Tag Archives: Interpretation

God Revealing, Then and Now

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them…”
Exodus 10:1 (NRSVCE)

Wendy and I have some connections to east Africa. We have, for years, supported a Compassion child in Kenya named Joyce. Taylor and Clayton spent time working in Uganda, and Clayton’s doctoral research has taken him repeatedly to Tanzania where we also support another Compassion child, Michael, who is slightly older than Milo and they share the same birthday.

Because of these connections, we tend to pay a little more attention to the situation there. In case you didn’t know it, they have been battling locust swarms this year. Massive locust swarms that I would tag as being of “biblical proportions.” A second wave of swarms hit the region just as they began fighting COVID.

In my recent series of podcasts, A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story, I talk a lot about context. An adult can’t reason with a two-year-old by getting him or her to sit and listen to you read a psychology textbook that explains his or her need to modify behavior. In the same way, understanding ancient stories require me, a 21st-century reader, to think outside the box of my 21st-century thought and sensitivities. They require me to think about how God is meeting with and interacting with humanity in the context of the way they lived, thought, believed, and interpreted their world. Today’s chapter is a great example.

Locust swarms have been part of the ecosystem forever. They happen on occasion just like floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, and viral outbreaks. Our post-enlightenment, educated minds turn to science to understand these things, deal with them appropriately, and lessen the negative effects.

In Moses’ day, no one thought in such a way. In Moses day, natural phenomena were always considered to be a manifestation of the gods. If something bad happens, the gods must be angry. If something good happens, the gods must be pleased.

In today’s chapter, God tells Moses that the plagues had a purpose. The purpose was to reveal Himself and His power to Pharaoh and his officials. What is lost on a 21st-century reader is the fact that the types of plagues being visited upon the Egyptians had connections to various deities they worshiped across the pantheon of more than 1500 gods they worshiped. Because many, if not most, of the plagues were natural occurring phenomena, the Egyptians may have historically associated them with other deities. Now, the God of Moses turns them on-and-off at will, which is a direct challenge to Egypt’s religious system. Each time a plague is turned on or off by “stretching out” their hand and staff, it is a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s claim of being a god who rules by “my mighty hand.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about God revealing Himself. The story of Moses is an early chapter in the Great Story. There has been no described system of worship. There is no Bible or sacred text. There is no institution or organization. God has simply revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants in mysterious ways. The plagues we’ve been reading about are the first recorded time in the Great Story that God attempts to reveal Himself to another people group in contrast to their own gods. This is a major shift in the narrative, and this theme will continue.

Interestingly, Jesus also made it clear that His mission was one of revelation:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”.

God has always been in the process of revealing Himself, and does so in multiple ways, including the very act of creation:

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.

Along my earthly journey, I have been ever-grateful to live in our current period of human history. Despite the doom and gloom peddled in the media, we live in a period of human history that is unprecedented with regard to low levels of extreme poverty, disease, starvation, war, violence, and high levels of education and safety across the globe compared with any other period of history. Humanity is in a very different chapter of the Great Story, and I believe God is revealed very differently in our world than in Moses’ day.

The basic dance remains the same. God revealing, inviting, drawing in. Me asking, seeking, knocking, humbly accepting, and receiving.

I’m glad it no longer requires a plague of locusts. In my quiet time this morning I’m praying for those who are actively trying to help the people of Africa to minimize the damage and for those who are suffering because of it.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Important Thing

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.
Zechariah 14:9 (NIV)

On my podcast this past week, I began a conversation about time. One of the more profound and mysterious aspects of God’s Message is, of course, the prophetic. What I regularly refer to as “The Great Story” is the story arc from creation in Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation when history as we know it ends and there is a new beginning.

One of the things I’ve noted in God’s creation is the number of recurring themes present. The way we depict an atom looks just like a little solar system, which is replicated in the moon going around the earth, the earth going around the sun, the solar system spinning in the galaxy, and etc.

One of the other great themes is simply the cycle of life and death. Physicists tell us that matter is energy. Genesis says God made humans from the dust of the earth, and when we die it was prescribed that “to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). There is a natural part of the life-cycle of creation in this. Our bodies die, return to the ground, decay, and then are recycled by creation to feed new life.

