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Traveling the Holy Land: Mt. Carmel

It’s December and that means Christmas.  However, instead of focusing on the traditional birth story of Jesus, we think you’ll enjoy considering someone who was treasured by Christ Jesus in a key moment of his ministry, the Old Testament prophet, Elijah.  Why?  Because Elijah (along with Moses, representing the Law) is one of the two great figures from the Old Testament that appears in the story of the Transfiguration (see Matt. 17:2 and Mark 9:2).   This video blog from  Mt. Carmel and the monastery that commemorates the site, is where Elijah challenged the Baal prophets of Queen Jezebel, Moabitess wife of King Ahab, recording in I Kings 18.

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Location of Mt. Carmel in Northern Israel

After a three year drought, the Lord directs Elijah to Ahab to prove once and for all the supremacy of God as the only power.  With 450 prophets of Baal assembling on Mt. Carmel, along with 400 prophets of Asherah, who also ‘eat at Jezebel’s table’ (I Kings 18:19), the contest begins and Elijah’s God triumphs and the Baal prophets are destroyed.

You’ll see a beautiful 19th century Carmelite monastery built to commemorate this ancient ‘high place’ on the slopes of Mt. Carmel near Haifa, Israel, an elevated site overlooking the whole valley below.

We welcome your thoughts in the comments below and feel free to share this with friends who also love the Scriptures.

 

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Biblical Leadership Hints for US Presidential Election

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David and Goliath, by Caravaggio

Is it possible that the Biblical story of Israel’s evolution– from nomads to slaves to free people who chose their own government—can shed needed light on today’s Presidential election?

All the way back to Abraham, God told this earliest of patriarchs that kings would be included in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6, NRSV).

The centripetal forces or ‘glue’ that held the twelve tribes together, weren’t just political or military leaders, such as Saul and later David–both anointed as kings. Rather it was the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law given in their wilderness crossing and turned to again and again for direction and guidance as they forged a nation out of tribes.

One can only wonder today how much ‘glue’, in the pluralistic societies that constitute historically Judeo-Christian countries like the United States, still exists of a shared moral law with the power to bind people to both it and each other.

Like today, ancient Israel also experienced centrifugal forces pulling them apart. There was the physical challenge of the land’s geography, not conducive to a strong political unit as ridges and gorges made it difficult for separated tribes to come together.

More dangerous were the reasserting forces of Baal and polytheism that presented a constant competition between the powers of Yahweh and Baal. Recall Elijah’s battle with Jezebel’s Baal prophets as he defended Yahweh (see I Kings 18). (Just use the surrogates of today’s many ‘idols’ – whether the pursuit of a perfect body image, wealth or non-stop entertainment — as a substitute for Baal and we see how apropos Israel’s challenges are to our own.)

Yet there was a countering centripetal force that held the tribes together: the invading Philistines. Enter the young shepherd, David, into Israel’s history.   The impact he would make for generations, defeating the enemy starting with Goliath, would be unmatched until Jesus of Nazareth’s arrival a millennium later.

Unfortunately, King Saul’s jealousy would rob the monarch of the gratitude he should have had for David, who would go on to unite the twelve tribes, bring needed peace to the new nation, and write some of the world’s most powerful songs or Psalms. Saul’s jealousy prompted the pursuit of David some sixteen times to kill him, as two vivid examples relate in I Sam 24 and 26 (the former when David doesn’t kill Saul in a cave and the latter sparing of Saul’s life at an encampment near Ziph.)

In addition to the magnanimity David shows someone trying to destroy him, today’s political candidates can discover specific leadership lessons from Deut. 17:14-20. These convey God’s intended qualifications for a future leader. For the purpose of space, I’ll site two and invite you to discover the others. See if you think many, or all, of the characteristics still apply.

  • “Be sure to select as king the man the Lord your God chooses” (Deut. 17: 15). Embedded in this aspect is a democratic election process by the people, i.e. ‘select’, and the ability to discern an individual who is selected for the office and times by God.
  • “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll…(and) always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees” (Deut. 17:18-19).

Can someone please hand our candidates a pen so they can get writing?!

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How Artistic Genius Captures History’s Greatest Betrayal

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Rembrandt’s “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver”, currently on exhibit at The J.P. Morgan Library & Museum.

