Friday, May 27, 2011

Gone For A Week

To those of you who follow my blog, I just wanted to give you a heads up that I will be gone next week.  My grandfather was just diagnosed with cancer, so me and my family are traveling north to visit him.  I also have a job interview at the end of next week.  It will be a busy week, and I would be HUGELY impressed with myself if I post anything.  Prayers for my family, for a safe trip, and for discernment would be greatly appreciated.

Job Versus Eliphaz: Round One

With friends like Eliphaz, who needs enemies?

So Job's life has been stripped bare.  He has lost all of his family except his wife.  He has lost all his livestock and wealth.  He has even lost his health.  Hearing of his plight, three friends come to visit Job.  They are so shocked by what they find that they sit with him for seven days and seven nights.  Sometimes a true friend knows a silent presence is more comforting than words.

So, you think Job's three friends are going to be helpful.  You'd be wrong.  Job tells his friends how miserable he is, that he wishes he had never been born.  Things couldn't possibly get worse...at least until Eliphaz opens his mouth.

Now remember, this is a wisdom literature book, so Eliphaz decides to impart some wisdom on to Job.  He tells Job that people reap what they sow.  He says that innocent people don't suffer.  Lions perish without prey, after all.  If there is nothing to be punished, punishment goes away.  So, if Eliphaz was Job, he would make sure his life was right with God.  He'd do whatever it took, because when one is faithful to God, God is faithful to you.  If Job's life was right with God he could laugh through famines, because he would be fine.  Blessings come to those who are righteous.  The opposite must equally be true.  Since Job's life is not blessed, Job has some repenting to do.

Suffering has a way of cutting through the superficial crap we tell ourselves to try to make sense of life, and Job knows all about suffering.  Eliphaz's argument doesn't hold water, and any of us who know people that have truly suffered know this.  At the same time, his simplistic view is always tempting.  It's easy to think that the poor must be lazy while the rich must be hard working.  It's easy to think that the person who has the job wanted it more or tried harder to get it.  It's easy to compartmentalize all addicts into the weak category while putting people without addictions into the self-controlled category.  Of course, all this ignores that purity is usually due to lack of opportunity.  This ignores that many times a company's financial report, rather than the employees themselves, is what influences who has a job and who doesn't.  It also ignores that most of the super rich are born into their money and it has nothing at all to do with work ethic.  Eliphaz's way of seeing the world makes it easily understandable, but there's not much to it, and that is why he doesn't like being around Job.

Job calls Eliphaz's bluff.  In the middle of saying that Eliphaz's friendship is like ice that melts in summer, Job says this:

"They are disappointed because they were confident; they come there and are confounded.  Such you have now become to me; you see my calamity, and are afraid." -Job 6:20-21

Eliphaz's type of "wisdom" offers easy confidence, which is why so many people buy into it.  However, in the face of true tragedy, tragedy that falls upon the righteous and godly, such wisdom is confounded.  Lives like Job's life unsettle us and make us afraid because suddenly all our simple answers fall to dust and slip through our fingers.  In the end, we discover we're much more like Eliphaz than we'd like to admit.  We don't have any more answers than anyone else.

We need to be more like Job.  At least he admits he doesn't get it.  In a fallen world, ourselves fallen, how could we get it?

Stopping point: Job 7

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Welcome To Job

You can sense a distinct change in feel as you step over from Esther into the book of Job.  Up until Esther, the Bible has a distinct historical feel, largely supported by the genre.  The books from Genesis to Esther are all narratives, but Job through Malachi are a different animal.  Beginning with Job, the Old Testament transitions into poetry and prophecy and wisdom literature, and these have a very different feel than historical narrative.  It can be interesting and fun to try to piece together the history behind these writings, but Job through Malachi are blatantly about the relationship between God and man.  They are un-apologetically theological in nature.  As we begin our journey into Job, if we approach the book wearing the same historical-critical lenses we've been wearing so far, we'll immediately run into problems.

Here is what I mean.  The book of Job is one of three books that make up a section of the Old Testament called "Wisdom Literature."  The other two books are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. We cannot appreciate the function of these books if we try to force them to answer questions they are not asking.  Here's a few examples of what I mean.

