Friday, July 29, 2011

Triumph Of Jesus (part 2)

So what was this “triumph”?  The “triumph” was perhaps the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon a citizen of the empire.  The “triumph” would generally be connected to the leading of an army to victory over an enemy of Rome.  Also known as the “triumphus”, it was a both a civil ceremony and a religious ritual.  As just indicated, it was held in order to celebrate the celebrate the military achievement of an army commander who had posted significant military successes.  By origin and by tradition, the triumph would be held at the successful completion of a war on foreign soil---enemy conquered. 

Though there are records indicating the celebration of hundreds of “triumphs,” in line with the elevation of the Caesar to the status of “son of god,” in connection with Augustus Caesar (the reason that Augustus began to be referred to in this way, with this epithet falling to the emperors to follow him, is that Julius Caesar, who was essentially deified at his death, was also said to have adopted Augustus as his son via his last will and testament, thus he could be referred to as the “son of god.”  Augustus is not the given name of the emperor, but rather, it means “revered one”), the number of “triumphs” dropped dramatically.  Between 27 B.C. and 166 A.D., there are only five recorded “triumphs.”  Therefore, in the time of John the Revelator, though few such events had taken place, such events were accorded a place within the civil and religious liturgy of the Roman Empire.  The number of “triumphs” dropped dramatically upon Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire.   

On the day that the “triumph” would take place, the one being so honored, if not the emperor---in the vast majority of cases, a general---would wear clothing that would readily identify him as semi-divine or kingly.  Essentially, the one that would be referred to as the “man of triumph,” was being trumpeted as something close to “king for a day.”  The clothing that he wore would be that which was traditionally associated with the statue of “Jupiter Capitolinus,” the supreme deity of Rome.  This would include a pure and gold toga, a laurel crown, and red boots.  He might even have his face reddened, in honor of the god whose garments he was presumed to be wearing, albeit briefly.  Obviously, if it was the emperor himself, then his divinity, along with his kingly status, would be a given and implied. 

The one being celebrated, the man of triumph, would ride through the streets of Rome in a chariot.  He would do so at the head of a procession with his army and the spoils of his victorious campaign of warfare trailing behind him.  His army would be unarmed.  The only weapon (or weapons, as there would often be more than one) to be found within the procession would be something known as the “fasces,” carried by the bodyguard of the honoree.  Though carried by his guard, it would be understood that this weapon is one that had been truly wielded, and would be well handled, by the celebrant.  The “fasces” is a bundle of sticks, tied together, with the blade of an axe emerging from the center of the bundle.  Traditionally, this symbolized power and jurisdiction, and the power of life over death.  It often served as a symbol of Rome itself. 

The ceremony would commence outside the walls of Rome, on the western bank of the Tiber River.  The “triumphal entry” would enter the city of Rome by means of a gate that was only opened for these specific occasions.  The procession would not only include the army and the spoils of war, but it could also be replete with floats that depicted battles won, and groups of captives consisting of enemy soldiers and famous leaders of the now vanquished foe.  Naturally, this can be recognized as the forerunner to what we generally think of as a parade, in our own time.  At the head, or sometimes at the center of all of this, would be the celebrant, as cheering crowds often showered him with flowers.  A winding path would be followed through the city, known as the “sacred way.” 

The climax of the procession would occur at Capitoline Hill.  There, in devotion to Jupiter, white bulls would be sacrificed to Jupiter.  On some occasions, the vanquished leader of Rome’s enemy would be slain before the eyes of the cheering masses.  Then, if the celebrant was a general (rather than the emperor), he would enter into the temple of Jupiter so as to offer his laurel wreath (his celebratory crown) to the god, doing so in order to signal that he had no intentions of becoming the king of Rome.  With this portion of the ceremony brought to a close, the temples were kept open, incense was burned at the altars, soldiers would disperse throughout the city in order to properly celebrate, and a great banquet would be provided for the citizens of Rome.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Triumph Of Jesus (part 1)

He has a name written on His clothing and on His thigh: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” – Revelation 19:16  (NET)

In the time period in which the Apocalypse of John (also known as the book of Revelation) was composed, there was a well known ritual within the Roman Empire.  This ritual was referred to as a “triumph.”  All were familiar with this ritual, especially the residents of the city of Rome, as this would be the place at which the greatest of “triumphs” would take place.  Along with those who were privileged to witness such things in person, those who participated in the Caesar cult, who worshiped Caesar as a god (or son of god), though residing in far-flung regions of the empire, would most assuredly have been aware of this glorious celebration, as it would serve to reinforce proscriptions concerning the divinity of the Caesar.  This is especially true if the “triumph” was in celebration of the Caesar himself, though the ritual was not limited to the emperor, and could be afforded to a general of Rome. 

Speaking of the worship of Caesar, which must be comprehended in accordance with our thinking about the “triumph,” we must realize that the cult that was dedicated to the worship of the emperor and his household was believed to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) cults of the ancient world in which John the revelator took up his pen.  An excellent example of the honor afforded to the divine emperor an inscription from the Provincial Assembly of Asia that took place in the year 9 B.C.  We read: “The most divine… we should consider co-equal to the beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; …then common good fortune of all…The beginning of life and vitality. …All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine as the new beginning of the year…Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (this man), whom it [Providence] filled with strength  the welfare of men, and who being to us and our descendants as Savior , has put an end to war and has set all things in Order; and [whereas] having become [god] manifest, has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times… in surpassing all the benefactors who proceed him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth]”. 

We must presume that John, exiled to the island of Patmos by the empire, would also have been familiar with the grand celebratory event of the “triumph”.  To go along with this point, the seven cities of Asia Minor to which John writes in his apocalypse are believed to be strong centers of emperor worship, which serves as a bit of a backdrop to John’s message to those churches.  The Revelation, “Apocalypse” in Greek because of its use of almost exclusively apocalyptic language (“apocalyptic” meaning “behind the veil”) to present God’s perspective on things, as we see in regular use in the writings of the Hebrew prophets (while also being scattered throughout the historical and poetical/wisdom writings as well), asks to be read with the Roman empire, its Caesar cult, and its imperial pronouncements, standing in the background and most assuredly coloring the thoughts of its intended audience. 

Evidence of this worship was to be found in virtually every significant city of the empire, with cities even competing with each other to show forth their commitment to the cult through the erection of temples and statues and the offering of substantial sacrifices, so as to receive greater imperial (and therefore divine) benefaction.  Indeed, a portion of the liturgy surrounding the worship of Caesar indicated that Caesar had been faithful to his subjects, so his subjects, in turn, were to be faithful to him.  The Greek phrase that was employed to communicate this message was “ek pistis eis pistin.”  This is generally translated as “from faith to faith,” and is co-opted by the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans (right under Caesar’s nose), and made to more properly apply to the true King and His subjects.   

