Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Woman Who Bled

One thing I find striking about the miracles recorded in the Gospel accounts is how much variety we find in them. Some instances are dramatic: Jesus commands the storm on the sea to be still; he tells the cripple to arise and walk; he calls out to Lazarus, four days dead in the tomb, to come forth. In others, he doesn’t seem to do anything at all, as in the case of the Centurion’s servant or the Canaanite woman’s daughter: he just tells the person requesting help that their loved one has been healed. In yet other cases, Jesus tells someone to do something completely mundane and seemingly irrelevant, and in the course of doing it the miracle just seems to happen, as in the Wedding at Cana, or the various miracles involving St. Peter and fish.

Then there’s the story of the Woman Who Bled, which might be the most peculiar one of all.

The story occurs as a kind of interruption in the middle of a completely different miracle. A man named Jairus, one of the administrators of the local synagogue, comes to Jesus with an urgent request. His daughter is dying and he pleads with Jesus to come lay his hands on her and heal her. (Mark 5:21-23). Luke’s telling of the story adds the details that the girl is only twelve years old and is Jairus’ only daughter. (Luke 8:40-42) Matthew’s version does not name the father and says that the girl has already died, but I think Matthew is anticipating things here. (Matthew 9:18).

Jesus arrives too late; the girl has already died and the Professional Mourners have already arrived, weeping and wailing fit to wake the… well … the dead. When Jesus says that the girl is not dead but merely sleeping, the mourners laugh at him, perhaps mistakenly believing him to be quoting a Monty Python skit.

Jesus elbows his way into the house to the child’s bedside, just him, the girl’s family and a couple of his closest disciples. He takes the girl’s hand and says, “Little girl, arise,” (Mark gives it to us in Aramaic: “Talitha koum.” ) And the girl gets up and begins to walk around.

That, briefly, is the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43); but as I mentioned, there’s another miracle inserted in the middle of the story; one that sometimes gets omitted in the telling, but which appears in each of the three versions from the Gospels. It seems irrelevant to the story of Jairus, except maybe to build some suspense, and one could look at it as a minor miracle compared to Jesus’ demonstration of power over Death. Yet to me this other, digressive story carries a sense of mystery, possibly even greater than the other.

So, backing up a bit. A crowd had gathered around Jesus when Jairus got to him -- heck, just his disciples alone were already a crowd – and the crowd grew into a veritable parade as they followed Jesus to Jairus’ house. In that crowd was a woman who was suffering from a terrible condition causing excessive bleeding.

When I was a kid, I assumed this must be something like hemophilia, because back then people really didn’t talk openly about menstruation; at least not to pre-adolescent boys. The text doesn’t give us much specific information, but we can guess that it was The Menstrual Period From Hell, except that it had lasted for twelve years. Mark tells us, “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better, she grew worse.” (Mark 5:26)

(Some commentators have noted that this woman had been suffering for twelve years, and that Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old. A coincidence? Or was the number chosen symbolically to link the two stories together? I couldn’t say.)

I suspect that a lot of guys don’t really understand menstruation. As I said, it’s not something that’s really talked about openly. It’s mysterious to us, maybe a little bit freaky, and it makes women crabby once a month. Yeah, guys tend to only understand the aspects of it that directly affect us. But I understand from the people I know who do experience it, that a menstrual period is at best, agonizing, and at worst can be incapacitating. In Jesus’ day, it was even worse for women because of the Jewish Laws regarding blood.

A goodly chunk of the Law of Moses deals with cleanliness issues. Certain things were considered Unclean and contact with them would render a person contaminated and they would be required to undergo ritual purification These things included pork, dead bodies, “discharges” of various kinds, and semen, but a biggie was blood. Several verses in the Book of Leviticus are devoted to avoiding contact with blood and purification should you, by necessity become contaminated by it. When I first tried slogging through reading Leviticus, I thought all these cleanliness regulations were rather excessive, until years later when I had to sit through OSHA training seminars on Blood-Borne Pathogens.

So was Moses trying to establish principles of hygiene and sanitation couched in religious terms for a culture that didn’t understand the germ theory of disease? Or were these rules simply based on the idea that there was something sacred or mystical about blood? Or was it a little of both? I couldn’t say.

This principle that contact with blood rendered one ritually unclean necessitated special rules for those subject to menstruation:

“’When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. “’Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening.’” (Leviticus 15:19-23 NIV)

A large section of the Mishnah, one of the foundations of the Jewish Talmud, is devoted to elaborating on the Levitical laws regarding menstruation, considering various contingencies, and even case studies of rulings made by rabbis based on the evidence of stained article of clothing.

Things were even more complicated for a person like the woman in Mark chapter 5, whose period lasts longer than usual. In such a case, the woman was required to remain quarantined for seven days past the last day of menstruation, and also to bring two doves or young pigeons to be offered as a sacrifice in addition to the standard ritual washing; something not required after a normal period.

So what with the unending bleeding, (no doubt accompanied by cramps that felt like her uterus was trying to eat her from the inside); the isolation from the rest of the community; the worthless doctors who didn’t know squat about women’s health but nevertheless charged her up the hoo-hah; not to mention the expense of having to buy two young pigeons each time it looked like the bleeding had finally ceased… well, this woman was pretty desperate. But she’d heard about this teacher who could heal people…

She makes her way through the crowd around Jesus and comes up behind him. If she can just touch his cloak, she thinks – the hem of his garment, Luke’s telling of the story says in the King James Version – she’s certain she’ll be healed. And so she does.

Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. (Mark 5:29)

When I was little, I wondered how she would know; but if her uterus had been tying itself in knots, and then suddenly the pain ceased, that’s something she certainly would notice.

Jesus notices too:

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (v.30)

Let’s stop here and take a look at this. I usually think of Jesus’ miracles as him doing something: rebuking the winds, and they obey him, commanding demons and driving them out; laying on his hands, and curing the illness; even just saying that something will be so and it is so. Like a Fifth Level Wizard saying “I cast Magic Missile.”

But in this case, the miracle just sort of happens, without his active participation at all.

There’s an old doctrine in Christian theology which states that Christ was both True God and True Man, but even Christians who hold this doctrine don’t really think about it a whole lot, nor dwell on what this might mean. It means possessing both limitless Divine Power, yet also human limitations. How can this be? I have trouble wrapping my mind around it. This is truly hot ice and wond’rous strange snow.

