Thursday, May 25, 2017


Here is a wonderful article that I found today about Ramadan, its meaning, its observance, and common misconceptions. This year, Ramadan begins this evening (Friday, May 26).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Talmud

In my previous posts, I wrote about the Jews’ return to the land, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple during the post-exilic years 539-432 BCE (Ezra and Nehemiah), the reaffirmation of the covenant during those years, the survival of exiled Jews in Persia (Esther), and the victory of Jews over the Seleucids who tried to establish Greek worship at the Second Temple during the 2nd century BCE (1 and 2 Maccabees). While I'm in this time period, so to speak, I want to pause and learn more about ways that Judaism continued to survive and remain faithful to the Lord during the subsequent decades and centuries, often amid Christian persecution of Jews. The following is a brief explanation of the Talmud, the writings which have been central for Rabbinic Judaism, the mainstream form of Judaism since the 500s CE. Tragically, as that linked article discusses, Talmud and its study have been the focus of anti-Semitic attacks over the centuries, with material taken out of context or completely fabricated. See also this site concerning Christian persecution of Talmud study.

As Judaism developed during the post-exilic period, the canonization of the Scriptures was one crucial development. The writing and editing of the Jewish Tanakh likely began just prior to and then during and after the exile, while canonization was a process that happened between the Hasmonean period and the 200s CE. (Canonization of the Christian Old Testament was a much longer process; in addition to the weighing-in of other councils, the councils of Carthage [397] and Trent [1546] established the Roman Catholic canon, as did Eastern authorities; but Martin Luther [1534] removed the deuterocanonical books to an appendix, useful to read but non-scriptural.)

By the first century CE, the term rabbi (“my master”) became common to refer to a learned Jewish teacher. Also by that time, competing factions existed in Judaism: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. An ascetic group, the Essenes, also lived during this time, said to be successors of the Zadokite priests that began in the times of David and Solomon. Here is an explanation of differences among these groups: Early Christianity emerged during this time as well.

After the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE) and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews found themselves in a traumatic situation that rivaled the disaster of 586 BCE. How would the faith survive without a temple? Without a priesthood? How would Jewish traditions survive? The Zealots all died at Masada in 73; the Sadducees faded from history; and the the Essenes also disappeared. The Christian sect became a predominantly Gentile religion, retaining Jewish scripture and reconfiguring aspects of Jewish theology. Jewish vitality remained with the Pharisees, who saw Jewish law as the focus of Jewish life, and they helped shift the focus from temple offerings to tzedakah, study, and synagogues.

In this situation, a tradition called the Oral Torah had to be compiled and written down. The Written Torah was the scriptural five books of Moses, but an oral tradition attributed to Moses’ teachings had been passed down over the centuries; Orthodox Jews believe that this tradition was safeguarded through the Judges and Prophets and Second Temple-era sages. After the unsuccessful revolt of Simon Bar Kochba (132-136 CE), Romans forbade Jews from returning to Jerusalem---further exiling Jews, and further necessitating a way to preserve Jewish faith and traditions. By about 200 CE, Pharisaic Judaism had segued into Rabbinic Judaism as a rabbi named Judah ha Nasi (Rabbi Judah the Patriarch) began to edit these oral traditions and discussions about Jewish law into a readable form during the early 200s CE.

The first compilation and written/edited form of the Oral Torah is called the Mishnah. Rather than a law code, it is a study book (or rather, several books) containing the varieties of discussions and opinions of the sages. Rabbi Judah drew from many sources in his compilation and recorded discussions in a way to help with memorization. These are by no means uniform opinions. If the sages differed on when morning prayers should begin, what defines a Jewish marriage, and many other topics, the differences are recorded. Here are some sample passages:

The Mishnah has six orders (sedarim): agriculture (Seder Zeraim), sacred times (Seder Moed), women and personal status (Seder Nashim), damages (Seder Nezikin), holy things (Seder Nodashim), and purity laws (Seder Tohorot). Each order is divided into tractates, and each tractate has chapters, and each chapter contains halakhot (laws) of the Tannaim, who were the sages from the era of the Mishnah (like Rabbis Akiva, Hillel, Shammai, and many others: see this site).

The word Tosefta means “addition,” and the Tosefta is a body of material that further explains Torah laws, details about laws, and provides extra material to the Mishnah. The Tosefta is three times as large as the Mishnah, although it is also structured with six orders. There are different theories as to whether the Tosefta is older than the Mishnah and was originally and independent body of opinion, or whether it was compiled and written later in order to broaden the material of the Mishnah, which does not include rabbinic discussions preserved in the Tosefta. Editions of the Babylonian Talmud provide the Tosefta at the end of each tractate.

