Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Asher Brown Durand, "Sunday Morning" (1839). New-York Historical Society. From last year's exhibition at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, http://thewestmoreland.org/exhibitions/telling-tales/ Copied under fair use principles.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bible in a Year: Genesis 46-Exodus 18

I'm reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. This week, I’m finishing Genesis and covering Exodus 1-18, which brings us to the point where Moses and the people arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 19. These chapters from Exodus are among the most important in the entire Bible! 

Genesis 45 is really the climax of the Joseph stories, where Joseph revealed himself to his brothers—-after he’d “messed” with them for a while—-and their reconciliation. The rest of Genesis, though, is important, too. In chapter 46, Jacob departs for Egypt, assured by God that God’s covenant will not be broken if he travels there (46:2-4). Jacob’s family accompany him. We had last seen Jacob at the beginning of the Joseph stories in chapter 37, and now we conclude his long story. My Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 1999) explains that Jacob had two periods of 17 years each with Joseph, the beginning of Joseph’s life and the end of Jacob’s 147-year lifetime (p. 93). 

There is an interesting section (47:13-27) that I’d overlooked before: the fact that Joseph’s policies saved the lives of Egyptians but also enslaved them. This injustice sets the stage for Exodus, where a new Pharaoh in turn enslaved the Hebrews. 

In chapters 48 and 49, Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons, and we have a long section of Jacob’s blessings and predictions for his sons. Christians have especially focused upon the words concerning Judah (49:8-10), understood to connect to Jesus. Who are the ancestral heads of the tribes of Israel? 

Children of Jacob and Leah: Diana the daughter (not a tribal leader), and sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 

Sons of Jacob and Zilpah: Gad and Asher

Sons of Jacob and Bihah, Dan and Naphtali

Sons of Jacob and Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin

Sons of Joseph, adopted by Jacob: Ephraim and Manasseh. 

Here (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-twelve-tribes-of-israel) is an interesting website that explains the tribes and the locations of their settlement after the conquests of Joshua. The Levites had no land because Moses set them apart for priestly duty (Leviticus 3:1-4). The idea of the “ten lost tribes,” which is not a biblical phrase per se, comes from 2 Kings 17:6, concerning the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom. The tribes of the southern kingdom, which survived the Babylonian exile, were Judah (which eventually included the tribe of Simeon), Benjamin, and also Levi. 

Genesis wraps up in chapter 50, with Joseph mourning his father’s death, the preparation (via Egyptian embalming) of Jacob’s body, and his burial back at the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had purchased. Joseph, not vengeful toward his brothers as they feared (50:15ff), returned to Egypt, where he lived till the age of 110. 

Now we come to Exodus. Chapters 1-15 provides a block of material from the establishment of Hebrew enslavement to the song of liberation following the splitting of the sea. But Exodus 13-18 is also a block of material that depicts the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt into the wilderness to the foot of Mount Sinai. 

Also, the narrative of Exodus-Joshua can be understood as a narrative (though with different traditions within it) from Egyptian slavery to the conquest of the Land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants. Of course, when you add Genesis to the front of this block, you have the whole story up till the conquest. The difference is that Genesis depicts the patriarchs within the land, more or less at harmony with the land’s peoples. God is less concerned about the holiness of the patriarchs than establishing with them promises and providential guidance. With Exodus and afterward, Israel’s story is focused upon the establishment of the the identity of Israel as a people—descendants not only of Abraham but of the Twelve Tribes—and as a people they journey, receive the covenant, are guided, punished, declared God’s holy people, and given victory as a people. 

We skip over a lot of history in chapter 1: traditionally counted, the Hebrews were in Egypt over 400 years. Exodus begins with the familiar story of Moses’ salvation from the murderous fears of Pharaoh. The narratives of Jesus’ infancy draw upon these narratives. Once Moses is an adult, he witness the suffering of an Israelite and kills the bully, which caps the first third of his life and sends him into exile for the second third of his life. In chapters 3 and 4, he meets the God of his ancestors in the form of a theophany, a voice form the burning but unconsumed bush. This is the great revelation of God’s name YHWH, God who declares “I AM WHO I AM.” After giving God numerous reasons why he (Moses) shouldn’t take on the divine task, God sends him on his way.  

The story continues:

Moses and Aaron meet with Pharaoh, who instead adds to the Israelites’ burdens. Moses beseeches God. (Chapter 5)

God reiterates his promise to God by the divine name.  Moses tries to encourage the people (unsuccessfully), and he and Aaron return to Pharaoh. We additionally learn of the family genealogy (Chapter 6). 

Again, the brothers meet Pharaoh. Aaron’s rod turns into a serpent, “magic” that the Egyptian sorcerers likewise do, but their serpents are swallowed by Aaron’s. Yet Pharaoh’s heart is heartened. Next the river is turned to blood (Chapter 7). 

More plagues: frogs, and then gnats and flies (Chapter 8). Pharaoh won’t relent, and more plagues happen: the death of livestock, boils, hail, and fire (Chapter 9). Pharaoh almost decides to release the Israelites when threatened by locusts, and then darkness covers Egypt (Chapter 10). God instructs the Israelites to borrow their neighbors’ silver and gold, and Moses threatens the king with the death of Egypt’s firstborn (chapter 11).

Chapter 12 and 13 establishes Pesach (Passover), the meaning of the rites, and the importance and meaning of the hoy day. The firstborn are killed, and the Israelites are at last released. God does not send them the straight way, where they would reach the land via Gaza, but an alternate way that would send them into what we call the Sinai peninsula. God guides them in pillars of cloud and fire. 

In chapter 14, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites, to the fearful response of the people. God instructs Moses, who raises his staff and the Sea splits, allowing the Israelites to pass through to safety, while the pursuing Egyptian forces are drowned as the waters return.  

Chapter 15 contains what scholars consider one the oldest song of the Hebrew tradition: the song of Moses, Miriam, and Israel on their deliverance. The people set out into the wilderness, but “murmur” because they’re thirsty. God sweets the bitter water at Marah, but it is a temporary respite for the perennially unhappy Hebrews.  

They make camp at Elim, a location with wells and palm trees, but when they proceed on, they murmur because they want bread. This is the famous story of the manna and the quails; God provides for them all the days of their journey with the sweet bread-like substance called “What is it?” (the meaning of the word “manna”) (chapter 16).  

