Bible Notes 5: 1 Chronicles through 4 Maccabees

1 Chronicles 

This week I’ve been studying 1 Chronicles, a book that I’ve read very little! The two Chronicles aren’t among the more popular Bible books. For Christians, they pertain more directly to post-exilic Judaism, while we tend to see post-exilic Judaism as the background and “backdrop” for Jesus. Even the ancient rabbis tended to neglect Chronicles because of the perception of an idealized past. As my Jewish Study Bible notes, “Jews of antiquity accepted the version of the accounts preserved in the earlier Deuteronomistic sources of Samuel and Kings over that of Chronicles” (p. 1714).

Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafel write: “[T]he text makes a wondrous sweep of the entire past and drives it freely and imaginatively into the historical specificity of post exilic Judaism upon which the text wants to reflect and to which it wants to bear witness. Thus the books are a revised version of Israel’s memory in the context and under the impact of the Persian context of Judaism; in the context of Persia as a dependent colony of the empire, Judaism’s only chance for freedom of thought, faith, and action is through the maintenance of a liturgical practice and sensibility”(1). So we Christians shouldn’t see post-exilic Judaism only as Jesus’ background but as the living and ongoing faith that bears witness to us, too.

The Harper’s Bible Commentary points out that Genesis through 2 Kings is the primary history of the Bible, telling the long story from Creation to the fall of Judah. But Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther form an important secondary history, carrying the biblical story from Creation into the early post-exilic era when the Jews were allowed to return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple during the Persian era. “The OT presents us, then, with two alternative tellings of the history of the Israelite people. Their difference in outlook does not necessarily make either of them unreliable; it only reinforces the fact that the telling of any story or any history must be selective and must reflect the intentions of some person or group” (p. 80).

“The narrative of the Primary History may be described as one of fair beginnings and foul endings” (p. 75). That is, the promise to Abraham of descendants and land comes to an end with the Babylonian exile. All the leaders of that long story had problems. “There is not a lot of difference between Genesis 6:5-7 and 2 Kings 17:18-23; when God sees that humankind’s thoughts are ‘only evil continually,’ he is sorry that he created them and determines to ‘blot’ them out of the face of the ground by a great food. Things are not very different when the Israelite people over many generations do ‘wicked things, provoking the Lord to ‘anger’ (2 Kings 17:11)” (p. 78). Whether or not 2 Kings ends on a note of hope is open to debate.

Admittedly, 1 Chronicles distills the long story of Adam to David into nine chapters of genealogies. But the Secondary History, coming from the post-exilic time and written for Jews struggling with a new era, is more hopeful. Emphasizing King David fits the author’s purpose: in Chronicles, “[t]he history of the monarchy… seems to be primarily a history of the establishment and maintenance of the worship of God,” a concern that carries over into Ezra and Nehemiah as the people rebuild the temple and Jerusalem (p. 79). Although Esther is set in Persia rather than the land, that book affirms the providential continuation of the Jewish people even in foreign lands (p. 79). Even the genealogies are implicitly hopeful, demonstrating the continuity of God’s people from ancient times. It makes sense, then, that these books conclude the Jewish canon, effectively pointing to Jews toward their remarkable future.

(The history of God’s people continues with the book of Daniel–probably from the 100s BCE–in apocryphal books like Maccabees, then in the Mishnah and Talmud, as Second- and Post-Temple Judaism transformed into Rabbinic Judaism, and all the history and witness of the Jews during the subsequent two millennia. The New Testament provides scriptural history of the messianic subgroup of Jews known as Christians, a faith that eventually became prominently Gentile.)

1 and 2 Chronicles have numerous differences with Samuel and King—contrasting narratives and theologies that emerged from different historical circumstances and different audiences. I feel impatient with folks who say things like “Every word of the Bible is true” and “You shouldn’t interpret the Bible, you should obey it.” Both ideas neglect the wonderful complexity of the Bible. Here are a few contrasts that I learned this week:

* Negative aspects of David and Solomon are largely omitted.

* Chronicles focuses on the temple and worship and less on governmental issues. The Levites, mentioned very seldom in Samuel and Kings, figure strongly in Chronicles.

* Chronicles notes the division of the kingdom but mostly leaves out the northern kings, focusing instead on the Davidic kings of Judah. Chronicles aims to demonstrate the continuity of God’s providence for the people, while the break-off northern kingdom was illegitimate and ended after two hundred years.

* About half of Chronicles is “new” material, found nowhere else in the Bible. In fact, another name of the book is Paralipomenon, meaning “things left to the side” or “things omitted.” For instance, Chronicles mentions 13 prophets who don’t appear in Samuel or Kings.

* A major contrast with Samuel and Kings is theological: God’s rewards and punishments happen more quickly. Each generation experiences the consequences of its actions. This in turn encourages each new generation to stay faithful to God and the covenant.

(For more comparisons, see: http://markhaughwout.com/Bible/Kings_and_Chronciles_comparison.htm, sbsinternational.org/resource-material/chronicles/?wpdmdl=1034&ind=6http://thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org/resources/introductions-to-the-books-of-the-bible/1-and-2-chronicles/)

1 and 2 Chronicles has four sections. 1 Chr. 1-9 are genealogies that connect post-exilic Jews all the way back to Creation. 1 Chr. 10-29 move briefly through Saul’s life (leaving out all the drama between Saul and David) and narrate the reign of David, ending with the ascendency of Solomon. 2 Chr. 1-9 tell us of Solomon’s reign, especially focusing upon the temple. The last section, 2 Chr. 10-36 tell of the southern kingdom, its fall, and the early restoration(2).

* Early genealogies, 1:1-54, which we also find in Genesis.

* Genealogies of the 12 Tribes, 2:1-9:44
As the Harper’s Bible Commentary points out, it’s notable (and consistent with the Chronicler’s purpose) that Judah and his descendants are listed first, because it’s the tribe of David. Otherwise Judah, who was not the oldest son, would have been down the list. Some of the names are not found elsewhere in the Bible, and the nine generations between Judah and David are too few, given the 900 years between the two men (p. 345). Similarly, the care given to the descendants of Benjamin (chapter 8), one of the surviving tribes. Chapter 9, which is related to Nehemiah 11, provides key people in the post-exilic time (p. 348-349).
If you’re looking for biblical names for your children, you might (or might not) consider some of the names in these chapters, like Phuvah (1 Chr. 7:1), Anub (1 Chr. 4:8), Koz (1 Chr. 4:3), Ziph (1 Chr. 2:42), and Hazelelponi (1 Chr. 4:3).

* The deaths of Saul and his sons, 10:1-14.

* David’s kingdom, 11:1-12:40. With none of the preceding drama between David and Saul, David rises quickly with the approval of “all Israel,” and takes Jerusalem. Many names listed in these chapters are only found here (p. 350).

* The Ark of the Covenant, 13:1-14, 15:1-16:43. Significantly, the priest and Levites are indicated to be part of the effort (p. 351).

* David’s military campaigns, 14:1-17, 18:1-20:8. Again, the account leaves out some of David’s more brutal actions—omitting his crimes with Uriah and Bathsheba, giving only a small attention to the war with Absalom, and others.

