Thursday, December 17, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Joseph's Dreams

We have the introduction to the 12 men whose families will become the 12 tribes of Israel.  Jacob aka Israel, has 12 sons.  Two of them- Joseph and Benjamin - are the sons of Jacob's beloved wife Rachel.  The other 10 were the sons either of Leah or of various handmaids.

The oldest of Rachel's sons is Joseph and he is the favorite son of Israel.

Joseph, at least in this story, comes across as something of a prig.  He tattles on his brothers and lords his father's favors over them.

Joseph has some dreams in this story.  In his dreams he sees items that represent his brothers bowing down to him.

Joseph tells his brothers about these dreams - which don't endear him to them.

Two things in this story set the stage for one of the most important stories in the history of the nation of Israel.
1. Joseph and his brothers have a really bad relationship and he has pushed them too far.
2. Joseph has dreams that he can interpret and that will, eventually, come true

Thursday, December 10, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Jacob wrestles with God

Jacob is on his way back home with both of his wives.  He knows that he is going to come face to face with his brother.  The brother he swindled, the brother he ran away from.  The brother that the last he knew was sworn to kill him.

He has sent his wives and children and animals to the rear of his group and gathered the men who could fight around him.  He's waiting for the morning when he will face his brother.

In the midst of this, a stranger appears and Jacob wrestles with him.  It turns out that the "person" Jacob is wrestling with is either an archangel or God himself.  It's not quite clear.

The upshot of the story is that Jacob is able to face and make peace with Esau - because he had wrestled with God.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Jacob's Dream

Well, first of all, Jacob should really have known better then to lay down to sleep at a place called Bethel.

What did he expect when he fell asleep at a place named "House of God" - that's what Bethel means in Hebrew.

But sure enough - in his dream he sees a ladder and hears the voice of God.

He promises Jacob that every family on earth will be blessed because of him and his descendants.

Of course, Jesus is one of those descendants.

Friday, November 20, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Isaac's death and blessing

So, did I mention that Jacob, aka Israel, the patriarch, the namesake of the nation of God's chosen people was not a very nice guy.

I'm sure that I did.

Here is another example.  He tricks his dying, elderly father out of the special blessing that was intended for his older brother.

Yeah, there is the role model you want.  This isn't a little deception either - and oh, by the way he's pushed by his mother to do it.

God doesn't require that we be good to be a part of his plan.  He requires that we eventually are willing to follow him.

That part is still coming for Jacob.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Jacob & Esau

If it makes you parents feel any better, sibling rivalry is not a new thing.

If it makes you children feel any better, parental favoritism is not a new thing either.

We have in this story a very human look at the patriarch.

Remember that Jacob will, later in the story, become Israel, he is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.  He is the one who gives his name to the nation that inherits the promises of God.

Notice that he is not a really good guy in this story.  He holds his hungry brother basically hostage until he gives up his birth right (not that Esau comes of really well in the story either).

But the trickster and blackmailer is not, perhaps, what we might be looking for in the patriarch of God's chosen people.

I suspect that a part of the story of Jacob is to remind us that God can use anyone.  He can use us even if we aren't particularly nice people.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories Every Christian Should Know: The Binding of Isaac

The story in Genesis 22:1-19 is often called the Sacrifice of Isaac.  I prefer the term the binding of Isaac, because he wasn't actually sacrificed.

I have to say that I have always found this story rather horrible.

I understand that the point of the story is to show that Abraham was willing to trust God with the most valuable thing he had - his only son.  The son that he had waited for for years, the son that he believed would never come.  I get it.

I also get that it prefigures God sending and sacrificing his Son for us.

I still find the story rather horrible.  The idea that God would ask a parent to kill their own child is bad enough.  The idea that God would ask a parent to kill their own child and then when they are willing to do it, basically say "psyche! I didn't mean it" is cruel.  While I know that there are lots of times in the Bible when God seems cruel, this just doesn't seem like the God that I know.

An interesting note to this story is that in the Quran there is an identical story but with Ishmael as the son who is nearly sacrificed.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Isaac & Ishmael

God had promised Abram that he would be the father of many nations.

Before God changes Abram's name to Abraham, his wife, Sarai, decides that God needs a little help taking care of things.

