Living Water Everywhere (John 7:37-41)

And so Jesus has gone to the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the key pilgrim festivals of the Jewish faith, and he’s prompted lots of debate as to whether or not he’s the promised Messiah. Then, on the last day of the Feast, he comes out with a line that makes many believe in him:

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

John explains that this is a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, still quite a while away. But why does this statement stir up such a fuss.

Maybe it’s all about the imagery. After all, the crowds were living in an imaginative landscape inspired by the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. When he talks about living water, Jesus is drawing on Zechariah 14:8 (“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.”) and Ezekiel 47 (“I saw water coming out from the threshold of the Temple toward the east.”). All this summons up a picture of an abundant, healed land, symbolic of God saving his people (all of which foreshadows Revelation 22:1-2).

It’s a powerful image because it harks back to the Garden of Eden – one of the main features of the Garden was its rivers, and though the Fall cuts this beautiful, abundant place off from humanity, we’re told that it will be restored in some way by the coming of Israel’s Messiah. So when Jesus talks about living water, people start to sit up and listen.

(It’s not the first time he’s done this – in John 4:10 he also talks about living water, this time riffing on Isaiah 12:3, which again talks about the restoration of the land and humanity.)

But here’s the interesting thing. The Prophets are talking about the healing of the land – a very specific chunk of land – and water flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem. This is fair enough; after all, Jerusalem and the Temple were – are- the spiritual centre of Judaism. And yet here’s Jesus saying that he – and God, and the Holy Spirit – is the source of living water. Contradiction? Well, there’s a tension in the Gospels between Jesus – who’s the presence of God on Earth, and who’s crucifixion will somehow permanently fulfil the sacrificial system – and the Temple, which at this point is being run by corrupt authorities.

So maybe it’s not a case of Jesus decentralising the worship of God, although the presence of the Holy Spirit in believers achieves this. Maybe it ties in with the idea that, through the Fall, the world, as well as the soul of humanity, is broken and that, through the work of Jesus, it will be restored. The living water doesn’t flow from Jerusalem and the Temple as a fundamental physical feature, it flows because the relationship between God and humanity is restored and that also heals the land, radiating out from a new Jerusalem as the spiritual centre of everything.

And how does this tie in with the Feast of Tabernacles? Because that’s when water would be collected from the Pool of Siloam and carried to the Temple, where it would be poured out on the altar as an offering to God. The agricultural aspects of the Feast were about asking God to send rain for the harvest. Living water, in other words.

Hmm.

Or am I reading too much into two short lines?! As always, comments in the comments box!

 

 

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Apologies…

…For not having updated for a couple of weeks, life has overtaken blogging. I’m hoping to get back on to a regular schedule over the next few days. I’ll be back!

Rainbows and Arrows: God’s Covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-17)

20120609-150839.jpgSo the other day I was driving out of a storm, spray from the cars in front hitting my windscreen and iPod playing through the stereo. I glanced to my right and realised that I was driving towards a huge rainbow, beautiful in the sky and colouring the ominous chimneys of an old power station. And, just as I was busy being awestruck, a new track started playing, called ‘It Can’t Rain All The Time’. If I didn’t make a mental leap to the story of Noah, I’d’ve been duty bound to quit my Bible blog there and then.

The story of Noah is easily in the top ten best loved Bible stories, but it’s also one of those narratives that can become almost too familiar, giving us the impression there’s nothing left to learn from it. Okay, but the minute you think that is the minute you should be looking at the story with fresh eyes.

For instance, after 30-plus years of hearing and telling this story, today I discovered that, when, in Genesis 9, God uses a rainbow as a symbol that an event like the Flood will never happen again, there isn’t a specific Hebrew word used for “rainbow”. No, the word used is the Hebrew for “bow” – it’s an image of a weapon.

Wait, what?

I mean, this bit is nice. Rainbows are beautiful, representing the end of the storm, a moment of peace after what can be violent weather conditions. Martial imagery just seems at odds with this.

Or is it?

See, throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as an archer. This is linked to judgement, God riding out with his bow and arrows to bring justice to the world. This often visualises his arrows as lightning, such as in 2 Samuel, Psalms and Habakkuk. Add to that images of God’s voice thundering and there’s a clear metaphor going on – God’s judgement is likened to a storm. And, of course, the main place that judgement comes through a storm is during Noah’s flood.

So, if weather-related images of bows and arrows are symbols of God’s judgement, what’s going on with God’s covenant with Noah?

Could it be God laying down his weapons of judgement?

And, more than that, picture a rainbow compared to a bow. If the rainbow represents a weapon, it’s facing the wrong way, away from the people at which it’s meant to be aimed.

(It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that one major interpretation of Christian theology states that God saves humanity by taking judgement upon himself… It may be a little tenuous linking that with the rainbow, but it’s worth noting…)

So if Noah’s story is one of salvation in the midst of judgement, then God ‘s covenant with him represents that judgement being suspended, for humanity as a whole at least. And it falls within a wider story of redemption that runs throughout the Bible, which is awesome.

Though it means I’ll never again look at rainbows in the same way…

Jubilee (Leviticus 25)

Over the last few days, the UK has been commemorating the Queen’s diamond jubilee, leading to street parties, concerts and furious tweets from republicans. But amid all the celebrations and protests, there’s another angle on the concept of jubilee that I haven’t seen mentioned. It’s worth a look.

In Leviticus 25, Israel is commanded to observe a ‘Year of Sabbath’ every seven years, during which the land should remain fallow; in addition to the agricultural benefits of this, it’s also part of a narrative chronology – the rhythms of life in Israel all pointed to the importance of remembering God and his fundamental involvement in the world, to the extent that even fields and soil got their day of rest.

But the policy didn’t stop there. Every seventh Year of Sabbath was a jubilee year, and this was a massive deal. See, every fifty years, land that had been sold was to be returned to its original owners. Debts were to be forgiven. Indentured servants were to be released. In effect, the chains of poverty were to be broken.

(It’s interesting that this was to take place on the Day of Atonement, which was the day on which sacrifices were offered for the sins of the nation. There’s a concept here of sin-as-debt, and jubilee as an act of grace. Which ties in nicely with ideas of how Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection work on a theological level.)

The idea of jubilee is rooted in the idea of God as provider – fields can be left fallow because God will provide food, and property can be returned to its original owners because, ultimately, God owns the land, not the people, and he gets to allocate it.

(And if you think I’m getting into how that works with the situation in the Middle East today, then you’re crazy.)

There’s a powerful idea here of how people who find themselves poverty-stricken should be helped and supported, not exploited – there was even a prohibition on charging interest, which could push those needing a loan into poverty. The poor are to be helped, not treated as an easily exploitable form of labour or income, and poverty should always be a nasty but temporary situation, not an ongoing cycle.

It’s interesting how all this isn’t mentioned nearly as much as some of Leviticus’s other laws, like those against homosexuality, when the concept of jubilee has so much to say about how our culture treats money and the poor – it’s ironic that staffing the Queen’s jubilee celebrations gave rise to this news story. Leviticus 25 is still relevant.

(PS. And yet there’s an elephant in the room – alongside these laws, which are fundamentally anti-poverty, lies laws making provision for slavery. I don’t know what to do with that, but it’s a tension that anyone reading Leviticus has to face. Depending on which side of the belief fence you fall, there are easy ways to get around this (dismiss the individual laws or dismiss the whole Bible), but I’m not sure either approach is all that conclusive. And I take some comfort in that the New Testament puts slave trading on the same level as murder, but I’d be lying if I said that this makes the questions go away…)