* God’s covenant with David, 17:1-27. As the same book notes, this passage along with 2 Samuel 7 are among the Bible’s most significant sections, where God blesses David and promises the kingdom to him and his descendants (p. 352).

* David’s census, 21:1-30. In Chronicles, Satan rather than God incites David to authorize the census.

* Beginning of the temple, 22:1-19. Chapters 22, 28, 29 basically unite the work of David and Solomon (p. 353), and we have none of the intrigue of succession that we find at the beginning of 1 Kings.

* Divisions of the Levites, 23:2-26:32, and more of David’s officials, 27:1-34. Again, the Levites and priests are important in the story because they have provided continuity of worship from Davidic times to the post-exilic era.

* David’s final words to the people, 28:1-29:19, 29:26-30. Remember that, in 1 Kings, we have different kinds of “last words” from David—urging the death of Joab, etc. In 1 Chronicles, his final speech and blessings are beautiful words, full of psalm-like petition and thanksgiving.

* Solomon begins as king, 23:1, 29:20-25.

Although it runs to 36 chapters, next week I’ll study all of 2 Chronicles.

Notes:

1. Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd edition, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 409.

2. Ibid., 411-413.

*****

2 Chronicles

See my last post for general information about both books. This book continues the history of Israel under Solomon, notes the the division of the kingdom into Israel (Ephraim) and Judah, and then focuses on the history of Judah and its kings.

The first section, chapters 1-9, tell of the reign of Solomon:
His wisdom, 1:1-17
The construction and furnishing of the Temple, 2:1-5:14
Solomon’s prayer, and God’s glory fills the sancturary, 6:1-7:22
Other aspects of Solomon’s reign, chapters 8-9

The section, short section tells of the division of the Kingdom under Rehoboam and Jeroboam, chapters 10 through 12.

The third, long section is the history of Judah, chapters 13 through 36
Abijah, chapter 13
Asa, chapters 14 through 16
Jehoshaphat, chapters 17 through 20
Jehoram, chapter 21
Ahaziah, 22:1-9
Athaliah usurps the throne, 22:10-12
Joash, chapters 23 and 24
Amaziah, chapter 25
Uzziah, chapter 26
Jotham, chapter 27
Ahaz, chapter 28
Hezekiah, chapters 29 through 32
Manasseh, 33:1-20
Amon, 33:21-25
Josiah, chapters 34 and 35
Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah of Judah, 36:1-16
The end of the southern kingdom, 36:17-21
The decree of Cyrus of Persia, 538 BCE, 36:22-23

The Harper’s Bible Commentary has several interesting points:

* “While agreeing with the Deuteronomistic historian that the Temple is not God’s dwelling (1 Kings 5:3) but the place where his name dwells, emphasis [in 2 Chr. 2-8] falls primarily upon the Temple as a place of worship and sacrifice” (pp. 357-358). But also, “the terminology associated with the building of the Temple and with Huramabi is heavily dependent upon the tabernacle narrative [in Ex. 28 and 35],” with Huramabi becoming a hero along with Bazalel and Oholiab (Ex. 31) (p. 358). Another connection with the Torah, along with the placing of the Ark inside the sanctuary, is the dating of the temple from the 480th year since the Exodus (2 Chr. 3:1-5:10), and the identifying of the site not only with Araunah’s threshing floor at the end of 2 Samuel but also with Mt. Moriah in Gen. 22:2 (p. 358).

* 2 Chr. 7:14 is a very famous verse, which I’ve seen applied to the United States. The original context is, of course, the confidence that the Chronicler wants to inculcate in the returning exile. “It has been observed that, especially in the words of vs. 14, four avenues of repentance are uncovered (to humble oneself, pray, seek, turn) that will lead to God’ hearing, forgiving, and healing of people and land and that such a theology is meant to proclaim to the exiles that no circumstances are too formidable to prevent God from fulfilling his promise. These terms are indeed the heart of the writer’s theology from this point on and point to the dedication of the Temple as the beginning of a new era in Israel’s history” (p. 359).

* The portrayal of Solomon omits negative aspects of Solomon that we find in 1 Kings (pp. 359-360). In the post-Solomonic history, the good and bad kings of Judah reflect the evaluations of 2 Kings, although with some expansions and omissions. Stories like Abijah’s successful battles against the forces of Jeroboam reflect the Chronicler’s theology that faithfulness to God brings success, and evil brings defeat (p. 361). Similarly, the reign of Asa, well-respected by the Deuteronomistic historian, is characterized by the successes of faithfulness and the difficulties resulting form his lapses (p. 362). Similarly Josh, a little later, while Jehoshaphat’s reign is highly regarded.

* It’s worth noting that the Syro-Ephraimite War (about 735-732 BCE), found in 2 Kings 15:5-6 and 2 Chr. 28:5-8, will connect us later to Isaiah chapter 7, where that prophet spoke to circumstances in the northern and southern kingdoms (p. 367). The northern kingdom (sometimes called Ephraim as well as Israel) tried to break away from Assyrian influence. Syria and Israel (then under King Pekah) invaded Judah but failed to depose King Ahaz and failed to conquer Jerusalem. But idolatry spread through Judah during Ahaz’s reign, and Ahaz even paid the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser III with treasures from the temple.

* In 2 Chronicles as well as 2 Kings, Hezekiah and Josiah are lauded as wonderful kings, although the Chronicler gives the most space and praise to Hezekiah (p. 368). As in 2 Kings, Josiah labored under the shadow of his evil predecessor Manasseh. Yet Manasseh, too, gets grace; the Chronicler states that Manasseh humbled himself and prayed to God, and God restored him. If even the horrible Manasseh regains God’s grace, there is hope for all of us! (In the Apocrypha, “the Prayer of Manasseh” is a moving prayer dating from the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Prayer+of+Manasseh&version=CEB)

* 2 Chronicles omits numerous details about the last kings of Judah but has the interesting story that the land law fallow for seventy years following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (2 Chr. 36:17-21), a necessary sabbath rest that connects us back to Lev. 26:34-39 and ahead to Jeremiah 25:11-13 and 29:10-14 (p. 371).

* Finally, the edict of Cyrus of Persia allows the return of the people to the land, and 2 Chr. 36:22-23 is repeated almost verbatim in the next book, Ezra (1:1-3a) (p. 371):

“In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: ‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.’” (NRSV)

****
Brueggemann and Linafelt point out that these are the final verses of the Jewish Bible—since the Jewish Bible concludes with 2 Chronicles. The two authors invite us to compare those verses with Malachi 4:5-6, which are the final verses of the Christian Old Testament:

“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (NRSV)

“Both endings concern futures—but futures staged very differently. It is important that this difference be honored and taken seriously, Judaism in a particular focus on land and Torah, Christianity with its focus on a Messiah for both Gentiles and Israel… In the midst of that difference, however, our judgment is that Jews and Christians must read together as long as we are able and as far as we can… Because both Malachi 4:5-6 and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 end in anticipation… [i]t remains for us to keep reading, aware of distinctions, respectful of differences, grateful for what is held in common, a future with many shapes given by the God of all futures.” (Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd edition, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 416.)