When it comes to the “triumph,” the subjected realms of the Roman Empire would be enlightened as to these happenings through the never-ending stream of Roman imperial propaganda (of which the Caesar cult was part and parcel and served to undergird), proclaiming the endless glory and power of Rome, the bringer of peace and security.  Finally, those that were defeated at the hands of Rome would be well aware of this grand event, as they would find themselves as very unwilling and unfortunate participants.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Taking Off Clothes

Rejoice and be glad for now, O people of Edom, who reside in the land of Uz.  But the cup of judgment will pass to you also; you will get drunk and take off your clothes. – Lamentations 4:21  (NET)

The Lamentations of Jeremiah spring from the siege of Jerusalem, its eventual fall, the destruction of its Temple, and the taking of a portion of the people of Judah into an exile in Babylon.  These things come about in fulfillment of what God had been understood to have promised to His people in conjunction with His covenant.  If we were to look to the book of Leviticus, chapter twenty-six, and recount what are generally referred to as the Levitical curses, we could see the majority of those curses given voice in Lamentations, as the author, presumably Jeremiah, attempts to process for himself, and on behalf of God’s people, what they have experienced. 

Those Levitical curses, which are prefaced by Levitical blessings, are contingent upon the failure of the people to live up to the charge presented in the first two verses of that chapter.  There, Israel is told “You must not make for yourselves idols, so you must not set up for yourselves a carved image or pillar, and you must not place a sculpted stone in your land to bow down before it, for I am the Lord your God.  You must keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary.  I am the Lord” (26:1-2).  Given the detailed presentation of the various commandments throughout both Exodus and Leviticus, adherence to which was to be Israel’s response to their divine covenant, the response to the covenant that God desired from His people, primarily, devolved upon these things.  Failure to respond to the covenant in these areas---proper worship that resisted idolatry, the keeping of the Sabbaths, and the reverence of the sanctuary---would result in God’s execution of judgment against His people. 

While the lament points to Judah’s consistent rebellion against God’s commands, explanation for why this has come upon His people is on offer.  In the third chapter we find valid reason, as we read “To crush underfoot all the earth’s prisoners, to deprive a person of his rights in the presence of the Most High, to defraud a person in a lawsuit---the Lord does not approve of such things!” (3:34-36).  In chapter four we read “Even the jackals nurse their young at their breast, but my people are cruel, like ostriches in the desert.  The infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth due to thirst; little children beg for bread but no one gives them a morsel” (4:3-4).  Though we may be tempted to see these things as results of the lengthy siege against Jerusalem, we are able to rightly perceive it as neglectful behavior before the siege, which stemmed from idolatry and the failure to keep Sabbaths and reverence God’s sanctuary, that is part of God’s indictment against Judah.  In support of this assertion, we can immediately go on to read “Those who once feasted on delicacies are now starving to death in the streets.  Those who grew up wearing expensive clothes are now dying amid garbage” (4:5).  Further explanation is provided, as we read that “it happened due to the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who poured out in her midst the blood of the righteous” (4:13). 

There is, however, an undercurrent of hope, realizing that a return to the appropriate response to God and to His obvious covenant faithfulness (demonstrated in the judgment of cursing just as much as in the blessing), will bring restoration.  In chapter three we can read “Remember my impoverished and homeless condition, which is a bitter poison.  I continually think about this, and I am depressed.  But this I call to mind; therefore I have hope: The Lord’s loyal kindness never ceases; His compassions never end.  They are fresh every morning; Your faithfulness is abundant!  ‘My portion is the Lord,’ I have said to myself, so I will put my hope in Him.  The Lord is good to those who trust in Him, to the one who seeks Him… For the Lord will not reject us forever.  Though He causes us grief, He then has compassion on us according to the abundance of His loyal kindness.  For He is not predisposed to afflict or to grieve people” (3:19-25,31-33). 

While the author acknowledges that God has raised up their oppressor and conqueror for the purposes of exacting His justified judgment against His people, referring to Babylon and saying that “Those who pursued us were swifter than eagles in the sky” (4:19a), he also gives a voice to the oppressed, employing apocalyptic language to speak of the God of Israel’s coming judgment against the oppressive regime in a way that will require ears to hear and eyes to see.  As a subject of Babylon, the author cannot speak directly against Babylon, as he would incur more of its wrath.  So he employs veiled language, much like what we can hear from Jesus in the Gospels and from John in Revelation.  Speaking of Babylon and its conquering king, Nebuchadnezzar, but doing so indirectly, the author exclaims “Rejoice and be glad for now, O people of Edom, who reside in the land of Uz.  But the cup of judgment will pass to you also; you will get drunk and take off your clothes.  O people of Zion, your punishment will come to an end; He will not prolong your exile.  But, O people of Edom, He will punish your sin and reveal your offenses” (4:21-22).  Do we ever see this apocalyptic pronouncement on display within Israel’s historic or prophetic tradition?  Indeed we do, and it does so in connection with the traditions associated with the prophet Daniel. 

Nebuchadnezzar, drunk with his own power and “walking around on the battlements of the royal palace of Babylon…uttered these words: ‘Is this not the great Babylon I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?’” (4:29b-30).  This is said in the light of having previously been reported to have looked to the God of Israel and declared “How great are His signs!  How mighty are His wonders!  His kingdom will last forever, and His authority continues from one generation to the next” (4:3).  It is written that, upon uttering the words of his own aggrandizement, that “He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle’s feathers, and his nails like a bird’s claws” (4:33b).  Nebuchadnezzar, the presumed ruler of the apocalyptic “people of Edom” and “of Uz,” experienced a judgment and is portrayed as having taken off his clothes.  It will not be too much longer, within the Daniel narrative, that Babylon is then conquered by the Medes and the Persians.    

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Tradition Of Wells (part 7 of 7)

We advance now to the works of the prophets.  It is with these that we will conclude our exploration and recognition of that which has provided useful background information and contextualization for the portrayal of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  As we do so, we continue to reflect on the fact that the shared historical narrative of the nation will shape the prophets’ conception of wells, providing foundation material for their own thought, while maintaining the awareness that prophetical treatment of wells will also serve to inform the significance of wells as they appear in the messianic presentations of John’s Gospel. 

With that, we look first to Isaiah.  In the thirty-seventh chapter, as the prophecy shares material that is common to the second book of the Kings, Isaiah recounts the invasion of Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, along with the response of the king, Hezekiah.  Hezekiah has laid Judah’s case before God, asking for His intervention against what appears to be the seemingly unavoidable calamity that is coming upon His people.  In response, Isaiah sends a message to Hezekiah (37:21), sharing the response of the “Lord God of Israel” (37:21b).  In the course of what is to shared with Hezekiah, Isaiah makes mention of a well, placing its mention on the lips of the arrogant king of Assyria, as we get to hear what Israel’s God has effectively heard him say: “With my many chariots I climbed up the high mountains, the slopes of Lebanon.  I cut down its tall cedars and its best evergreens.  I invaded its remote regions, its thickest woods.  I dug wells and drank water.  With the soles of my feet I drip up all the rivers of Egypt” (37:24b-25).  Naturally, any mention of Egypt, by a foreign king that stands against the people of Israel, is bound to invoke memories of Israel’s Egyptian experience.  Regardless of what any king could claim to have performed against Egypt, the God of Israel could lay claim to far more astounding feats.  With talk of Egypt triggering such thoughts, one could easily retrace and rethink talk of chariots (the Egyptian army overcome by the water of the sea), the digging of wells (Abraham and Isaac), and the drinking of water (the continuous provision of water in the wilderness), and be reminded that the covenant and Creator God of Israel had more than sufficient power with which to repel the relatively impotent king of Assyria.  How this might play into the thoughts of John and Jesus, if at all, while considering the importance of Isaiah to thoughts of the messiah and to the New Testament in general, is not entirely clear, though the underlying themes of covenant faithfulness do provide a means of application.

