Bible For Beginners

Bible For Beginners          All four parts

When we look at the big story which runs through the many and varied pages of the bible, we find that it is something of a love story.  Well we probably know enough to realise that it is not the story of a simple relationship where everything goes smoothly.  There are plenty of ups and downs among the pride and passions, as well as many breakups and make-ups in what turns out to be a rather turbulent relationship.  It is certainly no ordinary love story, with little in the way of romance.  It's the story of God's relationship with us, with humanity, which makes it, in a sense, our story.  It is therefore perhaps, the greatest love story ever told,

So where did the relationship begin?  Where did we first meet?  In a garden, says the book of Genesis.  Not just any garden but Eden, the most perfect garden ever created.  God makes a man, Adam, in his own image.  Like most relationships it starts off smoothly, but that appearance, we soon discover, is rather deceptive.

The initial encounter between God and humans is described in two different ways, which are rather different from each other.  Genesis chapter 1 presents one type of relationship where you have a very transcendent god, a god who is very far away from the earth.  This being seems to sit up in heaven and his word enough to make everything happen.  Genesis chapter 2 on the other hand, presents God as one who comes down to earth, a character who comes and walks in the garden with human beings.  These are two different stories which come from two different traditions, and both were kept when the tribes which had cherished these stories came together to form one nation.  They were not seen as being in conflict back then, and there is no need to think so today.

In any case, the story quickly moves on.  In chapter two, God forms a companion for Adam, and she gets called Eve.  For a brief moment all is in harmony, but the beauty of this situation is not going to last.  Disobeying a key instruction; they eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, creating the first big rift in a human relationship and in the relationship between creator and created.  It was to be the first of many.

Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, kills his brother Abel, though God himself seems to be implicated in the dispute which led to the murderous jealousy.  Humanity seems to be getting harder and harder to live with, but God sticks with a relationship, at least for now.  Generation after generation, the family of humankind goes forth and multiplies, it grows and spreads; but increasingly it turns it's back on God.  Nine generations on from Adam and Eve, nine generations of murder, betrayal and general wickedness and God has finally had enough.

There's only one good man he can find in the world, only one who stayed loyal to his creator and has done no wrong.  So God decides to start again.  He sends a massive flood destroying every form of life, but before it started he's told this one good man, Noah to build a boat.  What follows is a familiar story: the ark, the animals, the rainbow and all that.  What's less familiar, but much more important, is the deal God makes with humanity after the flood.

After such a terrible, almost complete breakdown in the relationship, God says to mankind through Noah, I'll never send a flood like that again. From now on will stick together through thick and thin.  Noah is the person chosen by God with whom he forges a covenant, saying - you know I'll be your God and you have to be my people.  God has made a covenant, an agreement, with the whole of creation, and that is what the Noah story is really there to tell us.

It is a new beginning, and as the earth is repopulated by Noah’s three sons and their wives, there is the hope that this time all might be well.  God keeps his side of the deal but in time, humanity once again drifts away.  People invent their own gods, they create idols and worship them, they worship the idea of wealth and power and fight over it.  At one time, to symbolise their success they build a huge tower in a city called Babel.  God responds to this act of pride by making people speak multiple languages and scattering them across the earth to try to confound their megalomania. That tactic works, but the relationship again appears to be in crisis.

This is when God tries what is really a remarkable change of tactic, and he goes for it - all or nothing.  He decides to focus the relationship on one man, and to try to rebuild it through that man and his descendants.  He chooses - a sheep farmer from Mesopotamia.  On the face of it he's an unlikely choice.  He's married to a woman called Sara, but he's old, very old, and has no children.  His name is Abram.  God speaks to Abram and makes an extraordinary promise - but it's also a challenge.  God said to him: go from your father's country and your kindred and your father's house, to the land that I will show you, and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.

In their old age this couple are being asked to up sticks, to leave behind family, possessions, comfort, safety; and to travel from home somewhere in the region of Southern Iraq, to the land which today we call Israel.  It's a tough call for Abram.  When there were so many gods, why should they trust this one alone, why should they believe that only this one was a true God?  He doesn't know this god by name.  He is given no signs or miracles.  He has no scriptures to turn to;  all he has is a stark choice to do what this god asks and risk everything; or to stay put and see out his retirement in peace.  Perhaps there is no greater faith than that which allows us to move away from that which defines us.

I guess he must have believed the story that there was a bright tomorrow for a people that would be as many as the grains of sand on a beach.  God gives Abram a new name: Abraham, meaning father of the people, and his wife Sara is renamed Sarah.  As he previously did with Noah,  God seals his new relationship with Abraham with a covenant, a set of three promises.  Abraham is promised land, numerous descendants, and the loyalty of God forever.  In return Abraham has to make his own promise and to mark the agreement by the circumcision of all men and boys in his family.  (This may have been a difficult thing for him to explain to the people around him, but that challenge is not explored in the story.)