And yet perhaps it’s what we’re seeing here, where Jesus seems unaware of the miracle he’s just performed; or rather, that the miracle performed itself without his conscious participation, as if he were merely the conduit of Divine Power and not its wielder.

The only active party in this miracle is the woman herself, who takes the initiative to grasp his garment and draws the healing power into herself. It’s a mystery.

As far as the Disciples are concerned, though, the only mystery is what Jesus means. After all, he’s in the middle of a crowd of people, all jostling and bumping into each other, trying to get close to him; and he asks who touched him?

No doubt Jairus was annoyed by the interruption too. His daughter was dying, and Jesus stops to ask such a stupid question?

But no, the question was an important one. Jesus wants to see and to talk to the person he had healed. 

he woman is scared. Was she going to get in trouble? After all, she was considered “unclean” and wasn’t supposed to go around touching other people. Would Jesus be mad at her for stealing a miracle from him? The woman falls at his feet and admits what she has done.

Jesus isn’t mad at her at all. He commends her for her faith: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (v.34)

We don’t hear what happened to the woman after this. Jesus has this brief moment with her to reassure her and affirm her healing; then he gets yanked back to the other crisis at Jairus’ house. We don’t even learn the woman’s name. Then again, the text doesn’t say if Jesus had to take a bath to purify himself afterwards either. Healing the two women who needed help was a higher priority for him.

But although I called this an atypical miracle for Jesus, in one way it’s not unusual at all. Jesus often showed the most warmth and affection for those who took the initiative: the guys who opened a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was staying in so they could bring their crippled friend in for Jesus to heal; the Canaanite woman who, when challenged by Jesus on her right to ask for help, refused to be intimidated and gave a ready answer; the leper who, finding that he and his nine comrades had been healed of their disease while going to see the priest as Jesus commanded, took the time to return to Jesus and thank him.

And then this woman, denied contact with the rest of the community, who just wanted to touch him.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Sundered Garment: Jeroboam's Tax Revolt

King Solomon is chiefly known for two things:  possessing enormous wealth, possessing deep wisdom, and possessing enough wives to fill a good chunk of a football stadium.  That’s three; but the last is really a subset of the first.  He used his wealth to build the Temple in Jerusalem, an opulent palace, and to impress foreign dignitaries like the Queen of Sheba.

Some of it was wealth his father had saved up for him. The Book of 1 Kings describes his reign as a period of prosperity where people lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree, (1 Kings 4:25) and that prosperity undoubtedly trickled up, as wealth tends to do. Although the Bible doesn’t exactly come out and say it, my guess is that Solomon got his riches in the usual way:  through taxation.

And nobody likes taxes.

During the reign of Solomon’s son, Rheoboam, discontent over taxes blew up into a full-fledged revolt that resulted in five-sixths of the country seceding and forever split the nation in two.

But first let’s talk about Jeroboam.

Jeroboam was an able young man whom Solomon placed in charge of the labor force of the House of Joseph.  In addition to the Temple, Solomon built numerous other public works including completing the walls around the city and building terraces to support the city’s expansion.  The labor force for these projects was conscripted from each of the tribes of Israel.  The House of Joseph refers to the two tribes of Ephraim, (Jeroboam’s tribe), and Manasseh, which descended from the sons of Joseph.

One day when Jeroboam was traveling from Jerusalem, he was met on the road by a prophet named Ahijah, who happened to be wearing a spiffy new cloak.  When the two of them were alone on the road, out in the country, Ahijah removed his outer cloak and tore it into twelve pieces.

Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says:  ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes.  But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe.  (1 Kings 11:31 NIV)

The reason he gives is that Solomon has forsaken the Lord and has been worshipping the gods of the Canaanites:  Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, and Molech, god of the Ammnoites.  I mentioned all of those wives, didn’t I?  well, many of them came from foreign lands, diplomatic marriages to seal treaties with other kings.  He built temples to accommodate his wives, and under their influence, worshiped with them there.

In our day and age, the establishment of places of worship for differing religions is protected by law.  That’s because our Constitution is a Covenant between the People and the Government, not between the People and God. Some people might think it should be, but contrary to their opinions, the Constitution was not received by George Washington on Tablets of Stone. America is not Ancient Israel.

One of the underlying themes of the Law of Moses is, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.”  (Leviticus 26:12)  Repeatedly the Books of Moses repeat the admonition that God is giving the people of Israel their own land with the understanding that they will obey his commandments.  If they stray from this understanding, all bets are off.

And much of the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a recurring cycle of the people turning away from God, and then bad things happen, and when they return to him for help he delivers them.  Ahijah’s prophecy can be seen as one more iteration of this cycle.  Ahijah makes this clear by reiterating the deal:

“However, as for you, I will take you, and you will rule over all that your heart desired; you will be king over Israel.  If you do whatever I command you and walk in  my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statures and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you.  I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you.”  (1 Kings 11:37-38)

What has this to do with taxes?  We’re getting there.

Solomon must have heard about Ahijah’s coat and his prophecy; or maybe he had other reasons to suspect Jeroboam of subversive tendencies.  The text tells us he tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jerry fled to Egypt, where he was protected by Shisak, the King of Egypt.

Shisak is the first Egyptian king mentioned by name in the Old Testament.  Many scholars have identified him with Sheshonk I, founder of the 22th Dynasty, who lived about that period and who waged a campaign in Canaan as Shisak is said to have done.

Eventually, Solomon died, and was buried in the City of David.  His son, Rehoboam, succeeded him as king.  In an interesting aside, the text tells us that Rehoboam went to Shechem to be made king.  Why not in Jerusalem, the capital of his father and his grandfather?  Shechem was an important city in the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe, in the hill country north of Jerusalem.  One possibility is that the House of David came from the tribe of Judah, but that his kingship over the rest of Israel had to be ratified by the elders of the other tribes as well.  Or perhaps it was just a ceremony and nobody really expected the son of Solomon and the grandson of David to be vetoed.

Jeroboam had heard about Solomon’s death and returned to Israel.  He was asked to lead a delegation  consisting of “the whole assembly of Israel”; (well, probably a bunch of representatives, but nevertheless speaking for a good segment of the population), bringing a petition to the new king:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”  (1 Kings 12:4)

That conscripted labor thing was really unpopular.

