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Chapter #50 Est 1-10: Ink on our fingers

As we near the end of our Old Testament readings we unexpectedly encounter this little gem of a story from the world of the Diaspora (the Jews scattered by the Exile that had not returned to Judah). Set during the reign of King Ahasuerus of Persia (normally thought to be King Xerxes I) this concise thriller records Esther’s prevention of an ethnic cleansing by the Persian authorities, only 50 years after her people had returned to Judah from Babylon.

Esther is a straightforward tale of deception, rivalry, courage and, ultimately, deliverance. It is written as a thrilling read and does not disappoint. Yet it also enshrines in Jewish lore a legend of history that would shape their identity for years to come.


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Chapter #49 Hag, Zech & Mal: The holy grail

We finally arrive at the end of our journey through the prophets that began back in July. These last three, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, were broadly contemporaries of each other in the newly resettled Judean community after the exiles had returned from Babylon in 537 BCE. In order to understand their message, we have to try and understand the complex situation that had developed in this Persian state of Yehud (Judah) by 520 BCE and the ministry of Haggai.

During the reign of Nebuchadnezzar a significant number of the prominent and well-educated Jews were forcibly taken to Babylon. But there was a far larger number of the peasant class that were left behind in a land now governed by foreigners, without any of the stability of a national identity that had existed in Judah with the Monarchy and the Temple.


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Chapter #48 Dan 7-12: Keeping faith

With Daniel 7-12 we travel forward at breakneck speed to an age unknown to the Babylonian governor. It is an age of intense uncertainty, and a birthplace for one of the most creative forms of literature ever penned: Jewish Apocalyptic.

With the exile over and the promise of the prophets failed, the newly resettled community of Jews in Judea must wrestle with the impact of their apparent abandonment by Yahweh. Where is the new reign of Yahweh in Zion? Why has this New World Order not materialised. The People of Israel are still living under foreign rule, and not just in the Holy Land itself; hopefuls from all twelve tribes span the cities of the Fertile Crescent, waiting expectantly for the fulfilment of all of their fathers’ dreams.

In this devoted malaise festers hope, red-raw from rehearsal and desperate to perform. Israel cannot contain her madness, she will not forgo her conviction: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will establish his kingdom on Mount Zion and all the nations of the earth will come and serve him there, under the auspices of the Jewish faithful. Then the ancient words of Daniel appear, ‘closed up and sealed until the time of the end’ (12:9), whose power have now been unleashed upon the culmination of this epoch of history.


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Chapter #47 Dan 1-6: Opportunity in exile

It may seem strange that having looked at all forty-eight chapters of Ezekiel in one go that we divide the twelve chapters of Daniel into two sections. Daniel, however, quite obviously sits in two parts and, despite being a relatively short work by Old Testament standards, contains a wealth of important themes that are not explored in anything like the same way elsewhere.

The Daniel of chapters 1-6 is said to be amongst the first wave of exiles to Babylon from Judah. A member of the aristocracy, he would naturally have been well educated and trained in the rubrics of royal etiquette. The priority for Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian exile-policy were people like Daniel, whose removal from Judah would significantly undermine her and whom the king could put most easily to good use in his own service.

And this is the setting for the most startling aspect of the first half of Daniel: that we are taken, without much fuss into the innermost workings of the region’s most powerful empire. Only for a brief moment in Exodus, where Moses confronts Pharaoh, have we seen the inside of a superpower’s chambers. We’ve spent many chapters inside the royal court at Samaria or Jerusalem, but to hear of tales from Babylon, and of such intimate themes as dreams, insanity and deep remorse, is a significant and unexpected development.


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Chapter #46 Eze 1-48: New vision

To deal with Ezekiel in one post makes it the largest section of the Old Testament we have covered in a single entry. The reason for doing so is the specific and important unity of the work. Writing broadly as a contemporary of Jeremiah (perhaps a little later) and effecting a similar shift from judgement to hope, Ezekiel is different from the prophet of woe in one significant respect: he is a Temple-minded priest, and they are more organised!

Reflecting a well-crafted symmetry, chapters 1-24 berate Judah for her sin and declare the impending destruction of Jerusalem. In contrast to Jeremiah, however, whose concerns are those of infidelity to the Deuteronomic law, Ezekiel critiques the people for their violation of the ritual observance of the Levitical code, paralleling, perhaps, the contrast between the Deuteronomic history of Samuel-Kings and the later Priestly account of the Chronicles. Chapters 25-48 then spin the tone to reflect relocation as the prophet promises a return from the wilderness of exile to Jerusalem and the re-establishment of the Temple cultus. It is on this Temple issue that the account of Ezekiel turns. And it is the nature of the Temple and its religion that help us understand the bizarre accounts that pepper this prophet’s work.


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Chapter #45 Psalms 90-150: Poetic imagination

Before we plunge into the kaleidoscopic visions of Ezekiel, we take our final sidestep to reflect on the remaining section of the Psalms, covering Books IV and V. No less passionate than their earlier counterparts, Psalms 90 – 150 continue to display the full range of Israelite emotion. What they also provide, as do the other three books, is theology for the People of God; creative and imaginative responses to the religious world to which they belonged.

