Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Triumph Of Jesus (part 1)

He has a name written on His clothing and on His thigh: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” – Revelation 19:16  (NET)

In the time period in which the Apocalypse of John (also known as the book of Revelation) was composed, there was a well known ritual within the Roman Empire.  This ritual was referred to as a “triumph.”  All were familiar with this ritual, especially the residents of the city of Rome, as this would be the place at which the greatest of “triumphs” would take place.  Along with those who were privileged to witness such things in person, those who participated in the Caesar cult, who worshiped Caesar as a god (or son of god), though residing in far-flung regions of the empire, would most assuredly have been aware of this glorious celebration, as it would serve to reinforce proscriptions concerning the divinity of the Caesar.  This is especially true if the “triumph” was in celebration of the Caesar himself, though the ritual was not limited to the emperor, and could be afforded to a general of Rome. 

Speaking of the worship of Caesar, which must be comprehended in accordance with any thoughts about the “triumph,” one must realize that the cult that was dedicated to the worship of the emperor and his household was believed to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) cults of the ancient world in which John the revelator would take up his pen.  An excellent example of the honor afforded to the divine emperor an inscription from the Provincial Assembly of Asia that took place in the year 9 B.C. 

It reads: “The most divine… we should consider co-equal to the beginning of all things…; for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura; …then common good fortune of all…The beginning of life and vitality. …All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine as the new beginning of the year…Whereas Providence, which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (this man), whom it [Providence] filled with strength  the welfare of men, and who being to us and our descendants as Savior , has put an end to war and has set all things in Order; and [whereas] having become [god] manifest, has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times… in surpassing all the benefactors who proceed him…, and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth]”. 

One must presume that John, exiled to the island of Patmos by the empire, would also have been familiar with the grand celebratory event of the “triumph”.  To go along with this point, the seven cities of Asia Minor to which John writes in his apocalypse, are believed to be strong centers of emperor worship, which serves as a bit of a backdrop to John’s message to those churches.  The Revelation, “Apocalypse” in Greek because of its use of almost exclusively apocalyptic language (“apocalyptic” meaning “behind the veil”) to present the Creator God’s perspective on things, as can be seen in regular use in the writings of the Hebrew prophets (while also being scattered throughout the historical and poetical/wisdom writings as well), asks to be read with the Roman empire, its Caesar cult, and its imperial pronouncements, standing in the background and most assuredly coloring the thoughts of its intended audience. 

Evidence of this worship was to be found in virtually every significant city of the empire, with cities even competing with each other to show forth their commitment to the cult through the erection of temples and statues and the offering of substantial sacrifices, so as to receive greater imperial (and therefore divine) benefaction.  Indeed, a portion of the liturgy surrounding the worship of Caesar indicated that Caesar had been faithful to his subjects, so his subjects, in turn, were to be faithful to him.  The Greek phrase that was employed to communicate this message was “ek pistis eis pistin.”  This is generally translated as “from faith to faith,” and is co-opted by the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans (right under Caesar’s nose), and made to more properly apply to the true King and His subjects.   

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Tradition Of Wells (part 11 of 11)

The Jeremiah narrative happens upon a well on two occasions.  In the sixth chapter, as Jeremiah verbally depicts the destruction that is going to come upon Jerusalem due to its idolatry, he shares some of the Lord’s thoughts concerning the city.  The God of Israel can be heard to say “Cut down the trees around Jerusalem and build up a siege ramp against its walls.  This is the city which is to be punished.  Nothing but oppression happens in it.  As a well continually pours out fresh water so it continually pours out wicked deeds.  Sounds of violence and destruction echo throughout it.  All I see are sick and wounded people” (6:6-7). 

This is, of course, a reflection upon Israel’s covenant failures.  For this, the Creator God brings His curse against His covenant people.  Death is coming to them.  It is against this that Jesus can be heard speaking, when He says “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become a fountain of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).  This eternal life is so much more than a one-way ticket to heaven upon death.  Rather, it is an entrance into the covenant people of the Creator God, in which one shares in the covenant blessings promised by the God of Israel (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28), and presumably the resurrection of the righteous at the end of the age. 

Not long thereafter, the Samaritan woman questions Jesus about whether Jerusalem is the appropriate place to offer worship.  Might this be a reflection on what the Creator God says about Jerusalem in Jeremiah (a well that pours out wicked deeds rather than fresh water)?  Jesus responds by telling her “a time is coming… when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (4:23a).  Further on in Jeremiah, the prophet laments over that which he speaks, saying “I wish that my head were a well full of water and my eyes were a fountain full of tears!  If they were, I could cry day and night for those of my dear people who have been killed” (9:1). 

