The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 February.

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

20 February. Judith chapters 8-10

These chapters introduce the main protagonist in the story, and show us various different aspects of her complex character.  In chapter 8, Judith is shown as a widow who has been mourning her late husband for several years: a pitiable figure, though she had been left riches.  When the siege reaches crisis point, though, she comes out of her shell and takes part in the discussions.

In ‘democratic’ Britain it is only in the last few decades that we have had elected women leaders (though of course we have had a hereditary Queen for more than half of the last two hundred years). Before that, misogyny ruled. But the Bible, written so long ago, shows us that women can be born leaders.  Judith is not the only example – Miriam and Deborah (and as we shall see, also Jael) would have been her inspiration.  In the presence of the male elders, Judith comes across as a good orator and a courageous leader: the Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of her day, if you like (without comment on their policies).  Except that unlike them, she was also beautiful, which was an extra string to her bow in what she was planning.

In chapter 9, Judith is seen as a holy woman, willing to cast aside any privilege and pride and humble herself before God.  Her prayer is in the Hebrew tradition of praising God for his mighty acts of the past, before petitioning him for present needs, although she starts with reference to some recent incident when the enemy’s use of rape as a tactic of war resulted in God (through the men of her tribe, presumably) taking vengeance on them.  At the core of her prayer is a statement of dependence on God which has echoes of Mary’s Magnificat: “Your strength does not lie in numbers, nor your might in violent men: since you are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the  weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the saviour of the despairing” (9:11).

Then in chapter 10, she becomes the Mata Hari figure, the glamorous double-agent who charms her way into the enemy camp as a friend while actually being a spy.  So this complex woman – widow, orator, politician, intercessor, beauty and spy – takes her place ready to let God work through her.

Each of us will have been given a different mix of gifts by God, but not all of them may seem to be used all the time. There might only be one time in our lives when all that we are will come together to achieve something for him that no-one else could.  But as Judith acknowledges in her prayer, all we can do is make ourselves available to be used.

The Bible in a Year – 19 December

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

19 December. John chapters 5-6

Understanding John’s gospel is not easy: he writes in an oriental style in which many themes are woven together in a way that does not work in English.  Resurrection, faith, the Last Day,  Heaven, eternal life – all these appear in this passage, and each deserves a book in itself.  So I have decided to focus on one verse “no-one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44).

However brilliant Jesus’ teaching may have been, that alone would not have drawn crowds of followers or made committed disciples.  Indeed at the end of this passage, following his very difficult teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66).  Rather, it is a sense of spiritual hunger that draws people to Jesus, then as now.  And hunger is a personal experience. We all know what it is to be hungry in an ordinary sense, but some of us can only guess what it is for others to experience the hunger of strict dieting, lengthy fasting or starvation.

The contemporary Christian writer Tom Wright says that the Father’s drawing of those whom he has given to the Son “takes place in the silent, secret places of the human heart”.  How can one describe a silent experience in words? What does it mean to feel hungry for God, to be aware of being drawn to him?  St Augustine famously wrote of the heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God.  That resonates with my experience.  A continuing sense of “feeling restless for God” sometimes takes the form of being unable to relax, even though there is nothing I could name that is causing me any anxiety or pain.  Once I have spent time in prayer or praising God, then I can relax more easily.

Your own experience of spiritual hunger, of being drawn to God, of having a real need for him, may take a different form.  What matters is that we can feel this spiritual hunger when it comes, recognise it for what it is, and know that God will provide the spiritual food in Jesus to satisfy it.

 

The Bible in a Year – 26 September

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

26 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 5-7

Solomon has now completed the Temple, and we come to the grand dedication service.  This was far more than the king and high priest blessing the building and declaring it open for worship: anyone of any significance was in Jerusalem for the occasion, and the celebrations went on for a week, with over a hundred thousand animals being sacrificed (and eaten, presumably).

Solomon’s prayer in chapter 6 is worthy of note.  He is kneeling (not standing) on a platform three cubits (about 1.5 metres) high so that everyone could see him. Why kneeling? It is a traditional posture in prayer (although other traditions favour standing, sitting or prostration in prayer). This week there has been a lot in the media about American sportsmen kneeling during the playing of their national anthem – are they to be criticised for “showing disrespect for their country”, or applauded for drawing attention to racial inequality?  In kneeling, they are perhaps trying to show respect for their country by showing respect for its citizens.  Solomon’s kneeling is certainly intended at least partly to indicate humility before God, but perhaps also to show that he intends to be a ‘servant king’ who respects his people.  He would not be entirely successful in that, of course – what national leader ever can? But he seems to have genuinely tried to be the wise and benevolent monarch.

