Tag Archives: Context

Letters, Numbers, Part and Whole

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:1, 7 (NIV)

I am currently leading a team of teachers among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers as we share messages from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. [My kick-off message in the series on YouTube if you’re interested]

One of the first things that I did was to take the text of 1 Corinthians, strip it of all headings, footnotes, text notes, cross references, along with chapter and verse numbers. Then I put the text in a hand written font and handed it out to my team. “Here is Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth,” I told them. “Put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Corinthian believers and read it as if you just got it out of your mailbox.” The process has been transformational.

It’s amazing how the simple act of separating original, ancient texts into chapters and verses can alter our reading and understanding. I’m sure there are some readers who don’t even stop and consider that the Bible wasn’t originally written with all those numbers. They were added by scribes centuries later, and in doing so they sometimes detract from the writers’ original works.

Take today’s chapter for example. In yesterday’s chapter I mentioned Zechariah’s word from God  in which God speaks of the people looking upon Him, “the one they have pierced“, and mourn as mourning for the firstborn son. It’s a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross, pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear, as they sky darkens, the earth shakes, and His followers look on in disbelief. Then I got to the end of chapter 12 on this chapter-a-day journey and stopped reading.

Today I picked up with chapter 13 as if it’s a completely new section or thought and read the first verse:

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

This verse is a continuation of yesterday’s vision that foreshadows Jesus’ death, but in my one chapter a day habit it’s easy to think of this verse in my daily time capsule existence independent of yesterday’s chapter. But it was all one vision, one thought, one piece of writing. The death and piercing and mourning were all about God cleansing the people of sin and impurity. If I don’t connect the two chapters as one text I miss a crucial understanding of the whole thing in the same way that reading a hand-written letter as a bunch of independent verses and chapters loses its original intent as a personal letter from Paul to his friends in Greece.

Zac’s amazing prophetic roll continues today, describing the “shepherd” who is “struck” and the flock is scattered. Two-thirds are decimated and one-third survives but is “refined” by the process. Once again I find an uncanny description of the events of Jesus and  His followers in the first century. After Jesus’ death His followers scatter in fear for their lives, but instead of snuffing out the movement Jesus started it actually gains momentum. This momentum eventually sparks terrible persecution from the religious and Roman establishment. Jesus’ followers are hunted down, fed to lions in the Roman circus, stoned to death, impaled on pikes and burned alive to light Caesar’s garden. Many of them were wiped out just as Zechariah’s vision describes but it did not destroy the faith of those who survived. It refined their faith and made it stronger. Eventually, a few hundred years later, even Caesar becomes a believer.

This morning I find myself once again mulling over parts and whole. The first verse of today’s chapter doesn’t make sense apart from the previous chapter. Jesus’ death and the events of believers in the first century are made more meaningful and poignant when seen in light of Zechariah’s prophetic words penned 500 years earlier. In the same way people across the centuries have taken individual verses from the text of the Bible both to make inspirational Pinterest graphics and to justify all sorts of horrific acts of judgement, prejudice, violence, hatred, and persecution.

Some verses have incredible meaning in and of themselves, but I’ve come to understand that meaning should never be separated from the context of the author’s work and the Great Story that God is revealing across time, space, history and creation.

A Very Different Time and Place

The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”

Remember Pearl Harbor” was a popular phrase in the years of World War II. It was a reminder to all Americans that the United States had been attacked by the Japanese without warning or provocation. To this day, most Americans need only see the number 9/11 to raise up similar feelings of sadness, grief, disbelief and anger. While trends on twitter may come and go in minutes, there are some events for which national memory is slow to forget.

For Moses and the Hebrew tribes, the phrase “Remember Peor” may have been a similar phrase. Just a number of chapters back we read the story of how the Israelites were camped near the Midianite town of Peor. The Midianite King tried to hire a well-known seer named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam couldn’t do it because he knew God had blessed them. So, Balaam conjured a clandestine plan to subvert the Israelites. Midianite maidens were sent to seduce Israelite men and convince them to worship their Midianite gods. To the ancient Israelites, the seduction of their men into worshipping the Canaanite dieties was more heinous and personal than a surprise military or terror attack.

In today’s chapter, Moses is at the end of his tenure as leader. His last task as leader of the Israelites is to close the loop on the Peor incident. The Midianites are destroyed along with Balaam the seer.

Chapters like today’s are difficult for 21st century readers to comprehend. We cannot comprehend the kill-or-be-killed reality of daily life in the time of Moses. We cannot comprehend living in a time when most humans didn’t live past 15 years of age, and if you were fortunate enough to make it to 15 your life expectancy was still only somewhere between 25-35 years of age.

