Archives For Bible

Bible characters are usually portrayed as white and European, all except one of the wise men.  But the spiritual history of Africa is imprintedJesus, Mary and Joseph - African in every book and chapter of the Bible beginning with Genesis.  When God creates Adam out of the dust of the ground it contains the soil of Mesopotamia and the sun-warmed earth of Africa.

But it isn’t just earth and soil that indicates African presence in the Bible. It is the people themselves.

The lands of the Bible span the continents of Africa and Asia—both home to peoples of color.

People of African descent, Asian descent, and of mixed descent–Afro-Asiatics—all lived in ancient Israel.  In general, the people of Ancient Israel were probably more African than Asian and they looked it.

Consider the story of Joseph. Sold into slavery and taken down to Egypt he rises in the ranks of Pharaoh’s government.  While his brothers intend it for evil, God intends it for good; Joseph is able to bring his father and 11 brothers down to Egypt to escape a devastating famine.

This means all 12 tribes of Israel and their descendants live in Africa for over 200 years until Moses leads them to freedom.  They go down as 70 souls and they come back one and half million strong.  Through intermarriage, African blood flows freely through their veins.

Even so, the people are called Hebrews, not Egyptians.  Why?  Not because of race or racism; that construct doesn’t come into existence until the 1600s.

It is because of tribe. Tribal affiliation is what matters in the ancient world.  Nevertheless:  In the Bible, Hebrews and Africans are one and the same people.  The first Hebrews are African and many Africans are Hebrews.

Long before slave ships bring Africans to American shores, many enslaved Africans already worship the God of the Bible.   In fact, I went to seminary with a student from Kenya who told me that the African tribal practices of his people were straight out of the Old Testament.  They’re living now like the Jews did millennia ago.

The African presence in the Bible can be traced even deeper in the Bible.  Moses, “The Prince of Egypt,” is born of Hebrew slaves, but is raised by Egyptians.   Remember how Moses’ mother and sister put him in a basket in the Nile so that Pharaoh won’t find him and kill him?  But Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, keeps him, and raises him in the royal palace right under Pharaoh’s nose.  Now if Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses look all that different, it stands to reason that Pharaoh would take the baby and kill him.   But he doesn’t.  Why?  Probably because Moses fits right in:  an Egyptian among Egyptians.

Moses isn’t the only one who fit right in.  Here’s where it gets really interesting.  Remember how Mary and Joseph take Jesus and flee when King Herod wants to kill him?  Where do they go to hide out? Where do they go to find sanctuary?  Where do they go to blend in?  Egypt.

Now if Joseph, Mary and Jesus look all that different from the native Egyptians, they would never pass.  But they do.   They too had African blood flowing through their veins.   Even Jesus.  Especially Jesus.

As Dr. King so famously said, “…all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Black history is biblical history.  Black history is all our history.

Jesus, the Anti-Jew?

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  January 26, 2015 — 8 Comments

Jewish JesusChurch, it’s time to go all the way in embracing the Jewish Jesus.

Yes, Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly.

In too many sermons, commentaries,and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion, and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors.  But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted.  Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:

“Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the ‘poor and the marginalized’ (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”

Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counseled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, I suggest it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice, and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.

I’d like to explain the phenomenon, and then give you 3 criteria to check for to see if your preaching and teaching sets up Jesus as a Jew or as an anti-Jew.

Think about it.

If Jesus was fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from?

If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets, and kings that preceded and surrounded him.

Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing, and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.

More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile.

Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.

Paul wasn’t kidding when he said about his fellow Israelites, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”

How do you know if you are preaching and teaching about Jesus as a Jew or an anti-Jew?  Check out these 3 critiera:

1.  You rely heavily on the compare and contrast method of preaching and teaching: Jesus is the “good guy” and his Jewish contemporaries such as Pharisees, Saducees, scribes and lawyers are the “bad guys.”  This creates an us v. them dynamic that creates enemies.  In other words, in order to stand with Jesus, I have to stand against somebody or something else.

2.  You remove Jesus from a Jewish context altogether, substituting “the church” for the actual Jewish people, Torah, land, and institutions he interacted with.  Erasing his Jewish context doesn’t help. It’s like claiming being color-blind in a society where white privilege still operates.

3.  You portray the Pharisees as uni-dimensional:  hypocritical, out to get him, narrow-minded or legalistic.  Of all the Jewish groups present in his day, Jesus himself was most closely aligned with the Pharisees. His way of teaching, setting up a fence for the Law, and seeing the world has more in common with them than any other group.

Putting this perspective into practice will take a renewed scholarship among preachers, pray-ers, poets, professors, and Bible study writers and teachers. I realize it’s going to take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes. This won’t be easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help.  It’s worth the effort.

We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized. Understanding that Jesus operated within a rich spiritual and theological context is essential for deconstructing three attitudes: first, lingering anti-Judaism; second, Jesus as anti-Jew; and third, subtle “us versus them” dynamics. While denominations have repented of these attitudes, the fulfillment of that work remains to be done in individual pulpits, in Bible studies, and in human hearts. The more we get our theology and teaching right, the more space it creates for healing between Jesus and his own people.

Excerpted and adapted from “The Jew Named Jesus:  Discover the Man and His Message,” (c) 2013 Rebekah Simon-Peter.

True confession:    I didn’t have a very high expectation of Bible studies when I first started going to church as an adult. I was prejudiced against the word “Bible” itself.   I thought the initials BS in the bulletin stood for, well, B.S.  I’m not sure why, but I didn’t expect to learnBible study group anything new.  Boy, was I in for a surprise!

Do your people carry the same unconscious prejudice?  The truth is a vibrant study of the Bible can transform a whole congregation.

Here are my top 3 tips to keep Bible study fresh:

  1. Adopt a sense of curiosity.  Especially when reading the parables of Jesus.  They don’t go where his listeners expected them to.  The parable of the Good Samaritan should have had a Priest, a Levite, and an Israelite passing by the wounded man.  Not a Samaritan; not your mortal enemy.  Seriously??
  2. Go slow.  Shoot for quality not quantity.  Be willing to see a new word, notice a twist of phrase, ponder a turn in the story.  I love the story of God calling Samuel.  And the humility of Eli, even in his failings.
  3. Consult a new commentary.  When pastoring an African-American congregation, I got the Original African Heritage Study Bible.  It gave me a whole new perspective on things.  Like how many characters in the Bible are black, how much of the Biblical story is set in Africa, and how completely unbiblical racism is.

Would love to hear how the Bible comes alive for YOU!

Also, if you’re interested in bringing a new depth to your Lent and Advent studies, shoot me an email about teaching Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes or Christmas through Jewish Eyes at your church.

Here’s to a fresh look at an ancient book!