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Christian Natural Health

Christian Natural Health is the podcast that teaches you about natural health from a biblical perspective. I'm Dr. Lauren Deville, a practicing naturopathic physician in Tucson, AZ. In this podcast, my guests and I will cover topics ranging from nutrition, sleep, hormone balancing and exercise, to specific health concerns like hair loss, anxiety, and hypothyroidism. Once a week, I'll include a bonus episode, meditating on a Bible verse or passage. I'll also interweave biblical principles as they apply throughout the podcast--because true health is body, mind, and spirit. Learn more about me at http://www.drlaurendeville.com/
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Now displaying: Category: meditation
May 20, 2022

Defeating Anxiety and Control

  • Realize you are not in control anyway - that is an illusion.  
    • Think back over the events in your life: list the other times that you have tried to control your circumstances.  Did it work?  What was the outcome?  
    • Admit that you are powerless to make your life work out the way you want it to.  (You might as well, because it’s true whether you admit it or not.)
      • Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”
      • Proverbs 21:30: “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.”
      • Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails.”
      • Proverbs 16:9: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”

 

  • God wants to be first in your life.  This is the key to defeating control and anxiety: we are anxious when we want something more than we want to follow God.  Letting go of the thing we desire is terrifying (in fact, it feels a lot like dying to ourselves), but it is the only path to peace.  The paradox is, God promises that if we lose our life, that is when we will find it.  As long as we insist on controlling our lives, it will remain forever out of control.  
    • Matthew 6:33-34: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
    • Proverbs 21:21: “Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.”
    • Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
    • Matthew 16:25: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
    • Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
    • Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
    • Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

  • When we let go of “trying to find our lives” (whatever the problem is that obsesses us), we will experience grief - but it is a good, healing grief.  It is a grief that leads to joy in the end, because it is the only path to life.
      • Psalm 126:5: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”
      • Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
      • Psalm 30:5: "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning."

 

  • What to do instead: God invites you to bring your troubles to Him.  
    • Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
    • 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
    • Philippians 4:4-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
    • Psalm 55:22: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; He will never let the righteous fall.”

 

  • God is a good God; therefore you can trust Him.  He is for you and not against you; He wants good things for you.  (And He is in a better position to know what is good for you than you are.  If you doubt this, stop and think about some of the things you wanted desperately in the past and didn’t get.)
    • Isaiah 46:3-4: “You whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.  Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”
    • Jeremiah 33:41: “I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.”
    • Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.”
    • Isaiah 58:11: “And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
    • Psalm 34:10: “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”
    • Psalm 84:11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; The Lord bestows favor and honor; No good thing does he withhold From those whose walk is blameless.”
    • Psalm 103:2-5: “Praise the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all his benefits -- Who forgives all your sins And heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from the pit And crowns you with love and compassion, Who satisfies your desires with good things So that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.”
    • Psalm 145:16-19: “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. ...He fulfills the desires of those who fear him.”

 

  • Once you have brought your troubles to God, and prayed for a solution, your job is to do the very hardest thing of all, for people like us: wait, and trust that God will do what He said He would do.
    • Psalm 27:14: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.”
    • Psalm 37:3-5: “Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.  Delight thyself in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.  Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.”
    • Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”
    • Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.”
    • Isaiah 30:18: “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.  For the Lord is a God of justice.  Blessed are all who wait for him!”
    • Joel 2:25: “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”
    • 2 Samuel 23:5: “Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire?”
    • James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

 

  • But what if you are still supposed to do something to fix the problem?  Part of trusting God is trusting that He will tell you what to do and when to do it (if you are supposed to do anything at all).  That is why we have the Holy Spirit - he promises to guide you into ALL truth.  
    • John 14:26: "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you."
    • John 16:13: "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.  He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come."
    • Jeremiah 33:3: “Call unto Me and I will show thee great things and difficult, which thou knowest not.”
    • Jeremiah 6:16: This is what the Lord says:  "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."
    • Psalm 32:8: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.”
    • Isaiah 2:3: “And he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.”
    • James 1:5-8: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.  But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.  That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”
    • Isaiah 30:21: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."”
    • Psalm 25:12-13: “Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord?  He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.  He will spend his days in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land.”

 

  • When you act according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, now you are partnering with God and can have faith in the outcome.
    • 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “By his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.”
    • Isaiah 58:11: “And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
    • Philippians 2:13: “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
    • Isaiah 48:17: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.”
Apr 8, 2022

We jump around, but these are the scriptures mentioned: 

 

  • 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
  • Colossians 3:13: "bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do."
  • Matthew 6:12, 14-15. "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors... For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (The same prayer also appears in Luke 11:4)
  • Luke 6:37 also says, "Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."
  • Luke 17:4:“And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,' you shall forgive him.”
  • Matthew 18:21-35: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. 21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. 28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
  • Mark 11:22-26: So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. 23 For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. 24 Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. 25 “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
  • James 5:13-16:"Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
  • Luke 17:3:“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him." 
  • 2 Corinthians 2:5-7: "But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent -- not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow." 
  • Matthew 18:15-20: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
  • John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Mar 11, 2022

Today's meditation and retelling is from Acts 16:16-40.

Introduction: 

I always thought it strange that this demon-possessed girl announced the truth of Paul and Silas’s message, and yet the disciples found this troublesome. Why would a demon endorse their message, and if it did, why would that be a bad thing? There must be something we’re missing. Perhaps this gave the distinct impression to listeners that Paul and Silas were in cahoots with the demons. Jesus was accused of this very thing, too (Luke 11:15).
Also, if this demon-possessed girl bothered Paul (whatever the reason), why did it take him “many days” to cast the demon out? Why didn’t he do so at once? We’re not told what was going on that would have hindered this solution, so we can only speculate. Andrew Wommack’s interpretation is that perhaps the girl had no desire to be free of the demon. If that were the case, as Jesus said, casting out one demon without replacing it with a new Spirit might leave her with more demons than she started with in the end (Matthew 12:44). As a naturopathic doctor, I think of this as similar to a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics. They might wipe out the pathogen, but if you don’t repopulate with good bacteria to defend the territory against subsequent attacks, opportunistic organisms may invade instead. The end state of that patient’s digestion and health generally can then be worse than it was to begin with. Perhaps Paul and Silas waited to see if the girl might give any indication that she wanted deliverance. But after many days of her presumably hindering their message and preventing others from coming to the Lord, they’d had enough. 
 
Unfortunately, the girl turned out to be a valuable slave, because of the demon. In their anger, her owners dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates of the city. I’m not sure why Paul didn’t tell the magistrates that they were Roman citizens then, since apparently that would have changed everything. Perhaps God told them to keep their mouths shut about that for the time being, though it seems like if that were the case, it would have been recorded. Also, while the apostles were certainly persecuted in many cases for their faith, I can’t think of a time in scripture when God explicitly told them to submit to persecution because He intended to use it for the greater good, even though He always did so. God taking evil and turning it for good certainly isn’t the same thing as God causing evil and turning it for good. Later in Paul’s life, God specifically tried to lead him away from Jerusalem, apparently to spare him persecution (Acts 21:4-11). It therefore seems more likely to me that in the ensuing brouhaha, Paul just couldn’t get a word in edgewise. 
 
I love how God redeemed this miserable story, though. Beaten, bloody, in stocks so they couldn’t even move, and now thrown into prison, Paul and Silas surely didn’t feel like singing. Yet they offered a sacrifice of praise, anyway (Hebrews 13:15). This time, God didn’t send an angel, but an earthquake. He needed to make sure the jailer was awake to see Paul and Silas’s deliverance. As a result, rather than committing suicide (since the jailer knew that if all the prisoners escaped on his watch, he would be killed for his negligence), he and all his family were saved. Not only that, but the Roman law protected Roman citizens from being punished without a trial (Acts 22:25-29). When the magistrates learned they had thus treated Roman citizens, they were afraid, for their positions and possibly even for their lives. Naturally, word of the scandal  would spread—“Did you hear what the magistrates of Philippi did to two Roman citizens? Yes, and without trial!” The next question of course would be, “What did the men do to deserve such treatment?” And so the gospel might spread even farther than it might have otherwise. Also, magistrates in other cities would be careful not to repeat the offense, protecting Paul and Silas from similar treatment in the future. The story might even have protected other believers from harassment too, as they preached; surely no other magistrates would be in a hurry to repeat the Philippian mistake. 
 
Fictionalized Retelling: 
I felt a sinister presence right away, at the edge of our meeting in Philippi. One minute, it felt like I had the crowd’s full attention, like they were hanging on my every word. The Holy Spirit was almost palpable. I brimmed with anticipation, eager for the awesome display of the Lord’s power that was sure to follow. But then suddenly, the energy of the group shifted, and soured. I didn’t miss a beat, and continued speaking, but I scanned the crowd for the source of the disturbance. My eyes landed on the girl at once. 
She was dark-skinned, her wrists spangled with bracelets and her head and waist with colorful scarves. These told me her profession at a glance: she was a diviner. All diviners were either demon-possessed or charlatans, so I wasn’t too surprised to note the sneer and hollow expression she wore. Demons I could deal with. The problem was the effect she was having upon the crowd. 
As I continued preaching, I saw the girl whispering to those around her, though her vacant eyes remained locked upon me. Sometimes the demon-possessed retained some control of their own bodies, but not this girl. She had surrendered herself to it totally. I couldn’t hear what she said to the listeners around them, but the effect was like a bucket of cold water upon the Holy Spirit’s flame. People began to wander away, before I had even finished. All my hopes for the great outpouring of the Spirit that night evaporated. Finally, I dismissed what remained of my listeners at dusk, urging them to return to hear me speak again the next morning. I caught the girl’s smirk of satisfaction as she wandered away, too. 
When we were alone again, I turned to Silas in frustration and threw up my hands. “What happened?” I demanded. “Did you feel it too? That shift?” 
The younger man nodded, grim-faced. “You saw her?” 
“Yes! What was she saying to them? Could you hear?” 
Silas nodded again. “It was always some variation of, ‘These men are servants of the Great High God, and they’re telling us how to be saved!’” 
I let out a grunt of disgust. The words were true, of course, but the effect of the words were proof enough that, coming from her, it would have the opposite effect. There were those who already spread rumors that we performed signs and wonders through the power of the demonic. The diviner girl’s apparent endorsement must have convinced at least some of them that the spirit by whom she operated and the Spirit through Whom I did were one and the same. 
“Maybe she won’t come back tomorrow,” Silas soothed, but I turned a deadpan expression upon him. He gave me a bashful smile and shrugged. “Just being optimistic.” He knew as well as I did that if Satan discovered his tactic had worked to hinder the gospel, he would assuredly double down on it. 
I huffed. “Let’s just pray that, if the girl herself is still reachable, she’ll give some indication of it tomorrow,” I murmured to my protege as I walked into town, toward the house where we were staying for the night. “Then we can cast it out, and turn her distraction to our advantage.” 
“We might have to cast it out anyway, whether she wants us to or not,” Silas returned, falling into step beside me. 
“I know, but it’ll be worse for her if we do it without her consent.”
“Why?” Silas frowned. 
“Remember the Lord’s teaching on this? He said, ‘when a demon is cast out of a person, it goes to wander in a waterless realm, searching for rest. But finding no place to rest, it says, ‘I will go back and reoccupy the body I left.’ When it returns, it finds the person like a house swept clean and made tidy, but empty. Then it goes and enlists seven demons more evil than itself, and they all enter and possess the person, leaving that one in a much worse state than before.’” I told Silas, “If I cast it out, I want to be able to replace it with the Holy Spirit, for her sake. If I can’t do that…” 
“Ah, I see,” Silas bit his lip, and then looked up to heaven. “Lift the confusion and the oppression off of that girl, Lord! Long enough for her to hear that she has a choice, to hear that she can be set free!” 
I agreed with Silas in prayer, both of us alternately speaking in English and groaning in tongues as we interceded for the girl all the way to our house for the evening. 
 
But alas, the next day was no different—nor the next, nor the next. The girl turned up every day that we preached, souring the crowd against us and growing increasingly bold. “These men are the servants of the Most High God!” she began to shout over us. “They are proclaiming the way of salvation!” Many would-be listeners seemed to be scared off by her expostulations. Finally after nearly a week of hindrance, I approached the girl, standing right before her, peering into her eyes. I willed her to show me some indication that she was still in there, and that she wanted deliverance—but alas, she was only a shell. Still, I couldn’t let this go on. 
“I command you in the name of Jesus, the Anointed One, to come out of her, now!”
At first, the girl’s vacant expression did not change. I turned my back on her and, unhindered, proceeded to preach again to the small crowd gathered. I had to break off, though, because their attention was arrested by the spectacle behind me. Exasperated, I turned to see what had distracted them, expecting the usual foaming and writhing of a demon fighting his eviction. 
I saw this, but I also saw a pair of well-dressed, burly men at the girl’s side. I suddenly understood for certain what I had only suspected before: she was a slave, and she probably made these masters of hers a great deal of money with her divinations. The girl shrieked, and then went still. I knew she wasn’t dead, having been through this plenty of times before, but her masters behaved as though I had killed her. 
“You!” they spat, pointing at Silas and me. 
My mouth fell open, which was about all the time I had for protest. In moments, the two swarthy men had each chosen a target—one falling upon Silas and the other upon me. When my huge captor got close enough, he wrapped one hand all the way around my skinny upper arm and proceeded to drag me toward the central marketplace of Philippi. 
“Don’t struggle!” I called to Silas, behind us. 
Silas let out a short laugh, which I understood to mean, As if I could! 
I tripped a few times as my captor dragged me inexorably along, at his own pace rather than mine. Moments later, we found ourselves before the city magistrates, on our knees. 
“These Jews are troublemakers!” Silas’s captor announced. “They’re throwing our city into confusion. They’re pushing their Jewish religion down our throats. It’s wrong and unlawful for them to promote these Jewish ways, for we are Romans living in a Roman colony!”
This announcement was met with an uproar, from both the magistrates themselves and from the surrounding mob—always ready to be whipped into an emotional frenzy, whatever the cause. I considered retorting that the two men who seized us were really upset that they had lost their source of income from the demon-possessed girl, but it was clear it wouldn’t matter. The emotional pitch was too high. The magistrates, feeding off the energy of the crowd, tore their clothes and cried out that Silas and I were to be beaten with rods. Silas caught my eye, looking briefly terrified. 
In minutes, both of us were stripped to the waist, tied to a pole, and on our knees, while bloodthirsty soldiers relished laying stripes into our backs. The dull thud of the rod against Silas’s flesh and my own made me groan in rhythm with it. Then, some part of my consciousness detached as protection from the pain. I made a song of it. It was, in a bizarre sense, almost meditative. I was with the Lord, looking down at our suffering bodies, bemused. I wondered if this was how we would die. 
And then it was over. I scarcely heard the crowd anymore, a dull roar in my own ears. All I saw were the paving stones, slick with my sweat and blood. The tunic was replaced upon my raw flesh. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I winced in anticipation of the moment when I would have to remove it again. I decided that when the time came, I would try to soak the tunic in water so that it would not stick to my wounds when I peeled it off. 
These thoughts distracted me sufficiently that I was surprised to find myself on my feet, walking somewhere with an escort. It was bright, and then it was dim, dank, and chilly. We were forced into a cell, and then to our knees. Something wooden slammed across my ankles, hands and neck. Stocks, I realized. Silas received the same treatment beside me, I saw as my eyes adjusted to the gloom. The roar began to fade from my ears, too, and with it, I felt the sting and throb of my wounds begin to return. I could make out the cadence of taunts from our captors, but not their substance. Then the door slammed shut. Silas and I were alone again. 
We were silent for some time, probably both regaining our senses after the physical shock. 
I was so grateful for shock, I thought. How kind of the Lord, to build in that mechanism to the human body, so that the nerves could not be overloaded with too much pain at once. I hadn’t really felt the pain except at the very beginning, and as it crept back to me now.
“You okay?” I croaked to my companion at last. 
Silas groaned in response.
Over the subsequent hours, the pain returned in dribs and drabs, but never all at once. I felt the ache of my stiff, restless limbs, the throb and occasionally the sting of my wounds. I drowsed a few times, but then the discomfort of my position awakened me. I glanced over at the keeper of the prison, whose silhouette I could just make out from where I sat. I could tell the man had fallen asleep from his akimbo position, and his jaw that hung agape. Every now and then he let out a snore. 
Eventually Silas said, “So. That could have gone better.” 
I started to laugh, but winced from the pain of it. “The Lord has us here for a reason,” I managed. 
Silas snorted. “You think so, huh? We’re gonna do great things, all by ourselves down here, preaching to the rats?” 
I didn’t bother to rebuke him. Less than a minute later, he sighed, having apparently rebuked himself. 
“I’m sorry,” Silas murmured. “You’re right. Of course the Lord has a purpose. He will take what the enemy meant for evil, and turn it for good.” 
“Let’s praise Him for it,” I said with determination, and began to sing softly, “Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing out the honor of His name; make His praise glorious.” 
Silas, recognizing the psalm, joined in, “Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You.” 
“Yes!” I agreed, louder than I meant to. I heard slight creaks and groans from other cells adjacent to ours, and suspected we had roused an audience now. The jailer was still asleep, though. I continued, terribly off-key, “All the earth shall worship You and sing praises to You; they shall sing praises to Your name!” 
We finished one psalm and went on to the next, and as we did so I felt my spirits lift. I knew Silas’s did too. I also felt a sense of anticipation that I could not explain. Neither of us could sing a lick, but our discordant voices blended in joyful noise and occasionally dissolved into laughter. I could see a few of the eager faces of our audience of fellow prisoners though our bars, cast in shadow. 
“Keep singing, boys,” said one hoary prisoner, his voice scratchy with disuse. “You’re doing it!” 
“Doing what?” asked his cell mate. 
“I dunno,” said the old timer, “but they’re doing something. Can’t you feel it?” 
I certainly could. I responded with, “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord! He is their strength in the time of trouble.” 
“And the Lord shall help them and deliver them!” Silas belted as loud as he could. “He shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in Him—”
“Shh!” I hissed. I thought I’d heard a rumble, and wasn’t sure what it was. A second later, the rumble grew much louder, and the ground beneath us trembled violently.
“Is that—an earthquake?” Silas now had to shout over the din. 
As if in response to his question, our stocks—which were locked—rattled open. So did our cell door. 
So did everyone else’s!
“Ha ha!” Silas cried, and then moaned with relief as he straightened and gave his angry limbs a decadent stretch. “Thank You, Lord!” he cried out. 
I too straightened, stretched, and couldn’t help groaning as my stiff limbs began to move. All around us, I heard the other astonished prisoners doing the same. 
“Psst!” hissed one of the other prisoners. “This was your doing, preachers! Where should we go now?” 
I glanced at the keeper of the prison, who had startled awake and let out a cry when he saw that all of the cell doors stood ajar. He swore as he scrambled to his feet, and drew his sword. I watched him with alarm, thinking that he intended to attack us, until he turned it upon himself. 
“Stop!” I shouted. 
I so startled the man that his sword clattered to the ground, and he uttered another cry, as if I were a ghost. I realized that the jailer had seen the open cells, assumed we had all fled, and that he would be executed for failing in his duties. 
“Don’t do that!” I told him, holding up my stiff hand. “We’re all still here! Nobody’s run away!” 
I could still see only the man’s silhouette. He turned to shout to jailer who was out of sight. 
“Bring me a torch!” he cried. 
In a few minutes our jailer bore a lantern, held it aloft, and saw that indeed, all of the prisoners were still within, though none of us were chained or barred. He re-secured all of the other cells once more, though he did not lock any of the rest of the prisoners back in their stocks. When he got to ours, I expected him to seal our bars as well, and go back to sleep. But when he got close enough, his expression crumpled, and the lantern shook with his trembling. He came into our cell, falling on his knees before us. 
“Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?” he begged. 
Silas beamed at me, and I nodded at him to go ahead. He told the jailer, “Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live—and everyone in your house included!”
The jailer wiped his eyes as he stood to his feet, though I hadn’t noticed that he had been crying before. “Come,” he told us. “Tell my household yourselves!” He turned and whistled for the other jailer who had stood in the shadows watching all of this, the one who had presumably brought him the lantern. The other jailer watched us, wide-eyed, as we walked out of our cell behind our original captor. 
“I am Jerome,” he introduced himself. “My wife is Sophia, and our daughters are Alexandra and Katye.” 
We did not have far to go, as Jerome and his family lived right by the prison. He called out in a loud voice to rouse his wife and daughters when we entered. The girls were young teens, and they seemed irritable to have been so awakened. Apparently the earthquake had been quite localized, and not even extended so far as to his home. His wife looked alarmed, looking at Silas and me.
“Who are these men, Jerome?” she asked in a low voice, not taking her eyes off of us. “They certainly look like the men who were beaten in the square today—”
“They are, but just wait until you hear—!” He tripped over his own tongue trying to tell his wife and daughters what had happened in the prison, though he got it all out of order and seemed to forget basic words in the process. At last, Silas and I helped him fill in the details. 
“It was a miracle!” Jerome concluded, throwing his hands up. “These men are from God, and they are here to tell us how to be saved! But quickly, we must first attend to their wounds and their bellies. Alexandra, Katye, draw some water, lather some soap, and bring some salve if we have some. I will tend their stripes myself. Then help your mother prepare these men something to eat.” 
“Oh, praise the Lord!” Silas uttered as Jerome bathed and applied salve to the raw flesh of his back. When it was my turn, I hissed from the sting but also let out a few involuntary praises as he dressed my wounds. He washed our bloody tunics in the soapy water afterwards and gave each of us a fresh tunic while ours dried. Around the third watch of the night, Sophia and the girls set a meal before us of bread and cold meat. My stomach growled when I saw it, but I knew we must put the Lord’s priorities first. The meal was a cold one anyway; it could wait. 
So Silas and I took turns telling Jerome and his family about the Lord. We told them about Jesus, His death and resurrection, and about the Holy Spirit He sent at Pentecost. We invited them to be baptized. Jerome agreed eagerly, though the only water they had on hand was now dirty with soap and blood and dirt. Jerome declared that he didn’t mind a bit, but Alexandra and Katye did. They dumped the previous basin and drew fresh water, assembled dry clothing for the family to change into afterwards, and then Silas and I took turns baptizing all four of them. As we did so, the Holy Spirit fell upon each of them. Alexandra, the most demonstrative of the family, babbled with tongues while laughing and crying. The others held back, but we could see that their faces were radiant with joy. Both teenaged girls shrieked with combined shivers and giddiness, and ran back into the house to change into dry clothing. 
And then, what a meal we shared! I could hardly remember when one had tasted so good, seasoned with hunger and enjoyed with the love of new brothers and sisters. 
“I only regret that I have to bring you back to the prison now,” Jerome cast Silas and me an apologetic look. “I know you’ve done nothing but the Lord’s work, and the magistrates only agreed to punish you because you cast a demon out of a valuable slave, and the owners wanted you to pay for it. But still, if I don’t return you to your cells, they’ll kill me—”
“We know,” Silas held up a conciliatory hand. “And the magistrates also know we did nothing wrong. They can’t hold us forever.” 
It was just before dawn when we followed Jerome back to prison. He pleaded with his eyes for us to forgive him as he locked us in once more. We nodded to him and smiled that we understood. 
Silas and I had just finally drifted off to sleep the following morning when the rattle of our cell door jolted us awake. 
“The magistrates sent word that you’re free to go on your way!” Jerome gasped, beaming at us. “Congratulations! Go in peace!”
Silas began to climb to his feet, but I held up a hand to him. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, frowning. “We are Roman citizens in good standing, yet they beat us up in public and threw us in jail. And now they want to get us out of the way on the sly without anyone knowing? No indeed! If they want us out of here, let them come themselves and lead us out in broad daylight.” 
Jerome gaped from Silas to me. “You’re—Roman citizens?” he echoed. “Why didn’t you say so before?” 
Before I could answer, the jailer hurried from our cell, leaving the door wide open. He ran outside, presumably to relay this astounding piece of information to the magistrates. 
“Why didn’t we think to say that earlier?” Silas asked me, smacking his forehead.
I shrugged. “Honestly everything was so chaotic at the time that it didn’t occur to me. But I think that the Lord wanted us to meet Jerome and his family anyway.” 
“And us!” wheezed the old-timer in the cell beside ours. He grinned through the bars, revealing several missing teeth. “Your singing was so terrible it made the earth quake!” 
Everyone laughed at this, just as we heard a commotion coming down the stairs. The magistrates followed Jerome, who could barely contain his smug grin. The magistrates themselves were white-faced and flustered. 
“You are—Roman citizens?” one cried. 
“You should have said—”
“We had no idea! Please, forgive us—!”
They tripped over one another in their efforts to apologize and beg our forgiveness, and plead with us to leave the city so that the whole affair might be quickly forgotten. Heads held high, we followed the magistrates out in broad daylight, waving goodbye to our fellow prisoners as we went. Jerome did not want to appear overly friendly with us, but his eyes twinkled at us warmly, and we nodded at him before we departed. 
“What do you think?” Silas whispered to me as we walked away. “Should we leave the city, as they asked?” 
“Soon,” I told him with a sly smirk. “But not just yet. Best not to let the magistrates breathe too easy.”
 
Feb 4, 2022
A meditation and retelling of Acts 12:5-19

Introduction

It’s amazing to me how involved angels seemed to be in the early church. This is at least the third time Peter has encountered one: the first was after Jesus’ ascension (since the story in John of Peter at Jesus’ empty tomb didn’t indicate that he encountered the angels there). The second time was when an angel had helped Peter to escape prison once before, in Acts 5. Historians date that escape in the same year as Pentecost. Given that, I’m not sure why Peter was so surprised to find himself delivered this time, though it was estimated to be about twelve years later. Perhaps it wasn’t the deliverance that surprised him necessarily, but simply the fact that he felt he was having a vision. Maybe there was a dreamlike quality to this encounter because it was in the middle of the night. Still, though, James the brother of John, one of Jesus’ core three disciples, had just been martyred publicly by the sword, to the delight of the Jewish mob (Acts 12:1-3). It certainly looked like Peter might die the next morning, too, and Jesus himself told the disciples that they could not expect to escape persecution (Matthew 24:9, Mark 10:30). Despite all this, Peter slept so peacefully that the angel had to strike him to wake him up. Either he was not bothered by the prospect of death, or perhaps he expected that he would escape somehow, given Jesus’ prophecy that he would not be martyred until he was an old man (John 21:18). 
 
Since the story mentions that the church was praying for Peter constantly (Acts 12:5), perhaps it was their prayers that dispatched the angel to free him. We’re not told the exact cause and effect, though this seems to be the implication—even though they, too, were pretty shocked to see him when he showed up (Acts 12:14-16).
 
This Mary was mother of John Mark, who wasn’t one of Jesus’ original apostles, but instead was Barnabas’s cousin (Colossians 4:10). Barnabas and John Mark both traveled with Saul, later  called Paul (Acts 12:25). At this point, Saul and Barnabas were in town (Acts 11:30), and since Mary was Barnabas’s relative, it’s possible they were staying with Mary when Peter showed up. Saul’s conversion was estimated to be not quite a decade before this, though it would be around another six years before he went on his first missionary journey—so I wonder if the other believers were still getting used to him. Neither Barnabas nor Saul are mentioned in the story, though. 
 
Why in the world did the believers in Mary's home suppose it was more likely that it was Peter’s angel at the door (presumably his guardian angel, as mentioned in Matthew 18:10) than Peter himself? Were their encounters with angels in the early church really so common as that? Perhaps… an angel again appeared at the end of the chapter, to strike down Herod for his arrogance (Acts 12:23), which presumably meant Peter could return to the city freely. Later, an angel also appeared to Paul during the tempest at sea (Acts 27:24), and the writer of Hebrews mentions that sometimes we can entertain angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). At least the early church didn’t consider encounters with angels nearly so unusual as we might today. 
 
Fictionalized Retelling
 
“Seize him!” 
Herod’s soldiers surrounded me even as I was in the middle of my sermon to the assembly of the Jews before the Temple. I had no hope of escape. 
My listeners scattered, and I turned a resigned expression upon my captors. Even as they shackled my wrists and led me away, I marveled somewhere in the back of my mind at how much had changed, in how short a period of time. These were the days of Unleavened Bread, leading up to the twelfth Passover since Jesus had been crucified. 
Nearly twelve years ago, I had denied Him. I’d feared for my own life, that I might share his fate. Now, even though my brother in the Lord, James, had been publicly executed by Herod only days before, a fate Herod surely intended for me to share, I was—incredibly—unafraid. 
The difference was the Holy Spirit, I knew. I was a new man now. 
At the same time, I also knew that my time to die had not yet come. Jesus Himself had told me before His ascension that I would indeed one day die a martyr, but not until I was an old man. Bizarrely enough, I’d been incredibly comforted by this—not because it meant I would live to old age, but because it meant I would not fail Him again. The second time, I would pass the test.  
At any rate, though, I didn’t think early forties counted as “old.” 
“We’re taking no chances with this one!” one of the officers who had arrested me barked at the soldiers standing guard at the prison. “Chain him between you this time!” 
Two of the soldiers indeed moved forward, unshackling my wrists just long enough to chain me to themselves. 
“When I have to relieve myself, this will be awkward,” I quipped, but nobody smiled. 
I counted four squads, or sixteen soldiers, all of whom appeared to be assigned to just me. I decided not to comment. An angel of the Lord had delivered me from prison twelve years ago, shortly after Pentecost, and Herod didn’t want to chance that it would happen again. 
As if more soldiers would make a difference. 
Not that I knew whether the Lord intended to deliver me the same way again; perhaps I’d be imprisoned for years this time. All I knew was, if that happened, He would ultimately use it for good. 
The next several days were quite miserable in the dank prison, with stale air and food, not enough water, no exercise, and no mobility of even my own limbs. I reminded myself that the soldiers chained to me had to be just as uncomfortable as I was, except that they took turns and could escape after their shifts were completed. Whenever I felt my spirit sink, or saw flashbacks in my mind’s eye of James as he fell by Herod’s sword, I started to sing to the Lord. This first annoyed, then enraged my captors. They struck me with their elbows in my stomach, which was the easiest part of me they could reach, commanding me to shut up. When I regained my breath after each blow, I told them stories of my time with Jesus—the good news of the gospel, of course, as well as some of the miracles I’d both witnessed and performed in His name. When blows failed to shut me up, the soldiers resorted to taunts and threats. 
“You remember your buddy, how Herod gutted him before the people? That’ll be you in a few days, fisherman!” 
I shrugged and told them, “I’m sure that’s what Herod intends,” and resumed my story of Jesus feeding the five thousand men, plus women and children. 
“Intends?” one of them interrupted me. “Herod gets what Herod wants!”
I kept talking over him, nonplussed, describing now the twelve baskets we had left over.
Another of the soldiers, weary of striking me without effect, talked over my story and described in explicit detail how Herod might choose to have me executed tomorrow. Unable to completely tune out his words, I stopped talking, and instead went back to singing hymns to the Lord. The soldier trailed off in his vivid, violent descriptions with a shout of frustration. 
“This is torture for us, not for him!” he cried out. 
I looked at the soldier, past the angry mask he wore, and smiled. “The Lord loves you, too, you know.” One of the others scoffed and sneered, but the one I addressed ignored me entirely. “Don’t you want the same hope I have?”
“Don’t I want to be brutally murdered before the cheers of thousands of my own people, you mean?” he spat back at me. “Just like your Jesus was?” 
“He was, yes,” I agreed, “but death could not hold Him, and He is still alive today. He pleads with you, through me, to accept what He did for you.” 
“Stop arguing with him, Tobias,” muttered one of the other soldiers. “You’re just encouraging him.” 
Tobias grumbled something unintelligible but said nothing more. For my part, I settled back into humming soft hymns to the Lord as day sank into twilight at the end of Passover—the last day of my life, if Herod had his way. I could not help but rejoice, as I remembered the depth of my despair this time twelve years ago, and how far the Lord had brought me since then. With this sweet thought, I drifted off to peaceful sleep. 
“Oof!” I woke abruptly, as someone struck me in the side. 
“Hurry!” 
I blinked up into the radiant face hovering above me, backlit as if by the sun even though it was the middle of the night. I’d met enough angels by now to know one when I saw him. I obeyed at once, but when my wrists passed right through the shackles that still bound them to the soldiers sleeping on either side of me, I decided this must be a vision only, or possibly a dream.
“Get dressed. Put on your shoes,” the angel ordered. I did as I was bid, rather dreamily. Then the angel commanded, “Grab your coat and let’s get out of here!” I did so. Then I followed the angel, passing right through the bars of the cell and directly in front of the first squad, and then the second, standing watch outside the prison. They never saw us. 
When we arrived at the iron gate into the city, it swung open on its own. I smiled, feeling like I almost floated as I followed the angel through the gate and into the city.
Then the angel vanished. I blinked, and turned around, thinking he must be behind me. 
Suddenly I realized that I was wide awake, and still on the other side of the iron gate, now inside the city limits.
“I can’t believe it—this really happened!” I laughed aloud. “The Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod, and the spectacle the mob was looking forward to!” I ran into the city without stopping to consciously consider where I was going until I realized I was headed to Mary’s house, John Mark’s mother and Barnabas’s aunt. All of the believers met at her house regularly, so it was probably my best chance at finding several of them together—even though it was still the middle of the night. 
When I came to the outer gate of Mary’s home, I knocked at the door within it, feeling elated by my sudden freedom, and excited to surprise whoever I might find inside. I waited for some time, shifting my weight from one foot to the other and wondering if they were all asleep and if I should knock louder. Then I heard a pair of footsteps on the other side of the gate, quick and light. Rhoda, the servant girl, I knew at once. She too had become a believer through her mistress, and often joined our prayer meetings. 
“Rhoda!” I called to her softly through the gate. “Is that you?” 
I heard her gasp. “Peter?” 
I laughed softly. “Yes, it’s me!” But I stopped laughing in confusion when I heard the light, quick footsteps running away again, and back into the house. “Okay then,” I murmured, and knocked again. 
It took several more minutes before I heard footsteps returning. There were more than just Rhoda this time. 
“It’s Peter, I tell you!” I heard her insist to whoever came with her. 
“Maybe it’s his angel,” said a voice I recognized as John Mark’s, doubtfully. 
The door opened then, to reveal an astonished John Mark, with Mary and Rhoda behind him, along with Barnabas and Saul. All of them spoke at once. 
“Peter! How—” 
“—we thought, after James—!”
“—after your first escape, Herod would take no chances—”
“—what are you doing here? Aren’t they looking for you?” 
I held up my hands against all their questions, laughing. “Hush, and I’ll tell you!” I hugged each of them first, though I hesitated just for a split second before I hugged Saul. He did the same. It wasn’t so very long ago that he was one of the most zealous in persecuting the church. I’d forgiven him of course, as we all had, but I hadn’t quite gotten used to seeing him at our prayer meetings. He probably hesitated because he sensed that I did. Rhoda, meanwhile, jumped up and down a little in excitement as I released her. 
Then, still standing at the gate because no one had thought to invite me inside, I told them how the angel had appeared to me and released me. 
“We have been praying for that non-stop ever since you were arrested,” Mary confessed. 
Her son laughed and said, “Yes, but evidently we didn’t believe it would happen! Shame on us.” 
Mary finally thought to invite me inside after I’d finished my story, but I shook my head. “I don’t want to implicate any of you in my escape. Herod will be livid; I’m sure he was looking forward to appeasing the Jews with my death. Just make sure you tell James, the Lord’s brother, and the rest of the brothers that I escaped, and I’m all right.” 
They agreed that they would do so, and I turned to go, though I wasn’t yet sure where. I needed to be far away from Judea for awhile, that was certain. I had presumably at least a few hours before the soldiers would rouse and discover my flight. I winced for them, knowing that Herod would order their deaths in my place. But there was nothing I could do about that. 
“I pray that some of them heard me, and receive You before the end, Lord,” I whispered to the night air. 
Wishing the angel had told me what to do next, I decided to go down to Caesarea, hoping Herod’s search for me wouldn’t extend that far. How long should I stay in hiding? I wondered. I wanted to continue to preach the gospel, not hide in someone’s spare room. All I could do was pray that I would know when it was time to speak freely again, that the Lord would make it plain to me. 
“And thank you,” I finally remembered to add, smiling up at the stars. While I was glad that I had faced the prospect of death without shrinking back this time, I was also grateful that my work here was not yet done. 
Jan 7, 2022
Today's podcast comes from Daniel 6.

Introduction:

I’ve known the story of Daniel and the lion’s den since I was a kid in Sunday School classes, but I never really considered before what Daniel was thinking at the time. As I wrote some of these retellings, it was obvious that the heroes were actually terrified and full of doubts, like Gideon. Samson wasn’t at all fearful, but he’d placed his confidence in himself, rather than in God. It was only very rare individuals that seemed to be completely confident in the Lord. David and Jonathan clearly had this mentality, because the things they said to those around them just before their exploits revealed their thoughts. With Daniel, it’s not quite so clear, until you put this event in chronological context with the rest of the book of Daniel. 
 
The first half of the book of Daniel is historical, telling events that transpired during Daniel’s lifetime as the kingdom changed rulership. The second half, from chapter 7 through 12, is prophetic, in which Daniel is treated to a series of profound visions which encompass the “silent” years of the Old Testament through the coming of Christ, and then apocalyptic visions that harmonize with John’s account in Revelation. We’re told in Daniel 5:31 and 6:1 that this episode of the lion’s den occurred during the reign of King Darius, and historians say he only reigned for two years. We also know from Daniel 9:2 that Darius was king during the time that Daniel received his famous seventy weeks prophecy, so these two events must have occurred relatively close to one another in time. In the seventy weeks prophecy, Gabriel appeared and helped Daniel to understand that while Jeremiah’s prediction of seventy years of captivity (Jeremiah 25:11-12) was nearly over for Israel, there was a deeper meaning for the seventy years as well. There would also be seventy weeks of years, or 490 years, from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, until the end of the age. It would be sixty-nine weeks of years from the rebuilding of Jerusalem until the Messiah would come (and according to “The Coming Prince” by Sir Robert Anderson, from the time Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the walls of the city, sixty-nine weeks of years, where a year in the calendar of the day was 360 days, would work out to 173,880 days. This is to the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, proclaiming himself to be king, Luke 19:28-44.) That last week of years, or the last seven years, will be the end of the age—and the rest of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy describes the antichrist, the covenant with Israel that begins those seven years, and the abomination of desolation 3.5 years in, which will initiate the last 3.5 years of tribulation. Daniel’s prophecy here doesn’t indicate that there is a gap between the 69th and the 70th week, though some scholars believe that was because there didn't have to be a gap: had the Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah when he rode in on Palm Sunday, the first and the second coming might have been one and the same. This might have been why Jesus wept as he rode into town (Luke 19:41-44). As it was, there is a pause in Daniel’s timeline “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). 
 
In my retelling, therefore, I imagined how full Daniel’s mind must have been with such wonderful revelations. He’d seen and spoken with God’s messenger, not once, but twice (Gabriel also came to him in Daniel 8:16). He’d been in captivity nearly all his life, and now in his eighties, he realized that the time drew near for his people to return to Jerusalem. His prayer in Daniel 9:4-19 is so impassioned, one can almost picture him weeping as he contends for their release. Gabriel told him that he was greatly beloved (Daniel 9:23), and told him that not only did the time draw near for his people’s release, but also showed him God’s entire plan for history. 
 
Meanwhile, Darius wanted to promote Daniel because, like Pharaoh had said of Joseph, he had the spirit of God’s wisdom upon him (Daniel 6:3). As King Solomon wrote, a man who excels in his work will stand before kings, and not obscure men (Proverbs 22:29). Daniel did his work with excellence, but he had no ambitions in Persia. His heart was clearly with his people, his homeland, and God’s plans for the earth. So when the other governors and satraps conspired against him, I imagine that Daniel almost ignored them. He had far bigger things on his mind. He probably heard the threat, knew it was petty jealousy, proceeded about his business, and forgot about it.
 
It was the Persian custom that a law sealed by the king could not be changed (Daniel 6:15), which was the same issue Esther ran into in her day. Clearly Darius realized that his satraps and governors had convinced him to sign such a law just to entrap Daniel. Darius wanted to rescue Daniel and tried to find a loophole (Daniel 6:14), but even he couldn’t do it, which was what his officials had counted upon. Daniel’s devotion to the Lord had made such an impression on Darius by this point that when Daniel was cast into the lion’s den, Darius declared, “Your God, whom you serve continually, He will deliver you” (Daniel 6:16). Even this pagan king believed God would save Daniel! He also loved Daniel so well that he didn’t sleep that night, and rose first thing in the morning to check on Daniel and see if God had indeed delivered him. If he had been certain to find Daniel dead, he presumably wouldn’t have gone to check. 
 
What must it have been like for Daniel to spend the night in that pit? Did he actually see the angel that he later told Darius had shut the lions’ mouths? I don’t see why not; he’d seen Gabriel at least twice before by this time. If Daniel’s mindset was what I imagine it might have been, I suspect that he would have slept that night, just as Jesus did on the boat during the storm (Matthew 8:24, Mark 4:38, Luke 8:23). That’s the picture of the perfect peace of one whose mind is stayed on the Lord because he trusts in Him (Isaiah 26:3). Daniel, I think, embodied this peace. That’s why he inspired even Darius with such confidence on his behalf.
 