What is the Talmud? Talmud is the comprehensive collection of the Oral Law that encompasses the Mishnah (200s CE) and the Gemara (500s CE). Talmud is discussion of the Mishnah but also the Mishnah itself.

The word Gemara (from the word gamar study) refers to the rabbinic commentary discussions about the Mishnah. You could say that the Talmud is the Mishnah plus Gemara, with material from the Tosefta as well. The sages of the Gemara (the period 200-500 CE) are referred to with the term Amoraim (see this site); the Amoraim expounded on and explained the Oral Law transmitted by the earlier Tannaim.

The site “My Jewish Learning” has this: “Although it is organized in accordance with the structure of the six orders of the Mishnah, mishnaic teaches are, for the Gemara, the launch pad for diverse topics: prayer, holy days, agriculture, sexual habits, contemporary medical knowledge, superstitutions, crumble and civil law. The Germara contains both Halakhah (legal material) and Aggadah (narrative material). [My emphasis] Aggadah includes historical material, biblical commentaries, philosophy, theology, and wisdom liberature. Stories reveal information about life in ancient ties, among Jews and between Jews and their neighbors, and folk customs. All of these genres are blended together with the halakhic material, in what is sometimes described as a stream-of-conscious fashion filled with meaningful tangents and digressions… [T]he Gemara … explains unclear words or phrasing [in the Mishnah]… provides precedents or examples to assist in application of the law and offers alternative opinions from sages of the Mishnah and their contemporaries [Tannaim]. Whereas the Mishnah barely cites biblical verses, the Gemara for every law discussed introduces these connections between the biblical text and the practices and legal opinions of its time. It also extends and restricts applications of various laws, and even adds laws on issues left out of the Mishnah entirely…. Multiple opinions of sages are weighed against one another, often without presenting a conclusion.”

There are two versions of the Talmud; the second and later one is the more comprehensive. Scholars of the Land of Israel (especially the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Caesarea) published what is now called the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) during the period 350-400 CE. Unfortunately, Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, persecuted Jews and the Jerusalem Talmud remained incomplete. Meanwhile, scholars at Jewish academies in Sura, Pumbedita, and Mata Mehasia published their own discussions in about 500 CE: this material is called the Talmud Bavli, or the Babylonian Talmud. Usually, the words Gemara and Talmud refer to the Babylonian Talmud. The language of the both Talmuds are dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic.

Long after the Amoraim, rabbinic commentators continued to discuss the law and the opinions of the sages, and so the Talmud was never a “finished” body of work. Not surprisingly, it is a vast work, running several volumes, and has been translated into English. Here is a site that provides the Bavli in Hebrew and English translation: Notice how it's organized according to the Mishnah sedarim that I listed above: agriculture (Zeraim), sacred times (Moed), women and personal status (Nashim), damages (Nezikin), holy things (Kodashim), and purity laws (Tohorot).

Different bodies within Judaism today view the Talmud differently. To generalize: Orthodox Jews consider the Oral Torah as inspired and authoritative, of Mosaic origin; Conservative Jews also honor the sanctity of Oral Torah and view Talmud as complementary to Torah study; Reform Jews retain Talmud studies in rabbinical seminaries but do not consider the Talmud as binding today.

Another, smaller body of material is the Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers”), a text which is often published separately and found in many prayer books, and which has inspired its own commentaries. Technically, the Pirkei Avot is part of the Mishnah, specifically the ninth tractate (with six chapters) in the Seder Nezikin, which in turn is the fourth order of the Mishnah. The Pirkei Avot is popular because it provides ethical principles of the rabbis and give us a sense of who they were and their devotion to Torah. “The worldview espoused by the rabbis quoted here emphasizes learning, service of God, discipleship, ethical behavior, humility, and fair judgment… A rabbi is introduced, often, but not always, as a disciple or son of the preceding rabbi, and the text then offers one or more teachings by this rabbi” ( )

For all of this material, I relied upon the helpful articles at the site My Jewish Learning ( Subsequently I made a donation to the site. More detailed articles on the Mishnah and Talmud can be found at and My grateful thanks goes out to an esteemed Jewish friend and colleague who read and commented on the essay; any remaining errors are mine.


It's a depressing coincidence, that King Louis IX of France (St. Louis) was a persecutor of Jews who ordered Talmud scrolls confiscated (see this site), while the German ship the MS St. Louis (named for the city) carried Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939 but was turned away from the U.S., Canada, and Cuba, and many of those Jews perished in the Holocaust (see this site). On the other hand, St. Louis City and County has a strong and diverse Jewish community today.


