Wednesday, January 23, 2008

quiet, please! mum reading Bible.

I'm reading Zechariah at the moment, and I'm enjoying it so much that I don't have to force myself to do it each morning.

This astonishes me, because I don't remember reading the Bible with such pleasure for some time now. It's been a real struggle to read the Bible regularly since Lizzy, the first of my 4 children, was born 9 years ago.

Perhaps my brain is returning after 4 children. Perhaps my attitude has changed, since Andrew is probably our last child, God willing (there's something about not steeling yourself to face yet another pregnancy which frees the mind). Perhaps returning to ministry, even of the on-line variety, had inspired me to keep feeding myself from God's word. For whatever reason, I find myself actually looking forward to opening the Bible each morning.

In my limited experience this is unusual for a mother of young children. One of the unique challenges of being pregnant or breastfeeding is that your brain turns to mush. I don't know the scientific basis for this, but I have witnessed it many times. Women who graduated from difficult and demanding university degrees suddenly find they can no longer sit through a sermon or read a chapter of the Bible without their minds drifting.

And it's incredibly difficult to concentrate on the Bible while 1 to 4 children climb on you, or cry from a cot, and loudly demand your attention. I managed it with 2 relatively quiet, compliant children (other mothers were always amazed) but with 3 and 4 turning out to be more strong-willed and attention-seeking (i.e. normal) calm Bible reading over morning coffee is now a thing of the past.

Add to that the effects of sleep deprivation, and the minute amount of time and energy left after meeting the demands of small children all day, and it's not surprising that Bible reading is often put on the back burner of a mother's life.

So it was no great surprise to me when my attempts to regularly read the Bible petered out last year.

I was reading Zechariah using volume 7 of The Daily Reading Bible. This is the only aid to reading the Bible (along with its forerunner, the "Bible Brief" in the back of The Briefing) which has worked well for me long-term as a mum (other mums use other methods, I will share them with you some time).

Brief yet theologically astute, each reading includes an excerpt from the Bible, with 3 questions to answer, a point for pondering, prayer ideas, and useful pointers. Just about as much as my limited time, energy levels and concentration span allow for.

But last year my breast-feeding addled brain was becoming increasingly bogged down in the complications of Zechariah, when it was completely stymied one day by the mental gymnastics required by Reading 26 on Zechariah 4.

The reading required me to "draw Zechariah's vision" and answer the (for me) unanswerable question, "Does the lampstand represent Zerubbabel, the temple, God, or the community of God's people with God in their midst? (Hint: Who or what requires sustaining from outside itself? See also Revelation 1:20." So confused was I by the hint, that I tentatively wrote"God??" (well, God doesn't need sustaining, does he?) knowing this had to be wrong, and put down the notes in despair.

I dabbled in various unsatisfying devotional books and occasional random Bible reading during the intervening months. But a week ago I picked up the notes on Zechariah, and found that suddenly the question made sense. Of course! Option 3! "The community of God's people with God in their midst!" (Hopefully I am right about this, or I am really making an idiot of myself in print, not that this is a new experience.)

It should be noted that I stopped breast-feeding somewhere between my two attempts to unpack the mysteries of Zechariah 4, which says something about the effect of breast-feeding on my mental processes.

I have now enthusiastically returned to the challenging study of Zechariah. This morning I was encouraged to read these words:

On that day the LORD their God will save them,
as the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.
For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!
(Zech. 9:16-17a)

How wonderful to have my eyes taken off my small concerns, and to be reminded of God's certain and glorious salvation!


Nicole said...

Thanks for such an inspiring post. I can relate to a lot of what you're saying, as I've struggled a lot with Bible reading since I've had kids. But recently, I've managed to get back in the habit and have realised how much my hungry soul needs this regular food.

I've also found the Daily Reading Bible to be helpful in the past too - I might get the one you've mentioned.


Anthony Petterson said...

I entirely agree that the hints are confusing! They all seemed so clear when I wrote them a couple of years ago - sorry about that. My wife has recently used them and also complained that they are quite cryptic. She should have read them before I published them!

My wife pointed out your blog to me. Glad to hear that you are finding Zechariah encouraging. It is a wonderful book, an under- appreciated jewel in the Old Testament.

You can't go past Barry Webb's commentary in the BST series as an excellent aid to unpacking the meaning of Zechariah.

Jean said...

Oops! Sorry about that Anthony! I don't necessarily think it was the hint that was unhelpful - now I come to look at it again it's not really all that confusing - it was my addled brain which was at fault!! And I am really enjoying studying Zechariah using your notes. Thankyou!

If you're reading this, can you tell me, did I get the answer right in the end?!! My husband, who's doing talks on Revelation and says there's a very similar imagery - including the two witnesses, i think - said it sounds about right. Although I guess the answer "temple" actually means much the same: God in the midst of his people.

