Hello, and how are you? I hope you enjoyed my blogs last week—I messed up and sent two by mistake (I usually keep one in hand for the next week). Too much on my mind. However, I promised you a quick review of the garden story, as told in the book by Ziony Zevit. If you want to check your English version, it’s at the front of your Bible, Genesis 3 and 4, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
Zevit is a Hebrew scholar, and says the story can only be understood if you read it in Hebrew. His book is worth reading, and you don’t need to understand Hebrew to read it (but you probably do to evaluate his claims, so read it with a sceptical mind). He looks at the language used, and tries to assess what the story meant to the people who wrote it. It was told orally long before it was written down, and Biblical Hebrew is a translation of ancient Hebrew, so we can’t be sure, even when we read the Hebrew. Zevit makes some bold claims.
Firstly, he claims the story wasn’t written as a myth, but as an historically accurate event. (Of course, this doesn’t mean it was historical, only that those writing it believed it was.) He also says it overlaps a lot with the Gilgamesh Story, which would have been well-known to those reading it. You might not be familiar with Gilgamesh, so I’ll give you a quick summary next week—but Zevit is right, lots of it is very like the Genesis story (and it was written first).
Zevit makes some interesting translation choices. The one which has earned him a not-too-flattering nickname is his claim that Eve was not made from Adam’s rib, but from his penis. His evidence for this is the Hebrew word used means ‘side’ in most other places, and that Hebrew writing of this time used various euphemisms for body parts and this is just another example. He also notes that humans are the only species which don’t have a bone there, as it works on hydraulics (and he provides drawings of skeletons to prove it). Whilst it’s an interesting view, I think it’s bit speculative (and slightly weird). It’s true that the Hebrew doesn’t mean ‘rib’ and ‘side’ would be a closer translation (and every scholar I’ve read agrees with that). But I don’t think he’s correct on the rest of it.
Another point he makes is that humans were created mortal—in other words, they were always intended to die. I have heard lots of sermons (especially at funeral services) that say death is a result of sin, and not what was intended, but I think Zevit is right here. The story seems reasonably clear that humans were created with the intention to die when old. Otherwise the world would become too full (because reproduction also seems to have been intended) and why would ‘the tree of life’ have been created if people already lived forever? The Old Testament doesn’t see death as a bad thing, it talks a lot about people living to a good old age, and ‘going to sleep’ and joining their ancestors.
He also says that the idea of idle paradise is not what the story is about. The humans were created to work in the garden—first Adam, and then the woman to help him. (Please note, the word used to describe Eve as a ‘helper’ does not imply Adam was the boss! It’s the same word used many times in the Old Testament to describe God helping people, and if anything it implies a stronger being helping a weaker being. But we won’t go there.)
The most dramatic (for me) of Zevit’s claims is that the humans did not sin, and they were not punished. The language used to describe the command given to Adam (before Eve was made) was, Zevit claims, more of an ‘aside’ than a specific command. The main command was to eat from every tree, followed by, “Oh, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge.” He sees the story as a ‘coming of age’ story, whereby humans gained knowledge, and this resulted in them becoming aware of certain things, which increased their discomfort. If you don’t know childbirth is painful, then you don’t fear it and it’s less painful.
I think some of his points are true, and I’ll discuss them in a later blog. Scholars such as James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick have similar beliefs and I found them more reliable. Certainly some of Zevit’s points are true—the woman was not cursed (a point worth making as I have heard the pain of childbirth described as a curse). He also makes the point that the words used about Cain being born, are pluperfect, so Eve ‘had previously given birth,’ before they ate the fruit. This ties in with Adam naming her ‘Eve’ and calling her ‘the mother of all living beings’ because that would make no sense if she hadn’t yet had a child. Only the snake and the ground were cursed, the people were simply told things would be harder for them. There is no evidence of anger in the story, nor do words akin to ‘punishment’ appear.
Of course, if you decide Zevit is correct, and the garden story is not primarily about sin, then Augustine’s notion of ‘original sin’ (which I mentioned last week) would need to be re-examined. But you need more information before you can do that. Next week I’ll tell you the Gilgamesh story—it’s bit weird (but possibly not more weird than a talking snake).