In Jeremiah we will happen upon a well on two occasions.  In the sixth chapter, as Jeremiah verbally depicts the destruction that is going to come upon Jerusalem due to its idolatry, he shares some of the Lord’s thoughts concerning the city.  We hear the God of Israel say “Cut down the trees around Jerusalem and build up a siege ramp against its walls.  This is the city which is to be punished.  Nothing but oppression happens in it.  As a well continually pours out fresh water so it continually pours out wicked deeds.  Sounds of violence and destruction echo throughout it.  All I see are sick and wounded people” (6:6-7).  This is, of course, a reflection upon Israel’s covenant failures.  For this, God brings His curse against His covenant people.  Death is coming to them.  It is against this that we hear Jesus speak, when He says “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become a fountain of water springing up to eternal life” (4:14).  This eternal life is so much more than a one-way ticket to heaven upon death.  Rather, it is an entrance into the covenant people of God, in which one shares in the covenant blessings promised by the God of Israel (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28), and presumably, the resurrection of the righteous at the end of the age.  Not long thereafter, the Samaritan woman questions Jesus about whether Jerusalem is the appropriate place to offer worship.  Might this be a reflection on what God says about Jerusalem in Jeremiah (a well that pours out wicked deeds rather than fresh water)?  Jesus responds by telling her “a time is coming… when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (4:23a).  Further on in Jeremiah, we hear the prophet’s lament over that which he speaks, saying “I wish that my head were a well full of water and my eyes were a fountain full of tears!  If they were, I could cry day and night for those of my dear people who have been killed” (9:1). 

Next, we hear from the prophet Hosea, who spoke to the situation of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Referring to the judgment of God that was coming upon that portion of God’s people, Hosea says “Even though he flourishes like a reed plant, a scorching east wind will come, a wind from the Lord rising up from the desert.  As a result, his spring will dry up; his well will become dry.  That wind will spoil all his delightful foods in the containers in his storehouse” (13:15).  Beyond the natural fact that water is necessary for life for all peoples everywhere, wells had been a source of life for Israel, stretching back to Abraham, as a place of marriage and ultimately offspring that continued God’s covenant purposes.  Here, God speaks of a well that would become dry.  Specifically, this is directed against Samaria (13:16), which is the setting for Jesus well meeting, and it provides added color to Jesus’ talk of “living water” (4:10) and “a fountain of water springing up to eternal life, as well as Jesus’ directing the woman’s attention away from either Samaria or Jerusalem as the center of worship. 

In a similar instance, as we round out and wrap up our study, we turn to Micah.  Here, we readily identify informative points of contact with the Johannine well story, as Micah speaks of God’s judgment that comes “because of Jacob’s rebellion and the sins of the nation of Israel” (1:15a).  Not unlike the woman’s question to Jesus about the proper place of worship, and as we are mindful of Jesus’ response, we hear Micah rhetorically inquire “How has Jacob rebelled, you ask?  Samaria epitomizes their rebellion!  Where are Judah’s pagan worship centers, you ask?  They are right in Jerusalem!” (1:15b).  As Micah goes on to describe the tribulation that will come their way, we hear him say “Therefore you will have to say farewell to Moresheth Gath.  The residents of Achzib will be as disappointing as a dried up well to the kings of Israel” (1:14).   

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Tradition Of Wells (part 6)

Having reviewed the location of wells within the historical narrative (though we will find some historical narrative overlap when we turn to the prophets, specifically Isaiah), we now turn our attention to their mention within the wisdom/poetic and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.  With these, we’ll be able to see how the larger part of the historical narrative that is associated with wells shapes ideas about references to wells in this body of work, while also continuing to form our historical imagination along the lines of that of the Johannine author, that we might more correctly approach the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.

As we wade into the deep, deep waters of the wisdom/poetic literature, we first note with interest, and honestly, a great deal of surprise, that there is no mention of wells within the Psalms.  This is surprising, especially considering that there are a number of occasions in which Israel’s history (or at least a part of it) is recounted in Psalmic form.  When we reflect on the routine placement of wells, and their connection with every patriarch, as well as Moses and the nation of Israel itself, we are only left to wonder at such an omission.  Nevertheless, we find wells mentioned on three occasions in the book of Proverbs. 

In the fifth chapter we read “Drink water from your own cistern and running water from your own well.  Should your springs be dispersed outside, your streams of water in the wide plazas?  Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you.  May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in your young wife” (5:15-18).  This is presented in the context of the first two verses of the same chapter, where we find “My child, be attentive to my wisdom, pay close attention to my understanding, in order to safeguard discretion, and that your lips may guard knowledge.  For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her seductive words are smoother than olive oil, but in the end she is as bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (5:1-4).  Not that we relish casting aspersions upon the Samaritan woman, but certainly it is not beyond the realm of probability to hear in these verses some potential background for a woman that meets Jesus at a well, that has had five husbands, and is currently engaged in a relationship with a man that was not her husband.  It is in a similar vein that we see the next mention of wells here in Proverbs, as the proverbial author writes “Give me your heart, my son, and let your eyes observe my ways; for a prostitute is like a deep pit; a harlot is like a narrow well” (23:26-27). 

In a use that does not seem to be entirely helpful to our project, though we could probably make an effort to shape and twist it to fit our needs, in the twenty-fifth chapter we read “Like a muddied spring and a polluted well, so is a righteous person who gives way before the wicked” (25:26).  The same could also be said (not entirely helpful, though we are cognizant of its potential to shape the thoughts of Jesus and the Johannine author, so that it plays a role in their respective thinking) of what we stumble upon in the book of Ecclesiastes, as before we read “Absolutely futile!... All things are futile!” (12:8), representing the “Teacher’s” summary of his search for the purpose of life, we hear it said that “before the silver cord is removed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered by the well, or the water wheel is broken at the cistern---and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God Who gave it” (12:6-7). 

Rounding out the poetic literature, we turn to the Song of Solomon, and find the well mentioned in connection with a love relationship.  The word “bride” is even mentioned, creating the connotation of marriage, placing this use of “well” at a distance that is much closer to the John four story than what we have seen in the previous two instances.  There we read “You are a locked garden, my sister, my bride; you are an enclosed spring, a sealed-up fountain.  Your shoots are a royal garden full of pomegranates with choice fruits: henna with nard, nard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon with every kind of spice, myrrh and aloes with all the finest spices.  You are garden spring, a well of fresh water flowing down from Lebanon” (4:12-15).  As we muse upon the number of marriages within the historical presentation of Israel that came about in connection with wells, it makes a great deal of sense to hear this Hebrew poet talk of wells during the course of a love song directed to his sister, his bride.  Because the bringing forth of children, especially in Genesis, following the marriages that were associated with wells, was packaged together with the continuation and propagation of God’s covenants that began with Abraham, would this subtly call attention to God’s covenant faithfulness, thus casting this, in a way, as something a love song between the Creator God and His special people Israel?  If we wanted to stretch the analogy a bit more, could we also not look at Israel’s stop at the place of twelve wells as the place of their birth, just before their entering into their own covenant relationship (marriage) with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?        

