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Showing posts with label #Background. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Background. Show all posts

08 August 2019

Timekeeping in ancient Israel.

The calendar most of the planet uses, called either the western calendar or the Gregorian calendar, originated in 1582 when Pope Gregory 13 introduced it as an update of the Roman calendar adopted by Julius Caesar in 45BC. Since Gregory introduced it right after the Protestant split, it took a while before all Protestant countries adopted it. Various Orthodox churches still haven’t adopted it, preferring to stick with Caesar’s calendar, ’cause it’s not Catholic. Meanwhile nations which aren’t even predominantly Christian—’cause of western influences or trade—do use it. As well as their own local calendars. Japan, fr’instance.

Israel likewise uses the western calendar. And its local calendar, the one which predates the western calendar by centuries: The Hebrew calendar.

That’s the calendar we find in the bible. It even predates the Hebrews: It was used all over the ancient middle east, including by the Assyrians and Babylonians who conquered Israel. The Hebrew calendar’s months all have Assyrian names, although a few of the original Canaanite names managed to slip into the bible:

  1. אָבִיב/Avív (“green”), the first month. Ex 12.2, 13.4 Tel Aviv (KJV “Telabib”) in Babylon Ek 3.15 was named for it; Tel Aviv in Israel is named for that.
  2. זִֽו/Ziv (“bright”), the second month. 1Ki 6.1
  3. אֵיתָניִם/Eytaním (“strong ones”), the seventh month. 1Ki 8.2
  4. בּוּל/Bul (“produce”), the eighth month. 1Ki 6.38

Otherwise the months are just called “third month,” “fifth month,” and so forth. We don’t know what their Canaanite names were; they might’ve been named for pagan gods, just like the Roman calendar, so the Hebrews didn’t care to remember them. In any event here are the current names.

MONTHDAYSWHENBIBLE HOLIDAYS IN IT
ניִסָן/Nisán 30Spring; mid-March to mid-AprilPassover
אִיָּר/Iyyár 29Mid-spring; mid-April to mid-May
סִיוָן/Siván 30Late spring; mid-May to mid-JuneShavuót (Pentecost)
תַּמּוּז/Tammúz 29Summer; mid-June to mid-July
אָב/Av 30Mid-summer; mid-July to mid-August
אֱלוּל/Elúl 29Late summer; mid-August to mid-September
תִּשׁרִי/Tišreí 30Fall; mid-September to mid-OctoberRosh Hashanah, Sukkot
מַרְחֶשְׁוָן/Markhéšvan 29/30Mid-fall; mid-October to mid-November
כִּסְלֵו/Khislév 29/30Late fall; mid-November to mid-DecemberHanukkah
טֵבֶת/Tevét 29Winter; mid-December to mid-January
שְׁבָט/Ševát 30Mid-winter; mid-January to mid-February
אֲדָר/Adár 29/30Late winter; mid-February to mid-MarchPurim

The year, in the Old Testament, was determined by how long the current king had ruled: It’s “the seventh year of King David” or something like that. Not practical at all when you’re trying to determine events which happened centuries ago; you gotta know how long ago, and how long, David ruled. And we actually don’t. Scholars have tried adding up all the reigns, much like they’ve tried adding up the ages in genealogies, but you still won’t get exact dates that way; it doesn’t take into account kings whose reigns overlap, or the fact the bible sometimes rounds the numbers. We figure David reigned was near the end of the 10th century BC, but good luck pinpointing the year. Not that various scholars don’t try… but we honestly don’t have any dates pinpointed till the bible starts mentioning Babylonian kings.

So where’d the Hebrew years come from? Medieval rabbis. They estimated God created the universe on 1 Tišrei 3761BC, and have been counting up since then. (Yep, even sooner than the 4004BCE which young-earth creationists prefer; go figure.) So this means today is the in the Hebrew calendar, according to Hebcal.com.

13 June 2019

Did Paul write all his letters in the bible?

Most figure yes. A minority say no. Here’s why.

There’s a type of ancient literature called pseudepigrapha su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fə which means “fake writings.” Basically it’s stuff which claims it’s written by someone, namely someone from the bible… and it’s not; it’s Jewish or Christian fanfiction. It’s like the book of 1 Enoch, which was supposedly written by Enoch ben Methuselah, and obviously wasn’t. (Couldn’t have been. Dude didn’t speak Hebrew!) And yet people knew of the book; Jesus’s brother Jude straight-up quoted it. In the bible. In our bible.

Why did people write such things? Well like I said, fanfiction. They wanted to teach their ideas, and figured the best way to do it was with a book supposedly written by an Old Testament or New Testament saint. Sometimes they wanted people to really believe it was written by that saint, so they’d take the book seriously. Sometimes they were okay with people knowing better. Problem is, people would believe that saint wrote that book… and might change their beliefs accordingly. After all if an archaeologist dug up a book which Christ Jesus himself appears to have written, and you believed Jesus literally wrote it, you’d follow it, right? If I believed it, I certainly would. (But I’m pretty sure he never did.)

So when the ancient Christians determined which books they consider scripture—which books are now part of our New Testament—some of their favorite books were actually pseudepigraphal books. Like the Gospel of Peter. Yep, there’s a gospel of Simon Peter! Egyptian Christians knew of it, which is why both Origen of Alexandria and Titus Flavius Clemens wrote of it. But Peter didn’t write it, and once the ancient Christians figured this out, they stopped treating it as scripture.

Anyway because such books exist, sometimes we get bible scholars who wonder whether some of the books which are in our New Testament… aren’t actually pseudepigrapha. Maybe some of Paul’s letters aren’t really Paul’s letters, but written by some overzealous Christian who wanted people to think these were Paul’s letters, and get Christians to take their ideas more seriously because they were “Paul’s.”

Of course it’s just as likely we got a bible scholar who wants to make a name for themselves by questioning the authenticity of a book of the New Testament.

12 June 2019

Who wrote “the books of Moses”?

The composition of the first five books of the bible.

The first five books of the bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (or as Hebrew-speakers call ’em, Berešít, Šemót, Vayiqrá, Bamidbár, and Devarím) are commonly called the books of Moses. They’re also called תּוֹרָ֣ה/Toráh, meaning “Law,” because the Law’s in them; Greek and English speakers also call them Pentateuch, which comes from πέντε τεῦχος/pente téfhos, “five tools.” (I know; people regularly claim “Pentateuch” means “five books”—and they don’t know Greek, so of course they do. The Greek for “book” is βίβλος/vívlos, the word we got “bible” from.) I tend to call these books Torah, as I will throughout this article.

They’re called the books of Moses even though Moses isn’t in Genesis at all… but his ancestors were, so there’s that. Largely they tell us the creation of the Hebrew people: How they got into Egypt in the first place, how they became Egyptian slaves, how the LORD saved ’em, how God covenanted with them and gave them his Law and the Levant/Canaan/Palestine/the land of Israel. They’re the oldest books in the bible (weird young-earth creationist theories about Job aside), and predate the rest of the books by at least four centuries.

