Friday, August 12, 2011

King Solomon’s “Navy” ( Kings 9:26)

On what sea did Solomon build his fleet? The Red Sea (I Kings 9:26)

King Solomon’s “navy” was built in Ezion-geber on the shores of the Red Sea (I Kings 9:26). The fleet is listed in a compendium of his accomplishments that convey Solomon’s splendor (I Kings 9:10-28; II Chronicles 9:13-28). Though the ASV and KJV speak of a “navy”, the Hebrew ’oniy is better rendered by the more common “fleet of ships” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). The MSG and NIV (“ships”) and CEV (“a lot of ships”) simply avoid the term.

Solomon’s navy was not military or imperialistic in nature but rather a commercial fleet. Ironically, perhaps the only time that Israel ever experienced peace was at a time they employed a successful “navy”. Solomon’s fleet completed three year expeditions to import all types of exotic cargo including gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks (I Kings 10:22; II Chronicles 9:21).

Though the Israelites are often thought of more as sea fearers than seafarers, they do have some history on the seas. There is a reference in “Deborah’s Song” that indicates that the tribe of Dan was closely identified with maritime activities (Judges 5:17). After Solomon, King Jehoshaphat unsuccessfully attempted to get into the shipping industry (I Kings 22:48; II Chronicles 20:36-37). The only time the Israelites have been known to excel on the waters, however, was done at the time of Solomon. His Red Sea fleet could sail to African, Asian and Pacific ports and he also used an additional port in Tarshish (I Kings 10:22; II Chronicles 9:21).

Israel’s maritime success during Solomon’s reign was predominantly due to his alliance with King Hiram of Tyre (I Kings 9:10-14). Solomon’s friendship with Hiram allowed him to get a foot in the Phoenicians’ monopoly on the ancient world’s sea routes as Hiram sent seasoned sailors to teach the Israelites (I Kings 9:27; II Chronicles 8:18). In aligning with Hiram and establishing his own fleet, Solomon cut out the middle man and became a player in the lucrative maritime trade business.

Solomon was said to have been the wisest man of his time. How is Solomon’s wisdom displayed in his maritime interests? Was his alliance with Hiram a wise one? Why? Why not?

Solomon’s reign begins by him being granted any wish by God (I Kings 3:5). When Solomon chooses an “understanding heart” (I Kings 3:9 NASB), God adds “I have also given you what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there will not be any among the kings like you all your days (I Kings 3:13 NASB).” God fulfilled that promise in spades.

Tony Campolo (b. 1935) famously asks “Would Jesus Drive a BMW?” Is there a limit to the wealth a Christian should accumulate? Why?

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” - Jesus, Matthew 6:33, NASB

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Wisdom of Ants (Proverbs 30:24)

“Though they be little on earth, they are exceedingly wise.” To what does this refer? Ants (Proverbs 30:24).

Ants appear only twice in the Bible, both times in the Book of Proverbs being lauded for their wisdom (Proverbs 6:6-8, 30:24-25). Ants are one of the world’s oldest living creatures and have not changed much since the time of Solomon. The global ant population is estimated at 10,000 trillion, greatly outnumbering any other animal. Proverbs 6:6 commands “Go to the ant, O sluggard,/Observe her ways and be wise (Proverbs 6:6 NASB).”

It is a command few have taken professionally as there are fewer than 500 myrmecologists (ant scientists) in the world. Bert Hölldobler (b. 1936) and E. O. Wilson (b. 1929) won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for their book, The Ants. They lament that ants “run much of the terrestrial world as the premier soil turners, channelers of energy, dominatrices of the insect fauna — yet receive only passing mention in textbooks on ecology (Hölldobler and Wilson, The Ants, 1).”

What have you learned from watching animals? Have you ever observed ants? What is it that made Proverbs deem ants models of wisdom?