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Tradition Of Wells (part 5)

In the fifteenth chapter of Exodus, following the miracle at the sea, Israel ventures on to Elim, “where there we twelve wells of water and seventy palms trees, and they camped there by the water” (15:27).  Coincidentally, their first stop following their deliverance was at a place called Marah.  We read that “Then they came to Marah, but they were not able to drink the waters of Marah, because they were bitter. (That is why its name is Marah)” (15:23).  The Lord, through Moses, does intervene, making the water safe to drink.  However, it is not until they reach Elim, the place of twelve wells (reminding us of twelve tribes), following the miraculous crossing and defeat of their pursuers, that they are said to have made camp. 

In the book of Numbers, we find an interesting mention of a well.  As it is connected to Moses and to a song, while also occurring during their long exodus experience, we can imagine this account having a special place within Israelite memory.  Reading, we see that “they traveled to Beer; that is the well where the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Gather the people and I will give them water.’  Then Israel sang this song: ‘Spring up, O well, sing to it!  The well which the princes dug, which the leaders of the people opened with their scepters and their staffs.’” (21:16-18a)  Fresh on the heels of the song about the well, “Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let us pass through your land; we will not turn aside into the fields or into the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well, but we will go along the King’s Highway until we pass your borders.’” (21:21-22)  This request was rebuffed.  Not only was there a refusal, but “he gathered all his forces together and went out against Israel in the wilderness” (21:23b).  In consequence, “the Israelites defeated him in battle and took possession of his land” (21:24a).  We can be assured that Israel then drank from their wells and turned aside into the fields and vineyards. 

Is there any way that this well-story could come into play when we look at the well-story of the Gospel of John?  Certainly, otherwise why ask the question?  How does that story begin?  Jesus had “left Judea and set out once more for Galilee.  But He had to pass through Samaria” (4:3-4).  Now, Jesus could have avoided going through Samaria, taking a different route on His return trip to Galilee, but this was the route that He chose.  Similarly, Israel could have taken a number of routes towards the promised land, but they did not.  As they chose a route that was going to take them through the land of the Amorites, so Jesus chose a route that would take Him through Samaria.  On another level, it would certainly not be a reach to consider the idea that the author of John believed that any road being traveled by Jesus would be the “King’s Highway.” 

As we continue to lay the conceptual foundation for the collective consciousness concerning wells, we can quickly trace all remaining mentions of wells within what are considered to be the historical books of Israel.  In the second book of Samuel, there is a mention that is probably not a helpful or useful mention of a well, at least on the surface.  Nevertheless, it occurs during the time period following the death of King Saul, as David is solidifying his royal position, so perhaps others can find related value in its mention.  To that end, we read “Then Joab left David and sent messengers after Abner” (3:26a).  Joab is the commander of David’s forces, and Abner is the commander of the forces of Saul, and temporarily Ishbosheth, the son of Saul.  “They brought him back from the well of Sirah.  (But David was not aware of it.)  When Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside at the gate as if to speak privately with him.  Joab then stabbed him in the abdomen and killed him” (3:26b-27a).  Later in the same book, during the time of Absalom’s temporarily successful taking of the throne of Israel, there is a story concerning two spies that David had in his employ.  This seems to be as useful as the event just presented, but we dutifully present the record and find that “Jonathan and Ahimaaz were staying in En Rogel.  A female servant would go and inform them, and they would then go and inform King David.  It was not advisable for them to be seen going into the city.  But a young man saw them on one occasion and informed Absalom.  So the two of them quickly departed and went to the house of a man in Bahurim.  There was a well in his courtyard, and they got down in it” (17:17-18). 

Finally, in the book of Nehemiah, in a section that mentions wells as part of a prayerful praise that recounted Israel’s history, beginning with the Genesis account of creation, in a manner which undergirds the purpose of this story by demonstrating a mention of wells in a general recapitulation of the exodus narrative, we hear Nehemiah say “They captured fortified cities and fertile land.  They took possession of houses full of all sorts of good things---wells previously dug, vineyards, olive trees, and fruit trees in abundance.  They enjoyed to the full your great goodness” (9:25).  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Tradition Of Wells (part 4)

Because the woman at the well mentions Jacob, we quite naturally expect to find Jacob connected to wells.  In this, we are not disappointed.  Indeed, having seen Abraham and Isaac in connection with such, we would have to be astonished not to find similar stories concerning Jacob.  Like Abraham’s servant, who had found Isaac’s wife (Jacob’s mother) through an event at a well, so too does Jacob find a wife for himself in much the same way.  In Genesis twenty-nine, Jacob, having fled from his father’s house because of the ruse and fraud he had perpetrated upon his father and his brother (the source of a none-too-minor dispute between Jacob and his brother), “saw in the field a well with three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because the flocks were watered from that well” (29:2a).  Providentially, Jacob, though this is the place to which he has been directed by his mother, presumably comes to the same well to which the servant of Abraham had come, and at which he is able to make inquiries concerning his mother’s brother, Laban.  It is in concert with this inquiry that one of his future wives, Rachel, is introduced into the narrative, as she was coming towards the well with her father’s sheep (29:6). 

In contrast to what we saw with Abraham’s servant, whose plea to the Lord was answered with Rebekah watering his animals, Jacob “went over and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of his uncle Laban” (29:10b).  Similar to what we have seen previously from him, when Rachel informs her father about Jacob’s presence, “he rushed out to meet him.  He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house” (29:13b).  Fascinatingly, this is the only well that we see in connection with Jacob, as part of the Scriptural narrative.  Never do we see anything referred to as “Jacob’s well,” as alluded to by the Johnannine author and the Samaritan woman.  Now, this is not to say that there was no such thing as Jacob’s well, as it is most likely, due to its location, a well located within the territory of the promised land that was bequeathed to Joseph before Jacob’s death.  With such knowledge, we can surmise that a well there came to be known as “Jacob’s well,” even if there was no overt connection to Jacob within the shared historical memory of Israel.  This piece of information, however, does nothing to change the nature of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  The fact remains that a tradition of wells would underscore the thoughts of Jesus, His disciples, the woman at the well, the townsfolk that hear the woman and her story, and the author of the narrative. 

From here, we depart from Genesis, moving on to Exodus, which is the event (so much more than just the title of the book) that gives definitive shape to Israel’s self-consciousness.  Indeed, it can even be said that the understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as revealed in Genesis, is shaped by the self-revelation of that God as the God of Israel’s exodus.  This means that the God that reveals Himself as One Who works and intervenes on behalf of His people and His creation, from the beginning of the Genesis narrative, is understood through the lens of the God that liberated Israel from Egypt, provided them a covenant charge, with guidance as to how to live up to their covenant responsibilities, and guided them to their promised land.  This holds especially true if Moses is indeed the primary author/compiler/compose of the Torah, thus making it impossible to separate the notion of exodus (rescue, deliverance, redemption, restoration, etc…) from thoughts about the Creator God of Israel.  Indeed, thinking along such lines allows us to view Genesis one and two as a divine rescue, much like Israel was divinely rescued from their Egyptian bondage. 

