Tag Archives: History

God’s People, part 117: Artaxerxes

Read Nehemiah 2:1-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The Temple was finally finished, as had been commanded by the God of Israel and decreed by Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, the kings of Persia.” (Ezra 6:14b)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, becrmause we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

ArtaxerxesPart 117: Artaxerxes. I am sure at least some of you who are reading this may be wondering, “Arta-who??” One of the challenging parts of reading the Bible is the fact that we end up reading transliterated names that are often confusing and hard to pronounce. With that said, people two-thousand years from now will have trouble pronouncing our names.

Artaxerxes (pronounced Art-a-zerk’zees) was the son of the Persian king Xerxes (pronounced Zerk’zees), who was the king that married the Jewish girl Esther and made her queen. Xerxes, if you remember, was also the same king who fought against the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. In 465 BCE, Xerxes was assassinated by the commander of the royal bodyguard, along with his eldest son Darius. As a result, Artaxerxes killed the commander along with his family and ascended to the throne.

As king, he is known for several different things. One of those things, since his father’s military campaign in Greece was discussed, is Artaxerxes handling of the relations between Persia and Greece. Following his ultimate defeat against the Greeks, Xerxes was forced to retreat to Asia and eventually give up trying to conquer Greece. As king, his son Artaxerxes introduced a new strategy of weakening the Athenians by providing financial support to their enemies in other parts of Greece, as Greece was not unified nation but a collection of city-states. This eventually escalated to further skirmishes and led to a peace treaty between Athens, Argos and Persia.

Where Artaxerxes comes in for us is that he is another Persian king who was favorably looked upon by the Jews. He is mentioned by name in both Ezra and Nehemiah and credited with commissioning Ezra, by a letter of decree, to take charge of the religious and civil matters of the Jewish people in the reestablished Jewish nation. Ezra, with the authority of the Persian king, did just that. He ordered the religious life, read the Torah allowed to the Jewish people, and laid the foundation for the second Temple.

In his twentieth year as King, Artaxerxes gave his cup-bearer Nehemiah permission to go to Jerusalem with letters of safe-passage to the governors in the Trans-Euphrates region and to the keeper of the royal forests to build beams for the citadel by the Temple and to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Thus, as can be seen, Artaxerxes followed in the footsteps of Kings Cyrus in terms of supporting the Jewish campaign to rebuild Jerusalem.

All of this points to one fact that can be seen throughout the Bible and, if we look with open eyes and hearts, throughout our own lives. Here is that fact: God works through all people and all circumstances to build God’s Kingdom in our hearts and, eventually, as the ultimate reality of all creation. Nothing can, nor ever will, stand in the way of our awesome God! The challenge for us is to recognize God’s work in us as well as in others. Even when people seem to be working against God, it is important for us to realize that God’s love ALWAYS wins in the end. Let us, God’s people, embrace that truth and work toward its inevitable and eternal conclusion.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Problems are not stop signs, but are guidelines.” – Rev. Dr. Robert H. Schuller

PRAYER
Lord, pour your love in my heart and your guide me with your Holy Spirit. Grow me into being a part of your “Love Wins” mission in the world. Amen.

God’s People, part 67: Beholder’s Eye

Read 1 Kings 1-2; 1 Chronicles 28-29

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Get the truth and never sell it; also get wisdom, discipline, and good judgment.” (Proverbs 23:23 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

PerspectivePart 67: Beholder’s Eye. There is an old adage that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I would argue that so is history and any other form of knowledge. We as humans, especially in Western Civilization, tend to compartmentalize things. If it is right-brained, artistic, creative, and aesthetic in nature, it must be subjective; however, if it is left-brained, logical, scientific, historical, and fact-based, it must be objective. I believe that this reasoning is no more than a false dichotomy and that such fallacious thinking gives us an excuse to not deal with true human complexity. The world is seldom, if ever, so simple.

Just as it is true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so it is true that history, science, and other such disciplines are as well. Yes, there are facts, there are scientific laws that never change and there are subjects can only be seen in black and white (such as mathematics); however, how we interpret those laws, those facts, and even (in some cases) numbers, can often lead us to wildly different conclusions. It is also important to acknowledge that we can use facts in ways that support our conclusions, and we can skip over facts to not muddy the water in the well of our conclusions.