Ants are exhorted for their diligence, their initiative without supervision, and their foresight. Proverbs most certainly had economics in mind when venerating ants as each time they appear in the Bible, reference is made to their preparing food in the summer (Proverbs 6:7, 30:25). In the summer, ants accumulate as much food as possible to be eaten during the fall and spring, when they reside underground. (Ants generally hibernate in winter.) This economic strategy fits Proverbs as elsewhere the book advises not to spend all one’s income (Proverbs 21:20) and to save for unforeseen circumstances (Proverbs 27:12).

In an admirable effort to be totally dependent on God, popular Christian guru Francis Chan (b. 1967) has no retirement fund or savings account. In his book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (2008), he writes:

“Lukewarm People do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they never have to. They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens – they have their savings account. They don’t need God to help them – they have their retirement plan in place. They don’t genuinely seek out what life God would have them live – they have life figured and mapped out. They don’t depend on God on a daily basis – their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health. The truth is, their lives wouldn’t look much different if they suddenly stopped believing in God (Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, 76) .”
Chan then goes on to discuss the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). There is quite a discrepancy between the standard interpretation of Proverbs and Francis Chan’s financial strategy.

Should Christians save money? What does your budget say of your priorities? Where do you draw the line between faith in God and prudence?

The address “O sluggard” in Proverbs 6:6 (NASB) indicates that the wisdom gleaned from the ant also relates to work ethic. Ants are such diligent workers that a myth has developed that they do not sleep. It cannot be determined whether ants “sleep” in the way humans do. They do not possess eyelids so they cannot close their eyes. They do rest, but trying to monitor their brain activity would interfere with it so much that the results would be inconclusive. It is known that ants do look for food only during the day and that in the winter, their breathing and metabolism slows considerably. Do you work as hard as you should?

Much of ants’ success as a species is attributed to cooperation and task sharing within the context of sophisticated hierarchical social structures. Ants work in teams to move extremely heavy things, capture prey, and they can summon extra workers when an abundant food source is discovered or the colony is in need of defense. Ants can also adapt their duties to overcome an unforeseen problem. In The Lives of Ants (2009), Laurent Keller (b. 1961) and Elisabeth Gordon explain that the key to ants’ society is communication through the use of pheromones emitted by secretory organs. Hölldobler and Wilson commend this as “the most complex forms of chemical communication among animals (Hölldobler and Wilson, The Ants, 1).” These transmissions explain how though single ants are not clever, collectively they are capable of complex tasks. What tasks do you work on with fellow Christians?

One final way in which ants display wisdom is that though each ant has a distinct function, all work collectively towards a singular goal. This is strikingly similar to Paul’s likening the Christian life to functioning as part of the Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5; I Corinthians 10:17, 12:12-27; Ephesians 1:22-23, 3:6, 4:4-16, 5:30) . All ant species live in colonies centered around one or more egg-laying “queens”. Whereas ants work for a queen, Christians should all be working for a common King.

Have you found your role in the body of Christ?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Revelation of Cleopas (Luke 24)

What was Jesus doing when Cleopas and his friend recognized Jesus? Breaking bread (Luke 24:30, 31).

One of the last stories Luke’s gospel records tells of two disciples’ encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to the village of Emmaus, a town unnamed elsewhere in Scripture (Luke 24:13-35). A man named Cleopas (Luke 24:18) and an unnamed companion were dejectedly discussing the events of the crucifixion and skeptically analyzing the reports of the empty tomb when Jesus joined the sad cynics. They were not privy to their new associate’s identity as “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him (Luke 24:16 NASB)”. En route, Jesus explained the correlations between the crucifixion and the messiah (Luke 24:26-37) and then at their request ate with them in Emmaus (Luke 24:29-30). It was whilst dining that “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him (Luke 24:31 NASB)”. This revelation made them reinterpret the facts and they went from seeing Jesus as “prophet” (Luke 24:19) to viewing him as “lord” (Luke 24:34).

Cleopas is an abbreviated form of Cleopatros, a common Hellenistic name meaning “son of a renowned father”. The name does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament as only Luke tells this story, but Cleopas is often linked with Clopas (John 19:25). If Cleopas and Clopas are synonymous, then Cleopas’ wife was one of the women present at the cross. That conclusion seems to be supported by a comment that Cleopas makes to Jesus - “some women among us amazed us (Luke 24:22 NASB).”

