Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thank you

How easy is it for you to say thank you? It's easier for me now than it use to be. Sadly, while I may have been thankful, I didn't always say thank you. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving but it's also Hanukkah. According to the Jewish Jewels newsletter, for the first time since 1861 the first day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving Day fall on the same day. How cool is that?

After reading the newsletter, I learned that the Jewish holiday is centered around giving thanks and that it isn't a mandated celebration from God. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of oil and how God kept the oil burning in the Temple. The Maccabees, who stood up for God when it wasn't popular or politically correct, put into motion this eight day long celebration that focuses on giving thanks to God for his miracles.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, I feel has slowly become a time to be thankful for who and what we have in our lives. As I well know, being thankful is different than giving thanks. To be thankful is to feel grateful, or pleased, or satisfied and so on. When we're thankful we don't necessarily tell anyone about it, or give them thanks for their part in it.

The coming together of these two holidays directs us from just being thankful to speaking gratitude. So who are we giving thanks to? Are we acknowledging just the people? Or, are we also thanking God who has allowed the blessings and provisions in our lives?

One of the verses read during the Hanukkah celebration speaks of the sacrifice of thanksgiving. (Psalm 116) Have you ever wondered why it's a sacrifice? While I haven't thought of it as a sacrifice I do understand the difficulty in sometimes getting the words out of my mouth.

The Jewish Jewels newsletter quoted Rabbi Naftali Hoffner, who basically said that speaking thanks puts aside our self-centered attitudes and gives credit to God. Think about it. When we say "thank you" to someone for their action we show appreciation that they made an effort to help us or care for us. The same holds true when we thank God.

According to the writings of Paul in Thessalonians, we're to give thanks to God in all things. This is not always a natural thing to do. When we're suffering it's so much easier to say, "why me?", "I don't deserve this!" But the newsletter pointed out that when we thank God while we're going through a tough time that we're believing God to show his goodness and mercy in bringing an end to our hardship. And, in giving him thanks we bless him.

Wow. All through the Psalms it speaks of blessing God. I didn't realize that in giving God thanks I was blessing him. What a concept. This Thanksgiving I hope we can all remember to give thanks to God for the people and provisions we are thankful to have in our lives.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dividing Equally or Not

Have you ever looked at the maps in the back of your Bible? They're wonderful, aren't they? Helps me to get a better picture of how things were situated. But, I have to say the map displaying how the holy land was distributed between the tribes of Israel has me wondering, what they were thinking when the land was divided? I mean Simeon is an island in the midst of the territory belonging to Judah. That would be like putting Rhode Island in the middle of Texas. Awkward.

But according to several sources when Joshua assigned land parcels among the nation, he had to base it on the size of the tribe and the land features. So he looked at the rivers and valleys and hills making sure every tribe could meet their need for water, had a way to plant and harvest, and could graze their livestock. Not having a system to survey the land for boundaries they measured the split by cities. It would be like splitting up Texas into sections and telling one group you can have the area from San Antonio to Austin and over to Fredericksburg.

I find it interesting that centuries after Joseph provided food and shelter for his family from the infamous famine, the tribes of his two sons are granted the most fertile lands in the area. And like some families, they still grumbled that they didn't receive enough land. What were they thinking? They got the biggest portion and they still complained?

Also, curiously, the small tribe of Benjamin had to be placed between the two biggest tribes. The commentary, Bible Knowledge Commentary, explains it was to curb any rivalry between the two bigger tribes. Interestingly enough, that small tribe had no problem holding onto its humble track of land which became the site of several important cities years later. . .Bethel, Gibeon, Ramah, Jericho, and Jerusalem. They may have been small but they were entrusted with much.

I do like that Joshua and the nation put the tent of meeting in a central location for all the people to come and worship God. Of course, the Levites were sprinkled among the tribes to keep the people's focus on God. . . it's like having a church and pastor in every town. It's cool when you think about it. God placing spiritual leaders near communities for support and guidance; he still does.

While the map continues to look strange to me, at least now I can make sense of what happened back then that led to such an interesting arrangement. Just goes to show, there's always a reason for the way things were done.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Now What?

So the nation of Israel obliterates Jericho, now what? Well, they've got to get to Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim if they're going to complete the instructions given to them by Moses back in Deuteronomy 27. To get there they have to pass the city of Ai, which they eventually burn to the ground. (Joshua 8)

Now, what the writer of Joshua leaves out is a reminder of just where these mountains are located. They take the ridge route through the hill country of Canaan to get there. And right at the base of these mountains is the historically significant city of Shechem.

Do you remember Shechem, or the mountains? I didn't. These two mountains, which by the way are hills by some people's measurements, with their city are the center of traditional stories that would have been told down the generations. Tales relating the building of altars to God. The recounting of God giving a good and healthy land to their father Abraham. And, stories of their father Jacob ridding the family of foreign idols so that they would remain focused on God in heaven.

