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Levirate Law—in Confusion

The Sadducees confronted Jesus with a difficult question that appeared to be a theological puzzle. Actually the question was a red herring to engage Christ in a dispute the Sadducees and Pharisees had about the resurrection. The Sadducees argued that there was no resurrection of the dead, but the Pharisees believed the dead would live again (Acts 23:7-8).

To draw a statement from Christ supporting their belief, the Sadducees concocted a marriage situation that had one chance in a million of happening. Unlikely as it was that a Jewish woman would be married and widowed by seven brothers, the law did take care of that earthly scenario.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name not be blotted out of Israel (Deut. 25:5-6).

The Sadducees projected that such tangled affairs would create chaos in the resurrection. Which of the seven resurrected brothers was entitled to the woman who had been married to them all? Or from the woman’s perspective, which of the seven would she be bound to forever? The Sadducees assumed that laws governing physical life would govern eternal life—if there were such a thing. Their answer to the hypothetical confusion physical laws would produce in the resurrection was to reject the resurrection. Christ corrected their misunderstanding of life after death.

You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven (Matt. 22:29-32).

 Levirate Law Working Beautifully

The levirate marriage was an “alternate arrangement under specific bounds to make possible the retention of landed property throughout the families of Israel” and to protect “widows without children.”[1]  In the story of Ruth, the levirate law worked beautifully to protect a childless widow, and her deceased husband’s property. Boaz fulfilled the obligations of the levirate law when he married Ruth, Mahlon’s widow. As a near relative of the family, Boaz qualified for the duty of fathering an heir for Ruth’s deceased husband. He was also entitled to the property that would have been become Mahlon’s when Naomi died. From the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, a son was born who upheld Mahlon’s name and property rights.

And Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, from the hand of Naomi. Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have acquired as my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his brethren and from his position at the gate” (Ruth 4:9-10).

 Levirate Law not so Beautiful

Figures_Judah_Gives_his_Signet,_Bracelets_and_Staff_in_Pledge_to_TamarThe levirate law played a part in Boaz’s ancestry, going back six generations to Perez, one of the twin sons of Tamar (Matt. 1:3). Tamar (possibly a Canaanite woman) was married to Er, the firstborn son of Judah. Er died because of an unspecified wickedness that angered God, and Tamar was left a childless widow. In accordance with the levirate law, Judah told Onan, his second son, to impregnate Tamar and preserve the family line of his deceased brother. But Onan refused to beget children for Er. His callous disdain for Tamar displeased God. Onan died for his contempt of duty, and Tamar was widowed the second time.

Judah told Tamar to remain a widow until his third son Shelah was old enough to be married (Gen. 38:11). Then he sent Tamar away to her father’s house where she was no longer of much concern to him. Perhaps fearing that Shelah would meet the same unfortunate end as his brothers, Judah seemed in no hurry to facilitate this union.

When Shelah was grown and Tamar realized that “she was not given to him as a wife” (Gen. 38:14), she undertook a daring deception. Veiling herself as a prostitute, Tamar seduced her father-in-law, Judah. Not knowing whom he was impregnating, Judah, in a perverse twist of the law, fathered Tamar’s twin boys.

Observations

Twins were considered “a special blessing from the Lord”[2] and Tamar’s name is recorded in the lineage of the Savior. Some commentators refer to her as a “heroine of the faith—despite her origins and the nature of her actions.”[3] Other writers describe Tamar and Judah harshly. “It shocks our inner, finer feelings to see Christ’s lineage interwoven with such abhorrent degradation as we have in this chapter (Genesis 38). We cannot but wonder how Judah and Tamar have the distinction of mention in that sacred genealogy of Jesus Christ.”[4]

As a reader of this significant birth story, I am sobered. I wonder that commentators venture to make judgments. When Judah acknowledged that he caused Tamar’s pregnancy, God allowed his words—Judah’s words—to be the verdict of record: She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son (Gen. 38:26). —Mary Hendren

 


[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 150

[2] New King James Study Bible, Second Edition, Thomas Nelson, note on Genesis. 38:27.

[3] Same source, note on Genesis. 38:30.

[4] All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p.163.

Wheat

 ‘To everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food,’ and thus it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good (Genesis 1:30-31).

 Commentators state that the word herb is not limited to plants like sage, rosemary and thyme. The phrase every green herb includes leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and grains. All foods that God created for man are good, not just flavorful greens. He didn’t intend for us to become sick as a result of eating food.  And there’s no evidence that the diseases people suffered in ancient Israel were food-related. (See past posts on the diseases of first century Palestine, posted on 11/05/12 and 11/07/12.)

