She Can be Your Hero

Gentle Reader,

Ah, the internet. Where the hottest of hot takes thrive.

Came across this piece over the weekend. A sampling:

I do not blame Marvel for inserting the trending feminist agenda into its universe. Where else can this lucrative ideology — which contrasts so unapologetically with reality — go to be sustained, if not to an alternative universe? Verse after verse, story after story, fact after fact, study after study, example after example dispels the myth of sameness between the sexes. The alternative universe where an accident infuses the heroine with superhuman powers, however, seems to stand as a reasonable apologetic for the feminist agenda.

What?

I’m reminded of similar complaints about the character Rey in the new Star Wars movies. And the same complaints about Wonder Woman. Any time a woman steps into the hero’s role, someone feels offended. The radical feminist agenda! Look at Hollywood, working to tear the family apart! These man-hating liberals!

A woman performing heroic deeds does not, in any way, detract from or diminish a man performing heroic deeds. The desire to control and dominate the opposite sex is rooted in sin, and it’s something we need to battle. We aren’t in competition with each other. The flourishing of men and women alike is directly tied to us seeing each other as equal partners, bringing unique perspectives and skills into every situation.

This article highlights the problems of complementarianism. There is, of course, a spectrum of thought and practice here. I know that many who ascribe to this particular framework were annoyed by the piece, and expressed their annoyance. And I don’t for a second believe that everyone who thinks that a woman shouldn’t preach would turn around and advocate for the squashing or outright abuse of women. That is as ridiculous as those who accuse egalitarians like myself of being blind to differences between the sexes.

But.

When complementarianism becomes rigid, utterly focused on who is doing what and when and how, an article like this is the inevitable result. A woman must always be/do this, a man must always be/do that. And this, my friend, is harmful to everyone.

Am I nitpicking? It is a movie after all. I wish it were. Instead of engaging the movie’s ideology as mere fiction, a fun escape to another world, we have allowed it to bear deadly fruit on earth. Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka. Does the insanity bother us anymore?

What is the “traditional princess vibe?”

Is it Elizabeth Tudor, locked in the Tower of London during the reign of her sister, Mary I? Confronted by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Elizabeth denied any knowledge of Wyatt’s Rebellion, which sought to overthrow the Catholic Mary and place the Protestant princess of the throne. Day after day she answered questions, her quick thinking and ability to play politics keeping her head securely on her shoulders for another hour. When she ascended to the throne, her name would be splashed across an age of exploration and cultural revival, one of the highlights of which would be her speech to the troops at Tillbury:

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

Or is it Mary Tudor, commonly called “bloody,” who was wrenched from the arms of her mother, Catherine of Aragon, when her father, Henry VIII, decided he was going to marry Anne Boelyn with or without the blessing of the church? Mary endured the indignity of having her royal rank stripped away, her household and income drastically slashed, and even served as her new half-sister’s lady-in-waiting for a time. She clung to the Catholic way of faith at risk of her life. When the reign of half-brother Edward VI ended, it was Mary herself who climbed into the saddle and rode toward London, gathering an army of supporters as she went, ready to take her place as the rightful queen.

Or is it Catherine of Aragon, schooled in the art of statecraft by her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the first monarchs to unite the country? She traveled to England to marry Arthur Tudor, who died just five months later. For eight years she existed in limbo, unable to return home but lacking any clear position in England itself. Then, in 1507, she was named her father’s ambassador, the first woman in European history to hold a diplomatic position. After marrying Henry VIII, Catherine served as regent for six months while he was away fighting a pointless war in France, during which the Battle of Flodden, the largest battle between England and Scotland, was fought, with England emerging as the victor. In the midst of all this, she found time to commission a book, The Education of a Christian Woman, written by Juan Luis Vives, which argues that women have the right to be educated just as men are.

Or is it Elizabeth of York, beautiful daughter of Edward V and Elizabeth Woodville, who stepped into marriage with a man she’d hardly spent any time with in order to bring the civil wars that had ravaged her country to an end?

Or is it Margaret Tudor, heiress to an enormous fortune, who bravely bore marriage to a man in his twenties and being shipped off to a castle in the Wales, where, at age 13, she gave birth to her son, Henry, an experience so traumatic and damaging that she was never able to have another child?

