New Post on Medium: On Snakes and Advent

hand grasping golden apple
Photo by Alan Cabello from Pexels;

For a while now I’ve been posting here first and then importing it to my publication on Medium. I’ve been posting about religious topics, which I love. But since this is my author blog, I think this site should be focused on writing and publishing. From now on, religious posts will be exclusively on my Medium page called Almost Ordained. However, I will post links to new posts starting with the one below. Medium is a paid subscription service. But as my subscribers, I will provide free links from this webpage. The latest post is for Advent. It is a reflection on this verse and how it foretold the coming of the Messiah.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Gen 3:15 KJV).

https://almostordained.medium.com/on-snakes-and-advent-e96197c50fb6?sk=72956a853f7c64d17a0449de83cd6ef7

blond woman hiding face behind money

The Tithe of Malachi 3:8-11 Was a Tax

Word of Faith, a.k.a., Prosperity Gospel, preachers love to talk about tithing. That refers to a traditional practice of giving 10% of your income to your church. If you listen to them, most likely you will hear the same things I heard.

  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the blessings of God.”
  • “If you tithe, you will be blessed. If you don’t tithe, you will be cursed. It’s that simple.”
  • “10% of your income belongs to God. Therefore, if you don’t tithe, you are robbing God.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing. Then they saw how God blessed them and gave their lives to Christ.”
  • “God can’t bless that which is cursed. That’s why God isn’t answering your prayers. You’re not tithing; therefore, you are cursed.”

If you don’t mind my giving away the ending, all of that is crap. But I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so I’ll show you where that doctrine came from, and why it is both unbiblical and unchristian.

But first I want to make it clear I am not against tithing per se. Many people have given 10% of their income to the church their whole lives, and it has never been a hardship for them. It can be a good exercise in discipline and stewardship of the resources God gives you. I am certainly not against giving to your church. The church needs money to function, just like any other organization. What I am against is the message that every Christian is required to give 10% of their income to the church, even when it is a genuine hardship to do so.

Giving to the church should be done voluntarily and not under compulsion (2 Cor 9:7). It should carry neither the threat that God will curse you if you don’t, nor some false promise that God will give back to you more money than you gave. God loves a cheerful giver. Give because you believe in the work your church is doing and want to contribute to it, not because some preacher told you to pay your protection money. And if you think tithing carries a supernatural guarantee of positive ROI, stick around, because you need some truth.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

There are several scriptures that explain tithing. I believe the one most abused by prophets of greed to line their own pockets is Malachi 3:8-11.

8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

 9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.  

10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

11 And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the LORD of hosts.

(Mal 3:8-11 KJV)

I can hear your thoughts now. How can you say this is unbiblical? There it is from the Bible, plain as day.

  1. If you don’t tithe, you’re robbing God (verse 8).
  2. You’ll be cursed if you don’t bring all your tithes to God (verse 9).
  3. If you tithe, God will pour you out a blessing for which there is not room to receive, and God will rebuke “the devourer” for your sakes (verses 10-11). I don’t know what “the devourer” is, but I want God to rebuke him.

I will probably say this a thousand times if the LORD lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture doesn’t mean they are speaking the word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. This reading and the doctrines that derive from it are out of context. Therefore, it is not the Word of God. I’ll show you why.

How Do You Read?

Reading it rightly includes reading the whole passage. How do I know it’s out of context? Because I read the whole book of Malachi, not just the verses cherry-picked by prosperity preachers. Reading it rightly also includes asking the right questions, for example, who is this for? What is it really about? What did it mean to the people it was written for? So let’s see what a difference context makes.

Who Is This For?

If you read the whole book, right away you should see this is not for America or the church today, nor for you as an individual believer.

An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.

(Mal 1:1 NRS)

The very first verse Malachi writes tells us his whole message was for Israel. Contrary to what you may have been taught, America is not Israel. They were a theocracy. America is a democracy. And the church is not Israel. Israel was a nation. The church is not tied to any particular nation. Even though tithing was a requirement for Israel while the Temple stood, that doesn’t mean it is required for us today. Because Israel was a theocracy, the tithe could be considered a tax. Giving to God is voluntary, but taxes are not voluntary. And again, America is not a theocracy. It is a democracy. In a democracy, the church cannot impose a tax on people. Therefore, giving to the church is voluntary.

What Is It Really About?

To answer this, we have to ask another question: What is the tithe? Contrary to what you have been taught, the tithe is not 10% of your income, and it never was required of everyone, even in ancient Israel.

There are three parts to the Biblical tithe.

  1. 10% was given to the sanctuary in Jerusalem (the temple tithe).
  2. 10% was given to the Levites (the Levites’ tithe).
  3. 10% every three years was given to the poor (the poor tithe).

Add that up: 10 + 10 + 10/3 = 23.33. Why don’t they tell you you must pay 23.33%? Maybe because they know people would balk at that, especially if they claim that’s gross, not net. Many churchgoers can accept 10% of their income as reasonable, but 23.33%? On top of taxes that you already said are not voluntary? A lot more people would be challenging that.

That being said, prosperity preachers don’t claim all of these tithes. They tell you about the first part, claiming that the church has taken the place of the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, they are entitled to 10% of your income. And as Malachi says, if you don’t pay them your tithe, you are “robbing God.” But if we must pay that, then we must pay not only the temple tithe, but the Levites’ tithe and the poor tithe. They never tell us who should receive those. And they certainly don’t connect those with any blessing or curse.

Here is where context is important. The tithe Malachi refers to in the passage above is not the first tithe to the temple, but the second tithe to the Levites. Malachi was chastising Israel for not supporting the Levites. It had nothing to do with the tithe to the temple in Jerusalem.

A Tithe for the Levites

Who were the Levites, you ask? Levi was one of the twelve sons of Jacob whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. While the other tribes were each given a plot of land, the Levites did not have any land of their own. That’s because God set them apart to serve as priests and ministers to all the tribes, with the provision that they would be supported by a tithe of all food produced in the land of Israel. You had to be from the tribe of Levi to be a priest, but not all Levites were priests. The majority of them served administrative roles in either the Temple or the government, as we see here.

 2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 The Levites, thirty years old and upward, were counted, and the total was thirty-eight thousand. 4 “Twenty-four thousand of these,” David said, “shall have charge of the work in the house of the LORD, six thousand shall be officers and judges, 5 four thousand gatekeepers, and four thousand shall offer praises to the LORD with the instruments that I have made for praise.”

