Monthly Archives: June 2008

I Samuel 18 (cont) – David and Michal

I Samuel 18:17-30: David’s Bloody Bride-price

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 29, 2008; Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, site of the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. You may know that the first public celebration of Independence Day in American history was here at Home Church right after the end of the Revolutionary War. This year Rev. Scott Venable and Bishop Graham Rights will take charge of the observance, and it will be their responsibility to pronounce the word “conjure” in such a way that our assistant archivist does not squirm. The Unity Women’s Conference was meeting in Herrnhut last week, with dozens of women from all parts of the world. Home Church was represented. We are thankful for the safe travels for all of the women. This week a group of 28 Moravians will be leaving for a tour of Moravian sites in Central Europe as part of our 550th anniversary celebration.

Our lesson this week focuses on one of the many women who were important in the life of King David. The most famous woman is Bathsheba, of course, but she is not unveiled until David is king. It was his first wife, Michal, who most helped him become king. According to researchers, she is the only women in the Hebrew Scriptures identifies as loving a man (Bruce Birch, I & II Samuel, 1122). This does not mean that none of the other wives in the Old Testament loved their husbands, but it does mean there was something notable about Michal’s love for David.

Before reading the story of David’s marriage and the atrocious bride-price Saul demanded, let me remind you that this story is closely connected to what we discussed last week. We saw that Jonathan loved David and clothed him in his own royal robes and armor. We saw that the women of the kingdom praised David more than they praised the king himself. And we saw that Saul was growing jealous and afraid of David. This week, Saul will give David one of his own daughters as a wife, but his motives are not necessarily pure.

Read: I Samuel 18:17-30

Son-in-law to the King:                        This section of I Samuel, like earlier sections, shows evidence of having been edited, probably by the person who assembled the entire book. The original story was simply about Saul offering David one of his daughters to be his wife. It was probably written shortly after David became the king, and it was used to justify the legitimacy of David. He had a right to the throne because he was the son-in-law of King Saul, and he was the son-in-law of Saul because he had been such a successful military commander. This original story is interesting on its own merits, but a later editor inserted statements about Saul’s motives that cast a sinister light on all of these events. These editorial insertions claim that Saul was using his daughter as a way to bring about David’s destruction.

There are a couple of reasons why many biblical scholars think the sentences about Saul’s state of mind were added later. For one thing the story of David getting married reads perfectly fine if we remove portions of verses 17, 21, and 25 (see Herzberg, 159). In fact, the story reads more smoothly without those pieces. Secondly, the claim that Saul gave Michal to David as a way to ensnare him just does not make much sense, and it actually undermines the claim that Saul had helped make David his heir and successor. If Saul had simply wanted to get David killed in battle, he could have done it without using his daughter as bait. Royal marriages, even today, are much more important than that.

The author of I Samuel knew that Saul had turned against his son-in-law and tried on several occasions to kill him. It is a natural thing for historians and theologians, which the author of I Samuel was, to interpret earlier events from the perspective of later events. In other words, when the unknown historian wrote his masterful chronicle of the career of David, he knew that Saul was a failure and David was a success. There is little reason for an historian to doubt the tradition that Saul was a tragic figure whose paranoia led him to attempt murder and threatened to destroy his kingdom. To a later writer, all of Saul’s decisions were suspect. It is kind of like after someone gets divorced and then looks back on the early days of the marriage questioning the sincerity of every act of goodness and love from the now ex-spouse.

The author of I Samuel was so hostile to first king of Israel – and most of his successors – that he could not imagine that Saul might have given David his daughter for any reason other than his desire to destroy his rival. Thankfully, the author of I Samuel had such great respect for the records he was using that he left the original perspective alongside his darker view of David’s first marriage. Although this binocular vision on the kingdom is difficult for modern historians who want to know exactly when David married and why, it is great for theologians and psychologists because it reveals the complex nature of all human motivations. None of us acts purely from good intentions, and we rarely act entirely from selfish ones either. We make decisions even before we know for sure what we think, and sometimes we wait until we see the result of our action before we decide why we did it. Even though the text of ch. 18 is contradictory, it is entirely plausible that Saul was always of two minds about David and about having David as a son-in-law.

Merab                        Saul first promises to give his oldest daughter to David. Her name was Merab, and she is famous only because she did not marry David. Many scholars assume that the offer of Merab was directly connected to the story of David slaying Goliath, but that is not clear in the text. In the final version that we have, it appears that Merab is a reward for David’s success in leading Saul’s armies. He already has the royal robes and armor of Jonathan, why not marry the king’s oldest daughter? David politely deflects the offer. He knows that his family could never pay the bride-price for a princess. The king’s daughter should be given to someone powerful and wealthy, to seal an alliance with the prince of a neighboring tribe or to increase the wealth of the kingdom. Keep in mind that daughters were bargaining chips in the politics and business until very recently. Even today, one wonders how much national politics played in the marriage of one of the Kennedys to the future governor of California. It should not surprise us that the Bible does not say a word about Merab’s feelings as she is presented as a prize for David.

Saul tells David that he does not need to provide a bride-price for Merab. All he needs to do is prove himself on the field of battle. If he continues to fight Saul’s wars, he can marry the king’s daughter. I suspect that the story we discussed last week about the women praising David more than Saul was originally after the story of Merab, and that it was when the king saw how popular David was becoming that he changed his mind and gave Merab to Adriel. We know nothing about him or why he was so honored by the king, but David never got over this insult. When he became king he handed the five sons of Merab over to the Gibeonites to be executed.

Michal                        So far the story of David’s first marriage sounds like typical dynastic politics. The king dangles his daughter as a piece of bait in front of a skillful and ambitious poor man and then snatches it away for political reasons. What makes ch. 18 more interesting is that we are told that another daughter of Saul loved David. Not only is this the only time in the Hebrew Scriptures that a woman is said to love a man, ch. 18 mentions Michal’s love for David. She is presented as a living, breathing human being who expresses her feelings and desires. We do not know if she was one of the women who stood on her balcony and sang praises to David when he returned from battle, but it seems likely. We do not know if she loved David the way many people love someone beautiful and famous, like the way I love Catherine Zeta Jones. It is possible that Michal loved the legend, not the man, but that is probably not the case.

Think back to last week’s lesson when we talked about how Jonathan loved David. Michal’s love for David is the parallel to her brother’s love. The author is telling us that Michal viewed David much the same way. She will seal a covenant with him that goes beyond a political marriage, and we should not be surprised that in a moment of crisis Michal will betray her father in order to save her husband. One of the overlooked facts of the Bible is that David became king in part because he was married to a strong woman who saved his life, but we are jumping ahead in our story. Just keep in mind that one of the signs that the LORD was with David is that he earned the love of a wonderful woman. Let that be a lesson to young men today.

Saul’s Offer                        Saul learns that Michal loves David. We aren’t told how her father found out about her feelings. Perhaps she blushed whenever he mentioned David at breakfast. Perhaps he read her diary or saw her writing Michal and David forever on the wall of her room. Perhaps other girls in the household were gossiping and Abner’s wife told him what they were saying. We don’t know, but it is unlikely that King Saul sat Michal down and asked if there was a young man in the kingdom that she was interested in dating and maybe marrying. No, this was all a matter of intrigue and innuendo.

The important thing is that Saul was happy when he heard the news that Michal loved David. The final editor of I Samuel assumes that Saul was happy because this fit in with his evil plot to have David killed, but he never tells us how Michal could be a snare for David. Bathsheba was certainly a snare, and there were other women that caused a little trouble, but not Michal. It is more likely that Saul was pleased to hear the news about Michal because she would want to please David whom Saul also loved. Especially after insulting David by not letting him marry Merab, Saul could give him a younger woman who was in love with him and would try to make him happy.

The Bible records the traditional custom of arranging a marriage through intermediaries. This was not the kind of thing a king did on his own. Even today a royal family depends on courtiers to introduce potential mates. When a prince falls in love on his own, it causes all kinds of problems as Queen Elizabeth discovered. The king’s men and David negotiate for Michal, and David plays the game well. He is respectful, but points out that he cannot provide a suitable bride-price for the king’s daughter. He is cautious because he knows what happened with Merab.

Foreskins                        Saul made David an offer that most of us could have refused. It is almost too gruesome for a Sunday morning radio program, and it certainly was never discussed in Bible School at my church growing up. Saul tells David that he wants 100 foreskins from his enemies. I will assume you know what part of the male anatomy this refers to, and I will merely point out that this is one reason the Bible should be rated “R”. The problem is that David’s task lends itself to far too many jokes and puns that it is hard not to turn into Jay Leno!

Last week I mentioned that ancient Israel was more like a Native American tribe than a modern state, and here is one indication of that. This is analogous to a chief demanding that a warrior bring him 100 scalps of an enemy tribe. Or, if you prefer, it is like a medieval king asking a thane to bring him the hands of his enemies. In the book God Knows, Joseph Heller says that it took a little while for David to realize that it was much easier to take the foreskins off the Philistines if he killed them first. That, of course, was what Saul was really asking David to do. The foreskins were proof that the victims were men and that they were not Israelites.

Leaving bad puns aside, the chose of bride-price was not arbitrary. Circumcision was one of the oldest practices of the Israelites. Some anthropologists think it pre-dated the worship of Yahweh even. Throughout the ancient literature of the Israelites, there are stories highlighting the importance of circumcision, such as when Zipporah circumcised Moses with a flint, making him a “bridegroom of blood.” In our study of Genesis we discussed the importance of circumcision in the story of Abraham and his heirs. I Samuel may have been connected the ancient story of the massacre of Shechem after the rape of Dinah. The idea the foreskin was part of the sacrifice made by a groom before the wedding night was probably part of the cultural memory of Israel in David’s time. Saul simply exaggerates that old practice and connects it to David’s primary role as the king’s number one soldier. Bring me 100 foreskins to prove you are worthy to be my son-in-law.

The editor’s comments on I Samuel indicate that Saul did this as a way to get David killed. When news reached the Philistines that there was this madman mutilating the bodies of the dead in a way designed to insult their manhood, they would hate David even more than they already did. It is possible that this is what Saul had in mind, or at least considered that as one possible outcome. It is also possible that Saul wanted to show his enemies just what they could expect from him. Saul probably congratulated himself on his shrewdness. If David succeeded, it would be a great blow against the Philistines and princess Michal would be very happy. If David was killed, Saul would sit a little more easily on the throne.

Twice the price            David accepted Saul’s challenge. As Brutus said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.  One secret to David’s success is that he knew when the tide was moving and he seized his opportunities. He may have been the Lord’s Anointed and destined to the throne, but he did not sit back passively waiting for God to make good on his promises. That is a mistake of too many Christian these days. To be called by God or chosen by God means that you must have the courage to act. You must be willing to risk great things for God in order to achieve great things for God.

“David rose and went, along with his men, and killed 200 Philistines.” With that simple line the biblical author relates one of the great achievements of David as a soldier. He put his life on the line to win the hand of the princess Michal, but notice that he was wise enough to take his men with him. Saul never said David had to do this alone, like a hero in Greek myth. David was pious and faithful, but he was no fool. He took his troops, engaged the enemy, and brought the king twice many trophies as requested. We are not told what David thought about all this. He may have decided that Saul was a psychopath for wanting such a present or he may have been thrilled by the prospect of proving to the king what a faithful warrior he was. We are not told if he felt the same about Michal as she felt about him. All we know is that David succeeded where others expected him to fail.

Conclusion                        This is another story that we might expect would end with the words “and David and Michal lived happily ever after,” but that is not how life is. Rather than rejoicing over David’s great victory over the relentless foes of Israel, Saul was shattered by David’s success. What kind of man was this who could win the love of the king’s children and also master the Philistines so handily? What kind of man was this whose lyre could drive away evil spirits and yet be so bloody on the battlefield? Rather than rejoicing that this exceptional man was going to be his son, Saul’s resentment grew. As David grew more famous, Saul grew more depressed, but David did not let Saul’s problems stop him from doing his job.

This concludes the first part of the story of David’s rise. I will be away for two weeks and you will have two guest teachers. Rev. Scott Venable of Home Church will speak next week and after that will be Rev. Neil Routh of Christ Moravian Church. I am grateful to both of these friends for their help, and I know that you will enjoy what they have to say. We’ll pick up the story of David again on July 20. 


Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 34 – Jacob

Gen. 32 – Wrestling with God

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 18, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church coming to you live from the chapel of Home Church in beautiful Old Salem. Happy Father’s Day! On Friday I took my father to eat at Shatley Springs and go canoeing on the New River like we used to do 20 years ago. You wouldn’t have known he is turning 75 this summer by the way he handled his boat or the sweet corn. It was a good day to remember good memories and enjoy the river.


The Journey Home:               This morning’s lesson has almost nothing to do with Father’s Day, but it does continue the story of the sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. We are looking at chapter 32 of Genesis, focusing our attention on Jacob’s wrestling with God. Last week we ended with Jacob and Laban sealing a covenant at Mizpah. That phase of Jacob’s life was over, and now we see him entering the third period of life. All his life, he has been a wrestler, a heel-grabber, a scrapper who has made his own way in the world. Now he is about forty years old, and he is returning home after a lengthy exile. He doesn’t know what awaits him, but he knows that his destiny lies in Canaan.


            On the journey he meets two angels of God. The word angel means messenger, and it can apply to human messengers. In this chapter, the same word is used for the messengers that Jacob sends to his brother Esau. It appears that only Jacob saw the angels, just as he saw the stairway to heaven. With all of his other traits, good and bad, Jacob was also a mystic. It is interesting that the two messengers of God did not bring any messages to Jacob. Many commentators assume that the angels were there to strengthen Jacob and assure him that God was with him. But the story itself is quite vague about these messengers from heaven.


            It appears that Jacob had stumbled upon a holy place without knowing it. We should not assume that this was a pleasant thing for Jacob, especially in light of what happens later in the chapter. Holy ground can be dangerous. Since this event follows the story of Mizpah, it could be that the angels are there to remind Jacob that God is indeed watching him. That might be just the message for people who are entering into mid-life crisis and are tempted to reclaim their youth with reckless behavior. You never know who you are going to meet. Jacob names the place Mahanaim, which means “Two Camps,” because it is God’s camp as well as his. I’m surprised church camping grounds aren’t named Mahanaim.


