Doctor Who and the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19)

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This week saw the collective expression of geek ecstasy; nine episodes of sixties Doctor Who, long thought lost but now uncovered in Nigeria, were released on iTunes. The master tapes wiped as part of a cost cutting exercise, no-one’s seen these episodes for decades; they’ve achieved almost mythical status, known only through novelisations and grainy photo reconstructions.

Now, this is important for all sorts of reasons – a part of the UK’s pop culture heritage being restored, and the unexpected opportunity to watch sort-of new episodes during the show’s 50th anniversary. And, once you factor in the intrinsic OCD of us fans of science fiction TV, there’s a joy in knowing that gaps can still be filled, that there’s a hope, however slim, that missing episodes will no longer be missing. The canon is slowly being restored.

Now you’re asking why I’m going on about all this on a Bible blog. Fair enough.

Throughout 1 Kings there are references to the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel. Effectively, it implies that the outlines of all the reigns we read about in Kings and Chronicles are just the tip of the iceberg. The writer of Kings doesn’t feel the need to overdo the detail; after all, anyone who’s interested can go find this book and get all the juicy gossip.

It’s just a pity the book no longer exists.

It’s frustrating, like a dead hyperlink or all those missing Doctor Who episodes. The absence of this book makes things feel incomplete. I want to know what’s in it. I want to know what happened to all these kings with borderline unpronounceable names. There are a bunch of stories, a mass of history that we don’t know about because a specific book hasn’t managed to survive. There’s always the hope that it found it’s way into a pot buried somewhere in the Middle East, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

It gets worse. Numbers 21:14 mentions the Book of the Wars of The Lord – no longer exists, which sucks because it sounds awesome. When the Chronicler gets to the reign of King David he talks about the records of Gad the Seer and Nathan the Prophet, neither of which are in the Bible. The story goes on; the Hebrew Scriptures keep making references to books that no longer exist.

This bugs me, and it brings me back to the Doctor Who thing: the references to these works triggers my geek gene, making me feel like I’m missing something. In he case of Doctor Who, this is the case; 90-something episodes that form part of the show’s ongoing narrative are gone, including some pretty landmark moments. Of course fans should celebrate getting them back.

The Bible, however, is different. As a history book it leaves stuff out; as a science book it implies that the sun orbits the Earth rather than vice versa. And that’s fine as long as we realise it’s actually neither of these things. That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to how we view the natural world, or the impact of politics and sociology and theology on a particular society, but none of that is it’s primary aim.

No, the primary narrative of the Bible is the story of how God and humanity work out their relationship to each other, culminating in the Cross which ultimately restores all things. It’s the word of God inasmuch as it points to Jesus, the Word of God. Anything else is just gravy.

Does it matter that we’re missing the Annals of the Kings of Israel? Hey, I’ve got a history degree, I’d love to know what else Jeroboam or Zimri got up to. When John mentions that a lot of stuff went down but for which he didn’t have room in his gospel, I want to tell him to stop moaning and write a few more chapters. I want to know these things.

But I need to get over my nerdery – the Bible is not incomplete. It is the story of how God reconciles himself to humanity through Jesus, and as such everything we need to know is there. And as much as I might want more information, the fact is that I’m not even close to understanding the entirety of what’s actually in the Bible, let alone the ‘missing’ bits.

Maybe that should be my focus – to look at what’s there, rather than what’s not. To see more of Jesus , rather than some trivia about King Uzziah. And to appreciate the completeness of the Bible, and of the story it tells.

A Lamp for David (1 Kings 11:29-36)

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So I’m reading about Elisha and yet I somehow stumble over a couple of passages that relate to a post I wrote about Jesus’s family tree. Go figure.

See, the royal line in Israel originally stemmed out from David (at least after Saul screwed up), a member of the Tribe of Judah, and this all relates to the last words of Jacob, way back in Genesis.

However, while David was a godly man who made mistakes, his son Solomon was less righteous – although best known for his wisdom, Solomon actually ended up getting the kingdom split in two thanks to compromises and drifting away from God.

So two kingdoms – Israel in the north, Judah in the south – with two monarchies. Israel’s royal line is messy, disrupted by rebellions and treachery and made up of dynasties from the various tribes. In the south, things are different, the monarchy remaining in the House of David despite the mistakes made by his descendants. Why the difference?

The difference is in a promise made to the House of David in 1 Kings 11:36 (“I will give one tribe to his son so that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I chose to put my Name.”.) Thanks to David’s loyalty to God, the Tribe of Judah would remain a royal line centred on Jerusalem – specifically the Temple.

