Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Letter to Prishant:

This is the start of a letter I wrote replying to a classmate at MUA named Prishant. I never actually finished it, nor did I send it, but I did spend a lot of time on it, so I figured it was worth including. Here it is:

“Other Scripture” vs. the Bible

Reply 1
Why we believe

Nazerene & the Branch

Reply 2
Nazerene vs. Nazerite


Reply 3
Son of Aaron
1 Chronicles 24
misc. OT references

-That John was Elijah
-That Yeshua was born on Succot

References to John vs. Elijah

Reply 4
2 principles of biblical writing
Who was Elijah?

Response to Prishant
Hey P.J. J This is Scott.
Thanks for the reply about our conversation. I appreciate that you spent time thinking about it. My biggest problem as far as “religion” is concerned tends to be quality control. There are so few people interested in discussing and debating anything concrete about G-d or the Bible, etc. that I never have a chance to see how my ideas stand up to criticism; so I appreciate you considering it.

Since you spent time with my ideas, I’ll do the same.

So, last things first. Your final paragraph said, “One can argue that the “Torah” or “Other scripture” might say things differently, but as Christians, we believe the Bible is the divine & inspired word of G-d regardless who wrote it. Thus if there are discrepancies between the Bible & other scripture I would stick with the Bible.”

Reply 1: Absolutely. This principle is undoubtedly central for any believer. There are 2 points I would like to make though.

The 1st may have been due to my lack of clarity. It is to say that the Torah and “other scripture” is the Bible. The word “Torah” refers to the first 5 books: Genesis, Ex, Lev, Num, Deut. At the time of Yeshua (Jesus), these were considered the “gold standard” of the Hebrew faith which He came to fulfill. I use the words “other scriptures” to refer to the rest of the Old Testament (OT). OT can be broken down several ways, often it’s called the Law (Torah) & the Prophets (rest), other times its broken down to the Law, the Writings or Books of Wisdom (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, & song of Solomon), and the Prophets, and often the Prophets themselves are broken down into major and minor. I was being brief by saying “other scripture” but perhaps I was also being unclear.

The 2nd point is that, though we acknowledge the Bible as the basis for our belief, we must be careful not to over-simplify. I do not accept that my belief in the Bible stands unchecked by other evidence. Questions must be asked like, “Why do I believe in the Bible and not in another text?” and, “How does the Bible prove that it is the divine & inspired word of G-d?” Both of us have heard it professed that this is somehow a matter of individual faith and that, to these questions we cannot know an absolute answer. That may well be, but its clear to me that the Bible itself provides guidelines from which we can answer these questions. In my opinion, the New Testament (NT) clearly and frequently refers to the Old Testament (OT) for authority, and, within the OT, the Books of Wisdom & the Prophets refer to the Torah for authority. That is to say that we believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the messiah because the books of the Prophets demanded him to be, and the books of the Prophets expanded upon the principles of the Torah, which also pave the way.

It seems clear to me that you would agree with this, at least in principle. Your reference to Zach 6:12 (the Branch) is perhaps one of the best examples of evidence from the OT, and there are many others. Isa 53, for example, is amazing in its clarity; Psalm 110 talks about him in poetic terms; Daniel 9, especially starting in verse 24, gives a concrete timeline; and Isaiah 7:14 talks about him being born of a virgin.

Related to this is a second interesting point. You wrote “Matt 2:23- Jesus is a Nazarene fulfilling prophetic scripture, I Samuel 1:11, Numb 6:2, and Zach. 6:12- talks about Jesus the “BRANCH.”

Reply 2: Your statements are absolutely true. However, grouping Matt 2:23 together with I Sam 1:11 & Numbers 6:2 reflects a common misunderstanding. It’s significant too, because anti-missionaries often site this as evidence that either the authors of the NT were trying to stretch the truth, or over-zealous Christians try to make an association where there is none.

In I Sam 1:11, Samuel’s mother is promising to dedicate her 1st-born son to the priesthood if the L-rd would give her one. She promises that he will take a nazirite vow. You correctly connected this vow with the one spoken of in Numb 6:2.

