Monthly Archives: April 2008

Lessons from John, ch. 10

John 10:1-21 Good Shepherd

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast April 29, 2007

Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love.  Our lesson for this week comes from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. It is one of the most familiar chapters of the Bible and is often preached on. Jesus tells the crowds that he is the good shepherd and that his followers are like sheep. I tried to come up with a good joke about sheep, but I’m afraid that none of them were appropriate for the radio. Of course, you may have heard about the magician who used lambs instead of pigeons in his act. It didn’t go well. The audience didn’t like his sheep tricks. And then there was the bovine daredevil who lived for sheep thrills.

            Leaving bad puns aside, it is useful to know that shepherds are important figures in the Bible, as they were in ancient Mediterranean literature. Shepherds in real life were lower class people, often young boys, who had to endure weeks of boredom taking care of someone else’s sheep. People did not like real life shepherds much, but ancient literature romanticized shepherds. They were a familiar symbol in the ancient world, as we can tell from sculpture. We can understand this difference between literature and reality. In America today, we use the word “cowboy” to conjure up an image of a rugged individual living bravely by his own rules. This romantic Western image has almost nothing to do with real life cowboys who were poorly paid ranch hands responsible for herding cattle. Shepherds were the cowboys of the ancient world.

            In the first century, Jews and Gentiles alike would have responded well to these parables about the shepherd and the sheep. The Old Testament uses the image of shepherd often, probably because of the importance of sheep in the patriarchal days. You are familiar with the 23rd Psalm where the Lord is my shepherd. Kings of Israel were called shepherds: some were good, others negligent. Moses, you may remember, had to become a shepherd before he was able to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The image of the shepherd Moses calling the people out of slavery and into freedom may have been part of the inspiration for these parables in John 10.

Parables            It is unlikely that Jesus gave all of these parables in one sermon the way it appears in John’s Gospel. It is more likely that the author of John collected different parables that dealt with sheep and put them together here in ch. 10.  There are at least three different parables in this section. The first contrasts the shepherd and the robbers. It does not explicitly state that Jesus is the shepherd in that parable, but we assume that is what is meant. In the second parable, Jesus is not a shepherd; he is the gate to the sheep pen. The third parable is another “I Am” passage. Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, or the true Shepherd. The only things these parables have in common are sheep and robbers. They are placed here in the Gospel of John as a transition from the story of the healing of the blind man, in which there was a judgment on the religious authorities, and the Feast of Dedication, which dealt with false priests.

Hanukah            You probably know the Feast of Dedication better as Hanukah. It is a winter festival, and until recent years was a minor Jewish holiday. The Gospel of John is one of the earliest sources that mention this feast of dedication. We’ll talk more about Hanukah in a week or two, but for now I just want to point out that the festival deals with the desecration of the Temple by the Seleucid Greeks in the 2nd century BC. The high priests Jason and Menelaus had collaborated with the Greeks and allowed the desecration. In contrasting the good shepherd and the bandits, John was probably thinking of the high priests who had failed to protect the people from oppression and the Temple from sacrilege. The assigned readings in the synagogue for the days leading up to the feast of dedication dealt with shepherds. The most important passage was Ezek. 34, which was the basis for the “Good Shepherd” passage here in John. Once again, we see how closely tied the Gospel of John is to synagogue worship.

            Many commentators assume that Jesus was contrasting himself and the Pharisees here in ch. 10 since the previous chapter ended with a judgment against the Pharisees for their “blindness,” but I am not convinced. I think it is more likely that Jesus was criticizing the priests and the Temple, which would be consistent with the anti-Temple perspective we have already seen in John. The Feast of Dedication was about the corruption of the high priests who had not been good shepherds. The priesthood and the sacrificial system of the Temple had failed, and so the Son of Man would be the true high priest. There is no reason to read the later struggle between Pharisees and Christians into every passage in John.

Read:             John 10:1-14

Parables            The odd thing in these parables is that Jesus is compared both to a shepherd and a gate that leads into the sheepfold. There are many pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, but I bet you’ve never seen a picture of Jesus as a gate. This is a verbal symbol, not a visual one. The fact that it is nearly impossible to picture in our minds Jesus as a gate is a good reminder that there are portions of Scripture that were never meant to be taken literally. God wants us to use our minds and our imaginations when reading and interpreting. The fact that Jesus has also been described as the Lamb of God as well as the Shepherd should also give us a clue that we cannot read Scripture literally the way we can a biology book. In the real world, lambs are rarely Shepherds or Gates, and the Bread of Life is rarely a Vine.

            Verse 6 tells us that Jesus was speaking in parables. The Greek word that is used here is paroimia, which is normally translated as proverb. Some of these aphorisms sound like they could have been proverbs that were expanded by the preacher. Scholars go to great lengths to distinguish between the famous types of figurative speech: proverbs, parables, allegories, metaphors, similes, etc. But in Hebrew there is only one word for all these: mashal. The Greek version of the OT uses paroimia to translate mashal. In other words, John is following the practice of the Greek OT in saying that Jesus used figurative language. Raymond Brown translated this nicely by saying that Jesus drew a verbal picture for the people. It is interesting that John acknowledges that the people did not always understand Jesus’ metaphors. They were probably trying to take them literally.

            This verbal picture of the shepherd and the sheep is so clear and compelling that artists have painted countless versions of this parable, one of which is on a window in Home Church. The oldest surviving examples of Christian art depict Jesus as a beardless youth carrying a sheep on his shoulders. He was shown as the good shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep and who sacrifices himself for his flock. I wonder if the history of Christianity would have been any different if the Catholic Church had chosen this image of the Good Shepherd as the primary picture of Jesus instead of making statues of Jesus hanging on the cross. This is not to say that the crucifix is unimportant, but I do think that it is best to hold on to all of the images of Jesus that we have in Scripture – especially those metaphors that he himself used to describe his work.

Verses 1 – 5            Shepherd and Bandits            The first parable may have originally been two sayings of Jesus brought together by John, but they are so closely connected that we can treat them as one parable. The main theme is that there is a clear difference between the Shepherd and those who try to steal or harm the sheep. If Jesus had been preaching in America, he might have contrasted the Cowboy and the Cattle Rustler. The movie Babe is about a pig that becomes a sheep herder. There is a scene in the movie that vividly depicts this parable. On Christmas Day, robbers come and steal many of the sheep. They are brutal to the sheep and to the dogs that try to protect them. In contrast, Babe, who knows the sheep by name, is able to guide them with a mere word. If the sheep trust the shepherd, it is not difficult to herd them.

            Incidentally, the word Lestes is usually translated as robber, but it is the same word that was used for Barabbas. It was the word for a guerilla fighter or insurrectionist. Today we might use the word insurgent. One possible meaning of this parable is that Jesus was not like the political revolutionaries and murderers who caused the Roman Empire to destroy Jerusalem. His path is not one of violence and destruction. He is the good shepherd, not the suicide bomber. Jesus leads his sheep with a word, not a sword, and he expects us to follow his way.

            I think many preachers and theologians miss the significance of this parable. The one who does not enter the through the proper gate is a robber or bandit. The sheep do not listen to his voice; therefore he has to use violence and threats against them. But the true shepherd calls to the sheep by name and they obey him because they trust him. They respond because the shepherd cares for their welfare. Why, then, do so many preachers think they need to threaten people with damnation in order to get them to follow Christ? Why do we think that threats and violence are the way to motivate the people of God? That is what the robbers and thieves do, not the shepherd.

            The picture of the shepherd is a beautiful image of the relationship between Jesus and his people, and it was the inspiration for the popular Moravian hymn “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” “I’m his sheep and know his voice,” we sing. This passage could provide an argument for the doctrine of election or predestination, by the way. Those who have been chosen by God respond to the voice of the shepherd. He calls to the elect. I’m not sure that we need to push the parable that far although some have. The primary meaning of this parable is that we can recognize who our true shepherd is by the way he calls to us. He does not sneak up on us through a hole in the fence. He comes to us openly and calls us by name. He walks ahead of us and asks us to follow him. That is what the Christian life is all about. Have you heard your name, your true name, called by the one who loves you more than anyone on this earth loves you? Will you follow as the shepherd leads?

The Gate        In the second parable in this series, Jesus describes himself as the gate for the sheep. It may sound odd to compare Jesus to an inanimate object, but today we refer to soldiers as boots, lawyers as hired guns, and so forth. This metaphor may have communicated better to Jesus’ audience than to us, though. Apparently, some sheepfolds in the Middle East even today are just fences without gates. I don’t know if you’ve tried, but it is hard to make a working gate. It is much easier just to leave an opening. So how do you keep the sheep from wondering out of the fold or keep wolves from entering? Simply, the shepherd sleeps on the ground with his body across the opening. In other words, the shepherd becomes the gate for the sheepfold. This may well have been what Jesus had in mind here.

            The key point in this parable is that Jesus is the one who protects the sheep from people who would harm them, and he is also the one who brings the sheep into green pastures. Clearly John 10 is picking up on the imagery of the 23 rd Psalm. The allegory is fairly clear here, that Jesus is the doorway into the church, and every Christian church that uses sacraments, baptizes new members in the name of Jesus or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We sometimes say that baptism is the means by which people become part of the church, but I think John’s Gospel calls us to be more precise. We enter the church through Jesus who is the gate. Baptism is a visible sign of this spiritual truth, but baptism is meaningless with faith in Jesus.

Salvation        Let us leave the important question of other religions to the side this morning and focus on the promise that is given here in John 10. “Whoever enters by me will be saved.” That is all we really need to know. If you enter into the life of God through Jesus, you will experience salvation and blessedness. Trust in that promise, but there is more. It says that Jesus leads us into good pasture. The Christian life is not a static life spent huddling in fear. Because Jesus is the Gate that keeps evil out, Christians can live together in love and hope. Because Jesus is the Gate that opens for us, we can go out into the pastures and be fed.

            Here is one of the great promises of the New Testament: because the Son of God came into the world, we may have life and have it abundantly. Many sermons preached on this promise focus on receiving material riches, which directly contradicts many of Jesus’ teachings and should be rejected by believers. Jesus does not offer prosperity; he promises life that overflows into eternity. It is a life that does not need material things to be blessed. It is a life conquers anxiety and fear. It is a life that produces good things and opens our eyes to beauty and truth. I know there are many different views of what the gospel is and what Christianity is all about, but here is one answer in John: Christianity is life and vitality. The root meaning of the word salvation is health, by the way. If your religious beliefs do not fill your soul with health, wholesomeness, and vitality, then maybe it is not Jesus that you are really following. If your faith is causing you to retreat from the world in fear, judgment, and bitterness, then maybe you should listen for the voice of the Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd              This brings us to the final two parables. Both deal with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Greek word translated “good” here actually means “model” or even “true.” It is good in the sense of the best example, the exemplary Shepherd. This saying was probably based on Ezek. 34 where God is described as the good shepherd who provides water and food for the sheep. This parable also contrasts the true shepherd and the hired hand. The shepherd cares so much for the welfare of the sheep that he is willing to die for them, but the hired hand does not. This probably refers to the high priests who sold out the nation of Israel during the time of Antiochus IV of Syria. It is unlikely that Jesus was criticizing the prophets and patriarchs of the OT. The Gospels consistently affirm the goodness and salvation of people like Moses and Elijah.

Other Sheep               We will continue discussing sheep and shepherds next week since time is running out. Let me end by pointing out that Verse 14 repeats the theme that the shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. This is a beautiful image of the intimacy that we can have with Jesus. We need to remember that John was writing for the post-resurrection church. This was not a statement about Jesus knowing the people who followed him to Jerusalem. It is a promise that Jesus is present in his church today. He knows his sheep and they know him. This is something to rejoice in. As the hymn says, “Should I not for gladness leap? Led by Jesus as his sheep? For when these blessed days are over, to the arms of my dear Savior, I shall be conveyed to rest.”

Genesis Lesson 25

Genesis 21:22-34 and ch. 23 Like a Good Neighbor

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast April 2, 2006

 Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar 

Introduction:             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It’s good to be back with you this morning after my trip to Pennsylvania. I am grateful that Christy Clore, chaplain of Salem Academy and College, was able to give the lecture last week, and I hope you enjoyed learning about women in the Bible. I gave a lecture on the theology of Zinzendorf and its impact on social life in Bethlehem. It was basically a summary of my book Community of the Cross.  It was a good trip, and I got to spend time with Dr. Arthur Freeman, my old mentor. My daughter Allyson went along. She lived in Bethlehem as a child. She was the only 3-old around who could correctly identify the portrait of Zinzendorf that hangs in the seminary. 

            We left the story of Abraham last time with the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. This week we’ll focus on the remainder of chapter 21 and look ahead to chapter 23. We’ll skip the binding of Isaac until next week. The stories we’ll look at today are related in that they all deal with the issue of being a good neighbor and a shrewd negotiator. In the first, Abraham and Abimelech resolve a dispute over a well, and in the second, Abraham negotiates to buy a cave from a Hittite landowner. Biblical commentators don’t see much religious meaning in these stories, but I think we’ll find that they do teach us something about living in the real world.

Read: Genesis 21:22-34

Life Goes On:                        This passage is closely connected to the earlier story about Abimelech taking Sarah as his wife. The story of Isaac’s birth seems like an interruption in the larger narrator, which is one bit of evidence for the theory that the author of Genesis was working with older narratives in constructing his epic of the patriarchs. That may be the case, but we still need to interpret the story as we have it. It seems likely that the author intentionally put the story of Isaac in the middle of these stories with Abimelech to make the point that life goes on. Even though the child of promise has been born and Abraham’s great dreams have been realized, he still has to live in the world. He may be the patriarch and father of many nations, but he still has to deal with his neighbors, water his flocks, and work out his problems.

            This is a message that the wise person learns early in life. Sure, you won the blue ribbon in the spelling bee or you were king or queen of the prom, but you still have to mow the lawn and clean your room. By the way, I was chosen as king of a school dance once, back in 10th grade. I’ve often wondered whether the fact that the dance was held on April 1 had anything to do with my election. It was called the April’s Fools Dance, but that’s probably just a coincidence. It was fun to be king of the dance, but such happiness doesn’t last. Psychologists who study human happiness have concluded that it doesn’t really make you happy to have your dreams come true. The big events don’t change our lives that much. Most people who win the lottery find they are no happier a year later than they were before they won the prize. After the celebration, they still have to live in a complex world. The same was true of Abraham.

            Two weeks ago we saw that Abraham threw a big feast to celebrate the weaning of Isaac, but shortly after Sarah tells him to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. The laughter died. Life went on. This week Abraham has to negotiate with King Abimelech about a well. It seems so trivial compared to the great story of salvation history, but the Bible is telling us that the great story is made up of many smaller stories. Abraham was not such a great prince that he didn’t have to be a good neighbor, too. The message is driven home doubly strong by the fact that the neighbor he has to deal with is the same man that he had deceived not long before.

Dealing with the Past:            Another thing the wise person learns early in life is that you never fully escape the past. Things are not easily undone. The person you insulted one day may be the person deciding on whether you get a car loan another day. Someone I know used to be on a rescue squad. One day she responded to an auto accident. She recognized the victim as her daughter’s math teacher in high school. As she held the injured woman’s head in her hands, working to prevent her from being permanently paralyzed, she looked down and said, “I know you. You gave my daughter a D last quarter.” The look of fear in the teacher’s eyes was memorable. I remember when I moved back to Winston-Salem after years away at school. People would ask, “Are you the Craig Atwood that went to Reynolds High School?” I would respond, “Maybe. Tell me about him.” The past lives with us because our lives are defined by relationships, by history.