A Problem with Wheat Today

Wheat was one of the grains God said shall make the young men thrive (Zech. 9:17). Almost all biblical references to grain, bread, wheat and flour are positive. Bread made from wheat was a staple in Israel. Fine flour, raised bread and unleavened bread played important roles in Israel’s worship and holyday observances. Jesus referred to Himself as the living bread that came down from heaven—the bread of life (John 6:35, 51). On two occasions, He fed thousands of followers with a few loaves of bread (Matt.16:8-10). Jesus compared the outcome of His death to the fruit borne of a single grain of wheat that dies (John 12:24).

But wheat in the 21st century has been linked to health problems.[1] A number of doctors and nutritionists believe that wheat shouldn’t play such a starring role in the today’s diet. They question what’s happened to wheat in the last fifty years and how it’s different from wheat grown 3,000 years ago. They speculate that commercial milling may affect human digestion of wheat.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Step Back in Time

Considering these questions in a biblical setting takes us to the book of Ruth, a romance set in the grain fields of ancient Israel.  As the narrator tells the story of a young widow and her devoted benefactor, readers get a sense of how grain was grown and harvested during the time of the Judges.

Ruth supported herself and her mother-in-law by gleaning in the field of Boaz, her relative. Six times in reference to his property, the narrator used the word “field” (singular), and once the phrase, “part of the field belonging to Boaz” (Ruth 2). A wealthy man like Boaz may have owned only one field or parts of a field. Boaz called his reapers “my young women” and “my young men, suggesting that his grain business was small enough to manage with workers he knew.  He supervised the fieldwork, ate meals with the workers and joined in the harvest activities. Reaping and gathering were done by hand with the assistance of ox carts to carry bundles to the threshing floor.[2] Ruth carried her own grain to the threshing area and beat out the kernels with a rod. For an owner’s larger harvest, oxen pulled heavy sledges or a millstone over the stalks to separate the seed heads. Using pitchforks and baskets, workers winnowed the seed from the chaff. If Ruth were dropped into a Kansas wheat field today, she wouldn’t recognize uniform stalks bred for mechanical harvesting. It would amaze Boaz to watch high-tech harvesters mowing, threshing, winnowing, and separating grain in one continuous operation.

Left: Hulled wheat (einkorn), with spikelets. ...

Left: Hulled wheat (einkorn), with spikelets. Right: Free-threshing wheat (common wheat). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wheat grown 3-4000 years ago was domesticated wild grass, probably emmer or einkorn wheat. Both emmer and einkorn have different genetic structures than the wheat grown today.[3] Dr. William Davis states that wheat today “is not the same grain our forebears ground into their daily bread.”[4] He adds that from the original strains of wild grass such as emmer and einkorn, “wheat has exploded to more than 25,000 varieties, virtually all of them the result of human intervention.”[5]  As part of a worldwide effort to reduce hunger, “wheat strains have been hybridized and crossbred…to make the wheat plant resistant to environmental conditions, such as drought, or pathogens such as fungi…and to increase yield per acre.”[6]

Storage and Milling

Grain stored as kernels keeps indefinitely without spoiling. Ruth would have stored her barley and wheat as kernels and ground them into porridge or flour when it was time for a meal.

Author Sarah Ruszkowski explains that each wheat grain is “made up the endosperm, the bran, the fiber, and the wheat germ. The milling process grinds all these parts together to create a flour. However, the wheat germ is very oily and can become rancid rather quickly when broken and exposed to air. Flour manufacturers must remove the wheat germ for preservation and longer shelf life.”[7] In short, commercial milling sacrifices some nutritional benefit to produce flour with a long shelf life.

She adds, “Unfortunately, the wheat germ is the most nutritious part of the wheat berry. By removing the wheat berry, fiber, and bran twenty-eight of the thirty known vitamins and minerals in a single wheat berry are lost leaving only the endosperm,”[8] although millers do add four vitamins back into the flour to enrich it. The fresh flour Ruth made by grinding wheat berries as needed contained all 28 vitamins (especially the B vitamins, vitamins A and E) thought to be important for proper digestion of wheat.

The Future

The work of Norman Borlaug in the 1940’s and 50’s introduced a variety of short, high-yield wheat that revolutionized feeding the world. But changing the genetic code of wheat might have its downside.  It’s not likely that scientists can further the green revolution and simultaneously eliminate any resultant side effects.

A time is coming when things will balance. God will return all things to how they should be, a Divine reset that restores the creation to proper functioning. God, man and the land will relate in what Isaiah envisions as marriage.

