Monday, July 9, 2012

Ezra and Nehemiah

In an earlier post (April 2012) I shared some notes about the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom, Judah, and the beginning of the exile (2 Kings 25:8-21 and 2 Chronicles 26:11-21).  The fifty-year exile of the people, followed by the return of many to the land in 536 BC, may not be the crucial part of the Bible to which you turn, but the period became a formative time for the entire Bible, not only within the Bible’s overall narrative but also the textual formation of the Bible itself.  The post-exilic time thus became foundational for Judaism, as Jewish religious observance and the institution of the synagogue came to fruition during this era and following.  That time also became foundational for Christianity, as Jesus and his disciples emerged from that post-exilic Jewish tradition and as his followers perceived in him the fulfillment of God's exilic and post-exilic prophecies and promises.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover the key post-exilic period, from the Persian ruler Cyrus’ decree in 536, allowing the people to return to the land, until about 432 BC.  The Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures) ends with Ezra and Nehemiah and the two Chronicles books, thus opening up the biblical story to the future of Jewish life and worship.  The Christian Old Testament books are grouped differently, with the last prophet, Malachi, pointing toward the era of Jesus. The last Old Testament prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—come from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Several years ago I was asked to write an article called, "Ezra and Nehemiah: Bringing a People Home," for the Adult Bible Studies June-August 2003 teachers' guide (The United Methodist Publishing House). I'm not reproducing that copyrighted article here. But looking over the article now, I enjoy remembering the discoveries I made as I researched these two (for me) seldom read books. Here are some things I learned from typical commentaries.

* Ezra and Nehemiah connect the people back to the law of the Torah. Genealogists, take note! Ezra’s 14-great-grandfather was Aaron himself (Ezra 7:5), while his 3-great-grandfather was Zadok, chief priest during David’s lifetime (2 Samuel 8:17; Ezra 7:2). Ezra was also the priest and scribe who, in an important sense, gave the law to the people of Israel by renewing its observance. His public recitation of the law, described in Neh. 8:1-12, connects the people back to the repetition of the law by Moses in Deuteronomy and the reading of the law by Joshua.

* Both Ezra and Nehemiah are depicted as exemplary leaders (1). Ezra maintained accountability for himself and others (8:16-18, 25-34). Nehemiah, meanwhile, was a model for constant prayer, beseeching God several times during the story.  One author writes, “This man is possibly one of the most prayerful persons in the Bible outside of Christ. He realized there were times for long, sustained prayer and times for hard work and quick, whispered prayer.”(2)

* You probably know that the Bible contains many historical gaps as the chapters move along.  For instance, when we're reading along in Numbers and arrive at chapter 20, we may not realize (without a commentary) that the story has leapt ahead 38 years. Ezra and Nehemiah have gaps, too. Ezra 1-6 describes the generation from 536 BC until the Temple’s completion in 516 BC, and next is Ezra’s arrival in about 458 BC (Ezra 7-10).  Next is the events of about 445 BC (Nehemiah 1-12), and then Nehemiah 13 considers the events of 432 BC.(3)

Certain things about the books are odd, though.  For instance, although Ezra and Nehemiah worked at the same time (e.g., Neh. 8:9), they never mention each other. Also, Nehemiah led the small population to the ruined city (Neh. 7:4) but Ezra came to a larger community (Ezra 9:4).(4) Thus, some scholars speculate that Ezra came later; instead of the seventh year of Cyrus’ reign (Ezra 7:7), he actually came in the 37th year, 428 BC, and that a scribe miscopied the year.  If this is true, then Nehemiah became the many reforms of the period and then Ezra.

In this scenario, Nehemiah began religious and legal reforms, and Ezra arrived and continued those reforms (e.g., demanding that the men divorce their Gentile wives).(5)

* Ezra’s story (7:1-8:36, Neh. 7:73b-8:18, Ezra 9:1-10:44, Neh. 9:1-10:40) (6) and Nehemiah’s story (Neh. 1:1-7:73a, 11:1-13:31)  are woven with historical sources of different kinds: census records, inventories, divine decrees, contracts, memos, decrees, the memoir of Ezra (Ezra 7:27-9:15), a third person narrative of Ezra (7), and a memoir of Nehemiah (1:1-7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:27-43, and 13:4-31).  One scholar calls Nehemiah’s memoirs “one of the most accurate historical sources in the Old Testament, the only undisputed source for Jewish history between 520-175 B.C.”(8)
* Ezra doesn’t appear in his own book until chapter 7. First, we get the story of Zerubbabel, who is so praised as Israel’s hope in the corresponding prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, and the priest Jeshua lead the Jews as they return from exile—42,360 returnees, according to the book, plus servants, singers, and livestock (Ezra 2:64). Soon Jeshua and Zerubbabel built an altar to God and, by the second year, commenced construction of the Temple (Ezra 2:68-3:13).

