The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 March

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

28 March 2018.  Daniel chapter 13

This chapter is the story of “Susannah and the elders”. It is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features as a witness.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.  It does, however, make some very important points about natural justice and the legal system.

This story was written about 2200 years ago, about the Babylonian culture of about 2500 years ago.  Bearing in mind that there was neither written language nor (as far as we know) any official system of justice in what we now call England at that time, it is remarkable that Babylon was known for having a detailed legal system.  If verse 5 is historically accurate, two elders were appointed as judges each year.   That’s no bad thing – most societies regard respected older people as suitable to act in that capacity, and a decision by two people rather than one is generally safer.  But there are other good principles that should be observed, and which failed in Susannah’s case.

Firstly, to summarise the story: the two judges both become infatuated by this beautiful, young but married woman, and plot together to sleep with her when they find her alone (i.e. commit rape).   A trial is held at which they preside, and their evidence that she had been committing adultery with another man is held to be sufficient to condemn her to death.  Daniel then comes on the scene, not having been at the trial, but knowing by a message from God that she is innocent.  He is then invited to preside at a re-trial at which he finds the men’s evidence contradictory, and they are then condemned to death instead.

How many faults can we find?  Firstly, the two elders acted as both witnesses and judges.  That should never happen even in the most informal of disciplinary hearings!  Secondly, there was no evidence given as to who the mystery adulterer might be.  Thirdly, the elders gave their evidence together. When Daniel interviewed them he heard them separately and was able to expose their evidence as false, for one said they saw the adultery being committed under a mastic tree, and the other said under a holm-oak.  Witnesses should be interrogated separately for just that reason.  And finally, Susannah was not given the chance to put her defence, until Daniel’s re-trial.  We might think that was “the way things were” in a patriarchal society, but as Daniel points out, Jewish law did admit women as witnesses and provide for a defence to be made (verses 48-49).

To add to all that, although not a matter of breaking the civil law (then or now) the very lustful desire they had for her is condemned as sinful.  “They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to heaven” (v.9). It is neither surprising or sinful in itself for men of any age to find a young woman attractive, but any mature man, and certainly anyone following one of the major religions, should see there is a clear distinction between a passing look and lusting for someone so badly that he seriously contemplates raping her.

The story of Susannah, then, apart from the spiritual element of Daniel’s word of knowledge by the Holy Spirit, tells us more about principles of justice, law and what we would now call safeguarding, than about religion.  But then, religion is about real life.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 March

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

21 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 44-49

I have grouped this long passage of six chapters together because they form a continuous narrative, recounting the heroes of Israel’s history.  In chapters 38-39 we read of the contrast between the majority of people who work hard but are quickly forgotten when they die, and the small number of those whose fame is remembered well after their time.  It is those few who are celebrated here. Starting with Enoch and Noah, legendary figures from prehistoric times, moving through the Patriarchs, Moses, the ties of the Judges, Kings, and Prophets, right through to Nehemiah who rebuilt the temple, this is over a thousand years of history summarised in a few pages.

Mostly these men (and yes, it is all men – even the Judges are described thus, though they included some women) are remembered for their virtue, wisdom, prophesy or strength.  But there are surprises.  David’s sins are referred to (but without detail). Solomon is praised for his wealth and for a time of peace, but then criticised for “abandoning his body to women” (47:19) and letting the nation be split in two by civil war.  King Rehoboam is given short shrift and branded “the stupidest member of the nation” and “brainless”. Jeroboam too, is blamed for his sins leading to the ultimate exile of the Jews from their homeland.  So why include them at all?

Such lists of illustrious names, of which there are many in the Bible, serve to remind the reader that God calls people to particular tasks in each generation.  The occasional reference to sins and weaknesses is a reminder that none of them was perfect.  The point is that God has an overall plan for the world, and many people have had to play their part to bring it to fruition.


The Bible in a Year – 5 September

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

Please excuse the delay in publishing the notes for the end of Daniel and all of Ezra, with only brief comments, as I was on holiday for a week and only making short notes to be typed up later.

5 September. Ezra chapters 6-7

The account of Darius’ search for the records of the reign of Cyrus is a fascinating one.  Remember, this is at a time when the people of Britain did not even have a written language by which subsequent generations could record their activities.  The Persians must have had a very good ‘civil service’ to have kept such records.

