Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Israel

23rd October 2016 Joel

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
Pieter Bruegel "Harvest"
Pieter Bruegel, “Harvest” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Joel 2:23-32

23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. My people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other, and my people shall never again be put to shame.

28Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.


I was intending completing the reflection on Joel when I was asked to focus on the gospel passage from Luke, so here’s a bonus.

Joel? Who’s Joel? How many of us can pick up a Bible and quickly find Joel without referring to the index?

The book of Joel is divided differently in the Hebrew from how it is done in English, so who decided that we English speakers are better at organising scripture than the original owners of that scripture? This segment opens with abundance in the wake of desolation. You might think “bad year, good year”, but that’s not the case. One verse about the locusts eating all the crops – and everything else – does not do justice, if that’s a fair word to use in the circumstances, to the years of famine brought about, according to scripture, because of the Hebrew people not paying attention to God. I can imagine God thinking “why do you humans go off on your own ways so often and so far that I have to send you plagues, famines, sheer desolation, and more to get you even to the starting point of looking to me for your blessings?” I don’t want to count the number of times that God’s chosen people went off the rails and had to be brought back by some horrors being inflicted on them. It would be depressing! How many times should I forgive my brother: seventy times seven? If that were God’s limit then we’d be in strife very soon.

God, of course, is willing to forgive us for our blatant transgressions, far more than we are willing to forgive others for their transgressions against us. As a consequence, God is now willing to provide food in abundance, joy for all, and a wonderfully new experience in that close relationship we have with our maker. Never again will the Hebrew people be put to shame; until, or course, they forget that God is in the midst of Israel, or that He is the one and only God. That’s a different story, which we know in the 21st century AD but they didn’t in the early 5th century BC.

The declaration that God will pour out His spirit on all flesh is familiar to those of us who have read or heard the Pentecost passage from Acts [Acts 2:14-21] where this excerpt from Joel is quoted as near to verbatim as we can get with one passage in Hebrew and the other in Greek. In Joel, there is no indication of when this will occur other than “afterwards”; in Acts, Peter adds “in the last days”. What we see in the declaration is that God will pour His spirit on all humans – the text says all flesh, but the list is only of various groups of people – with no boundaries. That is, there will be no discrimination on the grounds of gender, age or social status. The spirit will be poured on sons, daughters, old men, young men, slaves, let me add wives and mothers, and all shall, not will, prophesy. It’s amazing that this list was written more than 400 years before Paul’s famous “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” if we take the King James rendition, though the Greek actually says “neither is there male and female”. [Galations 3:28]. It was clearly understood, even in the time of Joel, that God’s will was for equality, not segregation or subversion. If that concept was understood 2500 years ago, why do we still have opposition to women taking leadership roles in the churches?

In days when there was no understanding of the physical process of eclipses, the idea of the sun being turned to darkness, and the moon being turned to blood would have elicited fear of the end time whenever there was one – and we now know that they occur several times every year. Have we become complacent because we have a scientific understanding of eclipses? Quite likely.

If we are approaching the end time, and nobody really knows, have we done enough to reach out to those people who have little or no contact with God, remembering that “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”? Some would answer that it is up to God to extend His grace to those who have had no contact with, or knowledge of the existence of God, and that we cannot reach out to everyone in every country because we don’t have the resources. That might be true, but does it exonerate us if we leave those who live close to us, and those with whom we work, ignorant of the loving grace of God?

4th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment
the-potter
Else Berg, ‘Potter’ from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.


In many churches the sermon would have been based on the Gospel reading, from Luke, but there is much for us to glean from the passage from Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a prophet, and the task of the prophet was to remind the religious hierarchy of their responsibilities in following God’s teaching. The same applies to today’s prophets – and, yes, there are plenty around today, but, like in Jeremiah’s day, some people wanted them in places where they couldn’t do any damage. Time and again a prophet would rise from the people and point out that the hierarchy were not always doing the right thing according to scripture, and the hierarchy, realising that the perks they had woven into their ways of doing things and getting others to do things, would be lost if they truly repented of their sins and turned their teaching around.

The common way of looking at the story of Jeremiah being led to the potter’s house runs along the lines of the potter being able to remodel the clay of the vessel under construction if what is developing is not desirable. God, as the potter, can restart the modelling process, or can continue to model that same piece of clay into something remarkable, because un-fired clay is malleable, not brittle or rigid.

Something else comes to my mind, though. In 1859 Charles Darwin stirred the religious world by publishing a book on evolution. “God forbid” cried the churches, which had, for millennia, taught that God created the world in six 24-hour days, and rested on the seventh. Evolution and Darwin were diametrically opposed. Darwin must be shown to be a fraud. Many of us have heard the joke about a man asking God if it’s true that one second to Him was the equivalent of ten thousand years to us, and, with a positive reply asking for a million dollars, to which God responded “in a minute.” If we take that line, then the “periods of time” (which is far closer to the meaning of the Hebrew text than “24-hour day”) become exceedingly long – well beyond the comprehension of even the people who finally wrote down the passages we find in Genesis. New species are still being formed, older ones, with no further part to play in the potter’s work, are disappearing. That, of course, should not be taken as an excuse for doing nothing about human contributions to the accelerating number of species becoming extinct. Improvements within one species take time to develop, just as the shape of the potter’s vessel takes time to develop. Arms and legs could be formed to fit a purpose, and modified as that purpose changed. We, too, can be co-creators with God of new things in today’s world, but if we go off the beaten track prepared for us then we can be in need of the prophet’s call to repentance and reconciliation, or in need of the potter’s intervention, as happened to Saul on the way to Damascus.

Jeremiah’s message is not just for those of his own time, but for Christians today too – all of us, and everyone in between. How far have we strayed like lost sheep because the potter is not in control? Are we willing to allow the potter to regain control and make something remarkable from the mess we offer? Do we need to change our ways? That could be at a personal level; it could have much to do with what happens in our churches; it could involve how we, as a church, respond to things which go wrong beyond our control. Are we going to be co-creators with God of a new revolution within the church, and the benefit from the rewards of repentance? I hope so.