Luke 17:34-35, The Fate of the Raptured

I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.

//This is a popular verse among futurists who believe in the rapture. The Gospel of Matthew adds a third verse (sometimes appearing in Luke as well), telling how two people shall be in the field; one taken and the other left.

The idea, of course, is that one of the two is raptured, the other is not. But why do we think this? Where do we get the idea that the one taken is being raptured?

Moving on to the next verse in Luke, we read this:

“Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” –Luke 17:37

I understand the attraction to believing in a rapture. I just don’t see how this passage supports the idea. After Jesus tells the disciples that some will be taken, they ask him where? Where will these people be taken? He answers that they should look for the vultures, because that’s where the dead bodies will be found.

It sure sounds to me like the “taken” are killed. They become the dead bodies, and they don’t seem to be taken anywhere else. So here’s the question: Is this verse referring to a day when lots of people will be killed, or is it saying that when the good guys are raptured, they’ll leave behind dead bodies?

Genesis 9:4, God Allows Eating Meat, Part II of II

But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

//Yesterday I quoted the point in scripture where God changed his mind and allowed us to eat meat. It occurs just after the flood, when God changes his rule to let us kill and eat animals. But [1] why did God change his mind, and [2] what stipulation did he put on lifting the restriction?

The key is knowing that in antiquity, life was understood to reside in the blood. Today’s verse answers the second question: the stipulation is that the blood must be preserved and given back to God. That’s the idea behind Kosher slaughtering. This probably answers the first question too. God changed his mind because priests like to eat meat.

It is the priests who benefit from this law. It is they who set the rules of what could be killed and sacrificed (it seems God prefered those animals which are good to eat) and how they were killed (by bringing them to the priests, so the blood could be given back to God in sacrifice).

It’s a brilliant solution and a brilliant compromise. God is happy with the attention; the priests are happy with the free food; the rich who could own animals for food are happy if also a bit frustrated that all the slaughtering had to be done by the priests so they could get their share. Nobody consulted the animals on the matter, but their vote seems not to have mattered.

Genesis 1:29, God Allows Eating Meat, Part I of II

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

//Today’s verse seems to be saying that God intended us to be vegetarian. Fruits and vegetables and herbs: these are our “meat.” The same is said in the next verse about animals: they are to eat green herbs for their meat.

Many bible scholars take these verses to mean exactly what they say, that the author(s) was claiming God made the animal kingdom (including us) vegetarian. God’s divine order did not include killing of animals.

The problem is, people like meat. So humankind descended into chaos and began killing and eating. The writers of the Bible liked meat, too. So after Noah’s flood came along, which was supposed to clean up the chaos so we could start over, God conveniently rewrote his law:

Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

So now we can all eat animal meat, right? We’re not stuck with just herbs anymore. God gave in and allowed this evil. But he did so with a certain stipulation, which served to make the eating of meat acceptable. Can you guess what the stipulation is?

I’ll give you the answer tomorrow.

Genesis 25:25, The Red and Hairy Edomites

And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.

//Genesis tells us that Jacob and Esau were twin brothers, but that Esau was the firstborn. He came out of the womb all red and hairy. Sounds like an ugly brute, and indeed, his mother Rebecca didn’t think much of him. She preferred his twin brother Jacob, who was “smooth-skinned.”

Jacob is known as the father of the nation of Israel. In fact, his name is later changed to Israel. Esau is known as the father of the Edomites, a nation to the south of Israel. We know of course that no nation can point back to a single man as its head, but that’s no biggie; the story tellers hardly expected us to listen literally.

Indeed, such stories were intended to be enjoyed orally, and it’s easy to imagine the listeners ROFLing. You see, the tellers were Israelites, descendants of Jacob, poking fun at their brutish neighbor Edom. No one in antiquity would have thought differently about the story, for the very names of the characters betray its intent.

Esau is red and hairy. In Hebrew, the word “red” is edom, and the word “hairy” is se’ir. No one could mistake the reference to the Se’ir mountain range running through Edom.

