The mourning of Jerusalem’s daughters.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 March

Luke 23.26-31.

Only Luke tells this part of the story.

Luke 23.26-31 KWL
26 As the Romans led Jesus away, they grabbed Simon, a certain Cyrenian coming from the fields,
and they put the crossbeam on him to carry behind Jesus.
27 Many crowds of people followed Jesus.
The mourning women among them were also lamenting him.
28 Turning to the women, Jesus said, “Jerusalem’s daughters, don’t weep for me.
But weep for your own. For your children. 29 Look, the time’s coming when they’ll say,
‘The sterile, wombs which never begat children, breasts which never fed, are awesome!’
30 Then they’ll start ‘to tell the mountains, “Fall on us!” and the hills, “Bury us!” ’ Ho 18.1
31 For if they do this when the wood is moist, what’ll happen when it’s dry?”

Some teachers never can stop teaching. Even when they’re being dragged off to be crucified.

Various Christians don’t know what to make of this passage, so they skip it. Which is easy to do when there are so many other horrors to focus on when it comes to Jesus’s death. Skip the message to Jerusalem’s daughters and focus on Simon having to carry Jesus’s crossbeam, or Jesus getting nailed up between two insurgents. Lessons can easily get lost in the shuffle.

But St. John Paul made this lesson its own station of the cross, probably ’cause he figured it was worth zooming in on this particular event. Meditating on what the women were feeling. Meditating on how Jesus felt about that. Meditating on what he told them, and why he said it.

So let’s get into why he said it.

Great tribulation in less than 40 years.

Jesus was crucified in the year 33 of our era. In the year 66, the Romans finally had enough of Judean insurrection and sent in the army to put a stop to it, once and for all.

The cause of the insurrection? Judeans who wouldn’t recognize Jesus is their Messiah and join the Christians. Instead they kept waiting for some other king to save them from the Romans and lead their people to greatness. Someone violent and wrathful—kinda like they were!—and eager to call down legions of angels to smite the Romans in precisely the way Jesus wouldn’t. Mt 26.53 They kept embracing fake Messiahs, kept irritating the Romans, and kept presuming God was gonna send him some other savior… ’cause they didn’t really care for the Nazarene. Too much grace. Not enough rage.

So what d’you think would happen? Right: First the Jerusalem prefect started arresting senior Judean leaders. This turned into full-on revolt. The legate of Syria sent in his army; the Judeans defeated ’em. Emperor Nero sent in his top general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, and over the course of four years, Vespasianus (later known as Emperor Vespasian) and his son (later Emperor Titus) defeated the rebels, laid siege to Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple. Judea was flattened, Jerusalem laid waste, hundreds of thousands crucified, the Sadducees dead, and the Jews scattered round the world yet again.

Jesus not only knew this was coming, Mk 13.1-2 but warned his followers to watch out, then run for the hills. Mk 10.14-20 And not to confuse it with his second coming, Mk 10.21-23 for that comes later. Mk 10.24-27 Not that plenty of Christians don’t still confuse this period of great tribulation with his second coming, or imagine Jesus’s prophecy hasn’t happened yet, but has yet to happen in our own future. But that’s only because they’re following certain self-proclaimed “prophecy scholars” instead of Jesus. He did warn us about false teachers, y’know.

So that’s what this was. Jesus was prophesying, yet again, that terrible stuff was ahead. Jerusalem’s daughters shouldn’t be weeping for him, but weeping for the future that their leaders were dragging them into. It was gonna be awful.

Mark 13.17-20 KWL
17 “How sad for pregnant women and nursing mothers, in those days!
18 Pray it doesn’t happen during winter.
19 Those days will be tribulation like it’s never been.
From the first thing God created, to now, it’s never been this bad.
20 If the Lord didn’t cut off the days, no flesh would survive.
But he chose to cut off the days because of his chosen people.”

Some of the reason “prophecy scholars” claim Jesus has to be talking about events in our future, is because they can’t imagine the events of the Jewish-Roman War were the worst suffering that’s ever been. But you notice Jesus didn’t say that it’s the worst suffering ever—only the worst it’s been from creation till his day. It’s fair to say humanity’s committed much worse atrocities since, but Jesus wasn’t talking about since.

And Jesus didn’t want this.

Matthew 23.37-38 KWL
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, slayer of prophets, stoner of those I sent you.
So many times I’ve wanted to gather your children together, like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.
You didn’t. 38 Look, your nest is left empty.”

He wanted what he’s always wanted: For them to be his people, and for him to be their God. Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12, Jr 30.22 Well, their king, walking among them in a way they never imagined he would. Still, he wanted a relationship, and they rejected him. So their rejection would bring them destruction. He didn’t have to lift a finger to judge them; disaster would come on its own.

But it wasn’t any of these people—the crowds who grieved for him, the women who lamented for him—who were complicit in his death and Judea’s destruction. They weren’t in leadership. They had no power to change anything. Judea wasn’t a democracy, y’know. Still, when the great tribulation came, if they didn’t flee for the hills along with the Christians, they were doomed along with the rest. So as they lamented for Jesus, he lamented for them.

Like Hosea: History repeating itself.

A number of bibles utterly miss the fact Jesus quoted Hosea in verse 30. They notice people in Revelation likewise call the mountains to foll on them, Rv 6.16 but—largely because people really need to read the Prophets and don’t—they don’t catch that both Jesus and John were referring to a 7-century-old prophecy about the coming destruction of Ephraim, the land of northern Israel, ruled by the king of Samaria.

