Here are summaries from 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah and Esther.
After wading through chapters of genealogy, we became aware that, although Chronicles tells much of the same history as Samuel and Kings, it is from a different perspective. The chronicler reflects priestly interests for faithful worship and faithful lives. This is the standard used to judge whether each king was good or bad. All had their flaws, but if they focused on faithful worship and lives sooner or later, they were generally judged as good by the chronicler.
David is shown as the ideal king and the real founder of the Temple and its ritual.
Chronicles shows that in spite of the disasters that happened to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, God had not abandoned Israel and was still keeping God’s promises to the nation and was working out God’s plan for God’s people who remained faithful to God.
First Chronicles goes into much detail about worship of God in the Temple of Jerusalem and David’s organization of the priests and Levites and decorating the Temple for worship.
Another theme is God’s commitment to the line of David, showing the inability of human sin and faithlessness to overthrow God’s good purposes. “Seeking God” leads to repentance and proper worship.
Second Chronicles seems to reveal a strong pro-Judah, anti-Israel bias here. Israel’s history is only mentioned where it intersects with Judah’s. Judah’s kings come out in much better light here than they did in 2 Kings.
Second Chronicles tries to explain how Judah’s downfall came about. Although Judah had many “good” kings according to Chronicles, the sins of the people nevertheless were too great and punishment was required. Second Chronicles reminds Judah that the same downfall can happen again and they must be careful as they start their new life upon returning from exile to their homes. This is where the book stops.
Ezra and Nehemiah
Only one person in the group could remember hearing a sermon based on Ezra or Nehemiah, or even having a general familiarity with these books. We opened with the “Bible Project” video which walked us through Ezra and Nehemiah, tracing the storylines, principal characters, and events. Ezra and Nehemiah were once one book.
The Southern Kingdom fell to Babylonia in 587 BCE, and a segment of the Jews was taken into captivity and lived in exile. Others fled to Egypt and Samaria, while a portion (mostly poor) stayed behind. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah trace Israel’s history of the return of the exiles from Babylonia between 450 and 400 BCE. Return was made possible by God who “stirred up the spirit “of Cyrus, King of Persia, to issue a decree supporting the return of the people and providing financial support and leadership to rebuild the altar and Temple. Zerubbabel was tapped to oversee the initial efforts at reconstruction.
While the people initially rejoiced in their return, they also grieved at the loss and destruction that had occurred during the exile. Rejoicing was mixed with weeping. Conflicts developed with people who had not left, as well as with neighboring Samarians. A point of conflict was the intermarriage that had occurred, as well as divorce. Purity laws were enforced, and where there was intermarriage, the woman and children were forced to leave.
Ezra a priest was sent with the Torah of Moses to initiate reform among the people and to teach the Law. Nehemiah was sent to govern and oversee the building of the wall around the area. Conflict again arose from “foreigners.,” and measures were taken to remove from the community those who were not “pure” by genealogy or by failing to strictly follow marriage/purity laws.
The books contain many lists of people who made up the community after relocation, as well as the Priests, Levites, and High Priests. Record-keeping and continuity were highly valued. A high point is the six hour reading of the Law (Torah) to the people (men, women, and children), who stood for the entire time. Thirteen lay people assisted. It was a holy day set apart which brought mourning and weeping, as well as joy in and praise of the Lord.
Our discussions cited parallels in our society today related to dealing with differences in cultures, societal norms, economic and religious differences among people. The Law of Moses strictly ordered the life and conduct of the community.
We took a look at this book from the perspective of viewing it as an ancient drama of survival for an oppressed and frequently scapegoated group. We drew comparisons to modern groups facing similar situations (minorities and women) and looked at the actions of Mordecai and Esther for inspiration. We also looked at the festival of Purim, perhaps the most joyous of Jewish festivals, as a cathartic response in the face of historical and continual oppression.