But you will be called, “My delight is in her,” And your land, “Married;” For the LORD delights in you, And to Him your land will be married (Isa.62:4).

by Mary Hendren

 


[1] William Davis, “Wheat Belly,” Rodale Press, 2011; David Perlmutter, “Grain Brain,” Little, Brown and Company

[2] Oded Borowski, “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” pp. 59-60

[3] Same source, pp. 88-89

[4] William Davis, “Wheat Belly,” Rodale Inc., 2011, p. 14

[5] Same source, p. 16

[6] Same source, p. 14

[7] Sarah Ruszkowski, Yahoo! Voices, “Health Benefits of Grinding Whole Wheat Flour at Home”

[8] Same source.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Conclusion

Herod’s troubles

Herod spent his last decade in the grips of turmoil fueled by an ever-growing paranoia. While he had achieved a degree of peace in Judea (despite the financial rigors imposed on his subjects due to Imperial taxes and his own extravagant building projects), there were always trouble spots to be dealt with, especially within his own family. During his seventy years Herod married ten wives and fathered fifteen children. Needless to say, troublesome rivalries found fertile soil.

To make matters worse, Herod suffered the effects of a painful degenerative disease which affected not only his body but also his mind. He knew death was inevitable and imminent—there was no cure for his malady. The time had come for him to nominate, by Emperor Augustus’s request, an heir to assume his kingdom upon his demise. Obviously it would be a son—but which one?

A tangled web

Early on, Herod divorced his first wife, Doris (a “commoner” so to speak), and banished her and his firstborn son, Antipater, in order to marry a true “royal,” the Princess Mariamme 1, of Hasmonean descent. She also bore him sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and two daughters. The ensuing years were littered with political intrigue as mothers and sons, jealous siblings, shrewd sycophants and toadies, connived and maneuvered to grab the reins the instant of his death. The demented king saw threats everywhere—some quite real, others figments of his tormented mind.

As Augustus requested, Herod put forth the names of three sons, Antipater, Alexander and Aristobulus, for consideration; in response, each ambition-driven mother with her cohorts sought to claim the throne for her son by whatever means at her disposal. In the end, it finished badly for them all: Antipater, Herod’s firstborn, was executed on a charge of plotting to murder his father; Mariamme was executed because of an alleged murder plot; her two sons were strangled on charges of treason; and Doris was once again sent into exile.

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of ...

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maniacal obsessions

Herod was increasingly plagued with fears of treason and impending overthrow, and the palpable Jewish expectation of a coming Messiah did nothing to calm his apprehensions. Just yesterday his spies brought word of a caravan arriving from the east, and among its travelers, Magi, wise men of some stature, with their gift-laden entourage, inquiring about one born King of the Jews. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” A King of the Jews?!

Summoning all the chief priests and scribes, Herod got straight to the point: Where was this Christ to be born? Their reply: according to the prophet, in Bethlehem.[1] His minions were no doubt already combing all Jerusalem to find out more, sneaking, demanding, investigating, threatening; before long the whole city knew that Herod was on a rampage, and braced itself for his growing fury.

These wise men…they could be pivotal players in his manic search. Herod arranged for a private audience with them, and a plan took shape. First, a question. Exactly when did they see this star? If it took several weeks, or months even, for these Magi to make their journey,[2] how old might this…this king be—days, months, even a year or more? Then suppose he feigned a shared interest in paying homage also, and encouraged them to continue on their quest and keep him informed? Once Herod knew the child’s whereabouts, he could quickly dispatch this interloper. The Magi, unaware of such a murderous plot, played into his hands, and set off for Bethlehem, still guided by the star.

Herod waited.

Sometime earlier

Jesus was eight days old, and according to the Law, it was time for his circumcision. Joseph and Mary sought out the local Mohel to perform the age-old rite. The young mother comforted her crying infant, and soothed away his tears with the gentle sound of her voice. Their bond was already strong, and she found herself pondering many of the recent events which had so dramatically changed their lives. What did the future hold for this Son of God?

Perhaps this question loomed large a month or so later. Mary’s days of purification were completed and the time for Jesus to be consecrated to the Lord had arrived. Both events required sacrifices, and so Mary and Joseph with their precious son journeyed to Jerusalem and climbed the steps to the temple courtyard, making their way to the Court of the Women to fulfill their duties.

Unexpectedly, out of those gathered in the temple precincts, a man appeared, one Simeon by name, and took the infant Jesus in his arms, blessing God, saying, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). The parents marveled as he continued, speaking directly to Mary, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Surely she would revisit this scene in the years to come as she and Jesus lived through the full implications of Simeon’s foreboding words.

A very old woman, a prophetess named Anna, upon witnessing this encounter, added her blessing, thanking the Lord, and explaining to all who would hear that the long-awaited Messiah had been born.

Visitors from the east

Mary must have watched with interest as the group of foreigners approached, fascinated by their strange accents, their quick gestures, and their obvious delight at what appeared to be a star hovering directly over the couple’s house. She learned these were Magi, dignitaries from the east, who were on a quest.

