Saturday, October 3, 2009

Jewish Imagery

Suppose you are the Apostle Paul and you are suddenly taken from the first century into the 21st Century. The year is 2008 and it is the election year. And there are really big political rallies going on. At one political rallies there are representatives from the Democrats party on one side of the street waving flags with the symbol of a donkey, on it. On the other side of the street there are Republicans representatives waving flags with the symbol of an elephant, on it.

We know these symbols identify two political party but what would Paul think? Remember Paul was suddenly taken from one world and placed into another world. Would Paul know immediately that these symbols represent two political party? Or would Paul think these two symbols represent a literal donkey and elephant? The point is they are symbols and Paul would have to do a little study to find out their true meaning.

"Our difficulties begin when we try to decide how far to take symbolic language. Is the symbolic language to be taken literally and how far to take it figuratively.

"Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matthew 24:29)."

This text has been the subject of all sorts of speculation and wild theories about the end of time and the events that will happen at the return of Christ. Many believe that this text is talking about a literal destruction of the world. But let us put out of our minds what we have been traditionally taught about this passage and let the text speak.

The first thing that we must understand is that each particular gospel had a particular audience that the words were for, especially when considering the synoptic gospels. The gospel of Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience, that is why Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophecies so many times in his book.

Since the writers of the Old Testament used such highly symbolic language to picture the actions of God, is it not likely that the writers of the New Testament, and Jesus in particular would use the same kind of imagery to describe events of historic proportions? Why should Jesus not have used the same Jewish symbolic language from the Old Testament to describe events at the destruction of Jerusalem, etc.?

The problem is we are not accustomed to dealing with such symbolic language like the sun being darkened and the stars falling, etc, without thinking literally. To the Jews, this was not new language. To help understand how the Jews communicated in terms of symbolical language, open your Bible and turn to (Genesis 37:9). This is the way language is used in the Old Testament. It was adopted for like use in the New Testament.

This kind of language in relation to Israel began in the Bible in Genesis 37:9. When Joseph told his brothers his dream, He said, "Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me."

His father understood the meaning of that dream and asked. "What is the dream that thou haste dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth" (vs.10)? As you can see, Joseph dream was related to his father, mother, and brothers, not the universe. "The Jewish readers were certainly well versed in the sort of symbolic language and imagery and understood the meaning.

Another good example is the prophet Joel:

"And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. ("And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood,) Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass. That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, As the LORD has said, Among the remnant whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:28-32 emphasis added)

Peter used similar ancient language on the day of Pentecost when he quoted from Joel 2: and said (this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel) "And I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come" (Acts 2:17-21). Peter said those were the days. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit as promised by Joel. (Acts 2:1-12)

Yet the sun was not literally darken and the moon did not literally turn into blood. This is not language that signifies an absolutely literal, materialistic, or natural fulfillment, as can be discovered by anyone who honestly studies these things.

This type of apocalyptic, figurative language, also describes the desolation and judgment of God by invading forces. Take for example the prophesied fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 BC.
"Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. And I will punish the world for their evil..." (Isaiah 13:9-11)."

This is applied to Babylon, as mentioned in verse 1. The fall of Babylon is represented by the stars and constellations of heaven withdrawing their light, and the sun and moon being darkened (9,10). The sun, moon, and stars speak of the downfalls of rulers and authorities.

Now note the prophecy of Ezekiel against Egypt:

"And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord GOD" (Ezekiel 32:7-7). This applied to Egypt, as mentioned in verse. 2, 12, 16.

And further note Amos 8:9, "And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day." This had reference to the northern kingdom.

Isaiah 14:12 calls Nebuchadnezzar the Morning Star cast down to earth. In Rev 1:20, the stars are rulers/messengers of the Churches. The "shaking of the heavens and earth" was used by Haggai 2:6 to speak of political overturnings when the great Persian empire was all aflame with rebellion and conflict and the Jews were expecting this to work in their favor as they were being restored to Palestine and rebuilding the Temple. 2:21-23

Such "de-creation of heaven and earth" language is used in Psalm 18:5-16 to describe the downfall of Saul's Kingdom. In Isaiah 13:6-13 we see that destruction of heavens and earth pertain to when the Medes broke up the Babylonian empire.

Nahum applies this earth-shattering metaphor to Yahweh's judgment of Nineveh (Nahum 1:1-5). Isaiah applies this language to Edom of 703 BC (Isa 34:3-8). Ezekiel applies this language to Babylon's victory over Egypt (572 BC) in Ezekiel 32:7-11. There is no question about when these things would happen.

We have literature that we must read figuratively unless the words demand otherwise. We must do this with all passages in the Bible that tell us the things we are reading are in symbols. "Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matthew 24:29)."

The Jewish readers were certainly well versed in this symbolic language and imagery. Matthews aim is to set the echoes of memory and association ringing to his Jewish audience. When the ruling authorities of the nation of Israel passed away, it was said that the sun was darkened and the stars fell from the sky, etc.