They travel on to a place called Rephidim, where they murmur for water again. God strikes the rock that in turn produces water for them, but the place is called Massah and Meribah (“test” and “quarrel”). In what is perhaps a Deuteronomistic insertion into the story, the Israelites fight Amalek and his forces, who are cursed by God (chapter 17).   

In chapter 18, Moses is reunited with his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro gives Moses a good solution to the problem of the many people coming to Moses for help and decisions.  

The Harper’s Bible Commentary author on Exodus—a professor I knew at University of Virginia years ago—points out that the pre-exilic community would have known the Exodus story via the J narrative (p. 131), which “presents the departure from Egypt as a continuation of the theme of the double promise made by Yahweh to the patriarchs. Israel is to be a great nation in a productive land” (p. 129). For the post exilic community of the Second Temple, the story would’ve been known through the P history, and thus would’ve taken comfort in the continuity of religion from the Mosaic times through the Sinai covenant down to that post exilic time (p. 131). 

From that same book, I learned that Psalms 78 and 105 also refer to the plagues, although their order and number are different. While Exodus has the ten—blood, frogs, gnats, flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn—-Psalm 78 has blood, flies, frogs, locusts, hail, cattle and firstborn, while Psalm 105 has darkness, blood, frogs, flies, hail, locusts, and firstborn. Bible trivia! 

We may think of the splitting of the sea as the movie-worthy climax of this overall story, with the covenant and Ten Commandments an important addendum. Actually the covenant is the great event toward which these great stories move. God is Savior (Rescuer) but God is also a covenant-maker. He has created and rescued the Israelites in order to establish a holy, eternal agreement with them—a partnership, if you will, for the sake of the world.  

If you’re a Christian, and if I asked you what is the most important event in the whole Bible, you might say Jesus’ death and resurrection (or the interrelated passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost gift of the Spirit). But the Exodus is not only the focal event of the whole Old Testament, but it is the “model” on which the New Testament narratives and theologies of our salvation are based!  I write more about this on another blog: https://bibleconnections.wordpress.com/the-exodus-and-our-faith/

The site “My Jewish Learning” has a wonderful essay on the significance of the Exodus for Jews as well as all humankind: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-exodus-effect/

The Jewish Study Bible contains these insights: “Many of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Judaism are rooted in Exodus. The first of the book’s two central events, the exodus itself, is recounted daily in Jewish prayers, It and the other central event, the proclamation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, are celebrated and retold on Jewish festivals [Pesah and Shavuot] ever year” (p. 106). The author goes on to say that the covenant, the Jewish way of life, the encounter of the people with God at Sinai, the Sabbath, and other aspects of Exodus are foundational for Judaism (p. 106-107). In our own time, the movement of Jews to Palestine echoed for many the Exodus journey of the Israelites (p. 107). The exodus has also captured the imagination of Gentiles, especially the image of Moses leading people to freedom. The early British settlers of North America had that image in mind, as did African Americans seeking to gain their freedom (p. 107). 

It's also worth noting a couple more connections to the New Testament. The Pascal lamb is connected to Jesus (Ex. 12:11, 1 Cor. 5:7), and (in next week's readings), the ratification of the covenant (Ex. 24:3-8) is connected to the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25).


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Vayigash                           Genesis 44:18-47:27 Ezekiel 37:15-37:28
Vayechi                             Genesis 47:28-50:26 I Kings 2:1-12
Shemot                              Exodus 1:1-6:1             Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-29:23 (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
Va'eira                               Exodus 6:2-9:35           Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Bo                                      Exodus 10:1-13:16 Jeremiah 46:13-46:28
Beshalach Exodus 13:17-17:16 Judges 4:4-5:31 (Judges 5:1-5:31)
          (Shabbat Shirah)
Yitro                                  Exodus 18:1-20:23 Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-9:6 (Isaiah 6:1-6:13)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bible Road Trips: The Long Sojourn at Sinai

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

The Long Sojourn at the Mountain
Exodus 19-Numbers 10

Journeys to mountains make for great trips. I remember a childhood trip to Pike’s Peak; we didn't get to the top, because of Mom's acrophobia, but I remember the spectacular view going up. When she lived in Alaska during her college years, my wife Beth made a trip to Denali, then still called Mount McKlinley. Living in proximity to mountains is wonderful. One of the happy periods of my family’s journey together were the years we lived in Flagstafff, AZ, at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks. I loved the way the clouds formed and and sometimes obscured the peaks, and I understood why mountains and their meteorological phenomena have tremendous significance in many religious traditions.

I’ve never been to Mount Sinai (Mount Horeb) in the southern Sinai region, although some of my colleagues have. This mountain is the traditional site of the giving of the Torah to the people. Two or three other mountains have also been claimed as the place.

In this lesson, I’m thinking about the Israelite's long journey through the wilderness, but specifically, their sojourn at the mountain, where God gave them the laws and commandments.

Many Christians don’t turn to the Torah as often we we should. We become intimidated by the many laws that were not meant for us Gentiles to follow anyway. Laws that seem picky us (abstention from certain foods, prohibit from blending kinds of cloth, capital punishment for offense that don’t seem so serious) are brushed aside as somehow representative of all the law, and we forget the moral grandeur of laws such as love of neighbor, care for the poor, ways to prevent permanent indebtedness, hospitality and compassion for strangers, and others (not the mention the Ten Commandments). We’ve little idea how the rabbis over the centuries have honored the laws—-even declaring that certain laws are most important, like those regarding the care of the poor. We also miss how foundational many ideas and themes of the Torah are for Christian life and experience—Creation, covenant, God’s identity as a savior, God’s concern for ethics and morality and holiness, the creation of God’s people (Jesus’ own people, the Jews), and others.

For Jews, these laws and stories are a beautiful gift from God, to be read for daily living, understanding, and devotion. I discussed in my Lenten study (1) that about 300 of the laws can still be followed today (out of the original 613). If a law seems strange and even contradictory, or if the law can no longer be followed, Jews will try to deepen their understanding of that law rather than waving it aside. If you ever want to do a really, really serious Bible study, the Torah laws would be a good focus.

A large portion of the story of Moses and the people is focused on the long sojourn at the mountain. In the Bible, this sojourn begins at Exodus 19, proceeds through the rest of Exodus and through Leviticus, and finally ends at Numbers 10. Much of the forty-year wilderness experience is skipped in the biblical narrative, but the covenantal time at Sinai occupies much space.

But since the Israelites were journeying to their promised land, why didn't God wait until the people were safely there, or close to it? Jewish commentators have thought about why God chose this remote and inhospitable location for such a momentous event.