Rehoboam asks the delegation to give him a few days to think things over, and then he consults some of his father’s old advisers.  They recommend that he comply with the people’s request.  “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” (1 Kings 12:7)

There’s a venerable tradition in politics that when your advisers tell you something you don’t want to hear, you find a new set of advisers.  This is precisely what Rehoboam did.  He went to some of the younger men of the court, guys he’d grown up with and who were probably drinking buddies, and asked them the same question.

“Hell, no!”  You can’t let the peons push you around.  If you want respect, you gotta put them in their place.

The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’ – tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.  My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’”  (1 Kings 12:10-11)

The scorpions were probably whips with nasty metal bits attached to the ends, but you know, using real scorpions would be pretty hard-core too.  Rehoboam gladly embraced the advice of his buddies and gave that response to the men of Israel.  And he probably ordered someone to set about trying to tie live scorpions to whips.  Rehoboam does not seem to have inherited his father’s wisdom.

If Rehoboam thought the men of Israel would meekly submit to his show of machismo, he was badly mistaken. They began to wonder why they really needed a king from a different tribe:

When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David,  What part in Jesse’s son?To your tents, O Israel!  Look after your own house, O David!”(1 Kings 12:16)

When Rehoboam sent out, Adoniram, his official in charge of forced labor, the men of Israel took hold of the guy and stoned him.  This was when it finally dawned on the king that he was not going to be as popular as his dad; and that he was right in the middle of a bunch of people who hated his guts.  Rehoboam hopped into his chariot and high-tailed it out of Shechem and back to Jerusalem.

The leaders of the tribe of Ephraim and the other northern tribes who had gathered at Shechem, elected Jeroboam to be their new king.  He was one of them; he understood their issues, and he had lobbied on their behalf.  Now he was their king.  The torn pieces of Ahijah’s cloak had become a kingdom.

Two of the tribes remained loyal to the House of David:  Judah, the tribe from which David came, and Simeon, which lay south of Judah and was cut off from the northern tribes.  The tribe of Benjamin, on the northern border of Judah’s territory was for a time under Rehoboam’s control also, and the king mustered the armies of Benjamin along with those of Judah to reclaim the rebel northern tribes.  The war never came about, though, because another prophet named Shemaiah intervened and warned Judah and Benjamin not to fight against their brothers. (1 Kings 12:22-24)

Although a full-scale civil war had been averted, the situation between the North and the South remained tense, and minor battles and skirmishes between the two sides occurred frequently over the next few decades.

Even Jeroboam’s old benefactor, King  Shisak of Egypt got into the act, raiding Judah all the way to Jerusalem.  He carried off the treasures of the royal palace, including all the gold shields that Solomon had made.  (1 Kings 14:25-28) The text does not specify whether his armies actually looted the city or if the treasure was given to them as danegeld.  Since the text doesn’t say anything about Shisak carting off stuff from the Temple, (as the Babylonians did later), I’m inclined to think that Rehoboam just paid him off.

But whose side was God on in all this?  It’s tempting to sympathize with Jeroboam and his revolt against tyranny; I’m sure modern-day Tea Partyists would.  After all, nobody likes a tyrant, and Rehoboam was a real jerk.  And Ahijah’s prophecy would seem to put God’s blessing on the whole secession thing.

But the author of Kings dances around this issue.  Although the Books of Kings deal with the histories of both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms, they are definitely written from the Judean point of view, and have little or nothing good to say about the rulers of the North.  Rehoboam might have been a jerk, but as far as the text is concerned, he was the heir to David’s line and therefore the Rightful Ruler.  Ahijah’s prophecy was a prediction, but not necessarily an endorsement.  And the prediction came with some important caveats:  that because of God’s covenant with David, the Line of David would retain Jerusalem and a portion of the Twelve Tribes, and that David’s descendents would not remain humbled forever.

And the form of the prophecy carried some heavy symbolism too.  Ahijah could have broken a jar and given Jeroboam ten pieces; he could have torn up a piece of paper and done the same.  Instead, he rent his garment. The rending of one’s garment was a traditional expression of grief, as when Jacob heard about the supposed death of his son, Joseph in Genesis 37:29, or when King Hezekiah was surrounded by the besieging army of Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18:37.  I think the prophet’s use of this particular imagery, the torn garment, is meant to underscore that this sundering of the kingdom is a tragedy and would bring grief to come..

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Know Your Herods III: Herod Agrippa, Superstar

In the middle of his novel, Claudius the God, the sequel to I, Claudius, writer Robert Graves interrupts his narrative about the Roman Emperor to tell the story of a friend of Claudius’, the son of a Jewish royal family whose career had more ups and downs than an epileptic yo-yo.  He is mentioned very briefly in the Book of Acts, but like the rest of his dysfunctional family, there is so much more to his life than that.  He was the rock star of the House of Herod:  Herod Agrippa I.

Agrippa was the son of Aristobulus IV, one of the children of Herod the Great, and one of the sons Herod had executed.  Little Agrippa was only three at the time, and therefore incapable of plotting against Grandpa Herod, so the family sent him to Rome.  Agrippa grew up at the Roman Imperial Court and became good friends with Claudius and with the Emperor Tiberius’ son, Drusus.

After his mother’s death, he came into some money, but quickly spent it all and dug himself deep into debt.  When his friend Drusus died, he had to flee Rome to escape his debts and he stayed for a while in Idumaea, where his grandfather’s family originally came from.

His uncle, Herod Antipas, gave him a minor administrative post in the city of Tiberius in Galilee, but that didn’t last very long.  He bounced around a bit after that, ending up in Alexandria in Egypt, where with the help of his wife, he was able to secure a loan to pay off his debts, enabling him to return to Rome.

Once again in Rome, he became close friends with Caligula, Tiberius’ designated heir.  For a while, these were good times for Agrippa; but on one occasion a servant heard him joking that he wished Tiberius would hurry up and die so that Caligula could ascend to the throne.

Word of Agrippa’s injudicious remark got back to Tiberius.  The Emperor did not find the joke terribly funny.  Not that many years before, Tiberius had discovered that his best friend, Sejanus, had practically taken over ruling the Empire and was using him as a figurehead.  Tiberius regained control of the situation, but the betrayal had left him justifiably paranoid about that sort of thing.  Herod Agrippa was sent to prison, and there was nothing Caligula could do to help.  If he had tried, Uncle Tiberius would have seen it as proof that Caligula really was plotting against him.  Which Caligula probably was.

