Monday, February 28, 2011

Now That's Lazy!

A slothful man hideth his hand in his bosom, and will not so much as bring it to his mouth again. Proverbs 19:24 KJV

The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!
Prov.19:24 NIV

"This passage, as it stands in the English Version, lacks point. It would be better rendered thus :
" A slothful man hideth (rather dippeth) his hand in the dish, and will not,"
etc. The explanation is simple : Arabs and other Orientals partake of milk and pottage in a very primitive style.

A large wooden bowl is placed before them filled with milk or pottage, as the case may be; and five or six men surround it, each dipping in his hand instead of a spoon, and drinking the liquid out of his palm. They use their hands for spoons in taking milk and pottage, but not, it is said, in drinking water.

With this explanation the passage gains force ; it is impossible, surely, for laziness to go beyond this—the idle fellow dips his hand into the milk or pottage, but is too lazy to lift it to his mouth to feed himself."

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Publicans

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. Matt. 18:13

Among the Jews, the publican class—including both those who taxed the farms, and those who actually collected from the people—was regarded with unmingled detestation. They had a proverb, "Take not a wife out of a family where there is a publican, for they are all publicans."

And it appears that the Gentiles did not think much better of this class. Xenophon said they were all robbers.

Theocritus, being asked which was the worst kind of wild beast, replied, "On the mountains, bears and lions; in cities, publicans and pettifoggers."

And another classical writer designates the life of a publican as "robbery beyond count, shameful greediness, a calling destitute of honor, a disgraceful traffic."

Jesus surely turned society's ideas on their head when he chose one of his disciples from this class.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Mouths of Babes

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?” Matt. 21:16 NIV

The interest which our Lord took in little children, and His view of them, were in accord with the best thought of the Jewish people. The following sentences from the Talmud will indicate the tone of Jewish teaching respecting the children.

" When God intended to give the law to the people, He asked them whom they would offer as their guarantees that they would keep it holy; and they said 'Abraham.'

God said, 'Abraham has sinned—Isaac, Jacob, Moses himself, they all have sinned; I cannot accept them.'

Then they said, 'May our children be our witness, and our guarantees.' And God accepted them; even as it is written, ' From the mouths of the wee babes has He founded His empire.' (paraphrase of Psalms 8:2)"

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Anointed With Oil

The celebrated St. Cyril, writing in the fourth century, in his Catechetical Lectures, iii., Section 21, speaking concerning Jesus, says:

“When He truly was baptized in the river of Jordan, He ascended out of the waters, and the Holy Spirit substantially descended upon Him, like resting upon like. And to you also in like manner, after ye have ascended from the waters of baptism, the [anointing] is given, which bears the image or similitude of Him by Whom Christ was anointed; that as Christ after baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Him went forth to battle and overcome the adversary; so ye also after holy baptism and the mystical [anointing], being vested with the armor of the Holy Spirit, are enabled to stand against the opposite powers.”

In the same lecture, Section ii., Cyril describes how the church of his day anointed the baptized with oil before praying for them to receive the Holy Ghost, and he also explains the meaning of the ceremony.

“They were first anointed in the forehead,” says he, “to wipe away that shame which the first man, by his transgression had contracted; and that they might now, with open face behold the glory of the Lord.

Then they were anointed on the ears, that they might have ears to hear the divine mysteries.

After that, on the nose and the heart; that they might be a sweet savor unto the Lord; and being armed with the breastplate of righteousness, might be able to stand all the insults of the devil.

In Bible times the anointing with oil seems usually to have been the pouring or placing of a little oil on the head, or forehead: but in Old Testament times the blood of the consecration offering was applied to the right ear, thumb, and great toe of the high priest to symbolize his entire consecration (Lev. 8:24).

The church of Cyril’s day seems to have had a much more elaborate ceremony with the anointing oil to symbolize what the Holy Spirit would do for those in whom he came to dwell.

