Job 1-2 B

For whatever reason, I open the book of Job today feeling like I’ve already read it too many times. It’s a bit of a bummer and it’s long. Plus, it addresses one of the most popular debates in history, making it feel like a worn out topic. But thank God His word addresses such a topic!

I grew up assuming this book was a narrative like much of the rest of the Old Testament. This time, I will read it like it might be: an elaborate parable. It’s filed away under wisdom literature and not historical narrative, so why not? We don’t take Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs as narrative, so why would I spend time trying to decide when and where and how this all took place? Do friends really sit for days together and talk in poems? Do people really own things in symbolic round numbers? Did a Biblical writer really overhear the conversations in heaven and on earth to record this tale? This could have been written by Solomon for all we know. Thankfully, it doesn’t matter, because the purpose and occasion for the book are timeless and universal.

Cultural mythologies have their place. A story doesn’t have to be a documentary to be profound, in fact, aren’t we more swept up in sagas like The Lord Of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars than we are of Ken Burns documentaries?

I invite you to come along with me into a study of the symbolism and literary craftsmanship. Maybe this isn’t a new concept and you’ve always read Job this way. In any case, let’s find our new eyes for this tale as old as time.

-Bethany

Song of Songs 5-6 B

Earlier, I mentioned how true love is a gift from God. It’s not something everyone has the privilege of experiencing, and sometimes, that’s on us. We don’t seize opportunities when we should.

We know this woman loves this man, but we find a strange, yet relatable moment between them:

“I have taken off my dress, How can I put it on again? I have washed my feet, How can I dirty them again? My beloved extended his hand through the opening, And my feelings were aroused for him… I opened to my beloved, But my beloved had turned away and had gone! My heart went out to him as he spoke. I searched for him but I did not find him; I called him but he did not answer me.” (5:3-4, 6)

She takes him for granted and has a moment of laziness. Now you come? She wonders, now that I’m tucked into bed? But then at the sight of him, she realizes how ridiculous this is and jumps up to invite him in. It’s too late, and now she’s a little beat up about it.

I think at some point in each of our lives we let love slip away, because we’re tired and don’t want to make the effort. It’s too easy to stay in bed all cozied up. Introverts are lousy with memes about how much they adore a night in.

Relationships must be cultivated and it takes work. Sometimes we don’t have the great love we desire, because we don’t work for it. We want the other person to work, to arrive at a convenient time, to fulfill all our needs.

I’m reminded of the dream sequence in The Princess Bride when Buttercup gets booed by the old hag. “Because you had love in your hands and you gave it up!” Thankfully the story doesn’t end there, and true love has a chance, but not without effort!

Can you think of a relationship in your life that could use some extra effort? Think of a way that you can inconvenience yourself today to love another. There are a lot of gardening analogies in this book. What, in your relationships, needs tending, pruning, watering, etc.?

-Bethany

Song of Songs 1-2 B

I’d like to start off this tantalizing book with my favorite verse to quote out of context:

“Don’t stare at me because I’m dark.” (1:6)

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into the goods of the context.

Our leading lady is introduced as a Shulamite. What does that mean? I copy-pasted some things from Wikipedia:

A Shulamite is a person from Shunaam (Hebrew: שׁוּנֵם), a small village located in the possession of the Tribe of Issachar, near the Jezreel Valley and south of Mount Gilboa (Joshua 19,18).

Shunaam is where:

• The Philistines encamped when they came against Saul, the first king of Israel (1 Samuel 28:4).

• Where Abishag, King David’s companion in his old age, came from; (1 Kings 1:1-3)

• Where the prophet Elisha was hospitably entertained by a wealthy or prominent woman whose son Elisha later revived after the son died. (2 Kings 4:8)

At the time Solomon crafted this piece of literature, the first two points would have meant something to him. I will note that Issachar is a very unpopular tribe. Who do we know from that tribe? I’ll be real impressed if one of y’all can think of someone. All I know (and only because I was just told) is Abishag.

