Ok, let’s begin with a little quiz to see if you’ve been listening.
Have a glance (you don’t even need to read it all) at Ezra chapters 2, 8 and 10. So which stream of writing does this book belong to? That’s right – it’s those boring Priests again with their lists of funny names and tedious attention to detail. We’re going to find the same in our next book, Nehemiah, in chapters 7, 10 and 12, so that looks like a priestly work too. These two books tell a complimentary story of what happened when the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, and much scholarly dispute has raged about the exact chronology of the two books and the relationship between them, not least as the character of Ezra plays a major part in the book of Nehemiah. But leaving that aside, the two books are basically about rebuilding, Nehemiah, as we’ll see next week, with the city walls of Jerusalem, and Ezra with the worship and right ordering of society.
Ezra was a priest and a teacher of the law, so when King Cyrus, who had conquered Babylon right at the end of 2 Chronicles, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, he was sent along to help them rediscover the Law’s teachings, which had been so long neglected, even before the exile. This necessitated the rebuilding of the Temple, so that the right sacrifices could once again be offered. This work went ahead, and soon the altar was functioning again, although it was not long before subterfuge and opposition from ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin’, almost certainly Samaritans, remnants of the old Northern Kingdom who had become tainted by their syncretistic religion and intermarriage, halted the work. Finally, with royal help from King Darius of Persia, the Temple is completed and rededicated, and the Passover is celebrated. Once the physical building had been completed Ezra is sent to rebuild the spiritual life of the nation, but he soon discovers what he believes is the root cause of a major problem: the people had intermarried with the surrounding nations, a concern, you’ll remember, of the Deuteronomic historians. When you took a foreign wife you almost always took her foreign gods too, so all kinds of practices contrary to Yahweh’s Law had become part and parcel of their lives.
Ezra turns to prayer, and confesses to God the people’s infidelity, and as he does so, using, interestingly, the first person, the people catch his broken heartedness and join in with the confession. Eventually the foreign wives are sent packing, but not before the careful chronicler has written down a list of all the guilty parties.
We can read this book as being about the primacy of worship, about the need for integrity as we worship, and the opposition which will surely come as we seek to live with that integrity. We’re going to see a load more opposition next week, and some pretty dirty tactics, and I am reminded that in a church where political correctness has removed most of the language of spiritual warfare from our liturgy and hymnody, we can easily lose sight of the battle which rages all around us. But then as Keyser Soze said: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’
I personally love the idea that what the community really needed, perhaps more than it needed carpenters and stonemasons, was Bible teachers. In the next book we’re going to see the power of the teaching ministry in action, but I find it interesting that for all their concern about the right ordering of worship the Priests have written up not the story of a superstar worship-leader but a humble scribe. Maybe today’s church could listen to that a bit more.
In part three of our journey we come to the book everyone loves to hate – Leviticus. Most people have never read through it, and who can blame them? Half of it is about cutting up animals, and the rest is about stuff you mustn’t do or eat. The book raises all kinds of awkward questions, like ‘Who on earth thought this lot up?’ and ‘What has this got to do with me trying to live for Jesus in the 21st century?’ Realistically we ignore it much of the time: the fact that wearing polycotton clothes is forbidden does little to affect my lifestyle: think of all that extra ironing if I stuck to pure cotton. And whilst I’ve never been tempted to sit down to a nice hoopoe madras I do happen to love prawns, so I happily ignore that stuff too. And yet when Christians see, for example, homosexual acts roundly condemned in the same book, they want to stick rigidly to that particular law.
There is also the question of importance. Not selling your daughter into prostitution seems quite a good idea, but is it really in the same league of holiness as not cutting the edge of your beard? The book seems weird, outdated, disproportionately concerned with pointless details, and yet somehow we can’t seem just to do away with it in its entirety. So what do we do with it?
Standing back and taking a bigger view, we can soon see that it does tell us some significant truths. Three seem to stand out: worship is important, we need rules to live by, for our health and stability, and we screw up and somehow have to cope with that.
The amount of attention given to the minutiae of the celebrations and festivals shows us a God who wants to be worshipped, and who wants to be worshipped well. Taken as a whole there is a balance of different moods, seasons and occasions. We have already seen from Exodus that the physical setting for worship is important, and that only the best will do. Perhaps surprisingly Leviticus urges Christians to think about how we worship, the quality of it, and, most pointedly, whether we construct our worship around what we happen to like, or on God’s terms.
Secondly Leviticus reminds us that any society needs rules to live by. Whilst we might find some of these a bit strange, in context they make some sense if you remember that ‘health’ for a society involves physical wellbeing (so be careful what you eat – pork harbours tapeworms, molluscs can really get you into trouble, and hoopoes … well!); and it involves stable family life, so no prostitution or anything which would compromise family and tribal stability, and make punishments fair and not excessive. In addition, though, for the Israelite community it meant purity for their worship and identity, hence all kinds of laws which were like visual aids to them that if you mix and match, things go wrong. You only have to look at the subsequent history of Israel to see how often things went pear-shaped when their devotion to God was compromised through syncretistic worship and lifestyle. So polycotton shirts may not be mortally sinful, but they could be a daily reminder of the need to remain single-mindedly devoted to your God.
