Comforted

She wasn’t comfortable with this visit, but it was her duty.  He had lost his son just three weeks earlier and she had conducted the funeral.  The death had been sudden, tragic.  The man had lost his wife only three years earlier, and his son was his life.  At the funeral he had been devastated.

Now he looked peaceful, almost happy.  It was very strange.  Could he get over such a loss in just three weeks?  He’d been away for the last two weeks, and had told nobody where he was going. Many had feared that he would commit suicide, or maybe already had.  But here he was, comfortable in his own living room, accepting her pastoral visit.

“You look better,” she said.

“I am better.”

“Where have you been?  Your friends have been worried.”

“I went hiking.  In the wilderness.  Mountains.”

“You could have been hurt.  Nobody knew where you were.”

“I wasn’t hurt.”

“No, I can see that.  But hiking all alone, in your condition!”

“Alone?”  He paused.  “I see why you say that.  But no, not alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“God was with me.”

“I know that God is with you everywhere, but you need human contact.”

“No, I needed to talk to God.”

“And did God speak to you?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“Yes and no?”

“Well, there was no voice.  There were just trees, rocks, streams, mountains, birds, and yes, a few animals.  But I heard God.”

“And that has brought you this peace?”

“Peace?  Is that what I feel?  Then yes, it brought me peace.”

“So somehow in looking at the mountains you found a purpose in what happened to you?”

“No, no purpose.  It still makes no sense to me at all.  But I can live with it.”

“So you didn’t hear anything from God, you didn’t learn anything, but you found peace?”  As she said it, she knew it was wrong.  She should be celebrating his peace, not questioning it, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Oh, I did learn something from God.”

“Yes?  What was it?”

“As I looked at the mountains I realized just how overwhelmingly great God is, just how much beyond my understanding.”

He paused and she waited silently.

“I learned just one thing,” he said.  “I learned that God is God.”

Then YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge.”  — Job 38:1-2 (author’s translation)

Then Job answered YHWH and he said, …
“Therefore I desist, and repent in dust and ashes.” — Job 42:1,6 (author’s translation)

I Have No Gifts

[This is a work of fiction, Copyright © 2009, Henry E. Neufeld.  Any resemblance between the characters and the church in this story and any in the real world is purely coincidental.]

He was surprised to see her in his office.  She was one of those members who attended regularly, but you didn’t really get to know.  She had only been here a few months.  A single mother with three children, whose husband had simply left one day.  It was thought that he was alive, but he made no contact.

He knew she worked as a secretary or something to someone fairly high up in a major corporation, but he couldn’t recall who it was or at what company.  She must have things somewhat together, or she wouldn’t have such a job, but one couldn’t tell it from church.

He had tried to talk to her before, but had never gotten anywhere.  She was polite, but shy. She never added anything to the conversation more than the answers to his questions.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I would like to be of service to the church, but I seem to have no gifts for church work.”

He paused for a moment.  “No gifts?  Surely there is somewhere you would like to serve, somewhere that just feels right to you.”

“I’ve tried, but the I don’t seem to fit into the prayer groups, I was asked not to participate any more in folding and mailing the bulletins, and the outreach teams didn’t seem to need me.  I do volunteer in the nursery with the other mothers, but that’s the one thing I’d rather not do.  I do it all week!”

“But if God has called you to the nursery . . .” he paused.

“If God has called me, I don’t feel it.  How do you know?”

“You’ll feel a peace, a knowledge that you’re in the right place, even if you may not enjoy it all the time.”

“Then no, I don’t think the nursery is my calling.  In a way I don’t mind it, but I simply feel that I’m not doing the best thing.”

The conversation continued in the same way for a few more minutes.

“Well,” he said, “I normally find something that fits very quickly, but I’m really not sure.  Let’s meet again next week.”  He pulled out his calendar.  “How about same day, same time?”

“OK.”

“I’ll think about this and talk to a few people.  You think as well.  We’ll both pray about it, and we’ll see what we can work out.”

He said this, but he was really thinking that she obviously couldn’t get along with the people in the various ministries she tried.  She probably was called to the nursery but didn’t think that was important enough.  Besides he was very busy.  Why couldn’t she have talked to the volunteer coordinator instead of coming directly to him?  It was really annoying.

Nonetheless he was conscientious enough to pursue the topic during the week.  First he talked to the nursery coordinator.

“Well, pastor, she does her share in the nursery and does it quite well.  But as you probably know, the nursery is the one place in this church where we have enough help.  I schedule her about once every six weeks, just like the other mothers who volunteer.”

“So no problems?”

“No, none at all.  She’s great with the kids.”

So whether she feels called or not, he thought, she is doing the work.

Next he talked to the volunteer coordinator.  Technically one went to the volunteer coordinator about everything, but in that way churches have, there were certain procedures that were different.  Young mothers worked in the nursery, and the “nursery lady” as she was known, did her own scheduling.  The rest of these activities went through the volunteer coordinator.

“She came and talked to me about giftings,” said the volunteer coordinator, “and I told her that she was clearly a gifted mother and should work in the nursery.  I told her to see the nursery lady about it.”

“What did she say?”

“She said that the nursery only came up every six weeks, and she was sure she should be doing something else.  So I added her to the bulletin folding teams.”

“What happened then?”

“She went once, but they never called her again.”

“Do you know why not?”

“Well, Mrs. Delmar said she was disruptive and argumentative.  I figured it was easier to put her somewhere else.”

“But you don’t know what actually happened.  You know that Mrs. Delmar, to put it delicately, can be prickly from time to time.”

“True, but she’s been getting our bulletins out on time for more than 30 years.  So we’re stuck with that.”

“OK, so what happened then?”

“I put her on the outreach teams, and I understand she showed up for visitation one week.”

“Since you say ‘showed up’ not ‘went’ and then just ‘one week’ I’ll assume there’s a problem.”

“You assume correctly, pastor!  She tried to take a teenager along with her.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.  It would be nice to have teens involved in visitation.”

“What about a pregnant teenager, who is available on a school day because she’s suspended from school?”

“Oh,” he said.  “Oh!”

“So that didn’t work out, you see.  By then I was getting tired of annoying the various team leaders, so I told her that she was obviously gifted for nursery work and that was what she should do.”

“Well, this has been interesting,” he said, and left.  He was troubled by all this.  But the many ministries of his church worked so well, and required so little of his attention, he had to believe they were in good hands.

He decided to talk to Mrs. Delmar on Thursday when the bulletins were folded and the newsletter mailed.  When he invited her into his office, he could tell she was delighted.  To be called to talk to the pastor was a great honor in her eyes.

