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Snakes, Mountains and Moses

Mt. Nebo and Kings Hiway

View from Mt. Nebo and King’s Highway, linking ancient Edom, Moab and Amman Kingdoms.

Jordan is a country full of surprises, mainly of how many Biblical sites there are. One of my favorites is Mt. Nebo, the traditional site thought to be where Moses hands over the reins to his number 2 in command, Joshua. Was it because Moses was tired and decided to give up leadership to the next generation? Hardly.

Nothing Moses did seems to have been motivated by anything but his clarity about God’s direction, which he had to learn as we all do. Whether it was leaving the wilderness to return to Egypt where he was a wanted man, or herding his often-recalcitrant fellow Hebrews through a generation of wilderness, Moses listened to God most of the time, and bore the weight of consequences when he didn’t, as in this case.

The decision not to enter ‘the Promised Land’ was based on a Biblical directive he disobeyed. The account (in Numbers 20, NRSV) explains that the Israelites were in the wilderness called Zin, without water. Turning to God in prayer, he got his answer:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock (emphasis added) before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.

…but chose to ignore it….

So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice (emphasis added) with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 

…and suffered the consequences.

12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 

Talk about having a dramatic moment?! Did Moses succumb to that all too modern malady of performing for the crowds? Isn’t it more dramatic to strike the rock for all to see then simply talk to it when few could hear? Perhaps that was Moses’ reasoning– something we’ll never know.

But we do know that Moses learned an important lesson in obedience, as did his brother Aaron who was also disobedient. This is where the Bible is the best literal guidebook for travelers. Numbers 20 and 21 continue the saga of the journey to freedom, how the King of Edom forbade entrance into his territory, even if the Israelites kept to themselves on The King’s Highway (the very road on which our bus traveled!).   Lesson learned: keep going (and listening) despite the obstacles that arise, regardless of how daunting.

God directs them around Edom (near today’s Petra, and part of ancient Edom), along the Red Sea. Aaron goes to die on Mt. Hor, the most prominent peak visible from today’s Petra. Once again the people complain and this time serpents are sent (Num. 21:7-9).

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

So visitors to Mt. Nebo today are treated to an enormous brass sculpture of a serpent on a pole. One traveler observed how it looked like the medical profession’s symbol, sometimes explained as sourced from the Greek mythology of Hermes, who is given a staff by Apollo, the god of healing. They obviously don’t know their Scripture!

Mt Nebo

Mt Nebo photo credit: “Nebo04(js)” by Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

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The Psalms: Man Responds to God!

Fałat_Old_man_praying

“Old Man Praying” by Julian Falat (1853-1929) National Museum in Warsaw

If someone were to think of the Psalms ‘only’ as hymns of praise, often set to music, they’d be missing why they’ve been so central to the worship of God throughout both Jewish and Christian history.

In addition to the beauty of their poetry and musicality, the Psalter is the only Biblical book in which man responds to God. This is partly evident in the way they are written in the 2nd person voice: ‘you’. “Save me O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul” is really saying “YOU save me O God…”.

Consider that in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, all the books of both the Law and the Prophets are God revealing the spiritual nature of the Creator to the patriarchs, prophets and other receptive hearts. The family and national accounts chart the Israelites’ ups and downs –listening and not listening, obedient one moment to their covenantal blessing and then throwing it off as so much discarded refuse the next.

But the Psalms are the intimate, sometimes anguished, and often joyous response to God for every high and low of the human scene. There isn’t a human emotion they don’t encompass. Whether the writer is King David or one of his court musicians, such as the sons of Asaph, these prayers and laments reveal the most personal fears, guilt, and revenge as well as overflowing gratitude. Why? Because they take they take every detail of their lives to God to sort it all through.

The Psalms show us a completely theocentric people. No armchair psychologists here. No face-booking or tweeting of slights or self-congratulatory missives.

The Psalms are the real deal, people just like us sorting through the debris and exaltations of human experience – why tough things come to families, neighbors and nations. Yet heartbreak coexists with unutterable joy because even the laments wondrously turn into prayers of gratitude and praise. Even if the writer doesn’t see God this moment, he (or she) makes every effort to remember, with conviction, an earlier time when God indeed was his salvation.

Reading through a handful of Psalms, looking for major themes, reveals their breadth and depth:

  • Why it’s vital to defend one’s thinking daily (Ps. 7)
  • How to see through the raging of ‘the carnal mind’ (Paul’s later term for what would oppose itself to God) and remain unimpressed (Ps. 2)
  • Trust in God (Ps. 91)
  • Protection (Ps. 16)
  • Self-examination in order to eradicate errors too long held
  • The foolishness and even moral idiocy of thinking there is no God
  • The counterfeit of the Gen. 1:26 man (made in “God’s image”) called ‘the children of man”
  • The source for true satisfaction
  • The every-whereness of God’s voice
  • To be honest in our prayers, not polite (Ps. 137)
  • And one especially compelling: The spiritual qualifications for those involved in God’s work, in spiritual endeavors.

