Why would the Magi have wanted to worship the king of the Jews?

Q. Were the Magi Jewish? I’m thinking they must at least have been students of the Jewish Scriptures (in particular, Daniel and Micah). Otherwise, they wouldn’t have known or cared that a king of the Jews would have been born around that time. They certainly wouldn’t have cared about it enough to have made the trip to see him and had a desire to worship him. I can’t see how they could have derived all of this information from some kind of astrology.

You’re right that there was likely a Jewish influence on the Magi while they were still in “the east” (whether that means Babylon or Persia or somewhere in that area). Not all of the Jews who were taken to exile by the Babylonians returned under the Persians. For many centuries afterwards there was a flourishing Jewish community in Mesopotamia. For example, that’s where the so-called Babylonian Talmud originated in Late Antiquity (though the term “Babylon” was archaic by then). There were also distinct scribal and devotional practices that developed in this community that eventually had to be reconciled with the different ones that developed in Palestine. So the continuing Jewish community in Mesopotamia left us much evidence of its existence and activity.

Indeed, we may see the visit of the Magi as another such evidence. They were not Jews themselves; their name indicates that, at least initially and by profession, they were “magicians” and followers of Zoroastrianism. However, the term “magic” at the time included alchemy and astrology, the forerunners of chemistry and astronomy, so we should see these men as scholars of both religion and science. It’s not hard to imagine that they would have taken an interest in the religious thought and traditions of the Jews, who, like them, were monotheists. As you say, they would likely have read the Jewish Scriptures, and they could indeed have developed a Messianic expectation by reading the prophets.

We don’t know exactly what the “star” was that they saw “in the east” (i.e., while they were still in the east) or “when it rose.” (Either translation is acceptable.) A little later in Matthew’s account of their visit, after the Magi have stopped at Herod’s court and been directed to Bethlehem, there’s the puzzling statement that “the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” So this wasn’t just a star that appeared in the sky in a new position, or was first recognized there, with some astrological significance. This is some kind of active agent of divine guidance. But we aren’t able to say much more about it than that.

What we can say, however, is that Matthew has a great interest in these Magi as Gentiles who have come to worship the Messiah. In the episode just before this one, an angel tells Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” But ironically, the very next thing that happens is that Babylonians or Persians come and worship Jesus, while “his people”—and specifically Herod, who considers himself the “king of the Jews”—try to kill Jesus, and he has to flee to Egypt. (Where, by the way, there was another longstanding Jewish community. So there are two allusions to the Diaspora, and thus to Jewish influence on the surrounding nations, in this one episode.) This is in keeping with one of Matthew’s large themes, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community of the Messiah’s followers. For example: “Many will come from the east and the west and take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

So the Magi were not Jews, but under Jewish influences they did come to expect the Messiah. And then they came to worship the Messiah.

Women in positions of leadership

Q. What do you think is women’s role in society in terms of positions of leadership?

I’ve devoted a series of four posts on this blog to the question of what the Bible teaches about women in leadership roles in the church. That series starts here.

Those posts are actually a summary of a longer series (17 posts, 10,000 words) that I did on the same subject for a separate blog. You can find that series here.

The bottom line for me is that there should be no restrictions within the church on what women can do, simply because they are women. And since I believe that the church is called to “live the life of the future in the present” (as Gordon Fee puts it), that is, to model the values of God’s coming kingdom even now, then I also feel that the church should help the surrounding society recognize and empower the gifts of women as well as men. This means encouraging them to fill whatever roles they can be most effective in and make the greatest contribution to the society, including leadership roles.

 

How to get these blog posts by email

Q. Do you email a newsletter?

What I believe you’re asking is how to get these blog posts by email. When you’re looking at any post or page from the blog, there should be a link at the bottom right that says “Follow.” If you click on that link, you’ll be given the chance to provide an email address. WordPress will send you an email at the address you provide asking you to confirm that you wish to subscribe to this blog. If you confirm, from then on you’ll get each post by email. I hope that’s helpful, and thanks for your interest.

Did the command in Romans to obey the government justify separating families?