Hosea is the next prophet to be heard, as he spoke to the situation of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Referring to the judgment of the Creator God that was coming upon that portion of His people, Hosea says “Even though he flourishes like a reed plant, a scorching east wind will come, a wind from the Lord rising up from the desert.  As a result, his spring will dry up; his well will become dry.  That wind will spoil all his delightful foods in the containers in his storehouse” (13:15).  Beyond the natural fact that water is necessary for life for all peoples everywhere, wells had been a source of life for Israel, stretching back to Abraham as a place of marriage and ultimately offspring that continued their God’s covenant purposes.  Here, their God speaks of a well that would become dry.  Specifically, this is directed against Samaria (13:16), which is the setting for Jesus well meeting.  This provides added color to Jesus’ talk of “living water” (4:10) and “a fountain of water springing up to eternal life, as well as Jesus’ directing of the woman’s attention away from either Samaria or Jerusalem as the center of worship. 

In a similar instance, to round out and wrap up this study, is to be found in the prophetic work of Micah.  Here, it is possible to readily identify informative points of contact with the Johannine well story, as Micah speaks of the Creator God’s judgment that comes “because of Jacob’s rebellion and the sins of the nation of Israel” (1:15a).  Not unlike the woman’s question to Jesus about the proper place of worship, and being mindful of Jesus’ response, Micah can be heard to rhetorically inquire “How has Jacob rebelled, you ask?  Samaria epitomizes their rebellion!  Where are Judah’s pagan worship centers, you ask?  They are right in Jerusalem!” (1:15b).  As Micah goes on to describe the tribulation that will come their way, he is heard saying “Therefore you will have to say farewell to Moresheth Gath.  The residents of Achzib will be as disappointing as a dried up well to the kings of Israel” (1:14).  

A Tradition Of Wells (part 10)

This study now advances to the works of the prophets.  A look at wells through the prophets will conclude the exploration and recognition of that which has provided useful background information and contextualization for the portrayal of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  As this is done, one should continue to reflect on the fact that the shared historical narrative of the nation will shape the prophets’ conception of wells, providing foundation material for their own thought, while maintaining the awareness that prophetical treatment of wells will also serve to inform the significance of wells as they appear in the messianic presentations of John’s Gospel. 

Looking first to the thirty-seventh chapter of Isaiah.  As the prophecy shares material that is common to the second book of the Kings, Isaiah recounts the invasion of Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, along with the response of the king, that being Hezekiah.  Hezekiah has laid Judah’s case before Israel’s God, asking for His intervention against what appears to be the seemingly unavoidable calamity that is coming upon His people.  In response, Isaiah sends a message to Hezekiah (37:21), sharing the response of the “Lord God of Israel” (37:21b). 

In the course of what is to shared with Hezekiah, Isaiah makes mention of a well, placing its mention on the lips of the arrogant king of Assyria, as the reader gets to hear what Israel’s God has effectively heard him say: “With my many chariots I climbed up the high mountains, the slopes of Lebanon.  I cut down its tall cedars and its best evergreens.  I invaded its remote regions, its thickest woods.  I dug wells and drank water.  With the soles of my feet I drip up all the rivers of Egypt” (37:24b-25). 

Naturally, any mention of Egypt by a foreign king that stands against the people of Israel, is bound to invoke memories of Israel’s Egyptian experience.  Regardless of what any king could claim to have performed against Egypt, the God of Israel could lay claim to far more astounding feats.  With talk of Egypt triggering such thoughts, one could easily retrace and rethink talk of chariots (the Egyptian army overcome by the water of the sea), the digging of wells (Abraham and Isaac), and the drinking of water (the continuous provision of water in the wilderness), and be reminded that the covenant and Creator God of Israel had more than sufficient power with which to repel the relatively impotent king of Assyria.  How this might play into the thoughts of John and Jesus, if at all, while considering the importance of Isaiah to thoughts of the messiah and to the New Testament in general, is not entirely clear, though the underlying themes of covenant faithfulness do provide a means of application.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Tradition Of Wells (part 9)

Wading into the deep, deep waters of the wisdom/poetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, it should be first noted with interest, and honestly, with a great deal of surprise, that there is no mention of wells within the Psalms.  This is surprising, especially considering that there are a number of occasions in which Israel’s history (or at least a part of it) is recounted in Psalmic form.  When reflecting on the routine placement of wells, and their connection with every patriarch as well as Moses and the nation of Israel itself, one is only left to wonder at such an omission.  Nevertheless, wells are mentioned on three occasions in the book of Proverbs. 

In the fifth chapter the author writes “Drink water from your own cistern and running water from your own well.  Should your springs be dispersed outside, your streams of water in the wide plazas?  Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you.  May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in your young wife” (5:15-18).  This is presented in the context of the first two verses of the same chapter, where one finds “My child, be attentive to my wisdom, pay close attention to my understanding, in order to safeguard discretion, and that your lips may guard knowledge.  For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her seductive words are smoother than olive oil, but in the end she is as bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (5:1-4). 