And we don’t know who wrote ’em.

Well we don’t. For convenience I tend to refer to Torah’s author as “Moe,” who is not Moses ben Amram, the prophet who led the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moe’s the person who put Torah into its current form. Most scholars, regardless of how they think Torah came together, agree at least one person ultimately did this. So, “Moe.”

No it wasn’t Moses. We know he wrote parts of Torah. Big parts. More than once the LORD ordered Moses to write down his commands and rulings, so Moses wrote those parts. Ex 24.4, 34.27, Nu 33.2 And Deuteronomy is almost entirely a first-person speech given to the Hebrews by Moses—so he composed that part, though realistically someone else wrote it down. Plus since Deuteronomy ends with Moses dying, Dt 34 he can’t have written that part.

Plus Torah is full of anachronisms, statements and words which indicate someone wrote them way later than the 1400s BC, when Moses was alive. (I listed a few of ’em in my “Who wrote the bible?” article.) Fr’instance Genesis states Abraham was born in Ur, Chaldea. Ge 11.28 That’s like saying Abraham was born in Ur, Iraq—which is the present-day country where we nowadays find Ur. In Abraham’s day it was neither called Iraq nor Chaldea; it was Sumer. Wasn’t called Chaldea till the Assyrians conquered the land in the 800s BC. Which means someone updated the name long after Moses’s day.

Now, calling things by their present-day names is a common practice. But historians try to make it clear it wasn’t called that then—becuase when they forget to say so, it confuses people. When Exodus states the Hebrews built “Raamses,” Ex 1.11 but doesn’t point out it wasn’t yet called Raamses, people get the idea the Hebrews built it during or after the reign of Pharaoh Raamses 2 in the 1100s BC. Which is why they think the Exodus took place in the 1100s… and not in the 1300s like it indicates elsewhere in the Old Testament. Jg 11.26, 1Ki 6.1 It messes people up as to when Abraham left Sumer, or under what pharaoh Joseph ruled Egypt, or how long Judges covers.

Now it is possible Moses wrote the first draft of Torah, and someone else got hold of the books centuries later and updated them. But the very fact someone updated Torah means Moses isn’t their final author—and we don’t know how far these updates went. Maybe Moe made a few small changes; maybe Moe made extensive, profound changes. Maybe Moses’s first draft was a random list of commands—and I’m not at all saying Moe later removed any, but could’ve seriously reorganized them, or added the stories about why the LORD added this or that command; we honestly don’t know.

11 June 2019

The Deuteronomistic history.

How some of the books of the Old Testament share a theme—and likely an author.

When I was growing up, I was a little curious about who wrote the books of the bible. Supposedly Matthew wrote Matthew and John wrote John and the three letters named for him (plus Revelation) …but Timothy didn’t write Timothy, and since Samuel was dead way before the end of 1 Samuel, it stands to reason he didn’t write 2 Samuel. Naturally I wanted to know who did write the books, but none of my Sunday school teachers knew. One of ’em speculated it was Solomon.

Fact is, people back then people didn’t put their names on their writings. Even David didn’t put his name on his psalms: Whoever compiled the psalms together, added his name to the psalms which had traditionally been ascribed to him. It’s a safe bet David did write ’em. But the other anonymous books of the bible: We don’t know who put them together. The authors felt the story, and God, was way more important than their own names.

Anyway. In 1981, bible scholar Martin Noth theorized the books which Jews call the “former prophets”—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—and more than likely the book of Deuteronomy along with them, are all part of one large history, edited together by one person. Or one group of people. Noth named it “the Deuteronomistic history,” named of course after Deuteronomy.

It was a very short period of time before a lot of bible scholars signed on to Noth’s theory. It makes perfect sense. Though many conservative scholars (myself included) don’t agree Deuteronomy oughta be included in the Deuteronomistic history. Even though Deuteronomy does repeat a lot of commands found in the previous three books. There are good reasons Deuteronomy is bundled together with the Law, not the Prophets; and good reasons the Deuteronomistic history is inspired by that book, and not just prefaced by it.

People tend to refer to its author (or group of authors) as “the Deuteronomist.” Since—for no good reason—Christians have traditionally assumed Samuel wrote Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, if not half 1 Samuel, I’ll call the Deuteronomist “Sam” for short.

10 June 2019

Who wrote the bible?

A lot of times, we don’t know. And that’s okay.

No, the answer’s not “God.”

The bible was written by prophets, people who heard from God and shared what they heard. Out of humility, some of ’em didn’t necessarily describe themselves as prophets, but all the same, that’s what they are: Their God-experiences inspired them to write about him, and thus we have the books and letters which make up our bible.

“God wrote it” is the short answer people give when we’ve no clue how God works. We assume God did with his prophets the same as he did with Moses: He stated a bunch of things, and the prophets took dictation like a secretary. Or they assume how the Holy Spirit “inspired” the authors was to work the prophets’ hands like a puppeteer with a marionette, and made them write the bible.

Generally they’ve got micromanagerial ideas about how God works, and figure had to take absolute physical control of the circumstances to guarantee we have the bible he wanted… ’cause he didn’t trust his followers enough to describe him accurately. Really they don’t trust God’s followers enough. Which I get; we suck. But there are such creatures as trustworthy believers, and the Spirit did trust ’em enough to get him right.

So yeah, whenever some skeptic states, “The bible was written by men”—okay it was. And so what? The dictionary was likewise written by women and men, and I don’t see ’em dismissing the dictionary as unauthoritative. Those who wrote the dictionary, know what they’re talking about. Same deal with the prophets who wrote the bible: They knew God. They wrote what they knew. Their testimonies are trustworthy, solid stuff. We should be able to easily defer to their knowledge: The God they describe is the very same God we know.

God didn’t have to write the bible in order for it to accurately, infallibly describe him.

Okay. As for which prophets wrote the bible: We know the names of a number of its authors. The New Testament letters have their authors’ names on ’em. The prophetic books likewise. But a lot of the books actually have no name on them at all… so we don’t know.

24 January 2019

“Biblical principles” and extrapolating new commands.

In my early 20s I went to a conference presented by youth pastor turned lifestyle guru Bill Gothard. (He didn’t present ’em in person; we watched videos.)
Bill Gothard. Wikipedia
His organization, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (formerly Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, formerly Campus Teams) goes round the United States to teach young people “basic biblical principles” which would keep them on the straight and narrow. Gothard ran it till 2014, when he stepped down ’cause of molestation accusations. Since the statute of limitations means he’s not getting prosecuted, it looks like he’s quietly slipping back into ministry as the scandal fades from everyone’s memory.

