June 1, 2017 Bible Study — The Problem With Interfaith Marriages

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Ezra 9-10.

    As soon as Ezra had gotten settled in, some of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem came to him with a concern. A casual reading would make it seem like they were unhappy with returned exiles intermarrying with the local people. This is true but incomplete. What they were concerned with was returned exiles intermarrying with the local people and adopting the idolatrous practices of those people. They even explained why they had come to Ezra about it: many of the leaders of the returned exiles were taking part in these practices. The focus of this passage is on intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, but it was not about marrying outside of the ethnic group. Rather it was about marrying outside the religious group. It is clear that it was more than just about marrying women who were locals, because otherwise why would it require a case by case judgement of the marriages? To me, it seems obvious that each of the men married to a local woman was allowed to make the case that she had converted (or was already a follower of) to the Jewish practices. This passage makes it clear that if you marry someone of another faith, you will, sooner or later, begin to follow their idolatrous practices.

May 31, 2017 Bible Study — Are We Willing To Live Up To the Faith We Have Claimed?

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Ezra 6-8.

    At the end of the last chapter we read that the governor of the province which included Jerusalem questioned the Jews who had resumed rebuilding the Temple. When they claimed to have been given permission to do so by Cyrus, he sent to the current emperor, Darius, for clarification. I believe the reason that Cyrus’ edict, and Darius’ edict were included was because the writer(s) realized that they were likely to be lost to time otherwise (considering how hard it was to find Cyrus’ edict at the date of Darius’ letter). It appears to me that Tattenai the governor, while not exactly supportive of the rebuilding, was not hostile to it either. In any case it was after this that reconstruction of the Temple was finally completed.

    It is in chapter 7 that we finally meet Ezra, for whom this entire book is named. We are not told in what way Ezra gained the favor of Artaxerxes, but it is clear that he did. It seems likely that Artaxerxes support for Ezra coincided with his sponsorship of the building of temples throughout his empire, something which had been avoided by previous Persian emperors. This is especially likely if my theory that Cyrus and his successors perceived Judaism to be related to Zoroastrianism. All of that is really just an aside from what, to me, is the main point of the account of Ezra’s trip to Jerusalem. As Ezra was preparing for the trip, he found himself in a bind. The first part of that bind was that Ezra had been entrusted with more gold, silver, and other valuables to the Temple in Jerusalem than he had expected. He was concerned that it might fall to bandits along the way. The second part was that he had expressed his firm belief that God was capable of protecting those who worshiped Him. Ezra was torn. He wanted to be responsible and guard the treasures which had been entrusted to him, but he also wanted to live up to his expressions of faith. In the end, the plan he made was both practical and showed his faith in God. He divided up the treasure among various individuals who were leaders of groups among those going on the trip. The division was done in front of multiple witnesses so that no one could claim that they had been given less, nor that someone else had been given more, than they were. And for security, he, and all of those who were joining the expedition, spent time in prayer and fasting asking God to protect them and the treasure they were transporting. Are we willing and able to trust God to protect our lives and treasure in the way which Ezra demonstrated here? Also, are we willing to vocalize our trust the way that Ezra had done?

May 30, 2017 Bible Study — When Nonbelievers Put Conditions On Helping Us Do the Lord’s Work

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Ezra 3-5.

    As soon as the returned Exiles got settled in they rebuilt the altar. They did this despite the fact that they expected opposition from those living in the land. Once the altar was rebuilt the priests among them began offering sacrifices on it. The following spring the returned Exiles began rebuilding the Temple. Once the foundation was completed the people who had been living in the area since the Exile found out that the Temple was being rebuilt and offered to help (well, actually they demanded to be allowed to help). The returned Exiles refused their help. This has always troubled me. It is my firm belief that we should accept the help of anyone who wishes to assist us in the Lord’s work.

