Isaiah 5

God sings a song of love lost. He compares Jerusalem and Judah to a vineyard where he planted, built walls, tended and did everything to produce good grapes, but got only bitter nuggets – wild grapes – in return.  What would anyone do with such a vineyard? Yes, give up on it and tear it down.

Then “woes”. Apparently Isaiah introduced this figure of speech to the Bible. “Woe to you who…” 

… Collect Property and destroy village life by getting ever wealthier, introducing inequality into society. It recalls the very just plan in the Torah, with years of Jubilee that were designed to keep society’s wealth flat. 

… Drinkers who spend life reveling and increase ignorance and self obsession.

… Liers and cheaters generally, who mislead the people in public life making good bad and bad good. spin merchants.

Ends by mentioning the judgement that will come from afar… Assyria and Babylon basically, who sacked Israel.

Thinking about lies, wealth and reveling actually, living in the year(s?) of Trump, the uber lying property developer, and on the end of a week where one of my wife’s school friends died of alcoholism.

I should look at my behaviours that produce bitter fruit and those that produce sweet fruit, for in me has God invested his love, I am God’s vineyard.

Give me something to show for it father!

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Deuteronomy 20

Law about war.

The Israelites aren’t naturally warlike, but they are uniquely chosen in human history and God is promising to be on their side.

There are numerous exemptions from being part of the army, including being “faint hearted”. God likes to win with less rather than more manpower to make his God power clear.  He only wants the motivated true believers who have no distractions.

The rules are relatively merciful (given that it’s war) for towns they need to conquer that aren’t in the promised land. There must always be a peace offer first, the women and children are spared.

But the towns within Canaan are under God’s judgment, the Israelites are mere vehicles of it, and nothing is to be spared. The Israelites did not have the stomach for that and their compromise was the downfall of their society.

The rules for selecting the army show God being supportive and compassionate… If you’ve just married or just built a house, you don’t have to fight.

The rules for standard warfare show God bringing fairness to the affairs of men. If war must be, the standard operation is reasonable, much moreso than the surrounding nations would have been I’m sure.

The rules for taking the land are those of a god who is mighty, has plans beyond our understanding, of our creator and our judge.

It’s all the one God. We can love and find joy in his compassion and fairness, but we also need to fearfully respect his greatness and power over us as his creatures and trust the wisdom of his plans.

It’s who he is, he lets us like him or lump him.

Numbers 28

A lotta lotta animal sacrifices.

This seems like a dry series of rules.

They do 2 lambs a day, morning and evening.

2 extra on Sabbath.

A feast each month/new moon.

More for Passover

More for harvest.

I read my favourite commentator. He didn’t get a lot of meat from it (no pun intended)

He said the sunrise and sunset sacrifices are a good reminder to us to acknowledge God each day.

He made the point that they added a goat for atonement to the harvest, which was largely a celebration of thankfulness. There is always a place for remembering that God forgives sin.
I was also struck by how tightly communal their life was. A national leaders meeting/feast each month. That’s a lot of communication.

I also found myself wondering about whether they would give too much to God. What if they run out of sheep to feed their families? We were they getting flour from for the grain offering? It must have been a very precious commodity. I found myself wondering whether the invisible God and often victimless sin actually was worth risking their food supply. The “faithless” generation, it seems, eventually got more faith than me…

What it says about God is grace is not cheap. Sin is real. Approximating/symbolising it’s cost for an ancient nation of herdsmen requires a lotta lotta animals.

Numbers 18

So starting afresh after major rebellions and terrible plague. Good addresses Aaron, who with his wife had contributed to sing Moses’ leadership, rejecting the discontent of the people.

The levites are the temple serving tribe, and the priests are Aaron’s family, a subset within the levites tribe.  The responsibility for their behaviour, levites and priests all falls on Aaron.

They in turn are responsible for the sacrifices which cleanse the whole nation, and save them from death. 

God is reminding Aaron of his role. The priests are to tithe the tithes, give a tenth of the offerings they receive to God, sins they are also their wages for their service at the tabernacle.

Aaron has been a weak link and God is reminding him he is the centre and pillar of the whole system. 

I’ve increased my responsibility at church, and the first week after, I slept in and didn’t even go!  I’m glad mine isn’t as big or as life and death as Aaron’s. But it is impressing itself upon me, the seriousness of it. Mustn’t let them down.

Numbers 3

About the levites. The different clans get different holy duties. The priest tribe is a substitute for the firstborn, which are to be given to God. 

They haven’t been counted so far, in the army counts, as they do not fight. 

They count the males in the levites tribe, 22000, and the number of first born Israelite males in the rest of the tribes: 22273. So they pay the substitute price set out in Leviticus for 273 first born males.  

This keeps a debt owed to God for sparing the first born males at Passover when the Egyptian children died. By each family supporting the levites for God’s service and paying for the extra 273, notionally every firstborn has been dedicated to God.

Leviticus 7

I think we may have reached the end of the offerings. I started to think I was going batty, because it seemed to be saying the same thing over and over, but it’s actually outlined six different offerings: burnt, grain, sin, guilt, fellowship, and ordination. 

Burnt is where the whole thing is burned up, nothing left to eat. Chillingly it is the origin of the word “holocaust”. 

Sin is for Israel’s corporate sin, 

guilt for specific individual crimes, 

grain is non meat, and was a gift, a freewill offering to God (if you were well off… It was also an option for other purposes of you were poor) 

fellowship is for celebrating good things that happen, to acknowledge that God provides, 

ordination is dedication of new priests.

All have different rules about the animal, the nature of the royal etc. 

I was struck by the metaphor of cleaning. There is a lot of ritual cleansing and rules about unclean things contaminating the clean. It actually has a reasondable amount of practical science behind it, but it is a powerful metaphor for god’s holiness, one that is hard to reconcile with how loved and close to God Christians are promised to be.