Or is it Margaret of Anjou, wife to the mentally ill and and politically deficient Henry VI, who, upon being driven from England, mounted an invasion force in order to restore her husband and ensure the rights of her son?

Or, even further back, is it Matilda, whose father Henry I made his courtiers swear an oath of loyalty to her and her successors, thus setting the stage for the first queen regnant in England? Who then had to fight her cousin, Stephen, after he stole her crown?

These are all examples from English history, particularly the time of the Tudors, because that story is endlessly fascinating to me. These women endured arranged marriages, the constant threat of death in childbirth, long hours spent in the saddle, and the unending pull of various factions vying for influence. They were not mere lovely ornaments, decorating the arms of their powerful husbands or living as meek servants to their family interests. They were movers and shakers in their own right. They had real power, real authority.

We could, of course, get into an even longer list, detailing the exploits of biblical lady heroes. Rahab. Jael. Ruth. Abigail. The unnamed woman in 2 Samuel 20. The woman praised in Proverbs 31. Esther. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene. Martha. Priscilla. Lydia. Junia. Phoebe.

I have more thoughts about this article and topic, but we’ll end here for now: In the Kingdom of God, there is a completely different agenda and way of living. That agenda and way does not include obsessing over what women “should” do. The point is to follow Jesus as He leads, empowering and encouraging others in the freedom of the Gospel, wherever we go.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE NEWSLETTER, REST STOPS ALONG THE WAY. DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX EACH SATURDAY(ISH).
Advertisements

Sketches: The Beatles

Beatles

Gentle Reader,

I’m writing this before I head to the Oregon coast for a vacation/anniversary trip, because I have no doubt that my brain will be mush when I return. That’s the thing with vacations – you need a vacation from them. Takes awhile to settle back into the normal routine, especially when you have a body as finicky as mine. I’m not anticipating sleeping very well while we’re gone, which always leaves me a wreck, but perhaps I’ll be surprised.

So, let’s talk: The Beatles. (Prompt submitted, once again, my my own brain. I watched Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week and have been on a Beatles binge).

There’s nothing I can say in this brief post that hasn’t already been said in the dozens of thick, heavy books that have been written about this legendary British band. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other group that has been as analyzed, scrutinized and emulated as the Fab Four. (The Rolling Stones might come close. Might). John Lennon was a huge jerk but also a genius. Paul McCartney has more edge than people realize. George Harrison was underutilized and underrated during his time with the band. Ringo Starr is a truly great drummer. The four of them together created one of the greatest groups in music history. They opened doors, broke ground, paved the way for others to follow.

Instead of offering up yet another article wondering why Lennon left his wife Cynthia for Yoko Ono (but seriously…why?) or attempting to pinpoint exactly why the band broke up, allow me to share with you some of my favorite Beatles songs:

5. Twist and Shout

This is a cover of a song first made famous by the Isley Brothers. Recorded at the end of the Please Please Me sessions, Lennon, sick with a cold, tears his voice to shreds. It’s awesome.

4. Dizzy Miss Lizzy

Another cover, this one written by Larry Williams. The Beatles made no secret of their love for African-American musicians. This was recorded live at Shea Stadium, where 56,000 fans gathered on a hot summer night in 1965. The fact that the screaming was so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves, yet they produced this, is amazing.

3. Ticket to Ride

The harmonies. The first, tentative steps toward a psychedelic sound. The sweet lead guitar solo. Yeah, man.

2. In My Life

Was there ever a more nostalgic song? Do any other words really capture the moment when you come to understand that you can’t go home again?

1. Don’t Let Me Down

The rooftop concert. The last time the four would play together live. (They actually recorded Abbey Road after the Let It Be album, though it was released last). In the middle of all the fighting, they look like they’re having fun just playing together. Poignant.

Bonus: Tomorrow Never Knows

This song is weird. I know it’s weird. It’s not theologically accurate in any way. I’m not claiming that it is. I love this song precisely because it’s weird. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to find a good YouTube video, so you’ll have to go hunting yourself.