When the king found Daniel alive, he then did to the conspirators what they had intended to do to Daniel. The concept of reaping what one sows is well established in scripture (Luke 6:38, Galatians 6:7, Proverbs 26:27). The fact that the lions tore them apart before they even hit the bottom of the pit proves that they were both vicious and hungry; they just hadn’t been able to touch Daniel. It seems awfully harsh to punish the conspirators’ wives and children for crimes they did not commit, and this is not God’s way (Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:30). But God was not the one to mete out judgment against Daniel’s accusers; Darius was. 
 
Fictional Retelling
 
I lived almost my entire life in exile—in the land that was Babylon for the majority of my life, and then became Persia in my old age. I was constantly surrounded by political intrigue, though most of the time, it did not concern me. My dominant thoughts lay elsewhere.
Though I’d left there as a boy, my heart was still in Jerusalem: the city of my father David. It had been so many years since I’d seen it that the place had taken on a mythical quality in my imagination, and I commingled the concept of Jerusalem with that of the throne room of heaven. Every day, when my duties as one of the governors over the kingdom of Persia did not otherwise compel me, I pored over the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel for some clue of the Lord’s plans for His people. After I read, I opened the windows of the upper room of my home so that the sunlight would stream in; in my mind’s eye, the sunlight was the radiance of the Lord Himself upon his throne, emanating from Jerusalem, His city. I faced Jerusalem and I prayed for wisdom, for repentance on behalf of my wayward people, and for mercy.
When I shifted my heavenly focus down to the here and now, I executed my duties as governor with the wisdom the Lord gave me. King Darius set forty provinces, led by forty satraps, under each of his three governors. My provinces prospered effortlessly—of course. I had the wisdom of the Lord. It was clear that King Darius recognized the Lord’s influence and admired me above all of the other governors and satraps, and I knew he considered putting me over the entire realm because of this. This was fine. I had no aspirations at my age. My heart and soul belonged to my own people and nation; I only labored for this one because for now, Darius was my king, and integrity demanded that I do the work he set before me to the best of my ability. I was vaguely aware that my more ambitious peers and the satraps under them envied me. I could do nothing about this though, and regarded their esteem lightly anyway. So I paid it little attention. 
Instead, I spent my days swept up in visions and prophecy. One morning when reading the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, his words leapt off the scroll to me that the time of Jerusalem’s desolations was to be seventy years. 
Sixty-nine years had passed
I tore my robes and put on sackcloth, deliberately sprinkling the floor of my upper room with ashes to symbolize repentance on behalf of my people, and determined to fast before the Lord for however long it took. Then I threw open my windows and fell to my knees, praying toward Jerusalem with such fervor that it was as though time and space fell away. I do not know how much time passed before I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was already so worked up that I jumped and my eyes flew open. The man I beheld was one I had met once before: the angel Gabriel. He was much larger and more powerfully built than the greatest of the Persian warriors, radiant with light and dressed in gleaming white. 
He told me I was greatly beloved. He also showed me that there was a deeper meaning to Jeremiah’s prophecy than what I had first supposed. Yes, there would be seventy years until my people could return to Jerusalem. But there would also be seventy weeks of years from the time of Jerusalem’s reconstruction to the end of the age, and sixty-nine weeks of years from the reconstruction to the appearance of the Messiah. 
I floated after this, so buoyant with happiness and overwhelmed with the implications of Gabriel’s message that the details of the concrete world around me paled in comparison. So when I heard that the other governors and satraps had convinced Darius to sign into law the ridiculous order that for thirty days, anyone caught praying to any god or man except to him should be cast into the lion’s den, I hardly considered it. I would not have heeded the rule at any time, but especially not now. The Lord had shown me such wonderful and marvelous things, so much larger than myself and my own life. I saw myself as a representative for my people, and Gabriel’s words had confirmed this to me. We were on the cusp of the breakthrough I had awaited all my life… would I be stymied by fear, due to the petty jealousy of those who fancied themselves my political rivals? By no means! 
I went home that very day and threw open the windows of my upper room as I always did. Then I knelt down and prayed to the Lord. I prayed for the end of my people’s captivity. I envisioned my own return to Jerusalem, the city of my fathers. I prayed for my people 483 years from now, when Messiah the Prince would be revealed—oh! What a day that would be! May the people of that day know and recognize and rejoice at the appearance of their hope and redemption! 
Two more times that day I did the same, giving thanks to God for hearing my prayers and for esteeming me so well that He was pleased to reveal to me what would come, long after my time. Both the second and third times I prayed that day, I glanced down and saw the assembly of governors and satraps on the street below, watching me, pointing, and whispering to one another. 
“Oh Lord,” I prayed when I saw them, “as King Solomon wrote, ‘let he who digs a pit fall into it, and he who rolls a stone have it roll back on him.’” Then I went on with my prayers, thanksgiving, and supplications. I forgot all about the men clearly conspiring against me, until I heard a pounding upon my door at nightfall. It was insistent. 
“Daniel!” shouted a voice I recognized as Kasper’s, one of the other governors of the realm. I could tell he was not alone, but that he was with a company—probably the very ones who had seen me praying that day. I could make out the voice of Bijan, one of the most hateful of Darius’s satraps, among them. “Open up, by decree of the king!” 
Instinctively and though my window was shut just then, I glanced in the direction of Jerusalem, since in my mind, that was the direction of God’s throne. More of Solomon’s words came back to me unbidden: Though they join forces, the wicked will not go unpunished, but the posterity of the righteous will be delivered. I wrapped my nightclothes in my cloak and opened the door. Perhaps six pairs of hands grabbed me at once, and dragged me out of my house so forcefully that I stumbled, old man that I was. 
“Daniel!” Kasper’s voice rose above the din, even as they dragged me toward the palace, “you have not shown due regard for the king! You were seen today petitioning and praying to your God, against the royal decree. You knew the penalty for this was death by lions. We take you now to meet your fate!” 
I tripped and nearly fell numerous times on the short walk to the palace dungeons, had it not been for the hands upon my robes. I should have been terrified, and entirely in this moment. Yet somehow, I felt insulated, almost as if I were watching the events transpire against someone else. I kept thinking of my friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who, many years ago, had defied a similar order from King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. I had been traveling on the king’s business at the time. When I returned and heard the story of their supernatural deliverance, I’d been almost envious. I so wished I’d been there with them, to have seen the Lord face to face! What a story! 
Now, almost sixty years later, here was my chance.
King Darius met me and my entourage at the entrance to the palace dungeons, looking frantic and disheveled. 
“Daniel—!” he moaned, his voice thick with grief. “I did everything I could to deliver you, but the decree is iron-clad!” 
“I know you did,” I smiled at the king tenderly, and reached out a hand to his shoulder. It was a more familiar gesture than I perhaps would have attempted under any other circumstance, but I felt a rush of affection for him in his obvious distress. He was too inexperienced a ruler to have understood how his governors and satraps had played him. He had not known the extent of the political machinations of his court when he’d signed that decree, though he knew now.
“Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this!” Darius suddenly declared. 
I blinked at him in amazement, then beamed, even as the satraps moved the stone off of the mouth of the lion’s den. I knew this, but to hear it from the mouth of a pagan king! 
“You are already much closer to Him than you realize,” I told the king. “I’ll see you in the morning—” 
My words were cut off by a rough thrust from the hands of my accusers, shoving me toward the open pit. I stumbled, and then fell in headlong, twisting in the air. I landed hard on my palms and knees, sending jolts of searing pain up to my wrists, shoulders, knees, and hips. I gasped, but then tested my bones and joints to make sure nothing was broken. Darius let out a strangled sob up above, as the satraps and governors heaved the stone back in place. Just before it sealed, I caught a glimpse of the five great shaggy beasts pacing and growling around me. 
Then there was utter darkness. 
I closed my eyes and opened them again, and could tell no difference. The padding of great paws picked up their pace, and the growling turned to roars, one after the other, like a great cacophonous symphony. I had the sense that the lions were frustrated by the prey in their very midst, and yet they could not seem to get at it. 
“Let me see you, Lord,” I prayed, yawning with sudden weariness as I lay down on the floor of the pit. “I know you’re here…” 
Suddenly the pit filled with an otherworldly glow. Gabriel circled around me, bearing a sword in each hand. He whipped it with dazzling speed each time one of the great cats got too close. They, in turn, backed off, but roared with fury. 
“Go to sleep, Daniel,” Gabriel told me, and flashed me a grin. “You might as well. I’m going to be up all night, anyway.” 
I laughed, and the vision faded until all was complete darkness again. I tuned out the lions’ roars, though I think they eventually must have given up and fallen silent. I couldn’t say for sure. I drifted off fairly soon after that. 
“Daniel!” 
I gasped awake, squinting against the light streaming in from the top of the now open pit. I perceived a silhouette up above, though all I could see was the disheveled hair sticking out in all directions. I recognized the voice as the king’s though. He sounded nearly as anxious as he had the night before.
“Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve so loyally, saved you from the lions?”
I sat up, glancing around the pit to see the great cats fast asleep around me, though they stirred now as I did from the light and the noise. I grinned at the king, who began to come into focus as I gazed up at him. 
“O king, live forever!” I called. “My God sent his angel, who closed the mouths of the lions so that they would not hurt me. I’ve been found innocent before God and also before you, O king. I’ve done nothing to harm you.” 
Darius let out a shout of glee, clapping his hands together. He stood up out of my view, and I could neither see nor quite hear what he did next, but I heard him speaking to someone. The next thing I knew, a thick rope with a loop at the bottom of it descended into the pit, and I saw two strong servants at the top, ready to pull me out. Two of the lions saw the commotion, got to their feet, and began to snarl and pace again. 
“Hurry!” cried one of the servants, glancing at the lions with alarm, just as one of the lions let out an almighty roar. 
“Oh, don’t worry,” I told them with a wave of my hand, as I stepped into the loop and grabbed on to the rope up above. “They’re just frustrated. They can’t even get close to me.” 
I wasn’t sure if the servants even heard this, as they immediately began to heave me up and out. Once I was well out of the way, the lions paced to the place where I had been lying, roaring up at me and swiping the air with their claws. The edge of one claw sliced clean through the bottom of my robe, just as one servant let go of the robe to grab me around my waist. I twisted to sit down at the top of the pit and edge away. 
“Daniel!” King Darius forgot his royal position and threw his arms around my neck, weeping with relief. Surprised, I patted his shoulders, and then he pulled me back to inspect me. “You are truly unharmed?” 
“Truly, my king,” I nodded, wiping the last of the sleep from my eyes as I yawned. 
“Did—you sleep in there?” he demanded, incredulous. Then he added, almost accusing, “I didn’t even sleep last night! I rushed here at first light to see how you fared!” 
I smiled at the king fondly. “My king honors me greatly with his concern,” I said, and shrugged. “I saw no reason to fear the lions. Besides, I was tired.” 
The servants behind King Darius let out an incredulous snort of laughter at this, but stifled it when the king whipped around to glare at them. One of the servants clamped a hand over his mouth, as a slow answering smile spread across Darius’s face. Then the king started to laugh too. Before I knew it, the servants were doubled over, as was the king, tears running down his face. 
Nervous relief? I thought as I watched them in wonder, totally missing the humor.
When the king recovered himself, his expression grew suddenly fierce. He told his servants, “Tell my royal guard to seize Daniel’s accusers, the other two governors, the complicit satraps, and their families. Bring them here at once, before the hour has passed!” 
I felt a wave of foreboding and sympathy, suspecting I knew what the king intended to do to them for their treachery. Darius got to his feet, and I followed suit. He confirmed my fears when asked me, his expression dark, “Would you like to watch, Daniel?” 
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “No, my king.” 
“You are a better man than I, then,” said King Darius. “I rejoice at the destruction of my enemies. And your enemies have now become mine. You are dismissed.” 
I bowed my head and made my way alone back to my home. At a distance, I saw Kasper, his wife and children struggling against the rough hands of the king’s royal guard. His wife wept and begged. The children, I could tell, did not understand what was going on, but knew something was wrong. They cried because their mother did. Though we were far away, Kasper’s eyes locked with mine, frantic with fear. A wave of nausea rolled over me. 
“O God, may it be quick and painless,” I prayed. “I commend the souls of the innocents to Your mercy.” 
I heard later that my prayers were answered. The hungry, frustrated lions overpowered all those thrown into the den, killing them instantly before they even hit the bottom. 
The same messenger informed me that the king had now officially placed me above the entire realm. I had assumed this would be the case, since the other two governors had perished. The news brought me sorrow—not because I minded the position, but I had never sought it, either. All this had transpired because the governors had not wanted to relinquish their power to me. Instead of merely their power, they had lost their lives, and those of their families too. 
That evening, I heard the news that King Darius had sent out a royal decree to every corner of his kingdom, which read, “Peace to you! Abundant peace! I decree that Daniel’s God shall be worshiped and feared in all parts of my kingdom. He is the living God, world without end. His kingdom never falls. His rule continues eternally. He is a savior and rescuer. He performs astonishing miracles in heaven and on earth. He saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”
I took the written decree to the upper room of my home, and laid it before the Lord. I thanked Him for rescuing me. I thanked Him for humbling and saving King Nebuchadnezzar all those years ago, when he returned to his right mind and served the Lord for the rest of His days. I thanked him that King Darius now honored Him too. I thought of Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh, and how they too had repented. I thanked the Lord that He did not show favoritism; He wanted to save the Jew and the Gentile alike, the rich and the poor, the ruler and the peasant. I thanked Him that though I had been brought into Babylon as a captive, now like Joseph, I found myself favored by the king, and second in command of a pagan kingdom. 
“You are faithful to honor Your servants who fear You, even in a land not our own,” I prayed. 
Yet still, my heart was not here, in this foreign nation where I had lived most of my life. For all my power and prestige, I was but a sojourner; that was the great irony. I would serve the Lord where He had placed me to the best of my ability all of my days, and would try to represent Him well. But I would daily pray toward my true home, awaiting the day of our redemption.
Dec 24, 2021
Today's meditation and retelling comes from Luke 1:5-25, 39-80. Background music by www.bensound.com.

Foreword: 

Zacharias and Elizabeth are the only other truly elderly couple in scripture to bear a child, besides Abraham and Sarah. There are a lot of parallels between Isaac and John the Baptist. Why this couple, and why now? Why did his need to be a “miraculous” birth? 

Gabriel did tell Zacharias that his prayers for a child were heard (Luke 1:13), so we know that Zacharias and Elizabeth wanted children long before this. Zacharias’s response to Gabriel’s good news was skepticism, based upon their ages (Luke 1:18), which suggests that he’d given up praying for children long ago, when he thought that it was too late. But given all the promises in scripture for fertility for those who followed the Lord, and the fact that this couple was blameless (Luke 1:6), I’m sure they wondered why it seemed that the Lord had not fulfilled His end of the promise. Elizabeth also called her barrenness a “reproach” (Luke 1:25). We know from the question the disciples asked Jesus about the man who was blind from birth (John 9:1-5) that it was a common belief among Israelites that physical ailments were a direct punishment for personal sin. Thus, like blameless Job, the people likely would have believed that it was some sin on their part that had kept them from bearing children all these years. 

Yet God had not forgotten them… it just took faith and patience (a lot of it!) for them to inherit this particular promise (Hebrews 6:12). One reason for this likely is because John’s conception and birth would have caused such a stir, and attracted such attention. Gabriel appears to Zacharias while he is performing his duties at the Temple, and the fact that he is subsequently struck dumb alerts everyone who was waiting for him outside the temple that he must have seen a vision (Luke 1:21-22). Then, after five months of seclusion, elderly Elizabeth reveals to all that she is pregnant. Imagine the whispers! She gives birth to the child, and then on the eighth day they break with all tradition and name him John, a name found nowhere in their lineage. As soon as Zacharias complies with Gabriel’s final decree, his tongue is loosed, and he announces to all the onlookers that this is to be the prophet they have all been waiting for these four hundred years. Had his conception and birth been ordinary, this child would not have caused such a stir, or such expectation (Luke 1:65-66). 

That’s one reason why the Lord probably chose an elderly, faithful couple to be the parents of John the Baptist. But I suspect the other reason is because Elizabeth and Mary were close relatives (Luke 1:36). (In my retelling, I imagined that she was her great aunt, though the scriptures don’t say what their exact relationship is.) They obviously knew each other well, though, because Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth for three months. This close relationship with another woman who had a miracle pregnancy was probably very important for Mary, who was being asked to take such an enormous step of faith, knowing she would be ostracized for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Not only does Elizabeth’s pregnancy confirm Gabriel’s words for Mary, but then the Lord reveals to Elizabeth that Mary, too, is pregnant, by the Holy Spirit, and with the Son of God (Luke 1:42-45)! I’m sure Mary very much needed this confirmation of the angel’s word to her, and the encouragement. 

While scripture never talks about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist as children, given the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth and the prophetic connection between the two boys’ lives, they must have known each other before they each stepped into their ministries. And Jesus was born “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4-7); he could not have come any earlier than He did. His forerunner had to just barely precede him. So had the Lord granted Zacharias and Elizabeth’s prayer for children any earlier, they could not have been the parents of John the Baptist. I also suspect that John’s later evangelistic success was in part due to the widespread knowledge of his miraculous birth. This great honor was reserved for a faithful couple, a couple who would continue to believe in Him, even when it looked like His word had failed. But this couple—or Elizabeth, at least—knew that God’s promises never fail (1 Kings 8:56). He cannot lie (1 Samuel 15:29). His word is firmly fixed in the heavens (Psalm 119:89-90). 

Zacharias’s muteness may have been a punishment for his unbelief, but I think Elizabeth’s interpretation in the retelling is more accurate. Scripture makes very clear that death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21, and throughout Proverbs), and that we will have what we say (Numbers 14:28-29). Zacharias’s protest to Gabriel expressed unbelief; it may well have been that Gabriel struck him mute so that he could not stop John’s conception and birth from coming to pass by speaking forth his doubts. 

The end of Malachi 4:6, prophesying the return of Elijah before the Messiah, says, “lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” That was the last word from the prophets for four hundred years. What a strange statement—that without the forerunner to prepare the way for the Lord, Jesus might have cursed the earth rather than redeem it! It’s hard to imagine Jesus doing such a thing; yet in His second coming, He will judge those who refuse to repent. Apparently the first and second coming could have been one and the same, without John’s six month ministry calling the people to a baptism of repentance (Luke 3).

In those six months, John became incredibly well known, and his impact continued even long after his death. In fact, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the great apostle Apollos preached the Word accurately, but he knew of only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). Paul found that even Gentile believers in Ephesus knew only the baptism of John, and had not heard of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-5). John’s teaching of repentance from sins clearly spread far and wide, long after both his death, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. His ministry, preparing the way for the Messiah, long outlasted him.

Many churches today, and many believers, in a way still only preach the baptism of John. They focus exclusively on repentance from sins, a necessary first step to prepare the way for the fruits and gifts that come from the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But repentance is meant to be the preparation, not the end in itself. John himself said this (Luke 3:16). We need the baptism of the Holy Spirit, just as the disciples did in order to fulfill their calling (Luke 24:49). We can’t do it without Him. 

Fictionalized Retelling:

“Goodbye, my love.” Zacharias kissed me, and threw his traveling cloak around his shoulders before mounting his donkey. Then he added with a teasing wink, “Try to stay out of trouble.”

I smiled at his little joke. We lived in the hill country of Judea, we kept no servants, and we were childless—so I would be all alone, and could not possibly get up to any trouble even if I had wanted to. Usually when Zacharias’s turn came to serve as a priest in the temple, I spent the time gardening, tending our few livestock, and experimenting with new dishes to feed Zacharias when he returned home. 

“What will you do with yourself?” he asked the customary question, expecting my answer to be the same as always.

Today, though, it wasn’t. “You know… I’ve been drawn to the books of the kings lately, for some reason. I think I’ll study that.” My husband had taught me to read in our early marriage. When I was younger, I required his help in interpreting what I read. Now that I was in my seventies, though, I knew the texts almost as well as he did.

Zacharias pursed his lips before moving his donkey forward. “Elijah?” he guessed, and I nodded. “Funny. I’ve been drawn to those passages too, of late.” 

“Oh really?” I mused. “Perhaps the time is drawing near?” After four hundred years of prophetic silence, the last verse in Malachi promised that Elijah himself would return as the forerunner of the Messiah. 

Zacharias chuckled. “Perhaps. Every generation has believed that theirs would be the one to see the Lord’s anointed. But, someone will have to be right eventually!” He winked and dug his heels in to his donkey’s side. I watched him ride to the top of the hill, waving, until he was out of sight. 

Then I looked up at the sky to judge how much time I had to spend upon my studies, and went inside, withdrawing the scrolls Zacharias kept of the Hebrew texts. I meant to go straight to the records of the kings, but the scroll unrolled of its own accord to Exodus. A passage that I had meditated on years ago practically leapt off the page at me: None shall miscarry or be barren in your land.

I blinked, and tried to shake it off. I kept unrolling, and one of the scrolls fell to the table, exposing a text opened to Deuteronomy. 

There shall not be male or female barren among you.

I closed my eyes, breathing through the unexpected stab of an old wound. I had clung to these verses and many others that promised the same thing in my youth, even in to middle age. But when my cycles had ceased, I realized I had a choice. Either I would believe that God had forgotten to honor His covenant, that His promises to me had failed, that He had forsaken me—or, I would consider my continued barrenness a mystery and decide to trust in Him anyway, believing that one day it would make sense. I chose the latter, since I knew the former would lead only to bitterness. 

God is good. He is faithful. I had staked my entire life upon that, and I would not waver now. 

Yet I had never revisited those passages in all these years. They were too painful. 

I breathed through it until the emotion subsided. Another scroll slipped free, revealing the latter psalms. 

Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb His reward. Like arrows are in the hand of a mighty man, so are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.

“Stop,” I gasped out loud, clutching my chest. I wasn’t sure if I was begging the Lord to stop, or some outside force… I only knew I did not want to revisit this subject. 

There was more to the issue of being a barren woman than not having a child. That by itself would have been bad enough. But Deuteronomy made it very clear that God would bless those who obeyed Him, and curse those who disobeyed Him. Because of this, the common belief among the Jews was that those who suffered a curse of any kind were receiving their just deserts. The story of Job should have dispelled the concept that affliction is always connected to personal sin, and yet the idea persisted. 

Zacharias and I were not perfect of course, but we believed in the Lord and in His promises, like Abraham had done. I was sure that like Abraham, our faith was counted to us as righteousness. Yet despite this, and despite the very clear promises in scripture, we remained childless. I knew that many secretly wondered what sin I had committed to merit such a punishment. I had asked the Lord about this for almost a year after my cycles had ceased, but eventually I stopped asking. I had to. The question was driving me crazy. 

I took another deep breath, and opened, finally, to the records of the kings. I reread the familiar story of Elijah’s sudden arrival, announcing the famine to King Ahab. What a man he was! He reminded me a bit of King David in his outrageous faith. Without any direct word from God, he  decided to take God’s statement of a famine as part of the curse in Deuteronomy, and just go declare it to the king. I could just see God watching Elijah in heaven, shaking his head and smiling—almost with incredulity, if God could be incredulous. This guy was incredible. 

Over the next couple of days of Zacharias’s absence, I pored over the story of the famine, the ravens that fed Elijah by the brook Cherith, the widow of Zarephath, and the first recorded story of the resurrection of the dead. How did Elijah know that resurrection was even possible? It had never been done before, and there was no record that God had told him anything about it. But if anybody was going to test the boundaries of what was possible in God, it was he. 

My favorite was the story of Mount Carmel. Surrounded by enemies, Elijah was supremely in control of himself, jeering at all the 750 false prophets. Perhaps your god did not answer because he was relieving himself! he taunted. I laughed out loud at that every time. Then he doused his own offering in water multiple times to make it as hard as possible to set ablaze before he called upon the Lord. Fire fell from heaven at once, of course, consuming not just his offering, but his entire altar, and every last drop of water! 

I realized I was grinning with pride, and stopped to wonder at my own reaction. Pride implied ownership, didn’t it? 

Strange. I paused in my reading, and prepared for myself an easy supper of bread and milk. I could cook, but I didn’t feel like it right now—I had no one to feed but myself, and I was too otherwise engrossed. 

The day I expected Zacharias’s return, I skipped to the story in the latter kings, where God took Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Elisha, meanwhile, stood down below and watched, as Elijah’s prophetic mantle passed to him. 

Then I opened to the passage at the end of Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” 

What did this mean? I wondered. Send Elijah? Would he return the way he left, in a chariot of fire? Would he return in the same body, with the same mind and personality? The scripture gave no indication that a person who died could return to earth in a new body—but then, Elijah had never actually died. He was one of only two people recorded in scripture who had not, the other being Enoch from Genesis. 

“And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” 

Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse? I had never thought about this passage before either. Did this mean that without Elijah preceding the coming Messiah, the Messiah might find that the hearts of his people had grown cold, and might curse the earth, rather than redeem it? 

That was a chilling thought. It certainly made Elijah’s second coming critical. 

It occurred to me that Zacharias should have been here by now. I looked out the window at the position of the sun: it was late afternoon. Usually he returned on the last day of his service by midday. I determined not to worry about it, since there was nothing I could do anyway, and rose from my studies, grabbing my basket. I went out into my garden and began to collect vegetables and herbs for supper that evening. I rose when I heard the faint clop of donkey’s hooves behind me. 

“Finally!” I cried out, turning around. I shielded my eyes from the late afternoon sun, squinting to see Zacharias atop the donkey in his traveling cloak. “It’s almost sunset, what kept you so long?” 

He did not answer, though the donkey plodded on. I frowned. Hadn’t he heard me?

“Zacharias?” 

Still he did not reply, though he waved and nodded that he had heard me. Something was very strange. I dropped my basket and walked forward to meet him. When I came close enough, he made an exaggerated mime of writing. Then he pointed at the house. I read his lips and saw that he mouthed the words, Get me a scroll and pen.

“Can… can you not talk?” 

He shook his head no, and dismounted, leading his donkey by the reins to the stable. I stood dumbfounded as well, wondering what to make of this. Was it an illness of some kind? But if that were the case, if he had merely lost his voice, surely he could still at least whisper. Yet no sound escaped his lips at all. 

Finally Zacharias joined me, putting a hand on my lower back and ushering me inside. I found for him the scroll, jar of ink, and pen, and set them on the table beside the open scriptures. He scribbled as fast as he could, I saw an angel in the temple. He said his name was Gabriel. 

My heart started to gallop. “The same one who appeared to Daniel?” I gasped, and my husband nodded vigorously. 

The very same, he wrote. He says you are going to bear a son.

He stopped writing and looked at me. I stared at the words. My mind went blank, but my knees suddenly gave out, and I sank to a seat beside him. Zacharias reached out and took my hand in his, nodding at me as if to say, I mean what I say. 

Children are a heritage of the Lord, the verse echoed in my mind. Heritage, as in, inheritance. It’s a promise. 

I looked up to heaven and whispered, “Why now? Why not… I don’t know, forty years ago?” 

Zacharias wrote, We are to call him John. I know there is no one in our family by that name, he added, as if he thought that would be my next question. He is to be the forerunner of the Christ, and will come in the spirit and power of Elijah. 

My mouth fell open. 

That was why the Lord had taken me back to all those passages. The promises for a child. The story of Elijah. The promises for the forerunner. 

That meant the Messiah was coming—soon. Probably in my lifetime. 

My hands absently sought my belly. Zacharias placed his hand over mine. I looked up at him. 

“But… why can’t you talk?” I whispered. 

He looked a little bit bashful, and hesitated before he wrote, I talked back to Gabriel. 

I let out a short little guffaw. “You did what?” 

He nodded, gave me a sheepish grin, and wrote, I told him we were too old to have children. He said I would be mute until the day of John’s birth.

Now I laughed out loud. “Well, it serves you right!” I teased him, wiping away the tears that I suddenly realized had leaked onto my face. Then I caught my breath. “Wait a minute—Zach.” I shook my head. “‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Those who love it will eat its fruit’… that wasn’t a punishment. It’s because our words can stop it from coming to pass if they don’t agree with what the Lord said…” I clamped my hands on my cheeks, squeezing my eyes tightly shut. In a strange way, I was grateful for my husband’s affliction, because it served as a sign to me. I had not seen Gabriel, but Zacharias would not invent such an ailment. He never even would have thought of it. Without his muteness, I might have wondered in time whether he had imagined the encounter. But here was proof!

I lifted both hands in the air and whispered, “Praise You, Lord of heaven and earth. You have not forgotten me. You have taken away my reproach among my people. You have granted me the high honor of not only bearing a child past the age of childbearing, like Sarah, but the honor of bearing a great prophet, like Hannah.” I grinned at Zacharias. “He’ll be a firebrand, too, if Elijah was any indication!” I sniffled, wiping my tears away with the back of my hand. “I can hardly wait to meet him!” 

 

Over the next several days, I pumped Zacharias for information until he had written down every detail of his encounter with Gabriel. I wanted to know exactly what the angel looked like, and exactly what he had said. I wanted it to be as if I had seen him myself. For the thousandth time, I was grateful that my husband had taught me to read. He wrote of how he had lingered in shock inside the temple long past the end of his service, which was why he had been late getting home. Then when he finally emerged, the people guessed that he had seen a vision when he could not speak to them. 

“But you haven’t told anyone,” I pressed. “Right?” He shook his head no, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.” He gave me a quizzical look, and I tried to put my feelings into words. Finally I said, “You know what people will say, Zach. I’m seventy, and I was barren even when I was young. They’ll be well-meaning, but they’ll try to talk me out of it, because they don’t want me getting my hopes up. Death and life is in the power of the tongue, and—” I groped for words. “I just don’t want anyone to see me until it’s undeniable. Right now, let’s just keep this between us. We’ll study Elijah, study the Messianic prophecies so we can guide John in his purpose when the time comes, rehearse what Gabriel told you, and then just… introduce the world to our son.” 

Zacharias reached out, took me by both hands, and squeezed. Then he moved one of his hands to my soft, slightly sagging belly. He leaned forward and kissed me.

 

For five months I remained at home, meditating upon what the Lord had done for me, and dreaming of the days to come. Then, finally, I came out of seclusion.  I said nothing to anyone about the little bulge as I went into the marketplace, whistling like I had a great secret. I saw people looking and whispering, but no one was brave enough to ask me. They probably had convinced themselves that I had just put on weight in a strange way. Or perhaps that I had a tumor. 

In my sixth month, Zacharias and I were at home, and I heard that we had a visitor. He answered the door, though I ran to intercept whoever it was, since of course Zacharias could not speak to them. I heard the young female voice of my grand-niece Mary, and at once, I felt little John give a great kick. It doubled me over, and in the moment I tried to catch my breath, a flash of insight came to me. 

Mary is pregnant with the Messiah! 

I blinked, tears of joy pricking my eyes. The thought arrived with such absolute conviction that the Lord might as well have said it out loud. 

I heard Mary awkwardly trying to understand why my husband would not greet her, and I straightened, calling out as I approached, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed!” She startled, and grew suddenly pale. I grinned back knowingly. “Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said!” 

Mary gave me a quavering smile, her eyes full of tears, and I understood that the Lord had given me those words for her sake. She was unmarried, a virgin, and newly pregnant—her miracle was even greater than mine. But she was not showing yet, and she was struggling to believe. That was why the Lord sent her to me: to see my miracle, as an encouragement to her! Her eyes went to my belly, and I beamed proudly, putting a hand on either side of it. She ran forward and hugged me, and burst into a song of praise worthy of King David, bless her little heart. I joined in, and though Zacharias could not, he watched us and raised his hands up to the Lord in worship. 

“Stay with us,” I urged Mary when we had finished, all three of us grinning and exultant. “At least until you are showing. It’s easier that way, believe me.” 

Mary’s joyful expression faltered. “But… Joseph doesn’t know yet.”

“Who’s Joseph?” I asked. 

“My betrothed,” she murmured. “He had only just asked for my hand, when the angel Gabriel appeared to me—”

“Oh, Gabriel was the one who came to you too!” I cast a fond look at my husband, who looked bemused.

Mary nodded, and confessed, “I love Joseph. But I know what he will think—obviously. What else could he possibly think? Why would he believe such a story?” 

I squeezed Mary’s hand. “Let the Lord take care of it,” I advised her. “It’s His problem, after all. He got you into this mess; He’ll work out the details.” 

Mary giggled, and I watched her fondly. She was so very young. What an incredible weight to place upon those narrow shoulders! And yet, the Lord would never have chosen her if He did not know she was up to the task. 

“Stay with us,” I urged her again. “Until John is born, at least.” I gasped, as it had just occurred to me right then—“They’ll be cousins, then! John and the Messiah!” 

“Yes!” Mary laughed. “And only six months apart in age…” 

“They will have to play together as children,” I asserted at once. “They’ll grow up to be great friends.” Then I added, musing aloud, “I wonder when we should tell them?”

Mary puffed out a heavy breath. “One problem at a time, please!” 

I chuckled. “Very wise, child. Very wise.” 

 

Mary did remain with us for three months. I still went out to the marketplace until just before my time, and by then, all my friends and neighbors knew my real condition, and marveled. 

When I gave birth, I was so enamored with my child that it took me almost a full day to notice that Zacharias still could not speak. I was rather used to his silence now, but this confused me, and upset him.

When the time came for the child’s circumcision on the eighth day as prescribed by the law, it was also time to officially declare his name. They asked me what he was to be called, whether we would name him Zacharias, after his father. This had never occurred to me. 

“No!” I asserted at once, “his name is John.” 

“John?” asked the priest, perplexed. “But there is no one among your relatives who is called by that name. Surely, he will be Zacharias.” 

They turned to my husband, who gestured for a writing tablet. He wrote very clearly, His name is John. As the priests stared at the tablet in wonder, Zacharias burst forth, “Praise the Lord!” 

I gasped. “You can speak!” 

Zacharias, laughing and crying at once, hugged me and took the little bundle from my arms. He gazed down at John with such love that for a second, I had the strange thought that I was looking into the face of God, seeing His love for my newborn child reflected in my husband’s face.

“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,” he proclaimed, “because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David,just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago. Now we will be saved from our enemies and from all who hate us. He has been merciful to our ancestors by remembering his sacred covenant— the covenant he swore with an oath to our ancestor Abraham. We have been rescued from our enemies so we can serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live 

I blinked at Zacharias, astonished, and looked around the room to see the reactions of the rest of the priests. It was clear to me, at least, that the words were not Zacharias’s own. Something—the Holy Spirit, surely—had taken hold of him.

He went on, gazing down at John, “And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” 

I suddenly realized I wasn’t breathing. I sucked in a breath, and turned to one of the priests. 

“Did you write all that down?” I demanded. 

As if galvanized by my words, he jumped up to find a scroll and ink. I looked at Zacharias and whispered as I caressed our son’s head, “He’ll want to hear his father’s prophecy about him when he grows up.” I kissed his forehead and added tenderly, “Our little Elijah.” 

Nov 5, 2021

This retelling comes from Genesis 37, 39-45, and it appears in Blood Covenant Origins: Biblical Retellings

Introduction: 

Joseph is one of my favorite biblical characters; he’s such a great example of faith. It took thirteen years for his reversal of fortune to finally occur, and another nine years after that for the complete fulfillment of God’s promise to him. Yet if he ever wavered in his faith that God would fulfill what He showed him in his two dreams, we have no record of it. This is even more incredible when you consider that Joseph had no written scriptures to cling to like we do. He wouldn’t have even had an oral tradition of previous faith heroes similar to himself. While Abraham his grandfather had to wait 25 years for the promised child, the circumstances had little in common with Joseph’s own circumstances. He couldn’t read about the 13-17 years between King David’s anointing and when he finally became king, for instance. Moses had not yet written Deuteronomy, telling him all the blessings he could expect if he remained faithful to the Lord. All Joseph had to go on were two cryptic dreams… but it was enough. It’s fitting that the first dream showed his brothers’ sheaves of grain bowing down to his, considering it was the famine and grain distribution that propelled him to second in command of Egypt in the end. 
The one charge leveled against Joseph by some is that he started out arrogant: after all, what was he thinking, telling his brothers (whom he knew already envied him, due to his father’s blatant favoritism) that God had told him he would rule over them? Maybe this was arrogance, or at best, a decided lack of wisdom. He was only seventeen at the time, after all. Also, with the exception of the death of his mother when Benjamin was born, Joseph had presumably lived a charmed life: the coat of many colors that Jacob had given him was the attire of a great landowner, even though Joseph was the second youngest of twelve brothers. (Pretty foolish of Jacob, too.) It’s no wonder this galled them. Even so, their response to him shows how evil his brothers were, at that point. Had they not sold Joseph into slavery, they very well might have killed him—that was what they meant to do at first, after all.
Despite this, despite slavery and then imprisonment, God said Joseph was prosperous and successful (Genesis 39:2-3, 23). Even though Joseph himself was not paid for any of his work, the blessing of the Lord was upon him, and therefore his master got blessed because of him. This is an interesting concept, that the overflow of God’s blessing upon us (Deuteronomy 28:2) can affect those around us who just happen to be in the way—including our bosses in this case, or our families as well (1 Corinthians 7:14). 
Joseph also happened to be very handsome (Genesis 39:6)—ordinarily a blessing, but under the circumstances it was a curse, as he drew the eye of Potiphar’s wife. If she was this aggressive, probably this wasn't the first time she had cheated on Potiphar. I suspect that the other servants, and maybe even Potiphar himself could compare what they knew of her and what they knew of Joseph and deduce the truth. But if Potiphar did not choose to believe Joseph, what could the other servants do? And wouldn’t it have disrupted Potiphar’s life more to have believed Joseph? He surely couldn’t have kept Joseph in his house with his wife; he had to get rid of one of them. So in my retelling, I assumed that Potiphar’s pride forced him to believe his wife, even though deep down he knew the truth. I would imagine that if he had truly believed his wife’s accusation, he would have had Joseph killed, rather than merely thrown into prison. 
So Joseph started out with two dreams of greatness, which led directly to his being sold into slavery for a decade (deduced from his age at the time he was sold, the number of years he was in prison, and his age when he was finally promoted). At the end of the decade, Joseph refused to commit adultery and sin against God (very interesting that he phrased it that way, Genesis 39:9)—yet for his integrity, he got thrown into prison. Most people would be bitter at this point, but“until the time that His word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested [Joseph]” (Psalm 105:19). Joseph was holding fast to the word that the Lord had given him through those dreams, even when it looked like every circumstance in his life was heading in the wrong direction. He did not yet know Galatians 6:9, but he seemed to understand the principle: “let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
Joseph continued to exhibit diligence and faithfulness in prison, and he must have even kept up a contagious good attitude—we can intuit this because when the butler and baker each had dreams, Joseph said to them, “Why do you look so sad today?” (Genesis 40:7). You’d think they would look sad because they were in prison without cause! But apparently their distress was unusual. Under Joseph’s rule, the prison had become a cheerful place. Moreover, Joseph was not merely sulking about his own misfortune; he knew and cared about the other prisoners. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” 
 
