Bible Study 10.3.11, 10.6.11, 10.9.11 For Worship 10.16.11
II Kings 18-20; II Chronicles 29-32
18:1 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign.
2 He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah.
3 And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done.
4 He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehushtan.
5 He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.
6 For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments which the LORD commanded Moses.
7 And the LORD was with him; wherever he went forth, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria, and would not serve him.
8 He smote the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city.
9 In the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria and besieged it
10 and at the end of three years he took it. In the sixth year of Hezekiah, which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken.
11 The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria, and put them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes,
12 because they did not obey the voice of the LORD their God but transgressed his covenant, even all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded; they neither listened nor obeyed.
13 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them.
14 And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.
15 And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king’s house.
16 At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria.
17 And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Fuller’s Field.
18 And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.
19 And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this confidence of yours?
20 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me?
21 Behold, you are relying now on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him.
22 But if you say to me, “We rely on the LORD our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem”?
23 Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders upon them.
24 How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants, when you rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen?
25 Moreover, is it without the LORD that I have come up against this place to destroy it? The LORD said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.'”
26 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah, and Joah, said to the Rabshakeh, “Pray, speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.”
27 But the Rabshakeh said to them, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?”
28 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria!
29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand.
30 Do not let Hezekiah make you to rely on the LORD by saying, The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’
31 Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat of his own vine, and every one of his own fig tree, and every one of you will drink the water of his own cistern;
32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us.
33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?
34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand?
35 Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?'”
36 But the people were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him.”
37 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes rent, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh.
19:1 When King Hezekiah heard it, he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD.
2 And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz.
3 They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth.
4 It may be that the LORD your God heard all the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words which the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”
5 When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah,
6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me.
7 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.'”
8 The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah; for he heard that the king had left Lachish.
9 And when the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, “Behold, he has set out to fight against you,” he sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying,
10 “Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: ‘Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.
11 Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. And shall you be delivered?
12 Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations which my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Tel-assar?
13 Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?'”
14 Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD.
15 And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said: “O LORD the God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth.
16 Incline thy ear, O LORD, and hear; open thy eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God.
17 Of a truth, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands,
18 and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they were destroyed.
19 So now, O LORD our God, save us, I beseech thee, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou, O LORD, art God alone.”
20 Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Your prayer to me about Sennacherib king of Assyria I have heard.
21 This is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him: “She despises you, she scorns you — the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you — the daughter of Jerusalem.
22 “Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and haughtily lifted your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel!
23 By your messengers you have mocked the LORD, and you have said, ‘With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses; I entered its farthest retreat, its densest forest.
24 I dug wells and drank foreign waters, and I dried up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt.’
25 “Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should turn fortified cities into heaps of ruins,
26 while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field, and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops; blighted before it is grown?
27 “But I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me.
28 Because you have raged against me and your arrogance has come into my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.
29 “And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs of the same; then in the third year sow, and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.
30 And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward;
31 for out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD will do this.
32 “Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it.
33 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the LORD.
34 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”
35 And that night the angel of the LORD went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.
36 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went home, and dwelt at Nineveh.
37 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, slew him with the sword, and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.
20:1 In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover.'”
2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the LORD, saying,
3 “Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in thy sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
4 And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him:
5 “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the prince of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD.
6 And I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.”
7 And Isaiah said, “Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.”
8 And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the LORD on the third day?”
9 And Isaiah said, “This is the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?”
10 And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps; rather let the shadow go back ten steps.”
11 And Isaiah the prophet cried to the LORD; and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which the sun had declined on the dial of Ahaz.
12 At that time Merodachbaladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah; for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick.
13 And Hezekiah welcomed them, and he showed them all his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his armory, all that was found in his storehouses; there was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.
14 Then Isaiah the prophet came to King Hezekiah, and said to him, “What did these men say? And whence did they come to you?” And Hezekiah said, “They have come from a far country, from Babylon.”
15 He said, “What have they seen in your house?” And Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”
16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD:
17 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD.
18 And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
19 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
20 The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?
21 And Hezekiah slept with his fathers; and Manasseh his son reigned in his stead.
The two passages identified as our scripture are very long, so we will limit our study to II Kings chapters 18 – 20 – the story of King Hezekiah. Hezekiah was born in c. 739 BC, the son of King Ahaz and Abijah during the prophetic career of the Prophet Isaiah. Many Jewish and Christian scholars believe that Isaiah was foreshadowing the birth of Hezekiah, rather than the Messiah in Isaiah 7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz,
11 “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.”
13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
By the time of Hezekiah the Judean Kingdom was coming into its own. Judea had been overshadowed by the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and all of a sudden in 720 BCE King Sargon of Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom taking a portion of its population into exile. Many people from the Northern Kingdom fled to Judah, where they brought skills and new economic vitality to the Southern Kingdom. The Central Highlands of Israel had been an economic backwater until the royal house of the Northern Kingdom began to realize the economic potential of cultivating vineyards and olive groves. The Central Highlands are ideal for the cultivation of these two crops, and when olives are pressed into olive oil, and grapes are made into wine they become exportable products. The Northern Kingdom began a lucrative trade in olive oil and wine under King Ahab. (That is why the story of Naboth’s vineyard is so symbolic and important.) The new prosperity of the Northern Kingdom made it a tempting prize in the political movements of the Fertile Crescent. Israel withstood the aggression of its neighbors until 720 BCE, when the Assyrian army rolled over everyone in the Eastern and Western Fertile Crescent. Assyria had the first professional army that included soldiers who not only made their living solely from warfare, but they were specialists: some were charioteers, some archers, some sappers, some infantry, some cavalry. Since they were in constant training or warfare, they were good, and when the Assyrian Army came over the horizon it was blitzkrieg.
When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom refugees from the North came to Judah bringing with them the Elohist narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures. (See the JEPD narratives within the Old Testament.) The refugees from the North also brought the know how to begin commercial production of grapes and olives, so that soon the Judean Monarchy had a thriving olive oil and wine export business started. Of course the lucrative trade that grew up made Judah a tempting target. So the Assyrians began putting pressure for tribute upon Judah and when Hezekiah refused, Sennacherib, King of Assyria invaded Judah in 701 BCE. Hezekiah had taken on as a royal advisor, a priest by the name of Isaiah, who had advised the King to build a new, stronger wall for Jerusalem as well as a water tunnel to bring the water of the Gihon Spring inside the City. “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” can still be explored today by adventurous tourists, who walk for about a third of a mile through a shaft about knee deep in water. The Tunnel was begun as an emergency project in some places following a natural fissure in the rock, in other places carved out with hammers and chisels. The tunnel was a spectacular achievement that allowed Jerusalem to withstand the Assyrian siege, while much of the rest of the Kingdom was being reduced by the Assyrian Army.
The lifting of the siege of Jerusalem is cloaked in mystery. Some Assyrian documents suggest that Sennacherib left the siege of Jerusalem, because of revolt back in Nineveh his capital. The account in the Hebrew Scriptures claims the Angel of Death swept through the Assyrian Camp killing a goodly portion of their army. Some commentators believe some form of plague, perhaps bubonic plague was the cause of the demise of the Assyrian Army. And maybe through a coincidence, or perhaps synergy, both events happened in close proximity saving Hezekiah and his Kingdom.
Hezekiah was credited by the prophetic party, Isaiah, Micah, ultimately Jeremiah for having reformed the Temple. Before Hezekiah all manner of foreign Gods were worshipped on the high places of Judah and in the Temple. The Asherah were poles utilized in the worship of the fertility goddess Astarte, who was worshipped with ritual prostitutes almost guaranteeing the popularity of the cult. The “pillars” mentioned in verse four were usually associated with the worship of Baal, the god of prosperity and wealth – always a popular god even down to our present day. Hezekiah took steps to limit the worship of all gods except Yahweh. Even the “Nahustan,” a bronze serpent supposedly made by Moses in the desert to heal the bite of poisonous snakes, (see Numbers 21:4-9) was taken and broken, because many people were supposedly worshipping the image.