 (1Ch 23:2-5 NRS)

The Temple had not been built yet, but God had already told David that his son Solomon would build the Temple in Jerusalem. In this scene, David knows he is about to die, and he wants Solomon to know the assignments of the Levites. You see they administered not only the work of the house of the LORD. They were also officers, judges, and gatekeepers, i.e., civil officials. That is how we know tithes were taxes. At least some of them went to the people who were responsible for the administration of the government.

The claim some preachers make today is you are robbing God because the church is entitled to the Temple tithe. But when Malachi talks about robbing God, he means the Levites’ tithe. Therefore, there is no chance he is saying you must give 10% to your church. Why didn’t Malachi make that clear, you might ask? Because the people he wrote this for would have understood that. They didn’t need to have that explained to them. This is what happens when you read the Bible and “just do what it says,” but don’t take into account the fact that it was not written to us today. The book of Malachi was written to Israel in approximately 400 BC, not the church in the 21st century.

Food, Not Income

Furthermore, the tithes were not taken in money. Every tithe came from food that was produced in the land of Israel. That means only farmers and herders tithed. They gave tithes from the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. It was only food from the land, so fishermen did not have to tithe. It was only from the land of Israel, so Jewish farmers outside Israel did not have to tithe. And it was not money or income, so merchants and craftsmen did not have to tithe. If you think about Jesus and his apostles, four of them were fishermen. They did not tithe. Matthew was a tax collector, so he did not tithe. That did not stop them from following Jesus. Heck, Jesus himself was a carpenter. He did not tithe.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it say you have to give 10% of your income to your local church. In the time of the New Testament, there were no local churches. Believers gathered in people’s houses to worship. Even in the Old Testament era, they did not even say you had to give 10% of your income. They tithed food, not income.

What Did It Mean to The People It Was Written For?

The storehouses Malachi refers to collected food, not money. And as I already mentioned, this tithe was to feed the Levites. Since the Levites had no land of their own, they could not grow food themselves. God commanded those Israelites who were blessed with their own land and produced food off that land to set aside a portion of it to feed people who by the nature of their calling could not produce food for themselves and their families.

Since the tithe was food and not money or income, what does it mean that God would “open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it”? Opening the windows of heaven meant that God would send the rains in their season to make their crops grow. There would “not be room enough to receive it” meant their land would produce plenty of food for the tithers, more than enough to fill the Levites’ storehouses and their own personal storehouses.

What is “the devourer”? The word in Hebrew is ha-’ochel. KJV and ESV call it “the devourer,” while NRSV calls it “the locust.” NIV is the most explicit, saying “I will prevent pests from devouring your crops” (Mal 3:11). I think in context, NRSV and NIV get it right (see Translation Notes below). Even if the farmer is diligent in plowing, planting, and keeping wild animals away, and the right amount of rain comes at the right time, there is always the threat the locust will come in and devour all the work of their hands.

This was answering the objection that the tithes were too much of a burden for them. God is telling the landowners, “Obey me concerning the tithes, and I will make sure you have plenty of food left for yourselves and your families.”

When God chides them for not bringing the tithes to the storehouses, they understood that was the Levites’ tithe, not the temple tithe. God is chastising them specifically for not supporting the Levites. Of course, they still had to bring the temple tithe and the poor tithe as well. But that’s not what this verse is talking about. Notice how there are tithes not only designated to the Temple and its administrators but also to the administrators of the government, the judicial system, and the poor. Also notice the tithe is food, not money. I’m stressing that point, because that was part of the purpose of the tithe: to be sure everyone in the land of Israel could eat, even those who could not produce food themselves.

This was especially important during the religious festivals. Holidays like the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles were supposed to give them a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God on earth.

In the Kingdom of God, no one goes hungry. There is plenty for everyone, rich or poor.

It doesn’t matter if you are a wealthy landowner with full barns, a craftsman getting by on your trade, a tenant farmer, a fisherman, a day laborer living hand to mouth, citizen or alien, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, widow or orphan, too poor or disabled to work, can’t afford it–none of that matters. You can eat your fill. God has blessed our land with plenty of meat, bread, grain, fruit, olive oil, and wine for everyone. It also shows why they collected food, not income, as tithes. It wasn’t because they didn’t have money then. They did (Gen 23:12-16; 2 Sam 24:23-24). It was because you can’t eat money.

Tithing and Taxes

So when Malachi talks about tithes in this passage, he’s really talking about taxes, not the voluntary giving we do in church. For those who didn’t meet the requirements to tithe, there were other taxes. But since we’re focused on the Levites’ tithe, I find it interesting that God commanded a tax that was only for the wealthy (landowners) and for the purpose of paying government officials and feeding the poor. When the wealthy complained about paying taxes and feeding the poor, God told them, “You have two choices. You can set aside the 23 1/3% I commanded for the priests, Levites, and the poor, because they can’t produce food for themselves, and keep 76 2/3% of what I provide. Or you can keep 100%, let people who serve Me and the public go hungry, and take your chances that the rain and the locusts will be favorable.”

When people wax nostalgic about the 1950’s and the old Leave It to Beaver suburban lifestyle, do they ever stop and think in the 1950’s, the wealthiest people were taxed 90%? They still lived well. Warren Buffet gives away 99% of his income to charity, and you don’t see him in line at the soup kitchen. When you deny government services and public assistance to the people, you rob the nation (verse 9). That is the real meaning of Malachi’s message on tithing.

Why Not Theocracy?

We are a democracy, not a theocracy. Our constitution is set up to allow everyone to follow whatever religion seems good to them, even if that’s no religion. Therefore, the government cannot be seen as favoring any religion over the others. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Just because Israel was a theocracy does not mean we have to be. God does not have any kind of fetish for theocracy or any particular government. There is no authority except from God, so God can work with any form of government (Rom 13:1; Joh 19:11). The only thing God requires from those in authority is justice and righteousness (Isa 1:17; 3:14).

If we want God’s favor, we need to do what ancient Israel failed to do: execute justice and righteousness, defend the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the alien, protect the poor from exploitation by the rich and powerful, accept the results of our democratic elections because there is no authority except from God, and see that no one lacks basic necessities, no matter what race, religion, or nationality they are (Jer 7:4-6; 22:3). That is what I think a real Christian nation would look like.

Summing It Up

If your preacher is telling you that if you don’t give at least 10% of your income, you are robbing God, and that is the root of all your problems, they do not know how to read the Bible in context. Don’t be afraid. God is not going to sick “the devourer” on you. Tithing or not tithing has nothing to do with whether God answers your prayers or whether you are saved or not.

The blessing and curse described in Malachi 3:8-11 had nothing to do with giving to the Temple then or to the church today.

In the New Testament, it’s possible some people tithed voluntarily, but no one in the church was required to tithe. Jesus never connected his healing and ministry to people tithing to him.