If you admire others’ ability to draw, sketch, paint or sculpt, yet don’t seem to share those talents, welcome to my world of art appreciation instead.   After all, artistic brilliance needs those who can treasure and reflect on their masterpieces.

The Bible has long been the subject of some of the most monumental art through the centuries, affording art lovers plenty of opportunity for spiritual and aesthetic contemplation. Summer is a perfect time to focus on one tour de force just coming to light.

The J.P. Morgan Library in New York City has a current exhibit centered on a privately held Rembrandt often referred to as his first masterpiece, painted when just 23. Called Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, it is breathtaking how precisely the Dutch master captures the dismissive priest following Judas’ betrayal of Christ Jesus.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5, NRSV).

In a single spurning gesture of the Priest’s left hand, Rembrandt captures the emotional drama felt by a man who realizes he has made the most damning misjudgment of his life: betrayal of the Messiah he loved.

A traveling diplomat, Constantijn Huygens, experienced the painting in 1629 of the young artist soon to become a master, and penned: “The gesture of that one despairing Judas…screaming, begging for forgiveness, but devoid of all hope. His gaze wild, his hair torn out by the roots, his garments rent, his arms contorted, his hands clenched until they bleed. A blind impulse has brought him to his knees, his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness. All this I compare with all the beauty that has been produced throughout the ages. All honor to thee, Rembrandt!” (Letter by Huygens, excerpted in Morgan catalogue on exhibit.)

Students of Matthew’s Gospel, the only one in which Judas’ payment is mentioned, have long been familiar with the thirty pieces of silver the priests paid for being led to Jesus’ location during his prayerful preparation at Gethsemane. What may not be familiar is an Ex. 21:2 law describing property payment rights, the first time the ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is mentioned in the Bible.

32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

The only other mention of ‘thirty shekels of silver’ (prior to Judas) is in the book of Zechariah. The prophet is told by God to act as the shepherd for the sheep portrayed as the recalcitrant people of Israel. But those ‘sheep’ don’t want to repent and therefore the shepherd (Zechariah) tells the people he quits, and asks for whatever wage they feel is appropriate.

12 I then said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver (Zech. 11:12).

The fact that Zechariah is given only ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is an insult, conjuring up the meager price of a male slave, described above in Exodus.

How does all this relate to Judas and the priests? Note that it was the Temple priests who negotiated the original payment:

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14,15).

Expert in Jewish law, the Temple priests well knew of this reimbursement price of a slave from Exodus. In arrogant dismissal, they priced Jesus’ life at the same paltry rate. That Zechariah was God-directed to act as shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel, and paid the same remuneration, evokes the shepherding mantle Jesus bore as well.

The bottom line? Neither priest nor traitor could begin to grasp the Savior’s mission to redeem humanity from every ill that would beset it. That payment? Priceless.

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The Two-headed Coin of Biblical Fire

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Attributed to Dierick Bouts the Elder, Nethderlands, 1447 – Moses and the Burning Bush, with Moses Removing His Shoes

It’s summertime! * And with it come visions of barbecues, long summer days, walks in the woods and glorious starry nights.

All these powerful aspects of nature have been a focus the past few months while preparing three talks for a Bible conference on Scriptural Metaphors in Nature. What a powerful topic and the two brief pieces for the June newsletter are glimpses into lessons learned. If you too love the Psalmist’s cry:   “Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1, Common English Bible), sit back and read on. 

When you think of ‘fire’ in the Bible, you might go to its utility as a means of cooking, creating tools or heating homes. Such uses are reasonable and common. But it is the Bible’s metaphorical use of fire that reveals a two-part pattern of affliction and purification, devastation and deliverance.

Such meanings grow out of the literal nature of fire as a changing form of matter whose chemical reactions make it self-perpetuating. In other words, fire keeps burning as long as it has fuel and oxygen to feed it.

Wow. Those ancient Biblical writers zeroed in with laser insight on fire’s ‘self-perpetuating’ characteristic and saw its too frequent counterpart in human nature’s worst characteristics running unchecked. Isa. 9:18 describes how ‘wickedness burned like a fire.’ Since “wicked” isn’t a word often used today, substitute its 21st century similarities– anything criminal, barbarous, illegal, despicable, odious and outrageous. Doesn’t such behavior, usually designed to produce ‘shock and awe,’ show itself daily in the worst kind of self-indulgence?