Not as a means of casting aspersions upon the Samaritan woman at the well in John, but it is certainly not beyond the realm of probability to hear in these verses some potential background for a woman that meets Jesus at a well, that has had five husbands, and is currently engaged in a relationship with a man that was not her husband.  It is in a similar vein that one hears the next mention of wells here in Proverbs, as the proverbial author writes “Give me your heart, my son, and let your eyes observe my ways; for a prostitute is like a deep pit; a harlot is like a narrow well” (23:26-27). 

In a use that does not seem to be entirely helpful to this project, though an effort could probably be made to shape and twist it to fit the particular needs of this study, the twenty-fifth chapter reads “Like a muddied spring and a polluted well, so is a righteous person who gives way before the wicked” (25:26).  The same could also be said (not entirely helpful, though one must be cognizant of the potential to shape the thoughts of Jesus and the Johannine author, so that it plays a role in their respective thinking) of what one stumbles upon in the book of Ecclesiastes, as before reading “Absolutely futile!... All things are futile!” (12:8), representing the “Teacher’s” summary of his search for the purpose of life, it is said that “before the silver cord is removed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered by the well, or the water wheel is broken at the cistern---and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God Who gave it” (12:6-7). 

Rounding out the poetic literature and turning to the Song of Solomon, the well is mentioned in connection with a love relationship.  The word “bride” is even mentioned, creating the connotation of marriage and placing this use of “well” at a distance that is much closer to the John four story than what has been seen in the previous two instances.  There Solomon (presumably) writes “You are a locked garden, my sister, my bride; you are an enclosed spring, a sealed-up fountain.  Your shoots are a royal garden full of pomegranates with choice fruits: henna with nard, nard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon with every kind of spice, myrrh and aloes with all the finest spices.  You are garden spring, a well of fresh water flowing down from Lebanon” (4:12-15). 

Musing upon the number of marriages within the historical presentation of Israel that came about in connection with wells, it makes a great deal of sense to hear this Hebrew poet talk of wells during the course of a love song directed to his sister, his bride.  Because the bringing forth of children, especially in Genesis, following the marriages that were associated with wells, was packaged together with the continuation and propagation of the Creator God’s covenants that began with Abraham, would this subtly call attention to the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness, thus casting this, in a way, as something of a love song between the Creator God and His special people Israel?  If one was inclined to stretch the analogy a bit more, one could look at Israel’s stop at the place of twelve wells as the place of their birth, just before their entering into their own covenant relationship (marriage) with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?      

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Tradition Of Wells (part 8)

Continuing to lay the conceptual foundation for the collective consciousness concerning wells, it is worthwhile to quickly trace all remaining mentions of wells within what are considered to be the historical books of Israel.  In the second book of Samuel, there is a mention that is probably not a helpful or useful mention of a well, at least on the surface.  Nevertheless, it occurs during the time period following the death of King Saul, as David is solidifying his royal position, so perhaps others can find related value in its mention. 

Engaging the text: “Then Joab left David and sent messengers after Abner” (3:26a).  Joab is the commander of David’s forces, and Abner is the commander of the forces of Saul, and temporarily Ishbosheth, the son of Saul.  “They brought him back from the well of Sirah.  (But David was not aware of it.)  When Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside at the gate as if to speak privately with him.  Joab then stabbed him in the abdomen and killed him” (3:26b-27a).  Later in the same book, during the time of Absalom’s temporarily successful (and seemingly temporarily divinely sanctioned) taking of the throne of Israel, there is a story concerning two spies that David had in his employ. 

This seems to be as useful as the event just presented, but in dutifully presenting the record it is found that “Jonathan and Ahimaaz were staying in En Rogel.  A female servant would go and inform them, and they would then go and inform King David.  It was not advisable for them to be seen going into the city.  But a young man saw them on one occasion and informed Absalom.  So the two of them quickly departed and went to the house of a man in Bahurim.  There was a well in his courtyard, and they got down in it” (17:17-18). 

Finally, in the book of Nehemiah, in a section that mentions wells as part of a prayerful praise that recounted Israel’s history, beginning with the Genesis account of creation, in a manner which undergirds the purpose of this study by demonstrating a mention of wells in a general recapitulation of the exodus narrative, Nehemiah can be heard to say “They captured fortified cities and fertile land.  They took possession of houses full of all sorts of good things---wells previously dug, vineyards, olive trees, and fruit trees in abundance.  They enjoyed to the full your great goodness” (9:25). 