Hello, how was your week? I am writing this in a rush, because it’s the end of my college semester and essays are due and exams need to be revised for.
Actually, if you take away the fear of failing the above, it has been quite a fun week. My lectures were interesting, and I managed to meet my daughter for lunch one day and have a good chat. I also managed to lose my purple gloves, which wasn’t so good, but maybe they’ll turn up.
We did Eschatology this week. Not sure if it’s possible to do that in one week, but we tried. (This is a fancy word for talking about ‘the end times’ and what might happen.) It sounds more exciting than it was.
Wednesday we had a lecture about digital theology. This was more interesting than it sounds. It showed all the ways that we now use technology, and how it has stopped being weird and has become part of everyday life (even my mother can now shop online). This extends to us actually incorporating technology into our bodies, so lots of people have artificial hips, or new knees. Some people have brain implants to help control an illness, or prosthetic limbs. The natural extension of this would be sort of cyber-hybrid-people. Some people apparently hope to ‘upload’ their brain into computers, or replace enough of their broken body to delay death for decades, maybe even longer. So we were asked to consider whether technology, with its ever-present, all-knowing, reaching-inside-us aspects was beginning to replace religion. Do people look to technology where they once looked to God? And how should Christians react to this?
Thursday I had a Hebrew test, when I desperately tried to remember all the different verb forms (and mostly failed, but remembered enough to pass). The big exam is in a couple of weeks, so I have verb paradigms scattered around the house in the belief that if I have copies of them next to the loo and stuck on the fridge door, I will magically assimilate them. Not working so far…Maybe future theologians will be able to simply upload a file of them straight into the memory part of their brain.
Friday I wrote an essay. Well, to be accurate, I deleted most of an essay, to try and squash it into the tiny word-limit that has been set. I have always talked too much, now I find that I also write too much, and squeezing all my arguments, and referring to various scholars, into a measly 4,000 words is very difficult. I have to evaluate a book, so I made rough notes, and this came to over 10,000 words before I’d even started to refer to other scholars or give my own opinions. To make it even harder, every time I refer to someone I have to add a footnote (which counts as part of the word count) saying what they wrote and when, and I can’t use contractions (‘would not’, instead of ‘wouldn’t’) which all adds to the length. Writing the first draft was great fun, and I wrote a blinder! Now I have to delete most of it and hope it still makes sense.
Then it was the weekend, which is when I try to clean the house and have conversations that aren’t linked to theology. Not very good at either of those things. I did however move all the unattractive cleaning products off the downstairs washroom window sill and replace them with a plant, and one of those smelly diffuser things that I was given for Christmas. It smells quite posh in there now. Hoping it will help me to learn the verb paradigms that are stuffed behind the toilet rolls. Hope you have a great week, whatever you’ve got planned. Thanks for reading. Take care. Love, Anne x
When I started my theology course, one of the first things they told us was that they hoped to make us question and evaluate every part of our faith, to take it apart, decide on what it was based, and then reconstruct it from a basis of understanding. I would now say that this is a fairly accurate description of the process I am experiencing; the lectures and books I am absorbing are raising lots of questions. It’s an uncomfortable process, sometimes difficult as I evaluate ‘truths’ that I have believed since childhood, only to discover that in the cold light of ‘logic’ and the piercing eye of ‘experience,’ some of them don’t seem as ‘true’ as I thought.
I was deliberate in my wording of the title. It is my religion, my beliefs, that I am questioning, not God. I have experienced too much in my life to ever be able to properly question God. I have heard his voice correcting me, felt the warmth of his peace at my most desperate hour, known his touch. I cannot deny those things even if I would. But everything else, the outworking of religion, what God actually wants, what I should believe—those things are less certain.
It began a while ago, when I started to learn biblical Greek and Hebrew, hoping to read and better understand the original manuscripts that our Bible is based on. Bit of a shocker to discover that we don’t have any existing original manuscripts, our English translation is based on scraps of parchment (some of them very scrappy!) which were written centuries after the original manuscripts were written. Copies of copies of copies…not all the same. This was huge for me. We do have other writings, carvings on Egyptian stones, and myths from Mesopotamia, which have survived. So the question has to be, why did God not ensure the books that form our Bible survived? Is it because he didn’t want us to be completely certain that we understood everything? Is it because humans have a horrible tendency to decide they know exactly what’s right, and then apply the rules that arise to other people? Perhaps we are meant to be a little uncertain.