Gothard is hugely popular among Fundamentalists, who promoted him ’cause his teachings are right in line with conservative Christian culture. He doesn’t just teach people to memorize bible verses, pray, and go to church. He claims the bible says we should obey our parents no matter what, women should obey their husbands no matter what, and everyone should respect authority. Plus rock music is of the devil, public schools are hopelessly corrupt (so homeschool your kids), Christians need to dress conservatively, Christians should have loads of kids, and Christians should never borrow money.

I’m picking on Gothard a lot in this article, but he’s far from the only guru who does this. Financial gurus like Dave Ramsey claim they also gets their ideas from the bible. Leadership gurus like John Maxwell say much the same thing. Political activists on both the Christian Right and Left claim the basis of all their thinking comes from bible. Hey, if you’re an Evangelical, our ideas should be grounded in bible, right? (And even if we’re not Evangelical.)

Because of Gothard’s never-borrowing teachings, I actually wound up leaving my Fundamentalist church. ’Cause the church wanted to take out a loan so they could hire two pastors. It was a bad idea for lots of reasons, but Gothard had convinced me borrowing was a sin, so I was outraged when the congregation voted for the idea. “Well they’re not following God,” I concluded, shook the dust off my feet, and started going to my sister’s church.

Where in the bible are we commanded to never borrow? Well we’re not. In fact we’re commanded to treat people fairly and graciously when they borrow from us, Ex 22.25, Lv 25.37, Dt 15.8, 24.10, Lk 6.35 which implies God considers borrowing to be acceptable behavior, under most circumstances.

So how’d Gothard convince me it’s not acceptable? He claims it’s a biblical principle, an idea which isn’t explicitly stated in the bible—there’s no command which says “Thou shalt not borrow”—yet the bible teaches it anyway. If we read between the lines.

Not one of the “biblical principles” of Christian gurus are biblical commands. ’Cause if they were, the gurus could simply say, “The LORD commanded”—same as they do when they point out the LORD forbids murder, theft, and adultery. But, claim these gurus, there are tons of proof texts which suggest the authors of the bible, even though they never stated these ideas outright, believed these principles. So maybe we should believe these principles.

Assuming, of course, these aren’t human ideas, fleshly ideas, which God’s actually trying to oppose and get rid of. Like polytheism. Or patriarchy and sexism. Or racism and slavery. Y’do realize these ideas are easily found in the bible too, right? And other than polytheism, Christians have straight-up used the bible to teach God approves of them. But they’re not of God. They’re the worldview of the ancient middle east. So it stands to reason they’re in the bible. But their existence in the bible is not the same as their endorsement by the Holy Spirit. Same as the bad advice of Job’s friends, we’re meant to use our heads, realize this, and reject those principles.

Not that gurus really think about that. They have something they wanna teach, think they can prove it with the bible… and as demonstrated by the way they quote scripture, really don’t give a rip about historical context. It just gets in the way of the ideas they’re trying to promote.

So I’m certainly not saying there’s no such thing as biblical principles. Just that we oughta pay attention to whether the “biblical principles” we dig out of the bible are legitimately something God endorses. ’Cause if he does, you’d think he’d have explicitly said something. He’s not shy, y’know.

17 October 2018

Nefilim: The mythology of fallen people.

An odd little story in Genesis, and the myths which sprang from it.

NAFAL nɔ'fɔl verb (Hebrew ‏נָפַל, Strong’s 5307) To fall down, fall prostrate, fall into, be thrown down, be removed.
[Nefil nɛ'fil noun, nefilim nɛ.fil'im n.pl.]

Every once in a while I get asked about the Nefilim (NIV “Nephilim,” KJV “giants”). And folks, it’s not “a Nefilim,” ’cause it’s a plural noun. One Nefil, many Nefilim. Understandable mistake though; most English speakers can’t get our own plurals right, much less Hebrew nouns.

I don’t pry into why people wanna know about Nefilim, although when they explain, it nearly always has to do with some mythological garbage about half-human half-angel beings. They hear about that, then hear, “And it’s in the bible!” so they check out their bible and find this weird little story. It comes right before the flood story in Genesis 6, so you’d think they’d have read it, but you know people don’t read their bibles. But even when people aren’t checking up on weird myths, they read this story, scratch their heads, and go, “Huh?”

Genesis 6.1-5 KWL
1 It happened that the Adamites began to be many over the face of the earth.
Daughters were fathered by them.
2 God’s children saw the Adamite daughters—that they were good.
They took them for wives—all whom they chose.
3 The LORD said, “My Spirit won’t remain with Adam forever.
Plus he’s flesh. His days are 120 years.”
4 Nefilim were in the land in those days, and also afterward:
God’s children mated with Adam’s daughters, and begat from them
the powerful men who, from antiquity, were men of name.
5 But the LORD saw the Adamites were a great evil in the land.
Every intention and thought in their minds was only evil, all day.

Okay. Lemme start by bluntily saying nobody knows what this passage means. I need to make this crystal clear from the very beginning. NOBODY.

I know; you may think you do, ’cause the myths told you what went down. Or you heard some interpretation which makes sense to you. Or you actually heard or read some bible scholar’s theory, and figure bible scholars are smart people who must know what they’re talking about. But unless they’re really arrogant people, scholars are the first to tell you our theories are nothing but good guesses. ’Cause nobody knows what this passage means. Like I said.

Yeah, this fact bugs people. Since the scriptures are God-inspired, and meant for our instruction and correction and growth, 2Ti 3.16 how can there be such things as scriptures which no one understands? And since we Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who inspired the writer of Genesis to drop this story in the book—shouldn’t he have clued us in on what it means?

Fair questions. And there are people who claim the Spirit has told ’em what this passage means. I might even believe ’em… if they weren’t so arrogant about it, and if their interpretations lined up. But they don’t. So I don’t.

True, we can always ask the Spirit what a bible passage means. Sometimes he tells us. And sometimes he doesn’t. It’s up to him how much he cares to divulge, and (as is the case with apocalypses) sometimes he doesn’t care to divulge stuff at all. If he doesn’t see any good coming out of it, he’s not sharing. And we have to learn to be okay with that. We answer to him, remember?

If you don’t like not knowing, join the club. And work on your humility: The Holy Spirit’s under no obligation to tell us all. He’s the LORD. We’re not.

11 September 2018

Scribes: Ancient Israel’s scholars.

It wasn’t just that they knew how to write.

SCRIBE /skraɪb/ n. One who writes [for a living].
2. In ancient Israel, a bible scholar; one with expertise in the Law and theology.

In our culture, we strive for universal literacy: We want everybody to be able to read. ’Cause in a democracy, if the people are gonna run the country, they need to be educated to that level. (Of course, if nobody but private-school kids get such an education, only the wealthy will really run the country… which is a whole other rant, and one I don’t care to go into today.)