The prophetic school believed that Hezekiah was saved from an illness because of his attempts to reform religious observance in Judah. (See II Kings 20:1-9) But the prophetic school still needed to find a cause for the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. So in II Kings 20:12-21 Hezekiah makes an error in judgment by showing off his treasure storehouse to representatives from the King of Babylon. Chapter 20 also contains the curious statement of Hezekiah in verse 19. After being warned by Isaiah that showing off his treasure room to the Babylonians will result in the conquest of Jerusalem and the carrying off of the Judean population into slavery, Hezekiah responded: “The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?”
Hezekiah sounded almost like Neville Chamberlain at Munich. So what if others will suffer later, it’s alright, because I will have peace in my time.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. Who was King in Israel, when Hezekiah became King in Judah?
2. What did Hezekiah do that was accounted as right in the eyes of the Lord?
3. What was the name of Moses’ bronze serpent?
4. What tribute was demanded of Hezekiah by Assyria?
5. Who did the King of Assyria send to demand the surrender of Jerusalem?
6. In what language did the Assyrian delegation address the Judean delegation and why?
7. What “deal” does the Assyrian representative offer to the defenders of Jerusalem?
8. How does Hezekiah respond to the Assyrian demands?
9. Who delivered a word of hope to Hezekiah?
10. Why do the Assyrians withdraw from the siege of Jerusalem?
11. What sign does the Lord give to Hezekiah that he will recover from his illness?
12. What error in judgment does Hezekiah make at the end of his reign?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. What false gods do you see being worshipped in our culture?
2. Do you see any consequences of this idolatry?
3. Can you think of any modern parallels to Hezekiah’s paying tribute to the Assyrians?
4. Can you think of any modern examples of siege warfare?
5. Who suffers in a siege?
6. What do you think lifted the siege of Jerusalem?
7. Can you think of any examples of “miraculous” events in modern warfare?
8. What seems to have been Hezekiah’s life threatening illness?
9. Have you ever recovered from a life threatening illness?
10. Can you think of any modern examples Hezekiah’s attitude in response to Isaiah’s word that Judah will ultimately be destroyed? “It’s o.k. At least I will enjoy peace in my time.”
Human endeavor down through the ages has been full of folly. People do not always act in their own best interest, and certainly when people form together in groups, rather than becoming smarter, we often become dumber. Rather than pooling our collective wisdom we are often manipulated by sound bites and demagoguery and we embrace easy answers, rather than thoroughly examining options, thinking rationally and seeking difficult solutions to complicated problems. A celebrated historian, Barbara Tuckman, in 1984 published an outstanding study of our human tendency to choose courses of action that are contrary to our own self-interest – the March of Folly.
The story of the Tower of Babel was the Hebrew story teller’s offering of insight into our human capacity for folly. First, I would like to point out that the Tower of Babel story has roots in the Sumerian culture of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians moved into the land between the two rivers from the North bringing the cultivation of grain to the rich soil of the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys about 4,000 years before Christ. As an expression of their worship the Sumerians built Ziggurats, a kind of mud brick pyramid like structure topped with a temple, where their cult sacrifices were conducted. Human beings have often worshipped on high places in the belief that being up high is somehow closer to the gods.
Energy and wealth were invested in the construction of these Ziggurats in order to satisfy the gods of fertility and agriculture to insure the harvest, the accumulation of wealth, and the stability of the state. These Ziggurats were so ancient that by the time Abraham was leaving Mesopotamia on his hike across the Fertile Crescent to the land of Canaan, these mountains of mud brick had been abandoned for over a thousand years, and they were eroding in the sun, rain and wind. Perhaps we can see the parallels between the history of Sumer and the Biblical Story. The Hebrew Story Teller saw the eroding Ziggurats as a symbol of the folly of human pride: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Pride, hubris, can be a personal issue as well as a corporate problem. I think we all struggle with pride. I know a minister who asks his wife not to comment on his sermons for at least 24 hours after they are preached to give him time to get perspective. One time he made the mistake of saying to his wife, “today, I out did myself my sermon was brilliant. You know how many truly brilliant preachers there are in America today?”
And his wife piped up and said, “One less than you think there are!”
We all struggle with the problem of pride and overreaching. The Darwin awards often feature prideful miscalculations that lead to disaster. The more treacherous overlooks in the Grand Canyon, for instance, are protected by fences and signs. All of these overlooks are spectacular. Some have small plateaus that tourists toss coins onto, like dry wishing wells.
One entrepreneur who wished for financial success saw right there in front of him a means to his end. He had a brilliant, an obvious, idea. No stranger to danger, the man climbed over the fence with a bag, leapt to one of the precarious, coin-covered perches, and filled the bag with booty. Harvest time!
But, when he tried to leap back to the safe side, he went head to head with physics. Specifically, F = mg. Our entrepreneur had increased his mass, and the force required to lift himself against the pull of gravity was now greater.
The heavy bag of coins arrested his jump, and the birds were treated to a view of his long plunge to the valley floor below — brilliant idea fatal flaw in the execution. Gravity. More than a good idea, it’s the Law.
As tragic as individual pride can be, corporate hubris can result in folly that damages the populations of whole nations even continents and the world. Barbara Tuckman was the author of the Guns of August an important historical treatment of the miscalculations and wooden-headedness that led up to World War I, and that war is one of the examples she uses in her book the March of Folly. Everyone thought it would be a short war of triumphant conquest. When War was declared, people in several European capitals celebrated in the streets, sending young men off to war and glory. Six years later after thirty-seven million casualties, practically a whole generation of young men wiped out, Russia in the hands of the Bolsheviks, and the European Powers facing bankruptcy, no one could quite remember why they had gone to war in the first place – human folly on a grand scale.
Now I understand when we look back at the courses of action of those governments 100 years ago we may all be able to come to agreement about labeling those policies folly. How could they have been so stupid? But when we turn our gaze to the actions of governments and politicians closer in time and closer to home, we may disagree, even violently, because our own self-interest and political prejudices become involved. But it is desperately important we learn what drives us as groups and nations to behave recklessly, for the quickening pace of modern life seems to multiply our opportunities to join the march of folly.
Let me venture a couple of examples of folly closer to home that might not get me into trouble – maybe. First let us consider the promotion of sub-prime mortgages that began with changes in the Community Reinvestment Act in 1994. Since home equity is the single most valuable asset for most families, our government acted to ease credit restrictions to allow more people to enter into home ownership. The easing of credit restrictions was based upon two assumptions. First, real estate prices will always go up. And at that moment in time it seemed like a reasonable assumption. And the second assumption was that people would use credit wisely and that creditors would not take undue risk. During the real estate bubble some people began using their homes like ATM machines, and some creditors helped along by fraudulent mortgage brokers, who would do anything to earn a commission started making loans that on the face of them the debtors would never be able to pay. Then the bubble broke, and the first assumption that real estate prices would always go up evaporated. Faulty assumptions complicated by human greed that is a powerful combination for disaster.
One other example of folly that affected many of our lives was the dot.com stock bubble that burst in 2000. Many investment analysts warned against the incredible run up in stock prices, based on mere speculation about the worth of those internet start-ups. How could companies with no profit be worth hundreds of dollars per share? And the assumption, deadly assumption that was sold to unwary investors was that “this time is different.” “This time is different,” can fuel the march of folly right over the cliff.
Our scripture can help us to understand that the March of Folly is not just a political problem it is a spiritual issue. Pride is a spiritual problem with which we all struggle. Most of us learn humility slowly and later in life – we grow old too soon and too smart too late. Group pride, however, can be deceptive and more difficult to overcome. If everyone in the group thinks the same thing, we can become the captives of group think. In 1972 the social psychologist Irving Janis defined group think: Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment. Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. This is an almost classic definition of what happens when nations go off to war. Sometimes, maybe war is inevitable, but too often our national pride takes over and we go forth to war even when it is not in our own self-interest.