Strange that the no blood thing carries on as kosher rules for Jewish people, though the sacrificial system has passed on. 

1 Samuel 11

Saul passes his first great test, Israel not so much.

Some bad hombres annex a group of Israelites and as part of a humiliating “peace” deal threaten to take out the right eye of every male. The Israelites beg 7 days to see if anyone will help. 

Saul galvanises his personal outrage into national leadership and rescues them and the territory, defeating the ammonites. Israel has a born leader.

Sometimes what we want, our deepest desires, and god’s will and plan overlap. Israel want to be winners, to keep all their land, to unify and be strong. God promised the land, said they are a single nation, a chosen people. That’s a fair degree of overlap.

But the gaps show in their reaction, such as wanting to put to death anyone who questioned making Saul king. Saul himself intervenes and reminds them that the victory is not his but the lord’s. 

However the subtlety is already being lost in the joy of victory. The king, the victory, are tangible. The people never seem able to completely connect, in a sacrificial way, with God.

Good for God, good for me. It’s a seductive notion. But “win win” is not the third great commandment. 

It’s easy to criticise in obvious examples like prosperity doctrine, which teaches that earthly wealth is evidence of god’s blessing. But the comfort of my existence is surely riddled with it. 

How much am I willing to put on the line for God?

Esther 4

Esther’s path to hero.

Her first reaction to her distress at hearing her cousin Mordecai is in sackcloth is to send him some nice clothes. Nice try, he sends them back.

She sends a slave and finds out what’s really going on, and Mordecai sends back a copy of the edict and everything, including telling her the price Haman was willing to pay to destroy the Jews.

Her response to that is to say that she would quite likely get killed for trying to do anything. The protocol is that she waits for the king to call for her. If she initiates face time, he may refuse to offer the gold sceptre, meaning he isn’t interested, and she is put to death.  It’s been a month since he called her, her influence may be on the wane.

The narrative has deftly painted the background for her fears because we know she only got the her position because Queen Vashti got proud and was deposed.

Nice try. He sends a message via her servant. She shouldn’t think that her rank will protect her alone from the wave of anti semitism. He has faith that deliverance for the Jews will come despite her, and she will regret being silent as much as speaking out. And maybe that is why she’s there in the first place? He believes this is her god given moment. Esther has to choose who she will trust, god or king. Who is really in charge here?

It’s the old bible one two three. Peter denied Jesus three times. Gideon and Moses needed three proofs before they had the courage to act, on the third day Jesus rose.

Esther send back instructions: she, her servants and the Jewish people outside the palace will have a three day simultaneous fast. Then she will break the law and go to the king, and perish if she will.

I think her need to fast and take time to summon up courage, and her need to feel the people were behind her shows how extremely hard she found it to do this, to face death in this way.

She has accepted that this is her god given moment, and she is utterly terrified of it. Of course Jesus wept when his came, too.

The conclusion of this chapter makes me shiver, and tear up. When you do something you find literally impossible, your worst nightmare, how profound is that heroism.

 

 

Esther 3

Things take a dark turn. Haman enters the story, a high ranking trusted but ruthless official, close to the king. He demands Mordecai bow to him but he won’t, presumably because of the second commandment: there is only one God. Daniel was the same.

Haman decides to destroy all the Jews.  The king seems to accept his advice that they are a danger, and gives him his signet ring which enables Haman to issue a kill edict in the Kings name. The King must have connived at that, because he said “do with the people as you will” as he handed the ring over.

An interesting detail is that Haman was willing to pay the King for the destruction of the Jews. The king refuses the money… I dunt know if that is to his credit or not!

The chapter ends with a bitterly poignant picture, the king and Haman having a drink together but the city “bewildered”. Perhaps in sympathy, also partly perhaps they thought “there but for the grace of (an uncaring…) God go we”?

There is a moment as you read, me at least, where you blame Mordecai. You think, OK, don’t acknowledge Haman, get yourself killed, but your stubbornness has signed a death warrant for all your countrymen.

If course Haman is a nasty piece of work, vindictive, proud and arbitrarily cruel, but why not just bow to him and be done with it?

Where does one draw the line and blindly obey God, even though it will most likely provoke unjust violence not only toward yourself but collateral damage for other believers?

There is also the monstrous unfairness of it, Mordecai to be killed for not honoring the Kings representative, the King whose life he just saved in an act of abundant loyalty. Perhaps he should have let the plot to kill the king go through!

The place where you draw the line is where you sell God short. Where you betray him by acting like he means less to you than he really does. Without that, the Jews are not the Jews, and we believers today are ineffective.

And one does act for all. Mordecai had to do what he did.

Zechariah 13

More “on that day” prophesies about the day of the Lord.
… there will be a fountain that purifies the nation (reminds me of the Cowper hymn “there is a fountain filled with blood”)
… the name of the idols will be cut off and forgotten
… false prophets will be rejected, they will be ashamed of their lying and deceit.

It’s quite sweet, because it paints a picture of the false prophets being thrown out and even pierced by their family if they reappear, but not killed. Eventually they admit that they were only ever really a farmer, and they identify the wounds on their chests as having been given by their friends.

But things get more serious in the poem that follows, where God speaks of a winnowing, how only a third of the nation will be saved, two thirds severed and scattered by the sword of the Lord.  And even for those saved it will be a hard path of being refined and purified through fire.

I always have a survivor guilt reaction to those passages, Jesus picks up the refining imagery too, as does Hebrews in the New Testament. I feel like I haven’t been through the fire, and I feel ashamed of my chronic sin, forgiven with so little effort on my part.  Still, the guys who just have scars to show for being false prophets got a pretty good deal too.