Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: 2 Kings 16-17 and Luke 13

2 Kings 16 – King Ahaz of Judah is 20 when he becomes king and rules for 16 years (732-715). He does what is not right, walking “in the ways of the kings of Israel. He even sacrifices his own son as a burnt offering, imitating the practices of the ancient Canaanite people of the region (16:3-4). During Ahaz’ reign, the kings of Syria (Rezin) and Israel (Pekah) join in an alliance against him – they are angry that he would not join with them in an alliance against Assyria - but they do not conquer him.

The King of Edom recovers Elath (Aqaba) and drives the Judeans out. Ahaz turns to the king of Assyria for help against them all, saying “I am your devoted servant. Come and rescue me from the kings of Syria and Israel, who are attacking me” (16:7). He even gives tribute of gold and silver from the Temple to win him as an ally. It works - the King of Assyria, who is known as one of the most warlike and feared of all rulers of the region, comes and defeats the Syrians at Damascus, carrying off its inhabitants to Assyria (to Kir). This assistance of the king of Judah to the building up of Assyrian power HAS to be one of the worst things Ahaz could have done in the sight of God.

Ahaz visits Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC) in Assyria and admires one of the altars he has. He sends the priest Uriah to study it so that he can have one built like it before he returns to Jerusalem. He makes sacrifice on this altar, removes the bronze altar that was there before, moving it to the north. All the blood sacrifices that were traditional are now to be offered up on the new altar.  The old one will just be for the king “to inquire by” (16:15). He made changes in the bronze altar and in the inner sanctuary as well. When he dies, he is succeeded by his son Hezekiah (715-686).
2 Kings 17 – KEY CHAPTER: In Israel, Hoshea, son of Elah comes to power. “He did what was evil. . .yet not like the kings of Israel who were before him” (17:2). King Shalmaneser V (727-722 BC) of Assyria comes against him, and Hoshea becomes his vassal, paying him tribute. But when Hoshea seeks Egyptian help and stops paying the tribute, Shalmaneser has him imprisoned (17:4).

Assyria invades the land again and besieges Samaria for three years. In 722, Samaria falls and the Israelites are carried away to Assyria—to Halah on the Habor and to the cities of the Medes. Later the Assyrians will also move people from other Mesopotamian cities and settle them in Samaria, so the ethnic, cultural and religious unity of the region will be destroyed permanently.
“This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt. . .They had worshiped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. . .The people of Israel secretly did things that were not right against the Lord their God. . .they served idols. . .They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been who did not believe in the Lord their God. . .They went after false idols and became false; they followed the nations that were around them. . .They rejected all the commandments of the Lord. . .and made for themselves cast images of two calves; they made a sacred pole, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone” (17:7-18).

This has to be the centerpiece of the entire book of Kings—the prophetic explanation for the failure of the Promised Land project begun by Moses. The next paragraph also warns that Judah is not being faithful either.
“Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced” (17:19). The writer repeats in brief the history of the kings. After carrying the people of Israel off, the king of Assyria settles foreigners on their land—people from Babylon, Cathah, Avva, Hamath, etc. “When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; therefore, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them” (17:25). The king is warned that the misfortunes they are suffering there are due to the fact that people there “do not know the law of the god of the land” (17:26), so Shalmaneser orders a priest in exile to be returned to Israel, to Bethel, so that he can teach the settlers how to worship the Lord.
Still the worship that comes is not pure. The customs of the foreigners mingle with the Yahweh worship on the “high places.” The various gods set up there are listed: Succoth-benoth (Bablyon); Nergal (Cuth); Ashima (Hamah); Nibhaz and Tartak (Avvites); Adrammelech and Anammelech (Sepharvaim), with child-sacrifice. But they also worship Yahweh and appoint priests for his worship. “So these nations worshiped the Lord, but also served their carved images; to this day their children and their children’s children continue to do as their ancestors did” (17:41).

Luke 13 – Jesus moves on to tell the crowds that when you see people who are killed by the powers that be, you should NOT think that those people have somehow brought God’s wrath down on themselves. It’s easy to see the pain others suffer as the consequence of some sin they have committed. We all kind of assume that people who are punished by those in power MUST have done something bad, but all of us suffer and all of us will die. We should not assume always that these things imply some misdeed. But then he says something that seems to undercut this message. He says, “If you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did” (13:5). Does anyone understand how all of this is consistent??
Then comes the parable of the fig tree:  The owner of the fig tree comes to see if it has born any fruit, but even after three whole years, there is none.  So the owner tells the gardener to cut it down.  The gardener asks him to be patient and give him a little more time to fertilize it and encourage it.  If after that it still bears no fruit, then he will cut it down. Here, I think, Jesus is the gardener, asking God for just a little more time for him to get the tree to bring forth fruit.
Jesus on the meaning of the Sabbath: A woman with an evil spirit that had kept her crippled her for 18 years, unable to stand up straight, is cured by Jesus on the Sabbath.  He is criticized for “breaking the Sabbath” by “working” this miracle. Jesus puts his critics to shame for their superficial righteousness.  “You hypocrites,” Jesus says, “ . . .ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (13:16)
Jesus’ teaching on God’s Kingdom: Jesus compares God’s Kingdom to a mustard seed – a tiny plant that eventually will grow into a tall tree that will be able to “house” many “birds” (13:19).
Then he compares the Kingdom to “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (13:20). Though tiny, the presence of God’s kingdom, will leaven our reality and change it fundamentally over time.
On entering God’s Kingdom: Teaching in villages on the way to Jerusalem, someone asks if only a few will be saved. “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (13:24). Once the owner has shut the door, you will stand outside and knock, but he will say “I do not know where you come from” (13:25). “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (13:28-29). These are very tough words directed in a prophetic voice to the people of Israel who are not accepting Jesus—I think.
Jesus’ yearning for acceptance by his people: And yet another plea: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (13:34). This combines both the hard edge and the loving plea.  The hard edge comes from a recognition of the great love that is behind Jesus’ appearance and the hurt and frustration that comes from seeing it rejected by those who looked forward most to its coming.

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