But just as democracy has only recently been widespread in human history, universal literacy is also a relatively new idea. Bounce back in time to the Roman Empire, and maybe 15 to 25 percent of the people could read. The rest could not.

Not because they were dumb. Humans are just as smart now as they were then. It’s because they didn’t have access to an education. Only those who could afford literate slaves who’d teach their kids, or those who could afford to send their kids to an academy, had access. Everybody else could’ve learned to read—but their jobs didn’t require it, and a good memory served ’em just fine. So they were illiterate.

The exception was the Hebrew culture. They did strive for universal literacy. Because they had scriptures. God ordered his people to not just learn the commands of his Law, but “write them on your house’s doorframes, and your gates.” Dt 6.9 If you’re gonna obey that command, you gotta know how to write. The culture had to be literate. A written Law required it.

So the Pharisees created synagogues, schools which’d teach Hebrew children to read and write. (I know, you thought they were the Jewish equivalent of church, right? They largely are now. They weren’t in the beginning.) The kids were taught to read, and read the Law. And maybe a little history, math, and other subjects the rabbis found appropriate.,/p>

But for those who felt called to go further in their studies—who wanted to memorize the Law, and study it to the level Pharisees believed it should be studied—these folks became sofrím/“scribes.” Or as the New Testament called ’em, grammateís/“scribes.” (Same meaning.)

23 April 2018

Slavery: How God mitigated and abolished it.

Being in the bible is not the same as endorsement, y’know.

Back in bible times, people had slaves. Slavery was legal.

This is a weird and troubling idea for a lot of Christians. In the United States, slavery is illegal, and we consider it immoral. So it’s troubling to read about slavery in the bible as if it’s normal or okay.

Especially considering our history with slavery. We fought a whole war over it, y’know. Many southerners are in denial about that, and claim the War Between the States was really about states’ rights and local sovereignty… but history doesn’t bear ’em out at all. Confederate politicians and generals proudly declared they were fighting to retain their peculiar institution of slavery—because unlike southerners today, they didn’t consider slavery to be immoral. Hey, it’s in the bible!

Thing is, American slavery wasn’t at all like biblical slavery. What Americans practiced was chattel slavery, in which slaves were considered cattle—a word which evolved from chattel. What the folks in the bible practiced, for the most part, was penal slavery, in which people were enslaved because they broke the law, got themselves deep into debt, or lost a war. What Americans did was try to find excuses to claim what we were doing, was what they had done—then claim the bible permitted, even endorsed, their behavior. They pretended there was no huge difference.

But there was, and Americans were in fact guilty of violating a biblical command:

Exodus 21.16 KWL
“Anyone who steals a man and sells him, anyone found with the victim in their hands:
They’re dead. Put them to death.”

Slave traders, slave buyers, slave owners, their descendants, and every northerner who looked the other way and permitted the southerners to do their thing: All of them were complicit in the divinely-condemned capital crime of kidnapping. As Abraham Lincoln speculated time and again, our Civil War was likely God’s judgment upon us. Southerners who pretend the war wasn’t about slavery and racism, who claim it was really about heritage and self-governance and a noble lost cause: Their pride and willful blindness is just risking more judgment upon them and their people.

Because chattel slavery is kidnapping. It’s entirely immoral. God said so. Had American slaveowners properly interpreted their bibles, they’d discover every last one of them deserved to die. The Civil War is still the bloodiest, deadliest war in American history—and we got off light.

So yeah, keep in mind American slavery isn’t at all what the bible’s depicted. It’s far closer to what we do with our prisons—’cause convicts aren’t free either, and sentenced to various forms of forced labor. Well, in bible times they didn’t have anything close to our prison system. How did convicts serve their time after they committed a crime? Slavery.

04 October 2017

Sadducees: The secular power of religion.

How an ancient Hebrew harvest celebration got turned into giving a tenth of our income to our churches.

Sadducee /'sæd.ʒə.si/ n. An ancient denomination of the Hebrew religion which upheld the written Law alone, and denied the supernatural and the afterlife.
[Sadducean /.sæd.ʒə'si.ən/ adj.]

Protestants seldom know this history, so let me fill you in.

John bar Simon was the head priest and king of Judea from 134BC to 104BC. He was a member of the Hasmonean family; his dad was Simon Maccabee, one of the Maccabees who freed Judea from the Syrian Greeks (the “Seleucid Empire”) in 167BC. His dad had become the first head priest after the temple was restored, and since he was functionally the head of state, he was also recognized as Judea’s king. The Hasmoneans ruled Judea till the Romans deposed them in 41BC and gave the throne to Herod bar Antipater.

John’s also known as John Hyrcanus. He got his nickname Hurqanós/“from Hyrkania” after defeating the Syrian general Cendebeus, and since it’s probably an inside joke which was never recorded, we don’t know why he was called that. He’s known as a great general who doubled the size of Judea to include Samaria and Idumea. He’s also known as the king who forced the Idumeans (i.e. Edomites) to become Jews and be circumcised. And Pharisees remember him ’cause he quit the Pharisees and become Sadducee.

Y’see, when there’s no such thing as a separation of church and state, religion and politics are the same thing. Most Judeans were Pharisee. So were the priests. So was their senate. Sadducees, in comparison, were just this little tiny sect of Jews with some rather faithless beliefs:

Acts 22.8 KWL
For Sadducees say there’s no resurrection, nor angels, nor Holy Spirit,
and Pharisees profess them all.

We don’t know how much, or even whether, Hyrcanus believed as Sadducees did. He didn’t join them for religious reasons. He joined ’em because Pharisees had pissed him off.

Two prominent Pharisees, Eleazar bar Pokhera and Judah bar Gedidim, had publicly declared (right in front of him, according to one story), “If Hyrcanus is really a righteous man, he oughta resign the head priesthood, because we heard his mother had been a captive in Modin under the Syrians”—implying one of those Syrians had fathered him instead of Simon Maccabee, thus making Hyrcanus unqualified to be hereditary head priest. Hyrcanus ordered the claim to be investigated. Once proven untrue, he demanded his false witnesses be thrown out of the senate, just as they wanted him thrown out of office. Dt 19.18-19 But Pharisees in the senate ignored the Law and only had them whipped. So in his ire, Hyrcanus quit the Pharisees.

And to really stick it to ’em, he joined the group Pharisees considered their mortal enemies, the Sadducees. And ever since, he and the head priests who succeeded him—all the way up to Annas and Joseph Caiaphas in Jesus’s day, all the way to the last head priest, Fannias bar Samuel, in 70CE—were Sadduccee. Ac 5.17

07 June 2017

Adultery, concubines, and marriage, in the Old Testament.

Adultery has a whole different definition in the Old Testament.