Solomon knew her: the beautiful young lady chosen to keep his aging father warm, and also whom his brother, Adonijah, wanted to marry once dad died (1 Kings 2:13-25). This request got Adonijah killed, as Solomon said, “Why are you asking Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him also the kingdom—for he is my older brother—even for him, for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah!’” (22‬)

She was a beautiful nobody, but she became an object of great desire. A beautiful woman from a small, insignificant village, who captured the attention of the royal family.

Perhaps when Solomon decides to write a love poem between a king and a lowly village woman–embarrassed by how tan she is, since she has spent her life working in fields–he is inspired by Abishag. In fact, some scholars think this woman is Abishag.

But speaking of scholars, no one can agree on what this book means or why it’s in the Bible. It’s just there, making people blush, and inspiring us to think about love.

It’s easy to know what broken relationships look like, but we love to epitomize love’s potential. Not everyone gets to experience true love in their lifetime. Most scholars studying this book can agree, love is a gift from God. In our broken world, it certainly isn’t a given. So wherever we can find it, we must cultivate it and cherish it, thankful to God for the gift that it is.

Take some time today to reflect on the love in your life. The people, moments and memories. Thank the LORD for these beautiful gifts.

-Bethany

Esther 7-8 B

I enjoyed Carly’s take on this last time.

To be perfectly honest, as much as I’ve studied this book, these chapters are when things start going over my head. Why is the response to encourage the Jews to defend themselves? Were they previously planning not to?

It seems to me like instead of devising a way to deescalate the violence, they kick it up several notches. If someone else is understanding this in a better, fuller way, I would love and welcome any explanation attempts. It feels like one of those things that skips in my brain like a broken record and never fully computes.

Why this? Why give the Jews support to murder and loot anyone who comes at them? I’m no political expert, and it’s not like I’m leading up to a point, I just wonder about it.

In any case, this new decree invokes great rejoicing and it’s certainly great news for the Jews.

A verse foreshadowing these chapters is a little funny to me:

“Haman recounted to Zeresh his wife and all his friends everything that had happened to him. Then his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish origin, you will not overcome him, but will surely fall before him.’” (6:13‬)‭

As if they didn’t catch Mordecai’s ethnicity the day before when they suggested the plot against him (5:13). Now its, “oh if he’s a Jew, you’re screwed.”

This must be a comforting line in the Hebrew Bible. As a Jew, reading this story, they probably first quake with the familiarity of persecution, then swell with pride in the way they persevere. Corporate history is a powerful thing, and that is a huge point of this book: celebrating the different times and ways the LORD preserves His people.

Do you have a story (maybe within your family or community) where you can remember a way the LORD preserved you? Maybe even brought you out stronger than before? We will see tomorrow how victory leads to yet another holiday. What is the history of your victory? How do you remember it?

-Bethany

Esther 3-4 B

“Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of all other people and they do not observe the king’s laws, so it is not in the king’s interest to let them remain.’” ‭‭(3:8‬)

This verse almost makes me laugh. The Jews were known for following their own rules and being different from the other nations? What?! Weren’t they exiled because they had gone too far to fit in with the other nations?

At least the majority was, I suppose. There were always the faithful: Daniel, Mordecai, etc., but they hadn’t escaped exile. In fact, our boy Daniel was snatched up in the first wave. Now Mordecai sees another horrible wave coming and he mourns, because he knows his innocence won’t necessarily spare him.

He tells Esther:

“Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews.” (4:13‬)

He tacks on that he believes salvation will come from somewhere–that the Jews can not possibly be to totally annihilated, because of the promises to Abraham–but he implores her to consider that, if the LORD does use her, their family may survive this one.

Isn’t guilt by association something we all learn in elementary school? You could be a model little second grader, but sitting next to the wrong person at the wrong time could get you missing recess. Maybe you didn’t participate in any ruckus, but you were with the perpetrators and didn’t stop it.