Hosea 10.1-8 KWL
1 Israel’s a premium vine. Its fruit is just like it—it’s abundant fruit.
It has many good altars in the land. Good watchtowers.
2 Nowadays its minds are full of themselves. They’re guilty.
God breaks their altars’ necks. He lays the watchtowers waste.
3 For now they say, “We’ve no king. We don’t respect the LORD. What would a king do for us?
4 They speak words, swear empty oaths, cut covenants. They sprout judgment like weeds in a field’s furrows.
5 For the cows of Beth Aven, they fear their neighbor Samaria, as they mourn for it and its people,
and its priests rejoice over it, over the glory which was removed from it.
6 As for its people, they’re carried to Assyria as an offering to Assyria’s king.
Ephraim is taken. Israel is ashamed of its counsel. 7 Samaria’s king is ruined like a stick left in the water.
8 Aven’s high worship sites—Israel’s sins—are destroyed. Thorns and thistles grow on their altars.
They say to the mountains, “Hide us,” and to the hills, “Fall on us.”

Like the people of Jesus’s day, the Ephraimites and Samarians presumed they were wealthy and safe, ’cause they followed their gods and had strong fortifications. Didn’t follow the LORD any. Didn’t really follow their king either. Sound familiar?

What happened next? The cycle reached the point where their enemies invaded. Israel’s foes, in this case the Assyrian Empire, got to be successful against ’em: They wouldn’t turn to the LORD when times were good, so he’d sit on the sidelines when times got very, very bad. The Assyrians invaded Ephraim, captured the king, rounded up the inhabitants of the major cities, and scattered ’em all over the empire.

Nowadays we call ’em “the 10 lost tribes,” although the only actual lost Israelis were the deported city dwellers. The survivors either fled to southern Israel, i.e. Judah/Judea; or they intermarried with the people the Assyrians relocated to Israel, and became the Samaritans; or they rejoined their fellow Israelis when the Babylonians conquered and scattered Judah two centuries later.

It’s the survivors of whom Hosea made the comment, “They say to the mountains, ‘Hide us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us.’ ” Ho 10.8 They were running for their lives—running for the hills, to hide in them, same as David ben Jesse and various other fugitives had done throughout Israeli history. But they were also in despair. Hence they really wouldn’t mind if the caves they were hiding in, just happened to cave in on ’em.

’Cause tribulation’s gonna get bad. If the Romans were crucifying peaceful Nazarene prophets during the relatively good times, imagine what they’d do during the bad times. Or as Jesus put it, “If they do this when the wood is moist, what’ll happen when it’s dry?” Lk 23.31

It’s not a happy message Jesus had for the women. But be fair; he was having just the worst day.

Let’s suppose Jesus is dead.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 March

Six years ago I was asked to write on “the resurrection hoax” for a synchroblog. The idea was this: Suppose Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Suppose the story was entirely fabricated by the apostles. Hence hundreds of people didn’t actually see Jesus alive. 1Co 15.6 Hence he hasn’t personally appeared to thousands of people in the present day; these are all delusions. Hence despite evidence to the contrary, 40 days after his death, thousands became Christian, Ac 2.41 thousands more in the years thereafter, Christianity spread all over the Roman Empire and beyond, and now a third of the planet is Christian. But it’s entirely based on mythology and wishful thinking.

Well… for contrast, a billion people claim adherence to Islam, and we Christians figure Muhammed ibn Abdullah al-Mecca was wrong about God. But then again Muhammed didn’t claim any big miracles for himself. (His followers did, later.) He only claimed to hear from angels. I don’t have any problem with that idea; I just doubt these angels were on the level.

Anyway. “The resurrection hoax” is also an intellectual exercise Christian apologists like to use to imagine what the world should look like if Jesus isn’t alive. “If Jesus wasn’t raised, that shouldn’t’ve happened. And that shouldn’t’ve taken place. And this would be impossible. And all these miracles would be delusions.” And so on. Basically we make up a parallel world without Jesus in it, then argue, “We don’t live in that world, so Jesus must be alive.”

D’you recognize the gigantic problem with that argument? Right; it’s what we call a strawman: Build a dummy out of straw, fight it, defeat it easily, then say, “Look how well I can defend myself!” Um… it wasn’t even attacking you, because it can’t, because it’s straw. Imaginary worlds prove, at most, that we lack imagination. ’Cause an antichrist can imagine a world which looks exactly like this one, wherein Jesus is dead. It’s the world they imagine they’re in now.

Still, apologists like to use it to make smaller challenges: “If Jesus isn’t alive, why weren’t the apostles immediately and successfully challenged by people who could refute their resurrection stories?” (ANTICHRIST: “Duh; they were, but when they wrote the bible, they didn’t include any of those challenges.”) “If Jesus isn’t alive, how could the apostles do all those miracles?” (ANTICHRIST: “Hey, I’m not convinced they did any of those miracles.”) I could go on, but as you can tell, I’ve tried this tactic myself, and antichrists have answers for all our posits. We won’t agree with their answers—and that’s why we’re Christian. But don’t presume antichrists haven’t come up with all sorts of reasons to reject Christ and Christianity—ones which work just fine for them.

The “Not what I want” prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 March

Sometimes we don’t pray for what we want.

