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Jewish Testimony: Was Jesus the son of a virgin from the line of David?

In my last post I explained where the title ‘Christ’ came from, and I opened up an age-old can of worms: was Jesus of Nazareth the ‘Christ’ predicted in the Hebrew Old Testament? That’s a great question to mull over in the Christmas season.  I used Psalm 132 to show the origin of the prediction that the Christ was to come from the line of David.  You can see that it was not a Christian idea or invention since it has its source in the Hebrew/Jewish Psalms written 1000 years before Jesus was born and the controversy surrounding him exploded onto his world.

Was Jesus really from the line of David?

But the New Testament claim of ‘fulfilling’ this prophecy seems certainly suspect.  The reason that Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts is that they want us to see a fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy in Jesus.  But who is to say that they didn’t just make up their genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’?  That would be a more natural explanation than ‘Divine’ fulfillment.  Many of us confronted with this question just leave it at that and either believe or not based on pre-existing biases.  But hold your verdict!  The case is not fully heard and the jury should still be out.

It helps when trying to find out what ‘really’ happened to seek the testimony of hostile witnesses.  A hostile witness was on-hand at the scene in question but does not agree with your overall belief or conclusion and thus has motive for contradicting or refuting the steps you take to reach your conclusion.  Suppose there has been a car accident between persons A and B.  Both blame each other for the accident.  But suppose person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident.  Person B has no motive for agreeing with Person A on this point, and if he does admit that yes he was texting just before the accident then the judge and jury have good reason to at least bet that person B was texting since the hostile and eye-witness parties agree on this point, and person B has nothing to gain and only to lose by agreeing to this point.

In the same way, sifting through hostile historical sources can help move us much further along as to what really happened in the controversies and events of Jesus.  In that light I found it interesting when I studied the noted and distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp.).  In that study, he identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Jesus:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship”  p. 56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David.  p. 57

In other words, the Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Jesus really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept Jesus’ overall claim to Messiah and were hostile to the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Jesus was in the royal line of David.  So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   The hostile witnesses agree on this point.

What about being born of a virgin?

Now we may not react too strongly against the claim that Jesus was from David.  After all, there is always a distinct statistical possibility of this being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is one of: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Matthew quite clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin.  And Matthew ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BC) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (i.e. ‘God with us’) Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Virgin or Young Maiden

It is at this point where plausibly natural explanations come to mind.  If you dig just a little bit (as some do) you learn that the Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which is translated to ‘virgin’ above in English could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BC, and given some pious ‘need’ on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  And given the untimely (yet convenient for the ‘fulfilled prophecy’ plotline) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in the birth story of Jesus.

Many have recounted some such explanation to me over the years, and on the one hand I can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  Because we saw in the last post that the Septuagint was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek that was done in 250 BC – two hundred fifty years before Jesus was born.  How did these Jewish

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls
Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (LXX) is translated ca 250 BC

rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into the Greek?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’?  What amazes me is that though scores of people who I have talked to about this seem to know enough to dig into the fact that the original Hebrew can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’, not one among these scores has ever brought up the witness of the Septuagint.  When you look there you see that it is rendered unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος  (transliterated parthenos), which means ‘virgin’.  In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis of 250 BC understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.

I find this so interesting because why would a group (seventy of them according to tradition) of leading scholars make such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after a certain age menopause kicked in and childbearing was impossible.  No, scholars in 250 BC did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was out-on-a-limb, naturalistically-defying, to predict a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

And now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could at least remain an open question.  This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child? If he had had an older brother or sister then we would know Mary was not a virgin.  In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, the chance was 9 out of 10 that the ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling – but (against the odds) he didn’t.

And now layer the remarkable timing of the betrothal onto this.  If she had been married just a few days the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed.  On the other hand, if she had not yet been engaged and was found to be pregnant she would not have had a fiance to care for her.  In that culture, as a pregnant but unbetrothed woman she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live.

Mary’s Context

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strikes me. As I showed above these coincidences are not expected, but rather they exhibit that same sense of balance and timing, especially given the virgin prediction in the Septuagint, that show plan and intent – that of a Mind.

If Mary had been married for some time before Jesus was born, or if he had older siblings, then the hostile witness of his opponents would surely have brought that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how Jesus is referred to in the rabbinical writings:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin   (p57-58)

Today, as back in Jesus’ time, there is plenty of hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was significant animosity to him.  But the difference in hostility is that back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute the very points that they should have been able to, had these points been made up or in error.

But the story does not even end there.  Even those hostile to the supernatural claims about Jesus admire him for the life he lived on a purely human level.  People may debate his divinity, but rarely do they argue about his morality.  And it is at this point, that once again the grudging acceptance of those hostile should cause us to pause and ask:  Where did he get this different morality from?  The acclaimed moral life lived is also a signature of that disputed Virgin Birth.

Jesus or Santa: Who gives the Better Christmas Story?

Christmas has traditionally been about celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Gospel accounts of a virgin birth, angels appearing to shepherds, and wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus in a manger provided a story that was convincing for our great-grandparents. That generation added symbols such as manger scenes, Christmas trees, lights, music and drama (ex. Dickens’ Christmas Carol) to give Christmas the festive foundation so it would become the juggernaut of celebrations that it is today.

But since then, perhaps because of our increasing secularization and modern doubt over the Christmas story (C’mon – a virgin birth – Really?!), we have culturally swapped that story for Santa and his mission to give gifts to boys and girls who have managed to stay off the naughty list. It is a great story for kids, and it can safely be discarded when we get older since it never claims to be true – just safely fun. It seems a better story in our modern world when we can take a needed break from the harsh realities of real life and experience, with our kids, a fun story. So Santa dominates our radio and television and ‘Happy Holidays’ is becoming the Christmas greeting of choice. It is safer for a modern world steeped in doubt, anxious to avoid offending, and happy to have a season to pretend.

I have always loved good stories. Whether mythical (like The Lord of the Rings), sci-fi (like Star Wars), or historical (like Braveheart), a story with an insurmountable challenge or threat, an authentic hero, and a plot that sees the hero vanquish the villain, but in an astonishing way.  Through a drama with a large scope, good stories have always absorbed my attention.

It was when I looked again at the Biblical Christmas story, to before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth that I started to see that it also was a great story, with a plot and a depth that rival all classics. Even taken purely as story, the Biblical Christmas story beats the Santa replacement story just about any way you look at it. But to see this, you need to grasp the Biblical Christmas story as it was meant to be understood – as one chapter in a long epic, spanning the entire universe and enveloping the entire human race.

The Bible Christmas Story from its Beginning

This Christmas story really begins with a Creator. He makes everything that exists, including a Being of immense power, intelligence and beauty whom the Creator refers to as Day Star or Lucifer. Lucifer sets himself up as the Adversary of the Creator – and a universal showdown is on the table. The Creator has also made mankind in His Image so that they are emotional, intellectual and have the power to make choice. The Adversary scores first in their head-to-head by setting in motion a chain of events that results in the corruption of humans, so that they no longer function emotionally, mentally and volitionally as they did originally. Like a computer virus wreaking havoc in your computer, there is now a virus loose in mankind which causes sin – a missing of the target – creating the havoc we see in the world today.

So what would the Creator do? Use his infinite power to annihilate humans, or to imprison the Adversary? Here the plot takes an astonishing twist. Instead of responding with force and power like some cosmic Superman, the Creator makes a promise that He sets out in the form of a Riddle. The Creator’s riddle speaks mysteriously of ‘the woman’ and ‘an offspring’ which is described as a ‘he’. This ‘he’ would crush the ‘head’ of the Adversary. And that was it!  Who the ‘he’ was, or the ‘woman’, exactly how this would unfold – and when – was not clearly stated. The Adversary was now left pondering his next move and the first humans wondering how, and if, this Riddle would develop.

The unfolding Story – through a man and a nation

The drama continues when centuries later another riddle is given, this time to a traveler. This riddle was unique in that it promised a blessing to ‘all nations’.  Like Santa on Christmas Eve this promise was to travel to all the nations of the world – of which you and I are a part. Then, departing from the verbal format, a bizarre drama was acted out on a remote mountain top. Like a play, this drama looked forward to something that ‘will’ happen on the then remote mountain. But the what, when, how and with whom, was not directly stated. Those details remained a mystery. About 500 years later an equally bizarre drama with this same man’s descendants, now in another country, inaugurated a calendar that is still in effect today which contained pregnant markers in its yearly cycle.

Royalty enters the Story

After a further 500 years another chapter in this epic opens up. A certain title – from which we derive the world Christmas today – was inaugurated to a Royal Dynasty. Though spanning generations like today’s British monarchy, the title in this dynasty pointed to a coming specific person who would have worldwide significance.

Unfortunately, this Royal Dynasty, though it began with such promise, was destroyed. Like a tree that is severed from its root, this dynasty was smashed so that only a dead stump remained. Well, the stump was only mostly dead. In fact, through another riddle, it was promised that a Branch would one day shoot up from this seemingly dead stump.

Signs of the Unique Christmas Person

With that severing of the dynasty, the flow of promises, each equally mysterious, began to flow more rapidly through a group of diverse men living in different social strata, countries and cultures. The timing of the budding of the Branch was given, even a name was announced, though somewhat shrouded in imagery. What was not mysterious however was the peculiar ‘sign’ which would accompany it. The crystal clear sign was:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ca. 750 B.C.)

Though that promise seemed understandable (and seemingly impossible), what was not immediately clear was why such a sign was needed. Why was it necessary to circumvent a human father? Was the Creator against sex? In explaining the effect of this birth the riddle pointed back to the virus of sin running amok in our human race. A re-boot of the human species was going to be attempted to stamp out the virus.

But this only deepened the mystery because right after the Virgin birth announcement, the same seer continued with further bizarre predictions by stating that the arrival of this son would:

…In the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light …
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 1-2, 6)

How could it be that this ‘son’ would be called and identified with the Creator, the One who was utterly remote from mankind? Would God really become one of us? Before that perplexing question could even be entertained a gruesome ending to this whole saga was given in a funeral song. Or was it an ending?

The drama, riddles and puzzles were all inked and set down thousands of years ago. If you can read Hebrew you can read them all in the most ancient preserved writings of the ancient world – the Dead Sea Scrolls – only unearthed from their storage from deep antiquity a few decades ago. With the last message written there was then a long and expectant wait. Would the drama unfold as it had been written? In fact, was it even possible that all these strands of riddles could ever be simultaneously fulfilled?  Both the learned and unlearned pondered over these riddles as the centuries moved on.

