June 5, 2014 0

Episode 31 – Gospel of Luke

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand is a small sliver from the tall mirror that broke today in the hall outside our bathroom. Ouch! In my right hand is a bible. Let’s do a podcast abouuuuuuuuut…. THE BIBLE!


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. On this show we have one job: we examine the text of the Jewish and Christian bibles through the lenses of history and literature. We’ve come a long way so far, all the way through the Hebrew Bible (some Christians call it the “Old” or “First” Testament) and now we’re three scrolls deep into the so-called “New” Testament, Greek Christian texts from the century following the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The two Testaments may be dramatically different in language and scope, but as our discussion today will illuminate, we cannot hope to make good sense of the Greek texts without a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew ones.

Luke’s gospel is the third of the “synoptics,” the three theological biographies of Jesus that begin the New Testament and which all tell (roughly) the same story about his prophetic campaign, execution, and resurrection. A general observation about these texts is helpful before we open up Luke’s volume. In regard to authorship, it’s worth acknowledging that none of the gospels is signed by an author or officially titled “the gospel of Matthew” or “the gospel of Mark,” etc. It’s a bit romantic to imagine Matthew and John, the apostles, and Mark, Peter’s associate or whoever he was, running along after Jesus and writing everything down as it happened. It’s unlikely that the Galilean peasants who followed Jesus could read and write in Aramaic, much less in Greek. More likely these gospels represent the collected traditions, beliefs, and memories of various Christian communities in the decades after Jesus which were attributed to apostolic (or apostolic-adjacent) figures.

Luke may or may not be an exception to this. His name doesn’t appear in the text, but this is the only gospel to open with a first person account of its creation:

1 Many people have undertaken to draw up an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled in our midst. 2 It has been handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and stewards of the word. 3 So, most excellent Theophilus, since I had traced the course of all of it scrupulously from the start, I thought it a good idea to write an orderly account for you, 4 so that you may have secure knowledge about the matters in which you have been instructed. (Luke Chapter 1)

The editor of the work we call “Luke” set out to compile an “orderly” presentation of traditions and stories handed down by “eyewitnesses,” and he was apparently doing so on behalf of a benefactor, someone named “Theophilus.” The name is Greek and means “Friend of God,” and scholarly opinion is split on whether this was a Jewish Christian sponsor, or perhaps a Roman official. The title “most excellent” has some Roman associations in this period, indicating that this might be one community or author’s attempt to “set the story straight” in an official capacity regarding early Christianity. This would make a good deal of sense given some of the unique emphases of Luke’s stories that we’ll examine presently.

As we mentioned last time, the texts of Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark as a common source. They also share common material from an unknown second source, and both bring their own unique material to the table. In Luke’s case, his largest contribution of unique material comes at the beginning of his gospel in a lengthy telling of the “nativity” story. While Mark was silent on these matters, Matthew gave us a brief account of Jesus’ birth, the response of Herod, the sojourn in Egypt, the return to Nazareth, and the visit of the Magi. Now Luke gives us his own version of the “Christmas story” and, frankly, it could hardly be more different from Matthew’s in detail and emphasis.

The first thing we notice in Luke’s account is a radical shift in focus. Matthew’s opening genealogy and narrative mentioned Mary but focused on her husband Joseph. Luke puts Mary herself at the center of his storytelling. But, before we even get to Mary, we meet her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, a priest. They are very old and long to have a child, but she is barren, and… yeah. This story again. This is an Israelite birth narrative if we’ve ever seen one, and it has certain stark commonalities with the stories of Abraham & Sarah and Elkanah & Hannah, the parents of the prophet Samuel. This type of remixed storytelling is common in Jewish writings of the period. Themes, events, and character types from familiar old stories are shuffled and tweaked to tell a new story with a timeless meaning. In Matthew, baby Moses becomes baby Jesus and Pharaoh becomes King Herod. Here in Luke, baby Samuel becomes baby John the Baptist, and so on. Mining these stories for facts but ignoring their style is a perfect way to miss the point.

An angel named Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that his wife will bear a son, a prophet in the tradition of Elijah, who will prepare the people of Israel for the Lord’s return. When Zechariah expresses doubt, the angel tells him to shut up – literally. As a sign, the priest won’t be able to speak until the child is born. Later, the same Gabriel appears to a young girl from Nazareth named Mary, to tell her that she too will conceive and bear a child. This conception will be even more miraculous as Mary is an unmarried virgin. Gabriel says:

30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” … “You’re in favor with God. 31 Listen, you will conceive in your womb and will have a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be a great man, and he’ll be called the son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33 and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never come to an end.”

Let’s take a moment to notice something here that will set the tone for everything that is to come. In form, an angel bearing a message from God is a fairly religious phenomenon, but the content of this message is undeniably political. Gabriel doesn’t say, “your child will be the founder of a new religion and everyone who worships him will be allowed to live!” He is announcing a messiah, a king, one who will fulfill David’s covenant and restore Israel’s throne to YHWH. The Christmas story, it turns out, is deeply political. Mary responds with a beautiful song that is appropriate to the themes of the announcement:

49 “The Powerful One, whose name is Holy, has done great things for me, for me.
50 His mercy extends from father to son, from mother to daughter for those that fear him.
51 Powerful things he has done with his arm; He routed the arrogant through their own cunning.
52 Down from their thrones he hurled the rulers, up from the earth he raised the humble.
53 The hungry he filled with the fat of the land, but the rich he sent off with nothing to eat.
54 He has rescued his servant, Israel his child, because he remembered his mercy of old,
55 Just as he said to our long-ago ancestors – Abraham and his descendants forever.”
(Luke Chapter 1)

This sounds like a combination of the royal Psalms and the social-justice rants of prophets like Amos and Hosea. Faced with the news of her impending miraculous pregnancy, Mary starts singing about classism and the overthrow of corrupt fatcats. Later in the same chapter, the prophet John is born and Zechariah speaks a prophecy that is very similar to Mary’s song. I won’t read it now in the interest of time, but please check it out. The bottom line here is the radically political and urgently contemporary content of these stories in their original context, something we have tended to ignore.

Luke Chapter 2 details the birth of Jesus in a narrative that departs significantly from what we saw in Matthew on many points. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, and so Jesus is born there. When they get word that Herod is trying to kill Jesus, they flee to Egypt, and when they return they choose to make a new life in Nazareth in Galilee to the North. In Luke, they start out living in Nazareth, and a great universal census requires them to visit Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. After Jesus’ birth, the family returns to Nazareth, and there’s not a word about Egypt. In Matthew’s case, he needed a plot device to get Jesus to Egypt so his retelling of the story of Israel would be complete. For Luke, however, the plot device is the census, which historians doubt ever actually took place, but which Luke needs to get the family to Bethlehem. You can whine and pout about these apparent discrepancies, you can squint and pretend they’re not there, or you can embrace the bible as it is and listen to what the authors are actually trying to say.

Another major difference, though not necessarily a discrepancy: instead of foreign “magi” visiting the child Jesus, a group of local shepherds visit the newborn messiah in the stable. While Matthew’s story emphasized the role of foreigners in the new “kingdom of God,” Luke’s story is more interested in the “lowest of the low,” the poor and marginalized among Jesus’ own people. (See last year’s “Christmas Special” podcast for more details about Luke’s nativity story, including some clarification about that “no room at the inn” business.)

Luke also gives us the only stories in the entire bible about Jesus’ childhood. Joseph and Mary take little kid Jesus to Jerusalem for the purification ritual established in the scroll of Exodus. While in the Temple, two old Israelites approach the family and publicly recognize Jesus as “the Lord’s Messiah.” The first is an old man named Simeon, who had been “waiting for God to comfort Israel,” and the second is a prophetess named Anna who has been living in the Temple awaiting the “redemption of Jerusalem.” Together they symbolize Israel, suffering and aging and desperate for God to show up and rescue them. Again we note the consistently political significance of the “Messiah” title.

After one more story about tween Jesus going missing and turning up in the Temple teaching the priests and scribes, Luke fast-forwards and enters more familiar territory with the prophet John in the Jordan valley preaching his message of repentance and baptism. As in Mark and Matthew, Jesus is baptised by John and publicly identified as God’s representative by the sign of a dove and the booming voice of God himself. Luke proceeds to give us a genealogy of Jesus’ ancestry beginning with his father Joseph and going all the way back to Adam and even God. The list is surprisingly short given its scope, and it differs in many ways from the one found in Matthew’s gospel.

Cut to Galilee, where prophet Jesus is “tested” by the devil and begins his career in his hometown of Nazareth with a public reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

18 “The spirit of YHWH is upon me because he has anointed me to tell good news to the poor! He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the wounded victims free, 19 to announce the year of God’s special favor!”
(Luke 4, citing Isaiah 61:1-2)

While Luke’s political understanding of Messiah is in tune with what we saw in both Mark and Matthew, he’s adamant about a certain aspect of the Messiah’s mission that comes up again and again in his gospel: rescue and “good news” specifically for the poor. This is a pervasive theme in Luke’s writing (and the Hebrew scriptures he quotes), and yet it’s not how most believers today would explain Jesus. Jesus tells his listeners, “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” Which seems like an exciting and positive thing to say, but by the end of the chapter his neighbors are trying to throw him off a cliff. He escapes and flees.

From here Luke’s gospel is a mix of familiar material shared with Mark and Matthew, and a bunch of new stuff that’s unique to this book. The basic storyline is the same: Jesus roams the Judaean countryside, healing the sick and proclaiming the “kingdom of God” in sayings and parables. His message angers the authorities, and when his national tour takes him to Jerusalem he performs a symbolic prophetic action in the Temple which seals his fate. He is arrested and crucified. He is resurrected two days later and appears to his stunned disciples. Here are some of the noteworthy differences and additions in Luke’s version of the story:

In Chapter 5, Jesus calls his first disciples as in the other gospels, but Luke adds a spectacular detail. Jesus meets Simon, James and John – all fishermen – after a long night without a catch. Jesus tells them to cast their net, and they catch so many fish another boat has to help them haul it in. They drop everything and follow Jesus, who tells them “from now on you’ll be catching people!”

Luke records many of the “kingdom parables” we remember from Mark and Matthew, and quite a few that are only found here. These include well known stories like the “good samaritan” (Chapter 10), about a hated foreigner who turns out to be a Jew’s true “neighbor,” and perhaps the most famous parable of all, the “prodigal son” (Chapter 15). This one’s worth a deeper look.

The parable tells of a young son who decides to forsake his family, collect his inheritance, and head out on his own. When he hits hard times and finds himself feeding pigs who eat better than he does, he decides to return home and ask his father to take him back as a slave. The father is so happy to see his son that he forgives everything and welcomes him back, restoring all of his privileges. The traditional church interpretation being that God is ready and willing to welcome repentant sinners back into the fold. Not a bad message, but it’s deaf to some of the very specific symbolism in the story. The “son” is Israel, wandering from the “father” YHWH and wallowing with the “pigs,” that is, serving or colluding with the Gentiles, the pagans, the Romans. When Israel crawls back to YHWH for forgiveness, he embraces them and forgives their wrongdoing. But the parable isn’t quite over, and its message isn’t complete.

There’s an older brother who becomes outraged at the father’s reckless (or “prodigal”) forgiveness of the younger brother. He says, “Hey – I’ve always been a good son, and you never celebrated me like this. It’s not fair!” The older brother is like the Pharisees and Scribes, the self-appointed religion experts who condemn Jesus for the way he recklessly loves and includes the marginalized and undesirable citizens of Israel, the ones they have written off as unlovable and “lost.” Like most of Jesus’ teaching, this parable is aimed directly at the butts of hateful, judgmental religious hypocrites.

Of the remaining Luke-exclusive parables, one in particular is noteworthy for some bizarre thematic elements. In Chapter 16, Jesus tells of a rich man who lived in comfort and ignored the poor man who begged at his gate. When the beggar dies, he is carried by angels to the “bosom of Abraham,” the Jewish version of resting in peace. When the rich man dies, he is “tormented in Hades,” the mythological realm of the dead. The rich man cries out to Abraham for help, but the patriarch basically says, “Sorry! You had your chance!” The man pleads, “Send someone to warn my family!” Abraham replies, “You mean like Moses or the prophets?” Desperate, the man suggests, “What if someone were to rise from the dead? Then they’d listen!” Abraham explains that, “No, they won’t.” A strange parable indeed, but fundamentally similar to the “sheep and goats,” another outrageous cartoon of the afterlife that is really a sermon about love of neighbor here in this life.

The final two chapters of Luke present a much longer and more detailed account of the death and resurrection of Jesus than we found in Mark or Matthew. In Chapter 23 Jesus, having been condemned by the Jewish authorities, is taken before the local Roman governor Pilate. In Luke, Pilate tries to avoid dealing with Jesus by sending him first before Israel’s puppet King Herod. Herod is intrigued by Jesus, having apparently heard about him, but finds no guilt in him. He makes fun of Jesus and dresses him up in a “splendid robe” before sending him back to Pilate, who brings the prisoner before the angry crowds.

Luke’s account of the crucifixion is very different from what we’ve seen elsewhere. As Jesus is marched toward the site of his execution, he is followed by a group of wailing women. He turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves instead! Cry for your children!” As the Roman guards hoist him up onto his cross, Jesus proclaims, “Father, forgive them! They don’t know what they’re doing!” And while Mark and Matthew barely mentioned the two other “brigands” crucified with Jesus and how they mocked him along with the crowd, Luke gives us more details. One of the criminals mocks Jesus, yelling “Rescue yourself!,” but the other recognizes his innocence and says, “Remember me when you become king!” Jesus replies, “You’ll be with me in paradise (or rest) this very day!”

When Jesus died in Mark and Matthew, a Roman Centurion made a remark to the effect that “this truly was God’s son!” In Luke, the centurion says, “This man really was in the right.” More than in the other gospels, there’s a strong emphasis here on Jesus’ innocence, and – more important – the acknowledgement of his innocence by those around him, especially Romans and Gentiles. This is more evidence for Luke being an attempt by early Christians to go “on the record” with Rome regarding Jesus’ innocence and vindication, perhaps as a defense against persecution.

In Luke’s resurrection scene, an unnumbered group of women arrives at the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with spices and perfume, only to discover the tomb open and empty. Two angels appear in this version and announce that “he is not here!” The women return and tell the disciples, who don’t believe them and in fact call them “stupid.” Peter marches back to the tomb to get a look for himself, and he is amazed. Later, two disciples are walking along a road when a stranger appears and walks with them. It’s Jesus, but they don’t recognize him. He asks them what’s wrong and their reply is deliciously ironic:

18 … “You must be the only person near Jerusalem who doesn’t know about the things that have been going on there these last few days!”
19 “What things?,” he asked.
“To do with Jesus of Nazareth!,” they said to him. “He was a prophet. He acted with power and he spoke with power, before God and all the people. 20 Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. 21 But we were hoping he was going to redeem Israel!”

They go on to describe the mystery of the empty tomb, and Jesus can’t take it anymore.

25 “You are so senseless!” he said to them. “So slow in your hearts to believe all the things the prophets said to you! Don’t you see? 26 This is what had to happen! The Messiah had to suffer, and then come into his glory!”
27 So he began with Moses, and with all the prophets, and explained to them all the things about himself throughout all the scriptures.

One wishes that Luke might have told us exactly what Jesus said as he explained the scriptures to them, but no such luck. This verse has given interpreters free reign to go back and “find Jesus” in the Hebrew Bible, but too often what they’ve really done is insert modern theology and church doctrine back into ancient Jewish texts. As we’ve seen, the deeds and message of Jesus were always in harmony with the law and the prophets, in explicit but surprising ways. Luke wants us to see Jesus as the climax and resolution of Israel’s story, not some M. Night Shyamalan twist that changes its meaning.

The disciples still don’t recognize Jesus until they sit down and eat some bread together. Then, just as their eyes are opened, Jesus vanishes. Later, all the disciples gather together in Jerusalem and discover that many of them have had similar experiences. Jesus appears among them, eats some fish with them, and teaches them more about the scriptures. Finally, he tells them to make his message of repentance and forgiveness available to “all the nations.” Then he leads them out to a town called Bethany, where he is “separated from them and carried into heaven.” Luke’s is the only gospel to record such an event, and his book of Acts will record a very different version of the same event.

Luke’s gospel is a fascinating piece of the New Testament puzzle. On the one hand, it strongly affirms the portrait of Jesus the prophet found in Mark and Matthew, and yet it also offers some contradictory details and emphasizes some unique themes and perspectives. This is only a problem if we expect the bible to be an encyclopedia of true, consistent, and verifiable facts and doctrines. As a collection of human witnesses and responses to the Jesus event, it flickers and hums with vibrancy, life, and creativity. And if you think this was a unique and creative take, wait until we look at the gospel of John…

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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May 20, 2014 4

Episode 30 – Gospel of Mark

By in Blog, Podcast

book-toonIn my left hand is a weird thing that I found in my filing cabinet that I don’t remember what it is and it has a headphone jack and what looks like maybe a USB port but it might be some proprietary kind of port. In my right hand, is a– yeah, OK, play the music.


Welcome to the 30th official episode of BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. My name is Josh Way. This is the podcast that examines the texts of the Judeo-Christian Bible in the context of both history and literature. The results are often surprising and perhaps even slightly interesting. This week we continue our look at the New Testament, a collection of Greek texts from the early Christian communities of the First Century, CE. Last time we concluded our look at the Gospel of Matthew, and this week we turn to Mark.