As mentioned in my podcast, I see this cycle replicated in the Great Story. I look at human history and see all of the life stages: infancy, toddler, child, teenager, and etc. There is a course of macro human development that I find is very much like the micro stages of an individual human life. And, we are reminded by the prophets, history like each of our lives will have an end.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah envisions the death throes of human history. His vision dovetails with John’s visions in Revelation 16:14-16 and again at the end of Revelation 19. A final battle between good and evil, when God sets up rule and reign over the Earth.

Of course, all of this can be terribly confusing and even frightening. A couple of thoughts as I mull these things over this morning.

First, prophecy is not a science and there is no iron-clad understanding. I have learned to approach the prophetic humbly, recognizing that the most learned and scholarly of God’s people completely misinterpreted the prophets understanding of the Messiah. Even Jesus’ own disciples expected Him to become what the scholars and teachers of their day expected Him to be. Therefore, I assume that the most gifted and emphatic of today’s teachers claiming they know the truth about end-times prophecy is likely wrong about most of it. The most common truth I’ve come to accept about prophecy is that, in hindsight, it doesn’t end up happening the way everyone said it would.

Second, I believe that the important message is not in the details but in the theme. History moves towards a death of the way things are just as each of our lives ends with the death of our earthly journey. This death comes complete with the struggle and “death throes” associated with the human fight against our physical death. And then?

This is the critical piece to the Jesus Story. At the climactic, dark moment there is a eucatastrophe. Death does not have the final word. Resurrection. Life springs out of the depths. The phoenix rises from the ashes. The old order passes away and a new order comes.

Once again, I can’t help to see the layer of meaning. In the same way that I, as a follower of Jesus, believe that after death I will experience new life through the resurrected Jesus, so I believe that at the end of this Great Story of humanity there will be a death and a resurrection. As the end of Revelation envisions there is a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and a new order of creation. This is such a natural part of creation that I find the truth of it is hidden in plain sight. Here in Iowa the fields have yielded their harvest. The death throes have begun. I feel it in the chill as I got out of bed this morning. Death is coming when everything in this beautiful land will be dark, and cold, and colorless. But, a new year will come with new life, and warmth, and abundance, and vibrant color.

In the quiet this morning I find myself curious but scratching my head with regard to battles, and plagues, and rotting flesh, and earthquakes, and etc. What I find myself focused on is on the important conclusion: new life, safety, a flow of living water, and “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!

Mystery and Knowledge

Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.
Zechariah 6:12-13 (NIV)

One of my geeky interests in this life is art history. In college, I had an art professor who taught Art History from a Western Civilization textbook. His reasoning was that you can’t separate the art from everything that was going on in the culture around it. Politics, religion, commerce, and other popular art forms of the day were both influencing what the artist was expressing and being influenced by it at the same time. Ever since that class, my love of history and my love of art have overlapped.

One of the things I find fascinating in art history is that modern scholars can have vastly different interpretations of what an artist was trying to communicate. And, they might both be partially right, or completely wrong. That’s the way it is with no historical record from that artist explaining the piece.

When it comes to the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrew prophets, I encounter much of the same kind of struggle. Very intelligent and educated scholars can interpret certain visions and metaphors differently. There are ancient words the prophets used for which we have no clear definition. Like a mysterious old painting, we are sometimes left trying to piece together contextual clues to figure it out.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah describes his eighth and final vision about the rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem. Four Spirits in chariots with different colored horses are dispatched across the world. The exact meaning of the bronze mountains and the colors of the horses is speculative. The angel tells Zech that the Spirit that went north gave God’s Spirit “rest in the land of the north.” We do know that the north was considered the land of Babylon and the direction from which Jerusalem’s enemies came. This gist of this final vision indicates a time of peace.

Then Zech switches gears and receives a word from God to make a crown and put it on the head of Joshua the priest. What’s fascinating about this is that since the days of Moses when the religious system of the Hebrews was established (see the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) the priesthood and the crown were two distinct offices. The king ruled politically, and the priest was the intercessor between God and the people. Only direct descendants of Aaron could be priests and only direct descendants of David could be king. Zechariah’s prophetic word describes a “Branch” who will unite the two.

Fast forward to Jesus. The family histories given by both Matthew and Luke establish that Jesus was a descendant of David. John the Baptist’s parents were both descendants of Aaron. In the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John there is a symbolic joining of the two. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the word pictures and descriptions of Christ and the metaphors are of both king and priest. In Revelation 5, for example, Jesus is “the lamb” (the priestly sacrifice) who sits on the throne (the king of kings). The book of Hebrews was written to establish how Jesus is both King and High Priest (see Hebrews chapters 1 and 7).

