Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Daily Old Testament: Nehemiah 1-3 and My Own Article on "Friends and Scripture" (Part 8)

Nehemiah 1 – Written in the first person, Nehemiah is, at the time of the return, a cupbearer for the Persian king Artaxerxes. The account begins in the year 446 according to a note in my Jerusalem Bible. He is living in Susa when his brother Hanani comes with other men from Judah with news of the terrible condition of the people there. Susa is one of the oldest cities in the world, in the Zagros Mountain area [southeastern Iran today] and home of both Daniel and Nehemiah. The city wall of Jerusalem has broken down; the gates have been destroyed. Nehemiah is moved by his brother’s report. He weeps and mourns “for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4).

He addresses God in prayer: “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned. We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants” (1:5-10).

Nehemiah 2 – Nehemiah is a cup-bearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes. One day he appears to serve the king, and his face is sad. The king takes notice and Nehemiah tells him his heart is sad because the city of his ancestors’ graves lies in ruins. The king asks him what he wants to do and Nehemiah tells him he wants to rebuild it (2:5). The king asks him how long he will be gone, and at Nehemiah’s request grants him letters permitting him to pass through the province west of the Euphrates River, letters to the king’s forest-keeper, allowing him to take lumber, etc. The governors of the province are not happy about all of this, but they can do nothing.

When Nehemiah gets to Jerusalem, he doesn’t announce right away what he is there to do, but surveys the Temple area, assessing the damage. Then he calls the people together, and encourages them to start building. The officials, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arab, mock them and imply that they are planning rebellion. Nehemiah responds, “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem” (2:20).

Nehemiah 3 – Proceeding in a clockwise direction around the city, the writer tells which exact families made repairs to the walls. The priests work in the vicinity of the temple, starting at the Sheep Gate, then by the Tower of Hananel, the Fish Gate, the Old Gate, the Broad Wall. From there around to the Tower of the Ovens or Furnaces, the Valley Gate and a thousand cubits down to the Dung Gate. To the Fountain Gate and the wall of the Pool of Shelah (Siloam?) to the stairs leading to the City of David. From a point opposite the graves of David to the artificial pool (Upper Pool? A reservoir that drew off water of the Gihon at their source, once filled in by Hezekiah—2 Kings 20). The priests again work near their houses and up to the Water Gate on the east, past the Horse Gate to the East Gate and so on back to the Sheep Gate.

“Friends and Scripture”
Introduction: This article is one I wrote some years ago and it was eventually part of the book I wrote called Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey Through Quakerism. My plan here is just to include a few paragraphs of the chapter each day.

Part 8
Fox’s major “openings” are experienced in the ministration of Moses.  Through these openings or revelations, he realizes he must move from the “fleshly” understanding he is accustomed to, to a more spiritual grasp of God’s work in his life.  It is the process of being weaned away from the “common belief of people” that characterizes the openings he has during this stage. The openings he experiences here lead him to rely less and less on those thought to be spiritually wise by worldly standards and more on the sense of what God seems to be saying within him.  He is beginning to see what the new covenant is all about--that “believers. . . needed no man to teach them, but as the anointing teacheth them. . .” (Fox’s Journal 7).

To me it is very interesting to compare Fox’s thinking here to what Augustine tried to get across in his Treatise on the Profit of Believing. If what you are “believing” is central – the existence and teaching and mission of Jesus, for example – then you must rely to some extent on the tradition and teaching of the Church that was started by the people who knew him, heard him, recorded what was taught about him, etc. Belief - trust - starts here.  Fox is saying that what is most essential about the faith was an inward connection with God, or a belief and trust in that inward - gut-like - connection. I go both ways on this one. I do think there is an epistemology of faith; we have to trust the messenger, but just repeating the message over and over is not enough; one must have the spiritual “light” God has implanted in all of us “open” the teaching and release its power in our lives.

 The culmination of this weaning process comes in his famous opening concerning Christ’s inward presence, which I quoted in connection with my discussion of the theology of early Friends’ vision . . . This is, of course, always the quote Friends use to describe what it is that Friends believe, that Jesus Christ dwells in the human heart and it is He who teaches and speaks to the condition of every person.  But in Fox’s account, what this opening reveals is simply the identity of the light that has been guiding him all along.  He is still only somewhere in the middle of the ministration of Moses when he has this opening and it will be years before he emerges from the desert in which his soul is journeying.  He has not yet even begun his passage through the law.

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