Sunday, July 6, 2008

Praise for Stories Unknown (7/6/08)

Praise for Stories Unknown
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 6, 2008

On our quest to cover the Bible in 2008, we are spending July and August with texts that may be unfamiliar to us, us being those familiar with the Protestant tradition.  These are books Protestants call the Apocrypha.   Roman Catholics refer to these books as Deuterocanonical, meaning that they are part of the biblical canon but not recognized as such until later. 

It was the Protestant Reformation that finally narrowed the canon of accepted books to 66 for Protestants.  Roman Catholics countered by including many of these other works.  Also, Orthodox churches include some of these in their accepted canon.

These texts were written between 300BCE and 100 CE, and are a response, in a large part, to the conquest of Alexander the Great and the process of Hellenization, the influence of Greek culture. 

There has been an increased interest in these works, partly in response to ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics and partly in seeking to understand the time period closer to the time of Jesus.

There are different types of literature in this collection, history, poetry, and wisdom, and today I am going to tell the Romance stories.  These are fictional tales that are meant to inspire individuals to acts of courage and piety. 

The Apocrypha has had influence in our history.  Theological concepts such as the immortality of the soul, guardian angels, and the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah are rooted in the Apocrypha.

William Shakespeare was fond of the Apocrypha, so much so that he named his two daughters, Judith and Susanna.  We will hear their stories this morning. 

I am going to tell the stories of Judith and Tobit.  Then I will tell the stories from the Daniel tradition, which include Susanna, Bel and The Dragon, and the prayer of Azariah and the three young men.

The story of Judith is set in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.   What is odd is that the author of Judith writes that Nebuchadnezzar is the King Assyria.   This is obviously wrong.   It would be like saying that George Washington was the First President of Russia.   Scholars have wondered why this author made such an obvious historical error. 

The best explanation I have found is that the author intentionally did this as a way of showing that the story of Judith is fiction, like modern authors will do when they invent a place or an historical figure to give the sense of history, but to tell a fictional story.

Judith is likely written during the 2nd century BCE during the time following the infamous Antiochus IV Epipahanes, one of the most brutal oppressors of the Jewish people who set himself up as a god, demanding allegiance from all people.

Judith is a story of resistance.  One can imagine that this story would have been told over and over to inspire courage and piety, and when needed, cleverness and bold action.

1)  Nebuchanezzar wants allies to defeat Arphaxad of the Medes, modern Iran. Calls on all the people from the West including Israel and Egypt to join him.  They refuse.  Nebuchanezzar vows revenge.

2)    He defeats Arphaxad and plots his revenge against those who did not support him.
He chooses his general Holofernes to take 120,000 troops and 60,000 cavalry and plunder the West.

3)    Off he goes killing and plundering, destroying all altars as everyone must worship Nebuchanezzar alone.

4)    The Israelites hear of this and are terrified Jerusalem and for their newly constructed temple as they had only recently returned from exile.  So they fortify their cities and prepare for war.

5)    They also pray to the Lord.  The Lord hears their prayers.

6)    Word gets to Holofernes that the Israelites are preparing for war.  He wants to know what is up with these folks.  He asks the leaders of the surrounding countries, Moab and Ammon to tell him about them.

7)    Achior the Ammonite recounts Israelite history for them.  They escaped Egypt, but since they abandoned YHWH they were take captive in Babylon, but have returned.  “As long sa they did not since against their God, they prospered, for the God who hates iniquity is with them.  But when they departed  form the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly defeated in many battles and were led away captive to a foreign land.”  So, here is how you defeat them:  “if they sin against God, and we find out their offense, we can go up and defeat them.  But if they are not guilty, then avoid them, for their Lord will take you out.

8)    Holofornes after deliberation says, “Who  is their god?  There is only one god, Nebuchanezzar!  We will overwhelm them!”  He sent Alchior to Israel with the the threat that he would die with the Israelites.

9)    The Israelites find Alchior and he tells them about the plans of Holofernes. 

10)  HOlofernes advances with now 170,000 foot soldiers and 12,000 cavalry to the mountain pass at Bethulia.  The Israelites are terrified and they pray and pray.  The Assyrian army surrounds them for 34 days and cuts off their water supply.  The Israelites are fainting in the streets.