Harvard Divinity School Bulletin 1860. Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Deeds of the Nicolaitans

But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Rev. 2:6

There is much difficulty in tracing this sect. The prevailing opinion among the Early Church Fathers was, that they were a sect founded by Nicolas, the proselyte of Antioch , one of the seven deacons. (see Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 3:548).

One Bible scholar wrote the following about the beliefs of the Nicolaitans: “They seem to have held that it was lawful to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication, in opposition to the decree of the Church rendered in Acts 15:20, 29. . . .

In a time of persecution, when the eating or not eating of things sacrificed to idols was more than ever a crucial test of faithfulness, they persuaded men more than ever that it was a thing indifferent. Rev. 2:13, 14. This was bad enough, but there was a yet worse evil.

Mingling themselves in the orgies of idolatrous feasts, they brought the impurities of those feasts into the meetings of the Christian Church. And all this was done, it must be remembered, not simply as an indulgence of appetite, but as a part of a system, supported by a ‘doctrine,’ accompanied by the boast of a prophetic illumination.” (Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, p. 447.)

Thayer's Lexicon tells us that the meaning of the word Nicolaitans is the "destruction of people."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Passing Under the Rod

And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant: Ezekiel 20:37

A Christian missionary gives the following interesting explanation of this figurative expression:

" In Syria, just below my house, which stood facing the Mediterranean Sea, there was a sheepfold; a large area surrounded by high walls. It had but one entrance, a little gateway near the corner. It was low and narrow, and a man must stoop to get into it. Every night the shepherd brings home his flock from outside the city, or from the distant field, or the mountain side, to be gathered into this fold.

And as they pass into this narrow gateway, they must go one by one. No huddling, and crowding, and jostling, as boys do sometimes at play; and as they pass in, the shepherd stands by the gate and holds his crook over them, to count them one by one as they go in. Every night the shepherd does this, and so he knows if any are left out in the field or on the mountains.

And to this counting of the sheep as they pass under the rod, I wish to call attention. We have always supposed, and most people now think, that to pass under the rod means to pass under some affliction, to experience some great trial. Some one has written a touching piece of poetry, called, ' Passing under the Rod,' showing how one and another was afflicted, and made to pass under the rod of God's chastisement. It does not mean any such thing, as you will see by two passages of Scripture.

Leviticus 27: 32—' And concerning the tithe of the herd and of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord.'

Jeremiah 33:13—'In the cities of the mountains, in the cities of the vale, and in the cities of the south, and in the land of Benjamin, and in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judca shall the flocks pass again under the hands of him that telleth (counteth) them.'

This is a work of restoration, and the fields there shall have flocks in great number, and they shall pass under the hand of the shepherd, who tells them one by one as he gathers them into the fold."

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Creator's Love

"How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings. " Psalms 36:7

Often in the Scriptures we hear God being given physical attributes. We hear about the "arm of the Lord" and we pray that "his face will shine upon us."

One picture that we often read about God is the idea of finding "refuge in the shadow of God's wings." This comes from the picture of eagles and other birds who spread their wings over their nests to protect their chicks from the hot sun, rain and predators. Birds are known to be extremely protective of their young, even sacrificing their own lives.

We can see this as a picture of God's powerful love, as relayed in the following story...

A great spiritual leader of the last century, Sundar Singh came upon forest fire. Most everyone was frantically trying to fight the fire, but he noticed a group of men standing and looking up into a tree that was about to go up in flames. He asked them what they were looking at; they pointed up at a nest full of young birds. Above it, the mother bird was circling wildly in the air and calling out warnings to her young ones. There was nothing she or the men could do, and soon the flames started climbing up the branches.

As the nest caught fire, they were all amazed to see how the mother bird reacted. Instead of flying away from the flames, she flew down and settled on the nest, covering her little ones with her wings. The next moment, she and her nestlings were burned to ashes. No one could believe their eyes. They stood in stunned silence.

Finally Sundar turned to those standing by and said: "We have witnessed a truly marvelous thing. God created that bird with such love and devotion, that she gave her life trying to protect her young. If her small heart was so full of love, how unfathomable must be the love of her Creator. That is the love that brought him down from heaven to become man. That is the love that made him suffer a painful death for our sake."