Having reviewed the location of wells within the historical narrative (though it is possible to find some historical narrative overlap when turning to the prophets, specifically Isaiah), this study now turns its attention to the mention of wells within the wisdom/poetic and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.  With these, it will be possible to see how the larger part of the historical narrative that is associated with wells serves to shape ideas about references to wells in this body of work, while also continuing to form the historical imagination along the lines of that of the Johannine author, that one might more correctly approach the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Tradition Of Wells (part 7)

In the fifteenth chapter of Exodus, following the miracle at the sea, Israel ventures on to Elim, “where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palms trees, and they camped there by the water” (15:27).  Coincidentally, their first stop following their deliverance was at a place called Marah.  It is reported that “they came to Marah, but they were not able to drink the waters of Marah, because they were bitter. (That is why its name is Marah)” (15:23).  Through Moses, the Creator God of Israel is said to have intervened in this situation, making the water safe to drink.  However, it is not until they reach Elim, the place of twelve wells (reminding the reader of the twelve sons/tribes of Jacob/Israel), following the miraculous crossing and defeat of their pursuers, that they are said to have made camp. 

In the book of Numbers one finds an interesting mention of a well.  As it is connected to Moses and to a song, while also occurring during their long exodus experience, it is not difficult to imagine this account having a special place within Israelite memory.  Reading on then: “they traveled to Beer; that is the well where the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Gather the people and I will give them water.’  Then Israel sang this song: ‘Spring up, O well, sing to it!  The well which the princes dug, which the leaders of the people opened with their scepters and their staffs.’” (21:16-18a) 

Fresh on the heels of the song about the well, “Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let us pass through your land; we will not turn aside into the fields or into the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well, but we will go along the King’s Highway until we pass your borders.’” (21:21-22)  This request was rebuffed.  Not only was there a refusal, but “he gathered all his forces together and went out against Israel in the wilderness” (21:23b).  In consequence, “the Israelites defeated him in battle and took possession of his land” (21:24a).  One could rest assured that Israel then drank from their wells and turned aside into the fields and vineyards. 

Is there any way that this particular well-story could come into play when looking at the well-story of the Gospel of John?  Certainly, otherwise why ask the question?  How does that story in the Gospel of John begin?  John reports that Jesus had “left Judea and set out once more for Galilee.  But He had to pass through Samaria” (4:3-4).  Obviously Jesus could have avoided going through Samaria, taking a different route on His return trip to Galilee, but this was the route that He chose. 

Similarly, Israel could have taken any number of routes towards their promised land, but they did not.  Just as they chose (or their God chose for them through Moses) a route that was going to take them through the land of the Amorites (specifically including the “King’s Highway”), so also Jesus chose a route that would take Him through Samaria.  On another level, it would certainly not be a reach to consider the idea that the author of John believed that any road being traveled by Jesus would be the “King’s Highway.” 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Tradition Of Wells (part 6)

This study now departs from Genesis and moves on to Exodus, which is the event (so much more than just the title of the book) that gives definitive shape to Israel’s self-consciousness.  Indeed, it can even be said that the understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Genesis, is shaped by the self-revelation of that same God as the God of Israel’s exodus.  This means that the God that reveals Himself as One Who works and intervenes on behalf of His people and His creation, doing so from the beginning of the Genesis narrative, is now also to be understood through the lens of the God that liberated Israel from Egypt, provided them with a covenant charge, with guidance as to how to live up to their covenant responsibilities, and guided them to their promised land. 

This holds especially true if Moses is indeed the primary author/compiler/compose of the Torah, thus making it impossible to separate the notion of exodus (rescue, deliverance, redemption, restoration, etc…) from thoughts about the Creator God of Israel.  Indeed, thinking along such lines allows us to view Genesis one and two as a divine rescue, much like Israel was divinely rescued from their Egyptian bondage. 

With such thoughts reverberating in a reader’s mind during a conscientious approach to the broad Scriptural narrative, one should be thoroughly unsurprised to see Moses, after fleeing Egypt in the wake of his murder of an Egyptian that had been mis-treating an Israelite, settling in the land of Midian and doing so by a “certain well” (Exodus 2:15b).  That level of surprise continues in its restraint when reading that “a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and began to draw water and fill the troughs in order to water their father’s flock.  When some shepherds came and drove them away, Moses came up and defended them and then watered their flock” (Exodus 2:16-17). 

In this, Moses becomes very much like Jacob, watering the flock for one who will eventually come to be his wife.  As was seen with Rebekah and Rachel, there was a rush to return home so that these girls might share their story with their father (2:18-19).  In response, Moses is summoned to the home of the priest.  He “agreed to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage” (2:21). 

With this third patriarchal (in the broadest sense) instance of a wife being found at a well, it shall be noted with great interest that part of Jesus’ conversation at the well with the Samaritan woman---the portion that convinces her of His status as a prophet, centers upon the subject of marriage.  It is almost as if to say that the woman, who actually lacks a husband though it is said that she has had several, has come to the well, and through this encounter with the one that can truly provide water (as did Jacob and Moses), she found herself a true and lasting husband.