Was it a whimper or a full-blown cry that attracted their attention, stopping all conversation, and causing the strangers to turn in her direction? Perhaps as she shifted position and lifted Jesus to her shoulder, the realization hit them: They had come in search of the one born King of the Jews; they were led to this very place by a star; and now here he was, in the arms of his mother. Scripture records that the wise men dropped to their knees and worshiped him. Then they presented the little child with chests of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, gifts carefully guarded and transported over hundreds of miles, gifts in honor of the King.

Warnings

Herod’s plan was about to be thwarted by God Himself with two dreams. First He warned the wise men not to return to Herod, but rather to choose another route for the journey home. And He warned Joseph to take his family and leave immediately, that very night, and flee to Egypt. By the next day, both parties were well en route.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by...

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Herod realized that his plan had gone awry and he had been outwitted by the Magi, he flew into a murderous rage, and issued a chilling edict: All boys[3] from two years old and under living in Bethlehem and its environs would be killed. Scripture records, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matt 2:17-18). To this day, the event, sometimes referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents, is synonymous in the minds of many with Herod.

One last slaughter

According to historical records Herod the Great, King of the Jews, died in 4 BC in great pain, suffering from among other things, gangrene and dropsy.[4] But he did not go without one more grand design. “During his sickness Herod meditated only upon ways and means by which he might make the Jews mourn the day of his death. When he had returned from the baths of Callirrhoe to Jericho, he is said to have given orders that upon his death the most distinguished of the nation, whom he had caused to be shut up in the arena of that place, should be slain, so that there might be a great lamentation on his passing away. In his delirium he tried to kill himself, and the palace resounded with lamentations.”[5]

After Herod’s death Joseph had one last dream. It was finally safe for his young charge to return to Galilee, and particularly to Nazareth, thus fulfilling yet another prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Mary’s son, One born King of the Jews, would live to fulfill many more.


[1] See Micah 5:2.

[2] There is no easy identification of who these individuals were. Possibilities include Babylonians and Persians. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Matthew 2.

[3] Scholars estimate that based on the size of Bethlehem (a small village), perhaps a dozen or so baby boys were murdered in Herod’s attempt to stop a threat to his throne.

[4] Stewart Perowne, Herod the Great, His Life and Times (1956), pp. 172-173.

Pomegranates

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue…and upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around (Exodus 28:31-34).

When the tabernacle was built in the wilderness and Bezalel was selected to make the priestly garments, had he ever seen a pomegranate or held one in his hand? He might have—it’s possible. Pomegranates grew wild in Persia as early as 3000 to 2200 BC. Pomegranates were imported into Egypt from Mesopotamia for wealthy Egyptians.  Archeologists have found pomegranates and drawings of pomegranates in Egyptian tombs, confirming the Egyptian belief that the fruit symbolized prosperity and a prosperous afterlife.[1]

We remember the fish, which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (Numbers 11:5).

It’s possible, on the other hand, Bezalel never saw or tasted pomegranates. They were not among the foods the Israelites remember eating in Egypt. Slaves lived on a simple diet of fish, vegetables and melon, and pomegranates were a labor-intensive delicacy. If he had no first hand experience with the fruit, Bezalel must have fashioned Aaron’s robe from a pattern God gave Moses. The tiny poms on the robe’s hem were woven from scarlet, blue and purple linen threads—colors that contribute to a complexity of red—shades ranging from pink, to rose, to magenta—commonly seen in the pomegranates grown in the United States. The fruit’s gorgeous colors, its pleasing roundness, and its early appearance in eastern Iran have led some scholars to speculate: Was the pomegranate the tempting fruit in the Garden of Eden?[2]  The Bible doesn’t say.

Whether the Israelites were familiar with pomegranates when they were slaves, we don’t know. But scriptures confirm they knew about pomegranates by the time they entered Canaan (Numbers 13:23).

Then they [spies] came to the Valley of Eshcol, and there cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes; they carried it between two of them on a pole. They also brought some of the pomegranates and figs.

Scriptures show that after settling in Canaan the Israelites cultivated pomegranates: pomegranate trees were common, the juice was an important drink and the fruit was a popular decorative motif. Saul sat under a pomegranate tree surrounded by his army (1 Sam. 14:2). Solomon used pomegranate imagery in his love poem (Song of Solomon 4:3, 6:7, and 8:2). Rows of carved pomegranates decorated the entry pillars of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 7:18). Joel mentions the pomegranate tree withering like the wasting away joy (Joel 1:12). Haggai cites the pomegranate tree marking the onset of God’s blessings (Haggai 2:19).