****

Leslie C Allen’s introduction in the New Interpreter’s Bible(1) has an interesting section on the way “exile” functions both literally and metaphorically in Chronicles. In literal terms, the Chronicler interprets the history as a series of exiles (corresponding to different deportations at the end of the pre-exilic period). But the Chronicler also envisioned two different kinds of literal restorations: the return of the people to the land, and also the return of the Davidic monarchy (p. 301).

The Chronicler also thinks of the exile in metaphorical terms. This metaphorical use is crucially important for the ongoing history of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity. We find this metaphorical sense in other places of the Bible: the hope reflected in Psalms 85 and 126, the prayers in the upcoming Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9, and the way Daniel 9 depicts the exile as lasting not 70 years but 70 times 7. Prof. Allen notes that the Chronicler uses three biblical texts to teach hope in God’s restoration: (1) 2 Chr. 36:21 connects to Lev. 26:34-35 to describe the land’s desolation as a sabbath rest, (2) Jer. 29:10-19 is referenced by the Chronicler to emphasize God’s promised restoration, and (3) Ezekiel 18 is a moral counterpart to the Chronicler’s “teaching of immediate retribution” with “each generation…controlling their own destiny, free to start again with or against the Lord” (pp. 302-303, quotation from page 303).

****

Professor Allen calls Chronicles “the Bible’s best-kept secret,” absent from the Revised Common Lectionary, and less often explored than Samuel and Kings. The forbidding 1 Chr. 1-9 may be one reason, he writes. But once you get past the genealogies (which do have a theological purpose of their own), a Bible explorer can begin to dig into the wonderful, pastoral theology that emphasizes God’s grace, forgiveness, and an always hopeful future (pp. 299, 301)

Notes:

1. Leslie C. Allen, “The First and Second Books of Chronicles,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).

*****

As I was studying 2 Chronicles, the following passage stopped me, and I remembered a word study that I made a few years ago.

Now when the priests came out of the holy place (for all the priests who were present had sanctified themselves, without regard to their divisions), all the levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kindred, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with one hundred and twenty priests who were trumpeters, it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever’,
the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God(2 Chronicles 5:11-14).

That word “glory” has rich meanings, back to passages we’ve looked at and forward to the New Testament. The word can mean honor/renown, or beauty/magnificence, or heaven/eternity itself. St. Ignatius’s famous motto was Ad maiorum Dei gloriam, “to the greater glory of God.” I always took this to mean, “to increase God’s renown (through our devotion and service),” but the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner notes that we also share in God’s own life as we serve God.[1]

When I was a little kid, we learned that catchy song “Do Lord”, with its image of sharing God’s life eternally.

I’ve got a home in Glory Land that outshines the sun
I’ve got a home in Glory Land that outshines the sun
I’ve got a home in Glory land that outshines the sun
Way beyond the blue.

I was little and misunderstood what “outshines” means. Instead of “shines brighter than the sun,” I thought it mean “sunny outside.” So I had an image of Heaven as being outdoors and pleasant, like summer days with no school.

If you “go deep” into Bible study, it’s fun sometimes to take a word or a theme and see how it is used among Bible passages. When I first wrote this, for instance, I found this now-broken link,  http://members.cox.net/decenso/Glory%20of%20God.pdf, which provided many Bible references to God’s glory, including references to the departure of God’s glory (e.g. 1 Samuel 4, when the ark was captured), the promise of God’s presence and manifestation, the presence of God’s majesty in creation (Ps. 97:6), and the glory of God that we know and see in Jesus (Heb. 1:3, Col. 1:19, Col. 2:9, 1 Cor. 2:8, Rom. 9:23  Eph. 1:18, Col. 1:27 Acts 2:3).

Carey C. Newman, writing in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of The Bible (pages 576-580) notes that the biblical words for “glory” are kavodh and doxa; that second word provides the root for “orthodox” and “doxology.” Newman states that the word applied to God can mean appearance or arrival, as at Sinai or the Tent of Meeting or the Temple. This is the special Presence of God (Shekinah), sometimes depicted in “throne” visions (as in the famous Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7, and also the non-canonical 1 Enoch 14), and also the presence of God which dwells in the tabernacle (as in the Priestly history, e.g. Exodus 40:34-38).[2] Moses and Aaron are able to mediate between the people and God, because at this point in the biblical history, God’s glory is dangerous, as in Lev. 9, when the sons of Aaron are killed, and also the later story in 2 Samuel 6, when well-meaning Uzzah touched the ark when it was being carried improperly on a wagon. The presence of God is also associated with the cherubim and the mercy seat (Ex. 25:22, Num. 12:89, Deut. 33:26, 1 Sam. 4:4, Ps. 18:10, Ezek. 9:3, 10:4, Heb. 9:5).

God’s glory dwelled in Solomon’s Temple (2 Chr. 5:13-14), and frighteningly departed from it prior to the Babylonian conquest (Ezekiel  8-11). Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom likens Solomon’s Temple to Dorian Gray’s picture: the people’s sins “collected” there, necessitating periodic sin offerings in order to remove the uncleanness. Gammie notes, though, that the people’s sins became so dire, numerous and ongoing, that these offerings no longer sufficed, even those of the Day of Atonement. Thus, the result of which was the loss of God’s Shekinah and inevitable foreign conquest of Judah and Jerusalem.[2]

Glory is not the same thing as holiness, but God’s glory and God’s holiness are closely connected as attributes of God and aspects of God’s manifestation—as well as the discipleship we pursue “for the glory of God.” It is difficult to find a modern analogy to the biblical idea of holiness: something powerful and necessary to handle properly (like fire or electricity) but also something “contagious,” from which one must be cleansed through prescribed means. One had to perform purity rites when one touched something unclean/unholy, like blood or a dead body. One had to perform sacrifices and priestly activities in a prescribed way, not to endure nit-picky rules but in order to handle something very powerful in a safe way.

The holiness of God is reflected in Israel’s life in the Torah’s distinctions between unclean and clean, holy and common, and sacred and profane. We may wonder about the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness because of texts like Acts 10:9-16, but in Israel, these were God-given parameters for how to live and how to relate properly to God, not only according to God’s expressed will but according to God’s revealed nature, the Holy God who dwells in Israel. (cf. Zech. 2:13-8:23; 14:20-21). As we read in Ezra and Nehemiah, these God-given parameters were crucially important for the people’s faithfulness and well-being.