Here is a wonderful statement that explains the devotion to study (which, after all, is based on words of God, Deut. 6:7):

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Landscape: Biva

Henri Biva (1848-1928), "From the Water's Edge" (1905-1906). From: Copied under fair use principles. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bible in a Year: 1, 2, 3, 4 Maccabees

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

I decided also to study books of the Protestant Apocrypha, and so this week I've been studying 1 and 2 Maccabees, with a quick look at 3 and 4.

1 Maccabees is a deuterocanonical book in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, found in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, nor in Protestant Old Testaments. Canonical or not, it is an important account of this period of Second Temple Judaism, the decades of Judean independence prior to the Roman occupation, and is the source for the minor Jewish festival Hanukkah. (Here is a good Catholic site about the book. Some Catholic Bibles place 1 and 2 Maccabees after Esther, while other Catholic Bibles place the books at the end, after Malachi.)

1 Maccabees covers about forty years, 174 to 134 BCE. It might be good to see a biblical chronology again:

- Patriarchs: about 1800-1500 BCE (Genesis)
- Exodus, Wilderness, and Conquest: about 1500-1200s BCE (Exodus-Joshua)
- Period of the Judges: 1200s-1000 BCE (Judges)
- The monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon): 1000-922 BCE (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-11, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles 1-9)
- Divided monarchy: 922-722 BCE (1 Kings 12-17, and also Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah)
- Kingdom of Judah: 722-586 BCE (2 Kings 18-25, 2 Chronicles 10-36, and also Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk)
- Exile: 586-539 BCE (Lamentations, Psalm 139, et al.)
_ Judah under Persian rule: 539-332 BCE (Ezra-Nehemiah covers about the years 539-432 BCE, while Esther is set during the reign of Xerxes I, who reigned 486-465 BCE. Also, the prophets Second Isaiah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi)
- Judah during the Hellenistic rule: 332-165 BCE (3 Maccabees, Daniel)
- The Maccabean/Hasmonean period: 165-63 BCE (1, 2, and 4 Maccabees)
- Judea under Roman rule: 63 BCE-135 CE (during which time we have the life of Jesus, the first two generations of the church (30-120 CE), the writings of the New Testament (about 50-100 CE), and the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, after the Temple's destruction in 70 CE).

Our upcoming scriptures, the Prophets, date from the end of the Northern Kingdom in the 700s BCE (Isaiah) down to the 400s BCE of the Persian period (Malachi), while parts of Daniel probably date from the Maccabean period. So the Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament end historically with the 400s of the Persian period, with apocalyptic writings in Daniel dating from the Maccabean era, while the churches with deuterocanonical books carry the Old Testament history solidly into the 100s BCE.

Back to 1 Maccabees: At the time, Judah (by now called Judea) is ruled by the Seleucid Empire, the Greek domination that followed Alexander the Great’s empire. Greek culture was influential for Judaism, including the translation of the Bible into Greek; but Greek disrespect for Jewish practices lead to the Jew’s revolt against the Greeks, which is the subject of the book. 1 Macc. 1:1-9:22 concerns the rule of Mattathias, aka Judah the Maccabee (the word means “hammer”), aka Judas Maccabeus. 1 Maccabees 9:23-12:53 focuses on the rule of Judah's successor Jonathan, and chapters 13-16 concern the rule of Simon.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, one of the villains of Jewish history, was the Seleucid emperor who launched a bloody attack on Jerusalem, taxes the people, forbids Jewish practices, and then desecrates the Jewish temple by establishing pagan rituals there, including the slaughter of non-kosher animals.

Judas leads the people in ultimately successful campaigns against the Greeks, though at a high cost in casualties. When the temple is retaken and reconsecrated, Judas and his brothers and the whole assembly established a festival of the 25th day of Chislev (Hanukkah) to commemorate the dedication (1 Macc. 4:59).

(Here are good source concerning Hanukkah: and I was surprised to learn that the famous story of the lamp--which burned for eight days with only one day of oil--is from the Talmud [Shabbat 21b] rather than Maccabees: )

Hasmonean Kingdom at its height. From:
Judas' brother Jonathan becomes high priest and succeeds him. He gains an alliance with Sparta and seeks positive relations with Rome. Later, Simon succeeds him, both as high priest and priest of Judah. He has a successful period of rule until he is murdered by the Greek governor of the region. Simon’s son John Hyrcanus succeeds Simon. This “Hasmonian dynasty” was not a Davidic dynasty but did bring about independence for Jews in the land---encompassing much of the earlier territories---for about a hundred years, first in semi-autonomous relations with the Seleucids and then fully independent until conquered by the Romans in 63 BCE.

(Here is a famous song from Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabeus.)

