Thursday, June 7, 2012

When Life is the Pits (Jeremiah 38:6)

What prophet was imprisoned in a cistern (a water tank)? Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:6)

Amid the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah gives his customary message as he predicts the fall of the city (Jeremiah 38:2-3). His nation has only two options: submit or resist. While the government is committed to resistance, the prophet does what prophets often do and dissents. In his theological reading of the situation, Jeremiah encourages submitting to the empire noting the inevitable consequences of the siege: death, famine and pestilence (Jeremiah 38:3).

The local patriots cannot accept this perceived endorsement of Babylonian supremacy and respond by charging the prophet with treason and advise a death sentence (Jeremiah 36:4).

Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) analyzes:

The officials’ accusatory report to the king includes its own suggested verdict. Jeremiah is portrayed as a deliberate agitator, and his bad influence is described—perhaps exaggerated to bolster the accusation—as percolating through the city, affecting the military stationed in Jerusalem and civilians alike, and damaging the war effort. Not even the king could deny the accusation or verdict, and he assigned the officials to carry out the verdict (cf. Jeremiah 26:14). Publicly committed to the war effort, he had no option but to accede to their demand, which led to Jeremiah’s being moved to wretched conditions of imprisonment. (Allen, Jeremiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 413)
The officials’ report puts king Zedekiah’s weakness on display. Caught in the middle between zealous patriots and the disapproving prophet, Zedekiah abdicates just like Pilate would do centuries later (John 19:6). The indifferent monarch claims to be powerless (Jeremiah 37:5) and as he was appointed king by Nebuchadnezzar (II Kings 24:17; II Chronicles 36:10; Jeremiah 37:1), this is not entirely inaccurate. The king takes orders from his subjects and Jeremiah, just as he had been in the previous chapter (Jeremiah 37:15), finds himself imprisoned (Jeremiah 38:6). Only this time, his cell is much worse.
Then they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchijah the king’s son, which was in the court of the guardhouse; and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. Now in the cistern there was no water but only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud. (Jeremiah 38:6 NASB)
The entire account of Jeremiah’s cistern imprisonment is highly detailed and demonstrates that the author clearly has intimate knowledge of the events (Jeremiah 38:1-13). The passage even chronicles information as trivial as the source of the rags used to raise the prophet (Jeremiah 38:11). Many have seen this as evidence of the passage recalling recent historical facts.

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) demonstrates that Jeremiah is an enemy of the state:

[Jeremiah] is undermining the war effort, and that cannot be tolerated. His is an effective act of sabotage of royal policy because it combines an intelligent political assessment of the chances for Jerusalem with a claim of theological insight. The government does not — indeed dares not — agree with him. It only wants him silenced. On any “realistic” reading of the situation, Jeremiah is an enemy of the government, preparing a counteroption against the “well-being” (shalom) of the city as defined by the government. The issue is joined between the government and this formidable dissent. Indeed, this entire chapter is about the problem of public dissent which claims to be the voice of God. (Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 362)
Consequently, Jeremiah is incarcerated in a cistern (Hebrew: bowr) near the palace. The word “cistern” (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) is also translated “dungeon” (ASV, KJV, NKJV) and “well” (CEV). Though the word is best understood by the dominant reading, the older translations are correct in deeming it a dungeon as in this case, that is its function.

A cistern was a reservoir into which rainwater could drain to be collected and stored. Cisterns were a fairly common feature in Israelite homes, typically dug out of limestone rock to varying depths. Cistern water was inferior; previously, Jeremiah had contrasted the water of cisterns with the springs that produced “living” water (Jeremiah 2:13).

Philip J. King (b. 1925) describes:

In agricultural societies, cisterns (bor, borot; bo’r, bo’rot) are important for several reasons. A principal use of these underground chambers is as storage for rainwater collected through drains as it accumulated on flat roofs or in courtyards. This rainwater is then stored for use in the dry season (from May through September). Cisterns were of various sizes and shapes in antiquity. Many were bottle-shaped, approximately ten feet wide and sixteen feet deep, with a stone-covering over the small opening at the top. The neck was the narrow shaft through which vessels were lowered into the cistern by rope. Other cisterns were bell-shaped, approximately eight feet wide and twelve feet deep. Some cisterns had steps–for example, the cisterns at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Cisterns were hollowed out of natural rock or converted from natural cave formations. (King, Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion, 154)
It is unknown why this specific cistern is selected but convenience (it is close and dry) is probable.