Fictionalized Retelling: 
I whistled, absently twirling the cord of the colorful tunic Father had given me as I made my way back out to the fields where my brothers tended the sheep. I couldn’t stop smiling, couldn’t think about anything except the dream I had had last night. In it, the sun, moon, and eleven stars had bowed down to me! I pictured this over and over, relishing the thrill of it, knowing that these celestial bodies represented my entire family. I was already my father’s favorite, but the Lord confirmed it—I was to be the greatest of them all! Moreover, it was the second dream of its kind; in the first, a few days ago, eleven sheaves of wheat bowed down to my sheaf. I knew upon waking what it meant: all of my brothers would bow down to me one day. 
I told them so the next morning. It went over went about as well as I’d expected. They already envied me, and my little brother Benjamin: we were our father’s favorite, the only two sons of our mother Rachel, the woman Father had truly loved. He was duped into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, and then in a competition to see who could bear Father more sons, both sisters had given their maids to bear children when it seemed that Mother was barren. I was the first child to open her womb, and so I was much favored even from birth. Father didn’t even try to hide it—in fact, he’d given me as a gift the multicolored tunic I now wore, of the same style as the owners of the great estates. This galled my brothers; it was a preference that should have belonged to Reuben as the eldest, and only after our father’s death. Yet here I was dressed as the heir, the second youngest of twelve, while our father yet lived. 
I might have felt guilty for my father’s obvious preference for me, but quite frankly, I could hardly blame him. My brothers were self-centered, lazy, and cruel.
God clearly preferred me over them, also! Had I doubted it at all after the first dream, the second one clinched it. Would I somehow become a king? Maybe a neighboring nation would offer their princess’s hand to me in marriage… that was possible, as I was the favored son of a great man, and I was also exceptionally good looking. I didn’t say so out loud, nor did anyone say it to me… but I saw the way all the young women gazed after me with longing and admiration. I knew. 
But, it couldn’t be marriage to a princess, I mused, because then I would only be a consort, and not the king. Unless it was of a nation with different customs, in which a king could ascend to the throne by marriage… 
“Oh look, here comes the dreamer!” sneered Simeon as I approached. He and Levi mock-bowed to me. “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” Simeon taunted. 
I shrugged. “I was just telling you what the Lord told me.”
“Oh, sure,” cried Levi, “and I had a dream I’m going to have a harem like Pharaoh, every concubine more beautiful than the last. I know it’s true, because I dreamt it!” 
I bristled, knowing he was trying to get a rise out of me, but unable to keep myself from responding. “I know it’s true, and irrevocable, because I had another dream last night just like it! This time, the sun, moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me!” 
Levi’s expression froze for a beat. In that half a second, I knew he believed me. Simeon recovered first. 
“Oooh, bow down, guys!” cried Simeon, waving his hands in the air, “bow down to our perfect baby brother, the future ruler of the entire universe!” 
Every time one of my brothers caught sight of me for the rest of the day, he made me an elaborate bow. They continued mocking me before my father and stepmothers that evening once we came in from the fields, compelling my father to ask what they meant by it. When he did, Issachar taunted, “Ask your little prince here! He’s got it in his head that he’s going to be greater than all of us put together!” 
Father turned to me with a frown. “Joseph? What are they talking about?” 
Feeling slightly abashed, I repeated my dreams, and my father, predictably, rebuked me. “What’s with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?” 
“I don’t know,” I muttered, “you’re the one who taught me that the Lord speaks in dreams, remember?” 
“Give him a pretty tunic, and suddenly he thinks he’s God Almighty!” cried Zebulun. 
But I saw my father’s thoughtful expression: he believed me, too. He had taught me that the Lord often spoke in dreams. He himself had a dream of a ladder from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it—echoing the first dream God had given to our ancestor Abraham, in which He had cut a covenant with him. In another dream, the Lord had told my father to go home to Canaan. Father had also told me of how God had appeared to my grandfather Laban in a dream when he had fled from him, telling Laban to be careful what he said when he next encountered Father. 
Father knew of the power of dreams to both instruct and to prophesy. He knew my dreams must have significance, particularly since I had dreamt two that were very similar. But how could I, the second youngest son of twelve, come to rule over the other eleven? I had the same question myself—that was why I’d shared the vision. I realized, after today’s taunting, that doing so had been foolish. I should have known better, considering my brothers’ animosity and my father’s obvious preference for me. Yet, why would God give me a dream of my future without interpretation, if He did not mean for me to share it? 
The next day, my brothers went out from the Valley of Hebron to tend to the flocks out in Shechem. I did not volunteer to go with them, as I preferred to keep my distance from them after the encounter the day before. But my father sent me to them later that day, asking me to send word on how they and the flocks fared. I cringed inwardly, dreading the ongoing heckling, but that was hardly a reason to disobey my father. So I went. 
I did not find them in Shechem, however. I had to ask directions from another shepherd I came across. 
“I saw your ten brothers several hours ago,” he told me. “They’ve left here, but I overheard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” 
I tracked them down in Dothan late that afternoon. I saw the flocks first, neglected as usual. I could tell that my brothers had seen me, though they were huddled strangely in the middle of the field, as if having an intense conversation. When I was close enough, I perceived that their council had ended, and they stopped talking, spreading out in a half circle as I approached. Their postures gave me pause: they looked alert, like predators. My steps faltered.
“Our father sent me to you to see how you and our flocks fared—” I began. But no sooner had I begun to speak, Judah and Dan started toward me, followed by the other eight. “What are you—ahhhh!” I tried to fight them off as they lunged for me, but at seventeen years old to their late twenties, thirties, and forties, I could not have fought off even one of them, let alone all ten. The blows came at me from all sides. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground curled in upon myself, trying in vain to protect my face, which was a swollen, bloody mess. I felt them rip my colorful tunic from me. Then three of them picked me up, carried me a short distance, and cast me down into a dry cistern. I landed with a sickening crunch, and let out a fresh cry of pain. 
It took me some time to test my feet, and the boundaries of the cistern. I could hear my brothers’ voices filtering down from up above me, so they were still there—but they were too far away to make out what they said. I began to cry out, “Help!” When there was no response, I tried again, “Someone let me out! Let down a rope!” I knew they heard me, as they stopped talking—but none of them bothered to help. 
I could just make out some sort of commotion up above—new voices had joined those of my brothers, interrupting the flow of their conversation, as well as the rumble of wheels and the characteristic jingle of merchandise. I strained to hear what they were saying, but could not. 
All of a sudden, Zebulun’s face appeared up above, backlit by the sun so that I could not make out his expression. He tossed down a rope and said cheerfully, “Grab on, Joseph!” 
I asked no questions; I grabbed on, as he and Issachar hauled me up, squinting in the brightness when I cleared the top of the cistern. Then I discerned the Midianite traders, their camels laden with spices to sell, and saw the merchants hand silver to my brother Zebulun with a handshake. My eyes widened as I began to understand what was happening. Naphtali and Dan shoved me toward them, and I cried out as the traders caught me and pinned my wrists behind me, binding them and then my feet as they tossed me sideways atop one of their camels. 
“No, please!” I begged, “please! Help me!” 
My pleading gaze happened to fall upon Simeon, who sneered, “Let’s see what comes of your grandiose dreams now, eh, little brother?” 
It was the last words any of my brothers spoke to me. After that, the caravan moved on. 
It was first an uncomfortable, then a painful journey. My position on the camel caused my abdominal muscles to spasm, and blood to pool in my head and feet as I bounced. Before long I had a splitting headache, which was no doubt worsened by my fear, despair, and previous injuries. None of the traders took any notice of me; to them I was only merchandise. The only exception to this was when they stopped to relieve themselves—they unceremoniously unslung me from the camel and made me lift my tunic right there beside it, so that they did not have to unbind me. 
Days passed—I lost count how many. I was constantly hungry and thirsty. The traders did feed me on bread, water, and strips of dried meat when they stopped, though never enough. I overheard one of them comment, “Don’t want him to waste away before he gets to market, or he won’t fetch a good price.” It was from this that I understood my fate for certain, though I had suspected before. I was to be sold as a slave. 
Once we were deep into the desert and there was nowhere I could have gone even if I had escaped, one of the traders unbound my feet so that I could ride astride my camel, rather than tossed over him between his humps like so much cargo. It was amazing what an improvement this made: my headache and abdominal cramps relieved, and at last I had some mental space to think about something besides my physical pain. 
Lord, I prayed. Then my mind went blank. I was so overwhelmed with my circumstances that I didn’t know where to start. 
I wondered what my brothers would tell my father to explain my disappearance. All I knew for sure was that they would not tell him the truth. They would tell him I’d been killed—they must. How else could they explain my long-term disappearance? 
I had a vision of my father weeping for me as he had wept for my mother. I saw my little nine-year old brother Benjamin, my only full-blooded brother, weeping beside him. The vision made my chest ache with sorrow and longing. I closed my eyes and shoved it away as tears stung my lashes. I took a deep breath. 
I’m here now, I told myself, and at least at the moment, there is nothing I can do about it
After another few miles, as the sweat rolled down the sides of my face, I tried praying again. 
Help me, was all I managed. I had no specifics. I didn’t know what else to pray. 
Presently I overheard some of the traders telling one another that they had made good time: only fifteen days, they said, when the glittering mirage of Egypt appeared on the dusty horizon. At first the sight of it filled me with dread, and terrible visions of oppression, whippings, and chains—but I shut these thoughts down, recognizing the futility of experiencing imaginary hardships before the real ones materialized. 
Within hours, we were in the heart of the bustling city. I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells—never had I seen so many people and animals and buildings all in one place. There was a profusion of both wealth and waste intermingled in a confusing array. The traders allowed me to dismount on my own, but then led me with a vice grip on one arm to a raised platform. I blinked, taken aback, when I saw the lineup of naked men upon it. I had only seconds to process this when the trader who had steered me toward it released my arm and in the same motion produced a knife in one hand, gripping my tunic with the other. Before I knew what he was doing, he had sliced half of it away. I started to resist when another trader pinned me so that the first could finish the job. Seconds later, horror and hot shame rolled over me as the traders shoved me up on the platform with the other woebegone men, my hands now bound behind me so that I could not so much as cover my genitals with my fists. 
Lord, I cried out in my mind, but again, I could not think how to finish the prayer. 
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to pretend I was somewhere—anywhere—else. Trying to tune out the jeers and the haggling of the buyers. It had never occurred to me in the long journey to Egypt that the slave trade required nudity, but now suddenly it seemed obvious: buyers wanted to inspect their purchase, to see what they were getting. When the haggling began over me, even though I did not speak their language, I gathered that the bidding was fierce. I heard the note of finality in their voices that I had heard in previous sales when the price was agreed upon, and opened my eyes to behold my new master as he stepped forward. He was a tall, swarthy man—as most of them were—imposing and probably at least twice my age, if not more. I had no experience with Egyptians, but his dress suggested a uniform. I wondered if he was an officer of some kind. 
The man beckoned me to join him, and I meekly obeyed. Nothing like public nudity to induce humility. He produced a small knife and sliced through the bonds that held my wrists behind me. I rubbed the raw places where the ropes had bitten into my flesh, not even bothering now to use my hands to hide myself. What difference did it make? Everyone who had wanted to had already gotten a good look. 
Though he could not speak to me, the man produced a simple blue tunic and a length of silken cord to secure it. My eyebrows raised as I saw it: both the dye and the material suggested wealth. I put it on at once, grateful for the renewed dignity. The man gave me a nod, and put a hand on his own chest. 
“Potiphar,” he pronounced, very slowly. 
“Potiphar,” I echoed, understanding that my new master was telling me his name. I placed a hand on my own chest and said, “Joseph.” 
“Joseph,” he echoed, and gave another perfunctory nod, beckoning me to follow. 
I gaped as I beheld my new home for the first time. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined such opulence as these marble floors, sculpted columns, and dyed silken curtains. I wondered what Pharaoh’s palace must be like, if this Potiphar was only one of his officers. 
Potiphar introduced me to the rest of his household via charade, but I was already starting to pick up a few Egyptian words here and there. I was one of dozens of servants, male and female, their skin ranging from dark to pale and with all sorts of distinctive features of races I had never before beheld. 
As I made my halting introductions to the staff, an attractive woman in her late twenties approached Potiphar and languidly draped her arm through his. She drew my eye because I felt her gaze upon me, roving over my body in a way that made me feel like I was still naked. She wore fine blue silks, and her arms were spangled with bracelets. From this and from her familiarity with Potiphar, I gathered that she must be either his wife or his mistress. I looked away abruptly. 
The overseer of the household, an aging man who introduced himself as Babu, took me under his wing. With him, I learned to do all of the various chores, both in the estate and in the fields. Babu was also very patient with me as I learned Egyptian words, and within the next few weeks, I at least knew enough to communicate the essentials with a combination of halting Egyptian and hand gestures. I quickly grew wary of spending too much time indoors, though, as Edrice, whom I learned was in fact Potiphar’s wife, always seemed to be wherever I was. She lurked in hallways and lingered in boudoirs, sometimes pretending to be occupied but always with her eyes upon me. 
At first this was all she did, and I ignored her when I could not avoid her. But as time passed and my Egyptian became more proficient, she began to engage me in smalltalk, which I could not avoid without rudeness. She’d comment on the weather, ask unnecessary questions about the progress of whatever task I was engaged in at the time, or sometimes ask me personal questions about how I had come to be in their household as a slave. I answered as briefly as possible, asked no questions in return, and excused myself.
Years passed. In time I grieved the loss of my freedom, my family, and my identity, and I determined that I would do the work the Lord placed before me with all my heart. Babu and then Potiphar took notice of this. Babu, I learned, was beginning to suffer from poor health, and had been hoping to find a replacement for his position. He had recommended me to Potiphar for the job, so that he could take on less responsibility. Suddenly I found myself managing scores of servants on what I later learned was one of the largest estates in Egypt—and actually, I loved it. Even in my father’s household, I’d never had either respect or responsibility. Here, I was trusted, and I rose to the challenge. Babu praised my management, telling Potiphar in my hearing that never had his fields or his wealth grown so quickly, never had his affairs run so efficiently, as they did under my care. 
The only blight upon my surprising happiness was Edrice. She grew increasingly bold over time, when I did not return her attentions to her satisfaction. When she started to inquire about my history with women, and whether I was still a virgin, I began to avoid her outright. At last I hinted about her behavior to Babu, who gave me a knowing glance, and said, “Edrice is a beautiful bird in a gilded cage. She longs for freedom, and will seek it where she can.” 
I blinked, understanding that he meant to tell me, without telling me, that she had been unfaithful to Potiphar in the past. 
“Does he know?” I asked at last. 
Babu hesitated, and then gave a very subtle nod. “Everyone knows.” 
“What do I do?” I whispered at last. 
Babu sighed. “I don’t see that you can do any more than you have. Avoid her when you can. But do your best not to spurn her outright. Her pride is… easily wounded.” 
 
Babu’s warning rang in my mind for days, particularly because I had sensed Edrice’s growing irritation with me. I needed to appease her. So when I felt her eyes upon me across the room, rather than pretending I did not notice, I looked up and smiled. She blinked, and her scowl softened in response, replaced by a flirtatious gleam in her eye. I panicked and looked away abruptly. I’d meant to appease, not encourage her—but how was I to know the difference? I’d never done this before… 
She crossed the room to me, and before I knew what was happening, she was beside me, stroking my forearm with her trailing fingers. I was suddenly very aware that we were alone—I had no idea where the nearest servants were. Potiphar was away on Pharaoh’s business.
“Joseph,” she murmured, as if savoring my name, tracing my bicep with her fingers. “You are… so very handsome.” 
My heart hammered in my chest, though with fear or with arousal, or a strange combination of both, I could not tell. My throat felt too thick to reply. I just froze. 
Edrice gave a soft laugh. “I’m making you blush! Oh, I just love virgins…” Her hand trailed from my arm down my torso. I grabbed her wrist before it could descend any further, and found my tongue. 
“Look, my master doesn’t give a second thought to anything that goes on here—he’s put me in charge of everything he owns. He treats me as an equal. The only thing he hasn’t turned over to me is you. You’re his wife!” 
She puffed out her lower lip. “I know you find me attractive.” 
This was dangerous territory. There was no safe answer to that question. “That has nothing to do with it,” I insisted. “How could I violate his trust and sin against God?”
“God?” she scoffed. “Your God allowed you to be sold as a slave. You owe Him nothing. And Potiphar has never paid you a day’s wages in the almost ten years you’ve been with us. Don’t you think it’s time you got a little… reward?” The hand I had not seized by the wrist also went exploring before I took hold of it too. 
“I cannot do this! It is wrong!” I hissed. I let go of both of her wrists at once, and fled the room. 
Either fortunately or unfortunately, I could not tell which, Edrice did not take this as rejection, but as enticement. I could tell by her increasing brazenness that she thought I burned for her and could barely restrain myself. At times, I wondered if this was actually true—after all, I could not stop thinking about her, even though thinking of her was a kind of torture. I successfully avoided being alone with her for the next week or so, but I knew I could not do so forever. 
At last, one day after Potiphar again went away on Pharaoh’s business, I was inside managing the orders for the kitchen after the morning meal. I stopped what I was doing, and frowned when I realized that the whole house was eerily silent—more so than I had ever heard before. Usually there were some servants chattering or clanging about at least in the distance. It was as if all of them had suddenly gone on holiday. 
A wave of foreboding passed over me, and then I sensed that I was not alone. I turned around and saw Edrice standing there in the most provocative gown I had ever seen. She rested one arm on the doorframe to give me the best possible view, her gaze inviting me to come and take her.  
“You know you want to,” she purred. “I promise I won't resist.” 
“Edrice—” my voice came out hoarse, and I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from her nearly exposed bosom, no matter how hard I tried. 
She grinned and sauntered forward, swinging her hips. I could not move. The next thing I knew, she stood before me, tugged on the cord of my tunic, and began undressing me. 
“Sleep with me, Joseph,” she whispered. 
I had one choice in that moment: stay and obey her, or run.
So I ran. She had a firm grip by then on my tunic, and I nearly tripped and fell on my face, as it was half off already. Instead I wrestled myself free of it, leaving my tunic in her grip, and alas—fled naked. 
Some of the other servants who were outside at the time saw me. I saw the fleeting looks of confusion and shock. Then Edrice began to scream. 
There was a commotion after that. Several of the men went running into the house, and those near enough to me cast glances of alarm in my direction. I hid myself among the shrubbery, not sure what else to do, feeling like I might throw up. I didn’t know exactly what Edrice was playing at, but I suspected I knew well enough. 
A few minutes passed. Babu found me and handed me one of his own tunics without a word. I saw the look in his eyes, of mingled worry and sympathy, and it alarmed me. 
“You should have just done as she wanted,” he murmured under his breath. 
“How could I do such a thing against Potiphar, and against the Lord?” I protested as I put on the tunic. 
Babu sighed, and shook his head. It was a long moment before he answered. “Joseph.” The way he said my name, with such regret, made my heart sink into my stomach. He bit his lip and then said, his voice barely above a whisper, “You spurned her. It’s exactly what I told you never to do. All the servants know who and what she is, and I daresay Potiphar does too, but I don’t think it will matter. She is accusing you of attempted rape.” 
Waves of horror washed over me. That was even worse than a consensual affair. How was it that by doing the right thing, I’d managed to make my situation even worse? 
“But… if everyone knows her ways…” I began weakly. 
Babu shook his head. “She is the lady of the house,” he murmured. “Any servant who dares to contradict her story will be subject to her wrath himself. The only one who might be able to challenge her is Potiphar, and while I suspect he knows, if he admits that she is guilty in this, it makes him a cuckold—not just this once, but the many times he has turned a blind eye in the past as well.” 
 
My breath came in short, ragged gasps. “What do I do?” 
Babu ran a hand through his graying hair. “I will… try… to convince Potiphar to merely sell you, rather than punish you.” 
I sank to my knees. Babu stood watching me. At last I murmured, “Shall I be killed?” 
“I do not think so,” Babu said with surprising conviction. “You would be if Potiphar believed her story, but he is not an evil man. He will want you out of his sight and out of his household, but he knows you are not capable of such a thing, even if he does not admit it to himself.” He patted my shoulder. “Stay in my chambers and do not show your face until Potiphar returns. I will attend to your needs myself, and discuss how we might best plead your case to him when he does.” 
The rest of that day was one of the longest of my life, with the possible exception of those first several weeks’ ride to Egypt. Fortunately I did not have to wait longer, as Potiphar arrived back home unexpectedly that evening. I heard him in the vestibule, and I heard Edrice’s renewed histrionic wails. I cowered in Babu’s small chambers, catching words here and there—mostly my name in Edrice’s high-pitched shriek, and Potiphar’s angry growls. I closed my eyes, and tried to steel myself for what came next. Heavy footsteps pounded down the hall toward me, and the door flew open. I opened my eyes and beheld Potiphar’s face. It was nearly purple with rage. He held my tunic in his hand like it was evidence against me. 
“What,” he seethed, “is the meaning of this?” 
In a split second, even though I knew it would likely make my own situation worse, I decided to try the truth. If I were married to an unfaithful woman, I would want to know. I stood up straight and said, “Your wife has been attempting to seduce me for years, Master, and earnestly for the last several months. You know this to be true. She has invented her current story because I spurned her and fled, and she kept hold of my tunic as I did so. I could not sin against the Lord and against you.” 
If possible, Potiphar’s color turned an even deeper shade of purple. “How—dare you!” He threw my tunic down and took two steps toward me, hands balled into fists. I clasped my own hands behind my back as hard as I could, determined not to protect myself, should he strike a blow. But I looked him directly in the eye, knowing that doing so would communicate my truthfulness better than anything else I could do. 
It worked, at least on some level. Potiphar nearly snorted, he breathed so heavily, his face etched in a snarl. But he did not strike me. Behind him, three of the male servants who had grown quite fond of me in the last few years, and I of them, appeared in the hallway. 
“Throw him in prison,” Potiphar pronounced my sentence, and turned to stalk out. “I want him out of here tonight.” 
The three servants shuffled awkwardly, before moving forward to fulfill Potiphar’s orders. One apologized as he began to bind my wrists. I shook my head. 
“That is not necessary,” I told him, and forced a smile. “You know I will not resist you.” 
The young man gave me a tiny nod, and the four of us marched out of the room with one abreast, two at my sides. I tried not to look around at the great manor I was leaving forever. This was the second time my home had been ripped from me; I did not think I could bear it if I looked and considered this. 
Edrice appeared at the entrance to the estate with one arm positioned brazenly on a marble pillar, a vicious half smile on her full red lips. She still wore the scandalous gown, which surprised me at first—wasn’t that gown evidence of my version of the story? But then I realized, it doesn’t matter. She knows Potiphar will refuse to believe her unfaithful, regardless of the evidence. She still wore the gown on purpose. It was evidence of her power over me. 
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” she taunted in a low trill as I passed by her. 
“Oh, how quickly your lust turns to hatred,” I returned, looking her straight in the eye. “The Lord sees what you have done, and will repay you for it.” 
My words hit the mark. Her gloating smile vanished, and she began to shriek after me, “How dare you, you filthy Hebrew slave! You should be hung on the gallows! I see to it that you’re hung on the gallows—!” 
The door closed behind us, cutting off her threats. I took a deep breath of the night air, and one of the other servants murmured, “Empty threats. She’s already exerted the extent of her power against you.” 
Another agreed, his voice still low, “We’ve seen her watching you for months, and watched you avoid her, too. We know you’re not guilty. So does Potiphar, even if he won’t admit it.” 
Tears pricked my eyes at this, and a lump rose in my throat. “Thank you.” 
We walked in silence the rest of the way. When we arrived at the prison and the other servants identified me as the prisoner to the keeper, he glanced at my unbound hands in surprise.
“And… he comes willingly?” 
“I would not struggle against my brothers,” I said. “They are merely following orders. Besides, where could I go?” 
The keeper of the prison looked even more surprised at this, and looked to them for an explanation. They told my story for me, and I bowed my head. 
“You will never find a more capable worker or better manager, sir,” one of the servants finished, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Judge for yourself, but we are all very sorry to lose him.” 
The keeper of the prison let out a breath through pursed lips. At last he pronounced, “Well, this is certainly the strangest way I’ve ever been introduced to a new prisoner.” He took me by the arm and began to lead me inside, but the servants stopped him to hug me goodbye with some tears before they went their way. The keeper shook his head. 
“Curiouser and curiouser,” he murmured as he watched our farewell. Then he said, “Well, normally I’d take you to a barred cell, but with three witnesses such as those in your favor… you might just be a gift from the gods. I tell you, I’ve been quite overwhelmed lately with the number of prisoners, particularly managing resources from Pharaoh and directing labor. I could use the help of a skilled household manager.” 
I inclined my head. “Happy to be of service in any way I can.”
“Splendid!” The keeper, who introduced himself as Shakir, took me to a small room with a cot and a desk near the cells where the prisoners were kept. It did have a small window though. “This will be your room, then. I’m sure it isn’t much compared to your chambers in Potiphar’s house, but at least it is neither a cell, nor the gallows, eh?” 
I managed a smile. “I am very grateful for your kindness. I will work hard for you and will not take it for granted.” 
Shakir blinked at me again and shook his head. “Poor kid,” he murmured at last, more to himself than to me. “Those good looks of yours are a curse.” With that, he left me alone and closed the door behind me. 
In the silence that followed, I approached the window, leaning on the sill and looking up to the stars. I reminded myself how many years my ancestor Abraham had believed the Lord for a son, looking at those very same stars. His descendants were not yet so numerous, but certainly my father had been fertile. My chest ached as I thought of my brothers, particularly of my little brother Benjamin. He had been nine when my half-brothers had sold me into slavery. He would be nineteen now. I wondered what he looked like. I wondered if he remembered me. I wondered if—
No, I stopped myself. I had been about to wonder if my dreams would ever come to pass. They certainly looked impossible, as I went from my father’s favorite son, to slave, and now to prisoner. But the Lord had given me two dreams for a reason: that told me that the future it foretold was not conditional. It would happen. It was not up to me to determine how, or when. I must continue to cling to that; I must continue to believe that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, or my heart would faint. Especially tonight, of all nights. 
Many years ago, I’d had to release my anger and bitterness toward my half brothers, or it would already have eaten me alive. Tonight, the image of Edrice’s scandalous dress and haughty smirk floated back to me, and I gnashed my teeth. She belonged here, not me… but I knew the memory came because the Lord wanted me to release her to Him too. He was a God of justice—I knew this, despite how things looked, because of the covenant He had made with my father Abraham. He’d said to him, “Your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.” The gate was the place of power and influence, was it not? 
I had had power and influence over Potiphar’s house, relatively speaking. I now already seemed to have the favor of the keeper of the prison. Was that all God’s promise had meant for me? Was this the extent of the blessing I could expect upon my life?
No, I told myself emphatically, closing my eyes and deliberately conjuring again the memories of the dreams, now rather faded and possibly distorted with time. I saw again my brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing down to mine, and then the sun, moon and stars bowing to me. The Lord gave me those dreams in advance because He knew I would need them, in addition to what I knew of the covenant to His people in general, to sustain me through this dark period of my life. It would not last forever. It must not. Somehow, somehow—I would be reunited with my brothers and my family again. The Lord would place me in a position of power and influence. How prison was a stepping stone to anything, I certainly did not know. But He was God, and I was not. 
“I trust You,” I murmured aloud to the Lord. “I forgive my brothers, I forgive Edrice, and I leave their punishment to You. I trust You to bring Your word to pass in my life. Somehow.” 
I heard nothing back. I wished God would speak to me, the way He had to some of my ancestors, and even to my father Jacob. But I felt the comfort of those stars winking down at me from above, and I knew He saw me and He cared. I was not forgotten. 
Over the next days and weeks, I got to know the prisoners as well as Shakir, and learned the business of prison—for business it was. We had finances and shipments from Pharaoh for the upkeep of both prison and prisoners, schedules to manage and enforce, and some of the prisoners also engaged in labor as part of their service. I could see why Shakir had been overwhelmed before. But I applied the management skills I had gained in Potiphar’s household to management of the prison, and within the first month, I gained not only Shakir’s trust but his admiration and gratitude as well. He often referred to me as a “gift from the gods,” though he’d always look a bit abashed after he said it, conscious that he was profiting from my misfortune. When he apologized for the third time after a declaration like this, I finally smiled at him and said, “It is all right. The Lord is with me, and He will repay me for what was stolen.” 
Shakir blinked, and seemed to want to say something. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. He walked away with a puzzled look on his face. 
In time, the prisoners and Shakir came to be a sort of makeshift family to me, just as Babu at the other servants had been. I was surprised to wake up one day and realize that I was happy again. Despite all, I found great satisfaction in doing my work well, and in the relationships I had formed with those around me. I genuinely cared about my fellow prisoners. I came to know their stories, and wept for those whose stories were even more tragic than mine. Of course there were a few actual criminals among them, but in short order I won over even them. I rejoiced with those whose sentences were completed or commuted when they returned to freedom, even though I was still imprisoned indefinitely, with no apparent hope of escape. They were perplexed how I could maintain such hope in such a place—so I taught them about the Lord, about the covenant He had made with my fathers. 
“That’s all very well for you,” one of them grumbled at first, “but your god has never spoken to me or my fathers. What hope do I have?” 
“It’s not about what He’s said or hasn't said,” I insisted. “Yes, He made a covenant with my fathers to prosper and bless them, but how could I be assured that that blessing would extend to every one of their descendants, including me? Yes, I had two dreams that suggested I would be blessed”—I had told the prisoners the secret of my dreams, in due time—“but those were very obscure, after all. If I wished to doubt their meaning, particularly after all that has happened to me, I certainly could. What assures me is the character of Him who made those promises to my father Abraham. It isn’t about what He has done, but about who He is. He told Abraham that through him, every nation of the world would be blessed, not just Abraham’s direct descendants. That includes you, too! He is both good and mighty, as well as trustworthy. So yes, I have hope, and always shall have. You can have that same hope, if you want it.” 
A few months after I had arrived, the prison received two new rather illustrious prisoners from the Pharaoh’s own household: his butler and his baker. I felt sorry for them, as they seemed exceedingly upset to have found themselves in such a predicament. We all understood; every one of us, even the guilty ones, went through a period of first denial, then anger, then grief, and ultimately a depressed sort of acceptance when we arrived here. It was even worse for the two of them, as the butler had no idea why he was there at all. The baker’s cooking had apparently displeased the capricious Pharaoh one too many times. 
“I don’t know what I said,” the butler moaned to me, his head in his hands. “I don’t know what I did…” 
I clucked my tongue sympathetically as the baker sat beside him, patting his arm. “One never knows,” he murmured, “Pharaoh is like a child.” 
“Shh!” hissed the butler, horrified. “You must not say things like that?” 
The baker gave a short laugh. “Why not? What else is he going to do to me?” He gestured at the bars of their cell; they were currently in the same one, as I had allowed them to comfort one another as they could. 
“He could kill us, of course!” the butler hissed back, “the walls have ears, I’m sure!” 
“You are as safe as I can make you here,” I assured them. “We’re all family here, right guys?” I called to the other prisoners. Shouts, claps, and grunts from the other nearby prisoners responded to this, and I flashed a brief grin at the newcomers. “We’re here if you need us. Take your time.” 
It was a few weeks before the butler and baker worked their way through the various stages of acceptance of their new predicament. I marveled as I watched their fellow prisoners commiserate with them in the process, feeling how I’d imagine a proud father might feel as he watches one child comfort another in his distress.
One day after both the baker and butler had adjusted to life in prison, and had grown cheerful for the most part, I noticed an abrupt change. Both of them seemed sad and troubled again, and did not perform their work as efficiently as usual. I frowned. 
“What is wrong?” I asked them. “Why do you both seem so sad today?” 
The butler said for both of them, “We each have had a dream, and there is no interpreter of it.” 
The vision of my own dreams to which I had clung for the past many years flashed across my mind as I said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell them to me, please.”
The two men exchanged a look, and then the butler ventured, “Behold, in my dream a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches; it was as though it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and its clusters brought forth ripe grapes. Then Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”
My heart swelled as he spoke. I understood the dream’s meaning, and I also knew, I knew this was to be my salvation as well!  “Here’s the meaning. The three branches are three days. Within three days, Pharaoh will get you out of here and put you back to your old work—you’ll be giving Pharaoh his cup just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. Only remember me when things are going well with you again—tell Pharaoh about me and get me out of this place. I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews. And since I’ve been here, I’ve done nothing to deserve being put in the dungeon.”
The baker’s eyes lit up too, and he declared, “Three days—that will be Pharaoh’s birthday! That is often when he commutes sentences…” He turned to me and said eagerly, “Tell me what my dream means too! It went like this: I saw three wicker baskets on my head; the top basket had assorted pastries from the bakery and birds were picking at them from the basket on my head.” 
I blinked at the baker, and felt my heart sink to my stomach. He saw my expression and his own faltered too. I knew this interpretation at once, also, but wished I did not have to tell him. “This is the interpretation: The three baskets are three days; within three days Pharaoh will hang you from a tree, and the birds will pick your bones clean.”
All the color faded from his cheeks, and his mouth fell open. The three of us sat in silence, not even looking at each other. At last I placed a hand on the baker’s shoulder, who shrugged it off and hid his face. The butler and I exchanged a sympathetic look. 
“Well,” the butler said to me in a low tone, “at least we know that you do not hesitate to prophesy good or evil. In three days’ time, we shall see.” 
I nodded, knowing full well what we should see. I reminded the baker, more soberly now, “Do not forget me.”
“I won’t,” he promised. 
 
Three days later it happened just as the Lord had shown me through the dreams. Pharaoh held a feast in honor of his own birthday, and summoned the butler and the baker from the prison in the middle of it. Shakir, who had been at the feast, arrived with guards to escort them. We all watched them go in dead silence. Everyone was nervous for them. 
Before they all vanished, I took Shakir by the arm, and asked, “Please return after the feast tonight, no matter how late it is, and tell us all what became of them.”
Shakir gave me a strange look. “I thought you already knew.”
“I do,” I confirmed. “But for the sake of the rest of the prisoners.” 
He gave me a small nod, and left, last behind the guards. 
Around the third watch of the night, Shakir returned again, looking haggard. Most of the prisoners dozed, but lightly. We all roused when we saw his lantern and heard his footsteps. I sat up first. 
“Well?” 
Shakir sighed. “It was as Joseph predicted,” he confirmed. “The butler was restored to the right hand of Pharaoh. The baker…” he shook his head and bowed it. There was a moment of silence. A few of the prisoners swore. One quietly sobbed. We had all grown quite fond of the two men. 
Despite my sorrow for the murder of the baker, I could not entirely forget that I now had an ally at the right hand of Pharaoh. I had reminded him several times not to forget me. Surely he wouldn’t! Every day I anticipated a retinue of soldiers to come and release me as well. When they did not come after a week, I grew confused. 
When they did not come after two weeks, I sank into depression, for the first time since those weeks riding across the desert to Egypt. Even when I’d been thrown into prison, I’d maintained my faith, and bounced back quickly. But now, when I was alone at night, I cried out to God. 
“It’s been eleven years!” I told Him in a hissing whisper, like He didn’t know. “Eleven years!” I panted with rage, until I finally needed an outlet of some kind and pounded my fists against my wall. “Am I ever getting out of here? Did You forget about me? Do you care at all?” 
I knew the answers to all of these things by the quiet reproach in my mind as soon as I’d said them. At once, my rage melted away and I crumpled, giving way to tears for the first time in years. I buried my face in my hands and wept, feeling small and vulnerable, like the child I had once been in my mother’s lap. She had died giving birth to my brother Benjamin, when I was only eight years old. I conjured her in my mind now, picturing her caresses on my back as I remembered them until I had no more tears left within me. They were followed by first a dull numbness, and then, inexplicably, a sense of peace. I fell asleep to the vision of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to me once again, a reassurance that despite the apparent setbacks, the Lord had promised. He would fulfill His word. 
 
Over the next few days, I acknowledged to myself that it was the hope of an immediate fulfillment that had set me up for such disappointment; before, when I had placed no timeline on my deliverance, I had been able to thrive regardless of my circumstances. Now that it was clear that the butler had forgotten me, I let go of my expectations and became my old cheerful self again, caring for my inmates and managing them well. The Lord would deliver me when and how He might, but I’d just as soon not know until it happened. I never wanted to go through that again.
Two more years passed before that moment finally came, and it was as abrupt as I could have wished for. I was in my office, calculating income versus expenses for the prison, when the palace guards arrived. 
“We are looking for the Hebrew called Joseph,” announced the guard. 
I frowned. “I am he.”  
The guard bowed to me—a prisoner. “You have been summoned to the Throne Room by His Majesty, Pharaoh.” 
My mind went blank. My mouth reacted first. 
“May I… be permitted to make myself presentable first?” I gestured at the filthy rags of an inmate I wore, and my long, unkempt beard and hair. 
“You may. Come.” 
A few of the prisoners whose cells were close enough to hear some of the commotion pressed their faces to their bars curiously. Shakir, who had heard the entire interaction, watched me with wide-eyed fear. I knew he was remembering what had happened to the baker. But that made sense—Pharaoh had known and been offended by him. He should have no knowledge of my existence. 
Unless… my heart beat faster as the guard led me to the river to bathe, and provided me with a razor, a servant, and a change of clothes. I bathed as quickly as I could, my nervousness only growing as I did so. I did not let my mind imagine, in case this was not what it appeared to be. When I emerged from the water, dried myself and put on the new garments, the servant combed and used the razor to trim my hair and beard before shaving my face clean. When he had finished, he gestured back to the water, inviting me to look at my new self. Tentatively, I did so, though I dreaded the change I might find—the last time I had beheld my own reflection was when I still served in Potiphar’s home, three years ago. I feared that my ordeal in the prison might have aged me ten years or more. 
I blinked at the man who peered down at me, and swallowed hard, raising my hands to my own chin gingerly. I had not been clean shaven since I was a boy; the face I saw therefore looked significantly younger than the one I remembered. I might have been a teenager again, though I had turned thirty this year.
The guard, who had waited for my transformation, now stepped forward and beckoned me. 
“Pharaoh is not a patient man. Come,” he said, and I followed.
The whole thing felt incredibly surreal, as I crossed the threshold of the enormous vestibule of the palace. Potiphar’s house had been a shack by comparison. The marble pillars held up a ceiling so high it might have been the sky. Colorful mosaics lined the floors, and intricate paintings of great exploits decorated the walls. The opulence astounded me; I could not stop staring, even though I kept pace with the guard. 
In the throne room were four men dressed in Egyptian finery. Three were gray haired and weathered. The fourth stood at a window with his arms clasped behind him, his forearms adorned with thick gold bracelets. He alone of the four wore a geometric headdress, his tunic bedecked with purples and golds, complete with a gold sash. He turned as we entered, and I saw Pharaoh’s face for the first time. He had the swarthy, coppery skin of all of the Egyptians, his black beard close-cropped. I saw that he was not much older than I was. He might have even been younger.
“Joseph the Hebrew prisoner, Your Majesty,” bowed the guard, and backed away, leaving Pharaoh and me to face one another alone. The other three—advisors? servants?—stood at a respectful distance, but close enough to hear. Pharaoh regarded me with an expression I could not read. I knew nothing of the etiquette; should I speak first or wait for him to address me? Should I bow? Surely I should bow. I had just made up my mind to do this and started, when Pharaoh abruptly began. 
“I dreamed a dream,” he announced. “Nobody can interpret it. But I’ve heard that just by hearing a dream you can interpret it.”
This is it, I realized in dazed wonder. This is really it
I found my tongue. “Not I, but God. God will set Pharaoh’s mind at ease.”
Pharaoh searched my face. Something about my answer gave him pause. Then he went on, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile. Seven cows, shimmering with health, came up out of the river and grazed on the marsh grass. On their heels seven more cows, all skin and bones, came up. I’ve never seen uglier cows anywhere in Egypt. Then the seven skinny, ugly cows ate up the first seven healthy cows. But you couldn’t tell by looking—after eating them up they were just as skinny and ugly as before. Then I woke up. 
“In my second dream I saw seven ears of grain, full-bodied and lush, growing out of a single stalk, and right behind them, seven other ears, shriveled, thin, and dried out by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the full ears. I’ve told all this to the magicians but they cannot tell me what the dreams mean.”
My mind whirred with images and understanding as Pharaoh spoke, as clearly as if there had been no parable at all. The second dream overlay the first in my mind, making me even more certain that my interpretation of the first had been correct. 
Thank you, Lord, I prayed silently. To Pharaoh, I said, “Pharaoh’s two dreams both mean the same thing. God is telling Pharaoh what he is going to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years and the seven healthy ears of grain are seven years—they’re the same dream. The seven sick and ugly cows that followed them up are seven years and the seven scrawny ears of grain dried out by the east wind are the same—seven years of famine.
“The meaning is what I said earlier: God is letting Pharaoh in on what he is going to do. Seven years of plenty are on their way throughout Egypt. But on their heels will come seven years of famine, leaving no trace of the Egyptian plenty. As the country is emptied by famine, there won’t be even a scrap left of the previous plenty—the famine will be total. The fact that Pharaoh dreamed the same dream twice emphasizes God’s determination to do this and do it soon.
“So, Pharaoh needs to look for a wise and experienced man and put him in charge of the country. Then Pharaoh needs to appoint managers throughout the country of Egypt to organize it during the years of plenty. Their job will be to collect all the food produced in the good years ahead and stockpile the grain under Pharaoh’s authority, storing it in the towns for food. This grain will be held back to be used later during the seven years of famine that are coming on Egypt. This way the country won’t be devastated by the famine.”
I had watched the transformation in Pharaoh’s face as I spoke. His hard features softened, his eyes widened, and I could see that the Lord had confirmed my words to him. He withdrew to consult with his advisors in low tones that I could not hear—yet I could hardly suppress the smile that stretched across my lips. 
Pharaoh returned to me, his advisors right behind him this time. 
“You shall be the one in charge of all you propose. No one is as qualified as you in experience and wisdom. From now on, you’re in charge of my affairs; all my people will report to you. Only as king will I be over you. I’m putting you in charge of the entire country of Egypt.”
I stared at him, my mind blank. I had expected that he would believe me; that he would favor me; even that I would never return to prison. But… what had he just said? 
His next actions confirmed it: he took a signet ring off of his own hand, took my own hand, and placed it upon my finger. Behind me, servants I had not seen enter the room draped my shoulders with a fine linen garment, and my neck with a gold chain. As they did all this, Pharaoh went on, “I am Pharaoh, but no one in Egypt will make a single move without your approval. We must do something about your Hebrew name, though. Henceforth, you shall be known as Zaphenath-Paneah.” I bit my lip to keep the surge of tears at bay—the new name meant in Egyptian, God Speaks and He Lives. I met Pharaoh’s eyes, and to my utter amazement, I found him smiling at me fondly, like we were almost peers. More than that—like we were kin. 
This man just met me! How—
I am restoring all that was stolen from you, the Lord whispered to my heart. Sevenfold
I found myself ushered along with Pharaoh’s servants like a tide sweeping out to sea. The day played out like a dream: they helped me into Pharaoh’s second chariot, and rode me around Egypt, introducing me to the people of the land by shouting before me, “Bow the knee! Bow the knee to Zaphenath-Paneah, second in command of all of Egypt!” 
 