So what insight can we gain spiritually that can help us to avoid joining the March of Folly? All of us in a democracy bear a burden of responsibility for the decisions we make as a nation. So we need to recognize that national pride is a double edged sword. We love our homeland. During the Olympic Games we root for our team. We take pride in the accomplishments of our fellow citizens. But we need to be suspect of sound bites like “we are the greatest nation on earth,” “American Century,” “Pax Americana,” “World’s Sole Super Power.” Overweening group pride is the root of the undoing in the Tower of Babel story: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Almost as soon as we embrace national hubris we are insuring our own demise, because we begin using ourselves as the measure of all things. And unlike the Tower of Babel Story God does not have to punish us. The prophet Amos had a profound vision. Amos saw God standing in the midst of the people of Israel holding a plumb line. And the nation did not measure up to the plumb line.
Now let me ask you, if a wall, or a tower does not measure up to the plumb line, what will happen? The structure will fall of its own weight. A nation that does not measure up to God’s standard of justice will fall of its own weight. Gravity, it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Justice it’s not just a good idea, it is God’s law.
We can also relearn from Barbara Tuckman the truism that power corrupts. We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments. The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. .
Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all the passions.” Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. . . Government remains the paramount area of folly, because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.”
People seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves – great argument for term limits — in any organization. We have an obligation in a democracy to insist upon more than sound bites in our national discussion, to demand civility in our political process, and to insist that office holders work for the common good rather than narrow political interests or their own self interest. As a nation we are not the measure of all things, rather we will be held accountable to God’s measure.
Bible Study 9.26.11, 9.29.11, 10.2.11 For Worship 10.9.11
I Kings 2:1-4; 3:3-15; 4:29-34
I Kings 2:1 When David’s time to die drew near, he charged Solomon his son, saying,
2 “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man,
3 and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn;
4 that the LORD may establish his word which he spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a man on the throne of Israel.’
I Kings 3:3 Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places.
4 And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings upon that altar.
5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.”
6 And Solomon said, “Thou hast shown great and steadfast love to thy servant David my father, because he walked before thee in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward thee; and thou hast kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne this day.
7 And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.
8 And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude.
9 Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.
11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,
12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.
13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.
14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”
15 And Solomon awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Then he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.
I Kings 4:29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore,
30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt.
31 For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the nations round about.
32 He also uttered three thousand proverbs; and his songs were a thousand and five.
33 He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.
34 And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
Solomon represents the high water mark of the golden age of the United Israelite monarchy. As Silberman and Finkelstein pointed out last week, there is precious little archaeological evidence to support this “golden age.” Probably the “golden age” was more wishful thinking on the part of the court of Josiah trying to establish a Judean ascendancy over the area of the United Kingdom. Assyria had fallen. Babylon had not yet arisen. The Egyptians were just coming back after a period of weakness. Josiah was trying to solidify his hold on an area from Beersheva in the south to Megiddo in the North. He may have even had aspirations to expand into the Galilee.
Solomon is credited with having control over an area from the Red Sea and the copper mines of the Sinai in the South to the gates of Damascus in the North — probably not. At least in retrospect the Northern Tribes at this point were offering nominal allegiance to the King in Jerusalem. As befits the King of the Golden Age Solomon is credited with great wisdom and faith. But we don’t have to read too carefully between the lines to understand that all was not necessarily well in Solomon’s Court.
At the beginning of chapter 2 David counsels with his son to be faithful to Yaweh and the laws of Moses. Our lectionary prepared as a curriculum for children wisely omits verses 5 through 46 of chapter 2, where David counsels Solomon to murder all of David’s enemies, and his former army commander, Joab, in order to secure the throne. We also learn in Chapter 2 that Solomon arranges for the death of his brother Adonijah, in order to remove him as a pretender to the throne.
Then in Chapter three we have the famous story of Solomon offering sacrifice at Gibeah, and there in a dream God asks him what blessing he desires. Solomon answers that he wants a discerning mind in order to rule wisely — a wonderful prayer. We might hope our own political leaders would offer the same prayer. God is so impressed with the prayer, God bestows upon Solomon long life and riches besides. He couldn’t do much better than that.
And here let’s take a moment to ask why Solomon was offering this sacrifice in Gibeah rather than Jerusalem? Gibeah was the tribal worship center of the Tribe of Benjamin. Some scholars believe Solomon was encouraged to worship at this site by Michal the estranged wife of David, the daughter of Saul, who was from the tribe of Benjamin, and who scholars believe was on good terms with Bathsheba the Queen Mother – Solomon’s Mother who had schemed with Nathan, Zadok and Benaiah, and maybe Michal too, to place Solomon on the throne. Traveling to Gibeah at Michal’s behest would help to secure the loyalty of the Tribe of Benjamin and the House of Saul, important support for protecting Jerusalem and making the throne secure.
In chapter 4 Solomon is credited with producing proverbs, poems, songs, pithy clever sayings, but even if he did write Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and several of the Psalms, we have to ask whether or not this represents true wisdom. Again we don’t have to read too far between the lines to discover that Solomon may have been more lucky and shrewd than wise. Besides doing in his enemies, Solomon levied heavy taxes and used forced labor for his building projects. Yes he built the temple, and a grand palace, but at what cost? His extravagance alienated the tribes of the North. While he accumulated wealth, he used it for himself and his own glory rather than the good of his people. (Of course this was how monarchs behaved in those days.) He made shrewd alliances with foreign powers by marrying princesses from those other royal courts, and then he allowed them to worship their foreign gods in Jerusalem. Not exactly faithfulness to Yaweh: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places.”
Perhaps more than the issue of faithfulness to Yaweh is that Solomon began behaving like the Kings and rulers of the gentiles. The Israelites had never wanted to invest too much power in a central authority. They were a freedom loving, some might say a people of anarchy. They were certainly not happy with an oriental despot who taxed them to build grand buildings and enslaved them to work on his public works projects. Later after a monarchy arises among the ten Northern Tribes, despotism would emerge there. Ahab and Jezebel represented some of the worst abuses of an oriental court. Prophets like Amos, Elijah and Elisha rose to protest the abuses of power in the North. Other prophets like Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah spoke out in the South.
These scriptures might lend themselves to a discussion of the appropriate balance between individual rights and the authority of governments. The Israelites needed some kind of centralized government to help organize them to resist the encroachments of foreign powers. On the other hand they often became enslaved to their own government. In some ways we are still struggling with many of the same issues today. Should government take a role in organizing health care? Or should government stay out of it? Should government have role in providing for the needs of the unemployed and the poor, or should government stay out of it? Should government take a role in the management of the economy, finance and banking, or should government stay out of it? What is the balance?
Another issue these scriptures raise is our own relationship to power. As much as we like to separate religion and politics, we need to recognize that human beings live in community, so political relationships among people are inevitable. If leaders cannot consolidate enough “power,” “legitimacy,” “authority,” to govern, then society breaks down. When society breaks down everyone suffers. Right now in our nation there seems to be a crisis of governance. We don’t want a dictator. We wouldn’t suggest that the President jail or kill the congress. So how do we work with a political culture that seems to become increasingly ungovernable? What do you think?
The darker side of Solomon’s career is not what we want to lift up for children. The story of asking God for wisdom to rule wisely has been a favorite of Sunday School curriculums as well as the building of the temple. There is a wonderfully rich painting of Solomon’s dream at Gibeah. As an example of Solomon’s wisdom, rather than the story of the two women and the dead baby, for older children I would point to some of the more creative and literary Proverbs like: Proverbs 6:6-8, Proverbs 30:18-19, Proverbs 30:24-31.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. What advice did David give to Solomon as he lay dying?
2. In what ways did Solomon depart from his Father’s example?
3. Where did Solomon have his famous dream?
4. What was Solomon doing in that place, before he fell asleep?
5. What did Solomon ask of God?
6. What did God give to Solomon?
7. Where did Solomon go to offer sacrifice after his dream?
8. Who were some of the people Solomon was considered to be wiser than?
9. What are some of the different forms of literature credited to Solomon?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF US
1. When it comes time for you to die, what advice will you give to those who come after you?
2. What do you think will be your legacy, when you “go the way of all the earth?”
3. If someone was to write about you: “He/she loved the Lord and tried to live the way of Jesus except, . . .” What would the “except” be?
