The Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

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

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 March

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

24 March. Baruch chapters 4-6

Chapters 4 and 5 are a prophesy during the exile to Babylon, in which Jerusalem is personified as a woman who has been widowed and her children taken away; she is urged to be patient until they come back.  Although Baruch is associated with his contemporary Jeremiah, some of the words of chapter 5, with talk of levelled hills and filled valleys, are reminiscent of the earlier prophet Isaiah. This lesson, of being patient in times of trouble and trusting in God to restore better times at the right season, is one that recurs many times in Scripture, and especially in the Prophets.  God is never seen as condemning anyone to continual punishment in this life (though the fate of the unrepentant sinner after death is a different matter); turning to God in trust may not result in an instant improvement in our fortunes, but demands patience and hope for the future.

Chapter 6, by contrast, is a letter written earlier, before the exile, by the prophet Jeremiah. It warns in vivid terms of the dangers of idolatry, and especially mocks those who worship wooden idols.  However rich their gold leaf, silver ornaments and purple clothing, they have no power, no personality.  Jeremiah was obviously concerned that the God-worshipping people of Israel and Judah would be led astray by living in Babylonia where such idols were worshipped.

It is a strong person who, throughout their life, can resist the example and invitation of others to do what they know to be wrong.  Why is it wrong, though, rather than merely harmless? For if idols have no reality, what real harm can be said to be done by joining in worshipping them?  The point is that one cannot worship both the true God and idols – the heart can only point in one direction, ad it is important to get it right.


The apocrypha in a Year – 7 March

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

7 March. Wisdom chapters 13-15

Chapters 13-15 are devoted (no pun intended) to the condemnation of idolatry.  Of all the sins found in the Old Testament, this seems to have been considered the worst.  The commandments concerning behaviour towards other people – honour parents, but do not steal, kill, commit adultery, bear false witness, or be covetous – were and are routinely broken in both small and large ways, but that does not prevent God from maintaining an active relationship with those who profess to follow him.  Such sins can be forgiven, and anyone who believes in God and admits their guilt can be reconciled to him (15:1-2).

Idolatry, though – believing something other than the true God to be in control of the world (or some aspect of it) and worthy of worship – is a different matter.  If you believe in a false God, no amount of prayer to him/her/it will either direct you in the way you should go, help you keep to it, or forgive and restore you when you fail. That is why it is the most serious of sins.

The writer makes a sensible distinction, though, between nature-worship and the worship of man-made idols.  He can understand (though not excuse) why the people of his or previous generations might worship the sun, stars or animals, for they seem to possess power and (apparent) movement.  Even primitive farmers knew the sun and rain were essential for crop growth, so praying to them may have seemed like a good idea.  But the writer’s argument here is that if you are intelligent enough to work out the ways nature works, you should be able to deduce that someone has planned it that way, and it is that someone who is more worthy of worship.  This is what we would now call “intelligent design” – a step in the right direction towards faith compared with fatalistic atheism or nature-worship.

For the makers and devotees of idols of human making, though, he shows only ridicule.  How can someone who has made an image himself from wood or pottery, or bought it in the market, consider it to have any power or influence over him?  How can anyone be so foolish as to base their life’s decisions on the “answers” that such “beings” give – perhaps by throwing dice in their presence, or some such practice?

We may well laugh at such behaviour, but are those who put their hope in winning a lottery jackpot any wiser?  Or those who trust in horoscopes (which is a form of nature worship as described above)? Or those who have faith in such human constructs as “the economy” or “free trade” or “the Party”?

The conclusion is that “to acknowledge [God] is indeed perfect virtue; to know [God’s] power is the root of all immortality” (15:3).  That is the way that the wise king who is supposed to have written this lived his life, and a path to be followed.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 3 March

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

3 March. 2 Maccabees  chapters 12-15

These last chapters of the second book of Maccabees summarise the whole of the struggles of Judas and Simon against the Syrian armies, to the point where after the defeat of the Syrian general Nicanor “the city has remained in possession of the Hebrews” (15:37).  The whole period, so reminiscent of the present fighting in Syria with its multiple factions fired by religious and political zeal, does not make pleasant reading, even if tales of the destruction of tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians are exaggerating the figures.  Just a couple of points stand out as worth a mention:

One is the frequency with which political agreements and military truces are broken and the lack of trust between opponents.  Many times in the course of these books, enemy leaders hold peace talks – usually because one side or the other has suffered a heavy defeat and realises that they dare not risk another confrontation in the short term – but nearly every time the peace is broken, often very quickly.  We see this in today’s Syria too, where only last week a short truce intended to bring humanitarian aid to Ghouta failed almost before it had begun, and before any aid could be delivered.  The human spirit, especially in times of war, is inclined to mistrust those who have been opposed to us, and only with the aid of the Spirit of God can true peace be established.

It seems a chance had been missed by Nicanor in chapter 14, when he did maintain an agreed truce for long enough for his opponent Judas Maccabeus to lay down his arms, get married and settle down (so presumably years rather than months).  But he made the mistake of listening to one man – Lacimus, a former high priest in Jerusalem who had an axe to grind – and started treating Judas badly, thereby prompting a renewal of hostilities that led to his own defeat and death in battle.  One of the commonest cries of prayer to God recorded in battle is “How long, O Lord?” – usually meaning “how long until war stops and there will be peace in our land?” But the answer to the prayer lies in the hands of men as much as with God.