I expected to wake the next morning back in prison. It took me several confused moments to remember what had happened when I saw the luxurious bed with linen curtains, and the window with a view of all of Egypt, through which the early morning sunlight streamed in. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and sat up to see servants bustling about in a corner of the enormous room, laying out my breakfast. One of them looked up and said, “Ah, my lord is awake.” He brought the food over to my bed, and then beckoned to someone outside the room. One of the advisors I had seen with Pharaoh in my encounter with him yesterday approached and bowed, introducing himself as Lateef.
“My lord Zaphenath-Paneah,” he began. “We have much to discuss. Would you prefer to eat in silence and seek me after, or—”
“No, no, Lateef, please.” I gestured to a chair by the window. Lateef accepted it and seated himself as I ate. He then proceeded to tell me all of the plans Pharaoh had discussed with them on my behalf while I was riding around the city in Pharaoh’s second chariot: where I was to live, who I was to marry (marry? I thought in amazement), and how I was to begin to implement the recommendations I had made to Pharaoh regarding the collection of grain. He rattled off the names of master builders they had already recruited to build both my home—to be constructed on land adjacent to the palace—and the massive storage facilities they would need to store up dried grain. Lateef was here to ask my preferences on the architecture and building materials for my home. Would I like essentially a miniature palace? Would I like a pool indoors and open to the sky, for bathing and recreation? Would I like my bedroom to face east or west? Did I prefer mosaics or simpler flooring and walls? 
All the questions made my head spin. I had been merely a servant in Potiphar’s house, and now my own home would be many times as grand as his. I weakly indicated that I trusted the master architects’ tastes and would be extremely gratified by whatever they chose. Lateef gave a short nod to this. Then he announced, “Pharaoh also hopes that my lord will be pleased to take Asenath to wife: she is the daughter of Poti-Pherah, priest of On.” 
I had heard about the Egyptian god On, of course; he was one of many Egyptian gods. I had a brief flash of concern that my wife would worship another god, but then I realized, what alternative did I have? The same would be true of any woman in Egypt. At least they were polytheists, and therefore would not object to my worship of the one true God. And, given the new name Pharaoh had bestowed upon me of God Speaks and He Lives, the same appeared to be true of Egyptians in general. 
“I would be most honored,” I told Lateef. 
He beamed. “Splendid. We shall arrange the wedding to coincide with the completion of your house, so that you may have a home for your bride.” 
Pharaoh recruited so many workers to construct my home and storage facility that both were completed within a few months. During that time, I met and courted Asenath, and was dazzled by her. Pharaoh had clearly selected her for me not only because of her pedigree, but also for her own merits. Beautiful, accomplished, and demure, she was one of the most highly sought women in the land. I was pleased to find that she was also very intelligent when I gave her the opportunity to engage with me on matters of state, and at least did not object to my worship of the Lord. I would hope for more than mere acquiescence to Him in time. 
I otherwise spent my days touring the land of Egypt, observing the abundance of the  land, collecting and drying, pickling, salting, smoking, or fermenting one fifth of the produce of the land. Until my granaries were completed, I stored what I could, where I could, but I had designated store houses before long. 
One day on these tours, I caught sight of my old master, Potiphar. He saw me too. After a moment’s hesitation, he bowed, his expression like stone. I approached him alone, motioning for some of my servants who usually moved with me to remain behind. I did not know what I would say until we stood face to face. 
“Zapthnath-Paaneah,” Potiphar growled my new name pointedly. “Tell me, does Pharaoh know your true identity, Joseph the adulterous Hebrew slave-turned-prisoner?” 
I searched Potiphar’s face. “I believe you know, deep down, that I never betrayed you, and never would have done. As I told you at the time, it was your wife who attempted to seduce me, and left me no choice but to run. She accused me because I jilted her.” I watched as Potiphar’s face turned red with suppressed rage, and he balled his fists at his sides. But as I was now second in command over Egypt, he would not dare assault me. “Your own heart tells you this is true,” I went on, “in fact, you suspected her of infidelity long before I came to your house, I believe. I advise you to stop misdirecting your anger and confront her. In the meantime, whether you come to see this or not, I forgive you for what you did to me.” 
His mouth fell open, and he gave a short, affronted laugh. “You… forgive me?” 
“Yes,” I nodded, “because there is nothing you, or even Edrice, could ever do to me that the Lord would not ultimately use for my good. And whatever you think of my forgiveness now, when you finally admit the truth to yourself, you will be glad of it.” 
Before he had a chance to reply, I turned around and returned to my chariot, without looking back. 
Once my home was completed, Asenath and I married, and her father Poti-Pherah presided over the ceremony. The whole of Egypt was invited to participate in the feast, during those years of great abundance. I was grateful once again that my experience with Asenath was not tainted by guilty flashbacks to a sordid experience with Edrice. 
Years passed, and the sharp tang of painful memories faded in light of my newfound blessings and abundance. Asenath bore me two sons in those plentiful years, Manasseh and Ephraim. Toward the end of the seven years of plenty, very occasional moments of doubt plagued me. What if the time of plenty continued, when I had achieved my position only because I had predicted seven years of famine? All of Egypt, and Pharaoh himself, would call me a false prophet… 
But I stopped those thoughts before I could fret more than a few moments about them. It wasn’t, of course, that I wanted draught and famine—but the Lord had shown me that it would occur for a reason. He had never misled me before. Pharaoh had two dreams, each depicting the same thing. It was not in doubt. 
The first few months of the eighth year indeed produced an abrupt change. By the third month of that year, the people began to cry out to Pharaoh for food, and Pharaoh sent them to me. I had previously been busy in a leisurely sort of way; now I found myself called upon day and night by citizens desperate to feed their families. Within a few months, it was not just Egyptians who came to see me; word had spread far and wide that there was food in Egypt, and many surrounding nations came to purchase it. 
Then one day, I sat on a grand elevated chair at the top of a dais outside the central granary, and scanned the line of supplicants waiting to speak to me after I had dismissed the last one laden with purchased grain. My eyes fell upon a group of ten men dressed in Hebrew tunics, and I caught my breath. 
I steeled my expression so as not to give anything away, standing as they approached. I could tell that they did not recognize me. A lump rose in my throat as they bowed before me, the granary of wheat behind me. I had a flash of my first dream: eleven sheaves of wheat bowing to mine. 
Here it was. The fulfillment, over twenty years later. Almost… there were only ten of them. Where was Benjamin?
I prayed silently, and with a flash of insight I knew that now was not the moment to reveal myself. I forgave them long ago, but had they changed? Or were they still the same evil men who had first plotted to kill their brother, and then sold him into slavery? I wanted to know. I needed them to volunteer information about themselves, and I could think of only one way to do this: put them on the defense. 
So I pretended not to recognize them either, or to understand their language. I spoke to them through the interpreter at my side, asking in Egyptian, “Where do you come from?”
My brother Reuben, always their spokesperson, stepped forward and answered in Hebrew, “From the land of Canaan. We have come to buy food.” 
I narrowed my eyes at them. “You are spies!” I pronounced, “You’ve come to look for Egypt’s weaknesses.” 
I could feel the strange look from my interpreter as he translated my message, but I ignored him, watching my brothers’ responses. 
Issachar spoke up next. “We’ve only come to buy food. We’re all the sons of the same man; we’re honest men; we’d never think of spying.” 
I snarled, “No. You’re spies. You’ve come to look for our weaknesses!” 
I watched them all exchange helpless looks with one another. Then Reuben spoke up again. “There were twelve of us brothers—sons of the same father in the country of Canaan. The youngest is with our father, and one is no more.” 
I swallowed this reference to myself without flinching. So they’d told others I was dead after all. I said, “It’s just as I said, you’re spies. This is how I’ll test you. As Pharaoh lives, you’re not going to leave this place until your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you to get your brother while the rest of you stay here in jail. We’ll see if you’re telling the truth or not. As Pharaoh lives, I say you’re spies.”
Their eyes widened, and I gestured to several of my guards to surround them, as they all loudly protested and struggled. It didn’t matter; ten though they were, they were no match for Egyptian guards. 
“Take them to the dungeon overseen by Shakir,” I said with a wave of my hand, and did not look back, attending to the next in line. 
I knew that Shakir would treat them kindly, even without knowing who they were to me. He could not do otherwise. But I wanted them desperate enough to do as I asked. I also admit, I wanted them to feel just the tiniest bit of what they had done to me—not to get even (three days could never do that), but to spark a bit of empathy when they finally learned the truth. After all, they did not know what kind of a man I was, or what I might do to them next. They were at my mercy, just as I had been at the mercy of Potiphar and Shakir. 
I slept very little those three days. It took all the will I had not to run to the prison each day and reveal myself. At last on the third day I went with my Hebrew translator, pausing at the threshold in a strange moment of deja vu—it was the first time I had set foot in the dungeon since Pharaoh had summoned me, now nine years ago. I had seen Shakir in those years, but only in my official capacity as a supplier of grain to the prison, and at my wedding. Shakir saw me first, and bowed low. 
“My lord Zaphnath-Paaneah,” he said, with just the tiniest smirk in his voice. 
I gestured to my translator, “Go on inside, I shall meet you there.” Then I pulled Shakir outside and closed the door behind him, so that none of the prisoners could hear us. He beamed and I embraced him. 
“It’s good to see you, Shakir.”
“Joseph!” he whispered, and then reproached me, “You never come to see us anymore!” 
“I’ve been busy,” I confessed with a shrug and a smile. “But I’ve missed you.” 
“Sure, sure you have…” 
“How are the men I sent to you three days ago?” 
He shrugged. “About like all new prisoners. Angry, terrified. I put them all in one cell. They’ve come to blows with each other a few times.” 
I sighed, running a hand across my face. “Listen, are there still any prisoners in there who might remember me and call me by name?” 
“A few. Amon and Gamal. And Horos too. Why?” he regarded me curiously. 
“I can’t explain right now, but I don’t want the new prisoners to know my Hebrew name. Can you go in and tell Amon, Gamal, and Horos to act like they’ve never met me before?” 
A spark of understanding lit Shakir’s face as he put it together. “Those men are Hebrew too… you knew them, didn’t you?” Then his eyes widened. “They’re not…” he let the question trail off, and gasped as I nodded. 
“They are. But tell no one.” 
Shakir cackled, and clapped his hands together in his mirth. “They’re the brothers who sold you! Oh, this is rich… are you going to have them executed, then?” 
“No!” I said at once. “I’m just trying to get them to apologize!” 
His glee melted into confusion. “Apologize?” he said, like he’d never heard the word before. “For ten years as a slave and three as a prisoner… you want them to… apologize.” 
“Yes!” I hissed. “And I want them to bring my other brother, the only one who didn’t betray me. And to tell me what’s become of my father. Will you help me?” 
Shakir blinked at me, and shook his head. “I guess… if that’s really all you want. I’d hang them if  were you, but it’s your call, of course.” He went back inside to tell the three remaining prisoners to pretend I was a stranger, and then poked his head back outside and whispered, “All right, all clear.”
I met the eyes of the other prisoners, all of whom bowed and murmured my Egyptian name. I flashed a smile at Amon, Gamal, and Horos, but I needn’t have worried: they all gazed at me with disbelief and reverence, either awed by my current position even though they knew me, or else they were much better actors than I’d expected. 
I approached the cell Shakir led me to, though I’d have known the one anyway: it was the only cell large enough for ten men. They looked haggard, sleepless, and a few of them seemed listless. The translator waited for me and came to my side. When my brothers saw me approach, half of them jumped to their feet, and alerted the other half with swift nudges and kicks to do the same. I gave them a curt nod. 
“Do this and you’ll live,” I said abruptly. “I’m a God-fearing man. If you’re as honest as you say you are, one of your brothers will stay here in jail while the rest of you take the food back to your hungry families. Bring your youngest brother back to me, confirming the truth of your speech, and not one of you will die.” The translator repeated my words in Hebrew, and the brothers turned and whispered to one another, also in Hebrew, unaware that I understood them. 
“Now we’re paying for what we did to our brother—we saw how terrified he was when he was begging us for mercy,” hissed Dan. “We wouldn’t listen to him and now we’re the ones in trouble.”
“Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t hurt the boy’?” Reuben cut in. “But no, you wouldn’t listen. And now we’re paying for his murder.”
A lump sprang to my throat, and I turned abruptly away, beating a path to the office-cell that was once my own just in time to hide my tears. I buried my face in my hands and wept. 
They truly believed I was dead! Perhaps they thought I had died in the slave caravan, or that my master had beaten me to death. Such a thing was far from unheard of. At least I knew one thing: their consciences still smote them for what they had done. Was that enough? Should I reveal myself now? 
Not yet, I thought, with a flash of my second dream. In it, the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed to me. That would have to represent Benjamin, my father, and my stepmother, in addition to the ten brothers who were here already. This could not yet be the end of the story. 
When I had composed myself again, I returned, assuming the character once again of their Egyptian overlord. 
“Well? Have you chosen who will remain behind, while the rest of you return and bring your youngest brother?” 
Reuben began to step forward, but Simeon placed a hand on his shoulder, and stepped forward in his place. 
“I shall stay,” he offered. “Let my brothers return to Canaan.” 
I gave a quick nod, and Shakir opened the cell, and handed me a length of rope. I made a show of binding Simeon’s wrists together, and gestured for the other nine to leave the cell. Many of them did not even cast Simeon a backward glance, I noted, and frowned inwardly. Maybe they weren’t yet so different as I had hoped. I would have to prod them to repentance a little harder.
I sent word on ahead to the granary to fill the sacks of the nine Hebrew brothers with grain, and to likewise place the money they had brought to pay for it back with each brother’s sack, along with provisions for the several week journey back to the land of Canaan—but I told the servants strictly to make sure they did not tell the brothers that their money had been returned to them. I knew this order would raise eyebrows also, but no one but Pharaoh himself could contradict my orders, and he did not bother himself about such matters. 
Nearly six months I waited. I knew there would be some delay, as I had sent my brothers with grain to last about that long. I did not dare visit Simeon in the prison during those months, though I sent word to Shakir on a regular basis to ask how he fared. 
Toward the end of those months, though, I began to look for my brothers in my grain line every day. Then, one day, I saw them—with Benjamin! I caught my breath as I saw my brother’s face as a grown man for the first time. He was young of course, and while the other nine looked fidgety and nervous, I could only describe Benjamin’s expression as excited. He gazed around Egypt in wide-eyed wonder, and his expression reminded me forcefully of Ephraim’s, my youngest, as he discovered the world for the first time. I could hardly wait to introduce Manasseh and Ephraim to their uncle. 
Before they could reach the front of the line, I beckoned one of my servants to my side and pointed them out. “Take these men into my house and make them at home. Butcher an animal and prepare a meal; these men are going to eat with me at noon.” 
The servant gave a swift nod and made his way down the dais to where my brothers waited their turn. I smothered a laugh as I watched Reuben and Issachar startle upon being addressed. I hardly attended to the man and his wife who were speaking to me; most of my attention was focused upon my brothers’ anxious expressions as the servant led them away. I suspected what they must be thinking: this was a set up. I thought they’d stolen the money they had brought to pay for grain the first time, and I was trying to lull them into complacency, before accusing them of theft and taking them all as slaves. 
Asenath would know who they were of course—I’d told her six months ago, and she’d listened to me agonize nightly over when I would at last see them again. She wouldn't know they were coming to dine today, but when she saw the strange Hebrew men and noted their number, she’d figure it out. I knew I could count on her to maintain the charade as long as I chose. 
I finished with the couple before me, and beckoned another servant over, gesturing with my eyes in the direction of my brothers. “Send word to my steward,” I murmured, “and if those men say anything about finding their money in their sacks the last time they came, assure them that we received their payment in full, and not to worry themselves. And please also fetch their brother from the prison and bring him to them as well.” 
My servant bowed and did as I bid him. 
I paid little attention to the rest of the queue until noon, only half listening to their stories and pleas, sometimes accidentally cutting them off as I signaled for the servants to bring them grain. At last, word came that the feast had been prepared, and I leapt to my feet in relief, hurrying toward my home, where I knew my brothers waited. I entered through the back, and Asenath met me with a quizzical look on her face, dandling Ephraim on her hip. I gave her a quick kiss, and nodded, in response to all the questions on her face. Before she could ask me anything else, I washed my hands and feet, and made my way into the main dining space where my brothers stood waiting awkwardly. When I entered, as one, they all bowed to me, each man offering the present of coins he had brought back with him. Once again, I saw the stars from my second dream—all eleven of them this time. I took a moment to steady myself as my brothers straightened again. Then I cleared my throat. 
“Are you all still well since last we met?” 
They all assented that they were, shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other. 
“How is your father, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” 
Reuben spoke for them. “Yes—your servant our father is quite well, very much alive.” He initiated a second bow, and the rest of them followed suit. 
When they straightened again, at last I looked at the youngest of them. “And is this your youngest brother that you told me about?” Benjamin lifted his chin to me, and my voice came out thick. “God be gracious to you, my son.” All I wanted to do was to embrace my only full-blooded brother, but of course I could not do this without revealing myself. So instead, I turned abruptly and left the room. I was sure this confused my brothers, but I barely made it into my sleeping chamber as it was before I broke down and cried. I remained there until I managed to compose myself, probably ten minutes or so. Then I splashed my face with water to hide the evidence of my tears, made my expression as impassive as I could, and returned to the dining room. I felt my brothers’ curious stares, but I could offer no explanation. I glanced at Asenath, whose smile was fixed in place, and announced to the servants, “Serve the meal, please.” 
The servants began to do so, setting places for each of our guests as well as for myself and for the Egyptians in my service. I pulled one of them aside and whispered that the last place should receive a serving five times larger than that of anyone else. If he wondered at this, he did not show it, but nodded once. As the servants set the places, I directed each of my brothers to their places, beginning with Reuben at the head of the table, and then I seated my brothers in descending order of age, setting Benjamin in the last place with the largest serving. I watched them glancing at one another in astonishment at what they took to be a remarkable coincidence, and smiled inwardly. I intended to give them a hint, hoping they might start to piece together the truth on their own. 
The wine flowed, acting as the social lubricant we all needed. Even Simeon, after his long imprisonment, luxurious though I knew it was by prison standards, loosened up and began to tell stories from back home of the years I had missed. I caught Benjamin sneaking curious glances at me more than once. Did he recognize me at all, I wondered? Did he notice that we both had our mother’s eyes, and her cheekbones? 
When the meal ended, my brothers were in no condition to begin their journey home. I urged them to remain the rest of the day and set out in the morning. That night, I sought my steward.
“Fill the men’s bags with food—all they can carry—and replace each one’s money at the top of the bag,” I told him. “Then put my chalice, my silver chalice, in the top of the bag of the youngest, along with the money for his food.”
I caught the steward’s confused look, but he did not question me. He did as I requested. 
When morning dawned, I purposely lingered in bed, though I hardly slept that night. I heard the shuffling in the house of my brothers rising to begin their journeys. I waited until the house was silent, and then waited a little longer still. 
Asenath was awake beside me, too—she propped her head up on her hand, narrowed her pretty dark eyes at me, and demanded, “How long are you going to let this go on before you tell them?”
I met her gaze, and shook my head. “As long as it takes, I suppose.” 
“To achieve what, precisely?” she challenged. “They can’t apologize to you without knowing who you are. You already overheard them lamenting what they did to you. You saw your brother Benjamin. What else are you waiting for?” 
I bit my lip. “I just want to know that they’ve changed.” 
“How do you plan to determine that?” 
The corners of my mouth curled. “Watch.” I rose, and called my steward in to our chamber as Asenath wrapped herself in silks. My steward appeared at the doorway and bowed. 
“Run after the men who just left,” I told him. “When you catch up with them, say, ‘Why did you pay me back evil for good? You stole the chalice my master drinks from; he also uses it for divination. This is outrageous!’”
I again caught the fleeting look of confusion on the steward’s face, but he bowed again, and turned to carry out my orders. I turned back to Asenath with a grin on my face. 
“So you’re just torturing them a little more, is that it?” 
My grin faded. “No,” I protested, a little hurt that she would so misconstrue my motives. “Don’t you see? If my father is still alive, the only reason he would have kept Benjamin at home the first time my brothers made their journey must be because he favors him the way he once favored me. That was why my brothers hated me: they were jealous. Twenty years ago, if I were framed and endangered, my brothers would have abandoned me to the mercy of the Egyptian overlord and saved their own skins in a heartbeat—obviously. They did even worse than that. Now I’ve recreated a similar situation: Benjamin is suddenly the one in peril. Will they abandon him to his fate, too?” 
Asenath searched my face. “What if they do?” she asked quietly. “What will you do then?” 
I sighed. “Never trust them again, certainly. But I haven’t thought that far. I’m still hopeful they will prove to me that they are not the men they were.” 
I splashed my face, dressed, and waited until I heard the commotion outside indicating that my steward had returned with my brothers. I affixed my face with my most stern, imperious look, and went out to meet them. They all came back, that was something. Also, I noted the torn clothing, the haggard expressions, as they fell prostrate before me. 
“How can you have done this?” I demanded of them. “You have to know that a man in my position would have discovered this.” 
My brother Judah spoke first. “What can we say, master? What is there to say? How can we prove our innocence? God is behind this, exposing how bad we are. We stand guilty before you and ready to be your slaves—we’re all in this together, the rest of us as guilty as the one with the chalice.”
I kept my expression impassive, but inwardly my heart leapt. They were all willing to take the fall together—was that not evidence of changed hearts? But I decided to push it further, just to be sure. 
“No, only the one involved with the chalice will be my slave,” I declared. “The rest of you are free to go back to your father.”
My brothers all exchanged another anguished look, and Judah ventured for all of them, “Please, master; can I say just one thing to you? Don’t get angry. Don’t think I’m presumptuous—you’re the same as Pharaoh as far as I’m concerned. You, master, asked us, ‘Do you have a father and a brother?’ And we answered honestly, ‘We have a father who is old and a younger brother who was born to him in his old age. His brother is dead and he is the only son left from that mother. And his father loves him more than anything.’ Then you told us, ‘Bring him down here so I can see him.’ We told you, master, that it was impossible: ‘The boy can’t leave his father; if he leaves, his father will die.’ And then you said, ‘If your youngest brother doesn’t come with you, you won’t be allowed to see me.’ When we returned to our father, we told him everything you said to us. So when our father said, ‘Go back and buy some more food,’ we told him flatly, ‘We can’t. The only way we can go back is if our youngest brother is with us. We aren’t allowed to even see the man if our youngest brother doesn’t come with us.’ Your servant, my father, told us, ‘You know very well that my wife gave me two sons. One turned up missing. I concluded that he’d been ripped to pieces. I’ve never seen him since. If you now go and take this one and something bad happens to him, you’ll put my old gray, grieving head in the grave.’”
My heart dropped to my stomach. This was the first time I had heard what my father believed had happened to me. Of course—I knew they believed that I had died, but they told him I had been devoured by wild animals all those years ago! My poor father…
Judah went on, “And now, if I show up before your servant, my father, without the boy, this son with whom his life is so bound up, the moment he realizes the boy is gone, he’ll die on the spot. He’ll die of grief and we, your servants who are standing here before you, will have killed him. And that’s not all. I got my father to release the boy to show him to you by promising, ‘If I don’t bring him back, I’ll stand condemned before you, Father, all my life.’ So let me stay here as your slave, not this boy. Let the boy go back with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? Oh, don’t make me go back and watch my father die in grief!”
As Judah spoke, my heart swelled as if it might burst out of my chest, until at last I could stand it no more. I turned to my steward and all the curious attending servants, and shouted, “Leave! Clear out—everyone leave!” 
They scurried to do as I asked, and even Asenath gave me a significant look before she too left the room. My brothers looked stunned and terrified; Judah still groveled at my feet. 
“I am Joseph!” I burst out at last, dropping to my knees where Judah lay. “Your brother, Joseph! Is my father really still alive?”
I didn’t know what I expected at this pronouncement, but my words were met with utter silence. No one so much as moved. I remained on my knees, and said, “Come closer to me, please.” It took a moment for them to obey, but at last they shuffled forward. I presented my face for their inspection, insisting, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God. He set me in place as a father to Pharaoh, put me in charge of his personal affairs, and made me ruler of all Egypt. Hurry back to my father! Tell him, ‘Your son Joseph says: I’m master of all of Egypt. Come as fast as you can and join me here. I’ll give you a place to live in Goshen where you’ll be close to me—you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and anything else you can think of. I’ll take care of you there completely. There are still five more years of famine ahead; I’ll make sure all your needs are taken care of, you and everyone connected with you—you won’t want for a thing.’” 
I could tell they were beginning to believe, and pressed them, “Look at me. You can see for yourselves, and my brother Benjamin can see for himself, that it’s me, my own mouth, telling you all this. Tell my father all about the high position I hold in Egypt, tell him everything you’ve seen here.”
Benjamin’s eyes widened at last, with a look of recognition on his face. 
“Joseph?” he whispered, and for a flash, I saw the little boy of nine I remembered from all those years ago. He reached out a tentative hand toward my face, and that was all the incentive I needed. I reached out and embraced him, and he me, our tears intermingling as they flowed down both our cheeks. I held Benjamin this way a long time, but them I embraced all of my other brothers as well. 
 
For the rest of that day, I delegated grain distribution to other servants so that I could spend time with my brothers, at last with no secrets between us. 
Word reached Pharaoh that my brothers had come to Egypt. I had never told Pharaoh the story of how I had come to be in Egypt, so he held no animosity on my behalf, but was pleased for me. He summoned me to the throne room, and when I appeared and bowed before him, he told me, “Tell your brothers, ‘Load up your pack animals; go to Canaan, get your father and your families and bring them back here. I’ll settle you on the best land in Egypt—you’ll live off the fat of the land.’ Also tell them this: ‘Here’s what I want you to do: Take wagons from Egypt to carry your little ones and your wives and load up your father and come back. Don’t worry about having to leave things behind; the best in all of Egypt will be yours.’”
I grinned at Pharaoh and thanked him profusely for his kindness to my kin, and hurried back to my brothers. I helped them gather provisions for their journey, including a new tunic for each of them, but five for Benjamin, as well as three hundred pieces of silver. Then I loaded up ten additional donkeys with spices and silks, and ten more with grain, bread, and food for their return trip to Egypt. 
 
The complete fulfillment of my second dream did not occur until a little over a month later. My brothers went to Canaan and returned in a large caravan with their families, their belongings—and my father. 
I had imagined that moment so many times. In my mind, each year I aged my father a little more, and so though he looked so much older that I hardly recognized him from my memories, his appearance did not surprise me. I was just so grateful that he was still alive, and that I got to embrace him once more. I held him and he held me, and we wept together for some time. At last he pulled back to gaze at me, taking my face in both of his hands. 
“I am ready to die a happy man,” he whispered, “since I have seen your face. You are still alive!” 
“I am,” I agreed, wiping the tears from my cheeks. “As are you.” I touched my forehead to his, and breathed a contented sigh. 
At long, long last, I understood. What my brothers meant for evil, God used for not only my ultimate blessing, but also to bring about fulfillment of His covenant to our father Abraham—despite the circumstances which otherwise might have destroyed us. 
It would have been nice if You’d told me all that while I was still a slave and a prisoner, I reproached the Lord. 
But then, hadn’t He? Why else would He have given me those dreams so many years ago? He had shown me the end from the beginning. He had shown me this moment all those years ago, and in doing so, it had served as both as the incident that occasioned my long and circuitous journey, and also as the encouragement I needed to cling to hope along the way.
I’d imagine the most difficult time in Joseph’s entire journey came after the baker’s execution, and the butler’s return to the right hand of Pharaoh. Joseph expected the butler to say something on his behalf (Genesis 40:14), which leads me to believe that Joseph hoped this would be the moment of deliverance. But the butler forgot Joseph for two more years (Genesis 40:23, 41:1). Hope deferred makes the heart sick (Proverbs 13:12), and this was the first time we have a clear indication that Joseph expected his circumstances to eminently change. It’s one thing to remain faithful while expecting deliverance sometime in the unspecified future; it’s another to expect it every moment, and to suffer continual disappointment. Many would have given up at this point. We’re not told how Joseph dealt with such a blow. Yet God is not a man that He should change His mind (1 Samuel 15:29). He had given Joseph two dreams, not one—and Joseph himself later told Pharaoh that “the dream was repeated to Pharaoh twice because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (Genesis 41:32). Joseph must have known that this principle applied to himself also.  
 
When the reversal finally came, it was very sudden, and it did indeed come from the butler, though much later than Joseph had expected. One day Pharaoh simply sent for Joseph. He paused long enough to make himself presentable (Genesis 41:14), and then, within the space of mere hours, he went from the dungeon to the palace. In a few hours more, he was suddenly second in command of all of Egypt! This must have made his head spin—Pharaoh did not even know Joseph, yet he immediately placed him in a position of power second only to himself. What incredible favor (Psalm 5:12)!
 
At this point Joseph was set up to see the fulfillment of his dreams, but it had not yet come to pass. I imagine by this point he had an idea of how it would look, as he gathered and stored grain, and then a few years into the famine, he began to distribute grain to those who came from surrounding nations. It makes sense that Joseph’s brothers would not have recognized him after all this time: for one thing, he was seventeen when they had sold him, and he would have been about thirty-nine when they saw him again. He would have changed quite a bit. For another, he was way out of context—they certainly would not have expected to find him a ruler of Egypt. He also certainly would have spoken Egyptian like a native. They, on the other hand, would not have changed nearly as much as he had, as they were all fully grown men when they had sold him. They were also all together, dressed in their usual attire, and exactly where he would have expected to see them. Joseph had all the advantages. 
If Joseph truly forgave them for their treachery, why didn’t he just reveal his identity to them at once, rather than putting them through such trials beforehand? I suspect there were several reasons. First, when ten brothers appeared before him, he knew this was not yet the fulfillment of his first dream, which had shown all eleven brothers bowing down. Benjamin was still at home. He also longed to see his only full-blooded brother, and the only one who had not been part of the plot against him. In his second dream, the sun and moon also bowed to Joseph, which he had interpreted as his father and mother. Rachel had died before Joseph was ever sold, though, so this must have been Leah, his father’s other wife. Still, when Joseph saw his brothers alone, even once they brought Benjamin, it still was not the complete fulfillment. He’d waited long enough, and he wanted the whole thing. 
But I suspect there was another reason too. While our forgiveness cannot be contingent upon the other person’s repentance, of course Joseph longed to know that they did repent; otherwise there could have been no true restoration of relationship. They would have bowed to him in fear, had he revealed himself to them at once, but Joseph did not want his brothers to fear him (Genesis 50:19); he wanted his family back. I wonder if he also hoped they might guess his identity on their own, when he returned their money to them (Genesis 43:23), and then when he seated them in their birth order, and also ate with them when Egyptians considered it an abomination to eat with Hebrews (Genesis 43:32-34). It also should have been a clue when Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as the rest of the brothers’ at mealtime. Meanwhile, he learned, as he tested them, that they regretted what they had done to him (Genesis 42:21-24), and that they had learned their lesson when they refused to treat his brother Benjamin as they had treated him (Genesis 44:13-34). This was apparently what he waited to learn, as he revealed himself immediately afterwards.  
 
How must it have gone when the brothers had to tell Israel their father that Joseph, whom they had told him died at the hands of a wild animal all those years before, was in fact alive and ruling Egypt? He did not believe them at first (Genesis 45:26). How could they explain without admitting to what they had done?  
 
Even when the brothers accepted Joseph’s identity and his provision for them and their families, they still thought that he secretly longed for revenge and it was only their father that prevented him from harming them (Genesis 50:15-17). I love what Joseph says to them: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). Thousands of years later, Paul would say it this way: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, and to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). God certainly did not cause Joseph’s brothers’ hatred. He did not make them sell Joseph into slavery. He did not make Potiphar’s wife falsely accuse Joseph. But He used the free will choices of evil people in order to bring about His good purposes—not just for Joseph, not even just for Joseph’s family and the budding nation of Israel, but for all of the surrounding nations as well.  
 
Joseph understood how all of this fit into the larger context of God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants. God had told Abraham, “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years, And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions… But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16). Joseph knew the Israelites would one day return to the land of Canaan, and in fact he made their children swear that they would carry his bones with them when they went (Genesis 50:25). With all of Joseph’s faithfulness through the trials of his life, it was this statement that earned him mention in the “faith hall of fame” (Hebrews 11:22). Joseph understood God’s covenant with His people. He knew that just as God had fulfilled His promises to himself, He would certainly do the same for the nation of Israel. 
Oct 8, 2021
Today's podcast is a meditation and retelling of 1 Samuel 8-10.
 
Introduction
How disappointing for God. He had chosen this nation, and had a special relationship with them, promising nothing but blessings galore (Deuteronomy 28), if only they would obey Him. He always intended to lead them personally, through one judge as His liaison. He knew they wouldn’t be faithful to Him, but I doubt that made it any less heartbreaking when time and time again, the people abandoned Him and worshipped false gods. He was covenant-bound to withdraw from them when this happened, leaving them open to the enemy to steal, kill, and destroy. When they’d had enough finally, the people would cry out and God would send the deliverer who was to be their next judge—whoever was the best option He had at the time.
 
Samuel had been one of the good judges, and perhaps it wouldn’t have ended as it did if his sons had been like him. It is strange that Samuel thought his sons would succeed him though, since God’s judges were never meant to be a dynasty. Presumably Samuel also knew of his son’s shortcomings. 
 
It’s very clear in this story that God didn’t think a king was a good idea, and took it as a personal rejection (Hosea 13:11). Yet He granted what the people wanted anyway. It’s interesting how often in Old Testament stories God gives the people what they demand, even though He knows it isn’t for the best. God chose to make creatures with free will, and because of it, God rarely gets His first choice. I’m thinking of the story of Balaam: God told him not to go with Balak’s messengers the first two times he asked. Balaam should have left it at that, instead of pressing God to give in! But, Balaam wanted financial gain, just as the Israelites wanted to govern themselves rather than having to rely on God. Moses also permitted divorce, even though Jesus said that wasn’t God’s first choice either (Matthew 19:8). God gave the people what they asked for, consequences and all.
 
At the same time, I have to wonder whether the Israelites’ desire for a king was somehow premature. Saul reigned for forty years, Acts 13:21, and David began to rule when he was thirty years old, just after Saul’s death, 2 Samuel 5:4. That means David wasn’t even born until the tenth year of Saul’s reign, though God began to look for a “man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) in the second year of Saul’s reign. Saul’s beginning was certainly less than illustrious, and we can see seeds of the cause of his downfall, insecurity and fear of man, from the very beginning. It almost seems like Saul was just a placeholder, until David was old enough to be anointed and trained up in the “school of hard knocks,” as it were, to become ready for the throne. 
 
That said, it’s interesting how God used natural circumstances (Saul’s father lost his donkeys and had sent him and a servant to look for them) to bring Saul and Samuel together. Samuel’s prophetic insight to set aside the best cut of meat, expecting Saul to show up the next day, surely primed Saul to accept Samuel’s proclamation that he would become king. God knew that a man like Saul wouldn’t just believe such a word; he would need to be convinced. Then Samuel gave him a number of other confirmatory events to look for in the subsequent seven days, so that he would be ready for the big “reveal” of the man God had anointed a week later. Unfortunately, Samuel’s presentation fell flat when their new king was literally hiding among the baggage. Presumably his absurd behavior was why some of the men of Israel despised him. Shortly after this, God used an attack from their enemies as a means to galvanize Israel to fight under Saul’s leadership (1 Samuel 11). Thus Saul redeemed himself, earning a new and better coronation. 
 
Yet only a year later, in the second year of Saul’s reign, Saul disobeyed God for the first time, causing God to proclaim through Samuel that God would take the kingdom away from Saul and give it to a “man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). A decade or so later, after Saul again disobeyed, God formally rejected Saul as king. Saul’s response to this was interesting: he asked Samuel to at least continue to honor him before the people (1 Samuel 15:30), indicating what really mattered to him. He wanted the honor and respect of men, not God (Proverbs 29:25). This was exactly why God chose David instead. 
 
Fictionalized Retelling
 
I couldn’t help wondering, in the quiet of night, whether it was all my fault. 
The Lord had never told me that the position of judge should be hereditary, nor had it ever been so in Israel’s history. Yet I’d had it in my mind since my sons were born that as soon as they were old enough, they could share my load. I suppose I had this idea because Eli had practically raised me, and the priesthood was hereditary. 
Eli’s sons had turned out poorly too, though. I don’t know why I thought that would be a good model to follow. 
Yes, I did know. I had wanted to believe it. 
I wanted the latter part of my life to be easier than the first part had been, but I also had a romanticized ideal of sharing what mattered most to me with Joel and Abijah. I was so focused on this goal that I failed to see—I refused to see—the men my sons had become, just as Eli had done. The elders of Israel all assembled before me one day and shouted their accusations from all directions. 
“Look, you’re an old man, and your sons aren’t following in your footsteps!” one called.
Old? I winced inwardly. I was barely sixty—but I was certainly tired, after forty-eight years of ministry. I felt old. 
“They cheat us!” another of the elders cried. “They’ll rule in favor of whoever bribes them the most!”
These words struck me like a blow. I’d seen this tendency in my sons from their youths. I didn’t think either of them had ever heard from the Lord. Secretly I had worried that they did not truly fear Him, but I’d hidden those fears even from myself. Now, here was the proof.
“Appoint a king to rule us, just like every other nation!” 
I cannot vouch for my expression when I heard this demand. I was not a man given to tears, but after all I had done for them—after devoting forty-eight years to judging these people, delivering them from the Philistines and bringing them back to true worship of the Lord, they had rejected me. Their words felt like a personal betrayal.
“I will bring your request before the Lord,” was all I could manage before I retreated from them, slamming the door to my home in their faces. 
 