The “Not what I want” prayer isn’t a popular prayer. Downright rare sometimes. Because when we pray, we’re intentionally asking God for what we want. Why would we tell him to not give us what we want? Did we suddenly forget the point of prayer?

Why pray “Not what I want”? ’Cause we’re mimicking Jesus. When he has us pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” Mt 6.10 and when he himself prayed this at Gethsemane:

Mark 14.35-36 KWL
35 Jesus went a little ahead, fell to the ground, and was praying this:
“If it’s possible, have this hour pass by!”
36 He said, Abbá! Father, you can do anything: Take this cup from me.
But not what I want. What you want.”

Y’notice Jesus did tell the Father what he wanted: He didn’t want to suffer. He wanted “the cup” to pass him by. He didn’t wanna be crucified; what kind of madman would wanna be crucified? Yet at the same time he knew his purpose in this world was to do as the Father sent him to do. Jn 5.19, 8.28 At the time his will didn’t match the Father’s, but he determined he would make his will match the Father’s. Even if it meant suffering.

There’s our example.

That’s why it’s not a popular prayer. Few of us Christians are willing to commit ourselves to God so radically. Of the few who do, we’re totally willing to die for God… not realizing when it really does come time to die for him, perfect fear will cast out zeal. Note Simon Peter. At 9 p.m., totally ready to die for Jesus; Lk 22.23 and 3 a.m., totally lying about him to slave girls. Lk 22.56 Who, as slaves and as girls in that culture, couldn’t even testify against him in court! A few hours can change an awful lot.

But this is why our willingness to follow God absolutely anywhere, can’t be based on zeal. It’s gotta be based on our regular surrender and submission to God’s will. We gotta regularly pray, along with Jesus, “Not what I want. What you want.”

Vinegar to drink.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 March

Mark 15.23, 26, Matthew 27.33-34, 48, Luke 23.36, John 19.28-30

Back when David was in deep doo-doo, Ps 69.2 he wrote Psalm 69. More griping about his enemies. But when he talked about his comforters, Ps 69.20 he commented,

Psalm 69.21 KWL
They gave me bitter food, and for my thirst, they made me drink vinegar.

It’s a memorable idea, and one which no doubt the authors of the gospels thought of when Jesus was getting crucified. ’Cause Jesus didn’t wanna drink what they provided.

Our culture might be unaware: Back then, you didn’t drink the water. You never knew where it came from, and rarely was it pure. Fastest way to get dysentery or cholera. So the ancients drank wine, either full-strength or watered-down. (Or beer, if your culture made beer.) The alcohol killed any bacteria. Ignore all those teetotalers who claim “wine” back then was actually grape juice: Grape juice was as potentially harmful as water. It needed to be wine.

The gospels aren’t consistent in how they describe the wine Jesus was offered. Mark called it myrrh-wine and Matthew called it wine with holís/“bile.” For Luke and John, it was really old wine, which both of ’em straight-up called óxos/“vinegar.”

Mark 15.22-23 KWL
22 They brought Jesus to Gulgálta Place (i.e. Skull Place).
23 They were giving Jesus myrrh-wine, which he didn’t take.
Matthew 27.33-34 KWL
33 Coming to the place called Gulgálta, called Skull Place, 34 they gave Jesus wine to drink—
with bile mixed in, and on tasting it he didn’t want to drink.
Luke 23.36 KWL
They mocked him. The soldiers who’d come were bringing him vinegar…

John states they added hyssop, but the KJV changes John’s account to “[a branch] of hyssop,” Jn 19.29 KJV to sync it up with Mark and Matthew’s account of putting the wine in a sponge, putting the sponge on a reed (or a hyssop stick, I suppose), and offering it to Jesus. But hyssop is also a bitter extract, and may be what Matthew meant by bile. I dunno.

Mark 15.36 KWL
One of the runners, filling a sponge of vinegar, putting it on a reed, gave Jesus a drink,
saying, “Let me do this; we might see if Elijah comes to take him.”
Matthew 27.48 KWL
One runner quickly left them: Taking a sponge full of vinegar, putting it on a reed, he gave Jesus a drink.
John 19.28-30 KWL
28 After this Jesus, knowing everything was now finished,
said to fulfill the scripture, “I thirst.”
29 A full jar of vinegar was sitting there.
So a sponge full of vinegar, with hyssop put on it, was brought to Jesus’s mouth.
30 When he tasted the vinegar, Jesus said, “It’s finished.”
He bent his head and handed over his spirit.

Yeah, the soldiers and their runners offered Jesus vinegar more than once.

Certain commentators claim the myrrh in the wine was meant to be medicinal. Supposedly the Romans, feeling a little bad for their victims, wanted to numb them just a little to the excruciating pain of crucifixion. Man, is that optimistic of the commentators. Ask your local supplier of essential oils: Myrrh is no painkiller. It wasn’t even a folk-remedy painkiller. The ancients used it as perfume—to keep wounds and medicines from smelling bad. From there, moderns leap to the conclusion it was kind of an antiseptic—it kept wounds from getting infected and gangrenous, right? But it didn’t do that at all: It hid the smell of wounds which were getting septic. It made you worse, not better. Despite your favorite websites, myrrh has no proven purpose in medicine.

So what was it doing in the wine? Myrrh is bitter. (So’s hyssop.) It made the wine taste like bile. And when people taste bile, what do they do? They gag: It tastes like vomit. They’ll frequently even vomit.