As quoted by Penny Newall in Pacifica, California in the Plough Reader from Sadhu Singh

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Suffering and Hidden Blessings

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24

It is difficult to understand the mystery of pain and suffering in the world. Ultimately, the root of suffering is found in sin, in separation from God. Still, God uses suffering to call us into the peace of his presence. If God could not use pain and suffering for our good, then he would not allow such things to remain in the world.

The grain of wheat must lie in the dark womb of the earth before it can be called forth into the open air by the light and the warmth of the sun. Then it grows into a healthy plant and bears fruit.

Rain and windstorms wreak destruction, but they also cleanse the land of pests and disease.

In the same way, the wind of the Spirit shakes us with its power, but its force brings spiritual health and blessings.

Just as an earthquake can cause sweet springs to erupt in the desert making the land lush and fruitful, suffering can disrupt our lives and expose in our hearts springs of life-giving water. Then refreshing streams of thankfulness and joy flow where before there was complaining and grumbling.

When a sweet branch is grafted onto a bitter tree, both feel the knife and both suffer. But only in this way can the bitter tree bear sweet fruit. God himself suffered pain in order to introduce good into our evil nature. In this we see God’s great love and in turn faithfully suffer the agonies of this world. We can then bear good fruit forever.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Condescension of God

And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? I Nephi 11:16

A clean person cannot stand being in a filthy place even for a short time. Those who live in communion with God find it very unpleasant to live among ungodly people. Indeed, some abandon the world to live as hermits in the desert or in caves. If we, as sinful people, cannot stand the company of evil doers, what agony must the Master have known.

When we speak of his suffering, we often mean the six hours of the crucifixion. But his whole life as the embodiment of holiness among the defiled must have been a trial. He took this on himself to rescue us from death. It is beyond our comprehension. Even the angels cannot comprehend it. It is an amazing thing that God, out of love, should become one of us that we might gain eternal life.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Great Gift of Service

He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. Matt.10:39

The great gift of service is that it also helps the one who serves. Once when traveling in Tibet, I was crossing a high mountain pass with my Tibetan guide. The weather had suddenly turned bitterly cold, and my companion and I feared that we might not make it to the next village – still several miles away – before succumbing to the frost.

Suddenly, we stumbled upon a man who had slipped from the path and was lying in the snow. Looking more closely, I discovered that the man was still alive, though barely. “Come,” I said to my companion, “help me try to bring this unfortunate man to safety.” But my companion was upset and frightened for his life. He answered: “If we try to carry that man, none of us will ever reach the village. We will all freeze. Our only hope is to go on as quickly as possible, and that is what I intend to do. You will come with me if you value your life.

Without another word and without looking back, he set off down the path. I could not bring myself to abandon the helpless traveler while life remained in him, so I lifted him on my back and threw my blanket around us both as best I could.

Slowly and painstakingly, I picked my way along the steep, slippery path with my heavy load. Soon it began to snow, and I could make out the way forward only with great difficulty. How we made it, I do not know. But just as daylight was beginning to fade, the snow cleared and I could see houses a few hundred yards ahead.

Near me, on the ground, I saw the frozen body of my guide. Nearly within shouting distance of the village, he had succumbed to the cold and died, while the unfortunate traveller and I made it to safety. The exertion of carrying him and the contact of our bodies had created enough heat to save us both.

This is the way of service. No one can live without the help of others, and in helping others, we receive help ourselves.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sitting At the Master's Feet

This week I am using some excerpts from Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Hindu from India and a convert to Christianity. If you enter his name in the search bar of this blog, you can read two other posts that quote him.

Yea, he loved the people; all his saints [are] in thy hand: and they sat down at thy feet; [every one] shall receive of thy words. Deut. 33:3

"The essence of prayer does not consist in asking for things, but in opening one’s heart to God. Prayer is continual abandonment to God. It is the desire for God himself, the giver of life. Prayer is communion with God, receiving him who is the giver of all good gifts, living a life of fellowship with him. It is breathing and living in God.

