I came across a very unusual website today. That is the Temple Institute of Jerusalem, Israel. It is located in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The Institute is slowly preparing for the construction of the so-called Third Temple. They not only are doing in-depth research into all the particulars of the ancient temple, but they are actually making vessels, musical instruments, priestly vestments and other implements used in the service of the temple. Their most prized and recent creations are the Table of the Shewbread, and the pure gold Lampstand. Very interesting, check it out.
If you were paying attention last time you read the book of Judges you would have noticed that the men of Jabesh-gilead get a bad wrap. Remember, the Levite’s concubine gets raped and murdered by a band of men in Gibeah of Benjamin (Judg 19). Then all Israel assembles to declare war on the Benjamites for their behavior. Except the men of Jabesh-gilead were a no-show (Judg 21:8-12).
After the war with the Benjamites, the tribes send an army against Jabesh-gilead and kill every man and woman except the female virgins because the men didn’t show up for military service. The virgins are given to the tribe of Benjamin for wives.
Weirdly enough, the men of Jabesh-gilead make a comeback. Don’t ask me how. But at the beginning of Saul’s reign they request military help against the Ammonites (1 Sam 11:1). Saul roundly whoops the Ammonites and Jabesh-gilead is very grateful.
So, you guessed it, they make one final appearance. After Saul has committed suicide and the Philistines hang his body and his sons’ bodies on the wall of their city, the men of Jabesh-gilead make a sortie to steal the bodies. They rescue the bodies from the public display and give them a burial of honor (1 Sam 31:11-13).
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future full of hope.” (Jer 29:11 ESV)
Many times, especially in the spring, when we encounter graduation cards and happy wishes for newly married couples, we find this verse. It is one of my favorite scripture passages and it is very comforting in times of transition and doubt. Yet it is almost always quoted without a context. Now, I don’t think that passages need to be always and every time read in context. But I do think that they should be understood in their contexts first and then applied outside of that context. They should initially be encountered where they stand in the text of the Bible. Only secondarily can they be made useful as moral teachings, personal messages or comforting words in times of difficulty. If we don’t take the initial step of trying to understand them in context then we easily get lost in the shuffle.
The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is very unique. The verse is in the midst of a prophetic letter which Jeremiah sent from Israel to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It is a first person prophecy wherein Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the LORD. The LORD is telling the exiles to build houses and have children and pray. They are to be faithful to him in exile and then he promises to bring them back to Israel. The verse comes in the midst of his promise to bring them back to the Holy Land, where they will seek and find him and pray to him and call upon him. He will gather them back into the land.
If we understand the verse with its context, the application is a little bit different. It is not about future plans for something completely new, but future plans for the restoration of something lost. It is about bringing the people back to the the Land. God promises his faithfulness to his people who seek him “with all their hearts” (29:13). It is about God restoring his relationship with his people and them coming back to him in faithful love. It not only calls for trust, but for prayer, love and worship. God not only promises to love his people and be faithful to them, but he asks them to be faithful to him, to love him to draw near to him. God does have plans for us–plans to restore and heal and prosper our relationships with him, to bring us back from a land of sin and evil to a land of his bountiful goodness, his blessing, his life. Jeremiah 29:11 is not just about assuaging our anxieties about the future, but about the growth and restoration of our own relationships with God.
I just added a few Bible links on the right hand column. There’s a link for the major Catholic translations in use that are web-published: New American Bible (1970), Revised Standard Version (1951), New Jerusalem Bible (1985) and Douay-Rheims (1609). The NAB is the one used for all Catholic liturgy in the US. It was translated by members of the Catholic Biblical Association in the US. The RSV was originally translated by English Protestants as a revision of the King James Version. The English Catholic bishops approved its use among Catholics, but it is not to be used for liturgy in the United States. The Douay-Rheims version was the first major English translation of the Bible, preceding the King James by 2 years. It is a translation of the Latin Vulgate, not from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. The New Jerusalem Bible is a revision of the Jerusalem Bible, which was translated by English Catholics in the mid-twentieth century.
I also added a link and search bar to the English Standard Version, my favorite translation. It is a fresh translation, produced in 2002. It follows the traditional theological language of English Bibles (KJV, ASV, RSV) and prizes word-for-word accuracy. I think it is the best translation on the market and look forward to the day when it is produced in a Catholic edition.