Oath:            Abimelech asked Abraham to swear that he would not deal falsely with him. Why? It was because Abraham had already deceived Abimelech and nearly destroyed his kingdom. Abraham had proven untrustworthy, and now the king needed assurances that Abraham would be honest with him. Abimelech reminded Abraham that he was a resident alien, an immigrant in the land, who had benefited from the kindness of the king. Abraham swore to respond righteously to Abimelech’s kindness. Notice that he did not argue with Abimelech or get insulted over this request the way we might. Abraham was too mature to fight over this issue. He knew that he should reassure Abimelech so that they could live peacefully as neighbors. We can learn a lot from Abraham here about the need to swallow one’s pride and move forward.

The Well:            Things did not go smoothly between Abimelech and Abraham, though. According to the story, there was a dispute over a well. We have to remember that in the Middle East, water is a precious resource. Wells were a focal point of social life, and the ownership of a well meant power, prestige, and production. A well meant that you could have a larger herd of sheep, which meant more wealth. It meant that your neighbors came to you for water. At times, a well was the difference between life and death. You may remember from Western movies that control of water rights was critical in the American West. There were small-scale wars fought over control of a creek or another source of water.

            So, when we read that Abimelech’s servants had seized Abraham’s well, we should keep in mind that this was a major act of aggression against Abraham. This could have led to open warfare between the patriarch and the king, but Abraham did not let it go so far. He went straight to Abimelech to tell him the problem and work toward solution. He honored the agreement with he had made, and he gave the king a chance to make things right. The king, of course, denied everything. This lets us know that politicians have always been politicians. My men did what? I never knew that. Abimelech sounds like a White House Press secretary here, doesn’t he? If I find that anyone in my administration has been involved in this scandal, I will fire him, wink, wink.

            Abraham knew that Abimelech was involved in the seizing of the well he had dug, but he didn’t fight over the well. The story does not go into great detail here, and there appear to be some additions to the text over time, which our translation for today has removed. But the long and the short of it is that Abraham gave Abimelech seven ewe lambs in exchange for the well. It appears that Abraham paid for his own well, which is unjust, but by doing so, he made Abimelech acknowledge publicly that the well belonged to Abraham. There are times today when it is wiser to give in on a minor point in order to win the major point. Seven lambs was not worth going to war over, but a well would have been. We see in this story, that pride is not a good justification for violence. Abraham was willing to suffer a little injustice and offence in order to maintain peaceful relationships with his neighbors. This is something that we can learn from today.

Beer-sheba:            Abraham named the well Beersheba, which appears to have two meanings: well of the seven and well of the oath. We will see in a few weeks that Isaac also names this place Beersheba. Apparently this was an ancient Canaanite city, and several stories emerged about how it got its name. Today it is known as Bir es-Saba, which is about 30 miles from the famous biblical city of Hebron in the southern part of Israel. Long after the time of Abraham and Isaac, Beer-sheba was a major city of the Kingdom of Judah. There was a shrine there from ancient days, and according to Genesis, it was built by Abraham under a tamarisk tree. It is interesting that Abraham always settled down by these Near Eastern sacred oak trees. He called upon God under the name of El Olam, or God Everlasting.

            In the days of the prophets, Beer-sheba was one of the most important shrines, but the shrine was destroyed when worship was centralized in Jerusalem. Beer-sheba, then was a city with a long history. Both meanings of the name (well of the seven and well of the oath) fit the stories we have read today, but perhaps now we can give a new meaning to Beersheba. When we here the word in church, we should think “good neighbor” or “sacrifice your pride for the sake of peace.” Beer-sheba was the well where Abraham chose the path of life and peace rather than war and violence; negotiation rather than threats and abuse.

The Cave of Machpelah:            We are going to skip chapter 22 this week and go on to chapter 23 since it connects nicely to themes we’ve been discussing. And we want to have plenty of time to discuss the binding of Isaac next week. It is appropriate that we look at the story of Isaac as we enter into Holy Week and examine the passion of Christ each night in worship.

            Chapter 23 deals with the death and burial of Sarah, who had lived to a ripe old age. Abraham had to make the same kind of decisions that many people must make in the midst of loss and grief. He had to arrange for a funeral and a place to bury his wife of many years. He was living among the Hittites at the time. The Hittite empire was to the north of Israel, in modern day Turkey, but apparently there were some Hittites living in Hebron, near Mamre, which we discussed in a previous lesson. According to archaeologists, this account in Gen. 23 agrees with Hittite legal tradition, so this story may be very ancient.

Negotiation:            What I find interesting in this story is that it gives us an authentic glimpse into the business practices of the ancient Near East, which are not that different from today. Abraham goes to his neighbors, identified himself as a poor wanderer, and asked to buy some land to bury his wife. This is what we call ritual abasement or outward humility. It is important when you ask a favor to appear humble rather than arrogant. This is something that many Americans do not realize. Abraham did not demand that someone sell him land; he came as one in need. The Hittites, of course, knew that Abraham was more than a rootless nomad. He was a sheik, a mighty prince who had defeated kings and outwitted his foes. They tell him that he is welcome to bury his dead among them. They would be honored. No one would refuse. This is also part of the ritual of negotiation. Please, help yourself. You are like family!

            Abraham was too smart to think that they were offering him a burial place for free, though. Abraham knew that the next step was to ask the Hittites who had honored him to assist him in negotiating for the land that he had already chosen. Notice the wisdom of Abraham. He had already checked the land out. He knew which cave he wanted, and he knew who owned it. He planned the negotiation in advance. Rather than just go to the owner privately, he made sure that this was a public discussion. That way he would not be cheated on the deal. That way, the men of the town would be witnesses to the bargain and everything was done in good faith. People are more honest when others are looking. Today, we have to hire expensive lawyers to make sure that all parties negotiate fairly. It was simpler in the days of small villages, but the principle is the same. I think this illustrates my favorite Arabic proverb: Trust God, but tie your camel. Having faith in God does not mean that you should be naïve in your worldly affairs.

Buying Land:             So, Abraham tells Ephron that he will pay the price for the land, but Ephron protests. Sure, he says, it is worth 400 shekels, but what is that between friends? Bury your wife. We might think that Ephron is telling Abraham that he will give him the cave for free, but that’s not it at all. He is giving Abraham the price without making it sound too much like a crass business deal. All parties in the deal are being polite and engaging in the kind of social rituals that keep the world functioning. Too many people today do not realize that doing business is more than just buying and selling: it is a way to establish relationships and protect the social order. A business deal that leaves everyone angry and insulted is no good. So, what is 400 shekels among friends? Nothing – so long as you pay the money.

Machpelah:            And Abraham paid what was expected, but which had not been demanded. And the deal was settled at the gates to the city where men conducted their business affairs. And along with the cave, Abraham received the surrounding lands. He buried Sarah according to the usual customs, but there is more to the story than this. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the first time we hear of Abraham buying land in Canaan, it is a burial plot. For the first time in the story of Genesis, the people of God have land, but Abraham makes his claim on the land by the burial the matriarch Sarah. This will be where the other patriarchs are buried as well.

            We Southern Moravians may view Machpelah like God’s Acre in Salem. It is a bit of the Promised Land. No matter how far we roam, we hope to bury our earthly shell in the sacred ground. Veterans understand this sentiment when it comes to Arlington Cemetery. Sacred ground. In this case, the purchase of Machpelah was also used to establish the latter Israelite claim to Canaan. It was where the ancestors were buried.

            According to later Jewish tradition, Adam himself was buried at Machpelah near Hebron, connecting the story of Abraham with the story of creation itself. Centuries later, Christian pilgrims claimed that they had found the tomb of the patriarchs, and they built new shrines to honor them. With the shifting fortunes of war and politics, the tombs of the patriarchs came into the possession of the Muslims. Now there is a mosque over the legendary burial site. It is called the Tomb of Joseph because of the importance that the prince of Egypt has in Muslim history. It is bitterly ironic that the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had negotiated for in peace, became one of the prizes of war and conquest, and a source of conflict today.

Conclusion:            We’ve come to the end of our time. These stories of Abraham negotiating with Abimelech and the Hittites in the region of Hebron are not very inspirational for us today, perhaps. Biblical commentators have little to say about them. Some even go so far as to say that these stories have no theological purpose or meaning. Certainly they lack the depth and drama of other stories in Genesis, but I think there are things that we can learn from these simple tales.

            First and foremost is that the father of faith was a wise and intelligent negotiator. Though he had proven himself as a warrior, he preferred to use peaceful means to settle his disputes. He was neither arrogance nor foolish in dealing with others. He knew the value of land and the laws of his society. Second, we learn that Abraham was willing to sacrifice some of his pride in order to secure peaceful relations with his neighbors, but he was not a doormat. Third, we saw that Abraham followed the social rituals of his society in order to live as a good neighbor. In addition to being faithful to God, Abraham knew how to live in the world. May the same be true of us.

I Samuel 12

I Samuel 12 – Samuel’s Last Sermon

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 27, 2008

 

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church coming to you live from the chapel of Home Church. Let me remind you that we have worship at 11:00 a.m. in the main sanctuary. Mention this radio broadcast and you can receive a 10% discount off of your offering this Sunday only. It has been quite a month for religion in America. It may be the first time that we have had two men called “your holiness” in the country at the same time. Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama made official visits. They, of course, did not meet with each other, and they spoke in quite different settings. One of the signs of secularization in the modern world is that the Pope has to serve mass in baseball stadiums because they are the largest arenas. I wonder what effect it has a team when their field is officially sanctified as holy ground. There was a Winston-Salem connection to the pontiff’s visit: Father Sam Weber of Wake Forest Divinity School wrote the chants that were sung at the mass. We are so sad that Father Sam is leaving for a new position in the Catholic Church.

By the way, the two religious leaders share something more than the title “your holiness.” Both of them claim to be a head of state as well as a religious figure. The Dalai Lama is the exiled leader of Tibet and Benedict is the sovereign of Vatican City. It was in 1929 that the fascist dictator of Italy made an agreement with the papacy granting sovereignty to the Vatican. As a result, the Vatican has embassies in many countries and a seat in the UN, which grants the Catholic Church a voice denied to Protestants and members of other religions. This does have an impact on our world. People are dying by the millions in Africa, but Pope Benedict aggressively opposes efforts of the World Health Organization to deal with AIDS as a public health issue. While in the US, his holiness did issue an apology to the thousands of Americans who have been abused by Catholic priests over the years, but in ethics, actions speak louder than words and apologies are less important than justice.

Closer to home, this week will be our last Wednesday evening program until fall. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the programs and fellowship. We’re coming to the end of term at the Divinity School and there is a little more fervor in the students’ prayers than usual. We’ve had a lot of great speakers and programs at Wake this year, and we look forward to the fall program. Tomorrow night the joint boards will be meeting with PEC to discuss the triennial review of the ministry of Home Church. They would all like you to support them in prayer.

Samuel’s Final Speech                        Our lesson for today comes from ch. 12 of I Samuel, which is a long public pronouncement by Samuel. The setting is not a major sports arena, but Samuel, like Benedict was speaking in front of the ruler of a nation. Based on the context, we might assume that he is preaching at the celebration held in Gilgal when Saul was made king, but the tone of the sermon does not fit such a festive occasion. Hans Hertzberg and others propose that this sermon was originally located at the shrine at Mizpah since it reflects the suspicion of the monarchy expressed earlier at Mizpah. It is possible that the author of I Samuel intentionally left the location and time of the sermon vague so that it would have a timeless quality.

For centuries scholars have identified this as Samuel’s “farewell address” because he refers to his old age and is clearly transferring the government to a king. It is clear that Samuel is adjusting the end of the age of Judges and the beginning of the monarchy. Samuel is becoming obsolete in Israel, and that is never a comfortable feeling. However, there is nothing in the sermon or in the chapters that follow that indicate that Samuel retired. He is passing on the political and military leadership of Israel to the king, but Samuel will remain a prophet, priest, and judge until he dies. He is not making a speech like MacArthur in which he promises to fade away; he is claiming his proper role in the new political system in Israel.

Jeremiads and Election Sermons                        The comparison of Samuel’s speech in ch. 12 to Pope Benedict’s address in Washington, DC was not frivolous. This is the first example we have in the Bible of a prophet preaching to the king and the people on the theme of social justice and righteousness. The fact that the king is not mentioned by name reinforces the impression that this sermon is not about a particular king in a particular moment in history. It is a sermon for all kings and rulers. One of the distinctive features of the Israelite monarchy is that prophets, who were often called “men of God”, often preached before the people and the rulers on the theme of the covenant with God. This was an accepted office in Israel. The prophet, like the chaplain of a hospital or a college, was appointed to be the conscience of the government. Some of these sermons have been recorded in the books of the Old Testament. There you can read Amos’ words directed against economic injustice in Israel. You can read Jeremiah’s warnings against the kings of Judah and their efforts to cozy up to the Egyptians. Jeremiah’s sermons are such an important part of the history of Christian preaching that a new word was created to describe a sermon in the mode of Jeremiah. It is called a Jeremiad, and many Jeremiads of the Puritan preachers in New England have been published. Though named for Jeremiah, the practice of addressing issues of public policy in the pulpit goes back to Samuel.

            For much of American history Protestant clergy preached special sermons on election days. The people were urged to come to church, to listen to the words of Scripture, to pray for wisdom, and to hear the preacher’s reminder that God does care about our politics. Election Day sermons did not endorse a particular candidate or political party, but they did remind the people that our political decisions should be grounded in our covenant with God. The clergy called the people to reflect on their political lives in the light of God’s law, and to choose people whose social ethic exemplifies the values revealed in Scripture. This was not simply a discussion of whether individuals were moral and descent human beings; it included discussions of ethics in government and the big issues of the day.

Religion and Poltics                        In our day, Protestants have grown wary of discussing politics in church. I think some of that caution is a result of the turmoil of the late 60s. People who lived through the angry church fights over the peace movement and women’s liberation are often reluctant to stir the flames again. Part of the caution comes from the way some political operatives manipulate religious people to claim that one political party is more righteous than the other. I can certainly respect such caution, and I have no desire for a theocracy led by the Christian version of the Taliban, but I am concerned that so many Christians approach politics as something completely separate from faith. I Samuel reminds us that we need prophetic voices in the realm. We need to let people of faith raise serious questions about public policy and political ethics. We need to move beyond attacking candidates for their gaffes and ask the questions that Scripture indicates God would have us ask.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the moderator of a debate asked the presidential candidates: “how would your policies affect the widows, orphans, and sojourners in our land,” which is a major theme of the biblical law. If they asked “How will you labor for peace, not just in America, but peace on earth” as the gospels proclaim. “How will your work as a politician bring good news to the poor and release to the captives?” These are questions that Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can discuss together. All of the major religions have a tradition of the holy person speaking the truth to those in power and calling for the nations to live according to the highest standards of justice and righteousness. Christians and Jews, in particular, can draw upon the example of Samuel here in chapter 12.

Exegetical Comments            Before reading Samuel’s sermon, I will note that this is probably not the transcript of an actual sermon that Samuel preached in front of the king and the elders of Israel. They did not have a press core then writing down every word spoken by the prophet and then discussing its implications for hours afterward. There are a number of reasons to conclude that this sermon is actually a composite piece that was added to other the years. It is like a pearl that began with a bit of irritating grit and grew into an object of beauty as layers were added. The original sermon may have begun at verse 13 when Samuel presents the king to the people as the one they have chosen. Samuel calls upon the LORD who sends a thunderstorm to confirm that this is the king who will rule in power and in the fear of God. The coronation included an act of re-covenanting as the people confirmed that Israel was still in covenant with God even though they now had a king.