Q. Attorney General Jeff Sessions got the whole country discussing the Bible when he quoted from Romans, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” to defend the Trump administration’s policy (now discontinued) of separating the children of migrants from their parents. Was that a valid argument?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on June 14, 2018. (Photo by the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.)

I’ll address the interpretation of that passage in Romans shortly. But let me make a preliminary observation first.

Sessions quoted the Scripture about obeying government authority not in support of a law, but in support of a punishment. Here’s what he said in his speech on June 14, 2018 to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana (text from the Justice Department website):

“Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law. First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

We can see that Sessions was trying to counter criticisms of the government “separating families” on the grounds that by doing this, it was prosecuting those who “violate the law.” As an aside of my own, I would observe that it’s an open question whether a person who enters a country without prior authorization specifically to request amnesty is breaking the law. But for the purposes of argument, let’s assume that it is. A government’s responsibility to enforce the law doesn’t give it the right to use any punishment it wants. The U.S. Constitution itself forbids “cruel and unusual punishments.” The question then becomes, what does the Bible say about the punishment that Sessions was defending for such cases?

One of the most poignant passages in the Bible is Jeremiah’s description of the people of Judah mourning over the children they were separated from when the Babylonians carried their younger generation off into exile:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

The New Testament says that these words were “fulfilled” (that is, they took on a further meaning in light of later events) when Herod executed all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. So in terms of family separation as a sanction, the Bible identifies Jesus with those who have suffered this punishment, not with those who would inflict it. It portrays the anguish that it causes, rather than celebrating those who use it to control populations. So I would say, to begin with, that it was not valid for Sessions to appeal to the Bible to support the punishment he was defending.

As for the passage in Romans itself, while Sessions stated that it taught that God has ordained the laws of government “for the purpose of order,” it actually says that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” The Greek term is agathos; it’s also translated “welfare” or “benefit,” or “to help you.” In other words, the government is given power under God not to keep everyone in line with the way it wants things (to maintain “order”), but to promote the welfare of everyone under its control. Everything begins with God wanting good for people; God then creates governments as His agents to promote that good.

While not stated explicitly in Romans, the implication is that when governments fail in that responsibility, and particularly when they oppose what is good and become destructive of it, then God’s people no longer have an obligation to obey. Instead, they have a responsibility to disobey as a loyal protest, in order to call the government back to fulfilling its rightful role and original mandate.

(Incidentally, the American Declaration of Independence says essentially the same thing: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends”—Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—”it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And so if Sessions was instead promoting an unconditional obedience to government, whatever its actions, he was undermining the original foundation of the American government itself.)

A single verse of Scripture never contains the whole counsel of God. We must consider the teaching of the entire Bible on a given question in order to understand the answer to that question in a full and balanced way. And the Scriptures provide numerous examples of people who resisted and disobeyed their governments in order to be faithful to God’s purposes. These examples are informative, and they fill out the picture provided in Romans.

Moses’ parents hid him rather than obey Pharaoh’s order to kill him by drowning him into the Nile. Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused the command to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Daniel broke the law that Darius passed that no one could pray to anyone but himself; Daniel continued to pray to God, and he was thrown into a den of lions. (In all of these cases, God miraculously or providentially preserved the lives of those who disobeyed for the sake of faith and conscience. We must recognize that this may not always be the case, and we must be prepared to suffer if necessary.)

Jesus himself was accused on many occasions of breaking the law, for example, when he healed on the Sabbath. His response was that it was lawful on the Sabbath to do “good.” In Mark and Luke, this is the exact Greek term that Paul uses in Romans (agathos); in Matthew, it’s a synonym (kalōs). Either way, the argument is the same: God’s desire to do good for people comes first; laws come second, to support that.

When the Jewish government authorities forbade the apostles from speaking about Jesus, they continued to do so anyway. When the authorities arrested them and demanded to know why they’d done this, the apostles responded, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” So according to the Bible, obedience to government is not an absolute, unconditional obligation. Instead, God’s people have a responsibility to hold the government accountable for fulfilling the purpose for which it has been constituted, which is to promote the welfare of everyone under its control. By this test, the policy of family separation was not a biblically valid exercise of government authority.

