God Sees the Heart
SLIDE 3: GOD NEEDED A REPLACEMENT
Saul had not worked out as King. He was head strong, ruthless, unbalanced. He was tall, physically strong, could lead men in battle but he was lacking in more subtle people skills. He also failed to discern God’s will. God needed a replacement and sent Samuel to Bethlehem, of all places that little out of the way village Bethlehem, to search for a replacement. The hill country of Judah was backward and poor. Jesse who was he, not even a tribal elder?
Samuel had to be subtle. It’s not like he could publicly announce he was going to look for a replacement for the King. That kind of errand could get you killed. He said he was going to Bethlehem for a special ritual – a sacrifice. God had said to look among Jesse’s sons for a new king, so when Samuel arrived he asked Jesse to bring to him all of his sons. Jesse presented the oldest first, Eliab. He was tall, strong, mature. “Surely, this is the Lord’s anointed,” Samuel said to himself.
SLIDE 4: GOD SEES THE HEART
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as humans see; humans look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
One after another Jesse paraded seven sons before Samuel, but none had been chosen by God. “Are all your sons here?” Samuel inquired.
“There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep,” Jesse, replied.
“Send and fetch him.” And when they brought David in from keeping the sheep, behold God said, “Anoint him, this is the one.”
God does not look upon the outward appearance, God sees the heart. Wisdom and prayer beget discernment.
SLIDE 5: ADVERTISING
Discernment is an important gift as we seek to see through the appearances of life to the reality of things. Life is full of many deceptions. We live in a world full of lies. Most advertising seeks to deceive us into buying something we don’t really want or need, and often isn’t even good for us. I think of all the billions of dollars that were spent on making smoking look cool. Or the money still spent on marketing fast food. By the time the pictures are doctored it might even look good enough to eat. Or consider how cars are advertised as if a vehicle can impart sex appeal.
SLIDE 6: DECEIVED BY OUR GREED
Or consider all the schemes that are too good to be true — just one dollar down and only fifteen dollars a month – for the rest of your life. All of the fine print, the smooth talking, the hidden fees, intended to deceive the unwary. If it is too good to be true, then it is too good to be true, but how many of us have to learn the hard way. Most of time when we are deceived, it is because someone has hooked our greed.
SLIDE 7: FLAVORS OF PROPAGANDA
And now all of the principles of marketing and advertising are applied to our political life and the media. Most of our news is publicity. We just have a choice of what flavor of propaganda we like. Fox on the right, MSNBC on the left, CNN more in the middle. It becomes hard to find any straight information. Everything has spin. All meanings become shaded if not outright double speak. We speak of downsizing rather than firing, detainee instead of prisoner, enhanced interrogation rather than torture, ethnic cleansing instead of genocide. Trying to discern the truth in our public forum is difficult. How do you know when they are lying, when their lips are moving?
SLIDE 8: PUTTING OUR BEST FOOT FORWARD
Intentional public deception is easier to discern than our private non-intentional deceptions. We all try to put our best foot forward – our public face. When people ask us, “How are you?” We just say, “Fine.” After all who wants to hear about our aches and pains and complaints? Although as Dana Gallaher pointed out some years ago that at United Church you don’t have to put on your church clothes and your church face and always insist you are fine. When people here ask, “How are you?” They really want to know. And when the diagnosis is “cancer” it is O.K. to have tears and you don’t have to pretend you are strong and not afraid. That is what it means to be a community where people pray with and for one another.
SLIDE 9: ALLOWING OTHER PEOPLE TO KNOW OUR REAL SELVES
If we are always wearing our public faces, we can’t really become intimate with other people. In order to draw close enough to really be friends, we have to be willing to allow some of our more vulnerable selves shine through. We have to be willing to share some of our neediness. We even have to be willing to let other people know we have a dark side. Part of no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey is allowing other people the opportunity to know our real selves. Our unintentional private deceptions are the masks that separate us.
SLIDE 10: DECEPTION AND HUMOR
Although we must acknowledge that deception is at the heart of humor. Let me illustrate with a joke.
A man is driving down the road and his car breaks down near a monastery. He goes to the monastery, knocks on the door, and says, “My car broke down. Do you think I could stay the night?”
The monks graciously accept him, feed him dinner, even fix his car. As the man tries to fall asleep, he hears a strange sound. A sound unlike anything he’s ever heard before. The Sirens that nearly seduced Odysseus into crashing his ship comes to his mind. He doesn’t sleep that night. He tosses and turns trying to figure out what could possibly be making such a seductive sound.
The next morning, he asks the monks what the sound was, but they say, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.” Distraught, the man is forced to leave.
The monks reply, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.”
The man says, “If the only way I can find out what is making that beautiful sound is to become a monk, then please, make me a monk.”
The monks reply, “You must travel the earth and tell us how many blades of grass there are and the exact number of grains of sand. When you find these answers, you will have become a monk.”
The man sets about his task. After years of searching he returns as a gray-haired old man and knocks on the door of the monastery. A monk answers. He is taken before a gathering of all the monks.
“In my quest to find what makes that beautiful sound, I traveled the earth and have found what you asked for: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Only God knows what you ask. All a man can know is himself, and only then if he is honest and reflective and willing to strip away self-deception.”
The monks reply, “Congratulations. You have become a monk. We shall now show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound.”
The monks lead the man to a wooden door, where the head monk says, “The sound is beyond that door.”
The monks give him the key, and he opens the door. Behind the wooden door is another door made of stone. The man is given the key to the stone door and he opens it, only to find a door made of ruby. And so it went that he needed keys to doors of emerald, pearl and diamond.
Finally, they come to a door made of solid gold. The sound has become very clear and definite. The monks say, “This is the last key to the last door.”
The man is apprehensive. His life’s wish is behind that door! With trembling hands, he unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly pushes the door open. Falling to his knees, he is utterly amazed to discover the source of that haunting and seductive sound…
But, of course, I can’t tell you what it is because you’re not a monk.
SLIDE 11: BEFORE THE TRUTH CAN SET US FREE
All a person can know is herself, and only then if she is honest and reflective and willing to strip away self-deception.
This week Joe Parker posted some words of wisdom about self-deception: “Before the truth can set us free we need to recognize which lies are holding us hostage.” Self-deception keeps us in bondage to our prejudices, our fears, our appetites, our unhealthy attachments, our sufferings. And self-deception can be very difficult to detect. When someone else is lying to us, we usually know.
SLIDE 12: WHEN WE ARE LYING TO OURSELVES HOW DO WE KNOW?
But when we are lying to ourselves, how do we know? Therapy, good spiritual friends, sometimes even in prayer, meditation or journaling we can detect our subtle self-deceptions. But even when we are able to see ourselves honestly how many times do we want to acknowledge and act on those painful truths? As a counselor I have found that honest revelation is often better left unsaid until a person gives some indication they are open to the possibility of change. Truth can sometimes drive people even deeper into denial.
SLIDE 13: OUR SENSES CAN DECEIVE US
Our senses can be another source of deception in our lives. The philosophy of materialism that only physical objects are real can induce us to rely solely upon our senses. After all if we can’t see it, touch it, hear it, taste it, or smell it, it isn’t real – right?. Seeing is believing? But our physical senses are imperfect. Sometimes we hear things that aren’t there. Or we experience an optical illusion that plays our senses false.
SLIDE 14: SPIRITUAL SENSES
Our physical senses are not our only way of knowing. We have spiritual senses ways of perceiving intangible realities, if we are willing to acknowledge and use them, and our spiritual sense of the divine is deeper, more subtle, less tangible than our physical senses.
SLIDE 15: PATHWAYS TO THE DIVINE
A few years ago a clergy group in which I participated traveled and read extensively seeking how people connect with the divine. They identified twelve pathways to the divine: sacred texts, ritual practice, community, sacred places, silence, awe, hospitality, compassion, mission and ministry to the world, prayer, spiritual guide, transcendence in the presence of the divine. Rose Rushin even organized a Jazz Vespers around these pathways to the divine. These are all practices that can help to develop our spiritual senses. Encountering the divine matures our discernment so we rely less upon outward appearances and grow in our ability to see the heart of reality.
SLIDE 16: THE HEART OF REALITY
For the heart of reality is hidden from our physical eyes, a wondrous creator who loves us. The gift of community, that we need not be alone in our journey. The miracle of new life, that greets us each spring and the promise that our hope is not for this life only. The mystery of love, self-sacrificing love, that lies at the heart of the universe can only be known with the heart. We cannot see these truths with our eyes, or hear them with our ears, or touch them with our finger tips, or smell them in our nostrils, or taste them with our tongues but they are open to our hearts.
Study Guide for the Bible Unearthed
Several members of the Monday Bible Study have been intrigued by the Bible Unearthed, so we are going to expand our study of this book. The prologue of the book is dense with meaning:
Page 1-2: The world in which the Bible was created was not a mythic realm of great cities and saintly heroes, but a tiny down to earth kingdom where people struggled for their future against all-too-human fears of war, poverty, injustice, disease, famine and drought. The historical saga contained in the Bible – from Abraham’s encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination. It was first conceived – as recent archaeological findings suggest – during the span of two or three generations, about twenty-six hundred years ago. Its birthplace was the kingdom of Judah, a sparsely settled region of shepherds and farmers, ruled from an out-of-the-way royal city precariously perched in the heart of the hill country on a narrow ridge between steep, rocky ravines.
During a few extraordinary decades of spiritual ferment and political agitation toward the end of the seventh century BCE, an unlikely coalition of Judahite court officials, scribes, peasants, and prophets came together to create a new movement. At its core was a sacred scripture of unparalleled literary and spiritual genius. It was an epic saga woven together from an astonishingly rich collection of historical writings, memories, legends, folk tales, anecdotes, royal propaganda, and ancient poetry. Partly an original composition partly adapted from earlier versions and sources, that literary masterpiece would undergo further editing and elaboration to become a spiritual anchor not only for the descendants of the people of Judah but for communities all over the world.
How do you feel about the assertion that the Bible was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination? How important is human imagination in connecting with the divine? How important is your own imagination? What do you think the authors are saying in the sentence: It was an epic saga woven together from an astonishingly rich collection of historical writings, memories, legends, folk tales, anecdotes, royal propaganda, and ancient poetry? If some of the materials used by the authors in the seventh century had been previously composed, how far back do you think those materials may date? How important do you think was the contribution made to those previous materials by the authors in the seventh century? Taking into account the observation that the materials of the seventh century would undergo further elaboration and editing, is there any argument to be made for further elaboration on the scriptures in our own context? Is this perhaps the key for understanding the legitimacy of “midrash?”
Page 3: This book aims to tell the story of ancient Israel and the birth of its sacred scriptures from a new, archaeological perspective. Our goal will be to attempt to separate history from legend. Through the evidence of recent discoveries, we will construct a new history of ancient Israel in which some of the most famous events and personalities mentioned in the bible play unexpectedly different roles. Yet our purpose, ultimately, is not mere deconstruction. It is to share the most recent archaeological insights – still largely unknown outside scholarly circles – not only on when, but also why the Bible was written, and why it is so powerful today.
Do you think the Bible is still powerful today? Are you prepared for the possibility of re-evaluating some of the personalities of the Bible? How does the authority of the Hebrew scriptures change if we re-evaluate their historicity?
To give us a perspective on what the Hebrew scriptures may have contributed to our Western culture let’s look at some excerpts from the book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.
Page 5 – 6 (The Gifts of the Jews) All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The assumptions that early man made about the world were in all their essentials, little different from the assumptions that later and more sophisticated societies, like Greece and India, would make in a more elaborate manner. As Henri-Charles Puech says of Greek thought in his seminal Man and Time: “No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once . . . . ; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of the circle.”
The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had. But their worldview has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code. We find it so impossible to shed – even for a brief experiment – that it is now the cosmic vision of all other peoples appears to us exotic and strange.
What do you think it means to have a sense of linear history, rather than counting time as unending repetition of cycles? The Hebrews may have been the first people to assert that the divine could be found in the movements of history. How do you think that changed the notion of religion? Can you think of any historical events when you think God was present in history? An you identify any times when you think God may have been present in your own life story?