Thirdly there is so much detail about sacrifice and sin-offerings because in the human race there is so much sin. The seriousness of the solution speaks volumes about the seriousness of the problem, a problem which must involve the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22), and which is only going to be solved finally when the blood of Christ is shed on the cross.
What really makes the book fascinating, though, is the issue of ‘hermeneutics’, the branch of theology which deals with the appropriate interpretation of the Bible for today. How does it all work? Is it OK to read Lev 18:22 and interpret it to mean “‘Having sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman is fine by me”, says the Lord.’ And how is that different from eating a prawn cocktail? There are answers to these questions, rules in the hermeneutics game, as it were, but they are not simple, and that is partly why this book comes over as difficult. However, we still need it!
Part 2 of the Noah cycle sees the ark and its cargo coming in safely to land as the water recedes and dry land is once more revealed. This part of the tale again contains some important theological themes, a historical question, and even a bit of irony.
The word ‘remembered’ in 8:1 translates an important Hebrew word zacar. It is used several times in the OT, most notably in Ex 2:24 where God sees the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and ‘remembers’ his covenant with Abraham. On a first reading it looks there, as here, that God ‘remembers’ because he has ‘forgotten’ – ‘Oh my goodness – those poor Israelites! I was meant to do something about them but I’ve just been so busy lately …’ In fact the word has a different meaning: it means something like to recall to the front of one’s mind because action is required now. This is very different from having passed out of God’s sphere of consciousness: it means that their concerns are next on his agenda. It’s easy to feel when we’re already feeling down and abandoned that even God has given up on us. This story reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that he doesn’t always work to our timetables or schedules. But then we already knew that, didn’t we? And salvation, when it does come, often comes gradually. It was one thing to have landed safely, but to stay locked in the ark until the waters have receded enough for them to return to normality must have been an agonisingly slow and frustrating process. God has ‘remembered’ our need of salvation; Jesus died on the cross to win it, but we are still locked into a life where we’re not yet truly free. Sometimes that feels incredibly frustrating.
Talking of timing, I note with interest the sheer number of time references in this passage, which raise the question of its historicity or otherwise. Liberal theology would write this story off as a primaeval myth, and people might well point to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells a similar story from the background of a different religion and culture, and with its hero much less pronouncably called ‘Utnapishtim’. Others would suggest that there was indeed a significant flood in the Middle East at that period of history, as archaeological evidence confirms, but that different cultures told its story in different ways. And all would agree that the real point of this story is to highlight human depravity and God’s righteousness and saving mercy. So why are there so many chronological references? Most fairy stories are set simply ‘Once upon a time …’ with a notably vague setting in history. But here we have a series of timescales between the events of the story which make it feel almost historical. I’ll leave you to decide that one.
Finally, as one who is not known for being an animal-lover, I like the irony in v20 (strictly speaking in next week’s instalment) of the poor creatures who, just as they were breathing a huge sigh of relief at having survived a watery death, find themselves burning to death on an altar. Sometimes life just sucks.
The gospel writers disagree about the exact relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover meal. But there clearly is a link, and the story of the first Passover can help in our appreciation of this most holy day. The essence is that it is a night of God’s dramatic judgement on a nation whose monarch has consistently refused to comply with God’s instructions to him, preferring to keep Israel as his slaves, working in appalling conditions and under cruel domination. To our minds it seems profoundly unfair that just because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart the entire Egyptian nation should be bereaved, but God’s ways are different from ours, and we are reminded not of the unfairness of a vindictive God but rather of the awesome responsibility of leadership. Politicians make bad decisions and nations suffer: it was ever thus, and continues to be so today.
But it is also a night of rescue, as the people God has called as his own find their freedom from slavery and oppression, and begin a new journey to a home of their own. The blood on their doorposts provides a dramatic symbol of the cost of their freedom, and this most momentous of events becomes the turning point for Israel, the night to which all further generations will look back as their reference point.
These twin themes of judgement and rescue come hand in hand in Holy Week too: evil is defeated by the shedding of the blood of an innocent victim, and there is freedom and the beginning of a homeward journey for God’s people. It is symbolised, perhaps a bit strangely, in both cases, by a meal. The blood of the Passover lamb becomes the wine shared by Jesus’ disciples, but it is wine which refers both backwards and forwards to shed blood. The Israelites eat with coats and shoes on, ready for their escape; Jesus finds nourishment before his journey through death and hell to resurrection. And Christians down the ages have tasted the wine which speaks of the shed blood of redemption. The author to the Hebrews tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness for sin (9:22), and so the Christian community is constantly reminded of the cost of their salvation in the context of a celebratory meal.
What a bittersweet night this is! We eat and drink to celebrate but also to remember death and sin. We are rescued and saved, but at the cost of enormous pain and suffering. Our journey begins, but will take us a lifetime to complete. And at the centre of it sits Jesus, both Moses the host at the feast and the silent sacrificial lamb. Only later, in Gethsemane, does his anguish reveal itself: for now he is content to share a meal with his beloved friends.
Passover reminds us graphically of the cost of our salvation: on this of all nights we must not take it lightly, seek cheap grace, or forget those who suffer innocently because of the hard-heartedness of others.