This morning I’m gratefully meditating on the amazing time and place of history in which I’m fortunate enough to make my life journey. I’m conscious of how totally clueless I am at understanding the realities of Moses’ time, place, and culture. I’m thinking about how Jesus changed the entire paradigm of conversation. In the early chapters of human history, Moses and Aaron were all about building a nation and system of worship that would survive the horrific realities of life on earth in those days. Jesus quite consciously spoke about a very different Kingdom and urged those who follow Him to usher that Kingdom to earth through our thoughts, words, and acts of loving-kindness, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Line Gisters and Line Nazis

Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!”

He answered, “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Numbers 23:11-12 (NIV)

I have found among actors that there is a rarely discussed spectrum. It parallels the ongoing legal debate about our Constitution here in America, between those who interpret the Constitution as a “living document” versus those who interpret it in context of its “original intent” as written.

On one end of the on-stage spectrum are those who memorize their part of the script and present the general gist of a line. They call it good. Let’s call them the “Line Gisters.” At the other end of the spectrum are those we will lovingly refer to as “Line Nazis.” Line Nazis are rabid defenders of the script, word-for-word, as written.

The playwright wrote these words for a reason,” a Line Nazi will passionately admonish his/her fellow actors. The Line Nazi then explains that changing a word or two here or there can change the entire interpretation of a line (and thus the play itself, and the intent of the playwright).  In my experience it’s at this point that the “Line Gisters” proceed to roll their eyes, the Line Nazis grumble in frustration, and the rehearsal continues.

I’ll confess to you that I have spent most of my theatre journey at the Line Gister end of the spectrum. Then, I actually wrote a couple of plays and had the privilege of watching them being produced. For the first time I began to feel personally what my Line Nazi brethren had been preaching to me all along. I was suddenly on the other side of the spectrum seeing things from a different perspective. Line Gisters would memorize and deliver a loose version of the words that I had written. Sometimes it wasn’t a big deal, but other times I had specifically crafted that line for a reason! Just getting the “gist” of it didn’t cut the mustard.

In today’s chapter, the mysterious seer Balaam continues his cameo role in the story of the Hebrews wilderness wanderings. King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Hebrew hoard camping on his borders. Multiple times Balaam speaks the words God gives him, and each time it is not what Balak paid Balaam to say. Rather than cursing the Hebrews, Balaam blesses them.

Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” Balaam asks his prophetic patron.

Balaam understood that it was important to deliver the line as written.

God’s Message is just like the Constitution or any playwright’s script. Words can be interpreted in context or out of context. Lines can be quoted verbatim or butchered in an effort to communicate the gist. The words end up in the hands of the expositor and out of the control of the originator and/or author.

As a reformed Line Gister I confess that my years on that end of the spectrum were rooted in a generous portion of laziness and a general lack of discipline. This morning I find myself appreciating Balaam’s fidelity to deliver the words as given to him by God, heedless of the reaction of his patron. I find it honorable. I’m not sure you can call me a full-fledged Line Nazi (still working on that laziness and self-discipline), but it is a character trait I increasingly desire to exemplify in my own life, both on stage and off.

(Line Nazis Unite!)

The Simple Lesson Between the Lines

[Azariah] was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-two years.
2 Kings 15:2 (NIV)

Sometimes the greatest lessons that come out of the chapter are not within the text but within the context. The lesson isn’t within the lines, but between them.

The scribes who penned 2 Kings were chronicling the history of the kings of both divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They wrote it so that I, as a reader, can get a sense of the timing of the overlapping reigns between the two kingdoms.

Today’s chapter begins with Judah’s king Azariah (aka Uzziah) who came to the throne at 16 and reigned for 52 years (FYI: He was a co-regent with his father for the first 25). A leper, he lived a relatively quiet and secluded life. The scribes point out that Azariah, while not perfect, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

The bulk of today’s chapter then goes on to describe a string of kings of Israel:

  • Zechariah (6 months) publicly assassinated by…
  • Shallum (1 month) assassinated by…
  • Menahem (10 years) handed the throne to his son…
  • Pekehiah (2 years) assassinated by…
  • Pekah (20 years) assassinated by…
  • Hoshea

Yikes! Talk about political chaos. In each listing of the this bloody string of successors the scribes point out the monarchs of the northern kingdom of Israel “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

A long my spiritual journey I’ve learned that there is a balance between embracing that some things of the Spirit are very simple while also accepting that there are no simple answers to some of life’s complexities. It’s too simplistic say that Azariah had a long and prosperous reign because he did good and the kings of Israel had comparatively short reigns marked by violent ends because they did evil. That easily leads down the dualistic, transactional mindset of “If I’m good God will like me and bless me and I will succeed, and if I do bad God will punish me and I won’t succeed.” Both life and the spiritual journey are far deeper and more mysterious.