Page 8 (The Bible Unearthed): The heart of the Hebrew Bible is an epic story that describes the rise of the people of Israel and their continuing relationship with God. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, such as the Egyptian tales of Osiris, Isis, and Horus or the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, the Bible is grounded firmly in earthly history. It is a divine drama played out before the eyes of humanity. Also unlike the histories and royal chronicles of other ancient Near Eastern nations, it does not merely celebrate the power of tradition and ruling dynasties. It offers a complex yet clear vision of why history has unfolded for the people of Israel – and indeed the entire world – in a pattern directly connected with the demands and promises of God. The people of Israel are the central actors in this drama. Their behavior and their adherence to God’s commandments determine the direction in which history will flow. It is up to the people of Israel – and, through them, all the readers of the Bible – to determine the fate of the world.
Do you think you are in any way responsible for the fate of the world? Do you think religion is in any way is responsible for the movements of history? How do you think the churches have affected the Civil Rights movement, the Peace Movement, the Gay Rights movement? On the other hand what role has Islam had in the history of Muslim countries?
Page 12: With that great tragedy, the biblical narrative dramatically departs in yet another characteristic way from the normal pattern of ancient religious epics. In many such stories, the defeat of a god by a rival army spelled the end of his cult as well. But in the Bible, the power of the God of Israel was seen to be even greater after the fall of Judah and the exile of the Israelites. Far from being humbled by the devastation of his Temple, the God of Israel was seen to be a deity of unsurpassable power. He had, after all, manipulated the Assyrians and Babylonians to be his unwitting agents to punish the people of Israel for their infidelity.
Henceforth, after the return of some of the exiles to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple, Israel would no longer be a monarchy but a religious community, guided by divine law and dedicated to the precise fulfillment of the rituals prescribed in the community’s sacred texts. And it would be the free choice of men and women to keep or violate that divinely decreed order – rather than the behavior of kings or the rise and fall of great empires – that would determine the course of Israel’s subsequent history. In this extraordinary focus on human responsibility lay the Bible’s great power. Other ancient epics would fade over time. The impact of the Bible’s story on Western civilization would only grow.
The Hebrew scriptures are unique, because they primarily tell the story of history from the point of view of the marginalized. The landless Abraham believes the promise that one day his descendants will inherit the land. The Exodus is told from the point of view of the slaves not the almighty Pharaoh. (One Egypt expert points out the Egyptians recorded everything. But they never recorded any of their defeats. One description of an account of one of Pharaoh Ramesses’ campaigns against the Hittites records one fabulous victory after another, except that each of the victorious battles was closer and closer to Egypt.) All of the other cultures in the ancient Near East recorded only their successes. The Jews recorded their defeats and failures. Even David, who was presented as a great leader the golden age of Israel, records his moral failing in the David and Bathsheba story.
How important do you think is the telling of the story of the Hebrews from the point of view of the marginalized? How important was a tradition that recorded failures as well as successes? What does it mean to assert that God is present in the failures as well as the successes of life? As you think about your life can see God present in any of your failures? In the retelling of family stories how important is absolute accuracy? How important is absolute accuracy in retelling the stories of the Bible? What recent examples do we have of marginalized peoples drawing upon the Biblical stories of the marginalized for inspiration and moral authority?
Pages 12-14: . . . In other words the first five books of the Bible as we now know them were the result of a complex editorial process in which the four main source documents – J,E,P and D – were skillfully combined and linked by scribal compilers or “redactors,” whose literary traces (called by scholars “R” passages) consisted of transitional sentences and editorial asides. The latest of these redactions took place in the post-exilic period. . . .
. . . Yet all agree that the Pentateuch is not a single, seamless composition but a patchwork of different sources, each written under different historical circumstances to express different religious or political viewpoints.
. . . Yet the fifth, the book of Deuteronomy, was an entirely different case. . . Scholars long ago recognized their book’s possible connection to the otherwise mysterious “book of the Law” discovered by the high priest Hilkiah in the course of renovations to the Temple during the reign of King Josiah – in 622 BCE. As narrated in II Kings 22:8 – 23:24, this document became the inspiration for a religious reform of unprecedented severity.
II Kings 22:8 And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it.
9 And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.”
10 Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.
11 And when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes.
12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying,
13 “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”
14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter); and they talked with her.
15 And she said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me,
16 Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read.
17 Because they have forsaken me and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.
18 But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words which you have heard,
19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have rent your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the LORD.
20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place.'” And they brought back word to the king.
23:1 Then the king sent, and all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him.
2 And the king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which had been found in the house of the LORD.
3 And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book; and all the people joined in the covenant.
4 And the king commanded Hilkiah, the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.
5 And he deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places at the cities of Judah and round about Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun, and the moon, and the constellations, and all the host of the heavens.
6 And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.
7 And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah.
8 And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beer-sheba; and he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on one’s left at the gate of the city.
9 However, the priests of the high places did not come up to the altar of the LORD in Jerusalem, but they ate unleavened bread among their brethren.
10 And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.
11 And he removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nathan-melech the chamberlain, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.
12 And the altars on the roof of the upper chamber of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, he pulled down and broke in pieces, and cast the dust of them into the brook Kidron.
13 And the king defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
14 And he broke in pieces the pillars, and cut down the Asherim, and filled their places with the bones of men.
15 Moreover the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, that altar with the high place he pulled down and he broke in pieces its stones, crushing them to dust; also he burned the Asherah.
16 And as Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount; and he sent and took the bones out of the tombs, and burned them upon the altar, and defiled it, according to the word of the LORD which the man of God proclaimed, who had predicted these things.
17 Then he said, “What is yonder monument that I see?” And the men of the city told him, “It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and predicted these things which you have done against the altar at Bethel.”
18 And he said, “Let him be; let no man move his bones.” So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet who came out of Samaria.
19 And all the shrines also of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which kings of Israel had made, provoking the LORD to anger, Josiah removed; he did to them according to all that he had done at Bethel.
20 And he slew all the priests of the high places who were there, upon the altars, and burned the bones of men upon them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.
21 And the king commanded all the people, “Keep the passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.”
22 For no such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;
23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.
24 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums and the wizards and the teraphim and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD.
25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.
The impact of the book of Deuteronomy on the ultimate message of the Hebrew Bible goes far beyond its strict legal codes. . . It continues the story of Israel’s destiny from the conquest of the promised land to the Babylonian exile and expresses the ideology of a new religious movement that arose among the people of Israel at a relatively late date. . . .
. . . . And we shall side with the scholars who argue that the Deuteronomistic History was compiled in the main, in the time of King Josiah, aiming to provide an ideological validation for particular political ambitions and religious reforms.
What do you think of the author’s contention that the Hebrew scriptures received their form and interpretive context during the reign of King Josiah? After reading the description of Josiah’s reform, what do you think he was trying to accomplish? How did Josiah’s reform affected the development of the faith of Judaism? Can you see any influences of Josiah’s reform in our current religious culture? If Josiah had not instituted his reform, how would Judaism have been different? Would Christian faith have grown out of Judaism without Josiah’s reform? How would you contrast the reforms of Josiah with the attitude of toleration at United Church, and the pluralist culture of the United States?
Page 22-24: Until recently both textual scholars and archaeologists have assumed that ancient Israel reached the stage of full state formation at the time of the united monarchy of David and Solomon. . . We will argue in this book that such a conclusion is highly unlikely. From an analysis of the archaeological evidence, there is no sign whatsoever of extensive literacy or any other attributes of full statehood in Judah – and in particular, in Jerusalem – until more than two and a half centuries later, toward the end of the eighth century BCE. Of course no archaeologist can deny that the Bible contains legends, characters, and story fragments that reach far back in time. . . .
But suggesting that the most famous stories of the Bible did not happen as the Bible records them is far from implying that ancient Israel had no genuine history. . . . It is a story not of one, but two chosen kingdoms, which together comprise the historical roots of the people of Israel.
One kingdom – the kingdom of Israel – was born in the fertile valleys and rolling hills of northern Israel and grew to be among the richest, most cosmopolitan, and most powerful in the region. . . . The other kingdom – the kingdom of Judah – arose in the rocky, inhospitable southern hill country. It survived by maintaining its isolation and fierce devotion to its Temple and royal dynasty. These two kingdoms represent two sides of ancient Israel’s experience, two quite different societies with different attitudes and national identities. Step by step we will trace the stages by which the history, memory, and hopes of both kingdoms were merged powerfully into a single scripture, that, more than any other document ever written, shaped – and continues to shape – the face of Western society.
How do you respond to the assertion that David’s Jerusalem may have been next to illiterate? Do you think it is possible for us to imagine what it was like living in the relatively primitive conditions of ancient Israel? Does this description of the two Israel’s help in understanding the persistence of idolatry in the history of Israel? What legends, characters and story fragments do you think are the most important in the literature of the Hebrew scriptures?
Searching for the Patriarchs
Pages 43: The German biblical scholar Martin Noth long ago argued that the accounts of the events of Israel’s earliest periods of existence – the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and the wandering in Sinai – were not originally composed as a single saga. He theorized that they were the separate traditions of individual tribes that were assembled into a unified narrative to serve the cause of the political unification of a scattered and heterogeneous Israelite population. In his opinion, the geographical focus of each of the cycles of stories, particularly of the patriarchs, offers an important clue to where the composition – not necessarily the events – of the story took place. Many of the stories connected with Abraham are set in the southern part of the hill country, specifically the region of Hebron in southern Judah. Isaac is associated with the southern desert fringe of Judah, in particular the Beersheba region. In contrast, activities take place for the most part in the northern hill country and Transjordan – areas that were always of special interest to the northern kingdom of Israel. Noth therefore suggested that the patriarchs were originally quite separate regional ancestors, who were eventually brought together in a single genealogy in an effort to create a united history.
Does Noth’s theory about the Patriarchs seem to make sense? The bringing together of the Patriarchal stories occurred in the seventh century, when refugees from the Northern Kingdom had fled to Judah, when the Assyrians conquered Israel, and given the power vacuum in the North by the time of Josiah, Judah was trying to expand into areas that had previously been part of the Northern Kingdom, the attempt to create a common tradition makes sense. Especially when we consider that Abraham the oldest of the Patriarchs was identified with the traditional tribal center of Judah. Do you think this preserves a symbolic historicity of the Patriarchal stories?
Page 45 – 47: The patriarchal traditions therefore must be considered as a sort of pious “prehistory” of Israel in which Judah played a decisive role. They describe the very early history of the nation, delineate ethnic boundaries, emphasize that the Israelites were outsiders and not part of the indigenous population of Canaan, and embrace the traditions of both the north and the south, while ultimately stressing the superiority of Judah. . .
The biblical story of the patriarchs would have seemed compellingly familiar to the people of Judah in the seventh century BCE. In the stories, the familiar peoples and threatening enemies of the present were ranged around the encampments and grazing grounds of Abraham and his offspring. The landscape of the patriarchal stories is a dreamlike romantic vision of the past, especially appropriate to the pastoral background of the large portion of the Judahite population. It was stitched together from memory, snatches of ancient customs, legends of the birth of peoples, and the concerns aroused by contemporary conflicts. The many sources and episodes that were combined are a testimony to the richness of the traditions from which the biblical narrative was drawn – and the diverse audience of Judahites and Israelites to whom it was aimed. . .
The great genius of the seventh century creators of this national epic was the way in which they wove the earlier stories together without stripping them of their humanity or individual distinctiveness. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remain at the same time vivid spiritual portraits and the metaphorical ancestors of the people of Israel. And the twelve sons of Jacob were brought into the tradition as junior members of more complete genealogy. In the artistry of the biblical narrative, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were indeed made into a single family. It was the power of legend that united them – in a manner far more powerful and timeless than the fleeting adventures of a few historical individuals herding sheep in the highlands of Canaan could ever have done.