But he had to get money somehow. Yes, people gave to him voluntarily but never as a quid pro quo. And no, tithing does not guarantee God will give you more money than you had before. If they promise positive ROI for giving to them, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t materialize.

On the other hand, if you go to a church where no one feels obligated to give 10% or any minimum amount, where some give more than 10% and are happy to do it, some give 10% because that’s what they have done their whole lives, some struggle to give 1% but give what they can, and some really can’t afford to give anything but come because they want to worship God in spirit and in truth, chances are good there is a place for you there.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Translation Notes

Ha-‘ochel (Mal 3:11 WTT): Verb qal participle, masculine singular absolute with definite article.

The most common meaning for this verb (’achal) is eat, consume, or devour. As a participle (’ochel), it often refers to some kind of destruction or the means of destruction itself, such as fire, wild beasts, the sword, famine, or pestilence. Sometimes it is the locust (Joe 1:4; 2:25; 2 Chr 7:13; Amo 4:9) or more broadly of pests that devour crops (NIV). Since in this context Malachi is talking to farmers concerned about locusts devouring their crops, this seems most likely.

International Women’s Day: Thank you, Dr. B.J. Seymour

In case you did not know, March 8 of each year is designated as International Women’s Day. The purpose is not to denigrate men but to honor women and promote gender equality. As the website says,

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Significant activity is witnessed worldwide as groups come together to celebrate women’s achievements or rally for women’s equality.

About page

Studies have shown countries that do best on women’s rights and equality do best on human rights. It seems a good thing for me to do for IWD is to honor a woman who had a profound impact on my life. Of course, there are several I could name. Since I dedicated my book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain to Dr. Betty Jean “B.J.” Seymour, my favorite professor in college, this is my International Women’s Day tribute.

Book on display with candle behind
My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain

Trailblazer

Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, is a small college with a long history. When I attended, there were just a few more than 1,000 students, and it was about 60% male, 40% female (I didn’t like those odds). It used to be men’s only college, but it went co-ed in 1971. In the same year, Dr. Seymour became the first female faculty member as a professor of religion. She is still known for that and a few more firsts: First female professor to receive tenure, first female department head (Religious Studies), and first female to attain the rank of full professor. Needless to say, she played a significant role not only for the Religion department, but for paving the way for full inclusion of women as students and faculty.

Dr. Betty Jean "B. J." Seymour, at her office in Randolph-Macon College, 1973

Women at R-MC :: Randolph-Macon College

She was also an ordained Baptist minister at a time when most denominations (including Baptists) forbade ordaining women to pastoral ministry. How could that be? The Baptist church was more of a congregationalist church than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Even though there was a national governing body that made rules technically for everyone, in practice each congregation mostly governed itself. She found a congregation that was open to ordaining her, even though she was a woman.

In my sophomore year, I took two courses from her: Survey of the Old Testament, and Survey of the New Testament. It wasn’t like studying the Bible in Sunday School, and not like the Word of Faith preachers I listened to. At that time, I started getting disillusioned with the Word of Faith. It wasn’t working the way those preachers said it would, but I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I still thought it wasn’t working because I needed to get “more faith.” By the end of the year, I changed my major to Religious Studies. Not the best financial decision I ever made.

Revelation

But I learned things from her that neither my church nor my favorite televangelists taught. She taught us the historical background behind the Bible, which changed the way I read it. It’s called reading in context, by the way. That whole thing about man being made in God’s image, and woman was made to serve man, or the Bible forbids women from serving in ministry, she totally debunked—get this—by using the Bible. I was like, “The Bible says God made man in his image, and then made woman to serve him. The Bible says women should keep silent in church for they are not permitted to speak. Show me in the Bible how that’s wrong.”

And it was like she opened up the Bible and said, “Here. Here. Here. Here. Shall I go on?”

And I was like, “Damn, we were wrong!”

If she couldn’t have shown me from the Bible, I never would have listened to her. But she did, so I did. If we were wrong about that, could we have been wrong about other things?

I know some of you are terrified of going there, but if your standard is to do what the Bible says, and what we’ve been taught about the Bible is wrong, don’t we need to know that? She gave me the tools to discover what the Bible meant in its original languages and its original context, something neither church nor my televangelists did. “Just read the Bible and do what it says.” If that is how you approach the Bible, I guarantee you are reading it out of context, just like I was. I had heard people say you have to read the Bible in context to understand it, but she was the first person, along with the college chaplain, to teach me how to do just that.

Faithful doubt

My church did not talk about doubt much. The Word of Faith preachers taught doubt was something to crush with the Word of God and faith. But Dr. Seymour pointed out places in the Bible where the authors openly expressed doubt. Some of the Psalms address that doubt directly to God. Job had no problem telling God what was wrong with the way God ran the universe. And God included all that in the Bible. This is going to sound funny, but learning to accept doubt was crucial to saving my faith.

And I learned from her that critical thinking is not the enemy of faith. John Wesley had a slogan, “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” Dr. Seymour embodied both those disjoined qualities. Without her example as a woman of faith who refused to compromise her honesty and integrity for any God or religious doctrine, I don’t think I would have any faith to speak of today. By dedicating my book to her, and writing this tribute, I wanted to do what I could to keep that legacy she passed on to me alive.

And I’m happy to say her legacy does live on at my alma mater with the B.J. Seymour Award, which is given each year to “an alumna of Randolph-Macon College who has consistently worked on behalf of issues important to women and/ or girls, and who demonstrates vitality, integrity and leadership.”

Dedication

When I got my book ready to publish, and I decided to dedicate it to Dr. Seymour, I knew she had died in 2010, but I did not know when she was born. Through the site Legacy.com, I was able to find her obituary. It gave the date of her baptism, but not her birth date. And since she was a Baptist, her baptism probably was not even the same year she was born. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of an obituary that did not include the person’s birth date, or even the year of her birth. The obit listed the name and address of the executor of her estate. I called and explained my situation. They told me they knew her birth date. She had to tell them for legal purposes. But she did not want it to be made public. So only a select few know the year she was born. That was why it was not published in the obit. The year of her birth is not even on her headstone.

Most women don’t like to tell their age, but I had never heard of any other woman going to these lengths to hide it. It had been about twenty-five years since I last saw her, and she was still full of surprises. They told me they could tell me if I really needed to know. My first impulse was to say, “Yeah, of course I want to know.” My next impulse was to say, “Shame on you for offering to go against her last wishes.”

