Thursday, June 2, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Daniel in Babylon

The story of Daniel is written as if it happened during the exile in Babylon.  It was actually written more than 150 years after the people of Israel returned from Babylon.  It is an example of a story that is set in a different time so that it can tell the truth to the people that they can't hear in a contemporary setting.

There are two examples of this in American t.v. shows:
MASH - which was set in the Korean War and told truths about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggles of the 70's.
The original Star Trek was set in the future and told truths about the Civil Rights Movement, the movement for women's equality and welcoming the stranger.

Daniel is set in the Babylonian captivity and tells stories of how to resist oppressors, how to hold to your faith when it is challenged and how to trust in God when things look bad.

Friday, May 27, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Valley of the Dry Bones

This is one of the best known bits of prophecy.  It is also one of the favorites of clergy, I suspect because it is so easy to visualize.

The prophet Ezekiel is put down in a valley of bones.  We are told several times that the bones are dry.  The point is clear.  These are the remains of those who have died.  There is no life here.

God puts the bones together and breathes life into them.  Lest you miss the point: God is the giver of life.  God can bring life even in the midst of death; God can bring the dead to life and can bring life to places where there seems to be no life.  God is in control.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Job

The story of Job has tons of themes, but the one that I like the best is the way that God answers Job.

Job has lost everything and his friends are telling him that he must have done something to deserve it and if not then God is mean.  Job attempts a defense of God, but speaks as if he knows what he is talking about.

God, apparently, looses patience with Job and speaks to him.  What I love is how God starts.  God lists lots of things that happened at the creation of the world and asks Job where he was when those things happened, or how something came into being.  This is God being sarcastic.  It doesn't happen very often, but it's kind of fun to read.  This underlines one of the themes of the book of Job, and a theme that appears throughout Scripture: If you want to annoy God, speak as if you truly understand him and know what he wants - and if you really want to annoy him speak as if you know what he wants other people to do.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Esther

The story of Esther is one of those that has lead me to tell fifth and sixth grade boys that they shouldn't read the Old Testament because there is too much sex and violence in it. Which, of course, leads to them rushing to read it :)

The story of Esther is a story about doing what you can no matter where you find yourself.  It's also about taking risks for the people that you love.

This story is the core of the Jewish holiday of Purim which features a telling of the story and the giving of sweets to each other, especially three cornered cookies supposed to represent Haman's hat.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Captivity in Babylon

The exile of the people of Israel in Babylon in one of the defining events in the history of the people.

Biblical scholars talk about the pre and post exhilic periods of the history of Israel.

Babylon carries off all of the people with education and skills and leaves the poor behind.

The division of the people, the changes in the way that they approach the laws of God and the struggle to reintegrate as a nation after the exile mark the third era of the history of Israel, and the results of that echo down even to the time of Christ.

The tug of war between the group that focuses on the strict obedience to all of the details of the law and those who focus on spirit of the law rather than the specific observance can be seen in the discussions between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Those two points of view come directly out of the experiences in the exile - and 500 years later they are still influencing the nation of Israel.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Naaman

One of the themes that recurs through the Old Testament is that the God of Israel isn't only interested in the people of Israel.  The God of Israel is willing to act on behalf of people who are not part of the nation of Israel.

This is one of those stories.  Naaman is the general for the army of one of Israel's neighbors.  He comes down with leprosy, the most terrifying disease of Biblical Israel.  When he has no other choice he turns to the God of his wife's slave girl for help.

There are two things about this story that make it interesting:
1. The God of Israel is willing to act, even for someone who has been and might be again the enemy of his chosen people
2. The God of Israel doesn't act in the same way that other gods do.  There is no flash of light, no loud noises, no theatrics, just an instruction to go wash in the river.

We see in this story God acting in unexpected ways - that is another one of the themes that recurs throughout Scripture.  God is often found in unexpected places doing unexpected things.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Elijah vs. Baal's prophets

This was one of my favorite Bible stories when I was growing up.

I love that Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel of gods.

I love that he makes it hard on his God.  I love that he mocks the prophets when their god doesn't respond.

It probably says quite a lot about me that I like these things about the story.

The point of the story, of course, is that the God of Israel, is a true God capable of acting in the world while Baal, the idol is just that, and idol, with no power to help his people.

Of course, we are told not to put God to the test, but that is exactly what Elijah does, he tests God against the god of his adversaries and God wins.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Solomon's Judgement

The story of Solomon and the two women is a relatively well known illustration of his wisdom.  It's a little graphic for our day and age.

Two women come to Solomon and with one living child.  Each woman claims that the living child is her son and that a dead child is the other woman's son.