After the initial greetings he said, “I wanted to ask you about Ms. Varcik and what happened when she worked on the bulletin team a few weeks ago.”

Mrs. Delmar’s face fell.  “Pastor, I really do think I do a good job of getting out the bulletins.  I shouldn’t think you would question who I would have on my team!”  It was said in a tone that indicated both a little bit of defiance and also the confidence that she was delivering an argument sure to be accepted.

“No, I’m not questioning you.  I just need the information for a purpose of my own.”

Mrs. Delmar’s face brightened, as she realized she was about to provide information that would be used in the serious decision making of the church elite.  “Well, pastor, she is not a team player.”

“Could you be more precise?”

“Well, I don’t want to be critical, but when you are a new member on a team you need to first learn the established procedures.  Then, when you have the experience to back you up, you make suggestions.”

“And Mrs. Varcik made suggestions?”

“Well, first she just started doing things in her own order.  When I pointed out to her that she was doing it differently, she had the audacity to tell me that they did it differently where she worked.”

Mrs. Delmar paused to allow the enormity of this suggestion to sink in.  “So I told her that doubtless at her job they had a few small things to mail, but that could hardly prepare her for the complex operation of getting the bulletins out.”

She paused again.  “But do you know what she said?”

“No.  What?”

“She said that they put out thousands of brochures where she worked, and that they had an excellent system.  Then she apologized, but she didn’t mean it.”

“Did she do things your way after that?”

“Well, it’s not my way.  It’s the way we do things here at this church.  But yes, she did.”

“So it all worked out alright?”

“Well, for that day.  But I didn’t ask her back.  She can volunteer somewhere else, like the nursery.”

Next he went to talk to the outreach coordinator, Mr. Yardley.   Mr. Yardley could hardly contain his outrage.

“Has she been complaining to you?  I knew I should have gone to you right when it happened!  I just don’t believe young people these days, running to the pastor at the first complaint!”

“She didn’t complain to me about you.  But she did say she had participated in the visitation program for only one week.  I’d like to know why.”

“Well, she came here with a teenager.”

“Yes, I heard that.  I also heard that the teenager was pregnant.”

“She was.  Very pregnant.”

“You mean it was obvious she was pregnant.”

“Yes.  And Mrs. Varcik wanted to take her along on the visitation.”

“Do you know where the girl was from or who she was?”

“No, and I don’t care either.  There’s no way we can include an unmarried pregnant girl on our visitation teams.”

“OK.  So what did Mrs. Varcik do?”

“Well, they helped prepare the flowers and the food that we take, and then she went home.  But I didn’t invite her again, because I don’t need that kind of problem.  She even came to me the Sunday after and told me she didn’t think I should have spoken the way I did in front of the girl.  What did she think I should do?”

“I don’t know.  That’s all I need.”

So he had some thinking to do.  On the one hand, it was quite likely that Mrs. Varcik had some great ideas, but he had a smoothly running church.  And he could hardly imagine what would happen if they went out on visitation with a pregnant teenager along.  What would people think?  No, the price would be too high.  There was a Staff-Parish Relations committee vote coming up on whether to inform the bishop that the church wanted him to return for a second year.

So as much as he hated to do it, he would have to inform Mrs. Varcik that her place of service was the nursery, however that made her feel.  He hoped it wouldn’t make her decide to leave.  The church was shrinking in membership and they needed every member they could get.

That Sunday he was approached by the church lay leader.

“Pastor,” he said, “I think we have a serious problem with one of our members.”

“Oh?  Who is that?  Do I need to visit?”

“No, no visit.  It’s Mrs. Varcik.  Yesterday I saw two sherriff’s department vehicles in front of her house.  It looked like something serious!  I hear she’s been trying to worm her way into the various ministries of this church and disrupting everything as she goes.  We don’t need the type of person in our church who gets in trouble with the police and associates with promiscuous teens.”

“Yes, I see that we have a problem.  I’ll think and pray about it, and let you know.”

“You do that, pastor.  Some of the pillars of this church are going to leave if this problem isn’t solved!”

Over the weekend he had a lot of thinking to do.  There was something wrong with each of these situations, but why wouldn’t someone be kind enough to follow the procedures that all the dear old folks who folded the bulletins liked?  More important, why would someone bring a pregnant teenager on visitation?

He convinced himself the problem was with Mrs. Varcik.  He didn’t want to think about that Staff-Parish Relations committee vote.  The bishop was not required to follow it, but with a pastor who had only been at his church one year he just might, and he had too many one or two year pastorates on his record.

It was Tuesday and staff meeting was over.  That afternoon he would tell Mrs. Varcik that she should confine herself to working in the nursery.  A thought still nagged at him.  Why was it OK for her to work in the nursery, but nowhere else?  Who wanted a woman who had been in trouble with the police  to work in the nursery?  Perhaps he should check and make sure there wasn’t another explanation.

No, he thought, I should trust the church leaders.  Why?  Because they have proven reliable in the past?  No, because anything else takes me somewhere I don’t even want to think about.

At the end of staff meeting his youth leader asked for a moment of his time.

“Is it urgent?” he asked.  “I’m very busy today.”

The youth leader was a sheriff’s deputy who also volunteered at his church.  His duty schedule usually allowed him to attend staff meetings.

When they were in the office and the door was closed, he asked what was so urgent.  He tried not to sound impatient, but he was very busy, and he didn’t look forward to a number of things he had to do that day.

“I need a volunteer to work with me in the youth group, and the volunteer coordinator says I can’t have the person I want.”

“Why not?”

“He says she is inappropriate.”

He had a bad feeling about this, but he had to ask.  “Who is it?”

“Mrs. Varcik.  She’s wonderful with the kids.”

“I think it would be better not,” he said.  “Why do you need a volunteer anyhow?  Surely one man can handle a half a dozen youth.”

“Half a dozen?  Where have you been pastor?  We don’t have enough space in the youth room.”

The youth room was actually a cabin-like building, quite bare, separate from the church.  He had to admit to himself that he hadn’t checked there for weeks, glad that this new volunteer kept everyone quiet.  The youth leader kept everyone quiet for the simple reason that nobody ever checked the youth room.

“Where are they coming from?  We don’t have that many youth in the whole church.”

“Many of them aren’t coming from the church.  In fact, Mrs. Varcik has invited about half of them.”

“What do you do with them?”

“Well, we talk.  Most of the time they talk and I listen.  I wish we had somewhere for games, but you can’t get a ping pong table into that youth room and still have room for a reasonable number of people, much less play basketball.”

“The gym is available, isn’t it?”