As a philosopher, I have long concluded that while facts must be true, the truth need not be factual. For instance, Jesus told the story about the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Parables are, by nature, not factual. They did not ACTUALLY happen. We could, possibly, imagine them happening. They may not be far-fetched; however, they did not actually happen. They are not factual, historical accounts. With that said, they convey THE TRUTH and through them, we are hopefully enlightened to a whole new way of thinking and living.

Yet, a fact cannot be a fact if it is not true. That is a simple, yet solid maxim. Unfortunately, we conflate the two realities and often resort to thinking that if something is not factual, then it must not be true. When we look at the Bible as a history, and parts of the Bible are recording history, we often measure its veracity by adding up the facts.

In the case of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, we often see two sets of accounts (one set in 1 & 2 Kings and the other set in 1 & 2 Chronicles) that tell the same basic story, yet the facts are different. The author of one might have written more favorably about, let’s say, David, than the other might have. From a 21st century stand point, the contradictions might cause some to put up red flags indicating that this account might not have happened because there are apparent contradictions; yet, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, both accounts could be true despite the contradictions.

What’s more, just because a text is written against another nation, does not mean that the other nation was all-evil in God’s sight. We have to remember that history is written in the beholder’s eye and that history is most often written by those who come out on top as the victors. Just because the Northern Kingdom of Israel is listed as a wayward Kingdom does not mean that they were all that the kings and scribes in Judah hyped them up to be. There may be facts in there; however, those facts get presented to us through the lenses of those writing them. This makes the truth hard to discern without grace, but it does not cancel the truth out.

This is an important lesson to learn, not only for studying the Bible, but for all things. Do we judge others based off what one side says about the other? Do we judge other nations based off what the leaders in our nation have to say about “them over there”? It is time for us to challenge ourselves from seeing the world in such a “true or false” way, for none of us truly live “true or false” lives. We all live in the “not sure” zone, as it were. Let us learn to be careful in our interpretation of facts. Let us be cautious in not just discarding potential truth because the facts don’t seem to line up. Let us also remember that, at the end of the day, God’s grace is what is ULTIMATELY TRUE.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
While fact is dependent on truth, the truth is not dependent on fact.

PRAYER
Lord, let me seek you and your wisdom out so that I may be more humble in my quest for truth. Steer me from making rash judgments. Amen.

Truth Vs. Fact

Read John 14:6-10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32, NLT)

Tropical big fish in a small fish bowl

One of the things that intrigues me most about the Bible is about how the Bible interacts with history. I love reading the stories about Esther and the Persian King Ahasuerus who, for good reason, is believed to be King Xerxes I of Persia. I love reading about archaeological finds that corroborate the stuff found in the Bible. One such example is the discovery of Caiaphas’s ossuary, which is a chest containing the bones of the high priest who found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and had him handed over to Pontius Pilate. It intrigues me when I learn that we have discovered Pontius Pilate’s name inscribed in stone. This kind of stuff makes me feel like a boy watching Indiana Jones and relishing in the history and the adventure.

As a person who gets excited about history, I find the links between the Bible and historical records to be simply stunning and thought-provoking. I also love studying, apart from the Bible, the times and contexts of the areas that the Bible is referring to. For instance, the Bible says that Abraham came from Ur. Where was Ur? What did it mean to be rooted in the culture of Ur. What sorts of religious, cultural and social practices existed in that land and in that time? Or, what was it like growing up in first century Palestine? What did it mean to be a Jew in that time, what sorts of things did the people of Jesus’ time have to deal/cope with. What did it mean to be poor, sick, lame, imprisoned, etc., in the time of Jesus?

With that said, our culture has become too reliant on history as a measure of truth. For instance, were Adam and Eve literal people? Was the world created in six literal days? Was there really a Noah and did God literally flood the earth, killing everything on it? Did Jonah really get swallowed up by a gigantic fish? Did Elijah really get carried off to heaven in a chariot of fire? For some, perhaps for many in today’s day and age, these questions and more become the focal point. And this focal point leads us to even more questions. If those things weren’t historically accurate, if they didn’t literally happen exactly as it was written (word for word) in the Bible, then should we just discount the Bible as being nothing more than a fanciful fairy-tale, full of lies and superstition?