Yet this is precisely what the prophet understood when he declares in the next verse (Isa. 9:19) that ‘the people became like fuel for the fire; no one spared another.’ Besides originating the English expression, ‘adding fuel to the fire,’ Isaiah captures how the darkest aspects of human nature feed division, immorality, discontent.

The Bible never leaves us at this description of the problem but lifts to the answer. Its many references to fire often include the concept of sacrifice. What must be relinquished in order to have the fire of inspiration burn instead?

In Abraham’s case, it seemed to be doubt that needed sacrificing. In its place, Abraham was learning to trust in the very God that had provided his son Isaac; that somehow this God wouldn’t be like the quixotic tribal gods surrounding his people, governing by whim and vendetta. Rather Abraham was finding God could be counted on to consistently bless not punish His offspring. A ram was supplied instead of a son as an appropriate sacrifice on this open fire of spiritual lesson-learning.

Most frequently, the Scriptures indicate that fire represented the presence of God, often through theophany’s (or ‘God-appearing’s’). Two vivid examples involving fire were the burning bush appearing to Moses, and the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel through the wilderness.

A revealing exercise is to look for the Biblical uses of fire and see what it represents: sacrifice, God’s presence, purification or something else. As we discover such specific examples throughout the Old Testament, the New Testament’s Pentecostal moment of ‘tongues of fire’ (Acts 2:3) takes on fresh meaning. And as you explore, we’d love to hear what you’re discovering so please share with Bible Roads’ readers.

Watch for the release on streaming video of the complete three talks on the Bible and nature, coming July 1st under the title: “Spiritual Sustainability: A Biblical Perspective”. And now for that walk in the woods…

  • At least in North America, so my apologies to our friends in Australia and New Zealand.
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Light: Three Distinct Biblical Uses

Everyone knows what light means – whether it’s the child convinced it’s all that stands between monsters and his bed, or the person appreciating street lamps after leaving the theater. It just makes life better, easier, happier. In fact, light is defined as the energy source for illumination, the very power that makes sight possible.BV light

If our fourth grade science lessons taught us anything, it was that the sun supplies light that provides energy to green plants, which in turn provides for other living things in that first big word learned: photosynthesis.

Think of the Bible as a lesson in a kind of spiritual photosynthesis, as God supplies the light man needs, who in turn reflects that needed light out to humanity.

With over 200 references to light in the Old and New Testaments, it’s quickly evident this is a major metaphor running its golden thread through the Bible. My question, when asked to give a talk (“Let there be Light”) for a recent conference on Biblical Nature Metaphors, was if there is a pattern throughout the Scriptures in how light is used?

I was a bit in awe to discover three distinct blueprints concerning light.

The first you might call the light of God or ‘Genesis light’. It’s the illumination at creation on that first day, when formlessness and emptiness give way to form and fullness.

This ‘Genesis light’ appears again on the fourth day of creation when lights separate day from night, with the sun and moon making their Biblical debut. How the ancient world revolved around light – with every primeval culture welcoming full moons turning their face to earth once a month. What a logical opportunity to worship, celebrate, dance and meet. The Jews even organized their original calendars around the moon’s cycles.

The Psalmist wrote about Genesis light as the very presence of God, all the time making it clear that this light was not God itself, as so many of their neighbors believed.   The Greeks might have revered Helios, god of the sun, or the Romans their Mithras, but the Hebrews understood God was behind the light, but not the material expression itself. “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord,” Ps. 4:6 declared. And “you are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment” (Ps 104:1).

One indication of the seriousness and significance of light appears in Exodus when one of the ten plagues is darkness. That it’s lineup–in the ever more grim manifestations of divine displeasure–is number nine, says much. Only the death of the firstborn child is worse than darkness covering the land. And the Exodus account makes clear such darkness, or absence of light, isn’t just experienced visually, but viscerally. ‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt” (Ex. 10:21).

The other two aspects of light (the light of Christ and man’s role as light’s representative) will be discussed in subsequent blogs. You’ll also be able to hear and see the whole program later this summer around July 1, when a streaming video will be released on this and two other talks on Biblical metaphors of nature: “Spiritual Sustainability: A Biblical Perspective”.

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