Extra Bonus: Layla

Not a Beatles song. Eric Clapton wrote this for Pattie Boyd, who was married to George Harrison at the time. Eventually Boyd and Harrison divorced. She married Clapton, Harrison was at the wedding and they all remained friends until the end of his life. That’s rock ‘n roll for you.

George Martin, the man who produced all of The Beatles albums, said (and I’m paraphrasing, because it was in a documentary and I’m not sure I can find it again) that their music was simply fun. Even toward the end, when tensions mounted and things got difficult, at the end of the day these four men enjoyed making music together. That comes across in every song. While they aren’t my all-time favorite band (that honor goes to Creedence Clearwater Revival), The Beatles make me happy.

I think we’ve forgotten how to sit back and enjoy art. It all has to be heavy, has to have a message. That is appropriate sometimes, but there’s also space for frothy pop songs and rock that exists only because guitar shredding is cool. It’s okay to do the Macerana or the Floss. It’s okay to jam along with a song you’ve heard a thousand times, fingers flying across your air guitar. It’s okay to smile, even in the midst of all that’s wrong in the world.

Really, you know, you should be glad.

Signature

For all posts in the Sketches series, go here.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE NEWSLETTER, REST STOPS ALONG THE WAY. PONDERINGS AND PUPPY VIDEOS DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX EACH SATURDAY(ISH).

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Kings

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah:

– Zephaniah 1:1 (NKJV)

Last week we established that Zephaniah (and the rest of the Bible) cannot be fully understood when divorced from the historical timeline. Today we take another slice from the interpretive pie and savor it: politics. Specifically, the kings that informed and influenced the writing of the book.

Again I’m tempted to try and teach the entire Old Testament.

#aintnobodygottimeforthat

I’ll do my best to narrow my focus.

Theocracy

Following their release from slavery, the Hebrew people were to function in a theocracy, “government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided” (1). This word doesn’t appear in the Biblical texts; it is instead:

A word first used by Josephus to denote that the Jews were under the direct government of God himself. The nation was in all things subject to the will of their invisible King. All the people were the servants of Jehovah, who ruled over their public and private affairs, communicating to them his will through the medium of the prophets. They were the subjects of a heavenly, not of an earthly, king. They were Jehovah’s own subjects, ruled directly by him. (2)

This does not mean that God was opposed to government. He used Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead His people out of Egypt and in the wilderness. He wasn’t mad when Moses took his father-in-law Jethro’s advice and appointed judges to hear and deal with disputes (Exodus 18). The entire book of Judges (a narrative that ends with the passing of the prophet Samuel [1 Samuel 25:1]) records God raising up men and women to lead His people. The Lord has always seen fit to include humans in the working out of His plans and purposes.

He even makes provision for a king:

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

– Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (NKJV)

The point of this theocracy, then, was not anarchy but an organized system whose members continually looked to the Lord and obeyed His leadership.

None of Them

The short of it is that every one of the kings of both the united and divided kingdoms basically ignored the commands of Deuteronomy 17. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, had multiple wives and amassed a great deal of wealth. Those who followed him fall along various points of the “good, bad, worse” spectrum, but even the ones who could be called “good” kings turned a blind eye in one way or another to at least some of the things they were to do and be.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the nation’s continual relationship with false gods and goddesses, for what the king allowed, the people would embrace (save for the “righteous remnant” addressed here and in the other books of the prophets). We touched on this in our discussion of the setting of Zephaniah and will explore it more fully next time, when we look at the culture of ancient Judah.

We Three Kings

Zephaniah wrote during the reign of Josiah, but we can’t understand who Josiah was and why he did what he did without looking at his father and grandfather:

Grandfather Manasseh (“Forgetting, Forgetfulness”): reigned 696-642 B.C.