            At some point the storyteller added a history of Israel to this story of the renewal of the covenant. The history given reflects the perspective of the book of Deuteronomy and the prophets of Judah; therefore scholars often call this a Deuteronomic history. Some biblical scholars theorize that during the Babylonian exile a great Judean scholar rewrote much of the history of Israel from this Deuteronomic perspective as a way to make sense of the destruction of Judah. At times the hand of the historian is more visible than at other times. The book of Joshua, for instance, is more clearly crafted by the Deutoronomic historian than the book of Judges. The Deuteronomic perspective is most clearly seen in I Samuel in the seams between the stories he is working with.

Read: I Samuel 12:.

Accountability of the Priest                        In light of the Pope’s visit to the US and the Triennial Review here at Home Church, our lesson for this morning has particular relevance. Samuel begins his speech with questions about his own behavior. He asks the crowds assembled to judge his behavior before he presumes to preach to them. The list of possible offenses that he gives provide us with a quaint picture of what was important in the bronze age, but that should not distract us from the significance of Samuel asking if he has taken anyone’s donkeys or cattle. He is acknowledging the sad reality that people in positions of trust often abuse that trust and steal from the people they should serve. We have already seen this in the book of I Samuel, and we have seen it even more in our day and age.

A recent study of philanthropic organizations by fraud examiners discovered that there is indeed a great deal of graft within the philanthropic world. More than $30,000,000 was stolen in 2004. Most of the perpetrators were women, but the biggest thefts were by men who ran the organizations. It appears that those leaders were honest for many years, but eventually the temptation to increase their salary illegitimately was too great and they faltered. This should not prevent you from giving generously to charities, but all of us should demand that every organization be required to give full accounting and hold its staff to high standards of accountability. Churches in particular have proven far too trusting of employees, including pastors.

            Samuel is an example of a priest who publically asked the people to hold him accountable for his behavior. The worst thing about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was not that the priesthood was attractive to pedophiles; it was that the officials responsible for supervising priests knew about the pedophilia and protected the priests rather than their victims. The church was far more worried about public scandal than the welfare of the people in the church. The institution was so worried about protecting itself that it violated the most sacred trust imaginable, and it was only the secular legal system that forced it to be truthful. But Samuel stood before the crowd and asked them to come forward and tell everyone if he has done anything wrong.

            Such openness is necessary for all institutions, especially religious ones. Secrecy is a sign of fear. One of the things we have learned about ethics is that when institutions adopt policies of secrecy and hiding, they will be prone to abuse. I simply do not trust institutions that do not reveal the salaries of the key employees or provide clear financial statements to the people who give money to them. Billy Graham tried to get all evangelical organizations to sign on to a standard for ethical reporting of finances, but few followed his lead.

Hypocrisy            It is possible that Samuel was defending himself from accusations from his enemies. Anyone who works with the public will have enemies and will face unfair accusations. That is just the fallen world in which we live. One of our presidential candidates is accused of being Muslim because of his name. Another was accused of being unpatriotic even though he was a POW. A third has been attacked for having made money on the stock market. We could continue. Samuel was a judge and he had enemies. It’s possible that this speech in chapter 12 was originally a response to unfair accusations, but that does not change the meaning or significance of what Samuel is doing. The best way for public figures, including pastors and priests, to respond to unfair accusations is with greater openness and accountability.

            What is more important in this story is that Samuel is about to give a sermon on the responsibility of the king of Israel. The office Samuel holds includes the right to speak the truth to those in power. He is the conscience of the nation who holds the powerful accountable to the law of God. He wants to make it clear that he has the moral authority to speak about right and wrong. The words that Samuel says about the king would be a mockery if he were dishonest and abusive. There have been far too many people through the centuries who have claimed the right to condemn others without being accountable for their own behavior. John Hus’ best defense in his trial at Constance was the fact that he was a good priest who was being persecuted by priests who were corrupt and greedy. The prophets and priests of the Lord do not have to be morally perfect or without flaws, but they must be trustworthy. Most of all, they must not be hypocrites.

            Those who preach about sacrifice and service must lead by example. Those who proclaim that people should turn away from the pursuit of status and power must first put aside their idols and demonstrate the courage of faith. Those who preach forgiveness must learn to forgive and to be forgiven. Much of the harm in this world is caused by hypocrisy, and we need to acknowledge that hypocrisy is a trap that any of us can fall into. There are liberal hypocrites and conservative hypocrites; Christian hypocrites and Buddhist hypocrites; preacher hypocrites and doctor hypocrites. The only way to get out of the trap of hypocrisy is the path chosen by Samuel. Embrace accountability. Allow others to critique you and hold a mirror up to you. Look honestly at yourself and the temptations you face in your own profession. Most of all, do not preach to others until you know who you are and that you are willing to be held to the standards you proclaim.

Historical Theology                        Samuel next gives a history of Israel that begins with Moses and Aaron. This is typical of Old Testament preaching. Although the pre-history of Israel goes back to Jacob and the patriarchs, the national history really began with the Exodus and the covenant on Sinai. Samuel reminds the people that it was the LORD God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and the same God established a covenant with them. They had no king in those days, but God sent leaders when Israel was oppressed by enemies like Sisera, the Philistines, and the king of Moab. Samuel gives a brief synopsis of the Book of Judges and tells the people that when their ancestors prayed to idols they were oppressed by their enemies. It was only when they turned away from idolatry that God saved them. This is the heart of Old Testament theology: idolatry will not save us in this life or the next. It is God who saves.

            I know that many listeners were raised in religious households that used the theology of Deuteronomy oppressively. Many people grew up with the idea that religion is nothing more than being rewarded or punished for obedience or disobedience. Passages like this speech from Samuel are often used to portray God like an animal trainer with treats in one hand and a whip in the other. One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of dogs in church with the preacher shouting out “bad dog; bad dog.” The caption read “Hellfire and Dalmatians.” Many of us rebelled against a narrow and moralistic view of God who punishes pleasure and happiness, but I think many churches moved too far from the biblical image of God. In our eagerness to reject religious oppression, we forgot that God does care about ethics and justice. Obedience is an important biblical theme. Samuel is not preaching about petty sins and human frailty; he is preaching about living lives of integrity, honesty, and justice. Samuel asks us to ponder idolatry in our day and age. If we place our trust in idols of our own making, we will ultimately fail. We may perceive such failure as God’s punishment, but it may simply be a natural consequence of trusting our own illusions. Samuel tells us that if we give up our idolatry and try to be just and merciful as God teaches us to be, we will be blessed. This does not mean that we will succeed in all things, but we will find that even in difficult times we will be strong because we are just. A case in point is global warming. If we reclaim our belief that the world belongs to God and stop trusting in the idols of industry and autonomy, our meek grandchildren may have an earth to inherit.

National Idolatry            Samuel identifies the sin of Israel as idolatry, and he warned them of the dangers of viewing the king as their savior and God. The issue is not about which form of government is divinely ordained; it is about our attitude toward all governments and nations. In the past century, nationalism became a form of religious idolatry, and normally decent people committed horrible crimes for the sake of their nation. People thought that having a German state or a French state or an Israeli state would save them. They fought in the wars of their nations and persecuted aliens and sojourners in their lands. Samuel would have recognized nationalism as idolatry, particularly when God’s name is invoked to bless one nation above all others. And he could have warned the people that idolatry brings its own destruction. The arrogance of nation-states led to apocalyptic wars and to greater terror than the world had ever known. The crimes of the kings of Israel seem so mild in retrospect, but the Israelites acknowledged their sin, which is something we seem incapable of in our more enlightened age.

            At a critical moment in Israel’s history Samuel to warned the nation that if they became unrighteous because of the kings, then the kingdom would be destroyed. One certainty in this world is that Empires all ultimately fail. Typically, they collapse from their own injustice and oppression. Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Lessons from John, ch. 9

John 9 – Blindness 

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast April 1, 2007

Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. Today is Palm Sunday, one of the great festival days of the church year. All around the world children are carrying palm branches into sanctuaries singing praises to Jesus as the Messiah. In Moravian Churches it is traditional to sing the Hosanna antiphonally, which I have always loved. In ancient times, Palm Sunday was the day to baptize converts to Christianity so that they could participate fully in the Easter festivals. Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, which Moravians used to call Passion Week until people started confusing that phrase with TV soap operas. The word Passion originally had nothing to do with romance; it is simply the Latin word for suffering. This is the week in which we reflect on the sufferings of Jesus physically, mentally, and spiritually as he followed the path that led to his death on Calvary.

I hope you will join us at Home Church each evening this week at 7:30 for the Readings from Holy Week. We will have Holy Communion on Thursday; a crucifixion service Friday afternoon, and the Great Sabbath lovefeast Friday evening. There will be a special service of music on Holy Saturday in the evening, and then we will gather a dawn on Easter to proclaim our belief that the Lord is risen. It is a busy time for Moravians and we hope you will be able to share in these special moments of worship. 

I Am                        We did not quite finish ch. 8 last week. The chapter ends with a reaffirmation of one of the major themes of the prologue: the Logos existed before Abraham, and Abraham himself looked forward to the revelation of God in Jesus. Despite John’s hostility toward the Jews who had rejected Jesus, this is the gospel that most clearly makes the claim that Abraham himself would have recognized Jesus as the one sent by God. For John, Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise of the OT, the one who makes it possible to follow the essence of the Torah, which is to leave the enslavement of sin and embrace the entire creation in self-giving love. Once you give yourself in love and rest in the arms of God, then death has no sting and the grave will not be victorious.

Verse 58 is another “I Am” statement of Jesus. “Before Abraham was, I am.” Notice that it is not: Before Abraham, I was. Jesus speaks in the eternal present tense. He is identified with the one who spoke out of the burning bush and who dined with Abraham. Many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus ever said such a thing, especially not in the Temple to his opponents. All I can say is that John’s Gospel makes this claim more strongly than any other book of the NT. John makes the bold claim that when Jesus spoke, healed, and taught, it was the Word of God speaking, acting, and teaching. The big question John asks is how will you respond?

Setting up the Story                        Our lesson for today continues that theme of the response to Jesus’ words and works. It is not clear if the setting for chapter 9 was the feast of Tabernacles, which was so important for understanding the previous chapter. As we saw last week, light was a major symbol in the feast of Tabernacles, and in this week’s lesson Jesus gives sight to a man whose whole life has been lived in darkness. We don’t know for sure when this event took place, though, because this was originally an independent story of Jesus’ work in Jerusalem that was passed down orally before it was incorporated in John’s gospel. It is an important story in its own right, but John uses it to highlight important themes of his gospel.

Overview                        This is one of the longest stories in the New Testament, and is very important in John’s gospel. It involves the healing of a man who had been blind from birth, but the healing itself takes only two verses. Most of the story is about how people responded to this great miracle. Commentators agree that this is one of the best written stories in the gospels and it functions like a drama on the stage. There are always two characters on stage interacting and moving the plot forward. For much of the passage, Jesus is nowhere to be seen, but he remains the central focus of the discussion. Like many good dramas, this story functions on more than one level. There is the straightforward miracle story in which Jesus heals a blind beggar, but that is merely a way to discuss deeper spiritual matters. The irony in this story is that a man who was physically blind gains his sight, but the religious authorities grow increasingly blind to God’s revelation in this event. The blind man is illuminated by Jesus in more than one way, but his opponents choose darkness and ignorance to light and truth. Rather than rejoicing and laughing, the authorities responded with suspicion and oppression.

Read: John 9  

Parallels            There are a number of stories in the synoptic gospels in which Jesus heals a blind person, such as the famous story of the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark. There are some similarities between some of those stories and this account in John, which has led to some people confusing this blind beggar in Jerusalem for Bartimaeus in Jericho. But for the most part, this story in John is unique. Unlike most healing stories, the man does not ask to be healed or profess his faith in Jesus before he was healed. The story begins with a theoretical question by the disciples. What had caused the beggar’s blindness? He was born blind; therefore it could not be punishment for his sins, unless he had sinned in the womb. Was he being punished for the sins of his parents?

Sin             This is a very important question for people who believe in the one God who created all things. Most Jews in biblical times believed that God punishes sin and rewards righteousness in this life. We see this idea in many books of the Bible, and it is in some way the principle behind the Mosaic Law. God rewards the righteous with good things and opposes the wicked, just like parents do in the home. Those who do not clean their rooms do not get to go to the movies. Those who remember their mother’s birthday get showered with praise, like my brother. Sorry, mom. I hope you enjoyed the flowers.

Thanks to our Puritan ancestors, this view of sin and punishment is prevalent in American society, and it contributes to our sense of justice. As Bill Clinton used to say, “those who work hard and play by the rules should benefit” more than those that don’t. Unfortunately, we know that is not really the way things work in our economy. Those born to wealthy parents or who are smart enough to go to an Ivy League school do much better than those who labor all day and night for minimum wage. We also know from medical science that many diseases and illnesses are in some ways self-inflicted. Sometimes illness does seem to be a natural punishment for bad or immoderate behavior. Eating too much sugar; smoking; not exercising; not wearing protective gear; driving while intoxicated; taking drugs; and so forth cause a lot of people to suffer and even die. It is tempting to say that all disease is a result of sin. In our day the disciples might have asked Jesus if the beggar’s blindness had been caused by his mother’s alcoholismThe disciples, like many of us, were looking for a simple cause and effect relationship between the beggar’s blindness and sin. They wanted confirmation that it was someone’s fault that this man had never seen his mother’s face.

Why?                        Why did they want to know why the man was blind? Was it just a theological question that tried to make sense of the world in which they lived? Were they looking for a way to bring meaning in an apparently meaningless universe where one man is reduced to begging because he can’t see while others live in palaces? Were they looking for a justification for their own health; to be told that they were healthy because they were not sinners like this poor man on the side of the road? Were they looking for a reason to reject this beggar, to ignore him in his misery, to look away so that his sightless eyes would not indict them in their selfishness and arrogance? Were they simply enjoying that perverse pleasure that consumes humans from time to time: the desire to be cruel to the weak?

We do not know what was in their hearts as they walked past this man. What we do know is that they did not really see a man; they saw a thing, an object for conservation. They saw a problem, not a person. Notice they did not ask Jesus to use his miraculous powers to heal this beggar. They did not talk to the man or touch him in any way. He was just a theological problem; a statistic; an abstraction; an it. To use modern jargon, they objectified the man, or in Martin Luther King’s colorful idiom, they “thingified” him.

Not Sin            Jesus, who was a teacher as well as a healer, took a teachable moment. He did not rebuke the disciples for their hardness of heart. He gave them the kind of answer that sends students to the dormitory shaking their heads. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” There you have it – a whole new understanding of human suffering in a few words. Sometimes bad things do happen because you do bad things or your parents did bad things. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work that way. There are times when it is highly offensive and even cruel to suggest that there is a link between sin and suffering. Jesus states clearly that this man’s condition was not because of anything he or his parents had done. He was not being punished for being a sinner. This beggar was a victim of a natural world that does not always work the way we would like it to. It is a world where there are birth defects, infections, accidents, and misfortunes.

As if to soften the blow of this radical new idea, Jesus goes on to say that the man’s impairment is part of a greater plan. That raises a host of theological problems in itself, but I’m not convinced that Jesus was making a general rule about suffering. In this particular case, this man’s disease provided an opportunity for a greater good. This does not mean that all misfortunes are acts of God, but that this man’s problems were an opportunity to display the goodness of God in Christ. I’m afraid that these few verses do not answer the mystery of illness and suffering. Through the centuries, many thinkers have offered answers to that problem, but every answer fails when it is our loved ones who are suffering. Glib answers to the problem of suffering only work when we objectify those who suffer and treat them as problems instead of people. What Jesus does is puts this individual’s illness in a new context. His actions do not erase the past, but they will help him focus on the future. His blindness will be the opportunity for many to recognize Jesus as the light of the world.