Can you sense how Finkelstein and Silburman are trying to preserve the importance of the Biblical narrative at the same time challenging their absolute historicity? Does this new understanding of the Patriarchs enhance or detract from you feeling about the Biblical narrative? Are there levels of meaning you find in the stories of Genesis that have nothing to do with the historicity of the stories?
Before we press on in the Bible Unearthed, let’s return to the subject of time in the Gifts of the Jews.
Pages 130-132 The Gifts of the Jews: For the ancients, the future was always to be a replay of the past, as the past was simply an earthly replay of the drama of the heavens: “History repeats itself” – that is, false history, the history that is not history but myth. For the Jews, history is no less replete with moral lessons. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding through time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come. The future will not be what has happened before; indeed, the only reality that the future has is that it has not happened yet. It is unknowable; and what it will be cannot be discovered by auguries – by reading the stars or examining entrails. We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present. For this reason, the concept of the future – for the first time – holds out promise, rather than just the same old thing. We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free. If anything can happen, we are truly liberated – as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.
This marvelous new sense of time did not descend upon the Israelites all at once. What began as the call of Avraham to leave his place and people and set out for an unknown destiny blossomed into the vocation of Moshe to lead his enslaved people out of the god-haunted ambience of cyclical Egypt, where everything that would be had already been and all important questions had been answered, already set in stone like the staring, immobile statues of Pharaoh. In these two journeys we have gone from the personal (the destiny of Avraham) to the corporate (the destiny of the People of Israel). We have gone from a patronal god, a household god that one carries along for good luck, to YHWH, the God of gods, whose power is mightier than the mightiest power earth can summon. Taken together, these two great escapes give us an entirely new sense of past and future – the past as constitutive of the present, the future as truly unknown.
But what of the present? Is it just a moment, glinting briefly between past and future, hardly worth elaborating on? No, it is to be the pulsing, white-hot center of all the subsequent narrative, the unlikely intersection of time and eternity, the moment where God is always to be found. This completion of the Jewish religious vision will claim the virtue and intelligence of all the priests, prophets, and kings who will fill the rest of the story of Israel. For it will take all the skill and devotion of this people through all their history to revere the past without adoring it, to bow before the opaque mystery of the future without offering it the fear that is reserved to God alone, and to stand neither in the storied past nor the imagined (or dreaded) future but in the present moment.
Can you see how this new notion of past, present and future, was a major change in world culture? What do you think of the idea that even God does not control the future because, it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present? What kind of responsibility does this place upon humans? How important is the present? Would you agree with the author that the present is the moment where God is always to be found?
Did the Exodus Happen?
Pages 52 – 54: One thing is certain. The basic situation described in the Exodus saga – the phenomenon of immigrants coming down to Egypt from Canaan and settling in the eastern border regions of the delta – is abundantly verified in the archaeological finds and historical texts. From earliest recorded times throughout antiquity, Egypt beckoned as a place of shelter and security for the people of Canaan at times when drought, famine, or warfare made life unbearable or even difficult. This historical relationship is based on the basic environmental and climatic contrasts between Egypt and Canaan, the two neighboring lands separated by the Sinai desert. Canaan, possessing a typical Mediterranean climate, is dry in the summer and gets it rain only in the winter, and the amount of rainfall in any given year can vary widely. . . . And in times of severe famine there was only one solution: to go down to Egypt. Egypt did not depend on rainfall but received its water from the Nile.
There were good years and bad years in Egypt too – determined by the fluctuating level of the Nile in the flood season, due to the very different rainfall patterns at its sources in central Africa and the Ethiopian highlands – but there was rarely outright famine. . . .
There was good reason to believe that in times of famine in Canaan – just as the bibilical narrative describes – pastoralists and famers alike would go to Egypt to settle in the eastern delta and enjoy its dependable fertility. Yet archaeology has provided a far more nuanced picture of the large communities of Semites who came in the Bronze Age from southern Canaan to settle in the delta for a wide variety of reasons and achieved different levels of success. Some of them were conscripted as landless laborers in the construction of public works. In other periods they may have come simply because Egypt offered them the prospect of trade and better economic opportunities. . . Other Canaanites in the delta may have been brought there by the armies of the pharaohs as prisoners of war, taken in punitive campaigns against the rebellious city-states of Canaan. We know that some were assigned as slaves to cultivate lands of temple estates. Some found their way up the social ladder and eventually became government officials, soldiers, and even priests.
These demographic patterns along the eastern delta – of Asiatic people immigrating to Egypt to be conscripted to forced work in the delta — are not restricted to the bronze age. Rather, they reflect the age-old rhythms in the region, including later centuries in the Iron Age, closer to the time when the Exodus narrative was put in writing.
The authors suggest that the story of Egyptian oppression over Canaan may have extended over many centuries and followed a pattern of semi-nomadic peoples migrating down to Egypt during times of intense famine. Since these economic refugees would have been stateless persons sort of like illegal aliens crossing the border into the United States looking for work, they were vulnerable to being exploited even enslaved by the Egyptians. Do you think this is a credible explanation for the stories of going down to Egypt in Genesis?
Pages 65: So where does this leave us? Can we say that the Exodus, the wandering, and – most important of all – the giving of the Law on Sinai do not possess even a kernel of truth? So many historical and geographical elements from so many periods may have been embedded in the Exodus story that it is hard to decide on a single unique period in which something like it might have occurred.
The historical vagueness of the Exodus story includes the fact that there is no mention by name of any specific Egyptian New Kingdom monarch. . . Beyond a vague reference to the Israelites’ fear of taking the coastal route, there is no mention of the Egyptian forts in northern
Sinai or their strongholds in Canaan. The Bible may reflect New Kingdom reality, but it might just as well reflect later conditions in the Iron Age, closer to the time when the Exodus narrative was put in writing.
And that is precisely what the Egyptologist Donald Redford has suggested. The most evocative and consistent geographical details of the Exodus story come from the seventh century BCE, during the great era of prosperity of the kingdom of Judah – six centuries after the events of the Exodus were supposed to have taken place. . .
If the Exodus story as we have it was not written down until the seventh century, does that mean the story is not based upon the memory of events that may have occurred much earlier? Do you think the Exodus Story is based on one event at one time in history or do you think it may have been the memory of a series of events that took place over several centuries? Do you feel convinced by the argument that there are no archaeological artifacts to prove the Exodus? If the place names are all messed up on the story is possible the archaeologists have been looking for artifacts in the wrong places? The only volcano in the region that has erupted in modern history is actually in Northwest Saudi Arabia in a restricted area. What if the geographical place names in the Exodus story are incorrect, but some of the other details are a distant memory of something that did happen to a group of Canaanites who had been taken prisoner and were working on public works projects in Egypt either at the time of shortly after the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten?
Pages 68 – 69: It is clear that the saga of liberation from Egypt was not composed as an original work in the seventh century BCE. The main outlines of the story were certainly known long before, in the allusions to the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness contained in the oracles of the prophets Amos (2:10; 3:1; 9:7) and Hosea (11:1; 13:4) a full century before. Both shared a memory of a great event in history that concerned liberation from Egypt and took place in the distant past. But what kind of memory was it?
The Egyptologist Donald Redford has argued that the echoes of the great events of the Hyksos occupation of Egypt and their violent expulsion from the delta resounded for centuries, to become a central, shared memory of the people of Canaan. These stories of Canaanite colonists established in Egypt, reaching dominance in the delta and then being forced to return to their homeland, could have served as a focus of solidarity and resistance as the Egyptian control over Canaan grew tighter in the course of the Late Bronze Age. As we will see, with the eventual assimilation of many Canaanite communities into the crystallizing nation of Israel, that powerful image of freedom may have grown relevant for an ever widening community. During the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the Exodus story would have endured and been elaborated as a national saga – a call to national unity in the face of continual threats from great Empires.
It is impossible to say whether or not the biblical narrative was an expansion and elaboration of vague memories of the immigration of Canaanites to Egypt and their expulsion from the delta in the second millennium BCE, Yet is seems clear that the biblical story of the Exodus drew its power not only from ancient traditions and contemporary geographical and demographic details but even more directly from contemporary realities.
The authors here appear to affirm some historical event in the past that was the basis for the Exodus story. In your own imagination what do you think that “historical event” may have looked like? How important has the Passover Story been in the life of Judaism? If a story takes on a life of its own, how much does the history behind the story matter? Lest we dismiss the Passover Story as having diminished importance in our modern context, what were Jesus and the disciples celebrating at the Last Supper? What Biblical motifs did the Civil Rights movement use in their struggle for freedom?
The Conquest of Canaan
Page 92: But what was in actuality a chaotic series of upheavals caused by many different factors and carried out by many different groups became – many centuries later – a brilliantly crafted saga of territorial conquest under God’s blessing and direct command. The literary production of that saga was undertaken for purposes quite different from the commemoration of local legends. It was, as we will see, an important step toward the creation of a Pan-Israelite identity.
Many readers of the Book of Joshua are often horrified by the depiction of God telling the Israelites to “kill them all.” Does the presentation of the Book of Joshua as a propaganda piece put together at the time of Josiah help in understanding this “retrospective” view of the “conquest of Canaan?” Go back and look at the description of Josiah’s reform II Kings 22:8 – 23:22. Does this account help to explain the way the “Conquest of Canaan” story was developed in the court of Josiah?
Page 95 – 96: Of course, Josiah’s expansion, or desire for annexation of the territories of the northern kingdom in the highlands, raised great hopes, but at the same time posed severe practical difficulties. There was the sheer military challenge. There was the need to prove to the native residents of the northern highlands that they were indeed part of the great people of Israel who fought together with the people of Judah to inherit the Promised Land. And there was also the problem of intermarriage with foreign women, which must have been a common practice among the Israelites who survived in the territories of the northern kingdom, among whom the Assyrians had settled foreign deportees.
It is King Josiah who lurks behind the mask of Joshua in declaring that the people of Israel must remain entirely apart from the native population of the land. The book of Joshua thus brilliantly highlights the deepest and most pressing of seventh-century concerns. And as we will later see, the power of this epic was to endure long after King Josiah’s ambitious and pious plan to reconquer the land of Canaan had tragically failed.
Can you begin to see how the Book of Joshua fulfilled the propaganda needs of the court of Josiah? Can you think of historical reconstructions in modern times that have been used for propaganda purposes? What influence if any does understanding the influence of Josiah’s propaganda have for your faith?
Who Were the Israelites?
Pages 102 – 118: We know from the Merneptah stele that there was a people named Israel living in Canaan by 1207 BCE. Until very recently, despite doubts about the historical accuracy of the Exodus and the conquest stories, few biblical historians or archaeologists doubted that the Israelites were an immigrant people who entered Canaan from the outside. . .
This comparison of lifestyles gave rise to what came to be called the “peaceful-infiltration” model. . . .
The first are the Apiru, a group described in the Tell el-Amarna letters of the fourteenth century BCE (as well as other Bronze Age texts) in a variety of unflattering ways. Living outside mainstream Canaanite society, uprooted from their homes by war, famine, or heavy taxation, they are sometimes described as outlaws or brigands, sometimes as soldiers for hire. In one case they are even reported to be present in Egypt itself as hired laborers working on government building projects. In short, they were refugees or rebellious runaways from the system, living on the social fringe of urban society. No one in power seemed to like them; the worst thing that a local petty king could say about a neighboring prince was that “he joined the Apiru.” In the past, scholars have suggested that the word Apiru) and its alternate forms, Hapiru and Habiru) had direct linguistic connection to the word Idri, or Hebrew, and that the Apiru in the Egyptian sources were the early Israelites. Today we know that this association is not so simple. . .
The second group mentioned in the Egyptian texts were the Shosu. They were apparently pastoral nomads, herders of sheep and goats who lived mainly in the frontier regions of Canaan and Transjordan. . . . They were obviously a problematic and uncontrollable element with an especially large presence in the wilderness and the highland frontiers. They were also known to have occasionally migrated to the eastern delta of Egypt, as the thirteenth century papyrus reporting their movements through the Egyptian border fortresses testifies. . .
