What do you see?

You take the Bible seriously…? Childish fables and all?  Creation in six days, Eve and the snake in the garden, Noah’s ark, Aaron’s stick that turns into a snake, on and on?”(1)

It is easy to make a caricature of the Bible,  especially of the first chapters of Genesis.  When read as an ANE myth, the first chapters of Genesis describe man and woman discovering sex and becoming aware of themselves, the man learning his role as a toiler in the fields and the woman her role as child bearer, the reason a serpent slithers, etc, etc.    But if we read Genesis 2 and 3 in the light of the Pentateuch (and the rest of Scripture) then  we will find etiologies of a different sort.   Here is the first instance of a law; the formation of the first family unit;  the origin of guilt, shame and fear; and the first sacrifice.   The garden is the temple, the heavenly city.  The sloughing serpent is Leviathan, the dragon that rises from the sea.

In one of his Pensees , Blaise Pascal noted that our attitude towards a person (or a text) fundamentally influences  how we hear them.

If two people are talking nonsense, and one sees a double meaning understood by adepts, while the other sees only a single meaning, any uninitiated person who heard them talking like this would judge them alike.  But if the first goes on to say angelic things and the other always banal commonplaces, he would judge that the one was talking mystically, but not the other, since one has shown clearly enough that the is incapable of such nonsense and capable of a mystic meaning, while the other has shown himself incapable of a mystic meaning and capable of nonsense.  The Old Testament is a cipher.  (Pensees 276, Blaise Pascal, Penguin Edition 1995)

If we were to hear a man speaking gibberish and only later discovered that he was known to be wise, then will likely look for meaning in what we first dismissed out of hand.  Even if we don’t succeed, we will acknowledge that our failure to understand is due to our own limitations, and that with time, the meaning will become clearer to us.  On the other hand, if we hear gibberish, and later discover that the person who spoke was insane, then we will not give the matter a second thought. Pascal’s point was that the Old Testament is a Cipher that speaks of Christ.  Pascal believed that God gave enough light through nature and the Scriptures to guide sincere seekers, and enough darkness to keep rebels from being unwillingly bludgeoned into accepting the truth. (3)  This same principle is also found in the parables of Christ.

Bibliography: (1) Wouk, H. (2010). The language God talks : on science and religion. New York, NY, Little, Brown and Co.  This quote is in the context of a discussion between the author and a the Physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman. (2) Pascal, B. and A. J. Krailsheimer (1995). Pensées. London New York, Penguin Books ; Penguin Books USA. (3) MacKenzie, C. S., Blaise Pascal: Apologist to Skeptics, University Press of America: Lanham, 2008

The Potter

While scouting for places to shoot video in Hebron, Joel Kramer and I stumbled on a potters workshop.  The potter was deaf and mute and seemed to live in his own world.  He welcomed us into his shop and was happy to let us film.  Joel just released a 3 minute short with some of the footage.

The Potter from SourceFlix.com on Vimeo.

Joel captures footage in Israel that you aren’t likely to find elsewhere.  His videos bring to life subjects that are foreign to us who have grown up in Western cultures.  You can check out his work on his website: http://sourceflix.com/

The Yoke

Israel was brought out of the ‘house of slavery’ to the land of Promise.  The bars of their yoke were broken, and they were made “to walk erect”.   (Lev 26:13 ESV)  In the laws of kingship in Deuteronomy, the king was expressly forbidden from selling his people back into slavery to Egypt in order to acquire horses, because “You shall not return that way again.”  (Deu 17:16 ESV)

The prophet Isaiah opposed making a treaty with Egypt because he saw such an alliance as a rejection of the Sinai covenant.

“Egypt’s help is worthless and empty; therefore I have called her “Rahab who sits still.”…   For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling…”   (Isa 30:7-8, 15 ESV)

Isaiah likewise warned Ahaz from making an alliance with Assyria.   Isaiah said to the king, “If you do not stand in faith, you will not stand at all!”   But Ahaz insisted on pursuing a more ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy and purchased a few years of peace by paying tribute to the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III.  (pic)

In the second chapter of Jeremiah, the signing of treaties with Assyria and Egypt are equated with idolatry.  The prophet charged the people with forsaking the fountain of living water to hew out broken cisterns that can hold no water.   Jeremiah asks,  “Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth? Why then has he become plunder?   Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Nile? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the Euphrates?”  (Jer 2:14 NIV)  Israel’s freedom was conditioned upon obedience to the covenant at Sinai but Israel broke the conditions of the covenant, symbolized by breaking off the yoke of the Law.