With such thoughts reverberating within our minds during our conscientious approach to the broad Scriptural narrative, we are thoroughly unsurprised to see Moses, after fleeing Egypt in the wake of his murder of an Egyptian that had been mis-treating an Israelite, settling in the land of Midian and doing so by a “certain well” (Exodus 2:15b).  Our level of surprise continues in its restraint as we read that “a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and began to draw water and fill the troughs in order to water their father’s flock.  When some shepherds came and drove them away, Moses came up and defended them and then watered their flock” (2:16-17).  In this, Moses becomes like Jacob, watering the flock for one who will eventually come to be his wife.  Like we saw with Rebekah and Rachel, there was a rush to return home so that these girls might share their story with their father (2:18-19).  In response, Moses is summoned to the home of the priest.  He “agreed to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage” (2:21).  With this third patriarchal (in the broadest sense) instance of a wife being found at a well, it is with interest that we note that part of Jesus’ conversation at the well, with the Samaritan woman---the part that convinces her of His status as a prophet, centers upon the subject of marriage.  It is almost as if to say that the woman, who actually lacks a husband though it is said that she has had several, has come to the well, and through this encounter with the one that can truly provide water (as did Jacob and Moses), she found herself a true and lasting husband.    

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Tradition Of Wells (part 3)

Before we go any further, the reader is to be reminded that we are not merely looking for points of contact between the story of the woman at the well and stories from the Biblical tradition by which it is preceded.  Rather, we are allowing the Scriptural narrative, that which provided self-definition and cosmic understanding to the people of Israel, to Jesus, and to those that provided their remembrances of Him, to inform our approach to the Jesus of the Gospels.  It is to be reiterated that what we are attempting to achieve with this study is not interpretation and application of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman and that which resulted from it, but rather, we are attempting to put ourselves in a position to come to the well, with Jesus, with the woman, and with the disciples of Jesus, with shared sensibilities that will allow us to hear Jesus, to better determine the purpose and movement of the kingdom of God that stands behind this encounter, along with understanding the purposes of His biographer.

Leaving Abraham, we move on to the next of Israel’s patriarchs, whose story will be part of the grand tale told by Israel about itself, and come face to face with Isaac.  Not only is his wife discovered in connection with a well, but Isaac has his own well dealings.  Not surprisingly, since his life mimics that of his father in a number of ways (movements based on famine, deceptions about his wife, growing wealthy based on these deceptions, a wife that was initially childless, etc…), we discover that Isaac, like his father, is involved in disputes concerning wells.  We do not need to retrace the exact course of the disputation found in the twenty-sixth chapter of Genesis, as it shall suffice to say that it looks quite similar to that which was experienced by Abraham.  Surely, these disputes play into the historic sensibilities brought to the mindset of Jesus and that of the woman, when they engage in partially disputative conversation at the well. 

This may be especially so if we consider what took place once Isaac was able to dig a well over which there was no dispute.  Isaac’s response to the digging of this undisputed well was “now the Lord has made room for us, and we will prosper in the land” (26:22b).  We go on to read that “From there Isaac went up to Beer Sheba.  The Lord appeared to him that night and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham.  Do not be afraid, for I am with you.  I will bless you and multiply your descendants for the sake of My servant Abraham.’  Then Isaac built an altar there and worshiped the Lord” (26:23-25a).  This is rounded out in a not unexpected way, as we find that “He pitched his tent there, and his servants dug a well” (26:25b).  Here, a well (actually two wells) is connected with a place of worship, prompting thoughts of worship and the act of worship itself.  Of course, hearkening back to yet another connection to his father, we consider that Beer Sheba is also the place that Abraham dug a well and the place at which he made the treaty with Abimelech (Isaac also deals with an Abimelech) following the initial disputes about a well.  So naturally, Isaac’s venturing to that place is an explicit reminder of Abraham’s story (as is much of Isaac’s story in and of itself), and by extension, God’s covenant with Abraham.  Perhaps we should not think of wells, especially in Scripture, without also retaining the idea of God’s covenant and His covenant faithfulness to go along with it? 

Staying with Abraham, we find that he “planted a tamarisk tree in Beer Sheba” (21:33a), which was the place that he dug the well, and “There he worshiped the Lord, the eternal God” (21:33b).  Why go back to Abraham after having moving on to Isaac?  Why mention the covenant that was begun with Abraham, which would be extended to Isaac, to Jacob/Israel, and then on to the nation of Israel?  Why speak here of worship?  We do so because it attunes us to the words of the Samaritan woman, as she responds to Jesus.  “The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (4:19-20).  Here we have a well, a dispute, and talk of worship.   

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Tradition of Wells (part 2)

Merely a few verses removed from the story of Ishmael that is connected to a well, we find Abraham engaged in a well story.  Apparently there was some controversy, in that “Abraham lodged a complaint against Abimelech,” a general title of a tribal chieftain, “concerning a well that Abimelech’s servants had seized” (21:25).  Abraham offers a treaty to Abimelech, in the form of a gift of seven lambs, saying “You must take these seven ewe lambs from my hand as legal proof that I dug this well” (21:30).  So here we see a dispute concerning a well.  With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising to find a disputation in connection to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  Though the dispute was not over the well, though there is an underlying dispute about true Israelite lineage implied, the well becomes the locus of the review of one of the main points of disputation between Israel and Samaria. 

Without having to traverse too many pages of Scripture in search of our next watering hole, we reach the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis, which contains another “well” tale.  In this story, Abraham is sending his servant to his home country and to his relatives to find a wife for Isaac, his son (24:4).  When the servant reached his desired destination, “He made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city” (24:11a).  So that he might accomplish the task that was set before him, which would be indissolubly connected to the covenant that God had made with Abraham that his descendants would be named through Isaac, “He prayed, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, guide me today.  Be faithful to my master Abraham.  Here I am, standing by the spring, and the daughters of the people who live in the town are coming out to draw water.  I will say to a  young woman, “Please lower your jar that I may drink.”  May the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac reply, “Drink, and I’ll give water to you camels too.”  In this way I will know that you have been faithful to my master.’” (24:12-14)  Effectively, the woman that provided a drink to the servant of Abraham, would be the one through whom God would continue to carry out His covenant plans. 

It is not at all difficult to see this idea at play in the fourth chapter of John, as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman “Give me some water to drink” (4:7b).  Of course, in the story of Abraham’s servant, his request is precisely met, thus a wife, Rebekah, is found for Isaac.  When the servant reveals his identity to Rebekah, “the young woman ran and told her mother’s household all about these things” (24:28), much like the Samaritan woman runs off to tell the townspeople about her strange encounter at the well.  Rebekah’s action, in turn, prompts her brother, Laban, to rush out to meet the man at the spring (24:29). 

It can be said of Rebekah that she will be the vehicle to which God brings Jacob to birth, from whom will come God’s covenant people, the twelve tribes of Israel.  In the same light, what do we see with the woman at the well with Jesus?  Though we are left to guess at whether or not this woman provides Jesus with any water, such becomes a secondary issue once we see what takes place in the wake of her conversation with Jesus.  We have just alluded to the fact that “the woman left her water jar, went off into the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Surely He can’t be the Messiah, can He?’  So they left the town and began coming to Him” (4:28-30).  Obviously, here we see a major divergence in the stories, though the end result will be the same. 