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering on all the mysterious artwork of visions and dreams that come down to us from the ancient prophets. Some prophetic visions and word pictures, like what the two bronze mountains in Zech’s vision are supposed to mean, are as mysterious to me as they are to wisest of scholars. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the artwork of the word pictures and find meaning in them for myself. They make great fodder for speculative conversations over a pint. Others, like the joining of the priesthood and the crown weave together the Great Story that God is authoring across time. They thread together the tapestry of history and provide me a greater depth of meaning and understanding of my faith.

As I head out into my day I’m reminded that my life journey is like that. Some things are clear to me, while other things are mysteries to be endlessly understood. Another reason why this life is a faith journey and not a commuter ride.

Have a great day, my friend. Trek well.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
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Iron-Clad Uncertainty

As for you, go your way till the end.
Daniel 12:13a (NIV)

Many years ago I was asked to lead a study with a large group of young people about prophecy and the book of Revelation.  The room was packed each week, not that this had anything to do with me or my teaching. My lessons rarely commanded such interest. Only one of my classes garnered such popularity and that was the one on the topic of sex (go figure). There’s something about the prophetic and the idea of knowing what’s going to happen in the future that intrigues people.

I thought of that class from 30 years ago as I read today’s final chapter of Daniel. There are a couple of specific and unique references in the chapter. In one, the angelic figure in Daniel’s vision tells him that the events he describes will be for “a time, times, and half a time.” In another, the angelic figure makes a specific reference to 1,290 days and then 1,335 days. In the school of thought in which I was raised and educated (and then taught 30 years ago), the phrase and days are referenced as part of a future time referenced in the book of Revelation as “The Great Tribulation,” which is said will last 3.5 years:

a time” = 1
times” = 2
half-a-time” = .5
Sum= 3.5

As I’ve progressed in my journey, experienced more life, and read other learned commentators on the subject, I’m less certain of the iron-clad interpretation with which some of my teachers pompously prognosticated and which I emphatically parrotted 30 years ago. It’s possible that the interpretation is correct, of course, and I have no problem suggesting it as such. There are just so many variables.

Daniel was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew is an ancient language and the definition of many words remain mysteries to the most scholarly of linguists. Aramaic is a dead language no longer even used today. Interpretations of the strange phrase the angel used vary, and the two numbers don’t seem to coincide with any particular events in the past or in prophecy. The Babylonian culture and the educational system in which Daniel was schooled was steeped in very sophisticated arithmetic that they connected to both astronomy and their native religion. So, to emphatically state that the word translated “times” absolutely means “two” and this certainly relates to 3.5 years of the seven-year Tribulation referenced in the seventh chapter of Revelation which was written almost half a millennium later, well…you catch my drift.

I also remind myself that the most learned and emphatic prophetic prognosticators of Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah was going to arrive as a warlord, wipe out the Romans, and set up a global kingdom. Even Jesus’ own followers believed that right up to the time He was hanging on a cross. Oops. The lesson I’ve tried to learn from this is simply to be humble about that which can be known and that which requires faith, defined in God’s Message as “the assurance of what we hope for and the evidence of that which we cannot see.”

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that the further I travel this earthly existence the less need I feel to be emphatically certain about some things, and the more en-joy-ment I derive from living in the mystery. I love the way the angelic being leaves Daniel scratching his head and reeling with confusion about all the mysterious prophetic numbers and phrases. I love that the angel ends the book by telling Danny Boy: “As for you, go your way until the end.”

Keep going.  Press on. Just keep going doing the things I’m doing. When it comes to the prophetic, I can have faith that things will take care of themselves.

Thoughts on Dreams

I, Daniel, was worn out. I lay exhausted for several days. Then I got up and went about the king’s business. I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.
Daniel 8:2 (NIV)

Dreams are an interesting thing. I’ve always been a pretty active dreamer and I can typically remember bits and pieces of my dreams. I also have had recurrent dreams in which I’ve dreamt the same thing before, and I’ have had episodic dreams in which a dream picks up and continues a previous dream. Of course, dreams are weird and most often I recognize that my dreams have connections to things I’ve heard, read, seen or talked about.

