Thursday, February 16, 2017

Judah Was Taken into Exile ... And Then What Happened???

The "House of Ahiel" in Jerusalem, Destroyed by Babylonians in 586 B.C.

As you read through the Old Testament, do you ever get confused about the order of events during the years of the Exile? In English Bibles, 2 Chronicles ends and then the book of Ezra begins. But where does Daniel fit in? Or Ezekiel? If Ezekiel is in Exile, why is he writing to people back in Judah? What about the reference to Jehoiachin at the end of 2 Kings? When did that happen?

Most of the chronology of the Old Testament is relatively clear. Genesis provides a straightforward storyline from the time of creation to the time of Joseph. Exodus through Deuteronomy covers the time between the Egyptian sojourn to the end of the Wilderness Wanderings. And Joshua through 2 Chronicles give us the history from the Conquest to the Exile.

However, once we come to the time of the Exile, things get rather confusing. Information must be pieced together from several books (2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and then synthesized with the history of the ancient Near East in order to get a complete picture. The information below is intended to help you understand how the various strands of the OT text and information from secular history work together to tell one continuous story.

Taken into Exile

Jeremiah 25:11-12 predicted that the Exile would last for 70 years, one year for each of the missed Sabbaths during the 490-year period when the kings reigned (cf. 2 Chr 36:20-21). One of the best suggestions for the 70 years of the Exile is that it began when Nebuchadnezzar first took a portion of the Judeans with him back to Babylon in 605 B.C., and that it ended when Zerubbabel led the first group of Exiles back to the land in (possibly) 536 B.C. And although we refer "the Exile" as one event, the deportation of the Judeans actually happened in a series of waves. The year 586 B.C. is one of the key dates of OT history that I teach to my students to help them remember when the Exile happened, but that date actually occurred in the middle of the Exile, not at the beginning of it. Here's what happened:

First Wave of Deportations (approx. 605 B.C.)
2 Kgs 24:1; 2 Chr 36:5-7—King Jehoiakim of Judah had paid tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon for 3 years, but then he rebelled and Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. Although Nebuchadnezzar threatened to deport him, it seems that Jehoiakim was allowed to remain on his throne in Jerusalem. However, Nebuchadnezzar carried off vessels from the Temple back to Babylon.
Dan 1:1-7—At this time, he also deported “some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace” (ESV). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were taken to Babylon with this first group.

Second Wave of Deportations (approx. 597 B.C.)
2 Kgs 24:10-16; 2 Chr 36:9-10—Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem once again, and Jehoiachin (after only 3 months on the throne) was forced to surrender. He was deported to Babylon along with most of the population of Jerusalem and the treasuries of the palace and Temple. It seems that Ezekiel also was deported at this time, which is why he was sitting in Exile but sometimes writing to people back in the homeland.

Third Wave of Deportations (approx. 586 B.C.)
2 Kgs 25:1-21; 2 Chr 36:11-21—Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem once again, this time to quell the rebellion of Zedekiah. This time, not only were the people and treasures of Judah taken into Exile, but the city of Jerusalem was burned and left in ruins. Since the city and the temple were both destroyed in this attack and since the kingdom of Judah ceased to exist at this point, this is the "key date" that I make my students memorize for the Exile of the Southern Kingdom.

So the Exile began in 605 B.C. but was not in full force until 586 B.C.

Babylonian & Persian Kings

Meanwhile, what was going on in Babylon during the Exile? How does biblical history of the Exile fit into the timeline of the Babylonian and Persian kingdoms? Here is a list of the Babylonian and Persian kings from this period and the biblical events that took place under their reigns. Notice how the books of Daniel, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Jeremiah, and even Isaiah are woven together:

Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.  Reigned: 605-562 B.C.
Biblical Events: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd deportations of Judah (see the explanation above). Destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25:1-21; 2 Chr 36:11-21). Nebuchadnezzer had some dreams interpreted by Daniel (Dan 2 & 4), threw Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego into the fiery furnace (Dan 3), and was humbled by God for seven years when he went temporarily insane (Dan 4).