So I told them not to tell me, and I would figure out how to work with it. The dedication reads

To Dr. B.J. Seymour, d. 2010

That was what The Chicago Manual of Style said to do in a situation like this. It does not include the year she was born, and even if I knew it, I would not tell you. Maybe in heaven, I will be able to ask her. Dr. B.J. Seymour is now among that great cloud of witnesses described in Hebrews 12:1, the faithful ones who have gone before me and on whose shoulders I stand. And so B.J., if you are listening, happy International Women’s Day.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,

 (Heb 12:1 NRS)

Who Were the Magi?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

(Mat 2:1 NRSV)

The Greek word for “wise men” is magoi, the plural of magus. It may read “magi”, “kings”, or “wise men,” depending on your translation. The word is usually more closely associated with magic than royalty or wisdom, so magi seems the most accurate. Gingrich’s Lexicon says it can mean “wise men” or “astrologers.” Friberg’s Lexicon says it refers to the high priestly caste of Persia. Thayer’s Lexicon says it was a name the Babylonians, Medes, and Persians used to refer to “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, entry 3280 magus).

Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, uses it in a more neutral way for “one of a Median tribe” (Liddell-Scott, Greek Lexicon (Abridged)). For an example of how it is used in the Old Testament, we have this from the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream, so he did what all kings did back then: He called in his experts to help him interpret the dream.

So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king,

(Dan 2:2 NRSV)

In the Septuagint, magus translates the Hebrew ‘ashaph, which corresponds with “enchanters” in this translation. The reference to the Chaldeans could connect it to the “Medians” per Herodotus. The BDB lexicon defines it as a “conjurer, [or] necromancer,” and says it is probably a loan word from the Babylonian asuipu. All of the categories listed probably had some connection with magic and/or astrology, and they are advisors to the king. We could probably guess the magi in the Nativity story are the same. It is clear that they practiced astrology, because the appearance of a star prompted their journey.

In the Book of Acts, magi include Simon Magus (8:9-11), Bar Jesus (13:6), and Elymas (13:8), all of them villains. However, they would not have had the same status as Median or Persian magi in the court of the king. Given what Persian religion was, they might have been priests, as Friberg and Thayer said. There is an old image of the magi wearing caps shaped like cornucopias that identify them as priests of Mithras. Though it is dated several hundred years later, it is a possibility.

The Case for Persia

If you’re feeling like I turned a firehose of information on you, fear not. We can make sense of all this.

Scholars have speculated that these magi were likely either Persian or Arabian. I think Persian is more likely. They came “from the East,” so the land of Persia (Parthia to the Romans) is a likely candidate. The books of Daniel and Esther make references to the laws of the Medes and the Persians, and as one lexicon said, there is a possible connection of magoi with the Medes. Ever since Cyrus conquered Babylon for the Persians in about 538 BC, there had been a thriving community of Jews in Babylon. The book of Daniel is all about how he and his friends served alongside the advisors of the king’s court. It’s not hard to imagine that some wise men, priests, or magicians (perhaps a combination of all three) might have had some Jewish friends. They might have learned about their expectation of a Messiah. And then, they saw a “star” that indicated there was a new king of the Jews. Then about nine months later, they saw another “star.” Two stars in nine months both saying the same thing? For counselors/magicians/astrologers, that had to be significant. (I talk about what these “stars” most likely were in a previous post).

So they travel to Jerusalem along established trade routes bringing gifts, because you always bring gifts when you want to appear before a foreign king, perhaps on camels (or not, since archeologists said a few years ago there were no camels in the middle east until the 9th century AD, which makes no sense, because how could they be mentioned in the Bible so many times if the Biblical authors never saw or even heard of a camel? I like archeologists, but they got some ‘splaining to do on that).

Anyway, they arrive at the palace of Herod, king of the Jews, because isn’t that where you would look for a newborn king? Turns out it was news to Herod a new king had been born, which meant there was a usurper somewhere. They knew because they saw his star “at its rising” (not “in the east,” which makes no sense geographically).

Herod consulted his advisors, scribes and chief priests, who said the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem according to Micah 5:2. Herod had survived so long on the throne by being both crafty and ruthless. He pointed the magi to Bethlehem and asked them to send him word when they find him, so he could “worship him” (or pay him homage) as well. Of course, that was a pretense. Herod planned to use the magi to discover where to find this would be king, so he could kill him. Thanks to an angel, the magi got wise to his plan (maybe that’s why they were called “wise men,” ha ha). So after they visited the child (not baby, by the way), gave him their gifts and worshipped him—indicating they believed he was the Messiah—they left for home, avoiding Herod altogether.

The Gifts: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

One thing I love about the Christmas Carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is how it explains the appropriateness of these gifts, and how they foreshadowed Jesus’ destiny as the Messiah. Gold represented royalty; frankincense was burned in the temple, hence divinity; and myrrh was used for embalming the dead, hence his death would be central to his mission.

Glorious now behold Him arise,

King and God and Sacrifice!

Al-le-lu-ia, al-le-lu-ia,

Heaven to earth replies.

“We Three Kings of Orient Are”

Excellent Christology. I remember back in college, after I had rededicated my life to Christ, I would hear the traditional Christmas Carols, ones that I had heard all my life, and felt like for the first time, I got it. I realized then some of the best Christology ever written is in those traditional Christmas hymns. I still had a lot to learn, but that was such a beautiful feeling.

But Didn’t You Say They Weren’t Kings?

Yes, they were most likely advisors to the king but not kings themselves. Some traditions have changed their title from magi to kings. In Spanish, the holiday called Epiphany is translated Dia de los Reyes (“kings”), when technically it should be “Dia de los Magos.” I think early Christians were not comfortable calling them “magicians” or “astrologers,” since both practices are forbidden in the Bible. “Wise men” is one alternative that became popular, and I think that is an acceptable translation. After all, their job was to give wise counsel to the king. Kings became another alternative, even though there is no textual evidence to justify that translation.

And while we’re at it, our images and Nativity scenes show three magi, but we don’t know how many there were. The Gospel of Matthew never specifies how many magi. We probably got three from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But two could have brought those gifts. So could twelve. Tradition settled not only on three but also names for them: Gaspar, Baltasar, and Melchior.

Balthasar, Melchior, Gaspar: the three magi bearing gifts
Image By Nina-no – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2176501 The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.  565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored during the 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

The earliest reference that says three magi comes from about 250 AD, too late for us to be sure. But we can stick with three just because it’s familiar, and three gifts from three wise men really does make the most sense.

We Have Seen His Star at Its Rising

Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Mat 2:2 KJV)

This doesn’t make sense. They came from the east (2:1), which means they traveled west. If they saw his star “in the east,” why did they follow the star “westward leading,” as the hymn says. That’s like if I wanted to find Santa’s workshop.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“The North Pole.”

“Which way is that?”

“Uh, north. Obviously.”