So there Agrippa sat, until the old hedonist finally did croak, and Caligula took over.  Caligula did not forget his old pal.  He freed Agrippa and by way of restitution gave him a chain made of gold as heavy as the iron chain Agrippa had worn in prison.  Caligula also appointed him king of the province of Syria and the regions previously ruled by Agrippa’s late Uncle Philip, (the brother of Herod Antipas).  This rankled Antipas, who for years had coveted the title of king, but had to be content with being called a tetrarch.

On his way to Syria, Agrippa revisited Alexandria.  According to Philo, a First Century Jewish historian living in the city at that time, the honors the Emperor had bestowed upon Agrippa stirred up jealousy and resentment against the Jewish community amongst the populace.  Philo describes public insults to Agrippa made by rabble-rousers, and acts of violence against the Alexandrian Jews.  The provincial governor, a guy with the embarrassing name of Flaccus, was either too incompetent to curb the violence or, as Philo insists, complicit in it.  None of this seems to have been Agrippa’s fault, though, and Philo seems to have had a high opinion of him.

Philo wasn’t the only one who liked Agrippa.  Unlike the rest of the rulers in the House of Herod, Agrippa actually got along with his Jewish subjects.  Maybe enough generations had passed that Grandpa Herod’s Idumenan blood wasn’t that important anymore; maybe Agrippa was more observant than his hedonistic Uncle Antipas; maybe years of Roman rule had made people nostalgic for the glory days of Herod the Great.  Personally, I suspect that Herod Agrippa had a talent for schmoozing which his other family members lacked; but we don’t read much about that aspect of Agrippa’s personality from Josephus.

His Uncle Antipas didn’t like him, though.  You may remember that Herod Antipas was only a tetrarch, the ruler of one quarter of a province; but the Emperor appointed Herod Agrippa to be a basileus, (king).  Antipas tried lobbying the Emperor for an upgrade in his job title; and while he was at it, hint that Agrippa was doing a crappy job; (the same sort of rumors Antipas used to pass on about his rival Pontius Pilate).

Agrippa anticipated him, and sent Caligula accusations of his own against Uncle Antipas.  Guess  which one Caligula believed.  Antipas found himself exiled to Gaul and his former tetrarchy got added to Agrippa’s territories.  Agrippa now ruled over all of the Jewish territories in Palestine, except for the core provinces of Judea and Samaria, which remained for the time under Roman administrators.

Agrippa remained close buds with Caligula, which in itself was no small accomplishment.  He accompanied the Emperor on a military campaign to the Rhine Valley, not because he had any great military skill, but I think because Caligula wanted a drinking buddy on the trip to pal around with.

This relationship helped Agrippa in what was probably the biggest crisis of his career.  As Caligula slid further and further into the teacup, he issued a decree that statues of himself be placed in every temple in the empire.  This would not have gone down well in Jerusalem.

Some years earlier, Pontius Pilate had faced riots because he brought soldiers into the city whose regimental standard bore the Emperor’s likeness.  More importantly, the Maccabean wars of a century or two earlier when the Jews revolted against the Selucid Greeks and briefly established their independence, was triggered when the Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ordered sacrifices to Zeus in the Temple.

Agrippa was descended on his grandmother’s side from the Hasomean Dynasty of priestly kings who ruled Judea during this period of independence.  He could see how this would go:  the Jews would resist the edict, as they did in the days of Judah “the Hammer” Maccabeus; only this time, the Romans would be the ones doing the hammering.

With his considerable powers of flattery and diplomacy, Agrippa was able to intercede with Caligula – very likely at the risk of his own life – and persuade him to rescind the edict.  Jerusalem and the Temple were spared revolt and the crushing Roman retaliation for a generation.

Before Caligula could change his mind again, he was assassinated.  As luck would have it, Agrippa was once again in Rome when it happened.  Always one to know who his friends were, Agrippa glommed onto Claudius, his old school chum and Caligula’s uncle.

Claudius had always been considered too feeble-minded and bookish by his family to get involved in their Imperial power struggles; but with the death of Caligula, he was about the last male member of the House of Caesar available as a successor.  The Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s elite bodyguards, declared their support for Claudius to be the new Emperor.  In Josephus’s book The Antiquities of the Jews, he describes Agrippa as being instrumental in persuading Claudius to seize the throne and challenge the Roman Senate.  His earlier book, The Jewish Wars, simply depict Agrippa as a messenger to Claudius.

When the dust cleared and all the blood mopped from the floor, Claudius was Emperor, and he granted his buddy the remaining Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria.  Now Herod Agrippa truly was King of the Jews.

And, from the accounts of Philo, Josephus, and some of the rabbinical commentators on that period, he did pretty well as king.  His ringside seat in Rome witnessing the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula gave him an exemplary education in what not to do when you’re an absolute monarch and he seems to have taken those lessons to heart.

But you know he wouldn’t be a Herod if he didn’t execute someone somewhere along the line.  And that’s where he comes into the New Testament.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.  He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.  When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.  (Acts 12:1-3 NIV)

James the son of Zebedee, along with his brother, John and with Simon Peter, are described by the Gospels as the closest of Jesus’ disciples.  He took the three of them with him up on the mountain to witness his Transfiguration; and later on, he also took them along when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. At one point, the mother of James and John lobbied Jesus to have him place her boys at his Right and Left Hand; an idea Jesus quashed, but which caused a bit of resentment among the other Disciples.  The Gospels say little of James actually doing much, and I’ve always gotten the impression that John was the one who was really close to Jesus and that James came along because the two brothers were inseparable.  I also have to wonder how much of the hostility in the Gospel of John towards “The Jews” stems from the execution of his brother.  I may be reading too much into this, though.

The James mentioned here, the brother of John, is a different guy from the James who appears later in Acts as an important leader in the Christian Community, and who is called “James the brother of Jesus.”  Unless the author of Acts did some major messing with the sequence of events, which is also a possibility.  But no, I think if the two Jameses had been the same man, the writer would have made this more clear.