4. If God came to you in a dream and asked, “what gift can I give you,” what would you ask?
5. What is your favorite proverb?
6. Who is the wisest person you know?
7. What do you think is the balance between individual rights and the authority of government?
8. Do you think government should have in role in organizing health care, providing for the unemployed, or taking care of the poor or the elderly?
9. Do you think the United States is suffering a crisis of leadership?
10. Do you think Christian faith has any wisdom to offer in addressing our current economic and political situation in the United States?
“Hey! You up there!”
“What do you want?”
“What is this?”
“It’s an Ark.”
“Aha. You wanna get it outta my driveway? I gotta get to work. Listen, what’s this thing for anyway?”
“I can’t tell you. Hahahahaha!”
“Well, I mean can’t you give me a little hint?”
“You wanna a hint?”
“How long can you tread water? Hahahah!”
The Story of Noah is often treated as a children’s story with all the animals two by two, but then when we tell the story to children, we skip the part after the door of the ark had been shut and sealed, and people were frantically beating on the door of the ark to try to get in. The image of god in the story is judgmental and vindictive. I like the way Bill Cosby handled that part of the narrative, “how long can you tread water?” Laughter in story telling covers a multitude of sins.
There are multiple levels of possible meaning in the Story of Noah. One meaning that showed up on the Bible Study page was the care of God to supply everything needed for rebuilding the world. God asked Noah to build the ark and then to bring on board two of every living creature and all plants needed for food. Someone asked the question what would you bring on the ark? Some of the suggestions were: something sustainable, a mobius strip, the Energizer Bunny, a Kindle, a solar powered charger, a sprig of rosemary. It is a good question to ask. What things are so important they should be preserved? Sometimes even today, people have to make those kinds of decisions like when the river is rising fast in a flash flood, or when there is fire in the middle of the night. Maybe the Noah Story contains some deep truth about the human race. Most of the time when there is a house fire, we save the other people first then the pets.
The Noah Story should also remind us to take special care of endangered species. Think of the earth as an ark and we are charge with the responsibility to preserve all animals. Once a species disappears we may never be able to reclaim it again. And we can’t always predict how important a particular animal can be in maintaining the balance of nature. As much as we joke about not bringing the mosquito on board the Ark, some bird species eat their weight in mosquitoes every day to survive.
Another important meaning that emerged in our study came from Kay Campbell who pointed out that God enlisted the cooperation of humans in order to save what was good in the world. “Like God can’t (or won’t, as Bishop Tutu puts it) do it alone.” Like the point Maxie Dunam makes when he says, “there are some things God cannot or will not do until people pray.” God either can’t or won’t save our environment until humans cooperate. Maybe God can’t or won’t bring peace until humans cooperate. We need to take seriously our need to cooperate with God in repairing the world – tinkum olam.
It reminds me of the story of the young man who went in search of the Messiah and Rabbi Akiba tells him to go look at the City Gate. When the young man arrives at the City Gate he sees all the beggars there, the sick, the lame, the blind. Finally he notices one of the beggars who seems to be trying to help some of the others, so the young man asks this beggar if he has seen the Messiah. The beggar pulls himself up and says, “I am the Messiah.”
The young man is taken aback, and he says, “well if you are the Messiah why aren’t you healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, and stopping wars? What are you waiting for?
The Messiah looks at the young man and says, “I wait for you!”
I think Jesus is saying to each one of us, “I wait for you! There are some things I cannot or will not do, until you answer the call of discipleship.”
Another level of meaning in the Noah Story is god deciding to have a “do over.” Remember playing as kids, sometimes during games after a really bad move or a bad shot, someone would ask for a “do over?” There are some golf tournaments that have built in the concept of a “do over,” they call it a “mulligan.” You can find it in Wikipedia. Charity golf tournaments will sell “mulligans” as a way of raising extra money – sort of like the medieval church’s practice of selling indulgences. Sometimes if the second shot is worse than the first, they call it a “Finnegan.”
In the Noah Story and the chapters that follow it looks like god got a “Finnegan.” God blotted out human kind except for Noah and his family. God then put a rainbow in the sky and said let’s do over, and look what we got – mess.
I think there is a cautionary tale about regret in the Noah Story. God regretted having created the humans, so god wanted a “do over.” But after wiping out all the humans except Noah’s family, and all the animals except those on the ark, God regrets: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
Regret can be a terrible burden. Worrying over what we have done, and wanting a “do over” can paralyze us. “Do overs” seldom work out well. We’re more likely to get a “Finnegan,” rather than a hole in one. We need to learn to pray ahead of time, act boldly relying upon God’s grace, and then be at peace with what we have done. What’s done is done. We cannot change the past, we can only choose to act differently in the future. Regret, like guilt serves a useful function for the first hour or so, after that regret like guilt is an indulgence we can ill afford. Too often regret is over the fact we got caught, not because we are truly sorry for what we did.
If I had known it was going to work out this badly I wouldn’t have done it. Jesus Christ offers us the grace of God’s forgiveness so we don’t become bogged down in regret or guilt, but we can keep moving ahead bringing love, forgiveness and grace to others.
One more thread of meaning I would like to follow up, and allow me to return for two minutes to Bill Cosby’s version of the Noah Story.
‘Course Noah had a heck of a job really. He had to go out and collect all the animals in the world, by two’s: Two mosquitoes, male and female. And he had to keep telling the rabbits only two, only two, only two.
So we find Noah pulling up the last two animals two hippos and he’s really in a hurry to get ‘em up because he’s afraid that the Lord’s gonna call him and ask him to do something else and his nerves are shot. This is one heck of a job for a man 600 years old. So we find him pulling up the two last hippos, and of course the Lord does call him there.
“Com’on fat hippos hurry up. Com’on will you please?”
“What? What you want?”
“Gotta take one of those hippos out, and bring in another one.”
“‘Cause you got two males down there and you need to bring in a female.”
“I’m not bringin’ nothin’ in, you change one of em.'”
“Com’on you know I don’t work like that.”
“Well I’m sick and tired of this I’ve had enough of this stuff. I’ve been working all day, working on it for days and days and I’m sick and tired of this!”
“How long can you tread water?”
“Yeah, well I got news for you, I’m sick and tired of this whole mess. The whole neigborhood’s out there laughing at me. They’re all having a grand time. Look at good old Noah there. I went out there to my best friend Larry. I’ve been talking to the Lord, Larry.
“Larry said, ‘Oh, really?’
“Yeah, yeah, Lord, Larry, Larry, Lord.”
He walked off laughing. And I hear ’em all laughing at me.
You know I’m the only guy in this neighborhood with an Ark? People around here laughing, picket signs walking up and down, I’m sick and tired of this stuff here. You let me go out there and do all this stuff here. You never even looked in the bottom of that Ark. Have you looked down there? No? Who’s gonna clean up that mess down there? I tell you I’ve had enough of this stuff. I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m letting all these animals out and I’m gonna burn down this Ark, and I’m going to Florida somewhere ‘cause you haven’t done nothing.’ I’m sick and tired of all this mess. You foolin’ around.
And you haven’t done nothing!
(Sound of Thunder)
And you got it rainin.’ It’s not a shower is it? Ok Lord me and you right? ‘Cause I knew it all the time.
How often, when we answer God’s call to service, if the going gets rough, or the service proves more demanding or inconvenient than we want, do we start to complain? And whenever God asks us to do something there will always be a stubborn hippopotamus. And we do complain, if God asks us to clean out the bottom of the Ark. Why me Lord? We complain right up until the time the rain starts, and then it’s you and me Lord. We complain loudly about what God asks us to do – tithe, invite people to come to church with us, serve on a board or committee, teach Sunday School, come to work day, clean up after the tornado, host mission volunteers.
We complain loud and long over what God asks of us, and some us even resent it so much, we don’t do it. We refuse. We put our hands over our ears and chant loudly: “la, la, la, la ,la, la.” We tell God to take a hike.