The other point concerns devotion to the Temple.  We read that in the final battle, “Their concern for their wives and children, their brothers and relatives, had shrunk to minute importance; their chief and greatest fear was for the consecrated Temple.” (15:18).  That, perhaps, was their greatest mistake – by these last centuries before Christ, the Temple which had twice been rebuilt had become not merely the centre of religious worship but a focus of adoration in itself – in a word, Idolatry.  They did not realise that they were breaking not only the commandment to worship nothing other than God himself, but also the ones about loving one’s neighbours and honouring one’s parents.

It is not surprising, then, that in the Gospel reading for today [4 March when I am actually writing this] Jesus condemns those who have turned the Temple into a market place, reminding them that its purpose is a place of prayer.  He then says to the Temple authorities “Destroy this temple” [probably pointing to himself], “and in three days I will raise it up.” Their reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”, shows that they fail to understand his point, that as God in human flesh he, and not the building, should be the focus of their worship from now on.  If the Maccabees and their zealous followers had paid more attention to their wives and children instead of arming themselves to fight to the death for the sake of the Temple, how would Jewish – or world- history have turned out differently?


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 – 19 September

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19 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 16-17

Most of this passage is taken up with David’s psalm of praise at the dedication of the tent of the Ark; most of the text of it appears elsewhere as Psalms 96 and 105. See my commentary for 15 & 16 July.

The remainder is about how David first thought, and the prophet Nathan confirmed his thinking, that it would be right to build a “house for God” no less splendid than his own.  That may appear sensible – for to put one’s own needs before the will of God is to break the first commandment (to worship nothing other than God).  But God revealed to Nathan that this was in fact a sinful strategy, for to regard a fixed location for worship as “God’s house” is to start down the road of idolatry, thus breaking the second commandment (not to have any image of God).

A temple or church that is seen as the “exclusive” location of the divine becomes a focus of worship in itself.   But true worship of God is always outward-looking: it has been said (by the theologian David Bosch among others) that mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an activity of God undertaken through the church.  As soon as we take our thinking away from God and what God’s mission might be, and start focussing on “the church” (building), or the objects in the church that might represent God, we lose sight of the purpose of the Church (body of God’s people).

It was not that there was never to be a “house of God” in Jerusalem. In the following verses God tells David that his son (Solomon, though not named here) would indeed build it.  But it would have been wrong for David to do so, for God’s purpose for David was to strengthen the identity of the nation of Israel and their worship. For that, they needed to have an understanding that God was everywhere among them and not restricted to the Temple or the Holy City (as other near eastern cultures would have believed).


The Bible in a Year – 26 May

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26 May. Jeremiah chapters 42-45

In these chapters, Jeremiah goes with a group of Jews to Egypt, but reluctantly.  They were supporters of Ismael, who had led a coup against  the Babylonian puppet governor Gedaliah.  It seemed reasonable: retaliation by the Babylonians seemed inevitable if they stayed around.  But Jeremiah had a word from God that they would actually be safer if they stayed, because God would protect them if they remained in Jerusalem to keep the Jewish faith alive, whereas in Egypt they would not have God’s protection and would eventually either die of famine or be killed when the Babylonians reached Egypt.


Nevertheless they insisted on going to Egypt.  The reason soon became clear: these people, though Jews in name, actually worshipped a false goddess whom they called Queen of Heaven, and had no intention of dropping their allegiance and returning to worship the true God.  And the incident highlights two common human traits:


The first is not to believe what we are being told.  If our mind is set on one course of action then it is very hard to accept any argument against carrying on with it.  The rebels in this story asked for God’s guidance through Jeremiah and were given it, but it was not what they expected.  When they were told to abandon their plans and stay in what seemed a dangerous situation, it was too much to take, even though the instruction came from God himself.   How much harder it is to accept a lesser authority telling us that we have got the wrong idea, whether it is the doctor telling us that new guidance on ‘safe drinking’ is more restrictive than it used to be, or a spiritual director suggesting that our gifts should be leading us towards a very different type of ministry.


The second trait is that of seeing cause and effect where there is none.  The argument of the rebels for continuing to offer incense to the ‘Queen of Heaven’ is that when they did so before, they had prosperity, and when they stopped doing so (presumably because the religiously conservative king Hezekiah stopped them) they suffered war and famine.  Jeremiah’s interpretation is quite different: the Queen of Heaven was no real deity, and the war and famine were God’s punishment for idolatry; if they went back to worshipping Yahweh in their “promised land” then they would remain safe, if not exactly prosperous, whereas if they went back to idol worship then they would again receive God’s punishment.  But no, they insisted on going to Egypt and back to their old ways of worship.


Who is your Jeremiah? Who is telling you awkward truths about yourself that you find it hard to accept or act on?  And who is your ‘queen of heaven’, the established ways of living that are actually harming you?