Yep, it was the Romans’ sick little joke. The victims got thirsty and begged for wine… so you gave ’em myrrh-wine, and watched ’em freak out. Arguably that was why they put the vinegar in a sponge on a reed: It wasn’t because the crosses were impractically tall. It’s because the soldiers didn’t wanna get puked on.

Wasn’t Jesus thirsty?

Christians sometimes think there’s a serious discrepancy in the gospels’ stories of Jesus’s crucifixion. ’Cause in Mark and Matthew, Jesus refused to drink anything. But in John, he declared “I’m thirsty!” and drank the vinegar. Or wine, depending on the translation—and upon whether the translators could imagine Jesus willingly drinking vinegar.

I’ve heard interpreters claim Jesus refused the wine because he didn’t wanna be numbed. He wanted to really suffer all the pain he was going through, with senses entirely intact. (Or as intact as they could be, considering all the blood loss.) He was dying for our sins here, and he wanted sin to suffer on its way down. So no alcohol, no myrrh, no nothing. Bring on the pain!

There’s a bothersome amount of sadomasochism in this interpretation, which says all sorts of creepy things about the preachers. There’s plenty of suffering involved in public rejection, flogging, and crucifixion. Jesus was going down hard. Bad wine and a mild sedative weren’t gonna make things better.

But again, that wasn’t the Romans’ motive at all. They weren’t trying to be light on their victims. They figured every crucified person was an annoyance or danger to Rome, and deserved what they were getting. They’d just beaten Jesus up for fun. They were still having fun at his expense, gambling for his clothes, mocking the title which Pilatus had fastened to the cross. Myrrh-wine wasn’t a mercy. It was more sick fun.

So you can see why Jesus initially wouldn’t touch the stuff. Of course he was thirsty. But not that thirsty.

That is, till the very end. John said he decided to drink the vinegar to fulfill the scriptures. Jn 19.28 Maybe he meant the Psalms passage, where David’s enemies made him drink vinegar. But maybe it’s also this passage:

Mark 14.24-25 KWL
24 Jesus told them, “This is the blood of my relationship, poured out for many.
25 Amen: I promise you I’ll never drink of the fruit of the vine again—
till that day when I drink it new, in God’s kingdom.”

I admit that’s a stretch though. John never quoted that statement, and you know he totally would have if it were relevant. I have nonetheless heard it preached that Jesus was willing to drink the wine because it was finished: He was dying, God’s kingdom was coming into the world, and all things were being made new. He drank it in victory… though it sure didn’t look like any victory at the time. But meh; I don’t buy it.

Is there an inconsistency between Jesus’s declaration, “I’ll never drink of the fruit of the vine again,” and drinking the vinegar? Maybe. But I expect, and most Christian expect, Jesus was speaking of proper wine. The festal stuff, which you drink at Passovers and holidays. Not the awful swill the Romans were providing.

In any event he probably did have the Psalms passage in mind when he drank the vinegar. Here the Romans were, offering him phony comfort. But it was deliberately made bitter, and was just another form of torment.

So Jesus put it off till the very last minute, did the deed and fulfilled the verse… then gave up the ghost.

Miracles: Actual acts of God.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 March

Properly defined a miracle is anything God does or enables. If a human performs a miracle, it’s not legitimate—it’s trickery—if the Holy Spirit doesn’t empower it.

Improperly but popularly, a miracle is defined as a violation of the laws of nature. Blame 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume for that one. Hume didn’t believe in miracles, but he did believe in science, and decided to set the two of them at odds with one another: If you believe in one, what’re you doing believing in the other? As a result, today we have a lot of Christians who don’t believe in science—and don’t think we’re allowed to believe in it. Likewise a lot of people who do trust science, but are under the misbelief they’re fools if they also trust God—and as a result they hide their religious beliefs from their colleagues. All for no good reason; over a false rivalry between apples and oranges.

Also improperly but popularly, a miracle is defined as anything which looks awesome, or really works out in our favor. So a newborn baby is a “miracle.” Our sports team beating the odds to win is a “miracle.” Figuring out how to land on the moon was a “miracle.” A stretch where we manage to avoid red lights while driving, a pretty sunset, a really good Reuben sandwich—all these things are “miracles.” We use the word for everything. Kinda ruins its impact.

But back to the proper definition: If God does it, it’s a miracle. So, newborn babies and sunsets sorta count, since God did create all the conditions for nature to form sunsets and babies. Less so with sporting events, cooking, lunar landings, and meaningless coincidences. We might think God’s involved ’cause we’re not so sure about human effort or coincidence. But if he’s not, it’s not.

Mistakes we might make in our word studies.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 March

You saw what I did there, right?

Last month I wrote about how to do a word study, and in that piece I largely emphasize how not to go to the dictionary first. ’Cause that’s how you do a word study wrong. Instead of drawing from the bible how its authors define a word, y’wind up overlaying the dictionary definition on top of the bible—whether it fits or not. (Or to use scholars’ words for it, y’wind up doing eisegesis instead of exegesis.)

When people are overlay a definition upon the bible, they’re rarely looking at the context of the passage. (Yep, I’m gonna harp about context again. It’s important here too.) The few who do bother to look at context, often try to bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate it so it fits their new definition.