God stipulates holiness on the part of his people because he desires to create Israel as his own people and to be in covenant with them. To be associated with God is a call to be pure and clean as well. I become impatient when people isolate the Ten Commandments from other biblical material (as, for instance, important statements in the history of law, or as general moral guidelines). The commandments function as those things, but you must notice that they are first given in context with God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God first gathers the people at Sinai and makes a covenant with them (Ex. 19), and only then gives them laws. Within those laws, in turn, God provides means for repentance and atonement for sin. In other words, God’s grace and love always precedes and encompasses the ethical aspects of God’s will, not vice versa; you could say his glory is revealed in love.[3]

Holiness not only has distinctions of clean and unclean, but also justice and righteousness—again, reflecting the glory of God as the just and righteous Lord. Holiness is never understood (properly at least) as only a concern for right ritual, cleanness, and restoration from uncleanness. Israel also witnesses to God through acts of justice, provision, and care for the needy (Lev. 19; Ps. 68:5). As the Baker Dictionary puts it, “it is the indication of the moral cleanness from which is to issue a lifestyle pleasing to Yahweh and that has at its base an other-orientation (Exod. 19:6; Isa. 6:5-8). Every possible abuse of power finds its condemnation in what is holy. Those who live in fear because of weakness or uselessness are to experience thorough protection and provision based on the standards of righteousness that issue from God’s holy reign (Exod. 20:12-17; Lev. 19; Ps. 68.:5).”[4]

Among other aspects of God’s glory, there is also a “royal theology” of glory, e.g. the books of Chronicles and also Psalm 24, where God’s glory, the human king, and the establishment of the Jerusalem sanctuary are all connected. As Newman states, “The regular enjoyment of Yahweh’s divine presence, his Glory, forms a central part of Temple liturgy and democraticizes the unqualified blessing of God upon king, Temple, nation, and world. Glory in a royal context assures of Yahweh’s righteous and benevolent control over all.”[5]

Newman continues: the biblical concept of Glory also has to do with judgment, as in Jer. 2:11-13, Hosea 10:5-6, and others. God demands holiness from his people and eventually God must deal with sin. But God’s glory also connects to forgiveness, restoration, and hope—notably in the poetry of Second Isaiah: “The arrival of Yahweh [in the transformed Jerusalem] not only restores what once was—the glories of a Davidic kingdom—but also amplified. Mixing Sinai with royal imagery, the prophet [Second Isaiah] speaks of a day when the Lord will once again “tabernacle” in Zion. This time, however, Yahweh will “create” a new  (and permanent) place for his Glory to rest.[6] (p. 577).

According to Newman, there are several important aspects of the New Testament theology of glory.[7] All these references are worth looking up and thinking about.

*  The continued use of glory to mean God’s appearance and presence (Acts 7:55, Heb. 9:5, etc.)

*  The Son of Man theme is connected to glory and the throne of glory (Mark 8:38/Matt. 16:27; 19:28; Luke 9:26; Mark 13:26/Matt. 24:30; 25:31; Acts 7:55, 2 Peters 1:17).

*   The many depictions of glory as an eschatological blessing: Jude 24, Heb. 2:10, Rev. 15;8, Rev. 21:11, et al.)  As Paul says, the glories of redemption make present day suffering pale in comparison (Rom. 5:2, Rom. 8:18, also 1 Pet. 4:13 and 5:1). At that time we will share in glory (2 Thess. 1:9-10, etc.).

*  But this future glory is not just a long-from-now time, but also something we share in Christ now, as in Col. 1:17, 3:4, Titus 2:13)

*  Also glory as resurrection, as in Rom. 6;4, 1 Cor. 15;25, Phil. 2:5-11, 1 Tim. 3:16, 1 Peter 1:21, Rev. 5:12-13, et al. Hebrew 2:9 applies Ps. 8 to Jesus even though it is not a “messianic” psalm.

*  And glory and Christology, as in the beautiful Heb. 1:1-14.

*  Paul also calls Jesus the Lord of Glory (Eph. 1:17) and connects Jesus to the glory of god in 2 Cor. 4:6, and 2 Cor. 3:18.

We can see two aspects of the powerful quality of holiness in Jesus’ life and death. Notice that when certain people (and demons) in the Gospels encounter Jesus, they want him to go away (Matt. 8:34, Mark 1:23-25, Luke 8:37, even Luke 7:6). That’s not because he was unpleasant; it was because they perceived that he was holy—and holiness is dangerous for mortals to encounter, as we’ve seen in some of the Old Testament stories. People thought that Jesus had to be approached in a way befitting God’s powerful holiness.

As God’s glory “dwelled” in the tabernacle and temple, now that glory dwells in Jesus: John 1:14 doesn’t just mean that Jesus lived among the people of his time, but that the glory of God itself was visible and present in Jesus (also Heb. 1:1-4). If blood has a power (related to cleanness, uncleanness, and holiness) powerful enough to cover people’s sins in the days of the tabernacle and temple, the shed blood of Jesus (in traditional theology about the Atonement) is powerful enough to cover people’s sins, 2000 years later and beyond.

Ideas of holiness that reflects God’s glory are strong New Testament themes, too. The purity and justice to which Christians are called are Spirit-given gifts and, as such, are God’s own holiness born within us which empower our witness to others (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21, 2 Pet. 1:4). As one writer puts it, “[God’s] character unalterably demands a likeness in those who bear his Name. He consistently requires and supplies the means by which to produce a holy people (1 Peter 1:15-16).”[8]

God’s glory and holiness extends to the sanctification of believers, who are called hagioi, “saints” or “holy ones,” over 60 times in the NT. As one writer puts it, the outward aspects of holiness in the OT are “radically internalized in the New Testament believer.” “They [the believer/saints] are to be separated unto God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) evidencing purity (1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 7:1), righteousness (Eph. 4:24, and love (1 Thess. 4:7; 1 John 2:5-6, 20; 4:13-21). What was foretold and experienced by only a few in the Old Testament becomes the very nature of what it means to be a Christian through the plan of the Father, the work of Christ, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.”[9]

Thus, New Testament ideas of glory stress Jesus’ dwelling among us, and the gift of the Holy Spirit in believers. If you appreciate the Old Testament passages about the in-dwelling of God’s glory, you may be taken aback by the idea that the Lord God Almighty, whose glory was so dangerous to approach, is present in us NOW through the Holy Spirit.

In fact, as a spiritual exercise, read biblical passages that reflect a very “majestic” view of God’s glory (e.g., Exodus 40:34-38 and Deut. 5:22-27), in conjunction with passages like Romans 3:21-26, Heb. 1:1-4, and Heb. 4:14-16.  Don’t think that the more “scary” passages about God’s glory have been superseded by the New Testament; think instead about how the same God who dwelt among the Israelites now dwells with you in the Holy Spirit—exactly the same God upon whom you call when you’re desperate and in trouble, who will help you!

(This post is adapted from an earlier post on another blog: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2012/04/ill-be-moving-these-posts-to-journey.html)

Notes:

1. Karl Rahner, “Being Open to God as Ever Greater,” Theological Investigations, Vol. VII, Further Theology of the Spiritual Life 1 (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), pp. 25-46.

2. Carey C. Newman, “Glory,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of The Bible, D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), pp. 576-580.

3. For all this discussion, see John G. Gammie, Holiness in Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 38-41.

4. “Holiness,” in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), page 451.

5. Newman, 577.

6. Newman, 577.

7. Newman, 578-580.

8. “Holiness,” 340-344.

9. “Holiness,” 343.

I also found this interesting article via Twitter: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/roger-isaacs/how-did-the-biblical-glor_b_905944.html

*****

Ezra and Nehemiah

Originally one book, they tell the story of Judean exiles returning to the land following Cyrus’ decree, from about 539 BCE to about 432 BCE. The final verses of 2 Chronicles, about Cyrus’ decree, are repeated almost verbatim as the first verses of Ezra—so the story continues.