Evil-Merodach, king of Babylon.  Reigned: 562-560 B.C.
Biblical Events: Evil-Merodach pardoned Jehoiachin (who had been taken to Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar's second deportation), released him from prison, and allowed him to sit daily at the king’s table (2 Kgs 25:27-30).

Neriglissar, king of Babylon.  Reigned: 560-556 B.C.

Labaši-Marduk, king of Babylon.  Reigned: 556 B.C.

Nabonidus, king of Babylon.  Reigned: 555-539 B.C.
Nabonidus was frequently out of the capital due to his religious loyalties to the god “Sin” instead of to Marduk, the patron god of the city of Babylon. Consequently, his son Bel-šar-uṣur (a.k.a., Belshazzar) reigned in his absence.
Biblical Events: On one occasion while Nabonidus was away from the capital, Belshazzar threw a feast and used the vessels from the Temple of Yahweh. A supernatural hand appeared and wrote a message of judgment on the wall which Daniel interpreted for Belshazzar (Dan 5). Given the fact that Belshazzar was the second highest ruler in the kingdom (since Nabonidus was the first), he could only offer Daniel the position of "third highest ruler in the kingdom" (Dan 5:7, 29).

Cyrus II, king of Persia.  Reigned: 559-530 B.C.
Cyrus’s troops captured Babylon in 539 B.C. and a few days later he marched triumphantly in and incorporated the kingdom of Babylon into his growing empire. Unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians who deported inhabitants of conquered lands to help keep the peace, Cyrus did the exact opposite. He allowed the deported inhabitants of Babylon to return to the lands of their origin. He did this not only for the Israelites, but for other people groups as well. By doing his subjects a favor, he hoped to win the support of the masses and keep rebellions to a minimum. What Cyrus did not realize was that God's hand of providence was fulfilling prophecies made through Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Biblical Events:  In 538 B.C., Cyrus decreed that the Judeans could return to their land to rebuild their cities and temple (2 Chr 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4), thus fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy about the exile lasting 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). It is also important to note that Cyrus’s decree was prophesied by Isaiah more than 150 years before it occurred (Isa 44:24-45:13).

The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum

So there you have it: a timeline for the years of the Exile that pulls together crucial information from various books of the Bible and from history. Easy? Not really. Studying the Bible takes hard work. Worth it? Definitely. By digging into the details, we grow stronger in our faith. Knowing that the Bible is rooted in solid history encourages us to trust the Author with our lives.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Zimbabwe Trip Report, Part 1: The Where & The What

A month ago, I had the honor of being a guest lecturer at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe (BTSZ).  It was an amazing trip.  In my next few posts, I'm going to record various aspects of my experience as a way to make people aware of what things are like there and as a way to say "Thank you" to the people who supported me through prayers and financial gifts. To kick things off, this first post will cover the basics: where I was and what I did.

BTSZ sits in the heart of Zimbabwe, near the city of Gweru.  As you can see from the map above, Gweru sits in the dead center of the country, so the school is in a prime location for pastors and church planters to get trained within Zimbabwe. Students in my course came from various places in the country. One of them traveled over four hours to get there for my class.  The school itself (as well as the rest of the country) has fallen on hard times, but I am excited about the future because it has the potential of making a strong impact on the theological education of Zimbabwe's pastors, which will then strengthen the faith and understanding of the church there.

Here are a couple of shots of the school itself.  It is just a single row of buildings, plus a chapel.  The school currently has only about 20 students, but has the facilities for training many more. Again, this school is strategically placed within the county and I'm excited to see what God is going to do with it in the future.

Finally, here is a shot of me teaching in the classroom.  As you can see, we had to get a little creative so that the students could see the slides in my presentations. And electricity was a bit of an issue (more on that in a later post).  But God was faithful to provide everything we needed.

While we were in the initial stages of planning this trip, I was delighted to be asked to teach a course on "Biblical Backgrounds."  I had 14 students who were eager to learn, and I received lots of positive feedback about the class. The class was set up as J-term, which means the lectures were all-day, everyday for five days straight.  Then I left and the students were to complete the readings and other assignments on their own, submitting them to me electronically.