In passing, we should note another difference between this healing story and those in the other gospels. Nowhere does this man express faith in Jesus before he is healed. His healing is entirely an act of grace. His suffering was undeserved; so was his healing. Faith comes latter for the beggar. This is a helpful corrective to those who claim that we heal ourselves through our faith.

Work While it is Day            Jesus makes a very interesting statement here that sounds like a proverb. We must work as long as it is day because the night is coming when no one can work. I attended a funeral on the island of Jamaica 20 years ago, and I still remember the sermon that was preached. The refrain was this verse from John. “We must work while it is light, for the darkness is coming when no man can work.” It was a sermon about making use of the days that we are given while we have them because death will claim us all. Was John saying that Jesus only had so many days in which he could work in this world before his death, or is this a reference to a greater cosmic struggle between the forces of light and darkness; good and evil; being and nothingness? Perhaps it does not matter. For us, it is enough to know that while we have the light of Christ in our lives, we are called to do the work of God in this world. The light of Christ illuminates the areas where we are needed to give words of comfort and do acts of mercy. We are called to show light on the dark places of our world; to reveal injustice and oppression.

What comes next in the passage clarifies the conversation between Jesus and the disciples. He does not debate the man’s condition with them. He does not determine whether this poor beggar was worthy of his help. He does not pass the man by. Jesus takes action. He places his own hands on the man’s eyes. He breaks through the barriers that separate us from one another; that leave us shivering in the darkness of our own despair and misery. The beggar was no longer a thing, an object of pity or derision. He was a person; a beloved child of a good God who longs for the restoration of his creatures. Jesus touched him, and in touching him, he gave him light. If you need a short lesson in the meaning of the Christian religion: here it is. God has seen us in our misery and our hopelessness and enters into our darkened world to touch us and bring us into the light. Thanks to God in Jesus Christ, we can see. We can sing. We can work while it is light not fearing the darkness.

Mud and Genesis            Jesus also uses spittle to make the mud that he puts on the man’s eyes. The only other time in the gospels when Jesus used spittle was one time in Mark. This looked too much like ancient magical rites to the early church, and so the later gospels do not include this detail. Why would John make a point of Jesus making mud to anoint the blind man’s eyes? The other miracle stories in John show Jesus working through words alone.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this mention of mud was to remind the hearer of the story of creation. We’ve seen the close parallels between John and Genesis. The previous story ended with Jesus’ statement that he is the I Am who was before Abraham. Immediately after we have a story in which Jesus makes mud as God did in creating Adam in order to restore creation. The one born blind is re-created into a whole human being. Add to that the significance that this miracle involves bringing light to one who was in darkness and the parallel to Genesis is complete.

Baptism            And then Jesus tells the man to wash in the sacred pool of Siloam where the rabbis drew the waters for the festival of Tabernacles. It is appropriate that we are reading this text on Palm Sunday, which is a day for baptisms. Early Christians painted this scene many times on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. Most of those paintings are references to Christian baptism. In the 4th century, this passage was read at baptisms because the washing of the beggar gave him a new life. It is interesting that early theologians referred to baptism as illumination. I hope that during this 25 minutes, you have received illumination in your understanding of the Gospel of John and our Christian faith.

Genesis Lesson 24

Genesis 21 – The Child of Promise

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast March 19, 2006

Craig D. Atwood, Comenius Scholar

Introduction:                        Good morning, and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Before I begin the lesson, I want to express sorrow over the death of Norman Byerly. Rev. Byerly was the only pastor I really knew growing up at Hope Moravian Church. He was a good man who took an interest in me. I think one of the reasons I am in the ministry is because Rev. Byerly allowed me to help him do the readings for Holy Week and other things in the church when I was a teen-ager.

Comenius Scholar:                        I hope you will forgive an advertisement this morning. This Bible class is being brought to you as part of the Comenius Scholar program. I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the Comenius Scholar position that we’ve started as a cooperative venture between Home Church and Wake Forest Divinity School. In case you haven’t heard, I’m the Comenius Scholar. My official titles are a lot longer than that though. Officially I am the John Comenius Visiting Professor of Moravian Studies and Director of Public Theology Programs for Wake Forest Divinity School and the Theologian in Residence at Home Moravian Church. 

Isaac:                        This week we are turning our attention to the long-anticipated birth of Isaac. It may have seemed at times like we have been waiting for the full-term for the birth of Isaac. Actually, the promise was given to Sarah just a few chapters earlier, but we have known since chapter 12 that Abraham would need to have a son in order for God to fulfill his promise.

            There are problems with the chronology, however. If you recall, it was in chapter 18 that the Lord said that Sarah would have a son within the year. Last week, we examined the strange affair with King Abimelech and now we have the birth of Isaac. As the stories stand now, that would mean that Sarah was either pregnant when Abimelech took her as a concubine or got pregnant as soon as she was restored to Abraham. We can understand now why the writer emphasized that Abimelech had not touched Sarah. Otherwise, we might think that Isaac was not really Abraham’s child. Of course, it might just be that the biblical story collapses time the way most books and movies do. It is not a important point, but it is worth noting that these are stories, not biographies.

            I’ll read from chapter 21 of Genesis. In this chapter we not only read of the birth of Isaac, we also find that the tension between Sarah and Hagar reaches a crisis point. The chapter begins with laughter and moves to tears.

Read Genesis 21:1-7

Laughter:            We’ve come to what should be the climax of the Abraham story. After years of waiting, wandering, and wavering, Abraham and Sarah have a child. The LORD kept his promises even though Sarah was barren and Abraham had reached the nice round age of 100. It is an ecstatic moment filled with laughter, not the derisive laughter that most comedians conjure up by insulting and abusing people. This is the laughter of joy, relief, and delight in the implausibility of life and faith. Two people who were considered as good as dead were now parents. Not only did they experience that special joy we feel when we see a new life entering this old and troubled world of ours; they had the added of joy of bringing life out of death, comfort out of sorrow, hope out of despair. They named the child Isaac, meaning ‘he laughs.’

            This is such a wonderful name. Earlier we read that they were commanded to name the boy Isaac because Sarah had laughed in doubt and derision. In that earlier story, the naming of the baby was connected to a criticism of Sarah, but it often happens in Scripture and in life that a name foretold is given freely later. The child of promise was also intended to be the child of happiness and life. He laughs!

            And we laugh with him and his parents. We share in this divine capacity to express our joy in newness of life. One of my criticisms of Christian churches in general is that we don’t value laughter. This doesn’t mean that we don’t laugh in church or tell religious jokes. I get several each week by email. Recently someone wrote that atheism is a “non-prophet organization.” That’s prophet with a ph. And there are bloopers such as when I put a sign on the chapel door that said “Wedding is Progress” instead of Wedding in Progress. But for the most part, we view the spiritual life as a dour, drab, and depressing way of life. This is especially true during the season of Lent. We hear a lot about penitence, but not a lot about the joy of forgiveness and of rebirth. We hear a lot about obligations and our failure to meet them, but not much about the ecstasy of being touched by God.

            Issac means laughter. Isaac was the child of promise who came when all natural help was gone. Walter Bruggemann writes, “By his powerful word, God has broken the grip of death, hopelessness, and barrenness. The joyous laughter is the end of sorrow and weeping. Laughter is a biblical way of receiving a newness which cannot be explained. The newness is sheer gift – underived, unwarranted.” This is what true laughter is all about – not cruelty, but joy in receiving and giving a gift. Sarah laughs and all laugh with her.

            Yes, we know that there is misery yet to come. Yes, we know what happens in a later chapter. Yes, we know that our children are going to face illnesses, heart-aches, problems in school, and misery. Yes, we know that we bring children into this world only to die one day. We can’t ignore all that, but we can laugh with joy when they are born. Babies laugh before they can talk. We can dance when we hear the divine music that moves the planets and calls the trees to stretch to the sun. We can embrace the absurdities and foolishness of this delightfully strange world that we have created and love those people that God has given us to love. We can face tragedy and even the cold darkness of death and laugh because we know that we love is stronger than death; the promise is stronger than every obstacle; and victory is assured. Dante titled his great poem the Divine Comedy because he new that heaven is filled with music, with joy, and with the laughter of the saints who delight in life eternal.

Hagar:            Unfortunately, the laughter in ch. 21 does not last. There are unresolved issues in the Abraham household. Sarah has a son, but Abraham has two sons. The crisis came at a family dinner, as so often happens even today. Abraham threw a feast to celebrate the fact that Isaac had been weaned. This is one of those significant transitions in life that we no longer observe with a rite of passage, but they did in Abraham’s day. Weaning meant that the child was no longer an infant dependent on his mother. Isaac was now a boy with new independence. He could play with other children, including his brother Ishmael. They will be separated at an early age, and their descendents are still divided, but brothers they remained.

            There is another chronological problem in this chapter that is probably caused by the fact that the author of Genesis was working with multiple sources and stories. According to an earlier chapter, Ishmael must have been at least 14 to 16 years old in this story, but in v. 15 it sounds like he is still small enough to be carried by his mother. It’s not really central to the story, but it is worth noting that there are some difficulties in the story here. We get the same kind of time distortions in Star Wars, so it’s probably okay. This is a reminder that this is a story that passed down through the ages, not a biography.

Playing or Mocking?                        Translators disagree over how to translate verse 9 because the Hebrew is ambiguous. Was Ishmael playing with Isaac or mocking him? We have this same ambiguity today, don’t we? “Playing with” someone may mean participating in a mutually enjoyable game or contest, but it can also mean to toy with someone or cruelly tease them. It would not be at all surprising if the adolescent Ishmael was indeed teasing and playing with the toddler Isaac. Isaac was now independent enough to play with the other boys in the camp and move away from his mother’s protection. It would not be surprising, though, if Ishmael was jealous of the feast that his father was throwing for the son of his favorite wife. The feast made public the fact that Isaac was preferred to Ishmael. So maybe Ishmael’s playing had a harsh aspect to it. It is quite likely that this incident had all of the complexity we see in relationships between older and younger siblings, between half-siblings, and just between people.

Green-eyed Sarah:            And we can imagine what it was like for Sarah. One thing I’ve noticed through the years is that people who have children later in life, either through birth or adoption, tend to be more cautious and protective than younger parents. I call it the ‘precious child’ syndrome. My child should never cry, never be denied, never be teased, and never fail. I can picture Sarah quickly going from the laughing joyful mother of the opening of the chapter to an overprotective mother. Isaac has just been weaned and is now free to run around, eat his own food, and even fall down, but he is still the little prince, the precious child of promise. It would have been hard for Sarah to witness the normal rough and tumble playing and teasing of boys. The sound of Ishmael’s laughter was not joyful to her ears.

            Add to that the old conflict with Hagar, the Egyptian slave. Sarah now had a son, so she does not need to compete with Hagar for status or attention, but it appears that the bitterness and jealousy remained. So, on the day of the feast, Sarah decided to press her advantage and have her rival and her son’s rival removed. Only one child would inherit Abraham’s wealth and status. Sarah resolved that Hagar and Ishmael must disappear. She demanded that Abraham send them away for good.

Exclusion:                        This story is very similar to one we looked at a few weeks ago, and I will try not to repeat myself too much this morning. Keep in mind that Hagar and Ishmael are very important in Islam, and there is a version of this story remembered by Muslims. In fact, when Muslims make the Hajj to Mecca, they visit the sacred well of Zamzam. The ritual is that you run back and forth 7 times between two mountains and then drink the water in the well. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well that God provided for Hagar.

            There are two accounts of Hagar lost in the desert in Genesis. In the first story in chap. 16, Hagar ran away because Sarah was abusing her. This second story is more chilling because Sarah sends Hagar away. She is exiled from society, not for any crime, simply for having borne a son for Abraham. It is hard to have sympathy for Sarah in this story, try as we might. By sending Hagar and her child out of the camp, she was sending her to her death. She was disappearing them just the way dictators today disappear people. We have this awful tendency to solve personal problems by getting rid of the persons. As Stalin said, no person, no problem. Commentators have tried to mitigate Sarah’s action by claiming that it was necessary to advance God’s purpose since the covenant went through Isaac, but I don’t buy that. I think Sarah was just jealous and mean.

Sacrifice            And Abraham did what she asked! Abraham, the righteous man of God whose prayers saved his nephew; Abraham, the chosen one, did what no man should ever do. He agreed to injustice. Without a word of comfort or remorse, he sent his wife and his son out into the desert to die. He turned his back on them and left them to their fate. Did Abraham shed tears as he watched his son disappear over the horizon or was he too proud of his new son to care?

            We don’t know why Abraham sacrificed his oldest son at the request of his wife. The text says that God reassured him that it was okay to do as Sarah demanded. He promised him that Ishmael would grow up to be the father of a mighty nation. For the author of Genesis, Abraham’s decision to exile Hagar and Ishmael was an act of obedience and faith, but we may be suspicious of such an easy reading of this ancient story. It is one thing to trust in God and risk your own life. It is something altogether different to risk someone else’s life for your faith. It turned out well and God’s words to Abraham were true, but the fact remains that Abraham sacrificed his son.

            Abraham never saw Hagar or Ishmael again. He never knew that Hagar found a wife for Ishmael. I wonder if Sarah had the decency to be ashamed. I’ve noticed that feminist scholars don’t like to acknowledge that this story is a story of violence against a woman by a woman.

Read (if time) 21:15-21

God heard:                        Ishmael’s father abandoned him as many sons have been abandoned. Hagar was discarded as many women have been discarded by men through the years. She knew that both she and the boy were going to die of thirst, but she could not bear to her only child crying as he died. Too many mothers have heard their children die of thirst, of hunger, of preventable disease, of neglect, of war, and of poverty. Hagar could no longer listen to the cries of Ishmael, but God heard. God heard Ishmael just as he would later hear the cries of the Israelites in slavery. And God spoke again to Hagar, telling her not to be afraid. And God opened Hagar’s eyes so that she saw water in the desert.

            This is the true nature of miracles. No doubt the well had been there all along, but Hagar could not see it in her rising panic. She had passed by it seven times, according to Muslim tradition, but God spoke to her and comforted her. God opened her eyes to see the solution that had always been there. She found the water. This time it was Hagar who found life when death was expected. I hope Hagar laughed!

I Samuel 11 – Saul the Savior of Israel

I Samuel 11 – Saul the Savior of Israel

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 18, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. This is the most beautiful time of year in my home town. Nearly every day I drive down Runnymeade Road just to see the azaleas. By the way, if you see Julie Atwood today, feel free to wish her a happy birthday. It was a busy week at Wake Forest. We began the week with Rev. Charles Adams preaching and ended it with Hillary Clinton campaigning. In between, we managed to teach a few classes. My students in Moravian theology are desperately trying to write their final papers. It’s been a great group of students.

            This week we are continuing our study of I Samuel. We left off last week with Saul being selected by lot to be king of Israel at Mizpah. This week we have yet another story about the rise of Saul to kingship. In this story, Saul is depicted like one of the Judges who responds aggressively to a threat against Israel. He becomes king because he rises to the occasion, assumes leadership, and is victorious. There is no indication that Saul had already been chosen as king. This is one of the many examples in I Samuel of the incorporation of more than one source. The final author made some attempt to reconcile the different traditions by saying that the kingship will be renewed, but for the most part we have separate traditions combined. It is a reminder that the authors of the Old Testament were not as concerned with literalism than we are today.

