Acts Wednesday: Chapter 1, Proof of Truth


One of my favorite books opens with the true story of an attempted murder case against a guy named James Dixon. Dixon was arguing with his girlfriend through the front door, so someone called the cops to break it up. When the police officer arrived, the girl’s father came to the door, there was a fight, the officer intervened, a shot was fired…and the cop staggered away with a bullet in his midsection. The police officer earned a medal for bravery, and Dixon’s fingerprints were all over a gun found nearby in the bushes. There were eye witnesses, a motive, a wounded cop, and James Dixon had already been convicted of shooting someone else. He plea bargained out, which meant Dixon pled guilty for a shorter sentence. 

An airtight case, right?

Maybe!

The author decided to investigate for himself, approaching the case with an open mind.

Remember that Luke was writing a factual account of what had actually happened. He wanted to set the record straight and was counting on Theophilus to approach the evidence with an open mind.

So, he began with the evidence of Jesus physical resurrection and instruction to His followers, providing the foundation for what those followers were witnessing to. Jesus taught His followers in two ways: show ‘n’ tell and talking.

First Jesus showed them the truth of the resurrection in a real body: He gave them many infallible proofs of His physical, actual resurrection. The reason Jesus knew they needed many convincing proofs that He was alive is that they were completely convinced that He had died. 

There was no question in their minds. They had seen His agony, hear His death rattle, and had witnessed the water and blood pouring out of His pierced side. His stiff, dead body had come off that cross, 75 pounds of embalming spices rubbed into him, wrapped tight in a shroud and interred in a tomb. They knew as deep as a person could know anything that Jesus was dead.

So, Jesus took pains to show them He was visible, touchable, they could feel His breath when He blew on them, He put together a fire, cooked, ate, hollered over the water to the disciples when they were fishing.

Now, there were some freaky things, too. Evidently, Jesus had a different kind of body that could be invisible and could go through walls and locked doors, but that was still concrete and physical. The apostles would later teach this is the kind of body that you and I are going to have one day.[1]  

One of the most convincing proofs of Jesus’ resurrection was His opponents’ response. There were many who wanted to discredit Jesus and His followers, yet here was their best shot:

  1. The claimed Jesus was a sorcerer because they couldn’t discount His miracles.
  2. They claimed His body had been stolen because they couldn’t discount that His tomb was empty, and they couldn’t discount that He had really died.
  3. They could not get any of the over five hundred people who witnessed the resurrected Christ to recant – all were willing to die for what they knew was true.

Christianity is based on historical fact

  1. The resurrection is a fact with many convincing proofs.
  2. The resurrection proves the deity of Messiah Jesus.
  3. Because He is God, Jesus always speaks the truth.
  4. So, you and I can trust what He says.

And that is what Jesus did most of all, talk to His disciples, explaining the scriptures from the beginning all the way to the end, and how they pertained to Himself.

What we believe is true, what we believe so deeply we actually say we know is true, will affect how we live, how we see ourselves and others, how we view the earth, what philosophy of life we’ll espouse, and so on.

Like, what about the opening story for this post? Did you keep an open mind on that?

As it turns out, Dixon was innocent. 

A bullet had been fired from the gun with his fingerprints, but it was a different bullet than the one in the police officer’s midriff. Dixon had hidden the gun before he went to his girlfriend’s house. 

There were powder burns inside the officer’s shirt pocket, not outside.  Dixon’s rap sheet actually showed that he had been wrongly convicted of the previous shooting, and was freed after three years in prison. The officer had been showing off his illegal gun, made to look like a pen, just two weeks earlier.

Dixon had plea bargained, though he knew he was innocent, because he had already spent 362 days in jail and he was offered a year’s sentence if he pled guilty – he could go home in three days or risk 20 more years in jail.

To get it right, it took an open-minded investigator, willing to wait for the evidence and think clearly. 

What is God calling you to be open-minded about, to take some time to think and pray through before you go any further?


[1] I’m not making this up! Read passages like 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 John 3:2-3 and you’ll see what I mean


[Jesus After Resurrection – The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Perversion

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.

Genesis 6:5

In thinking about the conditions the Flood story conveys about humanity, our own culture may not seem quite so grim today! And yet, this is one of the truths this ancient account imparts–the nature of what the Bible calls sin. Scripture explains that sin defiles, sin damages, and sin grieves and offends the heart of God.

Consider how God described the effects of sin to Cain. First, sin begins as a tendril of temptation, weaving and winding its way through the heart. When allowed to grow into full bloom, urged on, and then given into, that temptation becomes sin, and the heart containing it becomes corrupt.