“The activities coordinator says we can’t have the youth group in the gym on Wednesday nights, and that it is inappropriate to have games on Sunday.  I was afraid to ask about anything by the time I’d been told those two things.”

“Why not?  Just because the gym is in use two times doesn’t mean it will be in use the rest of the week.”

“Pastor, pardon me for saying this, but you have been here less than a year.  You really don’t understand how this place operates, do you?”

“Enlighten me.”

“The gym isn’t in use at those times.  The activities coordinator doesn’t want us in there.  The only reason he hasn’t complained against me is that my parents are pillars of the church, and I’m a respected law enforcement officer.  If I was anything else, he’d have come to you to explain that I’m filling the church with undesirable young people.”

“OK, but about Mrs. Varcik.  You can have a volunteer, but not her.  The lay leader was telling me that there were sheriff’s deputies, two cars over at her house the other day.  We don’t need someone who has been in trouble with the police.”  As he said it, he had a bad feeling.  This young man would know, what had happened.  For all he knew, the youth director had been in one of those police vehicles.

“Bull … ” started the youth director.  Then he stopped.  “Pardon me pastor, but I’m afraid that while the word might not be appropriate for the pastor’s office, the sentiment is.  Surely you’re not believing the gossip mill in this church!  Surely you know better than that!”

He really had known better.  He knew it, and he knew that he’d made himself believe the easy thing.

“So tell me,” he said.

“Mrs. Varcik is the go to person for children’s services and for the sheriff’s department.  When they need emergency care for children or youth, that’s where they go.  You’ll find our vehicles over there quite a bit.  Usually we’re taking an abused child or a young person in trouble to her to stay until further arrangements can be made.  She takes care of them.  More than half the kids in my youth group are there because she invited them.  Many of those got started when they were in temporary care at her house.”

He was stunned.  This wasn’t the timid woman who had come to him, claiming to have no gifts.  How could he reconcile that woman with the one his youth director was describing?

“I knew she was secretary to some important executive.  She’d have to have something together to do that, but I didn’t realize …”

“Secretary?” said the youth director.  “No offense to secretaries, who have a hard job, but she’s the personal assistant to the president of the power company.  And she’s raising three kids.  She really is extremely efficient.”

He came to a decision, one he knew he’d suspected would be right almost from the start.  “OK, go ahead and invite her to work with you.  I’ll take care of the rest somehow.”

“Thank you, pastor.  You won’t regret it!”

I bet I will, he was thinking, but not because of anything she’ll do.

At the appointment later that afternoon, he decided to go straight to the point.

“Why would you tell me you have no gifts when you clearly have many gifts, and the real problem is that nobody wants you to use them here in the church.”

She looked down, she squirmed in her chair, and then she looked back at him with tears in her eyes.  At the same time he could see the efficient, capable woman the youth leader had described.

“I thought it was me.”

“Why?”

“Because it happened wherever I went at church.  People talked about gifts and volunteering, but wherever I went, they tried to block me.  This is the church, isn’t it?  I should be able to serve here!  Everyone else seems to be able to, but why can’t I?”

“It’s not you, or rather, it’s what you do in a place that is very much set in its ways.  Did you grow up in the church?”

“No, I didn’t.  I didn’t start coming here until my husband left me.  The first Sunday I was here you preached from Matthew 25:31-46.  I’ve memorized that passage.  You talked about how doing all those things for other people was how we show that God is working in our hearts.  I knew this was the place.”

“I remember that day,” he said.  He certainly did.  Some people said he was giving people an excuse for sin because he said that if you served others you were following Jesus.

“Well, I came here because it’s the nearest church to my home, and I stayed because of that sermon, but I don’t see how this church represents that sermon.”  She started to blush, feeling that she had been too critical.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said.  “I know what you’re saying.”  He paused.  “I had a talk with the youth director this morning.  He wants you to volunteer with the youth.”

“But I understand that the volunteer coordinator said ‘No’.”

“The volunteer coordinator doesn’t actually have the authority to say no.  That’s just something that everyone started doing around here.  We’re just going to ignore him and start living that text!”

It would be rough, but if the Staff-Parish Relations committee wanted to tell the bishop he was following Jesus too much, then they would have to go ahead, and he’d have to hope the bishop could read between the lines and realize that’s what they were saying.

And if not, he was more afraid of being found amongst the goats on judgment day than of losing his pulpit!

The God-Talk Club and the She-Bears

[This is a work of fiction, from my God-Talk Club series. – added 11:42 central time]

Small talk was dying down and everyone had their drinks.  Mark had a question:

“I’ve been given an assignment,”1 he said to the group, and I’d like your thoughts.

“What is it?” asked Mandy.

“We’re supposed to write a 10 minute homily on 2 Kings 3:23-24.”

“Ten minutes?  That’s going to cramp your style.  You can’t tell them everything you’ve learned in your seminary classes.”  Mandy was laughing as she said it, and Mark took it in good humor.  He really did like to put his whole seminary training into each homily.

“Ten minutes,” echoed Jerry.  “You can’t really get to the meat of a scripture in that period of time.

“I didn’t know you Presbyterians had long sermons.  I thought you generally had about 20 minute homilies,” said Mandy.

“Not at my church.  It’s more like 30-40 minutes, and sometimes we get more in the pastor’s Sunday School class.”

“Oh, you learn something new every day,” said Mandy.  “But we should get back to Mark.  What are your questions?”

“Well,” said Mark and paused.  He felt like he knew what he’d hear from each person and was almost afraid to start.  “It’s such a violent story.  Elisha seems to get offended and so he slaughters a bunch of kids.  Where’s the moral in that?”

Justine, Mandy, and Jerry started talking at once, then started to apologize to each other.

Over the confusion, Bob Norman cut in.  “OK, I’ll bite.  What is this story of the she-bears?”

“You don’t know that one?” exclaimed Mac.  “That’s  a skeptical staple.  A Christian says ‘God is love’ and you say ‘But what about the she bears?’  I’m going to have to revoke your skeptic’s license.”

Bob was working on getting used to Mac.  He was a science teacher, an atheist, and quite convinced, but he had been raised in a conventionally religious home, one where he didn’t see church all that often.  Until he had gotten together with the God-Talk Club he hadn’t argued religion that much.  He just didn’t believe.

Mac, on the other hand, seemed to think that the purpose of skeptics was to argue with Christians.  She knew more about Christianity than most Christians.

“So what is the story?” asked Bob, looking at Mac.

“Well, this prophet named Elisha was walking along, and some children started taunting him about being bald.  So he cursed them and called some she bears to maul them.  The bears got 42 of them.”

Jerry cut in, “Well, not precisely.  How about we read the text as it’s written?”