She sends her maid, Hagar in to Abram and she gives birth to a son, Ishmael. After Sarah had her own son, Isaac, she sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, but God rescues them and brings them to safety.

Isaac is eventually the father of Israel.  Ishmael becomes the ancestor of 12 tribes too.  From the descendants of Ishmael come most of the nations in the Arab world today.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Abram changes his name

Some time after the covenant conversation - and after Sarai, Abram's wife takes matters into her own hands (more on that next week) God comes back to Abram and says, "If you will be trustworthy and walk in my ways, I will make you the father of many nations."

God identifies himself as either God Almighty or the God of the mountains.  The Hebrew can be read both ways.

God tells Abram that he is changing his name from Abram - which means exalted ancestor to Abraham - which means ancestor of a multitude.

This time God sets some conditions on Abraham.  His descendants must be circumcised (the male ones, that is).

God also changes Sarai's name to Sarah.  God tells Abraham that Sarah - who is now old - will give birth to a son who will be named Isaac.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: God's Covenant with Abram

He's not Abraham yet, he's Abram.

He's had quite the life before God comes directly into his life.  He's gone to Egypt (and told everyone that his wife is his sister).  He's rescued his nephew.  He's been blessed by Melchizedek.

After all of this, God's word comes to him in a vision and tells him "Don't be afraid".  God usually starts his interactions with humans by telling us not to be afraid.  God also tells Abram that his reward will be great.

Abram answers back that he doesn't have any children, so what does it matter, God promises him that he will have as many descendants as the stars in heaven.

Notice that in this first covenant, Abram doesn't have to do anything.  God just promises that he will bless Abram.

Abram asks for some proof, so God cuts a covenant with him, by cutting some animals in half and then God makes some more promises and has flame pass between the halves of the animals.  God promises specific land to Abram and his descendants.  This is the origin of "The Promised Land"

Thursday, October 8, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Tower of Babel

This story is often treated as an "origin myth".  In other words, like many stories in other cultures, it is read as telling the story of how there came to be different languages.

I think that it is as much about the danger of human arrogance as it is about how there came to be French, Spanish, English, German etc...

This story happens between the story of Noah and the Ark and the beginning of the Abraham stories.

So on one end of it we have God running out of patience with human wickedness and destroying most of life with a massive flood.  On the other end of the story we have God entering into a Covenant with a specific human being and his descendants (tune in next week for more on that).

So, shortly after people have just begun to recover from the flood, they try to build a city and, through their own power, to secure their future.  In other words, to protect themselves from the will of God.

This is a common theme in scripture - watch out for thinking that you have any real power, God doesn't react will to human arrogance.

Notice, again God talking to himself in the third person: "...Come, let's go down and mix up their language ..."

Thursday, October 1, 2015

40 Bible Stories Every Christian Should Know: Noah & the Ark

The story of Noah is one of the first stories where we see God changing his mind.

This is one of the reasons that it is one of my favorite stories.  The other is that it has all kinds of animals - which I really like.

But the story is actually about God looking at human beings and giving up.  He can't believe that humans have made such a mess so he decides that he wants a clean slate.  However, he has this guy Noah and his family who are following God's will and who God can't over look.

So God figures out a way to save Noah and a representative sample of his creatures.

This is the first time that we see the number 40 appear - 40 days & nights in the ark - pay attention and we will see this number again.

My favorite part of the story is the part where they come out of the ark and God puts a rainbow in the sky as the sign of a promise that he will never again destroy the world by flood.  Notice that he doesn't promise to destroy the world again, just not to do it that way.

The question for us, other than why we think this is an appropriate story for children, is how are we being stewards of the world that God has made?  How are we using or misusing God's creation?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories: Cain and Abel

This story is about the first time that crime enters the world.  Cain and Abel are names that we know, they are brothers, Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer.

Both offer sacrifices to God.  Abel's is accepted, but Cain's is not.  We aren't told specifically why, just that Cain became angry and God asks him why he is angry and says, "...If you do the right thing, won't you be accepted? But if you don't do the right thing sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike!  It will entice you, but you must rule over it."  It's not really clear from this response if Cain has already done something wrong, of if God knows what is about to happen or both.

