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)
Book on display with candle behind

Interview on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, 1:00-2:00 PM EST. “This Is the Situation,” on WFFR-LP 100.9 FM

Brother B is replaying his interview with me from December 6 as a “Best of” episode on his show, “This is the Situation,” on 100.9 FM in Muskegon, Michigan. He said he chose this episode because he got a lot of positive reviews for it, and he feels it speaks to a lot of what is happening now in this country. And I would say around the world as well. What we have been through the last year has taken a toll not only on physical health but mental health as well.

Brother B interviews me about my book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

There are three options to listen live:

  1. On the radio at 100.9 FM (In the Muskegon, Michigan area).
  2. On the “Tune In” app. They offer a premium service, but you won’t need it for this. Search for Muskegon 100.9 FM, and it should come up. If you don’t have it, you can follow this link to download the Tune In app from the iTunes store. http://tun.in/sfh1j. Or here on Google Play.
  3. Click this link to view in your web browser (laptop or mobile). Muskegon 100.9FM, WFFR-LP 100.9 FM, Roosevelt Park, MI | Free Internet Radio | TuneIn

And hopefully, I’ve given you enough keywords that you can find it on Google if all else fails. We talk about some of the principles in my book, how you can have clinical depression and not know it, and how I have been able to find happiness and faith in spite of a brain that is tilted towards darkness and depression.

And he made this promo was so cool.

Brother B, it was an honor to be on your show the first time, but even more to be chosen now as  a “best of” episode. I’ll be listening again.

#books #depressionandrecovery #radiointerview #brotherb #bookpromo #podcast #thisisthesituation #muskegon #100.9FM #mentalhealth #wffr-lp #bestof

Super Bowl 54, Kansas City Chiefs victory celebration, Patrick Mahomes holding up the Lombardi trophy surrounded by teammates.

The 49ers “Won” Super Bowl LIV

Would you like to take a little stroll down Memory Lane to a time before the Covid lockdowns? I thought so. Super Bowl LIV was exciting because the Chiefs struggled for three and a half quarters. The odds against them were staggering, but they did not give up. And in the last seven-and-a-half minutes, we finally got to see Patrick Mahomes going all Patrick Mahomes. They went on a tear and won 31-20. That kind of never-give-up attitude was admirable, and they could not have won without it. In football, as in politics, it is admirable to never give up while there is still time on the clock. But when the game is over, it’s over.

Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

What if the 49ers were clamoring for two and a half months after the game that they really won, and the only reason they lost was that the Chiefs cheated, the game was rigged, and the referees were biased against them, because the whole NFL was a secret child trafficking cabal of Satanic pedophile cannibals that their coach and only their coach threatened to expose. I don’t think anyone believes the NFL owners and commissioner are saints. But if you make an accusation that they are Satan worshipping child traffickers, pedophiles, and cannibals, you’d better have proof. And I mean a lot of proof, way beyond a reasonable doubt. Repeating an accusation 100 times or even 1,000 times doesn’t make it true. Any courtroom would say that’s hearsay, not evidence. Show us the evidence.

“Here is the evidence. The game was almost over. Seven and a half minutes left in the game, and we were ahead by a lot. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas calculated the Chiefs had a one in one thousand chance of winning at that point. And then, all of a sudden, the Chiefs score twenty-one points in the last seven-and-a-half minutes? When they had only scored ten points before that? And look at that, a helmet-to-helmet hit on our quarterback, and the referees did not call it. There is no way the NFL did not rig that game.”

You would say that is ridiculous. The game is over. They lost. They need to accept it and move on, and I don’t know, maybe work harder to get to the next Super Bowl and win that one?

But instead, when the NFL commissioner refuses to change the final score—because one, he does not have the authority to change the outcome of any game, and two, he doesn’t have the power of time travel to give the 49ers the chance to play those last seven-and-a-half minutes differently—instead of accepting the loss, he calls the commissioner and says, “We won by hundreds. I’m only looking for 12 more points. That’s all I need. You know, 49ers’ fans all over the country are angry. They’re saying they were cheated out of their victory, and they’re not gonna stand for it. Just 12 more points. That’s all I’m asking. Or even 11 points. Then we can have another game, or just play overtime, and let our season ticket holders choose the referees. Or even better, let our season ticket holders be the referees. That way we know the game is not rigged. I think that’s more than fair, considering we won by hundreds.”

The commissioner again refuses, because again, he can’t do that. The game is over. Even if you do find a couple of penalties that should have been called, you still can’t change the outcome of the game. But instead of accepting the rules that every team in the NFL has agreed to accept ever since the players wore leather helmets, a bunch of 49ers’ fans, who have been told for two and a half months that the game was stolen from them, storm the NFL headquarters, take all the owners hostage, and tell the commissioner at gunpoint that he’d better declare them the winner, take the Lombardi trophy away from the Chiefs and give it to them, or he’s dead.

The game is over. Do you get that? It’s over. I’m not saying the result is good or bad. I’m saying that’s the way it is.

“The Election Was Stolen!”

Maybe you keep thinking God has to overturn the election because your vote was stolen. No, your vote was counted along with 155 million other votes. You voted for the candidate who got fewer votes. He lost. That’s how democracy works. Even if it was stolen, you can’t change the results at this point any more than the 49ers can change the results of the Super Bowl.

That is why I always accepted the results of our elections, no matter how upset I was that my candidate did not win. I’m not saying I didn’t complain. But I didn’t try to overthrow the government either. In the end, when the candidate was sworn in, I accepted that he was the President each and every time.

Why did you accept a president that you voted against?

Because I understood no one is guaranteed they will get the candidate they voted for. You can try again in four years. That system has worked since 1789. No, it’s not perfect, but more than anything it is what makes this nation great. You accepted the win in 2016. Now you have to accept the loss.

Look, we’ve all got an extended case of cabin fever. The stress and anxiety of living in a Covid world are getting to us all. We’ve been watching a lot more social media where conspiracy theorists and false prophets run amok. They said God promised to give Trump the victory. Trump was God’s candidate, and Biden was Satan’s candidate, and there is no way God is going to allow Satan into the White House. Hollywood, the liberal elite, the Democrats, and antifa are all in some deep state underground sex trafficking ring run by the Devil, to whom they have all sold their souls. If I believed that, I’d think it was the end of the world too.

Gif: Saturday Night Live, Church Lady, http://satan.com

The Promises of God Are Sure. But …

There have been many times over the years that I felt God betrayed me, because God would make promises that did not come true. Of course, it was my fault they did not come true, because I didn’t pray enough, or I didn’t have enough faith, or some other reason that sounded biblical. It only works if you believe in it, so doubt was the enemy. I would censor any reports, any facts, that did not agree with “the promise of God,” or “the word of God.” I had a lot to learn about what those phrases really meant. But for a long time, false prophets spoke promises to me that did not come true, and I always assumed I must have messed it up some how. I assumed because they told me the word of God can never fail, so I must have failed. God wanted to bless me with health, wealth, and success, but because I had a mustard seed of doubt, I stopped God from doing what God wanted to do. At one point, I got so frustrated, I prayed, “God, stop making promises I can’t keep.”