Fr’instance a fellow teacher of mine was trying to tell his kids about making plans for the future, for “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Pr 29.18 KJV Except he couldn’t find that verse in his NIV, because they translate khazón as “revelation.” See, khazón means revelatory vision, i.e. something from God. Not our hopes and wishes for the future, but his. That’s why the second part of the verse, the part everybody forgets to quote, is “But he that keepeth the Law, happy is he.” Pr 29.18 KJV Context explains what “vision” means. But my fellow didn’t give a sloppy crap about what “vision” properly means; he wanted to correct his kids who had no goals, and wanted to use the bible to help him smack ’em on the head. Context shmontext.

The same thing happens when Christians fixate on the dictionary in our word studies. We start with a word we like; one which we already sorta know the definition of. We find a dictionary which gives us the definition we like. We dig out a bunch of verses and paste that definition over them, then try to interpret the scriptures by them, then marvel at all the new “revelation” we’re getting.

If Christians take the bible out of context in their regular, day-to-day bible reading, better than average chance they’re gonna take it out of context in their word studies. They’re just trying to cruise through their word study; they don’t think context is important, and don’t care. But if we’re planning to live our lives based on these bible verses, context is always important. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor,” he proceeded to spell out in detail just who our neighbors are, lest there’s any mistake in our minds. Lk 10.25-37 But when we skip context there’ll be plenty of mistakes in our minds. How many people presume “neighbor” only means the people in our immediate neighborhoods? Is that how Jesus defined it? Not even close.

Why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such a big deal.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 March

Other than being our oldest copies of the Old Testament.

Round 1947—most likely some years earlier—Muhammad edh Dhib, a Bedouin goatherd, was chasing a stray goat through Khirbet Qumran, ruins near the Dead Sea. Checking the nearby caves in case the goat was hiding in there, he threw rocks into the blackness to scare out the goat. Instead he heard a pot break. So he went in to check that out. He found pottery which contained scrolls written in first-century Hebrew.

Figuring they were worth a sheqel or two, he sold them to an antiquities dealer. In November 1947, the dealer sold ’em to Eliezer Sukenik of Hebrew University. Word spread. Hundreds of Qumran caves were searched. Eleven were found to contain tens of thousands of scroll fragments, which altogether make up about 875 books.

Popularly they’re called the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sometimes they’re called the Qumran scrolls. They’re the writings of an ancient religious commune in Qumran, Jews from Jesus’s day who considered themselves neither Sadducee nor Pharisee. (In fact they had a lot of condemnation for the Judean leadership.) Other ancient writers never mentioned this group, but since Flavius Josephus and Pliny the Elder mentioned a denomination called the Essenes, various people claim the Qumrani sect was Essene. But there’s zero evidence for this theory. (Same with the theory John the baptist was Essene—or Qumrani.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are significant ’cause among them are the oldest known copies of the Old Testament. Before they were found, the oldest known copy was a Greek-language Septuagint (originally copied between 250–100BC). Then a Latin-language Vulgate (from 385–420). Then a Hebrew-language copy of the Old Testament (from the 900s). It’s not good when your translations are older than your original-language texts; you’re always tempted to take the translations more seriously than maybe you oughta.

Well, now scholars have a Hebrew Old Testament that’s 10 centuries older than the previous version, ’cause some of the Dead Sea Scrolls date to 100BC. Arguably it’s the very same Old Testament read by the Pharisees, Jesus, and his students.

So they’re kinda important. For even more reasons than their age.

Saying grace… and a little bit more.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 March

When you don’t have time to pray, but do have time to eat, multitask.

Whenever I write about taking time out from every day to pray, I hear the excuse, “But I’m so busy.”

This, from people who always manage to find time to keep up with certain TV shows and movies, to play their favorite video games for hours, to comment on Facebook about an hour wasted in some other recreational activity. Yeah right you’re so busy.

But I accept there are plenty of people out there who are legitimately busy. Every once in a while I have to work a shift, rush home for an eight-hour break (and in that time squeeze out six hours of sleep), then go right back and work another shift. Certainly doesn’t happen often, but I know people whose jobs regularly require that and more. I’ve had such jobs. I get it. Life gets crazy busy, and who has time for “me time”—much less God time?

When my life got busy like that, I discovered the one spot of time I could spare for prayer: Saying grace before meals.

Yep. In grad school I was trying to juggle classes, fieldwork, and two jobs. Not impossible if you’ve got the time-management skills, but not easy either. But prayer time kept getting hijacked. Prayer was after breakfast, but my students might deliberately track me down at the end of breakfast time, and I’d deal with them instead of talk with God. Or I’d have to go someplace early. Or I’d otherwise get the time interrupted—and I’d find myself praying on my commute, which was tricky but not impossible.

I’m not one of those fools who insist on praying first thing in the morning. I learned better the hard way. I’m still sleepy first thing in the morning, and God isn’t gonna get my best, and he should. Besides, as self-disciplined as I can be, that snooze button is a huge temptation. Some mornings I’d pick sleep over breakfast. So picking sleep over prayer?—that’s a no-brainer. I’d make a terrible monk.

One of my college roommates was really big on morning prayer meetings. (Morning people. You know how they can be.) I’d skip his meetings all the time, no matter how much he tried to guilt me about it. The alarm would wake me; I’d reset it for an hour later, tell God, “You can speak in dreams; do that,” and roll over. Yeah, I know; bad Christian.

But long ago I got into the habit of grace before meals. And when my prayer life was getting spotty like this, I realized some of these prayers before meals were starting to get extra long. ’Cause I was playing catch-up: “Hi God. We didn’t speak earlier. I gotta ask you about this…” and suddenly I was praying 5 minutes over lunch, my sandwich was getting cold, and the other people at the table were wondering what’s with me. Nothing; just praying.