At the same time, there is simple wisdom in understanding that I experience a certain peace and stability to life when I’m following Jesus and actively attempting to conform my life to His will and His teaching (like Azariah). There is also a certain fear, anxiety and chaos to life when I’m living only for myself and the indulgence of my self-centric appetites for power, pleasure, and personal gain (like the kings of Israel).

This morning I’m reminded that it’s easy to get sucked into our popular culture and the obsession for power, popularity, prestige and worldly success. A quiet life in pursuit of Jesus may not make an exciting movie script, but there’s a peace and continuity to the path which shields me from a lot of other problems and cares.

 

Historical Context, and the Growth of Understanding

For surely it is not angels [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2:16-17 (NIV)

One of the most important things to remember when journeying through a 2,000 year-old letter is historical context. The author of Hebrews is writing to fellow Hebrews around the years 67-70 A.D. The temple in Jerusalem where Jesus taught and threw out the money changers is still in existence and the sacrificial system is operating full steam. Jews of that day would be well acquainted with the sacrificial practices, the importance of priesthood, and the political and religious power of the High Priest. Most Jews would have made pilgrimage to the temple at least once in their lives.

The author of Hebrews began their letter by saying they were going to address the question of “Who is Jesus?” Now they begin to fill in the answer. Jesus was Creator made fully human in order to become High Priest and make atonement for the people. The readers of the original letter were well aware that in the sacrificial system established in the Law of Moses. There was one High Priest, the only one permitted to enter the intimate “Holy of Holies” in the temple once a year to stand before God and make atonement for the sins of the nation. The high priest was the representative, the conduit who made sacrifice for the people, one for all.

The language of God is metaphor, and for first century Hebrews the word picture the author of the letter is making is powerful and clear. The system defined by the Law of Moses was a precursor, a waypoint, and a word picture pointing to what would be fulfilled in the sacrificial death of Jesus and His resurrection. This was a huge paradigm shift in thought for the Hebrews of that day (Jesus’ followers included). The popular opinion was that Messiah would be a triumphant geo-political powerhead that lifted the Hebrew people to the top of the temporal, earthly food-chain. The author of Hebrews is beginning to unpack Messiah as cosmic high priest and sacrificial lamb who would lift any who believed to a right-relationship with God in God’s eternal Kingdom.

By the way, within a generation the writing of the Book of Hebrews the word pictures the author is making would forever lose some of the power they had with the original readers. Shortly after the writing of the letter the Roman Empire, in 70 A.D., destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and burned the genealogical  records essential to establishing who among them were Levites qualified to care for the temple and who among them were sons of Aaron qualified to be priests and make sacrifices. Despite a few abandoned attempts to reestablish the sacrificial system in other locations, the fullness of the sacrificial system established by Moses was essentially dead, and has remained so for 2000 years.

Old things pass away, new things come.”

This morning I’m thinking about perceptions and paradigms of thought about God. The Hebrews who read today’s words for the first time had their own experiences, beliefs, and preconceived notions. The truth is that I have my own. God’s Message describes the followers of Jesus ever growing and maturing in their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of God. I’ve found the same to be true on my own life journey following Jesus. Who I perceived Jesus to be when I began this journey as a young teenager is different than perception today. My own understanding of, and my relationship with, Christ continues ever to grow, expand, and deepen.

That’s what living things do.

 

A Prophet in Flyover Country

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake….
Amos 1:1 (NIV)

I have lived in “flyover country” my entire life. It’s a great place to live, work, and raise a family. You get used to the fact that most of what we see and hear in American news and entertainment media is sourced on the coasts. New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are where most of the brokers of politics, finance, and entertainment live, move and have their being. It’s quite common to realize that we often see life a little differently here in middle America.

Whenever you read the writing of the ancient prophets in God’s Message, it’s important to understand the context of the prophet and his message. Amos was one of what we refer to as the “minor” prophets, and perhaps it’a an apt moniker for one who lived and wrote from what have been the flyover country of his time.