I think perhaps we should read paraphrased versions of the Bible more often. I have always been irritated by Bibles such as The Message which give an updated version of the books. But actually, at least when we read them, we all know we shouldn’t take them literally, they are the essence of the Bible but not the actual words that were first written. All our English translations are also this, but sometimes we forget that.
What I realise is that to have a belief seems to create more questions. I am currently studying the Garden of Eden story (the one with Adam and Eve, and the forbidden fruit and the snake—you remember it?) Now, I have always believed that this was the point whereby sin entered the world, that by eating the forbidden fruit humans became sinful, and from then on, every generation that followed was also sinful. Some scholars (like Augustine, a monk from centuries ago) named this ‘original sin’ and taught a tidy lesson about what this means for humans. All humans, because they are descended from that first man, are sinful. The problem with this, is that we also believe that Jesus was human, descended from his mother Mary. We also believe that he was God (because his father was God) but logically this creates a problem. Did Jesus inherit ‘original sin’ from his mother, and if not, why not?
Some people solve this problem by stating that Mary was therefore without sin too. But was she? There isn’t much evidence for that from what I can see. And of course, if Mary was without sin, then what about her parents? Why didn’t she inherit sin from them? We end up having to form convoluted explanations about how Mary either was made pure somehow before conceiving Jesus, or Jesus somehow didn’t inherit that bit of humanity. It all feels a little unsatisfactory to me. I don’t doubt that everyone sins—I can see that for myself—but as to why? Not so sure.
Of course, the Garden Story causes all sorts of other problems. There are a few ways to view it, which one is you?
Either you don’t believe it at all, think the whole thing was created by Iron-Age people as a story and it has no relevance today. Or you might think it literally happened, as stated, in an actual garden somewhere at the source of four rivers. Or you might think that it’s a myth or parable, not an historically literal event but a story that explains a situation. Which one is you?
I have spent several weeks reading the views of different scholars, looking at the story in biblical Hebrew, trying to discern what it means. It has been a fascinating study. There are so many ways of looking at the story, and a tangle of conclusions that people have drawn from it (like Augustine with his belief in original sin). I will write a few blogs describing the different views. Whether you believe in ancient giants, or carbon-dating and fossilised evidence of evolution, I hope you will find the different views interesting. You can draw your own conclusions when you have read the evidence. Thanks for reading. Take care. Love, Anne x
As the story was first written in Hebrew, I will begin with an appraisal of the book by Ziony Zevit (a Hebrew scholar). He shows how Eve wasn’t made from a rib, and Cain was born before the couple left the garden, and the snake never actually told any lies. All very interesting…
Before we begin, it’s important to be prepared. Writing an academic essay is very stressful, and good preparation is key. I suggest a couple of whiskeys, but you might prefer gin. I decided to start late at night, a few hours before it is due. This will ensure everything I write is fresh and current.
Although they specify that they want electronic submissions, evidence suggests that lecturers much prefer work that is handwritten. Preferably on scented pink paper. Pink paper is proving hard to find, which might be a problem.
Occasionally, lecturers use words that are unfamiliar. I decided to incorporate them into my work anyway, as I don’t have time to discover their meaning. Words like “elucidate” (a casual romance with Lucy?) will enhance my writing and give an impression of academia. If I run out of intelligent-sounding-vocabulary, there is always a dictionary. I will choose words at random, and smatter my sentences with unexpected phrases.
I’m thinking that pictures might be another good source of marks, especially as I’m not accustomed to writing long essays. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is very true, hence a couple of well-crafted sketches of ancient scholars means 2,000 less words I need to write. I suspect an oil painting would receive more marks, but even a pencil sketch is worth a shot. (You could trace it if art isn’t your thing.)
I decided not to read any books, it’s much more important to voice my own views, and the more extreme they are, the more I think a lecturer will enjoy them. As a teacher, I can confirm that reading variations of the same view 30 times is very boring. We are required to use footnotes, but I am hoping these can be of anything. If I decide to add a quote of someone else’s words, I shall phone my mum or Aunty Ethel. They will be glad of the chat and I can jot down a couple of their sentences at the same time. I also intend to add lots of random dates for emphasis.