The fact that Cleopas is named indicates that he was likely known to the early church. Church historian Eusebius (263-339) states that Simeon, son of Clopas, succeeded James as bishop of Jerusalem. Early Christian Hegesippus (110-180) says that Cleopas was Joseph’s brother, making him Jesus’ uncle. Jesus’ own uncle may have failed to recognize him.

Have you ever not recognized a loved one when seeing them in an unexpected setting? What was it about Jesus that made him indistinguishable? Who or what prevented their eyes from seeing and likewise who opened their eyes? Aside from listening to “Take on Me”, have you ever had an A-ha moment where something came together for you?

The revelatory moment came not in the exposition of the Scriptures but during the breaking of bread. Whether it was the way that Jesus broke the bread, or the disciples seeing the nail prints in his hands, or it was simply God’s time for their eyes to be opened is unclear. Somehow, in eating with Jesus, the two travelers glean his identity. Many have made a connection between this and Christians taking the Lord’s Supper.

Cleopas and his friend hustled back to Jerusalem in the dark to share their good news with their fellow disciples (Luke 24:33-35). Theirs was a powerful testimony of the resurrected Jesus by two credible eyewitnesses.

Why did it take the breaking of bread to open their eyes? What was the advantage in the delayed recognition? If you have ever had a revelatory moment, did you share your revelation?

Be known to us in breaking bread,
But do not then depart;
Savior, abide with us, and spread
Thy table in our heart.
- James Montgomery (1771-1854), “Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread”.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hanging Haman High (Esther 7:10)

Who was hanged on a gallows he built for someone else? Haman (Esther 7:10)

The Book of Esther is the story of the titular character becoming queen of Persia and saving the Jewish people from genocide at the hands of Haman. Haman has gigantic gallows built on his own property for the sole purpose of hanging his perceived rival, Esther’s uncle, Mordecai (Esther 5:14, 6:4). Ironically, it would be Haman himself who was hung on these gallows (Esther 7:9-10).

Haman the Agagite is a villain straight out of central casting. He was an honored official in King Ahasuerus’ court (Esther 3:1) whose vendetta against Mordecai began when the Jew cited his religious beliefs as reason not to kneel before Zod Haman (Esther 3:2, 4, 5). In response, Haman decided not only to punish Mordecai but to extinguish the entire Jewish race (Esther 3:6, 8). Like many villains, Haman is motivated by pride and viewed Mordecai’s religious convictions as an affront to his self value. Full of his own self importance, Mordecai’s defiance ate at him so much that no matter what blessing was given him, Haman could not be content as long as Mordecai lived (Esther 5:9, 13). Mordecai’s very presence represented that Haman’s importance in the eyes of others was imperiled.

As the comic villain might do, Haman constructs a unique weapon to eliminate his enemy. Haman does not simply construct gallows (Esther 5:14, 6:4), but gallows that are fifty cubits (75 feet) tall (Esther 5:14, 7:9)! This brings new meaning to the expression “hang ’em high”. Haman planned to make Mordecai an object lesson for all to see.

In his book The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, James N. Frey (b. 1943) identifies five characteristics of the villain: big headed, an outlaw, clever and resourceful, may be wounded, and may have great sex appeal. He adds that the villain is often motivated by greed, vanity, or lust for power, has self-serving motives, never acts out of idealism, is often cruel, may win by luck (which never happens to the hero), is not forgiving, might quit, may whine and grovel, may turn on friends and followers, is not usually physically superior (though a sidekick might be) and has no special birth or destiny though may claim one.

In what ways does Haman fit into James Frey’s characterization of an epic villain? Compare and contrast Haman and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Why was Haman thwarted so quickly and Hitler allowed to cause so much destruction?