Here is a summary of 1 and 2 Kings
“The king is dead. Long live the king!” The book of First Kings begins as a story about, you guessed it, kings. King David is on his death bed. His son Solomon ascends to the throne with the wise political maneuvering of the prophet Nathan and his mother Bathsheba. Solomon’s reign will feature an extended time of both peace and prosperity. It begins with God asking Solomon to ask for what he wants. Solomon wisely asks for wisdom, a wisdom to govern God’s people. God gives him that wisdom and gives him also great wealth. This will be the high water mark of the monarchy. Solomon will impress other nations and their leaders with his practical wisdom. He will build large places for himself and for his wives. He will, most notably, build a house for God – the temple in Jerusalem. It will be a grand place for God to dwell in glory and in splendor.
After the death of Solomon, things come apart. Quite literally, the nation will split into two – 10 tribes of the north known as Israel, 2 tribes (Benjamin and Judah) in the south including Jerusalem known as Judah. There will be very few good kings named through the rest of 1 and 2 Kings – just a few in Judah, none in Israel. Though a good bit of the action takes place in the northern kingdom, the fact that there are no good kings in the north probably reflects southern authorship.
Over and against this run of kings who do evil in God’s sight, we are introduced to the prophet Elijah. He will stand for God and against the king, King Ahab. He will claim a decisive victory in a contest between the 400 prophets of Baal and the one true God at Mt. Carmel. Which God will bring fire down on the offerings prepared? God brings that fire! Elijah then kills the prophets of Baal and flees for his life knowing Queen Jezebel will exact revenge. He flees to the mountain of God, Mt. Horeb, where he hears the question several times “What are you doing here Elijah?” It is there that he hears God not in an earthquake or fire or wind, but in the sound of sheer silence (or a still, small voice). The book that began being very much about kings now seems to be more so a book about the prophet … and how God may often stand against (not for) a king who does evil in God’s sight.
We looked for helpful lessons from Second Kings as the word on the street was that not much good comes out of this book. We studied 5 different texts which taught us about the partnership of Elijah/Elisha, Naaman’s healing as an outsider, Hezekiah’s Prayer of Peace, Josiah’s Reformation and the glimmer of Hope we see at the end of the book with the freeing from jail of Johoiachin. Although an evil King he does carry on the line of David as promised.
We dug a little deeper and discussed what salvation means for such people like our prophets, and also Naaman, Hezekiah, Josiah, ourselves. I shared this quote below which provided helpful discussion.
The Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara suggests that salvation is the movement
toward healing and wholeness in the middle of the trials of our daily existence.
It is “one moment of peace and tenderness in the midst of daily violence, music
that calms our spirit, a novel that keeps us company, a glass of beer or a cup of
coffee shared with another. These give us the desire to go on living. Salvation
is a bright green garden where vegetables have sprouted after much effort.
Salvation is a baby long awaited or a love letter that brings us back to life.
Salvation is beauty, a garden on the earth where God walks. […] Salvation is
a get-together, an event, a sentiment, a kiss, a piece of bread […]. It is everything that nourishes love, our body, our life.”
Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experiences of Evil and Salvation
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 124-125.
Here is a summary of 1 and 2 Samuel
“Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.” This is the request (demand, really) that summarizes the book of 1 Samuel. Israel is moving from the rather scattered time of Judges to a more centralized form of governance. This fits with the natural course of human history (like other nations) as peoples seek leadership, governance and protection. The story of 1 Samuel is in many ways a historical accounting of a move toward monarchy and away from God. God tells the prophet Samuel to warn the people and show them the ways of the king. The warning in chapter 8 is chilling especially in its use of pronouns – how the king will take your children, your property and use them for hisbenefit.
We are introduced to Israel’s first two kings – first Saul and then David. Their stories include plenty of violence and palace intrigue. The transitions of power are not peaceful. Saul is a reluctant king. He hides in the baggage before he ascends to the throne. David will be anointed on three different occasions. He will serve as Saul’s musician, his armor bearer and as a military commander. He will also be on the run for his life. Threatened by David’s rise to fame, Saul will try to kill him multiple times. David escapes with help from Saul’s daughter (his wife Michal) and Saul’s son (Jonathan) with whom David enjoys a special bond. David will a fugitive until Saul dies in battle. The book ends with David still not recognized as king over Israel.