Read: I’ll begin the reading with the end of ch. 10. I Samuel 10: 24-11:14

Worthless Fellows:                Last week we talked about the selection of Saul by the lot and how gleeful Samuel was when he presented him to the people. He was tall, handsome, and virile. Samuel clearly thinks that God has made the right choice, but he also makes it clear that king will have to observe the laws of God and good government. Samuel writes a book on the monarchy and places it on the altar at Mizpah. That book has never been found, and some scholars think this statement in I Samuel expresses a pious desire than historical fact. I suspect that much of that book made its way into the history of the kings of Israel and it provided a standard by which the prophets could judge the kings.  This story provided support for the idea of a constitutional monarchy, by the way.

            The thing I want to bring to your attention this morning, though, is that not everyone was in favor of Saul as king. There were people who are described as “worthless fellows” who despised Saul. The word could be translated as trouble-makers, provocateurs, scapegraces, blackguards, scoundrels, or low-down homeboys disrespecting Saul. It all depends on your idiom. We don’t know anything about them other than the fact they despised Saul and refused to give him gifts. We don’t know if they were opposed to having a king in general or if they represented one of the tribes that were rivals to Benjamin. In other words, they may have been the type who despises a President because he or she is from the wrong party or wrong state. It is quite likely that there was a lot more politics involved in the selection of Saul, and one of these                 “worthless fellows” was denied the kingship.

            Personally, I am inclined to believe that these guys were happy enough to have a king. It was Saul they had problems with. How could this guy we’ve never heard of lead us at this moment of national crisis? Look at him: he’s too young; he’s inexperienced; he’s untested. How do we know what his economic policy and military strategy will be? Shouldn’t our king be someone predictable; someone with gravitas? And what kind of name is Saul anyway? Shouldn’t we choose someone with a normal name like Joshua or Samuel or Gideon? And so, these worthless fellows hung back and refused to honor the new king. We’ll come back to them at the end of the story.

Nahash the Snake                  The scene shifts rather suddenly to Jabesh-Gilead. This was a town on the east side of the Jordan Valley neighboring Ammon. It had a strange connection to the tribe of Benjamin. According to Judges 21, the men of Jabesh-Gilead had refused to fight in a war against the tribe of Benjamin. In that war, Benjamin was nearly destroyed by the other tribes, and it was decreed that no Israelite women could be given as brides to the men of Benjamin. The Israelites decided to punish Jabesh-Gilead. Everyone was slaughtered except 400 virgins who were given to the men of Benjamin. Although this is probably a tale that grew taller in retelling, it does indicate that many of the people in Benjamin had family in Jabesh-Gilead. Remember, Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin.

            Nahash was king of the Ammonites, and he expanded his realm into Gilead. His name sounds like the Hebrew word for snake. It is not clear if this was his given name or a title that the Israelites gave him. Translators could say “The Ammonite Snake” besieged Jabesh-Gilead. We aren’t told why he planned to attack the town. It was probably simply part of his subjugation of newly conquered territories, but it could be that the people had offended him in some way. Generally, this kind of thing happened when people refused to pay their taxes. In any case, Nahash wanted to crush the people of Jabesh-Gilead. The Dead Sea Scrolls have a longer version of this story, which the New Revised Standard Version has included for the first time in an English Bible. According to that Nahash was systematically mutilating all Israelites living east of the Jordan, but thousands had taken refuge in Jabesh-Gilead. The people tried to capitulate to the king, but he wanted to prove his power over them.

Eye Plucking              Nahash was cruel and cunning. He did not want to kill all of the men that opposed him. A wise king knows that he cannot destroy the economic base of his nation simply in order to assert his power and authority. But Nahash wanted to make sure that his rebellious subjects were no military threat. So, his soldiers systematically gouged out the right eye of all the men. A one-eyed man can still work in the fields and carry heavy loads, but he has lost his depth perception. He will have a much harder time throwing spears or shooting arrows. He will not have good peripheral vision, which means he will not be effective in sword fighting either. Also, the right eye was considered the good eye for the Israelites. To lose the right eye was more shameful than losing the left one. You may remember Jesus’ statement about plucking out your right eye if it offends you. Nahash decided to pluck out the right eye of the people who offended him. They would be living testaments to his power, authority, and ruthless cruelty.

            Nahash tells the people that he will spare their city if everyone agrees to give up their right eyes in tribute to him.  It is not clear if he was referring just to the men, but it is possible this included even the children. This is one of those stories that reminds us how much more cruel the world used to be. In any case, the town elders get permission to wait seven days for the punishment. They send out messengers begging for help. Perhaps this fit Nahash’s plans. He was the type of ruler that wanted other kings to know how cruel he was. He assumed that as news spread of the fate of Jabesh-Gilead, the Israelites, Amalekites, Philistines, and so forth would cower. Tyranny is compelled to demonstrate its cruelty in order to inspire fear.

Saul in the Fields                    The messengers came to Gibeah where Saul’s family lived. It is a fairly long way to walk, and clearly the messengers had not had a positive response so far. They are weeping when they tell what is about to happen to their family and friends. Saul has been plowing with his oxen. That is not really what we expect a king to be doing. If we only had this story, we would assume that he is just an ordinary guy, trying to feed his family. There is something authentic about that picture of Saul, and it calls to mind the multitude of ordinary men and women who are called upon to leave their fields, their homes, their jobs, and careers in order to do what must be done. Some day take a look at the occupations of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. There was not a soldier among them. They were farmers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and preachers. They rose to meet the needs of the time.

            Saul hears the horrifying news about the threat to the Israelites east of the Jordan. He does not hold a press conference or consult the oracles to see what he should do. The text says that the spirit of God came upon and he burned with anger. Again, we have a picture of Saul being like Samson or one of the other Judges. The spirit of God suddenly seizes him and gives him power and authority to face the challenges before him. This is the definition of a charismatic leader, by the way. Saul simply assumes leadership in the crisis, and he takes action when others are urging caution.

Anger              Many of us are bothered by this scene. How could the Spirit of God be associated with burning anger? We Moravians emphasize that the gifts of the Spirit are gifts of gentleness, kindness, and self-control. But here it sounds like it is the Spirit that is making Saul angry. It would easy to dismiss this as an “Old” Testament view of God compared to a New Testament understanding of the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ. There is some truth to that, but we have to be cautious in dismissing parts of the Old Testament we do not like.  The Old Testament is also Scripture for Christians, and teachings of Jesus rest on the foundation of the Old Testament. Is there any way in which Christians can make sense of the Spirit of God being connected to burning anger?

            I think we need to keep in mind that God does exhibit anger. Throughout the Bible, God is angry at injustice, cruelty, and oppression. Much of the Biblical law is designed to keep the people of God from imitating the cruelty of their neighbors. The Israelites who wrote and read the Old Testament recognized the anger of God most clearly when God was angry at people who oppressed the Israelites, but we do not have to keep a nationalistic view of God. The important thing is not that the men of Jabesh-Gilead had been circumcised and were part of Israel. The important thing is that Nahash was threatening to do something monstrous and cruel to them. The anger of God that overcame Saul was the divine anger against everyone who uses their power to destroy and abuse. Saul was righteous enough to be angry, too, and this made him a willing conduit of the power of God. Saul knew in his heart that Nahash needed to be stopped. More importantly, he was willing to put his life at risk to stop him.

Divided Oxen             Saul knew what to do in the moment of crisis. He took one of his oxen and cut it into pieces. He sent each piece as a message to the Israelites. This strikes us as bizarre today, but there are other references to this practice in the Bible.  It was a traditional way of summoning the tribes together to face a common foe. Symbolically, each clan was to reassemble the ox so they would be strong. Unite or die is how this was expressed during our Revolution. When a piece of an ox arrived at the tent of the clan leader, he knew what it meant, and what he was supposed to do.

            It took a while to muster the men from the scattered clans and tribes. Israel had no standing army at this time. Throughout the land, men left their teams of oxen and put on their armor. They assembled at a town on the west side of the Jordan. The text says that there were 300,000 from Israel and 30,000 from Judah. Most scholars see this as an exaggeration on the magnitude of ten or a hundred. Others scholars point out that the word for “thousand” often means “contingent” or company. So we could say that Israel sent 300 companies and Judah 30. It is intriguing that Judah is mentioned separately. Eventually Israel and Judah will be separate realms with different kings. It appears that Saul never fully asserts control over Judah.

We Will Come Out                 The people of Jabesh-Gilead get word that all of Israel is mustering and that they will be delivered. When Nahash gives his ultimatum, they tell him that the next morning they will come out to meet him. He assumes that they are surrendering, so he prepares his army for the grime task of removing eyes instead of preparing for battle. But there was a pun here. They will come out to meet Nahash on the field of battle. The Israelites under the command of Saul and the men of Jabesh-Gilead surprised the Ammonites. The slaughter continued until it got too hot to keep killing. Saul had proven himself capable of uniting the nation and defending the defenseless. This is what the people wanted in a king.

            Perhaps it is unimportant that no mention is made of God once the battle began. The people do not praise God for having sent a savior to them. They do not proclaim that God has chosen Saul as king. This strikes me as very typical. We long for God to hear our prayers and rescue us from adversity, but when the dusk has settled, we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

King Saul                    After the victory, it is clear that the soldiers want Saul to be more than a judge. He will be king. At this point, we have a flashback to those worthless fellows from the previous chapter who had despised Saul. Now that Saul has shown that he has the Spirit of God, the people declare that his opponents should be killed. That is what kings do, which is why it is unwise to demonstrate lack of support for the king. In our day, Presidents merely fire generals who disagree with them. In those days, you killed your opponents. Had Saul lost the battle, those same worthless fellows might have been seen as heroes and prophets. In any case, the approved course of action in these situations is death. But Saul intervenes and grants them mercy. Saul acknowledges that God has rescued Israel from her enemies. It would bring shame if Israelites killed other Israelites, especially on this day. God has rescued all of Israel, not simply the faithful and righteous. Saul recognized that he was king of the whole nation, not simply king of his supporters. In showing mercy, Saul showed how great he truly was.

            After this, the crowds go to the shrine at Gilgal, and finally Samuel officially proclaims Saul king. The Hebrew is clear that it was at Gilgal that the people made Saul king, and there was much rejoicing. In its final form, the long history of the appointment of the first king builds like a piece of music. First there is the private anointing by Samuel, then the public election by lot, and then crescendo of acclamation as the people respond to Saul’s charismatic leadership. He is the Lord’s anointed, the Savior of Israel! We will pause at this happy scene of feasting and dancing on the night of Saul’s coronation, and leave tomorrow’s troubles for tomorrow.  Next week we will return to Samuel and his preaching. 

 

Genesis Lesson 23

 


Genesis 19:30-38 and ch. 20 – After Sodom

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 12, 2006

Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Let’s turn attention to the Book of Genesis. Last week we had a very difficult lesson on Sodom and Gomorrah with a good discussion after we went off the air. This week we will look at two stories that are less famous, but are also disturbing. They usually get left out of Sunday School curriculum because they deal with themes that are more appropriate for soap operas or late night dramas than Sunday mornings. I think it is helpful to remember that in the ancient world there was no television and there was little literature. Indeed, some of the stories in Genesis functioned in part as entertainment. They were provocative stories that were intended to catch the interest of the hearer, but they were also intended to inspire deeper thinking.

Zoar:             Last week we left Lot and his family fleeing from the holocaust of Sodom. They were allowed to fly to Zoar, which means refuge. That was the name given to one of the Pietist communes in America in the 19th century when the people were forced to seek refuge in the West: Zoar, a place of refuge. I’m surprised that this isn’t the name of more churches, since one of the functions of the church is to be a place of refuge in a world bent of self-destruction. The church can never be perfect, but we should labor to make sure that it is safe for all people, a refuge from the competitive and violent forces of the world around us.

But oddly enough, Lot and the daughters turned their backs on Zoar and hid away in a cave. The text says that he was afraid, but it doesn’t say what he was afraid of. Did he think that God would destroy Zoar, just as he had destroyed Sodom? Did he think that the men of Zoar would take his daughters? Or was he simply a man broken by tragedy, one of those men who has seen too much death and destruction, who cannot live in society because he knows what he did or almost did? Did Lot suffer from that debilitating and nameless anxiety that chokes and enervates us? This is the last we hear of Lot in the Bible. He became one of the many men who are left on the waste heap of society; shattered by life and grief, hiding in the hills afraid to rejoin the world.

Incest:                        Walter Bruggemann dismisses the story of Lot and his daughters as “a primitive story to explain the origin of two tribes who are designated as bastards” (Genesis, 176). He is certainly correct that this story was a bit of Israel’s propaganda against a rival kingdom. It was one of those “yeah, but we know where you come from stories.” As Bruggemann sagely points out, this story was probably not told in Moab. But I don’t think we should just drop the story there. We owe Lot’s daughters the courtesy of remembrance even if we do have themes here that are not suitable for sermons.

Read Gen. 19:30-38

Interpretation:                        There are several approaches we could take to bringing meaning out of this strange tale. First of all, this story in Genesis 19 completes the parallel with the Noah story. Noah survived the flood, but then he got drunk on wine, and one of his children saw him naked. Here it is Lot who survives the destruction and gets drunk on wine, but it is his daughters who uncover him. This story, like the Noah story, reminds us that even after the destruction of evil doers, humans are still human. They still get drunk and do shameful things. It is foolish to think that we can end evil in this world.

Second, many commentators read this story as indicating the downward spiral of domestic abuse and immorality. Lot had treated his daughters as sexual property, as things to be used, but in the end he was the one reduced to a sexual object, simply a surrogate father for their children. It could be that Lot’s lack of indignation at his daughters’ action is intended to show how far Lot himself has sunk. There may be something in that, but that strikes me as reading too much into the text and trying too hard to make it a modern story.

There is yet a third way of reading this story. Unlike the Noah story, Lot’s daughters are not cursed for what they had done, even though they violated more than one taboo. Perhaps the curse is implied, as Bruggemann suggests, but we haven’t had implied curses previously in Genesis. Perhaps this story is more complicated than simple praise or cursing. Lot’s daughters had just seen their world destroyed and had witnessed the depravity of humans. They were living alone in a cave, facing the end of the world as they knew. They thought they were the only humans left alive and it was up to them to preserve the race. They choose desperate means that required violating strong taboos. They risked divine wrath in order to fulfill the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply. With limited options they did what they could, and they became the mothers of two great tribes. Centuries later one of their descendents, a woman named Ruth, would live in the land of Moab and marry an Israelite named Boaz. Her grandson would be King David. So, one of the ancestors of Jesus, according to Scriptures, was one of Lot’s daughters. That should give us some pause when contemplating this story.

Abimelech and Abraham:            The story of the origin of the Moabites leads into another story dealing with someone outside of the covenant. In Genesis 20 we have another version of the story of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister. It is strange to have the same tale twice told, and most scholars are convinced that this is just a duplication in the tradition. The idea is that the story was told one way in Judah, the southern kingdom, and another way in Israel, the northern kingdom. One indication that this is from a different tradition is that God is called Elohim in this story rather than the LORD. We will read an almost identical story when we get to Isaac, by the way. Since we went into this motif of the wife-sister in some detail a few weeks ago, we’ll focus on what is different in Genesis 20 and how fits it in the literary context.

This Old Spouse:            First of all, we should note that Sarah is much older now. We’ve already had a story about her being so old that she gave her servant to Abraham to have children with. But, she must have still been hot enough at 86 that the king of Gerar wanted to add her to his harem. That’s pretty impressive, especially before botox and surgery. Just think how hard Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore have tried to hold onto their looks, but Sarah had them all beat.