Sending Word to Esau           After meeting the angels, Jacob sent his own angels to find his brother Esau in Edom. According to an ancient rhyme, they saw Esau sitting on the seesaw, but that is not in the Bible. In sending the messengers, Jacob displays his cunning. He does not know if his brother still wants to kill him. It would not be wise to just drop in on him after all these years. So he sends servants to let Esau know that he was still alive after all those years and that he has prospered. This was more than the typical bragging people do at their 20th high school reunion. It was important that Esau know that Jacob had grown into a man to reckon with.


            The servants brought back a message that frightened Jacob terribly. His brother had obviously prospered, too, since he was riding to meet Jacob with 400 men. It had not hurt him to lose his father’s blessing. This was an army, not a bodyguard. This was a force as large as the one Abraham had taken into battle to save Lot and the people of Sodom. And Jacob was coming to meet him with everything he owned. He was protected by 12 children, 4 wives, and some black sheep. He should have brought the two angels with him.


Preparations               So, Jacob had to think fast. He divided his company in two so that if Esau destroyed one group, the other might live. This is a stark reminder of the brutal realities of life in the ancient world. When we divide our assets between two companies in case one of them goes bankrupt, we aren’t really thinking about a marauding horde swooping down and killing all the employees and our children, too. That’s what Jacob was facing, but at least he could save some of them with good planning.


            Jacob’s preparation for meeting his brother included prayer. Some of you may know what this is like. You haven’t spoken to a family member for years. Before the silence is broken, you first talk to God. Some have doubted Jacob’s sincerity in this prayer, and they even raise the question of whether he isn’t still bargaining with God. We can never know for sure, but when he tells God that he is afraid of Esau, it is the most honest thing he ever said. He is terrified of his brother, whom he wronged so many years ago. He does not know if Esau has been nursing his grudge into a murderous rage that will not be assuaged by anything but blood or if he has mellowed in his prosperity. Jacob is afraid of the unknown fate that is riding to meet him.


            So he prayed to the God of Abraham and Isaac. He prayed to the God who had reassured him at Bethel. He prayed to the God who made a covenant with Abraham and rescued Isaac. There is a playful bit of foreshadowing in this prayer that is easy to overlook, by the way. Jacob mentioned that he crossed the Jordan with his staff in his hand and parted his company in two. Clearly the author was looking ahead to the day when Moses would part the waters with his staff and lead the children of Israel out of bondage. The God to whom Jacob prayed is the God who liberates the oppressed and leads exiles home.


            But Jacob was not one to rely on prayer alone. We’ve seen this throughout Genesis and it is worth noting again. The patriarchs did not sit around waiting for miracles to happen. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is that we get a good idea and the courage to act on it. Jacob’s idea was to send over 400 animals to Esau as a gift. This was a huge present meant to please his brother and to convince him that Jacob was a man of wealth and power. This was not the kid brother he used to know. Jacob had become a sheik like their father, like Esau. Plus, by giving Esau so many animals to watch over, it would slow his advance and reduce the size of his force. In short, Jacob was a man of prayer, but he was also a brilliant strategist.


Alone in the wilderness          He had done all that he could to pacify his brother, but he was still afraid. He sent his family across the stream called Jabbok, which is a pun on Jacob. The Jabbok is a stream that runs into the Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea, and it was one of the traditional borders of ancient Israel. This was the boundary that Jacob had to cross to return home, to assume his place in the covenant. But he sent his wives and children across the stream without him. Why?

            Some think that he was putting them in the line of fire so that they would be killed or captured before him, but that doesn’t fit all of his other preparations. He probably hoped to soften his brother’s heart as he looked on his family. It was also a display his own trust in Esau, but it was risky. It was possible that Esau would simply take Jacob’s family as slaves in his clan. That would not be pleasant, but they would at least be alive. Jacob knew that if Esau the hunter came upon Jacob with his family, then the bloodlust could kill them all. I think Jacob was trying to protect those he loved. We see in these preparations that Jacob’s original cunning has grown into wisdom. He is no longer concerned just about himself.


            Jacob stayed on the far side of the stream completely alone and vulnerable. This was true aloneness, alienation, isolation. I suspect that you know some of what Jacob felt as the sun set and he was left entirely alone by the Jabbok: trapped by his past, afraid of his future, at war with his brother, and now without family or friends. I have no doubt that it was tempting simply to run away again. He could abandon all that he had earned, all that he loved, and save his life. There are people who do this at 40. They are so frightened by the future or the past that they sacrifice their families, careers, home, and self-respect to run away. Like or hate him, Jacob is one of us.


Attacked by God        . Jacob had prayed that God would save him from his brother’s wrath, but he did not know that the answer to that prayer would be a different struggle; a struggle with his guilt and fear. Jacob would not have to fight Esau, he would have to fight himself and God. It was at this moment of complete helplessness and vulnerability that Jacob was attacked by an unidentified man, a stranger in the dark. I think of Monch’s great painting The Scream when I read this passage. Despite our electric lighting and noisy gadgets, we cannot escape this type of anxiety. A stranger in the dark who attacks us for no reason.




Picturing the Scene:               This story is told briefly in Scripture, but we can picture the scene in our minds. Jacob camped by the river as darkness descended and the earth slowly cooled, living with the ghosts of his past. Then, as if one of the ghosts of his soul had materialized, a man leaped from the darkness and attacked him. The middle-aged shepherd defended himself throughout the night, straining every muscle and nerve until they ached and his heart felt like it would explode in his chest. The momma’s boy and cheater fought and tumbled through the sand and briars and rocks while the stars kept a cold vigil, but the stranger did not prevail against Jacob. Finally, the skies began to lighten as dawn announced a new day. The stranger tried to escape the growing light. Was he a demon who feared light, or an angel who could not allow himself to be seen? Jacob did not know why the stranger tried to flee, but he held him tight – even as the mysterious attacker touched his hip. With one touch, he wrenched it out of the socket. Despite the blinding pain, Jacob held on and demanded a blessing.


Spiritual Struggle:      This story of Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious stranger has fascinated readers for well over 2000 years, in part because it is ambiguous and subject to many interpretations. The text itself is vague about the identity of the man Jacob fought with. It simply says that it was a man, and we might assume it was Esau himself, but Jacob says that he has seen God face to face. Was it a man or God? Jewish and Christian theologians have been disturbed by this story, and centuries ago they turned Jacob’s assailant into an angel. Artwork generally shows that he has wings, but the text itself never calls the assailant an angel. Jacob calls him God, and he names the place for God.


            This story from Genesis 32 is probably from the J source even though it does not use the name of God, YHWH, and by now we should be familiar enough with stories from the J source not to be surprised that God would appear in human form to the patriarchs. In fact, it would be surprising if the LORD did not make an appearance to Jacob face to face. What we are not prepared for in this story is the idea that the LORD would attack Jacob rather than make a covenant to him or give him a commandment like he did Abraham.


            There is another story of divine assault in the OT, Exodus 4:24, when the LORD assaults Moses because he is not circumcised. Religion scholars tend to view these stories as representative of very ancient religious beliefs. If you have ever read the Greek myths or stories from other religions, you probably came upon stories of divine assault on humans. A wanderer stumbles upon ground sacred to one of the gods and he is suddenly struck down. Ancient gods were powerful, and like all powerful forces, they could be dangerous. Naturally, the Israelites had similar ideas about the God of Abraham. He was powerful and demanding.


            So far in the story of Jacob, the patriarch has had a fairly distant relationship to the God of his fathers and mothers. He has had dreams and attributed his success to God, but he has always tried to bargain with God, to negotiate a better deal. But in returning to the Promised Land, returning to the land chosen by the LORD, Jacob had to pray for protection. He looked for God’s involvement in his life, but he didn’t expect God to so intimately involved!


            For many people God is no more than an idea or a distant being. Many of us prefer Laban’s household deities to the living God. We like gods we can carry with us and hide when necessary. We hide ourselves from the living God when he approaches. We close our ears to his voice when he challenges us. We hide our hearts from God’s piercing gaze because we know that God is dangerous. In sleepless nights when we struggle with our past and future, our destiny and dreams, we flee from God. Not Jacob. He looked God in the face and struggled with him. In his despair and doubt, he struggled instead of sitting in a corner whining about how bad things are. Jacob strove with God and in the end the trickster was blessed.


Naming and Blessing:            There is an old debate over whether God was in Jacob’s power or not. Was this play-acting? Certainly the sudden dislocation of the hip implies that God had power, but still the text says that the stranger did not overcome Jacob. As the sun rose, he had to ask the shepherd to release him, but Jacob demanded a blessing. Rather than a blessing, he got a new name, a new identity. What is the identity you have lived under all your life, he asks? Trickster, supplanter, usurper, heel grabber? That will change. He will be Israel. The name actually means something like “God is powerful” or “God struggles for us,” but it is given a different connotation in Genesis. It means, “strives with God.” Jacob had striven with God and humans and prevailed. He would have nothing to fear from Esau. It is hard to be intimidated by mere mortals once you’ve faced God and death. There is one odd fact about the change of name. Jacob is still called Jacob in the later stories.


            Historians speculate that this name change also reflects the political history of Israel. Israel was a confederation of tribes before it became a kingdom. Each tribe had its own history and stories. By joining them together in the story of the patriarch Jacob, some sense of national identity could be established. The change in name reflects this effort to unify Israel in the same way that every year we depict Americans of many nationalities and religions sitting down with the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving.


            But there is more to the name change than that. The author of Genesis has taken a very ancient story and invested it with new theological meaning. Jacob struggled with God and was named Israel. The descendents of Jacob, the people of God, should not expect their blessings to come without struggle. They are also Israel. Genesis was written in the days of the exile and return. Just as Jacob struggled with God as he returned to Canaan after 20 years of exile, the Jewish exiles would have to struggle in their return to the Promised Land. This story was told to give them hope in the midst of struggle.


Conclusion:     For the rest of his life Jacob had a limp. That does not sound like much of a blessing, but it is very believable. The great moments of our lives bless us and wound us, including our moments of spiritual maturity. God seeks to change us and redeem us as we mature, but it is a wrestling match, and in the process we may get wounded. Jacob limped after his encounter with God. We also show the scars of our spiritual struggle. As a closing thought, let me ask you, what is a scar? Simply a reminder, a memory of wounding and healing. The scar over my right eye reminds me to look out for glass doors. The scar on my right index finger reminds of how not to use a pocket knife. The scar in my soul reminds me that I am a poor, weak human. What has been your struggle, your wounding, and your blessing? What causes you to limp? Next week we will conclude the story of Jacob and Esau.

Lessons from John, ch. 13

John 13:1-20, Footwashing

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 8, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good holiday week for you. I’m afraid that one of my daughters had a brush with some poison ivy around her eye. Apparently it was because I made her weed the flower gardens and mow the yard. Had I let her watch movies all day the way she wanted, she would not have suffered. It does rather challenge one’s sense of justice in the world and adds to the perennial guilt of parenthood. I want to give a shout out to the Rev. Hal Cole who is recovering from a near fatal rupture in his aorta. We thought Hal was going to his heavenly reward, and are grateful to God for allowing Hal to be with us a little longer.

            Friday was the anniversary of the martyrdom of John Hus, who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. The witness of Hus led to the formation of the Moravian Church as a separate community of faith 550 years ago. Many Moravian churches, including Home Church, will be celebrating Holy Communion today in memory of Hus who took seriously Jesus’ teaching that his followers must be willing to follow him in suffering and death. Like Jesus, John Hus was betrayed by a friend and murdered by an Empire.

Intro to the Passion:  Last week we completed the first portion of John’s Gospel. Like the TV show 24, the remainder of John’s Gospel focuses on the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. Last week we saw that Jesus went into hiding with his disciples before the Passover feast. During their final supper together, the teacher gives his students some of the fundamental teachings of Christianity, as he prepares them for his arrest, trial, and death. The first thing he does is wash his disciples’ feet. This is one of the most important stories in the gospels, but it is found only in John’s Gospel.

            This is surprising, but we should note that some of the statements of Jesus here in ch. 13 have parallels in the other gospels, particularly Matthew 10. It is possible that Matthew recorded the teachings associated with the footwashing but omitted the footwashing itself. It is also possible that John used the footwashing as a way to illuminate the teachings of Jesus. In other words, this was an illustrative story. It is impossible to be certain whether the footwashing was historical or was a literary device of John since it only appears in John’s Gospel. But it is such a surprising story it seems unlikely John would have made it up. Still, it is quite possible that this footwashing occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry and John placed in the context of the Last Supper for dramatic effect. We have seen that John probably did this with other stories.

Love versus the Devil:          The first sentence of ch. 13 a clear transition from the Book of Signs to the Book of the Passion. It says that Jesus loved his disciples to the end or to completion. It is difficult to accurately translate the Greek here, because “telos” refers to both time and reaching a goal. Jesus loved the disciples to the end of his life, but this could also mean that he loved them fully or that he showed them the full extent of his love. The ambiguity is typically John in that both are true. By loving the disciples until he laid down his life, he showed them the full extent of his love. This love of Jesus for his disciples stands in marked contrast to Judas, who is mentioned in verse 2. The text says that the devil had induced Judas to betray Jesus. This is not simply foreshadowing, as some commentators suggest. Jesus is about to give his most important lesson on the meaning of love, but the devil is inducing Judas to betray Jesus.

            Over the centuries, the church got too interested in the mythology of Satan and created all kinds of outlandish pictures of the devil with bifurcated tail and a hayfork. These images from popular superstition were magnified in Hollywood so that mention of the devil brings to mind Rosemary’s baby. Let’s leave all of that for Halloween. In the Gospel of John, the devil has no physical form. The devil is what turns a person’s heart away from Jesus, away from the way of truth and life. The devil looks like Judas, indeed like every disciple who departs from the path of love and betrays the teacher. The devil is the contrast to love and truth. It is John’s word for hatred. Christians need to remember that the devil cannot be defeated by his own weapons: hate, fear, and lies. Incidentally, with the last Harry Potter book appearing in a couple of weeks, let me point out that J.K. Rowling has a good sense of what the Gospel of John is teaching. John’s strategy for confronting the banality of evil is self-sacrificial love. John introduces the story of the footwashing with a statement about betrayal to highlight the significance of Jesus’ actions.