Solomon orders that the child be cut in half and a half given to each woman.  One woman agrees with this, the other says, no, let her have the child, at least then he will be alive.

Solomon discerns that the woman who is willing to give up the child rather than have him killed is the true mother.

It is a shocking story on many levels.

The point, of course, is that God has given Solomon wisdom and discernment.  To modern ears it sounds incredibly callous.  To people of Solomon's time, life was cheaper and the story would have sounded less shocking.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

40 Old Testament Story: David & Bathsheba

This story is an illustration that God can use flawed human beings to do great things.

David has become King of Israel.  He has been anointed by God.  He will go on to become the father of the nation of Israel.  He basically spies into his neighbors backyard and sees his neighbors wife.

He decides that he has to have her and so he calls her to him and pressures her into having sex with him.  Today we would say that his behavior fell somewhere between the definitions of sexual exploitation and date rape.  It certainly was adultery.  David has broken 2 of the 10 commandments - he has coveted his neighbor's wife and has committed adultery.

Bathsheba becomes pregnant.  David first tries to get her husband to come home and sleep with her and when that fails he orders that her husband, a general, be put in the forefront of the battle in order that he be killed.  David basically orders the murder of Bathsheba's husband.

David is called out by a prophet and repents.  God goes on to make David the greatest king in the history of Israel.

God continually uses sinners - and David is a great sinner.  At least one of the points of this story is that it doesn't matter how bad a sinner we have been, if we are willing, God can use us for his glory.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: David and Jonathan

After his triumph over Goliath, David becomes friends with Jonathan, the son of King Saul.  Saul gets increasingly jealous of David and eventually David comes to believe that Saul will try to kill him.

So David and Jonathan make a solemn pledge to each other, they will test Saul and if Saul is, in fact angry at David, Jonathan will let him know.  They pledge to protect each other.

So they put their test in place, and Saul is after David.  Jonathan lets David know that - they part as friends and David goes into hiding to escape from Saul

Thursday, March 17, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: David & Goliath

Everyone knows about the story of David & Goliath - the phrase, "It was a battle between David & Goliath" or "they are the Goliath" are a part of our everyday lexicon.

So, just to recap, the Philistines and Israel are at war.  The Philistines have brought their champion, Goliath, now, 1 Samuel says that he was 9 feet tall - basically just read that he was big - bigger than the rest of the soldiers.  He was also well armored and a good fighter.

No one has been able to defeat him.  David is the younger son of Jesse.  His older brothers are in the army and he gets sent to bring them some supplies.

David goes to see his brothers and hears Goliath taunting the Israeli army and asks why no one is doing anything about it. - in other words, David is being a know-it-all, annoying teenager.  His brother calls his bluff and David now has to face Goliath.

You know the rest of the story - David takes down Goliath with the slingshot that he used to chase wolves away from the sheep.

This is another example of something that recurs in Scripture - God often uses the least expected person and the person that God chooses doesn't have to be perfect

Thursday, March 10, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Israel Demands a King - and gets Saul

This is a story that is basically about "be careful what you pray for - God may decide to give you exactly what you asked for"

Israel has been governed by judges for about a generation and they look around and realize that all of the other nations have kings.  So Israel says - "hey, we want one of those too, that's what we need to be a real nation"

God says - no, you don't really want a king - kings are more trouble then they are worth, trust me.

The people come back with - no, we really want a king.

God says - okay then, you want a king - here you go.  And he gives them Saul - Saul is basically the definition of a bad king.  He is immature, selfish, weak and a poor governor.

Be careful what you ask for - God may give it to you.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Call of Samuel

Here we have one of the call narratives.

Samuel, who has been dedicated to God from infancy and raised to serve God, hears God's voice and doesn't immediately  recognize it.

Samuel needs Eli to help him interpret the voice of God.

I think there is a lesson for us there.  We need the help of others to interpret God's call in our lives.  It is one of the reasons that we gather in community, so that we can test what we hear with other believers and together discern what God is calling us to.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

40 Bible Stories: Ruth

Ruth is another of those stories with many parts.  I want to talk about only one.

When you get to the end of the story, Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David.  This means that King David himself would not, by the strictest Jewish law, be considered Jewish, since it is the mother's line that determines that.

That is the major point of the story for the people who first read it.  Be careful who you exclude, because the greatest among you might not have come from the purest line.

The book was written at a time when the nation of Israel was debating inclusion and exclusion and purity and sin.

The point of the story was that it is always better to include (even the hated Moabites) then to exclude.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Samson

Samson is dedicated to God from before he is born he has kind of a wild youth.  He kills a lion with his bare hands, he marries a Philistine, and his wife loses him a bet, so he splits with her, he basically is what we would call today an out of control teenager.