19 Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the LORD your God and have no awe of me,” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.  20 “Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, ‘I will not serve you!’ Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute.  (Jer 2:18-20 NIV)

 Israel traded the yoke imposed upon them at Sinai  for the yoke of a foreign king.  This humiliation is graphically born out on the Black Obelisk (although a little earlier than the time of Jeremiah) on which Jehu is portrayed paying homage to the Assyrian King, Shalmaneser III, under the tutelage of Assyria’s gods.

Black Obelisk
Black Obelisk – Jehu, king of Israel, or his ambassador, kneeling before Shalmaneser III under the symbols of Assyria’s gods.  (British Museum)

Assyrian kings often spoke of placing their ‘yoke’ on those they have conquered:

 I destroyed the lands of Saraus (and) Ammaus, which from ancient times had not known submission, (so that they looked) like ruin hills (created by) the deluge.  I fought with their extensive army in Mt. Aruma, and rbought about their defeat.  I laid out like grain heaps the corpses of their men-at-arms.  I conquered their cities, took their gods, and brought out their booty, possessions (and) property.  I burned, razed, (and) destroyed their cities (and) turned them into ruin hills.  I imposed the heavy yoke of my dominion on them (and) made them vassals of Assur, my lord.   (Tiglath Pilerser I, B. Foster, Before the Muses)

 A common justification used by Assyrian kings for marching to war was to crush those who sinfully ‘throw off the yoke’.

Assyrian Relief (British Museum)
Assyrian Relief - Ninevah
Slaves hauling a stone bull for one of Sennacherib’s palaces at Ninevah. (British Museum)

Isaiah looked forward to the day when the yoke of burden would depart from Israel (Is. 14:25; cf. 10:27), and the oppressors staff would be broken.  (Isaiah 9:4)  For a king would be born who would take the government upon his shoulders instead of laying it on the backs of his subjects. (Isaiah 9:5)   He will be called the Prince of Peace and the Wonderful Counselor (Isa 9:6), the Shepherd who gives rest to the anxious soul (Isa 40:11; 28:11), the Servant who gives his life for many (Isa 40-66; Matt. 20:28).  He will bring good news for the poor and bind up the wounds of the broken hearted.  (Is. 61:1)  The Stone that the builder’s rejected has become the Cornerstone, how marvelous it is in our eyes!   (Psa 118:23, cf. Is. 8: 14 cf. 28:16)


Click the ‘expand’ button to view full res panorama.

Click the ‘expand’ button to view full res panorama.

The River

And so, look now, the Lord is bringing upon them the waters of the River, mighty and numerous, (namely), the king of Assyria and all his glory, and he shall run over all his courses, and go over all his banks. And he will push on against Judah, overflow and sweep over, reaching even the neck. And his outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, 0 Immanuel. (8:7-8)

The Assyrians often compared their military prowess to the waters of the Flood (abubu).  This was not just any flood, but the waters of the Great Flood that destroyed the earth.  Isaiah picks up on this metaphor in Isaiah 8:6-8.  Because the people refused the gentle brook of Shiloah,  the LORD was bringing on them the waters of ‘the River’, a reference to the Euphrates.

There is an interesting relief in the British Museum that actually shows Assyrian soldiers swimming across the Euphrates River on inflated animal bladders.  Horses swim next to them while the chariots have been dissembled and are being carried across the river in little coracles.  It is a striking depiction of the words of Isaiah.

Assyrian Wall Relief
An Assyrian relief from Nimrud, North-West Palace, Room B, panel 10. (865-860 BC) It depicts the Assyrian army  of Ashurnasirpal II crossing the Euphrates River.   (British Museum)
Assyrian Wall Relief
Assyrians swimming across the river using an inflated bladder for buoyancy. (British Museum)

As is so typical in Isaiah, the foretelling of doom is followed by words of hope – in this case, the promise of Emmanuel.   Although the water would reach up to the neck – ultimately, those who fight against the LORD will be destroyed “for God is with us”.

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.  (Isa 8:9,10 ESV)