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It’s uphill to the kingdom

When I finish guiding a group in Israel, normally my habit is to spend a bit of time looking around on my own.  My June trip this summer was no exception.  After seeing the group off at the airport, I returned to Jerusalem and wandered down to one of the city’s most historic parts, The City of David, original Jerusalem.  An appropriate spot to do some looking around, for at the foot of this hill, at its lowest level, are the Herodian banks of the Pool of Siloam.  This is the place, according to John 9, where a man without vision was once sent by Jesus to wash his eyes and be healed of his blindness.  I tried to imagine what first sight looked like for a man blind from birth.  And then it happened to me.  Sort of.  In a very familiar place to me, my eyes opened.  And I saw something new.
Excavations near the Pool of Siloam have recently revealed an underground sewer system from second temple times where waters flushed from the temple mount once coursed down through the Tyropoean valley to the confluence of Jerusalem’s wadis.  What makes the discovery especially significant is that this tunnel was constructed for more than just drainage.  It was intended to serve as an emergency escape route from the temple fortress above in case of a perilous situation on the platform.  Such an emergency did in fact arise in the year, AD 70, when Rome moved to put an end to the Jewish revolt that had dragged on into its fourth year.  Invited by workers to enter this underground system and move upward along its course to the mount above, I thought of the role this tunnel had played in the fall of Jerusalem and imagined the events occurring around me had I been there on those fateful days in August so long ago.

In the summer of AD 70, Roman general Flavius Titus launched a devastating assault with four legions against Jerusalem and its temple.  For months, Jewish Zealots fought bravely, managing to fend off every attack thrown at them.  But finally, hopelessly outnumbered, the situation grew impossible for the defenders, and on August 28 (the 9th of Av), battering rams broke into the inner wall of the temple.  Roman forces poured through the breach onto the esplanade burning and looting at will.  The defeated Zealots broke ranks and, with no other course left to them, fled into the emergency tunnel in a desperate attempt to escape.  The attacking legionaries pursued them mercilessly and for nearly two days rooted out the fugitives from their hiding places in the sewers below.  As attested by archaeology, the carnage that ensued was unimaginable.

While walking the uphill course of that tunnel, I was haunted by thoughts of those terrible days.  Though dazed by their reality, however, I sensed strangely that I might be, in a way, reversing history.  And I was not doing it alone.  Others climbed with me.  Those Jews of old were there, returning to the kingdom they had built, if ever so briefly, with their ideals and resolve.  And on a climb that increasingly took on metaphorical proportions, others were there as well, climbing to the Kingdom of God above.

I thought of the group that I had just finished guiding through Israel.  Most of the members were East Europeans and Eurasians serving God in the former Soviet states.  For sure, theirs is an uphill climb.  Enemies abound.  Attrition is high.  The odds are against them.  Still faithfully they trudge on, day after day, year after year, believing that work for the Kingdom must survive.  I thought of others in the West walking with them on this journey.  And I rejoiced in a cherished ministry that God has given me to climb in the company of dedicated servants like these.

After some time underground I emerged exhilarated on the Herodian street above.  I knew what I had to do then.  I found my way through tears to the so-called “Wailing Wall” a short distance away to pray for fellow-climbers on our journey.  Perhaps you are one for whom I prayed.  If so, may God uphold you as you climb, strengthen your gait, and quicken your step.  Be encouraged.  You are not alone.  It is indeed uphill to the Kingdom.  But the company is good.  And the course is certain.