Anyway. When I tell this story, people tend to laugh. But some of ’em respond, “What a good idea.”

Um… I don’t actually mean it as a good idea. But y’know, if it helps your prayer life—and you’re eating cold food anyway!—by all means start praying longer before, or during, your meals.

The St. Veronica story.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 March

One of St. Francis’s original stations of the cross was when St. Veronica let Jesus wipe off his bloody face on her veil. Some of you have already heard this story, or bits of it.

And others of you are going, “Where’s that found in the bible?” Well, it’s not found in the bible at all. It comes from Christian tradition. It’s a really old tradition, and a really popular story. So popular, it’s still in the traditional stations of the cross. And while I’m trying to discuss the biblical stations of the cross, I feel I still need to give a mention to St. Veronica… ’cause a number of Christians aren’t entirely aware this story’s not in the bible. Some of ’em even remember seeing it in a bible somewhere. But that’s a false memory. It’s really not there. I’m not kidding.

As for whether St. Veronica herself is in the bible… she actually is. She’s traditionally identified as the woman in this story:

Mark 5.25-34 KWL
25 For 12 years, a woman had a bloodflow, 26 and had suffered greatly under many witch-doctors,
spending everything she had, and never improving. Instead she was much worse.
27 Hearing of Jesus, joining the crowd behind him, she grabbed his robe,
28 saying this: “When I grab him—even his robe—I’ll be cured.”
29 Instantly her bloodflow dried up, and she knew her body was cured of its suffering.
30 And instantly Jesus recognized power had gone out from him.
Turning round to the crowd, he said, “Who grabbed my robe?”
31 His students told him, “You see this crowd swarming you, and you say, ‘Who touched me’?”
32 Jesus was looking round to see who’d done it,
33 and the woman, in fear and trembling, knowing what was done to her,
came and fell down before Jesus, and told him the whole truth.
34 Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith saved you.
Go in peace. Be free from your suffering.”

Christian tradition named this woman Vereníki/“victory-bearer,” which in English becomes Bernice, but in Latin becomes Veronica.

The “six days” of creation.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 March

Creationism is the belief God created the universe and life.

Creationism is an orthodox Christian belief: It’s found in the creeds. “I believe in one God… maker of heaven and earth, of all things, visible and invisible.” God initially created everything. He didn’t necessarily create everything since—fr’instance, he didn’t create evil. But he created their creators.

So yeah, technically all orthodox Christians are creationists. Problem is, the word “creationist” has been co-opted by the young-earth creationists (YEC for short), the folks who insist God created the universe only 6,000 years ago. Or if you wanna get specific, 6,021 years ago, in October. They’re the ones pushing the idea that if you’re a real Christian, if you’re truly orthodox, you gotta believe as they do.

A diorama from the Creation Museum of a primitive human and featherless dinosaurs. (Yeah, they’re a bit slow to keep up with the latest science. Be fair; so is Jurassic World.) Atlas Obscura

Of course young-earth creationism isn’t the only worldview Christians are allowed. I myself am an old-earth creationist (or OEC), who believes God created the universe 13 billion years ago, and the earth about 4 billion years ago. You know, like most scientists currently estimate. They tend to describe creation in terms of natural, physics-based processes, and they’re right to; that’s what science is supposed to do. Look at nature and make deductions based on the available evidence. Not, as the young-earth creationists do, start with a conclusion (“God made it in six literal days, precisely 4,000 years before Jesus was born!”) then bend what they observe in nature so it’ll fit the conclusion. That’s how you get superstition. Or, as some folks charitably call it, “junk science.”

I admit I’m biased in favor of my view, but lemme briefly list a few of the other views for your consideration.

  • INTELLIGENT DESIGN. Creationism of any and every kind, but it downplays which specific creator, so as to be more palatable to those who object to religion.
  • THEISTIC EVOLUTION. Much the same as regular evolution, but instead of being solely by natural selection, the Creator had a hand in it.
  • DAY-AGE THEORY. A form of OEC, where the six days are described as six eras, thousands to billions of years long, during which God achieved what Genesis 1 describes for each day.
  • GAP THEORY. Same as YEC believe, but instead of happening in six sequential days, gap theorists posit there are some billion-year gaps in the timeline.

Back during my Fundamentalist upbringing, when I was taught YEC was the only acceptable interpretation of the bible, I was also taught all these other views were forms of compromise: The only faithful interpretation of the bible was a literal one.

So why’m I in the OEC camp today? Because I read the bible without the YEC blinders on. Genesis 1 describes a physically impossible universe, inconsistent with the one nearly everybody recognizes to be true. Yes, nearly everybody. YEC followers included!

(Flat earthers are an obvious exception: They believe Earth is flat because they are striving to stay true to a literal spin on Genesis 1, despite being literally able to see Earth’s curve—and despite seeing Earth’s shadow during every lunar eclipse. Hey, if you’re gonna deny commonsense in favor of your interpretation of the scriptures, okay… but you’re doing it wrong. But enough about them.)

Okay. So how’m I reading Genesis 1 and coming to the conclusion it’s not meant to be literal? Glad you asked.

Shouldn’t we read it first?

Yes I did bother to read it in the original, then translate it. Here ya go.