The action of Laban aside, we see that Abraham’s servant is taken to Abraham’s relatives, whereas the people to whom this woman speaks come out to meet Jesus.  However, as said, the result is somewhat identical, in that God’s covenant purposes are advanced, and His kingdom is broadened out, “as many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the report of the woman who testified…So when the Samaritans came to Him, they began asking Him to stay with them” (4:39a,40a).  Abraham’s servant experiences much the same, in that after securing the bride for Isaac, he stayed overnight (24:54).  The next morning, upon indicating his intentions to return to Abraham, he was pressed to stay “a few more days, perhaps ten” (24:55b).  The text, however, leads us to believe that he left that day.  At the same time, it would not be unreasonable to presume that at least one more night was spent, in preparation for the journey home (for Abraham’s servant), and the journey from home (for Rebekah and her attendants/servants).  Returning to John, Jesus, and that well, we learn that “He stayed there two days” (4:40b).  There is a reiteration of this point a few verses later, as we read “After two days He departed from there to Galilee” (4:43).  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Tradition Of Wells (part 1)

…Jesus, since He was tired from the journey, sat right down beside the well. – John 4:6b  (NET)

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, at a well that was said to be connected to Jacob, is fraught with historical underpinnings.  The author of John’s Gospel would know this, and it is quite reasonable to presume that he (or she, one could suppose) wanted to draw on the rich tradition of wells that dot the landscape of Israel’s received traditions.  Indeed, there are so many wells to be found throughout the pages of Scripture, it is probable that a familiarity with these wells is entirely necessary.  It may well be the case that the composer demands that this presentation of Jesus be understood within that context, presuming a familiarity with this history on the part of those that will hear or read not only this portion of his narrative, but the whole of his narrative of the life of Jesus. 

Not only is it incumbent upon us to place ourselves alongside the woman at the well or in the midst of Jesus’ disciples when approaching so as to hear this story, but as consumers of a second-hand tale that began with a certain announcement about Jesus that provides the foundational structure by which we understand the Johannine narrative, we also approach the story of Jesus and the woman at the well from the perspective that the One speaking to her is the physical manifestation of the God that has tacitly directed His people’s contact with wells from the very beginning.  We are not going to make an attempt here to interpret the interaction or to draw conclusions about the encounter between the woman and Jesus, but rather, we’re going to think backwards from the fact of the woman and the well, trekking through Scripture in such a way as to vest this story with its appropriate context.  Such would be the necessary steps that would put us in a position, if so desired, to rightly interpret the interaction and to form the conclusions about Jesus and His words in the pericope that the author desires his audience to form.  We should not only do this here, but naturally, for all of the Gospels and for all of Scripture, for doing this is what will actually allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. 

As we begin our search for wells, with Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman (an outsider from Israel) as our starting point, it is with great interest that we note, when it comes to the divine narrative, that the first mention of a well is to be found in connection with another one that would be considered an outsider from Israel.  In the sixteenth chapter of Genesis, we find Sarai (later Sarah), the wife of Abram (later Abraham), expelling a pregnant Hagar from her household.  When she ran away, “The Lord’s angel found Hagar near a spring of water in the desert” (16:7a).  Though it is here said to be angel, we come to learn that it was more than an angel, as “Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her,” as the author’s use of Lord is the proper name for Israel’s God, “You are the God who sees me” (16:13a).  Further detail is provided with “That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi’ (16:14a), which is translated as “The well of the Living One who sees me.” 

Now we are not going to go into detail concerning the story of every well, nor are we going to present an exhaustive list of the wells of Scripture, though nearly all would be instrumental in shaping the thinking of the Johannine author.  We will go into detail when such could provide useful interpretive background for Jesus’ time at the well.  The story of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, contains a well---which could also be of some interest to a Samaritan woman, especially one that references Jacob as her ancestor when speaking about the well, seeing as how Ishmael, the son of Abraham, is Jacob’s uncle.  Ishmael’s well experience flows from his being sent out from his home, along with his mother, at yet another request from Sarah, as she said “Banish that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman will not be an heir along with my son Isaac!” (21:10)  When their provisions run out, Hagar becomes frantic, convinced that her and her son are going to die.  However, God intervenes on their behalf, and “enabled Hagar to see a well of water.  She went over and filled the skin with water, and then gave the boy a drink” (21:19).  In light of the reason for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from the house of Abraham, how interesting that a Samaritan woman, at a well, by speaking about Jacob and then speaking about the messiah, was laying claim to a tradition and to promises directed to the people of God, though she would be viewed by the descendants of Isaac (through Jacob) as an illegitimate user and usurper and of such things.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jesus & The Finger Of God (part 2 of 2)

The finger of God is also referenced in conjunction with the delivery of the Ten Commandments.  In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that “The Lord gave me the two stone tablets written by the very finger of God, and on them was everything He said to you at the mountain from the midst of the fire at the time of that assembly” (9:10).  Likewise, in Exodus, we read that “He gave Moses two tablets of testimony when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, tablets of stone written by the finger of God” (31:18).  By making mention of the finger of God, in reference to Himself, Jesus brings comparisons to Moses into play. 

Though Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the new Moses is quite explicit, Luke’s is more subtle.  Where Matthew has Jesus referencing a commandment by saying “you have heard that it was said, and then adding the rejoinder of “but I say unto you,” Luke’s Jesus is less forceful and less overt.  A perfect example from Matthew has Jesus saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy’” (5:43), before offering up His response of “But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44).  In Luke, Jesus says “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who mistreat you” (6:27), omitting the “you have heard that it was said.”  The “you have heard that it was said,” making reference to the Mosaic law and the interpretation of that law, is implied. 

So Jesus clearly presents Himself as a new lawgiver, in the mold of Moses.  In His case however, His status goes beyond that of Moses, in that unlike Moses, He does not point to the finger of God as having written the commandments in stone, thus pointing to an entity separate from himself.  Rather, Jesus speaks of Himself using the same finger of God language that was most assuredly meant to communicate something which He believed to be true of Himself.  Undoubtedly, this is what Luke wants His audience to grasp.  Later, in the same setting, Jesus goes on to say “For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be a sign to this generation” (11:30).  This use of “Son of Man” is part of a building process within Luke, that effectively culminates with Jesus’ linking the coming of the Son of Man, referencing Daniel seven and the Son of Man coming on the clouds to the Ancient of Days in order to receive His kingdom, to the destruction of the Temple, with a repetition of “this generation” in connection with the sign, while also speaking of the Son of Man during the course of His passion.  So Jesus, in Luke’s structural setting, speaks of Himself in connection to the finger of God, which functions on multiple levels, and then speaks of the Son of Man, which we know to be self-referential.  Making the connection, the Son of Man is obviously meant to be understood as a divine figure, and it is the Son of Man (the king of the kingdom of God, the Messiah, God manifest) that is speaking when providing new laws for the people of God and casting out demons.       