So I understand why you refuse to believe the vote counts are real. Once God has spoken, you can’t allow for any doubt. If facts cause doubt, you must squash them. But what is the word of God, what the prophets on YouTube said or what the Bible says? It’s both? Okay, but the Bible says you will know false prophets when what they say does not come true.

It took a long time before I realized if God makes a promise, it will come true. You can’t stop it. I can’t stop it. The deep state can’t stop it. Antifa can’t stop it. The Democratic party can’t stop it. The electoral college can’t stop it. Congress can’t stop it. And even the agents of Satan on earth can’t stop it. No amount of doubt can stop it. So if it did not come true, God did not promise it. Or as Deuteronomy 18:22 says, that is a word that the LORD did not speak.

If the Facts and the Prophets Do Not Agree, What Should We Believe?

If the facts do not agree with what the prophet said, that is a word the LORD did not speak. The prophet spoke presumptuously. They presumed to think their own imagination or wishful thinking came directly from God. And I made that same mistake many times. When the facts do not agree with what the prophet said, believe the facts, not the false prophets.

Remember Micaiah said exactly that. If what he said did not come true, the LORD did not speak through him. But what he said did come true. He told the people of Israel that is how you will recognize a false prophet. Just look at the facts. If what they said did not come true, that is a word the LORD did not speak. They said Trump would win, but who got more electoral votes? The official count was 306 to 232. The one who got 306 won. Who is that? Not Trump. It was Joe Biden. This is 2021, not 2017. What the prophets said did not come true. Therefore, it is a word the LORD did not speak.

See, that’s the problem with believing “the Word of God” over the facts. The false prophets say, “Don’t believe the facts. Believe me because I speak for God.” The Word of God says the facts will tell you if the prophet is false. Therefore, God says they do not speak for God. And if their prophecies about the election did not come true, I guarantee it was not the first time. In a previous post, I tell you about 62 prophets who prophesied what God would do in 2020, and none of them got it right. Do they speak for God? No. So stop believing them, and start believing the facts. Joe Biden is the president-elect. You don’t have to like it, but those are the facts. As long as we have our democracy and constitution, you will get another chance in four years.

I’m Not Prophesying, But …

Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20. God didn’t tell me that. The constitution did. If somehow that doesn’t happen, I will take back everything I said in this post. But if it does, will you finally accept the results of our democratic election? And will you stop listening to the king’s prophets who over and over again have proven themselves false? Trust me, there is a lot better content on social media if you look for it. I’d like to leave you with a message from Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a video where I share my “Confessions of an Ex-Prophet.”

Meme: Jack Nicholson, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"

400 Prophets Can’t Be Wrong! Or Can They? Part 2

In the last post, we began a story about Ahab, King of Israel, in 1 Kings 22. At some point, the Arameans had taken a city called Ramoth-gilead from Israel, but the two kings reached a truce. They were at peace for three years, but Ahab wanted to take that city back. Of course, if the king of Aram defeated him before, it would not be easy, so he enlisted the help of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. As kings would normally do before going into battle, they inquired for a word of Yahweh. Ahab brought in 400 prophets of Yahweh, and every one of them said, “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king” (1 Ki 22:12).

But Jehoshaphat did not trust those prophets, because they seemed more concerned with saying what the king wanted to hear rather than speaking the word of the LORD. He asked for another prophet of the LORD. There was only one the king could call, Micaiah son of Imlah. Ahab summoned him, though he really did not want to, because he never spoke favorably of him but only disaster. But Jehoshaphat insisted. Micaiah has been coy with Ahab up to this point, but Ahab commanded him to drop the sarcasm and tell him the truth. We pick up there, verses 19-23.

Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’

Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’

‘How?’ the LORD asked him.

He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’

Then the LORD said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’

So you see, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has decreed disaster for you.”

(1Ki 22:19-23 NRSV)

Micaiah received the word from Yahweh and told him. So of course, Ahab was grateful. He said, “Boy, Micaiah, I’m sure glad we asked you. Thanks for warning me. I almost started a fight that would have killed me. I wanted to get that city back, but I know better than to go into a battle where the LORD is against me. Why is the LORD so bound and determined to destroy me? Maybe it’s because I haven’t been living up to God’s standard of justice and righteousness. What I did to Naboth proves that. In fact, I wonder if he was the one who volunteered to put a lying spirit in my prophets. He is there before the throne of the LORD still seeking justice for what I did to him. Oh, Naboth, please forgive me. LORD, I repent, and I promise from now on to uphold the rights of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, and to honor our laws that protect family farms and release people from slavery every sabbatical year.

“Micaiah, I’m sorry I treated you the way I did. From now on, you will be my chief advisor, because I need a prophet who will speak the truth to me.

“And as for all of you, you lied to me. You succumbed to a lying spirit, and this is not the first time. You have never spoken the truth to me. You do not even know how to speak the truth because of the lying spirit the LORD has put on you. Micaiah son of Imlah is the only one who hears the word of the LORD and the only one who speaks the truth. What do I need 400 false prophets for when I have Micaiah son of Imlah? Can anyone find such a one as this, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? I want all of you gone from my palace by sundown, and I order all your schools of prophecy to be closed. Your license to prophesy in my kingdom is revoked. Micaiah and only Micaiah will speak the word of the LORD to me.”

By the way, in case you were wondering, that was sarcasm. Here’s what really happened. Verses 24-25.

Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?”

Micaiah replied, “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.”

(1Ki 22:24-25 NRSV)

Zedekiah was the only one of the 400 court prophets mentioned by name, because he stood out by taking iron horns and charging like a bull and saying, “Thus says the LORD: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed” (1Ki 22:11 NRS). He knows this doesn’t make him look good. So he slapped Micaiah on the cheek, and he’s like, “I don’t have a lying spirit. You have a lying spirit!” So here’s a classic he said-he said between two competing prophets.

“He’s a false prophet.”

“No, he’s a false prophet.”

How do we know who’s telling the truth? One says (along with 399 others) the king will be victorious in battle. The other says the king will meet with disaster if he goes into battle. In King Ahab’s mind, the prophet(s) who speaks favorably of him is always right. So who do you think he believes? Verses 26-27.

The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, and say, ‘Thus says the king: Put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.’”

(1Ki 22:26-27 NRSV)

Ahab throws him in prison for daring to speak against him. And just for spite, he orders reduced rations of bread and water, just enough to keep him alive until he comes in peace. Micaiah’s answer to this is my favorite line in the story.

