Thursday, January 7, 2016

Daniel, Advent and the Second Christmas


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied...

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route...

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.


I can write a Christmas blog post after December 25th if I want to because in the Russian Orthodox church, today IS Christmas.  Perhaps Santa had the church spread out the celebration so as to have more time to go down chimneys.

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Magi, a.k.a. "Wise men."  Most folks in the church know very little about these guys except for what they see on nativity scenes...which are almost always dead wrong.

We get the idea that there were only three of them because of the three gifts that they brought.  We make the mistake of thinking they showed up on christmas day, too.

So who were they?

Most scholars believe that these folks were Zoroastrian scholars from the Persian empire.  They studied astrology and the stars. (That was what passed for science back in the day.) Whatever it was that they read in the sky, told them that a prophecy had been fulfilled in the neighboring empire. (That would be Rome, their enemy.) So off they went.

Odds are that there were quite a few of them, along with their body guards and all the servants guiding the camel train.  So, most likely a sizable caravan.  Also, it would appear that they didn't get to where they needed to get for about two years.  Hence Herod having all of the boys two and under in Bethlehem killed.

Put yourself in Herod's shoes.  You're the laky king of a hostile, occupying power, who bought yourself into that position.  A bunch of the leading scholars from a hostile empire located roughly 50 miles away show up at your palace asking you, the king, where the real king was just born.  Solution?  Killing spree.

BTW: This event was never recorded by other historians at the time.  Only Matthew makes mention of it.  Not to fret, Herod was such a murderous, paranoid creep that it probably wasn't worth the mention.  After all, he's the guy that had his own, very popular nephew, strangled upon his death so that people would actually mourn.

Also, Bethlehem was a tiny town, so probably not all that many murders occurred...thankfully.

Makes you wonder what family reunions were like at the Herods.

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So what does any of this have to do with the Prophet Daniel?

Well, Daniel lived sometime in the 500s BC.  He must have been a child of some privilege because as a part of the exiles taken into captivity, he and his friends were put into the service of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

BTW: Many scholars date the book of Daniel at a much later date, i.e. the mid-200s to 100s BC.  I personally don't have a problem with the idea that there was editing done to the Old Testament before it was finally compiled into the version that Jesus used. (He didn't have a problem with it, since it was his spirit that was behind any editing.) However, the bulk of of Daniel certainly seems to me to be from his own hand.  Other wise it just doesn't seem to make any sense.


The book of Daniel itself is split in half.  The first half records Daniel's life from exile through his service to the various kings and emperors.  The second half is a record of the prophetic visions that he had.

I'm usually more interested in the first half of the book.  One practical reason is that the second half with all of the prophecies can really confuse me.  I've seen crazy preachers like John Hagee and other Dispensationalists come up with all manner of goofy pronouncements based on their interpretations.

However, the main reason I like the first half is that you get to see the change in Daniel's outlook and character, and if you read between the lines, you might actually see something else, too.


When Daniel and his friends are first pressed into service for the Babylonians, he was a teenager...probably a young one.  He and his friends didn't want to pollute themselves with the particular foods that were served in the court.  Daniel shows his diplomatic skills by making a deal with his trainer to eat something else.  Clever kid.

Then the arrogant dim-wit, King Nebuchadnezzar, has a freaky dream.  He tells his advisors to interpret it or die.  They reply, "What the king asks is too difficult.  No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men." (Dan. 2:11) This makes Nebu so mad that he intended to kill all of his "Wise men." (Think of Nebu as the Ted Cruz of his time.  If he doesn't get what he wants, when he wants it, he shuts down the government.)

Daniel catches whiff of this and intervenes.  The bible describes Daniel using "wisdom and tact."  He asks Nebu for time, then he and his friends pray to the "God of Heaven."  And here's where it starts to get really interesting...


You see, back in the day, gods were localized.  They really didn't leave their territory, unless they got their followers to conquer some new place.  That was one of the reasons for doing ethnic cleansing, wether you were Babylonian, Assyrian, what ever.  You pulled the original inhabitants out, brought them somewhere else, and there went their tiny, little god.  Poof!

However...

"El-Elyon"

"Most High, Above All, God of gods"

The God of the bible is not your typical god.  You know the Beach Boys' song, "I get around?"  Well, so does this God.


My favorite example of this is from the prophet Ezekiel.  In the very opening chapter, the God of the bible rolls into Babylon, the gods Nabu, Marduk, Ishtar, Anu and bunch of other's home turf, in his massive Merkeva/Chariot.  It must have been a totally pimped-out ride, because when the bible describes the wheels it says, "Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around." (Ez.1:18)

Gods weren't supposed to do that.  They were suppose to stay put unless they were out conquering.  Yet here comes YHWH, in his tricked out ride, cruising down the Babylonian strip.  This causes Ezekiel to go into apoplectic seizures of joy, practically soiling himself.  God then commands Zeke to do all manner of performance art, some involving human poo, and give the exiles all sorts of revelations.  It's something else.

Anyway, if you're paying attention you might notice an evolution in the understanding of the God of the bible.  Most of the ancient Hebrews were Polytheists.  They believed in a lot of gods.  We know this because worshipping other gods is what got them into trouble.  Most of the time, they simply thought their God was the best one.

But now this God is breaking into the territory of other gods.

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Back to Daniel and Nebu's dream...

So Daniel gets an answer from the "God of Heaven," and goes off to see Nebu.  He tells him, "No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries..." (Dan. 2:37) And then proceeds to tell Nebu what his dream meant.

King Nebu's reaction is interesting.  He got off his throne and fell prostrate before Daniel.  He told Daniel that his god must be El-Elyon, the King of all Gods.  He then ends up putting Daniel and his friends in key positions of power throughout the empire. (Dan. 2:46-49)

Yes, the story of the fiery furnace comes next.  So it's clear that Nebu didn't learn his lesson completely.  But don't fret.  It's a comin'.