The book of Job says Job lived in the land of Uz.  If our historical critical reflex kicks in, we'll want to know if Job really lived, and if so, where was Uz?  The book of Job also starts out with a vision of heaven where God calls his court together and the Satan also comes.  If we don't appreciate that this is wisdom literature we'll immediately assume that we should take this literally, that God holds court in heaven, and that Satan (Hasatan in hebrew, literally meaning "the accuser") spends all day long walking around looking for people to point out to God.  Now for all I know, that is how things work, but the book of Job isn't the place to look if we want to prove it.  I'm going to overstate this to make a point, but the book of Job doesn't care if Job truly lived of where Uz was.  The book of Job isn't trying to explain what heaven is like, either.  It is ultimately a book that wrestles with the nature of human wisdom and how that relates to a God that is not human.  If we're willing to have that conversation, the book of Job has a lot to say.

So, as has become my mantra, "Learn to ask the questions the Bible is asking."  That mantra will serve us well in Job, and throughout the rest of the Old Testament.  As for Job, there is wisdom there.

Stopping point: Job 4

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Bible Isn't An Escapist Book

We've already read Ezra and Nehemiah, two books occupied with human worries, concerns, and stresses.  The book of Esther is no different.  It's a book about survival and politics.  It is probably most famous for being the only book in the Bible that doesn't mention God a single time.  King Ahasuerus, Haman, Mordecai, and Esther are constant presences, but you have to read between the lines to find God.  To many, the absence of direct statements concerning God makes Esther a book about how God works through and in real people's lives, and I would agree.  That is the theological take away from the book of Esther, but I think there is a secondary take away too.

Many who ridicule religion in general, and Christianity in specific, point to the fact that religion acts as a psychological narcotic, and I'm not going to waste time arguing that it can't be used that way.  With people who are Christians for this reason, their religion becomes a form of emotional, psychological, or intellectual escapism.  It provides them with an alternative universe in which to hide.  The Bible then becomes a book that provides them with the stories they need to escape.  But (and this is an emphatic but), not all Christians are escapists, and you can't read the book of Esther and think that Christianity (or the Judaism we were born from) is a religion about escape.  However, it's not the lack of a direct discussion about God that makes me think this.  It's actually a little blip in Esther's story that takes place in chapter two.

In chapter two, Esther is one of many pretty virgins collected from around the world to possibly replace Queen Vashti, who lost her crown by upsetting the king.  She spends a year learning how to play the part of a future queen, both in look and behavior, but toward the middle of chapter two the king decides to begin auditioning the virgins.  Here's how that goes.  The virgins have all been living together in the harem.  At night, one of the women from the king's harem would be brought to the king's palace.  In the morning, she was picked up by a different servant, named Shaashgaz, who was in charge of the kings concubines.  Here's the kicker...there is a significant difference between a woman in the harem and a woman in the concubines.  You can go ahead and toss the PG version of an answer you might be thinking.

Sexual prowess, I don't know how you can interpret the king's auditioning method any other way.  That is not an escapist story.  That's a raw story, a real story, a story not suited for young ears.  God is present and active even in that.  I can imagine quite a few religious people having a problem with that, yet here is the book of Esther saying that God works through all people and in all situations.  God is not a prude.  God is a realist, and if his people are going to live in this world, if they are going to survive, sticking our heads in the sand and playing make believe is not going to get us very far.  Not everything in the world is as it should be.  God is here anyway.

The Bible isn't an escapist's friend.  The Bible makes us look life straight in the face and ask hard questions about what is valuable and good.  The Bible makes us look at each other with all the complexities that entails.  The Bible would be much easier if it weren't for stories like Esther, but if it were easier I wouldn't waste my time by taking it seriously.

Stopping point: Esther 10

Friday, May 20, 2011

Just Regular People

It's not always easy to really relate to the men and women of the Bible, so it makes sense to me why so many modern readers mythologize much of what they read (I don't mean this in the literary sense, but in the "I think this was made up but the message is good" sense.).  After all, when was the last time God spoke to you out of a burning bush?  When is the last time you saw the earth open up and swallow someone whole?  When was the last time God told you he would make you king, but then you were forced into hiding by the reigning king who now wanted you dead?  Much of the Bible is fantastic, but my life certainly isn't.  I spend most of my days wrestling with complex issues, and God has yet to say, "Okay, here's what I want you to do."