Years ago one of my eighth-grade students asked me what a concubine was. ’Cause he wasn’t familiar with the word, and it was in his bible. It’s in everybody’s bibles: Pylegéš/“concubine,” which Strong’s dictionary defines as “concubine; paramour.” I just went with the 21st-century term for paramour: “It’s a girlfriend,” I told him.

Later that day his mother called me to complain. She heard the story, spoke with her pastor, and he assured her a concubine is a wife. Not a girlfriend. What sort of morality was I attempting to teach her son?

Um… it wasn’t a morality lesson. It’s a definition. The morality lesson comes from whether you think the bible’s references to concubines is prescriptive or descriptive: Whether because the patriarchs did it, we can; or whether the patriarchs simply did it, but Jesus calls us to be better than they. (I’ll save you the guessing game: It’s nearly always the second one.)

The patriarchs had concubines. These were, as my Oxford dictionary defines ’em, “a regular female companion with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship.” Our English word comes from the Latin con cubaré/“to lie down with.” A patriarch would lie down with one of the women in his household, making her his concubine. Not necessarily have sex with her, as was the case with King David and his concubine Abishag. 1Ki 1.1-4 (And if you wanna argue Abishag wasn’t a concubine, then it doesn’t make sense why Solomon freaked out when his brother Adonijah asked to marry her. 1Ki 2.13-25 Claiming your father’s women meant you claimed your father’s kingdom. 2Sa 16.20-22)

Why do some Christians insist a concubine isn’t a girlfriend, but a wife? Simple: It’s a culture clash.

When we read the Old Testament, we’re looking into an entirely different culture with an entirely different worldview about sex and marriage. We don’t realize this: We figure since they followed God, and we follow God, we share worldviews. And in our culture, a married man with a girlfriend on the side is an adulterer. Well, all these God-fearing OT saints with concubines, like Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, or King David: We’ll can kinda, grudgingly accept they had multiple wives. But multiple wives plus girlfriends? Beyond the pale. That’d make them, to our minds, adulterers.

So to clear them of the charge of adultery, “concubine” can’t merely mean “girlfriend.” It has to be some ancient kind of wife.

10 April 2017

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

And how Christians observe it. Or don’t. Or do, but medieval-style.

“Why don’t we celebrate Passover?” asked one of my students, when I once taught on the topic.

“We do,” I said. “Christians call it Pascha or Pascua or Páques. But in languages with a lot of German words mixed in, we call it Easter. And obviously we do it way different than you see in the bible.”

So different, English-speaking people routinely assume Easter and Passover are two entirely different holidays. I can’t argue with that assumption. Christians don’t bother to purge our homes of yeast or leavening. Don’t cook lamb; nor do we practice the modern Jewish custom of not having lamb, and emphasizing it ’cause there’s currently no temple to sacrifice a lamb in. Don’t put out the seder plate, don’t tell the Exodus story, don’t have the kids ask the Four Questions, don’t hide the afikomen and have the kids search for it. Although both holidays have eggs, and we do have the kids look for eggs.

Well, some Christians observe Passover as a separate holiday. Some of us do it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, in Exodus and Deuteronomy. More often it’s observed as practiced by Jews today.

The Messianic Jewish movement wants to emphasize the Jewish origins of Christianity. As they should. But many Messianic Jews aren’t all that solid on their history, and wind up teaching medieval rabbinic Judaism instead of the stuff Jesus and his first-century followers actually experienced. So when they observe Passover, their haggadah—the order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Which means it dates from the 10th century. Not the first.

Yes, some of its customs are in the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, these weren’t standard practices; not even in the 10th century. Just as Christians celebrate Christmas every which way, Jews then and now got to choose their own customs. Hence families have unique traditions, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all individually came up with their own haggadahs. (As did the Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to the children. But remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who knew the Exodus story. If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas after the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (why matzot, why bitter herbs, why roasted meat, and why the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. So whenever they attend a Passover seder, or ritual dinner, and hear whatever haggadah the leader came up with, they routinely think it’s so profound how Jesus “practiced” and “brought such meaning and fulfillment” to these customs. Even though it’s highly unlikely he practiced any of these customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

28 February 2017

Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

How an ancient Hebrew harvest celebration got turned into giving a tenth of our income to our churches.

Tithe /taɪð/ n., adj. One-tenth.
2. v. Set aside, or give, a tenth.
3. v. Donate [a tenth of one’s income] to one’s church.

Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. Usually money, but sometimes our time, and sometimes various other items. The amount doesn’t necessarily equal a tenth of anything, which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða/“tenth”: If you’re giving less than an actual tenth, it’s not really tithing.

This is because they insist it’s important we bring our whole tithe to church. ’Cause it says to in the bible.

Malachi 3.8-12 KWL
8 “Does any human cheat God like all of you cheat me?
You say, ‘How do we cheat you?’ In tithes. In offerings.
9 You’ve cursed yourselves. The whole nation is cheating me.
10 Bring your whole tithe to my treasury: There’s unclean food in my house!
Please test me in this,” says the LORD of War.
See if I don’t open heaven’s floodgates and pour down blessing till you overflow.
11 I rebuke the blight for you: It won’t ruin your crops.
It won’t kill the vines in your field,” says the LORD of War.
12 “Every nation will call you happy,
and consider you a land of delight,” says the LORD of War.

Most of ’em only quote verses 8–10. They don’t bother with verses 11–12. They should; those verses reveal the context of what the LORD actually meant by mahašér/“tithe.” He wasn’t talking about Christians who don’t contribute enough to our churches. He was talking about Hebrews who didn’t contribute enough to their community food closets. There was teréf/“spoil[ed food]” in his house. A fact most bibles tend to mistranslate “that there may be meat in mine house,” as the KJV has it: Teréf or the modern Yiddish word treyf, means unclean food—and God wasn’t asking for unclean food! But he did want food. ’Cause tithing was about food.

I know: You might never have heard this idea before. You’d be surprised how many Christian pastors are totally clueless about this fact. I grew up Christian, yet hadn’t heard any of this stuff till my thirties. But it’s all in your bible, hiding in plain sight.

08 February 2017

Baalism: The icky religions we find in ancient Israel.

Why’d the Hebrews keep falling into Baalism? They did it for the nooky.

Baal /bɑ'ʕɑl, commonly mispronounced 'beɪ.(ə)l/ n. The title of various middle eastern gods.
2. Lord, master, sir, husband.
[Baalim /bɑ.ʕɑl.im/ n.pl., Baalism /ba'al.iz.əm/ n.]

The main competitors to the ancient Hebrew worship of the LORD were various middle eastern gods which tended to be called by their word for “master.” In Hebrew and Aramaic that’d be bahál; in Arabic and Ugaritic bahl, Amharic bal, Akkadian Belu, and in English it takes the form “Baal.”