The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have enough in common with one another that bible readers often assume they are interchangeable and shuffle their material together in an attempt to “harmonize” or unify them. Because of our specific interest in the literary style and context of each individual work in the canon, we’re looking at them separately and highlighting both harmony and diversity. Matthew wrote a very different gospel from Mark’s, and Luke brings a whole lot to the table that is unique to his text. We want to listen to the voices of these authors (and the Christian communities to which they belonged) as carefully as we can.

We covered Matthew first because we’re going in canonical order and Matthew is the first book in your New Testament, but scholarship today considers Mark to be the first gospel written and the primary source from which Matthew and Luke adapted their versions. Mark is a short and brisk text, a fast-paced and action-oriented gospel, presenting a bold Jesus moving intentionally through a maze of dangers on his collision course with fate.

The first thing we notice is that while Matthew gave us four long chapters of genealogy and introductory material, Mark’s gospel jumps right into the story with an adult Jesus beginning his prophetic campaign. There’s no “nativity story” nor anything about Jesus’ origins or childhood. Here’s how it begins in Chapter 1:

1 This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the son of God.

We’ve done a few podcasts on the Jesus material already, and we’ve said a lot about the word “Messiah,” but very little about the phrase “son of God.” Many modern readers tend to assume this to be a reference to the “virgin birth” and Jesus’ divine parentage. But it’s actually more far more nuanced than that. In the Hebrew Bible, everything from angels to kings to prophets and even Israel itself are described as YHWH’s “sons,” his close associates and representatives on earth. Meanwhile, the Roman religious cult referred to Caesar Augustus as the “son of the divine Julius.” In the ancient world, a “son of the divine” carried all of the authority and clout of a divine figure among their fellow humans.

So while Luke does infer (in a single verse) a connection between Jesus’ miraculous birth and his status as “son of God,” Matthew does not make that connection, and Mark uses the phrase despite his gospel’s lack of a virgin birth. It’s best, as a starting point, anyway, to understand this phrase in the gospels as a reference to Jesus’ status as an authentic representative of Israel’s God, a prophet who carries an authoritative message. There had been other “sons of God” in Israel’s history, and there were many contenders within Israel and without, but the authors of these texts believe Jesus to be a unique and singular “Son of God” in the strongest sense possible.

Mark proceeds to tell the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. As in Matthew, the “spirit of God” is seen descending on Jesus “like a dove,” but while Matthew had God announcing “This is my Son, whom I love,” Mark has God addressing Jesus directly: “You are my son! The one I love!” In both cases the scene establishes the prophet’s authenticity before he even begins to spread his message. The temptation of Jesus in the desert by “the satan,” a fairly detailed account in Matthew, is here only a single verse, after which Jesus travels back to Galilee and declares his prophetic message, in verse 15:

15 “The time is fulfilled! God’s Kingdom is here! Turn back and believe the good news!”

And where Matthew’s gospel gave us three long chapters of Jesus’ teachings about what “God’s Kingdom” looks like, Mark simply mentions that he “taught,” and then dives right into more action-oriented happenings, as Jesus calls his first disciples and begins healing the sick. All of this, and it’s still Chapter 1.

In Mark Chapter 2 a large crowd gathers around a small house to hear Jesus teaching inside. Some people arrive in the hope of seeing their paralyzed friend get healed. They can’t get near the door, so they make a hole in the roof and lower the man down inside. What happens next is extraordinary. Verse 5:

5 Jesus saw their faith and said to the paralyzed man, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”
6 “How dare this man speak like this?” grumbled some of the legal experts among themselves. 7 “It’s blasphemy! Who can forgive sins except God?”

Jesus chastises the “legal experts” and tells the paralyzed man to get up and walk home, which he does. Everyone is astonished, and the lawyers are enraged. (In this context “lawyers” are Torah experts, experts on Jewish religion.) They accuse Jesus of “blasphemy,” because he’s essentially bypassed the system of Temple sacrifice which was the only official avenue by which Jews could seek this kind of forgiveness. This man wasn’t even seeking forgiveness, he just wanted to walk again! But Jesus threw forgiveness of sins into the mix as a free bonus. This is symbolic of his whole “Kingdom of God” message, which says that God is pouring out good things in surprising ways and places. That kind of message always ruffles the feathers of the self-appointed religious gatekeepers. They claim to be offended by Jesus’ “blasphemy,” but they’re more likely ticked off about his undermining of their authority.

A little later some prominent religious figures challenge Jesus because his followers don’t observe the popular ritual of fasting. Jesus’ answer, in Chapter 2 verse 19, is basically “why would you fast a party?,” and he compares himself to a bridegroom at a wedding reception. Then Jesus says these cryptic words, in verse 21:

21 “No one sews unshrunk cloth onto an old cloak. If they do, the new patch will tear the old cloth and they’ll end up with a worse hole. 22 Nor does anyone put new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the wine will burst the skins and they’ll lose the wine and the skins together. New wine needs new skins.”

The images of “unshrunk cloth” on an old cloak and “new wine” in old wineskins are ways of talking about Israel’s old religious customs and traditions and their incompatibility with the new things that God is trying to do according to Jesus. Now remember, Jesus isn’t a Christian critic of Judaism, he’s a Jewish prophet with a message for his own people, and prophets rarely come with a message that everything is going great and nothing needs to change.

Mark describes many more clashes between Jesus and the religious authorities, most notably over Jesus’ apparent disregard for the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. All work was forbidden on the Sabbath, a prohibition clarified by endless regulations and traditions, and yet Jesus heals on the Sabbath and allows his disciples to glean their own grain. When confronted, Jesus says this, in Chapter 2 verse 27:

27 “The sabbath was made for humans,” he said, “ not humans for the sabbath, 28 so the son of man is master even of the sabbath.”

This idea would still be alarming and offensive in many religious contexts today, that laws and regulations are made to serve humans, not to rule over them. In Chapter 3 Jesus’ antics prove offensive enough to a group of Pharisees that they accuse him of being in league with “Beelzebul,” the “devil,” and they begin to plot with other groups to “destroy” Jesus.

In Chapter 6 Jesus brings his posse to his hometown of Nazareth and starts teaching in the local synagogue, until his friends and neighbors tell him to get lost. A dejected Jesus delivers his famous line, “Prophets have honor everywhere but in their own country, their own family, and their own home.” A sad episode and, of course, a pointed microcosm of Jesus’ relationship with the whole nation.

While taking a little “break” with his followers, Jesus is rushed by a huge crowd of people – five thousand, to be precise. He looks at them and sees “a flock without a shepherd.” Overcome with compassion, Jesus asks his disciples to bring some food. All they can find are five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus proceeds to feed the entire crowd with these meager provisions until everyone is satisfied. This story is remarkable enough at face value, but the deep Jewish symbolism amplifies its meaning. The clamoring crowd, the “flock without a shepherd,” is a picture of the first Israelites, wandering in the desert without guidance or identity. As YHWH provided manna for his lost children through the leadership of Moses, so he does once again through a new prophet. This is a story of “New Exodus,” and in case we miss the clues, there’s one more as the disciples gather up exactly twelve baskets of leftovers (one for each tribe of Israel).

After three more chapters of miracles, healings, and increasingly intense clashes with the religious authorities, Jesus confirms his Messiah-ship to his followers in secret and takes them up onto a mountain where he is transfigured, as in Matthew chapter 17, with the added detail that a baffled Peter suggests building some tents so Jesus can camp out with Moses and Elijah.

There follow (in chapters 9 and 10) two stories about Jesus’ followers fighting among themselves about who will have more power when God’s Kingdom is established on earth. Jesus tells them. “If you want to be first, you must be last of all and servant of all.” (9:35) And when two disciples request to be seated at Jesus’ “right hand” (the most prominent place of power), he tells them “You don’t know what you’re asking for!” (10:38) “Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant.” (10:43) Meanwhile, a wealthy young man comes to Jesus and asks “What must I do to inherit the life of the age to come [that is, the kingdom]?” (10:17) He explains to Jesus that he has kept the Torah commandments all his life, but Jesus tells him to “Go, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor” (10:21), and the young man walks away very sad.

In Chapter 11, Jesus takes his campaign to Jerusalem and climactic events are set in motion. Jesus rides into the city on a donkey, a humble and ironic portrait of true majesty over against the bluster of imperial pomp. The very next day, Jesus performs his symbolic action in the Temple, the same incident recorded in Matthew 21, but in a way that demonstrates Mark’s extraordinary storytelling. We observed in Matthew how the story of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig-tree was intentionally juxtaposed with his Temple Tantrum as a sort of interpretive illustration. The tree failed at its only job and so has the Temple. In Matthew, the two stories are side-by-side but self-contained. In Mark, Jesus curses the fig tree, then enters the Temple to clear out the money-changers, after which the disciples discover that the tree has now withered. The one story is wrapped around the other, a technique Mark employs throughout his gospel.

As in Matthew, Jesus spends his time in Jerusalem telling a few kingdom parables and calling out the hypocrisy of the religious authorities. And in Chapter 13, Jesus delivers his final apocalyptic discourse about the “end,” a decisive and calamitous event that would take place “before this generation disappears.” History and scholarship suggest, as we discussed in our Matthew podcast, that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Rome in 70 A.D. fits the description pretty well.

In chapter 14, the Judaean authorities cook up a plot with one of Jesus’ own followers, Judas, to bring him into custody. Meanwhile, at a party, a random woman anoints Jesus with an “extremely valuable ointment. This offends the other partygoers, who call it a waste of money, but Mark knows and we know and the woman knows that new kings must be anointed before they are crowned.

After the “Last Supper,” a Passover dinner where Jesus interprets his impending death with more Exodus symbolism (see the Matthew podcast for a few more details), Jesus is arrested in a place called Gethsemane, interrogated by the high and chief priests, and sentenced to death for failing to deny the charges of “blasphemy” against him. Unable to enact a death sentence on their own authority, the priests deliver Jesus to the local Roman governor, a man named Pilate. Pilate gives the festival crowd a choice: we can release Jesus Ben-Yoseph, a non-violent prophet accused of blasphemy, or we can release Jesus Barabbas, a murderous revolutionary who participated in a recent uprising. The crowd unanimously calls for the release of Barabbas, the literary implication being that the Judean crowd has chosen the path of violent revolution rather than the “narrow way” of Jesus.

Jesus is stripped, mocked, flogged, scourged, and crucified along with two criminals. A crown of thorns is placed on his head by Roman soldiers and a sign on his cross mockingly reads “King of the Jews.” At three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus shouts in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani,” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?,” the same Aramaic quote from Psalm 22 featured in Matthew. Then, Jesus dies, the nearby centurion declares him to be “God’s son,” and we’re told that the “Temple veil” is torn in two. The veil was a massively tall and thick curtain that separate the holy inner chamber of the Temple, where God was believed to dwell, from the outer courts. Only the High Priest could enter this area, and only on one very holy day every year, the Day of Atonement. The strange detail about the torn curtain has a shocking implication: at the moment of Jesus’ death, something has fundamentally changed about how God can be accessed, and by whom.

This is something we didn’t touch on in our Matthew podcast that deserves some attention here. What was the “meaning” of Jesus’ death? What happened on that cross? In a sense, that’s a strange question. A prophet with a radical message offended both the Jewish authorities and the Roman overlords and was put to death. That’s the historical description of the death of Jesus. And yet, from the earliest days the church has assigned all manner of theological meaning to this event.

Today the most prominent method of describing the theological meaning of Jesus’ death – what some call a “theory of atonement” – is something called “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” which chooses to understand Jesus’ death as a substitutionary blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. So prominent is this theory today that most of the Christians who subscribe to it don’t consider it to be theoretical at all, but simply descriptive and factual. “Jesus died the death I deserved so that God’s anger would be legally satisfied and so I could go to heaven.” But is this really consistent with the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament? We’ve already observed that Jesus’ message has little to do with “going to heaven when you die,” and while he does call for radical repentance from sinful ways of living and thinking, the God of Jesus’ teaching is a loving Father, not a wrath-filled executioner. And why would Jesus walk around “forgiving sins” willy nilly if he still had to die to pay for them?

While there are a few statements in some of the early Christian letters of the New Testament that use substitutionary language when explaining Jesus’ death (we’ll look at them later), it’s worth noting that the gospels do not, and in fact they seem to take an altogether different approach. As we’ve seen, Mark’s portrait of Jesus understands his death in terms and imagery borrowed from the Exodus story – the historical lens through which Jews understood their plight and their hope for “salvation.” This is most fully expressed at the “last supper” and in quotes like this one in Mark 10:

45 “Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on, he came to be the servant, to give his life as a ransom for many.”

That word “ransom” is crucial. A ransom is not the same as a substitute. Substitution says “you stand legally condemned but this sacrifice will absorb the wrath and the penalty that you deserve.” Ransom, on the other hand, is a mechanism for liberating captives from the wrath of an oppressor. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels, at least, is a liberator who literally died for the sinful ways of his people and their oppressors which enslaved them spiritually and physically. This was a Messiah who absorbed sin and violence instead of perpetrating it. Atonement theory is a complicated and often labored topic, and frankly is too often a distraction from the more practical and urgent aspects of Jesus’ message and legacy. It also has a major fault that has always baffled me, namely its obsession with the cross, and its failure to value or even address Jesus’ resurrection, which you’d think would carry far more theological weight.

Mark’s account of the burial and resurrection of Jesus is even shorter than Matthew’s, with three women coming to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him, only to discover the tomb open and Jesus missing. Note that the number of women is different from that in Matthew’s account, and also missing is the dramatic earthquake. As in Matthew, an angel appears and tells them that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee. The gospel ends abruptly in Chapter 16 Verse 8, with the women trembling in terror.

If you look in your copy of the New Testament, you will probably see twelve more verses at the end of Mark, but you’re also likely to find a note saying that this “alternate ending” is not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. In these verses, Jesus appears to his disciples and tells them to “spread the message” and to baptize people so they can be “saved.” He also says stuff like this:

17 “These signs will accompany those who believe: they will drive out demons in my name, they will speak with new tongues, 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink poison it won’t harm them!”

The oddly specific and super-creepy “signs” of this ending, combined with the different writing style and its absence from those early and “reliable” manuscripts, has fueled a scholarly consensus that this material is not original to Mark and was in fact added much later. Even most conservative bible scholars and teachers today don’t consider Mark’s “deleted ending” to be legitimate scripture. Of course, that opens all kinds of interesting cans of worms regarding the texts of the New Testament and the bible in general. But that’s more than enough controversy for one podcast.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. It is good to be back!  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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April 30, 2014 3

Supplement – What the Hell?

By in Blog, Podcast, Uncategorized

simpson hell

Hello, and welcome to a BOOK podcast supplement. I’m Josh Way. We’re going to talk about hell today, and we begin with a simple observation: We’ve done thirty-ish podcast episodes about the history and literature of the bible, and we’ve barely mentioned hell until now. I hope that’s enough right there to prompt us to think about this prickly topic with our eyes and minds opened.

The truth is, we haven’t talked about hell because the text didn’t give us any opportunities. With a few peculiarities that we’ll mention in a minute, there is no “hell” in the Hebrew Bible. The Greek New Testament is where the ideas and traditions we associate with hell are first recorded. And this presents an interesting conundrum:

People often characterize the so-called “Old Testament” as being full of fire and violence and death, and the New Testament as full of love and hope. But the violence and chaos in the Hebrew Bible – and there is plenty of it – is all temporal, people die in floods and fires and wars and famines, but no one is damned to an eternity of suffering. As far as we’re told, they’re just dead. In fact, the wisdom books like Job, Proverbs, and Qoheleth told us again and again that the righteous and the wicked share the same destiny: Sheol, the grave, going to “sleep.” But by the time of the New Testament, despite all of its “good news,” we start to read about the “fires of Gehenna” and descriptions of what sounds like an everlasting torture chamber.

So take your pick: a book that’s honest about the commonplace brutality of the ancient world, or a book that tells you about an afterlife that’s going to be even worse. Of course, there is another option, we could step outside our own modern presuppositions and take a fresh look at this material in historical and literary context. And that’s like, my thing, man. So let’s keep in mind that this discussion, for the 15-to-20 minute duration of this podcast at least, is not about proving or disproving what any of us believes or does not believe about a place called “hell.” We’re talking about traditions and ideas that have evolved over several millennia, and trying to get the best sense of where they come from and what they’re really about.

We’ve already observed that the Hebrew Bible does not uniformly teach any kind of afterlife, much less some kind of torturous eternal punishment. But when a famous conservative mega pastor was asked recently where the bible first teaches about hell, his answer was Daniel Chapter 12. And I guess this is what he was talking about, in verse 2:

2  Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproach and everlasting abhorrence.

Just one tiny verse, but I suppose if you’re looking for eternal punishment this certainly sounds about right. But, of course, this tiny verse has a context, and it was designed to function within that context and not as a talking point for celebrity pastors a few thousand years in the future. Daniel 12 is the final chapter of the book, in which the prophet imagines “the end of the days.” Recall that Daniel is written to and for the Israelites suffering in exile and bondage under the cruel empires of Babylon and Persia. The “end” of which Daniel prophesies is not the “end of the world” so much as the “end of the age” when Israel’s present suffering will end with dramatic rescue by God that will reward those who were made to suffer and punish those responsible. Notice that this verse says that “many” will awake, not “all.” This isn’t about the fate of every human who ever lived, it’s about Daniel’s people and their enemies in this historical moment.