The Temple was eventually completed and dedicated in 515 BC (Ezra 5-6). But with a final reference (Ezra 5:2), Zerubbabel disappears from the story. What happened to him?  Why does the narrative drop him, especially Zechariah and especially Haggai praise his authority and hint that he is a great new Davidic king? Although hopes for a Davidic monarchy in Judah continued, those hopes seemed suspended for the time being.

* The books give us information about the Samaritan-Judean rivalry.  Of course, we know about the Samaritans because one met Jesus at Jacob's well (John 4) and another was, well, good (Luke 10:29-37). The Samaritans were descendants of northern kingdom Israelites who, conquered by the Assyrians in the 700s  BC, had intermarried with Gentiles in the aftermath of that conquest. Samaritans had the law of Moses but no prophetic tradition. Samaritans offered to help the Temple rebuilding effort, but their help was rejected (Ezra 4). (9)

* Our two leaders were great reformers.  Religious and social reforms included the easing of debts incurred by farmers, the return of seized properties to owners (Neh. 5), the establishment of festivals like Passover (Ezra 6:16-22), Sukkot (Neh. 8:13-18), and the Sabbath itself (Neh. 10:31, 13:15-22), and also the support of the priesthood and the temple (Neh. 10:32-39, Neh. 13:10-14).

* Controversially, Ezra and Nehemiah also moved the people toward separation from the Gentile world, for instance in demanding divorce of intermarriages (Ezra 9:2-25, 10:9-44, Neh. 13:23-29). At one point, the story has a bleak, comic edge:

Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).

“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first and make some contacts before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”

As Bernhard Anderson points out, the book of Ruth, a lovely of Jewish and Gentile intermarriage, was written during the Persian era, possibly to counterbalance the exclusivity of Ezra and Nehemiah.

But looking at the situation from their standpoint (and not from the standpoint, for instance, of Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees), the Jews of the post-exilic era were determining the best way to live to secure God’s mercies, considering God’s judgment upon them for their pre-exilic sins, including alliances with foreign nations. Historically, the Greek (Hellenistic), Roman, and later Christian influences further threatened Judaism, so the Jews’ uncompromising stance for religious values and observance helped them survive over the centuries.(10)

* And another thing I learned from my research, is that Ezra and Nehmiah indeed emphasize not barriers per se but God’s promises and God’s mercy. God’s help allowed his people to return to the land, recalling the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua centuries earlier.(11) Consequently, the two books do emphasize joy and blessing. When the people wept at the reading of the law, their leaders responded, Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Neh. 8:10).

(And with those words, I'll have that darn praise-song stuck in my head all day, LOL. Here's an adorable YouTube video of the song, from someone's church:


1. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books,
1996), p. 235.
2.  Ibid, p. 555.
3. Ralph W. Klein, “The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah," The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 665.
4. Ibid. p. 562.
5. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice
Hall, 1975), p. 490.
6. Raymond A. Bowman, “The Book of Ezra and The Book of Nehemiah," The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 560
7. Ibid., p. 556.    
8. Ibid. p. 555.
9. Anderson, p. 480.
10. Ibid., pp. 492-93.
11. Klein, p. 664.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Torah Law Codes

The laws of the Torah are beloved for Jews and difficult territory for Christians.  Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless (to sound very cynical) some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and suddenly the laws become God’s eternal word to point out other people's sins.

I’ve an interesting book by a Presbyterian minister, William J. Doorly (1931-2011), called The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (Paulist Press, 2002).  I took some notes from the book concerning the layers of traditions in the Torah, and scholars’ theories about the laws’ historical origins.

Doorly describes the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile:

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23)
The Deuteronomic Law Code (Deuteronomy 12-26)
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26)
The Priestly Code (spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers)

Doorly calls attention to the reform of Judahite religion during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC), when the book of the law was discovered in the temple and then the keeping of the law was enjoined (2 Kings 22-23). Josiah’s tragic death, soon followed by the fall of Jerusalem, cut short the reforms, but the work of preserving and editing the laws continued during the exile (586-536 BC).  Scholars believe that the law discovered in the temple comprised at least part of the Deuteronomic Law Code.  At about this same time, what scholars call the Deuteronomic History (comprising much of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) was written, connecting Josiah and Joshua as heroes of the law, and depicting the Lord as uncompromisingly focused upon the people’s keeping of laws (pp. 1-4).