A Christmas surprise

As usual, this year’s holiday season was more or less a “road show” for me.  It began in early December on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, with everyone joyfully preparing for Three Kings Day.  Then after celebrating Latin Christmas and Gregorian New Years with my family in suburban New York, it moved abruptly to Jerusalem for Armenian New Years (January 13), and to Bethlehem on January 18, together with dear Armenian friends for the Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity.  The various celebrations impressed me deeply, each contextualizing indelibly yet differently the event of Christ’s birth for their respective communities.  Still I could not help but notice that in the move to adopt and adapt the Story, certain key details of the historical event have been lost along the way.  And I suspect that if we could visit again that first Christmas in Bethlehem, there would be a few surprises awaiting us.
One of these surprises would be the circumstances of the birth in Bethlehem.  All traditions import that no lodging was available to Joseph and Mary, whether due to crowded conditions at census or suspicions about Mary’s pregnancy.  This based upon a verse in the book of Luke (2:7) stating that “…there was no room for them in the inn.”
I assure you that middle easterners today who hear this are shocked by this detail.  First, because hospitality is a such strict obligation for households in the middle east.  No seeker, absolutely no one, can be turned away.  And as Joseph is returning to his home of origin, one cannot imagine, especially with a full-term pregnant woman in his company, that he would not have found warm hospitality in any home there, even in an overcrowded situation.  And then inns, or khans, were seedy places in first century Palestine and, to say the least, were inappropriate lodging for women in this or any other condition.  Middle easterners hear this story differently than do westerners.  They assume that Joseph and Mary would have found lodging on first try, as Matthew’s account suggests (2:11), and that Jesus was born within the confines of a home in Bethlehem.
So how does this fit with the information in Luke about “no room” in an “inn?”  To resolve the apparent discrepancy it helps to know something about village housing in first century Palestine.  In addition to living space and work facilities for its householders, village domiciles contained two required rooms.  One for guests who might happen by.  Receiving guests increased the prestige of the house and brought news to the family.  The “guestroom,” or kataluma (literally, “a large room”), was the most elaborately decorated and best appointed room in the home.  Here is where Joseph and Mary would have stayed in the home they approached.  And it is this word, kataluma, or “guestroom,” that appears in Luke 2:7.
Then, homes in that culture contained within their walls a stable for draft and pure-bred animals.  Because of the legal/ritual requirements, animals raised for slaughter at special events like weddings, funerals and festivals, were cut away from the herd and grain-fed from mangers within the home.  Fecal remains and feeding troughs have actually been recovered from these spaces.  The animals therein invariably received names and were treated as pets.  The story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-37) illustrates well this convention.  Jephthah promises God that if he gains victory against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever “comes out of [his] house” upon his return (11:31).  Naturally, he expects a house animal to emerge from the stalls when he returns at first light.
This information permits the following reconstruction of the Christmas story.  Joseph and Mary were shown to the guestroom of a home in Bethlehem, and they planned to stay there for the duration of Joseph’s business.  At some point during their residence, we cannot know when, Mary goes into labor.  And then the conditions of the guestroom, public and overcrowded, were no longer suitable for her condition, prompting Luke’s summary of the situation (see above).  Joseph and Mary have few options then for privacy with midwife support.  They choose to retire to the animal quarters somewhere else in the house.  And there the Child was born, one of the mangers serving as a cradle for the newborn.
This was the actual location of Christ’s birth.  But Luke’s point doesn’t stop there.  He reminds us in providing this historical detail that the Savior, one evangelist will call Him the “Lamb of God,” was born in a room set aside for sacrificial animals.  And like these animals, He will be raised not to live, but to die.  In fact, to give His life as an offering for others.
Most traditions incorporate a habit of giving gifts at the holiday season.  This is God’s greatest gift to all of us.  Peace with God and goodwill toward one another has been accomplished in the life given for you and for me.  Have you opened your gift yet?  It could be the beginning of a whole new life for you.  A life with God really in it.  And you have only to receive it.

August language

For the past twenty-five years, August for me has been a language month.  Let me explain.  At the seminary in which I teach, the biblical languages are offered in intensive format for those desiring to delve into the deeper dimensions of the Bible.  For four weeks every August for the past quarter century, I have taught eager learners to read the classical Hebrew language of the Bible.

Classical Hebrew was not exactly the language of King David or the vernacular used by the prophets to promulgate their oracles.  The street language of the people of Israel, called Canaanite after the various populations who preceded her along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, was a bit different.  Classical Hebrew was a special literary form of the street language.  It was developed by the scribal caste in ancient Israel to produce the official documents of the nation.  What Jews call the Hebrew Bible and Christians call the Old Testament was authored and edited in this developed literary language.  Most of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament looks exactly the same linguistically speaking, even though it was obviously produced over a period of many centuries.  Language uniformity exists because all of the books of the Bible were converted to a common dialect that has come to be called Biblical Hebrew.  This is what I teach and have taught, all told now, for nearly forty years.

My first experience with Hebrew was in Israel in the early 1970s.  As a young man fascinated by the exotic world of the middle east, I studied Hebrew in an intensive/everyday experience in classrooms in Jerusalem and on a Galilee kibbutz.  The language I learned then is the main language of the modern state of Israel.  Called Modern Hebrew, it has been in the process of development only since the late 19th century.  It is founded, however, upon the classical language of the Bible.  So while Modern Hebrew is not exactly the same as Biblical Hebrew, gaining oral and aural facility in Modern Hebrew gives one a leg up on mastering the language of the Bible.  When I studied Biblical Hebrew a few years later, I found it easy and fun because I’d already learned to speak and write its modern counterpart.  It is a bit like reading the King James Version of the Bible from a linguistic platform of 21st century English.  Not exactly the same language, but “you can get there from here.”

A selling point for my August language class is that we don’t just do language.  We also introduce students to the culture of the people who used the language for communication.  Every day I bring to class an item that illustrates something from the biblical, medieval, or modern experience of the Jewish people.  Items like a 6th century BCE Babylonian arrowhead found near the northern wall of Jerusalem, a Herodian period oil lamp that would have brought light to a home in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, or one of the various symbols used by Jews from rabbinic times to the present to capture the dynamic of commitment to God and His Torah.  I expect to discuss some of these items in upcoming blogs.  I think you’ll enjoy these presentations, so check back, right?

As you can tell, my Augusts are about language.  I hope you didn’t mind my sidestepping my usual topics in this blog to talk about Hebrew, which for years now has been and I expect forever will be an important part of my life.  Want to know more?  Come join us in Nyack, New York!  Always glad to include you in my August Language.