There are actually several vows of this type. The most drastic is the one she promised for her son, its a lifetime vow in which the person could never in their life cut their hair, drink anything alcoholic, or consume anything made from the vine (including wine, grape juice, etc.). They also chose to adhere strictly to the laws of cleanliness that were prescribed in the Torah. The priest Samson (the guy caught messing around with Delilah) is another good example of someone taking this vow; I’m pretty sure John the Baptist also took it. There were similar vows that people took which didn’t last as long. A person could take the same vow for the period of a year or some concrete period of time, after which they would go to the temple, make some sacrifices, & cut their hair. Paul most likely took this same vow in Acts 18:18, and definitely took it, along with several of his colleagues in Acts 21:17-26. The later scripture is significant in its own right because it refutes those who think that Paul taught differently than the OT. He showed that, in fact, they followed every letter of it, including the laws of purity.

But I digress. The point is actually that this is different than the prophecy about a Nazarene. It’s an easy mistake because the 2 words sound the same, but Yeshua was a Nazarene, from the city of Nazareth; Samuel, Samson, & John took the nazirite vow.

So what’s the deal with the Nazarene? Anti-missionaries love to point out that this prophecy isn’t actually in the OT, but they’re stretching the truth. The city of Nazareth comes from the word “netzer” in Hebrew. Netzer means “branch.” So your last scripture is actually the key. Yeshua coming from the city called “Branchtown” is pretty significant, I think.

A cool thing about the Bible is that everything points to something else, so even if 1 point eludes us, another sends us in the same direction. Samuel wasn’t a symbol for Yeshua, he was a symbol for John. Both of them took the lifelong nazirite vow, both were born when their mother prayed about it in the Temple in their old age, and just as Samuel prepared the way for king David, John prepared the way for Yeshua, the “son of David.” Pretty cool I think.

I, personally, find this interesting because I don’t call myself a “Christian.” In my opinion, Christian is a loaded word. Yeshua and his students didn’t call themselves Christians, and the Christianity of today actually bears little resemblance to the faith that they followed. The NT does call them a sect of Jews called the “Nazarenes” though, meaning that they were followers of the one from Nazareth. I tend to call myself a Nazarene Jew too.

Regarding Zacharias serving in the temple, you site 3 very relevant scriptures, Luke 1:8-10, Ex 30:7-8, and Lev 16:17.

Reply 3: Luke was reportedly the most well-versed of the writers of the gospels, so we can imagine that he began his book with what he felt to be the most relevant information. Luke 1:1-4 are clearly introduction, so verse 5 is the first new information that we get; undoubtedly important. It says, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” So here we have both John’s dad’s name, as well as his family name. Incidentally, it’s not insignificant that Elizabeth was “from the daughters of Aaron.” In ancient Israel there were 12 tribes (1 with 2 divisions, essentially making 13). The tribe of Levi was appointed as priests. In addition, the “sons“ of Aaron were appointed high priests. These were called the “Kohenin.” A person was considered to be Israelite if their mother was Israelite (the Jews, descendents of the tribe of Judah, still follow this principle). However, the High Priests were “sons of Aaron,” so their genealogy was transmitted paternally (thus the common Jewish name “Cohen” today). So to say that Zacharias was of the family of Abijah (one of the families of Aaron) and that his wife was also one of the daughters made him absolutely eligible for service in the temple (priests were required to marry within the Israelite community).

What makes me think Abijah was one of the families of Aaron you ask? Good question. As a background, Ex 28 and 29 explain that the Aaron and his sons should serve in the temple. A few highlights:

Ex 28:1- “You will bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.”

29: 4-8- “Lead Aaron and his sons up to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and wash them with water…take the anointing oil and pour it on his heard and anoint him…gird both Aaron and his sons with sashes; and so they will have priesthood as their right for all time.”

29:43-46- “For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it will be sanctified by My Presence. I will sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve Me as priests, I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d, and they will know that I the L-rd am their G-d who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide with them, I the L-rd their G-d.”