Micaiah Sums It Up

Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, you peoples, all of you!”

(1Ki 22:28 NRSV)

Micaiah knows the rules. He prophesied something in the name of Yahweh. If it does not come true, that is a word that Yahweh did NOT speak. According to the law of Moses, that means he should be put to death (Deu 18:20-22). Some of the most powerful statements are not in what someone says but in what they leave unsaid. If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me. That’s what he said. But what is left unsaid there? “If the LORD has spoken by me, you will not return in peace.” More like, “You will return in pieces.”

The last thing he says as he’s being taken away is, Hear, you peoples, all of you! Remember, this is not happening within the walls of a palace. This is happening out in the open at the city gate. A spectacle like this was sure to attract a crowd. He’s telling the people to remember what the prophets of the king said versus what he said and watch to see which one comes true. That is how they will know who the true prophet of the LORD is.

Now, remember, Ahab does not have to do this. He can take Micaiah’s counsel and not go to battle. But he is bound and determined to get this city back and prove Micaiah is “fake news.” The problem with kings and others who have a lot of power and are used to getting what they want is when they can’t get what they want, they often do not take it well. Continuing with Verse 29.

So the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead.

(1Ki 22:29 NRSV)

Wow, Jehoshaphat went with Ahab after what the prophet of Yahweh, that he asked for, said? Oh yeah. He must have been thinking, “He said it would be a disaster for you, not me. If you still want to do this, it’s your funeral.” Literally.

“I Will Disguise Myself and Go into Battle”

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” So the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle.

(1Ki 22:30 NRSV)

So he called Micaiah fake news, but now he’s not so sure? I guess I can’t blame him for wanting to hedge his bet. But does he really think he can disguise himself from Yahweh? It’s worth a try, I guess.

Now the king of Aram had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with no one small or great, but only with the king of Israel.”

(1Ki 22:31 NRSV)

The king of Aram must really be pissed. “I made a truce with that fool, and now he wants to break it? He thinks he can beat me because he’s got a friend with him? We’ll see about that.” Chariots were one of the most powerful weapons in the ancient world. The king of Aram could do some damage to the flanks of Israel with them. He could maybe send half against the armies and half against Ahab, but no. He wants all of his chariots to hunt down one man, the king of Israel. You’ve really gotta hate someone to do that.

Imagine you’re going into battle. You are one of thirty-two Apache helicopter pilots. And your general says, “Forget about everyone else. Forget their tanks, infantry, planes, helicopters, and artillery. I want every one of you to target their general. Seek and destroy him.”

Now Verse 32.

I’m Not the King of Israel!

When the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out.

(1Ki 22:32 NRSV)

Ahab told Jehoshaphat to wear his own robes (v. 30), but he still looked like the king of Israel. I guess Ahab and Jehoshaphat’s robes looked similar, because they saw him and thought, “That’s our guy! Get him!”

Jehoshaphat cried out. What did he cry out, I wonder? Did he say, “It’s not me! It’s him!” Did he know the orders the king of Aram gave them?

I guess they look similar.

"Coin" image, black and white, inscribed R(ex) Israel Achab
Rex Achab Israel (Ahab, King of Israel). Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Coin-like image, black and white, incribed Iosaphat Rex Iud(ea)
Jehoshaphat, King of Judah. By Guillaume Rouille – Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85736029

When the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him.

(1Ki 22:33 NRSV)

So the king of Aram was serious. He does not want them going after anyone but the king of Israel. Even the king of Judah gets a pass from them. Fortunately, for Jehoshaphat, they knew the king of Israel well enough to see this was not him. Verse 34.

But a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate; so he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around, and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.”

(1Ki 22:34 NRSV)

A certain man? They don’t even tell us which side he was on. For all we know, he could have been an Israelite soldier. They make it sound like it was an accident, like the confederate soldier who shot Stonewall Jackson. Maybe he was fooled by the king’s disguise. Wouldn’t that be ironic? In trying to fool God, he outsmarted himself. It could have been one of the Aramean soldiers, but then it wouldn’t have been an accident, would it?

Verses 35-37.

Ahab, King of Israel, Dies

The battle grew hot that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Arameans, until at evening he died; the blood from the wound had flowed into the bottom of the chariot. Then about sunset a shout went through the army, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!”

So the king died, and was brought to Samaria; they buried the king in Samaria.

(1Ki 22:35-37 NRSV)

The driver of the chariot must have been getting more and more worried as the floor of the chariot got ankle deep in blood. Kings often rode chariots with a driver, so they could shoot arrows. They often got very accurate, hitting targets at full speed while making it difficult for the enemy to shoot them. Ahab must have survived many battles that way.

Kurkh stela of Shalmaneser III that reports battle of Karkar, 853 BC.
Kurkh stela of Shalmaneser III that reports battle of Karkar, 853 BC, names King Ahab

In the ancient world, you couldn’t continue a battle after sundown, so they declared an end for that day. The king died. So who was the true prophet, Micaiah or the 400?

The epitaph of king Ahab in the Bible would not be kind. If you can say anything good about him, it was that he was courageous in battle. The Spartans would say he went down on his shield. The next verse describes what happened after he was brought home. It’s pretty graphic, so for sensitive listeners, I won’t read that.

But it did say that it happened according to the word of the LORD that [Elijah] had spoken. (1Ki 22:38 NRSV). This refers to an incident from the previous chapter. Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, had a man named Naboth murdered, so they could take his vineyard from him and his family. Again, this is exactly what Samuel warned the people kings would do to them. Here is what Elijah told him was the judgment from the LORD.

You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (1Ki 21:19 NRSV)

In the minds of the Israelites, this was poetic justice. Just as he did to Naboth, it was done to him. I don’t want to encourage vengefulness, but for the ancient Israelites, this was like the Wicked Witch of the West melting.

Gif: Wicked Witch of the West, "I'm melting!"
“A certain girl” threw water on her.

(sing) “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead. Da da, da daa. Da da, da daa.”

An ignominious end to a controversial ruler (1Ki 22:38-40). Jehoshaphat, not surprisingly, gets a much more favorable assessment of his rule (1 Ki 22:41-46).

How Do We Know the Prophet Is False?

Some of you may ask, how was Ahab supposed to know who to believe? Many prophets spoke in the name of Yahweh, but only one got it right. The only way to know for sure was to go into battle. I used to think that with all the competing prophets and schools of prophets back then, how was anyone supposed to know which one to believe? If he was victorious, the 400 were right. If he died, Micaiah was right. So the only way Ahab could know was to die.

But now, I am convinced this was not the first time Ahab’s court prophets got it wrong. He saw them prophesy things that did not come true, but he continued to believe them anyway. Why? Because they only spoke what was favorable to him. They learned quickly he could not handle any truth that was not what he wanted to hear.

