This is the Austin Seminary Goodreads book for March, 2014, and I just finished it last night. It’s a fine novel, especially if you enjoyed Gilead or Home by Marilynn Robinson. No car chases or gun fights, but a lot of secrets, emotional violence, and just a little bit of murder in the context of a small town church. The genogram in the previous post (a family diagram of Tyler Caskey, the main character) will make sense once you have read the book.
Add “St. Therese” to the ghosts on the right hand side.
In this series on the historical backdrop of the Bible, we have looked at two events so far: Babylonian Exile and the United monarchy. Today, we look at the conquest of Alexander the Great from 336 B.C. to his death in 323, just before his 33rd birthday.
Alexander’s conquest failed in its political goal; it did not create a common allegiance among the city-states conquered. It did not form a united nation under the “divine” leadership of Alexander as prince or king.
Culturally, however, Alexander spread Greek influence across the whole area you see in the maps at the back of your Study Bible. It’s not that everyone gave up their own culture or deities or local customs; but, they found a veneer of Greek culture spreading across the empire. That veneer penetrated more deeply among the aristocracy and splattered more thinly at the edges of society, but one thing changed for everyone: Greek became the common language of people all over the known world.
Greek thought, in particular the philosophies of Plato and Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, spread with the language. Religion, sculpture, theater, and athletics took their form from Hellenistic culture.
What does this have to do with the Bible? A few things stand out:
Language: After Alexander’s conquest, scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Many Jewish members of the synagogue and Gentile adherents could read the scriptures only in Greek. We might compare the younger Jewish generation in Palestine to young Native Americans who understand some of the Navajo, Choctaw, or Chickasaw of their grandparents, but they don’t speak it or read it themselves. The earliest New Testament texts we have were written in Greek. The Old Testament in English translation leans as heavily on the Greek translations from Hebrew as it does on the oldest Hebrew manuscripts available. Why? Because the Greek translations we have used Hebrew texts that are older than any Hebrew texts we now have available to us.
Biblical imagery: In the epistle to the Hebrews, 12:1, we find the image of the naked athlete: “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Here (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) is one of many examples of Paul using Greek athletics as a metaphor for spiritual struggle: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
Power: The military conquest of Alexander the Great, followed by the Roman conquest and military presence in Palestine provided the backdrop for the words “Messiah” and “Savior.” Even for those Jews (and there were many) who rejected the Zealot resistance because they believed that violence did not reflect God’s intention for the world, the idea of a Messiah or Savior who could defeat the power of evil without military might seemed impractical. Whether or not one adopted the view that the emperor was divine, one’s view of a Savior or Messiah was deeply influenced by the story of Alexander the Great.
Choose your question, political, linguistic, or philosophical/theological:
1. Jesus taught non-violent resistance against the Romans (Matthew 5:39) “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In a culture formed by military conquest, this would have sounded absurd and impractical. Does it sound any more practical to those of us who live under the threat of terrorism? Or, for our parents or grandparents who fought against Naziism? I’m not exactly a pacifist, so I struggle with this—what if Jesus really meant it?
2. To what extent, if any, has learning a new language affected your ability to think in different ways? To empathize with people from different backgrounds? To understand the ideas of people very different from yourself?
3. In Paul’s most familiar passage, 1 Corinthians 13, in what ways do you find Paul using Platonic or Aristotelian thought in his argument? In what ways do you find him pushing against Hellenistic philosophy with more Jewish concerns, idolatry in particular?
Back In My Day . . .
The Bible records two distinct attitudes toward Israel’s monarchy. On the one hand, the kingdom of David stands as the pinnacle of Israel’s history, the touchstone against which all other generations must be measured, and a period for which prophets and people wax nostalgic. When Isaiah describes how Israel will recover from Babylonian exile, he says,
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, [King David’s father]
and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” Isaiah 11:1
A few verses later, he envisions a time when the north and the south, Ephraim and Judah, will come back together as they were in the time of David’s reign:
“The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim.” Isaiah 11:13
This passage from Isaiah represents a line of thought that we can trace from Old Testament to New, from the heroic tale of David’s defeat of Goliath to the accolades given to Jesus as he approached Jericho (“Son of David!”) Luke 18:38. We find a nostalgia for that brief period from Saul to David to Solomon, ~1000 to 922 B.C., about 78 years, as if those few decades represent the way God intended the world to be. The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of David become interwoven in the first century Jewish and Christian mind.