Doorly notes that the Levitical priests, connected historically to the Shechem/Shiloh area in the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to the Assyrians in 722-721 BC), are associated with “the Deuteronomic circle,” but meanwhile the Aaronic (or Zadokite) priests associated with the temple also compiled laws (p. 4-5). During and after the exile, laws were preserved by both groups and eventually edited into what we now know as the Torah or Penteteuch. (I took some notes on the Aaronic and Levitical priests for my May 18, 2012 post about the biblical monarchy and priesthood.)

The Book of the Covenant contains cultic laws about altars and images, 22 secuar laws about restitution, bodily injury, and property, 20 cultic and social laws (including God’s demand for justice) and finally 6 more cultic laws, including three festivals (p. 12). While not the oldest laws, they may be associated with the reform work of Hezekiah and then were preserved by the Aaronic priests during the exile from the Jahwist and Elohist sources (J and E) (pp. 7-9).

The Deuteronomic Code, much longer than the Book of the Covenant, includes laws about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on (pp. 29-30). While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (pp. 32-33).

The Holiness Code contain laws about the slaughter of animals, sexual tabboos, priests, several annual festivals, sabbatical years and jubilee years, and others.  Doorly believes that this code was a pre-exilic stroll intended for education of Judahites, separate from the Priestly Code (p. 49).

The Priestly Code is found in Ex. 12-13, 25-30, Lev. 1-7, 10-15, 27, Num 5-6, 9-10, 18, 27-30, and 35-36. This code includes laws about Passover (Ex. 12-13), the tabernacle (Ex. 25-30), offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27), uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36) (p. 65).  This code was probably laws intended for the Jerusalem temple priests (p. 49). While some scholars believe the Aaronic priests preserved these laws  in order to assert their superiority to the Levitical priests, Doorly points out that both the Aaronic and Levitical schools sought to preserve laws in light of their creative rewriting of Israel’s history, with the Levites beginning with the events of Deuteronomy, and the Aaronids beginning with the time of the Exodus (pp. 72-73).

In chapter 6 of this interesting book, Doorly also provides the 613 laws, thus enumerated in the rabbinical tradition and the work of HaLevi and Maimonides. A book from which I took notes for an earlier post---Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997)---also lists the laws but also goes into some detail how the applicable laws (many of the laws can no longer be observed) are interpreted and observed by Jews today.

As I said before, the laws of the Torah are beloved for Jews. In an essay in Torah: A Modern Commentary, Bernard J. Bamberger writes, “The Torah was always the possession of all Israel. It was addressed to the entire people, who were to learn its contents and teach them diligently to their children. A number of biblical passages, in particular Psalms 19 and 119, testify to the love which the Torah evoked and its widespread concern of the people with its teachings” (p. xxix). He goes on to say that Ezra publicly read the Torah in Jerusalem around the year 444 BCE, and a few days later the people agreed to obey its teachings, thus reaffirming the Sinai covenant in that post-exilic time (p. xxix).

We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These 613 laws were first given for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people. The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of whole cloth, as it were. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will. God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love (Rom. 11:17-24).

Contrary to a common Christian idea, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us. (10) Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Romans 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9).

The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic Christian solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).

The concerns for justice and a righteous society are also important aspects of the Torah. My NRSV Harper Study Bible (p. 274) gives a list of “major social concerns of the covenant.” I don't want to copy the whole list because it 's copyrighted, so I encourage anyone interested in the social aspects of the Torah to find this Bible and study the passages cited there. Some of them include:

* Personhood: everyone should be secure: e.g. Ex. 21:16, 26-31, etc.
* No woman should be taken advantage of: Ex. 21:7-11, 20, etc.
* Everyone’s property rights should be secure (Ex. 21:33-36, etc.)
* Everyone should enjoy the fruit of their labors (Lev. 19:13, etc.)
* Everyone is to share produce of the ground (Ex. 23:10-11, etc.)
* Everyone should rest on the Sabbath, including servants and resident aliens and animals (Ex. 20:8-11, etc.)
* Everyone deserves a fair trial (Ex. 23:6, 8, etc.)
* No one should be exploited or oppressed, including the impoverished and disabled (Ex. 22:21-27, etc.).
* Animals well being should be protected (Ex. 23:5, 11, etc.).

How we interpret the laws and their spirit (originating in ancient agricultural and monarchical society) in our contemporary, technological and liberal capitalist societies is the ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation for both Jews and Christians.