Passover:        There is one important historical question related to this account in John that we should discuss before reading the lesson. John 13:1 clearly states that this supper with the disciples was before the Passover festival, but the other gospels state that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, called a Seder. Also, according to John, Jesus was executed on a Friday, the 14th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and was buried just before the Passover festival began. But according to Mark, and the gospels that copied him, Jesus was executed on the 15th day of Nisan, the first day of Passover. They agree it was a Friday, by the way, but not on the date. Since we do not have copies of the calendar to verify the date, we cannot resolve this. In fact, we don’t even know for sure what year the crucifixion was. Scholars are divided over whether Mark or John has the correct date. A few scholars have gone to great lengths to argue that both are somehow true according to different calendars, but the fact remains that John says the Last Supper was before Passover rather than during Passover. Does this matter? Perhaps not, but it does shows that the four canonical gospels disagree over an important historical date. Does that undermine their reliability as religious texts showing us the way to salvation? No.

            Personally, I think John is correct and that this is another example of the historical accuracy of John’s Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the priests would have had a trial during the Passover festival or that the Romans would have executed someone then. The rush to get Jesus’ body off the cross by sundown makes more sense if the Sabbath was the first day of the festival. It is more likely that Mark used the Passover Seder as a way to interpret the death of Jesus. Some have suggested John moved the date of crucifixion to correlate the death of Jesus with the slaughter of the lambs for Passover, but John does not make that connection.

Read I’ll be reading John 13:1-11 in Raymond Brown’s translation.

Footwashing:              One of the most remarkable things about John’s Gospel is that there is no story of Jesus instituting the Eucharist, the central ritual of Christianity. Nowhere in John does Jesus take bread and wine and tell his disciples to eat and drink in memory of him. The washing of the disciples’ feet stands in the place where the institution of Holy Communion is in the other gospels This does not mean that the church of the beloved disciple did not celebrate Holy Communion. As we saw earlier, John 6 is full of allusions to Holy Communion and might have originally narrated the institution of this ritual, but in the final version of the Gospel, the footwashing stands as a climactic moment.

            It might be helpful to know a few things about footwashing in the time of Jesus. Times were different then. People wore sandals and roads were dusty. When you entered someone’s house, it was polite to wash the dirt off of your feet. Householders would routinely provide pitchers of water for this purpose. Wealthy people might have slaves wash your feet because this was one of those acts of personal hygiene that would be humiliating to perform for another person. There is evidence that disciples were required to wash the feet of their teachers, just as Buddhist monks must act as servants for their masters. When Jesus girded himself, he literally took on “the form of a servant,” which was shocking to the disciples, as was represented by Peter’s response.

            Normally the washing of feet took place when you entered the house. It was never done while you were sitting at the table. So, when Jesus got up from the table to wash the disciples’ feet, it was clear that this was a prophetic action – a teaching acted out. Though nothing supernatural was involved, we could refer to this as a sign in the Johanine sense. It was a physical action of Jesus that pointed to a deeper spiritual meaning. The footwashing was a revelation of the true identity of Jesus and a call to a new way of life for the disciples. Read in this way, the footwashing stands alongside the other signs in John: the changing of water into wine, the healing of the blind person, the feeding of the multitude, and even the salvation of the adulterous woman. This was a revelation.

Baptism:         You may remember that John’s Gospel does not have an account of Jesus’ baptism, nor does it mention baptism. This has led many scholars, since the early days of the church, to speculate that the footwashing is related to baptism in some way. Certainly Jesus’ statement that “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” sounds like a reference to baptism. The trouble is that washing feet is hardly the same as baptism. As far as we can tell, early Christian baptism was based on bathing. The word baptism means to immerse something in water for the purpose of washing. Incidentally, in the eastern Orthodox churches, infants and adults are both baptized by immersion. It was only in the Western church that the sprinkling of water on the head replaced immersion for baptism. Along with that came an emphasis on the baptismal font. Holy water was kept in the font so people could ward off evil spirits as they entered the sanctuary. It is possible, if unlikely, that the church associated with the beloved disciple used the washing of feet in this way.

            Is this account a rejection of baptism or a confirmation of baptism? It is hard to say for sure because there is some ambiguity in the conversation between Jesus and Peter. Simon Peter asks Jesus to wash his hands and his head as well as his feet, which sounds like a request for a full baptism. We can note in passing that Peter’s request is similar to the ritual ablutions in Islam, which include washing of the face, hands, and feet. But Jesus refuses to accede to Peter’s request because those who have bathed do not need to wash. It is not clear why Jesus contrasts bathing and washing here. It is quite likely that this passage had a meaning for the original readers that is lost to us now.

            This could mean that the disciples have been bathed in the waters of baptism already and the washing of the feet is a lesser baptism. Over time, this idea was connected with the Catholic doctrine that baptism washes a person clean from original sin and penance cleanses one from post-baptismal sins. Oddly enough, penance never included washing. It is possible that the washing that Jesus here refers to is not a washing with water at all, but is speaking of spiritual purification. That might make sense of his statement that the disciples were clean, except for the betrayer. Washing the feet of Judas did not turn him away from his intended betrayal; therefore it is hard to claim that the washing of the body cleanses the soul of sin. The sacraments do not magically transform a person; neither does preaching.

            Throughout the Gospel of John, we have seen that individuals play a role in their own transformation. Here in this tender scene of a teaching washing his students’ feet, the focus is on Jesus’ action in washing rather than on the water. We have the ultimate sign of grace. All Jesus asked was for the disciples to place themselves in his hands and accept his work for them;, to let him remove the dirt, to let him touch them with hands that had given sight to the blind. But Peter can’t do this without a struggle, and Judas can only pretend to love and be loved.

Sacramental Action:              It appears that some of early Christians, particularly the churches associated with the Beloved Disciple, practiced footwashing, but most did not. As the church became part of society, the practice died out except for special settings, such as monasteries. Footwashing was a special ritual of humility, not a sacrament. The Pope, for instance, washes feet on Maundy Thursday. In the 16th century, the Protestants rethought the sacraments and rejected Catholic dogma. According to Martin Luther, a sacrament is a ritual that Jesus commanded his followers to perform in his memory. Because of Luther, most Protestant denominations have only two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Jesus never gave a commandment to confirm people or ordain them as priests, for instance, so those are rites rather than sacraments.

            In the 18th century, a number of radical Protestant groups questioned the conclusion that there were only two sacraments. In John 13, Jesus instituted footwashing and clearly commanded his followers to follow his example. Why spiritualize this and not spiritualize baptism? Only a few small churches adopted footwashing as a third sacrament alongside baptism and the eucharist. The churches that do so, such as the Church of the Brethren and the Primitive Baptists, do view this as an act of obedience to the commandment of Jesus and a way to learn experientially the meaning of discipleship. Why don’t all churches?

            The answer is fairly simple, I think. It is one thing to baptize a person, particularly a baby. It is another thing to wash everyone’s feet in church. Logistics alone get in the way. It is one thing to eat a piece of bread in common with people you may not know. It is something else to let others see your feet and touch you. Footwashing is so intimate that it is threatening. I’ve led footwashings in the past, and it has always been a deeply moving and very uncomfortable ritual. Some people refuse to participate; others break into tears. I can appreciate Peter’s explosive reaction to what Jesus was doing. We think it would make us feel important to have someone kneel before us and wash our feet, but in fact it makes us vulnerable. The act of washing reminds us that we are not clean. An act of loving service shows us how little we love.

            It may interest you that the Moravians were one of those radical churches that practiced footwashing on a regular basis in the 18th century. As with Jesus’ original footwashing, there was no single meaning to this ritual. Sometimes it was used to restore someone who had rebelled against the community or had sinned grievously. Sometimes it was used to remind everyone that the servants of Jesus are not greater than their master. Sometimes it was used to welcome people into the community and show them that they were loved and valued. Often it was used to prepare people to receive Holy Communion, as a way to focus their hearts and minds on Christ. Not everyone liked this ritual. Count Zinzendorf and the Countess had a big fight over her initial refusal to let peasants wash her feet. As time passed, the ritual lost its impact. Teen-agers approached the ritual with giggles and impiety. As we became more like our neighbors in America, white Moravians grew uncomfortable being touched brothers and sisters with darker skin. Gradually our church dropped footwashing as a ritual action and became more like all the other churches. The question is whether we also lost the lesson Jesus was trying to teach.

            The footwashing scene in John is not incidental to the Gospel; it is central. It is a visible expression of the entire teaching of Jesus. Those who claim to be Christians are called to be washed by Jesus, to be loved by Jesus, and to respond by serving and loving others. Faith is a single event that cannot be separated into conversion, evangelism, or social service. It is one action to be born from above, to form a fellowship of love, and to kneel in humble service. The disciples will discover the full depth of this humility and love in the events that will take place the following afternoon.

I Samuel 18: David and Jonathan

I Samuel 18:1-16 – After Goliath

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 22, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you. I did not get as much sleep as I would have liked this week. I would sometimes wake up in the wee hours of the morning with a kitten nibbling on my ear or pouncing on my feet. Madeleine has been enjoying her swimming lessons this summer. If you happen to have dropped any coins in your pool and need someone to fetch them, give her a call. I played golf a couple of weeks ago with a preacher and two church elders, which was kind of tough since I had to be on my best behavior. Our thoughts turned to bad golf analogies for preaching, such as the church being like a team in a captain’s choice tournament. There are some who drive well, some who chip well, some who putt well, and some who well, complain. This morning I’d like to give a shout out to Mark Wright and Henry Starbuck who are the gentlemen that make sure that this show is broadcast each week. We are grateful for their service.

Last week I had more lesson than I had time, or else I was talking more like a Southerner than a Northerner. Since I didn’t finish, I’ll pick up with the story of David and Goliath. There is certainly much more to be said about this story, but the main point shines through all of the layers of scholarly debate and interpretation. Aside from its more gruesome aspects, this is a story that is great for children and adults. It is a tale of a brave youth who stands up for what is right even in the face of opposition from adults. It is about a wise older man giving David a chance to excel. And it is about the arrogance of power that forgets that God is on the side of the oppressed. The message of this story is that we need to have faith and be of good courage as we confront the Goliaths of this age.

Read 17:41-51            Talking Trash and Taking Heads                        Verses 41-51 are the dramatic heart of the story and the part we all remember from Sunday School. David, wearing nothing but his traveling tunic, steps out in front of the Israelite army. Goliath sees this young fellow, and is not impressed by his good looks. He thinks the Israelites are mocking him, and probably assumed David was some half-wit being sent to certain death. He taunts David, which is what we call “talking smack” today. He sounds like a professional wrestler urging David to attack, and tells him that he will feed his dead body to the birds. David responds with some of his own trash talk, but his trash talk is pious. He gives a speech warning the Philistine that he is a soldier for God who does not need even a sword or shield. He also one ups him, telling Goliath that will not only feed his body to the birds, he will cut off his head.

This speech is included to make it clear to the reader that defeating Goliath will show everyone that the God of Israel is stronger than the mighty Philistines. This was the kind of faith Samuel was looking for in a king. Ultimately, we are told, it is not swords and spears that save a nation; it is faith and courage. The future king warned the mighty Philistines that nations should not pride themselves on the size of their weapons or numbers of their soldiers. We Americans need to keep in mind that God is on the side of the oppressed Israelites here, not the arrogant Philistines. Christians in every age, including our own, tend to make the mistake of believing that their own nation is like Israel.  Rather we should make sure that we are not acting like the Philistines.

This story captures in graphic form an important moment in human history. Here we see the late stone age culture of ancient Israel waging war against the bronze age culture of the Philistines. In the long run, Israel will develop and become more like the Philistines, but for the moment, the old ways prove resilient. David’s faith gave him confidence, and he bravely ran toward Goliath who did not have a clue what David would do. Before he was in range of the giant’s spear, David slung a stone. It worked just the way he planned. The stone hit Goliath on his unprotected forehead, and he fell. The text is a little ambiguous and shows signs of later editing, but presumably Goliath was not killed by the stone alone. David grabbed the giant’s own sword and removed his head.

Read: 17:52-58            The Philistines were stunned the way any army is stunned when its invincible weapons are shown to be vulnerable. Rather than simply killing little David, they panicked and ran. If the smallest Israelite could do this, what could the rest of Saul’s men do? When the Philistines turned their backs, the men of Judah and Israel pursued them all the way back to their fortified cities, slaughtering them as they fled.

For his part, David kept Goliath’s head and armor. The text says he put the armor in his tent, but that makes no sense because David did not have a tent. David probably put the armor in a tent at one of the Israelite shrines, perhaps Nob (I Sam. 21). There is a bigger problem with the claim that David brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, since Jerusalem at that time belonged to the Jebusites. It was much later that it became the city of David. It was probably after David became king that he had the head of the giant brought into the city where it was put on display. This is a reminder that things could be gruesome in days of yore.

Entering the Household of Saul            The story ends with David meeting Saul and his general Abner who is an important figure that we will meet again.  Neither Abner nor Saul has any idea who David is. There have been several ingenious attempts to explain why Saul and Abner do not know David even though David was Saul’s personal musician. One of them is that Saul is so crazy at this point that he does not remember his own armor bearer, but Saul is not depicted as insane or forgetful in this story. Instead he took a great interest in David and tried to protect him. The simplest explanation of why Saul did not know David in this story is that the author of the story did not know that David had entered Saul’s service as a musician.

What is important in this version of how David met Saul for the first time is that the king asks him who his father is. David replies that he is the son of Jesse of Bethlehem. No mention is made of the other sons of Jesse who are serving Saul. Like Joseph’s older brothers, they have to deal with the fact that the brother they had scorned is standing in honor before the king. We hear almost nothing of Jesse and David’s brothers after this. From this moment on, Saul will become a surrogate father for David, and Jonathan will be the shepherd boy’s brother. It is to Jonathan that we now turn.

