The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 March

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

25 March. Daniel 3:24-90

For the rest of chapters 1-4 see my blog posts for 28 August and 29 August 2017.

These interpolations to the text of Daniel chapter 3 are titled “The song of Azariah” and “The song of the Three Young Men”.  They are put in the mouths of the Jews who, condemned for their refusal to worship the statue of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the furnace but protected from harm by an angel.  Whether this is a true miracle, or total fiction, or somewhere between, the value of these passages lies in the way that people in great danger turn to God, not in anger but in praise.  Azariah’s song acknowledges that God has rightly punished the Jewish people for turning away from him, and calls on him to have mercy on those who do still believe and trust in him.

The song of the Three Young Men (Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael, or to give them their Babylonian names Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach) is one of pure praise. It resembles the Psalms, in particular those with a congregational refrain (“Bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!”).  Only at the end do the three men thank God for rescuing them from death, as if that is less important than praising him for his whole creation. This idea that God can and should be praised, even in the most testing of times, is another theme found throughout the Bible.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 16 February

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

16 February. Tobit chapters 8-11

This story has few unexpected twists.  When it comes to the wedding night, the burning of fish offal works just as the angel predicted and the demon flees to Egypt (how do they know that?).  Likewise, as soon as Tobias meets his father again, the fish gall does its work and heals his blindness (interestingly, Asian traditional medicine claims improved sight as one of the health benefits of consuming fish gall bladder, although it is not recommended by Western doctors as it can have severe side effects on the kidneys).

More interesting is the prayer that Tobias and Sarah offer before consummating their marriage.  Together they offer their marriage to God, asking him to bring them to old age together, and Tobias promises to take his wife not out of lust but to serve her.  That is a sound foundation for marriage – for a couple to serve each other and God, pray for each other regularly, and expect the marriage to continue the whole of their lives.  Perhaps the death of her previous seven suitors was because they approached her with the wrong attitude.

The attitude to in-laws in this story is very positive too.  We are left in no doubt that each set of parents regards the other with honour, and Sarah’s parents regard Tobias as a new son just as much as his parents regard her as a new daughter.  When a happy marriage is formed, both families gain from the new bonding.  Truly a “win-win situation”.   No doubt it helped in this instance that they were all Jews from the same tribe, but even when there is a marriage between people of different racial or cultural backgrounds, it can be an opportunity for each family to learn something of the other’s culture.  It is sad to see, as happened with one of my wife’s relatives, someone being cut off by their parent because their chosen partner was from a different ethnic group.

The Bible in a Year – 17 December

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17 December. John chapters 1-2

John, as is well known, orders the material in his Gospel differently from Mark, Matthew or Luke – he is not telling the story of Jesus necessarily in the order things happened, and pays no attention at all to the birth or parentage of Jesus. Instead he selects those scenes that he thinks most important and orders them in a symbolic way.  The first two chapters are like an overture or the brief scenes at the start of a movie before the credits, that give an idea of the plot that is to follow.

This evening, churches across England including my own will have a service of “lessons and carols” – Bible readings and hymns or other music selected to tell the story of Jesus, focusing on his birth.  By tradition the last reading is the beginning of this Gospel, with its mysterious description of Jesus as “the Word” who existed in the beginning, even before the creation of the world, but became flesh as a man.  Over the next two weeks, our readings in church will include other passages from these chapters – this morning, the third Sunday in Advent, the theme was John the Baptiser; and the story of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into fine wine is read at Epiphany, usually the first Sunday of the new year.

All these are understood to be among the “signs” that John is presenting: events that point towards who Jesus really is, rather than stating it directly.  The nativity itself is the first and greatest of these signs. The angels and the mysterious star that Luke and Matthew tell us about, respectively, were also signs that led shepherds and magi to Bethlehem to see this greater sign – that God had appeared as an ordinary human being.

John’s ministry of baptism was, as he told anyone who would listen, also only a sign of something greater – baptism in water signifying repentance was only about preparing oneself to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus would offer (but only at Pentecost, after his resurrection). And the miracle at Cana was not so much about just keeping a party going, as an example of the abundance of life that Jesus came to bring.  The one who could draw water from a well and turn it into wine would, as we will see tomorrow, also draw water from another well and turn it into a means of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.