And then I travel south looking for the North Pole. Travel south to go north, travel west to go east. Crazy, right?

This is another case where we have learned a few things since the King James Version of 1611 that allow us to translate more accurately. The Greek phrase in question is en te anatole. In verse 1, Anatole is translated “East,” but it is in plural form. When it is singular, as in this particular phrase, en te anatole, it is best translated “at its rising.” In astrological terms, this refers to when a new “star” appears in the sky, as in a planetary conjunction. This is reflected in most modern translations.

In a previous post, I explained why I think the Jupiter-Regulus and Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3 and 2 BC are the best candidates for what the magi saw. So here is a better translation (humble brag).

2.1-2 And Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King. Behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who was born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay homage to him.”

(my translation).

When can you call yourself a Bible Geek? When you do your own translations of Biblical Greek and Hebrew for fun! So yes, I am an unabashed Bible Geek.

And in Your Seed Shall All Nations Be Blessed

Since there was an astronomical event around the time of Jesus’ birth that gives a plausible explanation for what the magi saw, I have this question. What does it say about God that God would time the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to correspond with a sign in the heavens that Gentile astrologers (how un-kosher can you get) would not only recognize but be so moved that they would trek hundreds of miles just to see this baby or young child?

There were many prophecies that people from all the nations of the world would come to the land of Israel to seek the wisdom of God’s chosen people there. Matthew’s community probably saw the magi as the first Gentiles to fulfill all those prophecies. I could refer to any of those. But what I think of now is something God said to Abraham.

“And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

(Gen 22:18 NAS)

In the book of Galatians, Paul says this is a reference to the Messiah, because “seed” (Heb. zera`) is singular, not plural (Gal 3:16). In other words, the promise to bless all nations would not come through all descendants of Abraham, but through one particular descendant, the Messiah. The magi probably learned about this from their Jewish friends. If the Messiah has come, he will be a blessing not only to the Jews but to us as well. And God did not hold it against them that they engaged in astrology and/or magic. Instead, God used it to tell them the blessing of Abraham had come to them as well.

I don’t want anyone to see this as an endorsement of astrology. I don’t believe in it and never have. When did astrologers ever read something specific and get it right? Never. Well, I guess now I have to admit that on this one occasion, the astrologers were right. And it reveals a God who reaches out to people where they are, not just where they should be.

Credit to the Jews

For Jews living in a city like Babylon, their kosher laws made it difficult to interact with Gentiles. There was always a fine line between being good neighbors and losing their Jewish identity. The books of Daniel and Esther show some wise Jews serving in the courts of kings and how they reconciled faithfulness to God with respect for the laws of the land. In a Parthian court, these magi must have worked with some Jews. How else would they have known about the promise of the Messiah?

So when they saw the conjunction of Jupiter with Regulus, their “manual” told them a new king of the Jews had been born. He must be an important king if it is announced in the heavens. Could he be the Messiah? Then that was confirmed with the Jupiter-Venus conjunction nine months later. So in June of 2 BC, they knew the Messiah had been born. But it took until possibly some time between October and early December in 1 BC for them to arrive in Jerusalem at the court of Herod.

Why didn’t they leave immediately? Most likely their duties as priests/magi/counselors kept them home for a while. Since the Roman and Parthian empires were mortal enemies, it probably was not easy to get permission to travel to a Roman territory. But then somehow the opportunity came for them to take a diplomatic trip. They got permission to search for this newborn king, probably with a stipulation that they return ASAP. The time of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus had passed, but astrologers back then had to be meticulous and precise in charting their observations. I think they still could have “followed the star” on their charts.

We can only imagine what they felt seeing this child, but here’s how Matthew describes it.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

(Mat 2:11 NRSV)

I imagine in a lot of ways, Jesus looked like an ordinary baby. But the wise men saw him as the Messiah, so they must have been overwhelmed after searching for him to finally see him in the flesh. I wonder what they told their Jewish friends about him when they returned. And this is where I want to give credit to those Jews who befriended them.

It’s not easy being a Jew in a Gentile country, always having to stay true to your faith and identity while mixing with people who represent a threat to both. Some took the path of isolation, and others the path of assimilation. In order to be friends with these magi, these Jews had to navigate a path between those extremes, not veering to the left or the right. That is not as easy as some people seem to think it is. But with God’s help, they found a way.

The magi were eager to learn new knowledge. They saw in the Jews a wisdom they had never encountered. If those Jews had assimilated, they would not have looked any different from the other counselors in the court. The magi would have found them interesting but not compelling. If they had isolated, the magi would never have learned about the Messiah. Because who else could have taught them about the promise of the Messiah in the scriptures? They didn’t proselytize or preach to a captive audience. They didn’t demand the magi convert, becomes circumcised, or give up their gods, magic, or astrology. They simply shared what they knew with people who wanted to learn. Never underestimate the power of that kind of witness. Without it, the Magi would have had no reason to care that a new king of the Jews had been born.

References

 “Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks Who Were the Magi,”

Translation Notes

μάγοι noun nominative masculine plural common

[GING] μάγος
μάγος, ου, 1. a Magus, pl. Magi, a wise man or astrologer Mt 2:1, 7, 16.—2. magician Ac 13:6, 8.* [pg 121]

17609  μάγος, ου, ὁ from Persian magus (great); (1) magus, plural magi, the high priestly caste of Persia; wise man of the Magian religion (MT 2.1); (2) magician, sorcerer, one using witchcraft or magic arts (AC 13.6)

ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ (Mat 2:2 BNT), Noun, Dat F S; see note on v. 1; “at its rising” (NRSV) or “when it rose” (ESV).

6 tn Or “in its rising,” referring to the astrological significance of a star in a particular portion of the sky. The term used for the “East” in v. Mat 2:1 is ἀνατολαί (anatolai, a plural form that is used typically of the rising of the sun), while in vv. Mat 2:2 and Mat 2:9 the singular ἀνατολή (anatole) is used. The singular is typically used of the rising of a star and as such should not normally be translated “in the east” (cf. BDAG 74 s.v. 1: “because of the sg. and the article in contrast to ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, vs. Mat 2:1, [it is] prob. not a geograph. expr. like the latter, but rather astronomical…likew. vs. Mat 2:9“). (BW translation note).

