The Bible in a Year – 30 September

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30 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 19-21

Yesterday’s reading finished with a cliffhanger, King Jehoshaphat escaping a battle without injury while his ally King Ahab was killed by a stray arrow.  God was displeased with Jehoshaphat or having entered this alliance in the first place, as the prophet Jehu confirms afterwards.  Jehoshaphat now turns back to the religion of his people and partly (though not completely) eliminates idol worship.

In the short term he obeys the prophets and follows their advice not to seek to go to war, or to rely on military help from other nations.  When threatened by a coalition of non-Israelite tribes (chapter 20) he manages to persuade his army to heed the seemingly crazy advice of the little-known prophet Jahaziel and stand their ground without fighting.  But it works: the enemy tribes turn in on themselves and Judah gains the booty without entering the conflict.

It seems Jehoshaphat did not remember his lesson for ever, though.  After 25 years of mostly peaceful reign, he again allies himself with a subsequent king of Israel.  Although the purpose in this case was economic rather than military (building a fleet of trading ships), again a prophet denounced his action as contrary to God’s will, and the ships were wrecked.

His son Jehoram (chapter 21) was a different kettle of fish.  He started off my murdering his own brothers, married a pagan wife, and was so unpopular that at the end of his life he was denied even the usual funerary rites, and “departed with no one’s regret.”

It would be very difficult nowadays for the leader of any country, even one with a state religion, to stand up in their parliament and say that a prophet had told them not to enter strategic alliances, not to encourage international trade, or not to resist an invasion.  It would probably have been no easier even in Biblical times.   Human nature always seek adventure, victory, profit. It takes a deep faith to live counter-culturally as an individual, trusting in words of scripture and prophecy rather than “common sense” and the desire of the majority. It takes an even stronger one, and a bold spirit, to lead a country by the same principles.

The Bible in a Year – 29 September

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29 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 15-18

These chapters tell of the reigns of two successive kings of Judah, Asa and Jehoshaphat.  They followed a similar pattern: initially they took the advice of prophets not to make war either against the rest of Israel or against other nations, and they worshipped God, and he granted them peace in the land.  But each in turn was tempted to abandon that peaceful option and turn to war in alliance with other kings.  Asa made an alliance with Aram (Syria) against the other tribes of Israel, whereas Jehoshaphat joined himself with Israel against Aram.  Ahab king of Israel ignored the advice of one true prophet and accepted that of four hundred false prophets, allying himself with Judah against Aram – and was killed in the battle, as Micaiah had prophesied.

The offence against God in both cases seems not to have been going to war, as such. Nor was it making war against a particular people, since in the one case the war was against the ten tribes of Israel, and latterly in alliance with them. The offence, rather, was making any alliance with a nation that was itself not under God’s direction and protection (the ten tribes ruled from Samaria being at this time seen by the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin as apostates who no longer worshipped the true God).

It may seem, to any of us who follow one of the monotheistic religions, that it is a good thing for an individual, group or nation to declare its faith in God.  But that has a dark side, as the stronger the commitment to follow God, the stronger the temptation to discriminate against, separate oneself from, attack or even kill those who do not.  There are two very chilling verses here in the account of Asa persuading his people to make a declaration of loyalty to God: “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul. Whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.” (15:12,13). That sounds as threatening as an Islamist ‘fatwa’, and no doubt at least some of them meant it deadly seriously.

What should the approach of a person of faith be in the modern world?  We want to exercise freedom of religion for ourselves, we (hopefully) want to live in peace with neighbours who may have different beliefs or none, while challenging aspects of their religion that we might think tend to disrupt a peaceful society.  We may listen to the “mainstream prophets” of our own religion without realising that when they are at their most triumphalist they may actually be going against the will of God, rather than hearing the solitary voices like those of Micaiah who counsel caution and what may appear to be appeasement.  How can those sometimes conflicting intentions and sources of advice be held together?

The Bible in a Year – 28 September

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28 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 11-14

Sadly, with these chapters we return to the old story of war between the peoples of the near east.  The history is clearly written from the viewpoint of Judah, reigned during this time by three descendants of David – Rehoboam, Abijah and Asa.