That's why I find the book of Nehemiah refreshing.  God never tells Nehemiah, "Neh, I want you to go back to Jerusalem.  I want you to rebuild the wall."  Nehemiah is just a regular guy.  He hurts for the predicament of his people who have returned to their homeland.  He gets so depressed about it that his worry is written on his face.  He struggles with doing the right thing and encouraging others to do the right thing.  Although he trusts in God, he is obviously concerned that his building project may be shut down by hostile people around him.  Nehemiah is a guy I can relate to.

I'm just a regular guy (nerdy, quirky, maybe even odd, but in a regular way).  When I see people suffering, or even hear of it, it tears me up, and like Nehemiah, I wear my emotions on my sleeves.  Like Nehemiah, I see things that need to be done, and it drives me nuts when people who should be doing them aren't.  I completely resonate with Nehemiah as, when frustrated with the people around him, he prays, "Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people."  Nehemiah's life is full of struggle, doubt, and despair, but also purpose, trust, and hope.  He's just like the rest of us, but here he is in the Bible being used by God for great things.

The Bible is our holy book, but in this sense we shouldn't define "holy" as "other."  The Bible is our history of God revealing himself in regular people's lives.  The Bible is not a comic book full of Supermans from far off planets.  It's full of Jane and John Does who find themselves victims (I'm sure they felt that way sometimes, at least.) to much bigger happenings, and in that we find hope.  If God can use a cup bearer to rebuild a wall and provide his people with security and purpose, he can use us too.

Stopping point: Nehemiah 13

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seventy Times Seven

Peter once asked Jesus how many times he should forgive people who wrong him.  "Seven times?" he asks.  "Seventy times seven," Jesus responds.  I can make a list, luckily it's a small list, but I can make of a list of people who have deeply hurt me.  One on that list, I forgave twice!  But I have struggled with number three.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times...head to desk....  Jesus's answer to Peter is not an easily accepted answer.  If we're honest, Peter's suggestion of seven times is much higher than we are normally willing to forgive people, not if the way they hurt us really matters.  So, seventy times seven, Jesus can't really be serious can he?  There's a reason they make electric fences, after all.  You only touch them a few times before you give up....

Jesus is, of course, basing his response off of the activity of God.  As I've lamented many, many times already, too many people think of God in the Old Testament as a god who loves dealing out punishment.  They treat him like a pagan god, moody, fickle, and ready to smite anyone who doesn't offer the correct goat on Wednesday.  In my religious tribe, this same mentality carries over into concern about how many times we meet for worship each week or what type of songs we sing or what type of clothes we wear for church.  Don't make the pagan gods angry!  They'll punish you.  This is a tragic misunderstanding of God.  This is a tragic misunderstanding of the narrative of the Bible.  Does God discipline?  Absolutely, but he is nothing like the pagan gods and goddesses that surrounded the Israelites or the first Christians.  He is not an angry God out for our blood.

Some might find this odd, but it was reading Ezra that got me thinking about this.  Ezra is a book about the first returning exiles.  It is a very human book full of human concerns and points of view.  It often times reads like a section of an archive or journal.  You can tell it's written much closer to the actual events then I or II Chronicles, the books that proceed it.  It's about the predicament the returning Jews find themselves in once they return to a ruined city and a ruined country.  For the most part, it is an encouraging book.  It's not a cookies and cream book, by any means.  Not everything goes well for the returned exiles.  They face significant political resistance from the people around them, but as they do, God sees them through and provides for them.  It has a very strange ending, however.

Toward the end of the book, Ezra, a priest, scribe, and expert in Mosaic Law, comes to Jerusalem with another wave of returning exiles.  What he finds disturbs him deeply.  The Jews of the first return had been intermarrying with the people already there.  Ezra is outraged.  He calls the leaders of the Jews together, and after deliberation, convinces them that the only solution is to have the Jews divorce their spouses.  This can be misconstrued as racism, but that is not the issue.  The Bible is full of non-Jews marrying into Jewish families, and that being considered a good thing.  Take Rahab and Ruth for example.  The problem Ezra discovers when he returns to Jerusalem is not marriage, but the fact that the Jews are already returning to pre-exile behavior, the type of behavior that led to exile.

Here is the second half of Ezra's prayer we can read in chapter nine.

"And Now, our God,what shall we say after this?  For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations.  They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness.  Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.'  After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations?  Would you not be angry with us until you destroyed us without remnant or survivor?  O LORD, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case.  Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this."  (Italics added.)