The love story at this point is about as fragile as it can get.  Abraham does indeed demonstrate great faith and trust, but his family is becoming a worry as the decades pass and Abraham and Sarah remain childless.  How can their descendants continue the relationship with God if they have no descendants?  Sarah has an idea.  She suggests that Abraham should have a child with their maid – Hagar.  Hagar agrees, and they have a son called Ishmael.  Perhaps they thought that the problem had been solved, but if so, they are in for a shock.  According to the story Abraham receives a visit from three mysterious strangers.  He makes them welcome and they sit in the shade of the great oak tree.  Gradually it dawns on him that these are no ordinary travellers.  They are messengers of God, perhaps even God himself.  Then one of them says, “when I come back to see you in the spring, Sarah your wife will have a son”.  Not surprisingly, Sarah laughs out loud.  But God was not laughing, and sure enough she falls pregnant and Isaac is born.

The relationship between Abraham and God now seems a bit more solid.  God keeps his promises to Abraham, however unlikely they may be, and Abraham stays loyal to God.  But what kind of relationship is it?  Is Abraham simply obedient or is there a bit more giving take?  Well, when those three strangers finish eating they head off to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham is not keen on that idea and so he argues with God about it.  He tries to strike a bargain that the cities will be spared if there are enough good people in them, and he bargains with God over the numbers.  “Will you spare them if you find 50 good people?” “Yes”.  How about 40, 30…?  Clearly, Abraham is no weakling.  He's not crumpled and submissive in front of God.  He has got questions, he is ready to enter into dialogue with God, and wonders whether God really means what he says.

However, the strong open relationship between Abraham and God has yet to face its toughest test.  When Isaac was still a young boy, God made a shocking and inexplicable request of Abraham.  He was to tie him up and kill him with a knife, and then burn his body as a sacrifice to God.  You don't have to be a father to imagine how Abraham must have felt, yet astonishingly, he cut firewood, took a knife and rope, and climbed the mountain with his beloved son.  At the summit he tied Isaac, laid him on the firewood and lifted the knife.  At that moment, at the last moment, God cried out and stopped Abraham.

It had been a test of Abraham's love and loyalty to God.  Isaac born to a geriatric mother, nearly killed by his own father, goes on to lead a quiet and perhaps rather sad life.  He grows up to marry Rebecca and they have two sons called Jacob and Esau.  On the whole Isaac is faithful to God and God protects him but his youngest son Jacob is a much stronger character.  Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessings of the firstborn son, effectively stealing the inheritance from his elder brother.  Part of that inheritance is the heavy responsibility for maintaining a family relationship with God, but Esau, not surprisingly, resents his brother taking his place.  He wants to kill Jacob, so Jacob goes on the run.

Jacob is now in deep trouble because of what he's done.  Now he is in the desert, in a desolate place.  Everything's gone wrong with all his schemes and he lies down to sleep under the stars.  Then he dreams that the stone his head is resting on is the foot of a great staircase stretching all the way up to heaven.  There are angels coming up and down the stairway, and then at the top is the great brightness of God himself.  The dream is so powerful and so overwhelming he wakes up from it and he says “surely god is in this place and I didn't know it”

While Abraham had a visit from God, Jacob has to communicate through angels, but even they don’t seem to intimidate this strong character.  When he meets one face to face – they end up fighting, wrestling in the dust.  Indeed Jacob wins the fight and the angel has to dislocate his hip to get away from under him.  In honour of Jacob’s courage and strength the angel gives a new name: a name that will resonate throughout human history - Israel.

Now God's relationship with one particular family begins to open up.  It is still one family line from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, but Jacob is not the most monogamous of men, and by the end of his life he had twelve sons by four different women.  Since he's been renamed Israel, the descendants of these sons become known as the twelve tribes of Israel.  The relationship between God and humanity is shifting from one man to a family, to a people.

Since the first move was made by God, we might wonder what qualities he was looking for in the people he picked.  In the story so far they have been real, warts and all men that have cheated, lied, been unfaithful and argumentative.  They're not particularly pious.  If this relationship has been rather complicated up to now the next major character in the story is perhaps the most fascinating one so far.

Joseph is Jacob's favourite son.  His 11 brothers resent the attention of the old man lavishes on the boy, particularly when he gives him a rather stylish decorated coat.  Joseph makes things worse by being very precocious, telling his brothers what a great future awaits him.  Enraged with jealousy they sell them spoilt brat into slavery to work as a skivvy for wealthy Egyptians.  Yet Joseph, it turns out, is made of stern stuff.  Despite major setbacks such as being falsely accused and imprisoned for rape, he rises to the top of the most powerful Empires of its time and becomes effectively governor of all Egypt.  Yet the story makes it clear that while he was a remarkable character in his own right, he couldn't have done it without inheriting the family relationship with God.  Joseph is a faithful believer all his life, and unlike his forebears who glimpse that called in a few dramatic turning points in their lives, Joseph seems to know God to talk to him regularly and God helps him in many ways, not least with a rather impressive gift for interpreting dreams.