How do we know when it is God calling? God usually asks us to do something we don’t want to do. Something hard like forgiving an enemy, extending hospitality to someone we don’t approve of, inviting someone to dinner we don’t like, taking time or money away from our own people in order to do for those people we don’t like, or of whom we are afraid. God asks us to do things we don’t necessarily want to do.
When the chips are down, however, when we’re in trouble, or we’re sick, or our kid is in trouble, or when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, we want to be able to say: “you and me Lord, you and me all the way. And when we’re in trouble we need faith, we need to be able to trust that God is with us, and if we tread water long enough, there will be a rainbow. Trust in the God of the rainbow.
How long can you tread water?
Bible Study 9.19.11, 9.22.11, 9.25.11 For Worship 10.2.11
II Samuel 5:1-10; 7:5-17
5:1 Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh.
2 In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you that led out and brought in Israel; and the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.'”
3 So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel.
4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.
5 At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
6 And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off” — thinking, “David cannot come in here.”
7 Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.
8 And David said on that day, “Whoever would smite the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
9 And David dwelt in the stronghold, and called it the city of David. And David built the city round about from the Millo inward.
10 And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.
II Samuel 7:5 “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in?
6 I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling.
7 In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”‘
8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel;
9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men;
15 but I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever.'”
17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.
Our scripture is a summary of the career of David as King. He started out according the scripture in Bethlehem as the youngest son of a shepherd, probably a land holder too. Bethlehem was the northern most Town in the Tribal allotment of Judah. Judah stretched from almost Jerusalem in the North to Beersheva in the South, the beginning of the desert. Judah was the largest of all of the tribes, and their land included Hebron, where the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried, along with the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Leah. Rachel’s tomb is just North of Bethlehem on the Israeli side of the separation wall.
There is a combination Mosque/Synagogue built over the cave that houses the graves of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Herod the Great originally built a monument over the Cave of Macpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs. Archaeology has not revealed much about ancient Hebron, where David may have had a “palace.” There seem to be some remains of a Canaanite Tower predating Israeli occupation. The town was pretty much depopulated during the Babylonian captivity and taken over by the Edomites. Even after the town was placed under subjugation by the Hasmoneans after the Jew won their freedom around 160 BCE, the town remained mainly Idumean.
After the Six Day War in 1967 Israeli Archaeologists had access to the Judean Hill country, and two of them published some unsettling findings for Israelis regarding David and Solomon. Here is an excerpt from a Wikipedia article about the research of Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman:
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.
Seeking to “separate history from legend,” the authors “share the most recent archaeological insights — still largely unknown outside scholarly circles — not only on when, but also why the Bible was written,” discoveries which “have revolutionized the study of early Israel and have cast serious doubt on the historical basis of such famous biblical stories as the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan, and the glorious empire of David and Solomon” (p. 3). The Bible Unearthed discusses in some detail the evidence behind these claims, and shows why, although “no archaeologist can deny that the Bible contains legends, characters, and story fragments that reach far back in time. . . . archaeology can show that the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History bear unmistakable hallmarks of their initial compilation in the seventh century BCE” (p. 23). . . .
Thirdly, the Bible tells of the golden age of the united kingdom of Israel ruled over by a Judean monarch, first David and then his son Solomon. It describes a renowned empire spreading from the Red Sea to the border of Syria, the splendor of Jerusalem and the first Temple built by Solomon, as well as other magnificent building projects. This united kingdom then split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Does archeology confirm this picture? Despite legendary exaggerations and elaborations, the authors believe that David and Solomon did exist — but as minor highland chieftains ruling a population of perhaps 5,000 people. No archeological evidence exits around 1005-970 BCE for David’s conquest or his empire, nor in Solomon’s time (ca. 970-931 BCE) is there any evidence of monumental architecture or of Jerusalem as more than a village:
As far as we can see on the basis of the archaeological surveys, Judah remained relatively empty of permanent population, quite isolated, and very marginal right up to and past the presumed time of David and Solomon, with no major urban centers and with no pronounced hierarchy of hamlets, villages, and towns. — p. 132
There is no trace of written documents or inscriptions, nor of the Temple or palace of Solomon, and buildings once identified with Solomon have been shown to date from other periods. Current evidence refutes the existence of a unified kingdom: “The glorious epic of united monarchy was — like the stories of the patriarchs and the sagas of the Exodus and conquest — a brilliant composition that wove together ancient heroic tales and legends into a coherent and persuasive prophecy for the people of Israel in the seventh century BCE” (p. 144).
In the second half of the book the authors sketch the history of Israel and Judah from 930 to 440 BCE based on archeological evidence, comparing it with the biblical account. They show that the northern and southern kingdoms were always separate and independent. Because of topography and natural resources, Israel to the north was always more populous, cosmopolitan, prosperous, and therefore desirable to foreign conquerors, while Judah long remained poor, sparsely populated, and isolated. The Old Testament material about this era was written from the viewpoint of the Judean royalty and Deuteronomistic priests with their religious reforms: insistence on the worship of one imageless God in the Temple at Jerusalem and the complete separation of a united Jewish people from surrounding peoples. There is much evidence that such monotheistic demands were an innovation in both Judah and Israel, where worship of subsidiary gods and goddesses, as well as the heavenly bodies, was traditional. Nor were they adopted widely by the people, who continued to worship using goddess figures in their homes. The Deuteronomistic account, the authors hold, is a cautionary epic joining elements from various regions to serve seventh-century Judean interests. Later, after the Babylonian exile, it was refashioned to meet new (though in many ways similar) conditions, resulting in the accounts we have today.
In summing up the significance of these recent findings, Finkelstein and Silberman maintain that “the historical saga contained in the Bible . . . was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of human imagination” (p. 1), and argue that the Bible’s integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful historical “proof” of any of its particular events or personalities . . . The power of the biblical saga stems from its being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people’s liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality. It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive. — p. 318
For centuries, however, Jews, Christians, and Moslems have believed that events in their racial and religious history are recorded in the Old Testament. Even today many continue to believe that the biblical account is literally true, or at least basically accurate. Scholarly findings in archeology, textual analysis, history, and newly translated ancient documents all point to a reality which may be difficult for many traditional and fundamentalist believers to reconcile with a faith that depends on biblical events, promises, prophecies, and revelations being historical facts. Nonetheless, this knowledge represents a new dawning in our understanding of these religions and their ancient history.
Silberman and Finkelstein’s archaeological theories created an uproar in the Orthodox Rabbinate that supports Israel’s boundaries based upon the scriptural claims of a greater Empire of David and Solomon. This has prompted renewed excavation in the area south of the Temple Mount and in the area of Jerusalem known as Silwan, now designated “the City of David.” Almost every shovel full of earth in Israel uncovers new historical findings, and those findings fuel new modern political controversies. Many of Israel’s land claims are based upon archaeology, and much of the archaeology taking place in Israel today is intended to bolster the claims of the State of Israel. Silberman and Finkelstein may have overstated the case of David the tribal chieftain as opposed to David the King. My own interpretation of the archaeology suggests that David became the tribal chieftain of Judah. He also conquered Jerusalem in a bid to extend his hegemony over the tribe of Benjamin, and perhaps some of the other Northern Tribes. Jerusalem also gave him control over an important trade route bringing in revenue and prestige for his leadership. At some point he extended his leadership over a loose confederation of Israelite hill tribes who he led in battle against the hated Philistines. Having pushed the Philistines back to the coastal plain, David became for a time the head gang leader of the Central highlands.
David’s “rule,” however, always remained rather shaky. His own son very nearly led a successful rebellion against his father. David never consolidated his administration enough to build a Temple in Jerusalem, and when he died he left no clear plan for succession, and the nation nearly collapsed between different competing contenders for the throne and their followers at court. The story of David we have now was not written down until the time of Hezekiah and Josiah, over 200 years after the time of David. The court of Josiah, especially, wanted to read back into David an unswerving devotion to Yaweh. How accurate that memory of David was 200 years later, we cannot be absolutely sure. The court historians of Josiah were critical of Solomon’s marriages to foreign princesses and his allowing the worship of their foreign gods in his court. We can only guess that David’s devotion to Yaweh may have had some historical foundations.