As John tells us, “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:21).  Are there enough signs here for you to believe?


The Bible in a Year – 29 October

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29 October. Matthew chapters 13-14

In the first of these chapters, Jesus uses several stories (parables) to try and explain what he called the “kingdom of heaven” – the new way of life with God that he came to bring.  Even his closest disciples did not understand these stories at first telling, so he had to explain the meaning of them.  The parables are intended to be mulled over by the hearer until they make sense in their own situation.  We are expected to ask ourselves, for example, “am I like the seed that is growing among thorns, letting the cares of the world choke the growth of God’s life in me?” (13:22) or “when the time of judgement comes, will I look more like a useful stalk of wheat or a useless weed in God’s kingdom? (12:40-43).

Not all the parables were about farming: others would have made sense to housewives, merchants or fishermen.   Jesus used as many ways as he could to explain his teaching to people from all walks of life.  Yet, in the last section of chapter 13, the very people who knew him best – his immediate family and other families in his home village of Nazareth – rejected him, for they thought they knew him too well.  Instead of being the famous preacher who walked into town one day and started to work miracles, he was to them just Joseph and Mary’s son, who had walked out on his family and now returned.  Unlike the prodigal son of one of his own parables, he was not welcomed back with open arms but with suspicion.

On top of that, in chapter 14 Jesus hears that his relative, the prophet John (“the Baptist”), had been killed by King Herod who now feared that Jesus was the same prophet come back to life.  Clearly Herod had not been paying attention, for John had baptised Jesus, and their approaches to proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven were quite different.    So it is not surprising that Jesus went away by himself, badly in need of solitude to deal with this bereavement, the rejection by his own neighbours and the implied threat to his life.  Yet that is just when he found himself surrounded by crowds desperate for more of his teaching.  Their physical need for food prompted perhaps Jesus’ best known miracle, the feeding of five thousand men and their families with a small quantity of bread and fish.  Other people’s needs always came first for him, however great his own.  Only with that attitude, made possible by the Spirit of God within him, could he face the ultimate test of the Cross.

Going back to Jesus’ family, perhaps the experience of meeting the needs of the crowds with both words and food persuaded him that his ministry to others was more important than his family, for at the end of this chapter he declares in response to the statement that they are wanting to see him, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  From that declaration we get the idea that all of us who put our trust in Jesus can call ourselves sisters and brothers – not only of each other, but of Jesus the Son of God, thereby claiming the status of children of God for ourselves.  But it is only Jesus’ self-sacrifice that makes that possible.

The Bible in a Year – 18 September

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

18 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 13-15

These chapters tell of the two-stage journey of the Ark of the Covenant from its previous resting place to a new home in David’s new capital of Jerusalem.  The capture of Jerusalem had been the last major objective in the occupation of the Holy Land (Canaan), and it had been many generations, perhaps a few hundred years, since the people of Israel had first crossed the Jordan to being the process.

So it is understandable that David wanted to consolidate this victory. When one tribe or ethnic group overcomes another and establishes control if its territory, capturing its strongholds, it is usual to strengthen defences, build a palace and so on.  David certainly built his “house” which was no doubt a luxury compared with the dwellings of ordinary people, but probably nowhere near as large as Solomon’s later palace.  Likewise, it was to be another generation before Solomon built the Temple; yet David thought it important that his new capital should house the Ark, as a symbol of God’s presence, even if for the time being it had to be kept in a tent.

This Ark (not to be confused with Noah’s floating zoo) reputedly held nothing other than the stones inscribed with the Law of Moses, plus Aaron’s staff, and a sample of the miraculous manna from the desert.  These represented, in terms of what we would now call the sociology of religion, the relationship between God and his people being expressed through ethical standards, organised worship and shared meals.