So for five days, I was able to do what I love doing: teach students about the reality of the Bible.  The Bible records real events, real places, and real things. And through archaeology and historical geography, we have a window into the ancient world that helps us understand the Bible better.  It was a pure delight to share my knowledge with my brothers in Zimbabwe and to see them grow in their understanding of the Bible.  There were several "Aha!" moments when the students understood a passage of the Bible better because of what they were learning. For example, one day I taught them about how pottery was made in ancient times, including what a potter's wheel looked like. Then we turned to the passage in Jeremiah 18 where God tells Jeremiah to go watch the local potter work at his wheel. You could see the student's faces light up and see them nod their heads as they understood what that meant.

I'll dig in deeper in my next post about the material we covered and what it was like teaching in Africa.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

How to Read Your Bible Every Day

In one of the college courses I teach, the students discuss barriers that prevent them from reading their Bible on a consistent basis. Three of the most common barriers the students list are a lack of time, a lack of discipline, and a difficulty in understanding the Bible.  So today I shared with them the following advice.  I am posting it here on my blog in the hope that others will find it useful as well:

In last week's discussion forum, many of you shared your struggles with reading your Bible consistently. Thank you for being so open and honest with one another. By being open we can help each other become the people God wants us to be. Let me provide you with a few simple things you can do to help you read your Bible more regularly and understand it better.

First, I would encourage you choose a Bible translation that is easy to understand. Don't pick up a King James Version Bible and expect yourself to stay motivated as you sludge through difficult language. Instead, choose a translation that is easy to read. The English Standard Version (ESV), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the New International Version (NIV) are three that I recommend.

Second, I would encourage you to read at least one chapter a day. A chapter is a small enough chunk to complete in short amount of time (so you are more likely to actually do it!) but it is a large enough chunk for you to understand the context of what you are reading. Understanding the context is key to interpreting the Bible correctly. So one chapter a day is a great place to start. If you can do a little more, I recommend reading one chapter in the Old Testament and one chapter in the New Testament.

Third, I would encourage you to read the Bible from start to finish. Moving through the Bible from front to back helps you understand better what you are reading. For example, when later books talk about Abraham, it helps to have already read about Abraham in Genesis. If you are reading one chapter a day, it will take a while to get through the whole Bible, but speed is not the point. The point is growing in your understanding of the truth God has given us in the Bible. (If you take my recommendation of reading one chapter from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament each day, start in Genesis and Matthew. You will finish the New Testament first. When you do, just go back to Matthew and start over while you continue to work your way through the Old Testament.)

Fourth, if you have trouble understanding what the Bible is saying, I would encourage you to read from a study Bible. Study Bibles provide introductions to each book and have footnotes at the bottom that explain the more difficult verses. The MacArthur Study Bible is one that I highly recommend. The ESV Study Bible is another good option.

Last, to get the most out of your Bible readings, look for one key takeaway from what you have read. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What does this chapter teach about God's character? This is especially helpful when you are reading one of the stories in the Bible. Biblical stories usually tell us something about how God has dealt with his people in the past. What does this passage tell you about God? Do you see him punishing sin? Do you see him extending mercy? Do you see him rescuing His people from harm? Look for God's hand in the story and then apply that to your life.  You serve the same God that Abraham, David, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul served.
  • Are there any positive examples for me to imitate in this passage? Are there any negative examples for me to avoid? The Bible provides us with characters who do both godly things and ungodly things, and it often shows us the consequences of those actions. So look for what God would teach you through the lives of the characters in the stories. For example, do you see someone who was selfish? Where did that lead them? Do you ever struggle with being selfish? Where could that sin lead you?
  • Are there any commands from God in this chapter that you need to obey? You have to be careful with this question because the Bible records commands that God gave to ancient Israel or to certain individuals that do not necessarily apply to us today.  But often times you will run across a command that applies to God's people in every age or applies specifically in the church age where we live now.

Once you have your key takeaway, write down the one or two verses that teach this truth. You can write it in a journal, a note file on your computer, or an app on your phone. The place you write it down doesn't have to be anything fancy, and you don't need to write very much. Personally, I just write down the verse that contains the truth I want to focus on for that day. I have a daily to do list on my computer, so I copy-paste the verse from my Bible software into that list.  I also have a little notebook I use for my prayer time, so I write the verse down on the page that contains that day's prayer list. Then I talk to God about that verse during my prayer time.

