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The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran: Why they’re important

Most Bible students are familiar with the archaeological discovery in 1947* of the Dead Sea Scrolls but may not be clear as to why this was such an important find.   It’s because this discovery – called the greatest manuscript uncovering of all time — provides a priceless look into the history of Judaism, how the Hebrew Bible developed and the beginnings of Christianity.

After Bedouin shepherds happened upon some of the jars containing the papyrus and leather scrolls (primarily written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and Greek), the manuscripts went through a process of being authenticated.  Now most scholars tend to agree that they date from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. , and their thousands of fragments are still being poured over with the latest scientific techniques, to learn their content.

This cache of scrolls, now referred to as “The Dead Sea Scrolls”, has come from a number of caves in the area and simultaneously gone through a circuitous journey of ownership.  A number of them are now safely ensconced in museums such as Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The over 900 manuscripts are divided into three major categories:  those that are part of the Hebrew canon (or Old Testament to Christians);  the sectarian, applying to those peculiar to the residents of Qumran in terms of their doctrine; and other texts that range from legal documents to prayers to comments on Biblical books.

Entrance to Cave 11, Qumran. Photo courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

Who were the people of this Qumran area?  Many scholars believe they are the Jewish religious group, the Essenes, such as those two Biblical Jewish groups: the Pharisees and Sadducees.   The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of them in the 2nd century A.D., explaining they were a celibate people but that is still debated.  The longer both the Essenes and these manuscripts are studied the more questions arise, such as were the Essenes’ beliefs similar to those of early Christian groups?  Or were they more devoted to legal rules focused on cultic purity?

One of the outcomes of all this scholarly debate is a new field called ‘social archaeology’ which, according to the Bible History Daily, is ‘an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.’

Some of the scrolls’ titles include:   the Rule of the Community, the War Scroll, a copy of the book of Isaiah, Thanksgiving Hymns, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Copper Scroll and a number of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophetic books such as Nahum and Habakkuk, and more.  And a majority of scholars believe the scrolls to have been written by those living at Qumran who placed them in local caves, vs. being brought from Jerusalem, for example.

An international team of Biblical scholars and linguists have worked decades to make them available now in various published editions.  The main ones have been brought together in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book but are also occasionally part of traveling exhibits.  I recall the moment I stood in front of my first glimpse of a scroll at the San Diego Natural History Museum and read the translation of a line from that fragment that exactly matched a Bible verse I had read that morning.  Wow!

The Scrolls reveal how much humanity longs to understand God, writes about God and our experience with the Almighty, encouraging us to acknowledge an unseen Creator who men and women have long recognized and yearned to know, for centuries.

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Biblical Leadership Hints for US Presidential Election

David_and_Goliath_by_Caravaggio

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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Three NEW Video Lectures

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We are happy to announce three new 75+ minute Bible talks tied to nature themes in the Scriptures.

They are intended for group or individual Bible study.  For groups, these video talks are especially helpful for those seeking a short study unit, since each one can be handled in one or two sessions.  Each comes with its own pdf study guide of questions that is immediately downloadable upon purchase.  Participants will want to watch the videos before attending a group session since the accompanying questions are directly tied to the streaming video.  In a world where much discussion is of our environment and nature, these three talks lend spiritual insight into this important topic.  Enjoy!

Click the links below to purchase:

Bundle of all three lectures (Save %20)
Biblical Uses of Fire: From Sacrifice to Purification
Let there be Light: Tracing its Healing Appearance throughout the Scriptures
Nature Metaphors in Jesus’ Parables

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The Ascent Psalms: Great Traveling Companions

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Jerusalem today.

As Easter approaches, what can we do differently this year to approach history’s most seminal event, Christ Jesus’ resurrection and ascension?   Please join me in considering taking a page from ancient Israel’s practice.

If we were contemporaries, for example, of Mary and Joseph in the 1st century, this would be the time we’d be planning a pilgrimage to Jerusalem—as the couple did when their oldest son, Jesus, was twelve.  The occasion? Passover.

For Jews, there were three yearly feasts the Book of Deuteronomy* directed the people to follow and around which the calendar revolved. All hopefully included a trip to The City of David.

  • The spring feast of Passover commemorating the liberation from Egypt and the very heart of Israelite religion.
  • The summer feast of Pentecost celebrating the beginning of the barley harvest.
  • The autumn feast of booths or tabernacles (called “Succoth” by Jews today).

Whichever of the three trips to Jerusalem you might take, one of your most treasured companions would be ‘the Psalms of Ascent’ — prayers sung as you literally walked up to the holy city, built on hills from its most ancient founding.

