Sunday, March 27, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The First Book of Chronicles

The two books of Chronicles are re-treading some of the same ground as the books of kings and even the two books of Samuel, but they are focusing on the kingdom of Judah specifically, with not as much reference to Israel. 1st Chronicles starts off in tough reading territory, following a geneology from Adam on down the line for a few dozen generations. The lengthy geneologies of the tribes of Israel take up the first nine chapters, then chapter 10 starts back in recounting David's time in history.

Chapter 10 covers Saul and Johnathan being killed by Philistines on Mount Gilboa, and ends by describing exactly why God's favor turned from Saul to David and why David inherited the kingship. David does some amazing things during his reign, and Chapter 11 discusses all of David's "mighty men," the chief warriors in the kingdom. The best warriors are just referred to as "The Three" and they are known for their martial exploits: Jashobeam killed 300 enemies with a spear in just one day, Benaiah killed a lion in a pit on a snowy day, and so on. Maintaining this kind of military force and these types of stunning individuals is a major change for Israel, because when Saul took the kingship they were pretty much still ruled over by the Philistines who wouldn't let the Israelites have blacksmiths, so that they couldn't make weapons. The nation that had no swords just a few years back is now ruling the roost with their undeniable might.

In the upcoming chapters, David sees massive forces of warriors joining him at Hebron to make him king over all the land, he witnesses a severe mishap while bringing the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem, he has a whole flock of kids, he gathers endless supplies for the future temple, he goes back and gets the ark of the covenant and does it the right way this time, he praises and worships God, and he smacks down all of his enemies in battle. Everything David does is epic, and aside from the first ark incident (Chronicles doesn't mention his sin with Bashsheba), the first wrong thing David does comes in chapter 21, when he numbers Israel in a census when God told him never to do such a thing. David's disobedience through the census results in a plague and 70,000 people die. The place where the angel of the Lord stops the slaughter is the place David picks as the site for the future temple.

Chapter 23 onward mentions the divisions of the priests and Levites the services they will perform for the kingdom and in the temple, and lists the captains of the tribes of Israel and the high-ranking officials. The book ends with David addressing the congregation of Israel and praising God as he passes on the throne to his son Solomon. 1st Chronicles, despite all the potentially tedious lists and geneologies, is a shockingly upbeat book of the Bible and it emphasizes God's mercy and love, along with all the things David did right instead of the places where he faltered. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Second Book of Kings

In The Second Book of the Kings, the further history of the divided kingdom of Israel is shown. The king of "Israel" rules in the city of Samaria while the king of "Judah" rules from the city of Jerusalem. In this book, the kings accomplish various things and so do the men of God (prophets), but the men of God and the kings are rarely working on the same side, which says a lot about the state of both halves of Israel during this time period.

Elijah, a major prophet who was established in the previous book, is still alive for the early chapters of 2 Kings. In chapter 1, Elijah prophesies the death of evil king Ahaziah, and the king sends troops to bring him in, presumably for punishment. But Elijah calls down fire out of the sky and it consumes all fifty soldiers. The kings sends another fifty, and they get wiped out, too. By the time the third group of fifty is dispatched to Elijah, their captain has caught on to the pattern and begs for his life. Elijah goes peaceably with this third captain, and when he reaches Ahaziah he just repeats the original message that yes, he's going to die, which he does. Ahaziah seems to have been trying to frighten and bully the man of God, even from his sickbed, but it clearly doesn't go over liked he'd hoped.

In chapter 2, Elijah departs from the world, but he doesn't die, which makes him one of only two people mentioned in the Bible (the other being Enoch in Genesis) to not experience death. Elijah's right-hand man is named Elisha, and Elisha refuses to leave his friend alone when it's time for him to be carried away. Elijah asks his assistant what he can do for him before he leaves, and Elisha says he wants a double portion of the spirit of the Lord that has been on Elijah. He wants twice as much of God's spirit as his predecessor, a.k.a. the man who prayed for a drought in Israel and stopped the rain for three solid years. Elijah himself admits that this is a tall order, and he's not sure if it's possible: "Thou hast asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so."(2 Kings 2:10)  But Elisha does see Elijah ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind, so he knows his request has been granted.