So Cain takes his brother out for a walk and kills him.  Then God asks him where Abel is and Cain says the best known line from this story, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

God sends him away and turns him into a nomad, but yields to Cain's pleas and places a mark on his forehead so that anyone encountering him won't kill him. (Which, of course begs the question, if Cain & Abel are the only children of Adam and Eve, who is it that is going to kill him?)

Cain goes on and settles in the land of Nod.

The point of the story, I think, is that we humans get jealous of each other and lash out at each other because of it.  That jealousy is the root of much of the sin and violence in the world and perhaps we need to work on that in ourselves.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

40 Bible Stories Every Christian Should Know: The Fall

This is another one of those stories that you have heard enough that you think you know it.  You may not know it as well as you think you do.

Most of us know about the snake and the apple and the fig leaf.  Some of us know about the angel with the burning sword and God walking in the cool of the day.  Most of us don't remember that the clothes that God gave Adam and Eve were leather - which raises all kinds of questions.

In brief, God has placed Adam and Eve in the garden.  They have been given all the trees except one. The tree that they are not supposed to touch is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Now, you have to think that staying away from something called "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" would be a good idea without the commandment from God, but there we are.

There are a few things about this story that make me either smile or think.

The first is that the incarnation of evil is a snake.  I can think of no better animal to be the personification of evil then a snake.

I love that God takes a walk in the garden in the cool of the day, it feels like God was just out for his evening constitutional.

But my favorite part of the whole thing is the conversation between Adam, Eve and God.  God wants to know what happens and Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.  It's like listening to five year olds say "not me".

The reason that this story is one of the ones we should know, is that for most of Christian history this is the story that was told about how sin entered the world.  It was cited as the reason that women have pain in childbirth (and thus why pain killers shouldn't be used).  It was cited as the cause for many other things that today we find to be ridiculous or wrong.

So the question for us about this story is:  What doe it teach us about evil, the nature of evil and our part in evil?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

40 Old Testament Stories every Christian should know

Last June we finished a two year cycle of reading through the whole Bible.

I thought we would try something different for our independent Bible reading this year.

So I went through the Old Testament and wrote down the stories that a lot of our theology and history depends on.  It turns out there are 40 of them.

So I have assigned them in order, one each week for the next 40 weeks. Some of them are short, some are long, but if you read one story a week, by June 19 you will have a basic understanding of the major stories of the Old Testament.

I'll be posting some thoughts about each week's story on Thursdays.

The first story, you'll not be surprised to know, is the story of Creation.  Actually it is the two stories of creation.

There are two slightly different versions of the story (or maybe just a retelling of the story with a different focus).

Most Christians are basically aware of the Creation story.  "In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth ..." Everything was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested.

I want to point out three things about the story that you may have skimmed over (or forgotten)
1. Everything God created was good.  Every day of creation ends with "and God saw that it was good."  Creation (including us) are good at its beginning.  God saw that creation was good.
2. We are made in the image of God - to quote from the NRSV - "And God made humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male & female he created them."  This is a pretty good translation from the Hebrew. We are made in the image of God - male & female, black & white, all of us, are made in the image and likeness of God.
3. God says a strange thing in talking about humanity, again from the NRSV - "and God said, "let us make humankind in our image."  Did you catch that - God is talking to God and talks about himself in the plural.  Our image - not my image, that is a good translation from the Hebrew too - so, what do you think that says about God?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The end of the Bible Challenge - Nehemiah

Nehemiah was once the second half of the book of Israel.

It tells the story, basically, of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return of the people from exile in Babylon.

The book of Nehemiah is interspersed with Nehemiah's prayers as he goes about rebuilding the walls, and along with them the social & religious life of the people of Israel.

If you have made it this far you have now read every book in the Bible over the last two years.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Bible Challenge: Ezra

At one point the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and several others were all one book.

It is generally accepted that the same author (or at least the same final editor) prepared both Chronicles and Ezra & Nehemiah.

The first few verses of Ezra are the same as the last few verses of Second Chronicles.

The book of Ezra picks up with the returning exiles from Babylon.  They were concerned with the physical rebuilding of the city and the temple, but also with rebuilding the society and the religion and excluding the foreign elements that had crept in over two generations in exile.  There were also a group of exile that wanted to rebuild the religion & society while retaining some of the things that they had picked up in Babylon.  The struggle between those two groups was still echoing at the time of Jesus.

