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Monday, April 17, 2017

How Many Types of Locusts Are There Anyway?

With five weeks to go in our Bible study series, I'm wondering if we'll make it to the end of those prophets. I think we might, but we'll see. This week we look at Joel (with his armies of locusts) and flip back to Isaiah, but the pages are turning forward in history. We'll see Isaiah through eyes of a re-established Jerusalem, then the rest of Zechariah, then Daniel through the eyes of those who used his book to repel invasion, then onward to John - it's where we've been headed for almost 2 years. It will be cool to see where it leads.

Anyway, following on from last week, here, at last, is Joel:

(47) Joel’s Army and Isaiah’s Messiah

As with many minor prophets, it’s hard to pin down when Joel was speaking. But he prophecies at a time when Jerusalem has a Temple (Joel 2:17). And he doesn’t mention a king when he calls the nation to prayer and fasting. so it’s likely he wrote at a time when there was no king. He emphasizes the role of priests, as did Malachi, which makes him likely to be a later prophet. He quotes other prophets (unless he’s quoted by them), and he mentions the Greeks. All this suggests he might have been a prophet at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (and Malachi), when Greek power was rising, the Temple had been rebuilt, and the nation had a governor instead of a king. His mention of Jerusalem’s walls (Joel 2:9), maybe he’s toward the end of Nehemiah’s time.

Joel’s prophecy plays out against the background of a plague of locusts – a cause of serious famine among the poor.

1.       Read Joel 1:4 What do you know about locusts and how they swarm? Why might Joel mention four different types?

2.       Read Joel 1:5-7 Which nations came up against Judah? Is there a sense in which nations who come against us might metaphorically lay waste to our vine and strip our fig trees bare (remembering what vines and fig trees symbolize)? If so, what should we lament, as in Joel 1:8?

3.       Read Joel 1:9-12 What has happened to the land? How does it affect worship, and how might lack of worship affect faith?

4.       Read Joel 1:13-14 How is consecrating a fast different from struggling to survive a famine? Does that have any lessons for us?

5.       Read Joel 1:15 Traditionally, the day of a “god” was a day of rejoicing and celebration, hence “the Lord’s day.” Today we’re accustomed to reading “the day of the Lord” as the end of the world, but how might this idea have worried earlier readers, especially those who’d recently lived among other faiths?

6.       Read Joel 2:3 Does it surprise you that the Garden of Eden might be burning? (Do you remember how we are kept out of Eden?) Did you know that locust clouds look like smoke… and like the dust thrown up by an army?
7.       Read Joel 2:10-11 Who can endure it?

8.       Read Joel 2:12-17 The fact that no king is mentioned is part of why people believe this was written after the exile. Who is the true king? How might we put verse 13 into modern words?

9.       Read Joel 2:25-27 Four locusts again. Might the Jews have interpreted these are four separate invasions? Would that be the same as us trying to interpret Daniel’s ten-toes vision as the 10 nations in the EU (back when there were 10)?

10.   Read Joel 2:28-29 In what sense might this prefigure the Holy Spirit’s work today?
11.   Read Joel 2:30-32 On what day?

The Persians wanted to secure the coastline from Egypt to Tyre and Sidon, as protection against the Greeks who were rising to power. Judea itself, being inland, was important mostly as a doorway to be passed through and used – Read Nehemiah 13:16. Poverty and the removal of natural resources meant the Jews had nothing to trade with, except perhaps selling their children to slavery.

1.       Read Joel 3:4-8 How does God respond? How does this fit with what happens to the Persian empire soon?

2.       Read Joel 3:9-11, Isaiah 2;4, Micah 4:3 Would early readers have noticed the reversed wording? Do we?

3.       When we sing “Let the weak say ‘I am strong’” are we thinking of Joel? What are we thinking of?

4.       Read Joel 3:20-21 In what sense has this verse proved true?

Remember how Jewish tradition splits up the book of Isaiah? We’re going to start looking at the last section now. This section follows from Isaiah writing about the restoration of the people under Cyrus; it mentions fasting and religious observances, so it’s assumed to come, or be read and repeated, soon after the Temple was rebuilt.