The issue is not that Jewish men have brought foreign women into their midst.  The issue is that they have willingly brought foreign gods into their midst, what Ezra calls abominations and uncleanness.  That is what has Ezra so upset, and that is completely understandable for a post-exilic priest.  Think about how many times the Israelites had fallen into this trap.  God leads them out of exile, but as soon as they get to Mount Sinai, they convince Aaron to make a golden calf.  A cow was the embodiment of the Egyptian god Apis.  Balaam of Peor gets the Israelites to worship other gods and goddesses by getting them to intermarry with Moabite women.  Once the Israelites take possession of Canaan, they begin to intermarry with other Canaanites, leading them to worship Baal and Asherah, which were like the gateway drug of ancient pagan religions.  By the time the Jews are taken into exile, they worship all sorts of gods and goddesses from all sorts of nations, burning their own children as sacrifices.

Was Ezra overreacting?  Not if the Jews' past behavior had anything to say about it.  Even the Exile couldn't purge the Jews of entertaining false worship to false deities because of their spouses.  In spite of all they had been through, in spite of all God had done for them past and present, here they were worshiping false gods again, all in the name of love.


Now before we get to riled over the behavior of Jews who lived 2500 years ago, let's all admit something.  We haven't changed any.  It seems as if humanity's foolishness, betrayal, and stupidity know no end.  Those attributes have gone on endlessly for millennia, but the flip side of this is also true.  God's wisdom, faithfulness, and compassion also know no end.  They, too, have gone on endlessly, and it is a good thing.  In ancient Israel, God helped the Jews rebuild their homes in spite of their repeated betrayal.  He brought them men like Ezra who helped bring them back on track.  Whether the Israelites listened or not, God never stopped reaching out to his children with a hand of rescue.  Sometimes rescue meant discipline, but the hand that could save was always within reach.  That is no less true for us.  If God stopped forgiving us at seventy times seven, we'd be hopeless.  So, with God in mind, Jesus meant what he said, and as Christians we should take it seriously.  We have been called to reflect God into the world around us, and the nature of God is to forgive seventy times seventy times seventy, ad infinitum.

On a tangent, are we afraid to obey Jesus in this because we don't really believe God does this for us?  Is it that we don't like what he says, or is it too painful?  Or, is it that as broken humans in a fallen world this is truly beyond us.  Is the striving to live out this standard, but failing to do so, one more example of something that points us to God as the only solution to our problem?

Stopping point: Ezra 10

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why We Need To Listen To The Books Of Chronicles

To be totally honest, I'm hitting a slump in my reading.  Since this isn't the first time I've read through my Bible in a year, I remember this feeling.  For me, it sets in when things start feeling repetitious, which is a problem since anyone who has read their whole Bible knows that many parts of the Bible are repetitious.  The books of Chronicles feel repetitious to me, and their stories aren't as engaging as, let's say, the books of Samuel and Kings.  However, we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if we mentally tuned out and overlooked what the books of Chronicles have to tell us.

At the risk of sounding repetitious myself, there are multiple themes present in the books of Chronicles.  They are themes of advice and encouragement to exiles returning to a desolate homeland.  These themes are obedience, courage, action, trust, and humility.

I've talked about obedience already, so for today I just want to repeat a conversation we had this last Tuesday at our Reading Through the Bible in a Year Support Group (seriously, I have to come up with a better name than that.  "Bible class" isn't really accurate.).  In Genesis we can read the story of Noah building the ark.  You might remember that there are a plethora of details about how Noah is supposed to build the ark.  Gopher wood, so many cubits high, so many cubits long, so many cubits wide, one door and window...the list goes on.  The point of the story giving us those details is not that we know the dimensions and materials of the ark.  The point is that Noah obeys God in all the details.  The lengths Noah was willing to go to in obeying God are evidence and support for the claim that he was a righteous man.  The same goes for all the details about the Temple in the books of Chronicles.  Chronicles tells us that David received the plans for the temple from prophets and seers.  In other words, from God, just like Noah.  Now some might argue over whether that is true of not, but that isn't the point.  The point is that he obeyed, as did Solomon.  The point is that a good relationship with God is one brimming with obedience.  To exiles wondering how they are supposed to relate to God after their punishment, this seems like a direct response.  Israel needs to be in an obedient relationship with their God.