We have a tendency in our partisan politics today to resist any critique of our candidate or officeholder. 2 Samuel offers an antidote to that tendency. It is an honest look at the reign of David as king of Israel. He is God’ anointed, a man after God’s own heart, a leader who regularly inquires of the Lord. We see his humility as he hears of God’s desire to make of David a house, a royal house. At first, he makes plans to build a house for God, a place or worship. God’s response is to make of David and his ancestors a royal. This is a decisive moment in Israel’s history. The monarchy is established. God makes a covenant with David as king.
It is not too long until we see David in a different light. In chapter eleven we find the story of David and Bathsheba. This story will not make it into 1 & 2 Chronicles, books that cover the same moments in history but leave out this scandal. They are a more pro-David account. In 2 Samuel, we read of David’s abuse of power. Two things to note in this story. One, we only hear Bathsheba’s name once. Every other reference to her is to her as the wife of Uriah. David is with another man’s wife. Two, the verb most often used in this story is the word ‘send.’ The sin here is not just David’s adultery. It is how he uses his power to seduce her, to attempt a cover up and to have her husband killed.
The stories of David’s sin and shortcoming continue as the prophet Nathan confronts him. The prophet’s story convicts David of his own sin and David repents. David’s reign as the great king of Israel continues for forty years. It is not smooth sailing. Just as before, when David ran from his father in law, Saul, David will too spend considerable time on the run. This time it will be from his son Absalom who seeks the throne for himself. This is the story of King David. It is not a Hallmark movie.
Here is a summary of the first three weeks of our second semester with Joshua, Judges, Ruth.
Joshua – They finally made it! Now what?
In Joshua, the promise left unfilled at the end of the Torah is resolved. They make it into the promised land. But, that is not the end of their Journey. Now they must fight to make place for themselves and chose to remain faithful to God lest they end up being cast out just like their predecessors, the Canaanites. To do this the people are given a new leader Joshua who is cut from the same cloth as Moses, and given God’s command/permission to enter the land. And their faithfulness is continually tested as they either win (Jericho) as they follow God’s instruction, or, are defeated (Ai) because they don’t.
We also explored the mixed references to Canaanite genocide in the conquest section of the book along with others, in the land disbursement section, that showed Canaanites still remaining in the land. We then turned to the archeologists who have challenged the historicity of the Joshua account (especially at Jericho) and wondered how a theological interpretation might be better suited to the text. Joshua’s farewell address helps us here, bookending the story with calls of faithfulness to God. As Joshua’s last words call the people to choose whom they will serve, we recalled Joshua’s interaction with the Commander of the Lord’s army in chapter 5, where Joshua asks, “Are you on our side or that of our enemies?, to which the Angel responds, “Neither.” The challenge of the Angel’s response seems to linger as the book closes. The real question for the Israelites it seems, is not whether God is on their side, but whether or not they will choose to be on God’s side.
The book of Judges chronicles the period in Israel’s history when tribal leaders led individual tribes in the Promised Land. The book connects the story of Joshua with the need for Israel to establish a king in 1 Samuel. Judges is an incredibly disturbing book because it chronicles Israel’s downward spiral into sin. It follows a pattern: Israel sins against God, God allows Israel’s enemies to oppress them, Israel cries out to God for help, God raises up a judge to defeat Israel’s enemies, the people live in peace as long as the judge lives. With each cycle, the people draw further and further away from God and plunge deeper and deeper into sin. The book was written during the Babylonian Exile when Israel was asking existential and theological questions in response to crisis. Where is God? How does God bless us? Does God punish people when they mess up? By the end of the book, the reader herself asks these very same questions as she wrestles with the difficult stories of assault, violence, and misuse of religion. As you read the final chapter of Judges, one can’t help but ask: Is anything redeemable for Israel?