If all this seems overwhelming to you, don't try to do it all at once. Just start with the first three steps: choose a translation that is easy to read, start by reading one chapter a day, and start in Genesis. You can add in the other things later.  The important thing is just to start.

Photo courtesy of BiblePlaces.comPictorial Library of Bible Lands, vol. 18.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Archaeology and Joshua's Conquest

Jericho, Tell es-Sultan Revetment Wall on Southern End

One of the most intriguing topics in biblical archaeology is the Conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelite forces.  Here is some basic information I share with my students when I have the opportunity to talk about the topic:

Is there archaeological evidence for the destruction of Jericho?

Yes.  Non-Christian archaeologists usually will say that there is no evidence of destruction at Jericho from the time of Joshua.  However, a closer look at the evidence provides amazing corroboration between the archaeological record and the biblical account.  It is true that there are no fortifications that were constructed during the Late Bronze period (the time of Joshua), but there are strong indications that the Middle Bronze fortifications were still in use at the time of the Israelite conquest:
  • Rahab’s house was built into the city wall: this was a common feature of the Middle Bronze city wall.
  • The walls of the city “fell down flat”: the fortifications surrounding the city were comprised of stone retaining walls with mudbrick walls built on top.  The retaining walls still stand today, but the mudbrick walls fell down in antiquity.  When they fell, they tumbled down in front of the retaining walls and formed a ramp for the Israelite soldiers to enter the city, “every man straight before him.”
  • The city was destroyed at harvest time (Josh. 2:6): large jars full of burned grain were found by archaeologists in the destruction layer.  This shows that the harvest had just been completed (otherwise the jars would not have been full).
  • The city was destroyed by fire, and all of it was devoted to destruction: there is a significant burn layer from this period, and the fact that the jars of grain were not taken by the invading army but instead were burned is highly unusual.

What should we expect to see in the archaeological record for the Conquest at the time of Joshua?

When people think about the Conquest, they tend to think of it as a intensely violent event where the Israelite army swept through the land destroying everything in sight.  And the lack of destruction layers in the archaeological record at the end of the 15th century BC has helped to persuade some people to reinterpret biblical passages such as 1 Kings 6:1 that indicate that the Exodus and Conquest took place during that century. Instead they turn to the 13th century where the archaeological record shows more destruction.

However, a careful reading of the text reveals a surprising insight ... For the most part, the Israelite Conquest was focused on destroying the Canaanite population, not Canaanite property.

  • In Deuteronomy 6:10-11, Moses predicts that after the conquest the Israelites will live in “great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant ...”
  • In Joshua 24:13, Joshua confirms that God kept His promise to the Israelites: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.” Since the Israelites intended to live in the cities and houses of the Canaanites, why would they destroy them?
  • Joshua 10:28-43  describes the annihilation of populations of certain cities, but says nothing of the destruction of property.  For example, Joshua 10:28 states, “As for Makkedah, Joshua captured it on that day and struck it, and its king, with the edge of the sword. He devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining.”
  • Joshua 10:40 sums up the southern campaign by saying: “So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” Again, this verse talks about destroying the inhabitants ("all that breathed") but not the property.
  • Joshua 11:13 states that during the northern campaign, “none of the cities that stood on mounds did Israel burn, except Hazor alone; that Joshua burned.”

The only exceptions to this practice of leaving the property of the Canaanites intact were the burnings of Jericho, Ai, and Hazor.  Therefore, we should not expect to find consistent massive burn layers or destruction levels in Palestine at the end of the fifteenth century.  As some evangelical scholars have pointed out, if we did then it would be contrary to the biblical record and would be an embarrassment to the traditional view.

Did Joshua defeat the entire land of Canaan?