We are now about 1500 years after Abraham–and God’s promise to give him and his wife many descendants and land. What a history followed!–years of Egyptian slavery, escape from Egypt, the Sinai covenant, the construction of the tabernacle, the years of wilderness, the conquest of the land under Joshua, the uncertain period of the judges, establishment of a monarchy, the adventures of David, the establishment of Jerusalem as David’s city, Solomon’s construction of the temple, the divided kingdom and the conquest of Israel, the ministry of the prophets, King Josiah’s reforms, the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people, and now the restoration of the people to the land thanks to the Persian king’s decree.

It’s important to realize how great is Cyrus in biblical imagination: he was considered mashiach, “anointed one” or Messiah, in some of the early post-exilic traditions. Isaiah 44:28 refers to him as “[God’s] shepherd” and as mashiach in 45:1. A rabbi friend tells me that Jews of the time considered Cyrus as such a king because he overthrew the people’s enemies (the Babylonians), facilitated the people’s return to the land and the restoration of their religion, and also he set the stage for their eventual self-rule on the land under a Davidic king.

It’s also important to realize that the Jews saw their exile and restoration in both literal and metaphorical ways. For instance, the Chronicler interprets the history as a series of exiles (corresponding to different deportations at the end of the pre-exilic period), and two different kinds of literal restorations: the return of the people to the land, and also the return of the Davidic monarchy (Leslie C Allen, in the introduction to Chronicles in the New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 301). But the Chronicler also thinks of the exile in metaphorical terms: as the symbolic homelessness of a faithful remnant, that will be followed by a glorious restoration. We find this metaphorical sense in other places of the Bible: the hope reflected in Psalms 85 and 126, the way Daniel 9 depicts the exile as lasting not 70 years but 70 times 7, and the prayers in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 (pp. 302-303). This metaphorical use is crucially important for the ongoing history of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity.

But the Chronicler and the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah depict differently the characteristics of this faithful remnant. For the latter, the Judeans must be a separate people focused upon obedience to the Lord’s Torah; for instance, the men must divorce their foreign wives and send them and their children away. The Chronicler has a more inclusive vision, often referring to “all Israel” that includes the break-off northern tribes and lauding Hezekiah’s efforts at reunification. Yet the Chronicler also affirmed Jerusalem as the place of true worship, so “the chronicler steered a middle course between separatist and assimilationist parties…” (pp. 305-306, quotation on 306).

*****

The following is based on my article, “Ezra and Nehemiah: Bringing a People Home” in Adult Bible Studies, 11:4 (June-July-Aug. 2003), 2-4. Many thanks for the editor at the time, Eleanor Moore.

The two books contain Ezra’s memoir (7:27-9:15), third person stories about him, and Nehemiah’s memoir (1:1-7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:27-43, 13:4-31). Interestingly, although the two men are mentioned together in Neh. 8:9, their memoirs have little or no acknowledgment of one another, making some scholars wonder if, somehow, the chronology of the biblical text has become confused. It’s also interesting that, although personal letters are such a major part of the New Testament, the Old Testament has very few, with the exception of Ezra and Nehemiah, where we find some of these texts.

The book of Ezra begins with Cyrus’ decree that allowed the Judea’s to return to the land from exile. Chapter 1-2 provide an encapsulated account of the members of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and Levites with some of the Temple vessels and utensils. According to Ez. 2:64, 42,360 exiles, plus singers, servants, and livestock, returned, lead by Sheshbazzar and then Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah particularly extol Zerubbabel* as a great Davidic king, although in Ezra-Nehemiah, he disappears from the narrative after a few chapters. The people give thanks to God, and construction on a new temple begins (2:68-3:13). Samaritans offered to help with the temple construction, but the Judea’s refused their help, and construction ceased for a while. By about 520 BCE, however, construction resumed, and it was dedicated in about 515 BCE (Ez. 4-6).

Priest and scholar Ezra himself came upon the scene in about 458 BCE, with a new group of Judeans. Ezra was a descendant of Aaron and of Zadok (Ez. 7:1-5) and was the son of Seraiah (2 Kings 25:18-21). On arriving to the land, Ezra was heartbroken that so many of the men have foreign wives. He calls the people to confession at the temple, and in time, the foreign wives and the children are sent away (Ezra 7-10). Seemingly Ezra was so eager to make this happen, that the people had to remind him that they were all standing in the rain listening to him and had to devote additional time to set these divorces in motion (Ez. 10:17). As Rabbi Telushkin points out (Biblical Literacy, 389), it’s too bad no one seems to have thought to allow the wives and children into the community through conversion.

Back in Babylon, Nehemiah is a cupbearer to the king. While Ezra as an outstanding, trustworthy and pious leader (Ez. 8:16-18, 25-34), Nehemiah is also a noticeably prayerful leader, constantly offering his work to God and seeking God’s guidance. Prayers like Neh. 1:8-10 are lovely in their intercessory concern and humility. Nehemiah asks King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to help rebuild Jerusalem and its walls. The king does indeed allow him to return. Nehemiah arrives in about 445 BCE and begins his work. (The events of chapter 13 are a little later, from about 432 BCE.) In spite of opposition and economic distress, Nehemiah and the people are able to rebuild the city walls (Neh. 3-7). Chapter 7 recaps the many people who returned from exile—with variations of names and numbers compared to the account in Ezra chapter 2. We find more names in Neh 11-12.

Other good things happen in these two books. Ezra reinstated festivals like Pesach (Ez. 6:19-22) and Sukkoth (Neh. 8:13-18). Nehemiah reinstated the Sabbath (10:31, 13:15-22), support of the priests (Neh. 13:10-14), support of the temple (10:32-39) and related reforms. The reading and subsequent study of the scroll of Teaching (Neh. 8) is one of the great moments in Bible history.

So is the construction of the Second Temple on the place of Solomon’s. The new temple marks a new era for God’s people, wherein they refocus upon devotion to God—and become a people characterized by worship, righteousness, and mitzvot rather than the rulership of a monarchy. The new era isn’t without poignancy, as we read in Ezra 3:10-13.

“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

An African American preacher, whom I heard a few years ago, calls this passage, “the Gospel shout and the blues moan.” In such situations, both are necessary–praise for the blessings of God, and grief at what has passed.

****

In the Protestant Old Testament, Nehemiah is followed by Esther, then Job. It’s worth noting that, at this point in the Bible, some churches include additional, apocryphal books. In the Roman Catholic Old Testament, Nehemiah is followed by Tobit and Judith, then Esther, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. In the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament, the order is 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, and Esther, then 1, 2, and 3 Maccabees.

Ezra is so significant, that other books carry his name. The apocalyptic book 2 Esdras is called 4 Esdras in the Roman Catholic apocrypha. Although this 2 Esdras/4 Esdras is an apocryphal book, some Roman Catholic Bibles refer to Ezra and Nehemiah as 1 and 2 Esdras. To make things more confusing, Eastern Orthodox Bibles name Ezra-Nehmiah as 2 Esdras, with 1 Esdras being an ancient Greek version that is nearly the same text as Ezra (which, as part of the Hebrew Bible, is originally Hebrew and Aramaic)—and this Greek 1 Esdras is called 3 Esdras in the Roman Catholic apocrypha.