In a series of formulaic prayers, Solomon recounts the various ways in which God punishes his people for their sin – military defeat, invasion, drought, crop disease, plague, sickness. He asks God to forgive those who acknowledge their sin in each of these circumstances and turn to him.

We do not think about sin and punishment in this way any longer, as we understand defeat and invasion to be the work of men, not God, and the other disasters to be ‘natural’ (though capable of mitigation with good planning and education).   But for those who believe in God, the principle remains that if we turn to him when things go wrong, then he will help us.  Belief in self-sufficiency and self-righteousness are the exact opposite of faith; it is when we express our need of divine help that we can be open to receive it.

There is a notable passage in 6:32-33, where Solomon asks God to treat foreigners with faith in the same way as the people of the promise.  Though Judaism is often thought of as a closed or tribal religion, unlike the missionary religions of Christianity and Islam, the idea of the ‘righteous gentile’ or proselyte who asks to join the people of Israel in their faith is a long-standing one.  Their God, and ours, is a god of inclusion, not exclusion.

The Bible in a Year – 8 September

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

8 September. Nehemiah chapters 4-6

The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem may have been good news for the Jews, but it aroused strong opposition from the people of many other national groups who had come to live in the area following the removal of the Jewish leaders a century earlier.  The basis of nationalism – that one particular group of humans identified by ties of blood, political or religious allegiance, “owns” part of the planet – has been the cause of most conflicts down the centuries, and persists today in many places, not least in Israel/Palestine.

As I suggested yesterday, a “prayer/work balance” is a good thing.  And so the response of the Jews to the threats for the Arabs and others is “we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9).  The working men were also divided, half as builders and half as guards.

In chapter 5, Nehemiah confronts the leaders in Jerusalem who were taking tithes from, and lending money at interest to, the poor people on the surrounding countryside who had remained during the time of the exile.   He challenges them with their attitude of being superior to these common and hard-working people, and forces them to stop these practices and recognise all the Jewish people inside and outside the city as one community.

After that, Nehemiah calls himself Governor, and emphasises that he did not want to use that position to profit from or dominate the people, but only to lead them. It is not clear whether that was an official appointment by the emperor in distance Persia, but possibly not, as his enemies including Tobiah use it to threaten to report him to the emperor as leading a rebellion. Nehemiah has to emphasise that his intent is not to rebel, simply to restore Jerusalem as a working city and place of worship.

The completion of the rebuilding of the wall (but not its gates) in 52 days, using reclaimed stone and volunteer labour, was quite a triumph, enough to silence their enemies, at least for the time being.

The Bible in a Year – 7 September

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

7 September. Nehemiah chapters 1-3

Whereas the book of Ezra (which I have just read and commented on) focuses on the rebuilding of the Temple, Nehemiah was more concerned with the rebuilding of the walls and gates (i.e. the defences) of the city.  In the Jewish tradition they form a single “writing” so they are certainly not to be regarded as distinct books.

Both approaches (rebuilding of the walls and the Temple) were needed; the work of the two men was complementary.   It’s difficult to say whether they were working at the same time, or if not, which came first: a Wikipedia article suggests that either could have come first, given that there were two kings called Artaxerxes.  From a practical viewpoint, it would have been more logical to repair the walls first as Nehemiah seems to have wanted, while from a religious viewpoint the restoration of sacrifice was what mattered most (to Ezra).

Although Nehemiah seems to have been an effective “project manager” in his organisation of financing, materials and labour, it is interesting to note that it is he, and not Ezra, who is recorded as praying extensively both before and during the work.  This attitude that “work is prayer and prayer is work” informed the later Christian monastic movements, and is a good approach for anyone to take who believes that God is interested in the practicalities of our lives as well as the state of our souls.

 

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 – 6 April

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

6 April. 2 Samuel chapters 7-10

In the first of these chapters we hear the prophecy of Nathan, by which God corrects’ David’s impulse to build a temple (not until the later king Solomon would this happen).  God promised that David and his descendants would remain blessed by God without him having to go to this trouble and expense, for God (as they Israelites often had to be reminded) does not dwell in a particular place, as the followers of other religions believed.  In response we read of a very personal prayer of praise and dedication by David, which comes as a relief after the record of several centuries of warfare in which the leaders of Israel seem to have had more interest in conquering other tribes than actually worshipping God and following his laws.  Whether on a personal or national level, it is usually easier to get on with “business” however defined, than to take time out to actually pray and worship.

 

Alas, it was not to last!  The next three chapters see David (or at least his army) engaging in yet more battles, although the one against the Arameans and Ammonites was not his fault, as the Ammonites had reacted wrongly to what we are told was a peaceful delegation.  So many arguments, between individuals and communities, are started as a result of mistrust or misunderstanding, and once started cannot easily be stopped.