There were four stages of the return from exile.
1. First return around 540 BC - the leader of this started rebuilding the temple but his opposition from those who had been left behind and had to stop
2. A second return about 20 years later who also encountered opposition but completed the rebuilding of the temple.
3. A group about 20 years after the second return (including Ezra) that worked to translate the law of Moses into a new code of laws for Israel
4. A group about 20 years after that (led by Nehemiah) who came to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bible Challenge: Second Chronicles - part 2

The end of Second Chronicles covers the reigns of several kings of Israel and several kings of Judah.  The story that is told is of a people that drift further and further from the laws of God and of nations that are falling apart.

We hear about Jehoram of Judah and Ahaziah of Israel.  To quote 2 Chronicles - "They did what is evil in the sight of the Lord."

The Philistines attack Judah and make them a client state.

Some of the succession of kings try to turn back to God for a little while, but it never lasts and they turn away again.

Towards the end of the book King Josiah comes to the throne - he restores the worship of the temple and bans the worship of idols and foreign gods.  Passover is celebrated in the Jerusalem by the king for the first time in several generations.  When he dies his son Joahaz becomes king.  Three months into his reign Egypt attacks and deposes him.  His successors do evil in the sight of the Lord.

Finally the people of Israel are defeated by Babylon and any of them with any education or skill are carried off into exile in Babylon.  Only the very poor and the uneducated are left behind in a ruined land.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Second Chronicles part one

Second Chronicles picks up with the story of Solomon - the first nine chapters cover his reign and particularly the building of the temple in Jerusalem.

After the death of Solomon we get the series of kings of Israel and Judah that we read about in 2 Kings.

Chapter 17 and 18 bring us to the reigns of Jehoshaphat and Ahab.  There is a great story of Jehoshaphat being called to account by the prophet Micaiah and then becoming a wise and good king.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Second part of First Chronicles

The reign of David

All of this week's half of First Chronicles is devoted to chronicling David's reign.

We pick up the story with moving the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  We get the story of why David did not build the temple.  We get the stories of David's battles and wars.

David takes a census, and gets the site where the temple will eventually be built.

The book ends with the divisions of all of the people who will work at the temple: priests and gate keepers and musicians.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

First Part of First Chronicles

First and Second Chronicles where originally one book and originally they were the end of the Hebrew Scriptures.  But in the Greek version it got separated into two books and put with Samuel and Kings.

Chronicles is not actually a continuation of the story begun in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.  It is a retelling of the story of Israel from Adam through to the rise of the Persian empire.

This week's portion is mostly a series of genealogies which trace the line from Adam to King Saul.  If you feel like all that you were reading this week was a lot of Hebrew names, you are right.

Beginning in Chapter 10 (and if you just can't take the genealogies, you can skip to chapter 10) we get the story of King David's reign.  The story of David's reign is 19 chapters, and most of the second half of First Chronicles, so I will talk more about that next week.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bible Challenge - Second half of second Kings

We finish up the book of second Kings this week.

We pick up with chapter 13 which runs us through the reigns of two kings (who do what is evil in the sight of the Lord) to get to the main feature, the death of Elisha.

Elisha dies and is buried, with a little coda.  Sometime after Elisha's death another man is being buried, his body touches Elisha's body and he comes to life again.

The next several chapters are the the reigns of some unremarkable kings.

Eventually the Assyrians capture Israel and carry the people of Israel away in captivity.  This leaves the kingdom of Judah with no allies (and also continuing to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord)

But hope is coming.  King Hezekiah ascends to the throne and he reforms the kingdom of Judah and returns the people to following the ways of the Lord.

After the death of Hezekiah, kings reign who return to evil ways until King Josiah becomes king and again reforms the people.

The reforms don't last, kings fall into evil ways and Jerusalem falls, several times and more and more people are deported into exile.  The book ends with the carrying of the majority of the people away to exile in Babylon.  This is the Babylonian captivity.  Nearly all of the practices of the time of Jesus are in some way connected to the captivity in Babylon and the return from exile and the rebuilding that followed.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bible Challenge: Second Kings, part 1

As we begin the Second book of Kings King Ahab is dead and Elijah is about to ascend into heaven leaving Elisha to take up the task of being the Lord's prophet in Israel.