But, it doesn’t stop there. For, sin spreads into the people connected with the original sinner. We can’t contain it, or quarantine it, it is as though sin has a radioactive power that passes through all barriers. Sin will seep even into the physical environment inhabited by the sinners, as God revealed to Adam and Eve, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” Our beautiful earth, groaning under the effects of disease and pollution.

Just three chapters later, and the Hebrew words used to describe how swiftly sin had corrupted everything in its path are “shachat:” meaning “morally putrid, totally decayed, spiritually gangrenous, destroyed and wasted.” And “chamas,” which means “seeking to gain through assault, physical attack, cheating and/or oppression.” That’s what Jesus’ warning was about, thousands of years later. He contended that society will return to a similar condition of “shachat” and  “chamas” at the time of the end.

If we understand the nature of sin and its corrupting power in this way, then we can understand the Nephilim as a signal of the people of Noah’s day reaching a degree of depravity that threatened to irreversibly contaminate the whole earth.

The Nephilim were the ultimate example of the spiritual and physical perversion and degeneration of the human race, which brought about God’s judgment. The Flood was not only God’s way of cleansing sinful humankind, but also His way of fulfilling His promise to bring salvation through the seed of the woman. We understand from the story that had this degeneracy gone unchecked, the godly remnant, now reduced to eight people, would have ceased to exist.

Noah’s world had become so evil, corruption had become so widespread and complete, that God pronounced total destruction as the only solution—which is one way to understand God’s statements in Genesis 6:3, 7, and 17, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years…I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground…I am going to bring Floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.”       

Viewed this way, God was saying human beings, having been denied access to the Tree of Life, die. Therefore, God would set the time of 120 years from His announcement to the date when He would bring this antediluvian chapter of human history to a close.           

There is another way to understand verse 3, the more traditional interpretation: After the Flood, God would set the number of years a person could live to the maximum of 120, rather than allowing human individuals to live to nearly a thousand years. In this way, they (we) would not be afforded the time to develop evil to such a pitch. 

Either way, God made clear, early in the Bible, He will not tolerate sin indefinitely, and His judgment shows that who we are and what we do matters. Seen in this light, we are given to understand if God did not judge wickedness and corruption, it would mean that God was indifferent to the existence of right and wrong, good and evil. On the contrary, as the Epic of the Flood emphatically relates, God is not indifferent. God’s wrath, grief, and intense pain over evil is the necessary and only right response.

  • God’s judgment never goes beyond the boundaries of sin’s damage. Throughout the Bible the limits of defilement also define the limits of God’s judgment.
  • God is just. So His judgments are just, He gives what is deserved. The consequence for sin, which is death, is the deserved judgment. It is God’s mercy offering rebirth, renewal, and restoration which is totally undeserved. 
  • Sin’s punishment was, and will be, no greater than sin itself, and not one innocent person was, or will ever be, judged against.
  • God’s motives are mercy and love. He rights what has been made wrong when He judges, and He provides a way of protection and rescue for all those who come to Him for forgiveness.

It is a complex concept to hold onto. Somehow, God’s pure and perfect justice will right every wrong and will champion every victim. Yet, at the same time, God’s pure and perfect mercy will forgive every repentant perpetrator, even the basest agent of evil whose heart is pierced with conviction and calls out to God for forgiveness will be fully, lovingly forgiven. How? 

God’s wrath has a cleansing, purifying aspect to it, to cleanse the universe of the corruption of sin. In some way, God promises that when all the weeping is done, over both the agony of victimization, and sickening horror over the agency of evil, the Lord will wipe every tear away. With unimaginable power, God’s pure and perfect wrath, a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap, as Malachi put it, will cleanse the entire cosmos one day, so that all evil is no more. The Flood was a prophetic precursor, for God had determined to rid the earth of corruption, to allow a healthy new start.


[Flood: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/berlin-potsdam-place-high-water-1156844/ ]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 1, A Segue


In order to understand Acts, we need to be familiar with the first half of Luke’s account, his careful study of Jesus Himself. Since it was all one account, given in two volumes, Luke artfully segued from Jesus’ biography to His continuing work in His full glory as Lord. After He rose from the dead, Jesus spent a great deal of time with His followers.


These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

Luke 24:44-45 (NRSV)

It was getting close to the time when Jesus was going to leave them to rise up to His throne in heaven, so Jesus opened up their minds to understand the scriptures and His own testimony. While Jesus was on earth as a man, He had lived with this group of people constantly, developing them to be the leaders who would bring His movement forward once He rose into heaven. He had already explained He would not be with them forever, but would send His Spirit to be with them. 

Now, Jesus was reminding them about the promised Holy Spirit. They were His witnesses, and would need Jesus’ supernatural power to fulfill their commission. The door of reconciliation, restoration, and new relationship with God was being opened to Jew and Gentile alike, a startling message to that ancient world, an earth shaking, culturally shattering message.