I’ve included some of the Psalms with each topic, but left others blank. Perhaps you’ll like this list and work with it, adding your own themes and finding the Psalms that illustrate the ones above. We love hearing from you as you discover meaning so please feel free to write about your own love affair with the Psalter.

Good digging!

 

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Jonah: How Big is our Love and other Lessons for Today

Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, Gustave Dore, 1866

In this third and final blog on Jonah, we explore how to bring the text forward, building on last week’s focus on the world BEHIND the text.   This is the linchpin of Bible Study, the ‘so what’ question? “So what does this have to do with life today?” If we don’t apply the text, we’re just reading history. But if we employ it, we can change history.

Jonah prompts us to probe the difference between ‘religious truth’ and ‘historical truth’,  because of its fantastical elements like the fish swallowing and spitting up a man.  If it’s not about an actual event, then what is the parable’s ‘religious truth’ that has made it one of the Old Testament’s most popular books for generations?

Jonah is classified as one of the prophetic books, and placed in the canon there.  Yet its four chapters are more allusive than dogmatic. With so many details unknown, the text raises more questions than it answers. Could this have been the writer’s intent since he even ends the book with questions?

         Then God said to Jonah,Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?’                                      (NLT, Jon. 4:9)

Exasperated at Jonah’s continued jealous and narrow-minded response to the Ninevites’ change of heart,  God again questions:

        …Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (NRSV, Jon. 4:11)

The reader is left filling in gaps with answers to the many questions raised. In fact, identifying these is a valuable way to explore what otherwise looks like a simple parable on obedience (or not) to God.  Here are a few, and please add to this list for what Jonah prompts you to consider more deeply, sharing through the “comments” section below):

  • Why did Jonah initially avoid God’s call and flee to Tarshish? (What is the state of thought here that is a major alert to us?)
  • How could Jonah sleep while the storm was raging and the sailors working so hard to survive? (What ‘storms’ are raging around us while we sleep comfortably in our ‘boats’ or lives?)
  • Where is Jonah seeking comfort and where is he uncomfortable? (Where do we seek comfort and where are we uncomfortable?)
  • Did he really repent when in the fish, a fact we might assume but the text doesn’t indicate clearly? (If not, what does that mean about our inner motive fulfilling our mission?)
  • What did he tell the Ninevites that caused such an immediate repentance? (Who are the ‘Ninevites’ of our lives and how do we communicate with them?)
  • If God is all about justice, why were the Ninevites forgiven instead of punished? (What is the nature of God revealed in Jonah? How do we think of God in terms of the balance between justice and mercy?)
  • What is the relationship of Israel to the outside world?

It is this final question that is the giant ‘so what’ to me about Jonah. What is my relation, as a Christian today, to the ‘outside’ world, the world that isn’t of my church family or even Christian family?

This was brought home sharply while attending a Presbyterian minister’s friend presentation about his recent trip to Syria. Joining several other ministers in Lebanon, they went by military escort to Homs, a city I had visited and loved when traveling there ten years ago. Their mission was to bring prayer and support (since no other aid is allowed at present) to a city that has been under siege for years. Seeing the bombed out images of Christian churches, learning more of the thousands forced to flee their homes– now refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere–is heartbreaking if we leave it there.

But this minister, along with thousands of other Christians worldwide, is NOT having a ‘Jonah moment’, thinking only of his own comfort and biases. He knows, as do all who take up this call, that we must answer for those in the Middle East through active prayer and whatever specific additional steps come, to meet their needs. Jonah also tells me I have to equally pray and forgive those who have perpetrated their exodus.

Jonah demonstrates how all-encompassing God’s love is, and therefore how inclusive ours must be. The thousands of Christians forced to flee their homes in the Middle East after 2000 years, hope we’ve learned its lessons well.

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Jonah: An Ancient Archie Bunker?!

Jonah and the Whale, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1568-1625

Last week’s blog in this three part series was the world OF the text. Now is part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals).

One way to initially unpack a Biblical text is to find out when it was written– providing often-significant context for why this story, told at this time.

Jonah is written quite late in Israel’s history, around 400 BCE, over a century after their return from Babylonian captivity. Yet the story centers on a much earlier time when the city of Nineveh needs to be saved. Founded on the east bank of the Tigris River originally by the first Babylonian Empire, the city was rebuilt as the capital of the Assyrian Empire around 705 BCE.

Before Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE (by a combined force of Babylonians and Medes), they had a long history of cruelty, especially toward their conquered enemy, Israel. Centuries before, in 922 BCE, Israel’s citizens were defeated and deported, forced into an exile where all they loved was at risk of being lost: their culture, history, language and religion.

The result? Assyria became Israel’s most hated and feared oppressor, known for violence and cruelty in its capital. Israel prayed that God’s wrath would consume its enemies, especially the Ninevites.

Enter Jonah, a dedicated Jew convinced the Ninevites should not only not be saved, but God should punish them for their inflicted misery. After all, wasn’t God supposed to avenge Israel’s enemies, a theological view entertained for centuries?