Meme: Jack Nicholson, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"

Now let’s imagine we are there at the city gate, watching all the prophets competing to be heard not just to say that the king will win, but how big a landslide victory it will be. “You will defeat them, for God is with you.” “You will annihilate them, for God is with you.” “With these horns, you will gore your enemies until they are no more, for God is with you.”

And then Micaiah son of Imlah comes along and says in effect, “God has decreed disaster for you if you go.” Who should we believe? Without the benefit of hindsight, how can we know? Micaiah actually gave the answer to that. If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me. Ahab might not know which one is correct before he goes into battle. But we are not going into battle. All we have to do is wait and see. At sundown, does the king return in peace or not?

The driver of the chariot brings him back and shows his body to everyone. Can you tell the difference between a live and a dead body? That’s all you have to do to know who spoke the word of the LORD. You don’t need to be a prophet yourself. You don’t need any gift of discerning of spirits. You don’t need a vision from angels. You don’t need to go off into the wilderness and fast for forty days until you are so near death you can hear God. And you don’t need any propaganda from false prophets and Ahab’s supporters saying he really won when he lost. Just answer that one question. Is Ahab alive or dead? He is dead. There’s your answer. Every prophet who promised victory for the king is false. You don’t need supernatural or spiritual vision. You just need to see the facts. The two eyes and the brain God gave you will do just fine.

“But the prophets had to be right. They speak the word of the LORD.” That’s probably what Ahab thought. “My prophets have to be right!”

Remember, Micaiah reminded us of the rules. If the king returns in peace, the LORD did not speak through him. The other 400 prophets could then claim the LORD spoke through them, and no one could prove them wrong. Did the king return in peace? No. The king did not have the victory the false prophets promised. Micaiah knew the rules, and he was the only prophet willing to play by them. Because even though Micaiah knew he could die if he was wrong, I guarantee not one of the king’s prophets was put to death for speaking falsely in the name of the LORD.

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; 

(Deu 18:22 NRSV)

So you’ve seen the king’s dead body. He’s dead. The chariot driver is washing the blood out of the bottom of the chariot. But a mob pushes the driver of the chariot away, props the king up and says, “Look! The king is alive! He returned in peace! Victory is ours!”

Then the corpse slips out of their hands and collapses. They pick him up again and say, “Victory is ours, just like the prophets said.” And it happens again and again, and each time they claim the king won

No, the king is dead, just like the prophet Micaiah said. What Micaiah said proved true. What the false prophets said did not come true. Yes, every prophet who promised victory for the king was false. It doesn’t matter how many times you prop him up. You can’t bring him back to life. You can’t have a do-over of the battle. It’s over.

God Told Me the King Is Not Dead

At what point do we admit the Trump prophets were false? When the votes are counted and Biden is the winner? When every legal challenge to the results has failed? When the electoral college casts their votes and Biden is the winner? When Congress certifies the results, despite an attempted coup, and Biden is still the winner? The king is dead. No matter how many times you prop Trump up in the chariot and decree, declare, or prophesy that he is the winner, he lost. I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad. I’m saying those are the facts. And the facts are how you know if the prophet is false.

What about when he is inaugurated? If Biden is inaugurated (which any other time in history was never even questioned), should we accept then that the prophets were false?

The prophets are not false! The election was stolen!

The “400 prophets” (I think that’s what I’ll call them from now on) didn’t say he would really win, but the election would be stolen. They said Donald Trump would win. The facts do not match the prophecy. And no, the election was not stolen. Your vote was counted along with 155 million other votes. You voted for the candidate who got fewer votes. He lost. That’s how democracy works. The votes have been counted, the electoral college has cast its votes, and Congress has certified the results, all in keeping with the Constitution. Biden won, Trump lost. You can try again in four years. That system has worked since 1789. No, it’s not perfect, but more than anything it is what makes this nation great. I know the prophets promised he would win, but he lost.

But we walk by faith, not by sight (2Co 5:7 KJV). You can’t see it now except through the eyes of faith. But Donald Trump won, and God will reveal it, and God will defeat every plan of Satan to put Joe Biden in the White House.

Gif: Saturday Night Live, Church Lady to Colin Jost, "Satan!"

2 Corinthians 5:7 was never meant to be an excuse for denying the facts. How did the Bible say to identify false prophets?

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; 

(Deu 18:22 NRSV)

If it does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. I know I keep repeating that, but you seem to have a hard time accepting it. Micaiah told the people to watch what happens and see which prophet’s word comes true. That’s how you will know which prophet is true, and which prophet is false. You don’t need to “walk by faith not by sight” to know if the 400 prophets are false. Just compare what they said with the facts. The king is dead, and  306 electoral votes is still more than 232. At this point, no one can change the results of the election without overturning the Constitution.

All the prophets said Trump would win. How could all those prophets have been wrong?

All 400 of Ahab’s prophets were wrong. How did that happen? According to Micaiah, the LORD sent a lying spirit to them because he was sick of King Ahab’s injustice and unrighteousness. Did the LORD send a lying spirit to the false prophets of Trump? Or did the prophets simply speak presumptuously, as Deuteronomy 18:22 says? Did they presume to think their own wishful thinking was “the word of the LORD”? I don’t know. All I know is what they spoke did not come true, and Deuteronomy 18:22 and Micaiah both say that means God did not promise any victory to Trump, no matter what the 400 prophets said.

God shouldn’t even have had to put that in the Bible. Just use the brain God gave you. A prophet whose prophecies don’t come true is literally the definition of a false prophet. Simple common sense should tell you that. When God, the Bible, and common sense all agree, you’d better pay attention. You may even need to repent, like I did years ago.

“Hear, you peoples, all of you!”

I’m spending so much time on this, because even after the horrific events of January 6, there are reports that some people are planning even more violence on Inauguration day. If you are considering that, let me ask you. Even if by some crazy turn of events you are successful in stopping the inauguration and overturning the election by force, is that really a win? If that happens, we lose much more than one presidential election. We lose the greatest legacy of the Constitution, the peaceful transfer of power. And with that, we lose the world’s longest running constitutional democracy. That is not how you make America great again. That is how you become a fascist state.

Meme: Tom Cruise, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "I want the truth!"

400 Prophets Can’t Be Wrong! Or Can They? Part 1

I had written this post before the incidents of January 6. Ironically, that is Epiphany, the day many churches celebrate the visit of the wise men. But it looked like wisdom decided to take a holiday from Washington, D.C. I don’t have a lot to say that hasn’t already been said. But I will say my goal as a Christian is to follow Jesus’ commands, specifically, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Do unto others as you would have them to do you”, “Love one another as I have loved you”, “Love your enemies”, and “Turn the other cheek.” I don’t see any way to reconcile that with insurrection, terrorism, and storming the Capitol to stop our democracy from doing what it has done since 1789. But what do I know? I’m just a Bible scholar.