On three occasions, I have had a dream that was different than normal. It was spiritual. What I mean by that is I woke up remembering the dream vividly and I was compelled to write it down and/or describe it in detail. The dreams were different, and I knew it in my spirit.

I find it fascinating that in today’s chapter, as well as yesterday’s, Daniel has a strong physical and emotional reaction to the dreams he was given. He knew the dream was meaningful and he was compelled to write it down.

I also find it fascinating that Daniel, after writing down his dream and pulling himself together, “got up and went about the king’s business.”

Once again this morning I’m reminded that it can be tempting to throw oneself down the rabbit-hole of the mystical and supernatural. Yet, Daniel wasn’t trying to have these dreams, and he was fully aware that he had the everyday business of life to attend to. In fact, there’s a sense of him simply letting the dream go and walking away from it once it was recorded.

I find Daniel providing a really good example to follow. He doesn’t ignore the dream, but he also doesn’t obsess about it. He records it and walks away. If it’s something he’s supposed to understand then that will naturally become evident in time. If not, then let it go and leave it to whatever purpose it may serve.

By the way, the vision Daniel had in today’s chapter is an accurate foretelling of the eventual rise of Alexander the Great, the subsequent division of his kingdom among his generals, and the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem and stopped the sacrificial system. The Temple was later reconsecrated and sacrificed resumed as Daniel’s vision predicted.

In the quiet this morning I’m thankful for the mystical and spiritual experiences I’ve occasionally had. At the same time, I’m mindful that I’ve got the King’s business to attend to which is not in the least bit dramatic or supernatural, but just as important in the grand scheme of things. I head out into my week reminded of one of my life verses:

…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Have a great day, my friend.

Lessons on the Prophetic

“This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”
Daniel 7:28 (NIV)

As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it fascinating to realize how prophecy in its various forms plays a big part in so many of our epics and stories. It is most often found in our fantasy epics and mythological tales. Nevertheless, I find it also popping up in the most unusual places. Wendy and I have a favorite series of contemporary spy novels. In the series, the protagonist has a small handful of episodes with a mysterious old woman who knows things about him she couldn’t possibly know and sees what is going to happen to him. The mysterious world of the prophetic is part of our human experience.

Of course, if one journey’s through God’s Message at all you’re going to run into prophetic passages. In today’s chapter, the book of Daniel switches from stories of Daniel’s life to a series of journal entries recording dreams and visions that he had.

There are a few lessons that I’ve learned about prophecy as I’ve read and studied it over the years. This morning I am reminded of three – make that four – lessons I’ve learned that I try to always remember when I’m reading prophetic passages.

First, there is a mystery to the prophetic. Here I’m reminded of a line from one of my favorite mystics, Richard Rohr. He states that mystery isn’t something you can’t understand but something you can endlessly understand. It’s not easy to pin down, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on it, it slips away from you. If you’re left-brained and want a simple, black-and-white answer then prophecy will drive you crazy. Which leads to a second discovery.

The prophetic can be layered with meaning. In today’s chapter, the beasts of Daniel’s vision have all sorts of connections to the Babylonian myths and literature that he was forced to study when he was taken into captivity. These connections are largely lost on us today. Yet, it can also connect to other prophecies written by other prophets in scripture. Its imagery can connect to contemporary symbols of which Daniel had no knowledge. Unlike parables that typically have one main lesson to teach, the prophetic can be layered with meaning for both the times it was written, times that came later, and times yet to come. Which leads to my third observation.

Prophetic literature is the source of endless debate. You can see pieces of it that have a very clear meaning. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are good examples. Written hundreds of years before Jesus, they both eerily and accurately describe the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Yet most of it, like the beasts Daniel sees in today’s chapter, sounds like the writers were tripping on LSD.  There are many theories as to their meaning, and because prophecy can be layered with meaning whose to say that more than one theory is correct? Which leads to my final observation.

The prophetic is a tempting rabbit-hole to fall into. I have known some individuals along my life journey who delve so deeply into the prophetic that it consumes them. Trying to nail down the exact meaning of a prophetic passage with absolute certainty can be like trying to solve a complex puzzle. Prophecy is a cool subject to study, but if it becomes consuming to the point of ignoring everything else and becoming spiritually out of balance, then it’s time to give it a break.