In addition to the importance of the text itself, the Torah (both the laws and the narratives) is foundational for the New Testament in several ways so obvious that we take them for granted. One is the righteousness of Christ and his law-keeping life, which I discussed above.

Another way the Torah is foundational for Christians is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30).

Still another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-14).

Still other connections:
* The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)
* Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)
* The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)
* The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).
* The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:6-9Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5)
* The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)
* The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)
* The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
* The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)
* The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)
* The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
* The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
* The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8 and the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25.
* The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).

Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. Any pastor who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading must be willing to accept intercessory suffering and to identify fully with the people. Moses is a true shepherd.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Don't Name Your Kid Muppim

An article in Yahoo News ( indicated that currently popular baby names include Cullen and Isabella, inspired by the “Twilight” series. Jacob is still a popular name, as is Emma. Emily has been a popular name, and also Matthew. Around the year 2060, the nursing homes of America will have lots of old folks named Jacob, Emily, and Matthew.

The popularity of certain names change, of course. Mildred, my mother’s name, and her brother Harold, are no longer typical, nor the pretty names of her cousins Hazel and Lydia. And yet Emma (my great-grandmother's name, in fact) was common in the 1800s, as was Emily (the name of my wife's great-grandmother).

If you’re a visitor to old graveyards, you’ll often see interesting names. “Tabitha” (Acts 9:36-42) has the obvious Bewitched connotations, but I’ve a nineteenth-century cousin by that name, buried in our family cemetery in Illinois. You don’t see many kids named Moses (although you do see "Moshe," the Hebrew equivalent, within the Jewish community).  In my family cemetery, though, a blacksmith named Moses Cluxton, Sr., is interred a few yards away from Tabitha, and nearby is an ancestor of mine, named Comfort. That’s a now archaic girl’s name that surely derives from a biblical notion of comfort. Also buried there is the grave of another 1800s cousin, named Cyrene, which though biblical is a place rather than a person (Luke 23:2, Acts, 2:10, and elsewhere).

On the other hand, I know a place that was named for a biblical person: Loami, Illinois, near Springfield, named for the prophet Hosea’s son (“Not my people,” Hos. 1:8-9). A branch of my family, the Colburns, settled that town in the early 1800s.

I’ve found numerous interesting names from the Bible. Although biblical names like Jacob, Sarah, and Matthew are popular these days, other biblical names that you might (or might not) consider for your children include: Dodo (Judges. 10:1), Phallu (Gen. 46:9), Put (Gen. 10:6), Phuvah (1 Chr. 7:1), Muppim, Huppim, and Ard (Gen. 46:21), Anub (1 Chr. 4:8), Koz (1 Cor. 4:3), Ziph (1 Cor. 2:42), Hazo (Gen. 22:22), and Hazelelponi (1 Chr. 4:3). I used to know a girl named Hazelelponi (not really).

The Bible features a few longer names, too: Sennacherib, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and others which don’t appear in baby name books. (There is the actor and rapper Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, however.) Two other unusual names are the artisans Oholiab and Bezalel in Exodus 31.

I was a long-time user of Aunt Jemima® products when I learned that the first Jemima was a daughter of Job—his second set of children (Job 42:13).

I knew about Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, but I’d not realized his name was not only fishy (his own regretful estimation) but biblical: the original Salmon was Ruth’s father in law (Ruth 4:20-21).

If you don’t have children but may in the future, perhaps these thoughts will give you some ideas for names. But if you call your kid Phallu or Dodo or Muppin, don’t tell them you got the idea from me!


Some more biblical names, as well as some people who's names aren't stated..... You may be familiar with the stories of Moses’ childhood. Well, then, did you realize that twelve woman appear in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus? I didn’t, and neither did blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon at first. Rabbi Sharon writes that, with a moment or two of thought, he can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory (which is better than I can do!). But he had never noticed these several women at the beginning of Exodus.

I looked at the chapters and thought: What twelve women? But they’re all there: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15).

Rabbi Sharon’s point is that, just as we may not notice people in a text when we read too quickly, we tend not to notice each other because we’re too busy with other things. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and also the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17). (The link to Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, although long since broken, was found at and accessed by me in 2008.)

I’m still thinking about that. A few years ago I noticed a certain obituary in my local paper. I lived in a community of about 200,000, small enough to run into people you know, but too large to “know everyone,” as is true in smaller towns. The obituary was a man who worked at a grocery store where I shop occasionally; I’d noticed him collecting shopping carts. He wasn’t very old when he died: mid-fifties. I never spoke to him besides a hello.