Read I Samuel 18:1-5           

Jonathan                        There are two schools of thought about the opening verses of chapter 18. Some interpreters believe that the meeting of David and Jonathan should be read as the conclusion of the David and Goliath story, but it is possible that these verses were originally connected to the story of David playing the lyre for Saul. In the long run, it does not matter much. The point of the story is clear. Jonathan was so impressed with this new member of his father’s court that he gave David his own armor, weapons, and robe. As we know, David did not own his own armor or weapons, and Jonathan’s gift could be interpreted simply as an act of kindness toward a poor country boy who finds himself suddenly hanging out with wealthy and powerful people.

But there is more to Jonathan’s actions than simply the need to provide David with armor. In the ancient world, clothing and armor were expensive gifts. You didn’t just pick them up at the local mall. Jonathan is being presented to us as a very generous young man who sees David as a friend rather than a rival. Even more significant is the fact that these gifts were so personal. Giving any gift is a way to bind you to someone else, but the act of giving someone your own clothing means that you identify with that person in some way. Jonathan views David as his brother and he wants him to have the weapons he has used. It would be like Tiger Woods giving a new golfer his best set of clubs and one of his green jackets.

We are told that David and Jonathan sealed a covenant of friendship, which probably involved some type of religious ceremony that is now lost to us. It would have been analogous to the famous Indian ritual of making someone a “blood brother.” Keep in mind that ancient Israel was probably more like a Native American tribe than like a modern nation. The author of I Samuel either did not know what the ritual was or assumed that everyone knew, so he does not describe it for us. Whatever the ritual was, it meant that Jonathan sealed a life-long covenant with David that was blessed by God.

Modern America has lost much of this sense of deep and lasting friendship between men or between women for that matter. Researchers have found that most Americans cannot name a close personal friend other than their spouse or a sibling. I am glad I am richly blessed with friends who have stood by me in difficult times and who laugh with me in good times. Jonathan and David were more than fishing buddies or golf pals or business partners. They were brothers who would fight beside each other, confide in each other, and care for each other.

David served Saul successfully, and before long he rose from the rank of armor bearer to being one of Saul’s generals. Normally when a young man rises suddenly to the top, others are jealous and try to bring him down. They circulate all kinds of rumors about him and his family, but that was not the case with David. We are told that the people in Saul’s court approved of David and that he was popular with the people. David was recognized as a man blessed by God who used his gifts for the good of the nation. He worked hard and was successful in his campaigns. At this point in the story, all is going well for David, Saul, and Jonathan, but trouble lay ahead. It was not just men who loved David, as we see in verses 6-9.

Read I Samuel 18:6-9           

The Women                        Verses 6-9 tell about David returning home after killing a Philistine and being greeted by a group of women singing and dancing. In its current context, this story sounds like it is describing David returning after killing the giant Goliath, but this event with the women seems to take place much later than that. In assembling the story of David, the author of I Samuel brought together records from different places and time periods, and the final result is a little confusing. This passage makes much more sense if we forget about Goliath for the moment and connect it to the previous statement that Saul set David was successful wherever Saul sent him.

Clearly David has developed into a great military commander, and when he returned to Saul’s court after a particularly sanguinary engagement with the Philistines, he was welcomed as a conquering hero. Women from all over the country ran to greet him and welcomed him with song. That is an old tradition that has died out in the modern world. We have remnants of it in our tickertape parades or when a sports team returns home after winning a championship, but this was much more than that. Picture rows of women in their finest garb singing in Middle Eastern fashion while playing tambourines and dancing. They were celebrating the fact that their husbands and sons were returning home alive thanks to the skill of David. They were also celebrating the fact that they were not going to be raped or enslaved by the enemy. And they knew that David brought glory to the whole nation. There was much reason to rejoice in David’s victories.

I Samuel records the words that the women sang, and scholars believe that this verse is one of the oldest in Scripture. It became a proverb to describe the career of David, but it was probably meant originally to praise both the king and his general. Saul has slain thousands and David ten thousands! The women were rejoicing that their nation was so great that it had two famous warriors. The king was the scourge of the Philistine, but his young general was even more fierce and intelligent in battle. Saul and David were like King Arthur and Lancelot, the king and the invincible warrior, but Saul lacked the wisdom of the legendary king of the Britons and was jealous of his Lancelot.

Saul’s Jealousy                        Saul should have rejoiced that young David was so successful and popular. David brought the nation victory and was practically one of his sons. David’s charisma could unite the people in ways that Saul had never been able to do, but Saul grew jealous. He was displeased by the adulation the women showed David. Resentment began to eat away at his soul and his mind. From here on in the story, Saul will resemble Richard Nixon in his last years in the White House. He is consumed by his resentment and the fear that he might lose power. This is the tragedy of King Saul. As he grew older, he brought about his own destruction through his resentment and fear.

Verses 10-11 tell about Saul attempting to kill David while he was playing the lyre for him, but many biblical scholars believe these verses were accidentally inserted by someone copying the manuscript. They are missing in some ancient manuscripts and they duplicate material later in the book. We’re going to ignore them since they interrupt the narrative and don’t make much sense in context.

Skipping ahead to verse 12, we read that Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him instead of Saul. Saul sent David away from the capital. He was in charge of a company of a thousand men. Presumably, Saul hoped David would be killed in battle, but this ended up making David even more powerful and popular. He won victory after victory, and even the king was in awe of him. It is uncomfortable to be the leader and be in awe of one of your subordinates. It is much easier to appoint people who are no more intelligent, competent, or effective than you are. That is one reason why businesses, universities, churches, and even governments that are run by insecure people tend to get rid of their brightest employees. Saul is the poster child for that kind of self-defeating insecurity.

Conclusion                        Chapters 17 and 18 present David as a cunning warrior whom God has blessed. In this portion of Scripture we see David entering into the household of King Saul. He becomes a close friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, whom we already know, and later in the chapter he will marry Saul’s daughter. We will discuss that story next week. David becomes one of Saul’s best commanders and is beloved by the people. So far, David’s story is like a folktale of a poor youth rising to great glory, and we might expect a fairy tale ending such as “and he and the princess lived happily ever after,” but things don’t turn out that way. There are many reasons why Saul should be grateful that David is one of his men, but Saul distrusts David because he is successful and popular. He is suspicious of David’s ambitions and suspects that he will turn the people against him. In the weeks to come, we will see that Saul is correct about David, but only because Saul’s resentment made David’s rise to power possible. One of the lessons we should take from this text is that our resentments and jealousies may destroy us.            

New links

Check out the two new links. “Homebrewed Christianity” features a podcast interview with me talking about heretics, especially John Hus. There is also an interview with John Dominic Crossan and other theologians and emergent church leaders. Tripp Fuller and Chad Crawford are the ones who make it possible.

The other is a peacemaker blog run by a Moravian layperson, Rick Stamm. Rick is trying to get Moravians interested in reclaiming our heritage as the first peace church (at least after the time of Constantine). Tune in and comment.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 33

Genesis 30-31: Of Goats and Gods

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 11, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you. We made it past the apocalyptic date of 6-6-6, and the only tragedies were the release of the new Omen movie and the latest installment of the Left Behind books. I played golf last week in a charity event with three ministers and my brother. We discussed the theological implications of golf and came up with some really bad sermon titles such as “The dimples on your life make you fly farther when God tees you up.” We played badly, ate too many hot dogs, got caught in a thunderstorm and had a great time. Most of the Moravian clergy in Forsyth County got together for a cook-out recently, and we got caught in the worst thunderstorm I’ve been in for some time. I’m not sure if it’s me or the company I keep, but it seems lightening is striking.


Gen. 30:25-31:55 as a Unit:              Last week we discussed the intense competition between the two wives of Jacob and the births of 12 of his children. It was a story about Jacob as a husband, but our passage for this week is about Jacob’s animal husbandry. It is a long and rather odd story, so I will paraphrase rather than reading it all. It begins at 30:25 and runs through the end of chapter 31. The basic plot revolves around Jacob’s competition with his uncle Laban who has already cheated him once. Jacob worked for Laban, but like many men, he had a family to care for: 2 wives, 2 concubines, and 12 children at least. The drama of the story is whether Jacob can extricate himself from his uncle’s web without losing the fruits of his labor. He does so with a little bit of guile and the help of Rachel.


Jacob and Laban:       The story begins after the birth of Joseph. Now that Rachel has had a son, Jacob decides that it is time to return to his home and claim his place as a clan leader. He has fulfilled his obligation to Laban and established himself as an adult. Jacob has grown up from the boy we saw earlier. He is mature, hard working, responsible, and intelligent. Through his efforts, Laban himself has become more prosperous. God himself has told Laban that Jacob is the key to his success. The text says that he used divination, which means he made inquiries of God. The priests of ancient Israel engaged in divination when they used the Urim and Thummin stones. We do not know how Laban inquired of God, but he knew how valuable Jacob was. So when Jacob asks for his wages, Laban tries to convince him to stay. Bosses will do some dirty tricks to keep you working for them, you know. I had one boss who called up a woman’s new employer to try to convince him to change his mind about hiring her. Laban was that kind of boss.


            Laban and Jacob engaged in an extended negotiation. Jacob tells his boss that he is leaving. Laban flatters him by telling him that he has been a blessing. Name your salary, Laban says. Jacob reminds Laban how valuable he really is. Most likely he exaggerated when he said that Laban had almost nothing before Jacob came. We do that when we are asking for a raise, don’t we? I find it kind of comforting to know that the great patriarch, Jacob, had to negotiate his salary. Jacob was no fool. Rather than asking for a set wage, he makes a deal with Laban.


            Jacob will go through the herds and take out the black sheep and the animals with spots or stripes. It could be that such animals were considered less valuable than the other sheep and goats or it might have just been a good way to separate the flocks visibly. It was a good plan, but it didn’t work because Laban was untrustworthy. Before Jacob could select his animals, Laban’s sons took the spotted and stripped animals, male and female, out of the flock. Laban’s sons then took them three days from where Jacob was, and left him to tend the rest of the flock. Laban’s plan was to keep Jacob so poor that he would have to work for him, just as industrialists around the world keep their workers in debt to the company so they can’t afford to leave. Laban was probably chairman of the Paddan aram chamber of commerce. He was shrewd, and once again the trickster had been outwitted by uncle.


Animal Husbandry:                But Jacob had a trick up his sleeve just in case his uncle proved dishonest. Jacob put striped wooden rods in front of the sheep and goats while they were drinking and mating so that when they conceived they had striped sheep. This is one of those parts of the Bible that if you take literally, you will be disappointed because it is based on a faulty understanding of inherited traits. It is the genes that determine whether a sheep is black or white, not what the mother was staring out while she was mating. We don’t need to get too caught up into how this trick worked. It’s like watching a magician; don’t worry too much about figuring out the trick.


            This ancient story was not told as a way to teach farmers to raise black sheep; it was told to show us how clever Jacob was even when he was being cheated by an older and craftier man. Over time, Jacob’s flock increased, and he grew very wealthy despite Laban’s attempts to cheat him and repress him. Laban and his sons were not happy that Jacob was growing prosperous, and Jacob knew that their resentment was growing. He also knew that resentment leads to violence. It was time to leave. Jacob tells his wives that it was God who had blessed Jacob’s flocks. As with the story of the mandrakes, we see the author of Genesis making sure we understand that God is the one acting behind the scenes, even when we are using every means at our disposal.


Convincing the Women:        At this point in the story, God spoke to Jacob in a dream telling him to return to the “land of your ancestors.” Jacob was already in the land of his ancestors. His grandfather and his mother had come from Haran. Clearly the author of that verse was written with someone else in mind. Genesis was written to the Jews in exile in Babylon, giving them hope that they would return to the land of their ancestors. God would be with them in that journey, just as he was with Jacob on his journey home.


            The commandment to return home came in a dream. There are times when you spend days trying to decide what to do, and then the answer comes to you in a dream. Of course, it is possible that Jacob was just using the dream story as a way to convince his wives to leave Haran. The important point, though, is that Jacob knew it was time to leaven Haran and that God would be with him. It is interesting that he consults with both of his wives before leaving. This is normal practice in American households today, but it would have been rare in ancient times for a husband to admit publicly that he had gotten approval from his wives before moving the family. The fact that Genesis includes this little story indicates the high view of women in this book. Their choice plays a role in the history of salvation.


            Leah and Rachel say that the choice is easy because their father sold them like slaves and spent the bride-price on himself instead of on the girls. Like some parents today, he was consuming all of the children’s inheritance rather than preparing a future for them. The women know that there future lies with Jacob and his cunning. Even the unloved Leah agrees to leave home and journey to a far country. Leah and Rachel were not powerless; they take action throughout this story.


Leaving Laban           Once the family decides that it is time to leave and are convinced that God is with them in this decision, they make plans for an immediate departure. This was the shrewd course of action. Jacob knew that Laban would try to stop him again, so he packed up the family while Laban was away shearing the sheep. This was no little feat when we think of the size of Jacob’s family, including the servants and hired hands. Plus Jacob had a lot of goats. Genesis bluntly says that he deceived Laban the Aramean. Here is some of the humor at Laban’s expense that I mentioned in the overview. Jacob had outwitted the crafty Laban who had twice tricked him. The Bible teaches us to be good, honest, loving, and all other virtues, but it does not teach us to be foolish. Jacob was right to be shrewd and cautious in dealing with Laban. Jesus likewise told us to be shrewd in dealing with the children of this world.


Laban’s Gods             It took a week for Laban to catch up with Jacob. He could travel much faster since he didn’t have to bring along the sheep and goats. There is little that Laban could do at this point, so he relied on lies and threats. He gives the impression that he loves his daughters and could not bear to be parted from them, even though we know that his daughters felt abused by him. Go to court anywhere in America on any given day, and you will hear a parent who is on trial for abuse telling the court how much they love their children, just as Laban protested to Jacob. Leah and Rachel have already told the truth. Laban would not have sent them away with music and dancing, with kisses and tears of farewell. He would not have let Jacob go at all.


            When the lies do not work, Laban uses a threat. He tells Jacob that it was only because God had told him not to harm his son-in-law that he does not do so. That may be true, but I think Laban was also a coward. Most abusers and liars are, you know. When the threat doesn’t work, Laban finally gets to the point. He asks, “Why did you steal my gods?” This is a question that should take us aback. Why would Jacob, who grew up worshiping the God of Abraham steal some pagan idols? What’s going on here?