His story:

2 Kings 21 –

  • 12 years old when he began to rule (vs. 1)
  • Reigned 55 years (vs. 1)
  • Mother’s name Hephzibah (vs. 1)
  • Did evil in the sight of the Lord (vs. 2)
  • Rebuilt the high places that his father had torn down (vs. 3)
  • Made altars for Baal, made a wooden image as Ahab had done, worshipped all the host of heaven (stars, planets, etc.; astrology) and served them (vs. 3)
  • Built altars to other gods in the Temple (vs. 4)
  • Sacrificed his son to Moloch (vs. 6) It is unclear whether the “passing through the fire” in the worship of this false god meant the child was murdered or if this was some sort of initiation into a pagan priesthood (3). Given the record of Manasseh’s life, I am inclined to believe that the child was murdered.
  • Practiced soothsaying and witchcraft (vs. 6)
  • Consulted evil spirits and mediums (vs. 6)
  • Provoked the Lord to anger (vs. 6)
  • Set up an image of Asherah in the Temple (vs. 7)
  • The people paid no attention to God, and allowed Manasseh to seduce them to do more evil that any of the nations the Lord had destroyed when the Israelites conquered the land (vs. 9)
  • God declares that great calamity is coming to the people because of Manasseh (vs. 10-15)
  • The same judgment as befell the Northern Kingdom of Israel (vs. 13)
  • Sheds a great deal of innocent blood (vs. 16)

2 Chronicles 33 –

  • Vs. 1-9 mirror the 2 Kings account
  • The Lord warns Manasseh and the people, but they don’t listen (vs. 10)
  • The Assyrian army descends upon them (the judgment of Israel) and captures Manasseh, carrying him to Babylon (vs. 11)
  • At this point, Manasseh repents
  • Humbles himself greatly before God
  • God hears and accepts his repentance
  • Restores him to the throne
  • Manasseh knows now that the LORD is God (vs. 12-13)
  • Goes on to complete construction projects in Jerusalem (vs. 14)
  • Puts military captains in all the fortified cities of Judah (vs. 14)
  • Takes away all the foreign gods, throwing them out of the city (vs. 15) But he doesnot tear down the high places. This is key.
  • Repaired the altar of the Lord (vs. 16)
  • Commands the people to worship God (vs. 16)
  • The people still sacrificed on the high places, but only to God (vs. 17) Really? Can places of idol worship ever be turned into places of God worship?
  • Vs. 18-19 mention a prayer

Prayer attributed to Manasseh –

The following is not found in the Bible. It is an apocryphal work (unknown authorship, doubtful authenticity). Whether Manasseh prayed it or not, it is a beautiful record of repentance:

O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is unmeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquites. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (4)

In Matthew 1:10, Manasseh is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.

Daddy Amon (Egyptian, “Hidden One”): reigned 642-640 B.C.

2 Kings 21 –

  • 22 when he came to the throne (vs. 19)
  • Reigned two years (vs. 19)
  • Mother’s name was Meshullmeth (vs. 19)
  • He did evil, like his father (vs. 20)
  • Walked in all the ways of his father, in idol worship (vs. 21) Manasseh’s example of repentance was too little, too late for his son.
  • Forsook the Lord (vs. 22)
  • Killed by his servants (vs. 23)
  • The assassins killed by the people (vs. 24)

2 Chronicles 33 –

  • Did not humble himself before the Lord, as Manasseh did (vs. 23)
  • Did more and more evil (vs. 23) (“ever increasing nature of wickedness”)

In Matthew 1:10, Amon is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.

Josiah (“Yahweh Helps”): reigned 640-609 B.C.

1 Kings 13 –

  • Josiah’s birth and his actions against idolatry prophesied (vs. 1-2)

2 Kings 22

  • Came to the throne at 8 years old (vs. 1) Would be tutored and advised by the High Priest until he reached adulthood.
  • Reigned 31 years (vs. 1)
  • Mother’s name was Jedidah (vs. 1)
  • Did what was right in God’s eyes (vs. 2)
  • In the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, he sends the scribe Shaphan to the Temple to tell Hilkiah the High Priest to take the money given by the people and make repairs to the Temple (vs. 4-7)
  • Hilkiah tells Shaphan that he has found the Book of the Law (vs. 8) This is definitely Leviticus and Deuteronomy, possibly the whole of the Torah.
  • The Book has been missing for 75-80 years (the years of Manasseh and Amon)
  • The people are steeped in idolatry
  • Shaphan reads the Book (vs. 8)
  • Shaphan reports to the king that his task is completed and reads the Book to the king (vs. 9-10)
  • Josiah’s reaction is one of mourning, he tears his clothes (vs. 11)
  • Sends Kilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan and Asaiah to seek out the Lord in this matter; he knows that the Lord is angry with the people for failing to keep the Law (vs. 12-13)
  • The men go to Huldah the prophetess to ask her about what they should do, what God feels (vs. 14)
  • She tells them: calamity is coming because of the failure to keep the Law, God’s wrath is aroused at idol worship. He is tender toward Josiah because he wants to follow God, he has humbled himself. God has heard Josiah and Josiah is not going to see the calamity (vs. 15-2)