Phenomenal Fruit

Today we can substantiate by chemical analysis what the Israelites learned through experience: the tree is an extraordinary resource. The juice is a refreshing drink and can be fermented into wine.[3] Tannins extracted from tree bark and fruit rind condition leather. Pomegranate seeds, juice and bark have medicinal uses: an astringent poultice of the bark draws out bee stings; seeds and juice treat diarrhea, dislodge tapeworms and boost vitality; juice reduces symptoms of fever and eases severity of some disease.[4] 

An opened up pomegranate.

An opened up pomegranate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Labor Intensive

To extract juice from the pomegranates, women in that day rolled the pomegranates on a hard surface until the seeds inside stopped cracking. The juice extracted during rolling was held in the leathery “cup,” then the skin was punctured to release the liquid. It is said that travelers carried pomegranates as a convenient way quench thirst. (I tried the rolling method as a traveler might have done but ended up splitting the skin and spilling juice, so it must take a deft, experienced hand.) Juice was also extracted by stomping on the pomegranates, much like smashing grapes. The juice drained out of the stomping trough and was strained through cloth to catch the seeds, pith and skin. Juice extracted by the stomping technique contained tannins that affected the taste. The website http://theshiksa.com/ illustrates gentler ways our Israelite mothers may have handled pomegranates.

When boiled in water, cooled and strained, the pomegranate’s red flowers and rinds yield a “richly colored dye bath” [5] for coloring natural fibers into shades of dull gold and yellow. Similar to other vegetable dyes, pomegranate dye, does not color linen, cotton, silk and wool as brilliantly as animal-based dyes. Today pomegranates are valued less for making poultices, dyes, and ink than for their beauty, taste and health benefits.

In ancient cultures pomegranates represented fertility, righteousness, prosperity and wisdom. In keeping with tradition, many Jews eat pomegranates on the Jewish New Year, “to wish for good deeds and a year as plentiful with goodness as the seeds of the pomegranate.” [6] Apart from the symbolism surrounding the pomegranate, I think of it as a reminder of God’s delightful providence. Isaac Watt composed a hymn in 1784 in praise of God’s provision of the earth. So rightly it says, “There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known.”—Mary Hendren

 

 

 


[1] “The Incredible Pomegranate: Plant and Fruit,” Richard Ashton, p. 3

[2]  Edibleparadise.com, “Pomegranate—The Original Forbidden Fruit,” Annaliese Keller (online resource)

[3] “Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible,” Packer and Tenny, p. 255.

[4] Phytochemicals, “Pomegranates” (online resource)

[5] Folk Fibers, Maura Grace Ambrose, “Natural Dyes—Pomegranates,” Feb. 19, 2013 (online resource)

[6] Hebrewlessonsonline, “Israeli Symbols”

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 5

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shepherds abiding in the fields

The shepherds did what they had done for endless days and nights—too many to remember—for a lifetime, really. That meant the constant search for food and water, and protection from thieves and varmints.  In the spring it was not so bad. Pastures were lush and green, and a flock ideally could graze near the home of its shepherd. And when the grain harvest was over, and the poor had gleaned their fill, the sheep came along behind and took care of the leftovers. Later the searing heat of summer transformed standing fields of grass into hay. A good shepherd[1] expertly navigated his flock through these cycles, in first one location and then another. He knew where fresh water flowed, and where wells with watering troughs were situated. Autumn and winter, however, presented the most challenge.

As the temperature began to moderate, and the nights grew cooler, the shepherd knew it would only be a matter of time before the winter rains, and the survival of his flock rested squarely on his shoulders. First he must find shelter, ideally in a cave turned sheepcote. If not that, then he would have to find a protected site, perhaps in a valley or on a sunny hillside, and build a sheepfold of large stones piled three to four feet high, secured with a gate, and topped with thorn branches to discourage predators, both men and beasts. (The bandits of Israel were known to climb stealthily over the walls of a sheepfold, drop in among the sheep, kill[2] as many of the hapless animals as possible by slitting their throats, heave them up and over the stonework into the arms of awaiting accomplices, and fade away without being caught.[3])

Sheep and lambs spring 2011

Sheep and lambs spring 2011 (Photo credit: Ambersky235)

Unlike goats that will hunt for the best feeding grounds, sheep had to be led by their shepherds to food and water. If there was little in the way of grasses to be found, the resilient caretakers must scour the countryside for anything edible including leafy trees and bushes—quite an undertaking if the flock was large. At the end of a day of foraging, the animals were led back to shelter, carefully counted and safely secured behind gated walls. Both animals and herders could then settle in for a night’s rest.[4]

Visitors from another realm

And so it was, on a seemingly routine fall night somewhere in the countryside near Bethlehem, that a particular group of shepherds bedded down with their flocks, tired and ready for sleep.[5] Tradition[6] has it that these were no ordinary shepherds; that these men were charged with tending flocks destined to be used as sacrifices during the Passover season in Jerusalem.[7] Newborn lambs demanded the most care and scrutiny because only the perfect males of the first year could be used for the Passover sacrifice itself, and thousands would be needed. Any shepherds responsible for such a flock would be held to strict account when they delivered their charges to the priesthood and the Temple.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a being like none they had ever seen before appeared, and said: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The very glory of the Lord shone all around the terrified shepherds; their hearts quickened as they heard the exuberant praises of an innumerable multitude of angels fill the night air. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”   (Luke 2:10-15). As though an invisible curtain had dropped, the heavenly host was gone, and all was quiet once again.