Ezra is crucially important for Judaism. The faith of Judaism (the faith of Judah) really begins at this time: the faith devoted to Yahweh via the Torah. Ezra was a priest but also “a kind of proto-Rabbi who also has the authority of a prophet,” establishing priniciples of Torah interpretation that are “at the heart of rabbinic interpretation” (Jewish Study Bible, 1670). See also these informative articles: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-babylonian-exile
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/after-the-babylonian-exile The Talmud states that “Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel had not Moses preceded him” (Sanhedrin 21b), and his public reading of the Torah “democratized” Judaism’s heritage, “making it as much the posses of the common laborer as of the priest” (Biblical Literacy, 388)

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible also contrasts Ezra and Nehemiah as biblical examples of professional religious workers and faithful laity. The prayerfulness and humility of Nehemiah–who doesn’t necessarily seek appreciation but does want to be remembered—is also a lovely example for all of us (p. 683).

Finally: a personal shout-out to a distant relative, Ezra Griffith (1789-1860), one of the early settlers of my home area around Brownstown, Illinois. https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/twin-pumps-on-the-national-road/ I’ve never met anyone named Ezra but at one time it wasn’t an uncommon first name. One of Ezra’s descendants, Chester Griffith, was a Brownstown friend of my grandmother’s and got me interested in Sunday school attendance as a kid because he (Chester) had fifty years of perfect attendance.

* Although the genealogies of Mathew and Luke are from different sources than 1 Chronicles, Zerubbabel is listed in both gospels as an ancestor of Jesus.

*****
I decided that as long as I’m undertaking all this extra Bible studying each week, I should also study the Apocrypha—because these are books that I’ve barely studied at all, if ever.

The Apocrypha are books that Protestant Old Testaments lack, because these books are not found in the Jewish Bible (that is, the Masoretic text, the Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Tanakh as accepted in Rabbinic Judaism). The Apocrypha is Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), and 1 and 2 Maccabees, plus extra material in Esther and Daniel. (The additions to Daniel include the story of Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah, and the Song of the Three Holy Children.) Roman Catholics include these books as deuterocanonical, “second canon.”

The Eastern Orthodox Old Testament includes these books plus 1 Esdras (see my last post), the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees. Orthodox Christians use the word Anagignoskomena (“worthy to be read”) for the deuterocanonical books–and, like the Catholics (and unlike the Protestants) integrate the books among the canonical books rather than placing them in a separate section. One or two Orthodox traditions include 4 Maccabees, the Book of Odes, and Psalm 151.

It’s interesting to read the history of the selection of biblical books. There is no mystery or intrigue about it, no “suppressing” of bombshell texts, but the history is long and involves several councils of the church and rabbinical decisions within Judaism. As my Harper Bible Commentary describes them, the Apocrypha includes historiography (1 and 2 Maccabees), historical fiction (Tobit, Judith, and 3 Maccabees), an apocalypse (2 Esdras), sapiential works (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon), exhortations (4 Maccabees and the Letter of Jeremiah), and prayers (Prayer of Manasseh and Prayer of Azariah) (p. 760). The Book of Odes is a collection of songs and prayers from both Testaments, and Psalm 151 is an Eastern Orthodox canonical work found in the Septuagint but not the Masoretic text.

For these informal notes, I’ll mostly stick with deuterocanonical books of the Roman Catholic Bible, with reference to the Anagignoskomena. In these Bibles, the book of Tobit follows Nehemiah.

As the story begins, Tobit is one of the Jews deported by the Assyrians to Ninevah, during Shalmaneser’s reign in about 721 BCE. He was of the tribe of Naphtali, married Anna, and they had a son Tobias. He was devout in his faith even in the foreign situation. For instance, he buried his kinsman who had died because of the king. Burial of the dead made one spiritually unclean because of contact with the corpse, but it was also a great act of love and righteousness, providing care and dignity to someone who obviously cannot thank you. When Sennacherib died, the new king appointed Tobit’s nephew as chief minster, and so Tobit—with Tobias’ help—continued to do good. Unforunately, as Tobit slept outdoors one night, he was blinded by sparrow droppings that fell into his eyes.

Meanwhile, as Tobit prayed for the restoration of his sight, a widowed woman named Sarah prayed for a husband. All her new husbands had been killed by the demon Asmodmus. Scholars note the similarity of Tobit’s story with folktales like “the Grateful Dead” and “the Deadly Bride.” In this case, the angel Raphael comes to the rescue as God hears the prayers of Sarah and Tobit in their separate situations.

Disheartened and thinking that death is near, Tobit sent Tobias to retrieve some money left in the care of a man named Gabael who lived off in Media. Tobias goes, accompanied by companion Raphael, whom Tobias doesn’t realize is an angel. At one point, Tobias washes in the Tigris river and a fish bites his foot. Raphael tells him to gut the fish and save its heart, liver, and gall.

Tobias and Raphael stay at the house of kinsman Raguel—who happens to be the father of widowed Sarah. Tobias asks to marry her but is warned about her husbands who had died. But Raphael instructs Tobias to use the fish’s heart and liver with incense, that that drives the demon away, saving Tobias from death.

Following the wedding celebration, Tobias receives the money from Gabael and, with Sarah, returns to Tobit and Anna. Again with Raphael’s instruction, Tobias places the fish’s gall on Tobit’s eyes, and he regains his sight.

Tobit offers Raphael some of the money in gratitude, but Raphael reveals his true identity as an angel. Tobit prays to God in thankfulness for God’s mercies.

In his later years, Tobit blesses his son and dies, ages 158 years. Tobias eventually dies, too, aged 127.

The book of Judith, which follows Tobit in the Deuterocanonical/Anagignoskomena order, purports to tell of events in the Assyrian era of Israel’s history but is likely from the era of the Maccabees. We are alerted that this is a fictional story, because King Nebuchadnezzar is said to be the Assyrian king—but he was actually the Babylonian ruler.

In part 1 of the book of Judith (chapters 1-7), Holofernes is the commander of Assyrian armies that attack Israel. The king ordered the attacks—not only against Israel but other nations—in response to their refusal to join his campaign against the Medes. Holofernes lay siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia, through which he could advance to Jerusalem. He is advised that the Israelites cannot be conquered unless they first sin against God—but after a month’s siege, the Bethulians are about to surrender. Fortunately, a local header named Uzziah is able to effect a five-day postponement.

Judith appears in Part 2. She was a widow, and strongly objected to the five-day compromise. Honoring God with a prayer for help, she basically asks God to help her lie effectively. She goes to the enemy camp, lies her way in to see Holofernes, and deceives him as well. Smitten with her, and eager to seduce her, he invites her to a banquet. But before he can make any moves, so to speak, he becomes very drunk and passes out. Judith takes his sword, beheads him with two blows, and she and her maid leave the camp with his head in a bag. Returning to Bethulia, Judith showed everyone the severed head, praised God for his help and protection, and urged the men to attack the Assyrians the next day. They do so, successful.