The conquest of Jerusalem was clearly a bid for larger leadership. Sort of like the creation of the District of Columbia, a capital District not part of any of the States, so the conquest of Jerusalem from the Jebusites created a capital that had not belonged to any of the twelve tribes. If nothing else, David was a good politician. The legends about David indicate he was a charismatic personality. He was good looking. He was a poet and a musician. He could lead men in battle. David became a romantic hero of the Israelites contributing to the formation of their spiritual identity by beginning to elevate their tribal god to the position of a universal deity.
If you visit Jerusalem today you can walk through the Canaanite water tunnel and see the shaft David and his men shimmied up to get into the City in order to throw open the gates in the middle of the night and take the City. You can also see the wall of the Citadel that guarded the City.
Chapter 7 is an attempt by the court historians under Josiah to explain why the great King David did not build the Temple. During the time of King Josiah all worship was being consolidated in Jerusalem. The sanctuary in Dan had been lost. The sanctuary in Bethel was destroyed by Josiah as well as the other “high places of worship.” When Josiah destroyed the worship sites on the mountain tops, if those priests did not swear allegiance to Josiah and submit to Jerusalem, they were killed. Members of the Bible Study a couple of years ago studying Josiah described him as “intolerant.”
So what if anything can we take away from these scriptures about David? The Israelites were a relatively disorganized group of semi-nomads living in the central highlands of the Western end of the Fertile Crescent. For the most part they did not occupy the more coveted land along the coastal plain. They were also subject to invasion from the South by the Egyptian Empire and from the North by whatever Empire controlled the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys. About 1100 BCE, during an interlude when both Egypt and the Tigris/Euphrates civilizations were in decline a group of sea people invaded the southern coastal plain. There people were known as the Philistines. As the Philistine population grew, they began to encroach on the central highlands inhabited by the Israelite peoples. There was a desperate need among the Israelites for leadership who would organize them to resist the encroachments of the Philistines. Saul from the relatively weak power base of the tribe of Benjamin tried to unify the tribes under his leadership. He and most of his family were killed at the Battle of Mt. Gilboa. In the wake of this disaster, David consolidated the leadership of the largest tribe Judah. He then extended his hegemony over the tribe of Benjamin and some of the tribes further North, when he conquered the strategic Jebusite City of Jerusalem. In an effort to create a “national identity” he brought the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the only common deity among the Israelites to his new capital of Jerusalem. He then developed the cult of Yaweh as a method of trying to bring greater unity to the Israelite peoples.
Despite David’s efforts to bring unity to the Israelite peoples within 70 years a rival Kingdom appeared in the North of the central highlands under the leadership of Jeroboam and centered in Samaria and the cult centers of Bethel, Dan and Mt. Gerizim. This northern Kingdom overshadowed the Kingdom of Judah for about 200 years, until the Assyrians conquered and dismembered the Kingdom of Israel.
David was an important leader in the history of the development of the Jewish faith. Studying David also introduces into our religious studies the subject of political leadership. We need to give credit to those who composed and gathered together our scriptures that they did not try to hide the failings of David. The David and Bathsheba story would never have been recorded in any other culture of the ancient world. The Egyptians never wrote about the mistakes or failings of their political leadership. We only know of political failures in the Tigris/Euphrates civilizations, because when Empires fell their successors wrote about it. Even in the Greek and Roman world there was precious little written reflecting on the failures of leadership.
Political leadership is important! As frustrated as we can become with our political leaders we should not give in to the temptation to try to compartmentalize religion and political life. Clearly in the United States we have discovered that we need to be able to separate the state from our religious institutions, but we need to still claim a role for religious and ethical insights and values in our political discussions.
Most Sunday School lessons about David have usually focused on the David and Goliath story. (Much of the rest of David’s career is not really suitable for children.) Children can identify with the problem of bullies, and Goliath was an iconic bully, but especially for small children we need to stop short of killing the giant and cutting his head off. Another approach with children is to talk about David as a great leader who also composed prayers and poetry. This might be a good opportunity to introduce children to the 23rd Psalm. The underlying message of the Goliath story or the composition of the Psalms was David’s faith. He loved God and relied upon God for inspiration. We have many political leaders today who wear their “faith” on their sleeves, but don’t seem to be moved by the compassion that should accompany faith.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. When the other tribes came to Hebron to ask for David’s leadership, how long had David been King over Judah?
2. What is the covenant between David and the other tribes?
3. How long did David rule over all the tribes?
4. Who did the City of Jerusalem belong to before David conquered it?
5. What taunt did these people use against David, when he besieged them?
6. How did David attack them?
7. Why did David move his capital to Jerusalem?
8. Why did David want to build a Temple?
9. Why did God seem reluctant to have a Temple built?
10. What promises did God make to David?
11. Who was speaking on God’s behalf?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. What do you think is the covenant that holds the American people together?
2. What do you think is the covenant between the American people and their political leaders?
3. What do you think made David a great leader?
4. Do you think it makes any difference whether David rules an Empire or a few tribes in the hills?
5. What difference do you see between a God who dwells in a Temple and a God who dwells in tents?
6. What if anything do you think changed when the Israelites became a settled people rather than a nomadic people?
7. Verse 16 is the basis for the “House and lineage of David” prophecies that played a role in the church’s claims that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order to be the Messiah. Do you think that claim matters anymore?
8. Nathan is the prophet speaking on behalf of God in II Samuel chapter 7. What role do you think prophets may have in our world today?
Ten years ago out of a clear blue September sky a tragic reminder of the brokenness of our world crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Our world changed. Terrorism became personal sending many of our young men and women half way around the world to fight in two wars.
New security procedures have been forced upon us, removing our shoes in airports, submitting to searches and x-rays, carrying extra documentation. Another psychological adjustment has been the realization that all of us are potential targets of terrorism, just because we are Westerners, and especially because we are Americans. We are especially vigilant when we travel abroad, but even at home in the United States, there is always the potential of attack. And just because we are paranoid doesn’t mean that Al Queda isn’t out to get us. Even if we have never done anything to anyone, we could become a random target in the wrong place at the wrong time. The whole point of terrorism is to be random and senseless. We live in a broken world.
And that was part of the message of our scripture this morning. Creation is broken. We live in a good Universe, but not a perfect Universe. We still wake up in the morning and say, “Thank you God. Thank you for life. Thank you for a new day.” And despite our thanksgivings we still know that bad things will happen to good people. In the story of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Hebrew story tellers pointed to hubris and free will as the source of the creation’s brokenness. Certainly our human pride and the choices we make contribute to the suffering of the world. But suffering has been fundamental to evolution that has driven the ongoing process of creation. We are products of the survival of the fittest, and our ancestors survived, because they were stronger, more aggressive, more adaptable, that’s hard to believe looking at some of us, and in some cases more violent than their neighbors.
In trying to understand our human situation we can learn from our story that blame doesn’t do anyone any good. Blaming Eve, or blaming the snake doesn’t help us to assume our responsibility in changing the world. Finger pointing after the 9/11 tragedy was counter-productive to securing our nation. Demonizing all Muslims or creating labels like Islamo-Fascism only alienated us further from the very people we needed to work with in order to help prevent terrorism.
If we can give up our need to assess blame for a broken world, we can consider the alternative creation story found in the tradition of Kabala. In the beginning there was spiritual energy. And the energy filled a vessel that was the potential Universe and the vessel was one with the Universe. The vessel wanted to be separate as well as one with the spiritual energy, and in the push and pull between separateness and oneness, the vessel was shattered, exploded into a million pieces spreading light in all directions.
We are part of that shattered vessel that is separate, but still seeks to be one with the source of energy. And so we are part of a long slow process of reclaiming, reconciling and re-creating – the restoration of the vessel that was broken. I think St. Paul had some knowledge of this tradition, for in his second Letter to the Corinthians he wrote: II Corinthians 4: 6 For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.