We may note, finally, that the apostle Paul, who wrote in Scripture that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, was himself executed by the Romans as a lawbreaker. The charge was that he was promoting loyalty to Jesus rather than to Caesar.

 

 

 

Was Jesus a legal or an illegal refugee?

Q. What do you think of this recent comment by Paula White (spiritual advisor to Donald Trump)? “Many people have taken biblical Scriptures out of context on this [issue of immigration] to say stuff like, ‘Well, Jesus was a refugee.’ Yes, He did live in Egypt for three and a half years. But it was not illegal. If He had broken the law then He would have been sinful and He would not have been our Messiah.”

The concept of legal vs. illegal immigration, when applied to the ancient world, is anachronistic and irrelevant. Ancient countries didn’t forbid foreigners to enter if they didn’t have certain permissions. (As one Christian leader has already observed in response to White’s comment, the concept “hardly applied during Jesus’ time, centuries before the existence of modern nation-states that issue passports and visas to regulate migration.”)

Rather, the issue was how the local population would treat foreigners who came to stay among them. And the biblical Scriptures are very clear about how God’s people should treat them. God told the Israelites, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Jesus was a very particular kind of refugee: an asylum seeker. That is, he fled for safety to another country because he would have been killed if he had stayed in his own country. The fact that this “was not illegal” is the whole point. Trying to criminalize asylum seeking, whether in law, or through the way government policy is carried out, or in the popular imagination, is a  departure from a time-honored international standard of justice and compassion.

If Jesus had been killed by Herod, he couldn’t have been our Savior, either.

What is a wounded spirit?

Q. My question is about the proverb, “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?” What is a wounded spirit? I cannot find any other reference in Scripture to a “wounded spirit,” but it seems as though it would be important. Generally, the word “wounded” means an injury coming from a source outside the self. I have read commentaries that claim this wound comes from God—which, if true, is a wound to my own spirit. I need enlightenment and hope you can help. Thank you.

Given your concerns, I think it’s important to clarify right up front that this proverb isn’t saying anything about God. It’s an observation about the human condition. It’s saying in essence that emotional suffering is much harder to endure than physical suffering.

The proverb actually gives the reason for that. When we’re sick—the most likely meaning of “infirmity” here—our “spirit” allows us to “manage.” (That’s how I’d translate the term that the King James Version renders as “sustain.” The same term is used in Psalm 112 to describe those who “manage their affairs with justice.”) That is, if we have hope, courage, and determination, we can make it through an illness with grace and dignity. But if our spirit, the very faculty we depend on to make it through tough times, is damaged itself, this proverb asks, how will we ever manage?

The word translated “wounded” in the KJV refers to the condition a person is in after being struck or beaten. Other translations render it as “broken” or “crushed.” But since it’s referring to something that happens to our “spirit,” it should be taken figuratively rather than literally. It’s describing how the events of life can come along and “beat us down,” and then we are so discouraged and despairing that we feel as if we just can’t make it.

And so I think we do well to ponder the question this proverb poses: How will we ever manage? The implied answer seems to be that we need others to come alongside us and strengthen us from the outside, because we can no longer do that for ourselves from the inside. And while there’s a clear mandate throughout Scripture for us as people to help our fellow humans in this way, and to expect and accept their help ourselves, the Bible also portrays God as actively helping those who are in this situation.

I’m not sure, either, if there’s another reference to a “broken spirit” in the Bible, but there certainly are other expressions that seem synonymous. Psalm 147, for example, says that the Lord “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” The word translated “broken” here means “shattered,” and “heart” is roughly a synonym for “spirit.” So the Lord does not wound our spirits or break our hearts; just the opposite. He heals them.

Significantly, the “servant of the Lord” figure in Isaiah says that the Lord has anointed him, among other things, to “bind up the brokenhearted” and “comfort all who mourn.” Jesus applied this Scripture directly to himself at the beginning of his ministry when he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. (The selection he’s portrayed as reading doesn’t specifically include the parts about binding up the brokenhearted and comforting those who mourn, but it was characteristic of the time to cite part of a passage as a way of referring to it all.)