Yet he is a difficult character, arrogant and able to rub people up the wrong way.  Nonetheless when his brothers turned up in Egypt fleeing famine in their homeland, he takes them and their families in, gives them what they need and makes them welcome.  He explains that although they had done terrible things to him, God had used it for good.  So, God’s new try at a relationship with humanity has grown from focusing on one man to a nuclear family to an extended family.  Now, over years in exile in Egypt that family will grow into a people.

Of God’s three promises to Abraham:

  • a continuing relationship,
  • many descendants,
  • and the land to live in;

the first of then appears to have been kept, as does the second.  The third, the journey to the promised land, well that will be part of next week’s story, in which will meet some more remarkable characters.

We can't leave Abraham without a word about his legacy.  He is the father of the three great monotheistic religions of the world.  Christians believe that he stands at the beginning of a tradition that culminates in Jesus, the fulfilment of all that Abraham represented.  Muslims believe that Abraham's first son Ishmael was the son he took to the sacrificial mountain, the son who kept the family line, and they trace their ancestry from him.  Jews believe that the Covenant God made with Abraham was made with them, the descendants of Isaac.  So today, 4000 years after he would have lived, he still finds himself at the centre of many of the isuues facing our world.

It is a love story, but not a simple one, and there is still much to come…


 Part Two

The first chapter of the great and epic love story between God and humanity was nothing if not turbulent.  Since God and humanity first met in that unique garden we’ve had a series of rows, walkouts, betrayals and breakups; but somehow the relationship has survived through it all.   So by the end of the Book of Genesis the tribes of Israel find themselves living safely in Egypt under the protection of the influential Joseph - their own rags to riches hero. 

Of the major characters in the story so far, Joseph has had the fullest relationship with God.  His predecessors Abraham, Noah and Jacob were faithful to God, but only met him on rare and dramatic occasions.  Joseph, by contrast, was in daily contact with God and his extraordinary life reflected that, but by the end of the book of Genesis Joseph is dead and as the story moves into the book of Exodus things are looking bleak again.

Four centuries have passed and the marriage between God and his people has become quiet and distant.  It was a Pharaoh who had recognised Joseph's gift and allowed the people of Israel to settle in Egypt to escape famine, but not all rulers were like him.  At the beginning of the book of Exodus there is a new and altogether different Pharaoh is on the throne.  No longer guests in Egypt - the Israelites have effectively become slaves, or at least second class citizens.  Yet they have gradually grown in number and have come to be seen a problem, or even a threat.  To avert this threat, and perhaps to appeal to popular support among his own people, the Pharaoh gives a savage order kill every boy born to Hebrew parents.

These are desperate times.  God has travelled so far with his people.  He has nurtured and protected them and promised them his love and loyalty, but now they are suffering in a foreign land with a knife at the throats of their children.  Where is God?  Has he abandoned them?

In the middle of this nightmare an Israelite slave gives birth to a baby boy.  Naturally terrified that her son will be killed along with so many others, she hides him for three months.  Then when she can hide him no longer she lays him in a basket made of bulrushes and leaves it at a shallow edge of the River Nile.  What happens next could be seen as the most astonishing coincidence, or as evidence that God had not entirely abandoned the Hebrew people after all.  The basket, complete with baby, is found in the river by a woman.  It turns out that she is not just any woman but the Pharaohs daughter, and she immediately warms to the innocent baby and brings him into her household.

So it is that the homeless baby of a foreign slave comes to be brought up in the royal palace as a Prince of Egypt.  He is even given an Egyptian name – Moses.  A couple of decades on and the young man Moses emerges with all the benefits of his palace upbringing: fine clothes and good manners, a top education and a taste for the trappings of wealth.  His future looks bright as he goes out to look for his friends one day, but in a single dramatic moment he switches from pampered prince to hunted killer.  He sees an Egyptian man beating up a Hebrew man, and in a fit of righteous rage he beats up the Egyptian man – and kills him.  When he saw injustice something in him rose up against it and that becomes the characteristic turning point in his life from being a pampered part of the hierarchy of the Egyptian Court to identifying with the oppressed people, who we the readers know, happens to be his own people.

What Moses knows is that having killed a slave master the punishment for him would have been death, so he goes on the run to a place called Median.  Here he settles into the local community, marries a woman called Zipporah and lived out the rest of his life quietly as a shepherd.  At least that's what he thought would happen, but at the age of 80 he meets God in the form of a burning bush.

God tells him to go back to Egypt and rescue the Israelites slaves.  Like Abraham before him Moses is old and tired when God gives him the most important job his life.  Moses actually gives 5 excuses but why he shouldn't be the person who God calls: from - he has never done it before, to the fact that actually not very good at speaking, to - he thinks God should choose somebody else.  It is a familiar part of the story of the bible that God never seems to choose his leaders from the usual suspects.  In the end God brushes aside Moses excuses and won't take no for an answer.  He has Moses travel to Egypt the Pharaohs palace where he was brought up, and where he is now a wanted criminal.