. . . . this theory suggested that the early Israelites were neither invading raiders nor infiltrating nomads, but peasant rebels who fled from the cities of Canaan to the empty highlands. . . . Late Bronze Age Canaan was a highly stratified society with social tension and economic inequality on the rise. The urban elite controlled land, wealth, and rights. With the deteriorating situation in Canaan in the later phase of the Late Bronze Age, heavy taxation , mistreatment by landlords, and constant molestation by the authorities – both local and Egyptian – became unbearable.
. . . . Some of them may have become Apiru, that is, people living on the fringe of society causing troubles to the authorities. Many resettled in the relatively empty forests of the highlands, far from Canaanite and Egyptian control. And in their new homeland these peasant rebels established a more equal society – less stratified and less rigid. In so doing they became “Israelites.”
Unfortunately, this theory has no archaeological evidence to support it. . .
. . . . The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages – all apparently established within the span of a few generations – indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead, it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle. In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites. . . .
In contrast to the culture of the Canaanite cities and villages in the lowlands, the highland villages contained no public buildings, palaces, storehouses, or temples. Signs of any sophisticated kind of record keeping, such as writing, seals, and seal impressions, are almost completely absent. There are almost no luxury items: no imported pottery and almost no jewelry. Indeed, the village houses were all quite similar in size, suggesting that wealth was distributed quite evenly among the families. . . .
. . . . And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan – they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were – irony of ironies – themselves originally Canaanites!
If the Israelites were actually Canaanites who had adopted a different lifestyle, does this perhaps explain why the Israelites were constantly flirting with the worship of Canaanite gods? If the Israelites were so closely related to the Canaanites how did the worship of YHWH emerge? Where did the tradition of the Exodus come from?
Memories of a Golden Age
Pages 129 – 142: This is dramatic evidence of the fame of the Davidic dynasty less than a hundred years after the reign of David’s son Solomon. . . . Thus, the house of David was known throughout the region; this clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David become the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem. . . .
This modest appraisal meshes well with the rather meager settlement pattern of the rest of Judah in the same period, which was composed of only about twenty small villages and a few thousand inhabitants, many of them wandering pastoralists. In fact, it is highly unlikely that this sparsely inhabited region of Judah and the small village of Jerusalem could have become the center of a great empire stretching from the Red Sea in the south to Syria in the north. Could even the most charismatic king have marshaled the men and arms needed to achieve and hold such vast territorial conquests? There is absolutely no archaeological indication of the wealth, manpower, and level of organization that would be required to support large armies – even for brief periods – in the field. Even if the relatively few inhabitants of Judah were able to mount swift attacks on neighboring regions, how would they have possibly been able to administer the vast and even more ambitious empire of David’s son Solomon?
Could the Israelites of the central hill country have established control not only over small cites like Tel Qasile, but over the large “Canaanite” centers like Gezer, Meggido, and Beth-shean? Theoretically, yes; there are some examples in history of rural people exerting control over big cities – especially in cases where highland warlords or outlaw chieftains used both the threat of violence and the promise of godfatherly protection to secure tribute and professions of loyalty from the farmers and shopkeepers of lowland towns. But in most cases these were not outright military conquests and the establishment of a formalized, bureaucratic empire so much as a more subtle means of leadership in which a highland chieftain offered a kind of security to lowland communities.
Essentially archaeology misdated both “Davidic” and “Solomonic” remains by a full century. The finds dated to the time just before David in the late eleventh century belonged in the early ninth century and those dated to the time of Solomon belonged in the early ninth century BCE. The new dates place the appearance of monumental structures, fortifications, and other signs of full statehood precisely at the time of their first appearance in the rest of the Levant. . . And they allow us finally to understand why Jerusalem and Judah were so poor in finds in the tenth century. The reason is that Judah was still a remote and underdeveloped region at that time.
There is hardly a reason to doubt the historicity of David and Solomon. Yet there are plenty of reasons to question the extent and splendor of their realm. If there was no big empire, if there were no monuments, if there was no magnificent capital, what was the nature of David’s realm?
If David was more a warlord or a gang leader, what are we to make of the Bible’s iconic devotion to the figure of David? If Jesus is presented as the “Son of David” how are we to understand the identification? The authors may understate David’s kingdom. Even if he is merely a crafty warlord, he might have many cities paying him tribute that could have been used to hire mercenary soldiers (remember Uriah the Hittite?) He might also have been drawing part of his armed force from the Northern Highlands. Can you find any clues in the scriptures that support the idea of a crafty David warlord who cobbles together a small and backward kingdom.
The Davidic Legacy: From Iron Age Chiefdom to Dynastic Myth
Pages 142 – 145: The material culture of the highlands in the time of David remained simple. The land was overwhelmingly rural – with no trace of written documents, inscriptions, or even signs of the kind of widespread literacy that would be necessary for the functioning of a proper monarchy. From a demographic point of view, the area of the Israelite settlement was hardly homogeneous. It is hard to see any evidence of unified culture or centrally administered state. The area from Jerusalem to the north was quite densely settled, while the area from Jerusalem to the south – the hub of the future kingdom of Judah – was still very sparsely settled. Jerusalem itself was, at best no more than a typical highland village. We can say no more than that.
. . . . Archaeologically we can say no more about David and Solomon except that they existed – and their legend endured.
. . . . The fact that the Deuteronomist employs the united monarchy as a powerful tool of political propaganda suggests that in his time the episode of David and Solomon as rulers over a relatively large territory in the central highlands was still vivid and widely believed.
Of course, by the seventh century BCE conditions in Judah had changed almost beyond reckoning. Jerusalem was now a relatively large city, dominated by a Temple to the God of Israel that served as the single national shrine. The institutions of monarchy, professional army, and administration had reached a level of sophistication that met and even exceeded the complexity of the royal institutions of the neighboring states. And once again we can see the landscapes and costumes of seventh century Judah as the setting for an unforgettable biblical tale, this time of a mythical golden age. . . .
To the people of Judah at the time when the biblical epic was first crafted, a new David had come to the throne, intent on restoring the glory of his distant ancestors. This was Josiah, described as the most devoted of Judahite kings. . . .
So Josiah embarked on establishing a united monarchy that would link Judah with the territories of the former northern kingdom through the royal institutions, military forces, and single minded devotion to Jerusalem that are so central to the biblical narrative of David. . . .
Can you think of any modern retelling of history that parallels the mythic David and Solomon? Have any stories grown up around American characters like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln that are similar to the way the Deuteronomist manipulated the stories of David and Solomon? How would you compare Josiah’s use of the legend of David and Solomon to the American belief in “Manifest Destiny?”
On State, One Nation, One People?
Pages 153 – 159: In each of the two earlier settlement waves – in the Early Bronze Age (3500 – 2200 BCE) and in the Middle Bronze Age (2000 – 1550 BCE) – the indigenous highland population moved from pastoralism to seasonal agriculture, to permanent villages, to complex highland economies in a manner that was strikingly similar to the process of Israelite settlement in the Iron Age I (1150 – 900 BCE). But even more surprising, the surveys (and the fragmentary historical information) indicated that in each wave of highland settlement, there always seemed to have been two distinct societies in the highlands – northern and southern – roughly occupying the areas of the later kingdoms of Judah and Israel. . . .
Shechem and Jerusalem, Israel and Judah, were always distinct and competing territories. And there was good reason for the differences between them: north and south occupied dramatically different environmental zones. . . .
At first glance, the highlands between the Jezreel and the Beersheba Valleys seem to form a homogeneous geographical block. But the environmental and topographical details offer a very different picture. The north and south have distinct ecosystems that differ in almost every aspect: topography, rock formations, climate, vegetation cover, and potential economic resources. . . .
The result was increasing complexity of the northern highland societies and, eventually, the crystallization of something like a state. . . .
In fact Israel was well on the way to fully developed statehood within a few decades of the presumed end of the united monarchy, around 900 BCE. By fully developed we mean a territory governed by bureaucratic machinery, which is manifested in social stratification as seen in the distribution of luxury items, large building projects, prospering economic activity including trade with neighboring regions, and a fully developed settlement system. . . .
There is no doubt that the two Iron Age states – Israel and Judah – had much in common. Both worshipped YHWH (among other deities). Their peoples shared many legends, heroes, and tales about events in the distant past. They also spoke similar languages, or dialects of Hebrew, and by the eighth century BCE, both wrote in the same script. But they were also very different from each other in their demographic composition, economic potential, material culture, and relationship with their neighbors. Put simply, Israel and Judah experienced quite different histories and developed distinctive cultures. In a sense, Judah was little more than Israel’s rural hinterland.
Israel and Judah grew up as distinct nations. According to the authors Judah was the poor relative. They make this argument as a way of denying the possibility that David and Solomon could have dominated the Central Highlands both North and South. Do you think their argument is sound? If David and Solomon were not mighty rulers from the Damascus to the Red Sea, then how does this change the Biblical narrative? Is it important? How might this thesis influence the claims of modern Israelis to the West Bank and other lands?
Pages 162 – 168: Why does the Bible tell a story of schism and secession of Israel from Judah that is at such great odds with the historical evidence? . . .
The people of Judah believed that God had promised David that his dynasty would be secure forever, based in Jerusalem. . . The biblical narrative puts the blame squarely on the religious infidelity of a Judahite king. And it promises that the division of Israel into two rival kingdoms will be only a temporary punishment for the sins of a senior member of the divinely blessed Davidic dynasty.
The first prophecy flatly blamed the personal transgressions of David’s son Solomon for the breakup of Israel’s unity. Though Solomon was portrayed as one of the greatest kings of all times, wise and wealthy. . . .
Punishment was thus inevitable for a Davidic heir who “did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.” . . . . Thus the original promise to David was compromised – though not entirely suspended – by Solomon’s sin.
The second prophecy dealt with the “servant of Solomon” who would rule in place of David. He was Jeroboam. . . .
Unlike the promise to David, God’s promise to Jeroboam was conditional: YHWH would secure his state only as long as he did what was right in the eyes of God. . . .
The newly installed King Jeroboam soon received a shocking vision of doom. In the midst of officiating at the golden calf shrine of Bethel, at an autumn festival probably meant to divert pilgrims from the celebrations at Jerusalem, Jeroboam was confronted at the altar by a prophet-like figure who is identified in the biblical text only as a “man of God.” . . .
This is an unparalleled prophecy, because the “man of God” revealed the name of a specific king of Judah who would, three centuries later, order the destruction of that very shrine, killing its priests and defiling its altar with their remains. It is something like reading a history of slavery written in seventeenth century colonial America in which there is a passage predicting the birth of Martin Luther King. And that is not all. . . . he issued the fourth prophecy one of the most chilling the Bible contains. . . .
. . . . Josiah, the heir to the Davidic throne and to YHWH’s eternal promise to David, is the only legitimate heir to the territories of vanquished Israel. On the other hand, the authors of the Bible needed to delegitimize the northern cult – especially the Bethel shrine – and to show that the distinctive religious traditions of the northern kingdom were all evil, that they should be wiped out and replaced by centralized worship at the Temple of Jerusalem. . . .
The important thing to remember, then, is that the biblical narrative does not see the partition of the united monarchy of David and Solomon as a final act, but as a temporary misfortune. There can still be a happy ending. If the people resolve to change their ways and live again as a holy people apart from foreign idols and seductions, YHWH will overcome all their enemies and give them eternal rest and satisfaction within their promised land.
Do you find the argument about time and authorship of the biblical materials to be convincing? The authors do not refer to the kingship of Saul. Would that strengthen or weaken their argument? Do you think there were different tribes and clans in ancient Israel? How would the territories of tribes and clans parallel some of the material in The World Until Yesterday?
Israel’s Forgotten First Kingdom
Pages 169 – 170 Violence, idolatry, and greed were the hallmarks of the northern kingdom of Israel as it is depicted in gory detail in the first and second books of Kings. . . . The bible accuses . . . . King Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel. . . . of repeatedly committing some of the greatest biblical sins: introducing the cult of foreign gods into the land of Israel, murdering faithful priests and prophets of YHWH, unjustly confiscating property of their subjects, and violating Israel’s sacred traditions with arrogant impunity. . . .