But the answer is found very clearly in 1 Chronicles.

1 Chronicles 22-29- describes King David’s preparations for his son Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Chapter 23 talks about the “sons of Levi,” including a description of the Aaronites, and 24 lists the “divisions of the Aaronites.” Verses 1-6 of 24 give a good background, and verses 7 through 19 actually show the family names and their order. You’ll notice that Abijah was 8th out of 24. Verse 19 sums it up by saying, “According to this allocation of offices by tasks, they were to enter the House of the L-rd as was laid down for them by Aaron their father, as the L-rd G-d of Israel had commanded him.”

The Jewish calendar year is lunar-solar; it’s about 51 weeks long (every few years another month is added to keep it concurrent with the solar year, the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, so it slowly recedes with reference to our calendar (meaning Ramadan will come a little earlier next year, etc.)). There are two, eight day festival periods when everyone would have served, and three more 1 day festivals. That leaves 48 weeks for the individual families to have served, each of the 24 getting 2 weeks. In addition, the Jewish calendar has 2 New Years; 1 secular, and 1 religious. The secular falls on the day of Rosh Hoshanah in the fall. The religious falls exactly 6 months later, on the 1st day of the month of Abib in the spring (this is nice because all the festivals but 1 fall in these months, so they occur both at the beginning of the year, picturing renewal, and in the 7th month, picturing the fullness of the year). It would have been from the beginning of the religious calendar, or Abib, that they would have started counting. Abib basically coincides with the month of April. Last year it started, and this year it should start, near the beginning of April. On the 14th of Abib is Passover, followed by the 7 day Festival of Unleavened Bread. So the 1st family (Jehoiarib) would have served the 1st 14 days, followed by a break of 8 days when everyone served, and then the other families would have started. If you count 7 more families, each serving 2 weeks, from late April, it puts you at about the beginning of July; the time when Zacharias was serving in the Temple.

So you see, it makes it clear what family he was in, in Luke 1. Chronicles is clear about when that family served, and to those familiar with the Jewish calendar, its clear what time of year that would have been. In fact, the readers of Luke at the time would almost certainly have known all this. Life in Israel revolved around that calendar just as ours revolves around the Gregorian calendar.

So getting back to your 2 scriptures, you were “right on” about Ex 30:7-8. This was in fact part of the daily ceremony that was done by the sons of Aaron. There were many other responsibilities as well. Much of Leviticus, and especially chapters 1-7 describe them in detail.

You also say that Lev 16:17 “talks about the process of atonement that Zacharias was doing in Luke 1:8-10.” I see how the association was made, however, this is not technically accurate. Probably, you were reading Ex 30:7-8 about the alter of the incense, then read on to verse 10 where it said, “once a year Aaron will perform purification upon its horns with the blood of the sin offering of purification…” I have a feeling the margin directed you to Lev 16 which describes this purification ceremony. Specifically, verse 18 says, “he will go out to the altar that is before the L-rd and purge it: he will take some of the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar.” The association is correct. Lev 16:18 does describe the purification spoken of in Ex 30:10, but the daily incense and the purification of Lev 16:18 are 2 different things.

Lev 16 is explaining the activities that the High Priest must do on the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Yom Kippur is the day when G-d’s people were to “make atonement for…all their sins once a year.” The symbolism of this day is important for believers, and, incidentally, a mistranslation in this chapter gives us the term “scapegoat.” However, the atonement done on this day, especially the sacrifices done within the “Holy of Holies” or “shrine behind the curtain” was not to be done by the “sons of Aaron,” they were to be done only by Aaron (16:3). This means that at the time of Yeshua and Zacharias, whereas there were whole families assigned to the Temple duties the rest of the year, only the High Priest was allowed to do these things, and then only once a year.

So, referring back to the discussion of Christmas, if we count from early July, the time when we said Zacharias was in the Temple, and count 9 months from there, we end up back in early April; Passover.

I see this as leaving the final 2 tasks. The 1st you discussed in your letter, the 2nd you eluded to; it builds upon the first premise.