A little child will run to his mother exclaiming: “Mother! Mother!” The child does not necessarily want anything in particular. He only wants to be near his mother, to sit on her lap, or to follow her about the house. The child longs for the sheer pleasure of being near her, talking to her, hearing her voice. This is what makes him happy.

It is just the same with those who are truly God’s children. They do not trouble themselves with asking for spiritual blessings. They only want to sit at the Master’s feet, to be in living touch with him; then they are supremely content."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pottery in the Bible pt.3

In the dark they dig through houses,.... Job 24:16

Besides the uses referred to, clay was the writing material of Assyria and Babylon. Job refers to the impression produced upon it by the seal or mold, and compares the relief design of the clay tablet to embroidered cloth (Job 38:14).

Clay bricks that were dried by the sun or in a fire were used extensively in building. Baked clay bricks are mentioned as early as the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:3. Clay bricks were used for houses, temples, cisterns, walls and fortresses, etc. At the present day in Syria, wherever building stone is scarce, houses are built of sun-dried brick except on the side or gables facing the western rainy quarter. The use of mud bricks in building explains the reference to thieves as people who “…dig through [the walls of] houses…” (Job 24:16).

(D) The Scripture illustrations drawn from pottery emphasize three important resemblances between it and the spiritual life.

(1) The subjection of the clay to the potter (Isa. 29:16, 45:9, 64:8; Jer. 18:4-11; Rom. 9:21). This teaches the possibilities of faith and the iniquity of rebellion against the will of God. An Arabic proverb says, “The potter can put the ear where he likes.”

(2) Its cheapness and insignificance. Common clay pitchers and water jars cost very little. This fact provides a graphic background for the humiliation of Zion described in Lamentations 4:2: “The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter!

Fervent words from a wicked heart are compared to silver dross over an earthen vessel (Prov. 26:23). The earthen vessel can hold what is valuable without having any value of its own. Such is the condition of the Christian, who holds within himself the knowledge of the eternal Word of God (2 Cor. 4:7).

(3) Fragility. The pottery vessels are very easily broken and cannot be mended. Sometimes a small hole in a jar can be stopped up with mud, a rag, or dough, but usually the knock or fall that breaks one part breaks it altogether and instantaneously (Ps. 2:9, 31:12; Isa. 30:14; Jer. 19:11; Rev. 2:27). This frailty is alluded to in a familiar Arabic proverb, which teaches patience amid provocations: “If there were no breakages, there would be no potteries.”

David speaks of his strength as “…dried up like a potsherd…(Ps. 22:15). Clay fragments lie about everywhere, exposed to all kinds of weather, and are practically indestructible. Archaeologists tell us that they often render a very important service. Similarly, the sorrows of God’s people have been as helpful as their songs.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pottery in the Bible pt.2

....go into clay, and tread the morter, make strong the brickkiln. Nahum 3:14

When, during the process of molding, the lump of clay seems to be either insufficient or too much for one form, the potter can convert it into a somewhat different form. To break off or add a fresh lump of clay would involve a fresh commencement. The potter can do what he likes with the clay, but not with himself; he must make the best possible use of each lump. His liberty is directed by wisdom.

The form, ornamentation, and to a large extent the color of the pottery, as drab, red, or black, are determined at the moist stage. The baking makes these unchangeable.

(C) The baking. After being lifted from the wheel the vessel is set on a shelf along with rows of others, where they are all exposed to the wind from every direction, but sheltered from the sun until they are considerably dried and hardened.

They are then arranged in the brick kiln, a shallow well of brick work or stone about four feet deep and eight or ten feet in diameter, with a small oven of brick at the base. The pottery is piled up over this until the wall rises like a cone to the height of some twelve feet. It is thickly covered with brushwood to keep in the heat and prevent sudden chilling from outside. The fire is kept burning below until the pottery is sufficiently hardened.