“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heavenAnd they worshiped him, andreturned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

 Luke 24:50-53 (NRSV)

When you move to the first chapter of Acts, you see a seamless transition to Jesus now rising up into heaven, and this inner circle now moving to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths celebration, and to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. First, Luke provided a parenthesis for Theopholus, so he would be prepared for what was coming.

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.


After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”

Acts 1:1-4

Luke, being a medical man, may have also understood the soul wound that grief and loss bring.

The Lord Jesus had spent three and a half years leading His public ministry, gathering followers, teaching His inner circle, and training His twelve disciples. In the last six months of His time with them Jesus began to prepare His followers for what lay ahead—the cross, the resurrection, His ascension, and their continuation of His ministry throughout the world. Before He died, only one person appears to have understood what Jesus was preparing them for; Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

In effect, in His talk of the Holy Spirit, Jesus had been discussing His farewell with His inner circle. John later remembered Jesus saying “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

Once Jesus had risen from the dead, the Lord honored the relationships He had with His followers, His inner circle of 120 women and men, and His twelve disciples, by spending about six weeks of intimate goodbyes with them, teaching, comforting, exhorting, relationship-building, and strengthening them for what lay ahead—one might say Jesus gave them, as His gift of leave-taking, one day for each month they had been with Jesus.

During this time the Lord encouraged them, affirmed what they had learned, and the skills they had developed. He confirmed their power by His Spirit (and promised more with the coming Holy Spirit). He prophesied, and shared His vision for them. He predicted the crises and challenges that lay ahead for them, and He placed His full confidence in their ability to meet each set of circumstances in His name, saying,


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:8 (NRSV)

Finally, in His last moments with them, the Lord Jesus reminded them of His care, His love, and His unwavering presence in their livessaying“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

To me, this is the most important part of this chapter, what Jesus did as He prepared His beloved companions for their separation. Goodbyes are hard for me. I’d rather just quietly disappear, sort of fade away, and then maybe later someone notices I’m gone. But, I’ve come to learn that is really dishonoring to the depth of intimacy in relationships. It feels vulnerable, and it hurts deeply to let those emotions be felt, but it’s also good and right.

In His last earthly act, as His heart, and the hearts of al those who loved Him, were being torn right in two, Jesus insisted on being fully present and fully engaged, giving fully of Himself until the last moment they were together.

Before we leave Acts 1, we need to get the whole resurrection thing dealt with. And, there’s one verse I’d like to point out, because it will feature front and center two Wednesdays from now:


All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

Acts 1:14 (NRSV)

[Jesus Teaching After His Resurrection – The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

Nephilim

“Once upon a time there were giants in the land.”

The time when Noah lived, a time commentators call antediluvian, a delicious word simply meaning “of or belonging to the time before the biblical Flood.”

Even for people who don’t know much about the Bible, this is a famous story. But for being so well-known, it raises a lot of questions and a lot of controversy: Did the Flood really happen? How widespread was it? Was it universal, or only regional? Was there really an ark, and was it large enough to hold all those animals? Where did the water come from? And who are the Nephilim?

As I mull over this iconic drama, I once again face the difficulty of trying to harmonize what I understand of science with this fantastical account that, even in its day, must have pushed the boundaries of known reality.

There are several approaches to the Flood story, as you can imagine. One way is to simply accept the story as true, as difficult as that may be to sync science with the story’s details. Another way is to treat the tale as basically true for the original writer whose known world included only one hemisphere (the western hemisphere being, as yet, undiscovered by eastern hemisphere dwellers), or possibly only the Levant and surrounds.

The famous Epic of Gilgamesh includes many elements of the Flood, as well as historical facts  that date this poem to about 2,100 B.C. The oldest existing copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh (cuneiform on stone tablets) are older than the oldest existing copies of Genesis (ink on papyri), prompting many scholars to contend the Epic came first, and the writer of Genesis borrowed from it in order to write scripture’s Flood account. Keep in mind, however, stories passed on orallyas they were in ancient times—are hard to date, for when they are finally written down, they are already very old.

One thing is certain, in my mind. Setting aside the assortment of details that may, or may not, reflect accurate scientific data, there is truth in this story, truth about people and cultures and life, and truth about God. So, let’s suspend our need to wrangle over science and enter into the three-dimensional world of this story. Let’s look all around us and see what might be revealed.