1.       Read Isaiah 58:1-3a What is right with their worship?

2.       Read Isaiah 58:3b-5 What is wrong with their worship?

3.       Read Isaiah 58:6-8 What does God want from them? What does God want from us?

4.       Read Isaiah 58:9-10 Which is more important, identifying wrong-doers or offering aid to the afflicted?

5.       Read Isaiah 58:12 Bearing in mind how the city walls were rebuilt, why might this remind us of Ezra and Nehemiah’s time? (With a limited number of locations suitable for cities in Israel – defensible places with access to water – new cities were frequently built on the ruins of old, resulting in artificial hills as described here.)

6.       Read Isaiah 58:13-14 Is the Sabbath a burden or a gift?

7.       Read Isaiah 59:1-2 Why doesn’t God hear? Are there times when God doesn’t seem to hear us as a nation?

8.       Read Isaiah 59:4 Does this sound like today? Why might we repeat the same sins?

Isaiah goes on to the confession of sins and God’s promise of a Redeemer.

1.       Read Isaiah 59:9-11 When has this described you?

2.       Read Isaiah 59:12-15 Isaiah says “our” offences, not “yours” or “theirs.” Why might confession be an important part of worship?

3.       Read Isaiah 59:16-20 Why might later Jews have expected a Messiah who would throw out the Romans?

4.       Read Isaiah 59:21, 6:6-8 Who do you think are the descendants? If the Spirit is in us, who are we?

5.       Read Isaiah 60:1-3 Why do we view this as referring to Jesus?

6.       Read Isaiah 60:4-7 This would read like people coming to celebrate a king, except it’s the city that’s being celebrated. Why might Jews interpret it as referring to a place rather than a Messiah – to Jerusalem ruled by God, making the city “king of all nations”?

7.       Read Isaiah 60:10-12 In what sense does this sound like the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah? In what sense is it different? Why is interpreting prophecy so hard?

8.       Read Isaiah 60:16 In what sense are the Christian (Messiah) and Jewish (ruled by God) interpretations the same?

9.       Read Isaiah 60:17-18 Has this happened yet? Anywhere?


10.   Read Isaiah 60:19, Revelation 21:23 Why hasn’t it happened yet? (How does this emphasize the difference between God and the sun-god of the Medes and the Persians?)

Monday, April 10, 2017

What do a Scribe and Cupbearer have in Common?

I can't quite believe our study is so close to the end of the Old Testament. Of course, we still have lots of pieces from Daniel to catch up on - I'm planning to look at those in the light of when they were used (to turn back Alexander for example), so we'll get there, eventually. Meanwhile the Temple has been rebuilt and the city walls are a mess. Back to Ezra and Nehemiah...

(46) The Scribe and the Cupbearer (Ezra and Nehemiah)