Jacob is smooth-skinned, from the Hebrew word halaq. This is the name of the mountain on Judah’s border with Edom. The two boys are presented as competing mountains, with the more recent nation (Israel) mocking the enemy (Edom). Great storytelling, indeed.

Genesis 2:7, Rain Brings Forth Life, Part II of II

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

//Yesterday, I quoted verses which indicated that when the earth was first created, no plant life could grow because it had not yet rained, and because there was still no man to till the ground. Nevermind the fact that the same verses indicate there was a mist covering the whole earth; it has to be rain, not mist. And there has to be a man to till the earth.

So in the next verse, God makes a man. Then God is ready to plant a garden, now that there is a man to care for it.

Finally, plant life arrives on earth. But why couldn’t it have happened without rain and without a man?

Well, let me tell you a little about the birds and the bees. In antiquity, it was understood that the man carried the seed; the woman provided the “garden” for the seed to grow. She was the incubator; he provided the life.

How do we know this type of “new life” is what the story is really about? Because the Hebrew word for sperm is also the Hebrew word for rain. These early storytellers were masters of meaningful myth.

Genesis 2:5-6, Rain Brings Forth Life, Part I of II

…before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.

//Understanding the Bible is harder than you think. We are 2-3000 years removed from the culture which generated these words. Take today’s verse as an example. Nothing could grow on the earth until God made rain. Have you ever wondered why no shrub or plant could grow, when there was a mist (some translations say streams) which watered the  whole earth?

Commentators who laugh at this absurdity are missing the point. They are trying to read literally where the words are written metaphorically. They miss the second condition which requires life: “there was no man to till the ground.”

But does this really explain why no life could grow? Who do we men think we are, pretending that God couldn’t grow a single plant without our help?

I’ll let you ponder the mystery, and provide the answer tomorrow.

Revelation 20:4, The Thousand Year Reign

… and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

//Ever wonder where the idea of a thousand-year reign came from?  Most of Revelation’s ideas come from prior writings, both in and out of the Bible. Revelation borrows so many themes from the book of Ezekiel that I like to think of it as a rewriting of Ezekiel. But there’s no other reference in scripture to a thousand year length of the Messianic era, even in Ezekiel.

Nevertheless, the idea is borrowed, this time from a Jewish book written in the second century B.C. titled the Book of Jubilees. It explains that when Adam died at 930 years of age, “he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens, and therefore it was written concerning the tree of knowledge: ‘On the day you eat of it you will die.’ For this reason he did not complete the years of this day; for he died during it” (Jubilees, 4:30).

The idea is that a perfect life, living in paradise (the garden of Eden, or the  millennial reign), would last one thousand years. In the Septuagint, Isaiah 65:22 is rewritten to read “the days of my people shall be as the days of the tree of life.” This puts a little different spin on these two familiar verses:

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. –Psalms 90:4

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. –2 Peter 3:8

Mark 9:24, Pascal’s Wager

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

//Blaise Pascal, a 17th century philosopher, proposed that belief in god is logical, if perceived as a wager. Either God exists or he does not, and reason can defend neither possibility. Therefore, the practical solution is to weigh the gain and loss in wagering that God exists. If you gain, you gain much: an “infinitely happy life.” Because the stakes are so high (indeed, infinitely high) the logical course of action is to measure the slight loss that may accompany believing with the potential tremendous gain.

But some cannot believe. Pascal recognized this weakness, and offered advice to these unfortunate people. They should mimic the actions of believers, endeavoring to convince themselves, until it becomes possible to fool themselves into belief. (I’m paraphrasing, but the instruction seems clear enough.)

In today’s verse, the father of a child possessed by a demon comes to Jesus asking for an exorcism. Jesus says no, you have to believe first. Then I can help you. The man begs Jesus with tears, pretending to believe while confessing the truth about his unbelief.

Pascal would approve. Apparently, so did Jesus.

Judges 21:20-21, The Tribe of Benjamin Is Rescued!

So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin.

//Judges chapters 20 and 21 describe a squabble between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. It seems that a Levite stopped for the night in Gibeah one day (Gibeah is part of the tribe of Benjamin), and they weren’t very good hosts. Threatening attackers came to his door, and to save his life, the Levite gave them his concubine to rape and abuse. When he found her the next morning slumped at the guesthouse door, he cut her in pieces and sent the pieces around Israel to show what an injustice was done to him.