Courage and action are also themes I've written about already, so I wont say much new here.  To a struggling people wrestling with rebuilding projects, David telling his son to take courage and act must have resonates strongly in their ears.  It would have been very easy for the Jews living in Jerusalem to be afraid.  They had no wall for defense.  They had no army.  The people who returned probably wouldn't have been all master builders.  How would the Jews ever survive?  How would they perform the repairs needed to make Jerusalem a great city again?  Simply put, by remembering examples of who they could be from the past.  They could be people of courage again, people of action.  It was in their blood.

Many of the prayers in the books of Chronicles acknowledge that everything comes from God and that the Jews had earned nothing.  To a people who had nothing and were relying on God to provide for everything, this must have been encouraging.  God had made the Jews a great people once upon a time.  He could restore them now.  Nothing is beyond God.  The Israelites needed to trust in that, as David, Solomon, and many other great kings had done before.  God did not disappoint in the past.  He would not in their present.

And finally, humility.  This really didn't stand out to me until yesterday.  I read the story of Uzziah, how he began as a great king but the success God brought him made him arrogant.  Once that was in my head I started seeing that same pattern over and over again.  Joash began as a great king, but once he had peace and success he became corrupt, killing the son of the man who put him in power as a child.  Hezekiah was a great king, trying to bring about reform and inviting the northern tribes to participate in the Passover, something that hadn't happened since eons before.  But again, at the end of his life he developed a sense of entitlement.  I can't help but wonder if that is why his son who inherited the throne turned out to be such a rotten king.  Uzziah simply presents us with a theme we can find all over the place in the books of Chronicles if we're looking for it.  Pride destroys, both individuals and nations.  So, now that God had brought the Jews back home, they couldn't afford to repeat this pattern from the past.  They must remain humble before their God.  God is a god who lifts the lowly but crushes those who regard themselves too highly, and no one, no matter how righteous he or she begins, is immune to the temptation of pride.

So, obedience, courage and action, trust, and humility, these are the lessons the books of Chronicles have to teach us.  Repetitious, yes....  Full of mind-numbing detail, yes....  Speaking a true message about humanity and God, absolutely yes.  We need to be a people who listen to all the Bible has to tell us, not just the parts we like.

Stopping point: II Chronicles 36

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pride Before The Fall

Sorry for only one post last week.  I missed my regular Tuesday post, and then blogger was down for maintenance Wednesday through Friday...or Thursday...it was down....  Anyhow, I'm back up and running this week.

In II Chronicles chapter twenty-six we can read the story of King Uzziah.  I vaguely remember studying him in my Critical Intro to the Old Testament class as a Junior in College.  The thing I remember as really strange about King Uzziah is the fact that very little is said about him considering how important and influential a king he was for Judah.  Archeologists have uncovered many of his building projects.  Other than King Herod, I can't think of another Israelite king who built as many cities and sites, at least not off the top of my head.  II Kings barely mentions him at all.  At least Chronicles gives him a chapter.

I can't read his story without remembering a trip I took with my college chorus to Searcy, Arkansas.  We were there to participate in a large concert featuring a number of college and university choruses.  From what I was told at the time, my college's chorus had been there once before, and that time they were the only one to receive a standing ovation.  On top of that, after listening to the other choruses during rehearsals, we were one of the best (if not the best) chorus there.  As is prone to happen with college age people, this had gone to our heads.

It just so happened that I was asked to lead the chorus in a brief devotional before our concert.  For some reason the story of Uzziah is what kept popping into my head for a topic.  I can't say my devotional was the most popular devotional of all time.  Uzziah was a great king, a builder king, a military genius when it came to weaponry, but in the end it all went to his head.  He tried to usurp the role of priest, and was given leprosy as punishment.  I told my chorus that if we went into this concert with a similar attitude, the same might happen to us.

And sure enough, it did.

It was a terrible concert.  We weren't in tune.  Our tempo was all over the place.  Our director was irate.  Not only did we not receive a standing ovation from the crowd of hundreds, the clapping was pretty sparse in general.  Leprosy it was not, but humiliating all the same.

I can't ever read this story without thinking back to that concert, and I can't ever think about getting a big head without thinking of this story.  Like the old adage says, pride does come before the fall.

Stopping point: II Chronicles 27

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Chronicles In Review

So, I wasn't in the office much earlier this week to write a blog post, and since Wednesday I haven't been able to log onto blogger.  Since I'm now a good bit into II Chronicles, I'll do a post today summarizing the focus of I Chronicles.  This post will largely build off of themes I've already mentioned.