Though stunned by fright and amazement, the shepherds’ instant response was one of faith: to personally witness the event that had surely come to pass in Bethlehem.  Luke says, “They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (2:16). They could not contain themselves. Everywhere they went, they heralded the glorious news:  A Savior has been born! Spread the word! He has come!

When at last they returned to their flocks they continued to praise and glorify God concerning the things they had heard and witnessed that astonishing night. What unlikely messengers—social outcasts—of the gospel of peace.

Meanwhile Mary kept all these things in her heart, pondering the workings of God in her young life.

Sedition afoot?

It didn’t take long for word of the shepherds’ cosmic encounter to reach Jerusalem and create a buzz of excitement throughout its environs. Herod’s ubiquitous spies hastily brought him a detailed report, and he, too, pondered these things—but not as the workings of Israel’s God. This smacked of nothing less than sedition. He, Herod the Great, would know more about this so-called “Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(To be continued.)


[1] Society held a certain disdain for the lowly shepherd class. See The Woman’s Study Bible (1995), p. 1690. “Shepherds were often viewed as outcasts, and as dishonest, and unclean according to the Law.”

[2] It is interesting to note Jesus’ later reference to this nefarious activity in John 10:7-10: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”

[4] Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 231. “…the shepherd also had to look after the sick sheep and those that were hurt, take care of the gravid ewes and the new-born lambs, make wethers of the male lambs that were not to be kept for rams, and tithe the flock according to the Law, which was done by making all the animals pass through a narrow gate, every tenth beast being set aside for the priests.”

[5] If the flock was particularly large or perhaps a combining of several different flocks (which, in regard to this event, the Bible doesn’t indicate) each shepherd would stand his designated watch to insure safety throughout the night from thieves and predators. See Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 230.

[6] See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), pp. 80-81; also Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (updated edition, 1993), p. 131; and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, note on Luke 2:8, p. 845.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, in their book, Killing Jesus (2013), mention that the high priests controlled the sale of Temple lambs at Passover and received a cut of every exchange made by money changers. They owned vast farms and estates which garnered additional profits for their bottomless coffers (p. 228). It is possible that this flock was owned by some temple official.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 4

 For unto us a Child is born , Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder.

And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,

Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice

From that time forward, even forever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NKJV)

***

Mary barely heard the urging of the women as her body responded to contraction after contraction, unrelenting waves of pain, each closer to the one before, until finally… one huge push, and there were no more. Seconds later, a baby’s cry filled the air and she felt tension drain from her body like wine from a ruptured wineskin. Swiftly deft hands cut the umbilical cord and lifted her squalling infant, wiping away amniotic fluids and washing him gently with warm soothing water.

Swaddling (How to)

Swaddling (How to) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She held out her arms to comfort her little one, his arms and legs flailing, searching the familiarity of her warm body.  Holding him close and stroking away his tears, she rocked gently, humming a melody only mothers know, until his crying gave way to silence as he listened.  She pulled back the blanket, marveling at his beautiful fingers and tiny toes, the plump softness of his body, the wisps of fine dark hair framing his brow. He was perfect in every way. Reluctantly she handed him back and watched, taking note, as he was swaddled securely with linen strips. Then, in her arms once again, she put him to her breast and smiled, wincing a little as he nuzzled, then latched on and suckled contentedly to drink his fill. In one sublime moment their eyes locked on each other, mother and son, and her heart soared.

The love of a remarkable man

Joseph[1] quietly entered upon this touching scene and stood watching, his curiosity and awe obvious. The past nine months had not been easy. The shock and indignation when the truth of Mary’s swelling belly could no longer be denied. The feelings fueled by trust betrayed. Struggling with what must be done. Law in the extreme dictated stoning even when parties were only betrothed, but few, if any, did that these days. A quiet divorce with no reason given, in the presence of two witnesses—that seemed the only just thing to do. He did not want to shame Mary publicly, even in his hurt and anger. This way she could quietly prepare for the consequences to come. And he could begin putting his life back together.