This isn’t a passage about what we think of as “hell,” though it is about judgment. And it’s a pretty radical new paradigm for thinking about judgment within the Hebrew Bible. Before exile, Israelite religion presumed (or hoped) that God would judge people in this life, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Most of the wisdom literature is about how this never seemed to pan out in real life, but it was still the dominant way of thinking. Exile was so horrific and devastating that Israel lost hope for justice in this life, so a view emerged that expected it at the end. The big idea in the Daniel passage is not hell, but resurrection. People who did not see justice in life will have to be “awakened” so it can be done finally. That’s the real innovation here, and as close as the Hebrew Bible gets to an afterlife.

Well, what about the New Testament? It’s very popular among Evangelical Christians to point out that “Jesus talks about hell more than anyone in the bible.” In a certain sense this is true, but if we’re going to be intellectually honest it needs a great deal of clarification. Look in the concordance of a mainstream English bible translation like the NIV or ESV and you’ll see many instances of “hell” attributed to Jesus, it’s true. But what you miss is that many different Greek words have been roughly translated “hell” in these editions, all of them possessing nuanced origins and meanings, none of which precisely fits our modern conception of the place called “hell.” Putting Jesus into proper context is not difficult but has proved bothersome to many.

The word Jesus uses most often that is translated “hell” in our bibles is “Gehenna.” Here’s a typical example from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5:

29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away. Yes, it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.

30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. Yes, it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.

Traditionally, Jesus’ words have been taken as a dire eternal warning: stop committing those sins or you’ll be tossed into the flames when you die. It doesn’t help that “Gehenna” has been consistently translated “hell.” But the origin and meaning of “Gehenna,” combined with the real context of Jesus “Sermon on the Mount” reveals a different sort of warning. Gehenna was not a mythical or other-worldly place, it was a geographic location in Jesus’ own time, the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, and it already had a long history of infamy and unpleasantness.

In 2 Chronicles (chapters 28 and 33 to be precise) we read about the apostate kings of Judah and their wicked deeds which led the entire nation astray. Among these deeds is the particularly loathsome practice of child sacrifice, which was practiced ritually in the name of a god called Moloch at the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, Gehenna in Greek. The valley, just outside of Jerusalem, was already a byword of death and wickedness by the time of the prophet Jeremiah, whose primary vocation was warning Judah about coming destruction at the hands of Babylon. In Jeremiah Chapter 7 we read this, the prophet speaking on behalf of Israel’s God:

31 And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire — which I never commanded, which never came to My mind.

32 Assuredly, a time is coming — declares YHWH — when men shall no longer speak of Topheth or the Valley of Ben-hinnom, but of the Valley of Slaughter; for they shall bury in Topheth until there is no room left.

33 The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.

Because Judah’s wicked kings sullied Gehenna with the blood of children, the prophet announces, the valley will become a depository for all the dead bodies when the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem. Topheth/Ben-Hinnom/Gehenna is where apostate Judahites will rot after they are punished and destroyed in warfare.

Now back to Jesus in the New Testament. Remember from our Matthew podcast that Jesus is presented primarily as a Jewish prophet in the tradition of the ancient prophets of Israel and Judah, and he is especially influenced by Jeremiah. This seems to be one of those points of influence. Recall that Jesus’ message isn’t about “getting religion” or “going to heaven,” it’s about the coming “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God” on earth, and what that would look like. Jesus calls his fellow Children of Israel to repent of their old, misguided, selfish and violent ways of seeking God and to embrace a new way, the Kingdom Way of selfless love and radical forgiveness.

Should Israel fail to heed this call to repentance, says Jesus, there will be real and drastic consequences. We spent some time in that Matthew podcast talking about his prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction, which actually came to pass in 70 AD. The Gehenna references seem to work in a similar way. If you can’t learn the ways of peace and justice, you’re going to end up with all the others on the flaming pile of corpses in Gehenna when the Roman armies come for you. There’s nothing here about eternal torture, but it’s still a very serious – though culturally located – warning of judgment.

Elsewhere, especially in his “Kingdom Parables,” Jesus uses other images to make similar warnings about Israel’s fate should she keep on her present course. In Matthew Chapter 22 he tells a parable about a king who wants to throw a wedding feast. The king is God, and the feast is his kingdom on earth. When the king discovers a guest at the party who is not dressed properly, he tells his guards to:

13 … “Tie him up, hands and feet, and throw him into the darkness outside, where people weep and grind their teeth.”

This is a fictional yet stark description of what life will be like for those Children of Israel who are left “outside” of the Kingdom, who do not participate with God in this new endeavor.

And then, in Chapter 25, we read Jesus’ final parable, known as “the Sheep and the Goats.” In this parable, the long-awaited “son of man” comes to earth as king, and he judges all the people of the earth “like a shepherd separating sheep from goats.” Those judged “righteous” enter an earthly kingdom prepared by God, while the “wicked” are sent away into “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Well that’s as close to hell and damnation as you can find in the bible, and it’s right here in the words of Jesus. But a couple of important points to keep in mind:

First, this is a parable, a fictional story told to make a serious point. The king, the sheep, the goats, the kingdom and the fire are all non-literal images invoked to describe things which couldn’t otherwise be described. And second, it’s worth noting the real point of this parable, which is revealed in how the sheep and goats are actually judged. The “righteous” and “wicked” are not separated according to religion or creed, or their personal devotion to Jesus. The “righteous” are righteous because, the king says:

35 “… I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome. 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you came to visit.”

It’s fascinating that the same people who appeal to Matthew 25 as a literal description of hell are often the same people who insist that “being a Christian” and “believing in Jesus” are required to avoid going there. But according to the parable, it’s not religious affiliation or right belief that make one righteous, but simply taking care of one’s neighbor. When I was a kid, I was afraid of this story because it was taught to me as the promise of “hell.” Now, as an adult, I understand that this is basically the same message as the Sermon on the Mount, but expressed in a dramatic supernatural parable. The essence of the Law and the Prophets, and now of Jesus’ kingdom teaching, has always been love for other humans. Anything that dulls or twists that message seems like a colossal missing of the point.

There are more similar parables and references in the other gospels, but I think we’ve made our point about Jesus’ “hell” language, and we can save those bits for forthcoming podcasts on Mark, Luke and John.

So what does the rest of the New Testament, the stuff after Jesus, have to say about hell? Well, with the possible major exception of the book of Revelation, not a whole lot. Paul, whose letters comprise the largest portion of the entire New Testament, doesn’t use the word “hell” or anything similar, not even once. We’ll talk about Paul’s writing in depth soon enough, but for now it’s enough to say that Paul believed strongly in judgment, and in a coming resurrection of people not unlike that found in Daniel, but when it comes to the fate of the wicked, Paul only talks about death, or a “second death” after resurrection. Very interesting that the modern church’s favorite teacher – generally taken more seriously than even Jesus when it comes to instruction – makes no mention of eternal suffering or a lake of fire. (He also never mentions the Virgin Birth of Jesus, but that’s not exactly on-topic.)

In the book of Acts, where the generation of apostles after Jesus travels throughout the Roman Empire preaching “the gospel,” we’d expect to find these proto-evangelists warning everyone that they’re going to go to hell if they don’t convert and accept Jesus into their heart. But the thing is, they never do that. They don’t mention hell at all, and the “salvation” they preach is not a ticket out of hell, but the same kind of personal repentance and rebirth that Jesus offered Israel in his ministry. Apart from two isolated references to the underworld (one in James, one in 2 Peter) that are not related to the fates of human beings in any way, we don’t hear anything else about hell or eternal punishment until we come to the book of Revelation.

Revelation is a symbol-laden “apocalypse” text heavily influenced by Daniel and Ezekiel, which metaphorically describes Rome’s persecution of Israel and the early Christian Church, and envisions the fall and ultimate destruction of the empire and the evil forces that fueled and sustained it. That’s the super condensed version, and we’ll flesh it all out in a long podcast soon enough, but today we’re especially concerned with what happens at the end in chapters 19 and following.

The Roman Empire, represented by a pair of “monsters,” and the satan, represented by a “dragon” are captured by God and thrown into a “lake of fire which burns with sulphur,” where they will be “tortured day and night forever.” (There’s your eternal torture, but it’s not humans that suffer, it’s the “monsters” in this apocalyptic parable.) There follows, in chapter 20, a resurrection and judgment scene with some elements borrowed from Daniel 12 and some from Jesus’ “Sheep and Goats” parable. Resurrected humans are judged “according to their deeds” (again, not their religion), and those who pass muster are ushered into the city of “New Jerusalem,” while the wicked go on to their “second death” in the lake of fire.

The thing about Revelation is that you can’t get hung up on any single metaphor, or you’ll find that the story starts running into walls. The “monsters” and the “dragon” are said to be tortured forever in the “lake of fire,” but in the very next scene the judged humans who are thrown in the same fire, and they just die. And this sounds like a final and decisive judgment of the entire world, but then in the next chapter, even after the Kingdom of God is established as a glimmering city, there are still people outside the kingdom, the “kings of the earth” bring tribute, and the city is said to give “healing to the nations.” Revelation defies logic and tells a very non-literal and non-linear story. It is impossible to come away from this text with a singular and definitive notion of “hell” or afterlife. (Also, the ideas of “rapture” and “going to heaven” are conspicuously absent, but we’ll say more about that when the time comes.)

Let’s conclude our brief survey of “hell” in the bible with a few broad observations. What we didn’t find is a singular, monolithic, cut and dried description of a literal place called “hell,” where the devil will torture naughty boys and girls for all eternity while twirling his mustache. Most of the imagery we associate with “hell” comes from medieval, Anglo-Saxon art and literature. What we find instead in the actual Jewish/Christian writings of the bible is a wide variety of traditions, images, parables and stories that dramatize the notion of judgment. And, one last time, this is not judgment based on religious belief or affiliation, but on deed and character.

We have at least three choices how we will receive these ancient traditions: 1) We can reject them and laugh at them for being antiquated and implausible, 2) we can embrace them as literal descriptions of what is to come and accept the anxiety and cognitive dissonance that come with that heavy task, or 3) we can embrace their meaning and their radical call to personal accountability. Thankfully I’m just a podcast guy, so I can’t tell you what you should do.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way.  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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April 24, 2014 4

Episode 29 – Gospel of Matthew Part 2

By in Blog, Podcast


Hey, welcome back to BOOK!


This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. This is the podcast that explores the content of the Judeo-Christian Bible with an emphasis on history and literature, and today’s show is Part 2 of our look at the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the Greek “New Testament.” I’m going to assume you’ve read or listened to Part 1 at book.joshway.com.

Matthew’s is one of four “gospel” texts, interwoven collections of stories and traditions about the life of Jesus which were produced by four different communities of early Christian believers some decades after Jesus’ death. Each gospel tells the story in its own style and with its own emphases. Small details and large themes are often notably – even problematically – different from one gospel to the next. Matthew’s is considered by many to be the “most Jewish” of the gospels, and in Part 1 we saw how the author used the first four chapters to establish Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah even before the story had properly begun. Today we’ll look at Matthew’s account of the message, ministry, arrest, death and resurrection of the adult Jesus.

After all of the dense and complex introductory material, there is something refreshing about opening up Matthew Chapter 5 and meeting Jesus himself, by way of a three-chapter collection of saying, teachings and parables collectively known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” And before we even get to the content of the “sermon,” there’s something important and obvious to acknowledge about Jesus right away: he is presented here as a Jewish prophet. There’s nothing at all controversial about that statement, but given the many things people believe about Jesus and often intense ways in which they believe and defend them, it seems helpful to ground ourselves in the basic reality presented by Matthew. Jesus is a man from Nazareth, near Galilee, in First Century Judea, historically known as the land of Israel. He is, in this way, just like the great prophets of Israel and Judah whom we met in the Hebrew Bible, and in fact Jesus’ words and deeds bear a striking resemblance to those of the old prophets – especially Jeremiah. If you’re unsure what to do with Jesus historically, this is a good place to start. He’s a prophet with a message for Israel, a message that is every bit as politically and religiously charged as those of his forebearers.

What is that message? He announces it in Matthew 4:17:

“Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is here!” (Matt 4:17)

A simple and straightforward statement, and yet one that has become overly familiar and infused with less-than-helpful modern religious assumptions. For modern American Christians in particular, “repenting” has to do with casting off personal mortal sins, and “the kingdom of heaven” is the place in the sky where you go when you die – if you’ve been good or forgiven enough to make the grade. But placed back in their original, First Century Jewish context, these words mean something very different. “Repent” literally means “to become pensive again,”  or “re-pensive,” thinking in a new way. And the “kingdom of heaven” – called the “kingdom of God” in the other gospels – is not a medieval-style realm somewhere in the clouds where God lives, it’s the “kingSHIP” of God, the “reign” of God come to earth. We remember from Part 1 that this is exactly what Jesus’ fellow Jews have been waiting for for centuries – for God to return to their land and set up his kingdom. Jesus says that this is happening now, and that Israel must “repent,” or learn to think in a new way to get ready for the kingdom. That’s what the “Sermon on the Mount” is all about, the details of Jesus’ new way to think about being Israel.

The impressive thing about the “sermon” (which is probably not a real sermon, but rather a survey of sayings and traditions collected by the author or editor), is how well it functions as both a universal teaching on ethics and a very specific “critique from within” of Judaism from one of its own prophets. These are some of the most memorable and beloved words in the whole bible, and it’s easy to see why. In Chapter 5, Jesus describes what life in heaven’s kingdom come-to-earth looks like:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
4 “Blessed are the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful! You’re going to receive mercy yourselves.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart! You’re going to see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.”
(Matthew 5, Kingdom New Testament)

The values of God’s kingdom, according to Jesus, are in fact the inverse of the values of earthly political regimes. In a kingdom run by God, the poor own everything, the meek inherit the earth, and purity and peace win the day over power and violence. These are beautiful thoughts, but they carry an implicit critique. Jesus is accusing his fellow children of Israel of embodying the politics of power and domination in their quest for the kingdom, instead of trusting in the way of God. If they’re not careful, they’ll turn into the very monster they’re trying to overcome (namely the Roman Empire).

Jesus goes on to talk about the Torah, the Jewish law, and what he has to say may surprise you. Jesus does NOT say, “I am here to found the true religion, so you must all become Christians and start going to church!” In fact, he says this:

17 “Do not suppose that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets [that’s Judaism]. I didn’t come to destroy them, I came to fulfill them!”

And then he says this:

20 “Yes, let me tell you: unless your law keeping is far superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”

In Matthew’s presentation, Jesus is not the founder of a new religion, but the true spokesperson for an ancient one. If his fellow Jews want to “enter the kingdom,” that is – if they want to participate in what God is doing to establish his reign on earth – they had better double down on their obedience to the Torah. But just as he subverted the meaning of political power in his statements of “blessings” above, Jesus also offers a new way to think about the Torah laws themselves. This is Chapter 5, Verse 21:

21 “You heard it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ and anyone who commits murder will be liable to judgment. 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; anyone who uses abusive language will be liable to the lawcourt; and anyone who says ‘You idiot!’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.”

Jesus makes several statements with this format: “You heard it was said,” and a quote from the Torah law, followed by “But I say to you…” and his own new interpretation. In this case, he takes the classic commandment against murder and reorients it. It’s no longer a boundary marker, “do not cross this line!” It’s an orientation, it says that it’s how you treat your brother (or sister) that matters, not just that you manage not to murder them. Jesus tackles several other topics – sex, money, religion – in this same way, each time emphasizing the human relationships over the letter of the law. This, Jesus is saying, was always the point of the law, that we would love each other. (Side note: Jesus’ references to “Gehenna” are another element that has been brutally misunderstood over the centuries, but this is something I’ll address at length in a separate podcast supplement that will be out very soon.)

There are many more teachings of Jesus in these chapters: the “Lord’s Prayer” for the coming of the kingdom, commandments not to worry and not to judge others, and a final warning that very few will actually choose to follow Jesus on this “narrow way” he has been describing. And after three solid chapters of the words of the Messiah, Matthew changes gears and presents two chapters describing his deeds. Chapters 8 and 9 detail Jesus’ “miracles,” the healings and exorcisms he performed along with his message of the kingdom. These miracles – more appropriately called “signs” – are often assumed to be “proofs” of Jesus’ “divinity,” but that’s not precisely how this works. We should remember that – whatever we believe about such claims – it was not uncommon for prophets or teachers or holy men to perform healings and wonders in the ancient world, and that the “magic” or “divinity” of the acts was not the point, it was their specific meaning that mattered.

In this way, Jesus’ miraculous deeds make perfect sense in the context of his prophetic message: they are “signs” of the kingdom he is announcing. When Jesus heals the blind person or the leper, he isn’t just “proving” something extraordinary about himself, he is making these individuals whole again and – more important – returning them to the society and religion which would have excluded them for their maladies. If Jesus is proving anything, it’s that the kingdom is truly at hand – he is making Israel whole again one citizen at a time as a preview of what is to come.

Even the “casting out of demons” or “evil spirits,” a strange and foreign idea to most of us, makes a certain kind of contextual sense. This is particularly true in an episode in Chapter 9 where Jesus crosses over into Gentile territory and casts “demons” out of two men living among tombs, demons which enter into a herd of pigs, causing them to run off a cliff. A crazy episode to our eyes to be sure, but with at least two strands of clear symbolic meaning. First, Jesus is outside of the land of Israel, in a graveyard, surrounded by demons and pigs. This is the least Jewish environment in which a Jew could find himself. And yet, instead of becoming unclean or being destroyed, Jesus exerts authority, even in this unfriendly place, and casts out the demon. As for the demons taking control of the herd of pigs, you couldn’t write a more pointed political cartoon about what Jews thought of their Roman overlords. The account ends somewhat humorously with the Gentiles begging Jesus to just leave their region and go back home.