2 Maccabees does not, as you might think, continue the history. It begins with letters written by Palestinian Jews to Egyptian Jews, and then becomes an abridgment of a now-lost history by Jason of Cyrene about the Maccabean revolt under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. The book also includes the stories of Jewish martyres Eleazar, seven brothers, and their mother, under Antiochus’ reign. As this site indicates, it is a very laudatory book toward Judas and Jewish heroism; it includes information not found in 1 Maccabees, and it references Esther. 2 Maccabees is also part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon.

Here is a good Jewish site about the book. That author writes: “One important fact to be noted is the writer's belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead (see vii. 9, 11, 14, 36; xiv. 16; and especially xii. 43-45). This, together with his attitude toward the priesthood as shown in his lifting the veil which I Maccabees had drawn over Jason and Menelaus, led [scholars] Bertholdt and Geiger to regard the author as a Pharisee and the work as a Pharisaic party document. This much, at least, is true—the writer's sympathies were with the Pharisees.” (Here is another good site.) Because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, 2 Maccabees also provides an important theological bridge to the New Testament period.

In fact, 2 Maccabees may be alluded to in the New Testament, especially Hebrews 11:35, "Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection" (NRSV). This does not fit any Old Testament story but does fit the story of the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees 7, a fact that this author uses to defend the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books.

3 Maccabees is found in the Eastern Orthodox canon but not in the Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic canons. 3 Maccabees is not set during the Maccabean age at all but shares with those books the wonderful intervention of God on behalf of God’s people. In this book, Egyptian Jews are persecuted by another Seleucid ruler, Ptolemy IV Philopator, who reigned in 221-203 BCE). Again, Jews are hated because they don’t worship foreign gods, in this case Dionysus, but the story includes a different kind of Gentile persecution: letting inebriated elephants trample imprisoned Jews to death! Ptolemy’s inconsistency, however, and also the intervention of two angels, allow the Jews to be spared. (Here is a good site.)

4 Maccabees is not canonical in any Jewish tradition, nor in any Christian canon except the Georgian Orthodox Church. Another important text for understanding the Second Temple period, the book is a homily to encourage Hellenistic Jews to stay devoted to Torah (18:1) and to hold courageously to “devout reason” that is "sovereign over the emotions" (e.g., 16:1). A sizable portion of the book describes (in gruesome detail) story of 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42: the martrydom of Eleazer, and the seven brothers and their mother. Stories of martyrs are important in many religions, to help build courage to believers in times of trial. In Judaism, martyrdom is one example of Kiddush HaShem, "sanctification of the name" (of God) through holiness and witness.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Bible in a Year: Esther

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’m studying Esther. Remember, a few posts ago, when I said that Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther form an important secondary history within the Bible, carrying the biblical story from Creation into the early post-exilic era when the Jews were allowed to return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple during the Persian era. These books are not by the same presumed authors, just as the primary history (Genesis through Kings) was written and edited by multiple people. While the primary history ends on a note of uncertain hope, the secondary history, coming from the post-exilic time and written for Jews struggling with a new era, is more hopeful. In Chronicles, “[t]he history of the monarchy… seems to be primarily a history of the establishment and maintenance of the worship of God,” a concern that carries over into Ezra and Nehemiah as the people rebuild the temple and Jerusalem (Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 79). Although Esther is set in Persia rather than the land, that book affirms the providential continuation of the Jewish people even in foreign lands (p. 79).

Of course, it became crucially important for Judaism to be a faith observed in lands other than the Promised Land. When I studied Deuteronomy in that earlier post, I learned how the long pause with which the Torah ends---the speech of Moses as the people are poised to enter the Land---had the literary effect of delaying entry into the land---and ensuring that God's covenant and commandments were not confined to one geographical region (Jewish Study Bible, p. 359). The Book of Esther illustrates the wonderful fact that the Jewish people will endure no matter where they live, even amid Gentile hostility and violence.

This source discusses that Esther gives confidence to diaspora Jews to be able to survive and even thrive in foreign lands, and thus she is similar to Tobit, Daniel, and Nehemiah. The fact that she is a woman makes her heroism especially noteworthy.

My wife Beth and I enjoyed studying Esther a few years ago with our Sunday school class in Akron, OH. As the book opens, King Ahasuerus of Persia (aka Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE) held a big feast, and while he was drunk, he commanded that his queen Vashti come and show the guests her great beauty. Although the text doesn’t say, he may have expected her to visit the feast nude. Vashti refused his order, and so Ahusuerus, on the advice his wise men, ordered Vashti deposed, setting in motion a kind of contest for a new beautiful queen. After so viewing many young women, the king selected Esther, whom unbeknownst to him was a Benjaminite Jew living in exile. An orphan, she lived with her older cousin Mordecai, who looked after her. Soon she became the new queen.