I’ve a wonderful set of books by Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times (URJ Press, 1993). In volume three, Fields writes that the question has been raised by great Jewish thinkers over the centuries. “Why does so much importance in Jewish history happen in the Midbar—in the desert?” (p. 9). The answers have been varied the historian and statesman Abba Eban suggested that the long sojourn was for strategic reasons, to build the people’s strength so they could eventually conquer the land (p. 9). The ancient philosopher Philo said that while the cities are filled with luxury and corruption, the wilderness was a more pure place, that is, it was separated from the temptations of urban society, and as such it was more suitable for learning the Torah. Rabbi Akiba believed that the wilderness was a place of suffering for the Israelites, and their trials “allowed them to merit receiving the priceless gift of Torah” (p. 10). (Akiba himself died a terrible martyr’s death.) Other writers, states Fields, have called the wilderness time an enduring model for Jews, who are so often persecuted and, historically, have been forced to uproot from their countries. The fact that the Torah was a wilderness gift has helped Jews to remain focused upon God through years of difficulty and tragedy, via love and study of Torah.

We Gentiles can humbly learn from the Israelites and their descendants the Jews. Times of prosperity and well-being may certainly be times of closeness to God. (Job, prior to his sufferings, was a notably devout and caring person.) But times of trouble, loneliness, and uncertainty can also be very powerful times when God teaches us. (Perhaps that is why there are Bibles in motel rooms, when a person might seek God while lonely and far from home.) Difficult times can be moments when Bible promises really open up and become “proved” in our experiences.


(1) Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 81.

Ghost Signs: St. Elmo, IL

"Ghost signs" are old, hand-painted advertising signs that appear on the side of barns or businesses. Mail Pouch Tobacco was a product advertised on barns and, in this case, the side of one of the downtown buildings in St. Elmo, IL, a community near my hometown. Once in a while you can still spot an old barn along a rural highway that sports a fading Mail Pouch ad. I'll try to find and photograph other examples.

A palimpsest  is a manuscript page, on which previous text has been removed and the page is reused for other writing. This ghost sign in St. Elmo has that effect: the Mail Pouch sign is quite legible, but is that "Purina" or some other word behind it? And I see a faint "GO" or "60" above the UC of "pouch", and faint letters above "treat," that might be parts of an older, third sign.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bible Road Trips: The Land's Roads and Highways

Roman road in Syria
from http://www.geolocation.ws
During the past several months I've been posting Bible study devotions based on biblical roads and highways. I've written several and have several to go.

Four years ago, I did some (to me) interesting research on the major Middle Eastern highways in the biblical land, in addition to the local roads that Jesus and others traveled, and posted my notes from several Bible dictionaries and articles.

This post, imported from my other Bible-related blog, has less devotional value but digs into the scripture's historical background.

The major road of the ancient Near East was the Via Maris (way of the sea) or in Hebrew, derekh hayyam (Isa. 9:1), also called the Great Trunk Road. It was the most important road from Egypt to Babylonia and many parts of the Fertile Crescent.(1). The road began at Memphis, went first through Gaza. As Barry J. Beitzel puts it, Gaza “sometimes served as a launching pad or Egyptian campaigns through Palestine and Syria. Thus is was an important highway for the security of Egypt.” In Exodus 13:17 it was called the “way to the land of the Philistines”.(2)

The Via Maris then reached Megiddo and had at least three different branches, one along the Sea to Syrian Antioch, and another route eastward to the city of Beth-shan and then north to the Sea of Galilee and then along the western shore of that see to Gennesaret. The third branch crossed the Jezreel Valley, through the hills of Nazareth and near Mt. Moreh, and then made and eastward then northward path where it met the road from Beth-shan near the Sea of Galilee. From the northern places then road continued to other areas, including a long road from Aleppo along the Euphrates River to Babylon, Uruk, Ur, and the Persian Gulf.(3) If you consult a map that illustrates this route and shows you these towns, you can get a better idea of the extensive reach of this particular highway system.

There was also the King’s Highway (derekh hammeleskh). The King’s Highway connected with the Via Maris at Damascus.(5). Gregory Linton writes, “Since the work of Nelson Glueck, historians have used the phrase to refer to a major international route in Transjordan that descended south from Damascus and passed through Ashtaroth, Ramoth-gilead, Rabbath-ammon [Amman], Heshbon, Dibon, Kir-hareseth, and Bozrah until it reached Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba. Its northern section from Heshbon to Ashtaroth was called ‘the road to Bashan’ (Num 21:33, Deut 3:10).”(4). Linton notes that the derekh hammeleskh appears in Num. 20:17 and 21:22, but also may be referred to in Gen. 14 and Num. 33:41-49; thus it was one of the roads of the Israelite wanderings. The King’s Highway was also the trade route fought over in 2 Kings 10:33 and 2 Kings 16:7).(6)

Another important ancient highway was the Assyrian-Hittite Road, which passed through major Assyrian cities toward Kanish, and through Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch in Psilidia, also intersecting with Laodicea, Philadelphia, Sardis, and Ergamum. (7)

Still another key road was the National Highway through the Israel highlands, passing through Jezreel, Samaria, Shechem, Bethelem, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Beersheba.  Jesus traveled around Galilee and areas like Judea, the Decapolis, Samaria, Phoenicia, and Paneas. Yet another major road passed south from Damascus through Capernaum and Tiberius southwest toward Megiddo then to Caesarea and south along the coast toward Egypt.(8)

Of course, small local linked with international trade routes. In his article, Lincoln Blumell lists several scriptures that detail Jesus’ childhood travel and his adult years. (9)

Michael Vanzant notes that these highways “were more curse than blessing for Israel” when the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian armies traveled on them. Josiah, in fact, was killed at Megiddo---itself a frequent area of conflict---on the Via Maris while opposing the Egyptian army, in 2 Kings 23:39.(10) As indicated above, the King’s Highway was the trade route fought over in 2 Kings 10:33 and 2 Kings 16:7.(11)

On the other hand, the highways through the Land helped build the Davidic empire. Vanzant writes, “Key to the success and expansion of the kingdoms of David and Solomon was control of the Jezreel Valley and the key routes leading to both Phoenicia and Damascus. During the divided kingdom period, the presence of these two major trade routes in northern Israel created not only financial opportunity but also the religion syncretism seen within the Ahab-Jezebel-Elijah stories (1 Kgs 16:29-22:40).  Control of the trade led to great wealth, reflect in the oracles of Amos against the northern kingdom of Israel in the mid-8th cent. BCE.” (12) Of course, the Israelites “were not seafaring peoples,” although Solomon had a fleet and port at Ezlon-geber on the Red sea (1 Kings 9:26-28). (13)