2 Kings 23 –

  • Josiah gathers together all the elders of Judah and all the people of Jerusalem (vs. 1)
  • He reads the Book in their hearing (vs. 2)
  • Makes a public covenant before the Lord to keep His commandments (vs. 3)
  • All the people declare they will do so as well (vs. 3)
  • Commands the priests to bring out all the idolatrous articles from the Temple (vs. 4)
  • He burns them (vs. 4)
  • Removes the idolatrous priests (vs. 5)
  • Brings out the image of Asherah and burns it (vs. 6)
  • Tears down the booths of the religious prostitutes inside the Temple (vs. 7)
  • Breaks down the high places (vs. 8-9)
  • The priests of the high places remain unrepentant (vs. 9)
  • Destroys the place where people sacrifice to Moloch (vs. 10)
  • Removes the horses that the kings had dedicated to the sun (vs. 11)
  • Destroys every vestige of idolatry and burns bones on the altars (vs. 12-20)
  • Executes the idolatrous priests (vs. 20)
  • Commands the people to keep the Passover (vs. 21-23)
  • Arrests those who persist in idolatry (vs. 24)
  • No king would arise after him who was so devoted to God (vs. 25)
  • Nevertheless, calamity is still coming for Judah (vs. 26-27)
  • Josiah dies in battle, at the hand of an Egyptian Pharaoh Necho IIwhen he goes to battle the Assyrians (vs. 29)

2 Chronicles 32 –

  • In the 8th year of his reign (age 16) he began to seek the Lord (vs. 3)
  • In the 12th years of his reign (age 20) he began to purge the land of idolatry (vs. 3)
  • Goes throughout all the land and then returns to Jerusalem (vs. 4-7) The reforms began before the finding of the Law but were incomplete, hence the Lord prompting Zephaniah’s prophecies.
  • Vs. 8-33 mirror 2 Kings 22

2 Chronicles 35 –

  • Vs. 1-19 detail the keeping of the Passover, which had possibly not been celebrated in many years. Josiah’s words in vs. 3 have led to the belief that the Levites who remained loyal to God had removed the Ark from the Temple.
  • Necho attempts to convince Josiah not to do battle (vs. 21)
  • Josiah disguises himself to go into the fighting (vs. 22)
  • The archers shot King Josiah (vs. 23)
  • He dies (vs. 24)
  • All of Judah and Jerusalem mourn (vs. 24)
  • Jeremiah (the prophet) also mourns (vs. 25)
  • It was made a custom to sing of Josiah (vs. 25)

Jeremiah 1 –

  • Jeremiah begins prophesying in the 13th year (age 21) of Josiah’s reign (vs. 2)

In Matthew 1:11, Josiah is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.

Seesaw

In the lives of Manasseh, Amon and Josiah we see the back-and-forth nature of Judah’s relationship to and with God. Following the death of Josiah, the people slid down, down, down into the darkness of idolatry. A little over twenty years later, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II would lay waste to Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and carting off a large portion of the population into exile.

Reflection

  1. What, if anything, surprised you about the lives of the three kings? Did you learn anything new?
  2. Whether Manasseh prayed the words in the prayer attributed to him or not, it is clear from the biblical account that when he made his confession, he held nothing back. He looked his sin straight-on in the light of God’s holiness. He knew that he had deeply offended the Lord. How do you view sin? Do you see it as something “safe” or “not a big deal?” How can you apply Manasseh’s example to your own life?
  3. Does it bother you to know that such evil people are included in Christ’s family line? Why or why not?
  4. What do you think it would have looked like to be righteous during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon? What does it look like to be righteous today?
  5. Read through Zephaniah again, this time with the three kings in mind. What stands out to you?