We see Elisha predicting victory, helping widows and even raising the dead. This draws attention from the General of the army of one of the neighboring nations - who comes to Elisha looking for a cure for the worst disease of the time - leprosy.  Elisha must have been wishing he had kept a slightly lower profile.  But he does end up, with God's help, curing Naaman's leprosy.

There are then several battles and lists of rulers.  Israel is defeated and Ahab's descendants massacred as are all of the worshipers of Baal.  The temple of the Lord is repaired.  All of this is to atone for the sins of the kings who had fallen away from the worship of the Lord.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bible Challenge: First Kings - part 2

In the second half of first Kings we have the story of king Jeroboam.  Don't feel bad if you haven't heard about him, most people haven't.

He is mostly know for God's judgment being poured out upon him.  In spite of this he reigns for nearly 20 years.

The last part of the book is taken up by the story of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel and the prophet Elijah.  Ahab is a pretty weak king, Jezebel a grasping, power hungry queen and Elijah is a prophet of God who does not have a diplomatic bone in his body.  The resulting stories really should be made into (another) Hollywood movie, the script would write itself.

My favorite of the stories is the triumph of Elijah over the priests of Baal in chapter 18.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bible Challenge: First Kings - part 1

First & Second Kings were originally one book.  The books pick up the story of the monarchs of Israel from First and Second Samuel.

We will read primarily about David & Solomon in the first book and later kings in the second.

The books of kings drew from a wide variety of source materials and were edited by many hands over a long period of time.

One theme that runs through the books is that moral and religious failings will lead to loss of the national identity of Israel and eventually it's conquest by other nations.

The first 12 chapters of First Kings cover the death of David and the accession of Solomon, the beginning of Solomon's reign, the building of the temple in Jerusalem and the visit to Solomon of the Queen of Sheba.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bible Challenge: Second Samuel part 2

The second half of the the book of Second Samuel begins with the story of Tamar.  It is not a story that we tell very often.  It's a troubling story that shows us that in many ways the world has not changed very much.  David is faced with the troubling fact that people he loves do evil things and reconciling his role as law-giver and father.

The story ends with Absalom usurping the throne and David having to fight to regain it, killing his son in the process.

The book ends with a census of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bible Challenge: Second Samuel

The second book of Samuel is mostly about the reign of King David.  The book recounts what was the high point of the nation/kingdom of Israel.  For the rest of the Biblical narrative, the people of Israel harken back the reign of King David as the time when they were the most blessed.  David comes to be viewed as the personification of the nation in the same way that Moses is the personification of the law and Elijah is the personification of the prophets.

This week we have the first 12 chapters of the book.

We pick up with David mourning for Saul and for his friend Jonathan we quickly move on to David's anointing as King of Judah and his battle with Gibeon to hold on to his throne.

By chapter 6, David is King over all Israel and has made Jerusalem his capital and he brings the ark of the Covenant to reside in Jerusalem.  He wants to build a temple for the ark - but God sends the prophet Nathan to tell him that he is not worthy to build the house of the Lord, but that his son will do that.

This highlights one of the points of the story of David - that while God makes great and powerful use of him, he is not perfect.  One of the comforting threads that runs through Scripture is that we don't have to be perfect, or even very holy, for God to be able to use us.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bible Challenge: First Samuel part 2

We pick up First Samuel with the stories of the reign of King Saul.

It starts badly almost right from the beginning.  Saul offers sacrifice to God in a way that is contrary to the laws of God.  God then turns his back on Saul, but his son Jonathan manages to defeat them.

Saul makes rash oaths and catches his son in them and disobeys God and finally God rejects Saul as king and sends Samuel to Jesse's house to anoint a king from among Jesse's sons.

Samuel assumes that it must be the first son - or at least the second, but God picks the youngest who seems the least likely.  Again God shows us that it is not human qualifications that he is interested in.  He has his own ideas of who can serve him.

We get the well known story of David and Goliath and then the friendship between Jonathan and David and the strife between David and Saul.

The book ends with the death of Saul and Saul's sons and with that the way is set for the reign of King David.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bible Challenge: First Samuel

The book of First Samuel is the first of a four part story of the nation of Israel during the period of monarchy.

First Samuel is in two parts, the first part, which we are reading this week is the story of Samuel.  The book as a whole is the origin of the monarchy of Israel.