8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
The story of creation in Kabala is similar to our physicist’s narrative of the Big Bang at the beginning of our Universe. In the beginning there was a singularity in gravitational tension, seeking to expand and seeking to contract at the same time. Until at one point at the birth of time an explosion sent light scattering into the emptiness and the creation of the Universe had begun.
Not only does the creation narrative in Kabala coincide with our scientific understanding of the beginning of the Universe, it also invites us to join in the restoration of the broken vessel. For the creation is repaired through acts of loving kindness, in Hebrew tinkum olam, repairing the world. This was the message of Jesus. Luke 6:Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. 31 And as you wish that people would do to you, do so to them.
Our broken world can be redeemed, transformed by self-sacrificing love. When the trade towers fell ten years ago the courage and faithfulness of the first responders who answered the call to serve inspired our entire nation. One of the iconic images of that day was the recovery of the Body of Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan Priest, an enthusiastic member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, and the beloved Chaplain of the Fire Fighters of Lower Manhattan. On September 11th he answered the call to the Twin Towers, and as he knelt to help a victim on the sidewalk, he was killed by falling debris from Tower Two as it began to collapse. Firefighters and police took his body to the nearby St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, where they laid him on the altar – an offering of love, self-sacrificing love.
Because of the sacrifice of the First Responders and the suffering of so many other Americans for a few weeks a few months after the attack we were kinder to one another, we volunteered to help others, even our political rhetoric was silenced for a few days. We lined up to donate blood. We gave money to help victims. We volunteered to help others. We extended ourselves to help the poor and the homeless. We came to church to pray. For a time we set aside differences to work together to perform simple acts of loving kindness to help redeem our broken world.
My hope in remembering the tragedy of 9/11 today is we can recover a portion of the love and willingness to sacrifice for others that blossomed ten years ago. I recognize great disasters tend to bring out the best in human beings. We get out of ourselves, stop worrying about our own problems long enough to identify with the sufferings of others. We are also in the midst of a recession that has many of us feeling anxious about the future, worrying about money, and less inclined to think of others or embrace self-sacrifice. Perhaps in remembering the sacrifices of others on this September 11th we might respond to a higher calling to minister to the needs of others as a way of redeeming the world.
We do live in a broken world. But God invites us to join in the redemption of creation. Each one of us is part of that shattered vessel of light, for we have this treasure in earthen vessels the light of Christ, the light of the world. As Jesus said, Matthew 5: “14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.
15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
16 Let your light so shine before all people, that they may see your good works and give glory to God who is in heaven.
Bible Study 9.12.11, 9.15.11, 9.18.11 For Worship 9.25.11
Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words.
2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which they had built.
6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Humans seem to like to locate worship spaces on top of mountains, or they have built towers or even artificial mountains for worship. The oldest constructed worship place, Temple, has been found on top of a Hill, Potbelly Hill, in Southeastern Turkey. It was built by people of the late Natufian Culture about 9,000 BCE. These people were making the transition from hunter gathering to agriculture. As the Natufians domesticated early wheat stocks, they adopted a more sedentary life style, rather than the nomadic tendencies of true hunter gatherers. Thus they stayed in one area long enough to build an elaborate structure for worship – use of large standing stones and carved pillars (see pictures). There is evidence of religion dating back to almost 100,000 BCE, Neanderthal burials, but the Temple on Potbelly Hill is the first evidence of a religious structure that was probably serviced by artisans and a class of religious functionaries – clergy.
(Klaus Schmidt the excavator of Potbelly Hill makes some important and remarkable claims that may impact our reading of the Tower of Babel: Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.
Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that “the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,” and Göbekli may prove his case.)
So, we can note that the very first temple we have discovered was located on a high place. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia had no mountains or high places, since they occupied the relatively level plains of the land between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. So they built giant artificial hills called Ziggurats around 4,000 BCE. The Pyramids were tombs rather than temples, but they were not built until 2600 BCE.
While the Tower of Babel Story is myth, in the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, we see historical foundation for the story. By the time of Abraham circa 1,800 BCE the Ziggurat of Ur was over 2,000 years old and had already fallen into disrepair and was eroding, thus providing the basis for a story about a Tower that reached up to heaven and then fell into disrepair.
The Hebrews who maintained a semi-nomadic way of life, rather than the more settled Sumerian culture, who built the great Cities of Mesopotamia, saw the eroding Ziggurats as an expression of the vanity and arrogance of the overly organized and hierarchical society around which they lived on the edges. The Hebrews grazed sheep, and goats and engaged in trade up and down the Fertile Crescent, refusing to establish permanent allegiance to any of the City States of Sumer. One of the problems with the religion of the City States of Sumer is the State itself began to be deified in the person of the god-king who ruled the City. Hebrew religion rejected the deification of political leadership. The earliest Hebrew religion also rejected the development of a class of religious leaders – priests or temple functionaries. Not until after the Exodus was there a priesthood, and there was no Kingship until Saul. The Hebrews also did not build a permanent structure for worship until after King David. The Tabernacle from the time of the Exodus until Solomon was housed in a tent.
The Hebrew story tellers developed the Tower of Babel story to explain the multiplicity of languages, and the eroding artificial mountains on the Sumerian plains. As we examine the text we can first note that the Plain of Shinar was the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Hebrews originated in this area, Abraham’s origins were traced back to the City of Ur. We can still see the influence of Sumerian culture in Judaism and Christianity. The People of Ur worshipped the moon and used a lunar calendar. To this day the Jewish Calendar is a lunar calendar, and that influences the date for Easter. (Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.)
The story tellers also employed humor when they described the building materials as mud bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Mud bricks were the common building material in Sumerian culture, but bitumen, a tar like substance, would have been a very inefficient mortar. On hot summer days the temperature in Mesopotamia can rise to 120 degrees, just ask the troops coming back from Iraq. At 120 degrees tar would begin to melt, and a tower using tar for mortar would fall of its own weight. The key to the story is that arrogance, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves. . .” arrogance makes us stupid. God did not destroy the Temple in the story, the whole project fell of its own weight. The mixing up of the languages of humans is a metaphor for the divisions that separate humans once the competition between peoples supersedes the advantages of cooperation.
How often do we see great human endeavors come to naught, because our arrogance makes us stupid. The famous historian Barbara Tuckman wrote a wonderful book on the subject of the tragedy of human arrogance: The March of Folly. For its time it was a controversial book, because she identified the Vietnam War as an example of the March of Folly. If she were still alive, she would certainly identify the Iraq War as folly. I believe we should also look at the present infighting in Washington as part of the March of Folly. She opens her book with important questions:
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Humankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated that it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interests suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?
After 390 pages Tuckman answers some of those questions:
A principle that emerges in the cases so far mentioned is that folly is a child of power. We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds fo
lly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments. The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.
Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all the passions.” Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. . . Government remains the paramount area of folly, because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.”
While the Tower of Babel story qualifies as myth it is deeply rooted in human history and human experience. Humans are attracted to high places as locations of spiritual experience, over centuries we have tended to build monumental structures for worship. We also know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The hope for the gains that might accrue in competition seem to override the possible benefits of cooperation. Where is the appropriate balance between competition and cooperation? Differences in language mean we tend to talk past each other, rather than with one another. Even when we supposedly speak the same language, we can use words so differently we cannot arrive at any common understanding.
I think the issues of power, language, and the historical stuff about the rise of religion and agriculture are inappropriate for children. Also a God who comes down from heaven and plays the trickster by scrambling people’s languages is not a good image to use with children. I think the theme of the difficulties that people have in learning to cooperate with one another, sharing, not fighting over who is “boss,” are appropriate lessons for children depending upon their age. The lesson I like best, however, is what happens when we choose inappropriate materials to build something? It falls of its own weight. The analogy was used in this summer’s Vacation Bible School curriculum with cooking. If you add the wrong ingredients, the recipe doesn’t taste very good. This can be extended to the even more positive “stone soup” lesson. When everyone cooperates and shares, a better soup can be enjoyed by all.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. According to the text, when there was one language how many words existed?