2.11

πεσόντες verb participle aorist active nominative masculine plural from πίπτω

[GING] πίπτω
πίπτω fall, the passive of the idea conveyed in βάλλω—1. lit. Mt 15:27; Mk 9:20; Lk 8:7; 21:24; Ac 20:9; Rv 1:17. Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14. Fall to pieces, collapse Mt 7:25, 27; Lk 13:4; Hb 11:30; Rv 11:13.—2. fig. Ac 1:26; 13:11; Rv 7:16. Fail, become invalid Lk 16:17; 1 Cor 13:8. Be destroyed Rv 14:8; 18:2. In a moral or cultic sense go astray, be ruined, fall Ro 11:11, 22; Hb 4:11; 1 Cor 10:12; Rv 2:5. [pg 159]

προσεκύνησαν verb indicative aorist active 3rd person plural from προσκυνέω

[GING] προσκυνέω

proskune,w (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object—1. to human beings Mt 18:26; Ac 10:25; Rv 3:9.—2. to God Mt 4:10; J 4:20f , 23f; 12:20; Ac 24:11; 1 Cor 14:25; Hb 11:21; Rv 4:10; 14:7; 19:4.—2. to foreign deities Ac 7:43.—3. to the Devil and Satanic beings Mt 4:9; Lk 4:7; Rv 9:20; 13:4; 14:9, 11.—4. to angels Rv 22:8.—5. to Christ Mt 2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 20:20; 15:25; 28:9, 17; Mk 5:6; 15:19 ; Lk 24:52. [pg 171]

They knelt down. Some translations say fell down. In Greek the word is pesontes, which is a participle of pipto. Generally, it means fall, but it can have the specific meaning of “Fall down as a sign of devotion Mt 2:11; 18:26, 29; Rv 5:14” (Gingrich).

Paid him homage. Some translations say worshipped him. In Greek the word it prosekunesan, an Indicative Aorist of prosekuneo. In general, it means “(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully depending on the object” (Gingrich).

The Star of Bethlehem in 2020?

Tonight, December 21, they say the planets Jupiter and Saturn will align to create a bright “star” in the sky. Some have speculated that the star of Bethlehem may have been this same event. I did some research a few years ago on the star, because I wondered what astrologers from “the east” would have seen that told them a new king of the Jews was born, and why Herod and his Jewish subjects didn’t see it?

Three magi silhouette with star
Has the mystery of the star been solved?

A conjunction not as rare as Halley’s Comet, but in the year 7 B.C., there were three conjunctions of the two planets. That might have got their attention. However, it looks to me like the most likely explanation is rather a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and a star called Regulus. I haven’t found my notes on it, but A Wikipedia article brought back most of the details for me.

  • In September, 3 B.C., there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter (the “king planet”) with Regulus (the “king star”).
  • In June, 2 B.C., Jupiter was in conjunction with Venus, associated with love and fertility. We don’t usually associate fertility with Jesus, but considering this came nine months after the Jupiter-Regulus conjunction, astrologers from the East might have seen the previous event as the conception, and this as the birth.
  • A comet, supernova, or some other new bright “star” in the sky would have been noticed by most people in Jerusalem. However, an alignment of planets would be subtle enough that Jews would not notice, since astrology was forbidden to them. That makes this a much more likely explanation.

One problem with this theory is that Herod’s death has been dated at 4 B.C., because Josephus said it happened shortly after a lunar eclipse (Ant. 17.6.4). However, modern physics has calculated besides 4 B.C., there were also two lunar eclipses in 1 B.C. I think a good argument can be made for the lunar eclipse of December 29, 1 BC as the one Josephus referred to. That would put the Jupiter-Regulus-Venus conjunction(s) still within the right time-frame. One question you might have now it, “How cold Jesus have been born ‘Before Christ’?”

Most Experts Think Jesus Was Born B.C.

The makers of the Gregorian Calendar (the one we still use today) tried to reset the calendar with the birth of Jesus at 1 AD. But evidence came to light later that indicated they miscalculated. Most notably, Josephus reports Herod died in the time between a lunar eclipse and the following Passover (Ant. 17.6.3-4, 9). Astronomical events like that can be dated accurately. A lunar eclipse was visible in Judea in 4 BC, and two more in 1 BC. This could give us a solid reference point, because the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born shortly before Herod’s death. Here is the order of events according to Matthew.

  1. Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  2. The magi see a star that tells them a new king of the Jews has been born.
  3. The magi visit Herod, seeking the new king.
  4. The magi encounter Jesus as a child (not a baby) with his father and mother. They offer gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  5. The magi return home, avoiding Herod.
  6. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt with his wife and child.
  7. Herod orders every male child under two years old killed.
  8. Herod dies.
  9. Joseph and family return to the land of Israel, settling in Nazareth.

Herod’s death (8) in either 4 or 1 BC seems to be the most solid reference point. Matthew hints that the star (2) appeared to the magi as much as two years before the slaughter of the innocents (7). Herod’s death happened shortly after that, but we don’t know how long. If we accept June, 2 B.C., based on the magi’s observations, and the lunar eclipse of 1 B.C. as the one (how long?) before Herod died, then Jesus could have been about a year and a half when Herod died.

The visit from the magi could not have been long before that, since Herod thought the child could be as much as two years old. Maybe Jesus was about one-and-a-half, but Herod made the age limit two, just to be sure.

So this looks to me like the most plausible theory about the star of Bethlehem. Now here are a few other details around the Christmas story you might not have known.

Did You Know?

Caesar Augustus Ordered Three Censuses, Like Luke Described

Another clue comes from Luke, when he said the emperor Augustus ordered a census the year Jesus was born. Luke also gives this as the reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But they don’t correspond to the year we think Jesus was born (6-4 BC). So while the practice of taking censuses in general can be confirmed, a Census date that matches Jesus’ birth cannot.

I am missing my notes, so I don’t have any more info on this right now.

Jesus Was Not Really Born on December 25

The story of Jesus’ birth comes from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The most relevant detail for Jesus’s birthday comes from the Gospel of Luke, which says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth. On the other hand, if it was at the Jupiter-Venus conjunction, that would place his birthdate in June.

All of that to say no one knows exactly the day he was born.

So Why Do We Celebrate on December 25th, You Ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, the date a great man was born was not necessarily important among the Jews. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important until decades after his death. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death, resurrection, and promised return.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

-ancient church confession

They seemed to believe great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them, so they would not necessarily be interested in his natural origins. Mark and John did not include birth narratives in their Gospels, because it wasn’t important to them (see also Heb 7:3).

It was only in later years, maybe around the 60’s or 70’s, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem? Luke investigated and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be (drum roll) Bethlehem! If he’s right, we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Yes, I already told you this, but you might forget it when you look at your Nativity scene. Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi the king they seek would have to be born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11; cf. Luk 2:16). The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (also called “kings” or “wise men” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

“According to the Time That He Had Learned from the Wise Men”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

(Mat 2:16 NRS)

The magi (or “wise men”) tricked Herod, because an angel warned them in a dream not to return to him, so they went home without informing the reigning king. In the same way, Joseph received warning from an angel and fled with his wife and child to Egypt.