Most people assume “Baal,” like “God,” is a proper name instead of a title. It’s not. Every major god was called “Baal.” There were multiple Baals in the middle east and ancient Canaan, which is why the bible refers to them as bahalím/“Baals” (KJV “Baalim”). Jg 2.11, 1Sa 7.4, 1Ki 18.18, 2Ch 17.3, Jr 2.23, Ho 2.13 Rather than refer to these gods by their proper names, middle easterners respectfully called them “lord,” much as we do with YHWH. They used the word bahál—and the Hebrews used its synonym adón, arguably because everybody else was using Baal.

In fact it may startle you to discover even the LORD was sometimes called Baal. Seriously. After David ben Jesse became king over all the Israeli tribes, he fought Philistia at Baal Perachím, and the reason the place was called that name was ’cause… well, I’ll just quote the bible.

2 Samuel 5.18-21 KWL
18 Philistines came, and occupied the valley of Refahím/“Shadows.”
19 Asking the LORD, David said, “Do I go out against the Philistines? Do you put them in my hand?”
The LORD told David, “Go out: I put, put the Philistines in your hand.”
20 David went to Baal Perachím. There, David struck them down. He said:
“The LORD broke through my enemies before my face, like water breaks through a levee.”
Hence this place’s name is Baal Perachím/“Lord of Breakthrough.”
21 The Philistines left their carved idols there,
and David and his men took them away.

We all know David was no Baalist. He didn’t name the site for any of the Canaanite or Philistine gods; he meant his God, YHWH. But he used the title Baal to refer to him. I know; it’s weird.

It’s why we find Hebrew place names, even people, whose names have some form of “Baal” in them. They didn’t necessarily mean Canaanite gods; they often meant the One God. Like David’s warrior Behalyáh of Benjamin, 1Ch 12.5 whose name literally means “YHWH is Baal.” Like Saul’s son Ešbahál 1Ch 8.33, 9.39, and Jonathan’s son Meriv-bahál. 1Ch 8.34, 9.40 You might know these men better as King Ishbosheth 2Sa 2.8 and Mephibosheth. 2Sa 4.4 It’s believed the bible’s editors pulled the “Baal” from their names and replaced it with bošet/“shame[ful]”—sorta their mini-commentary about that word.

’Cause after a point, God got really tired of people calling him “Baal.”

Hosea 2.16-17 KWL
16 The LORD reveals: “That day will come when you call me ‘my husband’
and not call me ‘my Baal’ anymore.
17 I pluck the Baals’ names from your mother’s mouth.
Don’t recognize me by that name anymore.”

God wanted the very word removed. And for good reason. If the LORD is simply Baal-YHWH to you, just another one of the interchangeable Baals in the world, it’s way too easy to mix up our good, benevolent, patient, loving LORD with some other god who isn’t always good, is kinda selfish, impatient, unloving, and otherwise unlike the One God. Like that horny reprobate Zeus in Greek mythology, a god whom the ancient Greeks called “good” only because they were sucking up to him.

Which brings up the reason the Baals were so popular. When people read the bible and don’t know its history, they often wonder why on earth the Hebrews kept falling into Baalism. What was it about these gods? The LORD can speak; why’d they regularly keep falling for gods which can’t?

Two words: Ritual sex.

Oh that got your attention, didn’t it? But yep, that’s what hooked the Hebrews. Nu 25.1-3 Ancient pagans quickly discovered if they made sexual activity part of their worship practices, they’d hook dedicated followers. It’s precisely why the LORD and his prophets regularly compared Baalism to adultery and prostitution: Jg 8.33, Ho 2.13 That’s literally what it was.

01 February 2017

The 13 tribes of Israel. (Yes, 13. I didn’t miscount.)

Hope you’re not triskaidekaphobic. In case you are, the bible usually says 12.

The Hebrews whom the LORD rescued from Egypt during the Exodus, consisted of the descendants of Jacob ben Isaac—whom a man, probably an angel, renamed Israel after their wrestling match. Ge 32.28 Hence they’re regularly called benéi Yišraél/“children of Israel.” Ex 1.1

Since Israel had 12 sons (through four different women), and all the “children of Israel” are descended from the sons, they’re also known as “the 12 tribes of Israel,” each tribe named for each son. In English, the sons are

  • Sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun. Ge 35.23
  • Sons of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin. Ge 35.24
  • Sons of Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali. Ge 35.25
  • Sons of Zilpah: Gad, Asher. Ge 35.26

They’re listed in various orders, but Reuben tends to come first, ’cause he was firstborn. However, Israel reassigned the birthright, the patriarchal obligations of the eldest son, to his favorite son, Joseph.

Hence Joseph received twice the inheritance of his brothers—and became represented by two tribes, named for Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. (Manasseh is sometimes referred to as a “half tribe,” Js 13.29 but not because Manasseh was half of Joseph; it’s because half of Manasseh’s land lies east of the Jordan river, and half west.) And since Jacob put the younger son, Ephraim, first, Ge 48.17-20 precedence passed to that tribe. The Prophets regularly refer to northern Israel as “Ephraim” for that reason. Is 7.9, 11.13, Jr 31.20, Ho 5.3, 7.8, Zc 9.13

So… this actually produces 13 tribes (which I’ll list alphabetically): Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun. Not 12. Why aren’t they called 13 tribes? Two reasons.

First and foremost: The writers of the bible, and probably God too, really like the number 12. The ancient Sumerians divided the year into 12 months, marked ’em with the zodiac (whatever constellation is highest in the sky at night), and throughout middle eastern culture this became the number of completeness, fulfillment, unity, and perfection. Thirteen? Not so much. Not that it’s unlucky; that superstition came from the Romans. But they liked 12 way better.

And the LORD turned the entire tribe of Levi into a special priestly caste. He gave them “no inheritance”—that is, no land apart from 48 cities. Js 21 Instead of land, Moses explained, the LORD was their inheritance, Js 13.33 meaning whenever people brought food and animals to the LORD, the Levites, in their capacity as the LORD’s priests, got to eat ’em Dt 18.1 and therefore didn’t really need any land for farming and ranching.

So geographically, there are only 12 tribes: Twelve tracts of land, designated for 12 families descended from Israel. The Levite cities were scattered all over these tribes, and really anybody could live in the cities, not just Levites. (Particularly the larger cities, like Hebron, Shechem, or Ramoth-Gilead.)

18 July 2016

Remember the Sabbath day.

Our weekly holiday… and a command we regularly violate.

Believe it or not, we Christians actually have a holiday every single week. You likely forgot about it because it’s so regular.

It’s Sabbath. It’s the day God mandated (in the Ten Commandments, you know) that people take off. We’re not to work on it. We have the other six days of the week for that.

Exodus 20.8-11 KWL
8 “Remember to separate the day of Sabbath.
9 Work six days, and do all your work. 10 The seventh day is Sabbath.
It’s for me, your LORD God. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
your sons, daughters, male slaves, female slaves, animals, or visitors at your gates.
11 For six days, I the LORD made the skies and the land, the sea and everything in it.
The seventh day, I stopped, so I the LORD blessed a day of Sabbath. I made it holy.”

