The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 February

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

25 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 8-10

All that I wrote yesterday about warfare in the Bible lands still applies.  Judas and Demetrius senior die in battle in this period, as does the Syrian general Nicanor. But the struggle for religious and political control of Judea continues into the next generation.  With references to Alexander and Cleopatra (though these are neither Alexander the Great nor the Cleopatra of Shakespearean fame) we are reminded of the great influence of Greece and Egypt in this period.  The battles of these centuries before the Christian era were as much about the clash between faith in God and the Greek emphasis on human reason, as they were about political control and military might.

Chapter 8 also brings the Romans into the story, although they don’t seem to appear elsewhere: Rome at this time dominated Western Europe but Greece the East.  The treaty between Rome (a large empire) and Judea (a tiny country) seems very unequal, but might be compared to the NATO pact – dominated by the USA, if they withdrew from NATO it would become far weaker as a defensive alliance, but the principle of each member promising to support the others in time of war was the same.   The treaty also forbade either side from supporting the enemy of the other with money or weapons, again just as NATO does, which is why today’s war in Syria puts a strain on NATO as different members of that alliance seem to be arming different players in that conflict, and as Britain continues to arm Saudi Arabia in its repression of Yemen at the same time that other NATO countries call for an end to that brutal conflict.    History truly does repeat itself.

So where is the spiritual element among all this politics and war?  It is hard to see, but is in the background. Jonathan in particular sees himself as a successor to King David and other Jewish leaders of the past, defending not just a people but a religion against the threat of extermination.   David had been a rebel leader, later becoming king (and therefore a military commander) but also involved in Temple worship, famously composing many  Psalms. That explains what might seem to modern eyes a rather contradictory verse, “Jonathan put on the sacred vestments [i.e. became High Priest] in the seventh month of the year one hundred and sixty, on the feast of Tabernacles; he then set about raising troops and manufacturing arms in quantity” (10:21).  In those turbulent times, prayer and fighting were both necessary to save the life and faith of the Jewish people.  There are places in  the world today where it would be difficult to criticise a similar strategy.

The Bible in a Year – 23 September

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

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 – 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.