On the other hand, a strand of thought runs through much of the Old Testament that considers the monarchy a flawed institution, a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness and susceptibility to idolatry. In the story of Saul’s anointing by the prophet Samuel, the people demand a king “so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:20). In the context of the Old Testament, becoming like other nations sounds like our cliché of children who say to their parents, “Please let me jump off of a cliff–all the other kids in the neighborhood are doing it!”
This line of thought, with a sardonic and satirical tone regarding mortal kings, continues through the David and Bathsheba story and into the ironic tone of John’s Gospel. By that time, the Jews had been ruled by Jewish puppets of Rome, such as Herod. When Pilate writes “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross, and the chief priests tell Pilate, “Do not write, ‘King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews,’” and Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written,” we hear John’s devastating indictment of the monarchy.
Here are some questions this raises for us today: To what extent does the contemporary church indulge in nostalgia for days gone by, such as the nineteen fifties and sixties when, in our memory, or the memory of our parents, the churches were full, the budgets rose each year, and the youth choir sang in perfect harmony? To what extent, if any, do African Americans and other people of color share that nostalgia for the nineteen fifties? What does nostalgia indicate about our theology? If the mainline church continues to lose influence, does that mean that God will be diminished?
Coming Up . . .
The drama of the Bible, from the Exodus to the Resurrection to the spread of the Gospel to Rome, moves across a stage against historical backdrops. This series of blog posts lifts up six of those backdrops as a way of helping us see more clearly the meaning of the events portrayed center stage.
In the last two posts, we looked at Babylonian exile, from ~605 B.C. to 538 B.C. It ended when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and liberated the exiles, giving them the right of return.
Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at:
- the conquest of Alexander the Great (336-323) that brought Greek language and culture to Palestine;
- Roman conquest (200–63 B.C.) that brought “peace to the empire but not peace of mind to its peoples” (Howard Clark Kee) through emperors and puppet kings such as Herod;
- the destruction of Herod’s temple (70 A.D.) when Jerusalem was sacked;
- the separation of church and synagogue (late first century).
Today, we reviewed the importance of the rise of the monarchy between ~990 to ~1033 over a united kingdom that included north and south, Israel and Judah.
In our continuing discussion of the Exile’s importance in reading the Bible in historical context, I came across this example. My friend Robert Quiring posted a question from one of his parishioners regarding 2 Kings 2:23-24:
Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
His parishioner, for some reason, asked “What in the world do I do with this passage?”
Here’s one possibility.
The clear meaning of the text is that we have been too easy on our children. If we want to be biblically faithful parents, we need to train some she-bears to come when we call them and apply the discipline needed: mauling, or as another translation says, tearing the forty-two boys to bits. Another thing we need to work on, if we would practice biblically faithful parenting, is to encourage our children to stand around and wait for the punishment they have coming instead of running away. Obviously, if two bears are going to maul forty-two boys, the boys did not run away when the bears went after the first two; they waited their turn. It’s time we raise our boys to suppress their survival instincts and take their punishment like men.
Or, maybe we could consider that the Bible contains many different genres of stories, including gallows-humor folk tales. Perhaps our contemporary culture’s assumption of historical accuracy in the Bible would make no sense at all to the original readers of this story. We could even read the story in its context and discern a very playful editor and writers behind this important narrative about the succession of Elijah by Elisha. They dare to be playful about a deeply important question: When times are hard, does that mean that God has abandoned us? Or, to put it in the specific context of the exile, the time at which most of the Old Testament was compiled, edited, transformed from oral tradition to written word, and shaped into a theological document: When the people of God feel lost, alone, displaced, and caught in the drama of political instability, is there still a prophet in Israel?
Here’s a radical thought: it appears that some biblical writers had a sick sense of humor.
You are sitting in a worship service trying to shed the feeling of discomfort you have carried all week: a relationship gone wrong; a job you have grown to hate, some sense that this is not the life I want. I belong somewhere else.
You hear Scripture read. They are just words, words you have heard before without feeling anything. But today, in your sense of displacement, the ancient story or psalm resonates. Deep calls to deep and you feel as if the person who wrote those words more than 2,000 years ago had read your mind and your text messages.
If you have ever experienced that profound sense of connection with the Scripture during your own time of emotional turmoil, there is good reason. Almost all of Scripture emerged from the experience of a displaced people.
