Grapes or Giants? Numbers 13
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 3 – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
As I mentioned, in the past couple of weeks I completed my PhD thesis, which explores Anglican churches which don’t like Anglican liturgy and so minimise it and replace it with a stream of worship songs. One of the many discoveries I made during my fieldwork visits to churches was the diminished place for the reading of Scripture. Almost all of the churches I visited would call themselves evangelical, yet Bible reading in the context of worship was often either absent altogether, or limited to odd verses flashed up on the screen during the sermon. This seemed a very strange thing to be happening in churches which would proudly base their faith on the Word of God. Today’s OT reading perhaps suggests a corrective.
The date in v.1 is important: the 1st day of the 7th month. Nowadays Jews mark this date as Rosh Hashannah, the beginning of the New Year: then it would have been the Feast of Trumpets. But with the rebuilding of the city walls completed a few days earlier (6:15) this seemed like a great opportunity for the leaders to remind the people that they do not live by buildings alone, but by the words which God has spoken. So a public reading is called, and so central is this that the people are content to listen for 6 hours as the Scriptures are read. In this story there are a few things we might learn about the importance of God’s written word, which might help to counter its neglect in the Church today.
Firstly, it is interesting to note that by this stage it had become a written Word. The phrase ‘The Book of the Law of Moses’ in v.1 is unique, and signals the move from an oral to a written form of the Law. Ezra ‘brings out’ the Book, and ‘opens’ it before the people, who stood in reverence before it. Many Anglicans similarly find ways of reverencing the physical book of the Bible in the Eucharist, while others avoid it at all costs in fear of idolatry. But there is something important about the Law of God having become fixed and authoritative. This is not about what I happen to remember: it is what God has said, at least until we speaks again through his Son. Nowadays, of course, we have much greater access to the Bible, through books and phone apps, yet it is apparently still only minimally read by Christians.
Secondly, note how it is an inclusive Word. Until a few years ago in English the word ‘man’ was taken to mean both men and women, and the same is true of the Hebrew term. But here (v.2) the text deliberately, and needlessly, mentions both men and women. The addition of ‘others’ in v.3 almost certainly means children, rather than 21st century takes on various uncertainties of gender. There are also two different groups of people present: those who are literate themselves, maybe 3% of the population, and those who can’t understand the words but nevertheless listen attentively, until it is explained and interpreted for them. This really is for everybody, and special care is taken, and provision made, for those who need extra help.
Thirdly, it is a powerful Word. We don’t know exactly what parts of the Torah were being read, but the result was mourning and weeping among the audience. Was this because of conviction of sin, the realisation of just how far people had strayed from God’s ways? Or was it about painful memories of an earlier reading, recorded in Ezra 9 and 10, when those guilty of intermarriage were told to separate from their foreign wives and discard their dual-heritage children? Whatever was going on, the people were clearly cut to the heart by the Law, and had to be reminded that conviction of sin is always a good thing, as it leads to the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. It was this renewed experience of the mercy of God which led to another Jewish Festival, Simchat Torah, ‘the joy of the Law’, which to this day sees the Jewish community dancing in the streets with scrolls held aloft.
What a shame, then, that Christians, and especially some evangelical Christians, seem to pay so little attention to the Bible that it is minimised in public worship. Maybe it if was given a more central place, physically treated with more respect, and taken more seriously, we might see more of both weeping and joy.
What’s your problem? Numbers 12:1-16
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 62:1-5
Welcome back to revjohnleachblog, and a happy New Year to you all, after a couple of weeks off. I haven’t been wasting my time though: I’ve finally submitted my PhD thesis for examination! But it’s good to be back with you.
If we were to write a plot and a dramatis personae or cast list for today’s little drama, we would find 5 ‘characters’ and a straightforward plot. But beneath the simplicity lies quite a complex passage with a pretty radical application. Let’s begin with the cast list. The first is ‘I’, the speaker who just will not shut up. Who is he or she? Probably the prophet, presumably speaking in the name of and at the command of our second character, The Lord. He is speaking no doubt to the people of Israel, but he is speaking about what will happen to the Land, our fourth ‘character’, with quite a leading role here. Finally, he is speaking about how ‘the nations’ will react. So these five characters or groups are the players on the stage, but what is the story?
The prophet seems to be expressing what the Lord is going to do, partly for the people but mostly for the land, and what the reaction of the nations around is going to be. God is going to make Israel’s righteousness and salvation (‘vindication’ is not the best translation of the Hebrew word used here) shine out like a flaming torch in the darkness. When the hostile nations see this righteousness, blazing out so that it can’t be missed in its attractive beauty, they are presumably going to seek the Lord, as they do in several other passages in Isaiah. The picture of a diadem in the Lord’s hand is a great one. You’d expect it to be on his head, but he seems to have taken it off and is showing it around to the nations as one would a beautiful gift or an Olympic gold medal or something. He is just so proud of his people, and he wants everyone to see them in their beauty. But it isn’t just humans who will see this epiphany: the Land itself will be healed. Deuteronomy has much material about physical theological geography. The relationship between land and people is a close one, and the land can be wounded by human sin, particularly the breaking of covenants or promises, false worship and bloodshed. So it has been, but the promise is of restoration is that what was once deserted will become delightful, and what was once desolate will become married and fruitful. Instead of the land harming the people and offending God, it will become a delight to both, as are a newly married couple to each other.
Sounds great, doesn’t it, but this happy ending isn’t a foregone conclusion. The fact that the prophet needs to keep on crying out until the nation’s righteousness blazes forth suggests that at the moment that isn’t happening. Rather than living in the kind of attractive holiness that will see others flocking to them to find where they got this wisdom from, they are in the situation where the prophet has to keep shouting to them, presumably until they stop acting evilly, thus polluting and harming the land, which in turn becomes hostile to them. While they continue to live lives which are harmful and toxic, the prophet has no option but to keep on with his carrot and stick oracles, promising a future which is so much better, but also warning what will happen if not. Theologically speaking the land can be saved when humans mend their ways.
Clearly there are vast implications here for our global ecological crisis. I often tell my students, somewhat controversially, that the biblical way to save the planet is to stop sinning on it, not the sins of throwing plastic into the sea (although that would certainly help) but rather by stopping the bloodshed, lying and false worship which is the real cause of the planet’s writhing in agony at the behaviour of its inhabitants. Maybe we need some prophets to start crying out with that message, rather than merely attempting, through fallen human plans, to tackle the symptoms whilst having completely lost any theology of sin, blame, punishment or repentance.