A few of the jars come out bent at the neck, with a dent in the middle, or a general lean to one side, and the ground around a potter’s kiln is always thickly strewn with the broken pieces of the vessels that, in spite of his skill and care, have proved unable to stand the test of fire. The expression “…make strong the brickkiln” (Nah. 3:14), refers to the reconstruction of the circular wall and the dome when the kiln is to be filled with bricks to be fired.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pottery in the Bible pt.1

Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. Jer. 18:3

This information was taken from Chapter Three of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898

(A) Its usefulness. In the East the fragility of the pottery, the expensiveness of copper vessels, and the unsuitableness of leather bottles for many of the requirements of town and village life, creates a large and constant demand for the potter’s goods. Earthenware jars are also preferred for holding drinking water, because the evaporation from the porous substance helps to keep the water cool. In the warm East it is a point of courtesy to give “…a cup of cold water…(Matt. 10:42).

(B) The Wheel. The clay is trodden by the feet until it is reduced to a suitable and uniform consistency (Isa. 41:25). A quantity of it is then lifted and laid on the table beside the potter. He keeps beside him a dish of water into which at any moment he can dip his fingers.

The potter’s wheel itself consists of an upright, revolving wooden rod to which two horizontal wooden discs are firmly attached, so that whatever turns one turns the other also. Hence the prophet speaks of the wheels of a certain potter (Jer. 18:3). [1] The lower and larger one is driven by a kick of the heel; the upper by a push of the hand. The potter has a considerable variety to choose from, even in the shapes and sizes of the common water pitchers, apart from such articles as cooking pots and jars for olives, cooking butter, grape syrup, etc.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Relationships in Bible Times part 5

The first-century Christians would not have had the same problem. They understood that God was honor-bound to support them, and especially so since He was love, and they were doing what He asked them to do. As Scripture says, “…God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6b). An obedient Christian can expect God’s grace.

As a loving patron, God will bless, and give grace to, those who support and obey Him. On the other hand, like any ancient patron, those who are proud and arrogant will not get the blessings from God they could have otherwise received.

Once we understand the patron-client relationship, it seems to be everywhere in the pages of the Bible. It is why the leper came to Jesus and asked, “…Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean(Matt. 8:2b). It is why the centurion (a Gentile) did not consider himself worthy to have Jesus come to him, but sent Jews to him with the message (Luke 7:6). Even the term “Christian” (“followers of Christ”), coined in Antioch of Syria by unbelievers, pointed to the patron-client relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and his followers, whom he blessed and helped.

So, what about going “boldly” before the throne of grace to get what we need? Hebrews 4:16 (KJV)
Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

The word translated boldly in the KJV is parrhesia, and the English word “boldness” gives the wrong impression. Parrhesia was used of the Greeks in the marketplace who were called upon to speak about political issues with complete openness. It was to speak one’s mind, or say what one will, so perhaps “straightforwardness,” “candor,” “openness,” or “frankness” would be good translations.

As it can be imagined, that was quite rare in the ancient world. Speaking one’s mind to a ruler could get one in serious trouble (note our example of John the Baptist given earlier in the post). We Westerners are used to speaking our minds, so when we see “boldly” in Hebrews, we tend to think of someone coming before God with boldness and brashness of presence, forcefully declaring what God should give him, but that is not how the ancient Greek reader would understand this verse.

Rather, he would see God as the Ultimate Patron, before whom we should come with respect but without fear, being totally open and honest with Him, neither flattering Him nor hiding our true feelings, but laying before Him our genuine needs and concerns, in order that we can obtain the mercy and grace we need to meet our needs.

We Christians can have faith in a loving God who wants to help and support us, and who will do so if we ask Him. We can trust that He always has our best interests at heart. We must be careful not to “have faith in our faith,” thinking that our faith will get from Him what we want. Faith (trust) is important, but faith alone will not pull the blessings out of God’s pockets. The blessings are His to give, and as we trust Him, love Him, obey Him, and ask Him, He will pour them out to us.