Entrance to cisterns was difficult, hence the references to the prophet being admitted and removed by ropes (Jeremiah 38:6, 13). The fact that a cistern was more than twice the height of a person made for difficult escape. Cisterns were often pear-shaped with a small opening at the top leading to a wider basin. As such, Jeremiah is trapped like a genie in a bottle.

The cistern made for abhorrent prison conditions. The prophet finds himself in solitary confinement, sinking in a filthy, slimy pit (Jeremiah 38:6). Quarters are also cramped leaving him unable to move easily or rest. He will not be able to survive long in this environment.

Beth Moore (b. 1957) imagines:

Sinking inch by inch. That’s what happens in a pit. Jeremiah knew the feeling...Jeremiah 38:6 describes his pit as a place of sinking down. Imagine how much worse it was in sandals. No matter what’s on your feet, you can take this fact to the spiritual bank: a pit only gets deeper. Low ground always sinks. There’s no living at maintenance level in a pit. (Moore, Get Out of That Pit: Straight Talk About God’s Deliverance, 15)
Worse and more importantly for his suitors, his solitary confinement severely limits his audience. His voice, a critical prophetic word, is presumably silenced.

The prophet of doom is himself doomed to a slow lingering death. As the cistern is muddy, the government is clearly not attempting to drown him. Instead he is left for dead: starvation is the death that awaits the prophet.

Ironically, like sterilizing a needle to be used in a lethal injection, his vindictive captors go to great lengths to not harm Jeremiah themselves, gently lowering him into the pit (Jeremiah 38:6). Some have speculated that they wish to humiliate the prophet by producing a slow, ignominious death. Perhaps they do not wish to make him a martyr.

There is likely a more selfish reason. F.B. Huey, Jr. (b. 1925) explains:

No reason is given for putting Jeremiah in the cistern to die rather than killing him outright (cf. Joseph, Genesis 37:22-24). Perhaps they wanted him to suffer, but it is more likely that they had a superstitious fear of killing a prophet or shedding innocent blood. Shedding of innocent blood was considered to be one of the most abhorrent sins that could be committed (cf. Deuteronomy 19:10, 13, 21:8; Jonah 1:14). (Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations (New American Commentary), 334)
To add insult to injury, it was Jeremiah’s very faithfulness to God that brought him his shame and isolation.

John M. Bracke (b. 1947) interprets:

Jeremiah was in a precarious position. Jeremiah’s public dissent of the government’s pro-Egyptian policy placed him in a life-threatening situation. However, it was finally not Jeremiah’s politics that placed him in danger but his theology, the way he understood who God was and what God was about in his time and place. God promised Jeremiah, “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless” (Jeremiah 15:21; compare Jeremiah 1:8, 17-19). God’s assurances to Jeremiah will be tested. (Bracke, Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (Westminster Bible Companion), 69-70)
Prophets often (in this case quite literally) are required to get down and dirty.

Do prophets ever agree with the majority opinion? Who protests war in your society? Are they being prophetic? Who is trying to silence their voices? When have you seen misguided patriotism in opposition to the word of God? What organizations are currently attempting to silence the word of God? Have you ever been persecuted for your religious beliefs? Who do you know who has suffered for God?

Even amid Jeremiah’s terrible circumstances, there is hope: The cistern is empty. Not only does this indicate that he will not drown but it is also evidence of water scarcity; Jeremiah’s prophecy of famine is coming true. His view of God is correct.

Thankfully, Jeremiah’s tenure in the pit is short-lived. A foreign official named Ebed-Melek the Cushite inexplicably appears out of nowhere and intercedes on Jeremiah’s behalf (Jeremiah 38:7-9). There is no hint of his motives but the puppet king yields again and the prophet is delivered (Jeremiah 37:10-13). The will of the government cannot silence God’s voice. The Word works even in the face of determined opposition.

Just as the prophet is delivered from the cistern, there is hope for his nation. And hope for us. The pit is a symbol that many believers can relate to. John Calvin (1509-1574) viewed the cistern as a sort of grave and Jeremiah as a resurrected figure. Though Jeremiah 38:1-13 is not a resurrection passage it does provide hope.

Kathleen M. O’Connor (b. 1942) sees another Biblical allusion:

The cistern...connects Jeremiah’s captivity with the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers leave him to die in the cistern (bôr) and from there sell him into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:24, 28). Later Potiphar imprisons Joseph in a cistern (Genesis 40:15) and from there he finally escapes (Genesis 41:14). The allusion to the story of Joseph cloaks Jeremiah’s imprisonment in the cistern with ancient meaning. The word joins his captivity to that of an ancestor who knows similar peril and escapes imprisonment to flourish another day. Jeremiah’s story thereby gains the aura of ancestral authority and promises hope of survival to the people also trapped in the pit of suffering. (O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, 154)
There is no pit so deep as to eliminate the possibility of God’s rescue. There is always hope for redemption.