. . . . Yet the new archaeological vision of the kingdom of Israel offers an entirely different perspective on their reigns. Indeed, had the biblical authors and editors been historians in the modern sense, they might have said that Ahab was a mighty king who first brought the kingdom of Israel to prominence on the world stage and that his marriage to the daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal was a brilliant stroke of international diplomacy. . . . Of course, they might also have noted that Omri and Ahab were not particularly pious and that they sometimes were capricious and acted brutally. But the same could be said of virtually every other monarch of the ancient Near East.
. . . . Therefore, they have been almost totally obscured by the Bible’s condemnation, which supports the later claims of the southern, Davidic dynasty for predominance by demeaning and misrepresenting nearly everything that the northern, Omride dynasty did.
Do you think a case can be made to rehabilitate Ahab and Jezebel? Do you think it is unfair to expect the leaders of nations to act fairly, piously and adhere to the ethical standards of religious folks? When political leaders act pragmatically why are spiritual people so disappointed? If we take a different look at the leaders of the northern kingdom, how might our view of the biblical narrative change?
Pages 176 – 180: Fortunately there are – for the first time in the history of Israel – some important external sources of historical information that allow us to see the Omrides from a different perspective: as the powerful rulers of one of the strongest states in the Near East. . . .
Not only is this the earliest non-biblical evidence of a king of Israel, it is clear from the mention of the “heavy arms” (chariots) that Ahab was the strongest member of the anti-Assyrian coalition. And although the great Shalmaneser claimed victory, the practical outcome of this confrontation spoke much louder than royal boasts. Shalmaneser quickly returned to Assyria, and at least for a while the Assyrian march to the west was blocked.
The archaeological evidence also reveals that the Omrides far surpassed any other monarchs in Israel or Judah as builders and administrators. In a sense, theirs was the first golden age of the Israelite kings. . . .
How does this reappraisal of the Omrides affect our view of the biblical narrative? If we admit to the successes of the northern kingdom are we force to change our view of the theology that grew our of the biblical narrative? If Ahab successfully stopped the invasion of the Assyrians, does that mean that God was on his side? How should be re-interpret the prophetic figures who opposed Ahab like Elijah, Elisha and Amos? The Israeli Ministry of Antiquities still maintains that most of the major achievements of the Omrides should be credited to David and Solomon. Why do you think they persist in a misreading of the archaeology?
The Power of Diversity
Pages 191 – 195: Where did the power and wealth to establish and maintain this full-fledged kingdom come from? What development in the northern hill country led to the emergence of the Omride state? . . . . With the destruction of the Canaanite centers in the lowlands, possibly during the raid of Shishak at the end of the tenth century BCE, any potential northern strong men would have been able to gain control of the fertile valleys of the north as well. That fits with what we see in the pattern of the most prominent Omride archaeological remains. In expanding from the original hill country domain of the northern kingdom of Israel to the heart of former Caanite territory at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer, and into the territories of southern Syria and Transjordan, the Omrides fulfilled the centuries-old dream of the rulers of the hill country of establishing a vast and diverse territorial state controlling rich agricultural lands and bustling international trade routes. It was also – of necessity – a multiethnic society.
The northern kingdom of Israel joined the Samaritan highlands with the northern valleys, integrating several different ecosystems and a heterogeneous population into its state. . . .
That is why it is difficult to insist, from a strictly archaeological perspective, that the kingdom of Israel as a whole was ever particularly Israelite in either the ethnic, cultural, or religious connotations of that name as we understand it from the perspective of the later biblical writers. The Israeliteness of the northern kingdom was in many ways a late monarchic Judahite idea.
The true character of Israel under the Omrides involves an extraordinary story of military might, architectural achievement, and (as far as can be determined) administrative sophistication. Omri and his successors earned the hatred of the Bible precisely because they were so strong, precisely between they succeeded in transforming the northern kingdom into an important regional power that completely overshadowed the poor, marginal, rural-pastoral kingdom of Judah in the south. The possibility that the Israelite kings who consorted with the nations, married foreign women, and built Canaanite-type shrines and palaces would prosper was both unbearable and unthinkable.
Moreover, from the perspective of late monarchic Judah, the internationalism and openness of the Omrides was sinful. To become entangled with the ways of neighboring peoples was, according to the seventh century Deuteronomistic ideology, a direct violation of divine command. But a lesson could still be learned from that experience. By the time of the compilation of the books of Kings, history’s verdict had already been returned. The Omrides had been overthrown and the kingdom of Israel was no more. . .
The treatment of the Northern Kingdom by the Deuteronomist writers was clearly unfair historically. Do you think that the inaccuracy of the Judahite history in any way invalidates Judahite faith? What do you think of the author’s note that the verdict of history was already in – the Omrides had been overthrown and the kingdom of Israel was not more? Do think the cultural contribution of the Israelites was more important than the Judahites? How is it you think the faith of the Jews has lasted almost 3,000 years until our present day?
In the Shadow of Empire
Pages 196 – 197: The Bible’s interpretation of the fate of the northern kingdom is purely theological. By contrast, archaeology offers a different perspective on the events in the century that followed the fall of the Omrides. . . . We can now see that Israel’s greatest misfortune — and the cause of its destruction and the exile of many of its people – was that as an independent kingdom living in the shadow of a great empire, it succeeded too well.
While several of the prophetic critiques of the Northern Kingdom were primarily theological, there is also the sociological critique of the prophet Amos:
Amos 2:6 Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes–
7 they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned. . .
Amos 5:10 They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.
Amos 5:21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
It could be that Israel was doomed no matter what. Powerful neighbors were going to move in and take away the wealth of Israel. But is it also possible that in part Israel fell from within, because the distribution of income had become so skewed that the peasant class no longer had incentive to defend their society? Are there any lessons in Amos’ sociological critique that might be applied in our modern context?
Pages 206 – 207: The new phase of prosperity that began around 800 BCE was apparently long remembered as a golden age for the northern kingdom – even in the memory of the people of Judah. . . .
The strength of the Israelite economy during the reign of Jeroboam II may best be demonstrated by Israel’s developments in agriculture and its impressive population growth. For millennia, the highlands around Samaria had formed the best region in the country for the cultivation of vineyards and olive groves. Intensive archaeological surveys in the hilly regions to the south of Samaria have yielded evidence for unprecedented expansion of olive oil production in the Iron Age. . . . Scores of olive presses and other processing installations were cut in the bedrock around these villages, some of which may have been royal estates or a least built specifically for this purpose. There was no lack of potential markets: the olive oil from the highlands of Israel could have been profitably exported to Assyria and shipped to Egypt, since both Egypt and Assyria lacked prime olive-growing regions. . . .
Economic prosperity fueled a resurgence in the Northern Kingdom. Having products to export wine and olive made brought riches to Israel, but also made them a target again for conquest. How has trade continued to be an issue for world politics? What do you think of the idea that economics, rather than theological purity contributes to the undoing of nations?
Deportees and Survivors
Pages 220 – 222: As they had probably done in resettling key sites in the north such as Megiddo with dependable subjects, the Assyrian authorities brought it new population groups to seetle in the heartland of the Israelite highlands in place of deported Israelites. . .
But the population exchange was far from total. The gross number given in the Assyrian sources for both deportations. . . . is about forty thousand people. . . . As a result, most of the surviving Israelites were left on the land. . . . The Assyrians had good economic reasons not to devastate the rich, oil producing area. In the northern valleys, the Assyrians destroyed the Israelite administrative centers but left the rural population (which was basically Canaanite, Phoenician, and Aramean in tradition) unhurt – as long as they remained docile and contributed their share to the Assyrian tribute demands. Even the brutal Assyrian conquerors recognized that wholesale destruction and deportation of the rural population of Israel could have devasted the agricultural output of their new province, so when possible they opted for stability and continuity.
. . . . We may even have a biblical reference to this demographic situation. A few years after the destruction of the northern kingdom, the Judahite king Hezekiah celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem. He reportedly “sent to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord the God of Israel” (2 Chronicles 30:1). Ephraim and Manasseh refer to the highlands of Samaria to the north of Judah. While the historicity of Chronicles may be questioned Jeremiah also reports, about 150 years after the fall of the northern kingdom, that Israelites from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria came with offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 41:5).
The fact that a significant number of Israelites were will living in the hill country of Samaria, including the southern area of Bethel, alongside the new populations brought by the Assyrians would play a major role in the foreign policy of Judah and in the development of the biblical ideology of the seventh century BCE.
The Assyrians did not deport everyone. Again economic realities in part dictated imperial policy. They kept the olive oil business going. This explanation helps us to understand where the Samaritans came from in the time of Jesus. We might also understand where the Palestinians come from. How important is ethnicity in understanding World History? How important is religion in understanding World History? Do you think peasants who live close to the land care much about who is the overlord? Why do you think Israelite peasants were traveling to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices?
The Transformation of Judah
Pages 230 – 234: But beginning in the late eighth century BCE, something extraordinary happened. A series of epoch-making changes, beginning with Israel’s fall, suddenly altered the political and religious landscape. Judah’s population swelled to unprecedented levels. Its capital city became a national religious center and a bustling metropolis for the first time. Intensive trade began with surrounding nations. Finally, a major religious reform movement – focused on the exclusive worship of YHWH in the Jerusalem Temple – started cultivating a revolutionary new understanding of the God of Israel. And analysis of the historical and social developments of the ninth and eighth centuries BCE in the Near East explains some of these changes. The archaeology of late monarchic Judah offers even more important clues.
. . . . Unlike the Northern kingdom, which is described in negative terms throughout the biblical text, Judah is basically good. Though the number of Judah’s good and bad kings is almost equal, the length of their reigns is not. Good kings cover most of the history of the southern kingdom. . . .
The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had sometimes abandoned the faith. Only the accession of Hezekiah was able to restore Judah’s holiness.
Yet archaeology suggests quite a different situation – one in which the golden age of tribal and Davidic fidelity to YHWH was a late religious ideal, not a historical reality. Instead of a restoration, the evidence suggests that a centralized monarchy and national religion focused in Jerusalem took centuries to develop and was new in Hezekiah’s day. The idolatry of the people of Judah was not a departure from the earlier monotheism. It was, instead, the way the people of Judah had worshiped for hundreds of years.
How does this archaeological view of ancient Judah change the way you look at the biblical texts? If YHWH was one of only a multitude of gods worshiped in ancient Israel how do you think monotheism finally developed? Do you think monotheism is important? How do you think monotheism changes the people to hold to it?
The Traditional Religion of Judah
Pages 240 – 243: . . . . Likewise at the time of King Ahaz, some two hundred years later, the nature of the sins seems to be substantially the same. Ahaz was a notorious apostate who walked in the way of the kings of Israel and even burned his son as an offering (2 Kings 16:2-4)
Biblical scholars have demonstrated that these were not arbitrary isolated pagan practices, but part of a complex of rituals to appeal to heavenly powers for the fertility and well-being of the people and the land. In their outward form they resembled the practices used by neighboring peoples to honor and gain the blessings of other gods. Indeed, the archaeological finds of clay figurines, incense altars, libation vessels, and offerings stand throughout Judah merely suggest that the practice of religion was highly varied, geographically decentralized, and certainly not restricted to worship of YHWH only in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Indeed, for Judah, with its relatively underdeveloped state bureaucracy and national institutions, religious rituals were carried out in two distinct arenas – sometime working in concert, sometimes in open conflict. The first was the Temple in Jerusalem. . . . The second focus of religious practice was among the clans scattered throughout the countryside. There, complex networks of kinship relations dominated all phases of life, including religion. Rituals for the fertility of the land and the blessings of the ancestors gave people hope for the well-being of their families and sanctified their possession of their village fields and grazing lands.