Yet by 400 BCE, Nineveh’s greatness was long over. So what was the little book’s purpose? To stop the growing nationalistic and racial attitudes developing after the Babylonian Exile, especially since the Jews had just passed a law that they alone could stay in Jerusalem.

I think of Jonah as a kind of Old Testament “Archie Bunker”, a narrow-minded prophet given the opportunity to think differently about a bitter enemy, shedding prejudice and bigotry. But first, he had to respond to God’s call.

Consider the sympathetic portrayal of the sailors and Ninevites, both heathen groups willing to acknowledge God and repent of sins. Didn’t this indicate they weren’t nearly the pagans Jonah (i.e. the Jews) assumed them to be?

The Book of Jonah teaches us through negative example.   Told as the only Old Testament parable, it delivers its point through symbolism.   It becomes the reader’s task to figure out, for example,

  • Does Jonah stand for something larger, such as Jews directed to share God’s word beyond their borders?
  • Is Nineveh a whale that had swallowed Israel?
  • Is King Cyrus of Persia the whale willing to spit you up to live again?

As in any parable, the reader will draw his or her own conclusions. And since parables are timeless, we’ll explore in the third and final column, how to bring Jonah’s oh-so-contemporary lessons forward. Until then, happy pondering!

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Kings and Prophets: Biblical Formula for Good Government

Sunset NB 2 2015

Now I know that the Lord rescues his anointed king. He will answer him from his holy heaven (Ps. 20:6, NLT)

A king needs a kingdom. Every child reading fairy tales understands this.  The ancient Hebrews grasped it as well. Examining their history–as it unfolds from the Patriarchs, through the Exodus, the settlement of Canaan, the period of the Judges and finally the creation of a monarchy– is a study in forms of government that are amazingly relevant today.

For a substantial period of the ancient Hebrews’ history, Yahweh was their only King.  Having pioneered the discovery of monotheism along with very few other ancient cultures, Yahweh would be their only deity, initially seen more as a tribal deity  with some of the same characteristics as other tribal gods (anthropomorphic, sometimes quixotic in actions, etc.).

One of the joys of studying the Hebrew Bible is watching the people’s understanding of Yahweh, or God, grow and expand.  Eventually Yahweh is the only God, not just their God.   The Psalms capture these growing glimpses of the allness and might of Spirit, the God that is without a form or image, and far more than a super-man, but the all-powerful shepherd, rock, and fortress.

Along the path of the Israelites’ spiritual journey of discovering more of God’s nature is the idea of Yahweh as King. He would govern, direct, fortify, sustain – perform all the roles of a human sovereign who loves his people and takes responsibility for their safety, but so much more.

Eventually the Hebrew tribes felt pressured by the Philistines on their West and the Kingdom of the Ammonites on their Eastern flank, to have a king who would be a military, political and even religious leader. Saul, David and Solomon were representatives of both the best and worst traits of those who held this coveted office.

Simultaneous to the monarchy’s escalation was the rise of the office of prophet, the spiritual seers who would keep the Word of God alive for the people.  The men and women Yahweh called to this holy office reminded the people of their covenantal relationship with God and how they must live in obedience to the Law, both individually and collectively as a nation.

At a time when today’s news from the Middle East makes us feel the delicate fabric of coexistence of different religions, tribes and customs is being ripped asunder with unspeakable brutality, it is a good time to take a page from that ancient and contemporary guidebook, The Bible. We can remember that ‘kings’ or governments and their leaders, have always needed their prophets.

Ancient Israel found this combination vital but also knew which office was superior, seen by who did the anointing as well as provided important counsel. As Samuel anointed Saul, as Nathan advised David, as Elijah rebuked King Ahab, as Huldah, the female prophetess, confirmed the importance of the newly found book of Deuteronomy to King Josiah, the prophets of Israel were there to give spiritual counsel, direction and clarification to their heads of state.

The Psalms are a marvelous place to start as we assume the role of modern day prophets through our own prayers for the Middle East and every fractious event around the globe. When reading the Psalms, an easy interpretive path to fall into that needs to be avoided like any undesired pothole, however, is personalizing ‘enemies’ – a common term throughout the Psalter.

As the Hebrews grew in their understanding of God, the ‘enemies’ are increasingly seen not as outward individuals but inward mental derailers. Rather than the geographically warring tribes surrounding them, the Psalmist writers began to reflect on their own willful disobedience, spiritual drift away from prayerful mindfulness of God’s supremacy, and the ego that thinks it knows the right answers over everyone else.

Psalm 18 is a stirring example of how the real ‘enemy’ is subjugated and destroyed when we understand, as the Hebrews learned through countless experiences, that God is always Sovereign. The world needs prophets and the Bible teaches us how.

You gave me victory over my accusers.

You appointed me ruler over nations;

people I don’t even know now serve me.

As soon as they hear of me, they submit;

foreign nations cringe before me.

They all lose their courage

and come trembling from their strongholds.

 Ps. 18:43-45 (New Living Translation)

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