It’s a big deal, placing David at the centre of promises that stretch from Judah to Jesus. “A lamp for David” crops up a couple more times, in Psalm 132 and 2 Kings 8:19. It’s an evocative image, a picture of an eternal flame burning in the midst of turmoil and destruction, of the lights still on at home while a people get dragged off into exile. It’s a picture of hope.

And all this comes about because of the faith of one man.

Interesting, isn’t it?

The Still Small Voice: Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19)

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s another moment when going back to where God has acted in the past is significant.

Elijah was one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Going toe-to-toe with the corrupt King Ahab and his frankly psychotic wife Jezabel, Elijah faces off against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He’s outnumbered 850 to 1, but God is with him and so Elijah is triumphant and the prophets of Baal end up dead.

And yet after that impressive victory, that awesome display of God’s power, 1 Kings 19 tells the story of a man who sounds scared and depressed and on the run. Rather than capitalise on the defeat of Baal’s prophets, Elijah’s fears and Jezabel’s death threats get the best of him, and he finds himself making his way to Mount Horeb.

Now, this is a tactical move on his part – he’s looking for God and he’s heading to a place where God made himself known in the key moment of Israel’s history. Because Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, the place where God first made his covenant with Israel, giving the 10 Commandments to Moses. By meeting him on Mount Horeb, God’s reminding Elijah of a whole history of protection, presence, love and relationship.

However, Elijah is apparently the only person recorded as going back to Horeb/Sinai, which suggests this isn’t quite the right plan… You get ths impression from God’s question after Elijah arrives at the mountain: “What are you doing here?” God asks, and Elijah pours out his woes: “I’ve done your work but now everyone’s turned against you and I’m the only one left who still worships you.”

And then God does something unusual.

He sends a powerful wind that starts to tear the mountain apart. But the wind isn’t God.

Then he sends an earthquake that shakes the very ground under Elijah’s feet. But the earthquake isn’t God.

Then he sends fire, like he sent on Mount Carmel at the time of Elijah’s greatest victory. But the fire isn’t God.

And then…

Then there’s something far smaller. Some translations call it “a still, small voice”. Some call it “a gentle whisper”. But if you dig into it, it’s something even quieter – the New Revised Standard Version says it was “the sound of sheer silence”.

It’s not God having a whole conversation with Elijah. The image I have of it is one of presence – God being there, almost to the point of hugging Elijah, crying with him, stopping the noise so that God can be with one of his children. It’s a tender moment in the middle of all the displays of power and violence of the last few days. It’s a moment for Elijah to experience God’s peace.

And then God speaks again – “What are you doing here?” And Elijah says “I’ve done your work but now everyone’s turned against you and I’m the only one left who still worships you.”

It’s the same conversation. What’s changed?

It’s still a nightmare situation. Jezebel is still trying to kill Elijah. But what’s changed is that Elijah is now more aware of God as someone who wants a relationship with his people. On the mountain where God effectively married Israel, Elijah is reminded that God cares for individuals, and speaks to them in a still small voice.

And that’s still true today. We don’t have a holy mountain to run to; we have something better. In John 14, Jesus says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

“Peace” is an important word in Jewish thought. It’s better known as “Shalom”, and although we translate that as peace, it’s about more just superficial peace and quiet, deeper than a lack of conflict. As the writer Cornelius Plantinga puts it:

“The webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice, fulfilment and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight… Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

This is what Jesus promises his disciples; this is a glimpse of what Elijah experienced on Mount Horeb – peace that comes from God’s relationship with each one of us and that gives us a glimpse of how God intends the world to be.

And that’s an active work on God’s part. In John 14 Jesus promises the disciples “the Advocate” – in Greek that particular name for the Holy Spirit is ‘paraclete’, which means “One who comes alongside to help.” A God who loves us, cares for us, and is alongside us when we’re scared and when life’s falling apart.

I remember a time when I experienced this quite powerfully. A few years ago, my father died. At one point during his long illness, I was on holiday in San Francisco. On our last night we went down to Pier 39. It’s a popular tourist spot, all carousels and smelly sealions, and we’d travelled there a couple of times on the famous trolley buses. It’s a nice spot and on that last night I found myself on my own at the end of the pier. Behind me were the sounds of shops and sideshows; before me was San Francisco Bay, dark, waves lapping, the lights of boats slowly drifting, the Alcatraz lighthouse blinking on and off and on and off… And time slowed to a crawl and I was at peace and didn’t want to leave and I just stared out at the Bay with a sense of the presence of God. God was with me in that bad year. There were many times after that I failed to recognise that, because fear and anger and grief can stop us seeing what’s right in front of us, but God was with me. A still small voice.

The sound of sheer silence.