A notable feature of early Hebrew narrative is the “intractable vow.” When someone made a serious vow in the Ancient Near East, its consequences could be mortal. We find many stories in the Bible where people take great lengths to avoid breaking a vow. Check out these examples:
Joshua 9 – The Gibeonites pretend to be people on a long journey from a faraway land. They ask for a covenant with the Israelites who are currently taking over the land of Canaan by military conquest. Thinking them to be foreigners, Joshua and the Israelite people make a covenant with them. For the Lord had forbidden them to make a covenant with anyone in the land. The notable feature is that though the Israelites were greviously deceived into making this covenant, they keep their word. They do not attack the cities of the Gibeonites who had deceived them even though the Lord had commanded them to drive out all the peoples in the land. They viewed the covenant they had made with the Gibeonites as intractable.
Judges 11 – Jephthah, one of the Israelite judges, makes an odd vow. He vows that he’ll offer up as a sacrifice whatever or whoever comes out of the door of his house first when he returns from war. He makes the vow in the heat of battle to win the Lord’s favor. But I call the vow “odd” because the things and/or people most likely to be coming out of his house are his immediate family members. I don’t think this vow was inspired by the Lord. Nevertheless, when Jephthah eventually does return home, his daughter, his only child comes running and dancing out of the house to greet him. He tears his clothes and tells her of his vow. Another suprise: she asks him to fulfill his vow. So he offers her up as a human sacrifice. Yuck.
Judges 21 – When all the tribes of Israel decided to war against Benjamin for its crimes, they make two vows: First, they vow not to offer their daughters to Benjamin in marriage. Second, the vow to kill anyone who didn’t show up at the muster. After the combat, Benjamin can’t reproduce because it has no women. So the Israelites find the only people who didn’t come to the muster–the people of Jabesh-gilead. They kill all the men and non-virgin women. Then they take all the virgin women and give them to Benjamin for wives. But that’s not enough for Benjamin, so the Israelites devise a complicated plan to give Israelite women to Benjamin without breaking their original vow. They have the men of Benjamin hide in the woods when the Israelite women come out to dance for a religious festival. Then the Benjamite men jump out of the woods and carry off women to be wives. Wild!
I think we can see the importance of taking one’s word very seriously in this idea of the intractable vow. We can also see the irrevocability of God’s promises to us, which St. Paul points out in Romans. Yet I think we can look to Catholic moral theology to realize that if we vow something and to fulfill it would be objectively sinful then we are not obligated to fulfill it. So if you find yourself in Jephthah’s shoes, DO NOT sacrifice your daughter. Rather, you should repent to the Lord for making such a foolish vow in the first place. Jesus actually tells us not to make vows at all: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. ” (Mat 5:33-37 ESV)
Galatians 3:13 quotes Deuteronomy 21:23 as saying “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” in reference to Jesus becoming a curse for us. That is, he took the curse of sin upon himself that we might have life.
It’s an interesting point, especially because there are a few examples of hanging people on trees in the OT. As is my tendency to give lists, take a look at these examples of people hung on trees:
1. The Chief Baker of Pharoah – Gen 40:19-22
2. King of Ai – Josh 8:29
3. The Five Kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon – Josh 10:26
4. Two Assyrian Officials – Esth 2:23
Apparently, it was considered particularly disgraceful to defile someone’s body by hanging it on a tree or impaling it. It was so reprehensible that the practice could even bring a curse on the land. Deuteronomy makes this clear in 21:22-3, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. ” (ESV)
The idea of the curse of being hung on a tree becomes very important for the proclamation of the gospel. It intensifies the disgracefulness of Jesus’ crucifixion, magnifies his humility and shows the greatness of his love for us. Peter mentions the curse twice in Acts (5:30, 10:39) and once in 1 Pet 2:24. His emphasis on the Deuteronomic curse should be relevant for us. Jesus not only died a disgraceful death, but he died in a way that warranted God’s curse and even a curse upon the land. His willingness to suffer this shows his love for us.
The Chicago Tribune reported today that Archaeologists from Hebrew University have discovered the tomb of Herod the Great. Here’s the story.
