Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates – Psalm 24 and the Harrowing of Hades

Psalm 24 (23 in the Greek collection) is a Psalm deeply immersed in the religious world of ancient Israel.  The Psalm represents a specific polemic against the pagan beliefs of her Canaanite, Phoenician, and Syrian neighbors.  This Psalm mocks the pretensions of the demonic being whom they have chosen to worship directly and specifically.  The means for understanding the context into which Psalm 24 was written and the beliefs against which it was directed lay buried in the sand in Lebanon for more than 3,000 years.  Nevertheless, the original meaning of this Biblical text was maintained in the Orthodox Church until the present day through its liturgical usage.  This text is, therefore, not only a prime example of the way…

The Testament of Jacob

In preparing his Latin translation of the scripture, St. Jerome translated the Greek word “diatheke” and the Hebrew word “berith” with the Latin “testamentum.”  From the latter word, the English word “testament” is derived.  The original Hebrew term, “berith,” refers most commonly to treaty documents, and in its usage in the Torah particularly refers to a particular type of treaty, that issued by a suzerain to a vassal at a king’s accession to the throne.  This usage is in view in the New Testament in every instance of its usage but one.  To convey this usage, the word is generally translated “covenant.”  The translators of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek translated the word with the Greek “diatheke” which is likewise…

Samson and the Origins of Monasticism

The principles of monasticism are deeply embedded within the scriptures.  The call to monasticism is twofold.  It represents a call to adhere strictly and without compromise to the commandments of God.  It also represents a call to asceticism, to the sacrificing of material goods in this world in favor of spiritual goods in this world and the world to come.  Ascetic practices are performed by figures throughout the scriptures, in the form of fasting and prayers and vigils.  There are also, however, individuals called to whole lives of consistent asceticism, both as individuals for the benefit of their communities and communities as a whole.  The first person whom we see receive a monastic calling, a calling received before his very…

Jacob’s Ziggurat

Genesis 28:10-17 describes a vision which Jacob had in a dream at the place that became known as Bethel (v. 19).  Throughout the patriarchal narratives in Genesis 12-50, altars are set up by the patriarchs at various places, not coincidentally at 12 sites within the later territory of the 12 tribes of Israel.  These narratives regarding the patriarchs represent the collected traditions of the 12 tribes regarding their forefathers.  Bethel would be a cultic site for centuries, notably one of the two sites of Jeroboam’s apostate religion in the Northern Kingdom.  The legacy of Jacob’s dream, however, in Second Temple Judaism and Christianity was untethered from the place where it occurred, and refocused upon the symbolism of the vision itself. …

Cursed is Everyone Who Hangs on a Tree

It is significant in understanding the ways in which the scriptures function as a whole that our Lord Jesus Christ not only died, but specifically died by crucifixion.  As an instrument of torture and death perfected by the Romans, the cross is an odd choice to be the primary symbol of a religion.  Not only does it represent a terrible death for which the word “excruciating” was coined to describe the pain involved, it was also a means of public humiliation.  Crucified individuals were crucified naked, exposed to the elements, and left to die over the course of what sometimes took days.  The Romans often then left the bodies where they were to decompose, only throwing them into massive graves…

The Hosts of Heaven

As modern people, when we think of the sun and the stars, we think of masses of incandescent gas; gigantic nuclear furnaces in which hydrogen is transformed into helium at, literally, astronomical temperatures.  When we think of the moon, we think of a large dusty rock which orbits around the earth every 27 days.  At some level, we are aware that ancient people did not think of them this way.  We believe that our modern understanding is superior because it is based on mathematics and scientific observation.  Ancient explanations and descriptions are viewed as quaint folktales and myths now supplanted by real knowledge.  This creates a difficulty for modern readers of the holy scriptures, as those scriptures are quickly seen…

Jeroboam, Son of Nebat

Though he is far from a household name, Jeroboam, son of Nebat is one of the most important figures in Biblical history.  As the first king and founder of the independent northern kingdom of Israel, he became the paradigmatic wicked king.  He is, in many way, the first schismatic and heretic in the history of God’s people.  In addition to creating the northern political structures, he began an alternative religious system that would not only endure in the northern kingdom throughout its existence, but even make inroads into the southern kingdom of Judah.  Under the later Omride dynasty, the kingdom which he founded would become a regional power and at least for a time far surpass the southern kingdom of…

One God, the Father and One Lord, Jesus Christ

It is a commonplace in St. Paul’s theology for the apostle to refer to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as a unified phrase (cf. Rom 1:4, 7; 5:1, 11; 6:23; 7:25; 8:39; 15:6, 30; 16:20; 1 Cor 1:2-3, 9-10; 8:6; 15:57; 2 Cor 1:2-3; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2-3, 17; 5:20; 6:23; Phi 1:2; 2:11; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:1, 3; 5:9; 2 Thess 1:1-2, 12; 2:16; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Phil 1:3).  Within the context of 1 Corinthians 8:6, St. Paul makes this formulation based on integrating Christ into the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4.  This formulation ultimately became the basis for the phraseology of the Nicene Creed.  The relationship between these two persons, the Father…

Biblical Monotheism

It is common in the contemporary world to speak of Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism, and Islam as ‘monotheistic faiths.’  This categorization is intended to imply that, over against polytheistic religions, these three religious traditions have a similar view of God.  Sometimes, this perceived similarity is taken so far as to argue that these three religious traditions worship the same God.  Monotheism, as a term, refers of course to the belief that there is only one God.  Polytheism, on the other hand, describes any religious tradition in which there are many gods and goddesses who are the object of worship and devotion.  Less commonly discussed, and occupying a middle position between these two categories, is Henotheism, which is the view that there…

Paradise

The garden of Eden, the place where God dwells with his divine council, is known in Greek translation as Paradise.  The word Paradise is a Persian loan word to Greek which refers to a particular type of walled garden.  Likely the most high profile example of a paradise garden in the world today is the Taj Mahal, built according to Persian custom.  An aerial photo of the Taj Mahal reveals even four waterways in parallel to the Biblical description.  Modern literalism has sought to locate this garden somewhere on the planet earth, with the assumption that at some point, usually the flood of Noah, it was destroyed.  While a ‘this worldly’ interpretation of Eden is attractive to many, it fails…