As You Read The Revelation of John

“Bizarre” is a pretty good word to describe the book of Revelation.

In this vision, we see images of four horsemen of the apocalypse, seven bowls of wrath, tormented sinners crying out from the lake of fire, the satan bound for a thousand years and then the final battle of Armageddon.

“Bizarre” is also a good word to describe many of the interpretations of the book of Revelation that have been offered over the years. There is some deeply flawed theology out there – I’m sure you’ve noticed.

For one entire semester in seminary, I dug into the Revelation with my favorite professor, Dr. Gene Boring. His commentary is one of the gems of recent scholarship and he is well known for his wise, thoughtful approach to this odd but important last book of the Bible.

Ask good questions

Always, whenever we study the Bible, we must be asking two fundamental questions: “What DID it mean?” and “What DOES it mean?”

What did this pastoral letter mean to the seven churches of Asia who first received it at the end of the first century? And what can it mean for us now in the twenty-first century? Finding that bridge of appropriate interpretation across time and culture is no simple task.

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As You Read Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah is a tremendous work. It is long and meaty, full of fascinating prose and brilliant poetry.

Isaiah icon by Lynne Beard

Isaiah shaped the entire theology of Israel during a critical turning point of their history. As they looked back at their experience of Exile, Jewish theologians sought to understand what had gone wrong within their covenant relationship with Israel’s God; they sought to learn from their mistakes and forge a new future with hope and faithfulness.

Isaiah also is quoted or referenced over and over again throughout the New Testament. Within the pages of Isaiah, New Testament theologians discovered profound insights helping them make sense and understand this one, Jesus, whom they proclaimed to be Christ, God’s Messiah.

1st, 2nd and 3rd Isaiah

Scholars note three major and distinctive writings within the one book that carries the name Isaiah.

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As you read about Elisha and Other Weird Stories of Scripture

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I have a friend who just about lost faith in the Bible when he first heard the tale of Elisha being taunted by a gang of disrespectful boys.

“In the name of the Lord,” (2 Kings tells us) Elisha cursed them and two she-bears came from the forest and ate up those rude and foolish boys. The Sunday School teacher insisted this story was literally true and demonstrated God’s will.

“They should have watched their words and been kind, shouldn’t they?” a popular children’s Bible lesson plan states. “There were consequences for being disrespectful.”

My friend nearly lost his temper. Almost lost his faith. “I just don’t believe that,” he insisted back to his teacher.

What on earth is this weird story doing in our Holy Scriptures anyway!?

Weird stories of scripture

Here is just one of many examples why it’s important to understand the genres of Scripture, the different kinds of parables and fables and history-like stories that make up our Scriptures. This is one of the reasons I took on this read-and-blog-through-the-Bible project in the first place: to try to help us all make theological sense of the stories we find within The Story. (Yes, even the nonsensical ones!)

This friend’s confusion (and his teacher’s) reminds us why it’s critical to understand what kind of book the Bible is.

And what kind of book the Bible is not.

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As you read about Elijah

There is a bright Elijah thread that weaves throughout the Bible.

The book of Sirach names him as one of God’s greatest proclaimers and prophets.

Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire, and his word burned like a torch.

He brought a famine upon them, and by his zeal he made them few in number.

By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, and also three times brought down fire.

How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!

Whose glory is equal to yours?

Sirach 48

It is the Old Testament book of Kings that continues Israel’s story of the lineage of David and Solomon.

By Elijah’s time, Israel’s story had become a sad history of rebellion and civil war. David’s united kingdom had fractured into two separate nations: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.

In 1 Kings 16, the storyteller of the northern kingdom says this:

Now Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. And Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him.

Ahab was breaking bad and his queen Jezebel may have been even worse. Elijah was the prophet God sent to stand against them and challenge their wickedness. It was a thankless dangerous job and King Ahab disdained Elijah as the “troubler of Israel.”

Usually Elijah’s courage was remarkable.
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As you read about Solomon

It is a sad irony that the kingdom King David built was so short lived.

David’s heir, Solomon, followed his father’s path of aggressive kingdom-building but then Solomon’s own son saw the kingdom rent by civil war.

The expansive land and legacy of David and Solomon dwindled into the small nation of Judah.

A look at Solomon is a look at the temptation to foolishness even in the wisest among us.

One of the most famous stories about the newly crowned king is the story of God’s gift of great wisdom.

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As you read about David

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David gives us some of our best children’s stories.

  • the shepherd boy who used his slingshot to kill a lion and a bear when they attacked his flock;
  • the pure hearted youth singing songs of praise and worship with his harp; 
  • the bold young man facing down a giant and taking him out with a single stone shot from his sling;
  • the ignored youngest child who was honored above his seven handsome brothers and anointed to be king of Israel.

Remember the song we sang as children?

One little boy named David. One little babbling brook.

One little boy named David. Five little stones he took.

One little stone went into his sling and sling went round and round.

Round and round and round and round and round

and the giant came tumbling down.

The stories about David in the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes sound like tall tales and there is good reason for that.