If you skip all this and only start the Biblical Christmas story with Jesus, shepherds and wise men, then you miss the drama, the suspense and development of plot. You do not see the cosmic story. You probably will only see it as an antiquated tradition of your great-grandmother.  But really, the birth of Jesus was the start of a fulfillment of riddles that had spanned centuries.  The riddles kept the Adversary guessing and people living in hopeful expectation.

A Free & Verified Christmas Gift

But if you understand everything from the beginning you get a great story. Better yet, you and I get the opportunity to become characters written into this unfolding and continuing story. As Christmas is just as much about receiving gifts from loved ones as giving them, this story culminates in the offer of a gift to you and me. Receiving this gift does require trust in the Giver, the same kind of trust that Abraham had when he was offered a gift.

Better still, there is plenty of evidence that this is a facts-on-the-ground true story. Unlike Santa Claus, for whom we do not even try to seek verification in the North Pole, or on his sleigh in the sky, or find witnesses who have seen him stuck in a chimney, there is historical corroboration for Jesus – even the virgin birth part of the story. Roman and Jewish historians outside of the Bible refer to him. The places where all the riddles were spelled out and where Jesus walked are terra firma real. There is a Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Moriah. Since we have the story written out for us before it happened we have evidence that there is one Author in this story. The fact that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and the others could specify hundreds of years beforehand the events of Jesus’ birth, life and death is evidence that the Creator – who alone knows the future – has authored this Story, as an invitation for you and me to join Him in it.

If you make no effort you will probably only see and hear variant Santa stories this Christmas.  But, even for just the sake of a good story, I recommend the Biblical Christmas story.  It is much better.  Here is the story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke arranged chronologically.  It is less than 1300 words and will take 5 minutes to read.  You can follow the links therein to see how the account is built upon a deeper drama.  It is worth knowing better.

May it give you a Merry Christmas.

The Feast of Tabernacles: layered like an onion … with meaning

… (and pointing to a future climax?)

Every autumn a somewhat obscure 8-day festival, with a 3500 year history, is celebrated around the world by a rather extraordinary people.  The festival I am referring to is the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot or Feast of Booths.  Since it follows the Jewish lunar calendar it moves from year to year in our calendar (like Easter does), but it is  always celebrated sometime in September-October.  In 2015 it will be celebrated from Sept 27 – Oct 4.

This festival was instituted by Moses to commemorate the years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after their Exodus departure from Egypt.  Therefore, Jews today celebrate the festival by living outdoors in booths or tents through the festive period.  It is thus a festival of cultural and historical meaning.

But the Jews have had a long history, and for much of the Bible period they had a Temple in Jerusalem.  During this period they celebrated the Festival by going on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Therefore it also has great ritualistic meaning.

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) was one of several annual festivals established by Moses which were interspersed through the Jewish year.  Though interesting on their own account, the meaning of these festivals becomes positively intriguing when viewed through the person and career of Jesus.  Because he was a Jew, and since he lived in the Temple period, he celebrated these festivals along with his countrymen.  But on top of that, his person and life seemed to fulfill them.  From that perspective the meaning of these Festivals goes deeper still, like another layer in an onion.  For example, Jesus was crucified and died on Passover, one of these festivals.  The very day instituted by Moses to remember how lamb’s blood saved the early Israelites from death was the day his blood was shed.  This is why today Easter and Passover occur together every year.  I explored the significance of this remarkable timing here.  The coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of what would become church occurred 50 days after Easter Sunday – exactly on the same day of another Festival started by Moses – the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost).  I explored the significance of that here, but even without delving into the details, the fact that pivotal historical events landed on multiple festival days that were started over one thousand years beforehand is exclusive to Jewish history.  In fact, all three springtime Jewish Festivals have an exact day-to-day match to a major event in later history.

Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles

Sukkot, being part of the Jewish autumn festivals does not have a day-to-day match with a New Testament event.  Nonetheless the parallels are striking in a different, perhaps deeper, manner still.  The Gospel of John records Jesus participating in this same Feast of Tabernacles.  But the account records Jesus doing something curious.  It says

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)

 Jewish Feast of Tabernacles festivities in the Temple period

To appreciate the full significance of what he said we need to know how the Jews in Bible times celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles.  Jewish history and their sacred rituals are well documented in the Old Testament and in other sources like the Talmud and Mishna.  The Jewish website http://www.templeinstitute.org/sukkot.htm explains from these sources:

At the foothills of Mount Moriah, down below in the City of David, flows a natural spring called Shiloach. This spring is ancient, and as it is located literally in the shadow of the Holy Temple, it has always had spiritual significance for Israel. It is the original source of Jerusalem’s water.

Every day of the festival [i.e. of Taberncales], the priests descended down to the Shiloach, accompanied by all the congregation assembled in the Temple. There, they filled a golden flask … of the pure water. Ascending back up, carrying the flask with song … the gathering entered back into the Temple through the Water Gate, one of the gates on the southern side of the court (it received its name on account of this event (Shekalim 6, 3). As they entered the gate, their steps were greeted by the sound of trumpets and shofar-blasts, …

Once in the Temple, the priest who had the honor of performing this service now carries the golden flask up the altar ramp. … which took place on exculsively on Sukkot.

“With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Based on this verse, the drawing of water from the Shiloach spring and its libation upon the altar of G-d was accompanied by great rejoicing and celebration in the Holy Temple. In fact, this joy was so immense, and the celebrations so uplifting, that the sages of Israel emphatically stated:

“Whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation-has never experienced true joy in his life” (ibid. 5, 1).

But what was the cause of such great happiness, to the extent that this statement was recorded for all posterity? Indeed, what could be so moving about the simple act of gathering up some water, and pouring it onto the altar? …

museum model of Water Gate for Feast of Tabernacles to carry water to the Temple
museum model of Jerusalem Water Gate used in Feast of Tabernacles to carry water to the Temple

So Jesus used the context of the joyful ceremonial gathering of pure water poured on the altar in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles to point to himself as likewise giving ‘living water’ to anyone who is ‘thirsty’.  His self-portrait was made vivid in that context to his hearers.

The curious response of Jesus’ hearers

steps leading to Water Gate for Festival of Tabernacles
Photo of the steps leading to Jerusalem Water Gate for Festival of Tabernacles. Jesus would have walked them along with other pilgrims in his day

But still, the response of his hearers seems perhaps a bit excessive.  When they heard his declaration their response was:

40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”

 

How did Jesus’ hearers go from Jesus’ statement of ‘living water’ to think ‘Messiah’?  At first glance there seems to be no natural connection.

Ancient Jerusalem Water Gate outline can be seen, but it is now sealed
Ancient Jerusalem Water Gate outline can be seen, but it is now sealed

However, there is one key Old Testament passage describing the Feast of Tabernacles and ‘living water’.  But I have to warn you now – it is so apocalyptic that it may not be pleasant to unpack.

Zechariah, Living Water & the Feast of Tabernacles

Zechariah in timeline
Zechariah in Historical timeline

Zechariah wrote of a coming day when:

A day of the Lord is coming, Jerusalem, when … I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it … Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…

On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness. It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. 17 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain.19 This will be … the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (Zechariah 14: 1 – 19)

Here we have a convergence of ‘living water’, the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ and ‘all the nations’ along with Someone who is ‘King’ and ‘Lord’.  If we understand where the term ‘Messiah’ (= Christ) comes from we will see that this Someone was the Messiah.  This is an Old Testament messianic prophecy.  Hearing Jesus talking about ‘Living Water’ at the Feast of Tabernacles would have reminded his Jewish audience of this very passage and so they would have thought ‘Messiah’.  Hence their response to his Feast of Tabernacles cry.  It is just that Zechariah does not seem to describe Jesus to our modern-day minds.

Zechariah and the ‘one they have pierced’

But that is because I started the quote of Zechariah partway through his prophecy.  It actually begins two chapters earlier.  If we start at that beginning the meaning goes deeper still;

A prophecy: The word of the Lord concerning Israel.

The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares: “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem…. On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem.

Mourning for the One They Pierced

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son… 

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.  (Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1)

Whether one believes in the Biblical prophets or not, it is clear that in this passage the speaker (the ‘I’) is God, since he “stretches out the heavens … who forms the human spirit within a person” (v. 1).  He is warning of a future day, a terrible day when nations will be destroyed.  But paradoxically the mourning and grief will not center in those nations facing destruction, but rather in Jerusalem, being rescued from destruction by a ‘one they have pierced’.  Who would that be?  Let the descriptions by Isaiah and the Psalmist of one being ‘pierced’ help you answer that question.  Zechariah himself predicted his name.  Yet the pierced one is still, by using the pronoun ‘me’, the same ‘I’ who stretched the heavens and forms the human spirit in a person.  Pretty heady stuff.

Feast of Tabernacles, Hallel prayer & Jesus

This takes us full circle back to the Feast of Tabernacles.  The website describing the Sukkot celebration in Bible times details the prayers that were sung by the pilgrims back then.  It explains

The hallel prayer, a collection of songs of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty, is one of the oldest and most original examples of traditional Jewish liturgy. It consists of the following chapters from the book of Psalms: 113-118

Therefore, the ending of the hallel prayer which pilgrims (including Jesus) sang on that Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus cried out about ‘Living Water’ was the following from Psalm 118

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; (Psalm 118: 22)

The Feast of Tabernacles hallel prayer uncannily predicted the career and legacy of Jesus.  Jesus used this very phrase to describe himself when challenged by the Jewish leaders just before his ‘piercing’.  He saw himself as the stone rejected that would become the cornerstone.  And it was sung every Feast of Tabernacles by devout Jewish pilgrims.  Zechariah predicted that complete recognition of this would be accompanied by cataclysmic, even apocalyptic, events.

The ancient 3500 year old Feast of Tabernacles opens many layers of meaning, spanning history and theology, when considered through the person of Jesus Christ.

 

Did Moses write the Torah?

Two events happened this month that show the depth and breadth of a question that has been burning for over one hundred years: Did Moses really write the Torah?

What is the Torah? Who wrote it?

The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) are collectively referred to as the Torah (by Jews), the Pentateuch (by Christians/Westerners) and the Taurat (by Muslims). The fact that all three monotheistic faiths acknowledge these writings show their cultural, historical and religious significance. Countless Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have referenced these writings down to our day. Jesus quoted liberally from the Torah throughout the gospels.  Even as different scholars from various sects battled each other over interpretation, they had all agreed on one thing – that Moses had indeed written the Torah approximately 1500-1400 BC.

