Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bible Study Brief: Daniel 3

Sunday, March 20

Daniel 3:1-29

Daniel is considered a major prophetic book (it’s fairly lengthy) and contains apocalyptic visions (making it similar to Revelation). The first part of the book contains six stories which emphasize the rewards of being faithful to God, even at the expense of disobeying a foreign king. They are written in the style of traditional stories, and probably are Hebrew adaptations of already existing tales. The second half of the book contains the visions, dreams of Daniel about the future of God’s people. The book covers a timespan of several kings. Ancient sources for Daniel are found in both Hebrew and Aramaic languages. 

In this story, one of the two most remembered from Daniel (the other is Daniel in the Lions’ Den, chapter 6), three Hebrew men are punished for being faithful to God despite the king’s orders. All the stories in this first section are about Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel, though Daniel does not appear in this story. They are captives in Babylon but have been appointed to positions of authority in service to the king, having been selected from among the best (strong and smart) of the captives to be educated in Chaldean ways.

When the king erects a golden statue and demands that everyone in the kingdom bow down to it, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refuse, out of loyalty to the God of Israel. They’d rather die than cheat on God, regardless of whether God will save them. They are thrown into a fiery furnace… you know the rest of the story (or read it!).

This is a story about faithfulness in time of trouble, and remembering who you are when you are in a strange land, surrounded by customs, laws, and people that not only don’t match yours but in some cases are directly contrary to yours. It’s a migration problem that is still a struggle for people on the move today, including refugees: what language will we speak, what food will we eat, what freedoms will be retained and which taken away, in this new place? How will we survive? How will we know who we are, and who God is, in a new land? What will become important to us? The Hebrew men in this story get to keep their culture and their identity because of God’s impressive save. What might we learn about living amid cultural diversity in our time and place? 

Bible Study Brief: Isaiah 61

Wednesday, March 16

Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11  

We come again to the latter section of Isaiah, sometimes called “Third Isaiah”, probably about 150 years later than the beginning of the book. The promise of what God will do for the nation in exile will be carried out by this “apostle”, one sent by God to the people. The promise is rich, and just what they are hoping for: a reversal of fortune, and undoing of the harm done to God’s people. Imagine playing a scene backwards, when all that has been broken or blown up gets reassembled, good as new.

Christians reading this section will be reminded of Jesus reading this very passage aloud in the synagogue, and claiming himself to be this One whom God has sent (Luke 4:16-21). This does not mean that Isaiah was predicting Jesus, but that God made a promise which we know through Isaiah, and God fulfilled that promise in Jesus.

As we’ve observed throughout this series, most of the verbs have God for the subject. The people are hopeless—they (we?) keep messing up, getting in trouble, separating ourselves from God. God alone has the power to repair these breaks, to rescue us in time of trouble (a better translation than “vengeance” in verse 2), to restore the divine relationship. In this time of spring and new life, it is easy to imagine what this new thing will look like—as surely as the earth puts forth new shoots, so will God cause righteousness and praise to spring up, not only among the faithful, but before ALL the nations.

A next step for us as people of faith is to live in God’s ways, which are described here. God has the power to do all these things, but it does not mean we have no power. Filled with the Spirit as this servant is, we too can bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty, release, and the year of the Lord’s favor, and comfort those who mourn. These are divine tasks, but being made in the image of God, we too can accomplish God’s work in these ways. What might this promise look like in our world today, in our communities, neighborhoods, and families?  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Bible Study Brief: Zephaniah and Jonah

Sunday, March 13

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Jonah 1:1-2:1  

These stories are from the minor prophets (so called because the stories from and about them are shorter in length); there are 12 of them rounding out the Hebrew Testament. Even in shorter form, the minor prophets follow the classic pattern of announcing condemnation to a city or nation, followed by promises of what God will do when they repent (sometimes what God does is make the repentance happen).

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Zephaniah provides a brief but harsh criticism against the establishment in Jerusalem. They are trusting in their own wealth and power and are creating international alliances and turning toward other gods. The result of this is that the poor of Jerusalem are not being cared for and are being taken advantage of, contrary to God’s law. The punishment for this will be thorough: chapter 1 describes an undoing of creation similar to the Great Flood (Gen 6-9). After this “Day of the Lord”, God will remove the judgment against the people and will rejoice over them, saving both the nation as a whole and individuals from disaster, illness, and exile, restoring the land, the community, and their fortunes (sounds a little bit like Job, too!).  Once again, there are themes of restoration after devastation, life after death, promise fulfilled after despair. 

Jonah 1:1-2:1 
Jonah is a very different kind of prophetic book. It is more of a story than the other prophetic books are, and it is about Jonah rather than a collection of his words. In fact, Jonah has very few words at all in this story. His longest speech is not against the city of Ninevah, where he is sent to prophesy, but while he is in the belly of the great fish, and calls to God in the words of a very eloquent psalm-like prayer.