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Theocracy

(2) Easton’s Bible Dictionary 

(3) Moloch 

(4) Prayer of Manasseh

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Culture

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

Ancient national Israel, from its beginnings in the wilderness through the Divided Kingdom and Exile right up to the time of Christ, was a world very different from our own. Its members were people who struggled with the same sins and had the same hopes and dreams we do today, people we could probably relate to over a cup of coffee, but the way that struggle played out and the way those dreams were expressed is foreign to us. The Bible is a transcendent text inspired by the immanent God; its truths are applicable to every time and place. Nevertheless, we cannot understand a book like Zephaniah without coming to grips with the surroundings in which it was written.

Village Life

We already touched on the fact that the economy of ancient Israel (united and divided) was based on a system of bartering. Coinage existed and was certainly in use by the Roman period, but the change from “good for good” to “money for good” was gradual. The average person living in one of the many villages wasn’t going to have access to pouches and pouches of coins. He would trade a portion of whatever crop he had grown (remember, this was an agrarian society) with someone who had what he needed or wanted.

Water was a necessity, so groups of families would cluster around wells and from there villages grew. There were a handful of walled towns outside of Jerusalem, but these weren’t much bigger than the villages. Homes were small, made of baked clay, wattle-and-daub or straw brick materials. Often an outside staircase led to the roof, providing more living space during mild weather. Most families had a few animals, such as sheep or goats, who lived in the home with them (unless they were dedicated to the keeping of livestock, in which case the animals would have been too numerous, requiring a separate shelter, such as the one that served as a maternity ward the night Jesus entered the world in His Incarnate form [Luke 2:7]).

The average home looked something like this:

Here families would live and love and work and play and eat and sleep, just as we do today.

Men engaged in commerce, farming and the day-to-day governing of the towns. (The “town gate”in Ruth 4 alludes to this; this was where what we would think of as the “city council” would meet). Women had a lot to do in order to keep the home running:

…most of the women who lived in a village would probably have had some sort of garden as a source of food, flowers and pleasure.

Needless to say, the homes of the rich were more spacious and made of better material. A poor woman would have swept a beaten clay floor, while a rich woman would have had a servant sweep a tile floor. Only the richest would have been fortunate enough to live in a stone house despite the parable stressing the importance of stone for the foundation. The less wealthy would have had to do without a fireplace, but a simple brazier supplied all the heat that was necessary in such a pleasant climate; except for the supper rich all cooking was done in the outdoors.

The market was located just outside the walls of the town.  Unless she were rich enough to have servants, every woman would have to pay regular visits to buy the necessities. Civic business was conducted there also, but unless the woman herself was involved she would have no reason to be present.

While having children was a woman’s most important achievement, the bulk of her day to day life was spent in raising them, keeping the house clean and cooking meals.  The Jews were by and large light eaters, but they enjoyed their food and were happiest when guests were present. Bread was a part of every meal. Without modern preservatives, fresh loaves had to be baked every second day or so. Since flour did not come in a bag from the supermarket it had to be freshly ground between two stones every time new loaves were desired. Whether it was barley bread for a poor family or wheat bread for a well off one, it was the woman’s job to grind the grain and kneed the dough. The loaves were usually round and placed directly on the coals of an open fire. The best flour was mixed with oil, mint, cumin, cinnamon and even locusts to make a cake. A sort of honey doughnut was made by frying it in a pan.

Cow’s milk was known but it was not used very much. Sheep and goats were preferred and their milk could also be used to make butter or cheese. Honey was the most common sweetener, but juice from grapes or dates could also be used. A special treat was a meal of locusts. When boiled in salted water they tasted somewhat like shrimp.  If dried in the sun they could be kept for use at some other time of the year, when they would be ground into a powder and mixed with wheat flour for biscuits or simply moistened with honey or vinegar.

Dinner was expected to include lots of vegetables, beans, lentils, cucumbers and onions being the most common.  Middle-income families might supplement their bread and vegetables with some fish, kid or lamb.  Chickens were rare but pigeons were plentiful. Only the very rich could afford “a fatted calf.” Food was strongly seasoned: pepper was expensive but they used mustard, capers, cumin, saffron, coriander, mint, dill and rosemary. There was almost always a local wine to wash it all down. (1)

Both men and women would educate their children, largely through an oral tradition. The average person may not have been able to write well or at all, but literacy was widespread enough so that at least a few in the village, always the rabbi (they weren’t called that until roughly the time of Christ), would have been able to read the Torah, for it was important to know and understand its precepts so they could be lived out and passed on to others.