So the Israelites mounted an attack against Gibeah. The rest of the Benjaminites refused to side against Gibeah, so nearly all the Benjaminites got slaughtered. So severe was the plundering of Benjamin that the tribe was in danger of being eradicated.

Israel then lamented, worried that they would lose one of their twelve tribes. It just wouldn’t be the same without all twelve! So they found a patsy–the town of Jabesh Gilead, who refused to join the war effort against Benjamin in the first place–and went and slaughtered everybody there, preserving just 400 virgin girls to help Benjamin repopulate their tribe. But it wasn’t quite enough for every Benjaminite to have his own virgin girl, so they then instructed the remaining men to steal their own virgins from Shiloh during a celebration there. See today’s verse. Thus, the tribe of  Benjamin was preserved.

Ah, early Israeli politics. Those were the days, right?

Job 1:4-5 Why Job Ignored His Friends

And his sons went and feasted in their houses, every one his day; and sent and called for their three sisters to eat and to drink with them. And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually.

//You may remember in the book of Job that several friends come to visit him in his misery, and they offer advice. Job must have sinned, they conclude, for him to be suffering so greatly. They advise him to make restitution to God, and suggest that when he is forgiven for his sins his suffering will cease.

Job ignores them. He insists that restitution won’t fix his problem. Why is Job so sure about this?

Maybe because his kids are dead. Today’s verse tells how Job was continually offering burnt offerings to God on behalf of his children before calamity fell. Job initially viewed religious ritual as a sort of barter opportunity with God to keep his children safe. It didn’t accomplish anything; they all died in a windstorm when the house they were in fell down. All of Job’s burnt offerings came to naught.

So when Job’s friends come suggesting the same rituals on Job’s behalf, Job knows there’s no point in following his friends’ advice.

Genesis 19:32-33, The Daughters’ Revenge, Part II of II

And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

//Yesterday I told the story of how Lot, seeking to protect two unknown visitors, offered his daughters up as play-toys to the evil men of Sodom. The angels step in, rescue Lot, and lead him into the mountains away from Sodom. Then Sodom is destroyed by fire and brimstone.

The story continues. There, in a cave by the mountains, the two daughters realize they’ve probably lost their only chance to bear children. Not even the men of Sodom want them. So they conspire to rape the man who offered them up to be raped … their father. See today’s verse. The plan works wonderfully:

Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.

I hope nobody still takes these hilarious stories seriously. It is a legend designed to poke fun at the nations of Moab and Ammon, enemies of Israel, by claiming that the sons of Lot’s daughters are the father of these nations.

Genesis 19:8, The Daughters’ Revenge, Part I of II

Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes.

//In this bizarre story, Lot is living in the city of Sodom when he is visited by angels. The men of Sodom come knocking at his door, wanting to abuse the angels sexually. (Angels are probably quite good-looking.) But Lot begs them not to harm the two visitors (he seems not to know they are angels) and asks the men of Sodom to accept his daughters as play-toys instead.

The men of Sodom aren’t happy with this solution, and eventually the angels (who seem unperturbed about Lot treating his daughters like chattel) step in and kill the bad guys. They tell Lot that he must escape to the mountains, and so Lot does.

Bible critics love to point to this story as evidence of the Bible’s old-fashioned immorality. But is this really fair? Does this event really reflect ancient family customs, in this case that the daughters of Lot mean so little to him that he would give them up to be ravaged?

Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story.

Hebrews 4:12, Killing with the Word

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

//This verse is often quoted by Bible-thumpers justifying their use of the Bible as as weapon, bludgeoning unbelievers into submission. But context shows this understanding to be in error; the sword in this verse is turned inward, not pointed at another. So that leads us to a question: What, exactly, is the word of God?

Is it the Bible? Is the written Word “living and powerful” speaking directly to our heart, as if it were written just for us?

Is the word of God Jesus? Does this mean the truth of Jesus cuts to the soul, exposing our need?