But there was also the element of the miraculous: God had given the laws to Moses in a series of awesome appearances; Aaron’s staff had produced buds from a dry stick and even turned into a snake; and the manna had appeared from heaven every morning (apart from the Sabbath) for years. Any community can be identified and sustained by certain standards, rituals and meals, but what set the Israelites apart was that they believed theirs were all given by God.


The Bible in a Year – 20 June (2)

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20 June. Jonah

The legend of Jonah is one of those Old Testament stories beloved of Sunday School teachers because of its vivid description of Jonah being swallowed and regurgitated by a great fish (often incorrectly called a whale).  Only the most literal minded of readers would take this as a true story: it is much like one of Jesus’ parables, and to be taken allegorically like them.


Jonah, in fact, shares some things in common with Jesus: firstly, as he slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.


Secondly, Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day when he was resurrected.


Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?


The Bible in a Year – 22 April

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

22 April. 2 Kings chapters 5-8

These chapters cover mainly further stories about the signs and miracles of the prophet Elisha during the wars between Israel and Aram (Syria). We read how he healed the Aramean commander Naaman, prevented attacks by the Arameans but saved the lives of some of their men, thus achieving a lengthy truce, and saves the people of the Israelite capital Samaria from total starvation by causing the Arameans to think they were being attacked. Eventually he visits the Aramean king Ben-Hadad, and prophesies to Hazael that he will become king, knowing that he will do so by murdering his master.


Clearly Elisha had considerable powers of telepathy or clairvoyance, as many of these miracles rely on him reading people’s minds, knowing what was happening elsewhere or would shortly come to pass. There have always been people with such gifts, still inexplicable to science, and which are therefore generally understood as “spiritual”. The exercise of these powers other than in the name of God is frequently condemned as sinful in the Bible, and is still regarded with suspicion by many people of faith today, as ‘occult’ powers that some people think come from the Devil.  But when used in God’s name, such people are called prophets, and Elisha is one of them, who seems to have been the head of a “company of prophets” although their gifts may not have been so spectacular.


The other thing that strikes me about these chapters is the role played by servants and other ‘unimportant’ people in the stories. It is an unnamed slave girl who tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet in her own country who could heal him; Elisha’s servant Gehazi who goes out to tell Naaman Elisha’s words (which angers Naaman) and Naaman’s own servant who persuades him to act on them.  When Samaria is besieged, it is four men with skin diseases, ritually unclean and forced to live outside the city wall, who take the initiative and discover the enemy camp empty, thus saving the whole city from starvation.  Sometimes it is those with the least official authority who, acting in faith and with courage, make the most difference.

The Bible in a Year – 21 April

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21 April. 2 Kings chapters 1-4

After the death of Ahab, the book of 1 Kings ends, and today we start on 2 Kings.  The authors of this part of the Bible must have had the same sense of the cliffhanging ending as the scriptwriters of a TV drama or the author of a trilogy. “What will happen to Israel after their evil king is shot in the chest with an arrow? Find out when the next book comes out!”


In chapter 1 we hear of Ahab’s successor Ahaziah, But the only story is that of his death from an accident. God refuses to let him survive it because he seeks advice from a false god.  It’s interesting to contrast the attitudes of the three army captains sent to bring Elijah to the king – the first two command him to come down, and they and their men are consumed by holy fire, but the third approaches humbly and requests Elijah’s presence, and survives. The lesson presumably is that God is above any earthly king, and so the servants of the earthly king must act as servants to the prophet who is himself a servant of God. This title “servant of the servants of God” is one traditionally held by the Popes, and the present Pope Francis seems to live up (or down) to it, unlike some of his predecessors in past centuries who acted more like despotic rulers themselves.


The scriptwriters release a spoiler at the start of chapter 2, which begins by telling us that Elijah will be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.  This miracle, foreshadowing Christ’s ascension, occurs on the far side of the Jordan. To get there, Elijah parts the waters (as Moses and Joshua did before him), taking Elisha with him.  Elisha’s wish to receive a “double portion of Elijah’s spirit” is granted, and after the ascension he parts the waters of the Jordan on his return. Elijah’s other disciples seek him in vain, for like Jesus he had gone for good.  No wonder that people subsequently expected Elijah to return in glory, and wondered whether Jesus or John the Baptist might be him.  But Jesus was seen on the mountain with Elijah to prove that they were different, and it is now Jesus who Christians expect to return in glory.