In addition to his many signs and deeds (more than we can catalog here), Matthew tells us that Jesus “calls” twelve men to be his followers. These include Matthew himself, a tax-collector, brothers called Peter and Andrew, fishermen, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot. Again, there’s nothing odd in context about a prophet, rabbi or guru with a school of followers in the ancient world, but it’s the details that make Jesus’ crew extraordinary. Jesus calls twelve followers in keeping with his bid to personally embody Israel (with its twelve tribes named for twelve patriarchs), but it’s also the nature of his followers that is remarkable. Instead of surrounding himself with administrators, politicians, scribes, Pharisees, or other students of Jewish religion and law, Jesus calls a bunch of average, working-class Joes, with jobs as humble as fishing and as unpopular as tax-collecting. This is itself another symbolic act of how the “kingdom of God” would continue to thwart everyone’s expectations and turn human values and expectations inside out.

In Chapter 10 Jesus sends out these twelve disciples, granting them the authority to do what he has done: to announce the kingdom in words and miraculous deeds. Things are going great, and crowds of people respond to the message of Jesus and his followers, but some shadows begin to creep over the proceedings. Jesus routinely offends the religious authorities, who are threatened by his radical and authoritative teaching, and they accuse him of breaking the law and even of being in league with the devil. Jesus deflects their attacks but confides in his followers that he expects something drastic and even grave to befall him.

In Chapter 13 Matthew relates a series of Jesus’ short parables. Parables are little, self-contained symbolic fictions which illustrate something true about “real life.” Jesus’ parables are about the kingdom of heaven, and though they are often interpreted by modern Christians as teachings about the church as it waits for Jesus’ “Second Coming,” the texts themselves are better understood as stories of God’s return to Israel through his representative Jesus. For example, there are parables about farmers who sow seeds and reap harvests, who represent YHWH sowing the seeds of the kingdom through the prophets and returning through his agent the Messiah to collect the “fruit.” The kingdom is also compared to a treasure buried in a field, and a fisherman’s net bringing in a huge catch. In each parable, the product of some planting, hunting, or some type of work is harvested, counted, or cataloged. God has come back to Israel, and he’s looking for “good fruit.”

After some more miracles, parables, and tense encounters with religious leaders, climactic events begin to transpire and Matthew’s gospel moves into its final act. In Chapter 16, Jesus has an intense conversation with his disciple Peter:

15 “What about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered.
“You’re the Messiah,” he said. “You’re the son of the living God!”
17 “God’s blessings on you, Simon, son of John!” answered Jesus.

But almost immediately, this happens:

21 From then on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day.
22 Peter took him and began to tell him off. “That’s the last thing God would want, Master!” he said. “That’s never, ever going to happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned on Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You’re trying to trip me up! You’re not looking at things like God does! You’re looking at things like a mere mortal!

Jesus’ followers are already convinced that he is the Messiah, the promised king of Israel. But for this same reason they cannot fathom his own premonitions that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities. And who can blame them? In their eyes Jesus is basically predicting his own failure. Then, in Chapter 17 Jesus takes a few of his closest followers up onto a mountain (another one) and is transformed before their eyes into a figure of blinding light and beauty. He is joined by Elijah and Moses who sort of mill around and chat with him. Suddenly a voice booms from above: “This is my dear son, and I’m delighted with him. Pay attention to him!” This is one of those sudden, stark, supernatural episodes that thwarts our understanding. For now, just hold the image in your mind. We’ll come back to this.

Chapter 21 begins the series of events we know as “Holy Week,” the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. It begins with the prophet riding into the capital city of Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” or “Save us!” from an ecstatic crowd. This event has at least a twofold meaning:

  1. This is another one of Matthew’s (somewhat clunky) “fulfilments” of Hebrew Bible prophecy. I say “clunky” because the passage Matthew wants to fulfill, from Zechariah 9, says that Zion’s king will come riding on “an ass, yes on a foal, its young.” Matthew isn’t quite sure how to make this work, so he actually has Jesus riding on an adult donkey and its foal at the same time. I’d love to see that painting.
  2. It’s also another symbolic prophetic action, a non-violent mirror to the Roman imperial procession that would have passed through the city gates around the same time. It was the time of Passover, and Rome always made a big show of their power during the religious festivals of their conquered peoples, lest they get too excited and decide to revolt. In his so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus is affirmed symbolically as Israel’s Messiah, but he is also affirmed as the anti-Caesar, the true and humble lord of the world over against the power-hungry tyrant.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus performs two final symbolic actions, one of which probably seals his fate. First, Jesus enters the Temple and throws out all the merchants selling sacrificial animals to the worshipers and tourists. He overturns their tables and quotes the Hebrew Bible: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a brigands’ lair!” He then proceeds to perform some of his trademark healings inside the Temple courtyard. This throws the crowd of onlookers into a tizzy, and mobilizes the priests and scribes to finally do something about their Jesus problem. Outside of the Temple, Jesus comes upon a fig tree with no fruit. He curses it and it withers instantly. The second act is an interpretation of the first: the Temple is supposed to produce the “fruit” of justice, but it bears none, and so it must be shut down. Both acts are merely symbols of Jesus’ greater kingdom announcement, though the Temple action is real enough to set some dangerous gears into motion.

Before the events that we know as the “passion” of the Messiah, Jesus has a few more unpleasant run-ins with the scribes and Pharisees, and offers up a few more parables and teachings. In Chapter 24, he gives his final speech in the gospel of Matthew, and it is a doozy. Jesus climbs up yet another mountain, the “Mount of Olives,” and starts talking really funny, saying things like this:

29 … “After the suffering that those days will bring, the sun will turn to darkness, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will shake.
30  “And then the sign of the son of man will appear in heaven, then all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see ‘the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.”

…and also this:

40 “On that day, there will be two people working in the field. One will be taken, the other will be left. 41 There will be two women grinding corn in the mill. One will be taken, the other will be left. 42  So be alert! You don’t know what day your master will come.”

Jesus uses apocalyptic language and imagery – borrowing liberally from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible – to describe what Christian culture has traditionally conceived as “the end times” or “the rapture,” the return of Jesus that is still in our future. However, it’s not quite that simple or clear, as we read this in verse 34:

34 “I’m telling you the truth: this generation won’t be gone before these things happen.”

Whatever it is that Jesus is describing, it’s something he expects to take place within his own generation. There’s much to say about Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” as it’s called, and perhaps I’ll devote a supplement or a future episode to that complicated discussion. But for now, I’ll just say that Jesus – like the great prophets of Israel before him – is offering up his ultimate prophecy, a warning to Jerusalem to change her ways or face destruction. And while that is not how this passage has been traditionally interpreted, it is worth acknowledging that Jerusalem was in fact flattened by Rome in 70 AD, within Jesus’ own generation. That may not mean a whole lot to modern westerners, but it was surely the “end of the world” for the Jews living at that time.

In Chapter 26 one of Jesus’ own followers, Judas Iscariot, goes to the chief priests and offers to hand Jesus over for the price of thirty pieces of silver. Soon after the whole gang celebrates Passover with Jesus, who takes the occasion to make one last cryptic prediction of his own death. He reappropriates already symbol-laden elements of the seder meal to make his point. He breaks the bread, a symbol of the manna, God’s life-sustaining provision for Israel in the desert, and announces, “this is my body, take it and eat it.” He then pours out a cup of wine, the “cup of blessing,” and says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This language comes from Jeremiah chapter 31, where the prophet imagines a day when God will perform a new act of salvation for Israel and establish a “new covenant” with her. Jesus announces that these things are happening now, in what will prove to be his final hours.

Judas slips out early and Jesus takes his eleven remaining followers to a public place called Gethsemane, where he goes off alone to pray that God might spare him from the fate which now seems inevitable. He comes back to find his followers asleep, and they wake up just in time to see Jesus arrested by a group of “chief priests and elders” led by Judas. Jesus is first interrogated by the high priest, Caiaphas, who accuses him of threatening to destroy the Temple and of claiming to be the Messiah. Jesus is mostly silent, offering only cryptic answers that neither affirm nor deny the charges. He does manage to quote the Daniel passage again, the one about “the son of man coming on the clouds,” a move which results in the high priest tearing his robe, and the elders condemning him to death. Meanwhile, his closest follower Peter, stunned and horrified at what is happening, denies even knowing Jesus. The prophet’s earthly family is abandoning him. And Judas, wracked with guilt, returns the “blood money” to the priests and runs off and hangs himself.

The Jewish officials agree that Jesus should die, but they lack the authority to execute criminals themselves, so they take Jesus before the local Roman governor, a man named Pilate. Rome isn’t interested in Messiahs or prophecies from Daniel, but they don’t like wannabe kings, so Jesus is presented as an insurgent who was trying to set himself up as the “King of the Jews.” Now Pilate’s wife is apparently aware of Jesus and sympathetic to his cause, and she pleads with her husband to spare this “innocent man.” Pilate is confused and conflicted, so he lets the crowd decide. He invokes a tradition whereby the people may request the release of a single prisoner, and the choice is between Jesus of Nazareth, the non-violent prophet, and Jesus Barabbas, a violent insurgent. The crowd chooses Barabbas, and he is released.

Jesus is stripped, mocked, beaten, scourged, and crucified between two brigands at a place called Golgotha, the “Skull Place.” Crucifixion was a brutal, slow, and public method of execution, and one Rome reserved for rebels and revolutionaries – anyone who represented a threat or challenge to the authority of the empire. At noon, darkness falls over the land, and a few hours later Jesus calls out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani,” which is an Aramaic quote from Psalm 22, which translates “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus dies, and as he does the earth shakes and a stunned Roman Centurion declares, “This man really was the son of God!”

Now, recall the “transfiguration” of Jesus back in Chapter 17? The crucifixion scene stands in stark contrast to that one, and the two images enhance and interpret one another. On that previous mountaintop, flanked by Moses and Elijah, Jesus was revealed in supernatural light and power, and something like the voice of God declared “this is my son!” Here at the end, on a grim hillside flanked by two criminals and shrouded in cold darkness, Jesus is “revealed” in sorrow and weakness, and it is the voice of a Roman soldier – his allegiance sworn to the Emperor, the “son of the divine Caesar” – that declares Jesus to be the “true son of God.” Matthew’s gospel has made a very powerful and artful juxtaposition: the power of organized violence versus the power of submission and love. Jesus practices what he preaches to its logical end, and it costs him his life. Jesus is buried in the tomb of a wealthy sympathizer named Joseph of Arimathea, a very unusual fate for a victim of crucifixion, but a necessary part of the story Matthew must tell.

Of course we know that each of the gospel accounts ends with the discovery by women, two days hence, of an empty tomb, vacated by the resurrected Jesus. What is interesting is the very different ways each gospel presents the event, and the different strands of meaning they assign to it. In none of the gospels do we actually have an account of Jesus being raised from death and walking out of the tomb. It is always “off screen,” and we discover the aftermath along with the first eyewitnesses.

In Matthew 28 the account is surprisingly brief, as Mary Magdalene (a female follower of Jesus) and a friend come to pay their respects at Jesus’ tomb. When they arrive, the earth shakes and an angel appears, rolls the sealed entrance of the tomb back, and shows them how very empty it is. He tells them that Jesus has been raised, and that they should return to the other followers and tell them to meet their Master back in Galilee. Matthew’s gospel ends with five short verses in which the risen Jesus – whose physical condition is not described here – appears to the eleven and gives them these instructions:

18 … “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me! 19 So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. 20 Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.”

These last words of Jesus sound so much like the teachings of the church in the centuries after Jesus, and so little like his words in the rest of the gospel, that some have suggested that they were a later addition, tacked on by editors. While we have every reason to believe that the manuscripts of all the Christian writings were redacted and tweaked as they were transmitted from one community to the next, we have no specific reason other than vague suspicion to make that sort of claim about a passage like this. It’s more helpful, I think, to try and cast off our modern assumptions as best we can and try to understand it in the context of everything that has come before.

If a prophet is killed by earthly powers and raised back to life by God, then it’s fair to say that he or she has been vindicated, and that “authority has been given unto” them. Jesus claims this authority and uses it to send out his followers to make more followers from “all the nations” (in their day, this probably meant the Near East and Asia Minor). He tells them to baptize these new followers, just as John baptized the Israelites and Jesus himself to signify repentance of an old way of life and commitment to a new way of life. And what is that new way? It’s the Jesus way – the way of kingdom of God, where peace, love and forgiveness rule instead of violence and fear.

And I think that’s the key to “getting” Jesus right, or at least “getting” Matthew’s presentation right. Too often the post-resurrection traditions about Jesus and these instructions to make new followers – called the “Great Commission” – are detached from the message of Jesus in his earthly life and prophetic campaign. If we keep the Sermon on the Mount fresh in our minds, then we realize that Jesus isn’t calling for the forced proliferation of cold, conforming religion, but the spread of the radical message of selfless love and reckless forgiveness. These are Jesus’ “commandments,” the rules by which his followers live. It is tragically ironic when his most devout followers seem to forget that love, faith and vulnerability are the true heart of Jesus, not domination and condemnation.

And that is the gospel of Matthew. Now that we’ve read a complete (and very long) gospel, we can look at the others in a more focused way, paying attention to differences, harmonies, and even discrepancies. The early Christian communities which produced these texts all had their own ways of interpreting Jesus’ message, death, and resurrection, and it will be our pleasure to discover these together.

But for now, this has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. It is good to be back!  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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October 21, 2013 5

Episode 28 – Gospel of Matthew Part 1

By in Blog, Podcast


Oh hi how are you so much to talk about today so let’s get right to it and now is the part where I say BOOK.


Hello, this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. On this show we look at the content of the Judeo-Christian Bible through the lenses of history and literature. And I hope you brought your Greek lexicon and map of the Roman Empire, because we’re cracking open a new collection of texts. Last time we completed our BOOK survey of the Hebrew Bible, and today we turn our attention to the so-called “New Testament,” a collection of Greek texts from the early Christian movement of the First Century. I want to dive right into the first book in the collection today, but first we need to say a few things about the fascinating relationship between this “new” collection of texts and the one we’ve just read together.

On the surface, the two libraries – Hebrew Bible and Greek Testament – couldn’t be more different. The Hebrew Bible collects a disparate array of genres and authors spanning thousands of years and several languages, all of which contributes to the story ancient Israel came to tell about herself, her origins, her struggles, and her hopes for her future. The Greek books of the “New Testament” are far fewer, and were all likely composed within the same century (the first one of the “Common Era”). And while the Hebrew Bible features many hundreds of subjects and protagonists, the Greek writings focus squarely on one person, Jesus of Nazareth, and his friends and followers.

And so, with all of this apparent discontinuity, is there any continuity between these two collections? The answer is yes, absolutely. And while there are a host of obvious reasons why Jewish readers do not embrace the Greek Testament, it would be a huge mistake for Christians to reciprocate and shrug off the Hebrew Bible. The reason is simple: As I think we will discover shortly, we cannot hope to understand the words, assumptions, and worldviews of these first century authors without having a solid understanding of what the Jewish scriptures say. Sadly, many Western bible readers have imagined that they could, the result being some very problematic interpretations. The second testament doesn’t make any sense without the first one.

Because the books of the New Testament were composed in and around the Near Eastern territories of the Roman Empire all within a likely span of mere decades, we should have an easier time interpreting the literature without having to constantly check which century we’re in and which of Israel’s many enemies is taking over the world this week. On the other hand, our job is still to remain vigilant and attentive to the many different elements which often come crashing together in these texts. These are Jewish texts, through and through, but they are written in Greek, by subjects of the ever expanding and evolving Roman Empire, and they often contain political rhetoric which we could easily mistake for something else. Keeping the balance between all of these things will be our primary task.

There’s much more we could say, but I think we’ve said enough to open up the first book in the Greek Testament, the “Gospel of Matthew.” So what is a “gospel?” On a basic level, it’s an announcement, a bit of news as it was broadcast in the centuries before teleprompters and hair gel. Like most of the buzzwords we’ll encounter in the New Testament, it has resonance in both Jewish tradition and Roman politics. In the Hebrew Bible we see the citizens of Jerusalem waiting eagerly for a scout to appear on the horizon, bringing “good news” of victory in some distant battle (see Isaiah 52). And in Rome, a “gospel” (or evangelion in Greek) was the public proclamation of some new imperial reality, rhetorically called “good news” for the way it was sure to inspire confidence and happy feelings in the hearts of Rome’s many citizens.

So what is the “gospel” of the “gospels” in the New Testament? It’s a Jewish man named Jesus. What makes Jesus a top story? Well, we’ll let the authors tell us that. And in four very unique ways, they will.

The Gospel of Matthew appears first in the NT canon, though it is most likely not the oldest of the four gospels and is most certainly not the earliest text in the whole collection (that honor would probably go to one of the letters of Paul we’ll examine another time). The book is attributed to Matthew, also called Levi, a Jewish tax collector who became a follower of Jesus. If I were to describe Matthew’s gospel with one word, that word would have to be Jewish. This is a Jewish book for Jews, which builds a complicated argument about Jesus using quotes from the Hebrew Bible. Matthew’s claim is simple: Jesus is moshiach, the messiah, the anointed one, the new king that Israel has been waiting for since the rebuilding of Jerusalem centuries earlier. It’s a potentially confusing business, in our context, trying to understand what exactly a “messiah” is and isn’t. I think there are two major reasons for this:

  1. The title “messiah,” “christos” in Greek, has been rendered “Christ” in most of our English translations, and we are more likely to associate “Christ” with the second person of the Holy Trinity in church doctrine, or to just assume it was Jesus’ last name. It’s not really either.
  2. The second reason, related to the first, is that we have defined “messiah” backwards from what the church believes about Jesus, instead of constructing it forward, through Jewish expectation and hope. As a result, we think “messiah” means “one who is born of a virgin, dies on cross, and rises again to save humanity.” Approximate variations on those things are indeed said about Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels, but they are not the definition of “messiah.”