Is the word of God His spoken voice, the power which spoke the universe into existence? Does this awesome power humble us, drop us to our knees?

Maybe it’s all three.

Luke 2:38, The Promised Redeemer of Israel

Coming up to them at that very moment, [Anna] gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

//In today’s verse, an old widow of 84 years happens to spy Joseph and Mary with their 12-year-old son Jesus, and goes up to them. She identifies the child Jesus as the redeemer of Jerusalem, the anticipated Messiah who would set Jerusalem free. This, of course, matches the expectation every Jew had of the coming Messiah. He would arrive with a mighty sword, conquer the nations, lift Israel back to its place as the favored nation in God’s world, and then rule with a rod of iron. This seems to be the expectation of everyone else for the baby Jesus as well. Here are a few more opinions:

Mary: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Zechariah: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

Gabriel: “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

A host of angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Simeon: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.”

All of these voices are recorded in the first two chapters of Luke. Did they all misunderstand the role of the Messiah?

Exodus 12:8-9, How To Eat The Passover Lamb

That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs.

//Yesterday, I mentioned an odd contradiction in the Law which stipulated how animals were to be sacrificed. Here’s another odd contradiction. How and where were the Jews supposed to eat the Passover lamb?

Answer: Not boiled but roasted, and in the privacy of your home. A few verses later comes this additional instruction: It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. –Exodus 12:46

Why, then, does the Deuteronomic version of the Law say the exact opposite? It says boil it and eat it in public:

And you shall boil it and eat it at the place which the LORD your God will choose; and in the morning you shall turn and go to your tents.* –Deuteronomy 16:7

A couple of hundred years after the Deuteronomy rewrite, the author of the Chronicles saw the contradiction and corrected it. They effectively merged the two versions: Roast the lamb, but boil all the other meats.

They roasted the Passover animals over the fire as prescribed, and boiled the holy offerings in pots, caldrons and pans and served them quickly to all the people. –2 Chronicles 35:13

* Many translations disagree, using the word “roast” in order to dissolve the contradiction.

Mark 10:37, Sitting on Jesus’ Left and Right

They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.

//In today’s verse, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, come to him and ask a favor. They realize that they are headed to Jerusalem, where Jesus as the anticipated Jewish messiah is supposed to announce his kingship. When Jesus sits on his throne as ruler, they want to sit one on his right, the other on his left.

They don’t understand what’s about to happen. They don’t understand the purpose of their trek to Jerusalem. Mark routinely portrays the disciples of Jesus as being slow to understand.

This particular story is a little disturbing to Matthew, so it gets rewritten: it becomes the mother of James and John who requests that her sons be given the place of prominence in Matthew’s version. Either way, Jesus’ answer is the same: You don’t know what you’re asking, and it’s not my place to give you anyway, for it has been prepared for others.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Who are the seats of honor prepared for? Who is going to get to sit on Jesus’ right and left when he ascends to his throne in Jerusalem as Messiah?

The answer comes from combining Mark with John. John explains to us that Jesus’ glory is revealed as he is lifted, crowned with thorns, up on the cross. Mark, then, explicitly refers to those who are selected to share in his glory, raised on his left and right:

And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. –Mark 15:27

Exodus 20:24-25, Where To Offer Sacrifice

Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.

//Feel like giving a goat to God? Just make an altar. Anywhere you please. Pile up some rocks and knock yourself out. It’s right there in the law: God will come to wherever he is honored, and will bless you.

Why, then, do we read these verses a bit later?

Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you. –Deuteronomy 12:13-14

Lest you imagine that these two verses refer to two different periods in time, it’s not so. Both were given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai.

Bible scholars, however, do recognize that the Law reflects different times. Leviticus chapter 17 makes it clear why the law was changed: Folks were sacrificing their goats to the goat-gods, not to Yahweh. So, the prohibition was put in place: bring your animals to the sanctuary and give them to the priests, so it will be done right.

These two laws are exact opposites, but in order to authenticate them, both lawgivers presented their laws as having been delivered to Moses on the mountain.

John 21:11 Why 153 Fish?