Has your life ever felt as gloomy as if you were trapped in a miry pit? Who helped you through your ordeal? How did you maintain hope amid the trial? What does this text say to those who are in the pit with seemingly no reprieve? Is there anyone you know struggling in the pit that you can help?

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
— Psalm 40:1-2, NASB

Monday, June 4, 2012

Lazarus’ Four Missing Days (John 11:17)

Whom did Jesus raise from the dead after he had been dead for four days? Lazarus.

Not counting his own resurrection, Jesus raises three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40–56), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and Lazarus (John 11:1-45). The latter is typically the most remembered. Lazarus is the only person raised who is named and his story represents the climactic sign of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. In addition, unlike the other resurrection accounts, Lazarus has been buried and gone for a significant period of time — four days to be exact (John 11:17, 39).

So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. (John 11:17 NASB)
To heighten the sense of drama, John includes that Lazarus’ ever pragmatic sister, Martha, tries to dissuade Jesus from entering the tomb based upon the macabre reality of her brother’s stench after four days (John 11:39)!

That Lazarus’ resurrection in John is more stirring than the comparable stories in the Synoptic gospels is not surprising and historical critics have long read the story with skepticism. Alan J. Torrance (b. 1956) appraises:

The Lazarus story constitutes the most spectacular — if not stupendous — of the miracle accounts in the four Gospels. Presented as a piece of historical reporting, the story has a counterintuitive ring to it. Unparalleled in significant respects by any of the Synoptic miracle accounts and certainly uncorroborated by them, what reads as a carefully crafted story of the reanimation of a decaying corpse takes some believing. It...comes from a writer who appears to exaggerate miracle accounts. His blind man is not just blind but blind from birth [John 9:1], his lame man is not just lame but lame for thirty-seven years [John 5:5]. Lazarus is not just dead but seriously dead! John Cleese [b. 1939]’s famous parrot sketch comes to mind: “Dead for four days? How dead can you get!” (Richard Bauckham [b. 1946] and Carl Mosser [b. 1972], “The Lazarus Narrative, Theological History, and Historical Probability”, The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, 247)
Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) counters:
What makes the reanimation of Lazarus...notable is the length of time he has been dead (at least four days – John 11:17, 39; his body presumably would have begun to decay!). Of course, if one comes to these texts already convinced that resurrections are under no circumstances possible, no amount of evidence will persuade one of historicity...Others find themselves unable to believe that the Synoptics would have omitted such a story if it actually happened. (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel: Issues & Commentary, 165)
Ironically, the evangelist’s intent in denoting the four days is to leave no doubts that Lazarus has indeed died. In fact, timing is emphasized throughout John’s account of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) notes:
The Lazarus story makes several references to time—two days (John 11:6), twelve hours (John11:9), four days (John 11:39), that year (John 11:49, 51), that day (John 11:53)—and together they reinforce the idea of God’s plan having its due time and of the need for being ready to meet him. (Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 389)
Four days is not a common biblical time span (Judges 11:40; I Samuel 27:7; John 11:17, 39; Acts 10:30) but here it is significant. Many have presumed that the story reflects a commonly held Jewish belief that a person’s spirit remains near her body for three days after death only to depart when putrefaction becomes evident. The spirit is then obligated to depart to Sheol, the place of the dead.

In Israel’s climate, burial was not delayed as evidenced by the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:6, 10). Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) comments:

Burial was on the day of death. It was followed by a week of mourning. In popular Jewish belief the human spirit hovered near the body for three days, then departed as the color of the corpse began to change. Normally death would be irrevocable and all hope abandoned for one buried four days (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:6; Leviticus Rabbah 18:1). The problem is acute (cf. John 5:5: paralyzed for thirty-eight years; John 9:1: blind from birth). (Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, 177)

Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) adds:

This note is significant. There was a well-known Jewish belief (attested from about A.D. 200) that the soul of a dead person remained in the vicinity of the body “hoping to reenter it” for three days, but once decomposition set in, the soul departed. Similarly, the Mishnah says that in judicial cases deceased persons can only be identified for up to three days (Yebamot 16:3). John wants us to know clearly that Lazarus is truly dead and that the miracle of Jesus cannot be construed as a resuscitation. (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation (Bible Knowledge Series), 105)
Though many scholars assume that the evangelist presupposes the belief that the spirit hovers for three days, some, notably Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938 , p. 307), doubt just how common this common knowledge was at the time of Jesus as it is not attested until two centuries later.