2. Where did the people come from who inhabited the Plain of Shinar?
3. What building materials did the people use?
4. Who proposes building a City and a Tower?
5. According to the text what are the motivations for building the City and the Tower?
6. According to the text what is “the Lord’s” concern about the human project?
7. According to the text, how did “the Lord” frustrate the human project?
8. According to the text at what point did the people names the unfinished City?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF US
1. How important do you think language is to human consciousness?
2. How do words shape human endeavor?
3. Why do you think humans seem to be spiritually affected by high places?
4. What do you think has motivated humans to build monumental structures for worship?
5. Many churches are no longer building structures for worship. They meet in shopping centers or other “borrowed spaces.” How do you think this might influence the development of faith in the 21st century.
6. What are some examples in your mind of human endeavors, “falling of their own weight?”
7. Where do you think the balance lies between competition or cooperation in economic pursuits?
8. Where do you think the balance lies between competition or cooperation in political matters?
9. Right now the closest thing we have to common language is English. Where do you see language going in the future?
10. Global communications have the potential to increase cooperation between people and peoples all over the world. Where do you see this development going?
11. What lessons from the Tower of Babel story would you apply to our current political situation in the United States?
12. What do you think of Barbara Tuckman’s statement: “Government remains the paramount area of folly, because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves?”
What a set up. “You may freely eat, except from this beautiful luscious fruit tree I am placing right in the middle of the Garden, where you can’t miss it.” That’s like showing a six year old where you are storing a loaded gun in an unlocked cabinet and then saying, “whatever you do don’t touch this.” The story is like god double daring the humans not to go after the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Either god was stupid, or god had some other motive in mind.
A number of people on the online Bible Study suggested that the prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a test of obedience, and since humans failed the test, we all suffer the consequences of original sin. We are all deeply flawed and subject to death unless we seek the life giving forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
I can say quite simply that nowhere in the story of Adam and Eve does Torah speak of sin. True, the first couple disobeyed the command of God, but this is not called a sin in Torah.
Read your Torah carefully and tell me why Eve violated the only commandment God had laid upon her. “And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom, and she took of its fruit and ate. . .” (Genesis 3:6)
Torah does not waste words. Why not simply say: the woman ate? That would have made the point if the point was eating. But the point is not eating. The point is why she ate.
First she sees that the tree is good for eating, but she does not eat. Then she sees that it is beautiful to look upon, but she does not eat. Only when she realizes that it is the source of wisdom does she eat.
Meaning? It is not desire or beauty that compels the human being, but wisdom, and in quest of wisdom we are willing to sacrifice everything. We are not driven by sin, but the quest to know. A wonderful myth! A timeless message! So where is the original sin in this?
Jews do not see the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as the fall of humankind, but as its first step toward fulfilling its destiny. Life in Eden would never have resulted in the awakening of a mind capable of existing as a separate being as well as living in the oneness of God. Eve and Adam had to leave paradise if they were to grow and mature into the fullness of what human beings could become. We had to leave Paradise, if we were to become fully human. It is hard to imagine human life without the struggle between good and evil. Fat, dumb and happy in Eden somehow wasn’t God’s destiny for us. We are intended to reach for the stars. Or in the words of Robert Browning: “ah, but our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We live somewhere between our brother and sister animals and the spirit of God that creates and sustains the Universe.
We compose music, write novels and plays, design great structures and send space ships beyond the earth. We pray and create liturgies of beauty and meaning in praise of God. We also indulge our senses with great food and love making. We live somewhere between our embodiment and our transcendent consciousness. We even have imagination enough to send the space ship Voyager beyond our solar system into interstellar space with a golden record with greetings from earth to other sentient beings in the Universe Voyager might encounter.
We cannot foresee the ultimate destiny of our species, but we were created with the gift of curiosity and we are intended to pursue knowledge. We want to know. What is over the next hill, across the river, the other side of the Ocean? We want to know what is on the far side of the moon, and now we are even venturing into interstellar space. God gave us the gift of curiosity the desire to know. We were created for the quest of knowledge.
So what can we learn from the Hebrew story teller’s placing of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden, where humans could not miss it? First I think we have to note that in Hebrew the word knowledge was not academic knowledge. In Hebrew knowledge implies intimate intercourse. Adam knew Eve and she conceived and gave birth – intimate relationship. And let’s face it, we can’t have an intimate relationship with evil as well as good and remain innocent. To have knowledge for the Hebrew Story Teller was to know something from the inside out to have the experience of it. And maybe there are some things we don’t need to know from the inside out. Maybe we don’t need to know what it is like to commit murder. Maybe we don’t need to know what it is like to shoot up with cocaine. Maybe there are some things we don’t need to know from experience.
I think the Hebrew Story Tellers were also pointing to hubris, human arrogance, presumptive pride, the root of all sinfulness. And I believe the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has a very practical application in our own modern context. Our scientific and technological knowledge runs way ahead of our wisdom in being able to use that knowledge responsibly.
What are some examples? First let’s consider our discovery of atomic energy. What was one of the first things we humans did with the power of the atom? We made weapons. Now we also use atomic energy for medicine and power generation, but we have lived in fear of nuclear weapons for over sixty years. With the end of the Cold War, we thought that maybe we could put the genie back in the bottle, but with rogue states like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and now the threat of terrorist organizations obtaining nuclear material once again the mushroom cloud of doom hangs over human kind.
Even the peaceful use of nuclear energy has been called into question by nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan. Can we manage nuclear energy safely? Are we wise enough and careful enough? And once a technology like nuclear energy has been developed do we have a choice whether or not to control and regulate its use? We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s like eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Once it has been done, it is done. We can’t go back. Or as one colorful character in Monee used to say, “we can’t un-pluck the duck.”
Another example of problematic knowledge is in the field of genetics. We have only begun to learn about the manipulation of genetic material, and already we have cloned animals. We have used stem cells to create tissue in a test tube. We are able to modify the DNA of plants and animals to make them resistant to disease. And we’ve only just begun. If we can learn to turn on and off the aging genes in our bodies we may be able to extend human life several decades. What will we do if average life span reaches 120 years of age? And we think Social Security is in trouble now? Are we really wise enough to use this incredible power science has placed in our hands responsibly?
So often after we have a disaster on our hands we look back and say, “seemed like a good idea at the time.” DDT, PCB’s, Fluorocarbons, Dioxins all seemed like a good idea at the time. In the early 1950’s Salesmen actually encouraged customers to sprinkle DDT on their out-door potluck picnics in order to keep the flies away. DDT salesmen were supposed to eat a teaspoon of the product to convince customers of its safety. We live. We learn. Hopefully we grow wiser. But as the Pennsylvania Dutch say, we grow old too soon and too smart to late. Will we grow wise enough to manage our science and technology well enough to avoid our own extinction?
The tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil is in the middle of the Garden, because we are by nature curious. We want to know. And as a species we often succumb to hubris. We think we our knowledge has made us wise, when in reality we know so little.
I think, however, if I was going to rewrite this story today, the tree in the middle of the Garden would be the Tree of Consumerism. And the fruit of that tree would be credit cards. I am not sure if we are driven by the desire to know anymore as much as we are driven by the desire to have, to accumulate, to get more stuff. We are no longer reaching for the stars, because we are too interested in acquiring the next toy. Too many of our best and our brightest are no longer pursuing science and engineering, but have been lured away to look for the big bucks on Wall Street and in Corporate mergers and acquisitions, and in financial services. I could tell we were in trouble eleven years ago, when there were more commercials on the Super Bowl for how to invest your money, than there were beer commercials.
God created us to become intelligent life. Our greed has made us stupid. Our destiny is to reach for the stars, and we have settled for the shallow entertainments of consumerism. Our birthright is curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge and we have settled for the bowl of pottage that is the pursuit of wealth and stuff.
Let us return to the destiny God intends for us. Within us is a potential to transform our world and ourselves and become the next step in the evolution of creation. We are approaching in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin an Omega Point, reaching toward a global consciousness, the next stage of human evolution. Will that transformation be driven by greed, fear and hate, a consumerist culture, or will we reach instead for faith, hope and love, and embrace our spiritual destiny? Who knows? You choose.