            In the ancient world, families had their own little set of idols for the purposes of household devotions. The Hebrew word for these household gods is “Teraphim.” Many homes in America have things similar to teraphim, some type of object that is symbolic of the family and is believed to give some protection. It might be a horseshoe or a statue of St. Christopher or a family heirloom or even a Moravian star. Even though the Ten Commandments forbid graven images and prophets condemned the use of them, we know that these little idols were used for centuries. Even King David had teraphim. The Nuzi, who were neighbors of the Israelites in ancient times also used teraphim. The teraphim identified who the head of the family was and who had the right of inheritance. By stealing her father’s teraphim, Rachel had guaranteed her claims to her father’s property. She knew her brothers would take what her husband had earned, so she took action. Her theft was designed to grant justice to herself, her sister Leah, and all of their children. Rachel was bold because she knew Laban would not do the right thing.


Rachel’s Cunning:     We get some sense of the import of the theft when Jacob reacts angrily to Laban’s accusation. He proclaims that anyone caught with his father-in-law’s teraphim will be killed on the spot. Jacob makes this vow because he thinks no one would have been bold enough to steal Laban’s gods. But we know that it was Rachel, his beloved, who stole them. Jacob has just sealed the doom of Rachel, but she is cunning. Rachel is not one to let fate come to her. She puts the gods in her saddle and waits.


            Here we have more humor at Laban’s expense. The blustering old man searches every tent without success. Finally he comes to his daughter, for whom he has no respect. She treats him with all the deference expected of a child, but she does not get off the camel. She tells the old man that it is her time of the month and she cannot rise. This was before modern sanitary products that we see advertised day and night on television. The ancient hearers of this tale no doubt laughed at the pompous Laban’s embarrassment at his daughter’s condition. I suspect that this tale was told and retold by women in the tents for generations before it was written down by one of the priests of Israel. Rachel stole the gods and she outwitted her crafty father. That is how the great patriarch of Israel was able to return to the land of his father and grandfather!


The Mizpah Benediction       Laban was defeated by a woman, and Jacob could finally tell him off. Jacob listed the offenses he had endured at Laban’s hand, and he made it clear that he would endure no more. He had a right to the sheep and the goats and the girls. The time had come to make a clean break with Laban. We have to do that sometimes. We have to recognize when it is no longer healthy to work for a psychopath or to live in a house with an abusive parent or spouse or to put up with a neighbor’s bad behavior. It is right to take a stand against lies, abuse, and manipulation, just as Jacob did in standing up to Laban. No more.


            Jacob insisted that they come to a mutual accord, a non-aggression treaty. I will leave you alone and you will leave me alone. They set up a sacred pillar and a pile of stones to mark the spot of the covenant and the limit beyond which neither would pass. And they called upon the God of their fathers, the God of Nahor and the God of Abraham, as a witness. It is interesting that Jacob swore by the “Fear of Isaac” rather than on the name of the LORD, Yahweh. This may indicate that the original story was very old.


            Jacob named the pillar Mizpah, which means Watchpost, because he called on God as the watchman between himself and Laban. It was Laban who said: “The LORD watch between me and you when we are absent from one another.” This has become a traditionally blessing for Boy Scouts, Women’s Fellowship, and many other Christian groups as they close their meetings. It is a bit odd to use this statement given by Laban as a benediction, though. The clear intention of Laban’s words are that he does not trust Jacob, and Jacob does not trust him. It is a warning more than a blessing; a reminder that God is watching us even when we cannot keep an eye on each other. God will be the judge of our actions even when the law is not. This is what Mizpah means.


            Then Laban warns Jacob not to mistreat Rachel or Leah, and he forbids him to take additional wives because then his grandchildren would have to share their inheritance with the children of the other wives. Could it be that Laban really was worried about his daughters, or is this just another attempt to appear to be a good father when he wasn’t? Perhaps, Laban just didn’t want his daughters or grandchildren coming back home looking for money. That is the fear of many a father and mother today. We hope that our children are happy in their marriages because we sure don’t want them moving back in with us, and so we pray for them as Laban did. Most likely, Laban was like most fathers. He genuinely worried about the welfare of his daughters, especially when they were married, but his love was often clouded by his own selfishness. Perhaps we should be a little more gracious to Laban, as Jacob was in the end. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and rejoice in the fact that Jacob gave a feast for Laban and parted on good terms. They sealed a covenant and called upon God’s watch and protection. Laban kissed Leah and Rachel good-bye and returned to Paddan-aram. Leah and Rachel chose to go with Jacob, and the rest of the Bible is about their descendents in the Promised Land.


Conclusion                  The pillar of Mizpah would stand as a boundary marker between the Arameans and the Israelites, but it was also a reminder that God is always watching. What have we learned from this tangled tale of goats and gods and the Mizpah benediction? Once again, we’ve seen that God works through human means to fulfill the covenant he made. Jacob and Rachel did not sit around waiting for miracles; they took action. They also knew whom not to trust. We should remember that the children of God should trust God and his promises, but we do not need to be foolish about the ways of the world. Nor should we trust cheaters and liars. This story in Genesis reminds me of my favorite Arabic proverb, which I often use as my email signature: Trust God, but tie your camel.


            Next week, Jacob will wrestle with God.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 32 – the Tribes

Gen. 29-30: Sisters and Wives

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 4, 2006

Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It’s been a quiet week around Home Church. Much of the congregation has gone up to Laurel Ridge for a morning of worship, fun, and food. This morning we are sending Scott Venable off for a three month sabbatical and welcoming Christy Clore who will fill in during Scott’s absence. One of my daughters has been concerned that Tuesday’s date will be 6-6-6, the date of the beast. She has an algebra test that day and is hoping that the apocalypse will come before rather than after the test.  

            Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Christian calendar and we will be celebrating Holy Communion in worship. Pentecost used to be one of the most important Christian festivals, but over the years it has been overshadowed by the big events of Easter and Christmas. Pentecost is called the birthday of the church because on that day, the gospel was heard in dozens of languages and the curse of Babel was momentarily overcome. I think one of the most important messages for Christians today, with Pentecost in mind, is that there is no such thing as Christian nationalism. The followers of Christ speak over a thousand languages and minister in almost every country on earth. Our banner is the Lamb once slain whose message remains one of radical compassion and love even for our enemies.

Jacob and his Wives:            The grand themes of Pentecost seem far removed from the stories we are now discussing in Genesis. Today we are examining the birth of the children of Jacob, and it is a very human story filled with jealousy, whining, and even root-doctoring, but out of all this emerge the 12 tribes of Israel. Last week’s lectionary reading involved the selection of Matthias as one of the 12 apostles, and several people asked me why they wanted 12 apostles. The simple answer is that 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes. By setting aside some of the apostles as the Twelve, the early church was making the point that it was the new Israel. It was a way to connect the story of the church and the apostles to the story of Israel. So, our lesson today is not as far off from the church calendar as you might expect.

            Many historians think that the story of Jacob and his wives reflects the complex tribal politics of ancient Israel. The argument gets very technical and the evidence is a bit scanty, but the theory makes a certain sense. In the period of the Judges there was no nation of Israel; there was only a confederation of tribes that had some shared history. Traditionally the number of tribes was 12, but there actually 20 different lists of tribes in the OT. By the time of the exile, the number 12 had become traditional and the listing of the tribes in Genesis and Deuteronomy had assumed symbolic status. It is likely that the story of Jacob was told, in part, as a way to unify the tribes by creating a common history. The author of Genesis, as we have seen before, was working with older sources and weaving them into this new story of faithfulness in the midst of exile. It is also a story about hope for the future. The story of the tribal patriarchs was linked to the hope for the restoration of all Israel, but it is the matriarchs who are most important in this story.

Childbirth:            In our lesson for today, we see one of the places where the traditional chapter division of the Bible is inaccurate. The chapters of the OT are not original to the text. They were added in the Middle Ages by scholars to make it easier to lecture on the Bible. Chapter 30 should begin at verse 29:31 (“When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved…”) and end with verse 30:24 and the birth of Joseph. At least that’s the way we are going to study it today!

            Rather than read the entire story of the birth of Jacob’s children, I will summarize the action. As you read it yourself, I hope you will notice that this is definitely a story in which women are the central characters and actors. Jacob is a rather passive figure throughout, and his only speech is not very pious. You will remember from last week that Jacob was tricked by Laban into marrying both of his daughters, Leah and Rachel. He loved Rachel, not Leah, and this set up a bitter rivalry between the two sisters, which was fought through childbirth. You may remember from earlier discussions that pregnancy was even more important in the ancient world than today. A woman’s status depended greatly on whether she was married and had children.

            Rachel’s cry to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die!” is more than hysteria or hyperbole. Not only did she have the longing for children that many men and women today have, especially those are unable to conceive, but she knew that her life might depend on a son. She had no guarantee that she would be cared for if her husband died, but a son would provide for her in her old age. She also knew that the primary reason to divorce a woman was barrenness. In short, there were some genuine issues of survival wrapped up in this folktale.

Leah:                        Genesis sets up the conflict between the sisters in one of the most evocative sentences of the Bible: “When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” God responded to the plight and prayers of Leah. He had compassion on her precisely because she was trapped in a loveless marriage.  She was a victim of a social system that disadvantaged all women, but particularly women who were unattractive. Perhaps the rabbinical idea that Leah’s eyes were weak from weeping is true, but it seems that she was weeping because she had to marry a man who did not love her. Sure, he made love to her, but that is a quite different thing.

            What was it like for Leah to be with Jacob, desperately hoping to win his affection? This is the raw material of great literature and really bad television shows, but the religious point of this story is that the LORD God who created the heavens and earth had compassion on this unloved woman in Haran. With Jacob’s help, God provided Leah with a son who would love her and care for her. She had the honor of being mother to Jacob’s first-born. Like many women today, though, Leah thought that by having a child, the father would love her. Like many women today, Leah found that love does not work that way. You cannot save a marriage by having a child.

            She named her first son Reuben, of course, because she loved corned beef and sauerkraut with Russian dressing on rye bread. No, I’m afraid that one of my favorite lunches does not figure in this story, but perhaps Reuben could be the patron saint of deli workers everywhere. Reuben actually means “see, a son,” which is a bit prosaic for a name. It is a bit like naming a baby Femalé because she’s a girl, but the ancient world did not have books of baby names to help mothers. Genesis invests the name Reuben with more meaning by connecting it to the LORD having seen Leah’s misery. We saw that same idea with the story of Hagar who spoke to El Roi, the God who sees.

            In all Leah had six sons and one daughter. She was matriarch of some of the most powerful tribes in ancient Palestine. It is interesting that it was the unloved wife who was the mother of Judah, the tribe of King David and the Jews. According to ancient tradition, then, Leah was the ancestor of Jesus. Though she was unattractive, unloved, and rather unhappy, Leah was chosen to play one of the important roles in the history of salvation for all people. She reminds me a bit of that great American hero, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose work saved thousands of lives and made the world a safer place but was cruelly mocked for not being beautiful.

            Today we have a very destructive view of personal beauty and fulfillment in relationships that is fueled by American manufacturers and advertisers. We rate actors and actresses according to their waist size and cheek bones rather than talent, and our young women are literally dying to be thin and beautiful. Perhaps we should reclaim Leah as a patron saint, as a reminder that God does not judge us by the standards of sex appeal and beauty.

Zilpah and Bilhah:  Leah had a slave named Zilpah and Rachel’s slave was Bilhah. I’ve met a lot of Leahs and Rachels through the years, but I’ve never known a Zilpah or Bilhah. According to the story, when Rachel saw that her sister was having children and that Jacob was paying attention to that family, she grew desperate. Like Sarah, she told Jacob to sleep with her slave and have children by her. When Leah saw what Rachel had done, she responded in the same way. It was a bit like the arms race in the Cold War, and Jacob was the main weapon.

            I know I’m in the minority here, and I have never met a woman who agrees with me, but I feel sorry for Jacob. He has been reduced to a sex object fought over by women who want to get pregnant. Now, I’m sure that some men would be glad to be in this situation, but we would have no trouble identifying this passage as a sexual objectification of a person if it was a woman being passed around by two men competing with each other. Jacob has already been forced to marry a woman he didn’t love, and now he is expected to perform on command. As we shall see, Leah even bargains for the right to sleep with Jacob by giving her sister a valuable herb called mandrake. It is a rather unsavory tale.

            Even more than Jacob, though, it is the two slaves who deserve our sympathy. They are two of the most neglected women in Scripture even though they are the mothers of four of the tribes of Israel. We don’t want to acknowledge that out ancestors in the faith had slaves or were slaves. We like the story of the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but are uncomfortable with the fact that the Israelites themselves owned slaves, particularly when those slaves were used sexually by their masters in the way Zilpah and Bilhah were. We want to just ignore this story and continue to silence those women.

            Three things distinguish the story of these serving women from the story of Hagar who was also treated as a surrogate mother. First of all, there is no rivalry between the maids and their mistresses. Rachel and Leah are competing with each other, not their servants. This may indicate that these slaves accepted their place in the social hierarchy better than Hagar had or it may simply be that you can only have one rival at a time. A second difference is that the children of Zilpah and Bilhah remained part of the family. They were not driven from the camp but are taken into the covenant. The third difference is that the LORD does not speak to these slaves the way he spoke to Hagar. It is often the case that those chosen for the blessing of speaking with God are those who have been rejected and outcast, not those who are conforming to the accepted norms. We hear no more about these two women in Scripture or their thoughts and feelings.

Rachel:            We do learn about Rachel’s feelings.  We will say more about Rachel next week since she is one of the most interesting characters in Genesis and suitable partner for Jacob. Rachel was desperate to have children even though she had the love of her husband. Of the four wives of Jacob, she was the last to give birth. We do not know if she had miscarriages or still births previously. The Bible only tells the story of live births not conceptions. According to the OT, life began with breath rather than fertilization.

            In a moment I’ll read a portion of Rachel’s story from Gen. 30, but for now I want to point out that she was the mother of Joseph who will be Jacob’s favorite. The Joseph saga is one of the longer portions of Genesis, and we will spend several weeks on it. The tribe of Joseph split into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, which were the most powerful tribes in the north. It is likely that much of the material used in Genesis was preserved by these tribes. Later in Genesis Rachel will also give birth to Benjamin and die in childbirth. I will be reading from chapter 30 verses 14 to 24.