Genesis 1.1-2.3 KWL
1 In the beginning, when God made the skies and land, 2 the land was unshaped and had nothing on it.
The ocean’s surface was dark. God’s Spirit hovered over the waters’ surface.
3 God said, “Be, light.” And light was. 4 God saw light, and how good it was.
God distinguished between light and dark: 5 God called the light day, and called the dark night.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day one.
6 God said, “Be, space in the middle of the waters. Be, distinction between waters and waters.”
7 God made space. He distinguished between waters which are under space,
and between the waters which are over space.
It was so. 8 God called the space skies.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day two.
9 God said, “Gather, waters from under the skies, to one place. Be seen, dry ground.”
It was so. 10 God called dry ground land. The gathered water he called seas. God saw how good it was.
11 God said, “Sprout sprouts, earth. Sow seeds, grass.
Fruit trees, make fruit which has seed in it, by species, on the land.”
It was so. 12 The earth produced sprouts, grass sowed seeds by species,
trees produced fruit which had seed in it, by its species. God saw how good it was.
13 It was dusk, then dawn: Day three.
14 God said, “Be, lights in the space of the skies, to distinguish between the day and night;
to be signs, seasons, days, and years; 15 to be lights in the space of the skies; to light the land.”
It was so. 16 God made two great lights:
The great light for ruling the day, and the small light for ruling the night. And the stars.
17 God put them in the space in the skies to light the land,
18 and to rule the day and night, and to distinguish between light and dark. God saw how good it was.
19 It was dusk, then dawn: Day four.
20 God said, “Swarm the waters, you swarming, living soul.
Fly, bird, over the land, over the face of the space in the skies.”
21 God created the great serpents and every living, crawling soul which swarms the waters, by species;
and every winged bird, by species. God saw how good it was.
22 God blessed them, saying, “Bear fruit. Be many. Fill the waters of the seas.
And bird, be many on the land.”
23 It was dusk, then dawn: Day five.
24 God said, “Bring out, land, living souls: Species of livestock, animal, and vermin, by species.”
It was so. 25 God made life on the land, by species:
the livestock by species, every dirt-burrowing animal by species. God saw how good it was.
26 God said, “We’re making humanity in our shape, like we’re like,
to rule the sea’s fish, the skies’ birds, all the land’s livestock, and every land animal.”
27 God created humanity in his shape; in God’s shape he created it: He created male and female.
28 God blessed them and told them, “Bear fruit. Be many. Fill the land and take it over.
Rule the sea’s fish, the skies’ birds, and all life—everything crawling on the land.
29 Look, I give you every single seeding plant on the face of the earth,
and every tree, and every seeding fruit in it. It’s for food.
And to every life on earth, to all the skies’ birds,
and everything crawling on the land with a living soul in it, every green plant is food.”
It was so. 31 God saw everything he did, and look, it was very good.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day six.
2.1 The skies, the land, and all the creatures were finished.
2 God finished the work which he did on day seven,
and stopped all the work which he did on day seven.
3 God blessed day seven and made it sacred,
because on it God stopped working on his creation.

Got all that?

The primary reason the author of Genesis wrote this creation story, was to correct the other creation stories of the ancient middle east. The pagan stories always began with a pre-existing universe. Not one their highest god, father god, or head god created: It was already there, and their gods spontaneously sprang from it. To their minds, God didn’t create the universe: The universe created God. So verse 1 totally turns that idea on its head.

God created day and night. God created the שָּׁמַ֖יִם/šamáyim, the “skies, heavens;” it’s not the other way round. God created the seas and the sea creatures, whereas middle eastern myths usually had him battling some great sea serpent for supremacy. God created the sun and moon, whereas Genesis’s author doesn’t even use the words for “sun” and “moon,” since middle easterners thought of שֶׁמֶשׁ/šeméš and יָרֵחַ/yaréhakh, “sun” and “moon,” as Šeméš and Yaréhakh, the sun-god and moon-god. God created humans to supervise Earth, rather than as an afterthought—“Oh, I need worshipers”—or as slaves, to feed him with our sacrifices.

The seven-day structure was to explain the Hebrew week, to focus the readers’ attention on God’s intentional acts of creation, and present the origin of the Hebrew Sabbath:

Exodus 20.11 KWL
“For six days, I the LORD made the skies and the land, and everything in it.
Day seven, I stopped, so I the LORD blessed a day of Sabbath. I made it holy.”

We stop work because he stopped work.

Genesis 1 was written to counter false religious beliefs. Not to create a structure for bad science. But in the hands of young-earth creationists, that’s precisely what many Christians are doing.

So let’s do what the YEC adherents claim they’re doing… and take it literally. Let’s see how well it holds up.

The ancient middle eastern cosmos.

First of all, the idea God made the universe 6 millennia ago, on day one. Yeah, the first verses can imply God created the universe on day one. But it doesn’t have to.

Genesis 1.1-5 KWL
1 In the beginning, when God made the skies and land, 2 the land was unshaped and had nothing on it.
The ocean’s surface was dark. God’s Spirit hovered over the waters’ surface.
3 God said, “Be, light.” And light was. 4 God saw light, and how good it was.
God distinguished between light and dark: 5 God called the light day, and called the dark night.
It was dusk, then dawn: Day one.

When does day one begin? When God turned on the lights. When’d God turn on the lights? After he created the unshaped, dark land which had nothing on it. How much time took place between the beginning and day one? We don’t know.