Jerry pulled out his Bible and read:

(23) He went from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”  (24) And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD.  And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. — 2 Kings 2:23-24 (ESV)

“OK,” asked Bob, “so why are they telling this guy to go up?  And is this Elisha you’re talking about?”

“Well Elijah had just been taken up into heaven, so the boys were suggesting that Elisha do the same thing,” said Jerry.

“But I don’t believe that anyone can go up to heaven,” said Bob.

“Why don’t we discuss the story based on what the people who wrote it believed?” asked Mandy.  She barely cut off Jerry who had been about to argue the point.  He again thought about how hard it was for him to take Mandy seriously because of the way she behaved, yet she had these flashes of wisdom.

“Maybe the boys didn’t believe that Elijah had ascended either,” said Mark.  “They might have been suggesting that Elisha was lying.  Elisha was the only witness, after all.”

“That’s quite possible,” said Mandy.

“But it doesn’t help us much in understanding the story,” said Jerry.  Whatever their reasons they were taunting God’s prophet.”

“So Justine,” said Bob, turning to look her right in the eye.  “What would you do if some children in your congregation were taunting you?”

“Well, it would depend on what they were doing,” she answered.  “If they’re just joking, I’d laugh and go on.  If they’re threatening me, I’m going to deal with it.  Worst case, I might call the police.  I’ve had some teenagers who needed police intervention.  I don’t like it, but it happens.”

“But you wouldn’t curse them, or, in the absence of readily available she-bears, you wouldn’t release the dogs on them,” said Mac decisively, as though she thought she had just won a point.

“Precisely,” said Bob.

“But Justine isn’t a prophet,” said Jerry.

“So?  She’s a pastor.  Isn’t that close enough?” asked Bob.

“I hardly think so.  Elisha was the greatest prophet of his time.  It would be more like taunting the president,” said Jerry.

“But the secret service doesn’t shoot adults who taunt the president, much less children,” said Bob.

“Supposing a teenager–and these boys could be teenagers–was carrying a handgun and waved it at the president.  Then what would happen?” asked Jerry.

“It’s quite possible that the secret service might shoot the teenager.  But there’s no indication these children were carrying guns, or swords or spears,” said Bob again.

“But there’s nothing that says they didn’t either.  They might have been very threatening.”  Now Jerry looked like he was making a point.

“But wouldn’t that be adding something to the text?” asked Mark.

“Well, we’re adding to the text whether we assume they’re little children or teenagers, and whether we assume they had no weapons or lots of them.  It doesn’t give us those details,” said Jerry.

“So shouldn’t we deal with the text as it is?” asked Justine.  “It seems to say that taunting the prophet was enough provocation, and that God responded to Elijah’s curse by sending the she-bears.  I don’t particularly like it, but that’s what it says.”

“Well, actually, I don’t think so,” said Mandy.  Everyone started looking right at her.  “The text doesn’t tell us whether Elisha’s action was justified.  It just tell us that it happened.”

“So is it possible that Elisha might not be doing the right thing here?” asked Mark.

“I think so.  I think Elisha was tired and angry and so he cursed the children.”  Mandy had that “mother concludes and has made the point to the children” look she got from time to time.  The fact that she was sprawled carelessly sideways across an easy chair detracted from the effect.

“So why would God honor his angry request?” asked Jerry.

Mandy considered for a moment.  “Because he was God’s prophet.  What would happen if he cursed someone and nothing happened?  God has to go hunting for a new prophet!”

“I really don’t think that’s an appropriate way to speak about  a prophet.  Surely a prophet wouldn’t do wrong in a situation like this,” said Jerry.

“Elijah made mistakes.  Moses made mistakes.  David was a man after God’s own heart and he committed adultery and then murdered someone to cover it up.  What makes you think Bible characters always do right?” said Mandy.

“But in all those cases we have a clear indication that what they did was wrong.  Not here,” replied Jerry.

“Well, from my point of view that makes God look even worse.  He will kill forty-two children in order to keep his prophet respectable,” said Bob.  Mac nodded.

“But God can do anything he wants!  We don’t have the right to judge God’s actions,” said Jerry.

“So when you say, ‘God is love’ is that your considered judgment, or are you just repeating what God told you to say?” asked Mac.

“I know that God is love,” said Jerry.

“But how do you know?  Can you know that God is love without looking at God’s actions and deciding, ‘Those are loving actions?'” asked Mac.

“I think she’s got a point,” said Mandy.  “After all, we testify to God’s love and to the things God has done for us.  Have we not looked at God’s action and said, ‘That is love’?”

“But we wouldn’t even know what love was if God didn’t tell us!” said Jerry.

“Well, I agree with Jerry,” said Justine.  “God has the right to do what he wants.  So I think there must be something there that those children or teenagers did to deserve what happened to them.  If God did it, it must be right, and it says right there [she pointed to Jerry’s Bible] that God did it!”

“I’ve got to agree with Jerry as well.  It seems that you [he looked at Mandy] and Mark want to have the story in your Bible but you don’t want to accept what it really says.”  Bob looked at Jerry.  “Not that I agree with you about anything else!”

“I would never even think it,” said Jerry dryly.

“I have to disagree.  You’ve both decided what the story must mean.  There are many other statements about morality in the Bible.  I think that if we are told elsewhere that an action is wrong, we are not forced to conclude that a person who does that in a story is right.  That was complicated,” said Mandy, and grinned.

“But then you are saying that God did something wrong,” said Jerry, and Bob and Mac both nodded.

“I’m saying that God worked with people as they were.  You can’t always have ideal actions when you’re not dealing with ideal people.”

“There I agree with you, Mandy,” said Justine.  “I don’t really have a problem with this story, but God does work with us where we are.”

“I think I like Mandy’s explanation,” said Mark.  I wonder if I can say it in 10 minutes?  I’m inclined to give all the explanations and let people choose.”

And with that, the group began to break up.


1The real-world source of this question is not a professor at my imaginary seminary but David Ker at his Lingamish blog. I already responded in a real-world sense on my Participatory Bible Study blog.

The Call

Once in a lifetime, perhaps, a king’s knight would ride over the hill to the south of the village. His armor would be gleaming, his clothing immaculate, and his weapons beyond the comprehension of the villagers.

He would come to the center of the village, order that all the young people be assembled, and then he would look from one to another. If he saw one he liked for the king’s service, he would call that one. He would say that the one called could refuse, but few believed that. Even fewer believed that the one called would ever be seen again, though they couldn’t agree on precisely how long ago anything like this had actually happened.

Even more rarely, never in living memory of the villagers, a king’s knight would appear, it was said, to settle quarrels between neighboring lords, to deal with bandits, or to administer the law.