    A simple reading of this passage could lead one to reach the conclusion that the returned Exiles had made a mistake in refusing to accept help. After all, if the returned Exiles had accepted the help, those offering it would not have taken action to stop them from continuing with the building. However, a closer reading suggests that the offer of help was not as open ended as it appears. Those who had been living in the land who offered to help stated that they had been worshiping God just as the returned Exiles did since they were brought into the land. Yet, in all of that time, they had never rebuilt the Temple. More importantly, their phrasing suggests that they wished to have a say in the design of the Temple, or perhaps to build something which suited their worship practices along side of the Temple. Their offer of help came with conditions. In the same way in which the returned Exiles refused this help, we must be careful not to accept help in doing the Lord’s work from nonbelievers who will put conditions upon the project which will prevent it from being the Lord’s work. It would have done the returned Exiles no good to have completed rebuilding the Temple sooner if the rebuilt Temple had been dedicated to other gods in addition to God.

May 29, 2017 Bible Study — Cyrus’ Edict and Zoroastrianism

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Ezra 1-2.

    There is no evidence outside of the Bible for the edict of Cyrus listed here. However, this edict is consistent with the policies of Cyrus for which we do have archeological records. It is interesting to note that over most of the course of the Empire which Cyrus founded there were no idols used as part of official worship. All of this would have been contemporaneous with the rise of Zoroastrianism. Many scholars see certain aspects of Judaism as borrowings from Zoroastrianism while rejecting the idea that Zoroastrianism may have derived from Judaism. Zoroastrianism is named after the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). There is reason to believe that Zoroaster was part of a much older religious tradition. Now what makes this interesting to me is that while the exact geographical origins of Zoroastrianism is clouded by time, it was likely close to where Abraham was born (at least as close as the land of Israel). We do not know why Abraham’s father left the land of his birth, but the Bible records there were others who worshiped God with varying degrees of fidelity. I want to note that the oldest known copy of the Zoroastrian scriptures dates to the 14th Century. That manuscript, and all others which are currently known to exist, is based on a compilation created sometime between the Third and Seventh Centuries. If one believes the Genesis account to be historical, not only does it make sense to consider that Zoroastrianism and Judaism are divergent parts of the same religious tradition but that Cyrus and the Persians were aware of this fact.

May 28, 2017 Bible Study — Doing The Lord’s Will In The Face of Coming Disaster

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on 2 Chronicles 34-36.

    Josiah’s father was assassinated when Josiah was eight years old and Josiah became king. When he was 16 he began to seek God. When he turned 20 he began systematically destroying and desecrating all of the idols, symbols of idolatry, and places “holy” to other gods. He did this not just in the territory of Judah, but in all the land that had been part of Israel. He then ordered the repair of the Temple. During that repair the priests found a copy of the Book of the Law. Josiah was horrified when he learned how badly he and the rest of the people of Israel had failed to keep God’s commands and immediately sought God’s guidance for what they should do. The response Josiah received was that it was too late to prevent the disaster which God was going to pour out on the people of Israel, but because Josiah had repented in sorrow for the sins God would delay it. Josiah chose to continue in faithfulness despite that being insufficient to prevent the coming disaster. I am always inspired by Josiah and his leadership. Under his leadership the people enthusiastically worshiped and served God in the face of impending tragedy.

May 27, 2017 Bible Study — Serving God, Even After Making Mistakes

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on 2 Chronicles 31-33.

    As part of the revival and religious reform which he was leading, Hezekiah asked the people of Jerusalem to bring offerings for the support of the priests and Levites. The reason for this was so that the priests and Levites could dedicate themselves to studying and teaching the Law of God. We get an understanding of the degree to which Hezekiah’s reforms were supported by the people in the response to his edict. The response came not just from the people of Jerusalem, to whom Hezekiah had directed his edict, it came from all of the people of Judah AND from the people who had moved to Judah from other parts of Israel. The response was vastly more than Hezekiah, or his officials, had expected. My interpretation of this passage is that before this reform was instituted by Hezekiah those priests and Levites who were not politically connected were living a subsistence life and barely getting by (both in Jerusalem and in the countryside). Initially, the intention had been to provide for the priests and Levites just within Jerusalem (at least as I understand what is written here). However, the response of the people was so overwhelming that they set up a system to distribute these goods to those priests and Levites living outside of Jerusalem as well. This is the sort of thing which happens when people wholeheartedly seek God.