P.S. I should add here that the ‘queen of heaven’ worshipped by these syncretistic Jews is nothing to do with the adoration of Mary the Mother of Jesus as ‘Queen of Heaven’ by Catholic Christians.  That is another discussion altogether and one I am not going to get into here.

The Bible in a Year – 17 May

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17 May. Jeremiah chapters 10-13

Much of these chapters is the same basic messages as the preceding ones: the folly of idolatry, the sin of the people and their leaders, the coming destruction and the hint of a faithful remnant who will return. But each time the ideas return they are expressed in different ways, like the variations on a theme in a piece of classical music.  If a message is important then it deserves repeating in a variety of eays. Jeremiah certainly had a vivid imagination, or rather was open to vivid imagery given by God.  Like any good preacher with an eclectic congregation he must have hoped that each re-telling would appeal to a few people and catch their imagination.  Imagery here includes shepherds, nomadic tent-dwellers, arable farming, vineyards and olive growing, and even iron-smelting, along with the repeated metaphor of prostitution (are the sayings about Judah being like a woman having her skirt lifted and being violated addressed to women or men?)


We also see here  for the first time in this book an acted parable – that of burying a clean loincloth and retrieving it dirty. There is also the first rumour of opposition, as Jeremiah hears that his own people are plotting against him.  For those who speak truth to power (even telling the King that his crown will fall, 13:18) rarely get away without facing strong opposition, such is most people’s reluctance to accept criticism and face up to their sins.


The Bible in a Year – 14 May

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14 May. Jeremiah chapters 1-3

Like Isaiah and other prophets, Jeremiah had a clear call from the Lord.  Even more than other spiritual gifts, true prophesy is something that cannot be imitated or made up.   It is different from preaching (which is taking the scriptures along with common sense and a degree of specialist knowledge, and applying them to everyday life) and evangelism (persuading people of the truth of a particular faith).   Prophesy is always something that God puts in someone’s mind and heart and mouth, a message for a specific situation or person or group that applies directly to them.


As both Isaiah and Jeremiah found, receiving a prophetic word to speak to one’s contemporaries is very challenging.  Not only is the word likely to be rejected by many of them as too difficult or even offensive to accept, but the prophet himself is made to feel sinful by delivering it.    Both these great prophets had to feel that God had touched their mouth in order to make it clean enough to deliver his message.


Jeremiah’s message was, in one sense, nothing new: throughout the history of God’s people he was constantly challenging them about worship of other ‘gods’, spirits or idols.  Unlike other sins such as lust, anger or greed which can afflict even the most faithful of believers, and be repented of, the sin of idolatry – believing that there is something that is more deserving of worship than God – is a fundamental betrayal.


That is why the form of Jeremiah’s words is so hard-hitting.  Many times over in different ways he uses the image of Israel and Judah as women who have committed adultery, not just with one lover but as prostitutes with many.  What man would accept his wife back in such circumstances?  Why would God ever accept his people again?


Israel and Judah had indeed gone so far from true religion that they would be banished from the land.  But God never gives up completely, and even in these opening chapters (2:11-18) there is the hint of a future restoration.

The Bible in a Year – 5 May

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5 May. Isaiah chapters 28-31.

Isaiah’s prophecies in chapter 28 condemn not only the political leaders of Israel and Judah but also their priests, who all alike are pictured as being drunk and out of control.  The priests teach the law by rote, as if that is what matters in itself, rather than striving for the ‘rest’ (fellowship with God) to which to law is meant to lead us. Because of this, and the lies and falsehoods that the leaders resort to in an effort to preserve at least themselves from danger in a time of war, God’s judgement will come.


The parable of the farmer at the end of the chapter compares those who continually beat others down with religious rules to someone who ploughs the field constantly without ever actually sowing crops, and uses heavy equipment to crush the most delicate herbs. This temptations to resort to legalism (applying rules rather than compassion and common sense) and to make tradition more important that relevance, is ever present in any religion. Rules are to lead us to love of God and neighbour, never ends in themselves, and tradition should be a living thing, not a fixed way of doing things that can never change.  When Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) he may have had passages like this in mind, as well as the many uses in the Old Testament of a yoke as the symbol of oppression.


In chapter 29 the focus turns to Jerusalem itself, whose eventual destruction is again prophesied.  But throughout these passages are hints of the “remnant” of which Isaiah writes elsewhere, the faithful few believers who will carry on the true faith following the devastation of cities and peoples.  As with the story of the destruction of Sodom, it only takes a few people who hang on to faith in bad times in order for it to flourish again in better times.


Chapters 30 and 31 are a polemic aimed at the leaders in Jerusalem who thought that a military alliance with Egypt would enable them to resist the Assyrian empire.  But Isaiah’s consistent message is that God had appointed the Assyrians to carry out his judgement, and resistance was futile. It was too late now for the nation as a whole to turn back to God, although some individuals might.  But as so often in the prophets, images of judgement and destruction are interspersed with reminders that God is still the merciful parent (the leaders of Judah are his ‘rebellious children’) who will always, eventually, have compassion and bring his people back.  But it will only be when they cast away all their idols that the Assyrians themselves will be defeated, and then by God and not by swords.