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Did you catch it?  Did you notice a change in the perception and understanding of the God of the Hebrews?

Remember, gods didn't wander off into the territory of other gods.  The God of Abraham, Issac & Jacob did and does.  He's different.  And even the pagans began to notice it.

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Throughout the book of Daniel we can see the God of the bible intervening at key moments to the amazement of the pagans.  The result is the Hebrew God being referred to over and over by the pagans as El-Elyon.  They were still polytheists, but they had come to understand that one God towered over all the others.

Probably a good idea to get his followers on your side.

Daniel and his friends are given more and more power and responsibility in Nebu's kingdom.  To the extent that you see a change in the relationship between the king and Daniel.

In chapter 4, Nebu has another freaky dream.  This time Daniel reacts out of genuine concern for the king.  He is no longer simply a servant.  Daniel is his friend.  Daniel has to tell the king that his arrogance is going to cost him his sanity for years to come, and he doesn't want to.  He warns the king to repent.  He actually cares about him.

Unfortunately, the king didn't listen.  A year later he's walking on the roof of his palace thinking he's all that and a bag of chips.  El-Elyon speaks to him to tell him that he's taking him to the wood shed for a painful chat.  The next thing you know, King Nebu is eating grass and thinking that he is a cow of some sort.  Apparently this lasted for roughly seven years.

Seven years?


Who ran the kingdom for those seven years?  Who was in charge.  Why didn't his rivals simply kill the crazy king and take his place?

I may be reading more into the story than is warranted, but I have a theory.

Daniel.  Daniel was the caretaker.  Everyone in the administration knew about Daniel and his connection to the unusual and frighteningly powerful God, El-Elyon.  Do want to go up against a guy like that?  I think that Daniel protected the king while he was insane, and kind of kept the shop running.  When the time was up and Nebuchadnezzar repented, Daniel gave him his keys back.

Let's not forget, Nebu had all of this story recorded and proclaimed throughout his empire.  He was a guy who knew how to repent...



"At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.  Then I praised the Most High (El-Elyon); I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation.  All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing.  He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.  No one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?" 

At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom.  My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before.  Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.  And those who walk in pride he is able to humble." (Dan. 4:34-37)


I am convinced that I will see Nebuchadnezzar in heaven.

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Nebuchadnezzar dies and his son takes the throne.  His son is a snotty, trust-fund baby.  He gets his own freaky vision from El-Elyon.  However, this one happens at a banquet, and all the guests see it too.  Long story short, Daniel gets called in again.  It is hinted that this new king hadn't paid much attention to Daniel or his "King God."  To late.

What I find interesting is Daniel's interaction with the king, and in front of all the nobility, no less.  Then Daniel answered the king, "You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else.  Never the less, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means." (Dan 5:17) A modern translation might be something along the lines of, "Oh great king, go get bent!"

Daniel must have been 40ish by this point.  He had seen all sorts of revelations from God by this time.  His absolute confidence in this God is unshakeable.  He wasn't the least bit afraid to give the king some extremely bad news in front of everyone.  What could this king who, "had been weighed on the scales and found wanting," possibly do to him? (Dan. 5:27)

You know the end of that story, too.  The Babylonian empire is conquered by the Persian Empire.  Daniel becomes a trusted advisor to King Darius.

But you also know the story that comes next.  Daniel has a reputation.  He is scrupulously honest and trusted by the king.  So some jealous rivals trick the king into an edict that gets Daniel in trouble.  Daniel gets tossed into the lions den as a death sentence.

I love the reaction of the king.  He realizes he was tricked, and doesn't want to sentence his friend Daniel to this fate.

BTW: The Medes and Persians had an unusual legal system.  If the king signed something into law, he could never repeal it.  If he did, he, himself, would be killed.

The king stays up all night worrying.  The next morning, he runs to the lions den and says something interesting; "Daniel, servant of the Living God/El-Elyon, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions? (Dan. 6:20)

I also find it interesting that there is no record of Daniel offering a word in his own defense up to this point.  It isn't until after the the king returns that Daniel states the obvious, that he is trustworthy and loyal.  It is after this that Darius himself issues a royal proclamation throughout his empire praising El-Elyon.

I believe that I will see Darius in heaven.

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The Magi and Christmas.

What does any of this have to do with them?



The ancient Hebrews were polytheists.  Not all of them, but most of them.  They went into exile and began to understand that their God wasn't like the other gods.  The pagans around them began to understand that also.  The pagans referred to the God of the Hebrews as the King of all Gods.  By the time the Jews left exile roughly 70 years later, they were staunch monotheists.  They understood that there is only one God...and they really were supposed to be his people.  He loved them.


Daniel and his friends.  They ended up carrying a great deal of influence in the Babylonian and Persian courts.  They were advisors, consultants and "Wise Men." Odds are that Daniel told plenty of people about his visions, including the "Wise Men" that he worked with.  Certainly Ezekiel's crazy visions and performance art caught people's attention.  Some of these visions spoke of a coming Messiah...

a King...

of the Jews.


I've never put much stock in modern astrology.  Mostly seems beyond silly to me.  But back then, things were different.  Who knows?  If El-Elyon seems to relish cruising down the strip of some other god's capital city in his funky hot-rod causing a scene, then if he wants to use stars and planets to communicate his Gospel, who am I to tell him not to?


Daniel.  Somewhere in the middle of 500 BC having adventures, getting visions.  Sometime around 5 BC, pagan Magi show up in Jerusalem asking about a king from a long ago prophecy.

I believe I will see the Magi in heaven.



That El-Elyon, he gets around.

Merry Christmas!


Peace

Joe