Gregory Linton goes on to describe roads of the Assyrians, and the Persians improved the Assyrian system. Classical Greece had no well developed system of roads, while the Romans had a sophisticated system of thousands of miles of roads.(14)  Also the fact that Roman roads were not only well constructed and paved (with flat stone) and capable of high volume traffic, but they were also straight, and marked with mileposts. (15) The apostle Paul used a Roman road from Antioch to Tarsus, Derbe, Iconium, Lystra, and Pisidian Antioch during his second missionary trip (Act 15:41-16:6), and also the Via Egnatia from Neapolis to Philippi and eventually Thessalonica (Acts 16:11-17:1). Linton also says that he would have used the road to Apamea, Laodicea, and Ephesus (Acts 19:1) during his third trip.  He also would’ve traveled the famous Appian Way (Acts 28:13-16). (16)

The kind of highway named by the Hebrew word derekh (Num. 20:17, 19, Judg. 21:19) “was the most common type of road in ancient Israel, formed through continual use compressing the soil and removing vegetation, and sometimes improved.  The mesilla (built-up road) was intentionally constructed with a high center and drainage on the edges. This type only became common in the Roman era.” The usage of the words was variable: the derekh of Jeremiah 18:15 is not built up, while the derekh of Job 19:12 is built-up. (17) As reflected in passages such as Prov. 15:19, Prov. 22:5. Isa. 40:3, Isa. 57:14, Isa. 62:10, and Hos. 2:6, a typical road was constructed by filling holes on the path, removing large stones and brush, and leveling the path.(18)

Michael Vanzant goes on to say that highways are figurative images in the Bible, like Prov 15:19, 16:17, Jere. 18:15, 31:21. “Isaiah 35:8 notes a ‘built-up’ derekh called the Highway of Holiness, the route of returning exiles.”(19) A related image is that of God’s peace.  “Often the image of ‘the way’ or a ‘highway in the desert’ that is leveled, open, or straight metaphorically denotes a period of peace, usually a prophetic view of the future. ‘A voice cries out “....make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’ (Is. 40:3). Road systems that were free, protected, and in good condition represented prosperity and peace for the people and nations of the ancient world.”(20)

Among the different reasons for travel in biblical times were religious purposes, such as visits to temples and shrines of particular God, and for Jews, too, the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. “Josephus reports that so many Jews would travel to Jerusalem for Passover that the city was literally overflowing with visitors during the time of its celebration.”(21)

Of course, we think of the Jericho road where the Samaritan of Jesus’ story became Good. Emmaus (at least the place archaeologists believe the town existed) was about seven miles northwest of Jerusalem, and it was along that road where Jesus met the two downcast disciples in Luke 24. And the Via Dolorosa is today a Jerusalem street but was a portion of a Roman-era road that passed through the city.


1. Lincoln Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 656-657.

2. Barry J. Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, O-Sh, (New York, Doubleday, 1992), 778

3.  Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", 778-779

4   Gregory L. Linton, “King’s Highway,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, I-Ma (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 523.

5. Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", 779.

6.  Linton, “King’s Highway,” 523.

7.  Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", 780.

8.  Lincoln Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 654

9. Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” 654

10. Michael Vanzant, “Travel and Communication in the OT,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 657

11. Linton, “King’s Highway,” 523.

12  Vanzant, “Travel and Communication in the OT,” 657

13  Ibid.

14. Gregory L. Linton, “Road,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, Me-R (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 826.

15. Linton, “Road,” 825.

16. Linton, “Road,” 826.

MIchael G. Vanzant, “Highway,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, Me-
R, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 654.

18. Linton, “Road,” 825.

19  Vanzant, “Highway,” 654; Linton, “Road,” 825.

20. Vanzant, “Travel and Communication in the OT,” 656-657.

21. Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,”  653.

See also:

F. F. Bruce, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6,
Si-Z (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 648-653.

David F. Graf, Benjamin Isaac, Israel Roll, “Roads and Highways (Roman),” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, O-Sh (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 782-787.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Landscape: Cox

John Rogers Cox (1915-1990), "Gray and Gold" (1942). In the Cleveland Museum of Art: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1943.60  Copied under fair use principles.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bible in a Year: Genesis 23-45

I'm reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters
divided by 52 weeks), and taking notes on the readings. This week, we have the remaining chapters of Abraham and Sarah's stories (23:1-25:18), the "Jacob cycle" (25:19-36:43), and the Joseph narrative, which is 37:1-50:26 but this week I'm stopping at the stories' climax, chapter 45.

This is the end of Abraham's stories, though the beginning of the long story of God's promise to him. In 23:1-20, we read of the only part of the promised Land that Abraham actually owned by legal contract: the tomb and field where he will bury Sarah. Abraham and the Canaanite Ephron strike a deal, and there Sarah is buried, and eventually Abraham (25:1-18) and later Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. If I remember correctly, this is the last time we meet Ishmael in the story, when he joins Isaac in burying their father.

I remember reading in one of Brevard S. Childs' Old Testament studies, that the paucity of Isaac stories raises the question of whether there once was a cycle of his stories as long as those of his father and son. I also remember reading, in Torah: A Modern Commentary, that Isaac seems passive in the stories: things happen to him, rather than him taking initiative. He goes along with the near-sacrifice in chapter 22, and with the selection of Rebekah in chapter 24, and is sadly victim to his son's and wife's scheming in chapter 27.

The long chapter 24 gives of the story of the wooing of Rebekah, where the servant of Abraham helps gain her as Isaac's wife. We have a series of rich interconnections in these chapters. The Harper's Bible Commentary author notes that chapter 24 is structured similarly as Abraham's call in chapter 12, with the repeating of key words "bless" and "go," and chapter 24 also forms a frame for the chapter 12 promise. Rebekah, after all, is essential for the promise and enters the family as Isaac's wife. (Sadly compare the expulsion of Hagar in chapter 21 with the acceptance of Rebekah, though Ishmael's descendants are provided a genealogy, 25:12-18). The initial "barrenness" of Rebekah (25:21) also provides a narrative connection back to Sarai/Sarah.