Ezra and Nehemiah both write about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. Both feel the Spirit of the Lord calling them. And both write in the first person (eventually). Which people usually write in first person in the Old Testament? How might first-person writing affect the message?
1.       Read Ezra 4:21-22 What is the status of the Jews, the city and the Temple?
2.       Read Ezra 7:1-8, 11 What is Ezra’s status? (Why does he list his lineage so carefully.)
3.       Nehemiah arrives later. Read Nehemiah 1:1-4, 2:1-2  What is Nehemiah’s status—more religious or more social?
4.       Before reading on, what might be the different emphases of Ezra and Nehemiah in the rebuilding process?
5.       Is there a king in Israel? And if not, who is in charge? How do we decide who is in charge of our world?
Ezra goes to Jerusalem in 458BC, Nehemiah in 445BC. The Temple had already been rebuilt and rededicated. What do you think might change between Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s arrival? What might the returning exiles have expected to achieve in ten years or more? How do you react when you don’t seem to achieve what you think God called you to do?
1.       Read Ezra 7:24-28 (from the royal letter). Antaxerxes gives Ezra free passage and makes Jerusalem a tax-free state.  Is this human generosity, human wisdom, or inspired action on his part? Do these have to be different?
2.       Ezra lists the names of heads of families who traveled with him? Why does he list them? Why are they preserved in the Bible? If God enjoys or values lists of names, how does that make you feel?
3.       Read Ezra 8:15-19 The journey from Babylon to Israel took around 4 months. How do you imagine the scene in the camp when Ezra realized they don’t have the right sort of priests and sends for reserves?
4.       Read Ezra 8:21-23 How do you imagine this scene? Why doesn’t Ezra want to ask for human aid? How might we decide if it’s right or wrong to ask the government for help?
5.       Read Ezra 8:31-36 Why is everything weighed and measured? How important do we view caring for God’s property?
Ezra starts reinstituting the law from scriptures – after all, he’s one of the few people who can read scriptures. But straight away he hits a problem. If Jews are married to non-Jewish wives, can he really ban all non-Jewish religious practices?
1.       Read Ezra 9:1-3 We know Jews married non-Jews in the past (Moses, most famously; David; then Solomon whose marriages led him away from God – Read 1 Kings 11:3-4). Before reading on, why might it be viewed as such a problem (see verse1)?
2.       Read Ezra 9:6-7 Remembering what we’ve read in earlier studies, what sin provoked the exile? How would that relate to marrying non-Jews? (In particular, how might it relate to powerful leaders marrying powerful non-Jews?)
3.       Read Ezra 9:14. Is there a difference between marrying people who commit evil acts, and marrying people who used to commit evil acts?
4.       Read Ezra 10:9-12. How do you imagine the scene? How common do you imagine interfaith marriages must have been?
5.       Read Ezra 10:16-17. How long did all this take? What do you imagine went on in the questioning? Is a wife still a “pagan wife” if she converts?
6.       The rest of Ezra 10 lists those who still had “pagan wives.” Is this list longer or shorter than you’d expect? (And was Ruth a pagan wife?)
Nehemiah arrives to find a city with no walls, and a people governed in spiritual matters but ungoverned in the secular.
1.       Read Nehemiah 2:11-16 How do you imagine his ride? Does it seem real?
2.       Nehemiah 3 lists each person or group of people involved in the repairs. What heavenly list do you imagine might have your name on it?
3.       Nehemiah 4 describes how they both built and defended the wall. Can you retell the story? What makes it sound true?
4.       Read Nehemiah 5:1-7 Should it surprise us how quickly well-meaning religious people fall into temptation?
5.       How does this story compare with the story of Ezra evicting the pagan wives?
6.       Read Nehemiah 5:14-16, 19. What kind of person was Nehemiah? And what was his position in society? (In the prevailing culture, it would be a sign of weakness for a ruler not to have enough food to feed the crowds at his table.)
The wall is rebuilt, despite frequent attacks and opposition especially from Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (Nehemiah 2:10,19, 4:1,3,7, 6:1-3). They try to lure Nehemiah into a trap with a suggestion that he is building a kingdom in opposition to the Persian rulers. Then they send a traitor to act like a prophet, but Nehemiah sees through the ruse. Read Nehemiah 6:2-14. How should Nehemiah or anyone else recognize a real prophet vs a false one?
Nehemiah lists the returning families, just as Ezra did, but the spellings aren’t always the same. Read Nehemiah 7:7, Ezra 2:2. In fact, lots of historical documents include names spelled in different ways. Why do you think that is?
With the walls and the Temple rebuilt, it’s time to be sure about rebuilding the nation. Ezra and Nehemiah work together on this.
1.       Read Nehemiah 8:1-3,9. What does “reading the Law” mean? Is this about lists of commandments, or reminders of history, or both? What do we think of when we think of God’s law?
2.       Read Nehemiah 8:13-18. What was different about this celebration, compared with how they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles before? (Read Leviticus 23:42, Ezra 3:4)
3.       Read Nehemiah 9:1-3. The people of God separate themselves from the foreigners in their city. They read the Law (again), pray, confess the guilts of history, and profess their faith, emboldened by God’s faithfulness through history. How do we strike a balance between professing God’s faithfulness and confessing our faithlessness?
4.       A new covenant is written and the leaders put their seal on it. Read Nehemiah 10:28-31. How does this fit with Ezra’s kicking out the foreign wives?
Read Nehemiah 11:1-2, 13:6. The people spread back over the land, but come back to Jerusalem for festivals. Meanwhile Nehemiah returns to Antaxerxes’ court. But all is not well. How easily do we assume that things will continue to function well once we’ve got them on track – especially things that concern our faith?
1.       Remember Tobiah who wanted to tear down the walls? Read Nehemiah 13:4-9. Could this have a symbolic lesson for our lives? Read Luke 11:24-26
2.       Read Nehemiah 13:10-14,15,21. Why does he keep asking God to remember him? Why do we hope to be spared?
3.       Read Nehemiah 13:1,23-27. Is this the same thing as Ezra worked against? Do we ever stop sinning?