In the end, Haman’s plans are foiled, God’s people are saved and the archetypical villain is hanged on his own instrument of death. Haman’s poetic demise seems to embody karma, a foundational principle in Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Karma is a system of moral reaction applied to both good and evil actions i.e. what goes around comes around. Reincarnation and the caste system hang upon the principle of karma.

Christianity agrees with a general ideas of cause/effect and personal responsibility. Paul writes that “for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap (Galatians 6:7, NASB).” He also says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (II Corinthians 5:10, NASB).” Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) also echoes these sentiments (Luke 16:25).

Conversely, Jesus also says that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45 NASB)” and that the first will be last and the last will be first (Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30). History is replete with examples of righteous sufferers.

In what ways is karma compatible with Christianity? In what ways is it not? Are grace, mercy, and atonement ever compatible with karma?

In Mark Jesus is said to have been a tekton (Mark 6:3), a builder which almost all translations render “carpenter” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). Could Jesus have built crosses? Could he have hung from a gallows that he built?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4)

What king went mad and ate grass like an ox? Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar II (634-562 BCE), king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, is remembered as one of history’s great leaders. In the Bible, he is known simply as Nebuchadnezzar and portrayed less favorably. Daniel depicts Nebuchadnezzar as an arrogant ruler who demanded worship of himself (Daniel 3:4-6). Daniel relays that at the height of his power, God humbled the monarch.

The fourth chapter of Daniel contains a first person account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great tree cut down to size (Daniel 4:13-17), Daniel’s interpretation explaining that Nebuchadnezzar would lose his faculties (Daniel 4:19-27) and the fulfillment of that analysis one year later (Daniel 4:28-37). The text shifts from first person to third person to accent that the story is out of the king’s control. After the condition subsides, Nebuchadnezzar resumes his account in the first person. The chapter ends with Nebuchadnezzar proffering a doxology to God acknowledging God’s supremacy (4:34-37).

Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity was sensational. Six symptoms are relayed: a loss of reasoning (Daniel 4:16), being drenched in the dew of heaven (Daniel 4:15, 25, 33), being exiled with animals (Daniel 4:16, 25, 32, 33), a change in dietary patterns i.e. eating grass (Daniel 4:25, 32, 33), growing hair like eagles’ feathers (Daniel 4:33) and possessing nails like birds’ claws (Daniel 4:33). Nebuchadnezzar’s exile and his lack of hygiene may indicate that the ruler was completely unrestrained. These symptoms persisted for the ambiguous duration of “seven periods of time” (Daniel 4:16, 23, 25, 32). This could mean seven years or seven months but given the number seven’s association with completeness in Hebrew writings, it may simply mean that the length was sufficient to accomplish God’s purpose(s).

Though these symptoms are curious, they are not entirely unique in the annals of history. Using modern psychological terminology, it appears that Nebuchadnezzar represents a textbook case of boanthropy. This is a rare psychological disorder in which a human being believes herself to be a bovine. Dreams are known to play a part in this malady.

British scholar R.K. Harrison (1920-1993) provides the following account from physician Raymond Harris on his experiences with a man suffering from boanthropy in a British mental institution in 1946:

A patient was in his early 20’s who reportedly had been hospitalized for about five years. His symptoms were well developed on admission, and diagnosis was immediate and conclusive. He was of average height and weight with good physique, and was in excellent bodily health. His mental symptoms included pronounced anti-social tendencies, and because of this he spent the entire day from dawn to dusk outdoors, in the grounds of the institution... His daily routine consisted of wandering around the magnificent lawns with which the otherwise dingy hospital situation was graced, and it was his custom to pluck up and eat handfuls of the grass as he went along. On observation he was seen to discriminate carefully between grass and weeds, and on inquiry from the attendant the writer was told the diet of this patient consisted exclusively of grass from hospital lawns. He never ate institutional food with the other inmates, and his only drink was water…The writer was able to examine him cursorily, and the only physical abnormality noted consisted of a lengthening of the hair and a course, thickened condition of the fingernails.” (Harrison, Introduction To the Old Testament, 1116)
Not surprisingly, psychologists have long been intrigued by the case of Nebuchadnezzar. Cognitive psychologist Henry Gleitman (b. 1925) speculates that Nebuchadnezzar exhibited features of an advanced syphilitic infection (Gleitman, Psychology, 219).

Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) addressed Nebuchadnezzar in many of his works. He diagnosed the arrogant ruler with a “classic case of megalomania” (Jung Collected Works, volume 8, ¶ 163). Jung analyzed Nebuchadnezzar’s dream writing that it was “easy to see that the great tree is the dreaming king himself. Daniel interprets the dream in this sense. Its meaning is obviously an attempt to compensate the king’s megalomania which, according to the story, developed into a real psychosis” (Jung, Dreams, 37). This reading views the dream as an exemplar of a compensatory dream, a dream by which the dreamer offsets a disproportionate sense of power. Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the tree being cut is what his psyche deemed must happen for him to achieve any semblance of wholeness. Whether or not one consents to Jung’s interpretation, his summary of Nebuchadnezzar’s condition is seemly - “a complete regressive degeneration of a man who has overreached himself.” (Jung, Analytical Psychology 123).”

Many critics have argued the historicity of the events as depicted in Daniel due to their unbelievable nature. There is also some discussion as to whether or not the government could have maintained itself with its leader decommissioned. King George III, “the Mad King” of Great Britain (1738-1820) and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), the 40th U.S. president who likely suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during his presidency, have shown that an effective staff can run a government with a sidelined figurehead. Nebuchadnezzar was known for selecting an elite staff as evidenced by the process by which he selected Daniel (Daniel 1:3-7).

Critics also argue that there is no outside evidence to support the Biblical account. This is not entirely true. There is a conspicuous absence of any record of acts or decrees by Nebuchadnezzar from 582 -575 BCE (Gleason L. Archer, Jr. [1916-2004], Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7, 63). Berossus, a Babylonian priest and astronomer of the third century BCE, documents that Nebuchadnezzar became suddenly ill after 43 years in power (Contra Apionem 1:20). Eusebius (263-339) cites a report from the Greek historian Abydenus that corroborates the Biblical account stating that in Nebuchadnezzar’s latter days he was “possessed by some god or other (Eusebius, Praparatio Evanelica 9:41).” Also, a clay tablet housed in the British Museum known as BM34113 (lines 3,6,7,11,12,14) describes Nebuchadnezzar exhibiting irregular behavior including noting that “his life appeared of no value to him (Kendall K. Down [b. 1949], Daniel: Hostage in Babylon, 30). It has also been argued that an Aramaic fragment excavated from Qumran Cave 4 in 1952 attributed to Babylon’s last king, Nabonidus (556-539 BCE), is actually a garbled tradition relaying the illness of Nebuchadnezzar (Archer, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7, 63).

The reader is not intended to have sympathy for the foreign dictator. Does Daniel have compassion for the king? Does the prophet’s interpretation of the dream influence (or even cause) Nebuchadnezzar’s breakdown? How should we treat the mentally ill?

Nebuchadnezzar is dehumanized. He is said to eat grass like a bovine, grow hair like an eagle and nails like a bird (Daniel 4:25, 32, 33). The implication is clear - Nebuchadnezzar becomes less than human. No other human eats grass in the Bible and to eat grass like a bovine may even have been a colloquialism as it is used with three different nouns all meaning bovine: showr (Numbers 22:4, Psalm 106:20), baqar (Job 40:14), and the Aramaic, towr, found only in Daniel (Daniel 4:25, 32, 33, 5:21). In temporarily dehumanizing the arrogant ruler, God removed Nebuchadnezzar’s power.

Do you feel God’s treatment of Nebuchadnezzar was just? When have you been humbled? Have you ever felt humbled by God?

The point of the passage is seen in the fact that Nebuchadnezzar’s illness lasts “until you [Nebuchadnezzar] recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes (Daniel 4:25, NASB).

God is the true king and to defy God is madness.