From whatever corner of the Empire pilgrims traveled to the City of David, Psalms 120-134 could be heard sung from every direction of the dusty roads they trekked.

These ‘pilgrimage hymns’, as they’re also called, are one of the collections that constitute the larger book V of the Psalter, which is itself one of five hymnal books combined to create the 150 Psalms we know today.

As we prepare for our spiritual journey this season of renewal and recommitment, it’s worth exploring these special prayers Israel treasured to see how they might inspire us 20 centuries later. What if, in preparation for Easter, we were to read and pray with these 15 Psalms to recommit to what Christ Jesus’ resurrection means to us today?

For example, there is a broad pattern in these 15 prayers or hymns that we can apply to our own spiritual growing:

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!

  • Setting out on the journey ( 121:1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

  • The arrival filled with joy ( 133:1)

How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
    who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
Lift up your hands to the holy place,
    and bless the Lord.

I’d love to hear your own experience working with these rich prayers of praise. Please share your ‘journey’ with us all.

*All your men must appear before God, your God, three times each year at the place he designates: at the Feast-of-Unraised-Bread (Passover), at the Feast-of-Weeks, and at the Feast-of-Booths. No one is to show up in the Presence of God empty-handed; each man must bring as much as he can manage, giving generously in response to the blessings of God, your God. Deut. 16:16-17 

 

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Psalm 137 and Popular Culture

Gebhard_Fugel_By the Rivers of_Babylons

By the Rivers of Babylon, Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Just when you think popular culture has shelved the Bible as passé, along comes a haunting version of Psalm 137 sung by American singer-songwriter, Don McLean,* and captured on this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTnspbSjKVc

A lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, McLean’s version of Ps. 137 captures the ache of those who were taken from their homes and brought to the Babylonian Empire’s capital for slave labor.   This popular version’s lyrics are a summary of the Psalms’ opening four verses, simply but powerfully conveyed for maximum impact.

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
    as we thought of Jerusalem.
We put away our harps,
    hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.
For our captors demanded a song from us.
    Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn:
    “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
But how can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a pagan land?

“The rivers of Babylon” was the name Jews used for the whole country, sharply contrasted to their beloved Jerusalem, destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar’s troops invaded. (For that reason, Ps. 137 is considered one of the few that can be dated—either written between 587 -539 BCE, the period of captivity that starts with Jerusalem’s destruction in 587, or just after the Jews’ release in 539 BCE).

Demanding that the captives sing – an act of joy – when hearts are breaking for their many losses (loved ones, homes, country, etc.), smacks of cruelty. It reminds us of Nazis demanding that the classical musicians in Jewish concentration camps entertain captors with their beloved Bach and Brahms.

The Psalm doesn’t shy away from those strongest of emotions in extreme circumstances–grief, anger and outrage. Aren’t these the natural responses to evil? Perhaps this is the way Ps. 137 tells us we must never be complacent when evil tries to gain the upper hand, whether in individual lives or for an entire nation and people.

But the lament doesn’t stop there, providing the reader or listener with a way out of such mental or physical hell. After the opening lament (verses 1-4) expressing grief, verses 5 and 6 turn us to the value of remembering.

I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget how to play the harp.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I fail to remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Who hasn’t experienced remembering better days–whether prior to a death, divorce, health or financial challenge? And yet the Psalmist points us to far more than just better times. It’s remembering why Jerusalem is our greatest joy, Jerusalem representing the place where God dwells.   For centuries the Jews and Israelites believed their God was a tribal God and lived in Zion (Jerusalem), which was one reason Solomon needed to build a Temple for Him.

But a spiritual breakthrough grew out of their reverse exodus or deportation to Babylon. They might have left Jerusalem, but God would never leave them.   It was in captivity where the Jews began to glimpse how enormous God is, far beyond the tribal deity who protected them on their homeland’s battlefield. Indeed, this is the God capable of saving from fiery furnaces and lion’s dens—even securing the Jews’ national release to return home.

In the midst of their grieving, Psalm 137 turns them to the answer, and it can do the same for us.

Note: For a different musical interpretation of the same Ps. 137, watch this dramatic clip from Guiseppe Verdi’s opera (1841) that launched his artistic career: Nabucco (the short version of “Nebuchadnezzar” in Italian, about the same period of Jewish captivity.  It’s a kind of 19th century version of popular culture.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPy_HwOtumU

*The verses were were composed by Englishman, Philip Hayes and McLean recorded it as ‘Babylon’ for a 1971 album.

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