And once again, in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 5.12-15 KWL
12 “Keep separate the day of Sabbath, as your LORD God commanded you.
13 Work six days, and do all your work. 14 The seventh day is Sabbath.
It’s for your LORD God. Don’t start any work on it. That counts for you,
your sons, daughters, slaves, ox, donkey, animals, or visitors at your gates.
Because your male and female slaves will rest like you:
15 Remember, you were a slave in Egypt’s territory.
Your LORD God got you out of there with his strong hand and extended arm.
This is why your LORD God commands you to do the day of Sabbath.”

Note God said it was ’cause he rested on the seventh day, but Moses said it was ’cause the Hebrews used to be Egypt’s slaves. It’s one of those little contradictions people like to pretend the bible doesn’t have. But really, there’s no reason we can’t accept both interpretations. After all, real life is messy like that.

Sabbath comes from the word shabbát/“stop.” God stopped creating the earth on the seventh day; Ge 2.2 likewise we’re to stop working every seventh day. We’re not meant to work seven days a week. We burn out. Our mental state collapses. God, recognizing this (’cause he made us, of course), put a moratorium on work every seven days: Stop. Rest. That goes for everyone.

16 June 2016

Ritually clean and unclean: Ready for worship!

It’s not literal cleanliness. It just happens to look like it.

From time to time the scriptures talk about tahór/“clean” and tamé/“unclean.” Sometimes it’s meant literally, like when the bible refers to pure gold or silver, or refer to a dirty person or animal.

But most of the time the scriptures use these terms not literally, but ritually—what the LORD defined as “clean” or “unclean” for the purposes of worship. “Clean” things could be used for worship; “clean” people were free to worship. “Unclean” things and people couldn’t. If you were clean, you could go to temple—and the Pharisees would let you go to synagogue. If not, not.

And if unclean things were used for worship anyway, or unclean people worshiped without first purifying themselves, there were dire consequences.

Leviticus 10.1-11 KWL
1 Aaron’s sons Nadáv and Avihú: Each man took his incense-burner, lit it, placed incense in it,
and brought it into the LORD’s presence—weird fire, which God didn’t permit them.
2 So fire came out of the LORD’s presence and consumed them.
They died before the LORD’s presence.
3 Moses told Aaron, “Here’s what the LORD says to those who come near him: ‘I’m holy.
I must be glorified in the presence of all people.’” Aaron said nothing.
4 Moses called Mišahél and Elchafán, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziél, and told them, “Come in.
Carry your family out of the sanctuary. Take them outside the camp.”
5 They came in, and carried them outside the camp in their tunics, as Moses said.
6 Moses told Aaron and his sons Eleazár and Itamár, “Don’t uncover your heads.
Don’t tear your clothes. Don’t die: Anger will come on the congregation!
Your brothers, and Israel’s house, will weep over the burning the LORD burned.
7 Don’t go out the Meeting Tent door, or you’ll die: The LORD’s anointing oil is on you.”
They followed Moses’s word. 8 The LORD told Aaron, 9 “You and your sons with you:
Drink no wine nor liquor when you come to the Meeting Tent. Don’t die.
This is a rule for every generation. 10 Distinguish between holy and secular, between clean and unclean.
11 Show Israel’s sons all the rules the LORD told them by Moses’s hand.”

The reason the LORD brought up being drunk on the job, is likely ’cause Nadáv and Avihú were drunk on the job. The LORD wanted it crystal clear this behavior wasn’t acceptable. Pagan gods regularly had drunk priests—getting farshnickert was often part of their worship. But the LORD God doesn’t just accept any behavior we categorize as “worship” just because we’re earnest, or we took all the right steps, or followed the right rituals, or said the right words, or feel really good about it. Think about the last time you got a really inappropriate Christmas gift. “A jar of back-pimple cream?” “A rhinestone collar and a leash? But I don’t have a dog.” “A gift card to a steakhouse? But I’m vegan.” And the gifter tried to shrug it off with, “Well, it’s the thought that counts”—when clearly no thought went into it, and they’re either trying to unload something by regifting it, or trying to passive-aggressively give you what they feel is best.

Well, that’s what jerks we’ve become when we try to foist our preferences upon the LORD, but have never bothered to find out—or don’t really care—what he wants. Eating ham on Easter would be an obvious example. Y’ever read God’s views on pork?

The LORD has standards. Expectations. If we really love him, meet them. Otherwise don’t waste his time, or insult him with rotten substitutes. He’s holy.

Some of us Christians get this, try to find out what God legitimately wants, and strive to bring him that. Other Christians… well, they do whatever popular Christian culture figures is holy. And since those folks don’t know the difference between holiness and solemnity, they figure what God wants is old-timey music, old-timey prayers, old-timey bibles, and Christians who wear fine-looking clothes to church. They never stop and think about whether these are clean clothes—literally or ritually. It’s about looking good for others, not what God wants. You know, the hypocrites’ old problem.

Well, here’s a pointer in the correct direction: What does God consider ritually clean?

20 May 2016

Samaritans, and Jesus’s living water.

A bit about the woman Jesus met at the well, and her people.

John 4.1-15.

To give you a better sense of how the ancient Judeans felt about Samaritans, you gotta think about how the average Evangelical in the United States feels… about Muslims.

Yeah, there y’go. Distrust. Uncertainty. Fear. The assumption that because some terrorists claim to be Muslim, all Muslims are terrorist. The assumption that because Muslims in various countries live under strict interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, they wanna implement those customs in this country, and inflict their commands upon us. (Never mind the fact a number of Christians wouldn’t mind inflicting our strict interpretations of the Old Testament upon everyone as well.)

Samaritans had a similar reputation in ancient Judea. The Judeans figured they were right, and Samaritans wrong. Really wrong. Dangerously wrong. They considered them pagans and foreigners, and had nothing to do with them.

And Samaritans believe (yeah, they still exist) precisely the same thing right back at Judeans then, and Jews today. They consider themselves the real descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the real successors and keepers of Moses’s teachings, the real servants of God. The Pharisees and Jews were the heretics, who’d added all these extra books to the bible (the books from Joshua to Chronicles—or in Christian book-order, from Joshua to Malachi) and a whole bunch of rabbinical loopholes which the Samaritans found offensive. Worse, they had all this wealth and political power—and heretics with power is frightening, innit?

Oh, there are parallels aplenty between Judeans and Samaritans then, and Christians and Muslims today. And let’s not forget the hate crimes: Some Judean would get a little political power, and decide to go into Samaria and slaughter a bunch of Samaritans. Some Samaritan would get vengeful and attack Judeans as they traveled through Samaritan territory. Not for cause; solely because they were different from one another, and had old grudges. By Jesus’s day this sort of behavior had been going on for the past 400 years. Like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but without explosions.