[For more on the patron-client relationship besides the noted references, see The Social World of Luke-Acts by Jerome Neyrey, and Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino. Truth or Traditions website.]

Monday, February 7, 2011

Relationships in Bible Times part 4

This post is only a brief introduction to the subject of the patron-client society, which deserves much deeper study. It is important that we as modern readers really understand the patron-client society. It was not like in the Western world where there are the “Haves” and the “Have-nots,” and the “Have-nots” feel that they are equal to, but less fortunate than, the “Haves.”

We today have the “rich and powerful” and also the poor, but for the most part we believe that poor people are equal to the rich but simply have had less opportunity, or have made more mistakes, than they did. That was not the case in ancient society, where access to goods and power was not considered free and equal to everyone, and people were not considered fundamentally equal.

It was part of the fabric of society that such access to power and influence was channeled either through individuals or special groups. “…personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential, it was expected and publicized! The giving and receiving of favors was, according to a first-century participant, the “practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society” (Seneca, Ben. 1.4.2).

…For anything outside the ordinary, the person sought out the individual who possessed or controlled access to what the person needed, and received it as a favor. …Sometimes the most important gift a patron could give was access to (and influence with) another patron who actually had power over the benefit being sought.

Understanding the patron-client society of the ancient world allows us to better understand verses in the Bible as they would have been understood by the biblical writers and those who read the Bible in the early centuries after Christ.

Take, for example, John 16:24b: “…Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.” The Greek word “ask” is aiteo. It is sometimes taught , that aiteo has the force of “demand,” and we should go to God and demand what is ours. That is a good example of wrongly reading our culture and ideas back into the biblical text. In the patron-client society of the biblical world, no “have-not” ever went to the local ruler and “demanded” goods or services, and no one would have ever thought of doing it to God Almighty!

A word study of aiteo shows that it has a range of meanings, including “to ask for, to demand, to plead for, to beg(Thayer, Bullinger, Vine). Seeing that range of meanings, it makes sense to us Westerners who have “rights” that we should demand of God the things He should give us.

However, the ancients would not have “demanded” from God, they would have “asked” Him, pleaded with Him, even begged Him. God, on the other hand, as the Ultimate Patron, and Giver of all good gifts, could in fact “demand” of us. The fact that clients “asked” (pleaded with, begged) patrons, and patrons “asked” (demanded) clients, partly explains the range of meanings of aiteo.

The huge difference between the rich and powerful and the poor and needy in the ancient world set the stage for another cultural aspect of the patron-client relationship, which is that patrons were honor bound to help their clients. In fact: “A patron’s social status was measured in part by the number and status of his clients.” It is important to understand this to know how the biblical writers and readers understood their relationship with God. It is quite possible that upon hearing that we cannot go to God and “demand” from Him, readers of this article, being Westerners and members of modern society, may feel completely lost and wonders how we can ever get anything from God at all.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Relationships in Bible Times part 3

The cultural atmosphere in our Western World today is one based on “rights” and “laws.” It is written into the fabric of Western Society that all people have equal rights, such as the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The fact that each American citizen has rights “guaranteed” by laws is such a fundamental part of our lives that it is difficult to imagine life without them.

However, it is a serious mistake to interpret the Bible in terms of our own culture. In the ancient world people were not thought of as being equal, with each having rights. Certain rights were granted to certain segments of society, yes, but even those were regularly ignored. A Roman slave owner, for example, would have thought it absurd that his slave had the “right” to life or happiness.

That people were not thought of as having “rights” is clear from both the ancient writings and the biblical text. Herod the Great killed the children in Bethlehem because he suspected a rival would arise from that town. John the Baptist was imprisoned because he confronted Herod Antipas about marrying his brother’s wife, and then was executed simply to please Herodias, who did not like him. Paul, though a Roman citizen, was kept in jail in Caesarea for almost two full years because the ruler, Felix, was hoping for a bribe (Acts 24:26).