Yes and no.  On the one hand, the book of Joshua makes clear that God fulfilled His promise of giving the land of Canaan to the Israelites (Josh. 21:43-45; 23:14).  On the other hand, Joshua and Judges make it clear that not all of the land was conquered.  There were still some cities and areas where Canaanites still dwelt (Josh. 13:1-6; 17:12-13, 16-18; 23:4-5, 12-13; Judg. 1:19, 21, 27-36; 2:3).  In fact, God foretold this to the Israelites while they were at Sinai:

“I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.” (Exodus 23:29-30; see also Deut. 7:22.)

The best understanding of the Israelite Conquest was that the combined force of the Israelite army broke the backbone of the nations that dwelt in the land and established a large foothold in the hill country.  The Canaanite forces were significantly weakened by the battles that they lost against the Israelites.  However, pockets of resistance still remained and it was the responsibility of each tribe to drive them out.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Nero vs. Paul

Nero's "Golden House" or Domus Aurea has been in the news recently (see here). Apparently it is in pretty bad shape and they are working to restore it. But don't hold your breath ... It isn't expected to reopen until 2018. In the meantime, we can talk about how Nero relates to New Testament history.

Nero ruled the Roman empire from 54 to 68 A.D. If you recall, Nero is the Roman emperor who burned part of Rome in 64 A.D., but he blamed the Christians for starting the fire. Consequently, he executed Christians publicly in various ways: crucifixion, feeding them to wild animals, and burning them. During his reign, he also murdered his mother and his first couple of wives, and he demanded to be worshiped as a god. Nice guy. And that Golden House we just talked about? That was built after the fire happened and it was built over part of the area that was burned. So his desire for a grand palace complex may have been his reason for starting the fire in the first place.

But the most amazing thing about Nero is that he is mentioned in the New Testament (although not by name). Nero was the ruler when Paul appealed to Caesar at one of his trials (Acts 25:11), and when he arrived at Rome Paul had an effective ministry among the household of Nero (Phil. 4:22) and among the imperial guard (Phil. 1:12-13). Nero was also on the throne when Paul encouraged believers to "submit to governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1-7) and Peter told believers to be subject to and to honor the emperor (1 Pet. 2:13-17). If Peter and Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could tell believers to submit to Nero's pagan government, then certainly Christians in the United States today need to submit to our government.  Things may be bad in our country today, but they are not nearly as bad as the early Christians had it under Nero.

This morning, I ran across an almost poetic passage about Paul and Nero in my Logos electronic library. So as a concluding thought, picture this:

This first imprisonment came at length to a close, Paul having been acquitted, probably because no witnesses appeared against him. Once more he set out on his missionary labours, probably visiting western and eastern Europe and Asia Minor. During this period of freedom he wrote his First Epistle to Timothy and his Epistle to Titus. The year of his release was signalized by the burning of Rome, which Nero saw fit to attribute to the Christians. A fierce persecution now broke out against the Christians. Paul was siezed, and once more conveyed to Rome a prisoner. During this imprisonment he probably wrote the Second Epistle to Timothy, the last he ever wrote. "There can be little doubt that he appeared again at Nero’s bar, and this time the charge did not break down. In all history there is not a more startling illustration of the irony of human life than this scene of Paul at the bar of Nero. On the judgment-seat, clad in the imperial purple, sat a man who, in a bad world, had attained the eminence of being the very worst and meanest being in it, a man stained with every crime, a man whose whole being was so steeped in every nameable and unnameable vice, that body and soul of him were, as some one said at the time, nothing but a compound of mud and blood; and in the prisoner’s dock stood the best man the world possessed, his hair whitened with labours for the good of men and the glory of God. The trial ended: Paul was condemned, and delivered over to the executioner. He was led out of the city, with a crowd of the lowest rabble at his heels. The fatal spot was reached; he knelt beside the block; the headsman’s axe gleamed in the sun and fell; and the head of the apostle of the world rolled down in the dust" (probably A.D. 66), four years before the fall of Jerusalem.

May we, like Paul, be faithful to the end, no matter what that end may be.

Excerpt from "Paul" in Easton’s Bible Dictionary, by M. G. Easton (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).
Photos courtesy of Todd Bolen, Pictorial Library of the Holy Lands, vol. 15.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

I'm the type of guy who normally just toughs it out, but today I was reminded of my own weakness.