Moses and the Documentary Hypothesis

But that changed in the late 19th century when western scholars advanced a bold new idea: Moses did not write the Pentateuch, instead it developed at a much later time from pre-existing writings that were edited together by unknown editors.  Known as the Documentary Hypothesis, it proposed that material from at least 4 authors, termed J (for Jehovah), E (for Elohim), D (for Deuteronomic) and P (for Priestly) had started being compiled during the Davidic monarchy (9th Century BC) and after centuries was finalized upon the Jewish return from exile sometime in the 5th century BC. In this view the Torah was solely a human product from unknown sources, put together by further unknown compilers.

The Documentary Hypothesis was advanced by Wellhausen (1844-1918) using two main arguments. First, he alleged that writing did not exist way back in 1500 BC, mankind was too primitive then and therefore the Torah could not have been written at such an early date. (Writing going back much further than 1500 BC has been discovered since, e.g. the Ebla tablets dating past 2000 BC. So this first argument is clearly not valid anymore)  He also brought to attention the fact that there were two names for God in the Torah. The first, Elohim, is often translated in English Bibles today as ‘God’, and the other – Yahweh – is often translated as ‘LORD God’. You can see that ‘God’ (Elohim) is used in Genesis 1 but at Genesis 2:4 it switches to ‘LORD God’ (Yahweh). As you read through the Torah it switches back and forth. Wellhausen argued that this was internal evidence of two different sources from two different authors (designated J and E) which were later collated into one document. The theory soon demanded more authors and so D and P were added (and in variant theories many more as well).

Modern scholarship and Moses

While the specifics of the documentary hypothesis have been critiqued by those advocating new theories, what is now almost universally agreed is that the Torah is the work of many people, and its development spanned centuries, only reaching the form that it is in today somewhere around 500 BC. “Certainly Moses in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC had nothing to do with it”, say modern scholarship.

William Dever & the Pentateuch

Consider the following quotes from William Dever, a well-known Biblical archaeologist:

“It is universally agreed that the book of Deuteronomy is a later addition to the Pentateuch (probably it was inserted not earlier than the late 7th century B.C.).”  Dever 2003 Who were the Early Israelites and where did they come from? p. 37

Of course, if the first books of the Bible were written much later then this means that all subsequent ones come later as well. In fact the whole timeline of the Old Testament is affected. Consider how Dever evaluates the book of Joshua, the account of Moses’ immediate successor.

We have already discussed the general character of the “Deuteronomic history” (that is , Deuteronomy through II Kings) of which Joshua is a critical component. We noted that mainstream scholars date the composition and first editing of this great national epic toward the end of the Israelite Monarchy, probably during the reign of Josiah (640 – 609 BC). But the compilers must have had many separate ‘sources’ so we need to look now more closely at the special character of the sources that went into the making of the book of Joshua (Obviously Joshua himself did not write it!)  p.38

The tone and the assertion are identical to what I learned when I took a university course on the Bible. All scholars ‘know’ that the traditional author could not have written the book. It ‘obviously’ was written hundreds of years later during the time of the Davidic dynasty. But how do they ‘know’ this?

The Torah, Dead Sea Scrolls, & Top Events in Human History

This brings us to the two events this month which bear on our question. A few weeks ago the Israeli Antiquities Authority put on public display, for the first time ever, the world’s oldest existing copy of the Ten Commandments – arguably the cornerstone of the Torah – as one of a 14-part exhibit “tracing history’s most pivotal moments”. In other words, the museum people concluded that the issuing of the Ten Commandments was in the Top 14 of humanity’s most important events. That’s pretty big.

ten-commandments-indead-sea-scrolls-atisraeli-antiquities
The Ten Commandments in the Dead Sea Scrolls – part of the Torah

As part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the oldest copy of the Ten Commandments is about 2000 years old and so brittle with age that it can only be on display for a few weeks. It is old, but at 2000 years of age it is so young compared to dates of 1500 BC (traditional date of the Torah) and 500 BC (modern scholarship date) that it is not helpful in answering the question of who wrote the Torah. The time horizon is too deep for even the oldest copy to help answer the question of who wrote those Commands that are in the ‘Top 14’.

The Pentateuch in Palmyra

Deuteronomy inscription in Palmyra
Deuteronomy inscription in Palmyra

Also this month, the Islamic State capture of Palmyra in the bloody war in Syria has made headlines around the world. When the Islamic State captures a city there is always concern for atrocities, but Palmyra has an added worry in that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre due to its preserved ruins of bygone civilizations.  Included amongst the Persian, Greek and Roman artefacts, carved on one of the ancient doorways is preserved the opening verses of the Jewish Shema prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. This shows the widespread influence of the Pentateuch, and its great antiquity.  However, these ancient carvings are still not old enough to shed any light on the origins of the Pentateuch.

‘Jerusalem’, ‘Zion’, the Jews & the Torah: Only Moses could pass over that

You might think that with the relevant textual and archaeological data too recent to be of use, and with modern scholars engrossed in competing theories which are united only in their assertions against Moses, that the question is hopeless to answer.  The religious (Jew, Christian or Muslim) can only answer ‘Moses’ on pious grounds, while the secular, looking for a non-religious reasons for the development of the Pentateuch, must fall back on complex speculations.

But actually, there is a very simple and straightforward way to gain some clarity.  And with internet search capabilities you can do it. Do a search through the Torah and see if you can find the word ‘Jerusalem’. This will do it for you. As you can see, the word ‘Jerusalem’ only appears first in Joshua.  Thus, through the whole Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy the word ‘Jerusalem’ is never used. Jerusalem is today, and has been for millennia, the center of the Jewish world.  Its significance to the Jewish people is like that of Mecca for Muslims, or like Rome for Catholics. This is why the word ‘Jerusalem’ appears a full 655 times through the Old Testament and 146 times in the New Testament. It appears 229 times in Kings-Chronicles – but never in the Torah.  Its synonym ‘Zion’ also does not appear even once in the Torah, making its first appearance only in 2 Samuel.  Yet by the end of the Old Testament ‘Zion’ is used 161 times. Consider an excerpt from one of the Psalms from the period of the exile (6th century BC) and get a feel for how important Jerusalem/Zion was to the Jewish people then.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. (Psalm 137: 1-6)

Jerusalem, founded by the Davidic dynasty, quickly became the sacred heartland for the Jews after the first Temple was built (ca 960 BC). It still is today. Yet modern scholars, no matter which Documentary version they push for, would have us believe that editor ‘Priests’ consciously edited, collated and massaged the entire Torah, over the centuries when their attachment to Jerusalem was at its height – and they produced the entire 80000 word Torah without ever using the words ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Zion’ even once! These ‘editors’ were living in Jerusalem while this editing was going on.  And this while they were concurrently compiling the other books (Kings, Chronicles, Samuel etc) that use ‘Jerusalem’ over 600 times and ‘Zion’ over 100 times!

I find my faith to be way too small and way too weak to believe such an utterly fantastic idea.  Revionist scholars, for whatever reason, fail to note these obvious yet simple facts standing right before their eyes. They claim to be able to observe and interpret facts as minute as fernseeds, yet they cannot see the elephant in the room.  The Pentateuch, with its absolute silence on both ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ must have been finalized before the rise of the monarchy in 1000 BC. A pseudo-Moses editorial team would not have passed over the opportunity to use ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ in compiling their Torah while Jerusalem was their keystone.

Though the absolute absence of ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Zion’ from the Torah does not prove that Moses wrote the Torah per se, it proves that its composition comes before the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem and thus it dismantles, in one stroke, all the modern theories which place its composition in the 5th century BC. The only one left standing when the dust settles from the collision of clever theories with one good fact is Moses.

A Funny Gaffe – fit for a Good Friday

The puzzle of Psalm 22

Jesus on crossA few years ago a friend and work colleague, J, wandered over to my desk. J was smart and educated – and definitely not a believer in the gospel. He was skeptical but somewhat curious which gave rise to some warm and open conversations between us. He had never really looked at the Bible so I encouraged him now and then to give it a go.

One day he came into my office with a Bible to show me that he was indeed taking a look. He had opened it randomly in the middle. I asked him what he was reading. I remember our conversation going something like this.

“I am reading in Psalm chapter 22”, he said (pronouncing the ‘P’ in Psalm).

“Really”, I said. “It is pronounced salm – without the ‘p’. Any idea what you are reading about?”

“I guess I am reading about the crucifixion of Jesus”, J replied.

“That’s a good guess”, I laughed. “But you are about one thousand years off. Psalm 22 was written by David around 1000 BC. Jesus’ crucifixion was in 30’s CE.”

J was not familiar with the books in the Bible and did not realize that the Psalms were not the accounts of Jesus’ life by his contemporaries. He had only heard some stories about Jesus, including his crucifixion, and randomly opening his Bible he stumbled on something that, from his perspective, seemed to describe the crucifixion, and not knowing any better, he just assumed it was the story of the crucifixion. He had made a little gaffe – an error- in his first Bible reading exercise. We had a chuckle over his first mis-step in Bible exegesis.

Then I asked J what he saw in Psalm 22 that made him think he was reading about the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus began our little on-the-spot investigative study. I invite you to consider some of the similarities we noticed by placing the passages side-by-side in a table. To help I have color matched the texts that are similar.

Comparison of Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion with the details in Psalm 22

Crucifixion details from the Gospels Psalm 22 – written 1000 BC
(Matthew 27: 31-48) ..Then they led him (Jesus) away to crucify him…. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “… save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him,…About the ninth hour Jesus cried…“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” …48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink.Mark 15: 16-2016 The soldiers led Jesus away… They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him…37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.(JOHN 19:34) they did not break his legs..., pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.…they crucified him… (JOHN 20:25) [Thomas] unless I see the nail marks in his hands ,…”…JOHN 20:23-24 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining…Let’s not tear it”, they said,”Let’s decide by lot who gets it” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest…All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

The fact that J, being astute but not familiar with the Bible, made the logical but wrong conclusion that Psalm 22 was an eye-witness account of the Good Friday crucifixion, should make us ask a question. How do we explain the similarity between these accounts? Can we write it off to chance coincidence that the details can match so precisely as to include that the clothes would BOTH be divided (the clothes with seams were split along the seams and passed out among the soldiers) AND have lots cast (the garment without the seam would be ruined by tearing it so they threw dice for it). Psalm 22 was written before crucifixion was invented but it uncannily describes its various details (piercing of hands and feet, bones being out of joint – by being stretched as the victim hangs). In addition, the Gospel of John states that blood and water flowed out when the spear was thrust in Jesus’ side, indicating a fluid buildup in the pericardium cavity around the heart. Jesus thus died of a heart attack.  This matches the Psalm 22 description of ‘my heart has turned to wax’. The Hebrew word in Psalm 22 which is translated ‘pierced’ literally means ‘like a lion’. In other words the hand and feet were mutilated and mauled as they were pierced. So, what to make of all this?