11)  They begin to lose their faith and call out against their leader Uzziah for not making peace with the Assyrians.  “It would be better for us to be captured by them!”

12) Uzziah says “Courage!  Hang in there for five more days.  If the Lord doesn’t protect us then I will do as you say.”

13) Enter Judith.  Judith a widow, was lovely to behold.  Her husband had left her many riches.  She feared God with great devotion.

14) When she hears what has happened she scolds the people for putting God to the test.  Trust the Lord, she says.  We have not worshiped any idol.  So let us give thanks to the Lord who is testing us.    Uzziah the king praises her words and her wisdom.

15) Judith says, “I have a plan but I won’t tell you what it is.”  Uzziah gives his approval.  Judith prays a lengthy prayer, then bathed and perfumed herself and dressed in festive attire.  She and her maid exit the town gate.

16) When she meets the Assyrian patrols she tells them that she is a Hebrew but is escaping from them and wants to visit Holofernes, so she can tell him how to capture the hill country without losing any of his men.

17) Everyone is astounded by her beauty.  Holofernes welcomes her.  Judith lies through her teeth, telling him that Nebuchanezzar is the king of the whole earth.  But she also adds that what Alchior said is true.  That they can only defeat Israel unless Israel sins against God.  But, they are about to sin.  Since they are running short of water and food, they have planned to kill their livestock and eat what God has forbidden them to eat.  They are going to consume the first fruits that have been consecrated for God.  As soon as they do this, they will be defeated.  When I learned they were doing this, I fled from them.  Every night I will pray and when God tells me they have sinned, I will tell you, lead you to Jerusalem and set up your thrown.

18) Holofernes liked this news.  Judith prays for three days and she bathes and is very beautiful.  But she won’t eat with them.  She has brought her own food.   She stays in her own tent.  Holofernes gets ideas.   He invites her to his tent.  She accepts.    Holofernes passion, says the text, “was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the first day he saw her.” 

19) Holofernes gets drunk, more drunk than he had ever been in his life.  Judith doesn’t drink his wine, but drinks her own.   Holofernes and Judith are alone in the tent.  Holofernes is passed out.   Judith prays that the Lord will give her strength and on the bedpost above Holofernes head she took down his sword, struck his neck twice with the sword and cut off his head.

20)   She hides his body as best she can, puts his head in the food bag and she and her maid quietly walk out as they were accustomed to do for prayer.

21) They go back to Bethulia and pull his head out of the bag.  She tells Uzziah to put the head on the wall, get everyone ready with swords so the Assyrian army can see you.  When they go in to rouse Holofernes and see him without his head, they will panic.

22)  That is exactly what happened.  The Assyrian army ran in a panic and the Israelites attacked and slaughtered the Assyrians and took all the booty.   Judith got to keep all the stuff that was in the tent of Holofernes.    She broke into song, led a parade, and offered prayers of thanksgiving to God.  

23) While many offered to marry her, she never would.  She remained chaste, grew older and wiser, reaching the age of 105.   “No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.

That is the story of Judith.  It is the story of how a wise, courageous, beautiful, pious woman gets ahead.

The next story is about Tobit.  This is a story created write around 200 BCE.  It is also a story of courage and piety.   It is set in the time of conquest of Assyria over Israel in the 8th century.

1)    Tobit is a pious man, who makes his offerings in accordance with the laws of Moses.  He is very generous to the poor.  He has a wife, Anna, and  a son named Tobias.  Tobit is captured by the Assyrians and taken to Nineveh.  Even there he would not eat the food of the Gentiles.  While there he earned the favor of the Assyrian King, Shalmanezer.   He would buy what Shalmanezer needed.  Tobit left money in Media under the care of a man named Gabael.

2)    Tobit lost favor with the king because he would provide proper burial to those Israelites who the king would put to death against the wishes of the king.  All of his property was confiscated and he had to flee.

3)    He goes home.  On Pentecost, he has a feast and tells his son Tobias to find a poor person to share the feast.  Tobias returns and tells him that an Israelite has been murdered and is lying in the marketplace.  Tobias goes out and takes the body and gives it a proper burial. 

4)    That night he goes to sleep by the wall.  Some sparrows above the wall drop their droppings into his eyes.  His eyes are covered with a white film.  The doctors prescribe ointments which make it worse and he goes blind.  He remains blind for four years.   He gets depressed, snaps at his wife and finally prays that  the Lord would take his life. 