His task is no less than the liberation of the entire Jewish people; those people have now been suffering for decades, crying out for God to deliver them.  It's a major challenge to their relationship with God.  How could you promise undying love to their father Abraham, then seemingly abandon his descendants to slavery and persecution.  By the time God finally answers their prayers by sending Moses they must have thought help would never come.  The story tells us that the people's cry came up to God and it's almost as if that cry reminded God of his responsibilities towards the people, almost as if the crying for people can change God's mind.

When Moses reaches Egypt, he finds the Pharaoh rather reluctant to free all his slaves, but Moses has God on his side and unleashes a different plague on Egypt every time the Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go.  When blood, frogs, gnats, flies, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and animal diseases all failed to change the Pharaohs mind, God tells Moses to prepare for the worst punishment of all.  Moses asks the Israelites to eat a meal of lamb on a particular night, and to paint the blood of the lamb on their doorposts.  The arrangement is that God will see the blood and pass over the Jewish homes, but will cause the death of the firstborn sons in all the other homes.

The carnage of that terrible night finally breaks Pharaoh.  He gives in and agrees to free the slaves.  The Israelites relationship with God has finally delivered the liberation they longed for.  To this day Jewish families eat a ritual one meal once a year to mark that night of Passover.  It is a night that God will frequently remind them of as the story unfolds.  As the Hebrew people, led by Moses, are about to leave, the double-crossing Pharaoh sends an army to trap them on the shore of the Red Sea.  It seems like a dramatic turnaround, but Pharaoh has made a bad mistake.  Moses has now learned that when he call for help God answers, but even his jaw must have dropped as the water parts and a dry path opens up before him.   The Israelites rush across and the sea closes on their pursuers.

At last the Hebrew people are free.  Moses has fulfilled the mission God gave him, and God has shown himself again to be faithful to his promises.  The people led by Moses are now in the wilderness, but they have a destination in mind.  Generations back, when God and Abraham had made their pact, God promised that Abraham’s descendants would have some territory to call their own.  Now the people feel, it is time for God to deliver the land he had promised.  However it is not going to be as simple as that, for between them and the Promised Land lies hundreds of miles of desert wilderness.

Moses has a job on his hands, leading an entire nation across a desert with no access to food or drink.  The people are not exactly giving him an easy ride either.  They expect a lot from God and Moses, and in return they get thousands of plump quails covering their camp, the get miraculous water from a rock, and best of all they get manna.  As the morning dew lifts it leaves fine white flakes like frost on the stony ground.  Moses tells the people this is bread from heaven, just enough to feed every man woman and child.  Moses warns his people not to hoard the food until tomorrow, but some do, only to find it rancid and riddled with worms.  It seems that God wants them to trust him to provide enough food day by day.

However wonderful all of that might seem, even manna doesn't silence the moaners for long.  Moses has constantly to deal with what today might be labelled “remoaners”, and even though they had been delighted when he led them to freedom, there were some who wanted to go back to the way things were.  That might sound hard to believe, but churches have harboured such characters ever since!

Some weeks into the journey, God makes a move so radical that it redefines his relationship with people and changes the world forever.  He asked Moses to meet him on top of a mountain, face-to-face.  So Moses climbed Mount Sinai and he meets God.  He spends 40 days up there, and the sheer power and glory of the encounter leaves its mark on him.  In the words of the book of Exodus, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God, so much so that when the people of Israel so Moses they were afraid to come near him.  When he returns to his people Moses has a set of moral laws to give them.  It is not just the well-known Ten Commandments but a whole catalogue of guidelines governing all aspects of life.

Now the relationship becomes fully of two-way relationship.  God will be their god they will be his people and significantly as his people they have obligations to keep certain commands in order to be able to maintain this relationship with God.  The commands that they are to keep up two-fold: the first one is that they are to love God, the second is that they are to love their neighbour.

So it is that Moses, this reluctant, flawed, reluctant old man, this slave and prince turned murderer and then shepherd,  becomes perhaps the most important figure in Judaism and one of the great iconic leaders of world history.  His epic story is told in no less than four books of the Bible: Exodus Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The Commandments he brought forth become the model and legal foundation of all western and Middle Eastern societies.  Yet this great leader never does get to taste the milk and honey of the Promised Land.  He gets close enough only to see it in the distance from a mountaintop, his vision still untainted and undiminished by the harsh reality that is going to be revealed.  For the reality is that the Promised Land is already occupied by the Canaanites, so entering it will be a job for the military.

With Moses off the scene, his deputy Joshua takes over.  The book of Joshua and the book of Judges give different accounts of what happens next.  The book of Joshua has Moses heroic right-hand man with God on his side, winning a series of dramatic victories, culminating in the conquest of the great city of Jericho just north of the Dead Sea.  In this story Joshua's soldiers circle the city walls blowing their trumpets, and the walls come tumbling down.  The book of Judges however tells of a much slower invasion marked by continued skirmishes with Canaanites and Philistines, and the struggles of Israelites to organise occupy and rule.