In today’s time, people equate fact with truth. People tend to hold the following proposition: “if it isn’t factual, then it isn’t true.” Then they will take a story like Jonah and search for historical proof that Jonah existed, they’ll search for historical and scientific evidence that one can be swallowed up by a fish. If they cannot find said evidence, they end up with the following conclusion: “there is no historical evidence to prove that this really happened; therefore, its historicity is in question and we must conlcude the Jonah story is not true.

Yet, the proposition is what lacks in truth and it leads to such a false conclusion. It can be said that in order for something to be truly and/or wholly historical, in must be factual. It can also be said that if something is factual, it must be true.  Yet, while facts are dependent on truth, it does not follow that truth is dependent on fact. Just because something didn’t actually happen, does not mean it is not true! Take Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Was there a Good Samaritan? Did such a Good Samaritan actually exist? Who knows?!?! It was a parable that Jesus told in order to convey the truth of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whether, it was a parable drawn from a historical event, or whether it was spun up by Jesus’ masterful storytelling skills in the moment is completely irrelevant!

The point of this is that, while we can get intrigued by the historicity of the Bible, we ought not get caught up in whether it is historical or not. The Bible was not written to be a history text book. Yes, it does include historical events in it. It also includes allegory, poetry, mythology, laws, songs, philosophy, and a whole host of other things. What the Bible was written for was to convey theology and spiritual truth. To stumble on our 21st understanding of history and whether or not the Bible holds up to it is to, quite frankly, foolishly and senselessly miss the point. Rather than seeking the historicity of the Bible, seek truth within its pages, for the Bible is spiritually authoritative and it is a profound part of the foundation of our faith, filled with the Truth.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“It’s like a finger pointing to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all of that heavenly glory.” – Bruce Lee

PRAYER
Lord, rather than facts, fill me with your truth that I may be set free to live out that truth in my life. Amen.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Read Luke 1:1-4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

TheFourGospels“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on. Four corners to my bed, four angels round my head; one to watch and one to pray, and two to bear my soul away.” There is nothing quite like children’s nursery rhymes, is there? Especially religious ones that point to a God that all little children had better fear. I grew up reciting this rhyme as young boy, subconsciously digesting it’s grim and rather creepy message. This rhyme basically says that you had better be in line with the four Gospels if you would like God’s protection when you sleep, and it doesn’t hesitate to remind you that you could die in your sleep. So if you would like angels to guard you and/or carry your soul to heaven, you had better be blessed by the Gospels. That’s rather funny being that the word gospel literally means “good news” and is the “good news” of Jesus Christ, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

It is amazing to me that so many people claim to be Christian in this country and, yet, few people are literate to what the Gospels actually say. We recite quaint little rhymes, we remember the Sunday School stories taught to us at young ages, and we even watch movies that are, when you think of it, only loosely based on the Gospels; however, most people do not pick up the Gospels and read them for themselves. And, when people do pick up the Gospels and read it, they read it as if they are a cohesive, singular story that were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who were sitting side by side and consulting with each other on what they remember the Lord saying and doing. Here’s an example. Tell yourself what you know about Jesus’ birth. You will probably think of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, being forced to sleep in a manger because there was no room at the inn, and being visited by 3 wise men who brought gifts, as well as by shepherds who got a full choral performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir of angels.

Yet, I bet you didn’t realize that Mary and Joseph only get put in a manger in Luke, not Matthew. And the Wise Men are only mentioned in Matthew and not in Luke, not to mention the author of Matthew (we don’t actually know his real name, as he never actually gave it) never numbered the wise men to three. What’s more the shepherds only show up in Luke and not in Matthew. Let me also point this out, the birth narrative is ONLY found in Matthew and Luke. It is absent in Mark and John. Is your head spinning yet? What do we make of this? Should we question the accuracy of the Gospels?

The answer, in short, is absolutely not! If the authors were looking to write a 21st century, scientific, history textbook, then we should definitely question their accuracy; however, that is not what they were writing. They were writing a Gospel which combines loosely recorded historical figures and events that are combined with narratives woven around what were the known sayings, teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, who they witnessed and experienced as the Christ. To simplify this a bit, what the authors were writing was a THEOLOGY on WHO JESUS IS and WHY THAT IS GOOD NEWS. That is what these authors were concerned with, reporting the GOOD NEWS of JESUS CHRIST to their communities.