I thought about how many people I pass each day who are just “hello” people: always there, sometimes acknowledged, and nameless. I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.

John 9 has a story about the man born blind. It’s a familiar story. Jesus heals him, and the rest of the chapter is exchange between the man and the religious leaders who can’t believe he was healed. Their stubborn incredulity is a kind of syllogism: Jesus is a sinner (because he heals on the Sabbath), but God would not empower a miracle through a sinful man, and so Jesus could not have performed the miracle. The religious leaders are stuck in a way that many of us are stuck from time to time: something happens contrary to our expectations and preconceived notions, and we can’t see it or make the mental jump to acceptance.

Have you ever noticed the crowd’s reaction to the healed man? “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story can be found in Acts 3. The man born lame seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)

An indispensable outcome of Bible study is the compassion and kindness that makes us notice one another and care about each other’s pain.  Ideally, Bible study will make us more concerned about the poor and needy and will lead us toward ways to help them. Bible reading is interesting and uplifting but if it doesn’t help us grow in love, I think we’re merely spinning our wheels spiritually. It can be a difficult journey, but we need to be able not to avoid certain kinds of people but to look at them, make human contact with them, set aside our personal pressing concerns for a moment, and inquire about their needs.


I’ve a genealogical chart, purchased on eBay® a few years ago, that is filled with biblical names. The chart is “The Adam and Eve Family Tree” published by Good Things Company (Norman, OK, 1975), published “to improve the reading and understanding of the Bible for the glory of God.” The chart color-codes all the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is the last name under the tribe of Judah, and Paul is mentioned with the tribe of Benjamin. Incredibly, the names are quite readable and are expertly arranged so that everyone fits onto a 24×36 chart.

I love looking at this chart and figuring out who’s who. Under the genealogy of Esau, there are listed several “dukes”: Duke Nahath, Duke Zerah, Duke Shammah, Duke Mizzah, and others. “Dukes”? That’s the KJV rendering; the RSV translates the title “chief” and the NRSV as “clans” (Gen. 36:15-19).

I call these kinds of people “walk ons.” They’re the Bible people who are only mentioned once or twice, with or without an accompanying story. Hundreds of names fill the book’s pages.

Not all the Bible’s walk ons are obscure. A while back, our pastor preached on Exodus 1:8-2:10; every time he mentioned the midwife Puah (Ex. 1:15) I thought he was saying hoo-wah! But those midwives (the other was Shiphrah) have a notable part in the biblical drama. We all know the story, even if we don’t recall their names.

The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) figures in only a few verses but he certainly becomes an example of how the Holy Spirit networks people; Philip came along right when the Ethiopian needed him—and they were near water for baptism!

Melchizedek’s original story is limited to three verses (Gen. 14:18-20), but what an amazing walk on! The author of Hebrews uses the king-priest Melchizedek (and the absence of a genealogy for him in a genealogy-filled book) to develop a theology of the eternal priesthood of Christ (Heb. 7:1-17).

The Queen of Sheba, too, has a surprisingly small role (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12), considering that she’s also mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31), the Qur’an (27:23-44), and is the subject of artwork, music by Handel and Gounod, and many cultural references. The unnamed monarch captured the popular imagination over the centuries.

You might be surprised how little a role Adam and Eve play as named characters in the Bible, although their influence is everywhere present.  As one of my professors put it, the disruption between God and humans permeates the Old Testament even though the Genesis 3 story is not an explicit theme therein.  Unless I’ve missed some references, I don’t think Eve is mentioned again by name in the Old Testament after Genesis 4:1; she appears in the New Testament in 2 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:13. Adam does figure in the Pseudepigrapha and other non-canonical writings.

Can you consider the four horsemen of the Apocalypse a “walk on”?  LOL

Thursday, July 5, 2012

God and Disasters

The theologian Karl Barth said that we should read the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and although he said that long before television and internet, the basic idea still applies.(1) I wrote this post a few weeks after the tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, as I thought about the earthquake and, more broadly, God’s place within natural processes. This summer, with its unusually hot temperatures and wildfires in some parts of the country, made me think again about this difficult topic.

During that first week following the tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend from college years introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes. For most of these she gave the citations but there are the entire verses.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, 36then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of us agreed that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who can create but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I soon was called upon to write a Sunday school lesson on the tsunami, as part of my freelance curriculum work ( I won’t repeat that research here, of course, but I did find a site of “biblical earthquakes” ( which included Ex. 19:18, 1 Kings 19:11, Zech. 14:5, Matt. 27:54 and 28:24, Acts 16:26, and the prophesied Rev. 6:12. I kicked myself for not thinking of that 1 Kings 19 passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. how do you explain God’s presence in Elijah’s situation?  Or do you just say it was a mystery?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” The sermon is worth reading: To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5….