While that was the course he intended to follow, a heavenly messenger cast a new light of understanding on an otherwise dismal situation.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph himself was destined to be part of a grander plan.

Now he stood looking at the fulfillment of the angel’s word, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. “Jesus,” he said to Mary. “He will be called[2] Jesus.” “Yes. He will be called Jesus,” Mary responded softly, and gently placed her swaddled babe in his make-shift manger bed.

The world would soon know that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem that autumn day.

(To be continued.)


[1] Joseph’s part in the story of the birth of Christ is often overlooked. But in the opinion of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a comment concerning Matthew 1:24-25 observes, “While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s.” Barnes’ Notes adds, concerning Joseph as a “just” man: “The meaning is that he was kind, tender, merciful; that he was so attached to Mary that he was not willing that she should be exposed to public shame. He sought therefore, secretly to dissolve the connection, and to restore her to her friends without the punishment commonly inflicted on adultery” (see note on Matthew 1:19).

[2] Naming a child was of the utmost importance, and the Bible reveals instances where both mothers and fathers did the naming. In Jesus’ case, God, His Father, chose His name, and both Mary and Joseph complied. In that day, sons were often named during the circumcision ceremony. Scripture seems to indicate Jesus was called by His name from the time He was born.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Sidebar

One fact is glaringly missing in the story of the birth of Jesus—the specific date He was born. However that has not stopped the assigning of one over time. Below are a few links to the history of the adoption of the traditional date of December 25th, arguments pointing to its inaccuracy, mythology surrounding it, and the reasoning and manipulation behind its selection.

http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/961223/archive_009449_3.htm

http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=22329

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html

http://lifehopeandtruth.com/god/who-is-jesus/the-birth-of-jesus/

http://lifehopeandtruth.com/god/who-is-jesus/why-did-the-wise-men-bring-gifts-to-jesus/

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/christ-is-born

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 3

The End in Sight

It was the last day of a long, tiring journey. Five or so miles further, and Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem. At last, a respite from all the jouncing and jarring over hard-packed country roads. Just to stay in one place for a while—what a relief!

This wasn’t Mary’s only trip out of Galilee that year. Not so many months before, after her remarkable encounter with Gabriel, she had hurried south to the hill country of Judea to see her cousin Elizabeth[1] and share her wonderful news.[2] Would she ever forget Elizabeth’s greeting that day? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Her cousin already knew! Mary, her heart filled with adoration, humbly responded, “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). The two of them, one, aged and past child-bearing years, the other,  young and a virgin, both pious, both miraculously pregnant and favored before God, spent three months together before Mary returned to Nazareth, and her future.

If she understood the prophecy in Micah 5:2, she knew it meant that she would make yet another journey—this time to Bethlehem, the city of David—where her miracle son, Jesus, would be born. How ironic that Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and his edict, served as the impetus to get her there, and bring about the fulfillment of inspired words uttered 600 years earlier.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A place to stay

Joseph came to terms (after some angelic intervention) with Mary’s bewildering condition, and with her role in his life and in God’s plan. Now he had to ensure the safety and well-being of his very special charges. The first order was to find a place to stay. Bethlehem, normally a quiet little village of 1000 or so, was struggling to accommodate the numbers who had come to be counted in Caesar’s census.

Rules of hospitality dictated that villagers open guest rooms[3] in their own homes to travelers in need of food and lodging. In this instance, registrants might have had relatives who would take them in since they were in their ancestral home. That may have even been the case with Joseph and Mary. Otherwise strangers were to be welcomed wherever there was space.

Making room

Homes of that day were made of mud brick, and normally consisted of one to two rooms on one level and a terrace area containing a permanent stone manger for fodder to accommodate the family’s livestock. It was not uncommon that guests be housed there in the event of an overflow. It’s easy to imagine beds being rolled out in one area and perhaps a donkey or cow slumbering in another. Not only did their body heat add warmth for the household and the guests, the critters were kept safe from thieves and predators.[4] At morning light animals were led to pasture and the terrace floor routinely cleaned and swept.

It is likely that Joseph and Mary found lodging in a private home,[5] not in the usual guest room, but on just such a terrace level. They were warm and secure; food and water were available; they had access to help if they were still there when Mary’s labor began; and there would be a suitable place for a newborn in the security of the manger.

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Civica, on display in the Musei Capitolini (Rome). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caesar’s due

Within the next several days they were obliged to make their way to the official place for registration. Mary found herself standing beside Joseph, waiting impatiently for the line in front of the Emperor’s bureaucrats  to shorten, shifting her weight from time to time, rubbing the small of her back to ease the strain, acutely conscious of the little life within her belly, pushing and nudging.

It wouldn’t be long now.

(To be continued.)