I’d continued in prayer from then until now, on my knees in the temple before the Lord. It was now past midnight, but the Lord never spoke according to my timeline. 
“Go ahead and do what they’re asking,” came the Lord’s whisper at last. “They are not rejecting you. They are rejecting Me as their King.” 
I swallowed, somehow both saddened and soothed to hear that the Lord felt exactly as I did. 
“From the day I brought them out of Egypt until this very day they’ve been behaving like this, leaving Me for other gods. And now they’re doing it to you.”
I nodded. “I know they have, Lord,” I murmured, “they are a stubborn people. I don’t know what they think a king is going to do for them that a judge won’t do.” But as soon as I’d said this, I realized I did know. The judge acted in the position of Moses, constantly returning for the Lord’s direction before every decision, both militarily and in government. The king would not be in such communion. He would do as he thought best, without need to consult the Lord. He would be dependent upon human wisdom, though—and because of this, he would probably be even more prone to corruption than my sons were. 
“Let them have their own way,” the Lord said. “But warn them of what they’re in for. Tell them what they’re likely to get from a king.” I knew enough of how kings of neighboring nations behaved to be able to guess what He meant, but He gave me a vision of it anyway. 
When the Lord’s vision finished, I rose, feeling desolate. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was now sharing in the Lord’s own heartbreak, or because my own vision for the latter part of my life had been destroyed, or because I had been forced to confront my sons’ corruption. I splashed water on my face and went to my own home, walking the dark, empty streets illuminated only by moonlight. I always imagined that the Lord Himself walked beside me on these moonlit strolls. Tonight, I needed the company. 
The next morning I sent for Joel and Abijah. I told them first what the people had said, so that they could get their own initial outrage out of the way before they encountered the news publicly. It went precisely as I had imagined it would. Joel sulked and turned stony and silent. Abijah threw a fit, shouting, throwing, and breaking things. 
“What are we supposed to do now, then?” he demanded. “You raised us to be Israel’s judges!” 
“That was my own fault,” I sighed heavily. “You both have other skills—Joel, you have some knowledge as a farmer, and Abijah, you can work for your brother—”
“Work for my brother?” Abijah ranted, “it’s his fault the elders of Israel rejected us! He’s the cheater!” 
Joel leapt to his feet, and the boys almost came to blows in a pattern they had repeated hundreds of times since they were children. I always inserted myself between them to force them apart, if I was present at the time. If not, someone got bloody. I played my role again now, but felt too tired to engage with their accusations. 
“The elders will assemble to hear the word of the Lord in one hour,” I told them. “It would be seemly if you were both present and in one piece. If you are not… well. That will be your choice.” Then I turned and walked away, ignoring their shouts and protests. 
My sons did not appear with the elders in front of the temple an hour later, to my sorrow but not to my surprise. To do so would have required a measure of humility I knew they did not possess. If they had, we might not be in this situation in the first place.
“This is the way the kind of king you desire would operate,” I called out to the people in warning once they quieted down. “He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them—cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer.”
The elders in the front row cried out, “We will have a king to rule us!” Another voice rose above the clamor of agreement, adding, “Then we’ll be just like all the other nations. Our king will rule us and lead us and fight our battles!”
My heart felt so heavy. Didn’t they know that until now, God had fought their battles for them? Yet they wanted a leader they could see. 
Do as they say, I heard the Lord whisper to me. Make them a king.
I took a deep breath and cried, “The Lord has heard you! Go home, each of you to your own city.”
They dispersed slowly, and I stood there on the temple steps until the last of them had gone. Last of all, I wandered away. 
“Who, Lord?” I asked aloud once I was alone. “What man is there in Israel whom You would trust with such power?”
I heard no response that day, nor the next, nor the day after that. This silence, I knew, and the wait, were the very reasons why the people wanted a king in the first place. Hearing from the Lord was unpredictable. His timing was His own. I knew enough of Him to wait in peace, but the elders tended to fret in the silence, wanting to take matters into their own hands. A king would do just that. 
About a week later, the Lord finally spoke to me. 
“This time tomorrow, I’m sending a man from the land of Benjamin to meet you. You’re to anoint him as commander over my people Israel. He will free my people from Philistine oppression. I have heard their cries for help.”
“Huh,” I replied aloud. “Benjamin?” It was the smallest of the tribes, ever since the concubine incident several generations earlier which had almost wiped them out. I’d have expected the Lord’s anointed to come from any tribe but that one. 
The next day was a local sacrifice in the land of Zuph, where I lived. Tradition held that I should go and bless the people’s sacrifice to the Lord so that they could eat of it. Since the Lord had told me I would meet His anointed before the sacrifice would occur, I told the people to set aside the best portion of the sacrifice and give it the following day to the one I indicated to them. The day of the sacrifice, I went my way up to the high place, and stopped just as I exited the city. Two men approached: one was clearly a servant, and the other was a sight to behold. He was taller than any man of Israel I had ever seen, powerfully built, and had a head of thick dark hair and a full beard. He practically radiated with health and beauty. 
He’s the one, the man I told you about, the Lord said to me. He is the man who will reign over my people
Though I had previously been heartbroken when the people asked for a king, I’d gotten used to the idea in the intervening week of silence from the Lord. Now, the moment I beheld this incredible specimen of a man, I felt a throb of pride, almost as if he were my son. 
The man approached me directly. “Pardon me, but can you tell me where the Seer lives?”
“I’m the Seer,” I told him. “Accompany me to the shrine and eat with me. In the morning I’ll tell you all about what’s on your mind, and send you on your way.” Then in a flash of insight, the Lord revealed to me why they were here and what concerned them. “By the way, your lost donkeys—the ones you’ve been hunting for the last three days—have been found, so don’t worry about them. At this moment, Israel’s future is in your hands.”
The magnificent man looked thunderstruck. “But I’m only a Benjaminite, from the smallest of Israel’s tribes, and from the most insignificant clan in the tribe at that,” he stammered. I was struck by the strange contrast between his looks and his manner. “Why are you talking to me like this?”
I regarded him, but despite the temptation to reveal all now, I obeyed the prompting of the Lord. 
“I will tell you in the morning,” I reiterated, and let the way to the high place for the feast. 
When we arrived and found that all the people were already assembled, I gestured for the man, whose name turned out to be Saul, and his servant to take their seats among the people. I noticed how the people stared at him in awe, yet Saul did not seem to notice. Presumably he’d grown used to the stares over a lifetime. 
I pulled the cook aside and whispered, “Bring the choice cut I pointed out to you, the one I told you to reserve.” 
The cook looked slightly bemused, but did as I had asked, and brought out the thigh, placing it before Saul. 
“This meal was kept aside just for you,” I announced to Saul, loudly enough that all who were assembled could hear. “Eat! It was especially prepared for this time and occasion with these guests.”
Saul looked terribly embarrassed, but after a feeble protest or two, he eventually did as I had bid him. The rest of us took our portions of the sacrifice from what was left. We all ate and drank merrily before the Lord, and then Saul and his servant returned with me back to my house. I prepared a bed for them in the top of the house cooled by the breeze, and slept little that night myself. 
At daybreak I called to Saul, “Get up and I’ll send you off.” I offered them breakfast, and walked with them to the outskirts of the city, but then at last told Saul, “Tell your servant to go on ahead of us. You stay with me for a bit. I have a word of God to give you.”
After my promise the day before, and also my strange behavior at the feast, Saul had evidently been expecting this. He simply nodded to his servant, who sped up while we hung back. 
When the servant was far enough ahead that Saul and I were alone, I withdrew from my cloak a flask of anointing oil, and gestured for Saul to kneel before me. He did so, and I poured the oil over his thick black hair until it ran down his beard. He looked astonished, as I took his face in my hands, kissing him on both cheeks. 
“Do you see what this means?” I proclaimed, “God has anointed you commander over his people. This sign will confirm God’s anointing of you as king over his inheritance: After you leave me today, as you get closer to your home country of Benjamin, you’ll meet two men near Rachel’s Tomb. They’ll say, ‘The donkeys you went to look for are found. Your father has forgotten about the donkeys and is worried about you, wringing his hands—quite beside himself!’ Leaving there, you’ll arrive at the Oak of Tabor. There you’ll meet three men going up to worship God at Bethel. One will be carrying three young goats, another carrying three sacks of bread, and the third a jug of wine. They’ll say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept. Next, you’ll come to Gibeah of God, where there’s a Philistine garrison. As you approach the town, you’ll run into a bunch of prophets coming down from the high place, playing harps and tambourines, flutes and drums. And they’ll be prophesying. Before you know it, the Spirit of God will come on you and you’ll be prophesying right along with them. And you’ll be transformed into a new person! When these confirming signs are accomplished, you’ll know that you’re ready: Whatever job you’re given to do, do it. God is with you! Now, go down to Gilgal and I will follow. I’ll come down and join you in worship by sacrificing burnt offerings and peace offerings. Wait seven days. Then I’ll come and tell you what to do next.” 
Saul stared at me in mute amazement as I said all of this; I could almost see his brain spinning as he tried to process all that I had said. I gestured for Saul to rise to his feet, which he did as if in a daze. I marveled once again, now that he was right next to me, at what a tower of a man he was. Then I patted him on the back to give him the indication to get going and to catch up with his servant. 
Seven days later, I called all the people together at Mizpah. I was excited: today was to be the great day of the Lord’s unveiling of the people’s king. My sons, once again, were conspicuously absent—sulking, no doubt—but I did not let this bother me. I wondered if, after the Spirit of the Lord had come upon Saul, I would even recognize him as the timid man I had met on the road. 
When all the people were assembled, I stood up and spoke to all of them as I had weeks ago spoken to the elders. 
“This is God’s personal message to you: ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt. I delivered you from Egyptian oppression—yes, from all the bullying governments that made your life miserable. And now you want nothing to do with your God, the very God who has a history of getting you out of troubles of all sorts. And now you say, ‘No! We want a king; give us a king!’ Well, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get! Present yourselves formally before God, ranked in tribes and families.”
I wanted to maximize the impact of this ceremony—not just announce Saul as the king, but to really give the moment the build-up it deserved. When I chose the tribe of Benjamin, I heard the whispers. They were my own reaction, and Saul’s as well. I waited for the whispers to subside, and then announced, “Tribe of Benjamin, now arrange yourselves by families!” They did so, and I frowned—Saul was a head taller than all the men of Israel. I should have been able to spot him easily. Where was he? Yet I felt the Lord lead me to the family of Matri, so I chose them. The men of the family came forward, and I scanned the lot of them, searching for the face I expected. 
“Saul, son of Kish, is the man!” I cried out, with rather less impact than I had hoped. “But where is he?” 
I felt the Lord draw my attention to a pile of baggage brought by their tribe, since they had to come from all over Israel for this ceremony. I heard the Lord say to me, he’s right over there—hidden in that pile of baggage.
I felt a wave of—dread? embarrassment?—but I walked toward the pile of baggage with my head held high, gesturing for some of Saul’s own family to help me move the bags one by one. I uncovered Saul’s chagrined face, which was bright red, as well it should be. 
“Get up,” I hissed. “Fortunately for you, not everyone in Israel has a good view of this ridiculousness!” 
Saul crawled out from under the pile in which he’d been hiding, and brushed himself off. I pulled him up to the raised area from which I had been speaking, and added under my breath, “Head high, and for goodness’ sake, try to look like a king!” Then I cried to the people, trusting that Saul’s extraordinary looks would be the first thing they would notice, “Take a good look at whom God has chosen: the best! No one like him in the whole country!”
“Long live the king!” the people cried out, their voices joining together and rising in a crescendo. “Long live the king!” 
That was a good start. I hoped it meant the story of the baggage wouldn’t spread, but as I left, I overheard the whispers. 
“Deliverer? Don’t make me laugh!” 
“How can this man save us? He hid himself at his own coronation!” 
“What a marvelous leader he must be!” 
I closed my eyes but chose not to rebuke them on Saul’s behalf. He would have to do that himself. 
He was Israel’s leader now, after all—not me. 
Sep 17, 2021

Today's podcast is a meditation on the story of the Israelites' first attempt to take the Promised land from Numbers 13-14, when they finally went in and did it from Joshua 1-6, when Caleb took the mountain in Joshua 14, and the writer of Hebrews' reflection on what this means for us from Hebrews 4. 

Aug 6, 2021
Today's podcast is a retelling a meditation on Numbers 22-25:1-3, Numbers 31:16, 2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14
 
Introduction
 
What an incredible illustration of the power of words! This Old Testament Seer, who was not even one of the Israelites, nevertheless was sought by princes and kings to bless and curse their enemies—and he was paid handsomely for it. Was there anything special about Balaam’s words versus anyone else’s? I don’t think so—stories of blessings and cursings abound in Genesis especially (consider the power of Isaac’s blessing stolen by Jacob to set
off a twenty year feud). Names also seemed to hold the power of prophecy (consider the power of Abraham’s and Sarah’s new names to foretell their destinies, and of Jacob’s “heel grabber” later turned to “Israel”). Solomon later had much to say about the power of words to shape a life (Proverbs 12:14, 13:2, 13:3, 14:3, 18:7, 18:20-21, 21:23). I suspect what made Balaam different from others was his faith in the power of his words to come to pass, whereas others might waver if the effects were not immediate. As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” It’s the 'believing before you see it'
part that trips most people up. In this story, I imagined that Balaam didn’t struggle with this because he had a rare gift of seeing into the spiritual realm from time to time. If he could see the effects of his words before they were manifest into the physical, he’d certainly have had an easier time believing in their power. 
 
This is also an interesting story because Balaam wasn’t an Israelite, nor was his heart pure—yet still, God spoke to him. He had no covenant to cling to, but he clearly understood covenant, and he knew how to manipulate it to his own ends. The story in Numbers doesn’t actually show Balaam explaining to Balak how to get the Israelites to curse themselves; it cuts straight from Balaam’s oracles of blessing over the Israelites in Numbers 22-24, to the Israelites’ harlotry with the Moabite women and worship of Baal in Numbers 25. But we know that this was Balaam’s doing from Numbers 31:16, Jude 11, and Revelation 2:14. 2 Peter 2:15 reveals that Balaam’s motivation for this was financial gain. 
 
I used to think it was very strange that God gave Balaam permission to go with the Moabites and then sent an angel to kill him along the way because he went. That certainly seems contradictory. But God did tell Balaam no
the first time, which should have settled the matter. (Maybe there’s a lesson here: if God says no the first time, probably don’t keep asking?) The fact that Balaam asked again perhaps indicated that he was likely to do it regardless of what God said. Perhaps it wasn’t God’s best for Balaam to go, but He allowed it as a concession, knowing there was a potential danger in this loose cannon with impure motives. God’s concession, though, was for Balaam to wait until the men came to call him again in the morning; if they did, then he could go with them. There’s no indication that he did wait—Balaam just rose, saddled his donkey, and went. The fact that Balaam did not exactly follow the Lord’s instructions was a harbinger of what was to come. Balaam’s words had great power, and while God could use him to bless the Israelites, He could not afford to let this man say or do anything God did not explicitly authorize—hence the avenging angel.  
 
Once Balaam was sufficiently terrified into submission, God let him live and continue on his way. And indeed, he did bless Israel only... but he still wanted Balak’s money. So he found a loophole in God’s instructions, which he exploited to his own benefit.  
 
Fortunately for us today, we are now no longer under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13-14), and we cannot curse ourselves with bad behavior as the Israelites could. Even so, we can still disqualify ourselves from receiving all the blessings God wants for us, if we do not mix His promises with faith (Hebrews 4:2).   
 
Fictionalized Retelling
 
I am what my people of Amau call a Seer. Most people perceive with their physical senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. So I suppose I must have been born with a gift, though I’ve never known anything different. I am as aware of the spiritual world as I am of the physical, though I cannot always perceive it with my eyes. Because of this, I learned from childhood that the spirit realm affects the physical—that in fact, it is the greater reality of the two. And yet, I could affect the spirit realm by my words. My words influenced the unseen, and then the unseen influenced and changed what was seen. 
There were some limits to this, though. The primary limit was that there was a Power in the unseen realm much greater than I. I knew a few details about Him: that He is One, not many, like so many other cultures seemed to believe. That He is righteous, balancing mercy with justice. He does not let the wicked go unpunished. This instilled in me a healthy fear of Him: I did not want to end up on the wrong side of that equation. I also understood that while my words had power to influence the physical realm through the spiritual, He did not always authorize me to use them. I wasn’t totally sure what might happen if I tried to speak that which He explicitly forbade, but I did not wish to find out. 
By rumor, as I grew, I also learned that He had favorites. In fact, He had one favorite people group in particular: the people of Israel. All the surrounding nations heard the stories of how the Lord delivered this band of former slaves from their captives in Egypt, and led them across the Red Sea. They had even plundered their former masters before they went. I heard how they had driven back the Amalekites, and defeated the Amorites. Now they were camped in the plains of Moab, on the other side of the Jordan from Jericho. I dwelt near the Euphrates with my own people, but even we felt the tension in the air. 
So when the messengers from Balak, king of Moab came to me, I knew why they had come before they spoke. But a young man I recognized from the king’s court drew near and bowed low before me. 
“I have come to you in the name of King Balak of Moab. Thus says the king to my lord, Balaam the Diviner: A people went out from Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they dwell next to me. And now, please come curse this people for me because they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I will prevail, and we will defeat them, and I will drive them out of the land because I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
I glanced behind the messenger who had spoken, to another who held a small leather pouch in his hand, which jingled just a little as he moved. A little shiver of anticipation ran down my spine. If that pouch was filled with gold pieces, it represented a fortune! Little wonder: Moab was surely sick with dread of the Israelites. They knew that the Israelites’ strength came from the spirit realm, and that was the realm of my influence. No fee would be too high. I resisted the urge to ask to see the coins right then. 
“Lodge here tonight,” I told them, “and I will bring you word again, as the Lord will speak to me.”
They did as I asked, and I withdrew at sunset to inquire of the Lord. 
It usually took longer for Him to respond to me, but that night, He spoke at once. Whether the words were aloud such that other human ears could have perceived it, I do not know, but to me, it was audible. 
“Who are these men with you?” He said. 
I was pretty sure He knew the answer; He was just starting the conversation. I told Him, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, saying, ‘A people went out of Egypt who covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I will be able to battle them and drive them out.’” Please, please, please… I thought, my imagination filled with what I could do with the gold in that pouch. What a great man that would make me!
The Lord said, “You will not go with them. You will not curse the people because they are blessed.”
I deflated. “But… God…” I bit my lip. “Surely there’s some minor curse I could pronounce against them?” 
He said nothing more. I knew from experience that this meant the conversation was over. My father used to do that when I was young: he’d lay down the law, and then give me the silent treatment as I wheedled, begged, and threw tantrums, until I finally accepted that he meant what he’d said. I sighed. 
In the morning I returned to the men of Moab, and told them with great reluctance, “Go to your land. The Lord refuses to let me to go with you.” 
The messengers exchanged a look of consternation with one another. 
“Are… you sure?” one ventured, holding up the pouch and deliberately jingling it before my eyes. “The king will pay you handsomely for this service of yours.” 
I let out an involuntary groan and averted my eyes from the pouch. “Would that it were up to me,” I told them. “But it is not.” 
At last they returned the way they had come. When they had gone, I looked up at the sky and shouted, “Why?” When He still gave me the silent treatment, I added, “What is so special about this people of Yours? What makes them any better than Moab, or the Amalekites, or the Amorites, or the Amauites for that matter? Why do You bless them, and You won’t bless me?” 
Silence again, though I felt His reproach. He had blessed me. I had a great gift that apparently was quite rare. I’d often wondered if there was anything special about my words, or if anybody else’s words might have the same effect as mine—it was just that, since I could see into the spirit realm where they had an effect, I did not waver once I’d spoken them, nor contradict them by speaking only what I saw already manifested in the physical realm, thus negating the effect in the spirit. Because of this ability, I was already prosperous: I’d used the words of my mouth to bless my own flocks and herds, crops and home, and I had quite literally eaten the fruit of my lips. If that weren’t enough, I used this same ability on behalf of others, and was paid handsomely for my troubles. I did not get my hands on that delicious little sack of gold, though… I whimpered at the thought, and huffed, crossing my arms over my chest and glaring at nothing in particular. 
“You’re unfair,” I accused the Lord. “You play favorites. That’s inherently unfair!” 
Silence still. I heaved another put-upon sigh, and went about my business for the day, saddling my donkey and taking her into the marketplace. 
Late that day, just before sunset, I saw a large company on the horizon riding to my home. As they drew near, I saw their splendor: these were princes and warriors of Moab, not the messengers I had seen the day before. My eyes widened and my heart pounded with anticipation. Balak was not giving up then! 
One of the princes dismounted and bowed down low before me. I pasted on a smile as I scrutinized his fine clothing, imagining what it might look like upon me. 
“My lord Balaam,” the prince said by way of greeting. I could get used to being called ‘my lord.’ He went on, “This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.”
An involuntary groan escaped my lips at this. How could I continue to refuse? But I managed, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me.” 
The men agreed, and I withdrew from them and fell prostrate before the Lord. 
“‘I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say’?” I quoted Balak to the Lord. “How can You expect me to refuse such an offer? I cannot! Let me go with them, I beg You!” 
There was silence at first. But then the Lord replied, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only say what I tell you to say.” 
“Ha ha!” I cried, triumphant. 
I could barely sleep that night. I rose at first light and saddled my donkey. My conscience pricked at me that the Lord had told me to wait for the princes to call me, but hadn’t they essentially already done that by coming the day before? I ignored this detail and went to rouse them. 
“The Lord gave me permission to go with you,” I told them breathlessly. “Take me to your king!” 
The princes seemed as glad to hear my response as I was glad to give it. They readied themselves quickly, and I mounted my donkey and followed them. 
At first we traveled in one company, but soon my donkey began acting strangely. She fell behind the others, and then even strayed from the path they were following, ignoring my tug upon her reins and venturing into one of the fields. 
“What are you doing?” I cried impatiently, tugging harder. She utterly ignored me, which both confused and infuriated me. I’d never seen her act like this before, and I needed to catch up to the others. From one of my saddlebags I dug out a switch, and used it to beat her flanks. She let out a sharp bray that made me wince. 
“Well, if you don’t want more of that, do what I tell you!” I retorted. 
At last, she returned to the road. I dug my heels into her flanks to try to get her to speed up to catch up with the company, but she refused—in fact, it felt like she was fighting me with every step. Presently the road narrowed, as a wall on either side delineated vineyards of different owners. Suddenly my donkey veered sharply toward one wall—but there was nowhere to go, so she just pressed against it and stopped altogether, crushing my foot against the wall in the process. I let out a roar and beat her harder. 
“What is wrong with you?” I shouted, gritting my teeth against her sharp bray of pain. “Come on!” 
She shuddered under me, and hesitatingly moved forward again, still hugging one wall but not so closely that she crushed my foot. Presently the lane narrowed so that she could no longer do even this: there was nowhere for her to turn aside. So she literally lay down under me, right there in the path.
“Why you worthless ass—!” I beat her as hard as I could, and she yelped and shuddered, but refused to budge. The third time I struck her, she half turned her head so that she could see me from one of her eyes. 
“What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” 
I blinked, and my hand froze in midair. I could see into the spirit realm from time to time, and I had spoken to God, but this was a new one. Still, the sensible thing to do would be to answer her. 
“Because you have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now!”
“Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” I had to admit. 
Suddenly I perceived that she and I were not alone. A brilliantly glowing man stood directly in front of the path, barring our way, sword drawn. My mouth dropped open, and I slid off of my donkey’s back and fell to the ground before him. 
“Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?” the angel demanded. “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”
I caught my breath, as a wave of terror passed through me. “I have sinned,” I admitted. I meant in beating my donkey, but as I said it, I realized that I’d also sinned in not waiting for the men to call me in the morning, as the Lord had instructed. “I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
The angel sheathed his sword, and stood to one side, making a very narrow path for us. “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”
I swallowed hard, understanding the emphasis. I had not explicitly obeyed the Lord’s instructions before. I was given safe passage now only on condition that I do better in the future. 
My donkey got to her feet and picked up her pace to catch up with the company of princes. I was rattled, and she probably was too. She never spoke to me again. 
When I arrived in Moab, King Balak hurried out to meet me. 
“Did I not send you an urgent summons?” he scolded by way of greeting. “Why didn’t you come to me? Am I not able to reward you?”
I had best disabuse him of any false expectations he had now, I realized, not much caring to face the avenging angel again. 
“Well, I have come to you now,” I told him. “But I warn you, I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.” 
Balak smirked. “I am sure God will see fit to allow you to speak whatever is in your own best interest.” 
Before I could protest again, he turned and said, “Come. We will sacrifice to your God to appease him.” He led the way, along with the company of princes he had sent to collect me, to a place called Kirjath Huzoth. There he offered oxen and sheep to the Lord, and he provided me and his princes with sheep to offer likewise. I considered telling him that if his intent was to ‘butter up’ the Lord to get Him to do what he wanted, that he was wasting his time. But Balak would learn that soon enough. 
The following morning, Balak beckoned me alone, and took me to the high places where their people sacrificed to Baal. I saw this, and knew what the Lord would think of it—there was no Baal, He was the only God, and this was precisely why He wasn’t likely to bless Moab—but I chose not to comment on it. There was no point; Balak wouldn’t listen, and that wasn’t why we were here. The king pointed down into the plains, and I blinked, taken aback by the sheer number of the Israelites. 
These are my enemies,” Balak told me unnecessarily. “Now, curse them for me!” 
I took a deep breath. Then I said, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” I was kind of stalling for time, and kind of doing the very thing I’d mentally mocked Balak for the day before: trying to butter God up. Seven was a special number to Him, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. It was a number of completion. I also knew, as every nation knew intuitively, that He required blood sacrifices. I again considered telling Balak to tear down the altars to Baal while we were at it, but dismissed this. I doubted he would take kindly to this suggestion. 
Balak had the animals I requested brought to us, and while he built the altars, I prepared the animals for slaughter. Then the two of us offered one bull and one ram on each of the altars, and set fire to them. Then I told the king, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.”
I ventured alone to a desolate hill connected to the one on which we had built the altars, and prayed to the Lord. 
“Oh Lord, may it please you to curse the enemies of Balak!” 
The Lord’s reply, I knew, was not one that would please the king. When He had finished, He said, “Return to Balak, and tell him what I have said.” 
I trudged back to the king with a heavy heart, and to my dismay, I saw that in the interim, the princes of Moab had also joined him. I groaned inwardly, but when I was near enough, I called out, “Thus the Lord has bid me speak: From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced? As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!” 
As I spoke, I had my back turned to Balak and his princes, but I could sense their gnashing of teeth. Sure enough, when I turned around, I saw Balak’s dark countenance. 
“What have you done to me?” he demanded. “I took you to curse my enemies, but you have actually blessed them!”
I felt miserable. But what could I do? I imagined the avenging angel, sword drawn, standing right beside me, ready to strike me down should I misspeak. “Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” 
The king huffed, and then turned and conferred with his noblemen. In the interim, I looked up to heaven and shook my head at the Lord in annoyance. 
“Will you let me say nothing that pleases him?” I complained.
Balak turned back to me, his expression smoothed as if with renewed determination. “Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there.”  
I felt my hopes rise too, irrational though I knew it was. After all, God had changed His mind from forbidding me to go with the men from Balak the second time I approached and asked Him, had He not? True, He’d given me permission and then sent an angel to slay me along the way, but I think that was due to a technicality… 
At any rate, I went with Balak and his men, across the ridges of the adjoining hills, across the field of Zophim to the top of Pisgah. There, Balak and some of the princes built seven more altars, and the remaining men went to retrieve seven more bulls and seven more rams. We again offered burnt sacrifices to the Lord, though I also noticed and ignored the altars to other gods nearby. Again I told Balak and the princes to stay by the offerings while I went to consult the Lord.
No sooner had I wandered ashrimp inway from the group, the Lord told me, “Go back to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” It was no better than before. Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I turned around and trudged back to them.
“So soon?” Balak asked eagerly, eyebrows raised. “Come now, what did He give you to say?” 
I sighed. “Thus says the Lord: Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; Nor has He seen trouble in Israel; The Lord his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no omen against Jacob, Nor is there any divination against Israel; At the proper time it shall be said to Jacob And to Israel, what God has done! Behold, a people rises like a lioness, And as a lion it lifts itself; It will not lie down until it devours the prey, And drinks the blood of the slain.” 
I watched as the lines of Balak’s face deepened into a scowl as I spoke. I could hardly blame him. When I had finished, he shouted, “Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!” 
I felt utterly wretched. “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the Lord speaks, that I must do’?”
Balak turned his back on me with a snort of disgust, and went to confer with his nobles once more. At this point, I just wanted the encounter to be over. 
He returned, his expression implacable. “Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will be agreeable with God that you curse them for me from there.” 
Why he still thought location would make any difference at all, I did not know, but I went with him without comment. Balak and his nobles led me to the top of Peor, a mountain which overlooked a wasteland. As before, I instructed Balak, “Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.” The Moabites followed my instructions, and offered their sacrifices. 
Even so, I did not bother to withdraw to pray to the Lord this time and ask Him to let me curse the people of Israel. He would not. I could say only what He gave me to say. And yet… as I turned to look at the altars of Baal behind the altars the Moabites had just built to the Lord, the germ of an idea began in my mind. 
I turned my back upon them again for now, though, and turned to look out over the wilderness. I gave over my tongue to the Lord and uttered His prophecy as it came to me: “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, And the oracle of the man whose eye is opened; The oracle of him who hears the words of God, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered, How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, Like gardens beside the river, Like aloes planted by the Lord, Like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from his buckets, And his seed will be by many waters, And his king shall be higher than Agag, And his kingdom shall be exalted. God brings him out of Egypt, He is for him like the horns of the wild ox. He will devour the nations who are his adversaries, And will crush their bones in pieces, And shatter them with his arrows. He crouches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him? Blessed is everyone who blesses you, And cursed is everyone who curses you.” 
Balak fairly shook with fury as he listened to this oracle. As if needing to lash out physically somehow, he clapped his hands together forcefully. Then he jabbed a finger in my direction and accused, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times! Flee to your place now. I said I would honor you greatly, but the Lord has held you back from honor!” 
I shook my head. “Did I not tell your messengers whom you had sent to me, saying, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything contrary to the command of the Lord, either good or bad, of my own accord. What the Lord speaks, that I will speak’? I will go back to my people; but come, and I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come.” The germ of what I intended to do had grown in my mind, but I had decided that I would first stoke Balak’s fear of the Israelites before I gave him my recommendation. That way, he might yet be disposed to honor me, though I could not do what he had summoned me to do. 
I turned back out to the wilderness where we could see Moab in the distance, and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, And the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, The oracle of him who hears the words of God, And knows the knowledge of the Most High, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered. I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, While Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, And will destroy the remnant from the city.” Then I turned in the direction of Amalek, and pronounced, “Amalek was the first of the nations, But his end shall be destruction.” I turned in the direction of the Kenites, and declared, “Your dwelling place is enduring, And your nest is set in the cliff. Nevertheless Kain will be consumed; How long will Asshur keep you captive?” I opened my arms to encompass all these nations, and cried in a loud voice, “Alas, who can live except God has ordained it? But ships shall come from the coast of Kittim, And they shall afflict Asshur and will afflict Eber; So they also will come to destruction.”
I turned and beheld the stunned horror on the faces of Balak and all of his princes. I smiled. “Here is the end of the matter,” I said. “The Lord has blessed Israel; neither I nor you nor anyone on earth can curse those whom the Lord has blessed. But I will tell you what you can do instead.” I pointed at the altars of Baal. I saw confusion cross their faces as they turned to look where I pointed. “No one outside of Israel may curse them, but they can curse themselves.” 
King Balak whipped around to face me again, eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” he demanded. “Why would they do such a thing?” 
“Simple,” I shrugged. “They are in covenant with the Lord, but it is not an unconditional covenant. If they violate their end of the agreement, they bring themselves out from under His protection. They will be as weak and susceptible as any other nation. In fact, the covenant itself enumerates the curses that will come upon them, should they cease to follow the Lord their God only.” 
Balak’s eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. He was practically salivating.
“What are these rules that they must keep?” he demanded. “And how can we entice the Israelites to break them?” 
“Your land is a land of beautiful women, is it not?” I asked casually. Balak and the princes nodded eagerly, and I went on, “And harlotry is included as one of the rituals of your worship to Baal, is it not?” 
“Yes!” Balak cried, the beginnings of understanding dawning on his face. 
I nodded. “Very good. The Israelites’ first two commandments given them by the prophet who led them out of Israel were these: ‘you shall have no other gods before Me,’ and ‘you shall not make for yourself a carved image; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.’” I left out the part I had heard about His blessings to the thousandth generation of those who love Him. “So you see? I do not believe you could directly entice them to sacrifice to Baal, unless you gave them an incentive. But if your beautiful Moabite women were to entice the Israelite men into sexual encounters, provided it is in the context of Baal worship…” I opened my hands with a casual flourish, and Balak and the princes now shared my smile. “The people will curse themselves.” 
Balak’s grin hardened into a snarl. I kept my hand open before him and let it hang there, until he finally glanced at it and took my meaning. He smirked, and gestured to one of the princes beside him, “Pay the man. He has given us what we wished, after all.” 
Jul 23, 2021

Today's meditation comes from Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13.

Introduction

For the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, He did nothing that the gospel writers saw fit to record, save for the one episode where He remained behind in the temple at twelve years of age, listening at the teachers’ feet and astounding them with His wisdom (Luke 2:41-52). He otherwise appeared to be a normal young man, until He was anointed by the Holy Spirit and received power from on high. This marked the beginning of His ministry. He had the power to do miracles at this point, but He had never yet performed one. Strangely, the first thing the Holy Spirit did was lead Him into the wilderness, to be tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1). The Holy Spirit actually intended for the temptations to occur. Yet we know God never leads us into temptation (Matthew 6:13, James 1:13); Jesus was a special case, for this too. Why? 
In my retelling, Jesus recited to Himself the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, believing that His own time in the wilderness was a parallel of theirs. They left Egypt (the life they knew), just as He left His old life of obscurity behind. They had never before known power, and then suddenly they were delivered with great signs and wonders. Then the Lord drove them into the wilderness, where they confronted daily needs, and with them, temptations to doubt the Lord’s goodness and provision. The story in the Old Testament does not record that it was Satan stirring up the people against the Lord, but then, the Old Testament had (almost) no doctrine of Satan. Presumably he was there, though, and the Israelites gave right in, every time. In order for Jesus to be our perfect sacrifice and substitute, He needed to be tempted in all ways as we were, and yet remain without sin (Hebrews 4:15). So the first temptation, according to both versions of this story in Matthew and Luke, was turning stone into bread. This parallels the temptations of the Israelites in the wilderness: much of their grumblings against the Lord had to do with lack of food and water. Notice that Satan waited to offer this temptation to Jesus until he’d been fasting for forty days, and was literally beginning to starve. Bread was not a luxury, but a legitimate need at this point. Yet would He trust in the Father to provide, or take matters into His own hands? If He did the latter, it would demonstrate potentially two things: lack of trust in God’s provision, and also doubt in His own identity. 
It’s interesting that Satan begins two of his temptations with “If You are the Son of God.” These would not have been temptations if Jesus had no inclination to doubt who He was. Yet after thirty years of doing nothing remarkable, how could He not? Giving in to this doubt would have been sin, though, as “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), and the root of all sin is unbelief (John 16:9). 
The order of the second and third temptations varies in the two accounts in Matthew and Luke, though the content was the same. According to 1 John 2:16, there are only three areas in which Satan tempts us: the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The temptation to turn stone to bread was lust of the flesh: putting the needs of His body above following God. He responded to this temptation by comparing God’s Word to bread: no doubt this was exactly what the original manna in the wilderness was meant to represent. 
Pride of life would have been showing off by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple, just to prove to the Jews (and to Himself) that He had the power to call angels to His assistance. Satan even tried to twist scripture to convince Jesus to fall for this one, adding to and omitting portions of Psalm 91 to suit his purposes. Satan’s version of Psalm 91 made it sound as though God had promised carte blanche: complete protection under any and all circumstances. But Jesus understood that His power was not to be spent upon His own lusts (James 4:3)—and indeed, He did not benefit personally from any of the miracles He performed (unless you count taking His portion from the food He multiplied when feeding the 5000 and the 4000). Here too, Jesus responds to the temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy, as He does with all three. As Paul tells us, the Word is a sword, our only offensive weapon against the enemy (Ephesians 6:17).
The last temptation according to Matthew’s account was the lust of the eyes, as He beheld all the glittering kingdoms of the world. Luke’s gospel records Satan’s assertion, “this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish” (Luke 4:6). Notice that Jesus didn’t contradict this: the earth and all its kingdoms were Satan’s, and they both knew it. Jesus had come to earth, in part, to regain the authority that Adam had lost. Here, Satan offered it to Him freely. I doubt Satan realized that the alternative was the cross, since Paul tells us that if he had understood this, he would never have crucified Him (1 Corinthians 2:8). But Jesus knew it, which presumably made the offer all the more enticing. Yet even if Satan had kept his end of the bargain (which is doubtful), regaining authority for Himself only was never Jesus’ goal. He wanted us back, and there was only one way to get us. If Jesus had sinned, He could not have become the perfect Lamb of God, our substitutionary sacrifice. He could not have ushered in the New Covenant. 
 

Fictionalized Retelling (from Jesus' POV)

It was time. 
I had, from time to time over the last six months, lingered some distance away from the Jordan River as my cousin John baptized the hoards of Israel who came to him seeking repentance. I watched smiling, laughing, and sometimes weeping as the prodigals came home. 
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” I murmured aloud on more than one occasion, bursting with pride in my cousin. But I had never revealed my presence to him over the past six months. His fame grew, though I remained in obscurity. 
Until now. 
My heart hammered in my chest in a blend of excitement and anticipation as I made my way right down to the banks of the Jordan this time. John was waist deep in the river, helping a middle aged man plunge beneath the waters and come back up again, his nose plugged and eyes closed while everyone around him cheered. Grinning, John released him. 
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance, friend!” John shouted after the man as he waded toward his friends, arms thrust into the air in victory and face streaming with water.
John turned to see who was next, and our eyes locked. His smile froze while mine widened. Understanding struck him. 
“Of course it’s you.” He was too far away and the rushing water was too loud for me to hear him, but I saw his lips form the words and his eyes fill with tears. Then he started laughing, even as the tears spilled over onto his cheeks. Answering tears pricked in my own eyes. I had always imagined this moment: how John would react when he realized that I was the Messiah. The reality was better. 
“Behold!” John bellowed to everyone around him, making a grand sweeping gesture to me with one hand as he wiped his cheeks with the other. “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.”
My chest felt like it might burst with love for My cousin. I waded up to him as he spoke, positioning Myself to be baptized as the others before Me had done. His expression changed from awestruck to appalled, and he held up his hands in protest. 
“I need to be baptized by You,” he protested, “and are You coming to me?” 
“Let it be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” I told him.
He shook his head, but in wonder, not refusal. I knelt down, plugged My nose, and closed My eyes, as My cousin took hold of my shoulders and lowered Me below the chilly rushing waters. He lifted Me out again, and I shook My hair and beard, water streaming from My face as I wiped it away. The sky above us was cloudless that day, but even so, it seemed to part like a pair of blue curtains. Beyond it, I saw the scene Ezekiel had described: a still sapphire sea, and a throne surrounded by an emerald rainbow. The One on the throne was all flame and rainbow, more glorious than the sun. 
“Father,” I whispered. It was the first time I had ever seen Him with My human eyes. 
He rose to His feet, and threw something in the air. As it descended through the parted sky, I could make out the form of a gleaming white dove. It landed on My shoulder.
“Holy Spirit!” I breathed, like embracing an old friend. He burned Me, but without pain, as Moses’ bush had burned without being consumed.
“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” My Father declared. 
With that, the sky rolled back across the heavenly scene like a scroll. The dove too had vanished, and the burning faded—but He was upon Me still, just like He had come upon the prophets of old in power. I knew He would be with Me from now on, until My mission here was complete. 
I turned to John, curious whether he had seen and heard what I had, or whether that had just been for Me. His awestruck expression, still turned toward the sky, told Me all I needed to know. Then he looked back at Me. 
“How long have You known?” he murmured. 
I smiled back at him. “As far back as I can remember.” 
“And yet You never told me!” It was an accusation, but then he held up a hand and said, “No no, I understand. It was better this way. I’d have asked far too many questions, though by all rights I should have guessed.” He shook his head and added to himself, “I must have been intentionally blinded until now; it’s the most obvious thing in the world—Jesus! where are You going?”  
I was wading back to the banks, and already the crowds had parted to make way for Me. I pointed up to the heavens. “The Spirit compels Me away from here just as surely as if He tugged Me by the hand. I must go.” 
“Where?” John called after me. “I’ll come with You!” 
“Into the wilderness, and I must go alone,” I called, giving him an apologetic glance. “You, meanwhile, still have work to do here.” I cast him one more grin, and made my way through the crowds gazing at Me with amazement on the banks, My robes streaming with water and gathering mud at the hems.
 