Greek city-states are rising now and fighting against the Persian empire. Israel enjoys a fragile peace, politically and socially. They’re governed by priests. And plagues of locusts swarm. It must be time to read the prophecies of Joel.

Monday, April 3, 2017

How old was Daniel when they threw him to the lions?

We left the Israelites struggling to regroup and rebuild last time, in a ruined city with ruined Temple and walls. But things might start looking up soon - a nice reminder that hope remains. Oh, and Daniel's about the meet the lions...

(45) Weeping and Fasting and Malachi

Background information: As the Bible account draws closer to the present day, it becomes easier (though never trivial) to date events. When Haggai and Zechariah date their prophecies according to the reign of Darius, other historical documents lead to fairly precise dates. Darius 1 came to the throne of Persia in September 522BC, but wasn’t properly accepted until 521BC. The “second year of Darius” (Haggai 1:1) thus begins in April 522BC, and the Temple is finally dedicated in March 515BC (Ezra 6:15). Bible language also changes with time and culture. Ezra’s account of official letters going back and forth to Darius is written in Aramaic, while his descriptions of Temple observance are in Hebrew. Interestingly, when Passover is celebrated in the new Temple (April 515BC), the name of the Passover month becomes Nisan (Babylonian) rather than Aviv (Hebrew—Deuteronomy 16:1)
With work proceeding on the new Temple, the people ask Zechariah how they should commemorate the past.
1.       Read 2 Kings 25:8-10, Zechariah 7:1-7. The exiles have commemorated the destruction of Jerusalem with weeping and fasting year after year. What’s wrong with that? How might this apply to, say, giving up chocolate for Lent?
2.       Read Zechariah 7:8-10. What did God really want—from their ancestors? From them? From us?
3.       Read Zechariah 8:3-8. Has this come to pass yet?
4.       Read Zechariah 8:9-13. What does the promise that Judah and Israel will be a blessing mean?
5.       How should we commemorate our past?
Ezra gives a very immediate Aramaic account of what happens while the Temple is being built.
1.       Read Ezra 5:2-4. Why is this scary?
2.       Read Ezra 5:8-17. Why might Tattenai be opposed to the building of the Temple? What might he hope to achieve with this letter?
3.       Darius finds the original decree from King Cyrus and upholds it. Read Ezra 6:6-12. What is the attitude to God?
4.       Read Ezra 6:14-19. Why would they keep the we’ve-done-it celebration separate from Passover? How well do we include God in secular celebration, and how well do we separate secular and sacred festivals?
Background information: The book of Daniel offers examples of dates that are less easily identified. For example, Daniel refers to Darius the Mede, but Darius is Persian, so… Three suggestions are: that this is a different Darius; that the names of Cyrus and Darius got confused; or that Darius, the Persian who conquered the Medes, could well have been celebrated as Darius the Mede. This Darius did organize his kingdom into satraps (Daniel 6:1-2) and did issues decrees according to the Laws of The Medes and Persians (Daniel 6:8) so it seems a fairly likely interpretation. However, it dates the later chapters of Daniel at sometime after 522BC, by which time Daniel (exiled around 598C) might be over 80 years old!
1.       Read Daniel 6:1-4. Would Darius be more likely to promote a young man or an old man? How old did you imagine Daniel was when thrown to the lions?
2.       Read Daniel 6:6-9. How have people been compelled to betray their faith at other times in history? How might this relate to, say, the eating-food-sacrificed-to-idols debate in the early Church?
