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The Bronze Serpent – Numbers 21:4-9

Hebrew_bible_4The Old Testament is a wonderful gift from God to us. It is wonderful that we have this record — so ancient, so fascinating. These were the Scriptures of the earliest Christians — who turned to them to understand what God had done in their midst in Christ. It was the context of these Scriptures in which Jesus himself had taught — to a community shaped by it’s stories and laws and prophecies and poetry.

And if anything is central to the Old Testament itself, it is the first five books.

No doubt the material we currently know as the books of Moses (or the Pentateuch, or the Torah — that is, Genesis through Deuteronomy) were assembled and edited in the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon — they became especially valuable to the people in the times of the exile and then the re-establishment of the nation — they served to teach the people who they were in the light of their history as the people of YHWH. But, the stories themselves go back much further. The people of Israel knew themselves to be a nation that had been delivered by God from Egypt — and the exile, no doubt served as a time to gather those stories together. (more…)

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God Speaks Out Against the Nation – Amos 3:1, 2

hebrew-scrollIt is amazing how self-critical the Hebrew Scriptures are. They do not glorify the nation or it’s heroes. The nation’s critics were remembered — they were remembered as prophets who told them, in advance, of the danger that lay ahead for them. The Scriptures really aren’t an exercise in glorifying the nation and it’s people and it’s leaders. It isn’t really an exercise in bragging about their greatness. One would naturally expect that it would be. It is their national literature, after all — in which they found their identity. They copied and re-copied it. They kept it safe. They recited it and memorized it.

They remembered the words of the prophets. They remembered: even though the prophets had preached a message of judgement against them, criticized the way they practiced their own religion, exposed their evil and selfish motives.  (more…)

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Glory to God’s Name – Psalm 115:1

hebrew-scrollI’ve previously mentioned one of the things that makes Psalm 115:1 so interesting to me. It reflects something I see in the Old Testament generally: these writings were not written to glorify Israel or glorify its heroes and leaders and prophets. They were written to glorify God — and are surprisingly honest about the faults and failings of the nation and of the people. Salvation’s glory goes to God alone.

And, that is quite an amazing thing: this was the national literature of the people of Israel. These were the writings that were carefully copied and recopied and handed down so that the descendants of Israel could discover and rediscover their identity.

לֹא לָנוּ יְהוָה לֹא לָנוּ כִּי־לְשִׁמְךָ תֵּן כָּבוֹד עַל־חַסְדְּךָ עַל־אֲמִתֶּךָ
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” (NRSV)

As I think about it, this single verse is so remarkable to me. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that it’s unique, out-of-place, or unusual in any way. No. It fits well with the over-all perspectives of the Hebrew Bible. It is remarkable for stating so simply — and so briefly — some of the unique characteristics of the Old Testament. (more…)

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If Only God Would Tear Open the Heavens – Isaiah 64:1,2

T220px-isaiahhe writings of the prophets are especially appropriate during the season of Advent. They frame the story of Jesus, they provide us insight into the expectations of the people of Israel at the time Christ was born.

Chapter 64 of Isaiah is only 12 verses long. If I were using it as the basis of a sermon, I’d read the whole thing rather than just verses 1-9 as the lectionary suggests.

The book of Isaiah is now generally considered to have been sort of a group project. Yes, there was a prophet named Isaiah who lived from 740 to 680 B.C. Yes, much of the material in the book of Isaiah was written by him (especially in chapters 1-39). But, it is generally supposed today that large portions of the book were actually written by other people who lived much later. These people sometimes get called Second Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah, if you want to sound educated) and Third Isaiah. (more…)

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The Danger of Forgetting the Poor – Amos 2:6-16

amos053The real heart of Amos’ prophecies was his message to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel (sometimes also called Ephraim, after its dominant tribe).

So, when we get to verse 6 of chapter 2, we come to the heart of Amos’ message. Everything has been a preparation for this. (You can find my comments on the earlier portions of this prophecy here: Amos 1:2, Amos 1:3-15, &  Amos 2:1-5.) The other nations have been condemned only to underline the message of judgement against Israel.

The dramatic, repeated formula appears again:

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה עַל־שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ
“Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn back….”

What had they done? (more…)

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The Prophecy Comes Home – Amos 2:1-5

Amos0615Amos continues his prophecies against the nations (which I discussed last week) in this chapter.

Review: You don’t see what the prophet is doing here until you see that Amos 1-2 is a unit. And, it is carefully structured. Verse 2 pictures the LORD (YHWH) roaring like a lion. Then a series or oracles of judgement follow. Each is for a different nation. They are introduced with this repeated formula:

עַל־שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי
“For three transgressions of _____________,
וְעַל־אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ
and for four, I will not turn back….”

There is a certain rhetorical power in this repeated formula. But, this whole poetic prophecy is going somewhere. It’s building. It is going to end in an extended prophecy of judgement at the end (in our chapter 2). And, the weight of this prophecy of judgement is going to fall on Israel. (more…)

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The Moral Governor of the Nations – Amos 1:3-15

lion22The time in which the prophet Amos lived was a time of peace and prosperity. But, the prophet could hear God roaring like a lion — in anger.

Amos the prophet was certain that there was a God to whom the nations must give account. There was a moral judge of the world.

No doubt this was a growing realization among the people of Israel. The God they worshiped was not a localized god — not simply their God, but the God of all the nations. YHWH was the God to whom all the nations were accountable.

So, in these verses, the prophet begins with this notion: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will call the nations to accountability. (more…)

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Remembrance Inspires Praise – Psalm 135:13-21

Hebrew-MS-PsalmsThis is essentially a Psalm of praise. We are called into praise from the very opening “Hallelujah” (praise Yah). So, it is a song of worship and it calls us into an attitude of worship. As Adam Clarke says: “It is an exhortation addressed to the priests and Levites, and to all Israel, to publish the praises of the Lord.”

The opening verses are an exhortation to worship.

Verses 3-5, and 6, 7 extol God’s greatness.

Verses 8-12 remind the people of Israel of God’s saving acts in their history: their deliverance from Egypt and the defeat of legendary kings. Then, they are called again to praise.

Remembrance has a significance for our faith. it is good to recount for ourselves the answered prayers we have experienced — and the unexpected blessing of God on our lives. The Bible is a book of remembrance: recounting the deeds of the Lord God in times past, as a way of illuminating our lives in the present. We know God through what God has done. For Christians, it is the story of Jesus — before any other — that calls forth our praise.

And, so it is that in this psalm, the remembrance of God’s deliverance in the past, calls forth praise. (more…)

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