The book starts with the birth of Samuel - his mother, Hannah is one of the many women in the Old Testament who struggle with infertility.

We then see the boy Samuel and the priest Eli and the call narrative where God calls Samuel.

Then the Philistines come and cause chaos and the people call for a king.  The story of King Saul is a perfect illustration of the adage, "Be careful what you pray for - God might answer you"  The people of Israel called for a king and Samuel tried to talk them out of it - but they insisted, so God gave them Saul.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bible Challenge: Judges part 2

This week we are finishing the book of Judges.

The second half of the book starts with the story of Samson.  This is one of the most engaging stories in the history books.  Samson is marked from birth as someone set apart for the service of God.  He is something of a smart alec, his wife betrays him to his friends, he defeats Philistines with the jaw-bone of a donkey.  He is ensnared by Deliah and hits rock bottom, but he is able with his last ounce of strength to defeat his enemies.  Along with other lessons, this story is one of many that show that God does not need someone to be perfect in order to use them.

The book ends with the stories of some internal strife within the tribes of Israel.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bible Challenge: Judges Part 1

This week we are starting the book of Judges.  This book talks about the period between the coming to the promised land and the reigns of the kings of Israel.

During this period Israel is ruled by a series of leaders who judge what is right and wrong, the judges of the title.

It is also the story of Israel becoming a nation rather than a group of wandering tribes.   It is really a series of stories about leaders and heroes.  The stories told range over the period of about 200 years.

Chapters 1 through 12 that we read this week include stories of Israels disobedience to the commandments of God the story of Deborah (in chapter 4 & 5) and the story of Gideon.  There is also the story of the first attempt to set up a monarchy in Israel and the failure of that attempt.

These are some of the less familiar stories of the Bible, but they set the stage for the later reigns of King Saul and King David and the book of Judges explains in part why the people of Israel wanted a king.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bible Challenge: Joshua part 2

The second half of the book of Joshua is, frankly, rather boring.

It starts with a recap of all the battles that the people of Israel won both in lists and in a dialogue between Joshua and God.  The territory they have won is distributed to the tribes.

Cities of refuge are established - where someone who kills unintentionally can flee to avoid being killed in return.  This is the first distinction we find between the concepts of murder and manslaughter and that they should have different punishments.

Then Joshua gives his final exhortation, the people renew their covenant with God and Joshua dies and is buried.  We are now set to begin the history of the nation of Israel - because they have now become not just group of wandering tribes, but a nation with cities and land and laws.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bible Challenge: Beginning the histories

We are now beginning the last section of the Bible - if you have done both years of the Bible Challenge you have now read most of the Bible.  All that is left is the books that are called the histories.

These books are the ones that tell the history of the nation of Israel from the arrival in the promised land through the rebuilding after the return from exile in Babylon.  This is a period of more than 1000 years.  We tend to think of Biblical times as all the same - but think about the difference in how we live even over 100 years.  Things have changed a lot since 1914.  Now think about how much things have changed since 1014.  That is the amount of time that passes between the beginning of Joshua and the end of Nehemiah.

We start with the book of Joshua.  Joshua picks up the story of the people of Israel at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

God had brought them to the brink of the promised land, right after the flight from Egypt, but they were afraid and didn't trust God, so God had them wander in the desert for 40 years.  They are now back at the edge of the Promised Land and ready to go in.

The most familiar story in the first half of the book of Joshua is the story of the fall of Jericho in which the walls of Jericho fall from the blast of the trumpets of the people.  But notice also the story of Rahab - it is one of many stories in the Bible where someone from outside, who the people would see as an irredeemable sinner, is used by God to work his purposes.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bible Challenge: The book of Daniel

Daniel is an example of what is known as apocalyptic literature.  It is telling a story that is on the service about one thing, but is really about something else.

This type of story telling is used when it is either too dangerous or too polarizing to talk about what you really want to talk about - but you can use an story about the same themes set in a different time to make your point.  Some modern examples are the original Star Trek talking about race relations, which they couldn't do on television in the 1960's but by setting it in the future they could raise the issues or MASH - which is really about the issues of Vietnam, but by setting it in Korea they could get it on television.