Read: Gen. 30:14-24

Mandrakes:            Mandrake is an interesting plant that has a long history of use in the Mediterranean area and Middle East. (from It grows wild and is hard to cultivate. Its official name is Mandragora officianarum, and it is a different plant from American mandrake. Believe it or not, it is in the same family as the potato, but is a bit more potent than the typical spud. It has long, dark green leaves and is related to deadly nightshade. Around the time of the May wheat harvest, its fruit ripens to a bright yellow-orange. The fruit is sometimes called Love Apple or Satan’s Apple. The plant also has a long brown root, like a parsnip, that can be four feet long. The most distinctive feature of the root is that it is divided and looks like two human legs. This may be why the plant has long been considered an aphrodisiac. The root and berries are poisonous but can be used as an herb and in medicines. For centuries it has been used as a mild narcotic in medicine and religious rituals. This is the kind of thing that a person my grandma called a root-doctor knows all about.

            The ancient hearers of Genesis 30 would have known this about mandrakes, just as we know all about aspirin. Mandrake was part of a woman’s medicine cabinet, but it was particularly valuable since you could not always get hold of fresh mandrake. With this in mind, the story of Rachel requesting the mandrake that Reuben had found makes sense. Although it was not an herb reputed to produce children; it was an herb that was used today to help set the necessary conditions for producing children. Today we have other drugs for that.

            What I find most interesting in this story is that Genesis is not embarrassed by the fact that Rachel used herbal medicines here in her effort to get pregnant. In the 16th century, she might have been considered a witch for using such traditional wisdom, and commentators today still have trouble with this story. Preachers and rabbis prefer to focus on the idea of God intervened compassionately to help Leah get pregnant rather than Rachel taking a hand to help nature along. We see, though, that Rachel is very much like her husband and her relative Abraham. She is willing to take action to move history forward. Would she have gotten pregnant without the mandrake? We don’t know, just as we can never know the results of actions we didn’t take. It is interesting is that the Bible includes this story of Rachel giving God a hand, even though it is a hard story to preach on. Again, we see the author of Genesis using folklore and old stories to craft a tale of God’s subtle working in the world. In the end, it was still “God remembered Rachel and opened her womb.”

Dinah:                        Genesis 30 focuses on women, especially Rachel and Leah, and so it is a little surprising to realize that only one daughter is mentioned among the eleven sons. It is unlikely that four fertile women who were so energetic in their attempts to have children would have given birth only to one daughter. This is a stark reminder that in traditional cultures, daughters are less valued than sons. They are not written into the narrative. So why is Dinah named here? It is because she will figure prominently in a later story.

Conclusion:            We have come to the end of our time for this Sunday. Genesis 30 is not a rich source of theological or psychological insight, like other sections of Genesis. Many people find it rather dull and even a bit unpleasant. Some theologians, like Martin Luther, are even a little offended that the Bible devotes so much attention to this scene of domestic unrest, but this story does provide us a glimpse of domestic life. The history of salvation and God’s dealing with the world is not as clean and tidy as we often portray it. In Genesis 30, the history of the covenant is propelled through the competition of two jealous sisters and even a bit of folk medicine. This should offer us some comfort as we try to live faithfully in our messy world. May we learn to love and serve God while using the resources at our disposal to prepare for the future.




See Num. 1:26, Deut. 33:6, II Sam. 19:43; I Kings 11:31; Gen. 46:8; I Chr. 2-3; Judges 5:14.



Lessons from John, ch. 12 (cont) – Grain of Wheat

John 12:20-36 – Interpreting the Death of Jesus

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 24, 2007

Craig Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We are glad that the crew returned last night from their week in Gulfport, Miss. I have two very tired daughters this morning, and I want to give credit to the Baptist Men of N.C. for their ambitious and well-organized construction effort in the gulf. We sometimes forget that one of the ways we love and serve God is through good planning and organization! I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of local Baptist ministers on Thursday. We discussed the uniqueness of religion in the South. I told them that I never knew I had an ethnic group until I moved to Pennsylvania and found pinto beans in the ethnic food aisle of the grocery store. Let me take a moment to invite you to our annual July 4th service here at Home Church. We’ll gather in front of Main Hall on Salem Square at 8:30 for a service of song and prayer that includes a reading of the Declaration of Independence. I think it important that all people of faith take a moment to ponder the founding ideals of our nation, especially our commitment to liberty and justice for all.

Philip and Andrew:                        We ended the lesson last week with mention of some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus during Passover. They went to Philip who told Andrew, and the two of them told Jesus about the Greeks. It is an odd little scene that is not fully developed in John’s Gospel. We aren’t told, for instance, why it took two disciples to tell Jesus someone wanted to see him. We aren’t even told if the Greeks were allowed to see Jesus. Now, if this were in a movie, it might look like people trying to get into to see an important tycoon or celebrity. They have to go through Jesus’ “people” to speak to the man himself. In truth, the Greeks probably went to Philip because he spoke Greek. They may have even known him, but we don’t know for sure. You no doubt remember that we first met Philip and Andrew in ch. 1 when they answered the call to “come and see” Jesus. It is possible that the evangelist made a point of identifying these two disciples here to draw a parallel between the request of the Greeks who wanted to “see” Jesus and the calling of the Jewish disciples of Jesus. In other words, it is probable that this little story was originally about some Gentiles seeking to become disciples of Jesus.

The Hour has Come               In the final form of John’s Gospel, the request of the Greeks to see Jesus served as the catalyst for a series of statements interpreting Jesus’ death.  Jesus declares that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is such a non-sequitor that many scholars suspect that something was lost in transmission of the text, but by now we should have become accustomed to John’s unusual writing style. The non-sequitor was intentional, I think. It was the appearance of Gentiles coming to Jesus that indicated the time had arrived for his glorification, and the teachings that follow show that the glorification will be on the cross rather than a throne. The hour had come. 

So far in our reading, there have been several statements that Jesus’ hour had not yet come (2:4, 7:30, 8:20). The transition to the second half of the Gospel comes in this bold statement that “the hour” has arrived. “Hour” here obviously does not mean an hour on the clock. This “hour” marks a decisive turning point in history. It is a period when time appears to slow down, when the minutes become momentous. In short, the crisis point has been reached, and a decision is needed. As I read, imagine the confusion of those in the crowd who assumed that the hour of glorification meant that the Messiah would seize the throne.

Read: John 12:23-32

Grain of Wheat:            As you probably know by now, John’s Gospel is quite different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The similarities between the three “Synoptic” Gospels are primarily because both Matthew and Luke both copied Mark’s gospel and took material from another unknown gospel that scholars have named “Q”. This means that whenever we see parallel statements in John’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel, we can be confident that we are dealing with well-established parts of the oral tradition about Jesus. There are some very interesting parallels between Jesus’ statement here in John 12 and various places in the Synoptic Gospels.

There is no direct parallel in the other gospels about a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying in order to produce fruit, but there are some similar parables. For instance, there is a parable about the grain of mustard seed that produces a tree. There is also the famous parable of the sower whose seeds produce much fruit in fertile. This parable in John is consistent with Jesus’ other parables in that it uses seeds to teach about the future. Here, Jesus reminds his audience that the purpose of a seed is to become something different than a seed. It can exist as a seed for years, centuries even, if it is kept dry. Archaeologist study ancient seeds that never germinated. In Jesus’ parable, such seeds did not fulfill the purpose of being a seed. Jesus’ audience knew that a seed contains all of the genetic material that it needs to become a fruit-producing plant, but the only way it can fulfill its true destiny is to be planted in the earth and disappear. The seed will be transformed in death.

By quoting this parable, the evangelist makes it clear that Jesus was not a victim of Roman oppression; neither was he a naïve reformer who got swept up in political events. John depicts Jesus as a man who knew his destiny and the cost he would pay to fulfill it. He was not simply a seed whose death produced the fruit of the church; Jesus was a seed that willingly and consciously laid down his life. He was a willing participant in the transformation of the world. His death was fruitful rather than tragic, just like that of a seed.

Losing Life in Order to Live:            This leads right into a paradoxical teaching about self-sacrifice that is found in all four gospels. In fact, it appears five times in the gospel since it is Luke twice. John’s Gospel states: “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it.” There are enough variations in the words used in Greek in the different versions of this saying to indicate that this was part of the oral tradition (Brown, 473-474 – very complicated) rather than being copied from Mark. In other words, John did not misquote Mark; he simply knew a variation of Jesus’ teaching.

It makes sense to me that Jesus said something like this several times during his ministry and in teaching his disciples. This was not just a statement about his impending death; this is a general truth. It is clear that Jesus could have chosen to save his own life in any number of ways. He could have simply not gone to Jerusalem, or not preached against the Temple and the priests, or gone back to Galilee and built houses like his father. Presumably he could have used his power and eloquence in the service of Rome rather than challenging the oppression of Rome. Like John Hus or Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus knew he was taking the path of martyrdom. He could have saved his own life, but in doing so, he would have lost something greater – his soul. In other words, this general teaching of Jesus helped explain to others why he was doing what he was doing.

Hating One’s Life            John’s version of this saying sets up a contrast in stark terms: love and hate. We have other sayings of Jesus that also contrast love and hate in a way that make us uncomfortable today, such as his statement in Luke about hating one’s father and mother. Such statements are designed to stop in your tracks and make you think. Jesus is not talking about hate here in terms of wanting to harm someone, including yourself. I sometimes hear angry and depressed people say, “I hate my life.” That is not what Jesus is advocating. What they mean when they say “I hate my life” that they hate the situation they are in. They hate what they have done to themselves and others. They hate what they have suffered. They feel trapped and see no exit. Sometimes they hate their lives so much they harm their minds and bodies through self-abuse, alcohol, drugs, or even attempted suicide. That is not what Jesus is talking about.

An intense focus on your own misery or feelings of hopelessness or extreme efforts to control your eating, sleep, or other desires is the opposite of hating your life in Jesus’ teaching. Such things are pathological forms of self-indulgence and self-absorption. I think some people in the early church misunderstood Jesus’ teaching when they adopted ascetic practices that focused on slowly killing the body and mind, such as extreme fasting. There are twisted forms of self-centeredness that we need to avoid. Self-hatred and self-abuse is unhealthy and may require professional help. If any of our listeners today are suffering from self-loathing, I hope they will seek out someone to talk to.

Self-love            Now there are forms of self-absorption and self-destruction that are pathological from a religious point of view, but we don’t usually send people to therapists to be cured of them. Instead of seeking a cure, our society glorifies and encourages forms of wanton self-indulgence and self-destructions. We are encouraged to seek our happiness in shopping, gambling, drinking, sex, psychotropic drugs, movies, television, home furnishings, clothing, cars, on-line dating, cyber-realities, games, and countless forms of analgesics. We spend a fortune trying to make us look younger and sexy, rather than following Jesus’ teaching. He wants us to turn away from empty self-gratification. Incidentally, this statement of Jesus is very similar to teachings of Muhammad and the Buddha. In order to be truly happy, we need to detach ourselves from dependence on external and temporary things.  

Courage to Be            There is more to Jesus’ statement than a call to simple living, though. Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, most of us live daily in fear and anxiety. We know that we are going to die one day no matter how we diet or exercise, but we pretend we make ourselves live forever. We feel the threat of our own non-existence, knowing that one day all of our acquisitions and achievements will be meaningless. We look at pictures of our ancestors who died before we were born and know that one day our descendents will have no memory of us. And so we cling to what life we have. We do all we can to preserve our own life. Some people even spend money cryogenics to freeze themselves before they die in the hopes that science will find a “cure” for death. There are many people who have sacrificed all their integrity, their faith, and their morality in order to prolong their existence on this earth. It does have to be that way.

The fear of losing our lives often prevents us from doing things that can save our lives. We become like the child who is so afraid of riding a bicycle that she falls off of her bike. Or the young driver who is so afraid of driving that he causes an accident through excessive caution. Fear of loss paralyzes us and saps our courage to live. We do not want to risk our property, our status, or the many things we use to define ourselves, and so we hunker down, avoiding engagement with the world. We continue to follow the well-worn grooves of daily living even though we know that those grooves are leading us away from genuine life. We face the hour of our death and realize that we never lived, never loved, never risked, never dared. Jesus warns us not to values our lives so much that we fail to live.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are heroes who have sacrificed their own lives so that others may live. There are those who have chosen to die as human beings rather than live as animals. When Jesus says those who hate their life will live in eternity, he is calling for us to live in God rather than merely live within ourselves. By giving up our lives in God, we can embrace life. The best cure I know for depression is to care about another person more than you care about your own life and your own misery. The best cure I know for endless consumption is to be filled with the love of God for all of creation: to pass through the beauty of this world without claiming it as your property. The best cure I know for the nameless fear that saps our courage is to trust in God completely. The best way I know to live is to live in the conviction that death is not the final answer: that the grain of wheat that allows itself to die will be transformed.

Follow Jesus:                        As if that teaching alone is not enough to trouble us, John add another teaching that appears in a slightly different form in the other gospels. In Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. John’s version has no cross. It is simply: “whoever serves me must follow me.” The basic concept is the same in both versions. Disciples of Jesus must be willing to sacrifice their own lives, just as he gave up his life, but notice the importance John places on serving and following Jesus. These are marks of the Christian life. Jesus does not say that those who wish to be with him in heaven should just profess belief. They should serve and follow him in order to be with him. Where he is, his servant will be.

This is a high standard that Christians try to ignore. We live in a religious culture that wants things quick and easy. We have preachers that sound like used car salesmen making you a deal. All it takes to be a Christian is to say you accept Jesus as your Savior. Billboards say “Got Jesus,” as if Jesus can be picked up on the grocery store shelf. People claim that they have given their life to Jesus, and then keep on doing the things they were before. We have politicians that found Jesus and turned right around and kept on stealing from taxpayers and lying to investigators. John’s Gospel tells us quite plainly that if you give your life to Jesus, then give your whole life. To be Christian is to risk everything in faith without hedging your bets. It is to follow Jesus through the path of suffering and sacrifice. It is to become a servant.