I walked out into the lonely places of Israel, as the chatter of the crowds grew distant behind Me. My clothing dried and stiffened with the sediment from the Jordan as the day progressed. Wild animals heard my footsteps and fled as I drew near. The Holy Spirit pulled me deeper and deeper into the wilderness. 
Yet there was another presence here too, besides Him and Me. I felt, though I did not see him yet. His hatred pulsed all around Me, like the heat radiating from the sun. It was almost tangible. 
I made camp that first night after the sun went down, and lay My head upon a flat stone for a pillow. I closed My eyes. It was then that I heard the first whispers. 
You imagined it all, Satan taunted. There was no open heaven, no Father, no Holy Spirit. You suffer from delusions of grandeur. What are You but a poor dead carpenter’s son?
I huffed and turned over. “It just happened today,” I said aloud. “At least have the decency to wait a few days before you try to make Me doubt it.” 
He fell silent for perhaps an hour. Then when I hovered in that space between sleep and waking, he whispered, You’re not the Messiah. You’ve never done any miracles in your life. John is greater than You are! 
I groaned, mostly annoyed to be disturbed out of slumber. Aloud, I countered in a voice thick with sleep, “Born in Bethlehem, of a virgin, from the tribe of Judah and of the line of David. I was called out of Egypt, while Herod massacred the children two and under at the time of my birth. My cousin, also born of a miracle, came in the spirit and power of Elijah and has been my forerunner for six months…” I kept quoting prophecies I had fulfilled already until I sensed that Satan had given up for the night. Then I breathed a sigh of relief, and drifted off at last.
Day and night, this cycle repeated—intensely for the first three days, when I was hungriest. By the third day, my hunger receded, and so did the whispers. After that, Satan’s daily temptations seemed almost halfhearted, and he gave up easily.
“Isn’t that just like you,” I panted to him aloud as I crested a hill with a large tree where I could rest in the shade. “Not one to waste your efforts in a battle you know you cannot win!” 
I knew I would not feel hunger again for the most part until I literally began to starve, which would happen around day forty. I did not know how long the Holy Spirit intended for me to spend out in the wilderness, though I guessed forty days and nights—that number recurred throughout scripture. The hardest battle would come near the end, when I was at my weakest, both physically and emotionally. 
Until then, I walked, I rested, and just when I could stand my thirst no more, I came across streams and springs where I slaked my parched tongue. I quoted the Pentateuch to Myself aloud. I sang the Psalms, inventing melodies for some of them that had never been set to music in My day. I talked to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, though I got no more audible or miraculous responses as I had in the Jordan. 
What are You doing out here? What is the point? Satan whispered several weeks in. 
“Symbolism,” I informed him, as much for My benefit as for his. “The Israelites left their old life in Egypt, were ‘baptized’ as they passed through the Red Sea, and entered the wilderness, where they learned trust and dependence upon God day by day, despite constant opportunities to doubt. Forty years for them; forty days for Me. Then they entered the Promised Land, through the Jordan at flood stage. Jordan means ‘destroyer,’ which symbolizes you, of course. The waters of the ‘destroyer’ parted and were cut off all the way back to the city called Adam. It was, for them, as if the fall had never happened, as long as they remained on the right side of the covenant. You had no power over them anymore. Only then did they began their work of taking territory and slaying giants. In the same way, after I defeat you in the wilderness, then My ministry will begin. Then I will take down your ‘giants’ of sickness, death, and disease, set the captives free, and proclaim the good news of the kingdom.” 
If this is Your wilderness experience like what the Israelites experienced, then where is your manna? Satan sneered. God fed the Israelites, but He’s happy to let You starve. You know why? You’re not really His son. He’ll let You die out here like the blasphemer You are.
I rolled My eyes at this attempt, though in truth, My stomach responded differently. It growled at the thought of manna. 
The awakened hunger persisted after that. At first upon is return, it gnawed here and there and then quieted for the rest of the day. It was worse on the days when I did not come upon a stream. A belly heavy with water could soothe the ravenous beast for awhile. 
By day forty, though, the hunger was constant and nearly unbearable. I hardly felt the Holy Spirit’s presence at all, but Satan’s whispers seemed always just behind Me. 
I squinted against the glare of the midday sun, not sure if My eyes were playing tricks on Me. But surely if I were to see a mirage, the shriveled, misshapen being before Me is not what I would have conjured. 
“Satan,” I greeted the creature. I had never seen him before with My human eyes, yet I recognized him at once. I looked him up and down, noting the leathery skin like that of a bat, the emaciated features, the beady flashing red eyes. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” I commented. My human eyes had never beheld him in his pre-fall glory either, but I knew the story from Isaiah. 
His lip curled at this, returning the inspection. “I could say the same of You, if You truly were who You claimed to be. But You and I both know You’re not. At least I once glowed brighter than the morning star. You, on the other hand…” he gave a wheezy laugh. “A delusional carpenter whom God will permit to die of starvation in the wilderness, whose carcass will be picked clean by the vultures.” 
“How well-named you are,” I retorted. Satan meant accuser. 
If You are the Son of God,” he returned, circling Me like one of the vultures he had referenced, “command that these stones become bread.” He gestured at a large boulder at my feet. 
Immediately My stomach gave a loud, painful growl. Unbidden, I saw the hot loaf in My mind’s eye, dripping with butter, sweetened with honey. My mouth flooded with saliva I could ill afford to spare: I was dehydrated enough. 
But I had not quoted the Pentateuch for forty days and nights for nothing. I knew the stories: God gave Moses the rod that he used in power to deliver the Israelites from every one of their challenges, and yet he was only to use it as God had prescribed. He could not bring water out of any rock, nor could he do it by any method he chose. When he forgot this, he had forfeited his own right to enter the Promised Land. In the same way, the power of the Holy Spirit was Mine, but I could not use it when and how I pleased—lest I forfeit My Promised Land. 
“It is written,” I panted back, swallowing back the saliva, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Satan knew the reference as I did: it was from Deuteronomy. His beady eyes flashed, but he tried to control his expression. I should have felt a flash of triumph, but all I felt was hungry. 
Satan circled Me, and fastened his reptilian hands upon My wrists. In a whirl of wind and the blink of an eye, he spirited us together to the pinnacle of the temple of Jerusalem. My eyes widened and I took a step back from the ledge, as down below I saw the bustle of the crowd of worshippers, or priests bearing lambs or goats they had just bought and washed for sacrifice. They did not seem to see us—yet. 
“Prince of the power of the air,” I murmured to Myself, amazed. It was an impressive trick. 
He smirked at me, and gave an exaggerated little bow. Then his proud expression hardened and he took a step closer to me—too close. “If You are the Son of God,” he hissed, and gestured at the ledge casually, “throw Yourself down.” His words again conjured a clear picture in my mind: the gasps, the cheers, the crowds flocking to Me in amazement. What a spectacular way to announce My ministry! Satan shrugged and added, “For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
I gnashed My teeth together. That was a misquote of Psalm 91. Technically it was correct, but it was completely out of context. It angered Me how subtle his lies were, though less for Myself, and more for all those precious ones whom I knew he would lead astray with exactly this kind of deceit throughout the ages. I retorted, “It is also written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God!’” This was also from Deuteronomy. “Don’t play this game with Me, Satan. You think you know the word better than I do? I am the Word. You cannot win.” 
“Oh, can’t I?” he whispered back, clutching My wrists in his fists once again. I did not know where he planned to take Me now, but I knew he would choose a different tactic this time. He couldn’t make Me doubt My identity, so—
I caught My breath. We were at the top of a snow-capped mountain, well above the clouds, though I did not feel cold. This was a vision, I realized. I looked down, and all around me I saw—time. All of it. From the beginning to the end, every glittering kingdom of earth merged with one another, their rising and falling, their wealth and their greatness. But even more than this, I saw the people in those kingdoms: great and small, young and old, good and evil. My heart ached. They were why I had come. I longed for them, so desperately—My sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, all lost and hopeless and hurting without Me!
Satan leaned so close to My ear that I could feel his breath upon My neck. 
“All this authority I will give you, and their glory. It has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. If You will fall down and worship me, all will be Yours.” 
I whirled on him, horrified at the longing I felt. Adam gave the authority of all the earth to him, and he offered it back to Me now. It was precisely what I had come to reclaim, and he now offered Me a shortcut—without the sacrifice. 
Without the cross. 
“Away with you, Satan!” I snapped. “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve!’”
His expression sank into a deep scowl, and he bared his pointed yellowed teeth at Me. Then in a whirlwind, he was gone. I found Myself alone in the wilderness once again, on My hands and knees, panting. 
Then I felt a hand on My shoulder. I jerked back, expecting to see Satan once again, but I softened when I saw a beautiful face I somehow also recognized. 
“Gabriel?”
He smiled at me tenderly, and gestured behind him. There, I saw a cake sizzling upon a stone, and a jug of water. My stomach gave an answering, painful growl. I thought at once of the story of Elijah in the wilderness as he fled to Mount Sinai, and an angel met him along the way with just such refreshment as this. 
Gabriel hovered just behind me as I wolfed down the repast, closing My eyes in bliss as I savored the flavors. The cake was smaller than I would have liked, but I also knew better than to break such a long fast with a large meal. Nevertheless, had I had the option, it would have been hard to resist. 
When I had finished, I turned back to Gabriel. 
“I wonder that I have never met him before,” I said, meaning Satan. “But then, I’ve never drawn attention to Myself before.” 
The angel nodded, and pointed at the sky with a slight smirk. “That got his attention, I think.” 
I laughed, and then grew thoughtful. “Yes. But I needed it, too.” Of course, I literally needed the power of the Spirit to begin My ministry—but what I meant was that I had emotionally needed the open vision and the Father’s voice, too. After thirty years of obscurity, I had not doubted My identity per se, but the overt confirmation had certainly been a relief. Gabriel understood this.  
“That has always been the struggle,” Gabriel agreed. “Physical manifestations of power alert Satan to where the battle is.” Then he added, “He gave up for now, but he’ll be back, whenever he thinks You’re at Your most vulnerable. He’s like the Amalekites in that way.” 
I gave a short laugh, catching the reference to the tribe that had first attacked the Israelites in the wilderness by picking off the weak and stragglers among them. “Of course he is. The Amalekites got that strategy from him.” I sighed and mused to Myself, “I’ll have to be careful. Anything I say plainly or do in the natural realm is double-edged: he can see or hear it just as surely as those for whom it is intended. Which is why so many of the prophets spoke in mysteries and dark sayings.” 
Gabriel sank down to the ground beside Me, mimicking My posture with his arms around his knees. “He never understood any of the prophecies about You until it was too late,” the angel agreed. “Oh, he knew vaguely of course: Seed of Eve, line of Abraham, and that kind of thing—so he did his best to corrupt the earth, keep Abraham’s line barren until there were too many of them to bother with that strategy, and then kill or corrupt the Jews in general. But if he could have narrowed it down to Your exact line…” He shook his head. “Even at the time of Your birth, the best he could do was inspire Herod to kill all the babies two and under in Israel. He didn’t understand that—”
“‘Out of Egypt I have called My Son,’” I finished, quoting from Hosea. 
Gabriel nodded. “Right. He was looking for you in the wrong country. The truth was written in black and white—”
“But in a dark saying,” I agreed, and bit My lip. I thought of David’s seemingly superfluous musical gift of the harp, which turned out to be his ticket into Saul’s palace. I, likewise, had a gift for story telling. Now I understood why. I looked up at Gabriel. 
“I am to teach the people in parables,” I realized. “So that ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding’…” 
“Except for those whose hearts have been prepared to perceive and to understand,” Gabriel agreed. 
“By My cousin.” I gave a short laugh, and then sighed. “Even then, I’ll have to be careful what I say. He’ll be watching Me very closely from now on.” 
Gabriel stood and brushed himself off, which was also My cue that it was time to head back to Capernaum. 
“Yes,” he said, “I daresay Satan won’t take his eyes off of You for a second, from this moment on.” 
Jun 25, 2021

Today's podcast is a meditation on and retelling of John 2:1-11.

This retelling comes from Messiah: Biblical Retellings. The second book in this series is Daughters of Zion: Biblical Retellings

Introduction
    Why was this Jesus’ first public miracle?
    It’s clear he didn’t actually intend it to be. He tried to tell Mary no, and that his time had not yet come, but Mary insisted. Presumably these were close friends of hers, and she was embarrassed for the host that they had run out of wine. She also knew Jesus could help, which is remarkable in itself. Up until this point, Jesus had been baptized by John in power, but he had not yet done any miracles. Mary surely knew that he could do miracles as the Messiah, but it’s remarkable that she had the faith that he would, even after he told her no and he never had before. It was her faith that made this one happen: she actually ignored his ‘no’ and told the servants to go ahead and do whatever Jesus said to do. What must they have thought, when they knew they’d filled up the vessels with just water, and then brought them to the master of ceremonies to taste? Were they snickering amongst themselves? Were they wondering what they would say as explanation?
    After Jesus was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit, he had the powerto do miracles. Satan tempted him in the wilderness to do miraculous signs to prove who he was to himself, since he had never yet performed any miracles. Satan wanted Jesus to doubt his identity. So when Jesus was beginning to literally starve after 40 days with no food, and Satan tempted him to turn a stone into bread, a necessity for himself—and he resisted. Yet now, when Mary wants him to turn water into wine—a luxury for others, he does it. Not only does he do it, he makes up to 180 gallons of it! It takes 5 normal sized bottles of wine to make a gallon, so this is 900 bottles of apparently exquisite wine. No matter how big this wedding, that’s way more than they could ever drink, even with a marriage celebration that went on for days. He continues this theme of abundance throughout his ministry: in the feeding of both the 5000 and the 4000, there was far more left over than he started with. When Jesus told Peter and his partners to cast their nets on the other sides of the boat, there were so many fish that the boats began to sink. He is a God of more than enough.
    Moses’ first miracle under the Covenant of Law was to turn a rod into a serpent (a symbol of sin). Jesus’ first miracle as the bringer of the New Covenant of Grace is to produce an excess of wine (a symbol of joy) for a celebration. This reminds me of the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 16:9-15): in both cases, the people are to take a portion of what he has blessed them with and enjoy it themselves—all God asks is that they invite Him to the party. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).
 
Fictionalized Retelling: from Mary's POV
 
Deborah had been one of my dearest friends since the earliest days of my marriage to Joseph. She and her husband Zev had thought they were barren for many years, before the birth of their daughter Yasmin. Later they had two boys too, but Yasmin was the princess of the family. I watched her grow up with my own children, and loved her like one of my own. When Joseph passed away, her family and ours grew even closer. Zev cared for me like I was one of his own sisters, though my sons were old enough to take care of me then.
    Alas for Yasmin, though, her parents were too poor for much of a dowry, and she was never a beauty. When she reached eighteen with no marriage prospects, Deborah privately cried with me that perhaps Yasmin would never marry. What would she do in her old age, once her parents were not around to provide for her anymore?
    “Her brothers will no doubt provide for her,” I soothed my friend, though inwardly my heart broke for Yasmin, too. Yasmin did not let on, but I knew how it must hurt her not to be chosen, and how she must fear growing old without a family of her own.
    So when she met Tobias, a poor merchant’s son who seemed to see in her what all of us saw, we held our breaths… until the day finally came, when Tobias approached Zev for the Shiddukin, or commitment. When Zev asked Yasmin privately if she would consent to become Tobias’s wife, Deborah told me that Yasmin had burst into happy tears on the spot, choking out her yes with so much emotion that they could hardly understand her.
    I had been present for Yasmin’s Erusin, or betrothal ceremony to Tobias. I thought my face might split, I was grinning so hard as she and Tobias traded the wine goblet under the huppah. Betrothals typically lasted a year, and Tobias would need that long to prepare a place for his bride. From nine months after that day on, Yasmin kept her oil lamps burning in the house twenty-four seven, in case Tobias sounded the shofar and led the bridal procession to collect her in the night. I knew that Deborah and Zev privately fretted about this, since they could not really afford that much oil. But they dared not deny their girl this little luxury, after all she had suffered.
    The oil became a problem when nine months turned into a year, and twelve months became fifteen. Zev finally told Yasmin they could not afford to continue burning the oil lamps. Deborah told me of the tears that followed, and I understood why. Yasmin was not crying because she was denied the oil for the lamps. The oil lamps symbolized her hope that Tobias would ever return, and her hope was dwindling. Had he changed his mind? Would he return at all?
    So when the shofar sounded in the streets of Cana after a seventeen month betrothal, the entire town turned up to celebrate the Nissuin. We all loved Yasmin, Deborah, and Zev. I was relieved that Jesus had just returned home in time, as well: he had been baptized in the river Jordan and then went off into the wilderness for forty days, though I did not know how long he would be gone. He had made it clear to me that he would not necessarily share with me all the details of where and when he would be going from this point forward. I understood the significance of what he was saying. Since his very unusual birth, I had anticipated the day he would step into his role as the Messiah. I wanted to ask him what had happened in the wilderness, but he happened to arrive on day three of the Nissuin, at which point there was such hubbub and commotion that I could hardly ask him anything. He also arrived with a group of several men I had never seen before, orienting themselves around him like disciples. I beamed at my son and waved at him across the way when Deborah intercepted me, all aflutter.
    My face fell as I focused on my friend, and for one wild second, I thought, what crisis now?
    “We are out of wine!” she gasped. “It’s only the third day, and we are out of wine!”
    I understood what she meant immediately. It was considered shameful to run out of wine at all, let alone on day three. Although wedding guests typically helped to pay for the seven day wedding feast of Nissuin, none of our friends were wealthy people. There was no one to whom they could appeal for help.
    “This is because of the excess of oil burning all those months?” I guessed, and Deborah gave me a tearful nod.
    I bit my lip, and looked back at Jesus, then at Deborah again.
    “Leave it to me,” I whispered with determination, and crossed the room.
    I grinned and hugged my son, but when I got close enough to his ear I whispered pointedly, “They have no more wine.”
    When Jesus released me, I saw that he scrutinized my face with a slight frown. “What does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
    I narrowed my eyes at him. “I know about the dove from heaven,” I whispered back, referencing the rumors I had heard about the voice that had declared Jesus’ identity when John baptized him in the river. “You’ve stepped into your ministry now. You even have disciples. If Elijah and Elisha could both multiply oil and flour, I know you can do this! Besides, it’s Yasmin!” I insisted. “She’s practically your sister…”
    I saw that Jesus was about to protest again, so I turned away before I could hear it, gesturing at the servants nearby. I pointed them to Jesus.
    “Whatever he says to you, do it,” I instructed them, turning back to Jesus. I might have worn a slightly triumphant expression. He returned a mock glare, but the corners of his mouth turned upward. I knew I’d won.
    With a slight sigh, Jesus turned to the servants and pointed at six enormous empty waterpots used for ritual purification. “Go and fill the waterpots with water,” he instructed.
    I saw the servants frown at each other skeptically, but I reminded them, “Do it!”
    They shrugged, and went to do as they were told. It took two men to carry each filled pot back to Jesus, since they held about thirty gallons each, sloshing water over the edges as they carried them.
    When they returned, Jesus nodded at them and said, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.”
    The servants at first did nothing. One finally echoed, “Take him some… water.”
    Jesus returned the look I knew so well: that unblinking quiet confidence that said he meant just what he said, and wasn’t going to change his mind.
    The servant shrugged and said, “Well, okay then…” and dipped a goblet into the water. Then he looked down into the goblet and started. He looked back up at Jesus, then down at the goblet, then up at Jesus again. Jesus’ expression had not changed, though there might have been just a twinge more amusement.
    I smiled at Jesus with gratitude, but hurried after the two servants. They brought the goblet to Tobias’s father Uri, acting master of the feast. Uri was tipsy already, and gave a loud and cheerful “Hey!” when he saw that the servants had brought him another goblet of wine. He raised it to his lips, though his attention was elsewhere. All three of us watching eagerly for his reaction. He raised his eyebrows, lifted the goblet to his nose, sniffed it, and swirled it before bringing it to his lips again. Then he looked first to the servants, then to Deborah in amazement. He beckoned his son to him across the room, and Tobias came trotting over.
    “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!” he cried out, clapping the boy on his back and drinking a long draught from the goblet. “Well done!”
    Tobias turned to us, looking confused. I giggled, and gestured to the servant.
    “Bring the bridegroom a goblet too!” I told them. “Bring me one as well!”
    They did so, whispering excitedly among themselves. Many of the guests turned to Jesus after they had no doubt heard the story, with expressions ranging from skepticism to amazement. Tobias shared his goblet with Yasmin, who went to Jesus to thank him. In minutes, the story had traversed the room, and the people swarmed Jesus, wanting to know if it was true. I could just see him through the crowd that now surrounded him, and I raised my goblet in the air to him in a silent toast.
    “To my son,” I whispered to myself. “The Messiah.”
May 28, 2021

Today's meditation is on Luke 18:1-8, the Parable of the Unjust Judge (or the parable of the persistent widow)

May 14, 2021

Today's podcast is a meditation on 1 John 5:14-15: "And this is the confidence we have in Him: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, in whatever we ask, we know that we already possess what we asked of Him."

Apr 16, 2021

Today we're meditating on the relationship between forgiveness and justice. 

Verses: 

  • Matthew 6:14-15
  • Genesis 37-50
  • Colossians 3:13
  • Psalm 37, 103:6, 59:10
  • 2 Thess 1:6-7
  • Heb 10:30-31
  • Isaiah 30:18, 35:4, 49:25, 54:15-17
  • Luke 18:7-8
  • Prov 20:22
  • Romans 12:19-21
Apr 2, 2021
Today's podcast is a meditation on and retelling of Genesis 22:1-19. 
 
Intro: 
This always seemed like a very strange story to me. God said in Jeremiah that child sacrifices never even entered His mind (Jeremiah 19:5), and it’s certainly inconsistent with His character as depicted everywhere else in scripture. True, God did not intend Abraham to actually go through with it, but Abraham didn’t know that. Why test Abraham in such a seemingly cruel way? I don’t fully understand the answer, but I do suspect it involves two things: the Old Testament concept of covenant involving a reciprocal exchange, and the type and shadow of God’s future sacrifice of His own son. 
The parallels between Jesus’ sacrifice and this one are many. God told Abraham to perform this sacrifice on the mountain of Moriah. David later offered sacrifice there too (2 Samuel 24:17-19) and then Solomon built the Temple on that very spot, making the rock at the top the Holy of Holies (2 Chronicles 3:1). Today, this is the hotly contested spot sacred to both the Arabs and the Israelites, currently the site of the Dome of the Rock. Isaac was therefore a type of the sacrifice for sin which would later be offered in that very place for the sins of Israel, ultimately fulfilled for all time in Jesus. 
We know that Isaac was less than thirty-seven years old at this time, since Sarah died when she was one hundred and twenty-seven years old, making Isaac thirty-seven at the time (Genesis 23:1). Because of the parallels with Jesus, some scholars believe he was thirty-three when this occurred, as Jesus was at the time of His death. 
Just as God willingly sacrificed His beloved, long-awaited, only Son, born of a miracle, destined to bless the whole world, so Abraham willingly offered Isaac: beloved, long-awaited “only son” of the promise (22:2), born of a miracle, through whom all the nations of the world were to be blessed (22:18). 
Just as Jesus carried the cross he was to die on, so Isaac carried the wood he was to die on (Genesis 22:6).
When Isaac (by now surely beginning to suspect) asked Abraham where the sacrifice was,  Abraham’s answer was prophetic, whether Abraham realized it or not. He didn’t say, “God will provide the lamb;” he said, “God will provide Himself a lamb” (22:8). Did he understand that this was a prophetic pre-enactment? We know that Abraham did not believe that Isaac would die and stay dead; he either expected God to provide an alternative sacrifice all along, as this statement suggests, or he believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be (Hebrews 11:17-19). Either way, he told the servants, “we will come back to you” (22:5). Not I will come back. Like Jesus was able to endure the cross because He looked past it, to the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2), so Abraham saw past the moment of sacrifice to the moment of God’s redemption, though he did not know in advance what form it would take. 
Considering Abraham was one hundred years older than Isaac, there is no way he could have overpowered Isaac in order to sacrifice him. Isaac must have been a willing participant, laying down his life as Jesus did (Titus 2:14). Like Jesus, there is no record that Isaac said anything at all when he was led to slaughter (Genesis 22:9, Isaiah 53:7, Matthew 27:14).
So this sacrifice was clearly a type and shadow, one of many in the Old Testament. God also told Hosea to marry a prostitute as a type of His own marriage to unfaithful Israel (Hosea 1), and told Ezekiel to lay on his side for a year as a symbol of Jerusalem’s upcoming siege (Ezekiel 4). Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years to symbolize the coming judgment against Egypt and Cush (Isaiah 20:3). I’m sure these things got people’s attention, but still—why? 
The best answer I’ve heard comes from Charles Capps, though I still feel it's incomplete. Old Testament covenants always symbolized an exchange: the two parties shared both assets and liabilities in common, and the terms of the covenant were like a legal agreement today, outlining what each party must do in order to fulfill his end. The exchange of blood and of names served as symbols for the seriousness of the agreement, and of two identities merging into one. But Abraham (then Abram) was asleep when God cut the covenant with him (Genesis 15)—he thus did not participate as one of the two parties. God later gave Abraham the sign of the covenant, circumcision—but still, Abraham had not really done anything to validate his side of the agreement. Given the heavenly courtroom drama we saw from the book of Job, is it possible that God needed Abraham, our covenant head, to demonstrate his willingness to offer up his only son, so that God could “legally” offer His son on our behalf? If Abraham had not been willing, would he have failed to ratify the covenant of faith, giving Satan a legal loophole to contest the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf? 
 
Retelling
Years passed, and Isaac grew into manhood. He was our pride and joy, and everything Sarah and I could possibly have wished for in a son: obedient, dutiful, handsome, and so very patient. I often marveled at how mild he was, particularly given his mother’s fiery temper. He was the best of both of us, with his mother’s good looks and common sense, and my quiet trust and confidence in the Lord. 
Yet while Isaac seemed content to live his life moment by moment, never fretting about what was to come, Sarah agonized over where to find him a wife. 
“He’s already over thirty years old!” she insisted one evening when we were alone. “We should send a servant now!” 
“The Lord has not told me to do that,” I reminded her, “and yes, I’ve asked Him about it, and I’ve continued to ask Him. He will tell me when the time is right. Isaac is the promised child, Sarah. Obviously he will have to marry.” 
When?” Sarah demanded. “I’m over one hundred and twenty years old, Abraham, Father of Nations! I’d like to live to see my grandchildren!” 
What she did not say was that Hagar, her longtime rival, already enjoyed five grandsons through Ishmael, and three granddaughters as well. Sarah’s animosity for her former maid had simmered after Isaac’s birth, but had reignited once Ishmael had married and his wife began to bear children. 
“Patience, my love,” I murmured, kissing the top of her head. She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “He will marry. He will have children. Our descendants will be as the grains of sand and the stars in the sky, remember? Surely you cannot doubt that now.”  
She sniffled. At long last she grumbled, “I don’t doubt it, I’m just sick of waiting. I don’t see why you can’t just send a servant back to Ur. Why do you have to wait for the Lord to tell you to do it? Isn’t it obvious that’s what has to be done?”
I raised my eyebrows at her. “Really?” I let my question hang in the air between us. She knew exactly what I meant: the last time she had tried to help God out, Hagar had borne Ishmael, and Sarah herself had gained a lifelong enemy.  
She sighed. “All right fine, but—will you please at least ask Him again?” 
I nodded, squeezed her shoulder, and went out of the tent. I spotted Isaac sitting off by himself and gazing up at the stars, as he often did. He gave me a cheerful little wave. I smiled back.
Abraham.” 
I froze, and instinctively glanced back in Isaac’s direction, even though I knew the voice had not come from him. He had not turned to look at me, though—apparently the voice was only in my head this time. 
“Here I am,” I answered the Lord, taking another tentative step away from my tents and flocks, toward the wilderness.
He went on, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 
I stopped walking. I had heard the words, but I had to repeat them in my mind several times before I understood their meaning. 
“Do what, Lord?” 
He repeated the words, but did not elaborate. For a brief flash, my imagination conjured the image of my only son’s bloody lifeless body, the trail of smoke ascending to heaven. 
“No,” I said aloud, but not to the Lord—to my imagination. Instead, I did as Isaac was doing: I looked up at the stars of the sky. That was the promise. He was the promised child. I’d been through this already. The Lord had made it very clear that He would bless Ishmael for my sake, but Isaac was the one through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed, and the one through whom I would be the father of nations. Yet Isaac was not married and had no children yet. 
That meant he had to live. The Lord just told me to kill him, but he had to live. 
I either wouldn’t have to go through with it, or else—God would raise him from the dead. From the ashes, if necessary. 
I didn’t want to think about what my relationship with my son would be like after I’d slain him, not to mention my relationship with Sarah. But I couldn’t think about that. My imagination tried all night long to return to the moment of slaughter. Every time, I redirected it to afterwards: the moment when Isaac and I would climb down the mountain, together. 
I did not sleep at all.
The next morning I rose before sunrise, eager to get this whole ordeal behind me. I split the wood for the sacrifice, saddled my donkey, and when Isaac rose, I told him to do the same, as well as two servants I intended to take with us. I told the servants to prepare food and water for our journey, and I told Isaac to bid his mother goodbye. I could not do so; my heart was like stone in my chest, and I knew Sarah would take one look at me and demand to know what I was hiding. Isaac surely knew something was wrong, too, but he did not pry. 
We rode for three days in the direction of the land of Moriah, and spoke as little as possible. I caught Isaac glancing at me with concern on more than one occasion, but it was all I could do to grit my teeth and picture the two of us coming down that mountain together. 
He promised, I reminded myself fiercely. God promised. God never lies. God cannot lie. I might have asked myself why God would ask something of me that seemed so far out of character for Him, if I had had the capacity to do so—but it was as if I had tunnel vision. All my attention was focused entirely upon what I had to do, and all my energy upon clinging to God’s promise that somehow, against all hope and against all reason, it would turn out the way God said it would. I had no mental space left over for questions. 
By the third day, I felt like all of my muscles were made of solid rock. Whenever one of the servants tried to speak to me I either did not answer at all, or I snapped my reply. At last, I looked up and saw the mountain of Moriah in the distance. I knew that was it. 
“Stay here with the donkey,” I told the servants. “The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.” 
I saw Isaac watching me with a troubled expression as I took the wood I had split from the donkey’s back, and placed it between Isaac’s shoulders instead. My hands trembled so badly that I could barely get the saddlebag open to retrieve the knife and the flint. Then I turned my back on Isaac, heading for the mountain with fierce determination. 
When we had left the servants far enough behind us, Isaac ventured at last, “Father?”
“Yes, my son.” 
“We have flint and wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
I swallowed before I answered. My mouth was so dry. At last I managed, “Son, God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” I stopped walking, as I listened to my own words. I had not meant to phase it that way; the words simply slipped out. 
God will provide Himself the lamb
God will provide Himself, the Lamb
Over and over the words rattled around in my mind as the mountain grew nearer. I did not understand their significance, but I had a feeling that the words meant more than what I had consciously intended: that we would find a lamb at the right moment for the sacrifice. 
Isaac asked no more, and we walked on, then climbed, in silence. 
At the pinnacle of the mountain, Isaac dropped the wood upon the ground. An inner tremor seized my body, but I breathed through it, assembling the stones for an altar. Isaac helped me, though I could not look at him anymore, and he did not dare address me. 
When the altar was built, I painstakingly arranged the wood. I had been in such a hurry to get here and get this over with, yet now that the moment was here, I wanted to delay it as long as possible. But at last, there was nothing more to do. The time had come. 
I had a length of rope in my pocket. I took it out and turned to my son. He watched me with wide, solemn eyes. We looked at each other for a very long moment, and I knew he knew. I further knew that if he resisted me, this would be impossible. He was thirty-three years old; I was one hundred and thirty-three. He could overpower me with hardly any effort at all.
At last, he stretched out his wrists toward me. I swallowed the lump in my throat, and took a step toward him, then another. I bound his wrists together. Tears ran freely down my cheeks and his as he climbed upon the altar, allowing me then to bind his ankles as well. When this was done, there was nothing to do but retrieve the knife. When I had clasped its hilt and approached my son, I could hardly see for weeping. I raised the knife over his chest.
“Abraham, Abraham!” called a voice from Heaven. 
The knife clattered to the ground, and I fell to my knees. 
“Here I am,” I gasped. 
“Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” 
I cried out and buried my face in my hands, weeping violently with relief and pent-up anguish. 
“Father, look!” Isaac managed to break through my sobs. 
When at last I looked up, I first heard the rustling behind me and then turned around to see a ram with its horns caught in a thicket. I staggered to my feet, unbound Isaac’s ankles and wrists, and he climbed off of the altar. Then he gently took the knife from my hand, crossed to the ram, and slit its throat. Once it was dead, we untangled its horns and dragged its body to the altar. I took the flint and set fire to the offering. 
“The Lord did provide,” Isaac whispered to me over the blaze. “Just as you said.” 
The clouds above parted, and we both looked up. Then the voice declared, “By Myself I have sworn, because you have done this this, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gates of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” 
When the Lord finished speaking, I looked at Isaac, breathless. 
“Did you hear it too?” 
Isaac nodded at me, eyes wide. He reached out and clasped me by the forearm, and I leaned into his shoulder. We sat like that until the ram was consumed and turned to ash, and the smoke began to trail away. 
At long last, Isaac murmured, “You told me before that the Lord had already promised those things to you. I was not aware that the covenant was conditional.”
I shook my head. “Neither was I, until four days ago.” 
I had recovered enough now that I could stand. We had brought nothing with us but the knife and the flint, as the wood had all been consumed. Isaac retrieved these for me, and together we made our way back down the mountain. 
“Why, do you think?” Isaac asked at last, when we were about halfway down. “Why was the covenant dependent upon your willingness to sacrifice me, even if He didn’t mean for you to actually do it?” 
I shook my head. I had been mulling over this same point, but I knew that if the Lord had intended to tell me, He would have done so already. Covenants between humans were always conditional; there were always terms for each party, and each side must fulfill his terms, or the covenant was null and void. I had been asleep when the Lord had made His first covenant with me, though. In my vision, the two parties who walked between the pieces of the sacrifices were a smoking firepot and a flaming torch. I had an inkling then that God Himself represented both parties: He was cutting the covenant with Himself, though I didn’t know what that meant. I was unconscious, and thus, a mere passive recipient. Years later, when God had told me to circumcise every man of my household, I had actually been relieved: here at last was something I could do to participate. And yet, in retrospect, this was not truly participation in the covenant, so much as a sign of the covenant. A covenant meant the two parties shared everything in common: what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. We hold all of our assets and our liabilities in common. Yet God had all the assets; I had none that He had not first given me. I therefore had never ratified my side of the covenant. 
Not until today. Today, it became binding. 
God will provide Himself, the Lamb. Yes, God had given me Isaac, and in that sense He had provided the lamb. He had then provided the ram as a substitute. But there was more to it than that…
“Father?” Isaac prodded me. 
I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I have a vague idea that you and I are re-enactors on a stage. But… what were we reenacting?” 
Isaac looked at me. “Or foreshadowing?” 
His words gave me chills. 
 
Mar 19, 2021

Royce King has served in ministry for nearly 30 years. She’s held leadership roles within the church, including youth group leader, Bible study leader, retreat speaker, and others. Her heart for at-risk populations has always spurred her to serve and mentor women and young girls.

Royce King, published author, speaker, and coach, has served startups and nonprofit organizations who desire to grow in revenue and develop leadership skills since 2012.

In this new season of life, Royce is serving missionaries around the world, and is committed to helping others develop a relationship with Jesus. She and her husband reside in Colorado, and have two grown children and a precious granddaughter. She enjoys hiking, traveling, good food, and reading.

Get a copy of her book, Unwrapping Your Worth In Christ here or on her website at roycekingauthor.com.

Feb 19, 2021

Meditation on Judges 5-6

Introduction
Deborah was the only female judge recorded in Israel’s history. We don’t know why that is, or how she got into that position, though we do know that she was a wife and a mother (unless the mention that she is a “mother in Israel,” Judges 5:7, is symbolic of her role over her people). When God instituted judges to help Moses, he was specifically instructed to appoint men to that position. Perhaps, as in the days of Gideon, the men of Israel were all so cowed by their oppressors that God could not find a man of faith, so he found a woman instead. (Gideon eventually did as God asked, but it sure took a lot of convincing on God’s part.) We can see that faith is scarce by Barak’s response when Deborah told him to go up against Sisera—he was so fearful that he insisted that she be the one to lead the armies into battle! Presumably had he done what the Lord commanded through Deborah without shrinking back in fear, the glory for finishing off Sisera would have gone to him, rather than to Jael.
It’s easy to understand why the men were so fearful, if you only look at the situation in the natural. They had been oppressed by King Jabin for at least twenty years. The Israelite armies had not one shield or spear among forty thousand (Judges 5:8), compared to Sisera, who had nine hundred chariots of iron. Most of the tribes of Israel refused to heed Barak’s call (Judges 5:13-18), so even their numbers were pitiful compared to what they might have been. But it didn’t matter: the Lord caused the river Kishon to sweep the chariots away (Judges 5:21). This might have been due to rain overflowing the banks, and the water from the mountains rushing down to the banks as well (Judges 5:4-5)—perhaps due to marshy conditions, the chariots got stuck and were rendered useless. Regardless, when the Israelites came against Sisera’s far more powerful army, they killed every last one of them (Judges 4:16) by the sword—swords they didn’t even have to begin with! Sisera alone fled on foot. Since the Israelites had no swords, presumably they took their enemies’ own swords and used those against them.
Heber, meanwhile, was mentioned just before the verse that someone told Sisera of the assembly of Barak’s armies, so presumably he was the one who tattled. Sisera would have felt safe in Jael’s tent, as she was Heber’s wife. He just assumed that she shared her husband’s political views. Oops.
Jael’s action can be considered as an act of war, rather than murder. She was not permitted to fight openly on the battlefield, so she did what she could. Any of the soldiers on the battlefield would have been delighted to do the same, had they been given the chance.

Fictionalized Retelling

Deborah:
The two disputing Israelite women, now reconciled, made their way down through the mountains of Ephraim. I sat alone under my palm tree now, awaiting the next case the Israelites would bring before me for judgment.
This was my favorite part, though: the moments in between. The moments of peace, where I could just listen to the wind whipping through the palm branches above my head. I closed my eyes, letting the breeze caress my face.
It is time.
My eyes flew open. The sound came to my spirit like a whisper, and yet I knew it as the voice of the Lord. My heart beat faster, because I knew what He meant, too: I had been pleading since my early adulthood, for the past twenty years, to deliver us from the oppressive hand of King Jabin of Canaan. We were the Lord’s people, and He had given the land of Canaan to us—and yet, due to our disobedience, He had allowed us to be oppressed by our enemies. We had not one spear or shield among forty thousand Israelites: not even the means to defend ourselves. We had no money to pay the men who risked their lives on our behalf. I had expected the Lord to provide both of those things before a military approach would be feasible.
And yet, with neither weapons nor money, and most of Israel still trembling in fear, God still told me, It is time.
“What should I do, Lord?” I asked aloud.
What came next was an impression, rather than words. I saw Barak, son of Abinoam from Kedesh, of the tribe of Naphtali. He was on Mount Tabor, with a sea of Israelite men, though I knew without counting that there were ten thousand of them. They were sons of Naphtali and of Zebulun. I saw Sisera, commander of Jabin’s armies, coming against him, his nine hundred chariots of iron all around him. The battle took place at the River Kishon. Despite the inequality of weapons and the fact that Sisera was not taken unawares, in my vision, Sisera’s entire army fell before Barak’s.
“You have shown this to Barak as well?” I asked the Lord out loud. I sensed that the answer was yes.
The next person I saw cresting the hill to where I sat was my husband Lapidoth, and our three children. They skipped like little lambs, and I stood up, grinning, to welcome them. Lapidoth had a basket slung over his arm, which I knew contained whatever food he was able to scrounge up for our midday meal. It was never much, but we never went hungry either. The Lord always provided.
“Busy today?” he asked me, as we all settled down to eat.
My eyes shone as I told him what the Lord had shown me. “Would you summon Barak when you return to the valley?” I asked. “I must speak with him today.”
Lapidoth did as I asked, and several hours later, just at the golden hour before sunset, I saw Barak cresting the hill, alone. He was a large, thickly built man, with a heavy brow and an expression etched in stone. He looked every bit the military commander.
“Has not the Lord God of Israel already told you what you are to do?” I asked him, and described what I saw. “Thus says the Lord: ‘I will deliver Sisera into your hand at the River Kishon.’”
Barak shuffled his feet, cleared his throat, and did not answer me immediately. At last he said, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!”
I stared at him, not sure I heard him right. This man weighed as much as three of me. I was a wife and a mother! True, God had placed me as judge over Israel, though I had always wondered why He had chosen a woman for the position, when Moses had originally indicated that the job should be held by “able men, such as fear God, men of truth …to be rulers of thousands and rulers of hundreds… and let them judge the people at all seasons.” Men, he had specified. Yet, here I was. Was that because God could not find a man worthy to fill the role? Of course I never intimated these thoughts to my husband, who chafed enough that I held a position of leadership in Israel when he did not. But now I saw before me the man God had chosen to lead his armies, and yet he had so little faith that he would demand a wife and mother lead his troops into battle for him!
When I recovered my tongue, I said sternly, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Barak looked less chagrined at this than I thought he should have. Truth to tell, he looked more relieved than anything else. I arose and went with him to his home of Kedesh, and he sent messengers to the tribes of Israel to recruit soldiers willing to obey the word of the Lord. I was appalled but not surprised when entire tribes refused: Reuben, Gilead, Asher, and Dan sent not a single man. We had a few from Ephraim and from Benjamin, but the bulk of the army, as I had seen in my vision, were from Naphtali and Zebulun. They arrived at Mount Tabor in the coming days bearing what weapons they could find: pitchforks and other instruments of harvesting, stones and homemade slingshots. My heart swelled with the pride of these men who did Israel proud, unlike their brothers.
Oh Lord, there are still some who believe in You!
Yes Daughter, I heard in my spirit. There are always a few.
Down below, Sisera had somehow gotten word that Israel had assembled troops against him—but that was all right. I had expected from my vision that he would. I felt the men grow apprehensive around me as they watched the chariots of iron assembling from Harosheth Hagoyim to the River Kishon. They looked from the chariots down below to their makeshift weapons of farming equipment, their expressions ranging from apprehension to terror. I suppressed a sigh of exasperation.
“Up!” I declared to Barak. “For this is the day in which the Lord has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the Lord gone out before you?”
I led the charge down the mountain toward the army below, though I had no weapon in my hand at all. As soon as Barak saw me move, he kept pace with me and soon outstripped me—his legs were much longer than mine. The ten thousand troops kept pace with him, and I soon found myself lost in the thick of the fighting men.
When we reached the River Kishon where Sisera’s armies awaited us, I was confused at first why he did not direct his chariots to surge forward to meet us. Then I saw that their chariots had been rendered useless to them, the wheels stuck in the marshy ground left over from the rain. Sisera’s army had alighted from their chariots to try to dislodge them when Israel descended upon them with a mighty war cry. In short order, the men of Israel had slain their first victims and stolen their swords, at which point they tore through the rest of the army. But I fixed my gaze upon one man, whose chariot looked more impressive than all the others. When it became apparent that he could not dislodge it from the marshy ground, and the first wave of Israelites defeated the front lines of his army, he alighted from his chariot and fled on foot. He ran in the direction of the terebinth tree at Zaanaim, where I suspected his allies were. Behind him, the Israelites slew every last man of his army. He alone escaped.
My eyes narrowed at the man. That, I knew, was Sisera.

Jael:
My husband Heber was a traitor.
We Kenites had historically been allied with the children of Israel, as descendants of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. But Heber was an opportunist, and decided to ally himself with Jabin, the King of Canaan, instead. He would never fail to side with whoever would benefit him the most.
So we had moved away from the rest of the Kenites, away from everyone we had ever known, and pitched our tent at Zaanaim, where Heber could spy on Israel and report what he had learned to Sisera, Jabin’s military leader. Since Zaanaim was right next to Kedesh, Heber saw when Barak assembled his armies at Mount Tabor. It was he who had alerted Sisera to gather his chariots so that Barak’s army would not take him unawares.
Heber had gone early that morning, to watch what he expected to be the massacre of the Israelites from a safe distance.
Hours went by. I was grateful to have the day to myself at least, but I spent most of it fuming.
I hated King Jabin. I hated Sisera. I hated Heber.
I wanted to be an Israelite again. Or at least an ally to the Israelites. I wanted to belong to their God.
But I was no soldier. I was left out of all machinations, as I was only a woman. What could I do?
Suddenly I froze, hearing a noise I couldn’t quite make out at first. The sound slowly sharpened into the pounding of feet on the ground, and when it got close enough, I heard that it was accompanied by panting as well. Frowning, I approached the flap of my tent and pulled it aside.
Sisera stood before me, alone and on foot, streaming with perspiration.
“Please, my lady,” he gasped, dropping his hands to his knees as he caught his breath. “May I—trouble you for your hospitality?”
I blinked quickly, my mind whirring. Fortunately my mouth worked faster than my brain, and I at once affected womanly concern. “Oh, turn aside, my lord! Turn aside to me; do not fear.” I stepped aside to let the grateful commander pass into my tent. I knew already what I planned to do; I just did not yet know how.
“All of my men have been slaughtered,” Sisera confessed to me, eyes wild with fear. “I alone escaped on foot as you see, and I am sure that the Israelites are pursuing me too now!”
“Never fear, I will keep your secret,” I soothed, and gestured to our own bedding on the ground. “Rest from all your worries. You will need to sleep for a while to have your wits about you, for whatever comes next.” Whatever, indeed.
With no further prompting, Sisera collapsed onto the bed. I clucked my tongue as I pulled a blanket over him, and watched him close his eyes.
“Please give me a little water to drink,” he croaked, “for I am thirsty.”
“I will do better than that,” I cooed, “I have a jug of milk.” I went and retrieved it, and as if he were an invalid or a child, I lifted it to his lips. He drank greedily, the cream running down his chin. He wiped it away with his forearm and lay back down again with a sigh of contentment and relief.
“Stand at the door of the tent,” he begged, “and if any man comes and inquires of you, and says ‘Is there any man here?’ you shall say ‘No.’”
“I will, my lord,” I murmured. “Now close your eyes and rest awhile.”
He needed no further encouragement. Within a few moments, I heard the soft sounds of his rhythmic breathing, followed by occasional snores. I smiled, and went outside the tent, pulling up one of the tent pegs. I wiped off its dirt upon my skirts, and then went back inside, rummaging around for the hammer my husband had used to place it in the first place. Then, grasping the peg in one hand and the hammer in the other, I approached the sleeping commander. He still snored peacefully. Ever so gently, I placed the peg at his temple so as not to wake him. Then, heart pounding, I hammered it in. Straight through to the ground.
Only a woman, I thought, and smiled.
I wiped the blood on my skirts, right next to the dirt, and calmly walked to the tent entrance to wait for the Israelites whom Sisera had said would be hot on his trail.
I recognized Barak as the commander of the Israelite army by the way he was dressed, and flagged him down.
“Come,” I said “I will show you the man whom you seek.”
He followed me inside, and gasped. Then he let out an incredulous chuckle.
“‘The Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman,’” he murmured, but to himself, as if quoting something. Then he looked at me. “I thought He meant Deborah!”
“Your judge?” I asked, confused.
Barak nodded. “I certainly never thought he meant the wife of our enemy!”
I stiffened. “Do not judge me with my husband. We do not see eye to eye, to say the least.”
“No, I can see that,” Barak agreed, with a glance at the dead man in my bed.
After Barak, waves of other Israelites followed, including the famous prophetess herself. Together, Barak and Deborah composed a song of worship to the Lord on the spot, singing about the great victory to the Lord had given them, both at the river, and here in my tent. I choked back tears when they sang about me. The rest of the Israelite soldiers learned the song as they composed it, singing along. I found myself singing along too.
What will Heber say, I wondered with fierce pride, to come home and find that his wife is now the blessed of Israel?