Finally, we see the finger of God mentioned in the eighth chapter of Exodus.  There, Moses has struck his staff on the ground, resulting in the dust of the ground becoming like “gnats throughout all the land of Egypt” (8:16b).  As they had done with the previous signs from God that had been provided to Moses in order to prove the veracity of the message he delivered, the magicians of Egypt attempted to match the feat.  However, they were unable to do so.  In response, “The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘It is the finger of God!’” (8:19a)  This failed to make an impression on Pharaoh, with the Scriptural record informing us that “Pharaoh’s heart remained hard, and he did not listen to them” (8:19b).  Likewise, Luke goes on to point out that “As He spoke, a Pharisee invited Jesus to have a meal with him, so He went in and took His place at the table” (11:37).  So even though there is a slight change of setting, Luke wants us to continue to keep in mind what has been said by Jesus, which is conveyed by “As He spoke… so Jesus went in.”  What is the conclusion of the scene at the house of the Pharisee?  Jesus did not win Himself any supporters, as “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54).  Like Pharaoh, their hearts remained hard.   

How else does this fit with Jesus’ use of finger of God in Luke?  Let us look again at what Jesus said there in immediate conjunction with the finger of God and the kingdom of God (which we should probably not allow ourselves to separate).  He says “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are safe.  But when a stronger man attacks and conquers him, he takes away the first man’s armor on which the man relied and divides up his plunder” (11:21-22).  Obviously, Pharaoh felt quite secure in rejecting Moses’ requests.  Why shouldn’t he?  He was strong, fully armed, with guards and a palace full of men ready to carry out his every request.  His possessions were safe.  Of course, we don’t have to move much further along within the story to find that Pharaoh, truly, had no power, that he was not nearly as strong as he thought he was, and that he had no ability to deal with the stronger man (the Creator God of Israel) that was attacking him.  Ultimately, his armor, his army, was destroyed after he fruitlessly chased after Israel.  The completion of the thought that we see later in Luke, with the Pharisees and the experts in the law revealing their hardened hearts, casts them in the role of the Pharaoh oppressing the people of God. 

To cap it off and to complete the overlay of Jesus’ words on to the situation, as Jesus surely meant to activate this particular historical remembrance (along with the others already mentioned, which must be part of Luke’s narrative plan as well), we can see that the culminating plague of the death of the firstborn, which resulted in Israel’s release from Egypt (without having to lift their hands against their oppressors, it should be pointed out, and as Jesus must have wanted to convey to those listening to Him that were suffering under Roman oppression, as the sentiment of rebellion was always seething beneath the surface), we know that “The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, and they gave them whatever they wanted, and so they plundered Egypt” (12:36).  Later, the death of God’s Son that would be the catalyst to a different type of exodus (Resurrection of Jesus and of His people), in which a different type of strong man (death) would be conquered.    

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jesus & The Finger Of God (part 1 of 2)

But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you. – Luke 11:20  (NET)

The “finger of God” is something that appears a few times throughout Scripture.  It is yet another one of those things that links together the writings of the New Testament with the Hebrew Scriptures that serve as its foundation and basis for any and all understanding.  The Gospels contain two references to the “finger of God.”  The first is the one found in Luke, as seen above, with the other to be found in the Gospel of John.  Though there we cannot actually locate the phrase “finger of God,” we are led to understand that the finger of Jesus is the finger of God because John begins with an overt declaration of the divinity of Jesus, with this proclamation rooted in an understanding of the implications of both Messiah and Resurrection.  We see the finger of God when Jesus stoops to write in the dirt during the scene in which He is presented with the woman that is taken in the very act of adultery. 

Here, it is necessary to acknowledge that some of the earliest and best manuscripts of John do not contain this story of the woman taken in adultery, and therefore do not contain the story that has Jesus writing on the ground with His finger.  In fact, some manuscripts place the story at the end of the twenty-first chapter of Luke, thus interestingly putting both “finger of God” references in the same Gospel, which makes a great deal of sense.

When Jesus speaks about the finger of God in Luke, He hits upon a key theme of His mission, which the proclamation of the presence of the kingdom of God.  He offers His statement in response to the accusation that “By the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, He casts out demons” (11:15).  After speaking of His own casting out of demons by the finger of God, He goes on to say “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are safe.  But when a stronger man attacks and conquers him, he takes away the first man’s armor on which the man relied and divides up his plunder” (11:21-22).  Clearly then, this is designed to resonate with Jesus’ hearers.  Because Jesus speaks within a culture with a shared history, He is building on a foundation from which His hearers can fully understand Him and derive maximum meaning.  So, rather than attempt to interpret and spiritualize the words of Jesus and treating His words as a free-floating aphorism subject to any number of flights of interpretive fancy, we can gather up the appearances of the “finger of God” that are to be found in Israel’s defining historical narrative so as to put ourselves in position to grasp what is being communicated.

Working backwards through the Scriptures, we encounter the finger of God in the book of Daniel, when “the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the royal palace wall” (5:5b), with this occurring during a great banquet being hosted by King Belshazzar of Babylon.  In an era in which the book of Daniel commanded a great deal of attention, and which was quite obviously on Jesus’ mind, owing to His constant reference to Daniel’s Son of Man, this instance of usage is quite worthy of ours.  Daniel is called upon to interpret what the finger has written, eventually informing the king that it pronounced his doom.  Daniel informed the king that “God has numbered your kingdom’s days and brought it to an end… you are weighed on the balances and found to be lacking… your kingdom is divided and given over to the Medes and Persians” (5:26b,27b,28b). 

Now, it cannot be overlooked that at this banquet “Belshazzar issued an order to bring in the gold and silver vessels---the ones that Nebuchadnezzar his father had confiscated from the Temple in Jerusalem---so that the kings and nobles, together with his wives and concubines, could drink from them…  As they drank wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (5:2b,4).  The writer reports that it was “At that very moment the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote.”  We’ll notice that Belshazzar was drinking from that which had been plundered from the Temple, doing so as a strong man, fully armed, guarded in his own palace, and seemingly safe with all of his possessions.  However, it was “in that very night Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, was killed.  So Darius the Mede took control of the kingdom” (5:30-31a).  A stronger man attacked him and conquered him, surely plundering all of Belshazzar’s once safe possessions.  Might this have been on Jesus’ mind?   

Handsome Men

There was a Benjaminite named Kish… He was a prominent person.  He had a son named Saul, a handsome young man. – 1 Samuel 9:1a,2a  (NET)

Israel is going to receive its first king.  While we can see that “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do everything the people request of you.  For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is Me that they have rejected as their king.  Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected Me and have served other gods” (8:7-8a), the fact exists that the proximate cause of Israel’s request for a king stemmed from Samuel.  You see, “In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel… But his sons did not follow his ways.  Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice” (8:1,3).  It was for this reason that “all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel” and “said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways.  So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have” (8:4a,5). 

So we can point fingers of blame and rebellion at the people of Israel, and we can understand the words on offer from the Lord to Samuel, comforting him by saying that it is the Lord that has been rejected and not him, but let’s not forget that it is Samuel’s sons that are the issue.  Had Samuel been a better father, he might have prevented Israel from traveling the route of monarchy.  Without getting off track, this issue of being a poor father can serve to partially explain David’s affinity for Samuel.  At the same time, however, part of God’s words to Moses included an insistence that the people would ask for a king, with God giving directions as to the proper response, so there was always an aura of inevitability about the whole thing.