The Nephilim

Much time has passed, the seasons flowing one into the other, generations of people rising up and out from the ones before them, and the days of Cain and Seth recede into distant antiquity. Now the earth’s surface is being pushed up into ziggurats, excavated for building materials, tilled and sown with fields of grain, orchards planted, herds multiplied, cities springing up across the wide plains and rocky mountains of the Fertile Crescent. Farther and farther out, people groups claim new land for themselves, till the earth, make bricks and mortar, bring down great trees for beams and pillars, and like the frothing waves of a busy sea, human beings begin to increase in number on the earth.

In contrast to the list of men in chapter 5, chapter 6 begins with the beautiful daughters born to those spreading out from Eden and into the world. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Adam was lonely in the perfect world of the Garden, in perfect relationship with God and surrounding creation. Yet, God’s gift of woman brought a change that eventually became Adam’s undoing. Love for Eve stirred up other desires, tempting desires, and the serpent, recognizing its opportunity, pressed in.

And so, once again, the beauty of human women stirred up strange desires in beings the writer of Genesis called “sons of God.” Who were they? And why, after presenting the dilemma of marriage between human women and these “sons of God,” did God Himself announce, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Doesn’t that seem like a non sequitur? From just three verses, dozens of questions come pouring out.

And then come the Nephilim. Who were they?

  • Possibly the “sons of God” were godly men in the line of Seth, and the “daughters of men,” were godless women in the line of Cain. The Old and New Testaments both prohibit intermarriage between those of faith and those who do not believe, as it corrupts the faith and purity of believers. The “Nephilim” would then be the ungodly and violent men who were the product of this unholy union.

Here’s why I don’t like this theory: I have met plenty of awsome human beings who grew up in mixed-faith families. It just doesn’t hold water. And, if this theory were right, then how weird to read the Nephilim identified as “the heroes of old, men of renown.” This is most likely a retrospective within the story itself, explaining to a later generation the stories of the Nephilim which had since become legend. Perhaps this is also a passing reference to the myths of other cultures’ pantheons of gods, and demigod heroes.

  • Another approach sees the “sons of God” as ambitious, despotic, and autocratic rulers. The “daughters of men” would represent both the women and the power these rulers seized in an attempt to gain all the authority and notoriety they could from those within their reach. Their offspring, the “Nephilim,” would have then been young princes raised to be despots themselves, entitled, powerful, and thoroughly wicked.

This one makes a little more sense to me. But, to be the cause of world-wide desctruction? Maybe?

  • The third possibility has the “sons of God” as fallen angels, now called demons, which had taken on the forms of human men, or possessed human men, married the “daughters of men,” human women, producing, literally, giants, the Nephilim.

Here’s why I favor this explanation: Remember the Israelites in the desert who refused to enter Canaan because they were terrified of the gigantic warriors there? Remember that God gave Canaan as a land grant because the indigineous people groups had reached the “full measure” of their sin? The story itself requires something huge, something so awful, so wicked it would prompt God to basically scour the earth of all trace of humankind and do a reboot with His remaining remant of eight presumably untainted humans.

The word Nephilim actually means “fallen ones.” They were described as giants with physical superiority who became famous for their military might. Interestingly, there were tales of giants with great warrior-like power throughout the ancient world, the most well-known to you and me would be from Greece: Cyclops.

There is sound biblical reasoning for all three interpretations. Notably, when these four verses were written, not much detail was given. Evidently, the important point was to explain the necessity of the Flood. Humankind had become so irredeemably corrupted they were becoming a chimera of physical and spiritual malevolence, the very DNA within human genes altered to become inexorably evil. The outer shell was still beautiful, still recognizably having the stamp of God, but now deforming into something not fully human anymore, becoming instead the embodiment of wickedness.

This is what drove God to His grief-stricken lament, “I regret that I have made them.”

Every intention of the thoughts of the heart was only evil, continually. It seems hard to imagine, doesn’t it. But, to get inside this story we have to imagine what was it like to live in that kind of culture, where every thought, every motive, every emotion, was tinged with evil. How safe was it to walk around the neighborhood, or even just to go to work? Everyone must have distrusted everyone else, and kept themselves well-guarded. Betrayal, violence, robbery, perversity, all must have been a part of daily life. Think also of despair, the emptiness of isolation, loneliness, of being used, and crushed. Everyone was both victim of trauma and perpetrator of evil. How did children survive in such a world?

And yet, they must have, because humankind was thriving, and spreading out. Jesus described that era when He taught on the coming Day of Judgement, saying “In the days before the Flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark.”


[Nephilim: Eric Leiser [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Acts Wednesday


Author: Luke

Just a few days ago I watched Max McLean’s incredible-edge-of-your-seat performance of the Gospel of Mark. It has totally transformed that Gospel for me and convinced me that Mark’s Gospel was originally written as a script for the stage, an amazing piece of literature that is every bit as cohesive yet complexly composed as Handel’s Messiah. I can -not- stop thinking about it.

