Thursday, May 24, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 1 Kings 20 and Luke 3

1 Kings 20 – It is around 868 BC. Ben-hadad II, is king of Syria (Aram). He gathers 32 kings [Jerusalem Bible note says they were princely vassals] to march against the kingdom of Israel under king Ahab’s rule.

He sends a message to Ahab saying, “Your silver and gold are mine; you may keep your wives and children.” This is the Jerusalem Bible translation. The NRSV version is, “Your silver and gold are mine; your fairest wives and children also are mine” (20:3). This makes no sense in the context of the story, so I assume the Jerusalem Bible translation is to be preferred here. He agrees to this message, but whatever the words actually said, the meaning of his reply is that, Ben-hadad, may have all his treasure, but his wives and children are not to be touched. 

Ben-hadad sends back a message, this time saying that everything he and his men want they will take, so Ahab goes to the elders and confers with them. They will resist. Both sides get ready for a fight.

At this point a prophet comes to Ahab and a rather complex interaction takes place between the “secular” and religious principles of the time. The unnamed prophet says that the Lord will give Ben-hadad’s men into their hands (20:13). They do beat them. The king of Syria interprets this as a victory brought about by the Israelite god whom he believes is a “god of the mountains.” But he thinks if they were to fight on the plains, they (the Syrians) would win.

In the spring, when the Syrians challenge them again, they go to the plains, near Aphek.  The prophets see this as an opportunity to proclaim that their god is the ONE GOD, the God of mountains, valleys and plains. They tell Ahab, “Because the Syrians have said, ‘The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,’ therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord’” (20:28). Needless to say, they win again. 

The surviving princes of the Syrian forces flee into Aphek and appeal to Ahab for mercy. Ahab perhaps sees this as an opportunity to make peace with his war-hungry neighbors and says something conciliatory, referring to Ben-hadad as his “brother.” To us modern Christian readers, this seems like it should be a good thing; but it isn’t in the context of the times and the author’s understanding of what God wanted Ahab to do. The prophets have said that God wants them defeated and killed. It is not for Ahab to do this HIS WAY.
The narrative shifts to a short parable, similar to the parable Nathan uses in 2 Samuel 12 with David to help him SEE the terrible thing he has done in seducing Bathsheba. Here, we are told that the Lord tells one of a community of prophets (prophet A) to order another prophet (prophet B) to strike him (prophet A). If the Lord orders it the other prophet should DO it even though he (prophet B) may rationally see the order as stupid, something that should NOT be done. When the prophet B refuses to strike prophet A, prophet A says, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, as soon as you leave me, a lion will kill you,” (20:36) and so it happens.  Then prophet A goes to another (prophet C) and tells him to strike him, and this prophet (C) does as he is told – he hits and wounds him. 

OK, now the parable shifts back to the “worldly” setting of kings and military officers. Prophet A leaves and hides himself along the road, now posing as a soldier (soldier A) who’s been wounded. When the king passes and asks what has happened to him, he tells the king he was injured when a fellow soldier, the soldier’s officer, gave a prisoner into his keeping and ordered him to guard the man or die for failing to do so. When the prisoner escapes on the soldier’s watch, the king responds by saying that he must die –the penalty was set by the officer in charge. 

The prophet tells Ahab this story to show him he was wrong in letting the Syrian king go. When a SUPERIOR decides something, you can’t make changes in what that authority has determined. God wanted the Syrians to die and you (Ahab) screwed up when you decided to show mercy. This very convoluted story basically means that God is not happy that Ahab comes to terms with the enemy God for him to defeat.  Ahab let his captives go just as the man in the parable did. A Jerusalem Bible note says, “all who disobey the word of God or of a man of God, even for good motives, will be punished. This idea is not perfect and is not that of the great prophets, but it reflects the mentality of the ancient prophetic communities” (449).

King Ahab returns to Samaria “resentful and sullen” (20:43).

Luke 3 – In the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (Pilate is governor of Judea, Herod of Galilee and his brother Philip of Ituraea and Trachonitis), when Annas and Caiaphas are high priests, John begins his ministry in the Jordan region. He proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3), in accordance with the words of Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (3:4-6).

John’s message to his people is that they are all caught up in the outward show of religion. Faith in God isn’t about being descendants of Abraham in the flesh. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8). The people ask him what they need to DO. They must bear “good fruit” in their lives (3:9). They must share their excess with those who have nothing. 

Tax collectors want to know what they should DO, and John tells them to be honest in their work, collecting only what they are authorized to collect. 

Soldiers ask what they should DO, and they are told likewise to be honest and satisfied with the wages they get (3:14). This emphasis is different from in Mark, where what one is to do barely registers on the screen.  There, the emphasis is on people believing the “good news” and coming into relationship with Jesus, coming to know him—who he is. It is also interesting to me that the ones with the jobs people thought unworthy are not told to leave those jobs but simply to bring a sense of integrity to them.  People in military service are not told it is wrong to engage in war.  They are simply told to not oppress and be happy with the wages they have.
As in Mark, the people who flock to John are “filled with expectation” and all wondering if he (John) might be the Messiah (3:15). John lets them know he is only preparing the way for the one who will baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16). He will come with a winnowing fork to gather the wheat and throw the chaff into the fire (3:17). Herod, upset at John’s rebuke of him for having married his brother’s wife, has him thrown into jail.
Here after all the people had been baptized and Jesus as well, the Holy Spirit descends on him “in bodily form like a dove” and a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Jesus was about thirty.  People take him to be the son of Joseph (and Joseph’s lineage is traced back to Adam through 75 generations (David is 41st back in the line; Abraham 55th and Adam 75th). It is interesting to me that Adam is called the “son of God” (3:38).

There are a few other things I would like to point out about Luke’s gospel and how it different in focus from the other gospels. He continues in this chapter to show his commitment to linking Jesus in very concrete ways to historical time – placing the beginning of his ministry in the context of all the local and regional authorities as well as the Roman Emperor of the time. He is equally meticulous in reciting Jesus ancestral line, name by name from Joseph all the way back to Adam. Matthew will recite the lineage as well but only back to Abraham and with a few other changes as well. Clearly, Luke is set upon placing Jesus in all of “human history” while Matthew is more interested in locating him in “Jewish history.”

The tone of the gospel also has an “edge” I find missing from the other gospels. I will point the instances where this tone is most prominent. For this chapter I see it in John’s message that “the ax is lying at the root of the trees” – you had better bear fruit (3:9), and John’s reference to the one who will come after him, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire, coming with a “winnowing fork” to separate the wheat from the chaff. The “chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).

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