Jan 15, 2021

Today's meditation and retelling comes from Mark 8:22-26. 

Preorder "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)

Afterword

This story gets only four verses, so of course I embellished a lot—we know nothing of this man’s name, family situation, or the circumstances surrounding his blindness. But we do know a little more about Bethsaida: in Matthew 11:21, Jesus rebukes it for the fact that they did not repent, despite the mighty works that had been done in the city. When Jesus fed the 5000, the wilderness was just outside of Bethsaida, so presumably many of those 5000 men, plus women and children, lived there.

While there are plenty of other examples of Jesus getting a person alone or putting away the crowds in order to perform a miracle, this story is unique in that it is the only time recorded where complete healing did not manifest on Jesus’ first attempt. In the case of the woman with the issue of blood, all she had to do was touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she was instantly healed. The Centurian’s servant was healed by a word at a distance. And yet Jesus had to take this man by the hand, lead him out of town, and then intentionally lay hands on him twice in order for his healing to fully manifest. The deficiency could not have been on Jesus’ side, so presumably the blind man himself was the problem. Since Jesus had rebuked the town of Bethsaida, and then told the newly healed man not to go back there, I assume that the town itself contributed to this man’s unbelief. We know from Jesus’ reception in his hometown that unbelief hinders mighty works (Mark 6:4-5), so this was probably why Jesus didn’t want this man to return there. Those who receive healing have to know how to stand when the devil tries to devour them again (1 Peter 5:8).

Bethsaida could not have been all bad, though: it was the home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44). And at least two people did have faith that Jesus could help this man, since it said “they” brought him to Jesus—but there is no indication that the blind man himself sought his healing. This was surely part of the hindrance as well. But he allowed himself to be led out of town by the hand by a complete stranger—that took faith. There were a few other people around besides him and Jesus, since he saw “men as trees walking.” Still, he probably felt vulnerable. What if Jesus left him out there? Could he find his way home again, stone blind as he was?

Why did Jesus spit on and touch the man’s eyes? He spit on the eyes of the man born blind also (John 9:41), but when Jesus had been holding his hand all the way out of town, why would he then need to do anything else? It might have been because the man’s faith had been primed to expect a healing touch (Mark 8:22). Jesus had intended to go to the Centurian’s house when the Centurian sent a delegation to say he believed that Jesus’ word at a distance was enough. The Syro-Phoenician woman likewise believed her daughter was healed when Jesus spoke the word only. The woman with the issue of blood put her faith in touching the hem of his garment. Jesus had said, “According to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29). So perhaps this man’s faith was that he would be healed when Jesus specifically touched him for that purpose.

In Mark 8:24, Jesus told the man to “look up” (anablepo in Greek). This was the same word used when Jesus “looked up” and broke bread before feeding the 5000, and it means not just looking up physically, but looking into the unseen realm, where there is “every spiritual blessing in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). This was the moment when the man could see clearly—in fact, the word “clearly” is telaugos, meaning shining, radiant, or in full light. Perhaps bolstered by the initial improvement in his vision the first time Jesus laid hands on the man’s eyes, he then had hope—and “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Now, he could truly see—in every sense of the word.

Healing of the Blind Man at Bethsaida

Before the accident, I had been a carpenter, with a specialty in fine furniture.

That was an understatement, actually. My name was synonymous with elegant wood carvings in Bethsaida, and even in the surrounding cities. I attracted only the wealthiest clientele. Young hopeful apprentices sought me out, hoping to learn from the master. I’d gruffly rebuffed them for years, even though I was pleased by their interest and flattery; I considered them to be more trouble than they were worth. As time went on, though, I had more clients than I had time, and I realized that it made good business sense to bring on an apprentice. I interviewed several, and chose Ugo, the most eager of the bunch.

That was the biggest mistake of my life.

Ugo worked hard, but he was always in a hurry when he wasn’t actually carving, and so he was accident-prone. I could not make him slow down, no matter how hard I tried. One day in his haste, he collided with a precarious pile of unfinished wood, sending a beam hurtling directly toward his head. On instinct, I knocked him out of the way.

I should have let it crush him.

When I came to, I thought at first that I was in a pitch dark room. Yet there were people all around me, commenting fretfully on my appearance. That was when I comprehended the awful truth.

“I can’t see,” I blurted. “Why can’t I see?”

Shh, lie still, don’t overexert yourself,” the doctor soothed.

“Why can’t I see?” I bellowed, straining against his hands. “Will my vision come back? It’s only temporary, right?”

There was an awful silence. Finally the doctor murmured, “I really can’t say. But I’ve seen injuries like this before, and… usually not.” There was a long pause. I felt like he’d knocked the wind out of me. Then he murmured, “I’m so sorry.”

I lay back against the soft pillow under my head in shock. People moved about somewhere nearby, speaking to one another in low whispers.

“I’ll kill him,” I snarled at last. Then I shouted, struggling to my feet, “I’ll kill that foolish bumbling idiot! Where is he? Where’s Ugo? Put his neck in my hands, right here—!”

A collection of louder voices and large hands forced me back onto my bed, though I bucked and strained against them until I’d spent the last of my meager strength. I at last lay panting and sobbing until I cried myself to sleep.

 

In subsequent years, I grew used to my condition, at least. I had a new routine. I had done well enough while I worked that I was not yet beggared, though I knew the time would come when I would be, if not for the charity of my brothers’ families, who cared for me. From time to time, I wondered if I was already living off their charity, but I spared little thought for that or for anything else. My life was darkness, both literally and figuratively. I slept, ate, and sat, waiting for the days to end. I had neither joy nor hope. When I thought at all, I brooded over what I had lost. I gnashed my teeth when reports reached me of how prosperous Ugo had become. All my clients were now his. He had utterly ruined my life.

Oh, how I wished I could kill him.

 

One day I overheard my brothers talking about a young rabbi, whom they heard was a new prophet in Israel. I snorted.

“There are no more prophets in Israel. Not for hundreds of years. God has abandoned us.”

“What about John the Baptist?” my brother Jacob insisted. “People said he was Elijah.”

I scoffed. “Elijah did miracles. John never did. He wasn’t a prophet.”

“Well, Jesus does miracles, from what I hear. Lots of them!”

“I doubt it,” I muttered.

I knew what the reaction to this would be. Jacob got very stubborn when he was contradicted, and I contradicted him daily. He’d called me a curmudgeon even before my accident, and accused me of becoming ten times worse afterwards.

“You can doubt it if you want, but if he comes to Bethsaida, we’re taking you to him, whether you like it or not!” Jacob informed me.

I uttered under my breath, “I’d like to see you make me.”

But I thought about it later. A lot.

I started to casually ask Jacob, always in a mocking tone of voice, if he’d heard of any new miracles this Jesus had “supposedly performed.” Jacob always had an enthusiastic response for me, often of entire crowds receiving their healing at his hands. He particularly highlighted the stories of eyesight restored. I realized that I started looking forward to these stories as the highlight of my days. Then one night, I dreamt that I could see again. I hadn’t had a dream like this in many years.

I dropped the mocking tone after that when I asked for stories of Jesus. Then I started asking Jacob, as casually as I could, if he’d heard anything about Jesus coming to Bethsaida.

“Nothing yet,” Jacob told me, with a tone of sympathy I hated. “I’ll tell you as soon as I hear—”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said savagely, “It’s all nonsense anyway.”

Abigail, my sister-in-law, scolded me. “You don’t mean that. You’re just trying not to get your hopes up. But maybe you should! Maybe that’s exactly what you need!”

“What do you know about it?” I lashed out at her. “When have you ever been disappointed? When did you lose your entire life in the literal blink of an eye? Don’t you dare lecture me about hope!”

“That’s enough!” Jacob roared as I heard Abigail’s quick, light footsteps leave the room, “never speak to my wife like that again!”

I huffed, crossing my arms over my chest, turning away from the sounds of his voice.

“Sorry,” I muttered about five minutes later. I knew he was still there, as I hadn’t heard him leave. “I know she was just trying to help. But—really! No one understands!”

“If you’d take half a second to get out of your rut of bitterness, there might be a chance for you yet,” Jacob said quietly. “I didn’t tell you this, but before I knew anything about Jesus, he was already here in Bethsaida. And you know what he said about us? He said woe to us, that he did all these miracles and we didn’t repent of our sins and turn back to God. He said—this is what I heard, anyway—‘it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgement than for you!’”

I absorbed this, and then felt my whole body deflate. “Then he’s never coming back,” I croaked.

“There you go again, seeing the worst in everything!” Jacob snapped, “that’s not what I said, and that’s not what he said! My point is, he wants repentance! And your whole life now is a big ball of ‘woe is me,’ because something bad happened to you, and hatred for Ugo because you think it’s all his fault. Yes, something bad happened to you, and yes, it was Ugo’s fault,” he cut me off as I was about to protest, “but it was an accident, and you need to forgive him and let it go instead of letting it consume the rest of your life! Even if you never get your sight back! Then, maybe, if you ever do meet Jesus, you’ll be in a position where you can receive from him!”

I recoiled like he’d struck me. It was, possibly, the first time he had ever successfully rendered me speechless.

Jacob took advantage of the opportunity and stalked out after Abigail, leaving me to absorb his words.

We barely spoke for the next few days. Abigail brought me food, and left. I thought Jacob also came to check on me, but he never spoke to me. On the third day, when I heard footsteps, I called out irritably, “All right, fine! You were right! I’m sorry! …Are you happy?”

The steps came back. “What was that?” Jacob trilled, his tone all exaggerated sweetness.

I huffed. “You heard me.”

“Yes, but I’d like to hear it again. I want to savor this moment for ever and ever…”

“Shut up,” I muttered, but felt a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. “I’m not saying I forgive Ugo, though. I will never forgive him. Not for as long as I live.”

I could hear the shrug in Jacob’s voice. “Suit yourself. It’s not doing him any harm.”

I heard another set of footsteps behind him. I recognized them as belonging to my other brother, Caleb. He sounded like he was in a hurry.

“Jacob, Jesus is in Bethsaida! Right now!”

“What?” Jacob gasped, as I caught my breath. “I haven’t heard that!”

“Because he just arrived! Come on, I know where he is!”

I had already leapt to my feet. Jacob and Caleb took me each by an arm, and hurried me forward a bit too quickly. I stumbled, and Caleb had to catch me.

“Slow down so I don’t fall over,” I muttered, hiding my almost painful excitement beneath my usual gruffness.

I hadn’t been truly out in a crowd in years. The sound of chatter, laughter, shouts, children, and animals assaulted my ears when we got outside. When I had first lost my vision, it had been very strange to know it was daytime, and yet still not perceive even light, as I once did through closed eyelids when the sun streamed down upon me. I was used to it now, though—the world was universal blackness. Now that there were obstacles everywhere, though, I felt terribly vulnerable. My brothers shielded me from the crowds on either side, and I heard them pressing through, apologizing, and from time to time murmuring to me, “Watch your step, down here,” or “careful, big rock next to your left foot, there you go.” Finally when we must have been close enough, Jacob cried out, “Jesus! Rabbi—let my brother touch you, please!”

My heart hammered, though I felt completely overwhelmed by all the sensory input I had lacked for so long. Jacob let go of my hand, and I felt a sudden wave of terror, even though Caleb still had me firmly by the other hand.

“This is your brother?” said a new voice. It was calm, steady, authoritative. Inexplicably, it set me at ease.

“Yes, Rabbi,” said Jacob, “and as you can see, he is stone blind. But if he can just—”

“Let me take him from here.” A new hand took my free one, and I felt Caleb let go too. The stranger began to pull me away, slowly enough that I did not stumble, but inexorably.

“Where… are you taking me?” I managed.

“Outside of Bethsaida,” he answered.

“Are my brothers with us?”

“No, I left them behind with most of my disciples to restrain the crowd,”  the man answered. “There are a few still with us.”

I should have felt frightened by this, but somehow, I wasn’t. The murmur of the crowds behind us began to die away.

“Are you Jesus?” I asked at last.

I thought I could hear slight amusement in his reply. “Yes, of course. Did your brothers not tell you they were taking you to me? Did you think they would leave you with just anyone?”

I relaxed a little. “They did tell me. I was… just making sure.” Then I added, “Why are we leaving town?”

“Because you have enough of your own unbelief to overcome, without the influence of that town on top of it,” he said, a hint of a growl in his tone. “They are not a healthy influence at present. This is far enough,” he added to the other disciples. “Now.” I heard a sound I recognized as spitting, and then felt the unexpected sensation of wet fingertips on my eyelids. I almost recoiled, but then understood what must be happening.  “Do you see anything?” he asked me.

I opened my eyes through the caked mud and gasped, blinking very fast. “Light! I see light!” I started to laugh. “I haven’t seen anything but darkness in five years—”

“What else?” Jesus asked patiently.

I turned my head this way and that, squinting from the sudden brightness. I saw one short form in front of me, probably crouching. Behind him, I saw three tall dark shapes moving.

“I see men like trees, walking,” I said at last.

The one in front of me—Jesus, I was sure—reached forward and touched my eyes again. “Look up,” he told me. “Not physically. I mean, look up.”

I looked up literally, because I didn’t really understand what he meant otherwise. But as I did, I thought back—not just to before my accident, but long before I was a master craftsman. I thought back to when I used to play with Jacob and Caleb in the fields when we were children, bathed in golden sunlight, laughing so hard my sides hurt. Not a care in the world.

I looked back, and saw the man before me. He was young, dressed as a rabbi, with dark hair and beard, and kind brown eyes. My own eyes filled with tears.

“I can see you!”

Jesus smiled, and one of his disciples behind him let out a low whistle. “Phew, I was starting to get worried!” the disciple said, in a joking tone. Another disciple smacked him on the arm. “Just kidding,” the first disciple protested. “You have to admit, that was a lot harder than usual…”

“Don’t go back to Bethsaida,” Jesus told me, ignoring the antics of his disciples. “Go your way, back to your home.”

“Are you kidding me?” I laughed, “I want to tell everyone!”

“You can tell your family, but not the people of Bethsaida,” Jesus warned. “They will make you doubt your healing. I want you to keep it.”

I blinked, sobered. “I want that too,” I murmured, a little confused. “I… guess I could start my business again in another town. Let Ugo—keep my clients here?” I choked on this last sentence, but it somehow felt right, as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Jesus smiled and gave me a tiny nod of approval.

Now, you can see indeed,” he affirmed.

Dec 25, 2020
Today's podcast is a meditation on Luke 2:36-38, just after Jesus' birth. 
 
You can get a copy of "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here: my collection of retellings of the miracles of Jesus, published under my pen name, C.A. Gray
 
Intro
    We know very little about Anna: just three verses encompass her entire life. She was married seven years, and then widowed for eighty-four; probably the youngest she could have been married would have been fourteen, which would make her at least one hundred and five by the time she sees Jesus.
    The Old Testament makes provisions for widows. If they are widowed young, as Anna would have been, a kinsman redeemer is to marry her and provide for her. Perhaps she had none, or perhaps he refused.
    Anna may have had children who had grown by now; maybe she chose to live at the temple only after they had grown. But the verses seem to imply that she had lived at the temple from the time of her widowhood, for eighty-four years. This to me suggests that in seven years of marriage, she never had any children. So either she or her husband were likely barren (and in those days, the woman was usually blamed). Would that be why she never remarried, because she was assumed to be barren? There are promises for the faithful of Israel that none shall be barren or miscarry, though the Word must always be mixed with faith to receive it (Hebrews 4:2). It’s pure speculation to imagine what might have happened in Anna’s case.
    In my retelling, though, I imagine that her decision to remain a widow and live at the temple all her life started out as what she thought was her only choice. As a widow with presumably no family to care for her, she was dependent upon offerings to sustain her anyway (Deut 26:12-13), so it makes sense that she would live at the temple. But as she grew closer to the Lord and invested all her attention on pleasing Him rather than on pleasing a husband, she realized that this was actually better, as did the later Apostle Paul (1 Cor 7:32-40). The Lord is the husband to the widow (Isaiah 54:4-5) just as the Church is the Bride of Christ.
    What did she do during those long years, though? How do you fast and pray for eighty-four years?
    Paul writes that we are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). This does not mean constantly petitioning the Lord for the same things like a broken record, though. Most prayer is not petition at all. Like Adam and Eve strolling with God in the cool of the day, it is simply being aware of Him, spending time with Him. Like David in the Psalms, it is praising Him for who He is, for His goodness, for what He has done. For us today (though not yet for Anna), it is the Holy Spirit showing us things to come and leading us into all truth (John 16), and praying the hidden mysteries of God in tongues (1 Cor 14) to build us up in our faith (Jude 1:20). It’s meditating on and renewing our minds with the Word (Romans 12:2). I imagine that Anna also had plenty of time to pour over the prophecies of the Messiah. She did not yet have the Holy Spirit upon the HS was probably upon her but not w/in her her (or maybe she did, since Simeon did, Luke 2:26, and He came upon Old Testament heroes from time to time!). Regardless, like God’s friends of old such as Abraham and Daniel, He must have revealed to Anna what he was about to do on the earth. That’s why she knew to come in to the temple “that instant,” when Mary and Joseph were presenting the sacrifices for Jesus according to the law. God probably wanted to share with those attuned to Him enough to listen, just like we want to share good news with the people closest to us. He wanted his friends to celebrate with Him!
 
Fictionalized Retelling
    I could have attempted to remarry when I was widowed at the young age of twenty-one. But it would not have been easy, for several reasons.
    First, my husband had no unmarried brothers. There were distant cousins to whom I could turn as kinsman-redeemers, but I knew they would not want me. In the seven years of our marriage, I had not produced a child, so it was to be assumed that I was barren.
    I had a brother and a kindly sister-in-law who would have taken me in, but this would have been a great burden upon them. They were poor, and had three children at the time to provide for already. Also, given my barrenness, it was unlikely that I would ever be taken off their hands.
    So it was clear that I should choose a life of pure devotion to the Lord. I was already predisposed to do so anyway, as I had learned to read at a young age, and during my husband’s long illness, I had poured over the scriptures for comfort.
    At first the stories of old were just stories to me. But in time I began to see the broken heart of God as the theme interwoven through them all: His deep love for His people who time and time again betrayed Him. His love for Israel was like the jealous love of a husband for his unfaithful bride, Israel. The first time I read through Hosea, I wept and wept for the Lord. I was only one woman, but I longed to make it up to Him on behalf of my people, to the best of my poor abilities. He would be my husband, and I would be his bride, spending every moment and every year and every last bit of my strength in loving and worshiping Him. In return, He filled me up with His love so completely that I often felt I could burst with the joy of it. No earthly wife was ever so satisfied as I was with my groom.
    I dwelt in the temple night and day, fasting and praying before the Lord. I slept in the Chamber of the Hearth. I joined in as those who came to the temple presented their little ones for dedication and sacrifice, thanking God for them with as much fervor as if they had been my own. Many times the Lord would give me a specific word for their lives, and I would lay hands on them and prophesy to their parents what they would become. He often led me to join with those who wept and mourned, and lend them the strength and comfort He had given me. I didn’t resent it or feel like I was just being used as an instrument to bless others—it was more like I was partnering with my Husband in His work. It made me feel closer to Him.
    I had been there for almost fifteen years, the first time the Lord let me see Him. Whether it was in the body or in the spirit, I do not know, the Lord knows. But for the first time, I understood what the prophet Ezekiel had described. His language of the Throne Room had been so fantastical that I could not grasp it until I saw it myself. Then I realized that our language falls pitifully short, and Ezekiel had done the best he could! The throne shone a vibrant, clear, shining blue—like a sapphire, though it was not a sapphire. The One who sat on the throne—oh! I have never before beheld anything so beautiful! He burned like fire, except he was not fire itself. It was his glory that shone, radiating an amber color from the waist up, like the vibrant orange of a flame; from the waist down, beholding Him was like looking at the sun, or a star. But the light He produced split into all its component colors, a shimmering rainbow so bright I could scarcely look at it. I, too, fell on my face before Him.
    “Stand, Daughter,” said the voice of the One on the throne, and though it sounded like many waters, in it was also infinite tenderness. “And approach. She who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
    I recognized the passage as the first verse of Psalm 91. I had spent many years now meditating upon the meaning of the secret place. Here it was! The Lord granted me the desire of my heart—to behold it. To dwell in it! The only way to get into the shadow of the throne was to do as He bid me, to approach very close indeed. It was the one thing I wanted so badly I could hardly stand it, and yet I was so terrified that I dared not move without invitation.
    But He Himself had invited me! I rose, quivering. Somehow my legs obeyed me, and the next thing I knew, I was running to Him. He laughed, and the sound of His laughter filled the throne room with almost palpable joy. Then He stood up, opening His arms to receive me. I had intended to dive behind the throne and hide in its shadow, but to run past His waiting arms would be to reject Him—and that was the one thing in the world I could never, never do. Though I hardly knew how I dared, both terrified and yet bursting with His joy, I ran straight into them. And oh, the bliss of that moment—it is almost indecent to describe it!
    I have not left that embrace these almost seventy years since. Not once.
    As the years went on, the Lord took me more and more to the scriptures that prophesied the coming Messiah, from the prophecy of Eve’s Seed who would bruise the head of the serpent to the Rod of the stem of Jesse prophesied in Isaiah. This meant we would know His lineage, I realized. He would have to come as a baby, not as a conquerer from the ends of the earth! As I realized this, I had a vision of a child, ordinary looking in every way.
    Oh, how I longed for that Child, far more than I had ever desired a child of my own!
    Then one day, the priest named Zacharias emerged from his duties at the temple. There was a commotion around him. Curious, I joined the small crowd of onlookers as he emerged into the outer courts.
    “What took you so long, Zacharias?” the other priests pressed him. “You were in there for ages! We thought we would have to pull you out by the rope!” There was a smattering of laughter at this, but it died away quickly as Zacharias gestured at the Holy of Holies, then up at the ceiling and down, then with his fingers splayed out again and again.
    “What’s he saying?” a few murmured.
    Another said to him, “Can’t you speak?”
    “I think he’s seen a vision! Did you see a vision, Zacharias?” When the priest nodded vigorously, there was a ripple of shock. The questions came faster and all at once after that, but the priest pushed past them, apparently done trying to communicate. It was clear he was eager to leave. 
    He saw an angel, I realized. I swallowed, and asked the Lord, Does this have to do with the coming of the Christ?
    He did not answer me, but I felt that it did somehow. Yet why couldn’t the old priest speak about what he had seen? Why would the Lord reveal something to him in a vision if he could not communicate it to us? That must mean that the vision was just for him…
    Nine months later, I had my answer. I was not there when the elderly priest’s newborn son was circumcised, but the temple was abuzz with the stories.
    “His tongue was loosed as soon as he proclaimed the child’s name was John, and then he prophesied that he would be the forerunner of the Christ, the one Malachi spoke of!”
    My pulse quickened, and again, I had a flash of the baby: the Lord’s anointed. This John was not Him, but He would come soon, I realized. He would come to this very temple for His dedication and sacrifice. I would see Him!
    Will I see Him, Lord? I begged silently. Will I live that long? I was an old woman, over one hundred years old—but surely the Lord could let me live just a little longer. As I had remained in the Father’s embrace all these years, might I also hold Him with my natural arms, before I fell asleep for the last time?
    I petitioned the Lord for this honor daily for the next six months.
    Then one day, I saw devout old Simeon hurrying through the outer courts of the temple. He did not live in the temple as I did, but he was there very often. Usually he was friendly to me—but today, he was on a mission. I followed close behind him, my heart burning with anticipation. Then suddenly, he froze.
    A young couple stood before him. The girl mother held a small bundle, and her husband stood beside her. Both were simply dressed. My eyes fell to the babe in her arms even as I saw Simeon approach them, and my heart leapt to my throat. Simeon reached out for the babe, and the surprised mother yielded him to the old man’s arms.
    “Lord,” Simeon said, his voice loud and clear, yet trembling with emotion, “now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
    The man and his wife exchanged a look of wonder. Still cradling the child, Simeon looked up at the girl and proclaimed, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against—yes, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
    He then relinquished the child into the mother’s arms again, and turned to look at me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Trembling, I walked forward for my turn, and beseeched the girl with a question in my eyes. I hoped—oh, so desperately!—that she would offer to let me hold him too. I reached out my withered old hands, and then retracted them again, suddenly fearing that I might be too frail. What if I could not support Him? But just as I pulled away again, the girl gave me an encouraging nod and reached out, placing the bundle in my arms.
    My eyes swam with tears as I held my Lord, as He had held me my whole life long. I looked into the innocent little face. He looked back up at me with His wide dark eyes that seemed just like those of any other infant, and yet—did He know me? I fancied He did. Then He smiled, giggled and cooed. I giggled back like a schoolgirl, the tears running freely down my face. I dared not spare a hand to wipe them away while I held such precious cargo.  
    I thought my heart would burst. But if it did so now, if I died right here, that would be all right.
    “Thank you, Lord,” I managed, “for granting my petition, for granting that I might see and hold the redemption of Your people, here in the land of the living! This is the Child who was foretold in the beginning, the Seed of Eve, the root of Jesse, the Lion of Judah, and the Lamb of God!”
    I lifted up my eyes in thanksgiving, as the mother whispered, looking from me to where Simeon had been, “How do you both know this?”
    “The same way the shepherds knew,” her husband murmured to her. “Everyone close to the Lord seems to know…”
    “It’s an open secret,” I agreed, grinning at the man. “He’s only been talking about it since the dawn of time.”   
 
Nov 20, 2020

You can get a copy of "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here: my collection of retellings of the miracles of Jesus, published under my pen name, C.A. Gray

Today's retelling comes from Genesis 2:21-3:24.

Intro: 

Ugh. How heartbreaking it must have been for God, though He knew that this moment would come from the very beginning. Every good gift comes down from the Father of heavenly lights (James 1:17), and He had bestowed the best He had upon Adam and Eve, the crowning glory of His creation. But what He wanted was a real relationship with them, in which they chose to obey Him—not because they had no alternative, but out of love and respect. They had to have a choice in order to do this. So God placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the “midst” of the garden—presumably, right in the middle. They would have passed by this tree more often than any other in the garden. The choice was always right there, in plain view. But when they were innocent, they did not even notice it. Why would they? Every need had already been met. They trusted God implicitly.

Enter Satan, who would not be so called anywhere in the book of Genesis. Perhaps it was he who took the form of the serpent, or perhaps he would just inspire the serpent to deceive Eve. In his cunning, he overlooked every blessing, every ‘yes’ God had given Eve, and focused entirely on the one ‘no.’ It’s also interesting that he approached Eve instead of Adam. God had never told Eve anything about the tree directly—He had told Adam that it was forbidden, and Adam had relayed this to Eve. Her knowledge of what God had said about the tree was secondhand. Because of this, just like playing “telephone,” she got it just slightly wrong. She thought they had been forbidden even to touch the fruit of the tree. God never said this, which may have been significant. Perhaps when Eve touched the fruit and nothing happened, it convinced her that the rest was false also.

Satan also convinced Eve to question God’s character. Temptation to sin always includes some element of this. If she had never wondered whether there was a blessing that God had withheld from her, she never would have eaten the fruit (2 Cor 11:3).
Why was their nakedness what they noticed first after the fall? Andrew Wommack’s theory is that they were previously so dominated by their spiritual “sight” that they simply did not notice the physical. I don’t think this is entirely true, since everything else in the garden was physical—but it is true that they died spiritually as soon as they disobeyed God. It was not until after Jesus’ resurrection that spiritual rebirth became possible. The challenge now is to renew our minds so that we can see into the spirit, where we have every spiritual blessing available (Eph 1:3), rather than walking by sight (2 Cor 5:7).

Immediately after the fall, Adam and Eve experienced fear for the first time (Gen 3:10). Fear does not come from God (2 Tim 1:7); it only comes when we do not understand and trust in God’s perfect love, which casts out fear (1 John 4:18). But if they had understood God’s perfect love, they never would have obeyed the serpent in the first place. Punishment did come, but it was not for punishment’s sake. The world was now corrupted, and it was God’s mercy that expelled them from the Garden so that they could not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in that fallen state! God did not want that for them: to be always decaying but never dying, always separated from Him, always in their sin. He wanted us to have eternal life, but spiritually, not just physically.
Once they became aware of their nakedness, they needed to cover it—which required death. They died spiritually the moment they fell, but physical death would come, for them, centuries later. To “cover” them until then, God had to kill an animal—a symbol of Christ’s ultimate atonement for all sin (Hebrews 9:22). (I chose a lion in this retelling because Christ is referred to as both the Lion of Judah and also the Lamb of God, but I figured a single lamb probably wouldn’t produce enough skin to cover both Adam and Eve unless God wove its wool into clothing, and the scripture doesn’t say He did that.)

When God pronounced that the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, this of course referred to Jesus. It’s interesting that part of Adam’s curse was that the ground would produce thorns, and Jesus wore a crown of thorns on the cross—a symbol of bearing the curse for us so that we could be redeemed from it (Gal 3:13). But Eve did not understand that the Savior would be many generations hence. When she gave birth to Cain, she said, “Behold, I have gotten a man, the Lord” (Gen 4:1, though some translations say, “I have gotten a man from the Lord.” The original Hebrew does not include the word “from”). She presumably thought this was the Messiah, come to redeem them already. Perhaps she hoped that through him, she and Adam would be able to return to Eden. Sadly, rather than becoming their redemption, Cain became the first murderer instead.

When Christ comes the second time, in the New Jerusalem, the Tree of Life will again be freely available to the redeemed (Rev 2:7), and its leaves will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2). Then, restored to our original perfection, eternal life—body, soul, and spirit—will be ours once more.

Fictionalized Retelling

 I breathed in, and I was. The air filled every part of me with life.
This was the first thing I knew. Then I opened my eyes.
The Face I beheld was like light itself, though there was also light behind Him. I had no concept of anything until that moment, but that Face was the very definition of beauty. I gazed up at Him, rapturous. His eyes were like liquid love, bursting with color, their expression infinitely gentle.
“Hello, my dear,” said my Creator.
“Hello,” I murmured back in wonder, marveling at the sound of my own voice, at the feel of it vibrating in my throat. On instinct I reached for Him, but had not fully completed the action when I stopped, distracted by the wonder of my own limbs. I held them up before my face, wiggling my fingers and watching them obey me. My Creator chuckled, and the sound thrilled me with warmth. I shivered, every nerve humming with the sensation.
“We are Elohim,” the Creator told me. “You may call me God.”
“God,” I whispered, reaching again for His face. He did not repulse me, but let me caress Him, leaning in to my palm and covering it with His own. He grinned down at me, and I reflexively grinned back.
“Come. There is someone I want you to meet,” God said. He set me on my feet, and I marveled at the feeling of the spongy, dewy ground beneath my feet. As soon as I noticed the sensations, the words for them came to me. I marveled at that too: that I knew so many things I had never learned.
I looked up at God, and though before I had thought of Him as infinitely larger than I was, I found that he was only about a head taller. He held my hand in his. He shone like the orb overhead that bathed us all in its light. I turned my attention to it next, and then to all it illuminated. There was a canopy of green above us, the foliage of thick trees. I identified the sounds around us as flowing water and chirping birds. I turned to see the cheerful river behind us. Flowers of every color, shape, and size bloomed all around us, and living creatures hummed all around them: hummingbirds, butterflies, bees. Other creatures covered in fur or feathers roamed throughout the land too, each of them unique and lovely in its own way.
“What is this place?” I asked in wonder.
“Do you like it?” He asked, but the delight in his question made it clear He knew my answer already.
“Oh, yes!”
“I have called it Eden. I made it for you, Adam.”
I turned back, excited to hear my own name. “Am I called Adam, then?”
“You were taken from Adam, your husband. I have given him the task of naming all My other creatures, so I will give him that privilege with you as well. Until then, you too are Adam.” God gestured before us, under a palm tree. “This is your Adam. He is called a man.”
A new sensation stirred in me as I beheld the creature God indicated. The man had flesh instead of fur or feathers, like I did. My eyes traced the curve of his face. His strong jaw beneath his dark beard. My mouth fell open in awe. Like all the animals, he too was beautiful, but in a completely new way. His kind of beauty allured me in a way that none of the other animals had done. As I took all of this in, he sat up, as if waking from a deep sleep.
Then he saw me. His expression went slack, and I watched, gratified, as he drank me in as I had him. Slowly, he rose to his feet and took tentative steps toward me.
Beside us, God beamed, delighting in our admiration of each other as much as we were. He said, “Adam, meet your helper. I have fashioned her from one of your ribs. I trust you prefer to have it back in this form.”
Adam’s eyes filled with tears, as he turned to God, unable to speak, the gratitude obvious in his face. Then he looked back at me, and spoke. I could tell, even though I had never heard him speak before, that his voice was hoarse with emotion.
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.” When he got close enough, he reached for my face, in the same way that I had originally reached for God’s. I copied the motion, laying my hand on top of his when he touched my cheek.
“I will call her Eve, because she will be the mother of all the living.”
“Eve,” I repeated, trying the sound of my own name on my tongue. I liked it. I smiled at Adam and he smiled back at me. There was nothing more to say. 
“I will leave you two to get acquainted,” God murmured, and took His leave. For a second the thought that He was gone alarmed me, but then Adam slid his hand from my cheek to my hand, entwining his fingers with mine. When I turned back to him, the expression on his face was so full of tenderness that I felt answering tears prick in my eyes.
“You… are… exquisite,” Adam whispered to me. The words filled me up almost the way that first breath had done. I had not known I wanted to be exquisite until my husband said it—but suddenly, it was all I wanted.
“Aren’t you going to show me around?” I teased, though I was very pleased that he could not seem to look away from me.
“I will try, but I cannot promise I will be able to walk without tripping over my own feet,” he replied in the same tone. “I’ll be too busy looking at you.” I giggled, marveling at that instinct too and delighting at the feel of it. Somehow, I knew what laughter was.
Adam led me through the garden by the hand, calling the animals to him by name and then showing them to me. I reached out to caress them all, from the elephant to the lion to the mouse, and they nuzzled me affectionately in return. I gestured to the lion to open his mouth for me, marveling at how sharp his teeth were. He let me poke them with the tip of my finger, patiently waiting for me to extract my hand before he went about his business. I watched as he used those sharp claws to dig up root vegetables hidden in the earth, so hard that I would not have considered them food. But the lion’s incisors tore into the vegetables with no trouble at all.
My own stomach growled as I watched the lion eat. Adam explained, “You are hungry. Here.” He plucked a bunch of berries from a tree, handing them to me. Then from another, he plucked something very hard and brown. I frowned at it, unsure how it might turn out to be food like the berries, until Adam showed me how to remove the outer shell to reveal the soft meat inside. Nuts, he called them. When I tasted them both, my face lit up wth delight as the flavors exploded on my tongue: tart and sweet and savory, all at once.
“What about that one?” I pointed at a tree that bore round fruit that looked like burnished gold.
“You want one of those?” Adam grinned, trotting over to the tree and plucking two of the golden fruit. He returned and handed me one, taking a bite out of the other himself. “I think this one is my favorite too. God called it the Tree of Life.”
“So many different kinds of food!” I exclaimed, looking around the garden to see if I could distinguish all the fruits around me from the flowers.
“God gave us all of the green herbs and fruits with seeds for food,” Adam explained, “except for the one in the middle, the one that makes those sort of oddly shaped reddish brown fruits, see it?” He pointed at the tree next to the Tree of Life, and I nodded.
“Why not that one?” I asked.
“He said it is called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and He said that we shall not eat it, for the day that we eat of it, we shall surely die.”
For the briefest second, I felt an ominous shadow pass over my heart at these words. Die? What did die mean? But then it was gone. I shrugged. We had plenty of other trees to choose from. I saw no reason to bother about the one forbidden tree.
The day began to wane and the light changed from white to golden before we had finished our tour of Eden. I pointed up at the sky with a slight questioning frown, though I wasn’t concerned so much as confused.
“It is called sunset,” Adam explained. “Day and night lasts a total of twenty-four hours. It’s not precisely twelve and twelve hours of day and night, but close. God says the ratio between the two will change with the seasons.”
“What are seasons?” I asked, wide-eyed.
Adam shook his head. “I don’t exactly know, I haven’t seen them yet. But God says it’s when weather changes, and the sun and celestial bodies change their positions throughout the year.”
I thought about how I knew that twelve and twelve made twenty-four. This too delighted me. But I forgot all about addition when I watched as the colors changed across the sky, from golden light to pinks and golds and purples. I gasped, clapping with delight.
“God!” I called out to Him, suspecting He was not far away. “Good show!”
He emerged from the trees in the cool of the day, strolling unhurried, and beamed at us.
“Thank you, my dear,” He said, sitting down on the marshy grass beside us. We sat too, and I leaned into his gleaming white robe, nestling my head on one of His shoulders. God stroked my long dark hair away from my face. I sighed with contentment. Adam sat down on God’s other side, interlocking elbows and also leaning into Him. The three of us watched as the sun descended below the horizon, and then suddenly the darkness was not just darkness.
“What are those?” I exclaimed in wonder, pointing up at the tiny pinpricks of light in the dark sky. “And that?” I pointed at the large glowing orb spangled with shadows.
“The moon and the stars,” God explained. “The moon is to govern the night just as the sun governs the day. Stars are just like the sun, but much, much further away in outer space.”
“What is outer space?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“It is where the earth is hung, and there are other planets also, though not exactly like earth. Earth is very special,” He told me with a tender smile, touching the tip of my nose affectionately. Satisfied, I nestled back against Him, yawning.
“Why do I feel so tired?”
“Because it is time for you to sleep,” God whispered, lowering me down to the spongy ground beside my husband, who automatically wrapped an arm around me. “It restores your energy so that you will be fresh again tomorrow morning…”
I did not hear the last of God’s words before I drifted off.
The first rays of the sun filtered through my eyelids the following morning. They fluttered open and I sat up, mouth agape in wonder yet again as the same colors from sunset danced across the sky at sunrise as well. I glanced at Adam, who somehow managed to continue his slumber despite the light. A little family of squirrels slept on the ground near us, and beside me, a bear stretched its sharp claws, yawned, and took a swipe at the fruit on a nearby tree. I skipped over to him and stroked his fur in good morning. But then I jumped back—not from the bear, but from something living in the branches of the tree beside us that I had not seen before. It looked like one of the branches itself, but it seemed to slither. My eyes scanned until I found first its tiny legs, and then its face. The eyes sharpened upon me, and it opened its mouth.
“Good morning, Eve,” it hissed.
I had not heard any of the other animals in the garden speak besides Adam, myself, and God. But everything was new to me, so I thought nothing of it.
“Good morning, serpent,” I greeted it, remembering the name Adam had given the creature.
I was just reaching for the same fruit the bear had breakfasted on, when the serpent said, “You don’t want to eat from this tree. The fruit is very bitter.”
“Oh,” I hesitated. But then I shrugged, and turned to a vine nearby, bearing clusters of juicy-looking red grapes. But the serpent’s words stopped me again.
“You know which fruit tastes more delicious than all the others?” I looked at him, curious, and he gestured with his head toward the center of the garden. “That one.”
“The tree of life?” I asked, delighted. “Yes, Adam and I sampled it yesterday, and it was my favorite so far!”
“No, not that one, the one beside it,” the serpent hissed. “The one with the reddish brown fruit.”
I frowned. “The one from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?” The serpent nodded, and I said, “But… Adam said God forbade that one.”
“Is that right?” the serpent hissed, slithering its head closer to me. “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’”
I frowned, trying to puzzle out the meaning of this phrase. The negatives in it confused me. When I finally worked out its meaning, I said uncertainly, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” I thought that was what Adam had told me. It had been something like that, anyway.
“Ah,” hissed the serpent, his fork-like tongue flicking out toward me as he spoke. “You shall not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
I blinked at the serpent, then turned to look at the tree. I tried to process the serpent’s words. He was saying… God… lied to us? That He was withholding a blessing from us out of… jealousy? The thoughts felt clunky and unfamiliar. They made no sense. God was perfection. Our only experience of Him was that He was good and kind and wonderful. He loved us.
I had paid almost no attention to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil before. Yet now that the serpent pointed it out to me, I noticed that the fruit, strange looking though it was, did look enticing. And the serpent said—even God had said—that the tree would make us wise, as God Himself was wise. And after all, if God had not wanted us to eat of it, why did he put that particular tree in the midst of the garden, I reasoned? I took a hesitant step toward the tree, and then another and another until I stood right in front of it. I reached out and touched one of the reddish brown fruits, cringing for half a second—but nothing happened. It was just like touching any of the other fruits in the garden. I laughed, exultant, and plucked the fruit from the branch, all hesitation now forgotten.
“What are you doing, Eve?” I turned to see Adam standing beside me, a note of alarm in his voice.
A new emotion of defiance rose up on the inside of me. I had just proven that what Adam told me God said about the tree had been false, hadn’t I? I had touched it and had not died! I plucked a second fruit from the tree and tossed it to Adam. Then, before he could stop me, I opened my mouth and took a bite.
“Eve, no—!” Adam shouted, reaching out as if to dash the fruit from my hand—but it was too late.
I chewed, savoring the delicious burst of sweetness across my tongue. For a brief second, I relished the thought that the serpent was right—the fruit was indeed the best I had yet tasted. But just as quickly, a bitter flavor overtook the sweetness. I made a face, dropping the remainder of the fruit to the ground and staring at it. I had a sudden urge to wash away the taste.
“You shall die,” Adam croaked. His expression cut me to the heart. Suddenly I felt another new emotion come over me: horror. What had I done?
“It was only one bite,” I whispered back. Suddenly the wind whipped around my body, and I looked down. A hot wave of shame passed over me as I realized—I was naked! I dropped to a crouch to cover myself, a sudden impulse from an instinct that I had not had before. How had I not noticed? How had Adam not noticed? He was naked too, yet he still stood unashamed, displaying himself before me and all of the creatures in view. We had been naked even before God Himself!
Adam’s focus was not on his body, though; it was on the fruit I had given him.
“If you must die, then I must die with you,” he murmured, raising sorrowful eyes to me. “I do not want to live without you.” Then he opened his mouth, and despite the look of disgust, also took a bite.
He chewed and swallowed, then dropped the remains of the fruit on the ground as I had done. He stared at it with sudden revulsion. Then he looked down at his body, and I saw his cheeks color as he realized what I had realized a second before. He moved both hands to cover his nudity.
“How did we not know?” he moaned. “Oh! How shameful!”
“All the animals have fur or feathers, but we—” I agreed, wincing. “What are we to do? We must at least cover ourselves somehow before God returns…”
Adam shrugged, biting his lip. He gestured with his chin to the leaves of the tree from which we had just eaten, unwilling to move his hands away from his genitals. “I’ll try to sew together some of the leaves,” he said, “but I’ll need to use my hands to do it, so you have to promise not to look.”
“You have to promise not to look at me, either!” I declared.
Adam gave me a sad smile. “But you are so beautiful.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, not in the mood. He sighed.
“All right, I promise. Turn around.”
I obeyed, but since we had promised not to look at each other anyway, I decided I might as well make myself useful, and approached the tree where I had seen the serpent. Both serpent and bear were gone now, so I began to pluck leaves from that tree, wondering how Adam intended to weave them into clothing. I collected a pile of leaves, and then stripped some of them to just the stalk that ran down the center of the leaves, thinking that would somehow serve as thread. I started to knot some of them together, and then poked holes in the remaining leafy part of the other leaves, so as to thread the knotted leaf stem through them. It was slow work, and many of the leaves tore before I could connect enough of them to do any good. I finally managed to make myself a little apron to at least cover my genitals, but it was a poor covering indeed, and hid very little. I realized I'd have to connect many more leaves to cover my breasts, and the sun was already past peak in the sky. I decided instead to try to find something sticky, so that they could adhere directly to my body. I tried clay, but that lasted all of two seconds. Then instead I used a bit of sap from a tree. This worked better, but it meant everything else I touched adhered to my hands—
“Eve!” Adam hissed, and I perked up my ears, at once understanding what he meant. We both heard the sound of footsteps, and knew they belonged to God. My poor leaf apron fluttered to the ground as I fled, hiding with Adam among the underbrush. The branches poked at us, but I hardly noticed, my heart pounding so hard with fear that we would be seen. Once in the bushes, I tried to wipe the remaining sap off of my hands on its leaves, but found that it would not go.
“Stop it, He’ll hear you!” Adam hissed, stilling my fidgeting hands.
Just then, we saw God enter the clearing from between the branches of our hiding place. I suddenly envied Him His gleaming white robe. When His face turned so that we could see it from our hiding place, I saw His puzzled, slightly concerned expression.
“Adam! Where are you?” God called out.
I looked at Adam, shaking my head sharply, but I saw that he intended to reply.
He opened his mouth and called back, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and hid myself.”
Now God turned and looked straight at the bush where we hid. Adam stood up only so high as to expose his chest, still kneeling to conceal the rest of him. God’s expression grew stern.
“Who told you that you were naked?” He demanded. “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”
Adam trembled, and then pointed at me, still fully crouched beside him. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
My mouth fell open, indignant. But then I realized that I could not truly protest. His statement was quite true.
God turned to me. “What is this you have done?” He demanded.
It took me a moment to find my tongue. When I did, I blurted, “The serpent deceived me! And I ate.”
God waved His hand, and the serpent appeared from nowhere on the ground between Him and us. The sky grew dark, and God said in a terrible voice to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go—” and as He pronounced this, the serpent’s legs dissolved into nothingness, until he was all tail, “and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
Even as God spoke it, I saw its fulfillment in my mind’s eye. My Seed would be my son. He would conquer the serpent. He would redeem Adam and me from what we had done. He would be the Lord Himself…
No sooner had God finished speaking, though, He turned to me. I was compelled to look at His face, and I saw at once mingled anger and heartbreak. It made me want to weep.
“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
I bowed my head, accepting God’s punishment. Since I got us into this mess, it was only fair that I should labor and travail to bring forth the Savior who would get us out of it. And Adam was right—it was my choice to disobey God, not his—at least not originally. If I had listened to my husband, none of this would have happened.
Then God turned to Adam, who trembled under God’s gaze.
“Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Adam buried his face in his hands and wept. God’s expression sank into sorrow as well, all His anger now spent.
“Lion,” he called out, and summoned the creature I had met the morning before. The great cat bounded toward the Lord, frolicking around Him playfully and swishing its tail this way and that. The Lord caressed its mane tenderly. Then, with one swift jerk, a horrible crack sounded. I screamed, and the lion slumped, lifeless.
I could not stop screaming, even though Adam hushed me as best he could. Even God wept openly now.
“The wages of sin is death,” He said to us, a terrible grief in His voice as He removed the lion’s skin and knit it together into tunics to clothe us. When He had finished, he approached the bush where we both shied away from Him, and deposited both tunics upon the top of the bush, turning away from us. Adam shimmied into his first, standing up fully for the first time once he was covered. Then I did the same, standing beside him.
We heard Elohim say to Himself, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—” He turned back to face us, tears still flowing freely. “You must leave the garden now,” He said, “and go out into the wilderness to make your way as best you can. To live forever in your current state would be a fate far worse than death.”
Fresh tears gushed on to my cheeks at this word. “But—you said my Seed would crush the head of the serpent!” I blubbered, hardly able to make myself understood. “He will redeem us, surely?”
“Yes, daughter, He will,” God assured me, “but not for what to you will seem a very long time.”
So Adam took my hand, and led me through our lush home for the last time. Beyond it lay nothing but desert. We would survive, of course—I must bring forth a man, so we must survive somehow. Death, it turned out, was not immediate. And yet, leaving the garden and leaving the Lord God behind us was a kind of death. For the lion, death had certainly been immediate, I thought with a pang of sorrow. And the poor lion had done nothing wrong. It died for our sin, to cover our nakedness.
I turned around to look back at the garden one last time. A ring of creatures that looked like the Lord in luminescence stood before the tree with the golden fruit, bearing swords that shone like the sun. Then I turned away again, looking out into the wilderness that was to be our new home.
“But we will still return one day,” I whispered to Adam as we walked out into the desert. “Right?”
“One day,” he whispered back, and squeezed my hand.