Agony:            This is not an easy teaching. It is interesting that some of these statements in John are found in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in the other gospels. The scene in the garden in Mark’s Gospel was crafted from the memory of many things that Jesus said to his disciples the last week of his life. Mark put them into a single prayer, but John places them in Jesus’ last public discourse. “Now my soul is troubled.” We have here a glimpse of the anguish he experienced as he started down the via dolorosa, the way of suffering. Too often, Christians dismiss this agony as mere play-acting on Jesus’ part. We make emphasize the divinity of Christ so much that we overlook his full and complete humanity, but he longed for the Father to save him from this destiny. But Jesus remained faithful to the end. In the midst of his turmoil, Jesus prayed “Father, glorify your name.” You may not have noticed it, but Jesus does not teach his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in John’s Gospel. The closest we get to that great prayer is this simple cry to the Father, “glorify your name.” We should recall the rest of that prayer includes the petition that God’s will be done on earth. Ponder the fact that Jesus did not ask the Father to save him from suffering and death. He prayed that things he was doing would bring glory to God and fulfill God’s purpose for the world. Jesus tried to teach us to pray: God’s will be done on earth. Or, as it says in the other gospels, “not my will, but your will.” Too often our prayers are simply evidence that we still love our lives in this world too much to serve and follow Jesus.

The Voice of God            According to John, the voice of God responded to Jesus from heaven. Some in the crowd thought they heard thunder; others that an angel had spoken. We do not know if the crowds heard the words or just the sound. It is significant that this is the first time the Father has spoken in John’s Gospel. John does not give the story of the baptism of Jesus or his transfiguration. This is the crucial moment in the gospel. Once Jesus has decided that he will follow this path of self-sacrifice to the end, the Father speaks in confirmation. Jesus is reassured that he is doing the right thing. The victory is assured. The prince of darkness will be driven out of this world. 

I Samuel 17: Goliath gets stoned

I Samuel 17: David Slays Goliath

The Adult Bible Classof Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 15, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good week for you. We had an active week with the beginning of swimming lessons and the admission of a new kitten into the family. Her name is Annabelle. It is fun watching her explore her new home, but it was a challenge writing the lesson while she attacked the computer wires. Our old cat hisses at the kitten, but the kitten keeps stalking her around the house. I want to give a shout out to Lynda Alexander, our music director, who celebrated a major birthday this past week. Today is Father’s Day, and so a special word goes to Albert Atwood who lives on Atwood Road in Atwood Acres. By the way, if you get a magazine named Country, look for an article by my dad about building a replica of the original gemeinhaus at Hope Moravian Church.

This week we are turning our attention to one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament: David and Goliath. It is a story that tells us that even a great warrior can lose his head if gets stoned! This is a story that has become such a part of our cultural lexicon that even atheists will use it to describe contemporary events, such as when the US hockey team defeated the Russians in 1980. There is more to the story than simply an underdog defeating a champion. Keep in mind that this story encourages Davids, but it should also warn the Goliaths of the world, includng the superpowers. It is a very long story, and I am going to deviate from my usual practice of reading and then commenting. Instead, I will give some introductory remarks and then do a running commentary without reading the story out loud. You might want to get your Bibles to follow along.

Notes on the Text            Before we launch into the text, there are a few notes that might be of interest to you. This is such a well-crafted and complex story that it was probably written as a piece of literature rather than being handed down through oral tradition or copied from a royal chronicle. It includes long speeches that were the writer’s reconstruction of what David and company said. It is interesting that the ancient Greek version of this story made by rabbis in Egypt (the Septuagint or LXX) is shorter than the official Hebrew version. Since the Greek version of the Old Testament tends to expand on the Hebrew rather than deleting material, it is likely that the scholars in Egypt were using an older form of the story. In other words, it appears that someone added to the Hebrew version, which tells us is that the story of David and Goliath grew over the years. That is what we would expect of a great story.

Goliath of Gath is mentioned several times in the Bible, and his death was important for Israelite history. It is an iconic story, like Washington crossing the Delaware. It is curious that at the end of II Samuel there is a chronicle of the heroic deeds of David’s warriors. One of them was Elhanan son of Jaareoregim of Bethlehem who killed Goliath the Gittite, whose spear was described just like the giant David killed. What’s going on? We know Goliath was killed, but who killed him? Some have claimed that there were two giants named Goliath, but it seems unlikely. When the Book of Chronicles was written many years later that I Samuel, the author tried to solve this discrepancy by identifying the man killed by Elhanan as the brother of Goliath, claiming there was, in fact, a whole family of giants in Gath at the time (I Chron. 20:5). By trying to correct the record, I Chronicles merely highlights the fact that there is a problem in I Samuel.

It is easy to see how the story of a man from Bethlehem killing a very large Philistine warrior could become the story of the famous king from Bethlehem who had killed many large Philistines in his rise to power. There is a tendency to attach good stories to famous people. For years people thought that Martin Luther had written the anonymous Christmas carol Away in a Manger. Yogi Berra once complained about the tendency of people to ascribe amusing quotes to him, claiming “I didn’t say half of what I said.” Historical sites tend to do something similar by connecting relics with famous people regardless of the facts.

Chapter 17 of I Samuel was probably not written by an eye-witness. It was probably written many years after the events it describes. The author knew David was a shepherd who became a famous king. The author probably did not know the story we discussed last week. You may remember that in that story young David entered Saul’s inner circle as a musician and became Saul’s armor-bearer. In chapter 17, Saul has never met David and does not know who his family is. I’m not telling you all this to ruin a great story, but to let you know that there is no point trying to make all of this fit together. Rather than wasting time creating elaborate explanations for these discrepancies, it is better simply to acknowledge the problems and then focus on the story itself and learn from it. Though it might not meet modern criteria for historicity, chapter 17 is a story that reveals many good things about David and the life of faith. It should be taken seriously.

Read 17:1-11            Goliath’s Taunt            The story opens with the Philistines and Israelites in encamped on opposite sides of a valley preparing for battle. War, it has been said, is days of tedium punctuated by moments of terror. A lot of time is spent in camp waiting for the commanders to give the command to attack. While the commanders are checking each other out, the Philistines used a tactic common in Greece in those days. They sent out their strongest warrior, their version of Achilles, to step forward and challenge the enemy. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word translated as champion is “one who stands between the lines.” In other words, Goliath is the one willing to expose himself to the enemy and issue a challenge to single combat.

We get a detailed description of his armor. Some biblical scholars speculate that the author could go to such detail because the armor was still on display at one of the shrines of Israel. Another reason for all this detail is to let us know that the impoverished Israelites were amazed at the man’s armor. They had nothing to match it. In modern terms, Goliath came forward like a Tiger tank facing the Polish cavalry or a modern soldier in Kevlar body armor facing men in robes. He appeared invincible in his layers of gleaming bronze. A third reason for telling us the weight of the armor is emphasize the strength of the giant.

I should say something about Goliath’s size. The Hebrew text says he was six cubits and a span. A cubit is the distance from your elbow to the tip of your fingers and a span is the width of your hand. These are very precise measurements, as you know. If a cubit was 18 inches long, then Goliath was nearly 10 feet tall. The Hebrew cubit may have been a bit shorter, though, making Goliath closer to 8 feet tall. The Greek version of the story, which many scholars think may actually be older, says that Goliath was 4 cubits tall, which would make him over 6 feet tall, a more reasonable claim. I think we are safe in assuming that Goliath was like some of our giants today, but he would have seemed even bigger to the ancient Israelites, who were rather short. In World War II, Japanese soldiers considered American soldiers giants. Over the years, there has been a tendency to make this story miraculous by making Goliath impossibly large, but this isn’t about miracles. It is about courage and faith.

The Philistine giant strides forward and challenges the servants of Saul. Notice that Goliath does not call them Israelites or even Hebrews. The Philistines viewed this as a battle against a renegade warlord, not a struggle between two nations. Goliath claims that if any single Israelite can defeat him, then the Philistines will surrender. As we know from history, it never happened that way in war. Single combat was more a matter of psychology than politics. In the Iliad, if Hector had defeated the mighty Achilles one on one, it would have given the Trojans courage and confidence, but it would not have ended the war. Single combat was also a way to entertain the troops until the real battle began and was a way to test the opponent. Who is their best fighter?

At this point in the story Goliath is winning the psychological battle. Picture the sun reflecting off all that polished bronze as the giant struts in the battle zone. Think how his voice would have echoed off the mountains. And then imagine what it would be like to be one of the poorly equipped Israelites facing an army with men like this in it. No wonder they were dismayed. The text says this went on for forty days, but keep in mind that in the Old Testament, forty days is a round number for a long time. We might say this went on for umpteen days.

Read 17:12-18            Meanwhile, back at Jesse’s Ranch            We have a sudden shift of scene away from the impending battle back to rustic Bethlehem where Jesse is talking to David. This is a portion of the story that is not in the Greek version, by the way. The text says that Jesse is very old, and that three of his sons have gone to war with Saul. It doesn’t say what happened the other four beside David. In fact, for the rest of the story, it sounds like Jesse had four sons, with David as the youngest. The key point of this story, of course, is that David is too young to go to war. He is tending his father’s flocks.

We get a nice perspective on ancient war in this story. Wars today are fought mainly by the poorer people in a country. The phrase “rich man’s war; poor man’s fight” was how many Confederate soldiers correctly interpreted the Civil War. Today we have professional soldiers who receive regular paychecks, food, clothing, medical benefits, and all of their equipment. It was different in ancient times. Warriors had to provide their own weapons, armor, and tents. The aristocracy was the warrior class, and kings had to prove themselves as generals. Saul’s army was even more primitive than most since the soldiers were responsible for providing their own food from their private lands or through pillaging. The storyteller knows that it would have been normal for a youngest son like David to take food to his brothers and provide a little extra as a gift to their captain.  It never hurts to have the captain look on you favorably. David probably brought food to his brothers in battle many times before he played the lyre for Saul.

Read 17:19-30            David at the Battle             David reached the encampment and ran to greet his brothers as the war cry went up. This part of the story sounds like the two armies were engaged in battle and no one could stand up to Goliath, which is a different picture than earlier. It is possible that two or more versions of the story have been imperfectly blended here. The key point is that all of the Israelites fled from Goliath, but the word went through the ranks that the king would richly reward the man who could defeat the giant. Notice that Saul does not actually promise the rewards; that was just scuttlebutt. But it would have been enough to attract the attention of an ambitious young man tired of herding sheep and bringing food to his brothers.

When he heard Goliath’s taunts, David responded with the anger of youth. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” David’s oldest brother responded the way we expect older brothers to respond. It was very much the way my older brother used to respond when I would get a little too competitive playing football or too sensitive to taunts. He tried to throw cold water on David’s enthusiasm before the boy insulted everyone or simply got himself killed. We can picture Eliab shaking David by the shoulders and accusing him of wanting to see the battle instead of doing his chores. David’s response sounds just like a surly teen-ager. “I was just asking a question” Gee whiz, Eliab.

Read 17:31-40            Standing before Saul            What Eliab feared came to pass. David’s words spread through the camp, and eventually the king was told about the young man’s bravado. We do not know if Saul was impressed or concerned, but David did not back down before the king. Saul tried to dismiss the boy. He knows it would be murder to send him out against a warrior like Goliath. David tells the king that shepherds are brave, and he claims that he has killed lions and bears! We don’t know if David already has a plan in mind for facing the fearsome foe, but it is reasonable to assume that the shepherd boy had killed those beasts with his slingshot, not by ripping their jaws apart like Samson. David is brave and pious, but he is no fool. He is telling Saul that even a country boy knows something about facing danger and prevailing.

Then he appeals to Saul’s piety and tells him that if God preserved him from wild beasts he will preserve him against the giant. It is interesting that no mention is made of David having been anointed by the prophet or being filled with the spirit of the Lord. None of Saul’s men come forward and say that David is a man of war like in the previous chapter. What the story stresses is that David’s faith made him bold, and that is something we should pay attention to. Faith should give you courage.

There is something about David’s demeanor that eventually commands Saul’s respect. Perhaps it was his trust in God or simply his confidence. Often overlooked is the fact that King Saul was wise enough to take young David seriously. Too many leaders today scoff at the young and inexperienced. They look at the Davids of today and say, go home until you are ready. We forget that people rise to challenges and become greater than they were. David became the king he was because Saul gave permission for him to take risks and approach old problems with new solutions. That is something we need to learn today. 

Saul’s Armor                        One of my favorite parts of the story is that Saul gives David his own armor. It is unrealistic to think Saul took off his armor to give to David since the armor of a defeated enemy belonged to the victor. Saul would not risk his personal armor, but it is possible that Saul used some of his old armor for David. The symbolism of the action is beautiful. Saul feels guilty for letting the boy fight, and he tries to protect him like any father would. He assumes that David is going to face this challenge the same way Saul would, so he gave David the same tools he would use. That is just what parents, teachers, and other authorities continue to do. We try to protect the rising generation from the dangers we faced without realizing that they will need to find new solutions.

The king’s armor is too heavy, and David cannot even walk in it. David is not ready to take Saul’s place, even if he is the anointed. David is not ready to assume all of the burdens of office. He is still young; still learning; still growing. He also is wise enough to recognize that the armor cannot save him from the force of Goliath’s blows or turn aside his massive spear. All the armor will do is slow him down. In trying to imitate his enemy, he will make himself vulnerable to his enemy. We tend to assume that we should use our enemy’s weapons and tactics, and so we get caught up pointless arms races. David shows us a different approach. Don’t let your opponent drag you into his type of battle. Take the armor off and use your head.

The shepherd relied on what he had learned in the field, literally. He took five stones and put them in his pouch. He knew he could launch five stones before Goliath could even use his spear. David was brave and trusted in God, but he was no fool. He trusted in God, but he was ready with a slingshot. That is a variation on my favorite proverb. Trust God, but tie your camel.

Read 17:41-51            Talking Trash and Taking Heads                        Now we come to the dramatic heart of the story. This is the part we all remember and still draw strength from. David, wearing nothing but his traveling tunic, steps out in front the Israelite army. Goliath sees this young fellow, and is not impressed by his good looks. He thinks the Israelites are mocking him, and probably assumed David was some half-wit being sent to his certain death. He taunts David, which is what we call “talking smack” today. He sounds like a professional wrestler urging David to attack. David responds with some of his own trash talk, but his trash talk is pious. He gives a speech warning the Philistine that he is a soldier for God who does not need even a sword or shield.