When the Temple was finally rebuilt, the Passover was celebrated, presumably for the first time since the Exile nearly a century earlier.  The Persian king Artaxerxes also gave gold and silver, blessed the rebuilding and even allowed Ezra to appoint local judges (7:25) as well as to organise the Temple worship.  In return the Jews were asked to pray for the king, an arrangement perhaps similar to the medieval chantry chapels where a priest was employed in return for promising to pray for the king while he lived and for his soul after his death.

This idea that the role of religion is to act as a stabilising force in society, connected to the justice system, and that the state should pay for the clergy in return,  is largely absent from our western ‘liberal democracies’ today, except for example in Germany and some other northern European countries where there is a “church tax” on an opt-out rather than opt-in basis, and in England where the national Church is still tied up constitutionally with the state (although church members do now have to pay for their priests, at Diocesan level).



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 – 24 March

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

24 March. Judges chapters 17-18

In these chapters we meet Micah (presumably not the prophet of the same name). The opening story is ambiguous – had he stolen his mother’s money, which seems to be the plain reading of the text, in which case surely she would have chastised him even when he returned it, or had someone else stolen it and he had somehow got it back, which would explain her rejoicing?  But this being one of the periods of widespread idolatry, she makes an idol in thanksgiving.


What is surprising is that through the remainder of these chapters, when first a Levite priest accepts an offer to be priest at this pagan shrine, and then the men of Dan (another tribe of Israel) steal the idol along with its priest, there is no condemnation of them (other than the oft-repeated phrase “every man did what was right in his own eyes”), although idol-worship is consistently the worst of all sins for Jews.  Nor is there condemnation for the men of Dan attacking the peace-loving Phoenecian town of Laish. Why is this?  I don’t know.


The Bible in a Year – 23 March

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

23 March. Judges chapters 13-16

This is the story of Samson, probably one of the best known of the ‘judges’. It is a name still given to strong people and powerful machines, for Samson was miraculously given great strength by God.  In fact, his birth itself was miraculous, like that of several other Bible heroes from Isaac to Jesus, and like theirs it was announced by an angel.


When God gives a special gift to someone or predestines them to greatness, their gifts are to be used for God’s purposes and the benefit of humanity. Samson, though, misused his gifts. He acted against the enemy Philistines in an increasing spiral of violence and revenge.  He demonstrated his strength by killing thousands of men single-handed, as well as a lion.


But the best known of the stories is his relationship with Delilah – far from the first woman he had fallen in love with, and treated badly. Three times he lied to her and caused her to bind him up in various ways only to break free from the bonds (presumably what we would now call an S-M relationship). Eventually, a combination of his own pride, and her nagging, caused him to reveal his true secret, and she cut off his long hair which was part of the vow his mother had made before his birth.  It was this breaking of a vow, as well as his misuse of his powers, that caused God to withdraw the gift of superhuman strength.


Throughout the Bible’s account of the dealings of God with people, there is a repeated motif of sin, punishment, repentance and restoration. So it is with Samson. God allows his strength to be exercised once more, this time destroying the building he was in (presumably the temple of Dagon, to demonstrate that he served the true God).  Even if we have misused the gifts God gave us and mistreated other people, repentance and restoration are still possible.


Once again there is a connection with current events. Samson inevitably died with the people he crushed, crying “Let me die with the Philistines”, much as a suicide terrorist today might cry Allahu akhbar”. And sadly, London suffered another such terrorist attack only yesterday.   There is a big difference  between ‘true’ religion and ‘religiously inspired terrorism’ but people are all too easily led from one into the other.

The Bible in a Year – 22 March

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

22 March. Judges chapters 10-12

Several more of the ‘judges’ of Israel are listed here, although only Jephthah’s deeds are recounted in detail.  Although the length of each one’s reign is given, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the passage of time when reading the historical parts of the Bible.  But we are given a signpost in Jephthah’s statement “While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for three hundred years”. After that length of time, the original conquests had become history and needed to be recited to new generations to remind them of how they had come to be where they were.


As always, it’s not easy to see a connection between ancient history and our own time.  But human nature never changes and I did spot one connection. Jephthah was ostracised by his half-brothers and went off to the “land of Tob” (well east of the Jordan) where he gathered a band of outlaws.  But later he was called upon to join them in a common struggle, make peace with them and be their leader.  This week Martin McGuinness died. He too spent his formative years in the political wilderness as an IRA terrorist, but the time came when he came to see that it was in everyone’s interest to renounce violence, make amends with former enemies and lead those who had once rejected him.