[The Lord,] who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.

….as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

Wesley’s sermon makes us think, of course. Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God. Today, we know more about the natural causes of earthquakes, and how very frequently they happen throughout the world. We only think about them when they’re destructively intense on the Richter scale, but mild earthquakes are extremely common. Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, surely the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken repentance in someone because of a crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin.

Of course, this is a difficult philosophical and theological issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. (“We all got it comin’, kid,” as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven.) Put several million people on an island or a coastal region, in an area prone to floods or quakes, and some day you’ll have a major problem. Allow people to travel in 5000-pound metal vehicles that go fast, and you’re not guaranteed complete safety. I’m not being flippant, but it’s human nature to wonder where God is amid tragedy forgetting that all of us are mortal and live among many potential dangers. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we don’t see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances. For some people, certain circumstances are evidence of God’s absence, or a lack of divine power.

The Bible calls death a “curse” and an “enemy,” against which Christ has already dealt a mortal blow: 1 Cor. 15:26. The word “curse” chafes when we think of innocent people who suffer and die but it refers to the imperfect, mortal, and in the human realm sinful quality of the world. Someone like Pat Robertson is rightly criticized for simplistically blaming victims (in the recent Haiti quake) as targets for God’s punishment. But although the Bible may draw those kinds of connections we should be very, very careful lest we draw a simplistic (and likely arrogant) conclusion about God’s purpose behind a tragedy. Femember that Job’s friends were full of theologically correct answers and insights about God’s will and works, but at the end of the book (42:7) God is angry at them!

Another problem with thinking about these issues, is that we’re prone to raise issues when a disaster strikes but we forget the everyday disasters. For another research project ( I found a 28-page “Global Health Overview” at Drawing and paraphrasing data from just the first major section, we learn that:

* A billion people have no access to health care systems.
* 33.4 million people live with HIV (2008 figures), while 2 million died that year from AIDS and another 2.7 million were newly infected with HIV.
* There are 9.4 million new cases of TB every year, and 1.3 million die each year.
* Malaria accounts for 243 million illnesses every year, and 863,000 million deaths.
* Measles accounted for 164,000 deaths, mostly among small children, in 2008, while half of the 1.6 million people who die annually of pneumococcal diseases are children.
* Not quite a third of all deaths worldwide are caused by cardiovascular diseases.
* Over 8 million young children die yearly from preventable diseases and malnutrition yearly.
* In 2002, the total number of people who died from infection diseases (about 11 million) greatly outnumbered the total who died in other catastrophes that year.

Unfortunately, disease is related to poverty. According to that same report (the section “Health, poverty and inequality”), preventable diseases like malaria are attributed to economic disadvantages and also perpetuate poverty. A little further, the report quotes a World Health Organization report from 2008 notes that “The poorest of the poor, around the world, have the worst health….In rich countries, low socioeconomic position means poor education, lack of amenities, unemployment and joy insecurity, poor working conditions, and unsafe neighbourhoods [sic], with their consequent impact on family life. These all apply to the socially disadvantaged in low-income countries in addition to the considerable burden of material deprivation and vulnerability to natural disasters.” But, further into the report (the section “Increasing commodification and commercialization of healthcare”), we learn that the increasing perception and reality of health care as a “market commodity” rather than “a common good” is increasing the inadequacy of affordable and available health care in different parts of the world (including, one can add, the United States).

I admit that this discussion has become very depressing, and that I’ve no answers to these problems. My point is that we often don’t think of the world’s suffering until disasters strike, but suffering happens in the world every day on a staggering level, many due to injustices and social evils that perpetuate among societies and nations. We need to remember that there are social and economic forces that (while benefiting people like you and me) contribute to people’s suffering and, in turn, their susceptibility to natural disasters. We (including myself) don’t always think of that when we wonder about God’s role in tragic circumstances.

Two more Bible passages. I’ve always found this one comforting, because Jesus refuses to interpret two senseless tragedies as judgments against people.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Even when we focus upon our relationship with God, our lives won’t be all good. But in a crucial way, all will be well because we are in that relationship (which God has initiated).

As I thought about this whole topic of God’s presence in a disaster, I realized ….Duh!…. that there is a passage which not only explicitly indicates where God is in terrible circumstances, but also states where we should be if we want to be where God is! We all know it….

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:31-46).