As I've hinted at in previous posts, although the books of Chronicles can stand alone, what truly makes them sing is when they are joined with the books of Samuel and Kings.  When we do that, differences immediately jump out, and those differences are what show us the unique message of the books of Chronicles.  They are not, as some assume, just a repeat.

For example, both the books of Samuel and of Chronicles record some of King David's wars and his ill-advised census of the Israelites.  However, in Chronicles those wars and the census aren't really about the wars or the census.  Rather, both point to the temple.  The wars recounted in Chronicles are only mentioned after David captures Jerusalem, and that is important.  Jerusalem is where the temple will be.  The story of the census, which unlike Samuel, takes place nine chapters before the end of the book, has an added detail.  Chronicles makes sure to point out that the threshing floor David bought to offer sacrifices to God is the future place of the temple, specifically because David learned he could offer sacrifices there, whereas he was afraid to offer sacrifices at the tabernacle in Gibeon (this has always intrigued me, seeing as how David was from the tribe of Judah and only descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi were allowed to offer sacrifices).  So, Chronicles shares the stories of David's wars and census for one reason: the temple of God.

Closely related to this is I Chronicles' focus on Jerusalem.  Almost the whole book revolves around the city.  And again, I Chronicles gives us a bit of information that the books of Samuel do not provide.  In chapter twenty-three verse twenty-five, David says this:

"The LORD, the God of Israel, has given rest to his people; and he resides in Jerusalem forever."

Why is Jerusalem so important?  It is the home of God.  Samuel and Kings never claim that so exclusively.

Another unique saying of David in Chronicles is his advice to Solomon.  Multiple times David instructs his son to be strong, take courage, and act, specifically in regard to building the temple.  That conversation is never mentioned in Samuel, neither is the conversation between David and Israel where he informs them that he will make Solomon king after him.  Because Solomon will be young and inexperienced, he will need Israel's support so he can build the temple.

One last thing that stood out (there are many other things that stood out, but for the sake of length, I've chose these few), I Chronicles ends with a word of praise to God from David.  In the middle of that praise he says this:

But who am I, and what is my people that we should be able to make this freewill offering?  For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.  For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.  O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. -- I Chronicles 29:14-16
Why the focus on only giving back to God what is already his?  Why the feeling that David doesn't think he has much?  Why the mention of aliens and transients when I Chronicles makes it very clear that David has made the land his own and his peoples'?   There is a reason for this, and it connects back to the focus on the temple, on Jerusalem, and on being strong, courageous, and active.

I Chronicles is not a history lesson but a book of encouragement.  I Chronicles is written after the exiles return to Jerusalem, and at that point Jerusalem is the nation of Judah's only remaining city.  After the Exile, the Jews are aliens and transients in their own land.  When they return, the people Babylon brought in to replace them are still there.  On top of that, they are poor.  If God does not provide for them, the aren't going to have much, and so whatever they give to him is directly a gift from him.  After the Exile, the Israelites ask, "What now?" as they look on a city with no walls, no temple, and no homes.  So what should the Israelites do?  The answer seems obvious, at least to those in positions of authority: we rebuild.  The Israelites will rebuild Jerusalem's walls because it is the city God lives in.  They will rebuild the temple so that they can worship God and be in his presence once again.  They will need strength, courage, and the encouragement to act because they have a long road of work ahead of them.  They need God to provide building materials so they can give it right back to him.  I Chronicles wasn't written to chronicle history.  It was written to foster a response of action and hope among the Israelites.  It may not translate 2500 years later, but Chronicles is like a "you can do it" Hallmark card.

If we're going to appreciate the books of Chronicles, that's how we should approach them.

Stopping place: I Chronicles 29

Friday, May 6, 2011

Do I Really Need To Know About The Musicians?

"Why do I need to know that Heman son of Joel was assigned to be a musician in the temple?"  Questions similar to this one seem to crop up frequently in Chronicles.  Although this is a fair question, I think the way we handle these questions can say quite a bit about why we're reading the Bible to begin with.  So, let me give you a few reasons people might read their Bibles.

