The Apocrypha in Lent – 14 February

Last year I set up this blog to share my thoughts as I read through the Bible in a year.  That is, the regular “Protestant” bible of Old and New Testaments.

But there are other sacred books  from the time of Jesus or a few centuries before, that are regarded by some (but not all) Christians – particularly  Roman Catholics – as part of the Bible.   So for completeness I am covering those in the period of Lent 2018.   The version of the Bible I am using is the Jerusalem Bible “Popular edition”.

Any views expressed here are my own.  If my thoughts are helpful, let me know.  If you disagree, you’re welcome to add polite comments – I’m no fundamentalist. But this isn’t a forum for theological argument, there are plenty of others out there if that’s what you want.

From time to time I may also post other articles not related to the Bible reading, but as the Bible is actually all about real life, that seems appropriate.

I take copyright seriously, so if you want to quote me extensively, please either credit me or link back to the original blog post.

Blessings

Stephen Craven

14 February. Tobit chapters 1-4
The book of Tobit, like some others in the Old Testament that tell of one person’s miraculous life (e.g. Job, Esther and Jonah) is generally regarded as edifying fiction, rather than a historical account. We need not be worried about this – Jesus used stories about fictional people to make important points about God and the relationships between God and people, or between people.

This is an appropriate place to start the Apocrypha, on Wednesday 14 February 2018. Firstly, it is Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent, when Christians confess their sin, pledge themselves to live simply and focus more on God (at least for the next six weeks until Easter) and practice good works such as giving to charity (or almsgiving, as it used to be called).

The story of Tobit is told in the first person. He presents himself as a faithful Jew living in unfaithful times: his own Jewish tribe had turned to idolatry, yet he still went to Jerusalem to worship; he was exiled among foreigners, yet kept the faith and the rules of kosher; when politics turned against him he became poor, yet still remained faithful to God. Even when, like Job, he suffered physical torment (being blinded by bird droppings) he remained true. At the core of his ethics was the giving of alms.

So on this Ash Wednesday we can take Tobit as an example for a life focussed on our relationship with God, and meeting the needs of other people.

What did eventually break Tobit’s spirit so that he asked God to be allowed to die was when he did not believe his wife, whose story of being given a kid got as a present was actually true. Meanwhile, we are told, it is by the will of God and the ministry of an archangel that at the same time, his relative Sarah in a distant land also finds herself turning to God in despair, as her family has run out of male relatives who can be offered as her fiancé, after seven have died during their engagement (this, remember, is probably fiction, but well plotted fiction).

Sometimes it is the little things that “get us”. An emotionally strong person who can cope with human suffering in their lives may find themselves crying over a character in a well told story; a ruthless person may yet find tenderness in one particular relationship or in the frustrations of unrequited love.

Today is also Valentine’s day, when we remember a saint who was no shrinking violet: soldier and martyr, a tough guy, yet he gave his name to both bold acts of self-sacrifice, and the intimate acts of devoted caring, both of which we call love.

So whether it is a romantic meal with your partner, or giving food to the hungry, or standing up for your faith in the face of persecution, may Valentine bless you today with the love of God.

The Bible in a Year – 19 February

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

19 February. Numbers chapters 18-20

The implications of the attempted rebellion against God and his appointed leaders in yesterday’s reading went further than the immediate death of many of the people.  “From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die” (18:22) represents a permanent exclusion of the ordinary people from the very place – the tent of meeting – in which they were supposed to meet with God.  From now on only the priests and Levites could enter it.  In the later days of the stone Temple this was replicated as a series of courtyards for gentiles, women, lay men and priests before getting to the most holy place that only the high priest could enter.

 

What a change is represented by Christian worship: although the layout of large churches and cathedrals still bears echoes of this (narthex, nave, chancel and sanctuary) nowhere is actually “out of bounds” to ordinary people, and all are welcome to enter and seek God.  That is why the charging of fixed admission fees by some of the more popular cathedrals is controversial: many people think they should only request donations and not charge for what should be an opportunity to encounter holiness.

 

Chapter 19 includes a further purification ceremony:the sacrifice of a red heifer whose ashes when mixed with water would be used to purify people from ritual uncleanness. The nearest we see to that is Christian practice is probably the Ash Wednesday ritual when palm crosses from Holy Week the previous year are burned and their ashes mixed with oil and used to make a mark on the foreheads of those who come to make their Lenten confession.

 

In chapter 20 another miracle occurs when God provides water from the rock in a dry place.  Moses and Aaron make the mistake of failing to credit God for the miracle, so that it looks as if they themselves can make magic. As a result they are condemned to die before reaching the promised land.  It is always important to distinguish between natural talent and God-given gifts, though not always easy to do so.