Jesus, through the pens of the Gospel writers, argued that these similarities were prophetic. God inspired Old Testament prophets hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ life to predict details of his life and death so that we can know that this was all in the plan of God. Prophetic fulfillment is like having a Divine signature on these events of Good Friday since no human can know the future like this.

Bart Ehrman’s explanation

Bart Ehrman, renowned Bible scholar and arch Gospel critic, counters that the prophetic credentials of Psalm 22 are suspect because the whole thrust of the Gospel story was that the ‘Messiah’ or Christ was the one that was supposed to be sacrificed and Psalm 22 says nothing of the victim being the ‘Messiah’. As he states it

“But what to do with the fact that there were no Jewish prophecies that the Messiah would suffer and die?” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. p. 234)

But this raises another issue. It is not that there is just one prophecy (like Psalm 22) that Jesus was to fulfill, but there are scores of them. These are testable predictions by different authors in different time periods and social strata through the Old Testament. So, to take Ehrman at his challenge, Daniel, living in exile in Babylon around 550 BC had a vision in which he was told the following prophetic riddle:

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing… ” (Daniel 9:25-26)

Hmm. My deepest respects to the New Testament scholar but he missed this in the Old Testament. Here, exactly as he challenged, is a prophecy that the ‘Anointed One’ (= Christ = Messiah) would be ‘cut off’. The timing of this and the details of ‘cut off’, which foresaw the meaning of Jesus’ death, flatly refutes Ehrman’s assertion that there is no Old Testament prophecy where the ‘Christ’ was to suffer and die.

Spong’s explanation

Others, like Shelby Spong (in That Hebrew Lord), argue that the similarity of Psalm 22 with the events of crucifixion of Good Friday are simply due to the fact that the Gospel writers made the events up to ‘fit’ the prophecy. His detailed verse-by-verse analysis showing the similarities between Psalm 22 and Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospel accounts is data to support his theory that the Gospel writers made up the crucifixion events, taking the details from Psalm 22. At the very least, Spong’s theory means that he thinks the similarities demand an explanation. But his explanation totally ignores the testimony of historians from that time outside of the Bible. Josephus and Tacitus respectively tell us that:

“At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.” (Josephus. 90AD. Antiquities xviii. 33   Josephus was a Jewish Historian)

“Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius” (Tacitus. 117 AD. Annals XV. 44.  Tacitus was a Roman Historian)

Their testimony agrees in broad-brush strokes with the gospels that Jesus was indeed crucified. This is important because many of the details in Psalm 22 are simply particulars of the act of being crucified. If the gospel writers were going to make up or grossly distort the actual events to make them ‘fit’ Psalm 22 then they would basically have had to make up the whole crucifixion, yet no one denies his crucifixion, and Josephus explicitly states that this is how he was executed.

Psalm 22 and Jesus’ legacy

But Psalm 22 does not end at v18 in the table above – it continues seamlessly on. Note here how triumphant the mood is at the end –after the person is dead!

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him— may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.

31 They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn— for he has done it. (Psalm 22:26-31)

Notice that this is not talking at all about details of the events of this person’s death. That was dealt with in the first section of the Psalm. The psalmist is now addressing the impact of that person’s death on ‘posterity’ and ‘future generations’ (v.30). That is us living 2000 years later.  He tells us that  ‘posterity’ which follows this ‘pierced’ man who died such a horrible death will ‘serve’ him and be ‘told about him’.  Verse 27 predicts the geographic scope of the impact – it will go to the ‘ends of the earth’ and among ‘all families of nations’ and cause them to ‘turn to the LORD’. Verse 29 indicates how ‘those who cannot keep themselves alive’ (since we all die would that not be all of us?) will one day kneel before him. The righteousness of this man will be proclaimed to people who were not yet alive (the ‘yet unborn’) at the time of his death.

One could not make a better prediction of the subsequent legacy of the death of Jesus than Psalm 22 does. Two thousand years after Jesus amid global Good Friday celebrations this week highlight the worldwide impact of Jesus’ death, fulfilling the conclusion of Psalm 22 as uncannily as the earlier verses predicted the details of his death. Who else in world history can even make a claim that details of his death as well as the legacy of his life into the distant future would be predicted 1000 years before he lived?

The conclusion in Psalm 22 has nothing to do with whether the gospel accounts borrowed from it or not because it is now dealing with much later events – those of our time. The gospel writers, in the 1st century could not make up the impact of the death of Jesus into our time. How does Spong incorporate this fact in his explanation? He doesn’t. He ignores this latter part of Psalm 22.

Perhaps, like my friend J, you will take the opportunity this Good Friday to consider Psalm 22 in light of Jesus’ crucifixion. It will take more mental effort than if you just coasted through Good Friday. And you may make some gaffes as you engage with the text like J did. But don’t let that stop you. As you can see, even the most well-known of scholars make gaffes over Psalm 22. The reward is worth the risk because the man whom I believe Psalm 22 is referring to promised:

I have come that they may have life and have it to the full

That would make this Easter fulfilling indeed.  Here is the full Psalm 22, and the crucifixion account according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  May you experience some of that not only this Good Friday but through the year as well.

Prudence in the rising wake of an ancient Apocalyptic Speech

The Bible unapologetically tilts to the future. From the Beginning back in the Garden to the very last chapter of the last book there is a steady stream of prophecies directing our thoughts to events yet to come. You can recognize these predictions by the repeated use of ‘will’ – as in the future-tense verb. Such-and-such ‘will’ happen is stated again and again throughout the Book.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. For starters, since no human knows the future, it serves as a testable signature to verify if indeed there is a Divine Mind behind those writings, separating would be pretenders from the Real. Reflect on how key events of Abraham as well as the Passover fit like a key in a lock with the crucifixion of Jesus. Prophecies as predictions of the future thus help our minds recognize truth.

Our lives are also full of trials and heartaches wherein we regularly suffer profound loss. We long for a better world and many of us despair that it will ever come about. So we need encouragement. Many Bible prophecies look to a better future and are given as encouragement so we do not lose hope. “The Kingdom of God will be established and peace one day will reign – so do not give up now” is the thrust of many prophecies, providing needed comfort, strengthening us emotionally.

But there is yet another reason for prophecies. Some confront our wills – the part of us that makes choices – to warn us of hard consequences in the future if we do not change the direction we have chosen for ourselves. These are probably the most difficult for us to accept (at least that is true for me) precisely because they oppose our inborn tendency of not wanting anyone, whether God or man, to speak warning into our lives.

Some prophecies combine all these elements. And no prophet does so with better effect than Jesus himself. He gave future-looking prophecies, apocalyptic even, that somehow provide comfort, engage our minds – and yet still confront our wills.

Events this week brought one of his apocalyptic speeches to my mind, causing me to ask whether we are seeing it (parts at least) unfolding in front of our eyes – and on our websites and TV screens. The complete discourse is in the link here. Below are  highlights.

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

He replied: “… 20 When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written … against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Destruction of Jerusalem prophesied

The phrase I underlined is a tipping point pushing people to vastly different conclusions. We know from history that the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD and expelled the Jews living there across the Roman Empire – mostly as slaves – exactly as the underlined section states. It indicates it will occur in Jesus’ future (note the ‘will’s). So is this a case of prophecy? Some say ‘yes’. But Luke authored this Gospel some years after Jesus. Perhaps he authored it after 70 AD and, knowing the events that had transpired, put the ‘prophecy’ in Jesus’ mouth to give him robust prophetic credentials. In fact, most scholars date Luke after 70 AD precisely because it makes this very prediction. In this logic, since prophesy is impossible (they assume), the only way to explain it is to set the date of authorship after 70 AD.

The conclusion of the Gentiles over Jerusalem prophesied

What seems to get missed in the authorship controversy is that Jesus continued seamlessly along and predicted that the Gentile (i.e. non-Jew) control of Jerusalem, initiated in 70 AD with its destruction, would end one day, when ‘the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’. This is the part I have bolded. For thousands of years, one Gentile group after another swapped control of that city. But that all changed in 1967, when it was captured by the new state of Israel in the Six-Day war – and Gentiles now no longer control that city. Whatever one chooses to believe about it, whether one ‘likes’ it or not, this part of the prophecy was fulfilled – along with all its attendant issues – and certainly it was not because Luke inked it in after the fact.

Roaring and tossing of the sea prophesied

But maybe it was just a lucky guess, bound to come true eventually by chance. Jesus’ speech continues on:

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.

Last week the nations witnessed Cyclone Pam rip through and devastate islands in the South Pacific. Consider some headlines through the lens of this prediction of the ‘roaring and tossing of the sea’

Devastation from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu - March 2015
Devastation from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu – March 2015

We have been hearing for a while now of the threat of sea level rise and the increased intensity of ocean storms. Cyclone Pam was just the latest exhibit in lengthening line-up of such stories we now commonly hear. Something is changing in the seas such that they now ‘roar’ and ‘toss’.

The perplexity of the nations prophesied

But Jesus was not just talking about the sea itself, but about ‘the nations’ and their perplexity of what to do about this rising problem. In a twist of irony, while his country was being devastated by Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale was in Japan attending a United Nations conference on how to understand and deal with these rising storms.  As the United Nations bulletin expressed it

Devastation in cyclone’s wake illustrates need for targeted disaster response, Pacific leaders say at UN conference

Jesus’ predictions of the ‘nations’ being in ‘anguish’ and ‘perplexity’ with the problem of increasing storms on the seas was vividly illustrated for us. We may think it is obvious that ‘nations’ will convene to discuss and fret about global problems – but that certainly was not a given in the 1st Century when nations did not exist in a global community like they do today. Jesus’ words anticipated the context of nations, the endless discussions and forums amongst nations about the ‘sea’, as well as the sea itself. That starts to intrigue me.

Netanyahu at Western Wall of ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem after winning elections in March 2015
Netanyahu at Western Wall of ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem after winning elections in March 2015

This all happened as the Israeli elections results were agonized all the world over. This picture of Netanyahu at the Western Wall of the Temple (destroyed in 70 AD as predicted in the Speech) reminding us of Jewish re-control of that sensitive area after 2000 years, in the same week as the devastation of the ‘roaring and tossing’ of Cyclone Pam, seem almost like Someone is adding pictures to go along with the text of Jesus’ ancient speech.