Rehoboam is pictured as someone who starts off listening to God (taking the advice of the prophets not to start a civil war against the tribes that had broken anyway) but later in life turns away from God and is therefore defeated by the North Africans, an alliance of Egyptians, Libyans and Ethiopians  with “countless” infantry and 60,000 cavalry.

Abijah reversed his father’s policy towards Israel and fought against Jeroboam’s 800,000 “mighty warriors”.  Despite being outnumbered, and caught in a pincer movement, the fact that Abijah worshipped the true God while Rehoboam allegedly worshipped idols and “goat demons” meant that God gave victory to the Judeans.

In Asa’s day, this ‘good’ king did all he could to root out idols, destroying their places of worship. As a result, God gave him victory over, this time, an Ethiopian army numbering a million!

I’m sure these tales of derring-do and contrast between faithful worshippers of Yahweh and idolatrous worshippers of goat-demons are propaganda that have to be taken with a larger pinch of salt than covered Lot’s wife.  The bit that rings true to me, though, is the word of God to Rehoboam through the prophet Shemaiah: “You shall not go up or fight against your kindred. Let everyone return home, for this thing is from me.” (11:4).  That is God’s true nature: to call on people to be reconciled, not to gather armies and fight.  Human nature is always to seek revenge and turn to conflict, but as Jesus famously said several centuries later, “blessed are the peacemakers”.  Of these three kings, Rehoboam seems to have been the most godly.

The Bible in a Year – 27 September

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27 September 2017. 2 Chronicles chapters 8-10

Chapter 9 records the extent to which Solomon became not only wise, but rich and powerful.  The written record makes no apologies in explaining that he achieved this at least in part by enslaving the remaining indigenous people in the land, and conquering adjoining territories.  The following chapter shows how, soon after his death, most of his own people ‘came out’ to complain about how he had ruled them harshly, too, and they rebelled against the rule of his son Rehoboam who stated his intent to rule even more harshly.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba is an interesting tale.  Her name is never given in the few biblical accounts of her visit, but she is apparently also mentioned in the Koran, and it is believed that even if the queen herself is a mythical figure, Sheba may refer to the Sabean kingdom in what is now Yemen (today a very poor country, rather than a rich one).

The royal visit, be it mythical or historical, was for several purposes.  The queen is said to have come to test Solomon’s wisdom, and was impressed by it.  She was also impressed by his wealth; and yet brought large amounts of gold as a gift, that Solomon certainly did not need, and probably far more even than would have been customary for a state visit.  This suggests that she actually feared her country being taken over by the growing kingdom of Israel/Judah, and was actually paying a heavy tribute to avoid this – protection money, you might say.

So although Solomon is remembered mainly as a good and wise ruler, it is clear even from accounts that you might expect to be favourable (having found their way into the Jewish and Christian scriptures) his approach to governing was not welcomed by the people of his day, nor would his actions be seen as acceptable by most people today.  His wisdom may have been a gift from God, but he misused it in failing to rule justly.


The Bible in a Year – 26 September

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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 – 25 September

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25 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 1-4

If 1 Chronicles was mostly about the reign of King David, the second part of the work is mostly about the reign of Solomon. It starts with the building of the Temple, with which David had charged him.

If there is one thing that stands out to me reading this, it is that the world of the ancient near east – known from the earliest times for its trade routes – suddenly seems to have become much more commercialised. This is summarised in 1:15 as “The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar [a Lebanese import] as plentiful as the sycomore of the Shephelah.”  Going by the English translation, words such as “import” and “export” appear, possibly for the first time in the Bible.

To achieve such a project, which was four years in the planning before construction started (3:2), required significant international trade.  Solomon negotiated with Hiram (or Huram) of Tyre for supplies of large quantities of timber, with payment in cereals, oil and wine.  The chief craftsman was also recruited from Tyre, and was of mixed race – Huram-Abi, “the son of one of the Danite women, his father a Tyrian” (2:13).  Gone, it seems, was any sense of God’s people needing to keep themselves pure by not mixing with foreigners.  Economic progress tends to go hand-in-hand with international trade, and with migration of labour as an essential adjunct.  Which is why it seems to me (if I may be permitted a political statement) crazy to think that Britain leaving the EU and restricting migration could ever be economically beneficial.