There was no singular, monolithic expectation in the Jewish world of Matthew’s day of what a messiah would be and do. But if you recall our journey together through the Hebrew Bible – through Psalms and the Prophets in particular – you might remember that we collected little tidbits here and there, poems and prayers about a coming king, or a mysterious servant, or a “son of man” (a guy) who will be empowered by Israel’s God YHWH to deliver the nation and lead it into a new season of blessing. Not all Jews of the First Century had the same beliefs and assumptions about what moshiach might look like. Matthew’s argument, through every single line of his gospel, is that Jesus IS moshiach; he is the king, the servant, and the son of man. It’s there from the very first line of his book:

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Three huge things are established immediately through Matthew’s choice of words: Jesus is a true Jew (a “son of Abraham”), he is a legitimate heir to the throne from the tribe of Judah (“son of David”), and he is moshiach. And if that’s not Jewish enough, he immediately provides a Hebrew-Bible-style genealogy for Jesus which connects these dots and adds one more element that we have tended to overlook for too long. The genealogy is highly stylized, skipping entire centuries, and is remarkable for the subversive presence of five female names, women typically being excluded from Jewish family trees. I won’t read the whole thing, but it’s organized neatly around four major figures, and Matthew explains it like this in verse 17:

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah fourteen generations.

From Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, from Exile to Jesus. What is the Babylonian exile doing in a genealogy? Western Christians don’t usually think to ask this question, and this is why we don’t fully understand “messiah.” Babylonian exile gets its own place on the messiah’s timeline because it was the cauldron in which the messianic hope was born, AND because most Jews in the First Century believed that the curse of Exile was still upon Israel, despite the people having been back in the land for generations. Recall the anticlimax at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Temple is rebuilt but God still seems like a no-show. And the continued presence of pagan overlords like Greece and Rome in Judea has kept the people in “exile” in their homeland. And so messiah logic works like this:

1. YHWH establishes a covenant with Abraham to make him the head of a great family which would in turn bless all other families on earth.

2. YHWH renews the covenant with David, promising to turn this family into an “everlasting kingdom,” but David and his successors repeatedly break the covenant, so…

3. YHWH punishes Israel with Exile for 500 years, but prophets pop up and announce that the curse will end, and that David’s throne will be established forever as promised. That will be step 4. That is the messianic expectation. And Matthew’s not-so-subtle claim is that Jesus represents the climax and resolution of this story.

So, if moshiach is all about restoring Israel’s fortunes and getting the covenant back on track, where does all this virgin birth and resurrection stuff come from? Well, we’ll deal with the resurrection in due time, but it just so happens that the birth of Jesus is the next item on Matthew’s agenda. Now, we covered this in some detail in podcast 19a, our so-called “Christmas special” from last year, but many points bear repeating. First, despite the absolute fervor modern Christians possess for all things “Christmas,” it’s remarkable and unpopular to note how little space the “nativity” material occupies in the bible. The story of Jesus’ birth is only represented by a couple of paragraphs here in Matthew and a chapter at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. That’s it. Mark and John skip right over the birth of Jesus and begin with his public prophetic campaign. Even more surprising, though, is the fact that the “Virgin Birth” is never mentioned or even appealed or alluded to in all the rest of the New Testament. Even in the gospels that do tell the story of Jesus’ birth, nobody points to the adult Jesus and says “Look, there is the one who was born of the virgin in Bethlehem!” And elsewhere, in the letters of Paul, for example, we find numerous mentions of the fact that Jesus was born, but they always emphasize the natural, mortal mode of the birth, never Mary’s virginity. It’s surprising, but it’s true!

Matthew, nonetheless, does want to tell us about Jesus’ birth. He tells of an unmarried virgin named Mary and her betrothed Joseph, who is visited by a messenger (called an “angel,” but don’t think wings and halo, think of the “men” who visited Abram and Sarai in Genesis). The messenger speaks in chapter 1 verse 21:

21 “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”

There are lots of big things going in this one verse. First, “Jesus” or “Yeshua” means “He saves” or “He rescues” in Hebrew, and indeed the messenger promises that this Yeshua will “save people from their sins.” Many of us are culturally conditioned to hear the words “save” and “sin” and think of a very specific religious paradigm, getting “saved” from your “sin” so you can “go to heaven” when you die. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember the story that’s being told here, and its roots in the Hebrew Bible. “Salvation” is an Exodus word, it’s about YHWH rescuing his people from danger in Egypt. Now, Israel is praying for a New Exodus, a rescue from exile and more to-the-point, from Roman oppression. And what, according to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the prophets, had caused Israel to be sent into exile? Her “sin.” The national sins of Israel need to be forgiven so God’s big plan can move forward. Enter moshiach.

Matthew says this “fulfills” a verse from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son and calling him “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” in Hebrew. I went into great detail about this quote and how it works in that “Christmas Special” podcast, so I’ll just summarize here. Isaiah chapter 7, the “Immanuel” passage, finds the prophet warning a foolish king named Ahaz not to pay his enemies protection money, and to trust in YHWH instead. To hammer his point home he predicts that a king will soon be born (of one of the royal “virgins” whose job is to give birth to new kings), and that king will trust God so much that these particular enemies will be vanquished. The king – named Hezekiah – is born, and the prophecy comes true within Isaiah’s lifetime. Matthew invokes this because now, in his century, another virgin is about to give birth to another king – he believes, the messiah. I know that’s not the popular way of interpreting this passage, but see podcast 19a for the full argumentation. I think ultimately it’s pretty clear.

One more observation about the nativity story before we move on. Remember how like EVERY story in the Hebrew Bible started out with a barren womb that was “opened” by YHWH so some important figure in Israel’s history could be born? In a sense, this is the ultimate version of that story. But YHWH’s sovereignty over this birth is so absolute that he will “open” Mary’s womb without the typical biological kickstart. And, one more thing – please note that there is nothing here connecting the virgin birth with the title “Son of God.” We will see that phrase soon enough, but it is NOT a statement about Jesus’ parentage. OK, let’s move on!

Next up in Matthew 2 is weird little story about “wise men” following a star to find the child Jesus. We covered this story in greater detail in the Christmas show, so I’ll just recap: This is such a familiar story that we might easily lose sight of how crazy and subversive it is. Why are pagan astronomers – “abominations” according to Torah – following astrological signs to find the young messiah of Israel? The answer is pretty clear in the text, as Israel’s King Herod and the priests are plotting to kill the child. Matthew’s story, like the old book of Ruth or Jonah, or so many others, is a story of reversal and radical inclusion. If Israel won’t welcome her new king, then foreign outsiders will step in and see it done. Matthew is firing a warning shot here (and with the women in the genealogy), as if to say to his Jewish readers, “the story I’m telling is not safe, and is not intended to underwrite your assumptions or expectations.” This is deeply scandalous and subversive material.

Over the next few chapters, Matthew does something extraordinary with his storytelling. He presents a series of episodes about the young Jesus growing up and discovering his vocation as a prophet. But listen to this summary of chapters 2 through 4 and see if anything sounds familiar:

  • King Herod continues his campaign to find and kill any baby messiahs, so Jesus’ parents must flee to Egypt to keep him safe. (Matt 2:13-18)

  • In Egypt, Joseph receives a message in a dream telling him to take the family back to the land of Judea. (Matt 2:19-23)

  • A prophet named John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River (more about baptism in a minute). (Matt 3)

  • Jesus fasts in solitude in the wilderness (the desert), where he is tempted by “the devil.” (Matt 4:1-11)

  • Jesus begins a public campaign as a rabbi and prophet, inviting exactly twelve men to become his students. (Matt 4:12-22)

We’ll flesh out some of those details in a moment, but did anything strike you about those particular events in that particular order? In these three chapters, the story of Jesus looks an awful lot like the story of Israel! A flight to Egypt, a call to escape, passage through a body of water, wandering hardship in the desert, and the designation of twelve officers. Jesus is living out the story of Israel, from the Exodus to the Jordan River to the wilderness to the twelve tribes of Israel. None of the other gospels organize these same events in this same configuration, so what is Matthew’s point? Well, according to the visions and hopes of Daniel, Isaiah and the prophets, meshiach will have to be Israel’s true representative, taking her burdens and dreams onto himself. In Matthew’s logic, Jesus has to become Israel before he can rescue it. A couple of clarifications about this material before we call it quits for today.

First, a word about “baptism.” There’s lots of disagreement today about what exactly baptism is, and the bible is short on details. A prophet named John, called “the Baptist” is calling Jews out into the wilderness and dunking them in the water. On the one hand, this is basically a pre-existing Jewish ritual of ceremonial cleanliness. But in the details we realize how politically controversial this movement must have been. John is inviting the children of Israel to pass through the Jordan River, and telling them the “Kingdom of God is at hand.” We’ll have a lot more to say about the phrase “Kingdom of God” next time, but let’s feel the full weight of what John is doing: He is reenacting the Exodus, and thereby symbolically constituting a “New Israel.” Remember, the original Hebrews escaping from Egypt crossed the Red Sea, but the generation which finally made it into the Promised Land had their own crossing adventure right here at the Jordan. And when Jesus shows up and subjects himself to John’s baptism, he is endorsing John’s “New Israel” project and putting himself at the center of it. Matthew tells us a voice thundered out of the sky saying, “This is my beloved son, which fills me with joy.” This adds yet another dimension to Jesus’ baptism – now it is like the public anointing and vetting of the kings of ancient Israel. Jesus is almost ready to start messiah-ing. Almost…

Finally today, what’s this about Jesus in the desert being “tempted” by “the devil?” This is one of those literary hot potatoes, with some dismissing it as a fairy tale, others explaining it away as a psychological experience, and still others insisting it is a literal battle between Jesus and the satan. If you’re not familiar with the text, the “devil” tempts the fasting Jesus with three offers: 1) turn these stones into bread, 2) throw yourself off a cliff and see if God saves you, and 3) bow down and worship me. Jesus resists all three temptations with quotes from Deuteronomy, and the encounter is over. It’s a very strange episode which raises countless questions, but our old friend literature provides us with some very helpful insight.

On close inspection, we discover that all three of the devil’s “temptations” or “trials” have textual connections to trials faced by the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness. Turning rocks into bread evokes the manna the Israelites found in the desert when they were starving, an opportunity for gratitude that they passed up for more grumbling. Putting God “to the test” is a direct reference to Moses’ warning to the desert wanderers when they demanded a display of God’s rescuing power. And finally, the invitation to “bow down” and worship the enemy is a direct echo of the incident with the golden calf the impatient Israelites set up for themselves in the desert. In all three cases Jesus – Matthew’s candidate for messiah and “true Israelite” – manages to overcome the very same temptations which caused his ancestors to stumble and sin those thousands of years earlier. Whatever else this story is about, it is clearly part of Matthew’s Jesus-as-Israel agenda.

If this formula wasn’t clear enough, Matthew bridges his introductory material and his gospel proper with one more very familiar type of event: in chapter 5, Jesus will go up on a “mountain” and start talking about laws and commandments. The New Moses will offer a New Torah, or at least a new way to think about Torah. We’ll start there next time.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way.  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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September 3, 2013 0

Episode 27 – Minor Prophets

By in Blog, Podcast

book-toonThis is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. Today’s show is a landmark – this is our last podcast in the Hebrew Bible! And it’s going to be a doozy. We’re going to look at TWELVE whole scrolls today, the most material we’ve ever covered in a single show. These are the so-called “minor prophets,” not because they matter any less than the “major prophets,” but simply because their writings are shorter. These books are every bit as colorful and creative as anything else in the bible, and perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to cram them all into a single presentation. But I always like to cover more ground than less if possible, and at this point I think a bird’s eye overview will suit us best.

Each of these Hebrew scrolls has a unique historical and literary context, so we’ll take them one at a time. But let’s keep in mind some of the broad observations we’ve made about biblical prophets in the past: First, they aren’t “fortune tellers” so much as they are pundits, much more interested in the headlines of their own day than the religion of the future. They often use fiery language and creative play-acting to speak truth to the powers-that-be in Israel who – in the eyes of the prophets – are leading the nation down a deadly path. The survey we’re about to take will also reinforce our observation that prophets came from all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles, often leaving a mundane job for a season to address some urgent crisis, then presumably going back to work (if they weren’t killed). Here, then, are the “minor prophets.”

First up is Hosea.


And already I have premise problems… Hosea is actually a fairly substantial book. Our translation is broken into fourteen chapters, making it longer than some books to which we’ve devoted entire podcasts. But for our purposes the book can be summarized and contextualized rather simply. Just STOP CRITICIZING ME for TWO SECONDS!

After establishing that Hosea lived and prophesied in the eighth century BCE during the reigns of some familiar kings including Ahaz and Hezekiah, the text gets right to the rather lurid point. Verse 2:

2 …YHWH said to Hosea, “Go, get yourself a ‘wife of whoredom’ and have ‘children of whoredom,’ for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking YHWH.”

If you picked the bible up and turned to Hosea without any context or background, you would be perplexed and perhaps offended by a story in which a man is instructed by his god to marry a whore and have some whore babies just to make some kind of angry point. But just by having read other texts from the Hebrew Bible, we have at least some idea of what we’re looking at. We remember how the major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – indulged in outrageous acts of performance art, personally embodying their messages in creative outbursts designed to grab Israel’s attention. And we know from the Torah and elsewhere that “whoredom” – in this context rampant fornication and adultery – is a common metaphor for Israel’s idolatry, worshipping the “gods of the land” instead of YHWH.

Hosea operates in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and very much occupies the same political space as “First Isaiah” – the eighth century buildup to the Assyrian attack on Israel and Syria. He even employs tactics similar to Isaiah’s, giving his children descriptive names like “No Mercy” and “Not My People.” In chapter one Hosea marries Gomer, the aforementioned “wife of whoredom,” and apparently takes on a second partner in chapter three (though Christian interpretations squint hard to make it look like the same woman – wouldn’t want the prophet to do anything naughty in proving his point). After colorfully demonstrating his rebuke, the rest of Hosea’s book is a catalog of accusations and warnings of inevitable punishment, peppered with words of hope for Israel’s restoration.


Joel is a brief little scroll with a short, sharp point. And millions of legs, antennae and wings. This prophet describes the destruction and horror of the Assyrian invasion as both metaphor – an all-consuming swarm of locusts – and as a real experience. From what we know of the Assyrian empire and their tactics, the locust imagery isn’t far off. The “armies of the North” moved throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world, destroying everything in their path. The book was most likely written long after the events of the invasion, though it’s difficult to pinpoint a date.

The second half of the tiny book sees vivid hope for the restoration of both Israel and Judah, characterized by this famous passage:

28 “And it shall come to pass after that,
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.
29 Even on your male and female servants
In those days I will pour out my Spirit.


Next up is Amos. I’ve studied this one in Hebrew, and it’s an amazing example of what we miss by reading these texts in English. Amos is a treasury of jokes, puns, wordplay and other linguistic treats – most of them completely lost in translation to English. Of course that’s the sad reality for every text in the bible…

Amos was one of the “sheep breeders of Tekoa.” Some say that means he was a simple shepherd, others say it’s a more technical term and that he was a wealthy businessman. Whatever the case, he had a “normal” job before (and we assume after) he found himself called to be a prophet. Amos was from the southern territory of Judah, but his prophetic campaign took him to the north, to the kingdom of Israel, to – you guessed it – warn of coming judgment in the form of Assyrian violence. And while his contemporaries like Hosea called Israel to account on grounds of “religious fidelity,” Amos is famous for the way he appeals to social justice. Here Israel’s biggest sin isn’t that she followed after idols and other gods, but that the nation’s fat cats are getting fatter while the poor are getting poorer. Good thing we’ve solved that one in the future.

At the heart of Amos’ message is a rhetorical trap sprung by the prophet on the unsuspecting priests and religious leaders of Israel. He counts off a litany of condemning oracles against Israel’s enemies: Gaza, Edom, Tyre, Moab, etc., and hits a crescendo by calling the same judgment upon Judah, to the South. This would have elicited snickers and perhaps even cheers from northerners who considered Judah to be virtually as wicked as those others. But the prophet goes one further, reserving his harshest words for his audience: the Israelite elite. It’s a rollicking good read.


Obadiah, meaning “Servant of YHWH,” is a very short prophetic text from the time of Judah’s Babylonian exile. It addresses two of the pressing crises of that era: the punishment of Judah’s enemies (in this case specifically that of Edom, an ancient enemy who was still annoying Israel and who would themselves fall to Babylon), and the restoration of Judah. Obadiah ends with one of the most explicit enunciations of the Jewish hope for the “Kingdom of YHWH” to be reestablished in Jerusalem.


We did a whole show about Jonah, one of the most maligned and mangled books of the Prophets. See BOOK Episode 23 for more.


Micah is another eighth century prophet, most likely a contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah. He’s actually never referred to as a prophet, he’s just a fella from Judah with a lot to say about current events. His name is a question in Hebrew – “who is like YHWH?” and the book ends with Micah asking YHWH, “who is a God like you?” In his scroll he brings a “lawsuit” against the Hebrew people on behalf of their God, decrying the corruption and injustice which characterized both the northern and southern kingdoms in that century. Like his contemporaries, Micah announces judgment and punishment on both Israel and Judah for their corruption while also imagining what deliverance and restoration will look like. For Micah, it’s a new ruler, a sort of servant-king, who comes from Bethlehem – a small town thats name can either mean “house of bread” or “house of war.” Christians read this and their messianic prophecy alarm goes off. It certainly points in this direction, and the New Testament picks up on that, but let’s also remember that this isn’t just a cryptic prophecy hanging in mid-air, waiting to make sense someday in the future – it’s first and foremost a look BACKWARD to King David, the only great ruler Israel ever had, and a little boy who came from, you guessed it, Bethlehem.