The theme of Ruth is redemption, with the word used 25 times in the book. Contrary to what the title might make us believe, this story is about Naomi’s redemption. Redemption for her is found in the end through Ruth, her daughter-in-law, having a son with Boaz, a kinsmen (or more accurately translated: her redeemer). Redemption in this story is defined as regaining land, reputation, and family stability after famine, disease, and death. However, there are also spiritual connections to the idea of redemption as we see the ending geneology pointing to King David and Jesus. Interestingly, God never speaks in the story of Ruth. Rather, the word “hesed” is used over and over in the story. “Hesed” is used throughout the Bible to describe God’s abundant kindness and faithfulness. In the book of Ruth, “hesed” is used to describe Ruth and Boaz when they give in such generous and unexpected ways. Therefore, one of the main points of the book of Ruth is to show us how God can still work (often behind the scenes) through the love, generosity, boldness, faithfulness, and kindness or people – often the people we would least expect or even discount as outsiders. In a way, Ruth answers the question of Judges. Are things redeemable, even in the worst of circumstances? Yes!!!
Below is review of our first semester of Grand Sweep Bible Studies:
Week Seven – Oct. 29, 2019 Numbers
In week one on Numbers we looked at themes for the book taken from the first 3 verses. The story of God’s people in the dessert (Bemidbar), growth in Numbers (Arithmoi), and Paqad (to count). I suggested all three can be held together as we read through this narrative of the Israelites figuring out how live with God in their midst, how to be fruitful, and how to be a people that counts and matters. During this Wilderness period they struggled greatly with the challenges and difficulties that they faced. They complain, challenge the leadership, made rules, revise some of the rules, get punished by God for their unfaithfulness, but also blessed, fed, and forgiven. Along they way, we also needed to face some difficult passages that are very unfair toward women, and the harshness of the penalties for questioning and unfaithfulness.
In week two, we get much of the same themes continued as the people get closer to the promised land. Perhaps it can best be summarized in the story of the bronze serpent. The people complain. They get bitten by snakes and die. They repent. And God gives them the bronze serpent for healing. They stray – they suffer – they’re sorry – they’re healed. It really is two steps forward and one step back kind of processes: the Israelites start winning wars and get blessed by an internationally known prophet with a talking donkey, but Moses gets banned from the promised land, and the people get tempted by another tribe. Finally, as the book settles down there is some beauty and hope found in the structure and guidance of offerings and festivals that will help them remember their struggles and triumphs.
Week Six – Oct. 22 Leviticus
We had a wonderful group brave the wind on Tuesday evening to learn about the (surprisingly) intriguing Third Book of Moses we call Leviticus (a manual for priests descending from the tribe of Levi). We discussed several helpful perspectives and lenses through which to view what can be viewed as a rather tedious (not to mention graphic) collection of laws and rituals. Exodus ends with a gaping need for the community to establish a ritualistic code by which forgiveness can be reached (i.e. the golden calf incident). As is always God’s modus operandi, grace abounded and God provided a way for the community to atone for their sins and worship God faithfully in the age to come. I emphasized that Leviticus is that means of grace and that way of atonement that God provided–a set of laws/customs/rituals that is solely their own and not imposed upon them against their will as when they were slaves in Egypt. It is important to remember that “impurity” and “uncleanliness” were not sins, but only temporary statuses requiring purification. Leviticus also outlines the major Jewish festivals and feast days and kosher food laws that many faithful Jews subscribe to today. Essentially, this book is about holiness and how God’s people are being made holy.
I outlined several perspectives with which readers can view Leviticus by using a PowerPoint presentation. I shall attach that presentation for your viewing.