Why did Agrippa have James arrested and executed?  He probably considered James’ wacko religious splinter group as disturbers of the peace.  Or perhaps, as the text darkly suggests, he did it solely to suck up to the Jewish religious authorities, who regarded them as blasphemers.  Or, most likely, I think, a little of both.

He had James executed by the sword, and not by crucifixion.  It seems to me that this is a telling point, but I’m not sure what it tells me.  Crucifixion was a Roman punishment for crimes against the Empire of Rome; Agrippa, I think, wanted to be seen acting on behalf of his own kingdom and not on behalf of the Emperor.  Or maybe he figured that since the Messiah these people followed had been crucified, that doing it to James too would just encourage them.

The poll numbers from his action were encouraging.  After all, no politician ever misses a chance to appear Tough on Crime, and being Tough on Heresy is even better.  So Agrippa also had Peter brought in during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, intending to put him to public trial once Passover ended.  The Book of Acts tells of how Peter miraculously escaped from prison in a jailbreak that was simultaneously awesome and a little bit creepy.  (And capped off with a bit of comedy, when Peter showed up at the house of some friends and they refused to believe it was him).  Presumably Peter laid low after that, because we get no mention of Agrippa trying to arrest him again.

He might not have had the chance; because after the Passover festival of AD 44, Agrippa returned to the city of Caesarea to preside over a series of games in honor of Claudius.  According to Acts, he had been quarreling with the people of the nearby provinces of Tyre and Sidon, and they had sent envoys to Agrippa to sue for peace.  Josephus, describing the occasion, makes no mention of the envoys and only says that Agrippa was presiding over a public festival.  The Book of Acts describes it this way:

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people.  They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”   (Acts 12:21-22)

If this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a crowd of Jewish subjects would say, you’re right.  But Caesarea was a predominantly Gentile city.  The author of Acts strongly hints that the envoys from Tyre and Sidon were the ones doing the flattery.  Josephus’ account says that the occasion was a a series of public games held in honor of the Emperor, which would likely draw a mostly Romanized crowd anyway.  And I suspect that after a couple of generations of Roman Emperors being declared gods after death, and of Caligula claiming godhood for himself while alive, the idea of granting divine attributes to a king had pretty much come to be considered one of the perks of the job.

Josephus gives a little more detail:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea [...] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor [...] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out [...] that he was a god; and they added, 'Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.'

Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow.  [Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Book 19 ch.8]

The owl was a reference to the earlier occasion when Agrippa had been imprisoned by Tiberius.  He saw an owl perched above him while in prison and took it to be an omen of good fortune.  When he saw the owl again, he interpreted it as a sign that his luck was about to change.

A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, 'I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.'  After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.  (Josephus,  Jewish Antiquities Book 8)

The Author of Acts has little positive to say about the killer of James, and is much briefer: 

Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.  (Acts 12:23)

What was this malady that took away the resplendent Agrippa in the vigor of his life?  Some have speculated that it might have been the same ailment that took his grandfather, Herod the Great; but since we don’t know what that ailment was, it doesn’t really help that much.  If it was the same cause of death, Agrippa was lucky he only suffered for five days instead of the years it took Grandpa Herod to die.

In his novel Claudius the God, Robert Graves has the Emperor, hearing about his friend’s death, muse that the Hebrew god must be pretty arbitrary and petty to strike Agrippa down like that for such a trifling offense.  And perhaps it was.  But in Josephus’ telling at least, Agrippa seems to have taken his fate philosophically.  He might well have said, with Job:  “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”

He left behind a son, Agrippa II who was only 17 and considered too young to take over the throne; and so the restored Kingdom of the Herods once again fell to the rule of Roman administrators.  In the meantime, the fringe group following the crucified Messiah that Agrippa tried to crush grew.  And so did the tensions between the Jewish population of Judea and their Roman rulers.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Clothes Encounter

If, like me, you are a child of the ‘70s, you might recall an athletic form of exhibitionism from that era called Streaking.  It was one of that decade’s contributions to Western Civilization, like Disco, Pet Rocks, “Whip Inflation Now!” Buttons and the Bicentennial Minute; and it involved young male college students dashing across a public space while buck naked.  I’m not exactly sure what the point of this was, unless maybe to encourage young female college students to do the same

One might not expect the Bible to have anything to say about this type of behavior, but there is a venerable tradition among Bible pedagogues like myself of trying to make Holy Writ seem hip and relevant by seizing on some popular trend and purporting to find mention of it Scriptures.  This doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s interesting.  At least to other pedagogues.

Now, granted Streaking has not been trendy since the Ford administration; but being out-of-date has never stopped me before.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the story of the Bible’s Streaker.

The story comes in the account of the Passion Narrative found in the Gospel of St. Mark.  It tells how Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by group of thugs, “a crowd armed with swords and clubs”, sent by the chief priests and guided by Judas, who identified Jesus to them.  The disciples  who were with Jesus ran off in fear.  The guards escorted Jesus to the high priest, and it is on the way there that Mark inserts this peculiar little incident:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus.  When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.  (Mark 14:51-52 NIV)

Evidently, this young man was a follower of Jesus, but not one of the Twelve Disciples.  Perhaps he heard about the arrest while he was taking a bath and threw something one to run and see.  Or perhaps he had just heard that Jesus would be in the Garden and only wanted to see him, but arrived as Jesus was being taken away.  He showed more courage than most of the other disciples, following the armed escort; but when the guards spotted him and tried to lay hold of him, he too ran away.

Who was this impetuous young man?  The text doesn’t really give us much about him.  It’s been suggested he might have come from an affluent family because he wore linen, instead of the more common wool outer garment.  That’s not really much to go on.  But Tradition offers an interesting supposition:  that the young man was Mark himself.

John Mark, traditionally considered the author of the Second Gospel, was a young man mentioned on a few occasions in the Book of Acts.  His mother, who was named Mary, but probably unrelated to any of the other Marys of the New Testament, had a house in Jerusalem which served as a meeting place for believers in the early Church, (Acts 12:12).

John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their First Missionary Journey, but he bailed out about the time they got to Pamphylia.  Perhaps he was homesick.  Possibly he just felt like he was in over his head.  Maybe he just wasn’t working out. The text gives no details; it just says he left Paul and returned to Jerusalem.  (Acts 13:13)  When Paul was organizing a second journey to visit the communities he’d started in Asia Minor, Barnabas asked Paul to give the kid a second chance.  Paul refused and the disagreement broke up their partnership.