After a while, Mordecai learned of a plot to assassinate the king—information he relayed to the king through Esther. It resulted in the execution of the conspirators. Not knowing the background of his own queen, the king became influenced by his vizier, Haman the Agagite, that Jews were a threat and should all be killed. Mordecai had accidentally set in motion that threat: Haman had demanded that Mordecai prostrate himself before Haman in respect, but Mordecai had refused. Agagites, after all, were descendants of the Amalakites, long time enemies of the Jews (as we’ve seen in other writings).

While Mordecai urged other Jews to fast, he also planned with Esther to deal with the situation. At an opportune time, Esther approached the king with a request, that he and Haman attend a banquet she was planning.

That night, the king couldn’t sleep and called for the nation’s chronicles to be read aloud. He remembered than that Mordecai had not yet been rewarded for his service in exposing the assassination plot, so he asked Haman about a proper reward for one loyal to the king, and Haman suggested the royal insignia and apparel. Haman thought he himself was going to be the honoree.

At the banquet, the king was quite smitten with his queen—he had already allowed her to come uninvited into his presence, a potentially fatal move on her part—and during this banquet, she courageous revealed that she was a Jew and that Haman was plotting to kill at the Jews. Her and Mortecai’s risky plan worked: the king promptly ordered that Haman be hanged (on the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai), the Jews were saved, and Mordecai became prime minister.

Rabbi Telushkin makes an interesting connection of Mordecai to Joseph: Hebrews who gained a powerful position in a non-Jewish government, and who accomplished the betterment of his people (Biblical Literacy, p. 378.

Interestingly, God is never referred to or named in the book of Esther, although the practice of fasting presumes a religious orientation. The absence of God doesn’t mean an ontological absence of God; the Bible doesn’t always spell out God’s ways. The apocryphal/deuterocanonical “Additions to Esther” do add more explicitly religious elements to the book.

On the other hand, Rabbi Telushkin notes that Esther’s name is a variation of the Near Eastern goddess Astar (her Hebrew name was Hadassah), and she married a non-Jew (the king), indicating that she may have been an assimilated Jew. But she certainly took the side of her people when the time came (Biblical Literacy, 375-376).

Esther is one of “the Five Scrolls” (“Five Megillot”). Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are grouped together among the final, Writings (Ketuvim) section of the Jewish Bible. Each book is read during certain Jewish holidays: Song of Songs on the Sabbath of Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Lamentations on the Ninth of Av, Ecclesiastes on the Sabbath of Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.

The minor festival of Purim is one of the great legacies of the book. The word “purim” means “lots,” which is what Haman threw in order to select a date for the death of the Jews—so the festival’s very name scoffs the antisemite’s failed attempt. One of my favorite sites, Judaism 101,, has this:

“The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. …It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle gragers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to ‘blot out the name of Haman.’

“We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai,’ though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. A person certainly should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or get seriously ill. In addition, recovering alcoholics or others who might suffer serious harm from alcohol are exempt from this obligation.

“In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manos (lit. sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a common treat at this time of year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman's pockets). These triangular fruit-filled cookies are supposed to represent Haman's three-cornered hat. …”

That site also calls attention to interesting, thought-provoking connections of Purim with the Nuremberg War Crime trials and also the death of Stalin—who, if he hadn’t had died (near Purim) in 1953, would have carried out a plan to deport Jews.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bible in a Year: Tobit and Judith

Gustav Klimt, "Judith
and the Head of Holofernes"
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

I decided that as long as I’m undertaking all this extra Bible studying each week, I should also study the Apocrypha—because these are books that I’ve barely studied at all, if ever.

The Apocrypha are books that Protestant Old Testaments lack, because these books are not found in the Jewish Bible (that is, the Masoretic text, the Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Tanakh as accepted in Rabbinic Judaism). The Apocrypha is Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), and 1 and 2 Maccabees, plus extra material in Esther and Daniel. (The additions to Daniel include the story of Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah, and the Song of the Three Holy Children.) Roman Catholics include these books as deuterocanonical, “second canon."

The Eastern Orthodox Old Testament includes these books plus 1 Esdras (see my last post), the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees. Orthodox Christians use the word Anagignoskomena ("worthy to be read") for the deuterocanonical books--and, like the Catholics (and unlike the Protestants) integrate the books among the canonical books rather than placing them in a separate section. One or two Orthodox traditions include 4 Maccabees, the Book of Odes, and Psalm 151.