    I could talk about what happened when the Assyrians invaded Judah during Hezekiah’s reign, but I have already covered that his year when I read it in 2 Kings. What I want to focus on next is Hezekiah’s on, Manasseh. When Manasseh first became king he was self indulgent and pursued various pagan worship practices, leading the people of the land to do likewise. He even set up an idol which he himself had made in the Temple (the wording in the passage could indicate that he had it made, but I think from the context that he actually carved this idol himself). As a result of his sines, Manasseh was taken captive and into exile by the Assyrians. While in captivity, Manasseh repented of his sins and turned to God. When Manasseh returned to Jerusalem he was a changed man. He himself started worshiping God and led the people to return to worshiping God. While he failed to restore the centralized worship which his father had championed, he did convince the people to devote themselves to God.

May 26, 2017 Bible Study — Start Following the Lord From Where You Are, Don’t Wait Until You Get To Where You Think You Ought To Be

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on 2 Chronicles 29-30.

    When Hezekiah took the throne upon his father’s death, his first act as king was to reopen and begin repair on the Temple. He then gathered the priests and Levites and ordered them to purify both themselves and the Temple. Once the purification was completed, Hezekiah gathered all of the city officials of Jerusalem for a day of consecration and worship. It is interesting that the passage tells us that the Levites were more conscientious about purifying themselves than the priests. Hezekiah led a revival. The revival under Joash was led by the priests and Levites. This revival was led by the secular leadership. King Hezekiah and his officials recognized that the kingdom needed to return to God. Repeatedly in this passage the secular leadership is recounted as ordering the priests and Levites to take the next step, purifying themselves, offering the sacrifices, praising the Lord with psalms. However, this was a genuine revival. When the people saw what was happening they rejoiced and joined in to worship the Lord. As evidence of this, when Hezekiah summoned the people to celebrate the Passover, they not only gathered for the Passover, but they spontaneously removed from Jerusalem all of the incense altars for worshiping other gods.

    Hezekiah took the throne shortly after the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria. As part of his religious reform, he invited the people remaining in the land of the Northern Kingdom to come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. An unspoken part of this invitation was the rejection of Assyrian gods and sovereignty. By coming the Jerusalem and taking part in the Passover, with its purification before God, the people of the Northern Kingdom would be putting themselves under Hezekiah’s authority. Initially, the bulk of the people in the area of the Northern Kingdom rejected Hezekiah’s overture. We will see that over time Hezekiah was able to extend his sovereignty over some of the land of the Northern Kingdom. Those who did come from the North for Hezekiah’s Passover celebration had failed to properly purify themselves, probably because they had forgotten how in the many years since God was truly worshiped there. In regards to these people Hezekiah made a statement that we should follow to these days. Those who chose to follow the Lord should be commended and encouraged to start from where they are, not told they have to wait until they get to where we think they should be. In addition to those from the Northern Kingdom who had forgotten the proper ways to prepare to worship the Lord there were many foreigners, who had never known how, who were welcomed to join in the celebration of Passover by Hezekiah.

May 25, 2017 Bible Study –Politics And Religion

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on 2 Chronicles 26-28.

    For most of my life my perception of the kings of the Divided Kingdoms (Israel and Judah) was that they were mostly wicked kings punctuated by the occasional righteous king (Joash, Hezekiah, Josiah). I have realized that while the kings of Israel in this period were universally men who “did not do what was pleasing in the sight of God”, a large number of the kings of Judah “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight.” In fact, it was probably the majority. Of course, in today’s passage we have an example of something which was not uncommon. Uzziah did what was pleasing to God for most of his reign, but when he became powerful he became proud and took the prerogative of burning incense on the incense altar in the Temple. When Uzziah was confronted by a large number of priests (the number noted was probably to ensure that he could not do to them what Joash did to the son of the priest who had raised him) he became enraged. In the middle of his confrontation with the priests, symptoms of a contagious skin disease broke out on his forehead. King Uzziah lived in quarantine for the rest of his life.