At the end of today’s chapter, we read that Daniel, troubled by his dream, recorded it in his journal and then moved on. I find that a good example to follow when it comes to the prophetic. Don’t ignore it, but don’t obsess about it either. Focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. Loving God, loving people, and continually trying to do the right thing as I walk the journey each day.

Differences in Interpretation

But Abijah grew in strength.
2 Chronicles 13:21 (NIV)

Yesterday at work I was helping a client with their company’s internal Quality Assessment criteria. One of the common mistakes made when it comes to assessing quality of a service interaction is the avoidance of defining simple, observable behaviors. Instead companies often create criteria in ways that leave the assessment wide-open to the analyst’s interpretation. An analyst who has a bent towards strict, “they could have done better” thinking will mark it one way while an analyst with a bent towards a more gracious “they did the best they could” thinking will mark it another way. The result is worthless data.

Along my journey I’ve observed these kinds of differences in all manners of life. We have diverse personality types with bents toward interpreting and reacting to the same set of circumstances in equally diverse ways. We have differences in life experiences, differences in world-view, and differences in life situations that all lend themselves to me seeing and interpreting things a particular way, while you may see it a bit differently.

I don’ know if you’ve caught it in these chapter-a-day posts the past couple of weeks, but one of the interesting things about the historic accounts we’re reading in 2 Chronicles is that the same historical events are also covered in the book of 1 Kings. One of the things I’m discovering is that some of the most fascinating lessons I’m learning come from comparing the two different accounts. They were written by different scribes living in different time periods and circumstances.

Take today’s chapter for example. The Chronicler tells a great story about Abijah’s (King of the southern kingdom of Judah) battle with the rebel Jereboam (King of the northern kingdom of Israel). Abijah’s battle speech is quoted at length in which Abijah blasts Jereboam for abandoning the God of Israel while Abijah and his tribe of Judah are still worshiping and trusting the God of their ancestors. The Chronicler then leaves his account of Abijah’s reign on a positive note. Abijah defeated Jereboam, grew strong, and had a bunch of wives and children.

The scribe of 1 Kings, however looked at the same reign of Abijah and described it differently. The account of Abijah’s reign is much shorter and the battle speech wasn’t mentioned at all. The writer of the 1 Kings account gives a more negative conclusion of Abijah’s reign:

He committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.

As I’ve progressed in my Life journey I’ve come to recognize that human groups and systems (religious denominations, political parties, families, communities, and etc.) are naturally driven to building a sense of unity and safety by seeing and interpreting things the same way. These same systems, and the members of that system, often become resistant to respecting, considering, and working with systems that see and interpret things a different way. I become afraid. I feel threatened. I entrench myself in my thinking. I attack and discredit the person or system that thinks differently.

The types of rote and repetitive sales and service interactions I assess on a regular basis for my work are relatively easy to break down, define, and interpret once you know how to do it. Driving a consistent and repetitive user experience is one thing. Reducing an individual’s lifetime of stories, experiences, events, choices, words, and relationships into bullet point is a completely different ball game.

Of late I’ve been feeling the pain and frustration of watching societal groups and their members entrench themselves out of fear and suspicion of anyone who thinks differently. I find myself personally rebelling against that mentality. As a follower of Jesus I find it antithetical to the inclusive, boundary-breaking love that Jesus exemplified and commanded of those of us who follow Him. I always tell the Customer Service Representatives I coach and train that Rule #1 is “do the best you can with what you have.” I’m trying to do the same thing with my faith. I can’t change the entire culture of a nation, but I can daily control my own words, actions, interactions, and relationships. I can change the culture around me, the one I immediately impact.

Today, I once again endeavor to be a little more respectful, a little more considerate, a little more open, and a little more loving to the people I run into and those with whom I interact. People who may be members of a group who interpret the world much differently than myself.

“Yes, And”

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

Reading scholarly commentary on today’s chapter, one is confronted with two contrasting interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy. One sees the text as a conclusion of the previous chapter and a judgement on the neighboring nations who pose an obstacle to the reestablishment of Jerusalem. Others see it as prescient judgement on the rejection of God’s Messiah Shepherd.

What struck me as I read the presentation of contrasting interpretations is that I felt as though I must make up my mind as to which one is right; Which I agreed with and which I would reject. I have been programmed by my culture and tradition to approach interpretation in a dualistic, either-or manner. When I was younger my teachers regularly presented various arguments on different interpretations of a text then argued passionately for the interpretation that the teacher was convinced was the right one. Over time I felt the subtle but pervasive expectation to align myself to groups with whom I agreed on all the right interpretations.