By defeating Goliath, David will show everyone that the God of Israel is stronger than the mighty Philistines. This was the kind of faith Samuel was looking for in a king originally. Ultimately it is not swords and spears that save the nation; it is faith and courage. The future king warned the mighty Philistines that nations should not pride themselves on the size of their weapons or numbers of their soldiers. We Americans need to keep in mind that God is on the side of the oppressed Israelites here, not the arrogant Philistines. Christians in every age, including our own, tend to make the mistake of believing their own nation is always Israel rather than making sure we are not the Philistines.

David’s faith gave him confidence, and he bravely ran toward Goliath who did not have a clue what David would do. Before he was in range of the giant’s spear, David slung a stone. It worked just the way David planned. The stone hit Goliath on his unprotected forehead, and he fell. The text is a little ambiguous and shows signs of later editing, but presumably Goliath was not killed by the stone alone. David grabbed the giant’s own sword and removed his head.

Read: 17:52-58            The Philistines were stunned the way any army is stunned when its invincible weapons are shown to be vulnerable. Rather than simply killing little David, they panicked and ran. If the smallest Israelite could do this, what could the rest of Saul’s men do? When the Philistines turned their backs, the men of Judah and Israel pursued them all the way back to their fortified cities, slaughtering them as they fled.

For his part, David kept Goliath’s head and armor. The text says he put the armor in his tent, but that makes no sense because David did not have a tent. Most likely, the text was corrupted and David put the armor in a tent at one of the shrines, perhaps Nob (I Sam. 21). There is a bigger problem with the claim that David brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, since Jerusalem at that time belonged to the Jebusites. It was much later that it became the city of David. It was probably after David became king that he had the head of the giant brought into the city where it was put on display. This is a reminder that things could be gruesome in days of yore.

The story ends with David meeting Saul and his general Abner. Abner was an important figure that we will meet again, but neither he nor Saul knows who David is. The king asks him who his father is, and David replies that he is the son of Jesse of Bethlehem. No mention is made of the other sons of Jesse who are serving Saul. Like Joseph’s older brothers, they have to deal with the fact that the brother they had scorned is standing in honor before the king.

Conclusion                        There is certainly much more to be said about this story, but the main point shines through all of the layers of scholarly debate and interpretation. Aside from its more gruesome aspects, this is a story that is great for children and adults. It is a tale of a brave youth who stands up for what he thinks is right in the face of opposition from adults. It is about a wise older man giving him a chance to excel. And it is about the arrogance of power that forgets that God is on the side of the oppressed. Have faith and be of good courage as you confront Goliaths of this age. 

Lessons from John – ch. 12 (cont) Palm Sunday

John 12:9-22 – Palm Sunday

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 17, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I had the pleasure of meeting with some of the staff of Visit Winston-Salem recently and told them all the good things about the Moravian Church. If you haven’t seen our Visitors’ Center, stop in. It’s quite nice. Friday I led the lovefeast for the children in Old Salem’s Five Yesterdays program. The children were so cute in their Old Salem costumes and so sweet. By the way, I was working on this lesson Monday, just as a thunderstorm came up. We lost power for six hours. I hope that is not a sign of some sort.

Palm Sunday                        Today we have finally made it to Palm Sunday in John’s Gospel. In church one Palm Sunday, the preacher referred to the people having palms in their hands, and my young daughter commented that most people have palms in their hands. What’s so special about that? Another daughter often confuses Palm Sunday with Psalm Sunday, wondering why we sing palms.

A friend of mine was an associate pastor years ago working with a senior pastor who really liked to preach. So my friend only got to preach on the Sundays before or after major holidays. Instead of Christmas, he got First Advent. Instead of Easter, he preached on Palm Sunday. So, twice a year for several years, he had to preach on Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. He told me he was pretty sick of that donkey by the time he left for another position. This is one of the problems with the liturgical year. There are some parts of the gospels that get preached to death and other parts largely ignored. I’m not sure there is much new that can be said about Palm Sunday, but this we will look at John’s version very closely and see that it gives a distinctive twist to this familiar scene.

Read:  John 12:12-19

Distinctly John:                        This is one of the few stories that appears in all four canonical gospels; therefore historians can be fairly confident that Jesus did indeed come into Jerusalem riding on a donkey shortly before Passover. Church people are familiar with that story. What you may not know is that it is only the Gospel of John that says that this took place on a Sunday, five days before Passover. The anointing was six days before Passover, and the entry into Jerusalem was the next day. So, it is only because of John’s Gospel that the church observes Palm Sunday. Remember, Sunday was not a day of worship for Jesus. He would have spent the Sabbath in Bethany and completed his journey the next day, just as John recorded.

John is also the only gospel to tell us that people were waving palm branches during the procession. Mark and Matthew state that the crowds cut branches from the trees, but not that the branches were palms. Thus it is only because of John’s Gospel that the church observes “Palm” Sunday. The palms and the Sunday are unique to John.

Palms                        The palms are not a minor detail. John says that the crowd took palm branches from palm trees, using two different Greek words for palms, so that no one would miss the point. The problem with John’s statement is that there is no firm evidence that palm trees ever grew near Jerusalem. Palms grow to the south in the warm, fertile valleys. Today, most of the palms that pilgrims use in Jerusalem are imported from Jericho, and ancient records indicate that this was true in the time of Jesus, as well.

John’s description is so brief, yet detailed, that some scholars think that he was accurate about the palms but wrong about the date of the procession. Earlier we discussed the feast of Tabernacles, or Succoth, which is in the autumn. As part of that festival, worshipers would construct shelters out of branches, including palm fronds. They also approached Jerusalem in a procession while carrying myrtle, willow, and, you guessed it, palm branches. As the pilgrims approached the city, they recited out loud Psalm 118, which is quoted in all four gospels. John’s statement that people went out to greet Jesus carrying palms sounds more plausible for Tabernacles than for Passover. This has led a few scholars to propose that Jesus was actually executed in the autumn rather than the spring, but I think that places far too much weight on a palm branch.

The truth is that we do not know enough about Jerusalem in the time of Jesus to know for sure whether palm branches might have been carried at Passover, too. It is could be that the memories of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem at Passover became confused with one of the times that he and the disciples joined in the Tabernacles procession. Oral traditions are rather fluid. Remember, we’ve see in John’s gospel that Jesus visited Jerusalem several times during his ministry, which seems more likely than Mark’s account of a single, fateful visit.

Victory Palms:            But there is another explanation for the palms at Passover. It is entirely possible that the evangelist put the palms in the story in order to make an important point about Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem. There is strong evidence that palm fronds were a nationalistic symbol in Judea, much like the Star of David is in Israel today. For instance, when Judas Maccabeus rededicated the Temple in 164 BC, the people made a solemn procession to the Temple carrying palms. Other Jewish military victories were celebrated with palms, much the way Greeks used olive branches to symbolize victory (Brown, 461). A hundred years after Jesus, there was a Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, this one led by Simon bar Kosiba. He was successful enough to mint his own coins, which had palms on them. So, the palms here in John may have been connected to nationalistic hopes.

Even the phrase that the people went out to greet Jesus is evocative of Greek historical writing to describe the reception given to victorious kings entering a city. Putting all of this together, it seems safe to conclude (with Raymond Brown) that John is intentionally depicting the crowds as hailing Jesus as a conquering hero, a nationalistic liberator. Centuries later, the church still often calls this the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. It is probably not accidental that another book associated with the apostle John gives a vision of heaven in which a multitude from every nation was praising the Lamb of God and carrying palms (Rev. 7:9).

Hosanna!            The four gospels agree that the crowds were shouting verses from Psalm 118, which was indeed used during the Passover procession. The evangelists all interpret these verses as applying directly to Jesus, but it is not clear what percentage of the people were shouting about Jesus or simply doing what one was supposed to do every Passover. This was actually antiphonal, with the incoming pilgrims shouting Hosanna (or Hosianna) and the people standing on the walls of the city shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Presumably, all of the pilgrims were being blessed, but Jesus’ disciples understood those words as applying uniquely to Jesus.


King David?                        John adds something interesting that is not found in Matthew or Luke, which are also late gospels. Mark says that the crowd shouted “Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of David our father,” which is blatantly messianic. It fits many features of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus was often called the Son of David. Mark also stresses the coming kingdom of God. It is curious that Matthew and Luke both omit this reference to the kingdom of David when they copied Mark’s story. This was presumably in order not to antagonize the Romans.

In John’s version, the crowds shouted that the one who comes in the name of the Lord is the King of Israel. The palms may have been a subtle indication that the crowd wanted to make Jesus king, but these words were quite aggressive. Right there in front of the Imperial guard, some in the crowd were calling for Jesus to be crowned. As the youth say today, the crowd was getting in the face of the Romans and the chief priests, at least according to John. Notice that there is no mention of King David in John’s version. John’s Gospel is distinct in that it does not proclaim Jesus as the descendent of David or call for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. The crowd also calls for the King of Israel, not the King of the Jews. Could this reflect the pro-Samaritan aspect of John’s gospel or is this a call for the full restoration of Israel as it was originally before David?

The Donkey                        This brings us to another subtle, but important, difference between John and the other gospels: the donkey. All of the gospels agree that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that Jesus himself gave explicit orders to two disciples to go and secure a donkey for him. In the synoptic gospels, it sounds like Jesus worked things out ahead of time, since the disciples were to look for a particular man and give him a codeword to get the beast of burden. Mark and his plagiarists were probably emphasizing Jesus’ prophetic knowledge, but the picture they paint is that Jesus planned to ride into Jerusalem in a way that would proclaim that he was the Messiah. The prophet Zechariah had referred to the messiah entering Zion triumphant and victorious, humbly riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9). The whole entry into Jerusalem, according to the Synoptic gospels, was a bit of political theater that culminated at the Temple.

John tells the story of the donkey quite differently, and even quotes the Old Testament differently. Jesus “finds” the donkey, not the disciples, and he finds it after the crowd has rushed out to him. Finding a donkey was an odd response, and even the disciples did not understand it, according to John. The Zechariah prophecy was remembered after the fact. John adds an additional verse from Zechariah that puts an interesting spin on the whole scene.

Fear Not:            John may have just gotten his prophets confused. He would not be the first or last person to confuse Zechariah and Zephaniah. I’ve done so myself on many occasions, including a quiz in seminary. But, let’s assume John knew what he was doing when he quoted Zephaniah ch. 3 – even though he was apparently quoting the text from memory. He wrote “Do not be afraid, O daughter of Zion,” but Zephaniah calls for the daughter of Zion to sing aloud, to rejoice and exult. Then he says “Do not be afraid, O Zion.” If you have trouble quoting Scripture literally, take comfort in the fact that John paraphrased himself. Clearly, though, he interpreted Palm Sunday through Zephaniah 3.


What makes this particularly interesting is that this prophecy of Zephaniah is about the conversion of the nations to the God of Israel. The curse of Babel will be reversed. All nations with one language will call on the name of the Lord. Israel will be restored, but not like the Jewish nationalists wanted. Under the true King, Israel will be humble before the Lord and seek refuge in God. The prophet says that “they will pasture and lie down and no one will make them afraid.”

In quoting Zephaniah, John depicts Jesus riding into Jerusalem as a king and savior, but not the king the crowd was looking for. Jesus was entering the city as the Good Shepherd, riding a donkey. He was a conqueror who had defeated death itself when he called Lazarus from the tomb. He was riding into Jerusalem as the one who would indeed restore the true Israel, but he was not going to claim the throne of David. He was going to offer up his life and draw all people to himself. Jesus was going to tear down the tower of Babel and remove the obstacles that divide nations. He would give people a new song, a song of victory over sin, death, and the power of evil. Hosanna!

Ignorance                        John includes an editorial comment that is simply brilliant in its honesty. He says that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing until after he was crucified. Then they remembered the events of Palm Sunday and recalled what the prophets had said. In other words, John does not pretend that he is a reporter on the scene recording what happened when Jesus’ magical mystery tour made it is final stop in the big city of Jerusalem. This was not CNN and John is not Wolf Blitzer. John honestly tells us that those events were memorable but confusing at the time. It was only in hindsight that it all came into focus. What is so delightful about this gospel is that the author includes ambiguity and irony even in a story like Palm Sunday. The evangelist leaves us to struggle with the meaning of these vignettes and teachings. Who is the King of Israel?

The Crowds                        Several times today I have mentioned the crowds. One commentator says that they function like a Greek chorus in John’s gospel. We know that the population of Jerusalem typically swelled from 25,000 to over 125,000 during the week of Passover, so clearly there was a crowd on Palm Sunday. The confusing thing is that John mentions more than one crowd. There was a large group who followed Jesus from Bethany to Jerusalem. They had come seeking Jesus because of the reports about Lazarus. This group probably included believers, scoffers, and the curious, and John uses it to show why the authorities were increasingly frightened of Jesus. As the lyrist Tim Rice wrote, “we are frightened by the crowd, they are getting much too loud.”

There was also a crowd of pilgrims coming into the city, which was different from the troupe following Jesus. And then there were those in the city who rushed out to greet Jesus. We can picture these streams of people meeting and merging, talking and arguing. We do not know how many people were actually involved, but we can understand the Pharisee’s concern that “the world has gone after him.” This statement was hyperbole at the time, but it was an important part of the evangelist’s vision.

The Greeks                        Most Bibles and commentaries end the story of the triumphal entry at verse 19, but I think it is helpful to go a little further. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus goes right to the Temple and starts throwing the money-changers around. John’s ending is so anticlimactic that it merits attention. After all of the hoopla and turmoil, some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. John places this minor incident right after the Pharisees complain that “all the world has gone to him.” We’ll discuss this more next week, but today I want to leave you with this picture. These were not Greek-speaking Jews. They were pagans and Gentiles. We do not know why they were at Jerusalem for the festival. Maybe they were just merchants selling palm fronds at premium prices, but they heard the good news and wanted to know more. These Greeks represent the promise of Zephaniah that the true king of Israel would bring the nations together, not through military conquest or economic imperialism, but by his teachings, his actions, his death and his resurrection. The Good Shepherd arrived riding on a donkey, ready to lay down his life for the sheep.