    It is worth noting that according to the Law, Uzziah would have needed a priest to declare that he was no longer infected with the infectious skin disease. Uzziah’s son Jotham was made regent for Uzziah and succeeded him upon his death. The passage tells us that Jotham also did what was pleasing in the sight of God. Both Uzziah and Jotham were powerful kings who were able to expand the borders of their kingdom. However, when Jotham’s son Ahaz took the throne he did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord. From a purely secular standpoint, it is clear that Ahaz decided from when he first took the throne to break the power which the priests and Levites had exercised over his father and grandfather. The result was that he was weak and repeatedly defeated in battle. In his efforts to weaken the priests and Levites, Ahaz established the worship of other gods. This created division among the people of his kingdom which resulted in the weakness which he experienced in foreign affairs.
    This passage is one where the connection between politics and religion in the Old Testament is made clear. David and Solomon had blurred the lines between the priesthood and the kingship, but they had done so in a manner which strengthened the priesthood by lending some of their power to the priesthood. On the other hand, when Uzziah attempted to blur the lines, he was seeking to weaken the priesthood and gather some of its power to himself. Later Ahaz attempted to break the power of the priesthood by encouraging the people to worship other gods…gods whose priests owed their authority to him. It is interesting to note that Ahaz did not stick with just one set of gods. When he first became king he set up idols and worshiped the gods which had been worshiped by the people who had lived in the land when the Israelites first arrived there. Later, after his defeat by the king of Aram and betrayal by the king of Assyria Ahaz turned to the gods of Damascus, but he never considered returning to the Lord. Ahaz never learned that his failures as a king resulted from his abandonment of God. Fortunately, his son Hezekiah did learn from his father’s mistakes.

May 24, 2017 Bible Study — Practicing Religion For Political Purposes

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on 2 Chronicles 23-25.

    Athaliah, King Ahab of Israel’s daughter and King Jehoshaphat’s daughter-in-law, took over the throne of Judah when her son was killed. She attempted to ensure her power by killing all of the males of the Judean royal family. However, her daughter, or step-daughter (we are told that she was Ahaziah’s sister) took Athaliah’s grandson from the nursery and hid him in the Temple. When the boy Joash turned seven, the priest under whose care he was raised staged a coup to overthrow Athaliah and place him on the throne. This story reveals a lot about the politics in Jerusalem at this time, and probably throughout the period of the Divided Kingdom. The priests and Levites were a separate power base from the secular leadership.

    In many ways we see this even more clearly in Joash’s later years, after the death of Jehoiada, and in Amaziah’s reign. As long as Joash’s stepfather Jehoida was alive, Joash enthusiastically served God. However, after Jehoiada’s death the secular nobles were able to convince Joash that he needed to stand up to the priests and the Levites. When Jehoida’s son, who was in effect Joash’s stepbrother, dared to confront Joash for worshiping idols, Joash had him killed. After Joash was killed his son Amaziah took the throe. When Amaziah first took the throne the passage tells us that he was faithful to God, but unenthusiastically. This suggests that Amaziah “learned” from his father’s assassination that he needed to placate the priesthood. I would even say that Amaziah set up the worship of the gods of Edom after he conquered Edom as a competing religion to the worship of God to weaken the political power of the priests and Levites. Time and again we see various people attempt to use religion for political ends. It usually ends badly for them. Our religion should serve God, not our political agenda.

May 23, 2017 Bible Study — A Leader Must Stay In Touch With His Followers

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on 2 Chronicles 19-22.

    It has long bothered me that Jehoshaphat, a king who “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight”, was a friend of King Ahab. I am not sure that I ever noticed before the prophet who confronted Jehoshaphat when he returned from the battle where Ahab died. Marrying his son to Ahab’s daughter was probably the worst thing he did as king, something which contributed to his son not being a godly king. Despite the prophet condemning Jehoshaphat’s friendship with Ahab, the prophet commended him for his commitment to seeking the Lord.

    What makes Jehoshaphat remarkable for a political leader of any time in history is that even though he lived in the capitol, Jerusalem, he spent time traveling throughout the land interacting with the common people. He encouraged them to seek the Lord. It is in the context of doing so that he appointed judges throughout the land, whom he charged to judge cases with integrity. He instructed the judges to seek to please God rather than any man or group of men. Jehoshaphat showed that he understood the need for government officials to understand the common people and to be responsive to their needs. He did so here through his own actions and the appointment of judges. He also did so through his actions where he sent government officials out to the towns and cities of Judah to teach people as recounted in 2 Chronicles 17:7-9. The principle which Jehoshaphat followed here is one which any leader would do well to heed. In order to be a good leader a leader must listen to their followers and know what motivates them. Then the leader must empower and motivate those followers to seek God.