The Celestial Bodies

But what to make of this other prediction in Jesus’ speech, that of ‘signs in the sun, moon and stars’? Frankly, it is not clear to me. The recent spectacular eclipse that made headlines around the world is actually part of a series of ‘blood’ moon events that have been coinciding with the last Jewish festivals of Passover and Sukhot for which the secular Times of Israel published an interesting article. Is there a ‘sign’ in that?  Perhaps.  Jesus concludes his speech with the following:

28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This was given to reassure, as a comfort. It also indicated that these events will occur progressively. Not all will be clear at once. But when they ‘begin’ we can know that the Kingdom is ‘near’.

In American baseball, only the exceptional batter ever reaches a batting average of .333. This means that he gets out twice as often as he makes first base. Yet pitchers regularly walk those batters. Why? Because they prudently recognize that 1 hit for every 3 at bats is very good and it is prudent to walk such a batter rather than risk a hit. If that is true for batters at .333 how about for the record in this Speech? Perhaps not everything is clear yet. But enough seems to be happening that at the very least it would be prudent to take it seriously – just like pitchers take a .333 batter seriously.

The Warning

Jesus adds the following footnote to his Speech

34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

True to form, this is the part we do not like because it is a warning challenging our wills and therefore we would prefer to ignore the whole speech, hoping it will just go away. But if we are prudent we will recognize that Jesus, master teacher that he was, combined elements in his Apocalyptic speech to reach our minds, our emotions and our wills – for our good. I know that I am planning to keep ‘watch’ as I go about the life that has been given to me.

Laying claim to St. Patrick – luck of the Irish or ‘The Voice’?

Many nations claim great men in their heritage. For example, America has Abraham Lincoln, Britain has Churchill, and South Africa has Nelson Mandela. Though I admire these men for what they overcame and accomplished with their political power, I still find them worlds apart from St. Patrick because of what he accomplished without power. Unfortunately for most of us, St. Patrick lies somewhere between legend, Leprechauns, green outfits, and a good excuse for an evening of excess drinking. But your life has been impacted by Patrick in substantial ways so it is worthwhile to get a mental sketch of the man and his contribution even into today.

We associate Patrick with the Irish, but few realize that he was not an Irishman by birth. No, he went through an extraordinary baptism of kidnapping and slavery, followed by escape and then a voluntary return to civilize his former captors. How many other nations can claim that in their heritage? The Luck of the Irish has been running its streak for a long time indeed. Or was it something else?

Life of Patrick – from his Confessions

Patrick was born in Britain when the Roman Legions had left the British Isles in the early 400’s CE. Britain was a lawless place then full of anarchy, looting and kidnapping. In His Confession (one of two of his extant writings) he states that when he was ‘sixteen’ (Confessions 1) or “almost a beardless boy” (Confessions 10) he was captured by Irish slave-traders, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave where he tended his master’s herds (probably pigs) for seven years. Back home his grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon so he had been raised in a relatively well-off household. However he had never accepted true faith. He describes himself in his youth as a “sinner”, who along with his hometown friends “did not keep His (God’s) precepts, nor were we obedient” (Confessions 1). However, during his lonely years in a barbaric place, amidst a foreign language, strange customs and deprived opportunities, the teachings sown into his heart in childhood sprang to life. He describes his herder life as one

“…out in the forests and on the mountain … in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain…” (Confessions 16)

where

“…there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief” (Confessions 2)

Then his story decidedly becomes ‘different’ because he states that he heard a voice in his sleep which said

“ ‘…soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ “ (Confessions 17)

So he escaped, travelling 200 miles to a ship which took him aboard. After briefly being recaptured and escaping again he made his way home. His family ‘welcomed’ (Confessions 23) him back. By all accounts the story should have had its Happy Ending right there with Patrick living out his life comfortably back home.

But that was not to be. The “Voice of the Irish” (Confessions 23) spoke again begged him

‘…that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ (Confessions 23)

Who was this Voice? Patrick writes that on other occasions It said

‘He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.’ (Confessions 24)

But then accusations from his hometown elders, reminding him of his unworthiness for such a venture due to his youthful ‘sins’ (Confessions 2627) stood in the way of his plan to go back to live amongst those who had enslaved him. This rebuke from his own countrymen who did not support him, allowed him to see that

still, I was only concerned for myself (Confessions 28)

But with further encouragement from the Voice (Confessions 29) Patrick faced his hometown naysayers such that

… guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others (Confessions 37)

So Patrick went back and spent the rest of his life in Ireland without the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church (the ultimate authority in Europe back then) or the support of his own people. In fact they opposed it. Intriguingly, Historian Philip Schaff states that in the conflux of political and religious power-brokers of that day

Pope Caelestine, in 431, ordained and sent Palladius, a Roman deacon, and probably a native Briton … as their (Irish’s) first bishop… But Palladius was so discouraged that he soon abandoned the field, with his assistants, for North Britain, where he died among the Picts (i.e., Scots). For nearly two centuries after this date, we have no authentic record of papal intercourse with Ireland … It was converted by two humble individuals, who probably never saw Rome, St. Patrick, once a slave, and St. Bridget, the daughter of a slave-mother … The Roman mission of Palladius failed; the independent mission of Patrick succeeded.” Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol IV, p. 45

As Patrick himself asked

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God. (Confessions 41)

With not much but that Voice to guide him through the many years of hard work in Ireland, Patrick reported that

What is more, when I baptized so many thousands of people, did I hope for even half a jot from any of them? [If so] Tell me, and I will give it back to you. And when the Lord ordained clergy everywhere by my humble means, and I freely conferred office on them, if I asked any of them anywhere even for the price of one shoe, say so to my face and I will give it back. (Confessions 50)

Patrick concluded with his conviction that

But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die. (Confessions 62)

Patrick’s Legacy

Schaff goes on to describe the impact of Patrick’s life on succeeding generations of Europe in these words

“In less than a century after St. Patrick’s death Ireland was covered with churches and convents for men and women. The monastic institutions were training schools … and workshops for transcribing sacred books“ Philip Schaff, p. 52

So when the rest of Europe was sinking into the dark ages of ignorance in the dissolution of the Roman Empire Ireland was investing in “training schools” and ‘books’. Concurrently

“Ireland dreamed the dream of converting heathen Europe. Its apostles went forth to Scotland, North Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland and North Italy. They covered the land and seas of the West. Unwearied navigators, they landed on the most desert islands; they overflowed the continent with their successive imaginations.” Philip Schaff, p. 53

And when they got to their destinations across Europe these bands of people founded ‘primitive’ Keltic Monasteries. Schaff explains:

“By a primitive Keltic monastery we must not understand an elaborate stone structure, but a rude village of wooden huts … on a river, with a church, a common eating hall, a mill, a hospice, the whole surrounded by a wall of earth or stone. The senior monks gave themselves entirely to devotion and transcribing of the Scriptures … they were training schools … offering them (pagan converts) a refuge from danger and violence. They were resorted to by English noblemen who were … furnished with books and instructed. Some Irish clergymen could read the Greek Testament at a time when Pope Gregory I was ignorant of Greek.” Philip Schaff, p. 56-57

No wonder Thomas Cahill, in his historical survey of the Irish in this period entitled his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. When the Greco-Roman world was dissolving such that neither the educated brilliant like Augustine of Hippo, nor the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Church, nor the might of kings and nobles could preserve civilization, it was the humble Irish monks that kept learning and civilization alive. You and I are beneficiaries of this today.

As we live in our society, with an education and knowledge advanced far beyond that of classical Rome, but with a decadence that in many ways surpasses the self-indulgence of that era, we will have different explanations as to what that ‘Voice’ really was that spoke to Patrick so long ago. Was he simply hearing things? Or did Someone actually speak to him? But if that is the case why is He not speaking today?

Here are a few ruminations I am contemplating this St. Patrick’s Day

1)      Humility breathes all across the short Confessions of St. Patrick. Has our learning and knowledge puffed our pride more than it has increased our wisdom?   In the Book He states that He is

…opposed to the proud but shows favor to the humble (1 Peter 5:5)

Perhaps our pride coupled with all the noisy props and entertainments we have built around us render us unable to hear.  Maybe we need first, like Patrick needed, to strip our lives a bit more bare so our minds can be opened to an awareness of our real state.

2)      Many of the manuscripts that those Irish monks transcribed are still around and form part of the vast collection of 24 000 extant manuscripts giving evidence of a reliably preserved New Testament text. Perhaps we can start there to hear this Voice

3)      It is easy to simply look and listen at the established churches of our day, and in seeing/hearing something we do not like, cease to listen for a deeper tune. We prefer to chalk up the whole gospel to some Roman conspiracy of Constantine. Patrick’s life shows clearly that the gospel is not derived from there. Though Constantine introduced certain controversial customs and dates, Patrick’s customs and holidays, which differed from that of Rome, show that the Voice was not a church conspiracy.

4)      Perhaps there is a tie-in between this Voice and the man for whom a case for resurrection can be made.  If that were true he would be alive and ready to Speak.

Your take-aways may differ from mine, but hopefully it will be more than just drinking green beer this St. Patrick’s Day.  Patrick’s legacy and gift to us deserves more than that.

Confessions of the Real Housewife of 50 Shades of Grey

Last week I was on a long-haul driving trip.  That meant I spent a lot of time listening to the radio as I passed station after station’s coverage area.   The domination (no pun intended) of ’50 Shades of Grey’ in the theatres made for plenty of juicy radio talk.  The box office success of the erotic romance matched the success of the ‘Fifty Shades’ book trilogy which has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 50 languages!  It seems like both publishing companies and Hollywood have found another lucrative formula with global appeal – an S&M form of romance-porn.

I must admit that I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the books, and I confess that neither is on my bucket list.   Perhaps my lack of partaking will simply be dismissed as prudishness in the eyes of many.  After all, what’s the harm with a little bit of fun many (100 million across 50 nations at least) would probably ask me.

But I was intrigued to find out that I am not alone in my abstinence.  It turns out that Amelia Warner, the real (house)wife of Jamie Dornan (the actor playing Christian Grey in Fifty Shades) also will not be seeing the movie.

According to Australian magazine NW, Dornan’s wife, English actress-singer Amelia Warner, is unhappy with him starring in explicit sex scenes in the film.

“Jamie said the movie would skyrocket his career. He tried to assure Amelia nothing would change but women all over the world now lust after Jamie. She hasn’t seen the film and I don’t think she will to be honest,” an insider said, according to the Mirror.

Dornan himself said about this

“She doesn’t want to watch this,” he said. “She wants to support me and my work. I won’t be able to sit there myself. I am not going to put any pressure on her either way. It’s her decision. She’s well aware that it’s pretend, but it’s probably not that comfortable to watch.”