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them. But Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia, and had not continued with them in the work.  They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.   (Acts 15:37-40)

Eventually, though, Paul got over his bad impression of Mark, and mentions him favorably in a couple of his letters.

The Early Church Father Papias, writing around 140 AD, quotes an earlier source saying that Mark became a close associate of Peter,  Scholars believe that Peter had an assistant, because his first Epistle is better written than his second, and it is believed that he had someone with a better grasp of Greek polish up his writing.  That someone might have been Mark.

Papias’s source goes on to say that Mark compiled Paul’s teachings and stories about Jesus into the Gospel which was ascribed to him.  That would certainly explain where Mark got his material, and also why the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, follow Mark’s outline and often repeat him verbatim.

Modern scholars have cast doubt on this traditional view, though, noting that Papias wrote a good century after the fact and that we know nothing about the source he quotes.  And there are some goofs in geography in Mark which no Galilean like Peter would make.  Then again, many scholars date the Gospel to about the time of the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, around AD 70.  This would have been after Peter’s death, when he wouldn’t be around to correct the galley proofs.

The incident of the Young Man and his Towel is a peculiar one that seems pointless and irrelevant.  It seems to have nothing to do with the Great and Portentous events of the Passion Narrative; which may be why Matthew and Luke, who otherwise follow Mark’s outline pretty closely, make no mention of it.  I suspect that the reason why the author of Mark includes it must be that it had some personal meaning for him.  That’s why I think Tradition is right and Mark was that young man.  John Mark, the callow and inexperienced would-be-missionary of Acts chapter 13, could have been an adolescent at the time of Jesus’ trial, too young to participate, and only able to view it from a distance.  And he was living in Jerusalem at the time

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps the writer was someone else, and had some other reason for inserting the incident.  We can’t really know for sure.  But I like to think that this was Mark’s Brush With Greatness, the one moment when his own life intersected with that of Jesus, however peripherally.  And that, as embarrassing as it was, when he set down the stories he had heard about the ministry of Jesus, he included his own brief encounter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

He Walked With God

The Book of Genesis can be regarded as one long genealogy with narrative interruptions.  True, the stories take up the bulk of the book, but the passages listing the generations from Adam through the sons of Jacob provide the framework for those stories.

I’ve always found the genealogical lists in Genesis of one patriarch begetting the next to be the most boring parts, and I tend to skim over them; but there are a couple places where we get more than a name and an antediluvian lifespan; we get a brief, tantalizing comment raises even more questions than it answers.

That is what we get with the great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch:  the man who Walked with God.

Genesis chapter 5 gives us the generations from Adam to Noah, through Adam’s third son, Seth.

When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh.  And after he became the father of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters.  Altogether, Seth lived 912 years, and then he died.  (Genesis 5:6-8 NIV)

Each generation follows the same format:  this patriarch lived so many years and became the father of that patriarch; after which he lived for so many more years and had other children.  Finally we get a grand total.

For centuries, millennia even, scholars have tried to tally up all these years to come up with a definitive timetable of the Bible.  The Venerable Bede, an English theologian and historian of the 8th Century combined this method with cross-referencing known historical dates from Greek and Roman history with events from the Bible and came up with a date of 3952 BC for the Creation of the Earth.  Bishop Ussher came up with the better-known date of 4004 BC, but hey, what’s a half-century or so give or take?

Personally, I’m leery of trying to fit the ages of the Patriarchs into an exact chronology.  That way, I think, lies madness.  It has been suggested that some – or maybe all – of these ages are meant to be taken symbolically; and that the phrase rendered “…the father of” could also be translated “…the ancestor of”.  In any case, I think that the precise Age of Mahalelel when he begat Jared is one of the least important things one can get out of the Bible.  Then again, since I live for trivia, who am I to judge?

Each genealogical entry in this chapter ends with the words, “…and then he died.”  A mournful refrain, emphasizing Adam’s legacy to his descendants.

Then we get to Enoch:

When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah.  And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters.  Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years.  Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.  (Genesis 5:21-24)

A few things to take away from this:  First of all, Enoch seems to have been pretty randy for a patriarch; most of the ones on the list (although not all) waited until they were at least a hundred before they began begetting sons.  Second, the repeated line that “Enoch walked with God.”  What does that mean?  We’ll be getting to that in a bit.  Third is his age:  365 years; and there are 365 days in a year.  Co-incidence?  Or do we have some numerological symbolism going down here?  Hard to say.

But the thing that jumps out at everyone is this:

It never says he died.

“God took him away.”  He did not pass “Go”.  He did not collect $200.  He went directly to Heaven. Only one other figure from the Bible, the Prophet Elijah, can make that claim; (two if you count Moses, as some rabbinical traditions do, but that’s a story for another day).

According to some rabbinical scholars, Enoch was the most righteous man of his era – the only pious man of his generation – and that he was taken way lest the world corrupt him.  But apart from the vague note that “…he walked with God”, we aren’t really told what he did.  There’s got to be more than that.

And… there sort of is.  There is a work called the Book of Enoch that was composed sometime between about 300 BC and the First Century AD which purports to be written by Enoch before the Deluge.

The Book of Enoch has a lot of material in it expanding on the early chapters of Genesis and talking about angels and cosmology and things of that nature.  The movie Noah borrowed liberally from the Book of Enoch for some of its weirder imagery.  It also describes a vision of Enoch’s in which he is given a tour of the Heavens (all Seven of them) and the Earth.

A few other books are also attributed to Enoch.  2 Enoch, sometimes called “Slavonic Enoch”, comes to us as a series of medieval manuscripts written in Old Slavonic translated from a now lost Greek original.  It is believed to have been written before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, but not long before it.  A 3 Enoch also exists, but is attributed to a priest named Isaac living during the First or Second Century AD.  Then there’s the Book of Jubilees, purportedly dictated by Enoch to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which gives further info on the Fallen Angels, the Nephilim and the Antediluvian World.  Hey, they could have met.

3 Enoch also suggests that Enoch did not just enter Paradise, he was transformed into an angelic being and became Metatron, the highest-ranking archangel according to legend, and official scribe to the Almighty; sometimes called “The Voice of God” and played by Alan Rickman in the movie Dogma.  And please don’t ask him if he’s an Autobot or a Decepticon.  It bugs him.