Tribes

Village life cannot be understood apart from the Tribes.

Jacob, whose story takes up several chapters of Genesis, had 12 sons: Reuben,Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. (He also had at least one daughter, Dinah [Genesis 34]). As those sons had families, those families began to identify themselves as descending from a particular son, and thus the tribes were born (except Joseph; his descendants identified with his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, because Jacob blessed them on his death bed [Genesis 48]. They were “half-tribes,” keeping the total number at 12. Just go with it).

After leading them out of slavery and through the years of wandering, God divided the Promised Land among the tribes, ensuring that each one had an appropriate amount of land. (Except for the Levites, who were the priests. They would be engaged in the business of worship instead of farming, so they got some cities instead). Numbers 32-36 records God’s commands regarding this process and Joshua 14-22 records how the commands were carried out, resulting in a map that looked something like this:

Division of Promised Land to the Children of Israel

Extended families living together were the norm:

Within the tribal structure, the family served as the core of Israelite life.  It defined the way each individual fit into society.  These kinship relationships could be biological or forged.  For example, land was passed down from one generation to the next, with one son–usually the firstborn–receiving an extra portion.  In the event that a male heir was lacking, the patriarch of the family had the option of adopting a son who would become the heir to the family estate.

In addition to adoption, kinship ties were also forged through marriage.  Such familial ties served as a means for Israelites to interact with one another, exchange goods, and settle or prevent conflicts.

As ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, the role of women was circumscribed.  While women’s experiences varied according to the communities and centuries in which they lived, ordinary Jewish women’s lives centered on their families. Jewish women married in their teens (the average age varies according to geography and time period, from 13 to 18) and went to live with their husband’s families. (2)

Religion

Above all, ancient Israel (and the Kingdom of Judah, to whom Zephaniah wrote and among whom he ministered) was a place of religion. There was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. God ruled over all. There were instructions, carefully laid out in the book of Leviticus, for how a person was to live her life. The calendar was governed by a cycle of sacrifices and celebrations, outlined in Leviticus 23.

Though it turns our stomachs, the people would have been very accustomed to the sights and smells associated with animal sacrifice. (There were grain and drink offerings as well). (3) Though we may not fully understand the reasons for eating kosher, they knew nothing else. Every part of their lives was lived according to God’s standard.

Well, was supposed to be lived according in God’s standard. In Deuteronomy 28, part of Moses’ lengthy farewell sermon, the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience are clearly laid out. In chapters 29 and 30, he calls on his audience to reaffirm the covenant made at Sinai. Unfortunately, it took only the death of Joshua and his generation (those who succeeded Moses in shepherding the people) for the nation to turn away from the covenant (Judges 2:10-11). Though there were always those who were faithful to God, the rest of Israel’s history as recorded in the Old Testament is one of back and forth and eventual slide into total rebellion before the Exile in Babylon.

Zephaniah ministered during the last upward movement toward God that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under the leadership of Josiah. His words, and those of Jeremiah, were God’s final offer before the destruction of Jerusalem. (4)

Reflection

  1. There are many differences between our world and that of ancient Israel. What similarities do you see?
  2. Read Deuteronomy 28-29. Was God, speaking through Moses, unclear? Could the people ever truly claim they “didn’t know?”
  3. Read Hebrews 9-10:18. What were the animal sacrifices meant to convey? To Whom did they point? Why are these sacrifices no longer necessary?
  4. Read through Zephaniah again, this time imagining yourself a member of that society. What stands out to you?

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Daily Life in Ancient Israel

(2) Ancient Israelites: Society and Lifestyle

(3) Offerings and Sacrifices

(4) Note: God did not completely abandon His people, as seen in the during-Exile books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Esther, and the post-Exile books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggi, Zechariah and Malachi. He is faithful to His covenant. Nevertheless, His glory or felt presence left the Temple (Ezekiel 10) and would not return until the presentation of Christ (Luke 2:22-38).

Image: House in Ancient Israel

Map: Division of the Promised Land

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.