Nahum is a volatile little book that channels fear of Assyrian terror into condemnation and mockery. It’s interesting to read Nahum in contrast with Jonah, as both scrolls feature prophets with urgent messages for Nineveh, the “capital city” of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah reluctantly delivered a call to repentance and reformation, to which the city responded – much to the prophet’s dismay. In Nahum’s day, not only has Nineveh returned to her “wicked” ways, she has become such an evil and reckless monster that God is going to destroy her. Repentance doesn’t enter into the equation.

Of course, that is only an easy surface reading of the two scrolls. They grow out of very different contexts. Jonah is a very “stylized” legend which has more to say about Israel than it does about Assyria, while Nahum is an urgent polemic against a looming and powerful enemy.


The short Habakkuk is a fascinating text with perhaps more in common with Job and Qoheleth than with the prophets. Habakkuk lives in between the fall of Israel and the exile of Judah. It’s been at least a hundred years since Assyria flattened the northern kingdom, and Babylon’s shadow is creeping over Jerusalem. In the midst of this chaos and horror, Habakkuk looks heavenward and asks YHWH: “What is your problem?” The book takes the form of two complaints by the prophet, followed by two reported “responses” from God.

Habakkuk’s first complaint: God seems to be unjust. Violence begets violence. Injustice goes unpunished. The innocent suffer. God’s answer: You are not as innocent as you think you are. I am using Assyria and Chaldea (Babylon) to punish you. Unsatisfied, Habakkuk tries again: Will you ever be done punishing us? Seems like it’s all you do. God’s final response: Stay tuned. Your suffering will eventually end, and what’s more, I will deal even more harshly with Babylon, because they’re enjoying this too much.

Books like Nahum and Habakkuk raise all sorts of questions for us about God and war and history, but God’s answer here seems to satisfy the prophet. The book ends with a psalm of acceptance and praise.


Zephaniah is another prophet from the period between the great devastations of Israel and Judah. He announces coming judgment – called “the Day of YHWH” – on the southern kingdom at the hands of Babylon and offers the people a last chance to repent. He reminds his compatriots that judgment will also fall on the nations of the world, and wraps up with a vision of restoration and redemption which (intriguingly) also appears to be for all the nations of the earth.


In the sixth century (around December, 520, if the text is to be believed), a prophet named Haggai delivers a word from YHWH to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah (then a Persian territory), and to Joshua the high priest, that the time has come to rebuild his “house,” that is, the Temple. The leaders of Judah comply, and the Temple is reconstructed – events also documented in Ezra and Chronicles. Haggai further prophecies that YHWH’s “spirit” and “glory” will remain with the people and – eventually – fill his house once more, and closes his writings with some words of praise for Zerubbabel, which is quite interesting given the ambivalent attitude toward the ruler elsewhere in scripture.


We’ve talked about this before on Book, but when the people of Judah returned to the land and the Temple was rebuilt, there was a palpable feeling of anticlimax and even disappointment. Persia still ruled over them, and there was no rapturous moment when the glory of God filled the Temple and brought Jerusalem back to life.

Zechariah’s mission was to preach hope and patience to the disillusioned people of Judah. He did this by imagining (or envisioning, if you like) the glorification of the Temple that hadn’t happened yet in real life. Through a series of vivid apocalyptic scenarios, he assured Judah that YHWH was still present, and that he had a mysterious cosmic plan – not only to reinhabit the Temple, but to reclaim Israel’s throne for himself, and thus bring his ultimate purposes for the whole world to completion. There are many allusions to Zechariah in the New Testament, most of them unsurprisingly in John’s Revelation. Meanwhile, here in the Hebrew Bible, the 2nd scroll of Chronicles tells us that Zechariah was murdered by Joash, the king of Jerusalem at that time. Bummer.


The final scroll in the Hebrew Bible canon is Malachi. It offers no explicit timeframe, but is assumed to have been written in the fifth century – around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi’s short scroll addresses the same disillusionment and morass confronted by Zechariah. The prophet presents a series of charges against the people of Judah: they have doubted YHWH’s love, they have dishonored him with empty sacrifices, and they have offended YHWH with idolatry and one another with adultery. He concludes by imagining the great vindication that will come one day for all Israel.

And that is all there is! That was an all-too-brief survey of a whole lot of intense material, but I think we have a good grasp on the people, events, and themes of the minor prophets. In one sense, this collection is as diverse and dynamic as the whole of the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, there is a surprising oneness to these texts, as they all face the various tragedies of defeat and exile with equal parts finger wagging and hope for restoration.  We also notice a lack of the sort of mystical, detached soothsaying we’ve often assumed biblical prophecy to consist of. These aren’t dark and cryptic warnings presented in a vacuum, waiting for events thousands of years in the future to make sense of them. They are Israel and Judah prophecies for Israel and Judah people. They offer a specific hope in the face of a specific problem on behalf of a specific god. That the whole library of Hebrew scripture ends on a note of anticlimax and unfulfilled hope is, for one thing, a signal that what we have been reading – with all of its art and imagination – has been a product of real humans living real history.

And so our adventure through the Hebrew Bible ends. We’ll take a short break and regroup for our look at the Greek texts we call the “New Testament.” Lots to say about that when we get there, but let’s say one thing now: without the Hebrew Bible, there is no New Testament, and without a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, we have no hope of beginning to understand what is going on there. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t delete these first 27 episodes. thanks.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way.  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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July 28, 2013 0

Voicemail Supplement – “Fallen Angels”

By in Blog, Podcast


Hello, I’m Josh Way and this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. Welcome to another voicemail supplement. Here’s today’s question:

“Hi Josh, this is Andre Jackson from Memphis. I just finished going through the Genesis one, about the… I think the topic was about ‘Breathe, Eat and Love’? Episode 3. I was wondering if you could touch on the pre-creation, you know when God banned the angels out of heaven, or the war happened or that type of thing that happened before the creation or when it happened. Because sometimes, I get kinda lost when I’m looking at it because the Bible does a little bit of a back-and-forth on that, a little. And I just want to know, because of your knowledge about the Jewish background, if you could touch on that a little bit. Thanks, man. Be blessed!”

Thanks for the call, Andre! I really appreciate it, and thanks for listening.

Andre brings up an EXTREMELY sticky subject, especially when we restrict ourselves to the realms of history and literature. Andre is asking about so-called “Fallen Angels.” This refers to the legend about a group of angels, led by a proud and wicked angel named Lucifer, who rebelled against God and were banished from heaven to hell, where they await judgment and wreak havoc all over the earth. Andre’s asking about a timeframe for this rebellion, but there are many things to say before we get to that.

The first thing to say about Lucifer’s rebellion is that – apart from a few cryptic references which we’ll examine in a moment – it is NOT a story that is told anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the name Lucifer does not appear in the text of the Hebrew or Greek Bibles. So where does the story come from, and what connection – if any – does it have to the Bible? Excellent question! It’s like you’re IN MY HEAD. The answer is somewhat convoluted, as a number of traditions, texts, and myths have mingled together to create… well, confusion.

The story appears to have been born as a Jewish legend sometime around or shortly after the first century C.E., around the same time as the New Testament was being formulated. The most complete expression of the story is found in a Jewish text called The Book of Enoch, which is not in Protestant or Catholic Bibles, but is found in the Eastern Orthodox canon. That book tells the story of angels who fall to earth and interbreed with human women and then are banished to Sheol, the realm of the dead. It does not, however, feature the Lucifer character, and the whole idea of “the satan” as a fallen angel seems to be have been popularized by early Christians.

Since BOOK is primarily concerned with the text of the canonical bible, perhaps the most fruitful thing for us to do would be to look at the key passages that have been used – perhaps abused – in the service of the “Fallen Angels” legend.

Genesis 6

This might be the passage that started the whole thing. We dealt with this one back on our Noah podcast, I think. This is the chapter that says “the sons of god” married “the daughters of man.” And that’s it – that’s all we get. I suggested on that earlier podcast that this might be a way of describing how the two genealogies of the previous chapter – the kings of Cain’s line and the working Joes of Seth’s – had intermarried in the days before the flood. But there’s no doubt that this brief and cryptic statement is the apparent basis for the whole genre of “fallen angels” stories. The section of The Book of Enoch which tells of the “Watchers” who came to earth to fornicate with human women is an attempt to flesh out and comment on Genesis 6. Even if “sons of god” in the text does refer to angels – and it may very well – it is still a vague reference and the rebellion story is hardly explicit.

Ezekiel 28

There are many passages from the Hebrew prophets which have been understood and perhaps misunderstood in a variety of ways through the years. One such passage is from Ezekiel chapter 28, which says things like this:

12 “You were the signet of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God;

…14 You were an anointed guardian cherub.
I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God;
in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.

…17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings,
to feast their eyes on you.”

Somehow, church tradition came to read this as a description of the satan’s rebellion and his banishment from heaven, despite the fact that it comes in the middle of a long litany of oracles against the kings of the ancient world, and verse 11 tells us plainly that this is an oracle for the king of Tyre, one of Israel’s enemies. It’s true that the language employed by Ezekiel is a bit over the top, and he does describe the king as an “anointed guardian cherub,” but this isn’t saying that he’s an angel, it’s a way of mocking his lofty view of himself and his power. Remember that “cherubs” are not angels, they’re Akkadian mythical creatures which represented royal authority. Saying that the King of Tyre is an “anointed cherub” placed on top of God’s “holy mountain” is a way of saying that he was the most powerful and divinely appointed king around, which is surely what the king thought of himself. When he is cast on the ground and “exposed before kings,” we see Ezekiel’s purpose: to humiliate and expose the king of Tyre as a sham.

Isaiah 14

There’s a similar bit in Isaiah 14 which has been even more explicitly linked to the fall of the satan. Give a listen:

12 “How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.”

This passage alone became the basis of the Lucifer story, and we have Origen (a Christian thinker from the third century) to thank for that. He was the one who codified a reading of this text that was accepted by many in his day and has largely persisted. The only problem is that once again we’re ignoring an explicit context in the text itself. Isaiah is boldly and plainly speaking about the king of Babylon and predicting his inevitable defeat. Remember that Isaiah is confronting the earthly villains of his own time and place: Assyria and Babylon. There’s really nothing here about angels at all, except maybe that reference to “Day Star” in verse 12. “Stars” eventually did become a popular poetic way of referring to angels. Still, it’s a pretty hard sell with this passage.

Oh, but keep Isaiah in mind as we move on and check this out:

Luke 10

In Luke 10, Jesus has sent some disciples (72 of them) out to heal and minister to people on his behalf. When they return and tell him what a successful mission they had, he responds like this:

18 “I saw the satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Traditional interpreters, already convinced that the Isaiah 14 passage told of the satan, his rebellion, and his banishment from heaven, have seized upon this verse as a reference to Jesus’ eternal pre-existence as a divine being who must have witnessed the fall of angels before he came to earth to be a man. That seems like a bit of a stretch for such a short and simple verse, especially given what we’ve already observed about Isaiah 14.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers a different interpretation, suggesting that Jesus is alluding to Isaiah’s mockery of the king of Babylon, and applying it to his own defeat of the satan during the wilderness temptation (found in Luke 4 and Matthew 4). That makes more sense given the context of the verse and what Jesus goes on to say. There’s one more possibility: the Greek text of this verse could be translated “I was watching the satan fall like lightning…” Then it would just be Jesus’ way of saying, “you guys really kicked bottom, nice job.”

There are a couple more references in the New Testament we should look at quickly before we wrap this up:

Peter and Jude

Peter and Jude (or Judah) are two apostles who wrote letters to ancient churches which wound up in the New Testament. Both of them make rather flagrant passing references to the fallen angels. 2 Peter 2:4 says that God “did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.” Meanwhile Judah says “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, [God] has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” Judah goes on to actually invoke Enoch, making explicit references to the non-biblical book we mentioned earlier. (That actually causes huge problems for certain type of bible interpretations, as we have a canonical reference to a non-canonical text.)

Two things we should understand about these early church letters: 1) their intense and fiery language is a product of the persecution and danger of their times, and 2) they were clearly written after The Book of Enoch had been written and become very popular. In truth, these are the only two undeniable and explicit references to “fallen angels” in the whole bible. Draw your own conclusions.

And that’s our survey. Actually, there’s one more bit in Revelation 12:3 that people like to bring up, but I think it’s really a stretch, and I’d rather save up my thoughts on Revelation for our forthcoming and mind-bending podcast dedicated to that delicious and dense text.

Andre, your original question had to do with the timeline – when did the angel rebellion take place. I’m not really sure we have a tidy answer. I suppose if we accept the first century Book of Enoch interpretation of Genesis 6, then it happened right there, a generation after creation. But I think the history-and-literature answer may be that it grew and evolved in the imaginations of people throughout both Jewish and Christian history who took the bible very seriously and wanted to tie up a few perceived loose ends or connect some contemporary belief with scripture. We have to admit, looking at the evidence, that the idea is almost (but not quite) non-existent in the pages of the bible itself. Just how essential and formative traditions are on our reading of the bible is a whole other issue, one I’m very excited to say does not fall within the jurisdiction of this silly podcast.

This has been a BOOK voicemail supplement, and I have been Josh Way. Thanks so much for the call, Andre! You, my friends, can also leave me a voicemail at 801-760-3013, or drop me an email at book@joshway.com, and I’ll try my best to deal with it on a future installment. Thanks for listening, bible pals!

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July 8, 2013 1

Episode 26 – Ezra/Nehemiah

By in Blog, Podcast


Hello and welcome to the show that explores the history and literature of the bible. This is not your father’s bible podcast! Unless you’re my daughter, in which case you can completely disregard the previous statement. This is going great so far! Anyway, welcome to BOOK.


This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. We’re coming to the end of our examination of the Hebrew Scriptures, and today we round a major corner. The last several scrolls in the Hebrew canon have focused on Israel (and more specifically, Judah) and its traumatic experience in exile over several generations. Book after book has offered stories, prayers and prophecies from the people of YHWH in their forced relocation to Babylon and later Persia. We’ve watched with anxious empathy as everything from the first half of the Hebrew Bible – all the laws, songs, hopes and dreams of the Israelites – have been called into question. How could a religion and a covenant so firmly rooted in a specific geographical location survive an exile that lasts several hundred years? Specifically, how could they survive without the temple – the religious, social, and economic center of Israel – OR the Torah – the laws and precepts designed specifically for life in the so-called “promised land.”

In today’s material, we’ll see exactly what happens when the scattered Israelites – now internationally known as “Jews” – find their way back to Jerusalem. And, somewhat typical of Hebrew stories and biblical literature in general, it’s not exactly what we’d expect.

Ezra and Nehemiah offer two separate accounts of Israel’s return from exile, but there is evidence that the two were compiled together in ancient collections and early Jewish tradition considered them a single book. They both appear to be pieced together from public records, census data, and first person accounts. The Ezra portion begins where the book of Chronicles left off, with an historic proclamation from then-emperor-of-the-world, King Cyrus of Persia. Here’s how the text begins:

1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of YHWH spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, YHWH roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing as follows:

2 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: YHWH God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  3 Anyone of you of all His people — may his god be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of YHWH God of Israel, the god that is in Jerusalem;  4 and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem.”

Cyrus decrees what the people of Israel and Judah have been dreaming of for centuries: the end of exile and return to Jerusalem. This is good news, to be sure, and yet it comes through an unsavory channel. Emperor Cyrus was surely not the Jews first choice for liberator (though we recall that he was mentioned by name in a prophecy of Isaiah), and his decree leaves us wondering how much “liberation” is really going on. Instead of returning home of their own accord after the vindicating defeat of the pagan Persian hordes, Israel will return with Persian funding and Cyrus taking credit for their good fortune. When Cyrus declares that Israel’s god has “given me all the kingdoms of the earth,” we cannot help but think of Daniel and his very pointed visions about such matters. We also learn in chapter one that Persia has appointed a “Prince of Judah” who has a very Persian name. This is far from ideal.

Still, the decree is made and the pathway home is cleared for about 50,000 descendents of the original Judah exiles. And the first order of business for the heads of households upon returning to Jerusalem is a fundraiser for the demolished Temple. Remember, the two demolished, geographically-specific pillars of Jewish identity were Temple and Torah, and the first of these is already being rebuilt.

In chapter three the Temple altar is rebuilt so sacrifices can resume and feasts can be observed. Keep in mind that these were not merely superstitious religious observances. Temple activities like sacrifices and feasts were the engine of Israel’s religious, economic, political and social life, and they had been cut off and suspended entirely for hundreds of years. This is a major milestone in the restoration of Jerusalem and the people now known as “Jews.” There is still something missing, however, but we’ll get to that later. For now, the Temple is rebuilt and the text says that the people rejoice, but the old men weep. Are these tears of nostalgia, of awe, or of world-weary wisdom? Could things ever be like they were before? Should things ever be like they were before?