The Harper's commentary points out other connections. Conflict and deception are themes through the Abraham stories and now both the Jacob and Joseph cycles---mostly familial strife, though Jacob contends with the mysterious challenger in 32:24-32, and we can remember Abraham's verbal contention with God over the fate of Sodom in chapter 18. Not to mention, chapter 26 has the story of Isaac, Rebekah, and Abimelech, where (like his father's two deceptions about Sarah) Isaac does not want it known that Rebekah is his wife, and in the meantime gains substantial property (again, similar to his father's experience in chapter 12, and Jacob a bit later).

The fraternal twins Jacob and Esau have trouble right away, with Jacob pushing Esau to despise his birthright (chapter 25), and the more elaborate deception of chapter 27. The Harper's commentary makes an interesting point: that the resourcefulness of Rebekah to ensure her son's future is similar to the story of Moses' mother in Exodus 2:1-10. There are other interesting connections, like Jacob's outrage at Laban's deception--he who was the deceiver has now been deceived---and Laban's own deceptive advocacy of his daughter Leah, which echoes Rebekah's advocacy of Jacob (chapter 29).

We can also make connections to the sacred place of Bethel, the site of Jacob's dream of the ladder/stairway and God's retelling to Jacob of the promise to Abraham. Bethel was an alternative sacred place (1 Kings 12:26-33, Amos 7:1-13) while Salem/Jerusalem (Genesis 14) became the city of the Temple and the southern kingdom. Another significant place for Jacob is the location in Genesis 32 where he wrestles... who? An angel? A human adversary? Although the sacred site is given the name Penuel, the more significant change is Jacob's, who gains the name Israel, "one who contends with God."

I always love the story of Jacob meeting Esau, because how many times have I anticipated something with deep dread but it turned out alright, and even very well! Sometimes it takes years for situations to work themselves out. Although many of us turn our troubles over to God, we always should remember that we may not get quick answers and easy solutions---but God does hear our prayers! Although Esau is used as a negative example in Hebrews 12, here he seems open and magnanimous toward his deceitful brother and welcomes him as a brother.  We learn of Esau's descendants in chapter 36, and as the Harper commentary tells us, we find later references to those descendants ("Edom") in 2 Sam. 8:14, 1 Kings 11:14-22, 2 Kings 8:20-33, and elsewhere.)

Jacob's children were (with wife Leah), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Diana. With maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. With maidservant Ziplah: Gad and Asher. With wife Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. Of course, these sons became the founders of the tribes of Israel. I found an interesting site that considers the background of Jacob's genealogy:
http://thetorah.com/how-the-israelite-family-was-put-together-the-twelve-sons-of-jacob/ The terrible story of Diana's rape and her subsequent avenging connects to a later story of David's daughter Tamar in 2 Samuel. I recommend the article "Women in Genesis" in the Harper's commentary (pp. 116-118) that discusses the relationship of mothers and children in Genesis; contrasts the voiceless Diana with the resourceful Tamar and Rebekah; discusses the contrasting emotional situations of Leah and Rachel; points out that the rejected Hagar is given a theophany of God; notes the double standards that we find amid the Genesis stories (Lot sins, but only his wife is punished; both Abraham and Sarah laugh, but only Sarah is scolded for her laughter, etc.), and so on.

The stories of Joseph are so well known: we've read them in Sunday school and perhaps can sing along to the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical! They have several parts:

37:1-36, Joseph's relationship with his brothers and father, his brothers' cruel plan first to kill and then to sell Joseph, and his forced journey to Egypt.

39:1-30, Joseph's first experience in Egypt and his unjust imprisonment.

40:1-41:-57,  Joseph gains favor as an interpreter of dreams and becomes a significant official in Pharaoh's government, planning for the anticipated famine.

42:1-45:28, the wonderful stories of Joseph's meeting with his brothers, their failure to recognize him,  the way Joseph "messes" with them for a while, and finally his tearful revelation of himself to them and their reconciliation.

Chapters 46-50 also deal with Jacob and Joseph and the brothers. I'll read those chapters next week.

I love these Joseph stories in part because God is hardly mentioned in them---and I don't mean that in a negative way. God does not appear in theophanies and miracles in these stories, but the providential guidance of God is assumed. To me, this is a very realistic narrative about ways God may work in our lives, though obviously with different life experiences than Joseph's. We, too, experience painful times, suffer injustice, struggle through periods of difficulty but eventually we turn the corner from those periods into times of well-being again. We still have questions for God: why did I have to suffer so long in that situation, and why couldn't God have shortened the pain (as Joseph languished in prison for two years)? But we rejoice when we do, indeed, see (often in hindsight) how God was guiding us all along.

I didn't mean to skip the dark story of Judah and Tamar, which is inserted not the text (chapter 38) just as Joseph is being carried off to Egypt. Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah, loses her husband before she had children. By the laws and the customs of the time, the husband's brother was obligated to impregnate her, but he withdrew before ejaculation---and shortly died! Again, according to the views of the time, semen was considered spiritually unclean outside the body, and he also had declined a serious obligation---for Tamar was a widow with no children, a bad situation in which to be. But Judah refused to offer her his remaining son, and so Tamar deceives Judah into impregnating her instead. There's that theme of advantageous deception that we find throughout Genesis. Like Rebekah, Tamar has twins, Zerah and Perez.

My commentary points out that Judah's first son and also these two sons become important tribes within the larger tribe of Judah---in fact, Judah is the primary surviving tribe following the Exile, and Perez is an ancestor of Jesus himself. Again, the strange providence of God amid very complicated, painfully human circumstances.


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Chayei Sarah          Genesis 23:1-25:18 I Kings1:1-1:31
Toldot                  Genesis 25:19-28:9 Malachi 1:1-2:7
Vayeitzei                  Genesis 28:10-32:3 Hosea 12:13-14:10 (Hosea 11:7-12:12)
Vayishlach          Genesis 32:4-36:43 Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Obadiah1:1-1:21)
Vayyeshev          Genesis 37:1-40:23 Amos 2:6-3:8
Miqeitz                  Genesis 41:1-44:17 I Kings 3:15-4:1
Vayigash                  Genesis 44:18-47:27 Ezekiel 37:15-37:28

Ghost Signs: Altamont, IL

This ghost sign is on the north side of downtown Altamont, IL. From 1907 until the early 1950s, Gold Medal Flour had a famous slogan: "Eventually - Why Not Now?" 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ghost Signs: Vandalia, Illinois

"Ghost signs" are old, hand-painted advertising signs that appear on the side of (usually) brick buildings. Some are nearly or mostly unreadable, some are clear but have earlier signs appearing amid the more recent letters, and some are fading but legible. Over the next several months I plan to post some photos of signs that I've found. This one is on the side of the downtown Higgin's Cleaners in my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. "Shoes" is visible, and there seems to have been a round logo. What did the sign used to say? As long as I can remember, the sign has been faded like this. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Landscape: Morisot

Berthe Morisot, "La Chasse aux papillons," 1874. Morisot was born on this day, January 14, 1841.