This time, the story does not go into the details leading up to the taking of Sarah. Abraham just said that she was his sister, and so the king took her. In some ways this is rather comical. It makes you wonder if Sarah and Abraham had gotten used to this routine, kind of like two old grifters who know their mark. But in other ways, the brevity of this story is chilling. Abraham hands his wife over as an automatic response. This is particularly disturbing since it comes right after the story of Lot and his daughters. We are reminded that this was a world in which women were not fully people. They were prizes to be taken by powerful lords or tribute to be paid by wanderers. But, once again, God intervened for the sake of the woman.

The Trial:            God spoke to King Abimelech in a dream and told him that he had taken another man’s wife. For that crime he would die. It is very intriguing that God spoke to someone outside of the covenant. Abimelech is one of the few people to whom God spoke in the Old Testament. This is another bit of evidence from Genesis that the LORD God was not just the God of the Israelites. Biblical faith views God as concerned about the whole world, not just the children of Abraham, whether they are the people of the covenant or people of faith. God is not bound by our nationalistic or tribal or even religious prejudices. In this case, he warned a foreigner that he had done something wrong.

More than that, God listened to what Abimelech had to say. He was innocent. He had been deceived by Abraham. He thought that he was doing something legal in taking Sarah as a concubine. This little conversation between God and Abimelech plays an important role in the development of Christian ethics. The medieval theologian Peter Abelard used this passage to support his argument that sin is a matter of intention rather than action. We may do something that is wrong or even illegal, but it is not necessarily sinful if we acting from right intentions. Abimelech did not know that he was sinning because important information was hidden from him; therefore God pronounces him innocent. His integrity was intact. We continue to apply this principle in our courts of law today.

But the case in Genesis is more complicated than that. Abimelech had not slept with Sarah yet. God knew that he was ignorant of the fact that she was married, so God kept Abimelech from having sex with Sarah. The text says that God kept Abimelech from sinning. So, perhaps sin is a matter of wrong action even when you think are doing right. So, we have a nice ethical debate here, although there is no doubt that adultery is condemned in this story. I think it is helpful to recognize that by preventing Abimelech from consummating his marriage to Sarah, God was actually protecting Sarah as well as Abimelech.

The Ruler and the People:                        We aren’t told how God achieved this, but the implication is that Abimelech was not physically able to do as he intended, and there were no drugs to help that. But the story indicates that it was not just Abimelech who was suffering. None of the women of Gerar were able to get pregnant. Apparently this strange charade with Sarah lasted for several months and grew to a crisis point. We are reminded of other tales from the ancient world, such as the story of Oedipus or Antigone where plague strikes a city because of the sin of the ruler. The political body was closely connected to the physical body of the king before modern times. If the king was impotent, for instance, then the kingdom was impotent. If the king was punished by one of the gods, then the realm suffered with him.

We are not entirely freed from this identification with the ruler, are we? Think of how people assumed that President Clinton’s failures as a husband meant that the country had failed. Certainly we do have ample evidence that a president’s short-comings and inattention can have tragic effects on the people he governs, so there is some truth in the identification of the ruler and the ruled. In our lesson for today, Abimelech’s marriage of Sarah threatened the whole kingdom, and he did what any wise ruler would do. He admitted that he had made a mistake, and he took steps to fix the problem. This is what we expect of any competent chief executive. In Abimelech’s case, he returned Sarah to her husband.

Why?                        Now we come to a very interesting part of this story. This is one of those passages that I am surprised is even in Genesis because a foreign king appears to be more wise and moral than one of the patriarchs. Abimelech asked Abraham why he had deceived him. Why did he not tell him the truth? Why did Abraham risk the well-being of Gerar with his shenanigans? “You have done things to me that ought not to be done.” That is a very clear and simple statement of the facts, and we cannot dispute it. Abraham had done wrong and people suffered as a result. So what is Abraham’s defense? Not much, really.

Abraham offers three reasons for his shameful action. First of all, he claims that he didn’t really lie. Sarah really was his half-sister. For centuries commentators have latched on to this as a way to exonerate the patriarch, but as we noted previously, this doesn’t really change the fact that Abraham was intentionally deceptive. He did not tell Abimelech that Sarah was also his wife. Plus, it adds the problem of incest, which connects this chapter to the previous one. It makes you wonder about our ancestors, doesn’t it? Abraham also tried to shift the blame to God by attributing his problems to the fact that God had made him a rootless wanderer. This is not very convincing, is it?

Distrust:            Abraham’s main defense, though, was his claim that there was no fear of God in the Negeb. It was a lawless and God-forsaken place. We may have some sympathy for this view. Remember, Abraham has left his previous encampment after witnessing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He had reason for believing that people who live in cities are inherently evil. Abraham here reminds me of many Americans from rural areas or small towns who journey into the city expecting to be cheated or robbed by everyone they meet. Even within the city, you get this kind of suspicion. When I lived in Philadelphia, I was surprised that members of my congregation were frightened when I would go to New York City because they thought I would get mugged and murdered. And they lived ten blocks from a section of Philadelphia known as the Bad Lands. We are naturally suspicious people.

We can understand Abraham’s distrust after what he had witnessed. It is a distrust that we share, but pay close attention to the story. Abraham believed that the people of Gerar did not fear the Lord, and so he lied to the king and let him take his wife. It was Abraham who did not fear the Lord or trust the Lord. It was Abraham’s distrust that led to the suffering of the city. Abraham created the situation he feared. Prejudices can and do kill. Our fears and our lies will destroy us.

Restoration:                        Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham and even paid for the shame he had caused her, but Abraham had to pray to God to heal Abimelech and his family. I think this is a significant point in the story. On the surface, this is just an indication that Abraham was a spiritually powerful person, a man with mojo who brings suffering and healing, but I think there is something more than that. It was Abraham who had caused the suffering of Gerar, and God demanded that Abraham play an active role in restoring the situation. Abraham had to pray for the people that he had harmed. He had to restore order and righteousness. This is one of the most basic rules of justice: you break it, you fix it. You pollute the stream and cause suffering for innocent people; you clean it up and help those you hurt.

Conclusion:            There is one final theological point made by this strange story. Abimelech is more righteous than Abraham, but Abraham is the chosen one. The story of the covenant is propelled by God’s grace not human merit. There may be hope in this for us who fail so often despite our best intentions. God is gracious and can use even your mistakes for a greater good. 

I Samuel 10

I Samuel 10 – Is Saul Among the Prophets?

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Class, originally broadcast April 13, 2008

Craig Atwood 

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. This week in Worship in Wait, we will have Rev. Charles Adams, who teaches at Harvard and is one of the most influential African American pastors. If you have gotten curious about Black theology of liberation, like much of the country in recent weeks, join us for worship this Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. in Wait Chapel. I just got back from Yale University last night. I presented a paper at a conference on the theme of religion and violence in early America. I talked about the Moravians as a peace church in a violent age. Forgive me if I am a bit sleepy this morning. The conference was a good reminder that issues of violence and religion are not new to America. The weapons change, but the sanctification of bloodshed remains with us. That provides a nice segue into our lesson from I Samuel this morning.

 

Signs              Last week we left Saul being anointed by Samuel. No doubt Saul was a little confused by this holy man pouring oil on his head. In a section I will not read on the air, Samuel gives Saul several signs to prove that what he has said will come to pass. This is also a part of the traditional call narrative. The Bible does not expect you to believe wandering prophets who promise you great things without having some validation. Saul will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb who will confirm that the donkeys have been found, but that his father is worried. The allusion to Rachel’s tomb reminds us that the anointing of Saul is part of a much more ancient story of the ancestors. Rachel was the mother of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe. The ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the LORD God would look over them and their descendants are being fulfilled in this “modern” time. Rachel is not bereft of her children; one of them will unite the tribes and defeat the enemies of Israel. There are further signs at Tabor and Bethel. By the time Saul gets home he should know who he is and what he is meant to do.

 

Change of Heart:      Samuel tells Saul that he will have a change of heart and become a different person. Most English translations intentionally mistranslate a Hebrew word that is key to this text. Leb literally means “heart” but translators generally translate it as “mind.” The reason is that the ancient Hebrews believed that thinking took place in the heart rather than the brain. We use the word “mind” to talk about our thinking, so translators turn the Hebrew “heart” into an American “mind,” but “mind” is not a biological term. In an attempt to clarify the original text, translators have actually obscured an important aspect of the Old Testament: namely, that thinking and feeling are both part of the heart, which is the center of the person. To have a change of heart is different from having a change of mind because it involves the entire, living person. Samuel is warning Saul that before he becomes king, he will be inwardly transformed.  This is important to Moravians because we talk a lot about a religion of the heart instead of a religion of the head. Religion of the heart affects the core of a person.

 

Read I’ll pick up the reading at ch. 10:5

Music:            The description of the band of prophets at Gibeath-elohim is very interesting, and it shows that some aspects of ancient Israelite religion were not all that different from their neighbors. In the ancient world, music was not as common as it is in ours. We are accustomed to hearing tunes playing all the time. Music forms the backdrop of our lives, whether riding the elevator or shopping in the mall. Now that we have ipods, we have the technology to create a soundtrack for our lives so that our real lives will seem more like movies. It is hard to imagine a time before music was recorded, when it was as ephemeral as the sounds waves moving through the air. The ability to manipulate sound and to combine sounds into pleasant tunes was so remarkable that ancient people considered it a special gift of the gods or the muses. Even today we say that someone is gifted in music. That terminology is an echo of a time when this was meant literally. Not just anyone can sing or play an instrument even in our supposedly advanced era.

 

Music was also magical because of the effect it had on hearers. We are not entirely numb to the effects of music, but we are so surrounded by sound that we are rarely moved to action by a tune. Things were different in the days of Saul. Musicians played a vital role in the army, for instance. Troops were inspired to kill other humans with thrilling martial notes. As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote “When your heart is in your boots, and you’re threatened with rebukes; there is nothing brings it round like the trumpets’ marshal sound!” Ancient medical texts prescribed music for a host of ailments from nostalgia to neuralgia.

 

Most important, music was part of ancient religion. The book of Psalms is the hymn book of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and the temple employed hundreds of musicians. One of the oldest bits of literature in the Old Testament may be the little song that Miriam sang after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. She and other women played tambourines and sang about God throwing horse and rider into the sea. Here in I Samuel we get a rare glimpse of the ancient practice of using music to drive prophets into ecstasy. It is hard to imagine that harp, flute, and tambourine could drive someone into frenzy, but this practice of using music to enter into a religious ecstasy is still evident among many tribal people. This gives a whole different twist to the idea of sacred music, doesn’t it?

 

It is not just anyone who will respond to music, though. Most Israelites who saw a band of wandering prophets were content to throw gifts to them and ask for a blessing. Only a few experienced what is to be beside oneself. This was one of those ambiguous blessings. Such prophets lived outside of polite society. They were considered dangerous and weird since they did not have normal jobs and families. They were those who dwelled in two worlds and who could see deeper realities invisible to everyone else. Modern Judaism and Christianity have become very rational religions and have distanced themselves from the wandering prophets of ancient Israel.

 

Prophetic Prince:      I Samuel was not written by an anthropologist studying ancient religion, and the author assumes that we know all about these prophets since they were common in his day. What is important for the story he is telling is what happens when the handsome young prince Samuel has anointed meets such a band of religious musicians. The Spirit of God comes upon Saul and he falls into a religious frenzy like the prophets. This is not normal behavior for the man of a good family. It is certainly not the behavior one would expect of a king, but the storyteller uses this event as verification that God has chosen Saul. Samuel anointed him, but God confirmed the anointing with an outpouring of the Spirit upon him.

 

We do not know what Saul did or said when he was among the prophets, but we know that people saw him cavorting with musicians and shouting about the things of God. This linking of the anointing of Saul and the Spirit coming upon him was important in the Christian tradition. It is why some churches preach about an anointing by the Spirit that confers special powers, such as the ability to speak in tongues, prophesy or heal. Liturgical churches often use oil in baptism, confirmation, or ordination as a sacramental bestowal of God’s Spirit on an individual. It is important to note that there is no suggestion that the anointing by Samuel caused the Spirit to come upon Saul. Saul falling into ecstasy was something shocking, and almost unique.

 

Originally this story was used to buttress Saul’s claim to the crown. All of the stories about Saul becoming king assert that he was chosen directly by God. He did not need a formal, legal procedure to make him king; he was chosen by God and filled with God’s Spirit. Once again, we see that Saul was more like one of the judges, another Samson or Gideon, than like a king. But divine gifts are dangerous. This picture of Saul falling into ecstasy at the sound of music sets up a theme for the rest of the book. We will see Saul grow increasingly unbalanced, almost demonic. At one time, it was only music that could soothe his tortured mind and soul. The proverb “is Saul is also among the prophets” eventually becomes a taunt against him.

 

And he went home:   After all this excitement, Saul went home. This is one of those phrases that is so true to life, we almost miss it. You wonder if Saul even remembered that his quest had originally been to find some straying braying animals. Some of you have had this type of experience where you get swept up in greater events. You, have a life-changing experience or encounter your destiny head on, and it feels like the world will never be the same. But you still have to return home and find that things are still the same. Auntie Em is waiting for you to come back from Oz. It is a bit disconcerting.

 

Saul told his uncle the briefest facts about his trip into the wild, but he holds some things back. He does not tell him that Samuel had anointed him and told him that he would a prince. Perhaps Saul had learned something from the story of Joseph. He was not about to say, “the holy man told me I’m going to be the king and reign over all of you!” Saul kept quiet about the kingship. This is one of those deep silences that is hard to interpret. Was this a further indication of Saul’s humility and feeling that he was unworthy for the honor of being king? Was it a sign of his reluctance to take leadership and put himself in danger? Some have taken it as evidence of a lack of faith, but I suspect that Saul was merely needed time to recover and make whatever sense he could of the events of recent days. Now that he was home, would it be better to say home or should he rise to meet destiny? I love this moment of silence in the story. It is a deep breath before the plunge, and it is so true to life even 3000 years later.

The Election of Saul:                       The election of Saul follows rather abruptly. Most biblical scholars are convinced that at one time this chapter followed chapter 8 directly. You may remember that in chapter 8 God told Samuel that by choosing a king, the people were rejecting God. 10:17 picks up right there as if the whole story of Saul and the anointing had not taken place. Samuel gathers the leaders of the tribes at Mizpah where the re-covenanting ceremony had taken place after the loss of the ark. Perhaps Samuel was reminding the people that they had been victorious at Mizpah without a king. Perhaps he was merely calling them together at the usual location for such momentous events. In any case, he begins by expressing his opposition to a monarchy, and then selects a king.

 

You might expect that the first king would be chosen from among the leaders of the tribes. Those who wished to be king would make their desire known and then the men would vote, perhaps by tribe. The process should have lasted many days, with public speeches and secret deals. Qualifications and experience would be discussed. Deals would be struck. Gifts and promises would be given. Alliances would form, and eventually there would be a compromise candidate who is selected by consensus to lead the people. This is the way popes are chosen, but all of the politics take place behind locked doors. In the old days, it was how the Holy Roman Emperor was chosen.

 

Our modern democratic process is a little different. We spend over a year choosing a president to lead us for four years. If we elected them for life, who knows how long campaigns would last! We insist that people who want to be president should make themselves known. They need to acknowledge their ambition publicly and then spend months or years raising money from the wealthiest people in the country. This way we know that their Presidency will not threaten people’s wealth. Candidates also have to gain the endorsement of the powerful members of their political parties so that no one in the political establishment will be threatened. And then come the campaigns and advertisements. Eventually, the people get to cast their votes. See how much more rational our modern procedure is from that used by Samuel?