The House and Senate did their duty in spite of it, and for that, I commend them. Maybe some people need to take a lesson from how God handled losing an election, as I talked about in my last post.

I know for some of you, the idea of Trump leaving the white house without a second term is very upsetting. You think it’s the end of the world. But let me ask, does the reason you are so upset about losing an election (welcome to democracy, by the way) have anything to do with the prophets who promised God would give Trump the victory? If so, then there is a story from the Bible I want to point to you. You thought so many prophets all saying the same thing could not possibly fail. What if I told you one time 400 prophets all prophesied the exact same thing and got it wrong? That is the story I’ll bring you today.

Quick Background: A United Kingdom Now Divided

In the previous episode, I told you that while Samuel was judge, priest, and prophet in Israel, the people demanded a king. God did not like it, but God told Samuel, if the people voted for a king, give them a king. You see there? God did not agree with the results of the election, but God accepted them. When you finish this, maybe you’ll want to go back and read my post on that.

This story takes place about 160 or 170 years later. The people got their king. David ruled from about 1000-960 BC, and at first it worked out like the people hoped. He succeeded in uniting the twelve tribes into one nation and beating all of Israel’s enemies into submission. With stability within and peace with the surrounding nations, his son Solomon built on David’s success, and the nation enjoyed peace and prosperity under him (ca. 960-920 BC). Hail to the king!

But it came with a cost. Solomon used forced labor for his many building projects, one of several things Samuel warned the people a king would do to them. It is a testament to Solomon’s popularity that the people did not complain too much while he was king. But when Solomon died, they asked his successor, Rehoboam, to ease up on the forced labor. Rehoboam responded by telling the people in effect, “You thought my father was tough? I will be ten times tougher!”

The people rebelled, particularly the northern tribes, and the end result was the nation split into a northern and southern kingdom (ca. 920 BC). Rehoboam remained king in the south, but Jeroboam, the leader of the rebellion, became king in the north. From then on, the name Israel referred to the northern kingdom, and Judah referred to the southern kingdom.

As two nations instead of one, each of them became more vulnerable to enemy invasion.

The Relationship Between the Kings of Israel and Judah

Ahab was one of the northern kings from about 871-852 BC. He is perhaps best known for being married to Jezebel and being the king at the time of Elijah’s duel with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Ki 16:29-34; 18:1-46). He had been in conflict with the king of Aram (modern day Syria), but they came to a truce. For three years, he was at peace with the Arameans. But he still had an axe to grind with them, so he called Jehoshaphat, the king of the south (ca. 870-849 BC), to his capital city of Samaria. We’ll pick up the story in 1 Kings 22.

For three years Aram and Israel continued without war. But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the king of Israel. The king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, yet we are doing nothing to take it out of the hand of the king of Aram?”

(1Ki 22:1-3 NRSV)
"Coin" image, black and white, inscribed R(ex) Israel Achab
Rex Achab Israel (Ahab, King of Israel). Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Coin-like image, black and white, incribed Iosaphat Rex Iud(ea)
Jehoshaphat, King of Judah. By Guillaume Rouille – Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85736029

The notes in my study Bible say Ramoth-gilead had been a tax center for Israel before the Arameans took it from them. Back then, certain cities were designated for collecting taxes, most of which came in the form of agricultural products like grain, wine, and olive oil. These cities had the main storehouses for all of that, so this was a significant loss for Ahab’s kingdom. He wanted it back. Verse 4.

He said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?”

Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are; my people are your people, my horses are your horses.”

(1Ki 22:4 NRSV)

The study notes say Jehoshaphat’s response indicates he was a vassal of Ahab, so the northern kingdom was more powerful than the south at that time. Ahab wants to take Ramoth-gilead back from the Arameans. But if they took it from him before, he does not want to fight them again without an ally. If Jehoshaphat was his vassal, did he have the right to say no or not? Ahab asks as if he does, but maybe this was a formality. Still, Jehoshaphat did at least have some wiggle room, if not a right of refusal, as we see in the next verse. Also, you’ll note that in this story, the narrator never calls king Ahab by name. He only refers to him as “the king of Israel,” indicating he does not have a high opinion of this king.

Inquire First for the Word of Yahweh

In the ancient world, you always wanted to inquire of your gods before a major undertaking, like war. King Leonidas of Sparta went to the oracle of Delphi, and Jehoshaphat wants to ask the prophets of the LORD before he commits to this. Verse 5.

But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.”

(1Ki 22:5 NRSV)

It’s important to note in this verse that LORD is in all capital letters. In the NRSV that I use, and most English translations, when LORD is in all caps like this, it refers specifically to Yahweh, the God of Israel and Judah. This is key because at that time, the Canaanite god Baal was also called “the Lord.” The prophets frequently denounced the kings and the people for worshipping Baal along with Yahweh. You cannot serve two lords, to paraphrase Jesus. What was the first commandment?

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

(Exo 20:2-3 NRSV)

The prophets constantly reminded them Baal did not bring you out of slavery. Yahweh did. Baal did not give them this land. Yahweh did. Baal is not your God. Yahweh is. But both Israelites and Jews wanted to have it both ways. They thought Yahweh was good for some things, but Baal was more reliable for other things. So it was not uncommon for there to be shrines both to Yahweh and Baal, even in the same city. So when they ask for “a word of the LORD,” do they mean Yahweh or Baal? If “lord” is in all caps, as it is throughout this story, that means the original text says Yahweh. Verses 6-7.

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred of them, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?”

They said, “Go up; for the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?”

 (1Ki 22:6-7 NRSV)

LORD is in all caps in both cases, so Ahab brought in prophets of Yahweh, not Baal. But Jehoshaphat still doesn’t trust them. He wants to hear from another prophet of Yahweh.

Jehoshaphat Dares to Question the Prophets

What’s your problem, Jehoshaphat? You asked to inquire of a prophet of Yahweh, and Ahab brought you 400 of them. And you still want to inquire of another prophet of Yahweh? Why do you need one more? Every prophet is in perfect agreement. Doesn’t that tell you this has to be the word of Yahweh?

For some reason, this does not pass the “smell test” for Jehoshaphat. The reason becomes clearer a few verses later, so I’m going to skip ahead to verse 10.

Now the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.