And I just wonder if Acts was written more in that way as well?

The book of Acts is also an edge-of-your-seat story. It’s a story that turned the world upside down, two thousand years ago. It began with one person, and over the course of just one generation that one person’s life affected the whole known world. This is the continuing account of how God Himself came to earth as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to remedy the earth’s greatest need, restoration and reconciliation with God, and the power to live a new life that would continue into eternity with the Lord.

Jesus’ world was not much different than ours today. It was a world in which there was no place for one true God. Instead people worshiped a multitude of multiple gods. Many were mostly just socially religious. Some of the cultures of that day were downright brutal. And people were just as plagued with high crime, random violence, sex trafficking, wide-spread sexual ambiguity, resentment against authority, a sense of self-centered entitlement, a wide gulf between the wealthy and the poor, restlessness and discontent, emptiness, despair, and fear.

And into this troubled world came Jesus, a real man, but also God Himself.

It’s not clear exactly when Luke, the author of what we call the “Acts,” became gripped with Jesus’ life story. What we do know is that at some point Luke met Paul and became one of Paul’s coworkers. Paul said of Luke “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor.” The way certain ailments and situations are described in both his gospel and Acts do reveal Luke’s medical background.

Luke, being Greek, was a well-educated physician of some standing. He was learned in the classical Hellenistic style and an accomplished writer. Apparently, he enjoyed a certain measure of wealth and reputation in his society because he had become friends with a fairly well-known government leader named Theophilus.

Luke wanted to give Theophilus an account of Jesus’ life and continuing ministry as risen Lord, so he sent his friend a two-volume chronicle which today is found in two books of the New Testament: the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles.

It’s possible Luke mentioned himself in Acts 13:1 when he listed the various teachers and leaders in the church of the Greek city of Antioch, in Ancient Syria. Among those named was a Lucius the Cyrene, a man of African origin. It was men from Cyprus and Cyrene, in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, who had first brought the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch. Lucius is a Latin name, so he was probably brought up in the Roman culture, and was most likely a Gentile by birth, since he was uncircumcised.

Paul also said of Luke “Only Luke is with me.” He was Paul’s faithful companion. Loyal and true once they had met, Luke joined Paul for most of the rest of his missionary journeys. Just once, when they first came to Philippi, Luke stayed behind for a while, and then rejoined with Paul when Paul visited Philippi on his second, follow-up trip. Luke remained Paul’s close associate and fellow missionary for many years, together establishing the first medical mission on the island of Malta.

Judging from Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, he was possibly one of the seventy disciples Jesus sent out on an evangelism tour, and he could very well have been one of the two disciples who met with Jesus on their way home to Emmaus, after Jesus’ resurrection (since Luke is the only gospel writer to tell that story).

The most ancient record of Luke’s life says that he “served the Lord continuously, unmarried and without children, filled with the Holy Spirit; he died at the age of 84 years.”[1]                    

He had an artistic nature, as revealed through his literary excellence. He was artful in the use of good, classical Greek for some sections, then employed the Aramaic of that time – the vernacular, as we say – for other sections, adding a sense of drama and reality, such as the bracing description, vivid with details, of the shipwreck in Acts 28

Luke was also a historian trying to set the record straight about Jesus, the gospel, and Christians. He frankly recorded the hardships, and also the joy. There is suffering in this book, but you can’t have a life with the Lord Jesus without suffering. When you share in His life, you share in everything, the joy and the cross.

Luke also gave an accurate depiction of his day and place, offering historical details that help anchor in time when these events occurred. Reflecting his Gentile background, Luke brought out what would have interested a Roman, such as the legal aspects of the jailings, beatings, and Paul’s citizenship. Archeological discoveries support that Luke used the proper terms for the people, places and era being described.

More than any other Bible author, Luke had a particular respect for women. Both in his gospel and in Acts, he emphasized the women, their presence, their leadership, and their service. It was Luke’s habit throughout his account to mention women by name and to give details about their involvement, such as the group of women who received Paul in Acts 16, one of whom was quite wealthy.

In keeping with Luke’s preface, this story is the continuation of the Acts of Jesus Christ. Luke’s first volume introduced Jesus the man, his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Now, in this second volume, Luke moved the story forward as Jesus, God the Son, acted through His Spirit powerfully enlivening, guiding, and working within His followers.


[1] From Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke


[Luke, Author of Acts – The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

New Schedule

I’m pretty much in the middle of Genesis and I’m starting in on the Acts of the Apostles–lots of people I know are studying that book right now, and it seems like a good idea to sort of be together in that with them. So! I am going to catch up with the series I’ve been posting on another blogsite, “Misfits Theology,” and once I have, I am going to slow down to two blogs a week for a while, then probably add in a third day for “Say What?” posts.