Biblical historian Baruch Halpern and archaeologist Lawrence Stager have compared the biblical descriptions of clan structure with the remains of Iron Age settlements in the hill country and have identified a distinctive archaeological pattern of extended family compound, whose inhabitants probably performed rituals that were sometimes quite different from those in the Temple of Jerusalem. Local customs and traditions insisted that the Judahites inherited their houses, their land, and even their tombs from their God and their ancestors. Sacrifices were offered at shrines within domestic compounds, at family tombs, and at open altars throughout the countryside. These places of worship were rarely disturbed, even by the most “pious” and aggressive of kings. Thus it is no wonder that the Bible repeatedly notes that “the high places were not taken away.”
The existence of high places and other forms of ancestral and household god worship was not — as the books of Kings imply – apostasy from an earlier purer faith. It was part of the .variety of gods and goddesses known or adapted from the cults of neighboring peoples. . . .
This deep-rooted cult was not restricted to the rural districts. There is ample biblical and archaeological information that the syncretistic cult of YHWH flourished in Jerusalem even in late monarchic times. The condemnations of various Judahite prophets make it abundantly clear that YHWH was worshiped in Jerusalem with other deities such as Baal, Asherah, the hosts of heaven, and even the national deities of the neighboring lands. . . .
Thus the great sins of Ahaz and the other evil kings of Judah should not be seen as exceptional in any way. These rulers merely allowed the rural traditions to go on unhampered. They and many of their subjects expressed their devotion to YHWH in rites performed at countless tombs, shrines, and high places throughout the kingdom, with the occasional and subsidiary worship of other gods.
Many people are surprised and shocked to find that polytheism and human sacrifice survived until relatively late in the history of Israel. How does this change your view of biblical history? Can you identify any remnants of polytheism in our modern context? To what extent is religion still tribal even in our modern context?
A Sudden Coming of Age
Pages 243 – 246: . . . . Jerusalem was transformed from a modest highland town of about ten or twelve acres to a huge urban area of 150 acres of closely packed houses, workshops, and public buildings. In demographic terms, the city’s population may have increased as much as fifteen times, from about one thousand to fifteen thousand inhabitants.
A similar picture of tremendous population growth emerges from the archaeological surveys in Jerusalem’s agricultural hinterland. . . . The population, which had long hovered at a few tens of thousands, now grew to around 120,000. . . .
The question is, where did all this wealth and apparent movement toward full state formation come from? The inescapable conclusion is that Judah suddenly cooperated with and even integrated itself into the economy of the Assyrian empire. . . . new markets were open to Judahite goods, stimulating intensified production of (olive) oil and wine. As a result, Judah went through an economic revolution, from a traditional system based on the village and clan to cash cropping and industrialization under state centralization. Wealth began accumulating in Judah, especially in Jerusalem, where the kingdom’s diplomatic and economic policies were determined and where the kingdom’s diplomatic and economic policies were determined and where the institutions of the nation were controlled.
There is an old saying, “follow the money.” Can you see how this might apply in understanding the development of the kingdom of Judah? How important are economics and trade in our modern context?
The Birth of a New National Religion
Pages 246 – 249: . . . . Before the crystallization of the kingdom of Judah as a fully bureaucratic state, religious ideas were diverse and dispersed. . . . Aside from the memories of the strident preaching of figures like Elijah and Elisha, the anti-Omride Puritanism of Jehu, and the harsh words of prophets like Amos and Hosea, there was never any concerted or long-lasting effort by the Israelite government to sanction the worship of YHWH alone.
But after the fall of Samaria, with the increasing centralization of the kingdom of Judah, a new, more focused attitude toward religious law and practice began to catch hold. Jerusalem’s influence – demographic, economic and political – was now enormous and it was linked to a new political and territorial agenda: the unification of all Israel. And the determination of its priestly and prophetic establishment to define the “proper” methods of worship for all the people of Judah – and indeed for those Israelites living under Assyrian rule in the north – rose accordingly. These dramatic changes in religious leadership have prompted biblical scholars such as Baruch Halpern to suggest that in a period of no more than a few decades in the late eighth and early seventh century BCE, the monotheistic tradition of Judeo-Christian civilization was born. . . .
Sometime in the late eighth century BCE there arose an increasingly vocal school of thought that insisted that the cults of the countryside were sinful – and that YHWH alone should bring about the stories of Elijah and Elisha (set down in writing long after the fall of the Omrides) and, more important, in the works of the prophets Amos and Hosea, both of whom were active in the eighth century in the north. As a result, some biblical scholars have suggested that their movement originated among dissident priests and prophets in the last days of the northern kingdom who were aghast at the idolatry and social injustice of the Assyrian period. After the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, they fled southward to promulgate their ideas. Other scholars have pointed to circles connected with the Temple of Jerusalem intent on exercising religious and economic control over the increasingly developed countryside. . . .
Biblical scholars have usually emphasized the strictly religious aspects of the struggle between the Jerusalem factions, but there is no doubt that their positions encompassed strong views on domestic and foreign policy as well. In the ancient world, as today, the sphere of religion could never be separated from the spheres of economics, politics, and culture. The ideas of the “YHWH-alone” groups had a territorial aspect – the quest for the “restoration” of the Davidic dynasty over all Israel, including the territories of the vanquished northern kingdom, where, as we have seen, many Israelites continued to live after the fall of Samaria. This would bring about the unification of all Israel under one king ruling from Jerusalem, the destruction of the cult centers in the north, and the centralization of the Israelite cult in Jerusalem.
It is easy to see why the biblical authors were so upset by idolatry. It was a symbol of chaotic social diversity; the leaders of the clans in the outlying areas conducted their own systems of economics, politics, and social relations – without administration or control by the court in Jerusalem. That countryside independence, however time-honored by the people of Judah, came to be condemned as a “reversion” to the barbarity of the pre-Israelite period. Thus, ironically, what was most genuinely Judahite was labeled as Canaanite heresy. In the arena of religious debate and polemic, what was old was suddenly seen as foreign and what was new was suddenly seen as true. And in what can only be called an extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology, the new, centralized kingdom of Judah and the Jerusalem centered worship of YHWH was read back into Israelite history as the way things should always have been.
Do you find the author’s argument about the triumph of the worship of YHWH to be compelling? The author makes not that in addition to theology, the “YHWH-alone” movement was about economics, politics, social and political changes. What do you think were the most important motives for the “YHWH-alone” movement? If the YHWH-alone movement had failed, how do you think Western culture might have been different? Without the “YHWH-alone” movement, would there have been a Christian faith, or Muslim faith?
Between War and Survival
Pages 251- 264: King Hezekiah’s decision to rebel against the Assyrian empire was surely one of the most fateful decisions taken in the kingdom of Judah. To declare independence from the region’s brutal imperial overlord – which had just two decades before violently dismantled the kingdom of Israel — required the political power and state organization to make far-reaching economic and military preparations. It also required a clear religious reassurance that despite the awesome might of the Assyrian empire, YHWH would ensure Judah’s eventual military success. . . .
Faith in YHWH alone did not save Hezekiah’s territory against the wrath of the Assyrians. Large parts of Judah were devastated and valuable agricultural land in the Shephelah was given by the Assyrian victors to the city-states of Philistia. Judah’s territory shrank dramatically, Hezekiah was forced to pay a heavy tribute to Assyria, and a significant number of Judahites were deported to Assyria. Only Jerusalem and the Judean Hills immediately to the south of the capital were spared. For all the Bible’s talk of Hezekiah’s piety and YHWH’s saving intervention, Assyria was the only victor. Sennacherib fully achieved his goals: he broke the resistance of Judah and subjugated it. Hezekiah had inherited a prosperous state, and Sennacherib destroyed it.
In the aftermath of the failed rebellion against Assyria, Hezekiah’s policy of religious purification and confrontation with Assyria must have seemed to many to have been a terrible, reckless mistake. Some of the rural priesthood may even have argued that it was, in fact, Hezekiah’s blasphemous destruction of the venerated high places and his prohibition against worshiping Asherah, the stars, moon, and other deities along with YHWH that had brought such misfortune on the land. . . .
The authors are very critical of Hezekiah and the YHWH alone crowd that led the nation to oppose Assyria. Do you think religious types make good political leaders? What developments in modern Israel might motivate the especially critical treatment of Hezekiah and the YHWH alone religious group?
Arabian Caravans and Olive Oil
Pages 267 – 269: Mannaseh’s program went far beyond subsistence. He was intent on integrating Judah into the Assyrian world economy. The two main economic activities of Assyria in and around the region of Judah were trade in exotic luxury goods and incense from Arabia and the mass production and distribution of olive oil.
The Arabian trade was one of the main economic interests of Assyria and there is hardly a doubt that from the late eighth century it provided the empire with significant revenues. Assyria accordingly had a strong interest in the security of the desert roads leading northward from the Arabian peninsula to their termini on the Mediterranean coast. The Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III counted Gaza, the traditional terminus of the desert roads, in one of his triumphal inscriptions “as the custom-house of Assyria” and he set officials there to collect duties from the harbor, which served as an outlet for the overland caravan routes. . . .
Arabian contact was not the only widened economic horizon. The Assyrians also monopolized and developed Levantine olive oil production.
The authors point out that Ahaz and Mannaseh sought prosperity as part of the Assyrian Empire, while Hezekiah risked it all for freedom and independence and spiritual purity. Who do you think was right? What choice would you make? Is prosperity the sole measure of good national policy? How much are freedom and independence worth?
A Great Reformation
Pages 275 – 285: The reign of King Josiah of Judah marks the climax of Israel’s monarchic history. . . .
Josiah’s messianic role arose from the theology of a new religious movement that dramatically changed what it meant to be an Israelite and laid the foundations for future Judaism and for Christianity. That movement ultimately produced the core documents of the Bible – chief among them, a book of the Law discovered during renovations to the Jerusalem Temple in 622 BCE, the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign. That book, identified by most scholars as an original form of the book of Deuteronomy, sparked a revolution in ritual and complete reformulation of Israelite identity. It contained the central features of biblical monotheism: the exclusive worship of one God in one place; centralized, national observance of the main festivals of the Jewish year (Passover, Tabernacles); and a range of legislation dealing with social welfare, justice, and personal morality.
This was the formative moment in the crystallization of the biblical tradition as we now know it. Yet the narrative of Josiah’s reign concentrates almost entirely on the nature of his religious reform and its reported geographical extent. Little is recorded of the larger historical events that were unfolding in the areas around Judah and how they many have influenced the rise of the Deuteronomistic ideology. . . .
The very fact that a written law code suddenly appeared at this time meshes well with the archaeological record of the spread of literacy to Judah. . .
In addition scholars have pointed out that the literary form of the covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel in Deuteronomy is strikingly similar to that of early seventh century Assyrian vassal treaties that outline the rights and obligations of a subject people to their sovereign. . . .
By the time the eight year old Josiah ascended to the throne of Judah in 639 BCE, Egypt was experiencing a great political renaissance. . . .
The key to this Egyptian renaissance was, first of all, the sudden precipitous decline of Assyria. . . .
The Assyrians’ retreat from their former possessions in the coastal plain and in the territory of the former northern kingdom of Israel appears to have been peaceful. . . . In any case, the five-centuries-long Egyptian dream to reestablish their Canaanite empire was fulfilled. The Egyptians regained control of agricultural wealth and international routes of trade in the rich lowlands. Yet as in the time of the great conquering pharaohs of the New Kingdom, the relatively isolated inhabitants of the highlands – now organized as the kingdom of Judah – were relatively unimportant to the Egyptians. And so, at least in the beginning, they wer largely left to themselves.
The withdrawal of the Assyrians from the northern regions of the land of Israel created a situation that must have seemed, in Judahite eyes, like a long-expected miracle. A century of Assyrian domination had come to an end; Egypt was interested mainly in the coast; and the wicked northern kingdom of Israel was no more. . . . . Finally it seemed possible for Judah to expand to the north, take over the territories of the vanquished northern kingdom in the highlands, centralize the Israelite cult and establish a great, Pan-Israelite state.
Such an ambitious plan would require active and powerful propaganda. The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and the centrality of their national cult place, but it was the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch that would create an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dreams.
