the Treasure of Saint-Denis, France, end of 10th century.

There are many types of Psalms, but two predominate:  the praise psalm and the lament.  The former is often sung as a hymn and the latter, a lament, is a prayer.  Both types of Psalms are found applying to either individuals or whole communities.  The Thanksgiving Psalm begins where the lament leaves off– the gratitude expressed for the very thing or situation that had before seemed so insurmountable.

Thanksgiving Psalms are complements to laments because they provide concrete testimony to answered prayer.  Just as laments are cries for help during a crisis, Thanksgiving Psalms are their natural corollary because they declare:  “My prayer is answered.”

Yet Thanksgiving Psalms are more than hymns of praise because they relish the language of proclamation of what God has done and is doing for both the individual and community.

The Psalter has long served as one of the most loved portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, treasured by Jew and Christian alike, and quoted more in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. Perhaps one reason for the Psalms’ timeless appeal is that all 150 Psalms teach us how to pray, how to feel God’s presence.  They show why we can have unwavering confidence in God’s power to deliver men, women and children from every kind of evil that would intimidate, threaten or bully.

An example comes from one of my earliest childhood memories.  My mother, brother and I were shouting the 23rd Psalm together as we held hands in our Oklahoma home’s small hallway, the only room where flying glass couldn’t reach us. It was our way of remembering that God’s power is greater than any tornado funnel, including the nearby one which sounded like a freight train about to come through the house.  Not just that year but all our growing up years, we experienced protection and safety from diseases, accidents, school challenges and sports, and the Psalms were a significant part of those prayers.

Here are some Thanksgiving Psalms you might enjoy reading this season (Ps. 30, 46, 48, 66. 76, 126, 135, and 147), along with an extended portion here of Ps. 111.

*Praise the Lord!

I will thank the Lord with all my heart

as I meet with his godly people.

How amazing are the deeds of the Lord!

All who delight in him should ponder them.

Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty.

His righteousness never fails.

He causes us to remember his wonderful works.

How gracious and merciful is our Lord!

He gives food to those who fear him;

he always remembers his covenant…

All he does is just and good,

and all his commandments are trustworthy.

It is always a joy to hear from you, our thoughtful readers.  Please share how you think about these Thanksgiving Psalms, or better yet, share a verse of one you’ve penned to capture your own gratitude this beautiful season of giving thanks.

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How to have a ‘wow’ moment in group Bible Study

I remember it like yesterday  About 15 years ago, a group of girlfriends and I decided to meet monthly in one another’s homes to read through a Biblical book,  share insights and enjoy each others’ company.  It turned out to be a pretty unbeatable formula as we realized most of us thrive when two basic things occur:  creating community and continuous learning.  Our Bible Study group accomplished both in spades.

“Christ at the Last Supper” by Harry Anderson (1906-1996)

That Saturday morning we stumbled upon a practice that turned out to be hugely valuable: we staged the Last Supper, one of the New Testament’s most well-known stories.  By that I mean we literally tried to recreate the scene by thinking through the seating arrangement John’s Gospel described–although we weren’t really sure what we’d accomplish other than hoping for a clearer understanding of that momentous scene (see John 13:21-30).

We assumed it would have been John on one side and Peter on the other, knowing those were his two special disciples, indicated by events like the Transfiguration where they were the only ones included.  But in the prior foot-washing story, we realized Peter is neither first nor last, but somewhere in the middle (see John 13:5,6).  When Jesus returns to the table,  announcing Judas’ coming betrayal (see John 13:17,18), we read:  One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him” (John 13: 23).  This is John.  The next verse reveals Peter’s distance, not nearness:  “Simon Peter therefore motioned to him (John)  to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking (John 13:24).

I’ll never forget the moment when we simultaneously realized the text implied it was Judas probably sitting in the other honored seat next to the Master.  Could it be that Jesus was providing Judas one final opportunity to make a decision other than betrayal, an opportunity to be a better version of himself?  An opportunity to rise instead of fall, to take a stand for what Judas knew was right, rather than surrender to the same evil influence that Jesus had successfully denounced at the launch of his ministry (see Matt. 4, Mark 1:12  and Luke 4).

In seeing that tiny detail of that history-changing night, I realized that love means never giving up on someone, continuing to engage, to stay with them to offer one more opening to make a choice that could change the course of a life.   Talk about the opportunity for second chances! You might not initially think such a detail could be helpful, but it has provided a standard of forgiveness and patience that has guided me many times in the intervening years.

Recently I read this statement that confirmed what we glimpsed, written by a Jewish convert to Christianity who wrote extensively on Jewish practices in the New Testament, with emphasis added:

“Jewish documents are explicit in the arrangement of the table. It seems to have been quite an established rule that in a company of more than two, say of three, the chief personage or Head, in this case, Christ, reclined on the middle divan. We know from the Gospel narrative that John occupied the place on his Right hand, at the end of the divans, at the head of the table. But the chief place next to the Master would be to His left. We believe it to have been actually occupied by Judas. It is thought that Peter sat at the head of the table across from John. The rest of the disciples would occupy such places as were most convenient, or suited their fellowship with one another”  (from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim,  1825-1889).  

I share this treasured insight gained from a simple Bible Study group moment because I’ve so come to believe in the blessings such study can bestow on everyone who participates in something similar.   It’s the adult version of ‘back to school’, with significant spiritual lessons to be gleaned.   It’s a joy to watch at least eight new groups start this fall, using one of the eleven (soon to be twelve)  BibleRoads workbooks, then hearing of the friendships and insights that grow from such associations.

I was thinking of this as preparation proceeds for an upcoming four day Bible Study at the beautiful Cedars’ Camps in the Ozark’s, on “Mark’s Gospel”.  If people have never been to such an event, they might not know what to expect.  Just consider any study project where you first prepare on your own by studying and answering provided questions, then think and pray through a text, researching it in various resources.   Then benefit from coming together to share those insights with others who also want to dig deeper.   Combine that with facilitation providing cultural, historical and religious background, asking key questions, urging people to think more deeply, and suddenly the text comes alive in new, fresh ways.

If this is something you’re interested in, please feel free to be in touch and/or watch a free, short video on some tips that could be helpful.  While nothing substitutes for individual prayer and study, there are  benefits from being part of group Bible Study:

  • Getting to know fellow church members and friends at a deeper level
  • Appreciating the accountability the group demands (don’t show up if you’re not prepared)
  • Having a deadline (such as monthly or bi-weekly meetings) to ensure Bible study is a priority in busy lives
  • Learning more about the Bible’s history, culture, politics, religion, and geography — all with the goal of making its stories more understandable, accessible and relevant to today
  • Learning to speak the same language of the Bible that other Christian friends use vs. employing denominational language that others may find unfamiliar or puzzling
  • And above all, finding new spiritual insights that are applicable to lives today

On such occasions, one can feel ideas bursting like popcorn in the room.  Fresh insights now flood thought and suddenly a familiar passage is illumined in startling new ways.  The atmosphere of loving, non-judgmental support surely adds to the clarity and insight participants gain.  And most importantly, individuals leave with a sense of how to dig more deeply and thoughtfully into a Biblical text on their own.

We would love to hear your experiences in a group Bible Study,  so please take a moment to share any that are meaningful.  And happy digging!

 

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