The story of Daniel is set in the time of the captivity of the people of Israel in Babylon.  The book was actually written about 200 years after the return of the people from exile.  The themes - staying true to the law of God even in the midst of persecution and hardship - were themes being raised by the group of teacher who eventually became the Pharisees in Jesus' time.  They were calling the people back to obedience to God in the midst of a nation being influenced by many of the surrounding nations.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bible Challenge: Ezekiel part 2

This week we have the second half of the book of Ezekiel.

By this point you probably have discovered that much of the imagery in Ezekiel is a little strange.

The second half of the book begins with a series of oracles - or prophecies.

There are articles against the various nations around Israel - the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Philistines.  A long oracle against Tyre and a short one against Sidon.  Then there is an oracle against Egypt and Pharaoh specifically. These oracles tell the nations what they are doing wrong and why they will fail.

We then have several oracles for the nation of Israel.  These are called oracles of restoration.  They encompass a few themes: responsibility, both of the individual and the nation and the duties of the shepherds of Israel (that is the kings).

In chapter 37 we have perhaps the best known part of the book of Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones. - the point of the oracles around this one is that God can call faithful followers from even the very bones.  God will breath new life back into the nation of Israel.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Bible Challenge: Ezekiel

The book of Ezekiel is named after a priest who was part of the people of Israel who were taken into captivity in Babylon.  He was serving in Babylon from about 593 to 563 BC.  The book is a collection of oracles or prophecies.  The book was edited and expanded at some point after Ezekiel's death and the return of the people to Jerusalem.

One of the main themes of the oracles were to assure the people of Israel of the presence of God with them, even though they were in a foreign land.  This was by no means a foregone conclusion.  At this point in history most people believed in God's of place.  So the fact that the God of Israel could be with the people while they were in Babylon was a rather new idea.

Ezekiel reminds the people that not only is the Lord with them but that the Lord is taking an active role in the events of their lives.

In Ezekiel we see God calling the prophet "mortal".  This makes the distinction between God and humans.  We are mortal, God is not.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bible Challenge: Job part 2

In the second half of the book of Job, God enters the discussion. God's point is that who do you think you are, you little human. I don't remember seeing you around when I  created the world.  What is it exactly that you think you know about me and how the world I made works?

From Chapters 38 to 41 we get the Lord God demonstrating exactly how much Job doesn't know.  God asks Job a series of questions that demonstrate exactly how small Job is and exactly how big God is.

The very end of the book is Job answering the Lord by basically saying, sorry, Lord, I didn't know what I was talking about.

We then end with a paragraph about God blessing Job.

All in all Job is not a very satisfying book.  There are no real answers to the problem of suffering and no real answer to the relationship between God and humanity.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bible Challenge: Job, part 1

This week we start the book of Job.  We have all probably heard the expression "the patience of Job" but in fact the book does not set out to explain the ways of God or to justify the existence of suffering.

The book is very much like Greek drama - there is the protagonist, Job.  God, and the Greek chorus - Job's three friends.  We see Satan, whose name means "accuser" taking the position of the prosecutor - asking God to prove that Job loves him and not just because Job has been blessed by God.

The real debate starts in chapter 3 when Job curses the day he was born.  Job and his friends throw speeches back and forth at each other, getting increasingly angry with each other.

Tune in next week for God's answer.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Welcome Back to the Bible Challenge

Welcome back to the Bible Challenge.  This week we are reading the books of Ruth and Esther.  These are the only two books in the Bible that are named after women (there are two books in the Appocrypha, Judith and Susanna, that are also named after women)

Neither book is probably a true story.  But both show important truths.

Ruth was probably written after the return of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon - about 500 years before Christ.  One of the major issues of the returning Israelite was how to deal with the fact that while they were in exile many men had married foreign women.  There was one side that felt the foreign women and their children should be welcomed into the nation.  The other side felt that they should be excluded and sent back where they came from.  The book of Ruth is written in support of the first group.  The importance of the story is in the last sentence, in which Ruth, a woman of Moab, is revealed to be the great grandmother of King David.

The book of Esther is the foundation of the Jewish festival of Purim, which is still celebrated to this day.  The basic point of the book is that we have to do what we can wherever it is that we find ourselves, oh and that good will triumph over evil.  I think Esther would make an excellent Disney princess - but the story is probably a little too violent and sexualized for that.