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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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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’s Enemies: Narrowness & Nationalism

Jonah is one of those Biblical books that can make me squirm.  More than the ‘whale of a tale’ of childhood Bible stories, this parable offers food for thought sometimes tough to digest, not unlike the whale who couldn’t quite swallow this Avoider.

JonahJonah makes us look closer at hints of self-absorption that make me want to run to the Tarshish-equivalent of today,  comfortable homes and lives. That means shutting out the heart-rending news like the hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees run from their once-comfortable homes throughout the Middle East. Does Jonah help me see I have a role in this modern-day forced Exodus? But we get ahead of ourselves.

There are lots of ways to look at a Biblical text, but here are three that BibleRoads will explore this month:

  1. The world OF the text (plots, characters, setting and themes)
  2. The world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals)
  3. The world in FRONT of the text (how you bring it forward to your life today).

So in this first of three blogs on the short Old Testament book of Jonah, we’ll look at the world OF the text.

Plot: Prophet gets God-given directive to go save others, resists, runs, turns, complies and ends in a snit of self-absorption.   Wow! How’s that for a Biblical plot loaded with lessons to teach?

Characters: The prophet, Jonah; the (pagan) sailors; the (pagan) people of Nineveh; a crustacean (with a digestive challenge), and God.

Setting: Israel, somewhere near Joppa, where the prophet lives; Tarshish, farthest western point of then-civilization (in today’s Spain); Nineveh, home to one of Israel’s arch enemies, a major city in northern Mesopotamia and former capital of Assyria until 612 BCE when it was destroyed; an orchard east of Nineveh, containing the Bible’s most famous gourd.

Themes: People can repent and find God, even those who don’t know Him. God cares and loves all people, including animals. God provides and appoints his messengers/prophets to help others but they must be obedient to this call. If we are initially running from God’s call on our lives, we always have another opportunity to turn and be obedient to this call. You can run but not hide from God and your conscience. That despite self-absorption, God provides the opportunity to learn it is never about just the individual, but the individual in relation to community.

If you’ve ever looked at ‘others’ (i.e. those unlike ourselves and our ‘tribe’) with a bit of a downward glance, then you get how much the creep of spiritual insularity must be guarded against. What do you do to stave off the mental isolationism that doesn’t pray for those in the toughest of circumstances?  Learning from Jonah is a good place to start.

We’ll keep exploring Jonah’s teachings in part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals) next week. Happy digging!

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