Do the authors make a convincing case about how the historical situation at the time of Josiah influenced the bringing together of the texts that have formed the Hebrew scriptures? Do you think this analysis in any way undermines the authority or usefulness of the Hebrew scriptures? Do you think it is important that our religious tradition has its roots in a nation that was decidedly an underdog over against great Empires?
Revolution in the Countryside
Pages 285 – 287:Josiah’s were clearly messianic times. . . Deuteronomy contains ethical laws and provisions for social welfare that have no parallel anywhere else in the Bible. Deuteronomy calls for the protection of the individual, for the defense of what we could call today human rights and human dignity. Its laws offer an unprecedented concern for the weak and helpless within Judahite society. . . .
This was not to be a matter of mere charity, but a consciousness that grew out of the shared perception of nationhood, now strongly reinforced by the historical saga of Israel, codified in text. . . .These are only a few examples of the wide range of personal legislation that was meant to override the traditional injustices and inequalities of everyday life.
The functioning of government was also addressed, with a clear intention to limit the power of the leaders of Judahite society to exploit their positions for their own interest or oppress the population at large. . .
Even the king was to be subject to the laws of the covenant. . .
. . . . The laws of Deuteronomy stand as a new code of individual rights and obligations for the people of Israel. They also served as the foundation for a universal social code and system of community values that endure – even today.
Our authors suggest that the reforms of Deuteronomy are the basis for tour notions of the dignity of the individual and human rights. Do you think this is true? How important is the Jewish legacy of human rights?
Perhaps we can conclude by returning to Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews.
Pages 250 – 252: We are the undeserving recipients of this history of the Jews, this long, excessive, miraculous development of ethical monotheism without which our ideas of equality and personalism are unlikely ever to have come into being and surely would never have matured in the way that they have. This was the necessary evolution. . . .
. . . . the belief system we have come to call Judaism is the origin of the processive worldview, the worldview to which call Western people subscribe. . .
. . . .In the Torah we learn that God is working his purposes in history and will effect its end, but in the prophets we learn that our choices will also affect this end, that our inner disposition toward our fellow human beings will make an enormous difference in the way this end appears to us.
Unbelievers might wish to stop for a moment and consider how completely God – this Jewish God of justice and compassion – undergirds all our values and that it is just possible that human effort without this God is doomed to certain failure. Humanity’s most extravagant dreams are articulated by the Jewish prophets. In Isaiah’s vision, true faith is no longer confined to one nation, but “all the nations” stream to the House of YHWH “that he may teach us his ways” and that we may learn to “beat our swords into plowshares.” All who share this outrageous dream of universal brotherhood, peace, and justice, who dream the dreams and see the visions of the great prophets, must bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that without God there is no justice.
But those who claim to believe in God must contemplate a prospect no less unsettling. Throughout our Western world, though shaped by this Jewish matrix, the cry of the poor so often goes unheard. The prophets harangued Israel and Judah unceasingly about the powerless and marginalized, the overlooked widows, orphans, and “sojourners in our midst,” who are still with us today as single mothers, hungry children, and helpless immigrants, wraiths invisible in our prosperous societies. Throughout the world, half of all children go to bed hungry each night and one in seven of God’s children is facing starvation. Before such statistics, believers should never forget Dostoevsky’s assertion that the suffering of children is the greatest proof against the existence of God; and we must ever contemplate the awful Day of YWWH, the coming destruction of our wealth and security, the razing even of the bastions of our faith, the Temple leveled and YHWH gone.
For without justice, there is no God.
Hope Does Not Disappoint Us
THAT MAKES ME THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD
Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope. But that reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon, where Charlie is lamenting another baseball game lost. Lucy trying to cheer Charlie up says, “Look at it this way, we learn more by losing than we do by winning.”
Charlie screams, “Well then that makes me the smartest person in the world!”
DOESN’T SEEM LIKE THERE IS ANY HOPE
You ever feel like that? Like when will the suffering ever end? Will I always make the same mistakes over and over again? Sometimes life really beats up on us. Like when our feet or our head or our arthritis or something else just won’t stop hurting, when we find ourselves growing older every day, and all we seem to do is make doctor’s appointments. Life sucks and then we die! Sometimes it just seems like there isn’t any hope. Rejoice in our sufferings hell! We want to scream at life, take this suffering and shove it!
LONG ENOUGH LORD!
Like Psalm 13 we want to cry out:
131-2 Long enough, God — you’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough.. I’ve carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain — Long enough Lord, long enough. The scriptures are not all sweetness and light. The Bible contains the very real anguish and pain and hopelessness of people in the past.
JUST DO AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
I’m reminded of the story about a habitual offender with a long record of transgressions, who was on trial for his latest crime. The jury found him guilty on 33 different counts and the judge sentenced him consecutive terms adding up to 189 years. Realizing that even with time off for good behavior he would be over one hundred when he was released, the prisoner burst into tears.
Noting this display of remorse, the judge reconsidered. He said, “I didn’t mean to be so severe. Thinking it over, I can see that I’ve imposed an extremely harsh sentence. So you don’t have to serve the whole time.” The prisoner beamed with new found hope until the judge leaned toward him and said, “Just do as much as you can.”
So where is our hope? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers? God doesn’t compel us, God lures us toward the good. We were born with free will. It is a blessing and a curse. It means we have the freedom to choose the path of our days and our lives – but it comes at a cost. The cost is that we sometimes (often) choose things that cause suffering to others or ourselves. But when we quiet our wants, and desire God’s will instead, we experience grace – peace, alignment, attunement, oneness, flow. It has many names, but we know what it feels like. It feels good. It feels like freedom.
PERHAPS GOD IS STILL RESTING
God spent six days making the earth and all that is in it, and on the seventh day, God rested. The word for “day” in Hebrew means “an unspecified length of time.” Consider this: if there were, in earth-years, 15 billion years from the Big Bang till the dawn of human civilization, by that math, perhaps it is still the seventh day of Creation. Perhaps God is still resting.
GENTLY ORDERING THE UNIVERSE
And if God is still resting, how are our prayers getting answered? Well, just because God is resting, doesn’t mean God is dead. God is alive. God is Lure, the tremendous energy at the heart of all Creation, with Her own internal energy – like an electromagnet, drawing the matter and anti-matter, energy and dark energy drawing it all unto Herself. Like a mother suckling her child or a hen ordering her chicks. Gently ordering the universe, in Her patient, unhurried way.
THE MIRACLE OF PHOTOSYNTHESIS THE WONDER OF CONSCIOUSNESS
God is not dead, she does not sleep, God is present and active all around us in the air we breathe, the sunshine that bathes the earth in warmth and energy, the miracle of photo synthesis and the wonder of consciousness. So what is our hope – where is our hope – when is our hope?
HOPE IS NOT WISHING
Hope is not wishing. Hope is not the power of positive thinking. Hope is half optimism. The other half is our belief in our power that we can make it so. There is a profound difference between hoping and wishing. Wishing encourages passivity, whereas hope represents an active attitude. Wishing is the fantasy that everything is going to turn out OK. Hope is actually showing up for the hard work, even when we have no guarantee that our efforts will actually accomplish anything. But we trust in God’s providence that our efforts will somehow become part of God’s larger purpose, to bring shalom – peace.
What do we mean by the expression God’s providence? We don’t mean that everything always works out for the best, or that everyone will be happy, happy all the time. There is a hymn we don’t use any more. It didn’t make it into the New Century Hymnal, because some of the language couldn’t be updated. But I think the words express a mature understanding of providence:
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
STANDETH GOD WITHIN THE SHADOW KEEPING WATCH ABOVE HIS OWN.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
RESURRECTION OUR FAITH AND OUR HOPE
The assurance that God stands in the shadow of time keeping watch upon us is our faith and our hope. The season of Lent prepares us for the joy of Easter. But we cannot find the joy of Easter without traveling through the valley of the shadow of Good Friday. I believe many people are disappointed with Easter, because they skip the messiness and horror of Good Friday. It is sort of like there is no resurrection unless we die first. There is no joy without sadness. We have to die to self in order to receive new life. And the way to new life is through faith. To live by faith is to trust the way of Jesus. Trusting that if we follow the way of sharing there will be enough.
FEAR THERE WILL NOT BE ENOUGH
One of the historical issues in the life of this congregation is the fear that there will not be enough. After the moon shot, when the contractors laid-off engineers by the hundreds, this little congregation with a brand new mortgage almost went under. There were more bills to pay than there was money. And so this congregation lived hand to mouth for years. And the fear and anxiety around not having enough led to an ethos of doubt, rather than a culture of faith. Rather than becoming a permission-giving “can do” community of faith we became concerned about limitations and control.
CONGREGATION MADE A LEAP OF FAITH
Now to be fair we did manage to build this beautiful sanctuary. The congregation made a leap of faith. That was a job well done. And now as we approach re-visioning we need to make a new leap of faith. We need to re-discover the courage, the faith and the can do attitude that built this sanctuary and apply it to our mission and outreach.
WHAT IS GOD CALLING US TO DO AND BECOME
What is God calling us to do and become? What will it mean to be a progressive voice of faith in Huntsville? And how do we communicate our message? Do we dare to become a little edgy in the sharing of who we are in the community? Are we willing to publicly proclaim who we have become in welcoming everyone? Or will we settle for being a standard brand Protestant vanilla. There is no percentage in remaining the best kept secret in Huntsville.
COURAGE – HOPE WILL NOT DISAPPOINT US
Courage, my friends, courage. What would we do if we weren’t afraid? Believe me, if we have the courage to step out in faith, hope will not disappoint us.
Time of Testing
RITUAL OF PASSAGE — REBIRTH
Jesus went to the wilderness after his Baptism. Perhaps a passage from Eyes Remade for Wonder will help to explain why he went:
Rites of passage are a way of symbolically initiating people into a new phase of their life. The ritual of passage is a container to hold them in that in between time, when they are for instance in the adolescent rite of passage no longer children but not yet adults.
Indeed, it has always seemed to me that the miracle of the Exodus was not that the waters parted for the Israelites, but that they all walked into the midst of the sea, drowned, and were reborn free men and women on the other side. You want to be reborn. . . Then you have to let go of the old you. You must be willing to walk into the midst of the sea on dry ground and risk it all. But you say, “What if I don’t come out the other side?” And I say there were probably a lot of Jews who were also afraid to step into the midst of the sea. They chose instead to bank on old but sure slave lives. We never heard from them again. But the ones who entered the water, hungry for rebirth were rewarded. Not with the Promised Land but with the strange honor of being able to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Theirs was the ultimate act of faith and they were rewarded with the ultimate gift: rebirth in the wilderness.
40 DAYS AND NIGHTS BECOMING THE MESSIAH
Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness, and he was rewarded with the ultimate gift – “rebirth in the wilderness.” Thus the time in the wilderness was a time of reflection, fasting and prayer, a time of rebirth as he was becoming the Messiah.
WHERE IS OUR WILDERNESS?
If the story of Jesus in the wilderness is to have any meaning for us, we have to ask, where is our wilderness? Where is the time of testing and prayer, that will bring us through to rebirth in the spirit? Now as I begin I want to acknowledge the subject of spiritual rebirth may make some of us nervous, because it has been used and abused by religious fundamentalists.
ARE YOUR SAVED?
I remember a long time ago I was walking through a public park in Omaha, when a group of what we called in those days “Jesus People” came up to me and enthusiastically asked, “Are you saved?”
I didn’t want to say, “No,” because I wanted to affirm the validity of my own spiritual journey. I also didn’t want them pestering me with their four spiritual laws and their five step method to get to heaven. But I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Yes,” because I knew my spiritual journey was not what they had in mind, when they asked me if I was saved. So after a minute of thought, I felt inspired to say, “In a manner of speaking, yes.” These poor Jesus folks didn’t know what to do with my answer. And so they walked away somehow disappointed and confused.
SAVED FOR WHAT?
