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 – 11 March

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

11 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 8-11

The “wisdom” of these chapters is nothing that humanists could disagree with.  Let’s look at just a couple of examples. Of course, you might say, it is foolish to try and seek justice against a rich or powerful man (8:1-3) because in every society there is corruption.   And given the attitudes and actions of certain “world leaders” at the present day, some of the verses about good government ring very true: “A leader of the people must be shrewd of speech; a phrase-maker is a terror to his town. … An uneducated king will be the ruin of his people; a city owes its prosperity to the intelligence of its leading men.” (9:17, 10:3)

But this book is written very much from the perspective of faith, and there is an underlying assumption that there are moral standards to be upheld.  Religious people are sometimes criticised for making too much of morality; and indeed it is true that Christianity has no “rules” other than those of loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself, from which all other ethical principles can be derived (Mark 12:29-30). Yet there is general agreement between civilised people of all faiths and none that there are essential basic standards in areas such as justice, honesty and fidelity.  For example, given agreement that adultery and promiscuity are generally a “bad thing” and that there should be an “age of consent”, then  we can all agree with the advice here that men’s desire for women makes it risky to go drinking with a married woman, make friends with a sex worker or “stare at a virgin” (9:5-9).

The difference that faith makes, as we read in chapter 11, is that rather than being frustrated and angered at the way some people get away with crime, sin or just being generally nasty – an attitude that tempts us to retaliation – the person who trusts in the God of eternity can take the longer view.  That has two implications. Firstly we can look death in the face and acknowledge our own mortality, something that humans tend to avoid if they have no hope beyond death.  “A man grows rich … and says ‘I have found rest, now I can enjoy my goods’. But he does not know how long this will last; he will have to leave his goods for others and die” – a couplet that may have inspired Jesus’ parable of the wealthy farmer (Luke 12:16-21).

The second is that we can trust in a God whose justice is made complete beyond the grave – “call no man fortunate before his death; it is by his end that a man will be known” (11:28).  So the purpose of all these proverbs is to encourage us to live lives without greed or envy, so that at the last day we, and not the arrogant rich, will find favour with God.  But if you don’t believe in God or the last judgement, then just read them as sensible advice for a stress-free life.

 

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 6 March

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

6 March. Wisdom chapters 9-12

So far, wisdom has been presented in an abstract way, but now in chapters 10-12 she is related specifically to Israel’s history.  How the Jews love to look back at their history – it means so much to them that God had made himself known to their ancestors, rescued them from slavery and oppression, performed miracles whenever the survival of the race was at stake.    But three times in this passage the author acknowledges that God showed “forbearance” not only towards them but also to their enemies – Egyptians and Canaanites.   For God’s mercy is always seen to triumph over judgement, as St James puts it.

This, again, is where God’s Wisdom differs, say from human concepts such as “common sense” or “natural justice”. Not that those are bad ideas, but Wisdom takes us beyond that, into the heart of God’s loving purposes.  No wonder that Christians have often identified Wisdom either with Jesus or the Holy Spirit, the two ways in which God makes himself known among us.

The Bible in a Year – 18 June

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18 June. Amos chapters 1-5

Amos dates his prophetic ministry to the days of King Uzziah, which makes him roughly a contemporary of Isaiah.  Interestingly it says he “saw” the words rather than hearing them (1:1).

 

The first two chapters consist of short but devastating prophecies of God’s judgement on all the nations of the near east, including Judah and Israel.  But note this: the sins for which the Syrians, Philistines, Edomites, Ammonites and Moabites are to be punished are military ones: reneging on treaties, taking entire communities captive, even “ripping open pregnant women”.  The ordinary individual can do very little to change such situations, where military and political leaders give the orders.

 

On the other hand, Judah’s sin is that of not keeping God’s law, and Israel’s sins, expanded at length in chapters 3-5, are those of injustice within its own society – discrimination, overtaxing the poor, trade injustice, promiscuity, and suppressing the voice of the prophets whose message challenged them.  These are charges laid more against ordinary people.

 

It seems that God’s own people, who have been given the privilege of hearing God’s commandments for right living, are to be judged by a higher standard than the ‘heathen’.  This is quite explicit: “You only [Israel] have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (3:2).

 

Ordinary people may not be able to do much about corrupt politicians and military dictatorships, although those of us living in democratic countries do have more of a say than others. But each of us is responsible for being honest, fair and sensitive in our dealings with others, and for that God will hold us to account.   And lest we think that the Bible only addresses men, the women are in the firing line too, addressed as “cows” (presumably as much an insult then as now): “[you] who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’” (4:1)

 

All the people of Judah and Israel had to do was to “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (5:15) – to return to practising the law they had been given – and God would have spared them.  But they would not, and it was too late.

 

The Bible in a Year – 12 May

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

12 May. Isaiah chapters 59-63

Towards the end of this book of prophecy, the style becomes ‘apocalyptic’. Which does not mean it is all about terror and vengeance (though there is some of that, in chapters 59 and 63).  But like other apocalyptic works in the Bibles such as Daniel and Revelation, there seems to be a conflating of the way God was working in the prophet’s own time, and what will happen at the end of history, the day of judgement.  Some of the descriptions of ‘Zion’ here refer to the earthly Jerusalem, being rebuilt by those who had returned from Babylon.   Some are clearly references to the future Kingdom of God when day and night have ceased to be, and God himself is the light of his people.  That is the vision of St John at the very end of the Bible, and Isaiah caught it too.

 

We see more clearly than ever now that when God comes to rescue his people from either external oppression or their own sins, whether in the ‘here and now’ or at the final judgement, he will restore ‘justice’ (more than legalism, rather fairness, wholeness and harmony), a word that occurs throughout Isaiah and especially in these chapters. At those times, two things always happen: those who are open to God’s justice and have repented of their sins will experience his coming with joy and a sense of liberation.  And those who have resisted justice and ignored God, and have let sin take over their lives, will experience it as terrible judgement – God “treading the grapes of wrath” (63:3, one of those well-known quotations that I had not realised was from the Bible until I came across it here).  There is no chance given at that time to change sides – we will be judged on our relationship with God as it has been until this moment.  That is why there are many verses in the Bible along the lines of “now is the day of salvation” or “seek the Lord while he is near”. The old billboard sign “repent, for the end is nigh” may be a simplistic and in many ways negative way of summarising the Gospel message, but it is still true.

 

In between these two visions – of the rebuilt worldly city of Jerusalem and several centuries of prosperity, and the final day of judgement – comes Jesus.  Of course he is not named here, except in the sense that his very name Yeshua means something like ‘God saves’, which is a good summary of these chapters.  But it is recorded by Luke that at Jesus’ first sermon following his baptism in the Spirit, he read the beginning of chapter 61 of Isaiah (“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed …”) and told people that it was being fulfilled even as they listened.  He knew that he was the Messiah, the suffering servant that Isaiah had seen in his visions, and that his role was indeed to bring in the “year of the Lord’s favour” in anticipation of the end times when justice would finally be brought to bear.

 

So, if you have not already turned to Jesus, now is the time to do so, to experience the day of God’s favour, and be ready for when he comes again in glory.