1. That John was Elijah, likely born on Passover; and
2. That Yeshua was born near or on the festival of Succot.

Referring to the first, you site several good scriptures with good points. First, you quote Malachi 4:5 as saying “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord…” Then, Joel 2:31 “The sun shall be turned into darkness & the moon into blood, before the great & the terrible day of the Lord come.” You follow with “Thus, Elijah comes NOT necessarily before Christ born but at Christ’s 2nd coming.”

At the end of your letter, you add John 1:23-25 “He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the L-rd, as said the prophet Esaias (Isaiah)… [they said] why baptized thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias (Elijah), neither that prophet?” You comment, “Thus John has the power of Elias & in the same spirit of Elias foretells Jesus’ ministry but not Elias.”

Reply 4: Yes, yes, yes, and no. J J J The first 2 scriptures are important and they’re clearly talking about the same day, but lets save that for last. I think we have 2 steps to make first.

1. We should recognize some general principles about biblical prophecy and symbolism.
Prophecies have several levels of fulfillment in time.
Beyond the aspect of time, biblical texts have at least 4 layers of meaning. Jewish commentators typically assign titles to these layers. They are:

Peshat- literal meaning
Remez- allegorical meaning in which there is cross-reference to other texts. This is the rational or philosophical level
Derash- moral meaning
Sod- mystical meaning

2. We need to establish who this Elijah guy was as well as his relationship to John (and I hope to finish it by midnightJ ).

1. Biblical prophecies generally had at least 3 layers of fulfillment. Basically, prophecies describe past, present, and future events in parallel. I say at least, because they often do this for different peoples at different times, leading to multiple present and past fulfillments. In fact, at just about any point in the Bible, we find that those described are in some way fulfilling prophecies written of before, so that they begin to form an intricate web of ideas that radiate from each other (kind of like studying medicine, I think. Studying neuro may, for example describing meningitis, which leads us to understand ideas in micro, which have pharmacological applications, and on and on for frickin’ ever!). This is part, I think, of the Remez meaning, or philosophical understanding, when it was written in Eccles. 1:9 “Only that will happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun.” That is to say, all things present direct us back to an event in the past, while at the same time prophesying about some thing to come.

One example comes immediately to mind, that is the association of the High Priest Melchizedek with the Aaron and the Levitical priesthood, with Yeshua, who we expect to see sitting on the throne with his people as priests in the future.

Melchizedek is mentioned only twice in the OT, first in Gen 14:18, and again, poetically, in Psalms 110:4. Still, we find a long, complex discussion of him and his prophetic role in Heb 5-7. Hebrews begins a long discussion of the priesthood, basically in chapter 3. Then, in chapter 5:1-10, the author Paul makes an interesting connection between this Melchizedek character and Aaron, and finally, Christ himself. In case we were confused about the association before, Paul adds to it with an even more detailed analysis starting in chapter 6:13 and going well through chapter 8. It’s clearly more than we want to get into, but the crux of the association is made clear in vs. 14-17, “For its is evident that our L-rd was descended from Judah…and this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek…for it is witnessed ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’” And again in chapter 8:1, “Now the main point in what has been said: we have such a high priest, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens, a true tabernacle, which the L-rd pitched, not man…[the priests] serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”

This all culminates throughout the book of Revelation. A few examples:

Rev 1:5-6- “and from Yeshua the Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us, and released us from our sins by his blood, and he has made us a kingdom of priests to his G-d and father…”

Rev 7:13-17- “And one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and from where have they come?’ And I said to him, ‘My lord, you know.’ And he said to my, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of G-d; and they serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them. They will hunger no more…for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and G-d will wipe every tear from their eyes.’”

This theme goes on throughout the book. What I’m trying to show here is an example of how 1 event points to the next, and that to the next. Just looking through Revelation to find these scriptures, I saw several other examples; the woman being the congregation of believers is a striking one, found in dozens of places throughout the Bible. Even within the verses sites, we find the image of a lamb. This refers back to the lambs sacrificed at the time of Yeshua’s death, to the fact that King David was himself a shepard, to the lambs of the Passover before the Exodus from Egypt, and even to the lamb sacrificed by Abel in Genesis.