Now we might also ask in return, “Saved for what?” God doesn’t want to preserve us in formaldehyde. When God “saves” us, God has a purpose a mission in mind. Spiritual rebirth is not a once and done affair but rather a process of becoming. In my own faith journey I like to think of rebirth as taking the Long Road Home. I sort of expect that like those Israelites of the Exodus long ago, I will spend a life time in the spiritual desert. Even though in my faith journey I may wander in the wilderness, I have found some markers along the way that point toward home.
Now whenever we start talking about spiritual development we have to be careful, because hubris will not be far behind. We always encounter the temptation to make comparisons. So I offer you this observation: If you can live without caffeine, if you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains, if you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time, if you can take criticism and blame without resentment, if you can ignore a friend’s limited education and never correct him or her, if you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend, if you can face the world without lies and deceit, if you can relax without alcohol and sleep without the aid of drugs, if you can honestly say that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, color, religion, gender preference, or politics. . . .
SAME LEVEL AS YOUR DOG
Then you have almost reached the same level of spiritual development as your dog!
APPROPRIATE REGULATION OF OUR EGOS
So with that caution in mind, what are some of the markers in the wilderness that may point toward home? The first marker is appropriate regulation of our egos. We have to have enough ego to be aware of ourselves in the world, so we do not step off a curb in front of a bus. We need to be aware of other people around us and maintain appropriate boundaries. I don’t know about you but ego inflation for me is an ever present problem. The moment I think I am humble, I am not. In my fantasy world I am much more important than I really am. But as I have gotten older I have become aware of when my fantasies are carrying me away and my ego is inflating. I now know I will never become President of the United States nor would I want the job. As a true introvert, I do not want to become a celebrity, and I no longer envy the success of others. I will settle for my own life and problems thank you very much.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICES BECOME MORE IMPORTANT
Another sign on the road homeward is my spiritual practices have become increasingly important. Physical exercise, prayer time, meditation, all help to provide a container for my ego and give structure to my life.
HERE AND NOW ON THE PARKWAY
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read, “I’d rather be here and now.” Here and now is an important mantra that helps to contain my fantasizing, and provides focus. Especially when I am trying to drive on the Parkway in the rain, “here and now,” is a reminder to set other concerns aside and focus on driving my car and staying alive. The more we can live our lives here and now the closer we can draw to God. God’s presence is always here and now.
Jesus took with him into the wilderness his spiritual practices – fasting, prayer and silence. The silence of the Judean wilderness is profound. On one of Beth’s and my trips to the Holy Land our guide had the bus pull over to the side of the highway, and we walked about two hundred yards away from the road. Our guide then asked us to stop and listen. The silence was profound. No radios. No electronic devices. No road noise. Just silence.
LANDSCAPE HAS NOT CHANGED
The landscape had not changed for two-thousand years, and I could imagine Jesus listening to his inner voices: “You hungry? Change stones into bread. Dazzle them! Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple! If you seize the power, you can change the world!”
SUBTLE SEDUCTIVE VOICES
Subtle seductive voices. Not unlike some of the strange whispers that may float through our heads. One of the subtle fantasies that occasionally surfaces in my brain is winning the lottery. I think of all the good things I could do with $400 million dollars. And then God pulls me up short and I realize my greed would only destroy me rather than make me happy. This may explain why so many lottery winners attempt suicide. Money is not the answer to most of our problems.
As Jesus persisted in the silence the murmurs of his shadow subsided until he could hear the soundless voice of the One that comes from the heart, “You are my beloved. That is enough.” When our hearts fall silent long enough to finally hear the One, then we can know that we have, and we are enough. Enough is one of the landmarks on the road homeward.
Another marker on the road toward home is learning to acknowledge the mistakes of our past without beating up on ourselves. Often I will remember some incident from my past and all I can do is shake my head. But then I realize I am better for having been worse. God has been with me even in the mistakes I have made, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without the failures as well as the occasional successes that have been scattered through my life. Often I do not understand my own motives, and I am only occasionally aware of the larger purposes surrounding my actions. Sometimes God makes use of me in spite of myself. We cannot perceive the workings of providence, until we look back upon our experience and we say, “Oh my, surely God was in that event and at the time I did not know.”
IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONSHIPS
A final marker on the road homeward is when we finally realize the importance of our relationships. When we are younger we are likely to strive after educational degrees, money, power, status, outward signs of worldly success. As we mature our priorities often shift to relationships. Our relationship with children, or our spouses or partners, our friendships, even our relationship with ourselves and God. Jesus emphasized relationship. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus called his followers into the church, where they were to share their material resources and seek to touch the needs of others and bring healing physical and spiritual through the love of the community of faith. On that long road homeward, all of our other achievements pale in comparison to the quality of our relationships.
THE WAY OF JESUS IS THE WAY HOME
In the time of his testing in the wilderness Jesus attuned himself to the movement of the spirit, so God could inspire, enlighten, reveal, and heal through him. God saves us for a purpose, to follow the way of Jesus, so we might inspire, enlighten, reveal and heal others in the name of Christ. Following the way of Jesus we find our way home.
This Is My Beloved
This is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday – Transfiguration Sunday – don’t forget Ash Wednesday Soup Supper and Communion this week. This morning we remember that remarkable occasion, when Jesus and three disciples climbed up Mt. Tabor, and experienced a profound God event. Context is the key to understanding our story.
In the chapter immediately preceding the Transfiguration, Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. They journeyed into the far North of Galilee to avoid Herod’s secret police, who were looking to arrest Jesus as a political rabble rouser. Caesarea Philippi is also the source of the Jordan River lying at the base of Mt. Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel rising nearly 10,000 feet. Water literally bubbles up out of the ground. In a hot dry dusty land this miraculous water source is the life blood of Israel.
WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
Surrounded by natural beauty and the water of life Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”
In response to Peter’s answer, Jesus began to tell his disciples that the Messiah would travel to Jerusalem, where he would be arrested and executed like John the Baptist. And Peter in great distress responded, “No Jesus this can never happen to you.”
And Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me Satan for you would tempt me to save my life rather than fulfilling the will of God.”
Jesus was contemplating and struggling with his possible martyrdom in Jerusalem, when he then led his disciples south from Mt. Hermon to Mt. Tabor. Mt. Tabor is a Monte Sano size mountain in the middle of the Jezreel Valley, Israel’s most fertile agricultural plain. From the top of Mt. Tabor you can see Nazareth to the North, Mt. Carmel to the West, where Elijah called down fire from heaven to defeat the 450 prophets of Baal, Megiddo to the South, where the good King Josiah died in battle with the Egyptians, Mt. Gilboa in the Southeast where Saul and Jonathan were slain by the Philistines and the Jordan River in the East. From the top of Mt. Tabor you have a sweeping view of much of the dramatic history of Israel’s faith. And it was there on a glittering sun lit day that God showed up.
JESUS STRUGGLED WITH THE PROSPECT OF HIS ARREST AND EXECUTION
Jesus took the inner circle of his disciples, Peter, James and John, with him to the top of the mountain. We don’t know everything that happened that day. I like to believe that Jesus was still struggling with the prospect of his arrest and execution. If he stayed in Galilee Herod’s police would eventually catch up to him. If he journeyed to Jerusalem for the Passover the Temple authorities would surely arrest him and hand him over to the Romans. The only way he could avoid death would be to give up his ministry and go get lost in the wilderness. But he could not maintain his integrity his spiritual authenticity, if he did not follow through with his calling to be God’s Messiah.
RADIATE A BRIGHT LIGHT
And so I believe Jesus prayed there on the mountain top. As he prayed his face began to glow and then to radiate a bright light, and his clothes became a dazzling white in the magnificent sunshine. The disciples became afraid, and then they noticed two figures of light talking with Jesus.
SHEKINAH – MYSTERIOUS CLOUD OF GOD’S PRESENCE
In response to his prayer Jesus was being given a foretaste of life in the spirit, the resurrection body, and he was being encouraged to follow through with his calling by no less than the spirits of Elijah and Moses. And then a bright sunlit cloud settled on the top of the mountain, the shekinah, the mysterious cloud of God’s presence, the holy spirit, and then the disciples really were afraid. They bowed down to the ground in awe, wonder and more than a little fear.
THIS IS MY BELOVED — LISTEN TO HIM
And then they heard a voice: “This is my beloved. Listen to him.” The next minute they felt Jesus touch them and the vision had passed.
On the way down the mountain Jesus reminded the disciples that when they traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover, he would be arrested and executed. From that point on Jesus made preparations for his final journey and his death.
EPIPHANY – INSIGHT INTO A PARADOX
What meaning does this story have for us as we transition from the Season of Epiphany the time of revelation to Lent the six weeks of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter? Actually I’d like to share with you a joke, because in order to get a joke we have to have an epiphany, an insight into the paradox that makes the joke work.
The night of Ash Wednesday at the Soup Supper, two third graders were talking about why they were there. The little boy was telling the little girl they were there to get a smudge of ashes on their foreheads.
“But why do we do that?” the little girl asked.
“Because today is Ash Wednesday,” he replied.
“What’s Ash Wednesday?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s when Mommies and Daddies begin their diet.”
REVELATION OF LIFE IN THE SPIRIT
Epiphany, a previously hidden truth is revealed. On the Mountain Top in the transfiguration Jesus received a revelation of life in the spirit that gave him courage and faith to continue on to Jerusalem and the cross. On the Mountain Top Peter, James and John received a revelation of Jesus as God’s Messiah and the light of the world – this is my beloved – listen to him.
LISTEN TO JESUS
The story of the transfiguration says to us, “Follow in the way of Jesus. Listen to him. Listen to him, when he says, ‘Turn the other check.’ Listen to him when he says, ‘Go the second mile.’ Listen to him, when he says, ‘Share what you have with the poor.’ Listen to him when he says, ‘pray for your enemy.’”
WE COMPROMISE THE WAY OF JESUS
So often in the life of the church we compromise the way of Jesus, because well Jesus isn’t really practical is he? If we follow Jesus we might not get ahead in the world. We might be inconvenienced by Jesus’ higher standards. If we follow the way of Jesus there might be people who don’t want to be our friend. I mean it’s all well and good to love the poor from afar, but to actually socialize with them. And then there is the challenge to welcome and affirm everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, family structure, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, nationality, political ideology, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or spiritual belief. That’s a mouthful. But it’s an important mouthful.
When our daughter Leah and her family moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, there was a UCC church located right at the entrance to the sub-division where they purchased their house. So on the first Sunday after they were finally moved in they set off to try out that church. As they drove into the parking lot Leah noticed that the United Church of Christ symbol was no longer on their sign but thought that maybe it was out for repair or something.
THEY’LL LET ANYONE IN
After the service a woman who was sitting in front of them turned around and asked how they had found the church. Leah explained that they had just moved into the sub-division and she had seen their UCC sign, but noticed it wasn’t there that morning. The woman replied, “Oh, we just pulled out of the UCC, you know they’ll let anyone in.”
WHO ARE WE TO THINK WE CAN KEEP ANY ONE OUT?
Leah thought, who are they to think that in the name of Jesus they can keep anyone out? Yes, we will let anyone in. It is not our place to exclude anyone. God loves us all. If we embrace everyone like Jesus, there might be some people who don’t want to associate with us. That is their choice. We cannot force them to accept us. Jesus was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. So if we follow Jesus we might just receive some criticism too. We cannot always expect to be rewarded for doing the right thing.
REBORN AS THE PEOPLE OF GOD
Following Jesus is difficult – let’s never deny the difficulty of the way of Jesus. But there is another epiphany we can find in the transfiguration story – a paradox. Those who would gain their lives must lose them. The only way to enter into new life is to die, to die to our old self so we might be born anew in the spirit. It may mean that the old ways of being church need to die in order to be reborn as the people of God.
RETURN TO THE LIGHT
The universe is made up of light. In the beginning was the light – energy. And someday we will return to the light. That was the vision on the mountain top, when Jesus was transfigured into a being of light. Our material bodies must die and decay and be transformed into energy so we might return to the One and become reunited with the creator. On the mountain top we learn we are all on the way home.