So the mission of Jesus is intrinsically involved in ministering to a wounded spirit or broken heart. In his own teaching, Jesus promised that those who mourned would be comforted. He also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” The proverb we’re discussing asks who can “bear” a wounded spirit; the image is of something too hard to carry. So the idea of Jesus wanting to lighten the load of those who are “heavy laden” applies directly.

About the only place from which I can imagine someone might get the idea that God would wound the human spirit is the passage in Isaiah that says of the servant of the Lord, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” The term translated “smitten” here is basically the same root, with a variant spelling, as the one translated “wounded” in the proverb. But the whole point of the passage in Isaiah is that we were wrong to think that the servant was wounded by God. Particularly from a New Testament perspective, we can see that instead God was in Christ, enduring this suffering on our behalf—not inflicting it on us.

 

What happened to the ark of the covenant?

This post is the third and last in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here. The second post, about what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, is here.

Q. What happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role protecting it?

As I write this last post in response to your questions about the book of Jeremiah, let me commend you again for reading through the whole book thoughtfully and asking good questions about it. That’s exactly how we should be reading the Bible.

Contrary to what movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark would suggest, the ark of the covenant was almost certainly destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. It’s not “lost” and waiting to be discovered somewhere.

We can infer this with a high degree of certainty from the biblical text itself, because it actually lists for us what the Babylonians took out of the temple before they destroyed it. We’re told at the end of the book of Jeremiah, “The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried all the bronze to Babylon. They also took away the pots, shovels, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, dishes and all the bronze articles used in the temple service. The commander of the imperial guard took away the basins, censers, sprinkling bowls, pots, lampstands, dishes and bowls used for drink offerings—all that were made of pure gold or silver.

Later in the Bible we get an actual inventory of these articles, which “Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.” This was the typical thing to do in the ancient world with articles taken from a conquered nation’s temple. They were displayed as trophies to show how much more powerful the conquering nation’s god was than the conquered nation’s god. (The Philistines followed a similar practice when they displayed Saul’s armor in the temple of their god after killing him in battle.) When the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed exiled peoples to return home, King Cyrus sent the articles from the Jerusalem temple back with the returning Judeans. There’s even a detailed inventory at the beginning of the book of Ezra: 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls, etc.

What’s significant is that there’s no mention of the ark of the covenant in any of these passages. The Babylonians probably understood that it was not meant to be a depiction of the God of the Israelites. If it had been, they would certainly have put it in their temple as a highest-value trophy. But they probably knew that the Israelites never had any idols representing Yahweh. Instead, the ark was a sacred object intended to represent his presence. As such, the Babylonians would not have put it in their own temple. Instead, they would have treated it as an object made of precious metal and cut it up or melted it down, the way they did the bronze objects. The Hebrew Scriptures don’t depict this destruction, probably out of reverence for the ark and its meaning.

But significantly, early in the book of Jeremiah, there’s a prophecy about the time when Israel will be restored and “all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord.” At that time,” Jeremiah says, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.” Jeremiah is foreseeing the time when God’s redemptive purposes will open up to include all nations. The ark will no longer be referenced, because it was a symbol of the “particular” phase in redemptive history, when God was reaching out to the whole world through one single nation. In the “universal” phase, God reaches out directly to all nations. (There’s a symbol of this in the book of Revelation when an angel declares, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,” and then “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.” The true ark is now in heaven, and it speaks of God’s redemption extending to all nations.)

So even if Jeremiah could have had some role in preventing the Babylonians from destroying the ark (which is unlikely, since Jeremiah was kept under guard by the Judeans until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and set him free), he probably wouldn’t have tried to do so. That would have been working against his own prophecy!

Illuminated manuscript page from the Apocalypse of 1313 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) depicting “the temple opened in heaven” and the “great sign” that followed, of a woman and her child. The image does not show the ark within the temple as the book of Revelation describes, but perhaps that’s appropriate in light of this post, since Jeremiah said the ark wouldn’t be remembered or missed.