Judith is a hero and sings praises to God. Never remarrying, she lives to the age of 105.

Perhaps because of her feminine sexuality combined with her bold, male-shaming heroism, Judith has been depicted by many artists: Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Klimt, Stuck, and numerous others. Beth and I saw the Klimt at the Belvedere in Vienna a few years ago.

The Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/judith-apocrypha , has a good summary of the book of Judith. You can certainly see the connection of Judith with the judge Deborah, also a fearless champion of her people, and with David, too, in the way she decapitates a dangerous enemy. The author notes that several women of the Bible told lies that had positive consequences—which is an interesting aspect of the Bible narratives! Besides Judith the women are Rebekah, Tamar, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, and Jael.

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible notes, that Judith “is a joyous and triumphant book. It revels in the unexpected way the People of God is delivered.” Judith’s fidelity to God along with her confident use of her own feminity–as her ability to deceive believably–makes it a wonderfully compelling story (p. 1472).
*****

Esther 

A few posts ago, I said that Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther form an important secondary history within the Bible, carrying the biblical story from Creation into the early post-exilic era when the Jews were allowed to return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple during the Persian era. These books are not by the same presumed authors, just as the primary history (Genesis through Kings) was written and edited by multiple people. While the primary history ends on a note of uncertain hope, the secondary history, coming from the post-exilic time and written for Jews struggling with a new era, is more hopeful. In Chronicles, “[t]he history of the monarchy… seems to be primarily a history of the establishment and maintenance of the worship of God,” a concern that carries over into Ezra and Nehemiah as the people rebuild the temple and Jerusalem (Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 79). Although Esther is set in Persia rather than the land, that book affirms the providential continuation of the Jewish people even in foreign lands (p. 79).

Of course, it became crucially important for Judaism to be a faith observed in lands other than the Promised Land. When I studied Deuteronomy in that earlier post, I learned how the long pause with which the Torah ends—the speech of Moses as the people are poised to enter the Land—had the literary effect of delaying entry into the land—and ensuring that God’s covenant and commandments were not confined to one geographical region (Jewish Study Bible, p. 359). The Book of Esther illustrates the wonderful fact that the Jewish people will endure no matter where they live, even amid Gentile hostility and violence.

This source discusses that Esther gives confidence to diaspora Jews to be able to survive and even thrive in foreign lands, and thus she is similar to Tobit, Daniel, and Nehemiah. The fact that she is a woman makes her heroism especially noteworthy. Haweis writes, “[Esther] contains a narrative of a horrid plot, to cut off at a stroke, all the Jews who were dispersed through the provinces of Babylon; but God disappointed the wicked design, and turned it to the destruction of the contriver…. the finger of God is evidently seen, extricating the Jews from their difficulties, and encouraging by their example, the faith and hope of his people in their deepest distresses; showing how attentive he is to their prayers, and that, as he exalteth the lowly, those who walk in pride he is able to abase” (Rev. Thomas Haweis, The Evangelical Expositor; or, a Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 1 (Glasgow, Blackie & Son, 1834), 814)

My wife Beth and I enjoyed studying Esther a few years ago with our Sunday school class in Akron, OH. As the book opens, King Ahasuerus of Persia (aka Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE) held a big feast, and while he was drunk, he commanded that his queen Vashti come and show the guests her great beauty. Although the text doesn’t say, he may have expected her to visit the feast nude. Vashti refused his order, and so Ahusuerus, on the advice his wise men, ordered Vashti deposed, setting in motion a kind of contest for a new beautiful queen. After so viewing many young women, the king selected Esther, whom unbeknownst to him was a Benjaminite Jew living in exile. An orphan, she lived with her older cousin Mordecai, who looked after her. Soon she became the new queen.

After a while, Mordecai learned of a plot to assassinate the king—information he relayed to the king through Esther. It resulted in the execution of the conspirators. Not knowing the background of his own queen, the king became influenced by his vizier, Haman the Agagite, that Jews were a threat and should all be killed. Mordecai had accidentally set in motion that threat: Haman had demanded that Mordecai prostrate himself before Haman in respect, but Mordecai had refused. Agagites, after all, were descendants of the Amalakites, long time enemies of the Jews (as we’ve seen in other writings).

While Mordecai urged other Jews to fast, he also planned with Esther to deal with the situation. At an opportune time, Esther approached the king with a request, that he and Haman attend a banquet she was planning.

That night, the king couldn’t sleep and called for the nation’s chronicles to be read aloud. He remembered than that Mordecai had not yet been rewarded for his service in exposing the assassination plot, so he asked Haman about a proper reward for one loyal to the king, and Haman suggested the royal insignia and apparel. Haman thought he himself was going to be the honoree.

At the banquet, the king was quite smitten with his queen—he had already allowed her to come uninvited into his presence, a potentially fatal move on her part—and during this banquet, she courageous revealed that she was a Jew and that Haman was plotting to kill at the Jews. Her and Mortecai’s risky plan worked: the king promptly ordered that Haman be hanged (on the gallows Haman had built for Mordecai), the Jews were saved, and Mordecai became prime minister.

Rabbi Telushkin makes an interesting connection of Mordecai to Joseph: Hebrews who gained a powerful position in a non-Jewish government, and who accomplished the betterment of his people (Biblical Literacy, p. 378.

Interestingly, God is never referred to or named in the book of Esther, although the practice of fasting presumes a religious orientation. The absence of God doesn’t mean an ontological absence of God; the Bible doesn’t always spell out God’s ways. The apocryphal/deuterocanonical “Additions to Esther” do add more explicitly religious elements to the book.

On the other hand, Rabbi Telushkin notes that Esther’s name is a variation of the Near Eastern goddess Astar (her Hebrew name was Hadassah), and she married a non-Jew (the king), indicating that she may have been an assimilated Jew. But she certainly took the side of her people when the time came (Biblical Literacy, 375-376).

Esther is one of “the Five Scrolls” (“Five Megillot”). Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are grouped together among the final, Writings (Ketuvim) section of the Jewish Bible. Each book is read during certain Jewish holidays: Song of Songs on the Sabbath of Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Lamentations on the Ninth of Av, Ecclesiastes on the Sabbath of Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.

The minor festival of Purim is one of the great legacies of the book. The word “purim” means “lots,” which is what Haman threw in order to select a date for the death of the Jews—so the festival’s very name scoffs the antisemite’s failed attempt. One of my favorite sites, Judaism 101, http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm, has this:

“The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. …It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle gragers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to ‘blot out the name of Haman.’

“We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai,’ though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. A person certainly should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or get seriously ill. In addition, recovering alcoholics or others who might suffer serious harm from alcohol are exempt from this obligation.