This first chapter is the Big Fish part of the story, the part we know best. God has called on Jonah, who is never identified as a prophet per se, to travel to Ninevah and warn them that God is aware of their wicked ways. Jonah doesn’t want to go because Ninevah is an enemy of Israel. If he goes, he might be killed by these Assyrians who earlier decimated the Israelites; or they may repent, since God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Neither of these options is appealing to Jonah, who decides to disobey God and run to the other side of the world (Ninevah was in what is now Iraq; Tarshish in modern Spain; see map on 1498 of Lutheran Study Bible).

This story is probably included in the Easter Vigil readings because of the resurrection theme of Jonah being disobedient and running from God, then being swallowed by a great fish, where he stayed for 3 days and nights before being brought to “new life” when the fish spit him out, alive, on the shore. These are parallel themes with the other prophetic writings we’ve studied previously, and with the resurrection details of Jesus being in the tomb for 3 days and nights before God raised him from the dead. This story also broadens God’s interest in salvation for all nations, not only for Israel. God notices people outside of Israel, even their enemies, and desires repentance and salvation for them.  

To see a performance of this story, click here 

Bible Study Brief: Ezekiel 37

Wednesday, March 9 

Ezekiel 37:1-14  

This story of the Dry Bones is probably the most familiar from Ezekiel. In this vision, God promises to re-create life from death, a sort of second creation using the raw material of what is left of the Israelites. In exile, they feel that they are cut off from their source of life (away from Jerusalem = away from God), and so they have dried up, wasting away to only bones. God promises to bring them back together so they are whole, including flesh, sinew, skin, and bone, and to breathe God’s spirit into them for new life.

Remember, in Hebrew as well as in Greek there is one word for spirit, wind, and breath, which is the source of life for these new creations. With these parallel images to resurrection and new life, this is a perfect story for the Easter Vigil! 

Bible Study Brief: Ezekiel 36

Sunday, March 6

Ezekiel 36:24-28

Ezekiel was a priest turned prophet who was likely forcibly removed from Jerusalem with other leaders during the exile. His message is harsh criticism at times, poetic vision at other times, comfort and promise at others. In his description, the Israelites are in exile because of their unholy ways; they have not kept the laws and particularly the ritual ordinances for worship, so they are being punished by being taken captive by the Babylonians. Despite their unfaithfulness, however, the LORD is faithful and the LORD remains holy. When it seems God has gone back on the Abrahamic covenant (land, people, blessing), Ezekiel interprets the exile as the way God is keeping God’s name holy despite the carelessness of the people. This “time out” that is exile will create a way for God to renew the covenant relationship with them.

In this section, God promises to renew Israel by gathering them together from their scattered exile, cleansing them with clean water (baptism/purification), replacing their hearts of stone (think of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” during the plagues!) with a heart of flesh, and pouring God’s own spirit within them (the same way God breathed the Spirit/”breath of life” into humans at creation). In short, this is their do-over; they get a clean start again, to be God’s people.  In the midst of the pain and shame of this forced separation from their home (both their land and their God), these are comforting words indeed. 

Bible Study Brief: Isaiah 55

Sunday, February 28

Isaiah 55:1-11

Isaiah is a complex book, mostly because it is likely 3 or 4 distinct sections, collected/composed at three very different times and locations in the life of Israel and Judah. The second part, sometimes called “Second Isaiah”, includes chapters 40-55 and dates from the Babylonian Captivity, 597-538 BCE. When the people are in exile and don’t know where God is (the temple has been destroyed, so where can God live?), they long for assurance that God is still there, still their God, and knows where they are.

“For the prophets, history is not merely a stage for human actors but is the arena where God guides, warns, challenges, and liberates God’s chosen people and reaches out to all the peoples of the world.”  Lutheran Study Bible, Introduction to Isaiah, 1092

In this particular section there are words of comfort for the exiles, and words of hope and promise for a better future. God invites them to feast on the goodness of God for free. God promises a new covenant with them, renewing the covenant with Noah and expanding the covenant with David to include all people.  God will bring them through a new exodus, leading them out of this land of exile and back to the promised land. Third Isaiah, ch. 55-65, addresses the people after they have returned to rebuild Jerusalem.

Some very familiar lines are found in this section. One of my favorites is quoted in a book, Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle. He says, “Your ways are not my ways, says the Lord (v. 8)—but they could be.” In this new covenant, new exodus, new chance, all are called to the mission to live in God’s ways. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Bible Study Brief: Proverbs 8 & 9

Wednesday, March 2

Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-22, 9:4-6

Proverbs paints wisdom as an aspect of God, characterized as female. The words for wisdom are feminine words in both Hebrew and Greek, and here wisdom is personified as a woman. This wisdom is available to all; from this busy public place, “the crossroads”, all are invited to come in. (Other parts of scripture, such as Job 28:12, tell us that wisdom cannot be found by mortals.) In Proverbs, wisdom is celebrated as a good gift from God, and those who have it are godly, resisting evil.

To see a performance of this story, click here.