Herod responded with shocking cruelty. He ordered his soldiers to kill every male child up to two years of age. Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. There is some debate about whether this “slaughter of innocents” really happened. First century historian Josephus gives a lot of detail about Herod the Great, but he says nothing about this. However, Josephus tells us enough to say it is consistent with his character. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. Afterwards, Emperor Augustus commented it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son, since as a Jew he would not kill a pig.

But if Jesus was a baby (newborn or less than a month old), why kill all the males under two years old? Under one, I could see. You want to be generous with your margin for error. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking and much bigger than a newborn. They might even be speaking a few words. You don’t need to go that far ahead to “off” a newborn baby. But remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or under.

The Kingdom of God vs. The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers of this world would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. And he would not ally himself with such powers. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the high born, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

-“O Holy Night”

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers of this world have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military might. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone (Mat 20:25-28; Mar 10:42-45).

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

Church in Kafr Kanna

Cana Grace and Mother’s Day

I originally published this on a different blog. But it struck me this is a perfect story to say Mother’s Day, to my mom and mothers everywhere.


If you remember your wedding day, how would you have felt if your wedding planner came to you during the reception and said, “We’ve run out of food and not all the guests have been served”? I suppose you would have panicked for a moment and then expected the wedding planner to fix it. Find some food. I don’t care where you get it. Just get it here now. You would not have expected any of the guests to get it for you.

When Jesus and Mary are at a wedding in Cana[1] (see John 2:1-12), Mary hears they have run out of wine. She probably felt their embarrassment, especially if they were friends of hers. In Galilee in the first century, “those invited might be expected to contribute provisions such as wine” (HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible, John 2.1 note). So it was not necessarily unusual for her to ask her son to help.

Interesting fact about Jewish weddings in the first century: Receptions lasted a full week. During this time, the bride and the bridegroom had their honeymoon in their new home. The wedding guests celebrated outside.

Church in Kafr Kanna
Called the “wedding church” in Kafr Kanna, believed to be on the site of the wedding described in John 2:1-12.

Jesus appears unconcerned at first.

“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

(Joh 2:4 NRS)

I know mothers are going to ask, why did he call her “Woman,” instead of Mother or Mom? That probably was not disrespectful in that culture (compare 19:26; 20:15). But the next line he says indicates her request is about more than wine. In other words, “This is not the time to reveal myself as the Messiah and Son of God.”

But his mother tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Joh 2:5 NRS)

I imagine at this point, she gave him The Mother’s Look. You know what I’m talking about. Your mother wants you to do something, and she gives you that look that tells you there is no arguing with her about this. That sets the scene for Jesus’ first miracle–or sign as John prefers to call it–turning water into wine. She knows something about her son, something he does not want to reveal–at least, not yet. He does not think it is the right time to show his miracle working power. His hour has not yet come. Really Mom? You think this is how I should reveal to the world I am the Son of God? But he does it anyway.

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

(Joh 2:6 NRS)

So the servants need to get wine fast. They are waiting for Jesus to tell them what to do. He sees six large stone water jars, and as a Jew, he would know these are used to hold water for purification rites. He says to fill them with water. What were the servants thinking? How is purifying ourselves going to help us get wine?

But Mary is there, and maybe she reminds them. “I said, do whatever he tells you!”

They follow his directions, filling the jars to the brim. They draw some out. At what point did the water change to wine? When it was in the jars or when they drew some out (in a pitcher I imagine)? When the chief steward tasted it? Who knows. And I have to wonder, as important as washing for purification rituals was for Jews, how could these jars have been empty?

At any rate, this water that would normally be used to wash people and objects for ritual purification has turned into wine, and the social crisis is solved. With the capacity of each jar, they would have had 120-180 gallons of wine, presumably enough to last the entire reception.

It’s a strange story, so I feel more compelled than usual to ask,

What can we learn from this?

The purification vessels are empty then filled with water, which allows them to fulfill their original purpose. Jesus repurposes them when he turns the water into wine. One commentator says,

The pots contain only water. Soon Jesus will fill them with eschatological[2] wine, a rich symbol in the biblical tradition inferring prosperity, abundance, good times; the wine will overflow the water pots. Their true purpose will be fulfilled. Changing the pots of water into pots flowing over with good wine becomes a metaphor for Jesus’ ministry as he brings vitality to the ancient religion.[3]

 You can be spiritual and still join others in celebration. Two of the fruits of the spirit are love and joy. One way to show love is to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. A wedding feast is a time for rejoicing with those who rejoice, and any religion should make room for joy when it is appropriate.

 It is okay to pray for “unimportant” things. I hear people all the time say, “Don’t pray for that. God has more important things to do.” Did Jesus have more important things to do than keep the party going? Yes, and he would go on to do them. But for now, he is there, and they need wine. Someone asks for his help, and he answers.

Any religion should make room for “Cana Grace.”
Cana Grace? This is a new term for me, but one commentator explains it this way.

…it is worth a miracle because it manifests the glory of God—the very God who wants even now for the community of faith to be a celebration of people. Brothers and sisters in Christ eating on the back porch and laughing until the sun goes down; a new members’ dinner at someone’s home that ends with folks giving thanks to God for the welcome they have received at church—it is called Cana Grace. Give thanks for everyone in your church and in your life who has the knack for throwing a party. What a way to begin a ministry![4]

So what if there were much bigger problems in the world. Yes, it was almost incredibly embarrassing for the hosts, but social embarrassment is not the end of the world. But if we’re honest, it sure feels like the end of the world. Jesus saved the day by bringing “Cana Grace” when his friends needed it. It was not the way he planned to launch his ministry, which strangely makes it feel even more appropriate. And the reason is one we can all relate to. He had a very hard time saying no to his mother.

Addendum

Did you know the joy of the kingdom of God/Heaven is often compared to a wedding or wedding feast? Just a few examples:

  • Isa 62.1-5
  • Hos 2.16, 19-20
  • Mat 22.1-14; 25.1-13
  • Rev 19.7-9; 21.2-4

References

[1] Cana was a small town in the middle of Galilee, about 10 miles north of Nazareth.

[2] Eschatological or eschatology relates to the end times. God’s future action to end this world and inaugurate a new one is a common theme in the Bible. What will this new world be like? That is what eschatology is concerned with.

[3] Bridges, Linda McKinnish. Exegetical perspective. Cited in January 17, 2016: Abundant life: Focus on John 2:1-11. Feasting on the word curriculum.

[4] Brearly, Robert M. Pastoral perspective. Cited in January 17, 2016: Abundant life: Focus on John 2:1-11. Feasting on the word curriculum.