None of these symbols necessarily mean that the person is that thing which is referred to, but that he/she/it is the current reflection of the thing which came before.

Which leads me to point #2. Every event in the Bible reflects several layers of meaning within itself. In Judaism, for example, they define it concretely according to a fourfold method of textual interpretation [hermeneutics]. The four levels of interpretation are:

Peshat- literal meaning
Remez- allegorical meaning in which there is cross-reference to other texts. This is the rational or philosophical level
Derash- moral meaning
Sod- mystical meaning

Often within the Bible, we find an author writing predominatly in one level or another. Usually, however, the text gives hints of other meanings. Yeshua’s parables, for example, were filled with these types of understanding. They often told a real-life story (Peshat), with a clear moral lesson (Derash). Once we compare them with other passages in the Bible, or even with other authors of his time, we find even more meaning (Remez); and the mystical meaning (Sod) can be deciphered by whomever is given the understanding.

Christian interpreters don’t generally use such specific definitions in their interpretation, but the same general understanding is there. In fact, the fact that Christian theology is not often specific about the different layers of meaning in Biblical writing leads to many misinterpretations and oversimplifications of the meanings found within the Bible. In any case, whether one choses to accept defined levels of meaning or not, is not important, what is important is the realization that oftentimes more than one interpretation and level of meaning is present. That is to say, often, some would say always, a passage in the Bible has multiple interpretations. These interpretations were either intended by the author, or placed there divinely by G-d.

I’ll go into it in a couple of paragraphs, but the point of all this is to say that, when we read passages about something as complex as the role of Elijah the prophet and his relationship with John, we should be careful not to oversimplify. We must keep our eyes open for 2nd and 3rd levels of meaning in time, as well as within the text itself.

So who was Elijah, and what was his relationship to John? Here are the most relevant scriptures (I’ve excluded the parallel references to the same stories in the Gospels):

I Kings 17-21 & II Kings 1-2:18- Here we find the story of Elijah. It’s actually quite interesting.

Malachi 3:1-end- This section is a prophecy about the messenger who will prepare the way for the L-rd. It’s important to note that it is written about him that he will ”purify the descendants of Levi… so that they will present offerings in righteousness.” It seems clear that this hasn’t happened yet.

Matt 11:7-19- Yeshua specifically calls John Elijah, “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’…for all the prophets and the law (Torah) prophesied until John. And if you care to accept, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.”

Matt 17:1-13- Moses and Elijah appear with and hold a conversation with Yeshua. Afterward, it’s written, “Yeshua commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’ And his disciples asked him, saying, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ And he answered and said, ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he had spoken to them about John the Baptist.”

Mark 1:1-8- Mark shows that John was the one sent to prepare the way for Yeshua.

Mark 6:14-29- This is the story of Herod having John’s head cut off and put on a plate. Here too people say, “[He is] Elijah.”

Luke 1:13-17- Here is the end of the story of John’s birth. It’s written, “And it is he who will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the L-rd.”

John 1:19-28- In this passage, priests and Levites ask John directly if he is Elijah. He says no, but then responds that he is the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

What seems interesting to me is that this scripture list seems incomplete; it has no real beginning or end. The story of Elijah in 1 & 2 Kings is interesting, but it offers little to foreshadow his prophetic role. Only his death (or rather, lack thereof) points to something more than “just” a prophet. In addition, if John was Elijah, as Yeshua said he was, then why didn’t he fulfill the rest of the things ascribed to Elijah?

It’s also clear that everyone at the time associated John with Elijah. Why didn't he say as much himself? The answer seems to be that he was only one manifestation of Elijah. He was not the same man that had been written about in the OT, and he was not the same man that is expected to come "in the last day." This refers back to the idea aove, that each event in the Bible has several manifestations in time.

So why should we have expected Elijah to come at the time of john? That is, why is it logical to conclude that John could be Elijah even though he didn't actually do the things expected of Elijah?...

maybe I'll finish this someday...

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