Elisha follows in his mentor's footsteps and even takes Elijah's mantle (coat) for himself. In plain literary terms, this is seriously symbolic, like a prince inheriting a crown from his father. By taking up Elijah's mantle, he's taking on part of his identity and Elisha becomes the main prophet in Israel and does twice as many miracles as Elijah. However, despite the extra portion of God's spirit, Elisha dies like any other mortal man in chapter 13, but only after having done great works for the Lord. I've always wondered how that worked--why the second prophet had the extra helping of spiritual power, but the first was the one who didn't die. There's clearly a big purpose for Elijah's ascension; it's just one that doesn't get fully explained until later in scripture.

The deeds of the kings, at least the ones that are mentioned, are usually not glorious. Assassinations, betrayals, famine, war and even cannibalism and human sacrifice happen inside the bounds of these once-secure kingdoms. There are a few exceptions to the horrible rule: Jehoshaphat respects the Lord, Jehoash repairs the temple, Hekeziah clings to everything that is good and right, Josiah cleanses Judah and makes a covenant with God, and the prophets stay faithful, of course. But Israel's sins as a whole are so bad that the Lord allows the entire "Israel" portion of the country to be taken away into captivity by Assyria. Judah lasts a while longer, but Babylon finally conquers it. The final verses of 2 Kings mention the final king of Judah, Jehoiachin, and how the king of Babylon actually lifts him out of prison and provides him with food and an allotment of money, even in captivity. Through this we see that though the unthinkable has happened--an entire country has been wiped out and removed from their place--God's plan is still at work, the lineage of kings is unbroken, and the nation of Isarel is going to survive, no matter what adverse circumstances arise.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The First Book of Kings

The First Book of the Kings is still covering David's family dynasty, and the dynasty is still having trouble. David is old and his son Adonijah is throwing parties and declaring himself king; the only trouble with this is that David had said Solomon would be king. So Nathan the prophet (a really bold man) and Bathsheba (Solomon's mother) have to remind David of his promise. Suddenly, Adonijah's plans are overturned and Solomon is the next appointed king. David passes away and Solomon rules in a grand fashion.

In chapter 3, the Lord comes to Solomon in a dream and asks him to make a request, implying that whatever Solomon asks, God will grant. Solomon famously asks for the wisdom to rule his people, and God is so pleased that he asked for wisdom instead of money or military might, that his gives him both wisdom and everything else he might have asked for: "lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days." Twice in a row, God's saying that Solomon is unique--he's gifted with such wisdom that nobody has been like him before and nobody will compare to him after his death. A very big promise, right there.

One of Solomon's big works is building the temple of the Lord, a major undertaking which takes seven years to complete. Solomon has an official dedication of the temple in chapter 8, and he asks God to answer the prayers of his people whenever they turn from their sins and pray to him. God keeps telling Solomon that if he'll do what David did and follow after God in the same fashion, everything will go well and Solomon's family line will be established forever. But the sad fact is, Solomon does not measure up to David. He has superhuman intellect and so much money that practically everything in his palace is covered in gold, but he marries a bunch of foreign wives and decides to worship idols with them. This loses him most of the kingdom.

God leaves a small portion of land for Solomon's heirs to rule, but at this point in history the kingdom is split in two: the bigger "Israel" is ruled by a series of bad kings while "Judah" is ruled by David's descendants, a few of which are righteous men. Judah has it better overall, but there's plenty of war and sinfulness in both places for the next few hundred years.