It’s interesting to read the history of the selection of biblical books. There is no mystery or intrigue about it, no "suppressing" of bombshell texts, but the history is long and involves several councils of the church and rabbinical decisions within Judaism. As my Harper Bible Commentary describes them, the Apocrypha includes historiography (1 and 2 Maccabees), historical fiction (Tobit, Judith, and 3 Maccabees), an apocalypse (2 Esdras), sapiential works (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon), exhortations (4 Maccabees and the Letter of Jeremiah), and prayers (Prayer of Manasseh and Prayer of Azariah) (p. 760). The Book of Odes is a collection of songs and prayers from both Testaments, and Psalm 151 is an Eastern Orthodox canonical work found in the Septuagint but not the Masoretic text.

For these informal notes, I’ll mostly stick with deuterocanonical books of the Roman Catholic Bible. The book of Tobit follows Nehemiah.

As the story begins, Tobit is one of the Jews deported by the Assyrians to Ninevah, during Shalmaneser’s reign in about 721 BCE. He was of the tribe of Naphtali, married Anna, and they had a son Tobias. He was devout in his faith even in the foreign situation. For instance, he buried his kinsman who had died because of the king. Burial of the dead made one spiritually unclean because of contact with the corpse, but it was also a great act of love and righteousness, providing care and dignity to someone who obviously cannot thank you. When Sennacherib died, the new king appointed Tobit’s nephew as chief minster, and so Tobit—with Tobias’ help—continued to do good. Unforunately, as Tobit slept outdoors one night, he was blinded by sparrow droppings that fell into his eyes.

Meanwhile, as Tobit prayed for the restoration of his sight, a widowed woman named Sarah prayed for a husband. All her new husbands had been killed by the demon Asmodmus. Scholars note the similarity of Tobit's story with folktales like "the Grateful Dead" and "the Deadly Bride." In this case, the angel Raphael comes to the rescue as God hears the prayers of Sarah and Tobit in their separate situations.

Disheartened and thinking that death is near, Tobit sent Tobias to retrieve some money left in the care of a man named Gabael who lived off in Media. Tobias goes, accompanied by companion Raphael, whom Tobias doesn’t realize is an angel. At one point, Tobias washes in the Tigris river and a fish bites his foot. Raphael tells him to gut the fish and save its heart, liver, and gall.

Tobias and Raphael stay at the house of kinsman Raguel—who happens to be the father of widowed Sarah. Tobias asks to marry her but is warned about her husbands who had died. But Raphael instructs Tobias to use the fish’s heart and liver with incense, that that drives the demon away, saving Tobias from death.

Following the wedding celebration, Tobias receives the money from Gabael and, with Sarah, returns to Tobit and Anna. Again with Raphael’s instruction, Tobias places the fish’s gall on Tobit’s eyes, and he regains his sight.

Tobit offers Raphael some of the money in gratitude, but Raphael reveals his true identity as an angel. Tobit prays to God in thankfulness for God’s mercies.

In his later years, Tobit blesses his son and dies, ages 158 years. Tobias eventually dies, too, aged 127.

The book of Judith, which follows Tobit in the Deuterocanonical/Anagignoskomena order, purports to tell of events in the Assyrian era of Israel’s history but is likely from the era of the Maccabees. We are alerted that this is a fictional story, because King Nebuchadnezzar is said to be the Assyrian king—but he was actually the Babylonian ruler.

In part 1 of the book of Judith (chapters 1-7), Holofernes is the commander of Assyrian armies that attack Israel. The king ordered the attacks—not only against Israel but other nations—in response to their refusal to join his campaign against the Medes. Holofernes lay siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia, through which he could advance to Jerusalem. He is advised that the Israelites cannot be conquered unless they first sin against God—but after a month’s siege, the Bethulians are about to surrender. Fortunately, a local header named Uzziah is able to effect a five-day postponement.

Judith appears in Part 2. She was a widow, and strongly objected to the five-day compromise. Honoring God with a prayer for help, she basically asks God to help her lie effectively. She goes to the enemy camp, lies her way in to see Holofernes, and deceives him as well. Smitten with her, and eager to seduce her, he invites her to a banquet. But before he can make any moves, so to speak, he becomes very drunk and passes out. Judith takes his sword, beheads him with two blows, and she and her maid leave the camp with his head in a bag. Returning to Bethulia, Judith showed everyone the severed head, praised God for his help and protection, and urged the men to attack the Assyrians the next day. They do so, successful.

Judith is a hero and sings praises to God. Never remarrying, she lives to the age of 105.

Perhaps because of her feminine sexuality combined with her bold, male-shaming heroism, Judith has been depicted by many artists: Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Klimt, Stuck, and numerous others. Beth and I saw the Klimt at the Belvedere in Vienna a few years ago.

The Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, , has a good summary of the book of Judith. You can certainly see the connection of Judith with the judge Deborah, also a fearless champion of her people, and with David, too, in the way she decapitates a dangerous enemy. The author notes that several women of the Bible told lies that had positive consequences—which is an interesting aspect of the Bible narratives! Besides Judith the women are Rebekah, Tamar, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, and Jael.