Hmm.  If this is not ‘comfortable’ for the wife of the actor himself and it makes her ‘unhappy’ we can surmise something about the state of his real-life love, and also surmise something about ourselves from this confession.  I would like to do so through the pen of C.S. Lewis.   His take on human sexuality seems shrewdly (to me) tough but spot-on and so has informed my sensibilities.  These words were originally broadcast across Britain in the 1940’s and then put into print in the early 1950’s.  So they come from a different era – one that we view today as prudish.  In that light notice how he paints the situation in his day and observe how his predictions have come of age in our day.

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.” Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

But I have other reasons for thinking so. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

One critic said that if he found a country in which such striptease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. He meant, of course, to imply that such things as the strip-tease act resulted not from sexual corruption but from sexual starvation. I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine.

But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one.

In the same way, before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence.

Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times. Nor is the hypothesis of “starvation” the only one we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

Here is a third point. You find very few people who want to eat things that really are not food or to do other things with food instead of eating it. In other words, perversions of the food appetite are rare. But perversions of the sex instinct are numerous, hard to cure, and frightful. I am sorry to have to go into all these details, but I must. The reason why I must is that you and I, for the last twenty years, have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex. We have been told, till one is sick of hearing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly old Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden will be lovely. It is not true. The moment you look at the facts, and away from the propaganda, you see that it is not. They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up.

But for the last twenty years it has not been hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess. Modern people are always saying, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.” They may mean two things. They may mean “There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact that it gives pleasure.” If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same. It is not the thing, nor the pleasure, that is the trouble.

You and I both know that since Lewis wrote those words in the 1940/50’s we as a society have gone much further down the road of indulgence.  We are fed a constant chattering of sex through all media channels – more than Lewis could even have imagined just a few decades ago.  So have these intervening decades of further indulgence satisfied our sexual appetites or only inflamed them to higher levels?  The latest ‘Exhibit A’ – 50 Shades – shows clearly that our appetites are only being inflamed to such an extent that those involved are even uncomfortable.  As we continue to scratch our sexual itch it only gets itchier.  Perhaps Lewis was on to something then.   He continues on with his food metaphor.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips. I do not say you and I are individually responsible for the present situation. Our ancestors have handed over to us organisms which are warped in this respect: and we grow up surrounded by propaganda in favour of unchastity.

There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales-resistance. God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.

Sex sells.  We all know that.  But why?  Lewis argues that it is because there is something gone awry with our sexuality.  Something that the Bible indicates happened at the dawn of humanity.  If that is the case our consumption of sexual showbiz is not a consequence-less entertainment.  It is feeding the cancer within.  Instead of feeding it we need to cure it.  But as Lewis says.

Before we can be cured we must want to be cured. Those who really wish for help will get it; but for many modern people even the wish is difficult. It is easy to think that we want something when we do not really want it. A famous Christian long ago told us that when he was a young man he prayed constantly for chastity; but years later he realised that while his lips had been saying, “Oh Lord, make me chaste,” his heart had been secretly adding, “But please don’t do it just yet.” This may happen in prayers for other virtues too; but there are three reasons why it is now specially difficult for us to desire—let alone to achieve—complete chastity.

In the first place our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so “natural,” so “healthy,” and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour.

Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth—the truth, acknowledged above, that sex in itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is “normal” and “healthy,” and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal. Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart from Christianity, must be nonsense. Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness.

For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary; so the claim made by every desire, when it is strong, to be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing. Every sane and civilised man must have some set of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others. One man does this on Christian principles, another on hygienic principles, another on sociological principles. The real conflict is not between Christianity and “nature,” but between Christian principle and other principles in the control of “nature.” For “nature” (in the sense of natural desire) will have to be controlled anyway, unless you are going to ruin your whole life. The Christian principles are, admittedly, stricter than the others; but then we think you will get help towards obeying them which you will not get towards obeying the others.

In the second place, many people are deterred from seriously attempting Christian chastity because they think (before trying) that it is impossible. But when a thing has to be attempted, one must never think about possibility or impossibility. Faced with an optional question in an examination paper, one considers whether one can do it or not: faced with a compulsory question, one must do the best one can. You may get some marks for a very imperfect answer: you will certainly get none for leaving the question alone. Not only in examinations but in war, in mountain climbing, in learning to skate, or swim, or ride a bicycle, even in fastening a stiff collar with cold fingers, people quite often do what seemed impossible before they did it. It is wonderful what you can do when you have to.

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

Thirdly, people often misunderstand what psychology teaches about “repressions.” It teaches us that “repressed” sex is dangerous. But “repressed” is here a technical term: it does not mean “suppressed” in the sense of “denied” or “resisted.” A repressed desire or thought is one which has been thrust into the subconscious (usually at a very early age) and can now come before the mind only in a disguised and unrecognisable form. Repressed sexuality does not appear to the patient to be sexuality at all.

When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p49-53)

Everyone who has accomplished anything knows that Lewis is correct in his main point.  Success has come from restraint and discipline.  Whether it is business, athletic, artistic, or educational accomplishments impulses to laziness, gluttony have had to be restrained.  A restraint-free life will not build into society.  Instead it will break it down.  Neither will a restraint free life help in securing the relationships we were made for.  Why should it be different with our sexuality?

Don’t take my word for it, or Lewis’s.  Amelia Warner’s actions – that of the real housewife – speak for themselves.

Oh … and what about Dakota Johnson the actress playing the sexual ‘love’ interest of Christian Grey in 50 Shades?  What is her take on all this?  She is happy with all the starlet money and fame she has now obtained.  But, like Dornan, all is not so rosy in the ‘real’ world.  She has now split with her real boyfriend in the wake of the film.  50 Shades of Grey is turning out rather to be another verse in 50 Ways to Leave your Lover.  We would be prudent to take note.

Halloween II: The zombie coming to life before our ears as well as our eyes

Halloween is just around the corner, when we celebrate the macabre and the scary, with ghosts, skeletons and zombies ‘in costume’ being seen and heard. With this focus the vast majority of us are missing the real zombie coming to life. If we listen carefully we will even be able to hear it. This zombie has been dead a long time – almost 2000 years – but her coming to life was predicted even further back.

Last Halloween, I introduced the Dry Bones that Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago coming to life. Here is a quick re-cap of what he saw:

… the bones covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. … Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them…. Then he said … “Come, O breath, from the four winds” … They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army. (Ezekiel 37: 2-10)

So what were these dry bones that so Halloween-ishly transformed into zombies and then stood up into a vast army? We do not need to guess because Ezekiel explicitly wrote that:

Then [God] said to me, “… these bones represent the people of Israel. … I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken! … I will gather the people of Israel from among the nations. I will bring them home to their own land from the places where they have been scattered.” (Ezekiel 37: 11-21)

Even a cursory following of the news will put the tiny nation of Israel into our line-of-sight. From its remarkable United Nations declared re-birth in 1948, to its many wars in the subsequent decades, to the intractable conflict with Palestinians and the wider world – that vision which Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago is happening right in front of our eyes – even up to that detail of the ‘vast army’ standing on its feet. The Israeli army today is literally regarded as one of the most formidable in the world.

But to focus only on what you see in the news is to miss what you may hear.  Because one important reason that made these ‘bones’ dry and dead was that for millennia the Jews had lost their language – Hebrew. But today we can literally hear its re-birth – if we listen.

Let me explain.

The Jews (or Israelites) have been conquered and sent into exile two times in her long history. The first exile and deportation was about 600 BC under the Babylonians and this exile lasted 70 years. The second exile was far more severe. The Romans in 70 AD sacked, destroyed and burned Jerusalem and sold the Jews into slavery across the Roman Empire. They were sent literally into the four corners of the world. This is why Jews today can be found in almost all countries of the world.

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile
Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

As Moses predicted 3500 years ago they have been living in host countries around the world since 70 AD, always in danger of overstaying their welcome.

In their complete destruction as a people they even lost their language – for centuries. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the history of their Hebrew language.

Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE[10] and survived into the medieval period only as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, and, according to Ethnologue, is now the language of 9 million people worldwide,[11][12] of whom 7 million are from Israel.[3][13]

Hebrew ceased to be spoken for centuries – it was deader than Latin is today. But now it is spoken by 9 million people!  How often does something like this occur?  Let the syllabus of a course on this topic at Dartmouth College explain:

The rebirth of Hebrew as a mother tongue after two millennia is an event unique in sociolinguistic history. It happened through a constellation of radical political and ethnic aspirations, dire economic forces, and educational circumstances that may never be repeated, but none of which are in any way ‘miraculous’. This course examines how it happened, through the eyes of those who made it happen and contemporary sociolinguists and historians, and draws conclusions for language policy in other developing societies.

In the dry words of a university course syllabus, reviving a language not spoken for 2000 years is ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’ – there is just no other example like this out there. Of course, this occurred from a lot of hard and strategic work on the part of some key people – not by a ‘miraculous’ event as our syllabus is quick to point out. But what should be considered at least potentially miraculous is that Ezekiel 2600 years ago foresaw a national re-birth of such a scope. Who else can put that on his CV?

Actually, someone else can – Jeremiah.

Jeremiah who lived about the same time as Ezekiel (ca 600 BC) but in a distant country from him (Ezekiel was living as an exile in Babylon while Jeremiah was in Jerusalem) wrote as if foreseeing the same phenomenon

I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful….

“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth….

a great throng will return.

‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—…
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.  (Jeremiah 31: 4-13)

Jeremiah foresaw a return from ‘the ends of the earth’, but with a weighting from ‘the land of the North’ which would be joyful, with singing, timbrels, dancing and gladness. Jeremiah wrote this in Hebrew – his native language. But soon afterwards came the first exile to Babylon and many Jews stopped speaking Hebrew in favor of Aramaic. Then with the rise of Hellenism, Hebrew continued its decline and many Jews became Greek speakers. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the Jewish writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek. Then, with the second, more extensive shattering and exile, the Hebrew tongue went dead for over one thousand years – until our day.

I had the privilege of traveling in Israel recently. There were many monuments, archaeological sites and ruins to see in a land that has such an ancient and tumultuous history. But I didn’t just see dead stones but heard a language spoken unassumingly by common every-day people.  I heard something ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’.  Most of these were recent arrivals from Russia (‘the land of the north’ as per Jeremiah) but I also met Jews from ‘the ends of the earth’ – and they were learning & speaking Hebrew.

One evening in Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee I went out for a stroll with my camcorder on me. Join with me in my short video/audio clip. Witness the ‘event unique in sociolinguistic history’ in joyful dance and song.  They were celebrating the close of Sukhot (Festival of booths) and the conclusion of the annual reading of the ‘Torah’ – the books of Moses.