The lead scientist, Ehud Netzer, has been excavating at the Herodium site for 35 years. WOW! Talk about a long-term treasure hunt. Herod the Great was the one who instigated the massacre of the innocents at the birth of Jesus. He questioned the wise men about the star. He also was a great architect. He designed and began construction on the Temple in the first century, Herod’s Temple that is. He also designed Caesarea, a couple systems of aqueducts, his own palace on Herodium. Oh yeah, and he built Herodium too, a man-made mountain near Jerusalem.
I came across this passage in Ephesians, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (1:18). I thought, “Isn’t enlightenment a non-Christian idea? An Eastern kind of thing?”
So I looked it up. It turns out, Paul is using the verb,”??????” (photizo) for “enlighten.” The word can mean “to shine, to illumine, to bring to light, to enlighten spiritually” (see Thayer’s lexicon). The word is used 11 times in the NT and 3 other times it carries the same weight that it does here in Eph 1:18. Take a look at John 1:9, Hebrews 6:4 and 10:32.
Not only that, but the Early Church Fathers understood baptism as an “enlightenment” or “illumination.” Justin Martyer, a second century father, said that baptism “is understood as ‘illumination’ because of the mental enlightenment by those who learn these things.” (Crossroads Initiative; Another translation at ccel). That idea brought me back to Romans 1:21, where Paul talks about those trapped in sin who “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (ESV)
So, when we are enslaved to sin, our minds are actually affected. Sin has a mental effect. It actually corrupts our reason. Aquinas comments that “all the powers of the soul are left, as it were, destitute of their proper order, whereby they are naturally directed to virtue; which destitution is called a wounding of nature.” (II.1.85, a.3) We can’t actually think straight when we are enslaved to sin. So baptism frees us from the corruption of sin–the spiritual corruption and the mental effect. Thus a mental enlightenment occurs in baptism. Our minds are washed clean of sin’s corrupt thoughts. They are freed from corruption just as our souls are. Analogously, it’s like when you’ve just confessed your sins in the Confessional and gotten them off your chest. Not only, does your soul feel liberated from separation from God, but somehow you feel like you can think clearly again. Sin corrupts our desires. It twists our natural impulse toward good and makes it seek wrong things. Baptism frees our desires from this corruption so we can actually be like Christ and walk in the Spirit.
“(16) But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (17) Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.'” Ruth 1:16-17
This passage in Ruth has struck me as one of the best biblical examples of wholehearted devotion. Ruth, a Moabite by birth and now a widow, expresses her total gift of self to Naomi, her mother-in-law. She will go with her, live with her and even die with her. Ruth will forsake the gods of her ancestors and embrace Naomi’s God. Ruth will will leave all to follow Naomi and love her.
It reminds me of what our devotion to the Lord should be like. We are not supposed to just go half-way and then stop. We are to lay our whole lives down in complete surrender. We give up the gods of this world (money, sex, power, etc.) and embrace every sacrifice, every cross for the sake of Jesus. When you make a total sacrifice of self for the sake of another, it’s remarkably freeing. Everything else can be judged in accordance with that one abiding commitment.
So we should be like Ruth–letting go of our gods, our previous commitments, our former ways of doing things. We should commit ourselves to walking with Jesus, following him wherever he goes, even to the point of death.
The Book of Deuteronomy is divided by clear sub-headings or “superscriptions” as follows:
1:1 – These are the words…
4:44 – This is the Torah…
6:1 – Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the ordinances…
12:1 – These are the statutes and ordinances…
29:1 – These are the words…
33:1 – This is the blessing…
These sub-headings help us understand the structure of Deuteronomy, how it flows, where it’s going. The first piece, beginning with 1:1, is simply Moses re-telling the story of Israel. The second part is a re-presentation of the Ten Commandments, the core of the law. The Ten Commandments function as the center of the law, while all the other commandments are merely a commentary on the Big Ten. Dennis Olson sees this in his book, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses where he describes chapter 5 as a “blueprint of Deuteronomy’s structure.”
The third part begins the commentary on the Ten Commandments. Ch. 6-11 deal with the commandments regarding God. The fourth part deals with the commandments regarding human relations. The fifth section describes how the covenant renewal ceremony is to be carried out. And the last piece contains Moses’ last blessing to the people.
The sub-headings serve as fruitful demarcations of Deuteronomy’s divisions. They are organically in the text, not imposed thousands of years later like the chapter and verse divisions.