Samuel then goes to seek out a king to set over the people of Israel.  Because we are introduced to Saul immediately after “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do as they say and install a king over them’” (8:22a), we know that, when we hear the description of Saul, that this is the one that the Lord has chosen to be anointed as king over His people.  Saul was “a handsome young man.  There was no one among the Israelites more handsome than he was; he stood head and shoulders above all the people” (9:2).  Whether we realize it or not, this is the beginning of a pattern as it relates to the monarchy.  Also, if we are paying attention, this talk of a man being handsome, when presented to a people that define themselves by the story of exodus, with that story naturally including the story of Joseph (which explains how Israel came to be in Egypt in the first place), could very well remind the people of Joseph, who is described as being “well built and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6b).  Certainly, because Joseph was a powerful ruler, even if it was in Egypt, there could naturally be a desire for a ruler of Israel to be very much like Joseph.  Though it is scant, we may have a growing sense that this issue of appearance is an important one when it comes to Israel’s rulers and the way the people wanted to think about their rulers. 

We have this in mind when we first meet David.  As we well know, God rejects Saul as king.  Samuel, the one whose failure with his sons has lead to the desire for a king, goes to anoint another man as king.  When David is brought before Samuel we learn that “he was ruddy, with attractive eyes and a handsome appearance” (16:12b).  Strangely, this is after Samuel has viewed the first of David’s brothers, and was impressed by his physical appearance.  It must have reminded Samuel of when Saul stood before him.  However, we hear the Lord say “Don’t be impressed by his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him” (16:7b), which is an explicit reminder of Saul’s having been rejected.  The Lord goes on to say “God does not view things the way men do.  People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (16:7c).  With this said, it is indeed strange that David’s appearance is mentioned at all, let alone mentioned in such positive terms.  One might think that it would have been the opposite when it came to David, and that Samuel was going to anoint one who was unattractive, but this was apparently not the case. 

Eventually Saul dies and David takes the throne, as he was anointed to do.  Frankly, he fares no better than Saul.  In many ways, he was more corrupted by the power than was Saul.  When those who hear the story of Saul, followed by the story of David, with that story including David’s adultery and murder, while considering that Saul was rejected from the throne of Israel because he had inappropriately offered a sacrifice, the hearer simply knows that God is going to remove David from the throne as well.  As if to confirm that this is going to take place, Absalom, David’s son, is introduced.  During the course of Absalom’s story, according to the pattern that has been established, and as if to confirm that Absalom is indeed going to take the throne of Israel, we read that “Now in all Israel everyone acknowledged that there was no man as handsome as Absalom.  From the sole of his feet to the top of his head he was perfect in appearance” (2 Samuel 14:25).  Indeed, he does take the throne (David is temporarily removed), and even experiences an anointing to confirm his justly gained position.  However, just like both Saul and his father, he eventually engages in an action that is displeasing to the Lord and is removed from the throne, allowing David to regain his rule.  

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Historical Continuity (part 2 of 2)

So we know that Jesus is using Jeremiah and the historical situation there recorded as His model.  However, do we ever stop to consider if Jeremiah had a model upon which he drew in some way?  If Jesus is relying upon something within Israel’s history to trigger the thoughts that He desired the people to have, and to provoke the response and hopefully transformation that He desired to see, it would be reasonable to suggest that there was something within Israel’s history prior to Jeremiah’s day, upon which he was relying as well.  Surely, if we do not limit Jesus Himself to only bringing new teaching upon an entirely new basis, then it would not be right for us to foist this type of responsibility upon one of the prophets.  Therefore, beyond the assertion that Jeremiah obviously had to base his understanding of the delivery of God’s judgment on Israel’s covenant failures, we can assert that Jeremiah’s words and ministry had to be rooted within the history and covenant by which Israel was defined in order for it to have any conceivable impact and permanence.     

If this premise is accepted, then to what historical situation might we look in order to gain insight into Jeremiah’s understanding?  Can we find something similar to the people’s reliance upon the Temple itself to protect and preserve them from the judgment that was owed to them?  The first book of Samuel records a story that may provide us with an answer to those questions.  In the fourth chapter, we read that “the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines… The Philistines arranged their forces to fight Israel.  As the battle spread out, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men in the battle line in the field” (4:1b-2).  When we consider the way in which God deals with His people, raising up foes such as the Babylonians and the Romans in order to exercise His judgments, as referenced by Jeremiah and Jesus, then the Philistines, clearly, are to be understood as an instrument of God’s judgment against His people, exercised in accordance with His covenant promises as they failed to live up to their covenant obligations. 

“When the army came back to the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why did the Lord let us be defeated today by the Philistines?’” (4:3a)  The answer, of course, was their covenant failures.  So what was their response?  They said “Let’s take with us the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh.  When it is with us, it will save us from the hand of our enemies” (4:3b).  Effectively, they believed that they possessed “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord,” so no harm could come to them.  This is evidence by what we go on to read, which is “So the army sent to Shiloh, and they took from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts Who sits between the cherubim… When the ark of the covenant of the Lord arrived at the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the ground shook” (4:4a,5).  A repetition of “the Temple of the Lord” indeed.  Naturally, just as Israel was mistaken about the preserving power of the presence of the that which represented God in the times of both Jesus and Jeremiah, so too was Israel mistaken in this case.  As Israel was routed by both Babylon and Rome, with the Temple destroyed on both occasions, the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines and Israel was defeated.

What was it that lead to these events?  Surely, it was something that would have resonated with both Jeremiah and the people of Israel (Judah) to which Jeremiah spoke.  Proving that there is nothing new under the sun, while demonstrating the historical congruence of the message of God, through and by which He reveals the plans and purposes of His kingdom and its denizens, the issue was the priests and the people.  In the second chapter we learn that “The sons of Eli,” Eli being the High Priest, whose sons officiated alongside him in the tabernacle, “were wicked men.  They did not recognize the Lord’s authority… They treated the Lord’s offering with contempt… They used to have sex with the women who were stationed at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (2:12,17,22b).  Though not quite as explicit as the condemnation from Jeremiah, it does have its resonances.  Clearly, they were not rightly worshiping the God of Israel, so they might as well have been worshiping some other God.  Complicity, even if it is a grudging acceptance of this behavior on behalf of the people, is implied.  Jeremiah could have easily recognized this, and we can easily allow ourselves to believe that this was in mind and designed to be called to mind when he speaks of the Temple in his prophecy.  The presence of the ark was as helpful to the people in that day as was the presence of the Temple in Jeremiah’s day, or in Jesus’ day. 

In addition, and just so God might get His point across, so that Jeremiah might get his point across, and so Jesus might get His point across as well, when the elders of Israel sent for the ark, it was accompanied by these sons of Eli, who were killed in the ensuing battle during which the ark was also taken.  Those responsible for the house of God, who mocked their responsibility, perished as the ark was taken.  As the ark represented the glory of God, a tabernacle or Temple with no ark is also devoid of God’s glory, and is therefore no tabernacle or Temple at all, and this rings loudly and clearly through to the days of Jesus and the events that followed not too long thereafter.  Let it be said that, from the time of Samuel, to Jeremiah, and on to Jesus, God’s ways and that which He intends for His people can be clearly detected.