If you have a “Say What?” you’d like me to work on, please send it in, I’d love to have that conversation, I’m always learning and changing, and welcome the opportunity.

Starting this week, then, I’ll begin the Acts series, and continue with the Genesis series until I’m caught up. Once there, Acts will stay on Wednesdays and Genesis will move to Saturdays.

Once Genesis winds down, I’m not sure what I’ll bring in. If you have special requests, (like, for instance, Ezekiel?! What the heck!) please message me!


Girl Writing | Victoria and Albert Museum [Public domain]

Shabbat


Shabbat is the centerpiece of Jewish life, and has been so since the infancy of Israel. According to the Talmud, Shabbat is equal to all the other commandments. Shabbat is so central to Jewish life, that the term shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observer) is synonymous with “religious Jew” in common parlance.

Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening after nightfall.


Every Friday evening, we make a special point of dressing nicely, and arriving to dinner in time for the kiddush. It’s important to be punctual, since the candles are to be lit at least 18 minutes before sunset.


The Torah commands the Jewish people to “remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” The sages understand this to mean the faithful Jew must verbally declare the Sabbath a holy day, so on Friday night a special prayer is said over wine in a ritual of sanctification.


After the candles are lit, prayers are said, scriptures such as a selection from the Psalms are read, the reader drinks from a cup of wine prepared especially for the Shabbat table.

Everyone stands for the Kiddush as it is sung

The sixth day. And the heavens and the earth and all their complements were finished.

And G‑d finished by the Seventh Day His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.

And G‑d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on it He rested from all His work, which G‑d had created to do.

Attention Gentlemen! Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the world, who creates the fruit of vine.

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, king of the world, who made us holy with His commandments and favored us, and gave us His holy Shabbat, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the first of the holy festivals, commemorating the exodus from Egypt.

For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and goodwill given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.

Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies Shabbat.

Then we sit for the feast prepared for us, including special rolls which are served only on Shabbat, reminding us of the double portion of manna that fell every Friday during the Exodus. Challah, as it is called, is made of dough from which a small portion has been set aside as an offering, making it special for festival occasions.

Tonight, as we celebrated Shabbat together, I realized this remembrance of God’s provision, and His command to rest, have become very dear to me. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NRSV) Jesus is certainly our Sabbath. And, I know there are all kinds of robust discussions going on, between denominations, about what is the Sabbath, how do Christians keep the Sabbath, are we obligated to have a Sabbath, considering Jesus is our rest, and considering what the apostle Paul later wrote,Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

Nevertheless, the deep truth of Shabbat, that God established this day as one of celebration and rest, that studies show keeping a regular Sabbath ends up physically and mentally benefitting us, (think “Blue Zone“), that worship is refreshing to the soul…I think I’d like to incorporate Kiddush, Challah, and Sabbath Feast into my life.

Astragali


Today was our last day at the dig. The last chance to pull something interesting out of the ground, last opportunity with a pick, a brush, and a pan as my tools of discovery.

As I carefully brushed around what seemed like a floor formation of pottery sherds and cobblestones, almost by accident, I unearthed what looked like a knucklebone—actually a bone in the ankle. At first, I didn’t recognize what I had—old bones are as brown and textured as smooth wood. Then it hit me. I might be holding an astragalus, a game piece usually made from an unmodified ankle bone, though some were polished or ground, and some were filled with metal plugs. Astragali have also been found as replicas in ceramic, marble, or other materials.

[Astragali | courtesy Picryl, Public Domain]
[Faience astragalus | The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Knucklebones were used in games of chance, but in the ancient world, games were seen as influenced by deities, nothing was merely chance, so some Astragali had inscriptions on them. (That link takes you to Wikipedia.) We even have a Proverb in the scriptures explaining this very thing, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” (Proverbs 16:33, RSV) Later, in Acts, the remaining disciples cast lots to decide who would replace Judas as the twelfth apostle, most likely trusting in this text.

The use of astragali as gaming pieces goes as far back as four thousand years ago, and  quickly became widespread. Sophocles claimed the invention of astragali went to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain references to games similar to knucklebones.

However, both Herodotus and Plato actually point to a foreign origin of the game. Plato named the Egyptian God Thot as the inventor, whereas Herodotus wrote about the Lydians originating the game during a time of famine. Thot shows up in Akko as a small monkey amulet, probably carried by those who labored in the forge, as Thot was, among other things, a protector of those who worked with iron and furnaces. Lydia is one of the regions known for textiles in the ancient world, and would have been closely linked with Akko, which operated a robust trade in purple dye. Several astragali have actually been found at Akko, some with drilled holes in them.

