The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3

These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom.  The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained.  It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple.  Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased.  But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.  By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them.  Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God.  As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,

Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)

The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him.  This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom.  While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do  is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”.  And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.

Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world.    Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet.  And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.

The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right.    Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.

 

The Bible in a Year – 17 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

17 July. Psalms 106-107

Psalm 106 is titled in the NRSV “A confession of Israel’s sins”.  Confession of sin is something strange to many people nowadays, something only done in religious ritual.  But even then, the focus tends to be on our own personal sins.  Even when a church congregation says a prayer of confession together using the word ”we” rather than “I,” most people will be thinking of their own shortcomings rather than daring to do so on behalf of anyone else.

Sometimes there is a call for national leaders to acknowledge the wrongdoings of their predecessors – to “apologise” for treating immigrants as slaves, women as mere property, or indigenous peoples as animals to be culled.  But apology stops short of confession and repentance.  That’s not to say that today’s leaders would endorse those practices, but they merely distance “us” from our ancestors who behaved so badly.

The Biblical form of national confession is different.  Verse 6 puts it clearly: “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly”.  That is, our sins may be different (there is no suggestion of child sacrifice or idolatry in the later centuries of Jewish history) but we are no better than them.

But is that being too harsh on our leaders?  What is needed is a national repentance, a collective turning back to God. We cannot expect politicians or even bishops to achieve that.  What they could do, though, is be bold enough to challenge their fellow citizens to examine their own consciences and seek to “do justly and love mercy” as Micah put it. In a pluralist society “walk humbly with your God” is not a phrase that politicians can use without accusations of bias, but bishops can.

 

The first 32 verses of Psalm 107 consist of the potted stories of unnamed people (although the writer probably had well known folk heroes in mind) who suffered in various ways – exiled, lost, starving, thirsting, imprisoned, enslaved, sick and dying, and in peril on the sea.  In each case they cried to God, he saved them and they gave him thanks.  It is the ever-repeated pattern of encountering God and his saving power in the darkest times of life.

The following six verses go further and tell of how God actively works for the benefit of his people – he provides springs in the desert, so they can build towns to live in, farm the land and become plentiful and numerous.  This is a story of co-operation between the Creator and his people, in which he provides the resources, and the skills with which to use them.

 

The Bible in a Year – 25 March

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

25 March. Judges chapters 19-21

These last three chapters of Judges tell of a very dark day in the history of Israel, when there was no effective government (“there was no King in Israel”) and a very bloody civil war ensues, set off (as wars often are) by one incident. That incident is bad enough – it reads like a repeat of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the men of the town (Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin) demanding to rape a male visitor, and his host, himself a stranger in the town, refusing, offering a woman instead.  But there the similarity ends: in Sodom, the angel intervenes and no-one gets raped, but the whole town and three neighbouring ones are destroyed by God for the sinfulness of which those men’s demand was a sign.  In Gibeah by contrast, the men accept the offer of a woman, and abuse her to death.  Yet no angel intervenes to save her.  Instead, her husband cuts up her body and sends the parts round the country as a sign of how evil the Benjaminites have become and a rallying call to war.

 

At that stage escalation could have been prevented if the men actually guilty of the attack had been sent out to be killed as a direct punishment for their crime.  But instead their identity is protected, and all-out war between Benjamin and the other tribes ensues, with a knock-on effect with further towns being attacked to provide wives for the few remaining men of Benjamin after all their own womenfolk have been burned in the sacking of Gibeah.   Instead of a few men being punished for their crime, tens of thousands of people are killed on both sides.

 

What are we to make of this?  The only lesson I can see is that it is always better for people to own up to their crimes and sins, and face the consequences, because otherwise innocent people will get hurt instead.   That holds true from the infant school, where the whole class is “kept in at playtime” because no-one owned up or was named as responsible for some small damage caused, to the international scene where whole countries end up being devastated as the result of no-one wanting to lose face after one incident.  What difference would have been made to recent history if those behind the 9/11 attack had given themselves up, or the compilers of the “dodgy dossier” on Iraq had confessed that their claims were untrue before it came to all-out war?

The Bible in a Year – 6 February

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

6 February. Leviticus chapters 16-18

The day of atonement (Yom Kippur) was originated in this desert period and is still observed by Jews to this day as a day of fasting, prayer and confession of sin.  For those not part of a religious tradition such practices may seem strange, but to those who do belong to such a tradition, they are essential elements of it, although various religions express them differently.  For Christians, the fasting element is generally less important than it is for Jews and muslims, although many Christians do observe some kind of fasting during the period of Lent (40 days before Easter).  Confession, though, is still important, for although we believe that Christ died “once for all for the forgiveness of sin” thereby putting to an end the need for any animal sacrifice, as individuals we do still keep turning away from God and need to come back to him to renew our relationship by recalling his loving mercy and seeking his pardon.