These people I joined that night were not considering the irony of their sociolinguistic re-birth in the backdrop of all the Roman ruins and the now-dead Latin inscriptions, the seemingly invincible and permanent power and cause of their second demise.  Nor were they even thinking of Jeremiah’s words in the midst of their celebration. But that’s OK because Jeremiah wasn’t writing to them! He explicitly tells us that

“Hear the word of the Lord, you nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands …(v.10)

Though Ezekiel specifically addressed the Jewish people in his vision of Dry Bones, his colleague Jeremiah wrote specifically to the ‘nations’ in ‘distant coastlands’ – that’s you and me. He wanted us, not them, to take note of their re-born celebrations and then reflect.

Many of us wonder, in our educated and secular time, whether there really is a God out there. We see the mayhem, strife and death in the world around us and continually hear the naturalistic mantra in our educational media, as well as conspiracy theories about the gospel. So we surmise that if there is a God he is far removed from our world. Jeremiah wanted you and me to take note and listen to this new-born tune.

Because maybe this climate of our day comes from not looking, or in this specific case not listening, in the right place.  After all, our leaders and the media, educated and resourced with the best our society can give them, are still always being caught off guard by events that take them by surprise, from the global financial crisis a few years ago, to the Arab Spring, to the rise of the Islamic State – they are always caught with their pants down so-to-speak. In comparison, these ancient prophets seem to have a much better record – almost as if they have some Inside Information. They do claim that God was speaking through them. That can be easy to claim and many charlatans past and present continue to make that claim, but this Old Testament team backed it up by predicting in black-and-white the far future with uncanniness, even numerically. Perhaps we need to dust off the writings of these 2000+ year-old prophets and hear their case. Checking their works carefully may send a far greater shiver down your spine than any costume will this Halloween.

The Ebola Example: Could a loving God really send people to Hell?

One of the questions I had when considering the gospel had to do with hell. Probably like you I had heard preachers talk about it as if it was quite real – admittedly a rather frightening prospect. But then I also heard that God was ‘loving’ and that ‘God is love’. Taken together these principles were a paradox for me: How could a loving God send people to Hell?  At first glance it seemed that these two doctrines were at odds with each other. After all, if God ‘loved me’, surely he would not send me to Hell. Or, if God did send me to Hell then He certainly could not be loving, or at least not love me. One or the other may hold but the two together seemed contradictory. And then, since I usually heard about hell through some animated preacher, it made me wonder if they were just using fear tactics to exert control over me.

Ehrman and Hell

I am not alone. In fact, gospel arch-critic and renowned New Testament professor Bart Ehrman had this to say in one of his widely read books:

“… There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for thirty years. What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be? … We therefore have nothing to fear in death.”

Bart Ehrman. 2010. Jesus Interrupted: revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). p. 276

Many of us may identify with Ehrman. And given that hell is such an ominous subject it is easy to dismiss it from serious thinking – in fact we explicitly avoid thinking about it – reasoning somewhat as Ehrman does, and feeling rather safe in the belief that the majority of modern and progressive people think similarly. We avoid thinking further about it and hope it will therefore go away.

What spurred me to think this through was to recognize that it is the truth or falseness of a belief that should be considered, not whether it is ominous or not, nor whether it is doubted by most. After all, before Copernicus, most people thought that the sun revolved around the earth – the majority were wrong. Furthermore, coming to grips with unpleasant outcomes are required for safe & healthy living. Campaigns about AIDS, drunk driving, and smoking are effective precisely because they force us to think about nasty consequences. We do not consider these campaigns manipulative or scare tactics. In fact, we are thankful that they raised an issue we perhaps did not want to think about, and in so doing, increased our safety and well-being.

Jesus and Hell

So, though the question of hell may not be in vogue, it is worth considering. For starters, it may be surprising to learn that it is Jesus Christ himself – the person who stands out in history as the teacher par excellence on topics such as mercy, forgiveness and the love of God (In fact the reason we associate love with God is largely through the influence of this man.) who also taught about hell. Notwithstanding his emphasis on the love of God, he also taught more about hell than all the other Biblical teachers combined. Consider the following quotes from Jesus:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven… Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers”   Matthew 7: 21-23

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited … but they refused to come. Then he sent more servants and … invited [them] … But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business… Then the King said to his servants, ‘Go to the street corners and invite any you find’ … Then the king told the attendants ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” Matthew 22: 1- 13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … he will sit on the throne in heavenly glory .. He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats … Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, … take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world …. Then he will say to those on his left [the goats], ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil …” Matthew 25:31-41

“It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell” Mark 9:47

“Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” Luke 12:5

“Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside … But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you came from. Away from me all you evildoers” Luke 13:25-27

So warnings about the reality of hell, do not begin with obscure Biblical passages or wild-eyed preachers – they are centered in the teachings of Jesus himself.

Ebola and Hell

Ebola Quarantine Sign
Ebola Quarantine Sign
Enforcing Ebola Quarantine
Enforcing Ebola Quarantine
Suited up for Ebola
Suited up for Ebola
Suiting up for Ebola
Suiting up for Ebola

But then how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing teachings? If ‘God is love’, how can hell be in the picture too? Perhaps the world-wide panic over the Ebola outbreak can serve as a vivid example of one portrait that Jesus used when he taught about Hell.

We see in the news how Ebola has spread through West Africa and has raised concerns around the world with the recent spread of infections to other regions. We have all seen the images of completely suited, masked and gloved nurses and doctors caring for those infected with Ebola and for those handling the bodies of the Ebola dead. The World Health Organization, infectious disease experts, and medical professionals are telling us that success or failure containing Ebola hangs on one overarching strategy – quarantine.   Ebola spreads by person- to-person fluid contact so the only way to control it is to quarantine and completely seal off those infected.   Even small tears in the protective suits and minor lapses in isolation protocol cannot be tolerated.

These thorough and sometimes frantic procedures to isolate and quarantine the Ebola virus are examples of a similarly systematic procedure to isolate a spiritual virus – and that quarantine is called Hell.

How is this so?

Ebola quarantine measures
Ebola quarantine measures

Heaven and Hell

Jesus centered his teaching on the coming of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When we think of ‘heaven’ we often think in terms of its situation or milieu – the ‘streets of gold’ as it were. But the greater hope of the Kingdom that Jesus anticipated is a society that will be comprised of citizens of exclusively honest and selfless character who therefore won’t pilfer the said gold off those streets. Continue down this line of thought and reflect on how much we build into the ‘kingdoms’ here on earth to protect ourselves from each other. We all have locks on our homes, advanced security systems even; we always leave our cars locked; we tell our kids not to speak to strangers. Can you even imagine a city without some ‘law enforcement’ in place? Why do we password protect all our personal electronic data? When you stop and think of all the systems, practices and procedures that we have put in place in our ‘kingdoms’ and realize that they are there simply to protect ourselves from each other then you may get a glimmer of a looming problem. It is like there is something awry with us.  If God were to setup a kingdom in the paradise of ‘heaven’ and then invite all of us to become citizens of it, we would quickly turn it into the hell we have turned this world into. The gold on the streets and the pearls on the gates would vanish in no time.

It would be even worse if there were only a narrow few who would not follow such a standard. Imagine a society where all the citizens were perfectly honest – no lies and no theft. In that society there would be no locks, no need of written contracts (because one’s word would be good enough), no security cameras, no computer passwords – because there would be no need of them in such a society. But if you then introduce just one citizen who is a liar and a thief he would disrupt that society far more than liars and thieves do here. Since there are no built-in precautions this one thief and liar can go about his activities with impunity – causing havoc among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The only way to keep this from happening is to make sure that not even one such person enters this kingdom – because then it would be ruined.

But what then for those who are denied entry? In this world, if you are denied entry to a country you cannot also expect to participate in its resources and benefits. For example, Canadian citizens can benefit from programs of its government. But someone who is denied access to Canada cannot expect to somehow receive its welfare, medical treatment etc. – this is arranged for its citizens.  But all in all, people around the world, even terrorists on the run from all countries, enjoy the same basic amenities of nature, such as breathing the same air, seeing the same light as everyone else.

But who made light? The Bible claims that ‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light’. If that is true then all light is His – and it turns out that we are just borrowing it now. But with the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, His light will be in His Kingdom. So ‘outside’ will be ‘darkness’ – just as Jesus described Hell in one of the passages above.

If it is true that God is the Creator, then most of what we take for granted and assume is ‘ours’ is really His. Starting with such a basic entity as ‘light’ and then considering the world and going on to our natural abilities such as thought and speech – we really did nothing to create these abilities – we simply find ourselves using and borrowing them.   When the Kingdom is finalized the Owner will reclaim them.

When we look at barriers, past and present, erected to keep ‘barbarians’ out of civilization, from the Great Wall of China down to the present-day the fence proposed on the US-Mexcio border to keep illegal immigrants out, you can see that it is natural to erect barriers when a Kingdom must keep certain people out for the very sake of that kingdom. When Ebola breaks out and threatens death and havoc among us all we hear no argument when experts insist on quarantine. So it is no surprise to hear Jesus teach in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that

And besides all this, between us (in Kingdom of God) and you (in Hell) a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. Luke 16:26

The Love of God and Hell

So where does the ‘love of God’ fit in all this? When an epidemic rages, along with quarantine, there is a search for vaccines that can neutralize the deadly virus. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the corresponding inoculation. In trusting him we, in a sense, are injected with a spiritual vaccine that begins to disinfect us, slowly making us fit and able to enter into this Kingdom when it is fully established.

For Ebola victims what is most difficult to accept may not be the necessary quarantine, but rather it is that one has the disease to begin with.  Similarly, more difficult to accept than the reality of hell itself is that you and I are stricken with a deadly spiritual virus.  We fight that diagnosis, which leads many to ignore the cure.

Though it may be presumptuous to question a learned professor like Ehrman, and though my line of thinking cuts against the current of western culture today, Hell is quite consistent with the notion of a loving God – who created and owns all and is setting up a Kingdom where righteousness is the norm – not the exception – and therefore requiring restricted access. At the very least, since it is such a serious subject, and because God’s Love has moved him to make a ‘vaccine’ freely available, it warrants reflection on our personal spiritual diagnosis. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, developed by him to help us more clearly diagnose our fitness for the Kingdom of Heaven, may be a good place to start.

MH17 fallout & Gaza conflict today! A maverick seer’s rumblings of long ago?

Newsrooms are straining to keep up with the crises reverberating around our planet in recent days. The World Cup is a distant memory in the wake of these emergencies. ISIS pushing Iraq to the brink of splintering; the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine; to the juggernaut of conflicts – the bombardments between Hamas in Gaza and Israel leading to an ongoing ground war.  Riots and demonstrations for both sides in this conflict are popping up around the world. We are witnessing these events take our world by storm.