[1] There is some discussion as to whether Elizabeth and Mary were first cousins, or distant cousins, or how exactly they were related. The New King James version simply calls her a “relative.” The general opinion is that they were cousins.

[2] The Bible gives no details concerning Mary’s route, the mode of her travel, or the time it took. In looking at a map, it seems likely that months later she and Joseph retraced at least a portion of her travels, especially the part that avoided Samaria.

[3] Normally these were in the home itself, but sometimes a separate room was built alongside the house itself to house guests. A guest room could have been in a cave if the cave was part of the home itself, which was sometimes the case. The current tradition of Jesus being born in a stable in a cave, essentially isolated from the town and away from helping hands, does not jive with the cultural standards of hospitality of the day.

[4] In a visit to Switzerland some years ago, we noted houses with animals sheltered under the living area, so the practice has endured over time, not only in the Middle East, but other areas of the world as well.

[5]The phrase, “no room in the inn,” has led to a distorted view of the story of Christ’s birth, due largely to the interpretation of the Greek word, kataluma. According to Kenneth Bailey, in his article, “The Manger and the Inn,” this word can be translated several ways, including “inn,” “house,” and “guest room.” The author questions whether Bethlehem would have had a commercial inn since no major Roman road passed through it, stating that “small villages on minor roads had no inns.”

Bailey continues, “No unkindness or lack of hospitality is implied when the Holy Family is taken into the main family room of the home in which they are entertained. The guest room is full. The host is not expected to ask prior guests (or a recently married son) to leave.” His conclusion concerning lodging for Joseph and Mary is,“They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full, and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger.”

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)


[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Akko_BW_13.JPG

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/node/1511 .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King

Setting the stage

For over 500 years the nation of Israel chafed under the thumb of first one Gentile kingdom and then another—Babylon, Persia, the Greco Macedonians, and now Rome, with its absolute ruler Caesar Augustus, and Herod the Great, one of his ruthless client kings. It wasn’t unusual, particularly during Passover season, for passions to ignite as the tribes of Israel revisited the story of God’s intervention and the stunning liberation of their ancestors.  When the white-hot flames of resistance and rebellion flared, they were summarily stamped out under the cruel boot of Herod’s soldiers.

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exorbitant taxation compounded the misery of oppression in pre- and first-century Palestine: the mandatory tribute to Rome; locally imposed taxes; several layers of temple tax; impromptu levies to fund military expeditions and building projects. Privation and hardship enveloped the land like a dank, smothering blanket, and peasants found themselves forced to sell their land holdings—inheritances from generations past—in order to survive. The swelling ranks of day laborers told the tale.

No relief

After a reign of more than 40 years, Herod the Great died in agony—some say from intestinal cancer, and many assert, a fate fitting for such a tyrant. Instead of relief, what ensued was a mad scramble for power and outright revolt. Research professor in the classics and religion at the University of Massachusetts, Richard Horsley, describes the aftermath: “As for the scribal rabbinic elite, so also for the ordinary people, resistance under Herod’s iron-fisted rule was futile and suicidal. But the minute Herod died, revolt erupted in every major district of the land, and the Romans mounted a massive expedition to reconquer Galilee and Judea. Thus, Jesus’ parents’ generation and his own generation as children in villages such as Nazareth suffered the slaughter or enslavement of family members, burning of their houses and goods, and the general trauma of war.”

As things worsened the dream of a messiah-deliverer flourished, only to fall prey to opportunists and pretenders. Pseudo-messiahs deluded the people with false hopes, created dissensions, and gave rise to sects. Their influence was mostly local and temporary; some, however, succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers, and created movements that lasted for considerable periods. Others, along with their ardent followers, died as insurrectionists.

A quiet miracle in Nazareth

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. via http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_middle_east.html Category:Historical maps by William R. Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a cool autumn morning sometime before Herod’s death, in the frontier town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee, a young woman prepared for a long trip to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus called for a census, declaring “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1-5) and ordered that everyone[1] must register in their ancestral home. And so, Mary, nearly full-term in her pregnancy, helped Joseph load the cart with the necessities they would need to see them through their journey to the ancient city of David.

She must have replayed the angelic visit innumerable times, and marveled at Gabriel’s amazing pronouncement. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

While Herod in his paranoia planted spies and scoured the countryside for seditious plots and traitors, the prophesied King of Israel, the longed-for Deliverer, quietly and miraculously grew in the safety of the womb of a young virgin, Mary of Nazareth, waiting to be born.

(To be continued.)


[1] The Archaeological Study Bible (2005), p. 1669, a note on Luke 2:5 states that in Syria (the Romans included Palestine under Syrian jurisdiction) “women twelve years of age and older were required to pay a poll tax and therefore to register.” This would explain the historical impetus for Mary’s making this trip, and the advancing of a divine plan.

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