1. The source of this saying is discussed at the Center for Barth Studies website,

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Book of Revelation

Richard Danby, "Opening of the Sixth Seal," 1828
National Gallery of Ireland 
A two-part post, one from a couple years ago and the other from this summer..... The book of Revelation is an endless source of fascinating questions for many people. I’ve read millennial and dispensational arguments but somehow I’ve never quite shared an eagerness to decode the book. When I was in high school in the 1970s, barcodes began to appear on grocery products, and I heard someone express concern that barcodes were connected to the Antichrist as predicted in Rev. 13:17. I thought (privately) that was kind of silly.
Then a few years ago, my wife Beth and I led a study on the book of Revelation. We used Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, a wonderful book that delves into the Old Testament background and first century roots of the book. The first Sunday, we had a crowd. “I think the Lord has led me to this study,” declared a young woman that first time. During the next few Sundays, our group dwindled down to a faithful core. Where did the others go, including the woman pleased at God’s guidance? Beth and I didn’t attempt to interpret Revelation’s signs and symbols to our contemporary time, and so I’m sure we disappointed folks present at our initial gathering.
The notion that Revelation has a secret meaning about current events, in spite of scriptural caveats about predicting the end (e.g., Matt. 24:36), will always give the book qualities of mystery and urgency. In my experience, though, folks are certain that the book has contemporary meaning, are liable to be angry at you if you imply otherwise, and yet don't necessarily know what that meaning is. It's one of those unexamined opinions people swear to.

Of course, many attempts have been made through history to predict the end times via biblical symbols: George Rapp, leader of the Harmonist sect, William Miller, founder of the Millerites, Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.  To me, the numerous failed efforts to connect Revelation to contemporary history advises against the effort---as does Jesus' own caution that only God knows history's final timetable.  
Although Revelation is typical of the apocalyptic genre of writing (there are several such Jewish writings not included in the Old Testament, for instance), Jesus’ own end-time teachings aren’t very typical at all! Certainly Jesus’ words have edges and threats: not all his words are gentle and mild. While concerned about warning people, Jesus isn’t interested in tabulating and predicting the end times in a fanatical, vengeful way.[1] Jesus’ teachings are not focused on divine vengeance of evildoers and Gentiles, but upon God’s salvation, e.g. Luke 4:16ff. So we have to balance the visions of Revelation with the example of Jesus himself.
Jesus did warn us about Hell. In portions of his teachings, he warned that people would miss the kingdom of God and would be cast into outer darkness or into the fire (Matt. 24:45-51, Matt. 25:1-13, 30, 46). He warned that people would call him “Lord” who would be excluded from the kingdom if they didn’t do his will (Matt. 7:21-23). The stories of people who followed Jesus, though, are overwhelmingly happy. People who discovered Jesus became filled with joy. Not only had they escaped God’s wrath, but they had abundant, loving power from God in their lives that would carry them all the way through life and death to eternal life. They had escaped Hell because Jesus suffered condemnation in their place. Jesus addressed the seriousness of sin with his love and blood.
Jesus also promised to return. According to Hebrew 9:28, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” At that time he’ll be king over all earth and heaven (Rev. 11:15), will completely destroy the power of death (1 Cor. 15:25, 26), will bring about the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-13). He will come suddenly (Mark 13:36). Some people expect Jesus to return in our lifetime. Others point to the fact that Jesus discouraged speculation about the timetable of his return (Mark 13:32). Paul told people to stay alert (1 Cor. 16:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-11), but also warned that we shouldn’t become idle and neglect our daily responsibilities (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Whenever Jesus returns, one thing is for sure: we will all die someday. God will reward us for our faith whether we came to Jesus early or late in life (Matt. 20:1-16), but we do need to be ready (Mark 13:33-37)! We need to commit to a relationship with Jesus, however small our faith-steps may be. Readiness means believing in him, following him, trusting his power … and trusting his merciful desire to save us regardless of all our sins and failures!
Here is a very odd pair of books to connect: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments (reiterated for many chapters) and to remind future generations of God's mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.
And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God's mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart—or to lose our faithfulness. Although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, he already has defeated Satan. In light of that victory, he calls us to follow him with confidence. 
1. Points made by Brevard S. Childs in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), page 68.