3.       Read Daniel 6:10. How does Daniel’s response fit with Paul’s injunction to early Christians?(Read 1 Corinthians 8:9)
4.       So Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den. Read Daniel 6:16-23. What is Darius’ attitude to God?
5.       Read Daniel 6:25-28. How does this fit with what we’ve seen in Ezra?
Background information: Cyrus the Medo-Persian king conquered Babylon. Cambyses, son of Cyrus was the next king. Guatama stole the throne afterward by pretending to be Cyrus’ son. But Darius, a trusted ruler, got the kingdom back. Xerxes 1, probably the same person as Esther’s King Ahasuerus (and the Ahasuerus in Ezra), is Darius’ son. This would mean the book of Esther starts around 483BC (Esther 1:1-4). The exiles started returning around 538BC and the Temple was rededicated around 515BC.
Xerxes’ kingdom faced internal unrest in Egypt and Babylon. In 480BC Xerxes tried to invade Greece and was defeated. In 465BC he was killed and his son Antaxerxes took the throne. Antaxerxes reigned from 465BC to 424BC, and the kingdom gradually shrank during this time.
Meanwhile the Temple was rebuilt and work began on a new Jerusalem, much to the dismay of non-Jewish neighbors.
1.       Read Ezra 4:6 If Ahasuerus and Antaxerxes reign later than Darius, why might this be included earlier in the book of Ezra? Why shouldn’t we assume old histories to be chronological?
2.       Read Ezra 4:11-16. Why would they imagine a new Jerusalem to be a threat?
3.       Read Ezra 4:18-23. What stops us from building for God?
Read Ezra 7:1-6. Ezra and Nehemiah are relative late-comers to Jerusalem. Before their arrival, the Temple is restored but not the city. The kingdom is in disarray and probably dominated by powerful priests. The people are ruled by a governor rather than a king. It’s reasonable to guess that this is world the prophet Malachi spoke to – he mentions a governor (Malachi 1:8), careless sacrifices (Malachi 1:14), corrupt priests (Malachi 2:7-8), and failure to tithe (Malachi 3:8), and he describes a way of life that’s painful and hard.
1.       Read Malachi 1:2-3. What happened to the Edomites when Jerusalem fell? Would this reminder be comforting to people who feel like they’re being oppressed by their neighbors? Do we ever ask “How have you loved us?”
2.       Read Malachi 1:6. How might we answer God’s question? And how might he answer ours?
3.       Read Malachi 1:8. How can we determine what is worth offering to God in our lives?
4.       Read Malachi 1:11. Has this happened yet?
5.       Read Malachi 1:12-13. In what sense might we be guilty of this? (Traditionally, the Lord’s table was a festive, wonderful place to eat.)
6.       Read Malachi 2:1,7-9. In what sense might churches or church leaders be guilty of this? (Read James 2:15-17)
7.       Read Malachi 2:10. Who might we or our leaders deal treacherously (break faith) with?
8.       Read Malachi 2:16. How does or doesn’t this apply to modern ideas of divorce?
9.       Read Malachi 3:1-2. Who might be the messenger? Why would his coming (or second coming) be hard to endure?
10.   Read Malachi 3:5. Do the sins included or not included in this list surprise you?
11.   Read Malachi 3:8-10. Is this about following the law of tithing or trusting the love of God?
12.   Read Malachi 4:1, 1 Peter 1:7, 1 Corinthians 3:15. Is fire good or bad? Is suffering good or bad? (And did you know these verses are part of where the idea of purgatory comes from?)
13.   Read Malachi 4:2. The Sun God was symbolized by a disc with wings. It’s almost as if Malachi is telling how much better the real God is than the idol. How might we describe how much better God is than modern idols?

14.   Read Malachi 4:5-6. Who do we believe this means?