From this site.  
Copied under fair use principles. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mendel, Bateson, and Genetics

I love antique books, and this past year I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over these past several weeks, I've written about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

While I was reading about Charles Darwin last fall, I had in the back of my mind the fact that Darwin did not have the benefit of Gregor Mendel's principles of inheritance, for the Austrian friar's 1865 and 1866 papers on the subject were little known. Finally in 1900, nearly twenty years after Darwin's death, Mendel's work began to be appropriated by the scientists Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and Erich von Tschermak, as well as William Bateson, an eager promoter of Mendel's ideas, and also scientists like J. B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and Ronald Fisher.

I found a significant book online, William Bateson's Mendel's Principles of Heredity (Cambridge University Press, 1909). Although the word "gene" (from the Greek genos, "origin") already existed, Bateson coined the term "genetics." This site, https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/william-bateson-1861-1926 , explains the significance of Bateson (1861-1926) and his work.

"At the turn of the twentieth century, William Bateson studied organismal variation and heredity of traits within the framework of evolutionary theory in England. Bateson applied Gregor Mendel's work to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and coined the term genetics for a new biological discipline. By studying variation and advocating Mendelian genetics, Bateson furthered the field of genetics, encouraged the use of experimental methodology to study heredity, and contributed to later theories of genetic inheritance." Studying discontinuous variation within species, he was criticized by scientists, especially those in biometry, who were using statistical methods to explain Darwin's evolutionary theories. Working with his sister Anna and another woman botanist, Edith Rebecca Saunders, he continued to experiment. But in 1900, he and Saunders discovered Mendel's 1866 publication about pea inheritance. "Bateson adopted Mendel's work, and he advocated for others to do so. The majority of Bateson and Saunders's results from flowering plant crosses fit Mendel's laws of inheritance. In 1902 Bateson published Mendel's Principles of Heredity..."

Please read the whole article. The author continues that, thanks to Bateson, Mendel's theories were publicized and accepted among scientists. Bateson's book became a landmark study in the history of heredity theory and the eventual synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology.

A colleague who is an actual historian of science recommends this book for more on this whole subject: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674865389

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bible Road Trips: The Israelites Leave Egypt

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

The Israelites Leave Egypt
Exodus 13:17-22

I’ve known people who, in the midst of difficulty, have said, “Well, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” This saying may be said affirmatively or ironically. The saying isn’t actually in the Bible but is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God is with us when we have difficult times, even though, we might add, things do get very bad sometimes and God’s help may seem not to be forthcoming. (If I recall correctly, the "you" in this verse is plural in the Greek, reflecting the fact that Paul wrote to a group of people who, ideally, would support one another.)

Our reading from Exodus is a scripture that benefits from a good map; flip in your Bible to the map that describes the journeys of the Israelites under Moses' leadership. As the text tells us, the Israelites left Egypt via Goshen---“Land o’ Goshen!” was an expression I sometimes heard my grandmother use---and then, once they crossed the sea, the Israelites had a potential straight route: across the land, inland from the Mediterranean, toward the Promised Land via Gaza.

But our reading indicates that the Israelites did not go that way: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle… They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.”

As we know from elsewhere in the text, the Israelites were an unhappy people, prone to complaint. They did not have the bold resolve of, for instance, former slaves in America willing to fight in the Union army for their freedom (although reading does say they prepared themselves by organizing into groups in order to deal with a possible threat, verse 18). So God provided for their journey, even guiding them by a wiser route than the obvious, straighter road.

How wonderful if, in our own difficult times, we could know the future and the "big picture"! To me, that is the most difficult thing about a crisis situation. How long will I be unemployed? Will my loved one recover soon? How long will I have to wait for benefits? What is going to happen in a difficult national or world situation? How long will my terminally ill loved one live? How long will I grieve so deeply?

Knowing in advance would also help us face the situation. The Israelites were unprepared for conflict with the Philistines, and sometimes we enter into painful situations without being “steeled” for the struggle. It’s a painful thing to realize that we haven’t been our best selves when dealing with a problem.

When we are worried, we can keep in mind passages like Psalm 23, 121, Romans 8:38-39, and others that affirm God’s tender care. Although some situations are overwhelming and terrible, God is always close to us, and in hindsight we may see how God was with us and guiding us. I remember a time when I felt over my head in a problem, and I was discouraged that God seemingly hadn’t helped me. Years later, though, I realized that God had been present in the whole situation.

In your own life and journeys, think of ways that God may be leading you, and possibly helping you avoid circumstances for which you were unprepared.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Bible in a Year: Gen. 1-22

Beginning my year-long reading of and note-taking about the Bible, about 20 or so chapters each week, I "open at page one," to quote that old Jethro Tull song about the ill-fated train engineer.

I read somewhere that Genesis "feels" and reads differently than the rest of the Torah, because God is not yet the savior and law-giver of Israel. God is working with people and making connections, so to speak, accompanying the Hebrew ancestors as they begin a history in the land promised to Abraham.

Chapter 1-11 is a block of material prior to the Bible's main story that begins with Abraham. Of course, we first study the two creation accounts: the "priestly" narrative of 1:1-2:4a and the "Jahwist" narrative of 2:4b-3:24. I've also read how the Genesis stories "demythologize" other ancient Near Eastern stories. For one thing, the creation story has a covenantal purpose: Genesis 1 links over to Exodus 31:12-18, where the Sabbath is part of God's eternal covenant with Israel, based in God's own rest from creative activity. We Gentiles, mulling over the literalness or symbolism of the seven days, miss the very key point of the Sabbath (not so named in Genesis) that becomes Israel's "sanctuary in time" (Heschel).

Other aspects of "demythologizing": Even though God seems anthropomorphic, walking in the garden, not much is made of this in the narrative, and there is certainly no "birth" account of the deity, nor  does Eve function as a fertility goddess or demigod like Asherah. There is a "trickster" entity who deceive the first couple, which introduces sin into God's creation and separation from the deity, although notice that God helps the couple make clothing before they leave the garden!