The Temple may have had a mainly religious purpose, but its benefits in terms of economic growth, international co-operation and technical expertise were enormous.  Solomon’s request to God for wisdom and skill in managing the Temple project and ruling his growing nation was indeed rewarded, as God promised him, with unsought riches.

But that is not to say it benefited everyone in the land. More controversially to our eyes, the Temple was to be built with conscripted labour.  A census identified 153,600 aliens (immigrants) in the land, and all of them were conscripted either as quarrymen, builders or overseers thereof.  Probably not quite slaves, but ‘bonded labour’ might be a reasonable term, and the overseers were also recruited from their own communities rather than Israelites, much as the ‘gangmasters’ in charge of large numbers of immigrant labourers in the UK today – who often lack fair wages and other legal rights as a result.

The Bible in a Year – 24 September

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24  September. 1 Chronicles chapters 28-29

David, we are told at the end of chapter 29, had reigned as king for forty years.  Unlike many monarchs who reign until their death (as our own Queen Elizabeth has indicated she intends to do), David decided to stage a deliberate handover to his son Solomon while he was still in good health.  Partly this was for practical reasons – having many sons, and remembering the previous revolt by his son Absalom, there could have been a civil war between then after his death if he had not nominated a successor.  But also, as we read yesterday, God had told David that Solomon was the one in whose reign the Temple should be built.  This was David’s grand project, so the sooner Solomon was on the throne, the sooner building could begin.  We are told that Solomon was still “young and inexperienced” (29:1):  we are not told what age he was, but it requires more than a degree of maturity to oversee such a large project.

Israelite society at this time seems not to have had money as we know it today: metals such as gold and silver were used as common currency, along with animals and agricultural produce.  So in order to provide for the Temple large amounts of these were given, by David personally, from the treasury (presumably representing the tithes of common people), and from members of the establishment (tribal leaders, military commanders and officials).  Some of the gold and silver would have been used directly for the sacred vessels and decoration of the Temple; but much would have been used in payment for other materials and labour.  David set an example by giving freely of his own riches, to encourage others to do so.

This principle of the ‘freewill offering’ or ‘sacrificial giving’ is often quoted by Church leaders when money is needed for some building project or missionary endeavour.  Part of the prayer that follows is still used in church services today as a response to the weekly offering: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours … all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” (29:11-14).

The following verse in Chronicles reminds us also that we can keep nothing earthly: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.”  In other words, earthly riches mean nothing to God. The divine being cannot use money or gold, although they are given in his name for work that is carried out in his name, but then neither are money and possessions any use to us when we die.  The only things we can do with them in our will are leave them to our children or friends, or give them to what we believe to be some other good cause. So as long as we have enough to live on, any extra may as well be given away sooner or later.


The Bible in a Year – 23 September

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23 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 26-27

Following the previous chapters with detailed lists of Temple servants, come lists of other people with public duties (civil servants and judges), military leadership, or positions within the royal household.  The military commanders, each with 24,000 men, were allocated a month each: presumably this was a form of territorial army, in which able men were expected to leave their usual lives for one month of the year and do (unpaid?) national service.

I never cease to be amazed that this highly organised society, with detailed written records, existed in Israel (and other parts of the world such as Babylon and China) a thousand years before the time of the Romans, and two thousand years before England had anything remotely similar under the Normans.  It is something of pride for someone today to be able to spend years researching family history and say “my ancestor was a knight” but for Jewish people at the time Chronicles was written, they could more easily trace their descent back, hopefully as far as Abraham.

A people with a recorded history has so much to learn from – including the mistakes of their ancestors, as well as their successes.  One thing that worries me about today’s society is that although the Internet may have made it easier to do family history, there is also increasingly a loss of communal identity, not least in religion.  What Abraham, or David, or Jesus and his disciples, did is still relevant today, and so is the history of our own country and its leaders, but increasingly few people understand that, and live only for the experiences of the moment.