Week Five – Oct. 8 Exodus
We experienced two interesting sessions exploring the 2nd book of the Bible, Exodus. We’ve dug into the travels of the Israelites and all the various emotions that come into play for the major leaders like Moses, Pharaoh, Jethro and Aaron. Our overall theme was what does it mean to go from God’s people who were in Bondage to Pharaoh to Bonding with the Israelites ONE and only God. We had many questions about the violence in this book, why so many rules/laws, and oh that tabernacle. We even had some pop quizzes to engage our brains. Fun times!!
Below is a great link which we attempted to view (projector challenges) so please watch on your own. Great summary of this complex book of the Bible.
Wonderful to be with you all and continued Blessings on this Grand Sweep!
Week Four – Oct. 1 Genesis 28-50
The story continues as Jacob, despite multiple twists and turns, marries and starts his family. Out of family jealousy and natural disaster, we enter into the lengthy story of Jacob’s son Joseph, his rise from slave to second in command in Egypt, and how he saved his family and they find themselves prospering in the land of Egypt. As someone said last week, “This sounds like a movie or soap opera plot!” Join us On Tuesday nights as we continue to explore the ongoing story of God’s interaction with God’s people – 6:00 p.m. in the dining room of First Presbyterian Church, Cedar Falls.
Week Three – Sept. 24 Genesis 12-28 (cont.)
Last week we transitioned from the foundational stories of Creation, Fall and Redemption in Genesis 1-11, to God’s choosing of a particular family to be keepers of God’s covenant promise for all people. That promise started with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12. The fulfillment of that promise didn’t come easily, as we were reminded of problems in several generations of having children to extend the generations and increase the family. We saw how people used creative (or we might say shocking to us!) ways of dealing with these problems. But the promise was renewed over and over again as we saw how from the beginning God has used flawed people to accomplish God’s good purposes – from Abraham and Sarah and Hagar through Isaac and Ishmael. We ended up with Isaac’s son, Jacob, using trickery and deception to gain the birthright and blessing from his father, taking it away from his twin Esau. Esau’s threats of revenge sent Jacob heading for safety in the hills of his mother’s family.
It really helps to wear reading glasses when reading the Old Testament. Two lenses help us see the story of God’s relationship with Israel. When God identifies Godself, God will say one of two things. God will either reference his relationship with Israel’s ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or God will reference the work done by God to liberate the people from slavery in Egypt. It will not be until much later in the Old Testament that God identifies Godself in a third way – as the God who brings the people of Israel back from their exile. More on that later.
The stories of the covenant and of the exodus frame the whole of the Old Testament. The story of the exodus we will get to in the next book, Exodus. The story of the covenant begins in Genesis 12. Here God choses a particular people through whom God will bless all the earth, Abram and Sarai. Their names will be changed to Abraham and Sarah and they will be the parents of the nation of Israel. Here begins the story of Israel, God’s people, who are blessed as to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-4).
Week One – Sept. 10 Genesis 1-11
We began our journey through the bible with an introduction and overview. We’re also going to make an effort to post weekly updates from our study. Those are included in our Friday emails a few days before the Tuesday Bible study. Consider it a preview.
How do we read the bible? It is a library – a collection of stories, history, law and poetry. Do we read it as such, or do we use it to look things up like an encyclopedia or an early version of Google? A good way to interpret one passage in the bible is to see it in relationship with the rest of the biblical story. That is especially true as we understand Jesus to be God incarnate, the Word made flesh. Jesus is the Word, capital ‘W”. The bible is God’s word, lower case “w”. Our understanding of Jesus, the Word, helps us to better see the bible, the word.
The journey through the bible begins before ‘the beginning’ with the creative work of God. You’ll notice there are two creation stories! Both show God’s power and God’s love across the entire canvas of creation. It is good, very good!
These first eleven chapters focus on humanity as a whole ending with humankind’s efforts to make a name for ourselves with a tall building. God put an end to that building project and scattered the people. That story marks the end of one way of God working with the world God so loves. A new beginning awaits in chapter 12. The God of creation is also the God of covenant.