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Chapter 4: The Stories

         

Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories

More kings: Nothing is holy now.

It would have been great if succeeding kings of Israel had followed “King David’s” kind of religion. (I used quotation marks because we know much less about the real David than about the traditions that surrounded him.) That religion, at least in what was new about it, identifies with common people and venerates all things right and just as holy.

There was, in fact, a great show of religion in all the succeeding reigns. Solomon built a great temple to the Lord (and an even more magnificent palace for himself). As his kingdom grew in wealth, so did the extravagance of the sacrifices and other observances in the Lord’s name in the temple. But then Solomon also sponsored the worship of every other god of his many foreign wives. That was just good foreign relations, and Solomon’s foreign relations were very good. The royalty with its bureaucracy, the merchants, and the priests and other religious officials were awash in material wealth. All of this success, however, was paid for by the common people through taxes and slave labor. There was not much identification except by rich with rich and poor with poor.

Prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah condemned the worship of foreign gods, but they had unkind words for the sacrifices to Israel’s God Yahweh as well. Amos was a poor farmer from the South, some time after Solomon’s death and the division of the kingdom into North and South. He prophesied against the fat cats of the Northern Kingdom with their winter homes and summer homes, precious ointments, and dining on lamb and calf:

I hate and despise your feasts; I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals. I reject your sacrifices. Let me hear no more of your chanting, but rather let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21)

 

Injustice was rampant in the Southern Kingdom as well. Here’s Hosea prophesying about the same time as Amos: (Ephraim is another name for the Northern Kingdom and Judah is the Southern Kingdom.)

 

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away.… For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4-6)

And Isaiah a little later:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? … Bring no more vain offerings; … learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:11, 13, 17)

The prophet’s message: If the “poor of Yahweh” are not holy enough to be treated justly, then nothing is holy.

Eventually God got what seems to be his wish. The Israelite sacrificial system came crashing down, first in the North and then in the South. In 722 BCE (Before the Common Era) the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by Assyria. A hundred years later the Assyrian Empire was replaced by the Babylonian, and in 586 Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple. They stole anything of monetary value, including gold and silver vessels used for religious services. The elite of the people were forced to emigrate to Babylon. It was the Exile, or Babylonian Captivity.

With no land of their own and no Temple to unify religious practice, one would have expected the Jewish religion to disappear and the people to change allegiance to the more powerful gods of Babylon. All that was left of the physical apparatus of a once thriving religion was writing: prophets’ words that had been set down on scrolls, prayers used at ceremonies in the Temple, court records, and some stories that were either community memories or interpretations of community experiences or a mixture of memory, exaggeration, story telling, and theological interpretation. Some of the scrolls had been rescued a century and a half previously from the destruction of the Northern Kingdom as some of its people fled to the South.

Around these and around new interpretations by prophets and priests trying to cope intellectually with tough circumstances, a new phase of the people’s religion developed. Synagogue worship, featuring a reading and an interpretation—the ancestor of the first part of the Catholic Mass—replaced sacrifices in the Temple. Around this time the exiles from Judah began to be called Jews.

God relented. The Jews and their religion survived. Here’s how God justifies letting his people off, spoken by either Hosea in hope or a later editor after the fact, that is, after the Exile ended:

How could I give you up, Ephraim, or deliver you up, Israel? … My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred. I will not give vent to my blazing anger. (Hosea 11:8-9)

Jesus gives us an interpretation of this passage in parables like the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep. There’s nothing but rejoicing in the finding of the lost item, even though it costs the woman an exorbitant amount of energy, sweeping the whole house for one coin, or entails tremendous risk for the shepherd, who leaves 99 sheep behind. These are two more examples of Jesus’ weird story-telling art. But God is like that. A prophet in the Isaiah tradition but writing after the Exile and much later than the actual prophet Isaiah explains:

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)

The Bible also says it’s God who rescues the Jews. God acts like the mother who forgives simply because she has to be who she is.

Thinking about the main point: God is always ready to forgive, to include even unsavory characters back into his family. Are we necessarily happy with that?

On to 10 Ruth and Jonah