They assumed that the one called would be trained to fight the king’s battles, and none of them particularly cared for that. It was hard enough fighting for their local lord, who required his tenants to carry spears and march to battle with neighboring lords if there was a dispute. These disputes were always short, because it was said that if they got too wild or too long, the king would intervene.

But nobody could remember that ever happening, and there were many who believed it was all a lie, a story told and retold to keep people in line.

But one fine spring day while planting was in full swing and nobody was happy for the interruption, over the hill came just such a knight. His armored gleamed like a mirror, and he had with him three riding horses, though he wore his full armor and rode his war horse as he entered the village.

He found the headman and told him to assemble the young people of the town from age 15 to 25, both boys and girls here in the center of the village. The headman didn’t want to do this, and the farmers didn’t want their children brought in from the fields. They certainly didn’t want one of them to ride away on one of those empty horses.

But tradition was strong, and fear even stronger, so the young people were assembled. The knight passed from one to the next, looking and then passing on. He stopped in front of Hedder, a young lady of 17. Hedder had fine, golden hair but otherwise she looked too heavy duty to be considered pretty. Handsome, yes. Pretty, no.

She also asked too many questions and frightened her parents and the headman who liked their world orderly and secure. She was a good babysitter, and a fine farm worker. In fact, other than all those questions, few could find fault with her, though it was said that many young men of the village had begged their parents not to arrange a marriage with her, which explained why she was not betrothed.

“Come, follow me,” said the knight to Hedder.

“No!” cried the headman, thinking of what this apparent honor might suggest to the other girls of the village. He had never imagined that the order to include the girls meant that one actually might be called in this way.

“No!” cried Hedder’s father, thinking about all the planting to be done and how fast his large and heavy duty daughter was at this work.

“No!” cried her mother, half for her daughter, and half for the girl who took care of all the children, allowing her to accomplish her household work.

But Hedder simply let the hoe she had carried form the field fall on the ground and stepped toward the knight. Before most of he villagers had time to recover from surprise, she was seated on one of those horses, riding out of the village.

Many years passed, and the call of Hedder became legend in the villagers. There were those who had been young when it happened who openly questioned whether such a thing had ever occurred. Those who had been there assured them it had, but they didn’t believe.

“It’s much like the intervention of the king,” they would say. “Everybody talks about it, but it never happens. Nobody can even remember it happening.”

“The king will intervene if it’s necessary, we know he will,” said the elders. But deep inside they doubted as well.

“There is no king,” said the younger folk, “and even if there is, he just calls our young people. He doesn’t intervene.”

It happened that very month that the local lord felt that his neighbor had overstepped his bounds, and had moved boundary markers, giving himself more land. Words were exchanged, and finally blows. Then both men went back and summoned their tenants to get out their spears and come to war.

The two armies moved boundary markers back and forth, and occasionally killed one another with spears. The men needed to go to the harvest, but the lords would not allow them to leave.

“Not until all the boundary markers are restored!” said the one.

“Not until my enemy is hanging from a tree for all the damage he’s caused!” said the other.

Nobody knew that one of the village headmen had sent a messenger to find one of the king’s knights before all the harvest was ruined in the field. He didn’t tell anyone, because people would think him foolish. If the messenger returned with help, he would be vindicated. If not, he thought, perhaps the messenger would never return.

Finally one day the two sides gathered across a field from one another. It looked like finally there would be a big battle and one side or the other would win decisively. As they got in formation, lowered their spears and prepared to charge at one another, there was a commotion to the south.

It was a knight, with armor polished and shining, but with a sword out in his hand. Slowly the knight rode between the battle lines. The men looked at their spears and thought that there was really no use trying them against that armor.

As the knight reached the center, both lords came out to meet him.

“I have a right to defend my land!” said the one.

“I have a right to defend myself against this maniac!” said the other.

The knight removed his helmet. Golden hair flowed out. In a feminine voice, soft but firm and authoritative Hedder said: “I would suggest you reconsider. I am called by the king, and he likes his servants to live in peace.”

“Follow me!” — Mark 1:17 (and many others)Mark

The Decision

[The following is a work of fiction. I made up the community and the church. But many, many churches are facing similar decisions, though often not as clear as this one. I wonder how the elders will vote?]

 

Celia looked around the table as she finished her presentation. She’d done more work than she had been paid for and had gone further in making recommendations than she had been asked. Still, she had been able to see the possibilities. She braced herself to conclude:

“In summary, with your membership falling you will be able to continue to operate your church for approximately five years. That is only due to the previous members who have provided unusual financial reserves for your church. With your current programs, you will continue to decline in membership.

“On the other hand there are several opportunities. First, you have the Hispanic community. There are a large number of Spanish speaking people in the neighborhood now. Hiring a Spanish speaking associate pastor would allow you to reach out to that community. Second, despite the impression of some church members that they cannot reach out to the African-American community, there are a substantial number of families who would appreciate your pastor’s style. We could identify those for you and help you contact them. Finally, you have cut out services for young couples and youth, and that has forced your remaining young people to leave.

“Your decision will have to be whether to spend your financial reserves to hold on, in which case I cannot give you any hope that things will change. The demographics for your community will get worse, not better for the style of church you have had all these years. If you choose to spend your resources on preparing yourself to serve your community as it is now, there is plenty of room for this church to grow and continue to serve.

“If I could speak from a personal perspective for a moment. This is not me speaking as a consultant, but as a Christian. You have an unusual opportunity. While you have a declining membership, you have resources that nobody else can. ‘Raise your eyes and look at the fields, because they are already ripe, ready for harvest.’ Jesus said that about a Samaritan village. I say it about your community.”

Celia sat down. She looked at the pastor. He was well educated, but not very forceful. Nonetheless, he was the one who had arranged to get her firm to survey the community and see what could be done.

Then the chairman of the board of elders spoke.

“I know that we have to do these things you’re talking about if we want to grow, but then we cannot have the church we grew up with and one in which we can feel safe and comfortable as we worship. I don’t think God is calling us to make this church unpleasant for the members who have fought for it over the years. I contributed a great deal of that money that our visitor has spoken of, and I contributed it so I could have a church to care for me in my old age. I think that the people here deserve to be cared for. That is what Jesus would do.”

There was silence in the room as everyone looked at one another. Finally the oldest man in the room moved to stand up.

“I’m 94 years old,” he said. “I have worked in this church longer than any of you. You could say I need someone to take care of me more than anyone. But when I signed on with Jesus when I was just 11 years old, I didn’t sign on to get taken care of.” He was speaking slowly, but clearly. “The people who live in this neighborhood now are the ones God has called us to care for. And you, brother,” he continued after a moment, looking at the head elder, “that money you gave the church isn’t yours. It belongs to God.”