None of these books were considered authoritative by the Jewish scholars who compiled the Hebrew Scriptures canon, although they were deemed interesting enough to be included in the Septuagint, the Greek Translation on Scriptures written in the 2nd Century BC.  Personally, I suspect that the translators involved with the Septuagint realized they had a good gig going and once they’d finished the holiest books, they milked it out by working on whatever they could get their hands on.

The Book of Enoch contains a lot of messianic language and seems to have been popular and influential in the Early Christian Church.  Enoch uses the phrase “the Son of Man” to refer to a messianic figure, which is how Jesus used the phrase, and some of the teachings of Jesus have parallels in the wisdom portions of Enoch.

The Book of Jude, one of the shorter epistles of the New Testament and a rare non-Pauline one, directly quotes from it, (which is one reason why some of the Early Church Fathers felt entirely sure about Jude).

Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men:  “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”  (Jude vv. 14-15 NIV)

The author of the Book of Hebrews, although he does not quote the Book of Enoch, cites Enoch as one of the great heroes of faith in his epic ode to Faith in Hebrews chapter 11.

For a long time, Biblical scholars thought that it was written by an early Christian, but fragments of the book have turned up among the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community.

Although a few of the earliest Church Fathers also quote Enoch, sometime after the First Century opinion changed.  I suspect that the trippy mysticism of the Book of Enoch seemed too much like the heretical Gnostics.  The Church followed the precedent of the Jewish authorities and excluded the Book of Enoch from their canon.  They went even further and had it destroyed.  For many centuries the book was only known from schnibbles and bits quoted in places like the passage in Jude and some of the Early Church Fathers.

The Ethiopian branch of the Orthodox Church, isolated from the rest of European Christendom, never rejected Enoch, though, and regard both it and the Book of Jubilees as part of their canon; as does the Ethiopian Jewish Beta Israel sect.

Around 1770, a Scottish traveler and explorer named James Bruce spent several years in Abyssinia, searching for the source of the Nile, and came back with three complete copies of the Book of Enoch, translated into Ge’ez, an Ethiopic language; the first complete copies of the Book seen by Western scholars in over a millennium.

Despite this, Enoch himself remains a mystery.  When the Bible says “he walked with God”, does that mean he lived a godly life, or that he actually experienced God face-to-face?  Was he a seer and a visionary, as the Book of Enoch claims?  Was he the only uncorrupted man on earth as the Learned Rabbis have said?  Was he really Too Good to Live?  Is he a Transforming Archangelbot who works these days as the Scribe of Heaven?  And what kind of drugs was he on, anyway, and did St. John of Patmos have access to the same stuff?

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to the writer of the Book of Hebrews:

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away.  For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.  (Hebrews 11:5)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

The Book of Daniel is a patchwork of material, and I can well believe the scholars who hold that it is a compilation of stories rather than the work of a single author.  The first half is composed of short stories about the prophet Daniel and his friends, and the last half, a series of prophetic and surreal visions.  Even in the earlier, narrative portion of the book, every chapter is different.  It starts out in Hebrew; then switches to Aramaic in chapter 2; then in chapter 3 it forgets about the title character and tells a story about these other guys.

And then there’s chapter 4.  In the fourth chapter of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar himself gets to tell his own story.  And what a story it is.

King Nebuchadnezzar,
To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world:
May you prosper greatly!
It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.(Daniel 4:1-2 NIV)

The chapter is framed as a royal proclamation in which the King addresses all his subjects as well as all the people on the earth.  Which as far as Nebuchadnezzar was concerned, amounted to the same thing; we see the same language in other decrees of his mentioned in Daniel.  Yes, his ego was really that big.  That’s kind of the point of this story.

This is the only story in the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel told in the first person.  The last half of the book, describing Daniel’s prophetic dreams, are told from Daniel’s point of view, but he does not narrate the earlier chapters.  This chapter, is a personal account, given not by a prophet or a holy man, but a heathen despot.

Nebuchadnezzar tells of how one day, while lying at home in his palace, happy and contented, he has a terrifying dream.  Something like this happened once before, you may remember, with the dream of the great statue.  And as in the previous instance, he calls upon his court magi, his astrologers, diviners and magicians, to interpret it.  This time, at least, he tells them what the dream was, but they still can’t divine its meaning.

Finally he calls upon Daniel.  In a parenthetical remark, he explains that Daniel is also called Belteshazzar, for the benefit of any of his subjects who find the name “Daniel” hard to spell; and further explains that “...the spirit of the holy gods is in him.” (Daniel 4:8)

Why didn’t Nebuchadnezzar summon Daniel first?  He knows from the previous dream that Daniel is good at this divination stuff; and he had placed Daniel in charge of all the other Wise Guys of Babylon.  Dramatic pacing for one thing.  It adds a touch of suspense and makes for a better story.  And, perhaps from a more practical point of view, because Daniel was in charge of the court magi.  Daniel might have been busy with administrative duties.  You don’t bother the Department Head when one of his subordinates can answer the question for you; you summon his to handle the tough stuff.

I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you.  Here is my dream; interpret it for me.”  (4:9)

One little touch of this story that I like is that, although Nebuchadnezzar has come to respect the Hebrew God of Daniel, and in this story receives another lesson in that God’s greatness, he does not cease to be a Babylonian.  He still calls Daniel by his Bablyonian name of Belteshazzar, (“Bel protect him”, Bel being another name for the Babylonian god Marduk), and attributes Daniel’s wisdom to the gods collectively, not to one God in particular.  It gives Nebuchadnezzar an individual voice, and he does not seem like a sock puppet for some Jewish writer wishing to put down a moral lesson.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

So Nebuchadnezzar tells Daniel his dream.  It’s of a ginormous tree he sees whose top touches the sky and could be seen from the ends of the earth; whose leaves were beautiful and fruit abundant; a tree big enough to shelter the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and to provide food for all.  It was one big honkin’ tree.

But then a messenger comes down from the heavens; a holy one.  Some translations call it a watchman or a watcher, bringing to mind the Watchers of the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, antediluvian ├╝ber-angels.  The Watcher commands that the tree be cut down and its branches lopped off; that its leaves be stripped off and its fruits scattered; that the animals living in and underneath the tree be driven off.  The stump shall remain, bound in bronze and iron, in the midst of the grass of the field.