(1Ki 22:10 NRS)

Two Thrones at the City Gate

You might have assumed, as I did at first, that if one king is in his capital city (Samaria) and receiving another, they would discuss their business in the palace. But they were actually at the entrance of the gate. A lot of important business took place at the gate of a city back then. The elders would usually gather there to counsel people, settle disputes to avoid going to court, or be witness to some official transaction. Here, it says both kings were sitting on their thrones. Remember, this is Ahab’s capital. He has a throne here, presumably in addition to the one in the palace. But there is a throne for the king of Judah as well. I don’t know if it was for him specifically, or if it was for any king who had come to negotiate with the king of Israel. But if Ahab had a throne for the king of Judah, I think it speaks to the fact that even though they were no longer one nation, they were on friendly terms. The two kingdoms had a shared history and, for the most part, a shared religion. True, they had been through a pretty nasty divorce, and they were “never ever getting back together” (as Taylor Swift would say), relations at that time were amicable.

This is a different scene than what I pictured at first. If you don’t read the Bible regularly, just know that this will happen sometimes. Continuing with verses 11-12.

Writer’s Tip: Don’t do what this writer did here. If you realize halfway into a scene you have to add details to make it clear, that’s jarring for the reader. They had pictured the scene one way, but then they have to tear that down and rebuild it, and then reimagine what has already happened in order to catch up.

Prophecy or an Echo Chamber?

Zedekiah son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron, and he said, “Thus says the LORD: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.”

All the prophets were prophesying the same and saying, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

(1Ki 22:11-12 NRS)

Before, it sounded like the king asked if he should go and attack the Arameans at Ramoth-gilead, the prophets said yes, and that was it. Why would that look suspicious? But in these verses, we see the prophets had been speaking the whole time. And not just speaking either. In true prophetic fashion, they were all dramatizing how the king would utterly defeat the Arameans, each one trying to make their voices heard over all the others. One called Zedekiah son of Chenaanah stood out by making himself horns of iron, probably so he could charge like a bull and trample and gore imaginary enemies. And this is all happening by the gates of the city for everyone to see.

Now are you starting to see why Jehoshaphat did not trust these prophets? This was not 400 prophets who each heard the word of the LORD independently, and lo and behold, they all agree! This was an echo chamber of 400 clamoring sycophants who have learned that when they prophesy, “the word of the LORD” had better be favorable to the king and whatever he wants to do. So with 400 prophets each trying to be the most enthusiastic supporter of the king, Jehoshaphat leans over to Ahab so he can hear him speak. Now, we go back to verses 7-9.

Is There No Prophet of Yahweh Here?

But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?”

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.”

Jehoshaphat said, “Let the king not say such a thing.”

Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah son of Imlah.”

(1Ki 22:7-9 NRSV)

Jehoshaphat wants a prophet who will actually inquire of the LORD and tell the truth, whether it is favorable to the king or not. Ahab says, “Yeah, there is one, but he is fake news.” Why is he fake news? Because his prophecies do not come true? No, because he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.

So he is “fake news” because he knows God is under no obligation to speak favorably of the king. Jehoshaphat is like, “That’s the one I want to hear from.”

One of the responsibilities of a prophet was to speak truth to power, whether they liked hearing it or not. Jehoshaphat understood that, but Ahab did not. He only wanted to hear from prophets who would tell his itching ears what he wanted to hear. He demanded loyalty. Micaiah gave him honesty. He did not want to hear the minority report, but he knew Jehoshaphat would not agree to anything without it. Reluctantly, he sent for the prophet, Micaiah son of Imlah.

Micaiah: Not a Team Player

The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king; let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.”

But Micaiah said, “As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that I will speak.”

(1Ki 22:13-14 NRSV)

Come on, Micaiah. All the other prophets have already spoken favorably to the king. Just go along with them. Can’t you be a team player for once?

And Micaiah is like, “That’s not how it works. I don’t speak favorably or unfavorably to the king. I only speak what the LORD tells me.”

When he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?”

He answered him, “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

But the king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?”

(1Ki 22:15-16 NRSV)

I think Jehoshaphat must have got a good laugh out of this. I mean, technically, he said what the king wanted to hear. So why did the king get angry and tell him to say nothing but the truth?

Meme: Tom Cruise, courtroom scene from A Few Good Men, "I want the truth!"

When I was in the Word of Faith, they placed so much emphasis on being careful with your words. Never say something you don’t mean or that you don’t want to come to pass, so sarcasm was out. God doesn’t understand sarcasm. God only understands the literal meaning of the words you speak. But here we have a prophet speaking the word of the LORD with sarcasm. The problem with sarcasm is it doesn’t always come across on the written page. But there is no other reason for Ahab to think he doesn’t really mean what he’s saying. I picture him giving a smirk before he speaks and mimicking the enthusiasm of Ahab’s prophets.

How ironic is it that Ahab orders him to tell nothing but the truth in the name of Yahweh, but he told Jehoshaphat he did not want to bring in Micaiah because he spoke the truth. Okay, Ahab. You want to hear the truth? Micaiah son of Imlah is about to lay it on you. Verse 17.

Then Micaiah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’”

(1Ki 22:17 NRSV)

It’s kind of a roundabout way of saying, “Don’t go up to Ramoth-gilead.” But the message is still clear to Ahab. In Biblical language, saying all Israel is like sheep that have no shepherd is a critique of his leadership, which someone like Ahab hates. And if he says everyone should go home in peace, that doesn’t sound like getting ready for battle, does it? Verse 18.

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”

(1Ki 22:18 NRSV)

Disaster? He said let each one go home in peace. You haven’t heard disaster yet. He says he wants the truth. Can he handle it?

This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll stop here and continue it in the next post. In the meantime, enjoy this classic clip from the movie, A Few Good Men.

Police in helmets and riot gear downtown Washington, DC

What Happened When God Lost an Election?

Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are disappointed with the results of the election. Well, disappointed is an understatement. To be honest, I’ve been disturbed at their inability to accept reality. I mean, the electoral college has met, and Biden has 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 228. That’s about the same margin of victory as Trump had over Clinton in 2016. I know denial is one of the stages of grief, but at some point you have to move on to acceptance. You will never recover from this if you don’t accept reality. That’s the price you pay for living in a democracy.

Police in helmets and riot gear downtown Washington, DC

But I understand. All the self-proclaimed prophets told you Trump was going to win. You think Trump is God’s anointed, and you can’t accept that God could possibly lose an election. But what if I told you the Bible records an instance where that actually happened? If you believe the Bible, this is not the first time God lost an election. If you want to know how God got over it, this post is for you.

For this episode, we’re going back to the time of the Judges. If you don’t know, this is the period of Israel’s history following the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. They divided up the land, setting boundaries for each of the twelve tribes. It was a difficult time for them in a number of ways. Though they were technically one nation, they functioned more like twelve individual tribes. Despite claims in the book of Joshua that they annihilated all the Canaanites and other peoples native to the land, they still lived among them. The neighboring nations frequently raided them, killing some, enslaving others, and plundering their food and goods. Nowhere was safe.