There is something about poetry that gives it a power unknown to prose. Its vivid imagery and pulsing rhythm create an emotive experience for the listener. These Psalms, whose words – intoned or sung – could rise from chilly field or sweaty synagogue, Temple Hill or desert cave, are works of art embraced by a nation and worn through by loving use. And as imaginative works of faith-thinking, their impact on Israel could only have been heightened by very fact they are poems.


The MonkeyBar Challenge 2011

Take the MonkeyBar Challenge 2011! Sign yourself up by clicking here and we'll send you weekly emails with the reading plan along with links and thoughts on each of the week's readings (including some questions for reflection and discussion).

What is The MonkeyBar Challenge?

The MonkeyBar Challenge is designed to help you read the whole Bible in a year through 2011. We all find it easy to start out with good intentions, but it can be really difficult to stay the course. The MonkeyBar Challenge breaks the year up into 13 MonkeyBars - each one takes 4 weeks to complete - so you can get through the Bible one chunk at a time.

The MonkeyBar Challenge is hosted by Community of Readers, a thoughtful playground for exploring the Bible. So you won't be taking the Challenge alone! Last year, about three hundred people set out with us to read the most incredible story ever told. Join us, as we discover together our place in the ancient plotline.

Community reading ideas

If you know other people who want to take The MonkeyBar Challenge with you, why not arrange to meet up every four weeks - each time you complete a MonkeyBar. As well as whooping in celebration at your achievement you could share your experiences with that part of the Bible.

Also...

1. The forum has loads of MonkeyBar content already where you can engage with a wider community. Any thoughts, questions, reflections, ideas - just put them down (they don't need to be polished) and see what others have to say.

2. Join our The MonkeyBar Challenge Facebook Group where you can share your reading experiences.

3. Follow us on Twitter @coreaders We'll be tweeting more regular encouragements and tips on reading the Bible.


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Chapter #44 Joel 1-3: A nation under threat

The book of the prophet Joel is another of the shortest works of the Old Testament. But it is perhaps better known on account of its famous quotation in Acts 2:17:21 (during Peter’s speech to the Jerusalem crowd on the day of Pentecost, cf. Joel 2:28-32). Using the metaphor of a locust invasion (a common feature of ancient Near East life), Joel describes with graphic pathos the destruction of Judea and its fundamental effect on religious life.*

In the same way that an army of locusts would deprive the land of food, so this military machine is tearing up the soul of the people. Joel’s primary symbol of this dispossession is the lack of resources for the ritual offerings (1:8-9, 13-14; 2:14). As we have repeatedly found, Israel’s concern for military security and national identity was all tied up with religious world of Temple ritual.

Joel’s primary concern is to call the people to repentance in the face of this disaster: ‘Declare a holy fast’, ‘cry out to the Lord’, ‘call a sacred assembly’ and ‘let the priests weep before the altar’ (1:14; 2:15, 17). But Joel is different from Amos or Isaiah or Hosea; it is the ‘heart’ that must be given back to Yahweh, not just the external symbols of contrition (2:12). Those earlier subversives, however, might feel that language somewhat lacking in references to injustice or oppression.

But that is not apparently Joel’s concern. Indeed he is unique amongst the prophets in simply responding to a military crisis; most of the others are warning of them, even if they are then having to make a response (e.g. Jeremiah). I think this is the most interesting aspect of Joel’s words; he gives us a prophetic perspective from the other side of the fence. What do you say when your people are under attack?


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Chapter #43 Lam 1-5: You are not alone

As we read Lamentations we should cast our minds back over the epic story forged on the journey from Egypt to Canaan and fumbled through the eras of both Judges and Kings. It is the story of a promise to Abraham’s family that they would live in this land; a covenant with God himself that he would be their Suzerain, and they would be his people.

For Judah, then, to find herself in Exile, the walls of Jerusalem smashed and its holy Temple razed, is so painful an abandonment she can barely cry through the shame. It is her ultimate rejection, her bitter fascination, her endless indignity.


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Chapter #42 Hab 1-3: An absent author

Habakkuk is one of the shortest books in the Old Testament and one of its most obscure. Practically nothing is known about this late 7th century prophet other than what can be assumed from his work, and that is pretty much limited to an approximate time-frame; talk of the rise of the Babylonians in 1:5-11 would suggest sometime close to 612 BCE and the sacking of Nineveh, or possibly later, anticipating the total dominance of the empire over Egypt and Judah as well.

Habakkuk provides for us a useful opportunity to explore self-consciously some of the critical issues related to the hermeneutics (the business of interpretation) involved with these biblical texts. As a case study, our total ignorance of the historical Habakkuk raises some very particular questions related to the role of the author, versus the role of the reader in the interpretation of the book.

This commentary series has, I hope, demonstrated the value of sketching out a historical context for successfully understanding the issues that motivated the various Old Testament texts. But even with the knowledge of this background, interpreting a passage can often be conjecture at best. There is a very real divide between the world of the author / redactor of each text and our own contemporary world as readers. The window between the worlds is the text itself, but often, as here with Habakkuk, that window is pretty small and largely opaque.