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible notes, that Judith "is a joyous and triumphant book. It revels in the unexpected way the People of God is delivered." Judith's fidelity to God along with her confident use of her own feminity--as her ability to deceive believably--makes it a wonderfully compelling story (p. 1472).

Friday, May 5, 2017

Bible in a Year: Ezra and Nehemiah

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying Ezra and Nehemiah. Originally one book, they tell the story of Judean exiles returning to the land following Cyrus’ decree, from about 539 BCE to about 432 BCE. The final verses of 2 Chronicles, about Cyrus’ decree, are repeated almost verbatim as the first verses of Ezra—so the story continues.

We are now about 1500 years after Abraham--and God's promise to give him and his wife many descendants and land. What a history followed!--years of Egyptian slavery, escape from Egypt, the Sinai covenant, the construction of the tabernacle, the years of wilderness, the conquest of the land under Joshua, the uncertain period of the judges, establishment of a monarchy, the adventures of David, the establishment of Jerusalem as David's city, Solomon's construction of the temple, the divided kingdom and the conquest of Israel, the ministry of the prophets, King Josiah's reforms, the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people, and now the restoration of the people to the land thanks to the Persian king's decree.

It's important to realize how great is Cyrus in biblical imagination: he was considered mashiach, "anointed one" or Messiah, in some of the early post-exilic traditions. Isaiah 44:28 refers to him as "[God's] shepherd" and as mashiach in 45:1. A rabbi friend tells me that Jews of the time considered Cyrus as such a king because he overthrew the people's enemies (the Babylonians), facilitated the people's return to the land and the restoration of their religion, and also he set the stage for their eventual self-rule on the land under a Davidic king.

It's also important to realize that the Jews saw their exile and restoration in both literal and metaphorical ways. For instance, the Chronicler interprets the history as a series of exiles (corresponding to different deportations at the end of the pre-exilic period), and two different kinds of literal restorations: the return of the people to the land, and also the return of the Davidic monarchy (Leslie C Allen, in the introduction to Chronicles in the New Interpreter's Bible, p. 301). But the Chronicler also thinks of the exile in metaphorical terms: as the symbolic homelessness of a faithful remnant, that will be followed by a glorious restoration. We find this metaphorical sense in other places of the Bible: the hope reflected in Psalms 85 and 126, the way Daniel 9 depicts the exile as lasting not 70 years but 70 times 7, and the prayers in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 (pp. 302-303). This metaphorical use is crucially important for the ongoing history of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity.

But the Chronicler and the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah depict differently the characteristics of this faithful remnant. For the latter, the Judeans must be a separate people focused upon obedience to the Lord’s Torah; for instance, the men must divorce their foreign wives and send them and their children away. The Chronicler has a more inclusive vision, often referring to “all Israel” that includes the break-off northern tribes and lauding Hezekiah’s efforts at reunification. Yet the Chronicler also affirmed Jerusalem as the place of true worship, so “the chronicler steered a middle course between separatist and assimilationist parties…” (pp. 305-306, quotation on 306).


The following is based on my article, “Ezra and Nehemiah: Bringing a People Home” in Adult Bible Studies, 11:4 (June-July-Aug. 2003), 2-4. Many thanks for the editor at the time, Eleanor Moore.

The two books contain Ezra’s memoir (7:27-9:15), third person stories about him, and Nehemiah’s memoir (1:1-7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:27-43, 13:4-31). Interestingly, although the two men are mentioned together in Neh. 8:9, their memoirs have little or no acknowledgment of one another, making some scholars wonder if, somehow, the chronology of the biblical text has become confused. It's also interesting that, although personal letters are such a major part of the New Testament, the Old Testament has very few, with the exception of Ezra and Nehemiah, where we find some of these texts.

The book of Ezra begins with Cyrus’ decree that allowed the Judea's to return to the land from exile. Chapter 1-2 provide an encapsulated account of the members of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and Levites with some of the Temple vessels and utensils. According to Ez. 2:64, 42,360 exiles, plus singers, servants, and livestock, returned, lead by Sheshbazzar and then Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah particularly extol Zerubbabel* as a great Davidic king, although in Ezra-Nehemiah, he disappears from the narrative after a few chapters. The people give thanks to God, and construction on a new temple begins (2:68-3:13). Samaritans offered to help with the temple construction, but the Judea's refused their help, and construction ceased for a while. By about 520 BCE, however, construction resumed, and it was dedicated in about 515 BCE (Ez. 4-6).