I got sick after church today. I wasn't feeling great this morning after wearing myself out yesterday cleaning, vacuuming, and washing our carpets until about midnight, and then I didn't eat much of a breakfast. So it wasn't too surprising when I started getting a headache after church. That headache turned into a migraine at the restaurant where my family went for lunch and I had to excuse myself to go curl up into a fetal position in our van. I'll spare you the gory details of what happened next, but let's just say that I was in no shape to drive myself home (nor were my clothes very clean anymore). :-\

Fortunately, God has blessed me with a wonderful wife who is living out her vow to love me "in sickness and in health." She took care of the kids, paid the bill at the restaurant, helped clean me up, held my arm as I hobbled around, and drove me home. As I was sitting in the passenger's seat with my head in my hands and my eyes closed, this verse came to mind: "When I am weak, then I am strong." I had no strength on my own at that moment to operate a vehicle ... no strength to get myself home and get to bed where I belonged ... and yet there I was, cruising down the interstate and on my home. Why? Because in my weakness God provided His strength.

In the passage leading up to that verse, Paul says this:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (1 Cor. 12:7-10, ESV)

I don't know what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was, nor do I know exactly how God provided for Paul in spite of that weakness. But the principle in that verse is that God provides for us in our weakness. He brings glory to Himself by putting His sons and daughters into situations where they must rely on His strength ... and then He comes through for them.

Today God's strength was made perfect in my weakness when my wife loved me, stood by me, and took care of me when I was sick and filthy and weak. I was carried on eagle's wings (Exod. 19:4; Isa. 40:31) when I had no strength of my own. (OK, maybe it wasn't actually eagle's wings, but "Toyota minivan" doesn't have the same ring to it.) Sometimes our "thorns in the flesh" can make us so weak that we can't do anything for ourselves. It is those times when God carries us like a good shepherd carrying his sheep.

Even in less extreme circumstances, God provides His strength when He puts us in situations where we can't change things on our own. When we find ourselves there, we just need to pray and trust. We serve a merciful and compassionate God who loves us in practical ways. Frequently in the Bible, we see God placing His people in impossible circumstances, just so He can come through for them in marvelous ways.

When I am weak, then I am strong.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Rainy Day Turned Upsidedown

Is a rainy day a good thing or a bad thing?

In my culture, a "rainy day" has a negative connotation. It starts when you're a kid and a rainy day means that you can't play outside. Then when you get older, you're taught to save money for a "rainy day," which means to save up for when times get bad and money is tight. And in general a rainy day tends puts everyone in a sleepy and somewhat depressed mood.

It is within this context that people in my culture open our Bibles and find Jesus saying this in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:43-48, ESV)

At first glance, it may look like Jesus is saying that God sends good things (the "sun") and bad things (the "rain") to both good people and evil people. But that doesn't fit with the rest of the passage. Jesus is telling us to love our enemies, just like God loves His enemies. The point of the passage is to do good to everyone. So what's going on here?

It is here that a little context into Jesus' culture is helpful. The Jewish culture of Jesus' day viewed rain as a good thing. It was considered a blessing. As I've previously noted on this blog, the land of Israel was a land that required rain in order for anything to grow. This is spelled out in Leviticus 26 where the people are promised the "rains in their seasons" if they are obedient (Lev. 26:3-4), and the withholding of rain if they are disobedient (Lev. 26:18-20). This directly impacted how well their crops did in any given year.

So when Jesus says, "he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust," he is giving us two examples of the grace of God, not just one. To the people sitting at Jesus' feet as he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, the word "rain" would immediately be associated with a blessing. A "rainy day" for them was a cause for celebration, not for moping around the house because you couldn't play outside. And "saving for a rainy day" wouldn't make any sense to them because a "rainy day" meant that you were going to have more wealth that year, not less.

From this we see that it is important to read the Bible in the context of the culture in which it was written. In many ways, our culture and the biblical culture will share the same values, but occasionally the biblical culture will have a completely different take on something than we do in our culture. In this instance, the concept of a "rainy day" is turned on its head.