He sat down again.

The pastor looked around the room. “Let’s not stand on formal rules. Let’s just take our pulse. How many of you would like to start working based on our consultant’s report?”

A Righteous Disobedience

 [This is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance of any person or event to anything in the real world is purely coincidental!]

Children, obey your parents, for this is right. — Ephesians 6:1

He was only 11, and he was walking home from school.  It should have been simple.  He was under strict instructions to walk straight home, not to stop for anything, and not to bring anyone home unless he had asked for permission ahead of time.  It was, he knew, the right thing to do.

But then he  saw Debbie sitting in an alley against the wall, partially hidden behind a box.  He had already disobeyed by the time he identified her.  All he knew was that there was a human sitting in what looked like garbage.  When he got closer, he recognized her.  She had been missing from school that day.

He’d never seen anyone like this.  She had on a shirt.  Her legs were bare and he could see that she was bruised.  It looked possible that her arm was broken.  He really knew very little about it, but it shouldn’t look like that.

She just sat there and looked at him.  There was no hope in her eyes.  She knew he was supposed to go straight home.  She didn’t look embarrassed either, that she wasn’t properly dressed.  She wasn’t crying.

“Can you walk?” he asked.

“Leave me here,” she whispered.  “Your parents will beat you.  They’ll send me home.  My parents will beat me again.”

“No they won’t,” he said, and not knowing where the conviction came from he was convinced he was right.  He couldn’t remember where he had heard it, but he was sure the Bible said somewhere “let the broken victims go free.”  (Luke 4:18, REB)

She didn’t look hopeful, but when he reached down to her, and took hold of her unbroken arm, she tried to get up.  He helped her put his arm around his shoulders, and supported her weight, and then he started walking for home.  There weren’t that many people out at this time of day–there never were–but even so he never knew why nobody stopped them, or tried to help.  Somebody surely saw the young boy supporting a bruised and battered girl as they walked down the street together.  But nobody did anything.

He was getting tired.  The last few blocks were agony.  She wasn’t helping that much, he didn’t think.  He kept muttering that line to himself.  He was breaking all the rules, he knew, but this had to be right.

He was late at the front door.  His mother was waiting.  He was late enough that she might have started to look for him, but she was just at the gate.  As he stumbled through the gate he said, “Let the broken victims go free, mama.  Jesus said to let the broken victims go free.”

But his mother was busy taking Debbie in her arms, and carrying her into the house.  For the next couple of hours things were busy.  An ambulance, police, several other official looking people, all passed through.  He didn’t really know whether anyone was happy with him or angry.  The police asked him where he’d found Debbie, and finally a nice looking older lady asked him some more questions.  He answer truthfully.  Why not?  There wasn’t any good lie for this.

Finally he was alone again with his parents.  “It was the only thing I could do,” he said, looking first at his father, and then at his mother.

“Of course it was!” they both exclaimed.

“You’ve learned something important today, I think,” said his father.  “There are times to break the rules.  When I made those rules, I didn’t really expect something like this to happen.  I’m terribly proud of you.”  His father didn’t mention the option of running home quickly and getting his mother.  How could he expect the boy to think of that, and how it might have gotten help faster?

“Just don’t go using every little excuse to break the rules,” he continued.  “This time, disobeying was the righteous thing to do!”

The New Judge

[Note: This is one of my attempts to tell either a different part of a Bible story, to tell the story from a different perspective, or to get a similar point across in a different way. I will quote the related scripture passage at the end. Besides the general fun of setting myself the assignment and trying to write it, I hope these stories will help someone think about the scriptural passage in new and creative ways. This is a work of fiction. All places, characters, and things are products of my imagination and any resemblance to anyone or anything real is purely accidental.]

Carl, now Sir Carl, made a bit of a stir when he arrived in the tiny village of Felidol. He rode his horse right across the small bridge across the creek (or river, as the locals would have it) and through the gate in the wooden palisade that surrounded the town. Farmers in their fields looked up and then continued to stare as he went by on his white horse. He did indeed cut quite a figure with shining armor, a quite long sword at his side, and fine cloak over it all, and expensive boots on his feet.

The villagers stared, but they were less impressed by his fine figure and equipment than they were frightened to see anyone like that here. The citizens of Felidol and the surrounding countryside didn’t like important people all that much. Important people wanted to get things done, and it always seemed that what they needed in order to get things done was the farmer’s money, food, and sometimes even their property.

Carl was completely oblivious to all this. He waved at the villagers in a friendly way as he rode past. He didn’t want to seem aloof or unsociable. He didn’t seem to realize that with the way he was dressed and equipped, the villagers had a hard time seeing him as anything but aloof. They hoped he would be aloof, and thus wouldn’t get them involved in anything.

On the other hand, he knew something they didn’t. In spite of his young age, and his knightly appearance, he was actually the new circuit judge, to be based in their village. Carl knew very well that he had gotten the appointment only because his father was one of the richest merchants in the city. He was fairly sure that his father had bought him this appointment for his 20th birthday, along with a knighthood. But that was alright with him, because he knew enough about the law to do the job, and he intended to do right by these people.

###

Carl’s first day in the courthouse was a disappointment. There were a couple of weddings to formalize, something that went without ceremonies in these parts. The feasting and celebration would take place elsewhere. There were some documents to formalize, ones that required the seal of a king’s officer. Carl was the only king’s officer in many, many miles. But nobody came to petition him for anything. He couldn’t imagine that none of the small farmers in this area had any complaints against the more important landowners. He imagined that the townsfolk had complaints against farmers, and farmers against townsfolk. That was how he had heard things always were.

Continue reading “The New Judge”

Daniel and the Forgotten Prince

The moment Daniel had understood that he was called to serve his God by serving Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he had known that there would be some difficult moments. Now here he stood as Belteshazzar, one of the king’s favorites, and he was being called upon to make a judgment. It was an unusual set of circumstances that had put him in this position, because there would normally be judges assigned to such a task. But the village that served the exiles here was under the king’s control, and the captain of the guards had asked him to intervene. His instructions were to intervene when a case might cause trouble, and this one could certainly do that.

On the one hand was a young man, no more than in his early twenties, and perhaps as young as his late teens, an exile from Judah. On the other an almost equally pitiful farmer, who was bowing low to the ground before the great noble lord. Belteshazzar wondered how they would feel if they realized that he also was an exile from Judah. But that didn’t matter any more. He was now an official of the king, and easily the highest ranked person within a day’s ride of this place. Even the officers of his guard outranked everyone present.