The “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) lived where the action was. Isaiah and Jeremiah served in Jerusalem, the capital city which was the region’s political and religious center of power. Daniel and Ezekiel lived later and were persons of relative prominence and connection in the ancient city of Babylon during the height of its glory days. Amos, on the other hand, was a shepherd and fig farmer living in a small town of no real significance. We don’t even know if he owned his own flocks and figs, or whether he was simply a hired man.

Amos lived and wrote during a period of relative prosperity in Israel’s divided kingdom (about 740-750 b.c.). Things were humming economically and trade was good. The kingdoms held relatively strong, secure positions in the region. Everyone was feeling optimistic and perhaps even a little bit smug.

Amos, however, begins the assembled volume of his prophetic writings by telling us as readers that his vision preceded “the earthquake.” He doesn’t say “an earthquake” but “the earthquake.” Little is known historically about this event, but geologists have unearthed evidence of a major seismic event in that region around 750 b.c.  Interestingly enough, just yesterday I posted about the connection that is made in God’s Message between the shifting of things in the spiritual realm and events in creation. Amos foreshadows his volume of collected prophesies with a ominous word-picture. There’s going to be a major shake up.

What becomes immediately clear in the historical context is that Amos’ message isn’t exactly the mainstream media spin of his day. During a period of peace and prosperity this learned yokel prophet from flyover country isn’t feeling so secure about things from a spiritual perspective. He’s got a more sober view of where things are headed, if anyone will listen.

This morning I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of a connection with ol’ Amos. I’m grateful for where I live and move and have had my being on this life journey. It may not be the center of action where finance, politics, and entertainment are brokered. I’ve visited all of them and always have a great time when I’m there and appreciate all the great people I meet. Nevertheless, I know I look at life with a different perspective than many who live in those places. It’s not better or worse. It just is. The major prophets had their roles to play and their message to give at the center of the action. Amos had his role to play and his message to give as he kept watch over his livestock in the flyover farm town of Tekoa.

The key, I’ve come to learn along this journey, is to be content with the role I’ve been given and faithful in carrying it out to the best of my ability.

Lessons of the Past

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
    and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
    and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
    and I blessed him and made him many.”
Isaiah 51:1-2 (NIV)

I’ve always been a lover of history. I love learning about the past, and I love it for a host of reasons. Among those reasons are the lessons found in one of life’s paradoxical mysteries. Things do change, yet we often use the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” There are some things about human nature and society that remain amazingly static and simply get reinterpreted with each subsequent generation within the context of the times they find themselves. I find this a perpetually helpful reminder.

I can’t help but think of the current circumstances we find ourselves in here in the States. We feel acutely the tumultuous election in the United States and the deep division that’s being felt and expressed among our fellow citizens.

What has changed is that social media has allowed for unprecedented exchange and dissemination of immediate thoughts and feelings from POTUS to the lowliest citizen in real time. This has highlighted the stark differences of thought and opinion across hundreds of millions of people in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a decade or two ago. We are quick to stake our claim that we’re “more divided than ever” and we are this or that “of all time.” Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that we as humans like to lay claim to being wholly unique and exclusive in our human experiences.

It’s another thing I love about the past. It teaches us lessons of comparison that put our present circumstances in context. I’ve seen snarkiness, sarcasm, rage, and vitriol across the entire spectrum from extreme right to extreme left and back again. We are living in divisive times. Nevertheless, we haven’t killed a half-million of each other as we did in 1860-1865 (the featured photo of this post is that of Civil War dead). I haven’t seen in recent months the attack dogs and fire hoses of Bloody Sunday. I haven’t seen news stories of entire neighborhoods on fire. I pray we can learn from those lessons and keep ourselves from returning to such insanities.

In today’s chapter, God through the prophet Isaiah hearkens the Hebrew people to learn a lesson from their history. He tells them to look back and remember the story of Abraham and Sara. He tells them to recall the promises made and kept to Abraham. They were encouraged to trust the promises of the past. As God was faithful in His promises to Abraham, He would be faithful to His promises to Abraham’s children.

This morning I’m thinking about the past. I’m recalling my own relatively short life journey and the difficult times I’ve witnessed and experienced. I’m recalling some extraordinary good times I’ve experienced as well. The things we feel so acutely in this moment will pass. They will give way to other experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Time will march on.

One of the things my faith has given me is a broader eternal context in which to place my present circumstances. I do believe there is a reason for all of this. I believe it’s all connected and part of a larger narrative. The past has moved us to this point int he story. We will propel the story forward in our lifetime. Just as Isaiah encouraged the Babylonian refugees to take comfort in the promises of Abraham, I can hearken back to the eternal promises given through Jesus, the prophets, and apostles and take comfort in them.