One way or another the Israelites do enter their promised land.  So what happens next?  Do God and his chosen people settle down and live contentedly in the land of milk and honey?  Not according to the book of Judges.  The human side of the relationship is somewhat erratic, drifting into unfaithfulness with other gods or inventing new gods.  A pattern begins to emerge as the people drift away from God, God lifts protecting hand and allows their enemies to attack them, they turn back to him and cry for help.  Then finally God sends an inspirational leader to rescue them.  These leaders the bible calls Judges, and they are a motley crew.  There is a story about a woman called Jael who put a tent peg through some poor soul’s skull as he slept; a story about Ehud who is a left-handed man who put his sword through the belly of a big fat king called Eglin.  Then we have Samson who we fondly remember as a victim of bad hairdresser - he became strong boy who managed to bring down a building and top of his enemies; perhaps one of the first accounts we have of a terrorist suicide attack.

Through all of this, somehow the purpose of God manages to go on.  As we move out of the period of the Judges, we can see that God has fulfilled all three of the promises he made to Abraham.  He has remained loyal to his people - but his people keep drifting away from him, and with the constant military threat from all sides, this fledgling nation start to crave leadership.  What they appeal for is not the leadership of prayer and manna and trust in God, but a flesh and blood King like the foreign nations had, a strong figurehead to lead and defend them.

The last of the Judges, a wise prophet called Samuel, feels the kingship will be a step away from God.  He argues that God is the only King Israel needs, but Samuel is under growing pressure to find a man to be king.  The story is about to enter the critical new phase.


Part Three

“I will not cease from mental fight nor my soul sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land”.  William Blake's great poem has been sung as a hymn for nearly 200 years by school children and churchgoers of every persuasion.  The word Jerusalem conjures phrases like “Golden City” and “Eternal City”.  It is arguably the greatest and the most fought over city in the history of the world, but less well-known is the man who really did build Jerusalem.

A great King, he was also a great soldier and a great politician who united the nation, and a great poet to boot.  Yet like most remarkable men he had king-size character flaws too.  So, let me pick up our love story of man's relationship with God seen through the Bible.

Let’s go back to when this great King is a generation away, because before we get to him we need to find out how the Jewish people came to have a king at all.  Up to now all Israelites had an equal relationship with God and with land and wealth.  They had a charismatic leader in Moses who became mediator and interpreter of their relationship with God, but not a king.  A king would have control over land and property, a king would have real power and could oppress the people.

The Bible tells the story of the monarchy in six different books; one and two Samuel one and two kings and one and two Chronicles.  The question about why the monarchy exists in Israel is a very interesting one and it's almost as if the text itself can't decide whose idea it was.  One story is that it was God's idea, so God came to Samuel who is the prophet and judge of the time and instructed him to go and choose a king.  Samuel at that point goes and chooses Saul.  The other story is that the people decide that they want a King and God doesn't think it's a good idea, but the people don't listen and eventually God gives in and says, well if you really want to king then you shall have a king.  So if the text has a mixed reaction to kingship in these early stories they almost certainly reflect a disagreement among the writers about whether the king is a good idea or not.

The reason why this become so important is because the establishment of the monarchy changes the nature of the relationship with God.  So Samuel, the last of the old-style leaders, the last of the judges, has to pick the first king of Israel against his better judgement.  Finally he anoints Saul, the tall, handsome son of a wealthy man.  King Saul makes a good start but he never has the qualities of a Moses or a Joseph.  He is a good enough warrior but he lacks the direct link to God that has brought the Jewish people this far.  Soon he is directly disobeying God and God even sends an evil spirit to plague him.

Before long the old judge Samuel and God are deeply regretting making Saul a king.  However for the people, with military threats and all sides, there's no going back from monarchy.  They want a strong king to lead them in battle, but if they must have a king then he should be a better one than Saul.  God chooses a successor while the king is still on the throne.  What's more God uses a simple shepherd boy called David, the youngest son of a large family.  What's more this shepherd boy is a court musician to king Saul himself.  He is skilled in playing the lyre, the stringed instrument similar to a lute, and the King finds his music soothing.

As his grip on his kingship starts to loosen however, Saul finds David himself something of an irritant.  The old king senses that he is a threat and the boy David has to run for his life.  Yet even in hiding, David’s reputation seems to be on the increase.  He is already a national hero for his fighting qualities, a giant killer no less, having defeated Goliath when he wasn’t even in the army.  So while Saul keeps making mistakes and loosing support, David can seem to do no wrong.  By the time Saul and his sons kill themselves in shame after a humiliating defeat to the Philistines, David is ready to step up.

At first he becomes king at the southern city of Hebron, but he's not recognised beyond the south at first, but his political acumen and military skill quickly see him acknowledged as leader of all the widespread tribes of Israel.  Then comes his master stroke.  With his kingship finally in place, he consolidated his position by conquering a new city and moving his capital from Hebron in the south to a new location in the centre of the territory.  There was constant battle and jealousy between the northern tribes and southern tribes, each of which had quite distinct identities.  David’s move to a neutral city is very clever because it means is that he isn't placing his capital in any one person's territory is placing it almost in the centre of the territory, and in doing that it allows him to unify the North and the southern Kingdom.  It's probably fair to say that we can for the first time talk about the nation of Israel during the time of David's reign.