Mordecai knows “guilt” by association, and he’s not about to go down without a fight.

Where are you these days? Are you associated with a “guilty” party? Has the LORD placed you somewhere to do something? Sometimes it’s easier to just get swept up in a punishment, with our self-righteous hands up pleading, ‘this wasn’t me’ than it is to find a redemptive/restorative action.

Wherever you find yourself, ask the LORD, is there something you’d like me to do here?

-Bethany

Nehemiah 11-13 B

After the success of rebuilding, cleaning, cleansing the temple and promising, things slide back into old habits quickly.

Nehemiah went back to Susa after a job well done, and was extremely disappointed when he came back to check in.

If you’ve ever been in leadership, you know this feeling. While you’re looking, the people are nodding and getting excited and making promises (maybe even earnestly), but the minute you look away, they’re back to doing whatever they want.

After all this work, it’s hard to fathom that this Eliashib guy could just set up a room for his own personal god in the temple. He’s supposed the be the High Priest!

Israel’s history is a string of rebellions, interrupted by moments of repentance and reformation. With this, along with Ezra and Chronicles being the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, it begs for some hope. It’s exhausting trying to shepherd these sheep! There’s too many of them! There’s too much time for things to go wrong.

Evangelism efforts can look like this too. High moments of conferences, crusades, revivals and movements bring exciting reforms and fresh hope. But then after the conversions slow down, there’s a moment of panic when your good sheep start falling away. As a Christian leader, this is going to be so stressful and discouraging, right? It’s like we need to save everyone at the same time, then have Jesus come back before anyone has a chance to get distracted.

Missions has seen waves of this as well. It’s like only a few countries can be doing well at a time before they start slipping in to secularism.

I remember youth ministry in the nineties being so fun and flourishing, but there was this looming dread that in 20-30 years America would start being post-Christian like Europe. We scrambled to keep the momentum from the Jesus movement going, but alas, conference attendance did go down and secularism did rise.

So don’t we all feel for Nehemiah? What are we going to do with these people?! I don’t know. But I think a good hint is not putting my hope in a “we have a great leader so everything will now be perfect forever”!

As shepherds, we need to know this prayer of Nehemiah:

“Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.” (13:14‬)

The old, “please notice that I did my best” prayer.

As sheep, we need to keep our eyes on the Shepherd of chapter 9 who had been with His sheep the whole time. We can’t depend on the leadership around us to always be stellar or even present. Our hope can’t rest on the shoulders of another human. We all suck in our own ways and have a proclivity for letting people down. Expectations for ourselves and others should not be perfection.

However, before Our Almighty God, we must humbly seek to know Him, remember Him, serve and obey Him as He asks.

Where do you find yourself in this story today?

As we leave Nehemiah, let’s head over to Susa and check in on Esther.

-Bethany

Nehemiah 7-8 B

I love the feast of booths. It’s one of my favorite festivals to imagine (mostly because it’s not entirely fixated on slitting animal throats).

The Jews are re-identify themselves as His people, honoring His word. Then, they all camp and share food, nay, feast.

Celebrating is the best. Camping is the best. My favorite thing all year is when my Montavilla church family camps together for a week in July. We eat so much and our campsites blend into each other. It’s one big, communal, celebration. We reflect together about the year, the goodness of the LORD, we laugh, play games, cry together, talk, eat, talk, eat, talk.

For Israel this was following major change: Their beloved city rebuilt, debts forgiven, slaves set free, enemies deterred, God’s protection and provision apparent after decades of sorrow. Oh there was much to celebrate.

This festival takes place in the fall. This year it will be in mid-October. It coincides with the end of harvest, hence the abundance for feasting. Indeed, Israel was feeling filled up in this moment. The first time in a long time.

I always want to make sure that in moments of victory and abundance, I celebrate. What does that look like for you? How do you express thanksgiving in seasons of fullness? Isn’t it so cool that this is a mandated holiday from the LORD?

-Bethany