In the book of Judges, God raised up leaders when crises arose who would unite a few tribes to team up against a particularly bad enemy, like the Philistines. They would defeat the enemy and be safe for a while. But they would slip back into apostasy, worshipping the gods of other nations, God would hand them over to their enemies, they would cry out for deliverance, God would raise up another leader (called a judge) to lead an army to defeat the enemy, and they were safe again. Until they slipped back into apostasy, and the cycle would repeat. By the end of Judges, the people of Israel were behaving even worse toward each other than their enemies were. To answer the unspoken question, “Why?” the author says,

In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

(Jdg 21:25 NRS)

Obviously, a system like this wasn’t sustainable. But a light of hope came not in a military commander but rather a spiritual leader. His name was Samuel, and in the years from about 1040-1020 BC, he became something like a Wesleyan circuit rider, traveling from one shrine of Yahweh to another. He reformed the worship and helped settle disputes, so they wouldn’t slip into the kind of depravity we see in chapters 17-21 of Judges. He reminded them of the sacred traditions about Yahweh, the God who had sent Moses to call them out of Egypt and be his people, who had given this land to them and the law of Moses, so they could learn the ways of justice and righteousness.

When I say the purpose of the law of Moses was to teach justice and righteousness, some of you are skeptical. You say there is a lot of the law of Moses that does not look just and righteous to you. I understand. I plan on doing a full explanation in a later post. For now, I will refer you to Genesis 18:19.

“… for I have chosen [Abraham], that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

(NRSV)

God says here the way of the LORD is righteousness and justice, and God wants Abraham to teach his children and his household after him to learn and practice this. I know not everything Abraham did was righteous and just, and the same is true of the law of Moses. But that was always the goal, and Samuel not only taught it but lived it to the best of his knowledge.

Not the P.K.’s

The people loved and respected Samuel, so they listened to him. But they saw a problem down the road. Samuel’s sons did not have his integrity. Do you know what a P.K. is? A “preacher’s kid.” There is a stereotype of them being wild and rebellious. Samuel’s two sons were “P.K.’s” in the worst sense of the word. Samuel had done a lot to root out corruption in their religious institutions, but he was getting old. He made his two sons judges to take over some of his duties, and they threatened to undo all the good Samuel had done.

Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

(1Sa 8:3 NRSV)

Whereas Samuel administered justice, his sons perverted justice (1 Sam 7:14-8:3). The most discouraging part was Samuel did nothing to correct them. They came to Samuel with a solution. So now, I’ll read from 1 Sam 8, starting with verse 4.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD,

 (1Sa 8:4-6 NRS)

Ramah was Samuel’s home, where he would rest between circuits. The elders come to him on behalf of the people and tell him they do not trust his sons like they trust him. They like him, but they don’t want his sons governing them. And to be fair, their concerns are legitimate. This is one more failure of a hereditary-based system of rule. But their solution is to set up another hereditary-based rule. They want a king to govern them, like other nations.

The last sentence of the book of Judges, quoted above, makes it sound like this is the solution they need. When there was no king, everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Samuel at first takes it personally. He sees it as a rejection of himself.

It’s not you, Samuel, it’s me

… and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only–you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”  

(1Sa 8:7-9 NRS)

So to paraphrase, God tells Samuel, “They are not rejecting you. They are rejecting me.” Their history toward God, ever since they came out of Egypt, has been, rejecting him, “Please take me back,” rejecting him, “Please take me back,” and this is just another chapter in that story. If you are in a relationship like that, you have my sympathies.

But God says something specific about this episode. They have rejected me from being king over them. I see God saying here, “If you want a king, fine. I’ll be your king.” God is literally offering them the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, but once again they will reject it. As much as God must be getting sick of this cycle of rejection and reconciliation, God tells Samuel twice, Listen to the voice of the people. So God is saying he will accept the results of the election, but first God wants Samuel to warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them. Let’s see what that means.

Be careful what you pray for

So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers”

(1Sa 8:10-13 NRSV).

Let’s stop for a minute and see what this means. You want a king like the other nations? Well, here is what the kings of other nations do to their people.

He will take your sons. Right away, this suggests slavery. Chariots, horsemen, and commanders point to conscripted military service. Instead of plowing their own fields and reaping their own harvests, the king will force your sons to do that for him. They will be forced to make implements of war and chariots. Taking their daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers doesn’t sound that bad, but again, it won’t be for themselves or their households. They will be taken from their families and forced to do this for the king and his court. Apparently, under Samuel, service to the state was voluntary. A king will make it mandatory, just like other nations.

The most puzzling thing for me is when he says he will make your sons run before his chariots. Why did kings do that? I don’t know, but what happens to you if you are running in front of a chariot, and you can’t run as fast as the horses? Have you seen Ben-Hur? Let’s continue.

“He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.”

(1Sa 8:14-15 NRSV)

There was a tithe of grain and vineyards and olive orchards under Mosaic law, but it was meant to feed people who did not have the means to grow their own food, i.e., priests, Levites, and the poor. A king, who is already rich, will take your tithe for himself and his courtiers.

“He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”

(1Sa 8:16-17 NRSV)

Again, he will take the best or your hard-earned labor for himself, and leave you with the least. And God saved the worst for last. You shall be his slaves. Remember, this was a nation founded on deliverance from slavery. They were allowed to own slaves, as noted in this passage. That is one of those things critics say make the Bible irrelevant or immoral. I understand. I don’t want anyone to think I’m advocating for slavery. But it was a different time. Every period of history has its moral blind spots, and slavery was so much a part of the social fabric I don’t think they could imagine a world without it. But the memory of slavery was supposed to temper their treatment of slaves. A king will make you slaves once again, and he would not have any of the restraints toward his slaves that they had.

The LORD will not answer you in that day

“And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

(1Sa 8:18 NRSV)

Now that warning is about as stark as you can get. God called Moses back to Egypt, because they cried out from the harsh treatment of Pharaoh and his taskmasters. But when they cry out again because of their king, the LORD will not answer you in that day. Why? Because this is your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves. You made your bed, and you will lie in it.

Even God can’t change the election results

Protesters with signs "Count the Votes," "Count every vote," "Democracy means count all the votes."
The votes were counted, and God accepted the results.

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”  

(1Sa 8:19-20 NRSV)

So God tried to be elected king by will of the people, and lost! They didn’t even have a candidate to run against God. They didn’t have anyone to vote for. Their only purpose was to vote against God. And then, they wanted God to pick who would be king. “We voted against you. Now, we want to you to pick the person to fill the office we rejected you for.”

If anyone had a right to complain about an unfair election, God did. But did God complain?

When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD.

The LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”

(1Sa 8:21-22a NRSV)

“But a king is going to oppress them! A king is going to do all the evil to them they want to be saved from, and worse! This is a fraudulent election! They didn’t even have a candidate! How can you have an election without an opposing candidate? This is the greatest fraud in history! And look at this chart! I was ahead in the vote count at sundown! That means I won! Samuel, if you don’t overturn the results of this election, you’re fired!”