Jerusalem is born.  Already David has achieved more than seemed possible.  He's pulled together all the disparate tribes of Israelites under his kingship and founded a capital that would become the most important city in the world, but he doesn't stop there.  In another piece of political genius, David moves the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital and gives it a permanent home.  The Ark of the Covenant is the holiest of all holy objects to the Israelites.  It's a portable altar said to contain the stones on which God wrote the laws he gave to Moses.  It's effectively the mobile home of God and had travelled everywhere with them.  Now that they are settled in the Promised Land, the Ark of the Covenant can come to rest.  On the day of the glorious procession, when the Ark is carried into the capital, David’s kingship becomes unshakable.  Now, the twelve tribes look to one city as their political and religious centre, David's city, Jerusalem.

So, what about the golden thread of this great story, the one which traces the relationship between humanity and God.  The truth is for all David's genius as a warrior, politician and king, something has been lost.  One of the conditions that seems to be built into the creation of the kingship is that the king is no longer quite in the same relationship with God as Moses or even Samuel.  There is no direct line in quite the same way that there was in the time of Moses and even with Samuel.  Samuel had been a leader, but also a priest and prophet.  David split those roles, being a political leader but having people around him to do the priestly and prophetic roles.

This is a flesh and blood king with all the weaknesses and temptations of fame and power.  Late one afternoon David gets up from his couch, and is walking on the roof of his house, but something catches his eye.  A woman is bathing, a stunningly beautiful woman.  David is transfixed and he watches until she's finished and inquires as to who she is.  Her name is Bathsheba he’s told, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  This is a problem.  What’s more, she's married to one of his military commanders.  Undeterred, David has her brought to his house, sleeps with her, then sent her home.  But a few weeks later he gets an urgent message telling him that she is pregnant.  Uriah doesn't know yet but it's only a matter of time.  How does David solve the problem?  His first plan was to have Urriah sent home on leave so that he could spend some time with his wife, so that the news of her pregnancy would come as a delight rather than a disgrace.  But it turns out that this man is too dedicated to serving king and country to want to come home from the battle.

So what next?  Well,Uriah is a soldier, which is a rather dangerous business.  David organises for him to be sent to one of the frontline of the border conflicts.  Sure enough, Uriah is killed and David marries his widow.  David was described as “a man after God's own heart”, a man full of passionate intensity about everything he does.  He has shown those qualities politically, he has also expressed his devotion to God in wild dancing, and here we see another aspect of that same character.  One of David’s profits, Nathan, confronts him with what he has done and finds the King full of remorse.

Yet this is not the only stain on David record.  He allows enemies of his predecessor Saul to carry out a horrific revenge attack against Saul’s surviving family and he comes to deeply regret that too.  These sins are the unravelling of David power and authority, and his kingship never completely recovers.  Yet each time he asks for forgiveness from God – he receives it.

Perhaps David’s greatest achievement was not the unifying of a scattered nation nor the creation of a religious focus and centre for Jewish people, but something much more complex.  Bound up with his weaknesses as much as his strengths, the Psalms consist of prayers or prayerful poems; ranging from exuberant praise to anger.  These are treasures of world literature, and while David wasn't the author of every psalm it seems he did write some and inspired others, and that he pioneered this particular kind of heightened spiritual poetry.

The psalms express how David understood God, as one who offered both encouragement and rebuke, but also demonstrate how humans ought to relate to God, with honest and passionate intensity, with humility and remorse, and most of all, with trust.  There's evidence of Jesus himself using these prayers. His last words as he dies on the cross are a quote from psalm 22 – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Great poetry they may be, but that doesn't mean the songs were written solely for private contemplation.  There's plenty of evidence that they were part of public worship, and a very lively part too.  Those words were written to be sung out with trumpets and harps in colourful processions of priests and people.  It gives a picture of worship which is offered with full heart and soul and with nothing held back, very much in line with David’s own character.

So what does all of this tell us about the state of God’s relationship with his people?  On one level things grow more complex and distant, and like the kingship of his predecessor Saul, David is too caught up in politics to have a direct and dramatic relationship with God.  Yet the songs are a breakthrough in human honesty and openness.  Abraham did what God told him to do.  Moses was loyal to God but wasn’t afraid to negotiate and try to change God’s mind.  David however is capable of seething anger and crushing remorse.  He loves the world and sometimes gives in to its temptations.  At every stage his openness to God his frankness is very striking, as are his personal struggles with God and with his powerful emotions.