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As You Read Joshua and Judges. Violence in Scripture

In our Living in The Story project, when we come to the reading of Old Testament books like Joshua and Judges, we read horrific stories of war and violence. Walter Brueggemann says:

There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation of the Old Testament than the undercurrent of violence that runs through a good bit of the text.

There is, moreover, no part of the textual tradition that is more permeated with violence than the conquest traditions of Joshua and Judges.

And so (we may well ask) why on earth are we reading these ancient stories that so offend our modern, civilized sensibilities?

What do these stories of Joshua and the defeat of the city of Jericho, of Deborah and the taking of the land of Canaan have to do with us?

Well, for one thing – like making ourselves sit down and watch a movie like Lincoln – these stories cause us to remember that this is OUR human story. Violence is a part of who we are. Atrocity is what we all are capable of.

We must remember that. We must not forget how tempting it is for every one of us humans to sin against shalom.

But when we read these stories in the Church’s Scriptures, there is another aspect that is even more troubling than the persistent reality of human violence. Very often this narrated violence is represented in the Bible to be sanctioned by – even commanded by – God.

When Joshua and the armies of Israel marched around the city of Jericho, when the priests blew the trumpets, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the text says Joshua said:

Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. … Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword everything in the city – men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys …

Joshua 6

I don’t know about you, but I have trouble saying: “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God” whenever I read something like this. It’s hard for me to stomach that this proactive violence is part of our Holy Scripture

Here are some helpful insights I’ve gained as I’ve pondered some of these difficult passages in the Bible; maybe they will help you as well.

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As You Read. Weeks 18 and 19. Deuteronomy.

In James Michener’s wonderful book, The Source, a Jewish archeologist on a dig in Israel explained to his colleague: “If you want to understand the Jewish people, read Deuteronomy. Read it five times.”

“It’s the great central book of the Jews,” the character Eliav said. “If you master it, you will understand us.”

The people of Israel seem to have a strong sense of God’s faithful presence with them. They have seen God’s hand bringing them out of Egypt and into a sacred covenant relationship in a new land. They have recognized God’s amazing grace preserving them as a people and rescuing them from Exile in Babylon.

The Moses of Deuteronomy asks:

Ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened …?!

Deuteronomy is set on the far side of the Jordan River, looking across into The Promised Land.

From this perspective, Moses recounts the story of rescue from Egypt. He retells YHWH’s presence at Sinai. He reminds of the 10 Commandments and the Law. He prepares them for the years ahead, when Moses will have passed on the baton of leadership to Joshua.

When we read Deuteronomy, we remember how the people of Israel were  a motley crew of slaves in Egypt. They went from being no people to being God’s own people.

But please remember, the story the Old Testament tells is The Story of Israel. It doesn’t pretend to tell any other people’s story in the vast sweep of human history.

There is no mention whatsoever about what the God of all creation and the Lord of nations might have been doing in Mongolia or Ethiopia or Machu Picchu during those ancient days.

I am confident God has been on the move throughout all time, in all places, creating relationship and writing the divine story in the human heart in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. However, none of those stories are the stories of the Bible.

The Old Testament is Israel’s story – and it is shot through with amazement.
Continue reading “As You Read. Weeks 18 and 19. Deuteronomy.”

As You Read. Weeks 16 and 17.

The Book of Numbers does what it says: it names and numbers Israel.

Here we find numerous lists of tribes and families listed and counted. Here is another origins document naming the original members of this newly called out tribal people; a people who will eventually become the nation and kingdom of Israel.

As it opens, Numbers is set at the holy mountain, Sinai (or Horeb as it is sometimes named) and its first ten chapters complete the Exodus story about the giving of the Law.

Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:10 describes how this ragtag rescued people were received into a formal covenant of relationship with the God who brought them out of Egypt. Here they receive instructions about how to live within this covenantal relationship.

Continue reading “As You Read. Weeks 16 and 17.”

As You Read. Weeks 14 and 15.

I have a friend from seminary who once tried to write a paper for a class that explored how Leviticus is the Word of God. He couldn’t write it. He worked on it for weeks and weeks and he never could figure out how to understand this odd, ancient book as “the word of the Lord.”

My friend is not the only one. Many of us struggle to understand these kinds of strange passages from the Church’s sacred texts.

  • Just how could it be “the word of the Lord” that people with various disabilities should be excluded from worship?
  • How could it be that people who are born a certain way should be excluded from the ministry of the priesthood?

I believe it is not possible for Christian readers of the Old Testament to make sense of Leviticus without reading it through the lens of Jesus Christ.

And that’s exactly what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews did two millennia ago: he re-read and re-interpreted Leviticus through his understanding of the Christ Event.

This is why Living in The Story juxtaposes the book of Leviticus and the Letter to the Hebrews as we read during weeks 14 and 15.

Let us allow this Hebrew Christian theologian to help us with our interpretive approach to the Old Testament. Let him help us re-read our Scriptures.

Continue reading “As You Read. Weeks 14 and 15.”