And now, page 2, as Paul Harvey used to say..... The past couple years I’ve been renewing my personal Bible study, especially focusing upon the Old Testament. Many of us Christians aren’t as literate in the Hebrew traditions of our faith as we might be, and some Christians I’ve met are largely indifferent to the Old Testament. 
Folio 10 recto of the Bible of
S Paolo fuori le Mura,
Frontpiece for the Book of Revelations
from Wikipedia Commons
But the Book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than nearly any other New Testament book: I read that there are nearly 200 references, allusions, and images. As I’ve been renewing my Old Testament reading lately, I returned to Revelation for a few weeks this summer and found my appreciation of the book enriched. I’m still not keen on interpreting its arcane and violent symbolism to gain knowledge of our present times.  But I appreciate the book all the more as the concluding portion of Christian scripture, which ties together many theological strands from the whole of the Bible.  If you really want to dig into Revelation, you might first spend a year or so reading the Old Testament and books about biblical theology. Then, you can appreciate how Revelation reaches deeply into the Old Testament and connects those scriptures (and therefore the whole of God's saving activity since ancient times) to Christ and his final victory.  
I found an interesting article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” at the site. I liked the article because it gave straightforward biblical references without the speculations and polemics that one times in some analyses of Revelation.  Perusing that article as well as my notes in my old RSV and the references in my NRSV, I developed a very incomplete list of references to Old Testament passages that one finds in Revelation.  These are just my notes from these sources, to set up ongoing studies. That article gives many more references and other research about John's compelling visions and style of writing.    
The image of “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7.  
The image of “the kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6 an Isaiah 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6.  
Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures and four wheels in chapter 1, and also Isaiah 6:1-4, connect with Revelation chapter 4, wherein the living creatures give God honor and glory. 
The dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2. Also, Michael the archangel (Dan. 12:1) connects to Rev. 12:7-12. 
The condemnation of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, with the image of being blotted out of the book of life, connects to Rev. 21:19. In fact, that article indicates: “Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 21:27 are based on Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1,” and also Ps. 56:8 and Malachi 3:16. All these have to do with the them of God writing a book containing the names of the faithful. 
The differently colored horses of Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8. 
The eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:33 and Jeremiah 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11. 
Much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord, connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9.   
Some of Ezekiel’s images of the restored temple in chapters 40-48, as well as Zechariah chapter 4, connect to Rev. 11:1-6 et al. Also, the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48:30-35 connect to Rev. 21:12-14.  
Genesis 49 lists the twelve tribes of Israel, in the context of Jacob’s death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and thus they became heads of tribes. Rev. 7:1-8 describes how angels sealed the number of God’s servants out of “every tribe of the people of Israel,” and then lists the twelve tribes.  Instead of the tribe of Dan we have the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Joseph rather than that of Ephraim is mentioned.  
The cities of refuge are described in Numbers 35:9-34. They were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could flee and when the high priest died they could return home without fear of being killed out of revenge.  The cities were Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron.  Although Rev. 12:6 doesn’t mention “cities of refuge” per se, the concept of a safe place prepared by God is there: for instance, the woman with child (representing God’s people) flees to a safe place in the wilderness where she will be nourished for 1260 days. 
Daniel has a vision of four beasts in Dan. 7:1-8, which connects to Rev. 13:1-7, where beasts emerge from the sea. As that article indicates, the fourth beast represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the terrible Greek ruler of the Maccabean period.  
Ezekiel 38-39 describes the prince Gog of the land of Magog. In Rev. 20:7-10, Gog and Magog become nations who are enemies of God’s people.  
The famous story of Balaam and his donkey (Balaam's ass, as we Sunday school kids laughed about) is found in Numbers 25:1-9, as well as 31:16.  This story is echoed in Rev. 2: 14 where God scolds the church at Pergamum. 

Rev. 14:14-20 tells of the angel reaping a grape harvest with a sickle and putting the harvest into the winepress of God’s wrath, producing copious blood.  Of course, this is the reference for a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  We find the earlier image in Joel 3:13 and Isaiah 63:1-6.  
As that article indicates, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, refer to the blessings of God upon the exiles who return from captivity in Babylon. These promises connect to a passage near the conclusion of Revelations, 21:1. 
With that reference, I thought of my earlier post about the biblical theme of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, its connection to the land, and the hope of future redemption that the Exile inspires. (See my April 2012 post.)  Although the Bible isn't exactly “about” the Exile, the Bible is about the history of God’s people on the land in the centuries before the Exile, and then their post-exilic hope in God’s redemption. As I explain there in my notes, the exilic experience pervades the Bible in many unappreciated ways. (The psalms, for instance, which so many of us esteem for our daily faith, deeply reflect the post-exilic hope of God's people.) For Christians, the New Testament describes the fulfillment of that post-exilic hope, and the Book of Revelation brings together stands of biblical history and theology to show the final consummation of centuries of divine promises.