David appeals to modern sensibilities.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why his reign is seen as a Golden Age.  The only cap on his accomplishments is that he didn't build the temple in Jerusalem.  He founded the city and made it the religious heart of Judaism, but the creation of the great temple is left to his son Solomon, and that's another story.  David is a flawed man, certainly fully human, yet he achieved far more than any Jewish king before or since.  When Jesus comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday they refer to him as the son of David.  In Christianity Jesus is the messiah.  In Jewish eyes the messiah is yet to come.  Yet both agree that the messiah comes from David’s line; the line of the greatest Old Testament king.

Next week our story reaches a decisive new stage.  With the great King David dead, his son Solomon takes the throne and the peaceful unity which the nation had known in his time will become a distant memory.  Yet it will remain a powerful memory, and one which they will long to return to.


Part Four


We come to the point in the story where the first great king of Israel is dead.  David had unified the scattered tribes around the new capital of Jerusalem, and he wrote and inspired psalms of astonishing beauty and power.  Truly this is the end of an era, and many must have wondered, or feared, what might come next.

The honour and the challenge falls to Solomon, one of David’s children by Bathsheba, whose story we heard last week.  Solomon’s name is associated with wisdom, highlighted by a story about two women coming to him with a dispute.  They share a house and both of them had babies at the same time, but one of the babies has died and both of the mothers claim that the living child is theirs.  Solomon raises a sword above the infant, declaring that the women can have half each, but when one of the women cries out to save the child, even if it means giving him up, Solomon knows that she is the true mother.

Yet his most direct achievement is to fulfil what had been his father’s dream.  David had moved the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, and Solomon now gives it a permanent home by building a temple.  The bible gives great detail of the dimensions and the materials of this building, however as quickly at the construction is going up, the king’s popularity is going down.  He does well in terms of wealth and power, getting a visit and many gifts from the Queen of Sheba, and he makes the city the centre of many lucrative trading routes.  Yet all of his progress and building work required funding and he needed to tax the people, too heavily for their liking.  This is not just a financial requirement, but each of the twelve tribes had to provide hard labour for one month of the year, and people came to resent this.

By the time he dies, the people are at the end of their tether.  When his son Rehoboam takes the throne the people ask him to treat them better than his father had, but he doesn’t respond to that very kindly.  In response to this the ten northern tribes rebel and create and entirely separate nation.  After all that they had gone through to form a nation, within two generations they are divided into the nation of Israel in the north and the much larger Judah in the south.

Then everything else seems to unravel.  The northern kingdom gets bogged down in battles with would be kings battling for the throne.  The southern kingdom continues with monarchs from David’s line, but none of them have the charisma or the wisdom to do well.  Weakened by their own internal problems, the two kings are increasingly threatened by the Assyrian empire to the north and later by the Babylonians.  Yet it is not just political unity which has been lost.  There is also something missing in the relationship between God and his people, which was the very reason for them being there in the first place.  The kings were more interested in power and politics than in prayer, and the people often turned to other gods in desperation.

The whole relationship looks to be in danger, and it seems as if it would take something dramatic to bring it back.  But something dramatic does indeed happen.  Once again the answer comes through God dealing very directly with certain individuals.  These were not politically minded people, but a far more colourful and varied bunch, who became known as – the prophets.  Through their imaginative and sometimes dramatic way of communicating, they will offer an explanation of what is going on that can help people to understand, and more importantly, they can offer a vision of the future that can pull them together and drive them on.  They were wild people who lived at the heart of their community, but whose uncompromising messages drove them to the margins.  They said things which others would not dare to speak out about.  They told kings what they were doing wrong and what they had to do to repair their damaged relationship with God; to stop worshiping other gods, to stop mistreating the poor.

There is no single book in the bible which tells us all about these characters, but a huge chunk of the Old Testament is devoted to them.  The early prophets such as Elijah and Elisha feature as characters in broader stories, but those who came later like Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah inspire entire prophetic books.  Their messages are broad and varied, but in general they are answering a real and immediate crisis of faith.  If God has really promised us such blessing, why are things going so badly?  Perhaps God has changed his mind, or perhaps he means well but just isn’t powerful enough to overcome other gods, like the ones the hugely successful Assyrians put their trust in.  The prophets insist that God is still faithful and that he is still in control, and therefore the only possible explanation is that it is their God who is causing these things to happen; that he is bringing these things about in order to call them back to where they should be.

This core message they repeat time after time.  The message is addressed to kings, but also to the rest of the people.  Hosea expresses himself in a particularly dramatic way.  He is deeply critical of the abuse of the poor but his main concern is for the relationship between God and his people, as he rails against those who openly flirt with other gods despite their declared faithfulness to their own.  But he doesn’t just use words to get his message across.  He takes a prostitute, a woman called Gomer, as his wife, who conceived and bore him a son.  Then, not surprisingly, she is repeatedly and openly unfaithful to him.  Her behaviour, he says, is a picture of how you have treated God.

Amos describes the sins of other nations who have allowed the rich to grow richer while the poor get poorer, and says how God has punished them for that.  But then he goes on to say that Israel is no better and will receive the same punishment.  The message is that God will unleash a terrible attack by the Assyrians unless his unfaithful bride comes back to him.