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.

//Most of you know this story, how the disciples, disheartened after the death of Jesus, decide to go fishing. They have no luck at all. But suddenly a mysterious stranger appears (it’s Jesus, of course) and tells them to cast out one more time. They do, and net 153 fish.

Numbers are significant in the Bible. So what does the number 153 signify? Are we really supposed to believe that somebody sat down and counted all the fish, then recorded the number for preservation in our Bible? Or is the author of John’s Gospel telling us something meaningful … something that, probably, no contemporary reader, distanced by nearly two millennia from the readers this gospel was written for, can ever make sense of?

Some time ago, I posted a few guesses about the meaning of this number. At the time, I wrote this: “Add up all the integers from 1 to 17, and you get 153. Does that shed any light on the puzzle? Hmmm, probably not.”

Well, maybe it DOES mean something. The twelve loaves and five fishes of Jesus’ miracle feeding are highly significant numbers. And twelve plus five equals seventeen, the magic number we started with. This sort of numerology is common in the Bible.

But what is the ancients’ fascination with numbers in the first place? We’ll probably never know.

John :42-44, The Earliest Christian Church, part IV of IV

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on my own initiative, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

//Continuing yesterday’s topic of similarities between the Ebionites, that first Christian church stemming from Jerusalem, and the Johannine writings, we now come to a crucial parallel. It’s this matter of supposed anti-Semitism. Today’s words condemning the Jews are placed by John on the tongue of none other than Jesus. Did Jesus really speak such damning words to the Jews? I don’t know. In today’s verse, he tells them that they follow the devil, not God; that their father is the devil, not God. But this friction between the Jews and the Christians in the first century was felt in both directions.

You may be familiar with the famous “twelfth benediction,” recited in Jewish synagogues to curse Christians. It is thought to have been placed in the common prayer in about 80 A.D. These “Christians” who were cursed by the prayer were probably Jewish Christians, considered by practicing Jews to be a heretical subgroup of Judaism. Epiphanius writes that the Jews curse the “Nazoreans” three times a day. (Early Christians were known as Nazarites.) Jerome indicates that it is the Ebionites whom the Jews are cursing.

Does it not make sense, then, that the Christian sect most likely to condemn their opponents, the Jews, would be the Ebionites? And which gospel most strongly condemns the Jews? The fourth one. This friction between traditional Jews and apostate Christian Jews is strongly reflected in the gospel of John, where Jesus roundly condemns “the Jews,” saying they never knew the real Father. And this is hardly the only passage in John’s Gospel condemning the Jews.

Jesus, of course, was a Jew; John was a Jew; all of the apostles were Jews. Yet Jesus condemns the Jews. It’s clear that he was speaking not of a race of people, among whom he would be counted, but of his religious opponents. Opponents of the early church, the Ebionites.

John 8:28, The Earliest Christian Church, Part III of IV

Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

//Yesterday, I promised to bring up some similarities I’ve noticed between Johannine Christians and the Ebionites, that early Jewish Christian sect that I believe stems from the first church in Jerusalem. Here are some that come to mind; if you can think of more, please let me know!

– John’s emphasis, in both the Gospel and Revelation, is Jerusalem. (Contrast this to the other three Gospels, where Jesus spends all of his time in Galilee before making that one fateful trip to the big city.) The Ebionites (being Jewish Christians) revered Jerusalem as God’s city, and continued to pray toward Jerusalem.

– John’s Gospel emphasizes community, a close-knit segregated brotherhood. The Ebionites lived communally and seemed to draw away from other groups, including other Christian groups.

– John’s concept of the pre-existent Christ (see today’s verse above as an example) matches Ebionite doctrine. They saw Jesus as a true prophet who had repeatedly appeared throughout history. Jesus’ first appearance was in Adam.

– The Ebionites understood the resurrection to be a spiritual event, not bodily resurrection. If you set aside the final chapter of John’s Gospel, which surely is an add-on, then John also describes the resurrection as spiritual.

Curiously, in many ways the gospel considered to be of highest Christology (John) aligns with the thinking of the very first Christian church, often described as a low Christology!

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