A theme that we find in much literature, inspired by the Bible story, is the way children continue the sin of their parents, and of course Cain takes the almost careless sin of his parents and multiplies its horror, killing his own brother. The genealogies that follow his story show the one way that human beings were faithful to God---being fruitful and multiplying. Otherwise, without getting into theological theories of free will vs. original sin, the narrative moves along human moral decline. The Noah stories, which evidence an editing of the J and P sources, anticipate later biblical themes: God's eventual judgment against sin, and also God's demand for purity and purification.

The remainder of the Genesis 1-11 block is filled with genealogical information of the descendants of Noah moving out into the world. (Here is a map that sorts it all out: http://www.bible-history.com/maps/images/genesis_shem_ham_japheth.jpg) I read somewhere (I need to take better notes!) that the narrative of Acts, intentionally or not, follows in reverse order the Table of Nations in showing how the Holy Spirit came to people around the ANE and eastern Roman Empire. Here, however, the genealogies include a narrowing of focus: to a particular family, that of Abram (Abraham).

The Abraham stories---which as I say is the crucial beginning of the biblical story---fill 12:1-25:18. I think I'll take these notes through chapter 22. At the end of chapter 11 and into chapter 12 and following, we meet Abraham and his family, learn of God's call and promise to the patriarch, and read of some of his adventures: his gaining of property during a sojourn in Egypt, during which he's caught in a well-intentioned lie; his separation from his nephew Lot and his flock; his rescue of Lot during an intertribal conflict; and his meeting with the king of Salem, Melchizedek, who worships and serves the one God. This last story connects with the history of Jerusalem, which we'll read about much later, and also with Jesus, who is praised by the author of Hebrews as a priest like Melchizedek.

There is ugliness and sorrow in the Abraham stories. The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael is tragic (21:-34), though it gives the Lord a change to bless both son and mother. Hagar, in fact, has more of a role in praising and naming God than any woman in the narrative up to this point. We also have the narratives of Lot, of Sodom, and the incest perpetrated by Lot's daughters. There is a subtle point in the narrative that the children of the daughters are ancestors of Moabites and Ammonites, two of Israel's enemies in later centuries.

There is beauty, though, in the way Abraham openheartedly beseeches God to spare the city if there be a few righteous people to save. It is a classic story of how God may respond to prayers of intercession on behalf of persons about whom we care, for whom we hope for God's compassion and help.

The Harper's Bible Commentary (p. 99) notes that 20:1-22:24 are stories of the Elohist source (that makes use of the general name Elohim for God, rather than the sacred name YHWH, but is not the Priestly source which also uses Elohim). The commentator writes that the stories have the same structure: "God instructs Abraham to initiate a course of action that will involve mortal danger to another family member (Gen. 20:12; 21:12; 22:2); the patriarch obeys (20:1-2; 21:14; 22:3); the threatening situation is about to be realized (20:1, 18; 21:16; 22:9-10); and God intervenes to prevent the expected outcome (20:6-7, 17; 21:19-20; 22:11-13)" (p. 99). Little wonder that Abraham becomes the great paradigm of faith in three major world religions---the Abrahamic religions---because of the extraordinary commands of God and his extraordinary, often wordless and distressing obedience.

I remembered a post from a couple years ago on my now-seldom-updated "Changing Bibles" site: the Pentateuch, another name for the Torah or the first five biblical books, has interesting theological and textual issues, revealing contrasts of view points and challenging insights. Some of the issues pertain to Genesis' relation to the other books: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-pentateuch.html

In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Parshah                  Torah                         Haftarah
Bereishit                Genesis 1:1-6:8         Isaiah 42:5-43:11 (Isaiah 42:5-42:21)
Noach                    Genesis 6:9-11:32     Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (Isaiah 54:1-10)
Lekh Lekha           Genesis 12:1-17:27    Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Vayeira                  Genesis 18:1-22:24    II Kings 4:1-4:37 (II Kings 4:1-4:23)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Remembering the Flamingo

Temperatures in St. Louis have been very cold during the past several days. I know folks who are active in homeless ministries, and over the years we have contributed to such ministries in the different places we lived.

Thinking about that, I remembered a location in Flagstaff, Arizona: Andy Womack's Flamingo Motel.  Several churches, including the one where I served on staff in the late 80s/early 90s, had arrangements with the motel to pay for rooms for transient travelers who passed through town. It was not simply a wintertime ministry, but the cold and snowy winters in Flagstaff did make homelessness all the more dangerous.

I admit that this ministry worried me. I feared meeting strangers, knowing that I hadn't the savvy and intuition to sense whether a person was bullshitting me or was genuinely in need. The senior pastor, a more forceful and savvy person than I, enjoyed this work, and I only went to the motel a couple times. Once, though, the man I helped was someone I knew in high school! He was drifting. I seek forgiveness for the times I was a fearful host for the homeless persons passing through town.

The motel was at the intersection of old Route 66/89 and Milton Ave. in Flagstaff. It had garages next to the rooms, like some other motels of its vintage. I never saw a postcard for the place on eBay but I found a website in which the author recalled the place, where he had stayed in 1978.  http://designobserver.com/feature/lost-america-the-flamingo-motor-hotel/6567 Like me, he had found few if any references to the place online---surprisingly, considering the motel's vintage sign and age---so I'm glad he posted his own recollection. The place was razed in the 1990s, a few years after we moved from Flagstaff, and when we returned for a visit in 1999, I saw that the motel had been replaced with a Barnes and Noble store.

Here is a lovely prayer for the homeless, which we can all pray and consider: http://carolpenner.typepad.com/leadinginworship/2009/11/prayer-for-homeless-people.html Consider praying for and contributing to homeless ministries as part of your own faith journey.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sacred Destinations in Japan

My second post of the day about relatives and religion. 😀 

This past summer I wrote about some of the Japanese shrines and temples that my wife Beth and I visited with our daughter as she spends a year there. She always loved anime and manga but the story Hakuouki, a video game and anime series based on the Shinsengumi, inspired her to study the language and culture more deeply. We're so proud of her!  

We visited her again during Christmas week. She bought us bullet train tickets down to Kyoto (450 km from Tokyo), where we visited the Higashi Honganji, one of the two head temples of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan. This sect is similar to Nichiren Buddhism in that the essential teachings of Buddhism are distilled into a repeated affirmation, in this case, “namu amida butsu,” “Praise to Amida Buddha." https://www.kyotostation.com/higashi-honganji-temple/ I look forward to sharing some of these adventures with students the next time I teach world religions. 