These prophets operated in the northern kingdom, but a new figure was also emerging in the south.  His name was Isaiah.  He had been raised in the upper echelons of society and was highly educated.  His message was as uncompromising as Hosea and Amos: heal the broken relationship with God or you will pay the price.  At the forefront of the changes he calls for is a change to the way the poorest in the nation are treated, as he calls people back to the commandment to “love thy neighbour”.

Like many of the prophets, Isaiah is both feared and ridiculed and his messages are largely ignored, but he kept on with his mission to the end of his life.  Indeed prophesy became something of an industry with schools being set up to train new prophets; though these were often little more than civil servants, employed by the palaces and rarely daring to say anything the king might not want to hear.  The real hallmark of prophesy was the willingness to speak unpalatable words, inspired by the spirit of God, regardless of how people might react.

In that regard, Jeremiah certainly bore the hallmarks of a real prophet.  He lived in the southern kingdom, delivering dire and blood curdling warnings of what was to come of the people did not mend their ways.  He stated again and again that God was going to punish the people of Judah, that he would lift his protection from them, and that the mighty Babylonians would smash their kingdom.  To illustrate his message, he bought a pot and then publicly smashed it.  Effectively he urged people to give in and accept God’s judgement and surrender to their enemies, which was never going to go down well in the popular press.  As a result, he was beaten, imprisoned, left to die.  He was often angry with God for making him do what he did, and for all that he suffered as a result, but he had a fire within him which couldn’t be contained.  Yet he was consistent in his views of the mind of God, and he spoke with blunt clarity, and perhaps most importantly of all for his legacy, he turned out to be right.

His warnings were ignored and he lived to see the fate he had predicted come to pass.  The northern kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians and largely destroyed.  Judah hung on for decades longer but finally the Babylonians tear the southern kingdom to pieces.  The people are killed, taken as slaves, or exiled, and the city of Jerusalem, the proud centre piece of king David, was left in ruins.

Amazingly Jeremiah survives, and he keeps on prophesying.  Even as the destruction begins, he keeps making statements, but his tone changes.  Now he speaks about hope for the future, saying that God’s punishment will not last forever.  He assures his suffering people that the time will come when the relationship with God would be restored.  As prophets had done before him, he uses the imagery of marriage.  God is like a good and faithful husband, while the people have been like an unfaithful wife.  Yet no matter how badly the wife behaves, the husband remains loving and waits to welcome her back.

In exile, the people plumb the depths of despair, contemplating the possibility that it might all be over, that they might never return to the Promised Land.  Minor prophets, like Haggai and Malachi begin to address the situation, building a sense of hope, saying that God will surely act and that Jerusalem will one day be rebuilt.  It is at this time that the prophet known as second Isaiah emerges, or possibly second third and fourth Isaiah.  Chapters forty to sixty six of the book of Isaiah describe events which took place around 150 years later, as that long period of exile was coming to an end.  These passages, written by people inspired by the great man are some of the most beautiful in the bible, starting to express real hope and a sense of joy.

In chapter 53 the writer describes a character who suffers a great deal, but not as the nation had as result of his own sins, but rather suffers for the sins of other people.

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

The main preoccupation of the prophets was to maintain and to heal the relationship between God and his people.  But before we think that we could do with such characters today, remember they would not necessarily be very easy to have around.  They would probably question how many things we possess and how we can justify looking after ourselves so well while others are struggling just to stay alive in refugee camps around the world.  For their job was not just to speak out, but to speak uncomfortable truths, the kind no one else would dare to allow themselves to think for very long.  And while we may look back on them as heroes, they certainly got no thanks for it at the time.  Yet, through times which would otherwise have been simply and crushingly disastrous; they made it possible to believe that God was still around, that God was still powerful, and in the end, that God did still care.

In the end the people did return to the land God had promised would be theirs so many generations before, and Jerusalem was rebuilt, described clearly as being at the hands of God to reward a now more humble and repentant people.  Yet that was not really the end of the story, for old habits die hard in the human soul and the sort of social justice compassion which the prophets had insisted on soon gave way to drunkenness and greed.  The hope that that chosen people might be a light to all the nations, a physical demonstration of what was possible for everyone when they lived in harmony with their creator, had never been fulfilled.  Still their built borders and took advantage of the poor and abused foreigners, just like everyone else.

So the story of God’s relationship with his people has come a very long way, it has had many ups and downs, and through it all, in the end, God has been seen to be faithful to his promises in a way which the humans have got close to, at least never for very long.  I suppose it could have gone on like that, like an unhappy marriage where the couple stay together only because it seems easier than the alternative, but that picture doesn’t seem to fit with what we have seen of God in this story.  Perhaps, if the hopes and dreams of the creator were ever to come about, an intervention more dramatic than any that had gone before would now be needed!  And perhaps some of the words of the great prophets would come to take on a new meaning and a new understanding. 

Well that story is for another day, but as we now move into the season of Advent, perhaps we have a sense of where it is going.