1) The Authoritarian
Obviously I'm making these titles up, so don't put too much weight on them.  That having been said, some people read their Bible because it is authoritative, meaning it has authority over us.  There is a very positive side to reading the Bible with this understanding.  Primarily, for Christians, scripture is our main source for knowing how to live.  It teaches us our boundaries.  It defines what is good and what is not, but the nature of authority can be misunderstood.  Governments have authority.  Police have authority.  Our employers have authority, and so we better take the time to learn all their rules so we don't break them.  Otherwise, punishment might be right around the corner.  When we take that definition of authority and carry it with us to the Bible, we end up reading the Bible as a rule book.  There is an obvious problem with this, however, and the problem is that the vast majority of the Bible is not legal code.  If the Bible is authoritative, rather then just specific parts of the Bible, we can't ignore or write off passages that tell us who was in charge of singing at an ancient, now gone temple just because it doesn't provide us with a rule.


2) Ms. Application
Ms. Application is always asking, "How does this influence how I live?"  This is slightly different than the Authoritarian because Ms. Application isn't necessarily looking for a rule by which to live.  Ms. Application is more concerned about how the Bible will help her make better decisions in difficult situations.  Sometimes the application is easy to see.  If Ms. Application forgot her purse but needs wet wipes for her daughter, she knows theft is not an option because, well, the Bible says not to steal.  But what about fixing Social Security?  There is no rule for that, but because Ms. Application rightly understands that being a person of the Bible should shape how she lives, what does the Bible say about such huge, complex issues?  How does it apply?  The problem here is the same as with the overly "rule" oriented person.  If a passage doesn't apply, it tends to get thrown out.  The reader is effectively saying, "Yes, the Bible is applicable...just not that part."  We're left with a dissected and disregarded Bible.

3) Mr. Moral Of The Story
I have to be honest in saying that this is me a large part of the time, so my view here will be biased.  Mr. Moral Of The Story is looking for the bigger picture.  What are the themes involved?  What is the plot?  Are rules involved?  Yes.  Is the moral applicable?  I sure hope so.  Where this approach can be helpful is in seeing how knit-picky details fit in with the story.  And there are no limitations with this approach at all!....  Like I said, I'm pretty biased toward this approach.  One the contrary, one limitation with this approach to the Bible is that it can become all about the reader.  In other words, the reader's response can become the authority rather than the Bible.  If I don't like the moral I'm seeing, I'm going to be tempted to tweak it in my favor.  Or, to put it another way, the Bible is a pretty complex book.  When God says that the greatest command is to love God and love your neighbor but then says to kill all the Canaanites, I'm going to be tempted to ignore or downplay one of those themes.  What I choose to overlook might be different than the rule or application person, but the temptation is still going to be there.

Obviously there are many other ways we can read the Bible.  We can look at it through a historical, literary, or allegorical lens, and all of them have their pluses and minuses.  But that having been said, when I come to a part of the Bible I'm not sure what to do with, I'm always reminded of what one of my professors used to say, "Learn to ask the questions the Bible is asking."  In other words, stop demanding that the Bible work according to your understanding and try to humble yourself to learn from the Bible.  Rather than asking, "Who cares who Heman is?" begin wondering, "Why does Chronicles put so much emphasis on everything related to the temple?"  If we learn to ask the questions the Bible is asking, we might discover it has quite a few answers to offer also.

Stopping point: I Chronicles 17

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Differences Continue

I said in my last post that the differences between I & II Chronicles and I & II Samuel/Kings are important.  So, I wanted to point out one other difference from today's reading.  In chapter thirteen, David asks Israel whether he should bring the ark of the covenant to himself in Jerusalem.  Here's the difference:

"Then let us bring again the ark of our God to us; for we did not turn to it in the days of Saul." -I Chronicles 13:3

There is no reason given for David moving the ark to Jerusalem in II Samuel.  There's no mention of Saul at all.  So why is this necessary here?

The importance of this goes beyond the fact that Saul seems to have ignored the ark.  Again, we have to put this in context.  I Chronicles is written after the Exile.  The returned Hebrews are asking, "What now?"  It's easy to miss, but the writer of I Chronicles just provided an answer, "We need to return to God."  Like Saul before David, the pre-Exile Hebrews had neglected their relationship with God.  Now, the Hebrews that God had established once again in Jerusalem (just like David) must return to God (just like David).  The point of the extra detail (that Saul had neglected the ark, but David didn't) isn't in the detail itself; the point is in why the detail is mentioned at all.

Like I said in my last post, these differences will stack up, and as they do we'll see more and more why the books of Chronicles were written.  I'll try to point out these differences as we come across them.