The young man was also bowing to the ground, but it was not out of respect. He’d been thrown there, and a soldier was holding his neck down with the haft of his spear. Before the guard had pushed him there, Belteshazaar had seen his look of angry defiance mixed with despair. The young man was certain that he was about to die, and he was trying to do so with some pride.

“Rise!” he ordered.

“Who brings charges against this man?”

“I do, my lord.” It was the farmer.

“Proceed.”

“My lord, I am Nabu-etir, and I had in my possession a silver goblet, precious, a gift from a soldier I served as a manservant. The goblet was stolen from my house, and was found in the possession of that man.” He pointed to the young man.

“What is your proof of ownership?”

“I have here the grant made to me by my master, whose life I saved.” He passed to a guard a clay tablet, who passed it on to Belteshazzar. Belteshazzar examined it carefully, and read the writing on the outside. It was a fairly standard tablet for such a purpose, clearly wrapped a second time with clay with a copy inscribed on the outer shell, thus guaranteeing against forgery. The outer shell could be broken and the text inside read and compared. As Belteshazzar read, however, he noticed something odd. There were a number of errors in writing on the tablet, as well as several signs which were unusual. It looked just a bit like a student exercise, in which one might spell out the syllables of a word or a god’s name when a single sign might normally be used.

“This soldier,” he said, reading the text, “WARDU-ILANI, granted you this cup as a reward for saving his life. Yet you live the life of a poor tenant farmer.”

“My lord, I am a simple man of the soil. Yet the object is precious to me.”

Belteshazzar addressed the guard. “Where is this cup?” A soldier came forward and handed it to him.

“What is the inscription on here?”

“A dedication to some barbaric god, my lord.” Belteshazzar read the simple inscription in Hebrew: “LYTM BN YHYKM.” Odd that. No such son of Jehoiakim (YHYKM) was known, but it was not impossible that there had been one, lost in the confusion. It was also possible that another YHYKM than the obvious one was meant Obviously nobody here realized that he would be able to read the inscription on the cup.

“So you do not know anything about this cup, other than that it was a gift?”

“My lord, it was part of the spoils of Canaan, but beyond that I know nothing. I faithfully served my lord Wardu-ilani, and he rewarded me.”

“He gave you a cup, and he provided you with a document of tranfer so that your claim could not be questioned.”

“Indeed it cannot, my lord. The claim and the description is clear.”

Well, it might well be clear, assuming this “Wardu-ilani” knew nothing of what he had taken from the spoils, and the scribe who had written the deed was only marginally literate, and assuming that Abed-ilanu actually existed. The name was not impossible, but was a touch generic for Belteshazzar’s taste, considering the man himself was not there to verify. “Servant of the gods” indeed! There was something else about that tablet that bothered him, but he wasn’t sure what. It would come to him in a moment.

“What is your name?” he said to the younger man.

“I am Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, a prince of Judah,” he answered, straightening his body. The translator for the soldiers assigned to guard this village proceeded to translate, stumbling and slow. Nonetheless, even though he understood both Babylonian and Hebrew better than the interpreter apparently did, Belteshazzar preferred to keep his history out of the picture. None of these people seemed to realize it, and he had no plans to enlighten them.

“And this goblet is yours?”

“Yes, my lord, it is mine. I brought it with me, the sole heirloom of my house, when I was brought her to Babylon in the exile of Zedekiah. I hid it and preserved it. It is mine!”

“Yet you have no document indicating your ownership.” Belteshazzar could see the triumphant smile on Nabu-etir’s face. Clearly he thought he had won his case. One had a document, one did not. Simple!

“I have the inscription on the cup. It says, ‘belonging to Yotham, son of Jehoiakim.’ I’m Yotham, son of Jehoiakim. The cup is mine.”

Either he was telling the truth, or he had concocted a rather fantastic lie. It would have been easier to claim to have been the son of a court official with the same name, than to claim actual kinship with the king.

“Yet how could he bring the cup all the way from Canaan without it being discovered?” asked Nabu-etir. “That would be impossible! Clearly he is lying, and what is more, I have my document!”

Belteshazzar could see that all the guards, except his inner circle, and the villagers, both Babylonian and Judean, were against the boy. Clearly he had made a big deal of his princely blood, and alienated many. But there was only one real consideration, not who was the better person, but who actually owned the cup.

Then he realized what was bothering him about the tablet. He thought he had felt a slight dampness, perhaps a slight give. But he couldn’t see any problem when he looked again. Perhaps it was one of those moments of divine wisdom that came to him from time to time. There was only one way to check.

“Bring me a hammer,” he told one of his servants.

When the tool was delivered, he took it and carefully broke the outer layer of clay to get to the inner text. He preserved most of the text, and quickly compared the two. Again, though there was no difference in meaning, there were differences in spelling and in the formation of the signs that suggested it had not been done by a professional scribe. But further, as he pressed his fingers on the inner tablet, he felt the outer layer give, and he brok through to wet clay inside. He pulled the tablet into several pieces and showed the wet clay to the assembled people.

“The clay cannot be wet on a deed that is dated ten years ago,” he said, looking at Nabu-etir.

The man’s expression fell in shock. Clearly he had not thought of this. Then Belteshazzar had an inspiration.

“In your youth, you attended a scribal school.”

The man simply nodded, dumbfounded.

“You failed and wound up slave to a soldier.”

He nodded again.

“You served him well, and were granted tenancy on some land, an improvement in your lifestyle, but not what such a goblet could have done. With it, you could have bought your way to wherever you wanted. So you prepared this tablet.”

The man said nothing at that point, but he knew he was finished.

“You have attempted to steal this cup from this young man by fraud. Your penalty should be 10 times its value to be paid to its rightful owner. Can you pay this?”

The man simply looked up helplessly.

Belteshazzar turned to the guards. “Take Nabu-etir to his lord, and tell him what has happened here. I expect that there will be no action taken against the exiles because of this embarassment. Whatever his lord chooses to do, that is acceptable.”

“Yotham, son of Jehoiakim, you will come with me. We will investigate this claim of yours, and if it is valid, you will receive provisions from the king. If not, you will suffer the penalties of lying to the court.”

And once again, Belteshazzar served his king and by doing so also served his God. “How long, Lord,” he prayed silently, “Must I carry this burden?”

Daniel and the Village Elders

Note: This is a short story sort of in the style of the apocryphal stories of Daniel. Not all such stories are consistent with the basic Daniel story in the Biblical book, but I have tried to stick with what can be fitted in. I have added references for the two Biblical laws that Daniel cites, though you can be certain he didn’t quote chapter and verse from material that hadn’t been so divided at that time.