“In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manos (lit. sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a common treat at this time of year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman’s pockets). These triangular fruit-filled cookies are supposed to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. …”

That site also calls attention to interesting, thought-provoking connections of Purim with the Nuremberg War Crime trials and also the death of Stalin—who, if he hadn’t had died (near Purim) in 1953, would have carried out a plan to deport Jews.
*****

1, 2, 3, and 4 Maccabees

1 Maccabees is a deuterocanonical book in the Roman Catholic (the term for Easter Orthodox Bibles is Anagignoskomena). 1 Maccabees is found in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, nor in Protestant Old Testaments. Canonical or not, it is an important account of this period of Second Temple Judaism, the decades of Judean independence prior to the Roman occupation, and is the source for the minor Jewish festival Hanukkah. (Here is a good Catholic site about the book. Some Catholic Bibles place 1 and 2 Maccabees after Esther, while other Catholic Bibles place the books at the end, after Malachi.)

1 Maccabees covers about forty years, 174 to 134 BCE. It might be good to see a biblical chronology again:

– Patriarchs: about 1800-1500 BCE (Genesis)
– Exodus, Wilderness, and Conquest: about 1500-1200s BCE (Exodus-Joshua)
– Period of the Judges: 1200s-1000 BCE (Judges)
– The monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon): 1000-922 BCE (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-11, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles 1-9)
– Divided monarchy: 922-722 BCE (1 Kings 12-17, and also Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah)
– Kingdom of Judah: 722-586 BCE (2 Kings 18-25, 2 Chronicles 10-36, and also Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk)
– Exile: 586-539 BCE (Lamentations, Psalm 139, et al.)
_ Judah under Persian rule: 539-332 BCE (Ezra-Nehemiah covers about the years 539-432 BCE, while Esther is set during the reign of Xerxes I, who reigned 486-465 BCE. Also, the prophets Second Isaiah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi)
– Judah during the Hellenistic rule: 332-165 BCE (3 Maccabees, Daniel)
– The Maccabean/Hasmonean period: 165-63 BCE (1, 2, and 4 Maccabees)
– Judea under Roman rule: 63 BCE-135 CE (during which time we have the life of Jesus, the first two generations of the church (30-120 CE), the writings of the New Testament (about 50-100 CE), and the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE).

Our upcoming scriptures, the Prophets, date from the end of the Northern Kingdom in the 700s BCE (Isaiah) down to the 400s BCE of the Persian period (Malachi), while parts of Daniel probably date from the Maccabean period. So the Jewish Bible and Protestant Old Testament end historically with the 400s of the Persian period, with apocalyptic writings in Daniel dating from the Maccabean era, while the churches with deuterocanonical books carry the Old Testament history solidly into the 100s BCE.

Back to 1 Maccabees: At the time, Judah (by now called Judea) is ruled by the Seleucid Empire, the Greek domination that followed Alexander the Great’s empire. Greek culture was influential for Judaism, including the translation of the Bible into Greek; but Greek disrespect for Jewish practices lead to the Jew’s revolt against the Greeks, which is the subject of the book. 1 Macc. 1:1-9:22 concerns the rule of Mattathias, aka Judah the Maccabee (the word means “hammer”), aka Judas Maccabeus. 1 Maccabees 9:23-12:53 focuses on the rule of Judah’s successor Jonathan, and chapters 13-16 concern the rule of Simon.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, one of the villains of Jewish history, was the Seleucid emperor who launched a bloody attack on Jerusalem, taxes the people, forbids Jewish practices, and then desecrates the Jewish temple by establishing pagan rituals there, including the slaughter of non-kosher animals.

Judas leads the people in ultimately successful campaigns against the Greeks, though at a high cost in casualties. When the temple is retaken and reconsecrated, Judas and his brothers and the whole assembly established a festival of the 25th day of Chislev (Hanukkah) to commemorate the dedication (1 Macc. 4:59).

(Here are good source concerning Hanukkah: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/hannukah and http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday7.htm. I was surprised to learn that the famous story of the lamp–which burned for eight days with only one day of oil–is from the Talmud [Shabbat 21b] rather than Maccabees: http://cojs.org/babylonian_talmud_shabbat_21b-_the_significance_of_hanukkah/ )

Hasmonean Kingdom at its height. From:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasmonean_dynasty

Judas’ brother Jonathan becomes high priest and succeeds him. He gains an alliance with Sparta and seeks positive relations with Rome. Later, Simon succeeds him, both as high priest and priest of Judah. He has a successful period of rule until he is murdered by the Greek governor of the region. Simon’s son John Hyrcanus succeeds Simon. This “Hasmonian dynasty” was not a Davidic dynasty but did bring about independence for Jews in the land—encompassing much of the earlier territories—for about a hundred years, first in semi-autonomous relations with the Seleucids and then fully independent until conquered by the Romans in 63 BCE.

(Here is a famous song from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus.)

2 Maccabees does not, as you might think, continue the history. It begins with letters written by Palestinian Jews to Egyptian Jews, and then becomes an abridgment of a now-lost history by Jason of Cyrene about the Maccabean revolt under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. The book also includes the stories of Jewish martyres Eleazar, seven brothers, and their mother, under Antiochus’ reign. As this site indicates, it is a very laudatory book toward Judas and Jewish heroism; it includes information not found in 1 Maccabees, and it references Esther. 2 Maccabees is also part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon.

Here is a good Jewish site about the book. That author writes: “One important fact to be noted is the writer’s belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead (see vii. 9, 11, 14, 36; xiv. 16; and especially xii. 43-45). This, together with his attitude toward the priesthood as shown in his lifting the veil which I Maccabees had drawn over Jason and Menelaus, led [scholars] Bertholdt and Geiger to regard the author as a Pharisee and the work as a Pharisaic party document. This much, at least, is true—the writer’s sympathies were with the Pharisees.” (Here is another good site.) Because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, 2 Maccabees also provides an important theological bridge to the New Testament period.

In fact, 2 Maccabees may be alluded to in the New Testament, especially Hebrews 11:35, “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection” (NRSV). This does not fit any Old Testament story but does fit the story of the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees 7, a fact that this author uses to defend the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books.

3 Maccabees is found in the Eastern Orthodox canon but not in the Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic canons. 3 Maccabees is not set during the Maccabean age at all but shares with those books the wonderful intervention of God on behalf of God’s people. In this book, Egyptian Jews are persecuted by another Seleucid ruler, Ptolemy IV Philopator, who reigned in 221-203 BCE). Again, Jews are hated because they don’t worship foreign gods, in this case Dionysus, but the story includes a different kind of Gentile persecution: letting inebriated elephants trample imprisoned Jews to death! Ptolemy’s inconsistency, however, and also the intervention of two angels, allow the Jews to be spared. (Here is a good site.)

4 Maccabees is not canonical in any Jewish tradition, nor in any Christian canon except the Georgian Orthodox Church. Another important text for understanding the Second Temple period, the book is a homily to encourage Hellenistic Jews to stay devoted to Torah (18:1) and to hold courageously to “devout reason” that is “sovereign over the emotions” (e.g., 16:1). A sizable portion of the book describes (in gruesome detail) story of 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42: the martrydom of Eleazer, and the seven brothers and their mother. Stories of martyrs are important in many religions, to help build courage to believers in times of trial. In Judaism, martyrdom is one example of Kiddush HaShem, “sanctification of the name” (of God) through holiness and witness.

Interestingly, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Bible contains three books–1, 2, and 3 Meqabyan–not found in any other Christian canon, which are different in content from the Maccabees books. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meqabyan

 

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