Anthony Petterson said...

It is impossible to be certain about the lampstand because the vision doesn't identify it. However, I think the lampstand is meant to make you think of the temple menorah and hence, as you rightly say, God's presence in the temple and hence amongst his people. The first question is, what is the point of all the extra paraphernalia in the vision?

The thing about the temple menorah is that it had to be attended constantly by the priests to keep it alight. This lampstand does not need the priesthood to keep it alight as it is supplied with oil from the pipes and bowls and branches that come from the two olive trees.

Who then are the olive trees? Most commentators understand them as "anointed ones" and hence the high priest Joshua and the governor Zerubbabel. I'm not so sure.

"Anointed ones" (v. 14) is literally, "sons of oil", so anointed figures are probably not in view. Furthermore, the two trees supply the oil, rather than receive it (as you would expect if they were anointed).

I think they actually represent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah for the following reasons:
• These prophets are linked in a number of different places: Ezra 5:1-2; Ezra 6:14
• Zechariah 8:9 also links the building of the temple with the word of the prophets.
• Revelation 11 also picks up on this vision – and the two olive trees are identified as prophets (commentators on Revelation often are perplexed by this, but needn't be if they are prophetic figures in Zechariah 4).
• What’s more, in the OT, the Spirit is often connected with the prophetic office (e.g., Num 11:24-29; Deut 34:10-12). This is clear in Zechariah 7:12.

Once this identification is made – other features of the vision fall nicely into place. Verse 6 seems to be the key verse in the vision where the angel gives Zerubbabel a word from the Lord, "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit". It is a word about the building of the temple and hence the return of God to dwell amongst his people.

As noted above, the two olive trees are oil providers. It seems that the Spirit is to be connected with the oil in the vision. How did the Spirit do its work? It was as the prophets spoke the Word of God.

Here is the message of the vision to Zerubbabel – the temple will be built by him – not by his might and power, not by his instrumentality (like the priests who kept the temple menorah alight) but through the prophetic word which would rouse the people to action. The temple would ultimately be built by God - by the agency of his Spirit, through the word of his prophets. God would see that the work would be done.

That may be why Zechariah fails to understand the significance of the two olive trees during his vision (vv. 4, 5, 11, 12) – like Moses and Jeremiah as prophets were hesitant to see the role that they would play – so Zechariah may underestimate the key role that he was to play as spokesman for God.

Furthermore, God is building his new temple (i.e., the church) in exactly the same way - by his Spirit through the proclamation of his word (see Eph 2:19-22 and 4:11-13).

I think part of the function of apocalyptic literature is to get you to puzzle about it until you have the "a ha" experience. I wouldn't go to the stake for my interpretation, but I think it makes sense of the vision as a whole. What do you think?

Jean said...

To be honest (and that is, after all, the aim of this blog) I think "wow"! - which is not very theologically literate but expresses exactly how I felt reading your interpretation. I would like to hear you give a sermon on it. Sounds like you've got a good one right there, right down to application. No wonder you had trouble finding a hint or a pointer which explained all that.

Talking to Steve (hubbie) who has recently preached on Revelation, he thought the two witnesses in Rev. 11 weren't necessarily always the same two figures, but could differ in different parts of in salvation history e.g. Moses/Elijah, Haggai/Zechariah. Don't know what you think about that. I'll have to show him what you wrote.

I had another look at the vision and it seems my addled brain hadn't even really noticed many of the details let alone how they fit together e.g. lips and pipes - although it's not very clear, is it, exactly where they run from and to, and what sits inside what, so maybe that's not surprising.

I remember I had 7 lamps floating in a bowl resting on a lampstand (which is how the text reads - lamps on bowl on lampstand) and gave up drawing 7 lips on each of the 7 lights. No doubt you are laughing loudly at this point, which is fine by me!

But now I come to look at the passage again, and read the NIV, which is much clearer (i.e. more interpretative, I assume) maybe it's the bowl which has 7 lips (NIV channels) which go to to each of the 7 lamps. The bowl would be over (or beside) not under the lamps on the stand, and oil would flow from the bowl to the lamps on the stand.

So you would have oil flowing from olive trees to branches to bowl to lips/channels to 7 lamps resting on lampstand. Yeah? Maybe next time Matthias Media publishes this you should draw a picture for them to include in the notes. Or get people (heresy!) to look at the NIV.

But I still don't get the "seven eyes" in verse 10. For some reason I have this vague recollection that seven lamps in Revelation are seven churches. Yep! just looked at Rev 1, 7 lampstands are churches, 7 stars are angels. So I thought the lamps were God's people. Which is why I answered "God in the midst of his people". But if the answer is "temple" perhaps the "lamps" or "eyes" are something else entirely. Help me out here!!