Happy Holidays!

I am not posting any blogs until next year. I will resume the first Monday morning. And I hope to have a pretty major announcement then.

Until then, Happy Holidays. Or …

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Boxing Day, Happy Sol Invictus, Happy New Year, and Happy Dia de los Reyes. Oh, and a Happy Festivus for the rest of us.

Now do you understand why some people say Happy Holidays?

Little Known Facts about Christmas Traditions

I thought I would take a break from blogging for the holidays. However, I managed to get this put together. It’s shorter than previous posts, and I didn’t get everything in here I wanted to. Just a little bit of background about our Christian traditions.

Did You Know?

Jesus was not really born on December 25

The Gospel of Luke says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth.

Emerson White Hours's depiction of the annunciation to the shepherds
The angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). Painting ca. 1485-90,

So why do we celebrate on December 25th, you ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, when and where a great man was born was not necessarily important in the ancient world. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Ancient Christian confession

They didn’t care much about his birth, at least not at first. The less they knew about his natural origins, the better (Heb 7:3; Jn 1:1-3). Great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them.

It was only in later years, maybe around the 70’s and after, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem?

Luke investigated (Luk 1:1-4) and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be … Bethlehem! So we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi he would have been born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them to pass along to let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

cave painting of the magi
Hard to make out but this is the earliest artistic rendering of the magi discovered so far, believed to be mid-3rd century.

Sorry to Mess with Your Nativity Scene, but …

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11). An angel appeared to them in a dream and warned them not to return to Herod, so they went home without informing the reigning king. Herod responds with shocking cruelty. He orders his soldiers to kill every male child two years old or younger. Granted, Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. So even though we have no other record of this event, it is certainly consistent with Herod’s character to do this.

But why kill all the males under two years old? If he was a newborn baby, he would probably have said any male child one year old or younger. That would give you enough margin for error to get him. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking. You can tell that’s not a newborn baby. And remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or younger.

The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (called “kings” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers that be would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. His kingdom was not of this world, but it changed the world.

He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the elites, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers that be have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military power. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

“O Holy Night”

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.

Paperback excerpt: The War on Thanksgiving

This blog post was originally posted December 1, 2016. Then it became part of my book, Dark Nights of the Soul. The holidays are upon us, so I’m posting this excerpt to remind folks not to forget to give thanks during the Christmas season. I want to encourage everyone to shop stores that are closed on Thanksgiving day.


Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music and put up Christmas decorations. Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now, it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store. It was sunny and almost 80 degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

And a few years ago, stores started opening on Thanksgiving day. Really? You can’t wait until Black Friday for your big sale?

Good or Bad for Business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is the question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving Day sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.[1]

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

Why Am I Talking about This on a Blog about Faith and Depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: the fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money.

Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Grace and peace to you.


[1] Josh Hafner, “To Open or Not? Inside Stores’ Thanksgiving Dilemma,” USA Today, October 19, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2016/10/19/open-not-retailers-wage-battle-thanksgiving/92380280/

Longest Night Service

 We celebrate Christmas on December 25, but that is not when Jesus was most likely born. The Gospel of Luke says, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luk 2:8).

If Luke is correct, this would place his birth between February and April, when the ewes give birth to their lambs. This is when shepherds had to watch them all night, to be ready to assist the laboring sheep. This begs the question, why do we celebrate on December 25?

In about 312 AD, Constantine became emperor of Rome. He credited a key victory over his rival to a vision of the cross. He wanted to make an official holiday for Jesus’ birth. Mithras, a Persian deity, was also popular in the empire. His devotees celebrated his birthday on December 25. Constantine thought celebrating Jesus’ birth on the same day would help unify the people.

It also corresponded with the winter solstice and the Unconquered Sun celebration. People then like today noticed the days getting shorter until the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It was as if the sun was weakening over months, maybe dying. Just when hope was at its lowest, the sun would gather its strength, and the days started getting longer again. The sun was still unconquered.

 

The Longest Night of the Year

 

Some churches have taken this idea of the longest night and made services around that theme. The idea is to give people who are depressed, lonely, and grieving during the holidays a chance to acknowledge those feelings. In my own denomination (PCUSA), only about 25% of congregations offer this type of service. I have never been to one. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

  • They may be called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services. I think the Longest Night is a more appropriate name. As one pastor said, “When you hear, ‘Come to the Blue Christmas’ service, you might think it is a service where you will get depressed.” That is not the impression they want to give.
  • In some churches, the Advent candles of hope, peace, joy, and love, are extinguished. For the Longest Night, they are replaced by hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness. This is not to depress people but to give them a chance to acknowledge these feelings.
  • Some churches have Parish Nurses plan and participate in the services.

Even though many acknowledge the need for a service like this during the holidays, attendance is often low. When one associate pastor of a congregation with 1,500 members proposed the idea, the members overwhelmingly approved it. But at the service itself, only twenty-five attended. Despite putting more effort into publicizing it and explaining the purpose, next year was the same. When asked why, people said they were not depressed, so they did not think this service was for them.

This is less than two percent of the congregation. The percentage of people living with depression is much greater than that. This points to a larger problem, not only in the church but in society as a whole. It is still difficult for many people to acknowledge depression and the feelings associated with it, especially during the  holidays. As one pastor said, “People are really unwilling to self-identify as grieving. People seem to prefer to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant and all those ‘boot strappy’ words that are part of our American ideal.”

Another said, “We as a culture tend to overlook the people who are grieving, who are lonely, especially at this time of year.”

In light of this, churches may have a better response if they focus on healing for others. Most people are more willing to come on behalf of a friend of family member who has experienced loss than for themselves.

 

Christmas on the Longest Night

 

Even though it is not historically accurate, Christmas on or near the longest night of the year fits spiritually. On Christmas, we celebrate the eternal Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In him was the same light that was with God in the beginning. And like the unconquered sun, even though the light may be hidden, it has always been and will always be there. The light shines brightest in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In his flesh, Jesus experienced all the hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness you or I ever have. He is present to walk with us through our darkness and pain until we see the light again. Knowing this has not cancelled out the light represented in Advent, Christmas, and Easter services for me. It has made them meaningful at a deeper level.

One pastor said it very well. “The Incarnation is a reason for celebration that God loved us so much that God sent Jesus to be with us, but it is also a reason for celebration that Jesus came to walk with us through the pains of life as well. I wish we could better hold these two messages together.”

 

Grace and peace to you.

  

References

 

Dunigan, E. (Oct. 26, 2018). “Blue Christmas: ‘Tis the season—for depression.” Presbyterians Today

 

Download a copy of a Blue Christmas liturgy here.