Our daughter also took us to the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. The fox statues represent Inari's messengers. Thousands of vermilion torii gates  line the trails that eventually lead to the top of the mountain. 

I wish the U.S. had something like the Shinkansen, the high-speed railway lines. I'd never fly domestically again, LOL. We even got a clear view of Mt. Fuji on the train back to Tokyo. As this the following site indicates, Fuji-san) is the highest mountain in Japan, is the holiest of Japan's "Three Holy Mountains," and is named for the the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi. The mountain is also sacred to the Shinto goddess Sengen-Sama, whose shrine is located at the summit. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/mount-fuji

We spent Christmas Day at Tokyo Disneyland! It was the first Disney park built outside the U.S. Christmas is interesting in Japan, with many decorations, decorated trees, Christmas hymns and carols in public, Christmas cakes and family meals with fried chicken. But it has no religious aspects in Japan, where 1% or less of the population are Christian, and in many ways the holiday centers around Christmas Eve, a very romantic holiday for couples. Emily says that Christmas cakes are really popular for the holiday--small sponge cakes that are delicious. She got me this one in advance of my birthday!

Baptism Disagreements

This past Friday was Epiphany, the western Christian commemoration of the revelation of God in Jesus, connected with the visit of the Magi to the infant. In eastern Christianity, the commemoration is called Theophany, and the day honors the revelation of the Holy Trinity in Jesus, connected with his baptism in the river Jordan. Our scripture this morning in church was the account of Jesus' baptism.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:13-17).

Probably as long as I live, I'll associate the words "as he came up from the water" with relatives of my childhood (great-aunts, especially), who insisted that baptism must be adult, full-immersion baptism in order to be valid. This is a position that some churches do hold. In my great-aunts' view, "come up from the water" meant that John submerged Jesus (as opposed to pouring water on his head as they stood in the river, as depicted in the Andrea de Verrocchio painting above).

This verse in Colossians also comes to mind:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12)

This was another proof text: when we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

As a kid, I didn't feel comfortable with that argument but didn’t know why. I had a beginning interest in religion but had only studied a little bit via Sunday school. By the time I was in college, my parents and I had joined the local United Methodist congregation, and I was relieved when our pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any mode and yet was promised salvation.

When I was in seminary, I learned more about Colossians, where we read a little later:

[W]hy do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

While I wouldn’t at all call baptism a “human command,” the epistle's author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to hold to Christ alone and not upon any rituals and practices, important as some of them may be. There finally was an answer with which I was comfortable: fulfilling religious requirements by the letter is never as important as opening our hearts to God for God’s powers (Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).

But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I would’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not at all a debater by nature. Praise the Lord for faithful people of our childhood who, though possibly exasperating, you'd loved to visit one more time…

(From: https://theloveofbiblestudy.com/chapter-1-marked-up-bible-2-familiar-verses/)


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bible in a Year: Starting Out

A few years ago, I made an effort to deepen my Bible study. I wanted to study comparatively
unfamiliar areas of the book, and I especially wanted to gain a better sense of its canonical interconnections (prophecies, allusions, historical connections, etc.).

The major result of this enjoyable time of study was my book Walking with Jesus through the New Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), and also some short-term blogs where I posted my reflections and notes, including an informal survey of the whole Bible. (Those sites are noted in this blog's sidebar.) 

I like to do year-long series on this blog--they help me stay spiritually focused amid life's busyness--but I hadn't yet found a new series for 2017. Meanwhile, though, I missed in-depth Bible study, which I'd neglected since finishing my book manuscript.  

I got an idea: a series of weekly summaries of Bible material through the course of the year. I Googled the number of chapters in the Bible, and discovered there are 1189. Divided by 52 weeks, that is about 22 chapters a week. So beginning this week, I'll read the Bible (and consult some of my commentaries) at a rate of about 22 chapters a week, more or less, and record here what I learn.  

This will be very informal, but I'll get back into the kind of devoted Bible study that I enjoy.  

To start with: after the cat moved, I read an interesting discussion in my Harper's Bible Commentary about the "primary and secondary histories" of the Old Testament (pp. 75ff)

The primary history is the material from Genesis through Kings, which takes us from from Creation to the beginning of the Exile. Interestingly, the history begins with great promise---God's pledge to Abraham of many descendants and a land--but it ends sadly, with ten of the twelve tribes of those descends disappeared with the 722 Assyrian conquest, and the other tribes conquered by the Babylonians in the 500s. Nearly all the leadership of the accompanying historical periods are ineffective. Is it strange that the Bible contains this long narrative that culminates in failure?

The secondary narrative is Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, which also begins with Creation (Adam and his descendants), continues to the Exile, but also considers the post-exilic time of restoration in the Land (Ezra and Nehemiah) and the lives of Jews in the Diaspora (Esther, although one could also include Daniel here). The Secondary History ends on more positive notes, with the people newly settled in the land and Diaspora Jews establishing the faith as well. In the case of Daniel, we also get an apocalyptic account of God's ultimate victory.

Learning this material is part of the enjoyment of Bible study: when you begin at Genesis, you embark on a long journey through the experiences of God's people, and then once 2 Kings ends, you start again on a shorter but also important journey through the same history and a couple centuries more. Putting all this together, you start to gain a sense of the richness (and by no means uniformity) of the biblical witness, and the contrasting viewpoints and theologies of the biblical writers.

You could consider the New Testament a corresponding history, and not just new scriptures. The New Testament, after all, contains passages that begin at the Beginning (John's prologue, and Col. 1:15-20), and then reinterprets the experience of the Old Testament people, and the great institutions of their kingdom and religion, via the life of Jesus. Plus, this corresponding history opens to a new future where Gentiles are grafted onto the people of God thanks to God's grace and mercy (Romans 11:16-24).

But the New Testament is characterized by all-too-human failings, too, with writers like Paul, the Hebrews author, and John of Patmos scolding their congregations for sins, errors, and shaky faith. The very last New Testament book has the context of conflict and uncertainty within the addressed congregations, while at the same time depicting God's ultimate victory as well. So although the New Testament covers a much shorter history than the Old Testament, the ambiguities of human experience are present there, too. In the Bible, as in all of life, the glory is God's alone, and we rely upon God's mercy and kindness.