Notice God created light, and day and night, before creating the sun on day four. Since we recognize days depend on sunlight, exactly how does that work? God was hanging some specially-created shoplights before he started construction? God needs light to see by? You do realize as a spirit, Jn 4.24 he doesn’t have physical eyes, right? He doesn’t see because photons hit his optic nerves; he didn’t have optic nerves before he became human. How do you have light without the sun?

Well, to the ancient middle easterner, the sun didn’t actually light up the sky. The sun just happened to hang in the bright sky—but the sky itself was lit. Well, half of it anyway: The sky rotated around the earth—’cause you could see the stars moving, but you weren’t moving, as far as you could tell. For half the day the sky was bright, and for the other half the sky was black.

After all, the sky was light on cloudy days when the sun wasn’t around… so it appeared to middle easterners that the sun was optional. Light didn’t require sun.

If all this sounds completely wrong to you, it’s because you grew up with a view of the universe based on western astronomical science. Ancient middle easterners didn’t. Theirs was pre-scientific, based on observation and guesswork. And Genesis was written to them. Not us. It was written to conform to their beliefs. Not to endorse them, of course; the flat-earthers are still wrong. But Genesis’s author didn’t see any cosmological problems with what he was writing: He didn’t know astronomy. Neither did his readers. He only cared about theology: The bright sky? God created that. The sun? God created that too.

This is why we read, on day two, about God creating a giant air pocket in the waters which made up Earth, and calling it “space”—

Genesis 1.6-7 KWL
6 God said, “Be, space in the middle of the waters. Be, distinction between waters and waters.”
7 God made space. He distinguished between waters which are under space,
and between the waters which are over space.
It was so.

—then putting sun, moon, and stars into that air pocket on day four.

Genesis 1.16-18 KWL
16 God made two great lights:
The great light for ruling the day, and the small light for ruling the night. And the stars.
17 God put them in the space in the skies to light the land,
18 and to rule the day and night, and to distinguish between light and dark. God saw how good it was.

Wait, what?

Yep. Again, ancient middle eastern cosmology: The back end of space, which all the stars are fixed to, is a firmament (which is how the KJV translates רָקִיעַ/raqíya, “space”), a massive wall which holds back all the water that used to cover the dry ground. The sun, moon, and clouds hover in the space between the waters above and the waters below.

Now. Whenever YEC adherents talk about the firmament, they never describe it on the far side of the stars. Even though the bible does. They always describe it on the far side of the clouds, holding back rain. That is, till the “windows of the heavens” dumped it back onto Earth for Noah’s flood. Ge 7.11

See, that’s the problem: Genesis doesn’t describe a universe any larger than a few miles up.

When Genesis was written in the 1400s BC, the ancients really had no idea how big their universe was. Eventually the Greeks got a better idea: Around 240BC, Eratosthenes of Cyrene accurately calculated out how big the earth is. Around 140BC, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria inaccurately speculated the stars (which he assumed were attached to the firmament, and all equidistant from Earth) were about 3 trillion kilometers away. True, that’s only a third of a light year, but it’s a way better guess than only a few miles up.

Still, say the firmament is 3 trillion kilometers away—and only holding back a millimeter of water. That equates to about 113 sextillion liters of water. Earth only has about 1.26 quintillion liters on it. So there’s 90 million times as much water above as below? Well, that’d definitely flood Earth….

Oh, and let’s not forget God put plants on the earth a day before he put the sun in the sky. Ge 1.11-13 But I won’t get into that.

The universe… when we take Genesis literally. NIV Faithlife Study Bible

Nobody’s a literalist.

You see the diagram above of the ancient middle eastern cosmos. I’ve shown it, and similar diagrams, to young-earth creationists. Every one of them balks at it: They don’t believe the universe looks like that at all.

Nor should they! But that’s the universe as ancient middle easterners imagined it. The universe Genesis 1 affirms. As for the stuff beneath the earth—the foundations, the great deep, sheol—that’s confirmed by the rest of the Old Testament.

Nope, the diagram doesn’t look at all like the hourly photos which come back from our weather satellites, nor the views from the International Space Station.

My point is: Unless we’re willing to deny the work of every astronomer since Nikolaus Copernicus, deny the images from our satellites which provide our weather forecasts, deny the experiences of every astronaut and cosmonaut, deny the existence of the Global Positioning Satellite networks which make our electronic maps work… not one of us can describe ourselves as a biblical literalist. Our daily lives deny a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1.

And as I’ve demonstrated, young-earth creationists, for all their zeal, aren’t hewing to it all that closely either. They’re only picking and choosing the interpretations they like… ones which provide them a fun idea of cavemen and dinosaurs frolicking together. Which ain’t bible; it’s The Flintstones.

So what are we to do? Make the flat-earther mistake and deny reality in favor of a literalistic interpretation? Of course not. We simply recognize a literalistic interpretation is incorrect. It’s not the reason Genesis 1 was written. It’s not the reason a lot of bible was written; don’t get me started on the “prophecy scholars” and how they mangle God’s apocalypses.

The proper interpretation of the scriptures requires us to look at the motives of the authors, and recognize what they were trying to say… and not trying to say. Genesis’s author wasn’t trying to teach science. He was trying to teach theology. Treat Genesis 1 as a scientific text, and you wind up with bad theology: One which claims God made a universe which deceptively looks older than it really is, and implies God himself is deceptive.

Leading people to suspect God is a liar: That’s as bad as bad theology gets.