I have been reading and listening to experts and statesmen trying to predict where these events will go and what the fallout will be. Perhaps you have too. It may be useful to hear also from another witness. He is not an expert in the traditional sense – he has no credentials, he is not a celebrity, nor does he head any State or agency. In fact, he has been dead for about 2700 years. Yet before he died he penned a very significant but highly controversial book. Academic tradition has it that he was sawn in half (!) because of the audacious themes in his book. He was a seer of sorts – a maverick who, though he had no army or following, authored the doom and the rise of many kings and states. Ancient yet timeless, his work was bizarre in that he purposefully wrote for a future audience.

The Sprouting Branch

Even for us today?  You judge for yourself; here is how he starts a key excerpt of his book:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Jesse was the father of King David (i.e. of Goliath fame) who founded the city of Jerusalem ca. 1000 BC. When these words were penned Jesse had been dead about 300 years but through David a royal dynasty from Jesse was ruling in Jerusalem. The maverick seer wrote that this dynasty, like a tree when felled by an axe, would one day be reduced to a ‘stump’, i.e., the kingdom would fall. (No wonder he was sawn in two with this kind of seditious writing against his state.) But then after this dynasty was ‘stumped’ a ‘Branch’ would ‘shoot’ up from that very same stump. This Branch would ‘bear fruit’. What or who would this Branch be?  What about the ‘fruit’?

Our maverick seer was part of a very select squad who also wrote similarly seditious works. What was unique about this squad was that the members by-and-large never met. You can imagine the immense difficulty in coordinating a consistent theme with people you have never met. Look at the difficulties our political leaders are having in coordinating a consistent response to all the precipitous events today – and they communicate regularly. We know the members of this squad never met because they lived several hundred years apart. Separated through time they still managed to build a consistent theme of this Branch in their writings that was so important for us to know.

I have delved into what this squad wrote about the Branch. Why not invest 10-15 minutes to learn what they had to say. Because in their works you see:

The Branch and the Nations today…

It is worth our time to understand this because it is affecting our lives today – including these events now dominating headlines. How do I know? Because in this Branch excerpt the maverick seer continued seamlessly on and wrote how a Current of Events would flow from the Branch’s career climax, flooding into the future. Here is how he put it:

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious…

Jewish regathering today

The seer (by the way, his name was Isaiah) wrote that this Branch, or ‘Root of Jesse’, would have nations ‘rally to him’ in a future ‘day’ or time. When? He continued:

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush,from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Sea.

He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish, and Judah’s enemies will be destroyed;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.

That ‘day’ for the Branch will be the same ‘day’ that the Lord ‘will’ for a ‘second’ time reclaim ‘his people’ from states all around the globe. Isaiah was quite clear who these people would be – the ‘exiles of Israel’, the ‘scattered people of Judah’.

Below is a historical timeline of the Jews (taken from a more in-depth article). You can see that they had a first re-gathering from a Babylonian exile about 530 BC (just after the short red section). But since Isaiah specifically foresaw a ‘second’ exile he was looking to the end of the whole timeline. This dispersion, inaugurated with the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD was truly worldwide, and it lasted 1900 years. The return from this second exile is literally as Isaiah the seer wrote 2700 years ago – from ‘the four quarters of the earth’ (i.e. North, South, East & West).

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile
Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

When did this worldwide reclaiming from exile occur? Why is it ongoing right now! In fact, this is a major reason why there is so much turmoil in Israel and Palestine today and is the underlying reason why the rockets and ground warfare have been going on in Israel and Gaza these past few weeks.

Re-gathering to one nation

Below is a map showing the nations in the day Isaiah penned this excerpt. You can see that back then the Jews were divided into two rival kingdoms – Judah & Israel – rather like the Koreans today who are divided into two opposing countries – North & South Korea.

Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC vs. map of Israel and countries today
Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC vs. map of Israel and countries today

When Isaiah looked into the future and wrote

Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim

He meant that when the Jews re-assembled from this world-wide exile they would not be divided anymore, as in his day, but united into one nation. This is what has happened as this modern-day return from exile was triggered in 1948 when a United Nations resolution birthed one single modern state: Israel.

Israeli & Palestinian conflict

If you look closer at this map of the nations in Isaiah’s day you will see Philistia sandwiched between Judah and the Mediterranean Sea and Moab, Edom and Ammon directly to the East. Note the states in the corresponding places today and you will see that they are Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank was captured from Jordan in the six-day war of 1967 by Israel. Armed with this insight, we can make sense of the rest of Isaiah’s excerpt.

They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will subdue Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.

When Isaiah saw the Israelites returning from that long, second, world-wide exile and foresaw the birth of the one modern Jewish state which would then ‘swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west’ he was envisaging an intense confrontation of the Israelis into Gaza – just like we are witnessing now. The ‘subduing’ of the people of Edom, Moab and Ammon is the modern-day Israeli control of the other Palestinian enclave – the West Bank. It is like Isaiah was 2700 years ahead of our current events.

The Branch: seen in the MH17 aftermath

But this return from world-wide exile and conflict in Gaza and the West Bank was to happen in the day that the Branch was to be a banner to peoples around the world, with nations rallying to him. What did Isaiah mean?

Below are photos of peoples around the world mourning the other great tragedy of this month – the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Victims of the MH17 plane crash are commemorated during a memorial service in the Saint Bavo cathedral in Haarlem, The Netherlands (from EPA)
Victims of MH17 are commemorated during a memorial service in a cathedral in Haarlem, The Netherlands (from EPA)
People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 20 in Hilversum, Netherlands.  (from CNN)
People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of MH17 on July 20 in Hilversum, Netherlands. (from CNN)
People pray for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a church outside Kuala Lumpur (from CNN)
People pray for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a church outside Kuala Lumpur Malaysia (from CNN)
Memorial service in Australia for victims of MH17 (from the Guardian)
Memorial service in Australia for victims of MH17 (from the Guardian)

Notice the common context in the photos though the mourners are not conscious of it, and we are apt to miss it because it has become such a familiar part of culture.  We are witnessing peoples in diverse nations seeking comfort in the face of death in the context of churches, liturgies and prayers founded from the life and career of one unique person – Jesus of Nazareth – the Branch that Isaiah foresaw would one day be a banner for the nations. The MH17 memorial photos cry out as one instance of Isaiah’s vision of the Branch becoming ‘a banner for the peoples’, with ‘nations rallying to him’.

The Branch & The Re-gathering: Farfetched yet seen from Isaiah’s viewpoint

We may dismiss this by noting that there is nothing remarkable about funerals and liturgies in churches, for which Jesus is somehow a banner, since it is part of our heritage and has been so for several centuries. But in Isaiah’s day, 2700 years ago, that was hardly a foregone conclusion. In that day the world was a vast ocean of pagan idolatry with no tendency towards worship of one God, nor devotion to any redeemer figure. Nothing of the impact of Jesus’ career on the generations coming after him, which we now take for granted, would have been self-evident in Isaiah’s day. Living 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah saw past Jesus’ career to the impact that it would have on nations around the planet long after the Branch had completed that career. No one else back then, except for Isaiah and his squad, was betting that the die would be cast in that direction. And Isaiah explicitly timed the cresting of the Branch’s impact to that of another global current – the regathering of the Jews back to Israel and the resultant upheavals and bitter conflicts that this would cause. The two crises dominating our news this week – the grieving over the downing of flight MH17 and the conflict in Gaza/Israel – are vivid illustrations of this remarkable double-edged foresight coming to pass in our time.

Prophetic Overarching Themes, not random sayings

Perhaps you agree with me. Or perhaps you think I am reading way too much into Isaiah. The fact that these themes run through the rest of that squad tips it for me since they form multiple-sourced, consistent themes.  Starting with Abraham, then Moses and down to Ezekiel & Jeremiah we see the theme for Israel.  Starting at the dawn of human history, again to Abraham & Moses, then to DavidDaniel & Zechariah there is a clear theme of a coming redeemer.  I did not draw it from one random paragraph of Isaiah.  It is like one Mind was writing through this squad of authors.  At the minimum it is worth being informed of their themes.

Isaiah, The Branch, You & A Promise

But so what anyways? So what if Isaiah foretold the modern-day re-birth of Israel complete with the turmoil surrounding it? So what if he and the squad foresaw the global veneration (even if only cultural) of the coming Branch – Jesus of Nazareth? What difference does that make to you and me?

Isaiah never claimed to have innate powers of foresight. He was not a clairvoyant. He claimed that God – who created our planet and the universe, who is sovereign over all states, both Jewish and non-Jewish – revealed this to him. And if he was right about these things visible today then we have reason to take him seriously about his Source. He did not only write this little excerpt that we are looking at. He also wrote, as a mouthpiece for this God

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you…
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:1-7)

Here is an ongoing invitation, through the pen of this maverick seer that this same God who controls destinies on a global and enduring scale is inviting you and me to come to Him, to listen to Him, receive pardon – and even find Him. If there is even a chance this seer was correct about the global events he foresaw, then he will be right about this invitation for us as well. An invitation on this scale warrants weighing Isaiah and the squad’s ‘Branch’ case. The case can be examined even to textual, historical and prophetic details.

Isaiah & Euphrates River today

Speaking of details, I did not finish this excerpt we started. Right after Isaiah wrote those lines about the Jews returning from world-wide exile while in conflict with those around them, he concluded with:

The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates River.
He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals. (Isaiah 11)

That is a rather extreme detail to be projecting down centuries. The reality is that water shortage & drought has become a great concern through that region in the last decades – somewhat in sync with the world-wide return from exile that started in earnest almost 70 years ago. But more recently, since ISIS has taken Northern Syria they control the mid-stream reservoirs of the Euphrates, setting them on a collision course with Turkey which controls the Upper Euphrates. Turkey has just now shut off the taps. While the world has been fixated on MH17 & Israel/Gaza, conflict over Euphrates water, brewing for several years now, has reached new heights as notified in a recent bulletin of the Middle East news outlet Al-Akhbar

The Turkish government recently cut off the flow of the Euphrates River, threatening primarily Syria but also Iraq with a major water crisis. Al-Akhbar found out that the water level in Lake Assad has dropped by about six meters, leaving millions of Syrians without drinking water.

…Violating international norms, the Turkish government recently cut off the water supply of the Euphrates River completely. In fact, Ankara began to gradually reduce pumping Euphrates water about a month and half ago, then cut if off completely two weeks ago, according to information received by Al-Akhbar.

The Euphrates is drying up! Perhaps it would be wise to keep our eyes looking through the lense that this maverick seer and his cohorts penned so many centuries ago that seem to stalk the events occurring in our day.