In Ezra chapter four the leaders of “New Judah” encounter opposition from a group of local inhabitants, themselves descendants of exiles who had been relocated to the land of Judah by the Assyrian empire generations earlier. At first, these local strangers make overtures about teaming up with the Judahites and building a Temple where they too could sacrifice to their (presumably pagan) gods. When the returned exiles reply with an emphatic “no,” the strangers begin to harass the Jews and bribe local officials to make their lives difficult. They also write a letter of complaint against the Jews to the new Persian emperor Artaxerxes (whom we remember from the book of Esther, the events of which were unfolding at approximately the same time). The letter warns the king that should the “rebellious and wicked” city of Jerusalem be rebuilt, the Jews would surely stop paying tributes and taxes to the empire. In response Artaxerxes shuts down all reconstruction work, which won’t resume for 15 years, until the reign of King Darius, who discovers the old decree of Cyrus in the imperial archives and upholds it. And in chapter six the Temple is fully rebuilt and the family of returned exiles celebrates the Passover feast. Things are looking up.

Chapter seven introduces our titular subject, Ezra, a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron and an expert in Torah, who had come back to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes (one of several Artaxerxes, possibly the same person as King Darius in the previous chapter. It’s confusing). From this point the text shifts to a first person account by Ezra of his journey back to the land. On his way he assembles all the Levites he can find. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who were designated as Israel’s priests. When Ezra and his band of priests arrive in Jerusalem, they make a series of offerings and then Ezra takes stock of the covenant community in light of Torah legislation. The result is one of the most awkward and – to our modern eyes and hearts – unpleasant episodes in the bible.

In chapter nine Ezra throws a fit because the returned exiles – including many of the priests – had nullified their covenant status by marrying foreign women. He prays a long and anguished prayer to YHWH about the intermarriage problem, begging him to forgive the people. It’s awkward enough that he prays this in front of the assembly of men and their foreign wives, but then in chapter ten those guilty of intermarriage are identified and shamed, and Ezra makes this plea:

2 … “We have trespassed against our God by bringing into our homes foreign women from the peoples of the land; but there is still hope for Israel despite this. 3 Now then, let us make a covenant with our God to expel all these women and those who have been born to them, in accordance with the bidding of YHWH and of all who are concerned over the commandment of our God, and let the Torah be obeyed. 4 Take action, for the responsibility is yours and we are with you. Act with resolve!”

This may not be as shocking to us as some of the more bloody and fatal episodes in the earlier Hebrew literature, but the forced breakup of thousands of marriages and the banishment of women and children is not the easiest pill to swallow. And you can imagine what kinds of awful things this particular passage has been taken out of context to justify. We can remind ourselves that ancient marriage was a very different institution from what we know. We can tell ourselves that these are primarily fertility arrangements designed to maintain family lineage. But none of that can really put a happy face on what is essentially the “purification” of the returned people of Judah, and the forced exclusion of thousands of women and kids.

I cannot spin this into a positive situation, and beware of anyone who tries to do that. Our job as readers and interpreters is first and foremost to understand what is happening in context. And what we essentially have here is a hard collision between the ideals of Torah and the reality of the exile. We’ve observed many times on BOOK that the best and only way to understand the Torah covenant is as the boundaries of identity for a specific group of people in a specific place at a specific time. For the returned exiles, desperate to reclaim their original identity as the people of this God in this land, a different type of sacrifice was deemed necessary.

Let’s summarize Ezra like this: The people of Judah return from exile and set up shop in their beloved city of Jerusalem. They have two primary orders of business: rebuild the Temple, and enact the Torah. The first one is vertical, it deals with their relationship with their God as they understand it. They encounter some opposition and suffer setbacks, but ultimately their patience pays off and the Temple is restored. The second task is horizontal, it involves their relationships with one another (which is the real essence of Torah). This task proves much more difficult, and the account ends, somewhat obtusely, with a roster of all the families which were divided on that occasion.

Well, I’m really glad our time together doesn’t end there, and now we can turn the page to Nehemiah. Here’s how the scroll begins:

1 The narrative of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev of the twentieth year, when I was in the fortress of Shushan, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, together with some men of Judah, arrived, and I asked them about the Jews, the remnant who had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem.  3 They replied, “The remnant who have survived the captivity there in the province are in dire trouble and disgrace; Jerusalem’s wall is full of breaches, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

At this news Nehemiah weeps and prays a heartfelt prayer to YHWH begging for the restoration of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah, by chance, is the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes I, most likely the same Artaxerxes who sent Ezra back to the land in the previous text. Nehemiah convinces the king to send him back to Jerusalem with credentials to inspect the ruined city and oversee its reconstruction. The king agrees, and Nehemiah makes the journey to his true home. There he organizes and equips the returned exiles to rebuild, and puts them to work. Chapter three details the groups of men and women who worked on the city walls, and lists the gates they repaired one by one: the Sheep Gate, the Fish Gate, the Valley Gate, and so on.

As in Ezra’s account of the Temple reconstruction, a small group of unhappy locals organizes against the rebuilding of the wall. These men, led by Sanballat the Horonite, begin to taunt and discourage the workers. They plot to fight against the Jews in Jerusalem, while their mockery begins to seriously dampen morale. It gets so bad that (in chapter 4) Nehemiah reorganizes the workers into half-shifts, some working on the wall, the rest guarding them with swords and spears.

Then, in what we call chapter five, Nehemiah discovers injustice among the returned exiles, as the Jewish officials and nobles levy fat taxes with interest on the rest of the people. Nehemiah appeals to them as “Jewish brothers” and convinces them to abandon their schemes. He is appointed governor of Judah by the people, and he is so generous that he suspends his own salary to help the poor.

Meanwhile Sanballat and his cronies continue to plot against Nehemiah, conspiring to destroy his reputation, but he catches wind of their scheme and refuses to dignify their insults. They even threaten to warn King Artaxerxes of a coming Jewish rebellion. Then things get intriguey in chapter six when this happens:

10 Then I visited Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel when he was housebound, and he said, “Let us meet in the House of God, inside the sanctuary, And let us shut the doors of the sanctuary, for they are coming to kill you, By night they are coming to kill you.” 11 I replied, “Will a man like me take flight? Besides, who such as I can go into the sanctuary and live? I will not go in.”  12 Then I realized that it was not God who sent him, but that he uttered that prophecy about me — Tobiah and Sanballat having hired him — 13 because he was hired that I might be intimidated and act thus and commit a sin, and so provide them a scandal with which to reproach me.

Sanballat’s gang pays off a friend of Nehemiah’s to lure him into the Temple, where his inappropriate presence would have ruined his reputation (because he’s not a priest, you see). But Nehemiah’s increasingly apparent integrity ruins their plot.

The Jerusalem wall is rebuilt and the people rejoice and a census is taken. It’s one of those biblical moments that pretty boring for us, but meant a lot to the people. Remember back in the Torah when the wandering Hebrews finally arrived at the land of Israel? Since the generation who settled weren’t the same as the generation that had set out, genealogies and tribal lineage became the way for the new Israel to have continuity with the old. Same thing here. In fact, we’ll have more to say about the similarities between the return from exile and the Exodus soon enough.

In Nehemiah chapter eight, Ezra appears, and stands before the congregation of Jerusalem reading the Torah out loud. The people celebrate and cheer, and the priests walk among them explaining the text to them. We need to understand that this is much more than a religious service. These Jews have likely never heard the actual stories and terms of their ancient identity. This is like getting a crash course in who you really are. The joyous significance of this moment for the exile remnant cannot be overstated.

Next the people celebrate the Jewish Feast of Succoth or “Booths,” and Nehemiah takes the occasion (in chapter nine) to retell all of Israel’s history from Creation to Abraham to Egypt to Canaan all the way to the exile. The people, under the guidance of Ezra and the priests, decide to renew the ancient covenant for their own time with a document signed by all the elders and officials.

Most of the rest of Nehemiah is a compilation of priestly duties, lists, and rosters which remind us very much of – you guessed it – Torah. At the very end of the scroll, the people of Judah hold a dedication service for the rebuilt city, and in chapter thirteen Nehemiah enacts a few final reforms – like cleaning out the storerooms of the Temple, which the officials who had harassed Nehemiah were using as a personal storage facility. He rights a few injustices and (rather forcefully) warns the Jewish remnant not to intermarry with the surrounding people, lest they compromise their mission to fully recover their Israelite identity. Then Governor Nehemiah leaves his post to return to his post in the court of Artaxerxes. The scroll ends with him praying to YHWH: “please remember me, O God, for good.”

In one sense, Ezra and Nehemiah represent a sort of climax for the bible’s exile drama. And this explains why the events of the books (and the literary presentation of those events) is so liberally peppered with allusions to and echoes of the Exodus story. In a very real sense, this was a second Exodus.

And yet, there’s something of an anti-climax here as well. The entire affair is conducted under Persian imperial scrutiny, the number of returning exiles is notably small, and every step of the process is mired by conflict without and within the Jewish community. And there’s one giant thing missing from the triumphant return of God’s people to Jerusalem as imagined by the prophets: there’s not a whole lot of triumph, and not very much god for that matter. There is no scene, for example, where God’s glory “fills the Temple,” as in the original Temple accounts or in Ezekiel’s prophecy about the return to the land. And while the Torah is celebrated and embraced by the fledgeling community at Jerusalem, it also tears the peoples’ lives apart. Overall, a violent and somewhat disturbing homecoming.

Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor oversaw an often painful, sometimes joyous and ultimately hopeful new beginning for the people of Judah, but there’s a real sense the exile, for all practical purposes, isn’t over, and may not be over for a long time. This is an important new biblical tension, and a theme to which we will return in the Greek New Testament. Stay tuned.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way.  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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May 19, 2013 0

Episode 25 – Daniel

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand is a complex system of nerves, blood vessels and muscles. In my right hand is a bible. Let’s do a show abooooooout… THE BIBLE.


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I am Josh Way. This is the podcast where science meets the bible, where we examine the content of the bible through the lenses of history and literature. Our contention is that real people in real moments of real crisis wrote these ancient books for some urgent, constructive reason, not just to provide a cryptic holy book for religious people thousands of years in the future.

We are presently examining the “exile literature” of the bible, those texts borne out of ancient Israel’s devastating forced relocation to Babylon in the fifth century, BCE. As we’ve already observed, the writing that came out of this period reflects the shock and desperation of the displaced people of Israel and Judah. It also introduces us to an exotic new literary genre, the “apocalyptic vision,” and today we’ll encounter more of those today.

Last time we looked at the book of Esther, the only book of the bible that doesn’t mention God at all. It’s a tale of political intrigue and Jewish survival in the latter days of the exile, when Persia had replaced Babylon as the empire in charge. Esther serves as a fascinating contrast to Daniel, since they are so different and yet so very alike at the same time. Esther is, on the surface, a non-religious story about Israel’s ethnic identity among enemies in a foreign land. Esther uses her sexuality and wit to save her people from annihilation. Daniel, on the other hand, is a deeply “religious” book full of angels and visions and prophecies. But, then again, both are stories of hope for the same people suffering the same ordeal.

And, of course, this is a fine opportunity to drive home one of our recurrent points here on BOOK: that in the ancient semitic world which produced the bible, there is really no gap between what we would call “politics” and what we would call “religion.” They are the same thing. Esther isn’t really godless, as we noted in that podcast, and today we’ll see that just because the message of Daniel is wrapped up in a bizarre religious package doesn’t make it any less practical or political. More about that anon. But let’s begin our look at the text.

Daniel is a very dynamic and multidimensional text. It contains several tales about Daniel and his Jewish companions in the courts of Babylon and later Persia. It also contains apocalyptic dreams and visions which foretell the end of exile and the restoration of Israel and Judah. The tales are among the most familiar and beloved bible stories: Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace, Daniel himself in the lion’s den, and the “handwriting on the wall.” The apocalyptic material is not as well-known today, but it is actually foundational for the rest of the biblical literature. Without Daniel’s prophecies, much of the New Testament – including many words of Jesus – would make no sense to us. Note also that Daniel is one of very few bible texts written in Aramaic, the international language from and following the time of the Persian empire. Here’s now the book begins:

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

In an introduction which conforms well to our historical understanding of the exile, Daniel and his friends are carried from Judah to Babylon, where they are put to work in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. We know, from Daniel and elsewhere, that Babylon’s strategy of conquest over the Near Eastern world involved forcibly “recruiting” and exploiting the best and brightest of a conquered people. Craftsmen, artists, thinkers and writers were identified and grafted into the king’s administration. Daniel and his buddies are the best and brightest of their generation, and so they are given Babylonian educations and Babylonian names.

The rest of chapter one highlights the complicated relationship between the Jewish exiles and their captors. The young Hebrews excel at their studies and impress their Babylonian “hosts,” yet they resolutely defy their masters when asked to participate in activities which conflict with their Jewish identity. The first of these conflicts involves food. Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king’s food, opting instead to eat vegetables and water. It’s unclear exactly what about the Babylonian food is objectionable, but it certainly has something to do with Israel’s many laws concerning “clean” and “unclean” foods, or prohibitions against eating any animal that was sacrificed to a foreign god. There is no serious consequence for this act of defiance, but it does establish a tension which will only grow louder as we move forward. For now, Daniel succeeds, is promoted, and “has understanding in visions and dreams.” We are reminded – most certainly on purpose – of Joseph in Egypt thousands of years earlier.

In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar has a bad dream. It “troubles his spirit” and he demands that his magicians and wise men interpret it. And, just to make certain the interpretation is on the up and up, the interpreter must also reveal the dream. In fact, failure to correctly reveal the dream will result in immediate dismemberment. When no one can meet the king’s demand, an enraged Nebuchadnezzar orders that every wise man in Babylon – including Daniel and his friends – be destroyed. Back in his quarters, Daniel prays a prayer to “the God of heaven” – a common way in the Hebrew Bible of referring to Israel’s God outside the borders of Israel. And before the king’s officials can carry out the order, the dream is revealed to Daniel who offers his interpretation.

Nebuchadnezzar saw a gigantic statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a pelvis of bronze, and legs of iron and clay. A huge, uncut stone smashed the statue, reducing every element to dust, at which point the stone became a huge mountain which “filled the entire earth.” The interpretation, according to Daniel: The head of gold is Babylon, the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. After it will come another empire, not as strong, and another, even less strong, and finally a fourth, which will be the weakest, a divided kingdom made of iron and clay. In the time of the fourth kingdom, Israel’s God will establish his own “kingdom,” which will surpass all of the kingdoms of the earth and which will “stand forever.” Daniel gets promoted again.

Out of many possible interpretations of the biblical presentation of Daniel’s interpretation of the dream, one has a nice and tidy historical foothold. After Babylon, of course, there will be three more major empires which will rule over the Near Eastern world: Next will be the Medo-Persian Empire (within Daniel’s lifetime), followed by Greece and then Rome. Not only is this interpretation historically tenable, it seems to have the support of the New Testament writers as well – with special attention to the “kingdom of God” motif. But still, we should remain open minded and be slow to hitch our wagon to any easy-peasy historical fulfilment of bible prophecy. For the author’s purposes here in Daniel, the dream interpretation accomplishes two things: it flatters Nebuchadnezzar by assuring him that his kingdom is the greatest while simultaneously offering hope to the conquered peoples. Earthly power passes from throne to throne, but Israel’s God is the source of all power and he will (eventually) take his world back from these emperors. This is the underlying message of everything that is to come in Daniel and in the whole bible for that matter.

In chapter three Nebuchadnezzar erects a golden statue of himself. (A little on-the-nose, but what are you gonna do?) The king decrees that everyone in the land should bow down and worship his image, and when Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to do so they are dragged before Nebuchadnezzar and sentenced to be thrown into a large furnace. They politely but resolutely accept their sentence, saying:

16 “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

The king’s henchmen throw the young Jews into the furnace, but instead of burning up they are seen “walking around in the midst of the furnace,” with a mysterious fourth figure who looks like “a son of the gods.” Nebuchadnezzar is impressed, so he gives the young men promotions and threatens death to anyone who speaks against them or Israel’s God. One gets the sense that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t take a bathroom break without decreeing that someone be potentially torn limb from limb.

Chapter four is notable for a sudden change in the story’s point of view – it is the only chapter in the book written as a personal, first person decree from King Nebuchadnezzar:

6 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream.

This time, he goes straight to Daniel and spills the beans on his scary dream. He saw a lush and beautiful tree, reaching to the heavens, with branches full of birds and fruit to feed the beasts of the earth. But an angel descended from the sky and ordered the tree be cut down, it’s leaves and fruit scattered, and its stump “bound to the earth with iron and bronze.” The stump was given the “mind of a beast” for “seven seasons.” Knowing the interpretation to be far less flattering than the previous one, Daniel is hesitant, but the king insists. Daniel explains that the tree is Nebuchadnezzar himself, with his power and dominion over so much of the earth. But heaven had decreed that the great emperor be chopped down, humiliated, made low, and reduced to the stature of an animal. A year later, this very fate befalls the king. As he stands on the roof of his palace, regarding the vast reaches of his kingdom, this happens:

33 …He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

After a time, Nebuchadnezzar regains his “reason” and his “splendor,” but a point has been made: the glory enjoyed by emperors is fleeting and can be taken away at a moment’s notice by one in a higher place of authority. A warning to the oppressor, but perhaps more important a word of hope to the oppressed.

Daniel chapter five features a new king, Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon. He only gets one brief story here in the bible, but it’s a doozie. As the king parties with “thousands” of his lords and concubines, he runs out of glassware and orders that the holy vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem be brought out. As the party rages on, a human hand appears and writes Aramaic words on the wall of the chamber:


The words roughly translate as “Numbered, Numbered, Weighed and Divided.” No one can interpret what this sentence might mean until – you guessed it – Daniel is called to the scene. He explains:

26 “This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; 28 PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

The message is, “Babylon is finished. The next empire will be here soon to divvy up what’s left of your kingdom.” The text tells us that Belshazzar died that very night, and King Darius the Mede inherited his kingdom.