It was all tradition and stories until the day they stepped into Shechem and stood in front of one of the mountains. Then it became real. Standing along side the other altars built by Abraham and Jacob was now the altar Joshua built in front of them. Can you imagine how they felt when the realization of being as important to God as their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hit them?

And where they were told to stand doesn't really matter because the small valley that lies between them has an amphitheater effect according to A Visual Guide to Bible Events, so they would have heard everything said anyway. The group in front of Mt. Gerizim hears the blessings that will be received if they follow God's instructions. The other group, in front of Mt Ebal, hears the curses that will follow if they drift away from those same instructions or act unseemly. (Some of the reasons for curses are quite interesting; you should check out Deut. 27-28.)

But, in the end, what a perfect location to be reminded that this was their land, given to them by God. It was theirs to fight for and reclaim. Now that's encouragement to keep up the good work.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Crumbling Walls

Several weeks ago I wrote about the crossing of the Jordan river by the Israelites. I've learned a few things since then.

Did you know that where they crossed the river was an important ford when the river was low enough to cross? I didn't know that. That was one of the things Jericho defended. If it was like the medieval days of Europe they probably exacted tax money from travelers seeking to sell their wares in Canaan.

And speaking of Canaan. . .because of it's location Jericho guarded the area as well. Any invading army had to try to get by the fortified city first. And from what I've read it was the largest city in the area. If an army didn't conquer Jericho they most certainly would have been attacked from the rear as they made their way further into the land.

Those two things alone make the city worth attacking. But, there's one more reason to take the city. Did you know that the city was near or right at a spring that gushed loads of water daily? I didn't. This means that not only did they have an optimal location by the river Jordan they had water within the walls of the city more than likely. It must have been like paradise.

But paradise sometimes comes with a price. The Hebrew-Greek Study Bible mentions that the people of that area buried children in the foundations of the walls and gates. Disgustingly unbelievable. Right?

What would give those people the idea to do such a vile thing? Did they think "the gods" would honor their work and keep them safe? Did they think it made their walls impregnable because the spirits of their young would help protect their parents who lived within the walls? Who knows?

I do know one thing. It's rather befitting that the wall they put so much into would fall without the use of weapons or manpower. Think about it. . .they were so afraid of the people who just crossed their powerful river that they locked everyone behind closed doors. No one could leave the city, and no one could come in.

For six days they watched as the Israelite army quietly marched around their city, one time each day. How odd it must have been for them to see seven men without any form of protection carrying rams horns leading the way in front of the very object that caused the water to stop flowing. Their nerves must have been reeling.

Then when the city expected a seventh episode of marching the army does something different. It marches seven times instead of one and then blows trumpets and yells. Can you imagine their surprise and fear when the very thing they depended on for protection crumbles all around them? Without force?

I can't imagine what other vile things were done in this city that God would command that everything be burned, and that no one was to rebuild on this site. The authors of A Visual Guide to Bible Events points out that by not building a new city over Jericho the nation is forced to rely on God for protection and to place their trust in God's will for them.

We should learn from this. That no matter how strong we may think something is, our God is greater and can destroy it with the strangest method. His got our back. And, he will help take down even the most fortified and overwhelming struggle within us.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Who's In Charge?

Have you ever seen someone use friendship with a person in leadership or power as an excuse to change the rules to their personal need or liking? Or maybe, just not follow the rules at all? I'm sure you've heard a statement similar to this, "oh, they'll do it differently for me because I know. . ." I call it the 'exception rule'.

A perfect example of it can be heard lately on the news about Obamacare. Legislators who made a law forcing people to go through the government system to get insurance are considering whether or not their staff should have to go through the new system. Hmm.

Well, I'm not here to talk politics. But as you can see the practice of wanting to be exempt from rules is all around us in the physical world. So I have to ask, what about the way we approach the spiritual world? Do you ever act or think this way when you talk to or about Jesus? Or, the Holy Spirit? Or, God the Father?

I think it's a trap we can all fall into. After all, we're accustomed to calling Jesus a friend, or even a brother. And as we spend time praying and studying his word we get to know him even more. But in knowing him this way, do we forget who he is? Do we forget the respect we should show him? Do we slide into thinking we fall into the exception rule and forget all the expectations he has for his followers?

A point shared in the book, Listening to the Language of the Bible, is that in every synagogue is a cabinet, called the ark, which holds the Torah. Many times the words "Know Before Whom You Stand" are written above it. I love that. What a reminder for all of us.

God's not a political leader whom we elected to power. He's not the head of a company who rarely mingles with the peons who run the day-to-day operations. He's so much more than that. He's in charge of all things and this is his planet. Yes we can talk to him openly, but he is still God.

And, we would do well to remember that he can still do all those sci-fi actions you read about in the Old Testament. You know. . .making a donkey speak (Numbers 22), or raising up dry bones to life (Ezekiel 37), or growing a tree up overnight (Jonah 4). Just because he hasn't done them lately doesn't mean he can't or won't. He is after all the King of the universe.

I think if we remember these things, we'll be able to keep in mind exactly who we're standing or kneeling before when we pray.