[Jacks | The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

As a matter of fact, we have kept a form of knucklebones to this day—we call them “jacks,” now, but they are essentially the same as the astragali of antiquity. As I dropped my possible astragalus into my specially labeled bag for bone finds, I wondered whether it was a gaming piece, or just the leftovers from some ancient meal.

Tomorrow, we’ll sweep the entire site, then our survey archaeologist, Jamie, will take aerial photos with the drone. He’ll later use photogrammetry[1] to create a 3D model of the site, and each area. Saturday, we’ll attempt to wash all 400 buckets of pottery sherds—yes, that is not hyperbole, or even exaggeration. That is the running count, at this moment, despite daily two-hour pottery washing sessions. Saturday is Shabbat in Israel, so we’ll wash pottery in the morning, and we’ll get the afternoon off—that is to say, everyone who is not responsible for some aspect of the excavation.

I, most likely, will be inputting the data for the survey, being a pottery scribe, and checking through all my work. Since not all the pottery will be read by the time Dave and I leave Monday, I won’t be able to close the books. But, I will have brought the survey project much farther along than they’ve had in the recent past.

Sunday, we head back up to the excavation one last time to lay down somewhere in the region of 3,000 sandbags on everything, to protect it, and to protect others from falling in. After that, a quick shower, and off to the mayor’s office where all 50+ students and staff will be hosted at a reception in our honor. We’ll finish the day with feasting at Uri Buri, voted best restaurant in the Middle East in 2016.

[1]Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs. The input to photogrammetry is photographs, and the output is typically a map, a drawing, a measurement, or a 3D model of some real-world object or scene.” (Wikipedia)

[Cover Photo: Dice players. Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b) in Pompeii.| WolfgangRieger [Public domain]

The Forensics of Archaeology


Some people dig for gold, others for artifacts. But the true archaeologist digs for knowledge.

Dan Griswold, PhD

Dan, our area supervisor, has been living in Israel for years, now, having earned his PhD from Haifa University. I’ve enjoyed learning from him, and the way he approaches our work.

The excavation site is organized around several areas, each with a letter designation. Some areas, designated with double letters, are being re-excavated from an earlier time—the late sixties, early seventies, to be exact, by a well-known Israeli archaeologist, Moshe Dothan. Both of the current co-directors for the Tel Akko Excavation were mentored by professor Dothan and his wife, Trude.

However, area Z, the part of the excavation Dan supervises, is new. And, it is complicated.

The Dothans specialized in the transition from the Chalcolithic to the Bronze Age, and their excavation centered primarily on learning more of this time period in Akko. Now, Anne Killebrew, PhD and Michal Artzy, PhD are searching for a broader understanding of all the layers the Tel has to divulge. Their survey of the mound, and their re-visitation of the earlier dig, have already revealed a greater appreciation for the mosaic of cultures represented in Akko, from the Phoenician, to Persian, to Hellenistic, to Crusader, to Ottomon, and finally, to the current day.

And, all of that rich texture is displayed in Dan’s area, where I’ve been digging since the first week.

“I want to see the foundation layer for this installation,” he told me recently, as he was assigning all of us our projects for the day. “I think this is a Crusader installation, and I think they cut through this Persian wall,” he continued, as he pointed to three ashlar stones, laid side by side, with a clear line of them running diagonally to the installation in question.

As he spoke, I could see exactly what he was talking about. Dan has made a deep study of all the diagonals, ashlar formations, pottery layers, and cobble stones that seem to make up a crazy patchwork quilt of our squares.

I’ve watched Dan study our area every morning, and tell us the questions he’s asking. He’s keeping each of these layers of time organized in his mind, as he traces who built what, what they did with their detritus, where they chose to sink pits, or take stones, or hide things. As each of us are given our locus to brush back the dirt, and discover what’s been hidden, Dan is piecing together all the clues and data into an evolving narrative.

If you ask the wrong questions, chances are, you’re going to get the wrong answers.  I’ve watched Dan, time and again, ask good questions that prompt the area to respond with information-rich answers. As soon as I hear him say, “I think we’re going to find…” I’m just about certain we are definitely going to find something. It may not be exactly what he thought, but he is asking the right kind of questions that deliver good answers.

Case in point: we have very interesting activity happening in one of the square’s loci. Our whole area shows evidence of a Phoenician presence (female figurine heads and horse heads), Persian construction (ashlar stones), Crusader intrusion (cuts through ancient—even to them—walls), and modern-day trenches from the warfare this area experienced in the late 1940’s. A few days ago, as Dan was zeroing in on where a trench may intersect with an ancient floor, someone called out, “There’s a bullet!” Five feet down, we really thought we’d gotten past the present, and deep into the past. Nope. That’s area Z!