I felt the expectation in the arena of institutional Christianity in which I was to align loyally with the particular denomination with whom I was convinced was right (and of course all other denominations were wrong and not to be trusted). Once aligned with a denomination I found myself pressured to associate with sub-groups of thought within the denomination on hot-button issues of doctrine or scriptural interpretation; Camps who would separate at denominational meetings like the parting of the Red Sea.

This was also true of politics, especially true here in the States where everything is divided into primarily two camps at ever and increasingly estranged viewpoints moving further and further apart.

This is also true socially where one social group separates themselves from another social groups and holds the other at an arm’s length of ignorant suspicion: Blacks and whites, academics and business, science and religion, jocks and artists, preppies and burn-outs, nerds and popular kids.

Along this life journey I have found myself consistently moving toward the gray spaces between the separate camps of dualistic thought, which sometimes raises suspicions of both. I have served and worshipped among many different denominations. I have found myself socializing in starkly contrasting social groups. I find myself increasingly rejecting the polarizing extremes of both of my country’s red and blue camps.

This morning I find myself mulling over the dualistic interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy and whispering to myself, “yes, and.” So it is with the prophetic which can be layered with meaning and revealed by a God who is consistently beyond confinement of human thought or understanding. Even Jesus, whom I believe was the incarnate Immanuel (“God with us”) was consistently found at the tension between dualistic extremes. So much so, in fact, that those of Jesus’ own religion considered Him so threatening to their entrenched, right religious interpretations that they were willing to pay to get rid of Him.

And so they paid one of Jesus’ own followers thirty pieces of silver. When Judas felt the shamed of what he had done to Jesus he threw the silver back at the priests who used the money to buy a Potter’s field to be used to bury poor dead blokes who couldn’t afford a grave.

That’s one prophecy that scholars in either interpretive camp of today’s chapter can agree is eerily present in the text that Zac wrote nearly 500 years before the events occurred.

 

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!)

“No Peace for the Wicked”

“There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”
Isaiah 48:22 (NIV)

I am intrigued by words and common phrases. Where do familiar phrases come from? How do they change over time?

When I read the final verse of today’s chapter I suddenly had memories of my Grandma Golly and Grandpa Speck. I could hear them with my memory’s ears muttering the words, “No rest for the wicked!” They would say it when they were busy and had too much to do. Notice that they changed the word “peace” with “rest.” As they referenced it, I always took it as a reference to the theological concept of original sin. In the Garden of Eden God punishes Adam’s sin by condemning humanity to toiling for our food:

To Adam [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

This got my curiosity going and prompted a little research safari online. I found it interesting that some of the more popular online sites for the origin of phrases interpreted the phrase “No peace for the wicked” as a Biblical reference to the hell-fire and brimstone awaiting sinners. Wow, I’ve gone from original sin to eternal hell-fire and brimstone.

So what exactly was Isaiah getting at?

First of all, the Hebrew word interpreted “peace” in this verse (and paraphrased “rest” by my grandparents and others) is the Hebrew word shalom – which is commonly translated into the English word “peace” has a broad definition of peace that also includes tranquility, wholeness, and welfare. It is an overall positive sense of well-being. It makes sense, therefore, that our Hebrew friends use the word like “Aloha” is used by our island friends. It is used for both “hello” and “good-bye.” It is a wish of well-being both in your coming and going.

Earlier in today’s chapter God through the prophet Isaiah speaks to the Hebrew people taken in exile to Babylon. He promises their return and homecoming from captivity, then says,

If only you had paid attention to my commands,
    your peace would have been like a river,
    your well-being like the waves of the sea.

No shalom for the wicked,” is no reference to eternal hell-fire and brimstone. It’s not a direct reference to original sin. It is a loving parent speaking to wayward children being welcomed back into a loving embrace. It’s dad reiterating the moral of the story. It’s mother’s reminder after scolding: “Listen carefully, my dear child. When you don’t pay attention and are disobedient, then the natural consequences lead away from wholeness, tranquility, well-being and peace.”

And, that’s a good lesson. That’s a lesson this grown-up child needs to be reminded of on a regular basis.