Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BSD Blogging: 70 Year Questions

The prophet Jeremiah said that the Jews would spend 70 years in exile before the Lord would permit them to return to Jerusalem. Inquiring minds in our BSD Shepherd group looked at the dates for the exile and the return and found that they didn't add up to 70 years.

So, they asked, how do you figure the 70 years of exile? Good question! Scholars do not agree on this point--surprise, surprise.

Some commentaries say that the number 70 was not meant to be literal but was symbolic of a long time or several generations. Others quibble about the dating of these long-ago events and come up with dates that fit the 70 year prophesy but are not the same as the generally accepted dates of historians of the ancient Middle East.

Jim Taylor found an explanation that calculates the exile from the an earlier date when Nebuchadnezzar took the first captives, including the prophet Daniel, several years before the fall of Jerusalem. According to this theory 70 years elapsed between that time and the first return under King Cyrus of Persia, once the different calendar systems in use at the time were reconciled. For those of you who would like to get in the weeds of this theory, here is the web page with the details. 

There is a simpler explanation that I favor and found in the Archaeological Study Bible. If you take the date of the exile after the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC) and the date that the altar was restored and the sacrifices and worship resumed under the Mosaic Laws (516 BC), you have the 70 years of exile. I like this explanation because it makes sense to me that exile is not over and restoration complete until the altar was rebuilt and worship taking place. Also it meets the KISS principle test!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

BSD Blogging: What's In a Name?

Our daughter is expecting a second child in February so there has been a lot of discussion around the family about names for the baby. Since we won't find out its gender until next month, we've been talking about both boy and girl names and how names impact the identity and expectations we put on our children.

Which has made me think about the names in Nehemiah and what they mean. In the Old Testament names and naming are very important.

Beginning with the Garden of Eden where the Lord God brought the animals and birds to Adam so that Adam could name them, the power to name something or someone confirms authority over that thing, animal, bird or person. (Genesis 2:19) God named himself to Moses-- "I am who I am. This is what you say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you." (Exodus 3:14).

Because the name of God is so sacred, and because mankind has no authority over God, the Hebrews in the time of the Old Testament (and the Orthodox today) did not completely spell out the name of God when writing it and use euphemisms when referring to the Name.

In both the Old and New Testaments name changes signify a new identity: Avram ("father of elevation") becomes Abraham ("father of many nations); Sarai ("contentious" or "quarrelsome") becomes Sarah ("princess" or "lady"); Jacob ("supplanter") becomes Israel ("God wrestler"); Hoshea ("deliverer") becomes Joshua ("God rescues"); Hadassah ("myrtle tree") becomes Esther ("star"); Simon ("he has heard") becomes Peter ("rock");  and Saul ("prayed for") becomes Paul ("small, humble").

Here are the meaning of some of the important names we are going to encounter in our study of Nehemiah:

Nehemiah--the comfort of the Lord
Hacaliah (Nehemiah's father)--wait for the Lord
Hannaniah (Nehemiah's brother)--the Lord is gracious
Tobiah-the Lord is good

Nehemiah did personify the comfort of the Lord as he rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. His father had to wait on the Lord to bring the Israelites out of exile, while his brother brought word of their plight back to Nehemiah which turned out to be God's way of calling him to action. Ezra the priest not only helped rebuild the temple but helped restore the people to their covenant with God.

Two of the enemies of the rebuilding effort are aptly named: Sanballat tried to exert his strength to prevent the rebuilding and Geshem certainly tried to "rain" on the effort! Tobiah was an Ammonite but his name is Hebrew. Tobiah is deceptively named because he is an enemy of Nehemiah and acts deceitfully in trying to discredit him.

Watch out for names in the Bible--their meaning usually points to a deeper truth.

Monday, September 17, 2012

BSD Blogging: Nehemiah and Exile


 1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Psalm 137

NOTE TO MY GENTLE READERS: This fall I am part of the Teaching Team for the Bible Study Discussion program at MDPC and plan to use this blog to share my thoughts as we go through our study of Nehemiah and 2 Corinthians. I encourage comments from BSD participants as well as my Gentle Readers.


After studying the overview of Nehemiah in Lesson One, I'm thinking about how the experience of exile shaped the faith of Nehemiah and the Jews in Babylon, preparing them for return to Jerusalem and the restoration of obedience to God. Last week Mary Fuller encouraged us to put on our 3-D glasses and immerse ourselves in the story of this book, so here are my 3-D reflections on our reading.

I had a small taste of the experience of exile when I left my hometown of San Antonio for college in New York at the age of seventeen. Excited about the opportunity to attend Cornell University,  I didn't realize how different the people and culture of the Northeast was from that of south Texas. My fellow students spoke with different accents. I couldn't find Tex-Mex, BBQ or Dr. Pepper anywhere on campus. Instead there were lots of bagels (donuts gone wrong); grinders (Italian hogie sandwiches) and codfish on Fridays (yuck).

Within a few weeks the small group of expatriate Texans in the college banded together to put Texas flags in our dorm rooms, celebrateTexas Independence Day (March 2!) with tortilla chips and bean dip from parental care packages, and watch UT football games (when available). Being from Texas was not a good thing in the eyes of many of our peers who thought we were all cowboys, rode horses and were rednecks. Really. The experience made us aware of what set us apart as native Texans, and so after graduation it wasn't surprising that we all returned to Texas for work or graduate study.

In contrast to my experience of being a Texan among Yankees, Nehemiah didn't have the experience of growing up in Jerusalem and relocating to Babylon. He was born in Babylon into a Jewish family of exiles.  In fact his parents were probably also born in exile. Yet he and many of the other exiles treasured their Jewish heritage and maintained a strong connection with the Holy City. Although they could not worship in the temple and offer the Mosaic sacrifices, they could gather for prayer, praise and the reading of the books of Moses. Priests like Ezra provided teaching and continuity so that the people would remember God's word and His promise to restore them to Himself and to Jerusalem. . The experience of being isolated within a nation that was pagan made them identify strongly with their faith and heritage and set them apart from the people around them. As the psalmist said, they could not forget Jerusalem and longed to be restored to it and to their relationship with God.

Nehemiah's strong emotional response to the news from his brother about the incomplete restoration of Jerusalem is an example of how God used the exile to prepare His people to be restored to relationship with Him. Now they know who they are and why they have been set apart by God for a purpose. It makes me wonder if we were relocated to a place where Christians were a distinct minority if our children and grandchildren would relate to Jesus or to the religion or lack of religion of the larger culture around them?

When our faith is challenged, either because we have been removed from what is familiar to us or because those around us are promoting beliefs that are different from ours, we are forced to examine our assumptions carefully. Author Ross Douthat in his recent book Bad Religion (click here for my review) observes that historically Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to define itself against the popular heresies of the day. Likewise, Judaism was strengthened during the exile when Jews like Nehemiah defined themselves against the pagan religions of the people who surrounded them in Babylon and Persia.

Paul advises us: " Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be renewed by the transforming of your minds that by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. " (Romans 12:2) The Jews were tested in exile and some, like Nehemiah, did not conform to the cultural pattern around them but discerned the will of God for them. Today we are also tested by the cultural trends around us, but it is not always easy to discern when we are conforming ourselves to the values of the world rather than to the values of the Word.