 

Samuel’s Lot             The first king of Israel was chosen by lot. It may interest you to know that the founders of the Moravian Church used this story in I Samuel to guide them as they made the radical and illegal decision to ordain their own priests and bishop in 1467. They chose three men they thought were capable of being priests and then used to lot to confirm their selection. The last time the lot was used in the Moravian Church was in the 1890s to select a bishop. Moravians no longer use the lot itself to choose leaders. We simply start voting for people without discussion of qualifications or experience. Supposedly this allows the Holy Spirit to guide the process, but typically it means that we choose older people who are well known and not controversial.

 

The way the process of the lot used in ancient Israel was a little different from the Moravian practice. There were two stones, the Urim and Thummin, one black and the other white, indicating “yes” and the other “no.”  A question was asked by the priest who then chose a stone. The answer was believed to come from God. So, in the selection of Saul, they first went through the tribes until Benjamin got the “yes.” Then they went through the clans to find the clans. Finally the choice came down to individual names, and Saul son of Kish was chosen.

 

Read I Samuel 10:20-27       Since we have a few moments, I will read a little further in chapter 10.

 

There is some awkwardness in the story. Saul was not there when the lot chose him. We would assume that each man was brought forward as his name was tried before the lot, but Saul was not there. This has led many scholars to speculate that two versions of the election were combined. In any case, the LORD directs Samuel to Saul hiding among the baggage. It is not an auspicious beginning to a monarchy, but it does emphasize that the first king was chosen by God himself. Samuel seems to forget all of his reservations about the monarchy as he explodes with glee over the choice of Saul. Look at how tall he is! Samuel presents him as the kind of man who could lead a nation in a time of war, despite his lack of national political leadership. And the people ratify this choice by acclamation. Saul will be king!

 

Samuel then writes down all of the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the king and solemnly placed on the altar at Mizpah. It is quite likely that the warnings he gave the Israelites were included in this now lost book. The important thing is that from the beginning, the kings of Israel were informed that they were not above the law. 

Lessons from John, ch. 8

John 8:31 – Freedom

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast  3/25/07

Craig D. Atwood

 

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. I hope that it was a good week for you, and that you will take advantage of the spring weather to visit Bethabara Park. I had the privilege of talking to the guides there this week about the Moravian Church as a Peace Church. I saw many familiar faces at Wake Forest to hear Bishop John Shelby Spong, one of the more controversial church leaders in America today. I think one of the saddest things about the controversial that swirls around the bishop is that much of what he says about the Bible has been taught in seminaries and divinity schools for over a century. One of the many great insights of the Moravian theologian Luke of Prague was that the Gospel existed before the gospels themselves were written down.

            We cannot say that the Scripture is necessary for salvation since the first generation of Christians did not have a NT. The Bible is the authoritative text for the church and is the basis for our worship, doctrine, and practice, but we need to read it with eyes wide open and with hearts in tune with God or we can make deadly mistakes in interpretation. You probably have heard the story of the depressed young man who opened his Bible looking for help. He put his finger on a random verse and took that as a message from God. It read “And Judas went and hanged himself.” Shaken up, he decided to try another verse and his finger landed on “Go and do likewise.” The major purpose of this Adult Bible Class is to help you read the Bible thoughtfully, faithfully, and lovingly.

Anti-Semitism This is particularly important because John chapter 8 has been used for many years to promote violent anti-semitism. This is one of those chapters that looms large in the history of genocide, and it stands as a perpetual reminder that the Christian church has blood-stained hands. When you find yourself criticizing other religions for their violence and exclusivity, read John 8 and ponder how this chapter was used by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages to declare that Jews were the children of Satan. Ponder how the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther used these verses in his vicious polemic against the Jews, which is still being reprinted in some Arabic countries. Ponder how these verses were used to forcibly expel Jews from England, France, and Spain. Ponder these verses and then marvel at the wisdom of our Founding Fathers who assured the Jews and all other people that they were be protected from religious bigotry and violence in this New World.

            Most Christians and Christian institutions have made great strides in confronting anti-semitism since the horror of the Holocaust, and these verses are rarely read in most churches today. Most commentators and preachers would prefer that we simply remove most of chapter 8 from the Gospel of John or at least reduce it to a footnote. But we can’t without doing damage to the whole principle of the canon. Unlike the story of the woman caught in adultery, this passage was most definitely in the original gospel. We cannot escape from it. Nor should we. I think that it is ultimately helpful to confront this portrayal in John’s gospel and place it in an historical context. The bitter irony is that this most anti-Jewish section of the Gospel is one of the signs that the gospel itself was written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian audience.

            Before reading our text for today, let me remind you of some things we have talked about previously. The Gospel of John was most likely written in the 90s after the destruction of the Temple. During the three decades after this tragedy, Jewish rabbis and other leaders struggled to reorganize the religion and reunite the scattered people. No longer were Jews defined simply by circumcision and a pilgrimage to the Temple; there had to be ways to create an identity in the Dispersion without the Temple. The written Scriptures became much more important than they had previously, and over time the rabbis determined which books were sacred and which were not. Protestants call this list of sacred books the OT canon, and it includes the Law, Prophets, and the Writings. The synagogue also became the focal point of religious observance. Formerly synagogues were gathering places for prayer, study, discussion, and community events for Jews. It was kind of like a civic-center, but after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogues became worship centers with a liturgical calendar. And during this period, the rabbis began writing down the interpretations of the law and of Scripture that they had learned from their teachers. Four centuries after the NT was written, the Jewish Talmud was written.

            So, the Gospel of John was written in a time of dramatic transition for Jews. All of the books of the NT reflect the tensions between Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and those who did not, but John’s Gospel demonstrates this tension most dramatically. There are many indications in the Gospel itself that the author of John’s Gospel and most of his original audience had recently been excommunicated from the synagogue because of their faith in Jesus as the Christ. Members of John’s community had been officially declared no longer Jewish. They had lost their identity, their support system, and in some cases their families. Some of the condemnation we read in John’s Gospel of the Jews was simply a mirror reflecting what the author had heard when he was expelled from the synagogue. John’s Gospel was written for a minority group that had been declared heretical; it was not written for a church that held political power over all of Europe. We have to keep this in mind when we read this chapter. We are reading one side of an angry debate among Jews over who is truly the descendents of Abraham. The language used in this chapter seems very harsh, but it has its parallels in other Jewish literature of the time, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that viewed the other Jews as the children of darkness who would be destroyed by God.

            I think it is also helpful to keep in mind that other books of the NT are dealing with similar issues in similar ways, but without as much as anger as we see in John. Paul, in particular, struggled with the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Like John’s Gospel, Paul argued that the followers of Jesus were the true descendents of Abraham and that God’s salvation was available to Gentiles as well as Jews, but even Paul did not write as harshly against Jews as John did. Paul was clearly anti-Judaic, but he was not anti-Jewish. That may be because he was writing before the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues. The main point for us this morning in reading these verses is that we not allow the harsh anti-semitism of this passage overwhelm the important message given here.

            I think the words of Gail O’Day are useful here: “The Jesus who emerges from these verses speaks with staggeringly sharp invective to his opponents and holds nothing back in his attack on his theological adversaries. It is very difficult to harmonize this picture of Jesus with the images of him that shape our theological imaginations: Jesus as the one who eats with outcasts and sinners, who cares for the lost sheep, who is the model of how we are to love. Complicating this picture of Jesus is the fact that he speaks this scathing language to a group John identifies as the “Jews”, so that Jesus’ words in this chapter have become a pivotal text in discussions of Christian anti-Semitism. … The interpreter must work diligently and carefully to understand the text in its original social and historical context in order to avoid making simplistic and destructive extrapolations to contemporary church settings.” (O’Day, 647)

Read 8:31-

Translation Issues                 Before delving into the meaning of this passage, we should note that there are some difficult translation issues here, and different English versions of the Bible handle them in different ways. First of all, it appears strange that this passage says that Jesus was speaking to Jews who believed in him and yet those same Jews wanted to kill him. There are a number of ways of dealing with this. Some scholars think that this statement was added by a later scribe trying to make a smooth transition from the previous section. Another possibility is that this section is simply disordered. It is also possible that Jesus was talking to different groups of Jews here or that this chapter is made up of separate pieces of oral tradition imperfectly stitched together. We cannot know for sure, but it does seem evident that there was a difference between those Jews who believed in Jesus, such as the disciples themselves, and the authorities who wanted him dead.

            This confusion carries through to the sentence that speaks for Jesus’ hearers doing what they had heard from the Father. In NIV, this says “you do what you have heard from your father,” which implies that they have a different father. In the NRVP it says that they should do what they have heard from the Father. It is not clear from the Greek who the Father is. In one version, it is clearly the Father in heaven who sent Jesus. In the other, it is presumably another father who teaches bad things. I think that this is referring to the Father in heaven.

Freedom and Slavery This section sets up a theme that runs throughout the writings of Paul, but which we haven’t seen much of in John. The disciples of Christ are the true descendents of Abraham who have the freedom that sons enjoy. Those who do not follow Christ are slaves who do not belong to the household of God. What we have here is actually a short parable, or perhaps a part of a parable. Since Paul preaches at length on the same parable, it is likely that this was part of Jesus’ teaching. John takes this parable to a different conclusion than Paul, though. In Paul, the slaves are slaves to the Jewish Law, but in John they are slaves to sin. John does not reject the Jewish law the way Paul does. The problem is sin, not the law.

            This idea that people are slaves to sin is an important one in Christianity. We tend to think of sin as a matter of freedom. We know what is right and what is wrong, but we freely choose to do the wrong thing and so we deserve to be punished. If we are slaves to sin, then the sin is punishment in itself. A slave is not free to disobey the will of the master. One way to think about this is to view sin as a type of addiction. If you are truly addicted to a substance, such as heroine or morphine, then you are enslaved to it. The body is in such need of that substance that the will is powerless to resist. Taking drugs may be considered a sin, but the addiction is itself a form of punishment worse than any prison. Lies can enslave us as well. We are not free to make good decisions when the information we are given is a lie. We could go through the list of similar addictions and forms of mental illness in which people are metaphorically enslaved, but you can probably list them on your own. An important thing to remember is that enslavement is not pleasant. You will feed an addiction even when you hate what you are doing and what it is doing to you.

            John describes sin this way. It is a form of enslavement in which you eventually sacrifice all of your self-respect. Such sin wraps itself in lies and deception to try to keep you from recognizing your enslavement. If you have ever listened to the self-justification of child abusers or drug addicts or smokers or alcoholics or any number of forms of addiction, you know how deep the self-deception goes. Hannah Arendt conducted long and tedious interviews with Adolph Eichmann after the Holocaust in which she tried to pierce the clouds of self-justification and deception until she came to the truth that he was nothing but a boring, banal, and shallow little man trying to make himself feel important by exterminating millions of people for the glory of the state. She coined the phrase banality of evil to describe what she had learned. John refers to the enslavement of sin that can only be overcome through the power of the truth and freedom.

            It is not clear what John meant by truth, but we can be sure that he did not mean lying to people about scientific facts. The airwaves are full of preachers who proclaim they are proclaiming the truth when in fact they are lying to people about the nature of reality. Some of them are even lying about their ability to heal broken bodies and broken souls. The world is full of people claiming to speak the truth about their product, their candidate, their political ideology, their religion, their view of biology, and a thousand other things when in fact they are working hard to keep the truth from you. I don’t have the answers for you. For that matter, I don’t even know all of the questions, but I believe that Jesus wants you to search for the truth, love the truth, and follow the truth. If one of the cardinal teachings of our religion is that the truth sets us free, then we should beware of substituting lies for truth.

             As chapter 8 continues, the conversation grows more heated and more dangerous. When the audience claims that they are children of Abraham, Jesus turns the table on them, much as he does in the synoptic gospels. He says that the children of Abraham are those who do the will of Abraham. We find similar statements in other Jewish literature, even in the Talmud where the followers of Abraham are contrasted to the followers of Balaam the wicked. “A good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul are of the disciples of Abraham our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul are of the disciples of Balaam the wicked.” The followers of Abraham’s way will then inherit the world to come and the followers of Balaam will inherit Gehenna and be destroyed. (O’Day, 641).

            In other words, it is perfectly plausible that Jesus or his disciples would have made a contrast between those who truly follow Abraham and those who merely claimed biological descent from Abraham but who were slaves to sin. This was not anti-Semitic; it was a Jewish way to preach about good and evil. Where things get more complicated in John’s Gospel is that the main indication that Jesus’ opponents were not truly the children of Abraham is how they treated Jesus. You may remember from last years’ study of Genesis that one of the key stories was the hospitality Abraham showed to three messengers sent by God. They arrived at his tent without any warning or any sign of that they had come from God, and yet Abraham fed them and listened to their teachings. John’s Gospel contrasts that story of Abraham with the reception the Jesus received in Jerusalem. Like those angelic messengers, he was sent by the heavenly father with a life-giving word for the children of Abraham, but they handed him over to the Roman authorities to be executed. He was called a madman and a revolutionary. He was ritually humiliated and destroyed.

            This chapter is not an indictment of Judaism or the Jewish people, it is an indictment on all those who cannot recognize goodness when it appears; those who resist God’s revelatory power. It is an indictment of all those who react to new ideas with ridicule and who respond to truth with hatred. When Jesus says, “you belong to your father, the death, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” he was not saying that the Jewish race is evil. He is saying that all those who prefer lies to truth are enslaved to evil. When Jesus says that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, he is probably referring to the idea that death entered the world when the serpent deceived Eve, but it is possible that this was a specific reference to Cain’s murder of Abel. In either case, this puts the work of Jesus into a context far larger than the Jewish race; he is speaking of all people who are enslaved to sin and to self-deception.

            It seems to me that this teaching in John is consistent with Jesus’ parables about the good tree bearing good fruit and the evil tree bearing evil fruit. Those who cannot bear the truth seek to destroy the one who speaks the truth. We’ve got a lot a people in this world worried about whether the devil exists without recognizing that the biblical teaching on the devil is that the devil is the father of lies. It is not exorcists or inquisitors or crusaders who battle the devil, it is scientists, ethicists, lawyers, teachers, police officers, psychologists, parents, pastors, and everyone who speaks the truth, seeks the truth, listens to the truth, and loves the truth. Those who participate in oppression and injustice, those who punish the innocent and praise the guilty, are of the devil, according to John, even if they hold high office. Look at their actions to see what is in their hearts.

            Not surprisingly, the dialog grows more heated after Jesus has said that his opponents are children of the devil instead of children of Abraham. It really bothers some commentators that Jesus is so aggressive here, but I think we need to keep in mind that there were reasons why people wanted to kill him. Had he been as sappy and weak as we often portray him, it is unlikely that the authorities would have even noticed him. Those who say little and say it blandly rarely get into trouble with those who know they have all of the power. But Jesus was not bland, and they responded to his criticisms in the normal way. They accused him of not being Jewish. “You’re a Samaritan,” they cried, just as our politicians like to accuse someone of being a Communist, or being un-American or not supporting the troops. In more polite society, we just say “he’s just not one of us, now is he?” Today, someone might respond to Jesus by saying, “you’re just a liberal” or “you’re just a conservative.” In his day, they just said, you’re one of those filthy, down-trodden, God-forsaken, heretical Samaritans that we will not even talk to.

Is He Crazy?              That’s not enough, of course. They also say that he is demon-possessed, which is another way of saying “you’re crazy.” I think it is still shocking for Christians to realize that many times in his life Jesus was called crazy by his opponents. We know this is true because his followers would not have made this up, and the accusation shows up repeatedly in the gospels. One of the best arguments for the authenticity and believability of the four gospels is that they include this repeated charge that Jesus was possessed by unclean spirits. His words and actions were so unexpected, so counter-cultural, that people thought he must be possessed. Indeed he was, the Scripture tells us, but it is was by the Holy Spirit of God or the Logos, not by Beelzebub.