Nov 6, 2020

Today's podcast is a meditation on a concept found throughout scripture of walking by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) but we jump around a LOT on this one. 

Oct 23, 2020

Today's podcast is a meditation on Psalm 37. God is still on the throne!

Background music courtesy of bensound.com

Sep 25, 2020

You can get a copy of "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here: my collection of retellings of the miracles of Jesus, published under my pen name, C.A. Gray

Today's podcast is a meditation/retelling of the first Passover, and Moses parting the Red Sea found in Exodus 11-14. 

Here's the transcript: 

It was evening. The people of Israel had just finished the meal as prescribed by the Lord, of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. I knew the meal was heavy with symbolism, but I didn’t understand what it symbolized—and quite frankly, I didn’t care. I was too nervous about what was to come for curiosity. 
 
Aaron and I wandered amongst the Israelites and supervised as they completed the last and most important portion of the Lord’s instructions: each family dipped bunches of hyssop in a basin containing the blood of the Passover lamb they had just slaughtered, and painted the blood across their doorposts. I wanted to make very sure that every single Israelite family did this, and did it thoroughly.  If there were over 3million people I wonder how Moses could have watched every house?
 
Beside me, Aaron chuckled darkly and smacked me on the arm. “Are you seeing all this plunder?” he murmured, and I followed where he pointed to a pair of Hebrew sisters, arms so laden with Egyptian family heirlooms of gold and silver that they could hardly walk. Then he called out to the sisters, “Did you leave anything in their house at all?” 
 
“Not much,” one sister grinned back. The other added, “I’ve served this family my whole life, and I’ve always admired their silver bowls and this golden diadem—so I asked for them, and they just-- gave it to me! They practically begged me to take all the rest!”
 
I offered the giddy sisters a distracted smile. “Have you painted your doorposts?” 
 
“Yes of course, we completed that first,” one replied, sobering up. I glanced down at their clothing: all the Israelites already wore the prescribed belt around their waists, sandals on their feet, and those who had a hand free carried their staffs as well. I glanced up at the darkening sky. 
 
“Everyone get inside!” I bellowed, and those outside scampered to obey. Aaron gave me a slight reproving look. 
 
“The Lord said midnight,” he murmured, “it’s barely dusk. No need to scare them.”
 
“You saw the last nine plagues,” I returned under my breath. “I am afraid of the Lord. Aren’t you?” 
 
It was a rhetorical question, and Aaron took it as such. We made our way back to the hut where my siblings Aaron and Miriam grew up, and I noted that Miriam had already painted our doorway with the blood of our Passover lamb. With one last look around to verify that the rest of the Israelites were safely shut inside their homes under their banners of blood, I ducked inside and closed the door. 
 
Aaron’s wife Elisheba and his four sons stood in the middle of the hut, staffs in hand. Elisheba watched me with wide eyes: anxious, but not quite frightened, which was how I felt. Miriam paced. 
 
“Should we try to get some sleep? A few hours at least?” Aaron suggested, putting an arm absently around his son Eleazar’s shoulders. 
 
We all looked at each other. None of us felt like sleeping. 
 
“I suppose we should try,” Miriam ventured. 
 
The hut was small for all of us. The boys, now in their late teen years, lay on the ground back to back. Aaron put his arm around Elisheba, and they leaned up against the wall and closed their eyes, staffs leaning upon the wall beside them. Miriam and I chose opposite walls and did the same. I stretched my legs out in front of me and closed my eyes. A few minutes later, I bent my knees. Then I leaned forward against my legs instead of against the wall. Then I folded my arms and tried to rest my head against them. Every few minutes for what felt like hours, I changed position—but it was no use. What time was it? I wished I could peer outside to tell. Was the Angel of Death passing over now? Were the firstborn children all over Egypt even now breathing their last? 
 
Then the wailing began. Someone had awoken in the night. One cry became several, and then a chorus. Miriam, Aaron and I looked at each other: it was a discordant choir. Surely every man, woman, and child in Israel had been awakened by the sound, and knew what it meant. 
 
Some time later, a fist pounded on the door of our hut. I was already on my feet, and answered mid-knock. One of Pharaoh’s officials stood at the threshold, his face ashen. He looked not at me, but at the blood painted upon the lintel. Then his haunted eyes met mine. He and I had never spoken before, as Aaron always spoke directly to Pharaoh on my behalf, but he had seen me in the throne room many times since the whole ordeal had begun. The official swallowed. 
 
“None… have perished… within this house,” he said, his voice quavering. “Have they?” 
 
“Of course not,” I replied, matter of fact. I held on to the outside of the door, waiting for what I knew he would say next. 
 
“Of course not,” he repeated in a whisper, eyes cast down to my feet. Then he swallowed again, and said, “I bring word from Pharaoh. He says, 'rise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel. And go, serve the Lord as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and... bless me also.’” The official ended his statement with a whispered plea, and then turned those haunted eyes back upon mine, as if begging for himself rather than for his sovereign. I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, bowed my head, and prayed silently to the Lord for him. Then I turned to find my family already on their feet and ready to go, staffs in hand. Miriam and Elisheba had each bound up their kneading bowls under their cloaks, containing the unleavened bread, while the boys distributed their share of the plunder from their Egyptian neighbors among their things. 
 
The Israelites came out of their homes at the ready, as their neighbors either knocked or called. The nearby Egyptians heard the commotion and came out of their homes, every last face streaked with tears and horror. We assembled too slowly for them. 
 
“Go!” shrieked one grieving mother at our growing ranks. “Get out of here, go!” Another man added, “We shall all be dead if you linger a minute longer! Go!” 
 
I ignored their shouts, waiting until Aaron could verify for me that all the Israelites were alerted and assembled. I saw Miriam wiping tears from her cheeks in empathy for their Egyptian neighbors, but I could muster no sympathy for them. Had I not warned them? Had I not told them how to protect themselves from the Destroyer? After nine previous plagues, did they not think I meant what I said? In fact there were a few Egyptians who had heeded my warning, who had been circumcised, eaten the Passover meal with us and who had taken refuge inside our blood-painted homes with their families. Those few proselytes had seen and feared the power of the Lord and decided to join our ranks, to leave Egypt with us and go with us to the Promised Land. These grieving men and women could have done the same, had they chosen to do so. 
 
I looked up at the sky, estimating that it was perhaps an hour after midnight when we finally began our exodus out of Egypt. Just before we left, Aaron handed me my cargo wrapped in linen, and I tied it between my shoulders. While the others took treasures from their neighbors or their kneading bowls of unleavened bread, I carried the exhumed bones of the patriarch Joseph. He had exacted a promise at his death that his descendants would take his bones back to the Promised Land upon our exodus, which he knew would occur based upon the promise the Lord had made to his great grandfather, Abraham. 
 
“So…” Miriam whispered to me, “none of us have ever seen this Promised Land before, including you. How exactly do we know where to go?” 
 
I had just been wondering this myself, when Aaron nodded to me that the people were all accounted for: six hundred thousand men, plus women, children, flocks, and herds. We would not be moving quickly. Staff in hand, I turned back to begin our hike, and startled to see a pillar of fire hovering in midair, blazing and crackling just far enough ahead of me to keep the heat from becoming uncomfortable. My mouth fell open. When I’d recovered myself, I turned to Miriam, gesturing at the pillar.
 
“There’s your answer,” I told her. 
 
The Lord, as the pillar of fire, led us from Rameses to Succoth, some eight miles away. When dawn came, the pillar began to fade away, and I wondered if the Lord meant to lead us only by night. But in its place, a pillar of cloud appeared, guiding us on. It vanished in late morning, once we had reached Succoth. I took that as our cue to give the children and elderly a rest.  We were all exhausted, though, both emotionally and physically: few of us had slept at all before our journey began. But miraculously, of the millions of people in our group, there was not one feeble person among them. The women unwrapped their kneading bowls, heated coals, and baked unleavened cakes from the dough for the morning meal, while as many as were able napped or rested. 
 
Aaron sat beside me as we ate, looking out in the direction of the now fabled Promised Land, the land that the Lord had told us flowed with milk and honey.
 
“That way is Philistine country,” Aaron murmured unnecessarily. I nodded. 
 
“The Lord has already spoken to me that He will not lead them that way.” 
 
Aaron shrugged. “It is by far the shortest route…” 
 
“I know that, but the Lord is concerned that if we immediately lead the people into war, they will change their minds and retreat back to Egypt. He will take them to the wilderness and toward the Red Sea.” 
 
Aaron looked back over his shoulder at the mixed multitude, including many women, children, and elderly, and pursed his lips. “That’s true. Soldiers, these are not.” 
 
“It doesn’t matter if they are soldiers or not,” I retorted, perhaps a bit more harshly than I’d intended. “The Lord fights our battles for us, regardless. We do not even need weapons. But the people do not understand that yet. They have seen the Lord’s works, but they do not understand His ways, as we do. They do not know His character, and so they cannot predict what He will do next. They cannot trust Him, as we can.”
 
Aaron was a bit taken aback by this, catching my emphasis. “Yes, brother,” he repeated at last. “As we can.” 
 
When the people were refreshed enough to continue, the cloud reappeared. Aaron and I again took the lead, and the cloud took us from Succoth to Etham. At dusk, Aaron, Miriam and I watched in appreciative amazement as tendrils of flame licked through the cloud at dusk, transforming it to the pillar of fire before our eyes. The pillar stopped at Etham, where we camped that night at the edge of the wilderness. 
 
The next several days were much the same: walking through the wilderness at a very slow pace behind the pillar of alternate cloud and fire, stopping to rest and camp for the night. I did not need to know where I was going, so I was surprised when the Lord spoke to me on the third day. 
 
Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea, He said. For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.’ Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.
 
I pictured the land the Lord meant, puzzling over His instructions silently: mountains on two sides, and the Red Sea on a third, with Pharaoh’s army blocking our only route of escape. It must have shown on my face.
 
“What is it?” Aaron asked me. “You’re frowning.” I told him what the Lord had said, and my brother’s eyebrows shot up. “Pharaoh is going to… pursue?” he balked. 
 
“Shh!” I looked around this way and that, to make sure none of the Israelites had overheard. “Yes, apparently. Remember I originally asked him to let us journey three days into the wilderness only? Only a fool would expect us to return after all that has happened, but perhaps he still does. Clearly Pi Hahiroth is not on the way back to Egypt, and it will signal to Pharaoh that we’re not coming back… but it sounds like the Lord also wants to entice him to follow us by making us look like easy prey.” 
 
Aaron let out a puff of air through pursed lips, and dragged his hand across his face and beard. “Yes, but then what? We will be easy prey.”
 
“No,” I said fiercely, pinning him with my gaze. “We will not, because the Lord is on our side!” 
 
“So, what, you think He’s going to mow down Pharaoh’s army for us?” Aaron demanded. “You think he’s going to—what, part the sea so we can walk through it?” His tone of scoffing incensed me. 
 
“I do not know how He is going to deliver us, but yes, after the ten plagues, and the pillar of cloud and fire, and the willing plunder of our captors? I do believe He is going to deliver us. As should you!” 
 
Aaron blinked at me, looking at once skeptical and chagrined. He held up his hands. 
 
“We do as the Lord commands. Of course.” 
 
So I went and told the Israelites where we were going, but not why. No one asked. They blindly trusted that I knew best—until anything appeared to go wrong. Then they all turned on me, as I knew full well. I wasn’t looking forward to that part. 
 
When we arrived at Pi Hahiroth, and some of the men of Israel saw the tactical disadvantage of such a camp, I could feel their restless energy, and thought I overheard some of their rebellious grumbles. None had the courage to directly challenge me, though a few approached Aaron. I saw him speaking to them in low, earnest whispers. Still, they went away looking dissatisfied. Dusk fell, and the pillar of cloud became a pillar of fire. It hemmed us in against the sea. 
 
Then we heard the hoofbeats, and the rumble of chariot wheels. My heart beat faster. This was it.
 
At first, before the Israelites admitted to themselves what it was, they simply seemed to grow more agitated. But as it grew louder, and when at last they could see the Egyptian army beyond the pillar of fire, the wailing and the pandemonium began. 
 
“Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?” they cried out, and “Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?” and, “Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” Women cried out and tore their clothing. All around us the people wept and trembled and raged. I had never had a strong voice; that was why I had pleaded with the Lord to allow my brother to be my mouthpiece. Fortunately, he did so now.
 
“SILENCE!” Aaron thundered, his rich baritone suddenly amplified and echoing with such supernatural authority that the stunned people actually obeyed. In the brief lull that followed, Aaron turned to me, and gave me a small nod of his head. 
 
I cleared my throat, and raised my arms. Then, with more confidence than I had ever heard in my own voice before, I cried out, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace!” 
 
Then silently I added as I watched the army approaching, Okay, Lord. Now would be a good time. 
 
The Lord responded to my spirit, Why do you cry to Me?
 
I blinked, watching as the army drew closer. I should think that is obvious, I told Him.  
 
I gave you the rod, did I not? The Lord replied. My power is in your hand. Use it! Tell the children of Israel to go forward. But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. And I indeed will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them. So I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, his chariots, and his horsemen. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.
 
So the Lord did indeed intend for us to go through the sea! I wondered if that had been His intention all along, or if He did that just because Aaron had mocked the idea. It otherwise certainly never would have occurred to me. 
 
The army halted before the pillar of fire that divided them from us. I had the impression that the Lord had hidden us from their sight, though fire should have illuminated us instead. 
 
“What are you doing?” Aaron hissed as I marched toward the Red Sea. 
 
“Exactly what you suggested,” I hissed back. 
 
“Which is what?” 
 
“Parting the Red Sea.” 
 
Aaron gave a short snort of laughter. Then he saw my face in profile, hard as stone. “You’re serious.” 
 
I held up the rod with a quick glance at my brother. “Watch me.” Then I stopped at the edge of the waters, and did as the Lord commanded: I stretched out my hand over the waters. 
 
Suddenly a howling gust of wind seemed to blow from my staff, straight down into the waters to the sea floor. The waters peeled back layer by layer, as if they had been cut with a knife, rising like pillars to the right and to the left. The land at the bottom of the sea appeared, filled with coral and seaweed and mud. An instant more, and the sea bed dried up completely. 
 
I stood there gaping for a moment, forgetting to breathe. What a sight! Was it real? Was it possible? 
 
Then I remembered I was far from alone. With a quick glance over my shoulder, I beckoned Aaron with a gesture of my head. He practically had to scrape his jaw off the ground, but he recovered himself, in turn beckoning the people to follow. 
 
I led the people through the sea, looking in amazement at the sight of the pillars of water on either side of us. A few unfortunate fish flopped on the dry ground at our feet. Miriam took pity on the ones she came across, and picked them up with her fingers, tossing them back into the walls of water. I overheard some of the delighted squeals of the children as they found starfish and lovely pieces of coral. The sound brought tears to my eyes, as I pictured those same children as adults, telling their own children, “Yes, this is a very special starfish! I found it on the dry seabed of the Red Sea, when the Lord led us through and delivered us from our enemies!” 
 
All night we crossed, as the wind continued to blow, whipping our hair and robes all around us. I glanced back behind us several times, and saw that at the far back of our company, the pillar of fire brought up the rear, hiding and guarding the people from Pharaoh still. Beyond that, I thought I saw that, incredibly, Pharaoh had pursued us. 
 
“They’re actually coming after us,” Miriam said to me under her breath. “Pharaoh and his army! He sees that the Lord parted the Red Sea for us, and he’s still pursuing! How stupid is he?” 
 
Behind me, I heard the people’s shrieks of terror. “They’re going to catch us!” women cried, and men shouted at me, “Should we go back and fight? Moses! Moses!” 
 
I gritted my teeth, ignoring them and staring straight ahead. The sea floor had already begun its sloping ascent to the shore, though I estimated that shore was probably another hour’s march ahead, given the speed and number of the Israelites. It was true: we were incredibly slow, and on foot. Pharaoh’s army rode chariots and horses. 
 
In the distance, behind the pillar that guarded us, I heard the whinnies and neighs of the horses, and the sounds of battle. I whirled around now in dread, and blinked at what I saw. The wheels of Pharaoh’s chariots had popped off! The army was in pandemonium. Many of the chariots were overturned, or piled up upon one another. Aaron let out a short laugh of glee. 
 
“Come on!” I shouted, picking up my pace to the shore. I suddenly knew what I had to do. 
 
For some time, I outstripped the people by a considerable margin. Aaron and Miriam hurried to catch up, along with Aaron’s family, who tried to bridge the gap and urge the rest of the Israelites to make haste. 
 
These people are insufferable, I thought in amazement, but did not say. 
 
The thought was not meant to be directed to the Lord, but the Lord answered me anyway. Oh. You don’t know the half of it yet. 
 
When I’d reached the shore and the last of the straggling Israelites climbed up beside me, I looked back over the Red Sea, waters still parted from shore to shore, with a pillar of fire standing between  us and the Egyptian army. The army had made no progress from the time the Lord began to trouble the wheels of their chariots. It looked like they were trying to flee back in the opposite direction, but they couldn’t seem to do that either. The first glimmer of dawn appeared on the horizon.
 
Stretch out your hand over the sea, the Lord said to me, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen. 
 
Staff in hand, I did so. With a mighty thunderous crash, the walls of water collapsed, as if the invisible hands holding them in place had been removed. We heard not so much as a cry from our pursuers. They simply vanished before our eyes in the sea. 
 
For a long moment, I could hear nothing but the thunder of the waters. When the waves calmed, I heard the shouts of the people behind me. I closed my eyes, stinging with tears, a lump in my throat.
 
You did it, Lord, I told Him. You are… incredible! 
 
Tell the people, He replied. Lead them in a song of praise. Memorialize this moment, and mark every detail. For they will soon forget. 
 
How can any of us ever forget what wonders you have done for us this night? I thought. You are so good, so powerful, so righteous!
 
Tell the people, He said again. They will follow your lead. 
 
So I did. I was not much of a speaker, and even less a singer, but my skill did not matter. I turned around, let the people see my tear-streaked face, and raised my hands. Then I opened my mouth in song. It came to me fully formed, in perfect verse, and with a melody simple and catchy enough that the children picked it up at once. Miriam had brought her timbrel, so she danced among the people, encouraging all the young women to join her. The children did too, making up all their own steps as they went. Even the most stoic of the people clapped their hands and learned the words. We laughed, sang, danced, and rejoiced before the Lord with all our hearts. 
 
They will soon forget, the Lord had said. But for this moment—for this moment, they were thankful.   
 
Sep 11, 2020

You can get a copy of "Messiah: Biblical Retellings" here: my collection of retellings of the miracles of Jesus, published under my pen name, C.A. Gray

Today's retelling of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man from the Gadarenes comes from Matt 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39.

Introduction 

This story happens immediately after Jesus calms the storm at sea. Everywhere Jesus goes, he’s mobbed by people who want to hear him teach and to be healed. He could theoretically have stayed where he was, and ministered to thousands of people. Instead, he crosses the stormy see from Galilee to the wilderness of the Gadara—interesting for several reasons. First, it’s not part of the Jewish nation; this is one of the ten cities of the Decapolis, east of the Jordan river, and according to Josephus, it was inhabited mostly by Greeks. Jews would not have kept a herd of pigs, as they considered them to be unclean, so these were definitely Gentiles.


Second, the only thing Jesus does when he gets there is to heal this one demonized man. Immediately afterwards, the people are so terrified that they beg him to leave. It appears Jesus traveled all this way, through the storm, just for this one guy. To me, this seems like an illustration of Jesus’ three parables: of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or prodigal) son. One man is worth all of this time and effort on Jesus’ part!


We see a bit of the reason for this as soon as Jesus arrives. Despite the fact that he played host to a “legion” of demons (at least two thousand apparently!), the real man is still down there, wanting to be free. We know this because when he sees Jesus from afar, he runs toward him, falls at his feet, and worships him (Mark 5:6). All the dialogue listed appears to be between Jesus and the demons, so the man may not at that point have had use of his vocal cords. But he had enough control over his body that he could run toward the Messiah, which no doubt was exactly the opposite of what the demons wanted him to do. When he got there, the demons begged Jesus not to torment them. They knew they’d had it now.


How did the man know who Jesus was, anyway? He lived naked and alone among the tombs, and the other Gadarene people obviously kept far away from him. He wouldn’t have heard any rumors about Jesus from them. So presumably he knew who Jesus was because the demons knew. They recognized him in the spirit, and called him “Jesus, son of the Most High God”. No humans had even received this revelation yet! So perhaps the man “overheard” the demons discussing who Jesus was in his mind.
How would this produce faith in him to run to Jesus, though? Satan’s very name means "false accuser”; surely the demons would have told the man all the ways in which he was not worthy. They might have lied about Jesus’ character, and told the man that he would be tormented if he approached the Son of God. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the Father must have broken through the influence of that legion of demons, and given this man a revelation of who Jesus was (his character and his love, not just his title). Nothing else would have induced him run to Jesus and fall at his feet. That was the man’s act of faith. It was all he could do, but it was enough. Praise God that no matter how bad off we are, we are never outside the Father’s reach!


The subsequent interaction between Jesus and the demons peels back the veil between worlds, and gives a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the spirit realm. Jesus commands the demons to leave, and instead of just doing it, they argue with him: “I adjure you by God that you torment me not.” The Greek word adjure (horkizo) means “to command under oath with a threat of penalty.” They think Jesus is breaking the rules, that God gave the demons authority until a set time which had not yet arrived (Matthew 8:29). When Adam obeyed Satan in the Garden, he made Satan the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4). From that point on, outside of God’s later covenant of protection which covered the Jewish people only, the fate of individuals legally was in Satan’s hands (Job 1:12). This man is not a Jew; he had no covenant to protect him. So the demons think that even if Jesus has the power to cast them out, as God, he should not have the authority to do so: the earth isn’t His anymore.


What they don’t understand is that the earth and everything in it was given to mankind to subdue in the Garden (Gen 1:28). It’s as though God owned the property, earth, but leased it to mankind. Men then “sub-let” the property to Satan, yes—but the official authority to act upon the earth still belonged to mankind. Jesus was now a man. He had not yet died and risen again to become the “last Adam,” redeeming us from the curse we brought upon ourselves (1 Cor 15:45), but as God wrapped in a human body, he did have legal authority on earth, in a way that God the Father did not. He was basically a Trojan horse. The demons didn’t get this: they thought God the Father was intervening before the “earth lease” had run out, and they cried foul.


But whether the demons understood the source of Jesus’ authority or not, they still had to obey his power. They didn’t want to go back to the abyss, or Sheol, and asked Jesus’ permission to go into the herd of pigs instead. Presumably they needed to inhabit physical bodies in order to remain on earth. Jesus granted this. But the demons’ new home didn’t last long, of course: once the pigs lost their minds, ran off a cliff and killed themselves, the demons presumably had to go back into the abyss anyway!
Whoever owned those two thousand pigs was no doubt very unhappy, as the herd would have represented a substantial investment. The scripture says the people were afraid because of the miracle Jesus had performed, though, so this was the primary reason that the Gadarenes begged him to leave their region, rather than because of the loss of the pigs. (Interesting that they weren’t afraid of the naked guy roaming around the tombs, cutting himself and wailing and unable to be bound by any chains. But once he’s clothed and in his right mind, now they’re terrified.)
The man begged to follow Jesus after he had been set free, but Jesus did not allow him to do so. Instead, he gave the man an assignment: to go back and tell his friends and family what God had done for him. Perhaps this was the reason Jesus did not allow the man to come with him—or perhaps it was because his primary ministry was still to the lost sheep of Israel. Bringing a Gentile with him might have been an impediment to this. Regardless, the man’s testimony was evidently effective, because the next time Jesus went to the Decapolis, crowds turned out to hear him and be healed (Mark 7:31-37, Matthew 15:30).

 

Fictionalized Retelling 
 
I watched longingly as Jesus climbed into one of the boats, and as the whole small company of his disciples set out across the lake, fading into the distance. I longed to be with them… but Jesus had given me an assignment.

I turned around to face the crowd of my townspeople that watched the boats sailing away at a distance, making sure that Jesus left. Then, deliberately, I thrust both fists in the air.
 
“I’m free!” I shouted. “That man called Jesus set me free!”
 
I climbed the hill where they stood watching warily. As soon as I reached them, I told them this story.

***

How to explain what it was like?

I can only find words in retrospect. At the time, there were none.
Imagine that there is a parasite living under your skin. You can see it slithering around, eating you alive from the inside. That is why I cut myself with stones: I was trying to expel the creatures who had taken over my body. Yet the action was worse than useless. I never got anywhere near the source of the problem. It was not even on the plane of the physical world. Some part of me knew this, yet I couldn’t stop. It was compulsive, as if the next slice might make the difference. In the same way, anything that bound or shackled me had to come off, because to me, it was a symbol of the creatures that had bound my soul. That was also why I ripped my clothes, and why I snapped any chains that bound me.

I lived among the tombs because, where else could I go? Living humans shunned me. I cried out in torment: I had no other power over my vocal cords. I could not speak. Crying out in anguish was my only relief, and poor relief it was.

Did I sleep? I don’t know. There were large gaps in my memory, but I did not know if this was when the beings inside me took over, or when I lost consciousness.

I ate living creatures, raw and wriggling. (I’m sorry if that offends you.)

If I could have killed myself, I would have. That is the other reason I slashed at my skin with stones. But had I succeeded, my death would have banished the creatures from my body—and of course, they could not permit that. They did not mind if I mutilated myself, so long as I continued to exist.

Then one day, when dawn came, instead of roaming about among the tombs and wailing as I had done for countless years, I instead got to my feet and made my way down to the Sea of Galilee. This was not a conscious choice, either of mine or of the creatures inhabiting my body. It was as if I were compelled by something stronger than any of us.

A long way off, I saw boats docking. Suddenly the creatures exploded in my mind.

That is Him! That is the Most High God! shrieked one. Flee! Flee! Do not let Him sense us!

It cannot be, God does not walk the earth! protested another.
Do you not sense the power radiating from Him, even from here? the first one demanded. Do you not recognize Him? Look!

I turned to look with the creatures, and gasped aloud. Suddenly the world appeared in gray instead of color, mere moving shapes and shadows—except for one point of bright, radiant light, like the sun. It stepped off the boat, pulsing and radiating with palpable glory, almost painful in its beauty.

“Jesus!” the demons formed the name on my tongue. I knew then that the name belonged to the man, and that the man was God Himself. In exactly that same moment, hope bloomed in my chest.

My feet began to move. If ever I had power over my own body, I exerted every last shred of it then, though I felt the demons inside of me seizing up my limbs to try to make me stop. I tripped and fell on my face. I tasted blood, but got back to my feet and kept running. The demons in my head screamed at me to stop, to turn around and go back to the tombs.

He will despise you! they cried, you are an abomination! He will destroy you, you filthy, unclean wretch!

Good, I thought back. Better to be destroyed by Him than to live a thousand years as I am. It was not just the relief of death that I sought. If the brightness of this man’s radiance incinerated me like a ball of flame, it would be all worth it, just for that split second beforehand when I would coexist in the sphere of His glory.

My vision returned to normal. I saw color again, and the glorious radiance that had surrounded Jesus faded until he looked like just an ordinary man. He moved deliberately in my direction, apart from the others who docked several of their little boats behind him. When I reached him, I threw myself at his feet.

Jesus opened his mouth and commanded, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!”

The demons took over my tongue to reply. The voice that rasped from my throat was not my own.

“What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure You by God that You do not torment me before the time!”

I looked up into the face of this man. He was surprisingly young, with a stern expression in his hard eyes. At the same moment, my memory overlaid the cloud of glory around him that I had seen in the spirit moments before. I raised my hands in worship; it was all I could do.

“What is your name?” Jesus demanded.

My own tongue rasped back, “My name is Legion; for we are many. Do not send us out of the country and back into the abyss!” I felt my head swivel to one side, and saw a herd of swine feeding near the cliffs overlooking the sea not far off. “Send us into the swine, that we may enter them.”

“Go!” Jesus commanded.

The sensation within me was like a rushing wind, as if I were caught up in a hurricane—and then, silence.

I collapsed, clutching the sand on the shore, gasping. I looked at my fingers in front of me in wonder. They were caked with dirt, the fingernails long and curled and filthy—but they were mine. I wiggled them in front of my face, marveling that I had no resistance.

“I can… speak,” I croaked in wonder, looking up at the face of my rescuer. Jesus smiled down at me.

“Yes, my son,” he said, his tone gentle now.

All the others who had arrived with Jesus began to gather around me, tending to my needs. Several brought basins of fresh water, sponging away the dried blood and dirt from my various swollen cuts. One trimmed my nails from my hands and feet. One draped a cloak over my shoulders. One tilted a mug of water to my parched lips. It all overwhelmed me.  I was used to people running from me and shunning me. I did not know how to respond to kindness. 

“Jesus, look!” one of them said, in the midst of these ministrations. The speaker pointed at the cliff where the pigs were. They scampered this way and that, squeaking and squawking in an utter chaos that seemed to me a perfect representation of the way my mind had felt for ever so long. The men who must have been tending the pigs were running the other way, down the mountain. Then, a few of the pigs ran off the cliff and into the sea. More of them seemed to notice this as a means of escape, and within moments, every single one of them flung themselves into the water. I knew exactly how they felt; anything was better than playing host to those demons.

Abruptly, the unearthly squeals of the pigs ceased.

“We do not have long now,” Jesus observed. “The people will hear the story from the swine herds shortly and will make their way here.”

“The owner won’t be happy,” muttered one of Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus shook his head in agreement.

“No, indeed,” he agreed.

The other disciples continued their ministrations to me, trimming my beard and combing my matted hair. One shared food with me: bread and cooked fish. It was the first normal food I had tasted in years.

As grateful as I was, though, I was significantly less concerned with my physical needs at the moment. All I wanted was to hear what Jesus was saying to the disciples nearest him. The man who trimmed my beard noticed that I was staring after Jesus longingly, straining to hear his words. He approached him for me, pointing in my direction, and Jesus walked over to me again. As much as I had wanted Jesus’ attention again, now that I had it, I trembled with shame. He looked ordinary now, but the sharp memory of his glory made me shrink back and drop my gaze.

Jesus must have understood. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and said gently, “Son, take heart. Your sins are forgiven.”

I dared to look up at him again, hopeful now, and whispered, “Do they all know who you are?” I pointed at all the other disciples around.

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Sometimes they know, but they forget easily. Not all have seen what you have seen.”

I was about to reply, but Jesus looked beyond me to the crowds from the town. Evidently the swine herds’ story had already reached their ears, and they came to see who had caused such a commotion. I turned, and saw all of the townspeople glancing at Jesus, then fixating upon me. I knew by their expressions and whispers that they recognized me. I stood up, pulling the cloak around me, and tried to reassure them.

“It’s okay!” I called, and attempted a smile. It was probably more like a grimace, though, given how out of practice my facial muscles were. “I’m… me again! See?” I wiggled my fingers in the air, as if to demonstrate that they were under my control. “I won’t terrorize you anymore. You don’t have to be afraid!”

Unfortunately my words seemed to have the opposite effect. They all drew back, their whispers coming fast and furious now. Some of the other disciples with Jesus stepped forward to try to explain, too.

“Jesus cast an entire legion of demons from this man,” one said, and another added, “the demons asked to be sent into the pigs. Jesus just gave them permission.” Another added, “We’re… sorry about your herds…”

The expressions in the crowd all looked terrified. One man, whom I vaguely recognized as a magistrate or someone important, cleared his throat and stepped forward.

“Please, leave us now.” His voice was low and even. He looked mostly at Jesus, but at the other disciples as well. “We do not know what manner of power can do such a thing, but we do not want it here. Please go.”

I looked back at Jesus to see how he would take this. He met the man’s gaze squarely, and did not apologize, but he did incline his head in understanding.

“As you wish,” he said, and gestured to his disciples to get back into their boats.

I leapt to my feet at once.

“Wait!” I pleaded, running after them. “Take me with you! I—I want to be one of your disciples too!”

Jesus turned back to me, his expression full of compassion. I deflated as soon as I saw it, knowing what it meant.

“No, son,” he said, and gestured behind me to the townspeople with his eyes. “You go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.”

I absorbed this disappointment, but then stood up straighter.

“I will, Lord,” I promised. “I will tell them all every day, every chance I get, whether they want to hear it or not!”

Jesus grinned in spite of himself. “I believe you will,” he said. “We’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure.”

***

“And now you know all that I know,” I finished, speaking to the small crowd still gathered on the hill top. I beamed, and declared again, “I’m free! The Lord has set me free!”

They all marveled at my story. The town magistrate shook his head at me in wonder, looking off into the distance where the boats had long since disappeared.

“Well,” he murmured at last. “Now I rather regret running him off like that.”

“My sister is crippled,” said another woman. “I wonder if he could have healed her?”

“And I’ve had this pain in my back for ever so long…” murmured another.

“I haven’t slept properly in thirteen years!” cried a third.

“He’ll be back,” I said to them all with confidence. “He promised! And if he can set me free from two thousand demons, all of that stuff will be nothing for him!”

“Maybe he can,” muttered the magistrate. “But will he? After we asked him to leave?”

I shook my head. “You don’t understand, he’s not like you and me! He doesn’t hold grudges.” How I knew this when I’d barely spoken to him, I couldn’t have said. But I did know it, from that glory cloud alone. Tears pricked my eyes, and I added in a whisper, “He’s absolute perfection.”

 
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