That was certainly weird, but the next part more disturbing.  The Watcher goes on to say:

“Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth.  Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass for him.”  (4:15-16)

What could this mean?  Nebuchadnezzar is sure that his man Belteshazzar can interpret it; what with him having the spirit of the gods in him and all.

Daniel doesn’t answer right away.  The text says he “...was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him.”  Not because he didn’t know the dream’s meaning, I think, but because he knew that the king wouldn’t like what he heard.  And here the text switches from First Person back to Third Person.  Yes, it’s inconsistent; but this shifts the focus away from Nebuchadnezzar and how he felt, and to the message.  But the King urges Daniel to lay it on him, and so Daniel does.

“My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!”  Daniel explains that Nebuchadnezzar himself was that tree, great and strong whose dominion stretches to the ends of the earth.  But for all his greatness, a time will come when he is driven away from people and will live with the wild animals, out in the open, eating the grass of the field.  “Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (4:23-16)

But although the tree would be destroyed, the stump would remain; meaning that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom would be restored to him, when he admitted that he was subject to Heaven.

Daniel concludes by begging the king to do what is right and to renounce his wickedness by being kind to the oppressed and offering the hope that his present prosperity may continue.

Was Nebuchadnezzar angered by Daniel’s interpretation?  The text doesn’t say.  But it does say that about twelve months later, the king happened to be walking on the roof of the royal palace of Bablyon and began admiring all that he had accomplished.

“Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”  (4:29-30)

The city of Babylon had been a relatively small one before the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, but Nebuchadnezzar had built up his capital to be worthy of his new conquests.  He rebuilt the Eteminaki ziggurat, dedicated to Marduk, which had been destroyed by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib; enlarged the palace, and built the Ishtar Gate, largest of the eight gates of Babylon.  According to Herodotus, (who isn’t always accurate, but who knew a good story), Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to please his wife who was homesick for the gardens of her native country.  Inscriptions have been found in which Nebuchadnezzar boasts of his building achievements, including one in which he claims to have personally cut down the cedars from Lebanon used in his palace.  Perhaps the dream carried an echo of that boast.

So when Nebuchadnezzar looked out on the city he had built, its massive walls, it’s high temples and opulent palaces, he could not help but swell with pride and say:

“I built that.”

The words have scarcely escaped his lips when a voice comes from heaven and repeats the words of the messenger from his dream.  “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar:  Your royal authority has been taken from you…”  (4:31)

Immediately, Daniel’s prediction comes to pass.  Nebuchadnezzar loses his reason and thinks he is a cow.  He is driven away from the public and eats grass like cattle and stays out in the wild where he is drenched by the dew of heaven.  His hair grows long like eagle’s feathers and his fingernails like the talons of a bird.

Apparently, this is an actual mental illness in which a person thinks he’s some type of bovine.  It’s called “boanthropy”, which sounds more scientific than “He Thinks He’s A Cow.”  I have to wonder, though, if Nebuchadnezzar’s condition is an ironic reference to the winged bull figures common as guardian spirits in Mesopotamian art.  He worshipped a bulls with the heads of men, and turned into a man with the mind of a cow.

Be that as it may, Nebuchadnezzar remains in this semi-bovine state for “seven times”.  How long is that?  It could mean “seven years”, and that is how the phrase is often rendered; but if the King of Babylon had been missing for seven years, wouldn’t someone have noticed?  Yeah, granted having the king start going about on all fours and saying “Moo” is not something most governments would want to commemorate; but you’d think there would be some sort of record of there being a regent in charge during that period or something like that.

One of the sources I researched claims that a Greek Historian named Abydenus from the 3rd Century BC says that Nebuchadnezzar had been “possessed by some god” and had disappeared.  The actual story from Abydenus, though, seems to be about the king going into a fit and predicting the fall of Babylon and then dying.  It doesn’t seem to fit the Cow story.

The same source states that there is no historical record of Nebuchadnezzar’s governmental activity between 582 B.C. and 575 B.C.  I don’t know enough of Mesopotamian history to know if this is true or not; but I suppose it’s possible that perhaps he was A.W.O.L. during that period and the account in Daniel Chapter 4 is based on an actual proclamation he made to explain where he’d been.

Another source cites an tablet from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, currently in the British Museum, which seems to describe him suffering some sort of mental breakdown; but the tablet is incomplete and open to interpretation.

2 [Nebu]chadnezzar considered […..]3 His life appeared of no value to [him...]5 And Babylonian speaks bad counsel to Evil-merodach […..]6 Then he gave an entirely different order but [………]7 He does not heed the word from his lips, the cour[tiers……]11 He does not show love to son and daughter […..]12 …family and clan do not exist [………]14 His attention was not directed towards promoting the welfare of Esagil [and Babylon]16 He prays to the Lord of lords, he raised [his hands in supplication….]17 He weeps bitterly to Marduk, the g[reat] god [……] 18 His prayer go forth, to [………]

Suggestive, yes, but the passage could as easily be describing a crippling bout of depression.  Now, if it had the king saying “Moo!” or “There’s nothing like hay for a headache”, why then it would support Daniel’s account a little better.  Maybe that’s on the broken-off part of the tablet.

Or maybe the “seven times” of the Biblical text refers to a shorter period of time: seven months, or even seven weeks.  Raised though I was in a tradition of Biblical Inerrancy, I tend to be suspicious whenever the Bible speaks of numbers like “seven” or “forty”.  It makes me wonder if these numbers are being cited to the most significant decimal, or if they are being used symbolically.  “Seven” is the number of Completion in Hebraic literature, and perhaps “seven times” merely means “the period of time sufficient to fulfill God’s purpose.”

At the end of this period, Nebuchadnezzar regains his senses and his sanity is restored.  He is once again capable of taking over narrating the story.

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.  Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.  (Daniel 4:34)

His advisors and nobles seek him out and he is restored to his throne.  And, dang it all, he becomes even greater than he was before.

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.  And those who walk in pride, he is able to humble.  (Daniel 4:37)

Which isn’t to say that Nebuchadnezzar became a humble man.  Reading his voice in his proclamation I just don’t hear that.  And he was, after all, still king of the Greatest Nation on Earth.  But it’s always healthy for a ruler to remember occasionally that there are things even greater than he.