In fact, the process to gain rights has been slow and hard fought. In 1215 A.D. (almost 1,000 years after the New Testament era) the barons of England forced King John to sign the Magna Charta, a “bill of rights,” if you will. Article 39 stated that rulers could not imprison and punish people without a lawful trial. King John was basically forced to sign it, but immediately sent it on to the Pope, who declared it null and void, and for extra measure, excommunicated the barons.

To us today, the “right” to a trial and to not be tortured just because some ruler does not like us seems fundamental indeed, but not so to the King of England and the Pope in 1215. If ancient societies did not function like ours, on laws and rights, what was their “cultural atmosphere,” and how did they function?

Ancient biblical societies functioned on a patron-client basis. As such, there was great inequality between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” The inequality existed in substance (possessions) and power and influence. As a result, the client needed the resources that the patron could offer. The patron needed (or found useful) the loyalty and honor that the client could give him.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Relationships in Bible Times part 2

Let’s apply this three-aspect stage play model of biblical interpretation to a couple of verses. If we read, “You shall not steal(Exod. 20:15 ), we understand it because stealing occurs in every culture. Many such things in the Bible can be clearly understood just as they are written because they are universal to mankind and to societies. However, things are different when “behind the scenes” cultural aspects are necessary to understand the verse.

Take, for example, Paul’s appeal when he was taken before the Sanhedrin: Acts 23:6

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.

To understand this verse, one must know what the Sanhedrin were, what a Sadducee was and what they believed, and what a Pharisee was and what they believed. Those things are not covered in detail in the Bible because everyone reading the verse at the time Acts was written knew perfectly well who each group was and what they believed.

Thankfully, we can find these things easily in any good Bible dictionary.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Relationships in Bible Times part 1

One of the most difficult aspects of Bible study is understanding the text in the way that a person living at the time the Bible was written would understand it. We can use the model of a stage play to teach us how to better interpret the Bible.

Let’s say we travel to England to see Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, played, not in American English with modern phrases and modern adaptations, but right in Stratford-on-Avon with the jargon used when Shakespeare wrote. When you are watching the play, there are three distinct aspects or concept areas to consider.

The first aspect is what has gone on, and what is going on, “behind the scenes” of the play. This includes the preparation of the actors and the building of the set, but it also includes the culture, customs, vocabulary, experiences, thought processes, etc. that was part of the world at the time the play portrays.

For example, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” does not mean, “Romeo, Romeo, where are you, Romeo?” Rather it means, “Why are you Romeo?” i.e., why do you have to be from a forbidden, enemy family, and not from an acceptable family?

The second aspect is what is happening on the stage, which includes everything we see and hear there.

The third aspect is what is happening to us, the audience, watching from the seats. This includes our emotions, ideas, etc., which are conditioned by the cultural background we live in, and which we are partly aware of and partly not.

If we do not properly understand the “behind the scenes” ideas and attitudes, we will not properly understand what is happening on stage, and if we do not understand what is “behind the scenes” of the biblical text, we will not understand the Bible when we read it.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Day Laborers in the Bible

And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. Matthew 20:2

Every Eastern town has a well-known place where men congregate at dawn and wait to be engaged in manual labor for the day. Such labor includes gardening, ditching, repairing walls, whitewashing, and lifting and carrying burdens.

The laborer stands either without any tools, or with the trowel, spade, hoe, or rope that he is accustomed to using. The common time of engagement is shortly after sunrise; the unengaged hang about for a few hours and then generally go elsewhere in search of small jobs. Such day laborers are usually too lazy, irregular, or inefficient to follow a regular trade. They expect to have an overseer over them to keep them from loitering, and when the time of payment comes, some incident in the day’s proceedings is frequently discovered on which to found a claim for more than the sum agreed upon.

The altercation of Matthew 20:12, from a variety of causes, is often repeated. These day laborers live from hand to mouth, and each day’s wage is needed at sunset to purchase the family supper, which is always the chief meal of the day.

Scripture says, “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin(Deut. 24:14 and 15-NIV).

This post was taken from Chapter Three of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898