It can be certain that in referencing the four day period, the evangelist is underscoring that Lazarus is irreversibly dead. He is neither found buried alive nor resuscitated.

In the classic 1987 fantasy film The Princess Bride, Westley (Cary Elwes, b. 1962) the swashbuckling protagonist, is presumed dead but when taken to Miracle Max (Billy Crystal.b. 1948) it is revealed that he is “only mostly dead”. Max explains, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do...Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” The four days is to be seen as a definitive postmortem that differentiates between comatose and dead. Lazarus is all dead.

Practically speaking, four days means that for all intents and purposes, Jesus is too late. What is needed is not reanimation but rather resurrection. To produce Lazarus, Jesus must achieve the impossible and as such raising Lazarus is Jesus’s most difficult and astonishing sign. And this is exactly the point that John is attempting to make: Jesus has authority over death.

What state of decay would a body be in after four days? Do you think Lazarus experienced any decomposition (that was restored by Jesus)? What do you think of the belief that the spirit remains with the body for a period of time after death? Which cultures still hold similar beliefs? Does Jesus delay his visit to insure that Lazarus will be definitely deceased when he arrives (John 11:6)? Would it have been any less a miracle had Jesus raised Lazarus after only one day? Have you ever felt that God was slow to act only to later view the delay as perfect timing? Where is Lazarus’ spirit during the four days he is in the tomb and what does he experience?

Lazarus is one of the few people to defy the natural order by dying twice (Hebrews 9:27). Since it is stressed that Lazarus experienced death normally, it has led to speculation as to whether he experienced a normal afterlife — where was Lazarus’ spirit during the four days his body was entombed? From John’s perspective, Lazarus did not enter heaven (John 3:13). Another theory was popularized in the 1984 contemporary Christian song “Lazarus Come Forth”; Carman (b. 1956) sings, “When he died he went to where/The saints of God did stay/In the holding place/They lived beyond the tomb.”

Many have seen Lazarus’ raising as unfair. If Lazarus were in a better place, such as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22-23), it appears cruel for Jesus to recall him into the natural world only to die again. If Lazarus is relegated to a place like a holding place, purgatory or even hell, it would seem equally unfair that he be rescinded.

Based upon Jesus’ character, it can be assumed that Jesus would not harm anyone, much less, Lazarus whom the text specifically notes that he loved (John 11:5). Wherever Lazarus was, he was safe. As all of the locales for Lazarus’ spirit to rest prove problematic, perhaps Lazarus went nowhere. It is quite possible that Lazarus experiences nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). Jesus uses the euphemism of sleep to describe Lazarus’ condition and that may be exactly his experience (John 11:11, 13).

Problems only arise if the interpreter tries to conform eternity into the box of human time. Eternal time and space need not be synchronized with human experience.

Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) explains:

Most of this mischief and confusion about the place of the dead was stirred up not only by Platonic dualism but by biblical literalism and, perhaps most of all, by the perfectly understandable attempt to work all of this out using only the metrics of linear, historical clock time, with its fixed notions of before and after, now and then. But when we speak in a Christian sense about death and resurrection, we are working not in clock time alone, but in at least two time frames: ordinary historical time and eschatological time (or perhaps more accurately, the eternal transcends time)...These two perspectives come together in John 11 in the conversation between Jesus and Martha, the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. In that way of the author of John—superimposing two kinds of time, ordinary and eternal, layering the candlestick and the faces in the same text—we are shown Martha, who is in clock time, historical time, and we are shown Jesus, who is eternal, not constrained by time...From Martha’s perspective, they have run out of time...But then eternity speaks into temporality: “Your brother will rise again.” [John 11:23] (Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, 51-53)

Tellingly, the Bible is silent on the matter of Lazarus’ whereabouts. His response is not documented and we hear nothing of the phenomenons that people with near death experiences typically recount. Had he experienced something relevant, his testimony would have been recorded. Scripture is silent on the matter for a reason.

The text does open the discussion of where we will go when we die and on that subject, the Bible speaks (e.g., John 14:2).

Where was Lazarus between the dreaming and the coming true of his resurrection? Why is Lazarus resurrected? How do you think Lazarus felt about his resurrection? Why do you think there is no record of Lazarus’ experience from his perspective? Did Lazarus have a choice in the matter; could he have refused to leave the tomb? Where do you think your spirit will go after you die? Are you assured of your salvation?

“Humans live in time but... [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time, which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” - C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), The Screwtape Letters, p. 75