The Bible in a Year – 21 March

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

21 March. Judges chapter 9

A single chapter that records one of the worst times for the recent settlers in Canaan.  After Gideon had won them peace, instead of accepting a leader appointed by God, they accept Abimelech as their king.  He had led a bloody coup, killing all but one of his 70 half-brothers in order to gain power.  Eventually Abimelech does get killed, once again by the hand of a woman (see Jael, 19 March), but not before further battles and bloodshed.


It’s hard to see anything good in these tales of warfare, internecine struggle and treachery.  But there is one ray of sunshine.  The one survivor among Gideon’s sons, Jothan, it says with restrained understatement, “stood on the top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud”.  He then tells the “parable of the trees” to those who have supported Abimelech’s coup, in which all the fruit trees refuse to cease producing fruit in order to become king over the other trees, leaving the bramble to “devour them with fire”.  This a lovely poetic way of expressing a truth, that just because one is good at one thing does not mean one should leave that to seek fame and glory as a leader.


The Bible in a Year – 20 March

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

20 March. Judges chapters 6-8

The story of Gideon is one of those beloved of Sunday school teachers, partly because of the very visual imagery and lots of action – threshing wheat, laying out fleeces, lapping water like dogs, smashing pottery and blowing trumpets.  Strangely, the trampling of captured enemy leaders with thorns and briars is not mentioned so much.  But the story is also popular as it illustrates a couple of things about living by faith.


Firstly, that quality is more important than quantity.  When called by God to lead his people into battle, Gideon started with 32,000 men – still a lot fewer than the 135,000 of the Midianite army, but all he could muster from the Northern tribes.  Yet God says that he still had too many, in case the Israelites took credit for a victory.  He gradually reduces the number to three hundred choice troops, those who were not afraid and who lapped water like dogs (one interpretation of this is that they remained alert and looking around them, unlike those who knelt down to use their hands).  With those 300, and under cover of darkness, Gideon achieves a victory by psychological means – imagine the terror of the Midianites roused in the middle of the night by the sounds of trumpets and lights suddenly appearing all around them! So one lesson is that by waiting for the right time when God gives the word, carefully selecting the right people, and making use of all our senses, we can achieve results for God  against what may seem impossible odds.


The other lesson that is often taught from these chapters is that of ‘putting out a fleece’ that is, setting a test for God to pass before we accept his will, as Gideon did.  I’m wary of that, as Jesus clearly said “do not put the Lord your God to the test”.  It’s not really for us to dictate to God how he should reveal his will to us.  If you have doubts about whether  a perceived call to Christian service, or word of prophesy, is genuine, it is usually far better to discuss it with the elders of your church, than to set random ‘tests’ for the Almighty.


The Bible in a Year – 19 March

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

19 March. Judges chapters 3 – 5

Chapters 3 and 4 recount the acts of the first four ‘judges’: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar and Deborah.  Three men and a woman, and it is only the woman whose name has passed into Biblical history. Othniel and Shamgar are mentioned only in passing, and Ehud is remembered for slaying the King of Moab after diplomatically making peace with him. In any age, that would be counted a dirty deed of deception – this weekend the media have noted the insult that Donald Trump gave by merely refusing to shake hands with Angela Merkel – but how much more in the eastern culture of hospitality?


Deborah is also (in)famous for arranging the murder of an enemy by the hand of another woman, Jael, and chapter 5 is a lengthy poem or song attributed to her. No doubt it reads more poetically in the original language than in English, but remember again this is nearly 3000 years ago, whereas English written literature dates back no more than half that time. Among all the apparent glorification of war there is a human touch in the image of the warrior Sisera’s mother at her window, worried why he has not returned, and people around here reassuring her (although maybe they already know he is dead).

People sometimes think that before Margaret Thatcher, it was commonly believed that women cannot be powerful leaders of nations. But I don’t think that is true – besides Deborah (and a few other examples in the Bible) consider Cleopatra of Egypt, Boudicca/Boadicea of the Iceni (ancient Britons) and Joan of Arc, to name but three.