Daniel retains his high position in the new Medo-Persian empire, until jealous colleagues plot against him. Knowing that Daniel prays daily toward Jerusalem from an open window, they provoke Darius to issue a decree that no one should petition any king or god but him in all the land, and anyone who fails to keep the ordinance should be thrown into a den of lions. The king loves the idea, and Daniel is swiftly dragged before him as a traitor. Darius – who has apparently grown fond of Daniel – reluctantly orders that he be thrown into the lions’ den. Since this is one of the most famous of all bible stories, you probably know that Daniel survives his time in the pit and is promoted once again. He enjoys continued success until the reign of the Persian King Cyrus, who will become a very significant player in Israel’s exile drama.

In chapter seven, Daniel’s extraordinary apocalyptic visions begin and the tone of the book changes somewhat. In fact, many scholars believe that the second six chapters of Daniel represent a separate collection of writings from a different period – not unlike what we observed in the book of Isaiah. While the first half of the book features tales of adventure and survival with Daniel and his friends in the Babylonian and Persian courts, the second half appears to have been written later – perhaps in the second century, during the reign of the Greeks and one ruthless tyrant in particular. More on that in a minute.

Here’s the vision from chapter seven, probably the central text of the book of Daniel:

2 Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 3 And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. 5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’6 After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. 8 I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

This is perhaps the first full-blown apocalyptic vision in the bible, following the hints and glimpses in books like Isaiah and Ezekiel. We’ve spoken about apocalyptic in detail before, but some observations bear repeating. First and foremost, and this should be fairly obvious, but the strange creatures and events in apocalyptic texts should not be – and in all reality cannot be – taken as literal things existing in time and space. These are metaphors and symbols. Think of apocalyptic visions as the political cartoons of the ancient world – particularly the Babylonian and Persian corners of the ancient world. These are impossible hyperboles and caricatures, meant to encapsulate and insinuate realities which could not be described using mundane language.

Another important point of clarification when dealing with apocalyptic literature (and bible prophecy in general) is that it is not always or necessarily about the future – that is, our future. While recent generations of (mainly Christian) interpreters have insisted that anything prophetic or visionary in the bible MUST be about the end of the world, which is always just around the corner, it is much more fruitful and appropriate to consider the impact of these visions within the generations which produced them so long ago. Keep that in mind as we read on.

Daniel sees a vision of four monsters climbing out of the sea. The sea, we remember, is identified in the ancient world with chaos and evil. Whatever these creatures are, there is something primal and wicked about them. They are like the snake in the garden story – some kind of force within creation which defies and threatens its order. One looks very much like a cherub, a creature from Akkadian mythology which looks like a lion with eagle’s wings. A second monster resembles a bear that runs amok eating people. The third is like a four-headed leopard with four wings which is given “dominion” to wreak havoc on the earth. The terrifying fourth monster almost defies description. It isn’t compared to any animal, it’s just a “beast” with “iron teeth” and ten horns on its head. When the horns are plucked out, a smaller one appears with a little face on it which proceeds to “speak arrogantly.”

There is a complex system of tropes and symbolism at work in apocalyptic texts, and to be honest we do not have a handle on all of it. Some things become obvious, though: different animals represent different sorts of powers and qualities, horns represent kingly dominion, and certain numbers bear certain meanings (four indicates totality, seven is a number of completeness or perfection, ten represents consolidated and formidable power, etc.). We need not struggle to decipher every last clue, however, as an “angel” will tell Daniel the meaning of the vision later in the chapter. In one sense, this vision is very similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dream, only instead of four forthcoming empires the monsters represent four kings. The first three do their damage but are easily dispatched, while the strange fourth king represents a unique and severe threat. Later in the chapter we learn that each horn on this beast’s head actually represents an individual king, and the small eleventh horn with the big mouth is a “greater” king, one who makes war against God’s people and “sees fit to change the times and the law.”

The climax of the vision sees the “Ancient of Days” – no doubt Israel’s God himself – dealing with all four of the monsters. But he doesn’t do it personally. He appoints a servant – “one like a son of man” – a Hebrew way of saying “a mortal human” – whom he sends down to earth on a cloud to vanquish the fourth beast and establish the new “everlasting kingdom,” the one we saw in the Nebuchadnezzar dream.

This vision will become vital to our reading of the New Testament, as it forms a central element of Jesus’ own self-identity. But here in the Hebrew Bible, we note the impact of its message on Israel in the exile and beyond. Historically, there is good reason to identify the “small horn” of the fourth beast with the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Of all the pagan kings to torture and oppress Israel and Judah, he was surely the most vindictive and ruthless. While Babylon and Persia each allowed some semblance of Jewish identity to survive conquest, Antiochus actively sought to stamp it out. He profaned the Temple and made it impossible for Jews – back in their homeland by decree of the Persian King Cyrus before him – to practice the covenant law. He even forced Jewish martyrs to eat pork as they died.

And so two prominent schools of interpretation have emerged regarding Daniel 7: an historical view which sees it as a word of hope and perseverance for Jews suffering under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, and a dispensational Christian view which prefers to read any text like this as a prophecy about the end of the world and the so-called “antichrist.” Thankfully the show is already running long and we have neither the time nor the inclination on BOOK to solve such matters. Suffice to say the big takeaways from Daniel 7 are the mysterious “son of man” figure and the ultimate and effortless victory of God over the oppressive regimes of the earth.

Speaking of running low on time, let’s take an abbreviated look at the rest of the book’s contents. Chapter eight is another vision, this time of a ram being trampled by a goat. The angel – now identified as “Gabriel” – tells Daniel that one is the king of Persia, and the other the king of Greece, who will desecrate and profane the Temple before being defeated himself. Consider the implications of this very specific interpretation to our reading of chapter seven, though it’s also worth noting that Daniel ends this chapter utterly confused and unable to comprehend what he has just seen.

Chapter nine finds Daniel in the court of Darius the Mede reading the writings of Jeremiah, where he finds a prophecy that the exile will end after seventy years (Jer 25:11). Daniel prays a long and reverent prayer to Israel’s God, asking if these seventy years shouldn’t have expired by now. The angel Gabriel returns with good news and bad news: the exile will indeed end, but after seventy times seventy years, or 490 years. Interpreters who whip out their calculators at this point should remember the significance of these numbers – especially in terms of years and eras. For Israel, seven is the number associated with God’s rhythm. He rested on the seventh day, and so his people take a Sabbath on the seventh day. In that same vein, every seventh year in Israel was to be a “jubilee” year, in which society was reset, debts forgiven, and slaves freed. Israel will come out of exile, but only after a “jubilee of jubilees.” Meaning: in God’s own time.

In chapters ten, eleven and twelve, Daniel is working for Cyrus, the Persian King who will sign the order to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Daniel sees a series of troubling visions, narrated for him by an angel named Michael, which depict in more details the struggles and conflicts between the kings of the earth from Daniel’s present until “the end.” Again, some choose to interpret that phrase as a reference to the “end of the space-time world,” while others see it as a reference to the “end of the age,” when exile will be ended and God will re-establish his kingdom as promised. The final vision of Daniel sees a resurrection of “many” of the dead – both Israelites and their pagan oppressors, the former to “the life of the coming age,” and the latter to “shame and contempt.” Like everything else in the book, this is about the ultimate vindication of Israel for the ordeal they are presently suffering.

And that is Daniel. Some say he is a character invented as a representative of faithful Jews throughout the various stages of the exile. Others say he was an especially blessed prophet, called to bring urgent words of hope to his suffering people in bondage. Either way, the dreams and visions of Daniel are biblical game changers in many respects, and will undergird our reading of the New Testament gospels and the book of Revelation – another book which offers us a variety of interpretive possibilities.

For now, this has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everyone, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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April 7, 2013 1

Episode 24 – Esther

By in Blog, Podcast


In my right hand is an ice cold bottle of Fentiman’s Cherrytree Cola. In my left hand is a bible. Let’s do a show about… boy, this is a tough one… mmm… OK, the bible.


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Today we continue our examination of the literature that emerged out of Israel’s experiences in exile. In fact these next two podcasts will explore a pair of very different texts from the later period of the exile, when the Persian Empire supplanted Babylon as the “rulers of the world.” Next time we’ll look at Daniel, a wild combination of exile tales and apocalyptic visions which look forward to the vindication and restoration of Israel. Today’s text is a different sort of story about the survival and success of the children of Israel in the often hostile lands where they found themselves living. This is the book of Esther, unique and somewhat controversial for reasons we’ll explore as we move along.

The first verse of Esther provides the historical setting: “in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces…” It goes on to describe the “armies of Persia and Media.” This is, then, most likely the king we know as Xerxes I, the ruler of the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century BCE. The passing of power from one regime to the next, the rise and fall of empires, is something we know well from history and is actually one of the controlling themes of the rest of the bible (the Hebrew Bible and then the New Testament).

Remember when we talked about the evolution of imperial politics from the “kill everything” philosophy of Assyria, to the more shrewd and exploitative ways of Babylon? Persia represents another sea change in the world domination racket. While Assyria left only smoldering ruins in its wake, and Babylon figured out how to steal the good stuff and kidnap the important people, Persia’s approach left even more of a conquered culture intact. They would allow their acquired “provinces” to retain their identity and their land, and would deposit a satrap, a Persian governor or overseer, to manage the territory. Compared with the previous empires, Persia was downright progressive. They minted the world’s first coins, they established the first “international” language, and they fostered economic growth in their conquered lands. This is the the backdrop to the story of Esther. The people of Judah, displaced by the Babylonian destruction of their homeland, find themselves living in foreign places which have now become provinces of Persia. The central theme of the story is the place and identity of these Judahites, who are simultaneously subjects in the eyes of the empire AND foreign interlopers in the eyes of their neighbors.

The main action centers around the throne room of King Ahasuerus. Queen Vashti, his bride, has publicly insulted and displeased him, and so the search begins for a new queen. Chapter two verse two: “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.” And so the plot is set in motion, and it’s time to meet the cast. Verse 5:

5 In the citadel of Susa lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite. 6 Kish had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. 7 He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The girl was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.

Now, did you notice something remarkable in that passage? A word we haven’t heard before? This is the very first biblical reference to the children of Israel as “Jews.” It was in fact during the Persian dispersal that the “Judah” people were first known as “Jews.” And It was most likely used as a sort of slur, not unlike the ancient origins of the label “Hebrew.” Mordecai is a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin – the descendents of King Saul – who happens to have a gorgeous young niece named Esther. We could probably guess what happens next, but that won’t be necessary. Esther (the Persian name of the Jewish Hadassah) is one of the “beautiful young virgins” rounded up for the king’s selection, and she so impresses her handlers that she is fast-tracked to the head of the harem. All the while her Jewish heritage is kept a secret, which will be very important later in the story.

Mordecai camps out in front of the royal compound in Susa to keep an eye on his niece and to track her progress. One day, while hanging about, he overhears two of the royal guards – eunuchs, we’re told – plotting to kill the king. He reports them and they are hanged, while Mordecai is commended for his loyalty to the throne. This too will become very important later in the story. Like most tales of Hebrew identity and survival, this is a story of providence disguised as happenstance. In chapter three the major conflict of the story presents itself:

1 Some time later King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and set him higher than any of the other officials. 2 All the king’s servants in the palace gate knelt and bowed down to Haman, for that was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow down. 3 Then the king’s servants who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” 4 When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. 5 When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow down to him, Haman was filled with rage. 6 But he had no desire to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.

And so we meet our bad guy, and not just any bad guy – he is a descendant of Agag, the king of Israel’s old enemies the Amalekites, who were defeated by Mordecai’s ancestor Saul in events recorded in the first book of Samuel chapter 15. The prophet Samuel killed Agag, but now here is his heir – many miles away from Israel in Susa. The exile upheaved the lives and beliefs of the Jews, and in this story it even had the power to reopen old wounds and rekindle old conflicts.

Haman bides his time for five years, and the text says that he and his advisors cast “purim,” or lots to discover when the moment was right. When the omen says go, Haman presents his plan to the king. There is a people, he says, living among our subjects, who follow a different law, who dishonor the king. He asks Ahasuerus for permission to pass harsh new laws to punish them, should they step out of line. The king grants his request, and Haman sends the decree out to all corners of the empire, that all Jews are to be “annihilated.”

Mordecai hears the news and goes into mourning, and sends word to Esther through a sympathetic eunuch. Chapter four verse seven:

7 …and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and all about the money that Haman had offered to pay into the royal treasury for the destruction of the Jews. 8 He also gave him the written text of the law that had been proclaimed in Susa for their destruction. He bade him show it to Esther and inform her, and charge her to go to the king and to appeal to him and to plead with him for her people.

Esther is in a unique position – a secret Jew and a member of the king’s inner circle. But she’s afraid of upsetting the king, and she tells Mordecai as much through the eunuch. Mordecai’s response is a rousing speech, starting in verse thirteen:

13 “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. 14 On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”

So Esther agrees to make an appeal to Ahasuerus. She invites the king – and Haman also – to a feast, where she wines them and dines them, and the king offers to grant any request she might have. But Esther doesn’t pounce on the opportunity, she plays it cool, gets them drunk, and invites them to another banquet the next day. This has the effect of keeping the king happy and inflating Haman’s ego. He leaves the palace smiling, only to encounter Mordecai, the Jew whose refusal to bow to Haman sparked the whole plot in the first place. He storms home and hatches a new plot: constructing a fifty foot gallows from which to hang Mordecai for all the local Jews to see. Things look grim. Did Esther miss her chance? Did she drop the ball? Calm down, I’m trying to tell you the story!

That night, King Ahasuerus can’t sleep, so he orders his attendants to read to him from his chronicles, the written records of his reign. And what chapter do they just happen to read for the king? The one where a subject named Mordecai foiled a plot on the king’s life. “Whatever happened to that guy?” Just then, Haman arrives at the palace to ask for permission to hang Mordecai. The awkward scene begins in chapter six, verse six:

6 Haman entered, and the king asked him, “What should be done for a man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman thought to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” 7 So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king wishes to honor, 8 let royal robes be brought, which the king himself has worn, and a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal crown is set; 9 and let the attire and the horse be put in the charge of one of the king’s noble officials. And let the man whom the king wishes to honor be dressed up and paraded on the horse through the city square, while they proclaim before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor!” 10 “Quick, then!” said the king to Haman. “Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate. Don’t leave out anything that you have proposed!”

Shocked, embarrassed and angry, Haman has no choice but to carry out the king’s decree. Mordecai is dolled up and paraded around the city in a royal procession, while Haman himself calls out words of praise. With the sting of this fresh humiliation still on his backside, Haman returns to the palace to attend Esther’s second banquet. After dinner, when the king is good and drunk once more, Hadassah makes her pitch. Chapter seven, verse three:

3 … “If you will do me the favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. 4 For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as slaves, both men and women, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” 5 Thereupon King Ahasuerus demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” 6 “The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen.

Haman’s bad day gets worse, and the king has him hanged from the very gallows the villain had built for Mordecai. And speaking of Mordecai, the old man is summoned to the palace, and given all of Haman’s property and power, including the king’s signet, by which he is able to repeal Haman’s decree and save the Jews. Chapter eight, verse fifteen:

15 Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Susa rang with joyous cries. 16 The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, joy and honor. 17 And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed themselves to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.

Unfortunately, it seems that this fear and Haman’s anti-Jewish rhetoric have spread throughout the empire. The next chapter tells of the violent clashes between Jews and other Persian subjects, with 500 men killed in one day in the capital city alone. In every corner of the empire, the Jews prevail and secure their freedom (freedom to continue being subjects of the Persian Empire, but still…). The book ends with the establishment of a new holiday, a feast called Purim – named after the lots cast by Haman and his cronies – which is still celebrated today by Jews worldwide.

And that’s the book of Esther, a tale not just of survival, but of retaliation and prevalence. And this is part of the reason that the book has been something of a hot potato throughout both Jewish and (especially) Christian history. The apparently gleeful vengeance exacted by the Jews in the story, coupled with the surprising fact that God is never mentioned in the entire text, has led some to question its place as a book of the bible. Martin Luther famously insulted the book, stating that it contained no “gospel content.” What to make of all that?

While a case might be made that the book is little more than a violent revenge story, with the enemies of Israel being massacred and destroyed with their own weapons,  the historical setting and the machinations of the plot pretty much necessitate the violence. It’s only a real problem if you insist that every corner of the bible must conform to a certain moral or theological standard. Is this a “bible lesson” or an historical witness to the horrors of exile? I’m afraid most religious readers and teachers have felt obligated to see it as the former.

Regarding the “godlessness” of the book, to claim – as many have – that this is a secular intruder in an otherwise religious collection of books is to deeply misunderstand this and many other Jewish texts. The book may not mention Israel’s God, but His presence and His intervention are assumed at every turn. Remember: this is a story of providence disguising itself as happenstance. Hadassah “happens” to be chosen by the king, and Haman “happens” to be an Amalekite, and Mordecai “happens” to save the king’s life, and on and on and on. Every coincidence in the story is – to the right kind of ears – a loud and proud proclamation that the God of the Jews is with them in this strange foreign place. We’ll trace these themes and tensions – God’s providence for the Jews in exile AND their violent confrontations with pagan enemies – throughout the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible and right on into the New Testament, which is more fundamentally about these issues than most of us in the Western world have ever imagined.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kreep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, crackle, frackle, spackle and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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