His second wife betrays him and turns him over to his enemies, but in the end he regains his strength and defeats the Philistines.

This is another of those stories, like Gideon, God can use anyone.  Samson's life story does not read like that of a holy man, but he does what God tells him to do in the end.

It is not our holiness that makes us useful to God, it is our willingness to do His will.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Gideon

I love the story of Gideon - it is one of the great examples of God using unlikely people.

God finds him hiding in a pit so that no one will see him threshing his grain.  Basically, he is hiding.
So, what does God ask him to do?  To lead the army of course.  So the first thing that Gideon tries to do is to talk God out of it by explaining how unqualified he is.  When that doesn't work he sets God a series of tests.  He seeks sign after sign to avoid doing what God asks him to do.  But finally he gives in and then it is God's turn.

God sets test after test to the men that Gideon recruited to be his army, until Gideon is left with less than a tenth of what he started with.  They end up overwhelming the Midianites who had invaded Israel.

I think the point is that God can use all of us.  If God chooses you, God will equip you.  It wasn't Gideon's courage or vision that brought him victory.  It was his obedience to God.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Jericho

There is so much going on in the story of the fall of Jericho.

The spies find shelter in the home of a prostitute and in exchange for her help, promise safety to her and her family.

The spies report back.

The people cross the rive and march around the city and finally make a loud noise of praise to God and the walls fall down.

This is the moment when the people of Israel really arrive in land that God has promised.  They have come in, and they have brought down the most fortified city.  There are more fights and they have to establish which tribes get which land, but this is the point where the people begin to see that it is really going to happen.  They are really going to live in the land that God promised to Abraham.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Golden Calf

People are people.  Moses has brought the people of Israel out of slavery.  He has led them to Mt. Sinai.  He has gone up the mountain to get God's instructions about what is next.

He takes longer then they expected.

While he is gone the people get anxious and they decide that it would be easier if they made their own god.  So they gather up their gold and they make a calf out of gold and worship it.

They forget the god of their ancestors.  They forget the god who they have seen do wonders to free them from slavery.  They forget the god who has promised them a fertile land.

It takes only a very short time for the people to believe that God has forgotten them, to decide that following him is too hard, to decide that it would be better if they were in control.

How different, really, are we from those people?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: The 10 Commandments

These are the 10 Commandments from the Common English Bible.  I'm sharing them because I think it is helpful to hear them in a slightly different voice then the way we usually hear them:

1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You must have no other gods before me.

2. Do not make an idol for yourself- no form whatsoever - of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters of the earth.  Do not bow down to them or worship them, because, I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God.  I punish children for their parents' sins even to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.  But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3. Do not use the Lord your God's name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won't forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

4. Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy.  Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  Do not do any work on it - not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you.  Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day.  That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you;

6. Do not kill.

7. Do not commit adultery.

8. Do not steal.

9. Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

10. Do not desire your neighbor's house.  Do not desire and try to take your neighbor's wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Moses

In the first chapter of the book of Exodus we get the transition from Joseph - the trusted aide to the king of Egypt - to a people who are held as slaves in basically one sentence.

"Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn't know Joseph"  The people of Egypt became afraid of the people of Israel, they were a lot of them and they were growing stronger, so Egypt enslaved Israel.  But Israel continued to grow in strength and in numbers.  The king of Egypt tried many different ways to keep the people of Israel under control, but it didn't work.

In the midst of this we get the story of Moses.  If you have seen the movie The Ten Commandments (or indeed Prince of Egypt) then you know the story.  If not, I suggest that you rent one or both, because the rest of the history of Israel and much of the history of Christianity is driven by the story we find in Exodus 1:8-14:31.

I suggest that you watch one or both movies and then go back and read the story in Exodus.  Think about where in our faith we hear the words lamb, Passover, Feast, and sacrifice and see how much we build on this story.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

40 Old Testament Stories: Joseph in Egypt

We pick up Joseph in Egypt, he has made a decent life for himself.  He is working for one of the chief officers of the king of Egypt.  He has become a trusted aide.  He is the head of the household.

Now comes a problem, his master's wife tries to get him to have sex with her, but he runs away from her.  She claims that he tried to assault her and so he gets thrown into jail.

While in jail, he earns the trust of the jailer and get's put in charge of the prisoners.  Joseph's life is a series of ups and downs.

While in prison Joseph interprets dreams and it is this that finally get's him released from jail and into the king of Egypt's service.  The king also comes to respect Joseph and puts him in charge of responding to a coming famine.

It is that famine that drives Joseph's family to Egypt and he is eventually reconciled with his brothers and sees his father before Israel dies. Joseph invites his brothers to move their families to Egypt.

This is how the nation of Israel arrives in Egypt.  This becomes important later in the story.