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 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.


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 GospelsPsalm 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)


“…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.