This morning I asked Dan to tell me a little more about the new locus I’ll be working in these last couple days of the dig. See if you can see what he saw:

The diagonal line of pottery sherds

The floor formation of cobble stones

Stones that are probably part of a wall, still to be fully uncovered.

Archaeology is really sleuthing and science all rolled into one. I’m keeping my eye on this young PhD. I feel sure he’ll be publishing more as he applies his art of inquiry in the yet undug world of antiquity.

[Cover photo courtesy Pixabay]

Ashtoreth


Working in the Pottery Lab complex is one of several unexpected pleasures I’ve been experiencing on this excavation. As a microcosm of Israel itself, our Lab is international. Yolanta, who knows all the pottery of each age in this region, is Jewish, of Polish descent. Rachel Ben Dov, well-known metallurgist and archaeologist, is a native Israeli, born not long after Israel became a nation in 1948. Sarcon, an artist and computer graphics expert, is a Turkish Muslim. Rauna, the builder and maintainer of Tel Akko’s rather magnificent database, is Danish, married to an Israeli.

Each brings seasons of experience, intelligence, multiple PhD’s, creativity, humor, and good nature to their work. I look forward to heading there, every day, after digging in the morning.

In the early afternoon, around 1pm, the rest of the crew returns from the excavation, and a small cadre of area supervisors come in with the special finds, and the “Find of The Day.” This year, we seem to have uncovered a treasure trove of horse heads and female figurines. Both have intriguing implications.

The horse heads originally belonged to a horse-and-rider combination. “According to Dr. Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa, the use of horses in the Ancient Near East was greatly increased during the Iron Age. Chariots are mentioned in several ancient literary accounts including Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites in Exodus, and Deborah and Barak’s battle against Sisera in Judges. Erlich says that “Horse figurines were common in the Land of Israel in the first millennium BCE,” including horse-shaped vessels used for holding liquids.” (That link will send you to a short and fascinating story about horse heads being discovered near Akko)

It is thought, at least in our Pottery Lab, the horse-and-rider figurines came from Bronze Age graves perhaps disrupted during Crusader times and used as landscaping fill when they planted vineyards and orchards on top of the Tel.

The several female cylinder figures and sculpted women’s heads we’ve been discovering are even more provocative. Rachel Ben Dov, who wrote a three volume series on the Tel Dan excavation, sent me an article she’d written on similar statuettes. Evidently, it is thought these figurines represent Astarte/Ashtoreth. They typically depict a woman with long, flowing hair, holding what seems to be a dove. Others hold what seems to be a tambourine, or hand drum, and still a third variety hold what seems to be a cake. The style is Phoenician (which makes complete sense, considering Akko began as a Phoenician sea port). Evidently, statuette manufacture was centered in Tyre and Sarepta, but the figurines were distributed up and down the coast, being found in Akhziv, Akko, Kaisan, and even farther south, into ancient Israel.

These pottery figures’ heyday was in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, when production seemed to dwindle down (and consider, that is about the time the Assyrians came riding through, conquering and terrorizing everything in sight, with deportation on Israel’s itinerary).

We know worship of Ashtoreth was a regular source of contention between God and His people during this time frame. According to Wikipedia, she was “a foreign, non-Judahite goddess, the principal goddess of the Sidonians or Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature.” (That link takes you to Wikipedia). Ashtoreth was the goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war, and among her several symbols was the dove.

It is generally accepted that the Masoretic “vowel pointing” adopted c. 135 AD, indicating the pronunciation ʻAštōreṯ (“Ashtoreth,” “Ashtoret”) is a deliberate distortion of “Ashtart”, and that this is probably because the two last syllables have been pointed with the vowels belonging to bōšeṯ, (“bosheth,” abomination), to indicate that that word should be substituted when reading.  The plural form is pointed ʻAštārōṯ (“Ashtaroth”). The biblical Ashtoreth should not be confused with the goddess Asherah, the form of the names being quite distinct, and both appearing quite distinctly in the First Book of Kings. 

The biblical writers may, however, have conflated some attributes and titles of the two, as seems to have occurred throughout the 1st millennium Levant. For instance, the title “Queen of heaven” as mentioned in Jeremiah has been connected with both (in later Jewish mythology, she became a female demon of lust; for what seems to be the use of the Hebrew plural form ʻAštārōṯ in this sense, see Astaroth).”

Here’s where it get’s hinky:

“Inscriptions from several places including Kuntillet ‘Ajrud have the phrase “YHWH and his Asherah”. Because the Jews combined El with YHWH, it is understandable that many inhabitants of the land of Israel, linked El’s wife Asherah with YHWH.”

Makes it even easier to see why Asherah was both wildly popular, especially among women, and why God was so grieved over her worship.

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