Gotta remember that animosity, fear, and rage they had towards one another, whenever we read about Jesus visiting Samaria.

John 4.1-9 KWL
1 Once Jesus knew the Pharisees heard, “Jesus has many students and baptizes, like John”—
2 though Jesus himself wasn’t baptizing; his students were
3 he left Judea behind and went to the Galilee again.
4 He needed to pass through Samaria.
5 Hence he came a Samaritan town called Sykhár,
near the field Jacob gave his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s Well is there.
Jesus, tired from walking the road, was sitting there by the well the sixth hour after sunrise.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water.
Jesus told her, “Give me a drink,”
8 for his students had gone into town so they could buy food.
9 The Samaritan woman told him, “How can you be near me, Judean? I’m a Samaritan woman.
You ask me for a drink?—Judeans have no use for Samaritans.”

Many translations have “Judeans have no use for Samaritans” as the author’s commentary on the situation, not something the Samaritan said. The KJV puts it “no dealings with Samaritans,” but I rendered synhróntai/“make use of” more literally.

Obviously this woman didn’t recognize Jesus’s Galilean accent, and assumed he was Judean. Not that Samaritans and Galileans got along any better. But as we already know about Jesus, he did have use for Samaritans; he came to save everybody. Jn 3.16-17 Samaritans included. Jesus doesn’t do racism.

15 May 2016

Pentecost.

The eighth Sunday after Easter, when the Holy Spirit started the church.

I’m a Pentecostal… and weirdly, a lot of us Pentecostals never notice when Pentecost comes round. I don’t get it. I blame anti-Catholicism a little.

Anyway, Pentecost is the last day of Eastertime, the day we Christians remember the start of the Christian church—the day the Holy Spirit gave power to Jesus’s followers. Like so.

Acts 2.1-4 KWL
1 When the 50th day after Passover drew near, all were together in one place.
2 Suddenly a roar came from heaven, like a mighty wind sounds,
and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 Tongues, like fire, were seen distributed to them,
and sat on each one of them, 4 and all were filled with the Holy Spirit.
They began to speak in other tongues,
in whatever way the Spirit gave them the ability.
4 The Jews who inhabited Jerusalem at the time
were devout men from every nation under heaven.
5 When this sound came forth, the masses gathered, and were confused:
Each one of them was hearing their own dialect spoken to them.
6 They were astounded, and wondered aloud, “Look, aren’t all these speakers Galileans?
8 How is each of us hearing our own native dialect?
9 People from Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Israel, eastern Turkey,
10 western Turkey, Egypt, the Cyrenian part of Libya, visitors from Rome,
11 Jews and Jewish converts, Cretans and Arabs
—we hear them speaking of God’s might in our own languages!”
12 All were astounded and stunned. Some asked one another, “What caused this?”
13 Others said, joking, “They’ve been drinking port.”

Lots of Christians call this story the “first Pentecost.” It wasn’t. Pentecost comes from the Greek pentikostí iméra/“50th day.” It’s the Greek term for the Hebrew festival of Shavuót/“Weeks,” the first crop of the wheat harvest. Ex 34.22 From the first day the Hebrews began to harvest wheat, the LORD ordered Moses to have ’em count off seven weeks, or 49 days. Dt 16.9-12 On the last day they were to sacrifice some of the grain to God, and take a day off in celebration. Nu 28.26 Somehow, the first day of the wheat harvest became formally shifted to the first day after Passover, meaning Weeks is the 50th day after Passover—6 Sivan in the Hebrew calendar. (In ours, 14 May 2016.)

All male Jews were instructed to go to temple on Pentecost. Dt 16.16 Meaning Jerusalem was full of devout Jews at the time, bringing the LORD their grain offerings—and suddenly a house full of Galileans broke out in every language they knew, spoken as if to them personally. That got their attention.

04 May 2016

Covenant: How God makes our relationship official.

Despite what you may have heard, it’s not just an extra-special contract.

Covenant /'kəv.ən.ənt/ n. Committed, intentional relationship. The parties who enter such relationships spell out the duties of one to the other, made with firm, binding promises.
2. v. To enter such a relationship.
[Covenantal /kəv.ən'ənt.əl/ adj.]

Our culture, including popular Christian culture, seldom understands the significant difference between “covenant” and “contract.” Usually because of marriage.

Seriously. Y’see, back when there was no such thing as separation of church and state, the government formally recognized various religious covenants: Baptisms, christenings, marriages, religious vows, and so forth. After the United States decided it was in our best interest (particularly the church’s best interest) for government to remain neutral, our governments nevertheless still kept marriage on the books. Because it comes in handy to know who is married to whom—for the purposes of inheritance, next of kin and spousal consent, parental rights and responsibility and custody, and so forth. (Plus there are tax breaks.) But the problem is our laws don’t legally define any covenant between the two… because a covenant’s about the nature of their relationship. All government does is recognize the legal contract between them. One which, as you know, our governments can easily dissolve. Or redefine, to the outrage of many.

So when your average Christian tries to define covenant, such as one of the many covenants between God and his people in the scripture, they tend to think of marriage. And tend to forget the concept of “marriage” they have in their brains… ain’t necessarily a covenant. Sometimes it is, because they remember it’s a formal relationship. And sometimes it’s not, because they forget the relationship part, and instead emphasize the idea it’s binding.

Of course it’s binding. The people who covenant together don’t merely intend to work together. They intend to be bound together, for life. Like a proper marriage, not a government-defined marriage.

God is relational. He wants a close personal connection between himself and his creation. But God is love, so he doesn’t wish any of his relationships to be a casual, go-as-you-please, Facebook-style friendship. No relationships of convenience: Those are impatient and self-serving, and neither of those things are love. God wants commitment. He wants to bind himself together with us. Hence he makes covenants.

This is why throughout the bible, heavily emphasized, we’ll find covenants. God makes ’em with everyone. He made one with Noah, Ge 6.18 Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Ge 17 Jacob, Ex 2.24 the entire nation of Israel, Dt 5.2-3 and anyone who joins Israel and willingly adopts the terms of God’s covenant. Is 56.6-7 Really, he’s made covenants with all of humanity, Ge 9.15 which is why he has every right to rule and judge us.

And of course we Christians recognize Jesus’s new covenant, in which God’s relationship with his followers involves giving us his Holy Spirit, and that we follow him instead of the stipulations spelled out in the Law. (Although since the Holy Spirit inspired the Law, 2Ti 3.16 we don’t disregard the Law! We simply recognize he supersedes it.)

God continually initiates these relationships because he wants his creations to become his children. He wants to interact with us, and be our loving God. Lv 26.12 He’s always wanted this. It’s why he created us humans in the first place. Our sin messed things up, and ever since, God’s been trying to put things back together.