Elisha starts to perform miracles, not all of them for the benefit of other people – being short of hair myself, I am intrigued by the summoning of bears to kill the crowd of small boys who mocked him for being bald.  Is that really a crime deserving death? Apart from that one, the others were ‘signs’ like the miracles of Jesus, to tell something of God’s nature.  Bitter water made drinkable, water provided for the Israelite army, an endless supply of oil, resurrecting the dead son of a poor woman who had fed him, a poisonous stew made palatable, and finally (a story that Jesus must have had in mind when he fed the 5000 people with twelve barley loaves) feeding a hundred people with twenty loaves.  Note the prevalence of food and water in these miracles: when Jesus, who promised the water of life and the bread of heaven to his followers, tells us to pray “give us this day our daily bread” (or “our bread for tomorrow” as some translations have it) he really means it, both spiritually and physically!


The Bible in a Year – 18 April

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

18 April. 1 Kings chapters 15-17

The first two of these chapters are grim reading, as we hear of several generations in which the civil war between Judah and the rest of Israel continued under several ‘kings’ on both sides.  These ‘kings’ were not worthy of the name: most of them gained power by force, and nearly all of them, with the exception of Asa of Judah, “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (i.e. acted selfishly with no regard for the common people, and tolerated idolatry).  Finally (in this list) comes Ahab of Israel, who was the worst of them all, for he not only tolerated idolatry in the land but took a foreign and evil wife (Jezebel, whose name would become a byword for a wicked woman) and set up a temple to the arch-idol Baal in his own city of Samaria.


Onto this scene suddenly emerges the prophet Elijah, who would become the greatest figure of the whole Old Testament after Abraham and Moses. And with him comes a welcome relief from stories of war, infighting and idolatry.  Elijah may have proclaimed doom to the king and his house for their apostasy, but he was not part of the establishment, nor the army, rather an ascetic prophet who was willing to be humbled by the God who called him to live in the desert on bread and water (and carrion brought to him by ravens) and then come to the aid of an ordinary family caught up in the civil war and in drought.


The three years’ drought that Elijah predicted as God’s punishment for Ahab’s sins is apparently recorded in non-Jewish literature so it can be regarded as historical.  But we have to take on faith the story of the miraculous provision of flour and oil that saw the family through the crisis, and Elijah’s resuscitation of the widow’s son.    This story brings us back home to the reality of much of the near east and north-east Africa in our time: war and drought combine to destroy whole populations.  I have recently met a refugee from one of those countries and her son, and can imagine them as I read of the family at Zarephath.  God is never concerned only with whole populations, but passionately cares for the sufferings of each individual.


The Bible in a Year – 20 February

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

20 February, Numbers 21-22

There are two miracles presented here, one in each of these chapters.  In the first, people who were bitten by venomous snakes could be healed by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole.  Apparently this imagery was known throughout the ancient near east, and the Canaanites had serpent idols of similar form.  So why does God invite Moses to make what could so easily be taken as an idol, in order to bring genuine healing?  Jesus famously made a comparison between “the serpent lifted up in the wilderness” and his own crucifixion, by which he became the saviour of the world.  Perhaps the point is that the healing miracle would be dependent on the sufferer’s faith in God, rather than in the image itself, just as salvation through Jesus is always to be through faith and not “magic”.


The other miracle is Balaam’s ass (donkey), which sees the angel that was invisible to its rider, and turned aside three times, being beaten for what Balaam presumed was stubbornness. The donkey then speaks to its rider who does not seem at all astonished by this, and the angel (who had come to warn Balaam not to curse God’s chosen people) is then revealed.  What are we to make of all this?  It is true that some animals can detect things that humans cannot – there are many stories of dogs or cats apparently seeing ghosts, for example. Some Christians would add that animals can actually have faith in God – after all, Jesus did speak of the “birds of the air” who do not worry because they know that God will feed them. But a talking donkey?  That really is a miracle!