5)    At the exact moment that he offers this prayer, a woman named Sarah is being scolded by one of her father’s maids.  Sarah lives in Media, where Tobit had left his money.  Sarah had been married to seven husbands.  Each husband had been killed on the wedding day by the evil demon Asmodeus.  “You kill your husbands!” said the maid.  “You take your grief out on us!” 

6)    Sarah is upset and at the same time Tobias offers his prayer to die, she goes up to hang herself in her father’s bedroom.  She changes her mind.  The story told wouldn’t sound good.    She prays instead that the Lord that the Lord would either give her a husband or take her life.

7)    Both Tobit’s prayer and Sarah’s prayer are heard in the glorious presence of God.

8)    The angel, Raphael, is sent to heal both of them, to Tobit to heal him of blindness, and to Sarah, that she might marry Tobit’s son Tobias.

9)    Here is how it happened.  Tobit remembered the money that he left in Media.  Tobit tells Tobias about the money and gives him a long speech about being pious and generous.  In all your conduct, “what you hate, do not do to anyone.”

10) Tobias heads off to Media to get the money.  He looks for someone to go with him and he meets Raphael, the angel.  Tobias doesn’t know he is an angel.  He introduces him to Tobit and they make a deal for how much he will be paid to accompany Tobit. 

11) Tobias and Raphael go on their journey.  And a dog joins them.  They stop along the Tigris River.  As Tobias goes to wash in the river, a fish leaps out and tries to swallow his foot.  But the angel said, “Grab the fish!”  The angel says to cut out its gall, heart, and liver.    The gall, heart, and liver are good medicine.

12)  They ate the rest of the fish and continued on their journey.  Tobias asked him what good medicine that the gall, heart and liver have?  The angel Raphael says that if you burn the heart and liver to make smoke in the presence of a man or woman afflicted by a demon, the demon will leave and never return.  Also if you anoint a person’s eyes with the gall they will be cured of blindness. 

13) When they arrive in Media, Raphael says that they will stay in the house of Sarah’s father.  He is a relative.  And you have claim upon her as your wife.   Besides Sarah is brave, sensible, and beautiful.   I will talk to her father about it. 

14) Tobias says, I have heard that she was married to seven husbands and they all died in the bridal chamber.   Raphael said, trust.  When you go into the bridal chamber burn the heart and liver of the fish.  The demon will smell the smoke and leave.   But before you go to bed, make sure you both pray. 

15) So Raphael and Tobias meet with the family and exchange good wishes.  Tobias indicates his desire to marry Sarah.  Her father says that’s great but there is something I gotta tell ya.  Every husband dies on the wedding night.

16) They get married and that night Tobias and Sarah are in the bridal chamber.  Tobias takes out the fish heart and liver and sets them on fire.  The odor of the fish was so nasty that the demon fled to the remotest part of Egypt.  But the angel Raphael followed the demon and bound him hand and foot.  Tobias and Sarah pray.

17) Meanwhile the parents aren’t so confident.  Sarah’s father tells his servant to dig a grave for Tobias.  They want to bury this one without anyone knowing.  

18) Lo and behold, the maid comes out and says that Tobias survived the night.  So Sarah’s father tells the servants to quickly fill the grave before anyone sees it. 

19) They have a fourteen day wedding celebraation.  Tobit tells Raphael to get the money and they return home, because his parents are waiting and worrying.

20) When they finally arrive home, Raphael tells Tobias to anoint his father’s eyes with the fish gall. He does and Tobias sees. 

21) Raphael tells them that he was their angel who planned the whole thing.  He brought the prayers of Sarah and Tobit to the Lord.   When Tobit had buried the dead he was sent to test him.   Raphael tells them pray and to acknowledge God in all things.  Raphael says:  “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.” 

22) Tobit lived to be 112.  Tobias took great care of his parents and of Sarah’s parents.  He lived to be 117.

Thus is the story of Tobit and why many people believe and trust in guardian angels still today.