* * * * *

It was evening as Daniel approached the village, one of the camps occupied by Judean exiles. He was returning from a mission for King Nebuchadnezzar, and as was often his custom, he hoped to stay with his own people for the night before returning to the palace the next day. But tonight was to be different.

As he approached the entryway to the village–it would be too optimistic to call it a gate–he could see that the elders were gathered. A young man was standing there with head hanging, clothing torn and dirty, and a large bruise on the side of his face. A few paces away toward the gate was a body crumpled, and apparently ignored. Two men, better dressed and uninjured stood next to the young man. One of them was speaking.

“. . . He struck down our servant, slipped from the tent, and when he saw Azariah here he began to run toward the gate. He’s the murderer, alright, and he should be stoned. He probably raped her as well!”

Daniel saw a gleam of triumph on the man’s face that didn’t fit with the sorrow that would accompany losing a loved one or even the concern over financial loss that would result from losing a valued slave. There was clearly something wrong here–besides, that is, the shameful treatment of the body. He doubted there was a Levite in the camp to explain the law to the people and help see that it was carried out. He looked at the body. There were specks of blood on the clothing, but he could no sign of the type of blow that would kill someone quickly. The head appeared to be whole, where it was not covered by cloth, and there was no large mass of blood.

“Pardon me, my lords,” he said. He could see them calculating how to react to him. He was dressed as a Babylonian courtier, but he addressed them in Hebrew. That left them uncertain as to how to react. Exiles were left pretty much to manage their own affairs, and they would see no reason for a Babylonian to interfere. But a Babylonian official who spoke Hebrew might be different.

“Yes, my son?” said the man in the center who appeared to be the village chief. He looked old enough to Daniel that it was likely he had been an elder back home.

“Is it permitted for a visitor to ask a question?”

“He’s an outsider! What does he have to do with our laws?” The witness who had just finished speaking jumped in before the elder could speak. Daniel could see that had been a mistake as the elder reacted to this challenge to his authority.

“He can speak,” said the elder. “We must hear everything before we condemn someone to death.”

Daniel turned to the witness. “Do you swear by the God of Israel that you personally saw the things to which you testified just now?”

The man hesitated. “I saw them,” he said.

The elder spoke again. “Do you swear that by the God of Israel? That’s what you were asked.” He looked concerned.

“It’s true,” he said. “But I didn’t see everything with my own eyes.” He looked angrily at his companion. “I’ll take your word, but I won’t swear by the God of Israel and testify falsely.”

“So you believe what you said is true, but you didn’t see it with your own eyes?” The elder was now angry.

“Yes.”

“But we still have two witnesses who say that this young man killed the girl,” said one of the other elders.

“Only one witness,” said Daniel. “Only one person witnessed the event and can properly swear and give testimony.”

The second elder spoke again. “But do any of us doubt the veracity of Ehud, our countryman? Surely we still know that this young man is a murderer. We cannot release him!”

The chief elder hesitated again.

“My Lord,” Daniel spoke again.

“You may speak,” said the chief elder. He enjoyed the respect that this young man gave him. He’d been prepared to be angry at the intruder, but now he noticed that this young intruder was the only one giving him the respect he was due.

“The law says, ‘A single witness shall not be sufficient to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing. At the word of two or of three witnesses shall the accusation be established’ (Deuteronomy 19:15). Only one person witnessed the crime, and it cannot be established by the testimony of one who did not actually see the crime.”

“I disagree. We are here in a foreign land. We cannot afford to break trust with our fellow countryman Ehud. I believe his testimony, and I will take the word of his companion in establishing his testimony,” said the second elder.

“My Lord, may I ask another question of the witnesses?” Daniel’s voice was respectful, and he clearly addressed the chief elder.

“Go ahead.”

“With what weapon did the young man strike the girl?”

“With an axe,” said Ehud quickly, as his companion’s mouth opened and then closed.

Daniel walked over to the body. He knew that what he was about to do was shocking. He settled in his mind that he would not be staying in these people’s camp that night. Everyone else might forget, but he remembered such of the laws as he’d learned before he was taken into exile. There was no priest and no temple to go to for purification, but he’d do what he could do after he had handled the corpse.

He reached down and tore the robe from the back of the victim, leaving her back exposed as a gasp went up from the gathered villagers. The gasp was for his audacity in handling the body and in uncovering her in that way. But then there was another gasp as the gathered people saw that the girl’s back was beaten to a pulp, with pieces of her clothing still clinging to the wounds. Everybody could see in a moment that she had not be killed with an axe, but instead had been beaten to death.

It took only a few moments for the verdict to be given for the accused young man to be released. The girl had no family there, but the elders determined to bury her properly.

The chief elder turned to Daniel. “Can we not convict this man of the murder of the girl?” he asked, now convinced of Daniel’s wisdom and learning.

“Not unless there are witnesses that he was the one who beat her. But you can convict him of bringing false testimony. The law also says, ‘You shall do to him as he planned to do to his brother’ (Deuteronomy 19:19). We do not have a temple, but I think it would be right to follow this law even here.”

Ehud’s face turned white as he heard the village elders, one after another, agree to the verdict based on their own witness to the false testimony.

All in all, thought Daniel, it was not the restful evening he’d hoped for. But justice was done, however unpleasant.

Susanna: A Transformation

For a literal translation of Daniel 13, “Susanna” see USCCB – NAB – Daniel 13. This is not a translation or even a paraphrase. One might even call it a “transformation.” What I am attempting to do is to rewrite this short story into a modern form. I allow myself to alter the order of the telling, what is told and what is ignored, but not to alter the facts of the story as recorded. I also allow myself to add some details and to exchange telling the story for created conversations. I chose names for the unnamed players at random from Chronicles. For this story I assume that the Daniel of the story is the same as the main character in the book of Daniel, though not all interpreters would agree. You can judge the results.

The elders gather outside what would have been the city gates, if only they had been back in Judah, and this had been a city with gates. As it was, it was a quite prosperous little community for exiles from Judah living in Babylon. Those who lived here were the elders, people of importance in the community, and many who had good jobs working for Babylonians and thus had money to live relatively good lives in exile.

Daniel stood to the side of the group of elders, watching with interest. His position in the court of Babylon gave him entry to assemblies such as this, but he was still too young to be invited to participate. He felt his chest tighten, and anguish gripped him as he heard the elders call for Susanna. Susanna was the wife of the well-known businessman, the most prosperous member of the community, Joakim. Nothing had ever been even whipered against the character of Joakim and his wife. Behind her followed her father Hilkiah and his wife, along with other members of her family, all weeping.

Continue reading “Susanna: A Transformation”