            Why do we think people today will respond immediately to the message of Jesus when so many of his original hearers thought he was crazy? Perhaps it is because we have so domesticated and truncated his message into a simplistic message of individual salvation or voluntarism that we no longer see just how radical he and his teachings were. Go into the streets of Winston-Salem today or on the airwaves and tell people to truly love their neighbors as much as they love themselves, and it sounds crazy. Tell people to love their enemies and do good to those who harm them, and they will call you crazy. Go to any university in the country and tell people that they should give up their hopes for financial success in order to dedicate their lives to something more meaningful, and see how people respond. Tell your lawyer that you do not want him or her to lie on your behalf in order to keep you from being punished. Tell your accountant that you want to pay all the taxes you owe. Tell your advertisers to tell the truth about your product. Tell your politicians that you want courageous peace and compassionate justice. What will they say to you? You’re crazy. Keep at it long enough, and they may try to kill you.

            There is more to the story, of course. Jesus says that if we live in the truth and follow his path of total reliance on God, then we can endure the persecution of the children of the devil who try to kill all that is good and beautiful and true in this world. Those who follow the Logos, who obey the word of the Lord will never see death. This has often been misinterpreted by Protestants and Catholics alike as saying that whoever professes belief in Jesus will not die, as if salvation depends on knowing the “Jesus” passcode as you try to access the gates of heaven. It says that those who keep Jesus’ teaching, which is the word of the Father, will not experience death. The focus is on obedience not profession of faith.

Death and Life           The audience immediately points out the apparent flaw in Jesus’ statement: many of those who were obedient to the heavenly Father have died, including Abraham himself. We must assume that the phrase “never see death” meant something different than one’s body not dying. John’s Gospel does not answer all of the metaphysical questions we might like it to, but the concept of eternal life in John appears to focus on the spirit rather than the body. As we shall see, Jesus truly dies in John’s Gospel. He sees death, and yet it does not have final victory over him.

            But that is not the question John is most interested in here. He shifts the nature of the debate to the question of Jesus’ origins and connections to Abraham. Chapter 8 ends with a reaffirmation of one of the major themes of the prologue: the Logos existed before Abraham, and Abraham himself looked forward to the revelation of God in Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was not even 50 years old yet, but he claimed to have existed before Abraham. In verse 58, we have another one of the I Am statements of Jesus. Before Abraham was, I am. Notice that it is not the past tense as we would expect: Before Abraham, I was; it is the eternal present tense. Again, Jesus is identified with the one who spoke out of the burning bush and the one who dined with Abraham. John’s Gospel does not try to work out the intricacies of the relationship of the Son to the Father or how Jesus the human being could be God in human flesh. He simply asserts it.

            Many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus ever said such a thing, especially not in the Temple to his opponents, and biblical scholars debate whether the rest of the NT ever makes the claim that Jesus was God. We have come to the end of our time today, and we will keep coming back to this question. All I can say for now, is that John makes this claim most strongly. There is no birth narrative in John and little discussion of Jesus’ human biography. Instead, there is this bold claim that when Jesus spoke, when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, when Jesus taught his disciples, it was the Word of God speaking, acting, and teaching. Despite John’s apparent anti-Semitism and hostility toward the Jews who rejected Jesus, it is John’s Gospel that most clearly makes the claim that Abraham himself would have recognized Jesus as the one sent by God. For John, Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise of the OT, the one who makes it possible to follow the essence of the Torah, which is to leave the enslavement of sin and embrace the entire creation in self-giving love. Once you give yourself in love and rest in the arms of God, then death has no sting and the grave will not be victorious.

I Samuel 9 – Anointing Saul

I Samuel 9 – Anointing Saul

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 6, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

 

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this Final Four Weekend. It is a busy day around town. The Provincial Children’s Rally is this Sunday at Fairview Moravian. Also, Historic Bethania has a special celebration today from 2-6. And tonight we have Worship in Wait in Will Willimon, the former chaplain of Duke University and current Bishop of the Methodist Church. Willimon is one of the most famous preachers in America and we are honored to have him. It will be my first time to read Scripture in front of a chaplain from Duke. I’ll keep my Carolina T-shirt under wraps. A local archivist this week told me the story of a man in Dublin who was looking for a parking space. He finally resorted to prayer and promised to give up Irish whiskey and attend church faithfully if the Lord would give him a parking space. Just at that moment he looked down the street and saw a vacant spot! Immediately he looked to heaven and said, “Never mind, Lord. I just found one on my own.”

            In our lesson this morning we are looking at the story of Samuel anointing Saul to be the first king of Israel. It is a long and fairly complicated story, and it should not surprise you by now that the story as we have it in I Samuel was probably constructed from two or three different sagas about the selection of the first king of Israel. One of the original stories was a about a young man who goes in search of his father’s donkeys and meets a traveling soothsayer who tells him that he will be king one day. Another story is about Samuel receiving a word from God about the man he should anoint as king. A little later we get a third story about Saul being chosen. The story that has come down to us is skillfully constructed, but there are clues that point indicate that it is a blending of older tales. For one thing it identifies Samuel as the seer, but prophets and seers were different types of people in ancient Israel. Prophets were religious leaders; seers were local diviners. Another clue is that the story says the seer has just arrived in town to bless the sacrifice, but Samuel appears to own a large house in town that can accommodate 30 dinner guests. There is also the curious fact that Saul does not have a clue that Samuel is the judge of Israel. Considering the fact that all of the tribal leaders had asked Samuel to appoint a king in the previous chapter, you would expect that the son of a powerful member of the tribe of Benjamin would know something about what’s going on. It is possible to put all of this together and smooth out the differences, but the most reasonable explanation is that the author of I Samuel took several tales about the election of Saul and put them together in a beautiful and rich tapestry.

Read   I don’t think we will have time to read and discuss the entire story. We’ll probably do this over two weeks. First I’ll read chapter 9.

Son of Kish                 Saul was the son of a powerful man. The word used to describe Kish is the same one used of Boaz in the Book of Ruth. It could refer to wealth or military power, and in the days of the judges probably meant both. As we saw in our study of Abraham, wealth was measured in numbers of animals and men you had in your household. In a world without a stable government, a wealthy man had to have a private army that would have included all of his sons. In those days, as in ours, wealth meant power in society. The storyteller is putting us on alert that Saul is not just a hillbilly looking for lost animals. He is the son of Kish.

            The storyteller assumes that we know enough of the folklore of the day to realize that the tribe of Benjamin was the most warlike of the tribes of Israel. It was small and controlled relatively unproductive hill country, but many of the bloodiest stories of the time of judges involved Benjamin. If you’ve read Senator Webb’s book about the bellicosity of the Scots-Irish who settled in the South, you’ve got some idea of the reputation of Benjamin. In other words, if you are going to look for a king to go out and fight your nation’s wars for you, you might want the son of a powerful member of the tribe of Benjamin. We are told other details about good old Saul. He was tall and handsome. 3000 years later, we know that attractive people make more money than unattractive people. They also receive better treatment in school and at home. So long as they are not blonde, they are considered smarter and better leaders. The same is true of tall people. Most of the time in Presidential races, the taller candidate wins. To say that Saul is both tall and handsome is a way of saying that he would be recognized by many people as a potential leader.

Folk Tale Elements    So far, this sounds a bit like a folk tale. There was a tall and handsome prince from the tribe of Benjamin who goes on a quest to find some lost animals. This idea of a quest that leads to something other than what you are seeking is common in folk tales. The hero leaves as an adolescent and return as a man ready to lead his people. You may recognize the story of Moses or Luke Skywalker. Many years ago a religion scholar named Joseph Campbell published a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he outlined the elements of this hero-quest theme. The story of Saul’s anointing fits the outline quite well.

            Saul thinks he is searching for lost donkeys when in fact he is being led toward the seer who will reveal his destiny. When they cannot find the donkeys, the boys seek help. The donkeys were not equipped with GPS systems, so one of the guys suggest they use the technology that was available. There’s a seer who lives around him. Let’s ask him.  Saul points out that they don’t have any thing to give the seer. That kind of help they needed requires a special gift, pun intended.

Seer/Prophet              On the way, the fellows run into some girls on their way to draw water. This is one of the bits of evidence that getting water was a job for women, as we saw in the story of the woman at the well. The girls give Saul a lesson in local religious customs. You need a seer to bless a feast before you can eat it. What is curious is that this was typically the role of the priest, so presumably this priest was also a seer. It sounds like the priest does not live in town. He traveled a circuit so he could minister to several villages each year, but as we saw earlier.

            At this point in the story we get a flashback. You may have thought that flashbacks were invented in movies, but here we have the biblical author using this technique. The reader suspects that something special is going to happen since the previous chapter ended with Samuel being instructed to find a king. So, when the anonymous holy man shows up in the village and they we find out it is Samuel, we can practically hear the music score swelling.

            This is a moment of destiny, but the author wants to make sure that we realize that this is no accident. He gives us a flashback to the day before when the Lord revealed to Samuel that he will meet the future king. “Tomorrow I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be the leader over my people.” God told Samuel that this Benjaminite would save the people from the wicked Philistines.

            What is a little surprising about this speech between God and Samuel is that there is no mention of their earlier conversation about how bad kings were. Here God tells Samuel that he has heard the cry of the people and how they have been oppressed. It is the same formula used in Exodus and in the Book of Judges. This has led to a lot of discussion among scholars as to which view of the monarchy was the original one. Did God appoint King Saul to save his people or did the people demand a king against the wishes of Samuel? It is entirely possible, though, that there were always differences of opinion regarding the monarchy.

            Another interesting thing is that God does not say Samuel should anoint the man as king. He uses a word that basically means leader (Nagid). It is possible that this was a very old story that was originally about Saul being identified (or made known – nagad) as a Judge, and that he later became a king. Later in the book Saul will be chosen as the king of Israel by the people themselves. We shouldn’t let these multiple versions of the selection of Saul bother us too much. Have you ever tried to put together the different stories about how Arthur became king? The great stories always have multiple versions and layers of meaning that drives historians and other rationalists crazy.

Meeting Samuel         Back to Saul and Samuel. When Samuel sees Saul approaching, the Lord tells him that this is the guy. Again, it is like one of those movies where you know who the hero is going to be by the bright light and music that surround him. What is clear in the story is that Samuel knows something Saul does not. Saul asks for the seer because he wants to know where his lost asses are, but we know he is going to find something that he is not looking for.

            Saul must have been more than a little surprised when the holy man tells him to go on up to the altar and to dine with him.  This is also a part of traditional folklore. Many stories involve a holy man or seer of shaman who breaks bread with the hero before revealing his destiny. One of the most famous versions of this is in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is on a quest to find a great Jedi warrior, but he gets stranded in a strange land. A funny little green guy invites him to share his dinner. Luke is frustrated at the delay and is dismissive of the help that the little guy offers. As they eat, Yoda reveals himself as the Jedi master who will train Luke.

            Before dinner Samuel assures Saul that everything will be all right. The lost donkeys have been found. We don’t know if Saul believed him, but he was probably impressed that the seer knew about the donkeys before he even asked him. Samuel then gives a hint about the greater news to come. He tells the young man that all of the hopes of Israel are turned toward him and his family.

            Saul naturally protests that he and his family are not important. He downplays the fact that his father is a powerful man, and points out that he is from a small clan in a small tribe of Israel. We can picture him saying that he is “just a simple country lawyer from North Carolina” or that he is just “a peanut farmer.” This protest from Saul, though, is part of a long tradition in the great stories. Moses protested that he could not lead the people out of Egypt. Jeremiah protested. King Arthur was a nobody. The future King Peter tried to tell the beavers that he was just a boy and could not save Narnia. We should not let Saul’s protest confuse us as to his qualifications. It is clear that Samuel chose someone who had the potential to unite the tribes and be victorious.

Saul’s Dinner with Samuel    Even though Samuel is sure that Saul is the right man, he does not rush the work of God. He spends time with Saul to see what kind of person he is. He invites Saul to the feast and he gives him the best piece of meat that he has reserved for a guest. He observes how Saul deals with being seated at the head of the table in a room of important strangers. Then they go up on the roof and talk. We aren’t told what they talked about, but we can imagine it pretty well. Samuel finds out about Saul’s background and training. They probably talked about religious matters and his devotion to the LORD God. And I am sure they talked about the weakness of the tribal confederacy and the threat of the Philistines. We can assume that Saul was impatient. All he wanted to know was where his donkeys were, but Samuel purposely tried his patience to make sure he would be a wise king. In other words, Samuel vetted Saul to make sure he was indeed the man God had chosen.

Anointing        Saul slept on the roof, which is still a common practice in traditional houses in that part of the world. The roof was safe and pleasant at night. I wonder what Saul thought about as he lay there staring at the stars in the night sky. We don’t know, but the next morning Samuel calls to him. They walk to the edge of town. By now Saul is probably convinced that he’ll never find his donkeys, or he may have wondered what other things Samuel might tell him. Even so, what comes next must have been quite a shock. While they are standing all alone, Samuel tasks a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s hair and tells him that the LORD has anointed him to be the leader of the people of Israel.

            If you go to the Tower of London, you can see all of the implements that were used to make Elizabeth the Queen of England and head of the Church of England. It is quite impressive – robes, jeweled scepters, a throne, crown, and a flask of oil. The kings and queens of Europe were always anointed as part of their coronation in imitation of the anointing of the kings of Israel as recorded in the Bible. But Saul had no special robes, crowns, scepters, or jewels. It was just him and the holy man, standing by the side of the road. He must have wondered if Samuel had lost his mind. You anoint your guests’ heads as dinner or your servant anoints you in the morning before you leave the house. This was different.

            Oil was important in ancient society, and some oils were very expensive. It appears that some of the Mediterranean peoples used oil instead of money. It is possible that oil was associated with ancient magic and medicine. Most likely, in the Old Testament, oil was symbolic of the power of God flowing over a person. The meaning of the anointing is never explained in Scripture; it is simply assumed that this is what one does to proclaim someone king. What made this anointing special was not the oil; it was the one pouring the oil. Samuel, priest, prophet, and judge of Israel had chosen this tall man of Benjamin and had blessed him with sacred oil. He was now set aside for a special purpose far more important than working for his father.

Signs               In a section I did not read on the air, Samuel then gives Saul several signs to prove that what he has said will come to pass. This is also a part of the traditional call narrative. The Bible does not expect you to believe wondering prophets who promise you great things without having some validation. He tells Saul that he will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb who will confirm that the donkeys have been found, but that his father is worried. The allusion to Rachel’s tomb reminds us that the anointing of Saul is part of a much more ancient story of the ancestors. Rachel was the mother of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe. The ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the LORD God would look over them and their descendants are being fulfilled in this “modern” time. Rachel is not bereft of her children; one of them will unite the tribes and defeat the enemies of Israel. There are further signs at Tabor and Bethel. By the time Saul gets home he should know who he is and what he is meant to do.

Conclusion      We’ll continue with the story of Saul next week, but before we go, let’s ponder the meaning of this ancient and beautiful story. It is quite likely that some of the Israelites looked at this tall young man, and said: “He’s too young to be our leader. He doesn’t have enough experience to lead this great nation. We are threatened by enemies all around us, how can we trust a young man to lead us?” But God had decided it was time to break with the mistakes of the past. Young Saul was the chosen one who could unite the people in a common cause. He would find new solutions to old problems. The old priest Samuel anointed Saul, trusting in God’s word despite his youth. We know how this story turns out, but let’s not dismiss Saul too soon. He was chosen to rescue the Israelites and he will do that. Next week, we’ll see that Saul in religious ecstasy.