My challenge to you is for you to read the Gospels. Read them in the order they were written Mark (ca. 68-70 CE), Matthew (ca. 80-90 CE), Luke (ca. 80-90 CE), and John (ca. 90-100 CE). Read them separately, taking each one on its own terms. Get a feel for what truths each author would like to convey to you about Jesus, the Christ, the son of God. Let them inform you, rather than you trying to inform them, and be amazed at the dynamic, living, and powerful Christ that will meet you in the process. There are no books in the world more influential that the Gospels and there is a reason for that. Read them as they are and be transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“While facts are beholden to truth, truth is not beholden to fact.” – Rev. Todd R. Lattig

PRAYER
Lord, speak the truth of your good news to my heart so that I may see you as you wish to be revealed to me, through the faithful witness of others as well as through my own experience. Amen.

It’s Story Time

Read Genesis 1

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us.” (Luke 1:1 NLT)

storytellerWe are a people who thrive on stories. Whether they be stories told around a campfire, stories bound in a book, stories acted out on as stage or before a film camera, we are a people who tell and love to be told stories. It is no wonder then, that we are people who lend serious weight to stories when they are told to us. In stories we come across characters we can relate to, as well as characters that we feel the need to distance ourselves from…just like in life. In stories, we discover truths as well as uncover and expose lies. Stories are, and have been, ways in which we pass down our history and our heritage from one generation to the next and, without a shadow of a doubt, stories are also how, in part, we have passed our religions and morals down from generation to generation.

The Bible is full of such stories. Please keep in mind that my use of the word “story” here is not to claim, one way or the other, on their historical veracity. In fact, even history is a “story”, is it not? And history is often one side’s version of that story. But back to the Bible. It is filled with stories of creation and origin, stories of heritage and lineage, stories of kingdoms and conquest, stories of faith, historical stories and even prose and poetry that recount stories of love, life, happiness, sadness, tragedy, despair and every other category in between.

What’s more important, and not always recognized by people, is the realization that the Bible is a collection of many different stories, some that don’t even agree with each other. For instance, some stories talk about King David as a king who had very few flaws (1 Chronicles). Other stories show him to be a flawed and proud character who eventually had to be humbled by God through the prophet Nathan (1 and 2 Samuel). Different stories also reveal different aspects of God, which is why the ancient Jews decided to include them all in the same book. They didn’t look at them as contradicting stories, as much as they saw them as stories of opportunity to grow in depth of our understanding of God. So, in one book and/or passage, we might discover that “God is slow to get angry, is full of compassion, forgiveness and mercy, and doesn’t harbor judgment forever (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18); however, somewhere else we read that God put Onan to death for NOT getting his sister-in-law pregnant (yes, you read that right, see Genesis 38)! When we read these stories, some of them resonate with us…other stories we read disagree with us…and still, they all challenge us to wrestle with OUR OWN STORY of who God is, and how God relates with us.

In today’s time, some people have become snobbish toward stories of faith; they look at the stories of faith as being ways that “more ignorant” people explained things, while seemingly being completely ignorant to the fact that they are carrying on that same tradition of story telling…even if their versions of the stories have somewhat, or even drastically, changed. Take the big bang theory, for instance. Is that no more a story than the story of Creation? Is one story right and the other wrong? Or do both point to different angles of the same truth…namely, the truth that WE EXIST AGAINST ALL ODDS.

Today’s challenge is to NOT be snobbish to the stories of the past, but to learn from them. Recognize that these stories do inform us of where we came from, who we are, and who God is calling us to be. These stories are the foundations of our very lives, and not one person is devoid of those stories. Thank God for the blessing of those stories, and be willing to wrestle with them. In doing so, you GROW and see a fuller picture of who God is and who YOU ARE! In doing so, you will become a LIVING PART of the story, as well as a partner in passing them down!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my them in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” – Katherine Hankey

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for all of the blessing of stories and for my being taught of you through the stories that have been passed down to me. Use me as a faithful storyteller, sharing your good news in all the ways that I can. Amen.