No, one thing God is not is a sore loser or a snowflake. Listen to their voice and set a king over them. God accepted the results of the election and the will of the people, even though God knew it would not give them what they wanted.

Why was God opposed to a king?

There were actually a number of good reasons for a king, and I’ve already mentioned most of them. I don’t think God had a problem with a desire for a king. In fact, after David took the throne, God blessed him and his dynasty beyond anything even David had imagined. I think the problem was their reasons for wanting a king. Three reasons:

1. They wanted a king to govern.

No problem there. They had to have some sort of government. The law of Moses even commanded them to set up a government, though it did not include a king. Still, for the time, it was not an unreasonable request. A monarchy can work pretty well if the king is wise and benevolent. Remember, the author of Judges advocated for a king to establish order and justice. By having a king to govern all twelve tribes, it would unite them and make them into a nation powerful enough to defend itself against its enemies.

2. They wanted a king to go out before us and fight our battles.

God did not call them to be a military nation. They were not even allowed to have a standing army. It’s true they needed to be able to defend themselves against the hostile nations surrounding them, who constantly invaded, raided and oppressed them. But when you talk about a king to go out before you into battle, you’re not talking about defense. You’re talking about doing some invading and raiding yourself. In a dog eat dog world, they did not just want to be safe. They wanted to be the alpha dog.

3. They wanted to be like other nations.

Remember that verse I showed about how God wanted Abraham’s descendants to be the vessels through which God would bring righteousness and justice into a dark and unjust world? The children of Israel were those descendants of Abraham. The desire to be like other nations would lead them to copy their ways, not only in having a king. It would mean copying their injustice and unrighteousness. Their kings would copy the kings of other nations in oppressing their own people.

The author of Judges thought a king would be the answer, not only to oppression from their enemies but to the injustice that Israelites did to each other. Isn’t it ironic that the very thing Judges said would save them from injustice, God said would become an instrument of injustice that they would be powerless to stop. And as you watch the history of Israel unfold from the Judges to the Exile, everything God said the kings would do to them, they did.

And even knowing all this, God accepted the results of the election. My brothers and sisters in Christ, could it be time for you to do the same, and stop demonizing those who simply counted the votes?

New Podcast Appearance: Ebb and Glow, hosted by Jenelle Tremblett

Episode #14: “Faith and Clinical Depression with David Anderson

Podcast tagline: “Learning and sharing our ‘failures’, setbacks, comebacks, and pivots, and talking about the tactical steps you took to get through the bump in the road.”

The Ebb and Glow Podcast with Jenelle Tremblett
Look for Episode 14, “Faith and Clinical Depression with David Anderson”

This is my third appearance as a guest on a podcast, and each one has been a great experience. Each one has challenged me in different ways while encouraging me to talk about something I’m passionate about, which is helping people with depression find a faith and plan for recovery that works for them. If you want to know how to get an introvert talking, that’s how you do it.

In keeping with her tagline, the theme was about being diagnosed with clinical depression and living in recovery from it. Among the things we talked about are

  • The difference between situational and clinical depression
  • How I found out I have clinical depression
  • Signs that you should be tested for clinical depression
  • How some kinds of faith can help recovery
  • How some kinds of faith can hinder recovery
  • Some tips on coping with depression under pandemic conditions
  • Reconciling faith and science, and how both were important to me in recovery
  • Depression during the holidays

I ended up talking more about religion more than I thought I would. Though Jenelle is not religious, she did not shy away from asking me about it. And she had some really nice things to say about my book. The episode lasts for about an hour, but it could easily have gone on all night. I have learned in those situations I need to be mindful of the time, because not everyone wants to hear my perspective for six hours, no matter how brilliant I think it is. But I have listened to it, I’m delighted with the result, and I hope you will get some value from it.

In the end, she said the book was helpful to her understanding of friends or family members who struggle with depression, which affirmed something I had hoped. Even though I had to talk about my faith and how it affected my experience with depression, I had hoped it would be helpful to people who don’t necessarily share my faith or beliefs. I can’t thank her enough for that vote of confidence.

If you are looking for podcasts with hosts that are eager to help you get your message out, and you have a topic that matches the tagline of “Ebb and Glow,” I would strongly recommend Jenelle. She put me at ease and drew out some things I didn’t even know I wanted to talk about.

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.

New podcast appearance: This is the Situation with Brother B

I love that he included this graphic. See how the non-depressed brain is so much more lit up?

If you missed with Brother B on Muskegon 100.9 FM, you can still listen to it on podcast. Just click the link below.

Podcast: This is the Situation

Host: Brother B

Episode: FAITH&RECOVERY

Date: December 7, 2020

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/faith-recovery/id1462754264?i=1000501590655

Brother B and I talk about:

  • The difference between situational and clinical depression
  • Signs you may have clinical depression
  • Faith that is good for recovery versus faith that is bad for recovery
  • Some encouragement for those experiencing depression because of racism (you can thank Brother B for that)
  • My “red pill” moment about the Prosperity Gospel/Word of Faith movement
  • Learning compassion for yourself and others
  • What the Bible is all about in one sentence (And no, it’s not John 3:16)

This is of course part of a promotion for my book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. He made a really cool promo that I want to continue to use to cross promote his podcast and my book.

Like my conversation with Steve Pederson on The Dream Highway podcast (episode 26), it was a great experience for an introvert like me. I have talked a lot about living with clinical depression, but I have not talked much about being an introvert. Most people think introverts are shy and quiet, so you might be surprised to learn I enjoy interviews like this. But being “shy and quiet” is not the whole picture. Introverts tend to think a lot about big issues, like climate change, the state of the government, repercussions of policy and court decisions, what does freedom really mean, existential angst and such. Because of that, small talk is a challenge for us, so we often appear awkward in social situations.

This is what small talk feels like for an introvert.

But if you get us talking about something we are passionate about, we can talk all day. And I could have in both those cases, because I am passionate about writing and helping people struggling with depression. Fortunately for you, each episode is less than an hour.

A word about the YouTube channel

I set up a YouTube channel called Almost Ordained. Though I’ve had fun with it, I think I need to switch it to a podcast. I’ve been frustrated somewhat with aspects of video production. The last episode I filmed hasn’t aired, because the lighting was just out of control. Light, dark, light, dark … that’s what made me say, enough is enough. The episodes are still available to watch if you want to catch up on them. And I’m glad it was still up when Brother B sent me that promo, so I had a place to post it. But apparently, I don’t have the technical set up to make my own videos. Less can go wrong with audio, so I will give that a try.

That’s all for now. Until next time, 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)

Grace and peace to you.