Priest and scholar Ezra himself came upon the scene in about 458 BCE, with a new group of Judeans. Ezra was a descendant of Aaron and of Zadok (Ez. 7:1-5) and was the son of Seraiah (2 Kings 25:18-21). On arriving to the land, Ezra was heartbroken that so many of the men have foreign wives. He calls the people to confession at the temple, and in time, the foreign wives and the children are sent away (Ezra 7-10). Seemingly Ezra was so eager to make this happen, that the people had to remind him that they were all standing in the rain listening to him and had to devote additional time to set these divorces in motion (Ez. 10:17). As Rabbi Telushkin points out (Biblical Literacy, 389), it's too bad no one seems to have thought to allow the wives and children into the community through conversion.

Back in Babylon, Nehemiah is a cupbearer to the king. While Ezra as an outstanding, trustworthy and pious leader (Ez. 8:16-18, 25-34), Nehemiah is also a noticeably prayerful leader, constantly offering his work to God and seeking God’s guidance. Prayers like Neh. 1:8-10 are lovely in their intercessory concern and humility. Nehemiah asks King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to help rebuild Jerusalem and its walls. The king does indeed allow him to return. Nehemiah arrives in about 445 BCE and begins his work. (The events of chapter 13 are a little later, from about 432 BCE.) In spite of opposition and economic distress, Nehemiah and the people are able to rebuild the city walls (Neh. 3-7). Chapter 7 recaps the many people who returned from exile—with variations of names and numbers compared to the account in Ezra chapter 2. We find more names in Neh 11-12.

Other good things happen in these two books. Ezra reinstated festivals like Pesach (Ez. 6:19-22) and Sukkoth (Neh. 8:13-18). Nehemiah reinstated the Sabbath (10:31, 13:15-22), support of the priests (Neh. 13:10-14), support of the temple (10:32-39) and related reforms. The reading and subsequent study of the scroll of Teaching (Neh. 8) is one of the great moments in Bible history.

So is the construction of the Second Temple on the place of Solomon’s. The new temple marks a new era for God’s people, wherein they refocus upon devotion to God—and become a people characterized by worship, righteousness, and mitzvot rather than the rulership of a monarchy. The new era isn’t without poignancy, as we read in Ezra 3:10-13.

"When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away."

An African American preacher, whom I heard a few years ago, calls this passage, “the Gospel shout and the blues moan.” In such situations, both are necessary--praise for the blessings of God, and grief at what has passed.


In the Protestant Old Testament, Nehemiah is followed by Esther, then Job. It’s worth noting that, at this point in the Bible, some churches include additional, apocryphal books. In the Roman Catholic Old Testament, Nehemiah is followed by Tobit and Judith, then Esther, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. In the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament, the order is 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, and Esther, then 1, 2, and 3 Maccabees.

Ezra is so significant, that other books carry his name. The apocalyptic book 2 Esdras is called 4 Esdras in the Roman Catholic apocrypha. Although this 2 Esdras/4 Esdras is an apocryphal book, some Roman Catholic Bibles refer to Ezra and Nehemiah as 1 and 2 Esdras. To make things more confusing, Eastern Orthodox Bibles name Ezra-Nehmiah as 2 Esdras, with 1 Esdras being an ancient Greek version that is nearly the same text as Ezra (which, as part of the Hebrew Bible, is originally Hebrew and Aramaic)---and this Greek 1 Esdras is called 3 Esdras in the Roman Catholic apocrypha.

Ezra is crucially important for Judaism. The faith of Judaism (the faith of Judah) really begins at this time: the faith devoted to Yahweh via the Torah. Ezra was a priest but also "a kind of proto-Rabbi who also has the authority of a prophet," establishing priniciples of Torah interpretation that are "at the heart of rabbinic interpretation" (Jewish Study Bible, 1670). See also these informative articles: The Talmud states that "Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel had not Moses preceded him" (Sanhedrin 21b), and his public reading of the Torah "democratized" Judaism's heritage, "making it as much the posses of the common laborer as of the priest" (Biblical Literacy, 388)

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible also contrasts Ezra and Nehemiah as biblical examples of professional religious workers and faithful laity. The prayerfulness and humility of Nehemiah--who doesn't necessarily seek appreciation but does want to be remembered---is also a lovely example for all of us (p. 683).

Finally: a personal shout-out to a distant relative, Ezra Griffith (1789-1860), one of the early settlers of my home area around Brownstown, Illinois. I've never met anyone named Ezra but at one time it wasn't an uncommon first name. One of Ezra's descendants, Chester Griffith, was a Brownstown friend of my grandmother's and got me interested in Sunday school attendance as a kid because he (Chester) had fifty years of perfect attendance.

* Although the genealogies of Mathew and Luke are from different sources than 1 Chronicles, Zerubbabel is listed in both gospels as an ancestor of Jesus.