The final stories come from the Daniel tradition.  Daniel is a book found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is purported to be about an historical figure in the time of the exile in the 6th century BCE.  Scholars date it to the 3rd or 2nd century BCE.  It is fiction set in the time of the Exile to encourage the people in the time it is written to resist encroaching Hellenism and to be faithful to their Jewish traditions and identity.   It contains the story of the handsome Daniel who refuses to stop praying to YHWH even at the command of Nebuchanezzar who throws him the lion’s den.  YHWH shuts the mouths of the lions and wins Nebuchanezzar over. 

In the Apocrypha we find three additional stories to Daniel.  The first, Bel and The Dragon is similar to Daniel and the Lion’s Den. 

Bel was an idol of the Babylonians.  The king asked Daniel why he didn’t worship Bel.  Daniel said that he didn’t worship idols.  But the king said, Bel is living.  He eats and drinks.   Daniel says that is a lie.  So the king called the priests of Bel and said who has been eating the food set before Bel.  If you cannot tell me you will die. But if you can prove to me that Bel eats them Daniel will die. 

Daniel agreed to the contest.  The 70 priests of Bel and their wives and children prepared a feast for Bel and put it on the table in front of Bel.  The priests were not worried as they had a trap door underneath the table from which they would sneak out in the night and eat the food. 

The king sealed the door shut to the temple where Bel was.  Before he did Daniel had ash spread all over the ground.  The priests did not know it.  The next day when they went back Daniel pointed out the footprints on the ash and the king was outraged, arrested the priests and gave the idol to Daniel who destroyed it and its temple.

There was also a Dragon whom the Babylonians revered.  The king said to Daniel, “You can’t deny that this is a living God!”   Daniel said, “I only worship the real God.  I will tell you what I will do.  I will kill the dragon without sword or club.”  The king gave him permission.

So Daniel took pitch, fat, and hair and boiled them together and made cakes and fed them to the dragon.  The dragon ate them, and burst open. 

The Babylonians were upset.  This Daniel has destroyed Bel and the Dragon.  So they went to the king and told him to hand over Daniel or they would kill the king.  The king handed Daniel over to them.  Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den for six days. 

Meanwhile, Habakkuk, the prophet was in Judea.  The lord told Habbakuk to go toBabylon and give Daniel lunch.  Habbakuk said he didn’t know where Babylon was.  So the Lord pulled him by the hair and flew him over to Babylon.  When Daniel saw the food, he thanked god for not forsaking those who love him.

The next day the king came to the lion’s den and saw Daniel still alive.  The king prayed to the God of Daniel and threw all of those who attempted Daniel’s destruction into the lion’s den where they were eaten immediately.

In addition to Bel and the Dragon, there is the story of Susanna which is also in the Daniel tradition. 

Susanna, as you might guess was very beautiful and pious.  She was married to a man named Joakim who was very wealthy.  Two elders were elected as judges and would hold court and Joakim’s house.   But they were very wicked.

These two elders would watch Susanna everyday and burn with lust.  Each tried to keep the other from knowing.  One day they departed each to his own home for lunch, but each of them came back instead to have a peak at Susanna in the garden.  They found each other, were embarrassed and confessed to each other their lust for Susanna. 

They decided that they would find a way to seduce her.  They waited until her maid left and found her and said, “Sleep with us, or we will say that a young man was with you.” 

Susanna was greatly distressed, but decided to take her chances. 

So she was taken to court where the elders testified that they had seen her alone with a young man who escaped before they could grab them.  Because they were elders, the people believed them and Susanna was sentenced to death.

Susanna cried out to God for justice.  The Lord heard her cry and stirred up the spirit of Daniel.   He shouted this is wrong and brought them back to court.   Daniel said to separate the two elders and he would examine them individually. 

He asked one under which tree did you see them being intimate?  And the one said, under a mastic tree.”   To the other he asked the same question.  He said, “under an evergreen oak.”  

The whole assembly raised a great shout and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him.  They put the elders to death.   They praised Susanna, who was beautiful, pious, and true.  And they praised Daniel who earned a great reputation among the people.

The Prayer of Azariah is the prayer of the three young men who in the Book of Daniel were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow down to the idol.  This prayer is the prayer that was said while they were in the furnace.  In response to the prayer an angel comes down and cools the flames and the three burst in to songs of praise to God.

It is the story we know as Shadrach Meshak and Abednego.  

Here is the version in song by “The Fairfield Four.”

The main characters are Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego
King Nebuchanezzar, the idol, the fiery furnace, and the angel of the Lord.

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