The Bible in a Year – 22 September

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22 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 24-25

This passage consists of the rotas of different extended families in the service of the Temple.  The names mean nothing to us now, but clearly it was important at the time that the whole of the tribe of Levi had been set apart centuries earlier as dedicated to leading public worship and administration, and all that went with it.   Nowadays we would call it nepotism or discrimination, but that was their culture.

Just one verse stands out for me: “David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who were to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (25:1).  We tend to think of “prophesy” as inevitably a matter of speaking words: words given by God, either in one’s own language or (in “charismatic” churches) sometimes in a spiritual language that has to be interpreted by others equally but differently gifted.  Words of prophesy might be given to encourage people in faith, to warn them that they are going wrong, or occasionally to foretell the future.

But here, prophesy seems to be equated with playing musical instruments.  Music was clearly a very important part of the worship of the Temple, and we still have the words (though not the tunes) passed down to us in the form of Psalms. Many of the psalms themselves exhort people to praise God with music.  It is well known that singing has many benefits, both in terms of personal health (aiding relaxation and coping with stress, for example), and in uniting people in a sense of belonging together by singing together.

Singing hymns and psalms, in particular, helps people to remember and respond to the scriptures and creeds that the church passes down from one generation to the next: call out to me “O Lord open thou our lips” and I will respond with “and our mouth shall show forth thy praise” to the chant used by Anglicans for nearly 500 years.

But even instrumental music can be of spiritual benefit, as this verse reminds us.  It influences moods to a great extent, and through association helps people to remember places and events, and the words, thoughts or feelings that went with them.  So the playing of music in a pace of worship is “prophecy” to the extent that those hearing it will be reminded of previous times of worship, or of words of scripture. Or it may just be gentle music that calms us and makes us open to meditation and prayer.  Play on, Heman and Jeduthun!


The Bible in a Year – 21 September

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21 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 21-23

Much of what will follow these chapters concerns the building of the Temple.  Chapters 21 and 22 provide the “back story” to it construction (written several hundred years later, so presumably passed down orally until then).

We already know from chapter 17 that God had told David that the Temple was to be built in his son’s lifetime and not his own.  But David, following the letter if not the spirit of God’s command, decided as an old man to start on collecting the materials and labour for the work before his death.  But where to build it?

The story in chapter 21 of the angel at the threshing floor of Ornan raises some interesting ideas.  David is tempted by Satan to take a census with the implied intention of starting another military campaign, and is punished by God for doing so.  These days only a minority of Christians believe in Satan as a real and powerful personality (but those who do, take him very seriously).  Rather more will admit the existence of spirits or angels generally, and I know a few people who claim to have seen angels. But they tend to appear to individuals with a personal message or practical support in times of danger.  The angel in this passage is different – the “destroying angel” sent by God to bring a plague on Jerusalem as punishment for David’s hubris, and visible to all who would look up and see it.  With sufficient penitence shown by David and others, God relents and spares the city. The personal cost to David of his sin was the gold with which he bought the site of the angelic appearance to build an altar.

Whatever this visible angel might have been, and whatever we are to understand by the battle for a human soul between God and Satan (as in the book of Job), the consequences were enormous.  Israel moved in the following generations from being a nation with many localised altars as centres of worship to a centralised system with one huge Temple in Jerusalem.  David acknowledged that the period of warfare over which he had presided was at an end, and instructed Solomon to reign in peace.  And from that day to this, the site of the threshing floor of Ornan has been a place of pilgrimage for millions, whether as Jewish Temple or (in its current form as the Dome of the Rock) for Muslims.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that, at a time of crisis, God will act in whatever way in necessary to guide people towards doing his will.  In none of this is there any sense of compulsion: David could have ignored the words of the prophet Gad and carried on with rearmament, probably with disastrous consequences; he could have chosen one of God’s other punishment options (famine or defeat in battle), probably losing the kingship as a result; he could have ignored the presence of the angel (as Ornan did initially), in which case presumably Jerusalem would have suffered the plaque, again with severe consequences for the whole country.

But David was a man of faith. Although he sinned by letting Satan tempt him to a wrong action at the start of the story (not that Satan appeared to him visibly; his temptations are more subtle than that), he knew when God was speaking to him, whether by prophets, angels or through religious laws, and he obeyed.  So the future of God’s people was assured for another generation.