Stopping point: I Chronicles 14

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Look For The Differences

Reading through I Chronicles, I'm reminded that sometimes differences tell you more than similarities.  I and II Chronicles is to some degree a retelling of I and II Kings (with a bit of I and II Samuel mixed in), but if we assumed that is all the books of Chronicles are we would be largely mistaken.  They are post exilic whereas the books of Kings are exilic.  Chronicles deals almost exclusively with Judah while the books of Kings reflect on the twelve tribes of Israel, northern and southern.  I and II Kings asks the question, "How did we find ourselves in exile?"  I and II Chronicles asks, "What do we do now that we're back?"  None of these differences are necessarily overt.  However, they will become more clear as the differences between the books pile up.  For today, here are just a few of the differences I noticed after the genealogies finally ended.

 First, King Saul gets a whopping chapter, and that chapter recounts one single thing: his death.  There's no discussions about what he did for the Israelites.  There's no mention of Samuel.  There's no mention of Saul's interactions with David.  The Philistines invaded and Saul, along with his sons, died.  The end.  Why mention Saul to begin with if that is all you're going to say about him?  Why not just start with David?  That will become clear later.

Second, in Chronicles, one of the reasons Saul dies is because he sought guidance from a necromancer instead of trusting in God.  Now that might very well be true, but in Kings, Samuel told Saul he was going to lose the kingdom a long time before he visited a necromancer.

Third, in Chronicles, after Saul's death, Israel immediately flocks to David in order to make him king.  Chronicles doesn't mention the fact that Saul still had a living heir who inherited Saul's title.  Chronicles doesn't mention Abner, and the fallout he had with Ishbaal, which is why Saul's kingdom fell into David's lap.  All those little details are absent.

Finally, in Chronicles, David seems to immediately move his capital to Jerusalem.  Hebron is only mentioned in passing.  Why the immediate focus on Jerusalem?  Again, this will become clear later, but for now, just notice the difference.

It may seem odd that I and II Chronicles should be in the Bible.  After all, for the most part we've already heard the stories, and with a few exceptions, I and II Samuel/Kings provides more details.  I and II Chronicles exists for a reason, however, and it is in the differences that we will see why.

Stopping point: I Chronicles 11

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Gimli Son Of Gloin

I'm convinced that J.R. Tolkien plagiarized I Chronicles to come up with names for his characters.  Well, maybe plagiarize is too strong a word, but at least he seems to have been inspired by I Chronicles.  This shows exactly how nerdy I am, but after reading chapter after chapter after chapter after chapter after chapter...(you get the point) of genealogies, one of the first thoughts I had was, "Hey, this is like the dwarfs."  Sad, huh?  And to further my reputation as a hopeless nerd, let me now argue how the Lord of the Rings helps us understand the books of Chronicles.

The dwarfs (dwarves?  my spell check is saying it is dwarfs...) in LotRs are a dying people.  A once mighty people now stand in the shadow of who they were.  In that environment, genealogies serve a specific function for the dwarfs.  They tie the present to the past.  They give a sense of pride to a broken people by acting as a living memory.  In a way, they're almost a biting of the thumb to everyone else around, a sort of "you may not remember who we are, but we do...so foowee on you."  But even more importantly, they act as a continual reminder of hope.  We were once a great race; we can be again.

That's a similar setting to I Chronicles.  The Hebrews have returned to their ancestral home.  It's certainly a mess.  Their capital city is in ruins.  Their wealth is gone.  They've gone from autonomous to living under the rule and influence of another, but they haven't forgotten the stock from whence (biting of the thumb and "whence"...  If my writing weren't so bad the rest of the time, I could be Shakespeare!) they came.  When they actually saw the city they were returning to, the remaining Israelites must have been asking whether they made a mistake.  Surely it would have been a better idea to stay in Babylon.  "Not so," says the editor(s) of I Chronicles, "You are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  You are the descendants of Judah, Joseph, Benjamin, and the other great men of your past.  You are the people of David.  This was your land.  This was your nation.  It was a mighty nation.  Do not forget who you are."  That may not be all the genealogies at the beginning of I Chronicles are about, but that is certainly part of it.  Jehu, son of Joshibiah son of Seraiah son of Asiel, may be a bit longer than Gimli son of Gloin, but the pattern may serve the same purpose.  It may be I Chronicles' way of saying, "We are not done yet.  We can be great once again."

There, I've gotten my nerd fix for the day.  I should go reread LotRs.

Stopping point: I Chronicles 8