I will go so far as to say that without a clear understanding of the emotional and faith crisis that crashed down on the people of Israel with their exile to Babylon, we cannot understand the Bible at all. This brief 67 year period, from 605 B.C. to 538 B.C., generated the process of thinking, writing, gathering, and editing the lion’s share of the Old Testament. Almost every word of Jewish and Christian Scripture, Old Testament and New, tells its story on a stage with the exile in Babylon as a backdrop. Even the parts of the Bible that originated before the exile where shaped and edited during, or shortly after, the Babylonian exile.
The Babylonian exile permeates the text of the entire Old Testament. In Psalm 137, we find one of the explicit descriptions of the exile, or captivity in Babylon:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
This psalm reflects the emotional experience of Babylonian captivity, and in the next line the psalmist poses an important theological question:
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
Keeping in mind the exile experience while reading the Old Testament helps us understand a struggle that may seem quite foreign to contemporary Christians. In the theology of the ancient world, different gods ruled over different lands. The nation of Israel tied itself to the land they believed God had promised them. While Israel grew into the confession that there is one God only, one Creator of everything, the more primitive view of specific gods for different plots of land still clings to the biblical text. Consider, for instance, the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). After the prophet Elisha makes it clear to Naaman that his healing of a skin disease has come from the God of Israel, Naaman says,
please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.
Naaman has been converted, but he still does not quite get the concept of a God who can be worshiped without kneeling on the mule-load of earth he would transport everywhere he went in order to take God with him.
Questions: In your own life, do you have an exile story, i.e., a story of displacement and restoration, whether geographic or emotional? If so, in what way, if any, does the Bible inform your own exile experience?
Next post: Exile, continued . . .
Trisha, a high school teacher who had been honored, recognized, and praised for her prowess as a teacher of American history, agreed to lead a small group of adults who wanted to read the entire Bible over the course of three years. Trisha had grown up in the church. She had heard and read the Bible since she was very young. She knew where to find particular stories and could recite by heart several psalms and a large portion of the sermon on the mount and other sayings of Jesus.
“What I cannot do,” she told me, “is figure out the context of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. When I assign a document for my students to read in American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, I can describe to them the events and conflicts that led up to the writing of that document. I can describe to them the colonial culture and the literary style Jefferson adopted.” She held up her well-worn Bible and said. “I know what this says, but I often have no idea why it says what it does.”
I led Trisha down the hall to the church library where we have shelves and shelves of commentaries on each book of the Bible. “Almost everything you want to know about the Bible, you can find here in one of these commentaries.”
I allowed as to how she was right.
“What I need,” Trisha said, “Is a concise book on context. I want a list and a brief description of the major historical events, the major cultural differences, and the literary genres of the Bible. That would give me something to grab hold of when I stumble across some obscure passage of Scripture we have never understood before.”
While I could find excellent commentaries on particular books of the Bible, several books on history, a few on culture, and books on particular genres of the Bible (the parables of Jesus, the Psalms, and the epistles of Paul, for instance) I could find no concise guide to biblical context for small group Bible study leaders.
So, here it is.
Over the next nine or ten weeks, I will post 18 (give or take a few) blog entries on the basic historical, cultural, and literary elements of biblical context. Many of you know more about it than I do, so feel free to chime in and correct my errors, add missing essential information, or tell a story that is apropos to the subject.
I’m a pastor, not an academic, so I’m not likely to use academic jargon; if I do, call me on it. I am writing for small group Bible study leaders, both lay and clergy, who need an easy-to-understand handbook. I value your thoughtful comments and they will shape the content of the final product. At the end of our 18 weeks, I will post an e-book, (free to you, dear readers) with a clear and simple description of the basic contextual elements that seminary-trained clergy use in preparing to teach or preach the Bible. And, it is much cheaper than a seminary education. Like I said, it will be free to you.
There are, of course, many more than six elements in each category; but, with my purpose being to create a concise handbook, I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped historical events, cultural differences, and literary genres into broader categories and left out some that would be added in a more detailed study.
Whether you are a leader of a small group Bible study, or you want to read the Bible on your own with deeper understanding, I hope this blog will provide you with contextual landmarks to help you find your way.
Next post: Six essential historical events behind the Bible’s formation–the Most Important One–What would you pick? My choice is Babylonian Exile; the floor is open for your nominations!