Prophets play a large role in all these big historical moves. Up until 1st Kings, we've had judges and seers like Samuel, but Nathan is one of the few men actually called a prophet. Now, there are several prophets going around and explaining God's will to people who usually don't listen.
-Ahijah the Shilonite announces the kingdom's split in chapter 11.
-Chapter 13 has a really disturbing episode with a man of God who's just called "the man of God" who delivers a correct prophecy, then disobeys God's instructions and gets killed by a lion. I'm still not sure sure what to make of this passage.
-Ahijah reappears in Chapter 14, and even though he's blind, he can tell who is speaking to him when they disguise their voice.
-Elijah is introduced in Chapter 17, and he is a really key figure among the Old Testament prophets. He's usually honored right up there with Moses, though he didn't lead God's people, he just worked miracles and spoke out against the evil the King Ahab.
-In Chapter 18, a guy named Obadiah keeps 100 prophets hidden from Ahab, which makes you wonder just how many prophets there were--is it like its own separate spiritual establishment, like the Levites?

1st Kings is a historical journey through the kings of Israel and Judah, and some kings get more attention than others, either because of their goodness or the lack thereof, but mostly the latter. It's not as horrific as Judges, but it's close.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Second Book of Samuel

Samuel has already passed away when the second book of Samuel starts. The judge of Israel is long gone and now Saul, the violent and unstable king of Israel, has died. The next anointed king David should be thrilled, right? Not even close. David grieves over Saul's loss, which is just astonishing. He also mourns for his best friend Johnathan, who was a truly honorable man. David's ascendancy to the throne does not begin with joy, since it seems like he expected Johnathan to be at his side for all of the upcoming events and is struck by his loss.

And actually, David doesn't take control of all Israel at first. One of Saul's younger sons, Ishboseth, is Israel's puppet leader. David rules over the tribe of Judah, while Ishboseth rules over everything else. This continues for seven years, and the balance of power shifts because of a shake up with the military commanders. Ishbosheth's captain Abner and David's captain Joab develop a personal vendetta, and things get really messy and complicated. It's hard to know who's in the right, because Abner slept with one of Saul's concubines (a big no-no), killed Joab's brother Asahel, and turned on the weak king he had been supporting, but when Joab tricks Abner and kills him, David says Abner was a more righteous man than Joab. We seem to be dealing with a lot of morally ambiguous people here, because Joab later does some great things for David and offers him good counsel. There are many strong, smart men surrounding David who let themselves stray morally, and now their bad deeds are a matter of public record.

David strays, too. 2nd Samuel records his big mistake, or rather series of mistakes, with Bathsheba. Chapter 11 says "at the time when kings go forth to battle...David sent Joab and all his servants with him, and all Israel...But David tarried still at Jerusalem". This is a horrible case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. David's supposed to be out with his troops, but instead he's at home with probably not too much to do. So he sees this beautiful woman and even though he knows she's the wife of one of his soldiers, he brings her up to his house. Now, David already has at least seven wives. His needs aren't just being met, he's got a woman for every day of the week! And yet he steals someone else's wife, because he has the time and opportunity to do so.  But Bathsheba gets pregnant, and since her husband is away, David knows his sin is going to be revealed in about eight months. David has her husband killed in battle, and after Bathsheba mourns for her husband, David brings her into his own house permanently.

The ending verse of Chapter 11 says, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,” which is an understatement to say the least. All of David's family troubles, and they are many, start at this point. His baby with Bathsheba dies, his oldest son Amnon rapes his own sister, his next-oldest son Absalom kills Amnon and leads a rebellion to try to overthrow's a hideous family history that was sparked by one man's choice to take what he wanted and to do what made him feel good. A man of God has to show restraint, or everything he's worked for will fall apart.

David also does great things for the Lord during this time. He gathers all the materials necessary to build the temple; gold and cedar wood and other costly materials. He takes in Johnathan's lame son, Mephibosheth. He's considered an excellent leader of his country and he writes many Psalms. It's just sad that we remember him equally for his passion for God and his major life-destroying sins.