Not reading any books will also avoid plagiarism. At school, we called this ‘copying’ and you were told to move seats. At university, it is more serious, and they take you into a small room and remove your thumbs. At all costs I must avoid plagiarism.
Writing a bibliography did seem daunting as I haven’t read any books, but this too can be easily remedied: I will go to the library and pick a shelf. Any shelf will do, it’s a theological college, so all the books will be relevant. Remove about 20 books. Write their details into my bibliography. Sorted.
Apparently, real scholars write papers which are then peer reviewed. This is mentioned frequently, so I assume it is important. I think a peer is another word for ‘friend’ and a review is basically just a comment. I therefore need to make some friends (cupcakes might help) and ask a couple of them (the friends, not the cupcakes) to read my work; then ask if they like it. Voila! I am a scholar.
I do hope these tips are helpful as we steer our way through the adventure of becoming an academic. Do feel free to quote me. Thanks for reading. Take care. Love, Anne x
 Evidence for this may be found in the documentary: Legally Blonde.
 Whilst this phrase might seem an unsubstantiated claim, in research 99% of people could finish the phrase when asked, hence proving it is true.
 These little numbers make your essay look very academic, and it doesn’t really matter what they say. If you assume that marks are designated for appearance rather than content, then a footnote looks very professional. Add them at regular intervals.
 For example: Ethel Smith (2021) stated: “You can’t trust a monk.” (2021, Ipswich)
In a novel, every character has a back story. The main plot might be about a governess falling in love with the master of the house, but before she met him, she was a poor orphan, raised by an uncaring aunt and sent to a harsh boarding school. Sometimes we learn the history right at the beginning, and sometimes the information is dripped to us, silver drops of information given as the story unfolds. Occasionally, the back story is more interesting than the main plot.
In real life, people have a back story too. Sometimes we learn it when we meet them, usually we discover it as we get to know them better. But we never learn the whole story, we never see the entire cast of people that influenced them, we never completely understand.
Weirdly, our own lives are like that too, but in reverse. We know the back story—who shaped us, what moulded us into the people we are today—but we don’t know the next bit. We don’t know what will happen next, what is coming in our life, and what will happen after we have gone. We also don’t know who we have influenced, how many people we have been the back story for.
After Christmas, as the old year ends and a new one arrives, we start to take stock. To think about these things in our own life. Have we lived a good year? Will the next one be better?
I was thinking about this while I read the bit in the Bible when the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, regains his speech and he makes a long prophecy all about his baby son and the man who would come after him (Jesus). It’s a song about being saved from enemies, serving God without fear, being led into peace. I’m sure when he said it, he believed it was true.
But here’s the thing. The people who heard that prophecy would then have watched the baby grow into a weird man who lived in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey, shouting about God and then being beheaded. Not much there about peace, not exactly saved from enemies. And it gets worse, because pretty soon after that, instead of being saved from Roman occupation, everything got harder for the Jews, their temple was destroyed, they were scattered around the world. Generations later, they may have heard about Zechariah’s words, shaken their heads, and agreed he was wrong. So very, very wrong.
It is only after all these things, now we know more about why the baby John came, how he was part of the plan for Jesus, part of the bigger plan of God, that we understand. God’s plan was never to save the Jews from the Romans, he had a bigger plan. Zechariah was part of the plan, but he didn’t understand it, he didn’t even really understand what the plan was, or how it would unfold. But he was part of it. His life mattered beyond what he could see.
I want my life to matter, don’t you? Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter at all, I have never achieved anything great—even my garden is bit of a mess. But if I keep trying to live how God wants me to live, talking to him, trying to respond to his voice, then I can be part of the plan, even if I don’t see it. The great people of history were all influenced by someone, and those people, the hidden characters of the back story, were crucial to the outcome. When you think of someone great, a person in history who achieved something wonderful, try to imagine who was in their back story. Someone taught them to be kind, to be brave, to control their temper, and without those people, the greatness wouldn’t exist.
I might always be in the background, I might never be a great leader of people, a famous author, the person who changes the world. But I am part of the back story, even if I don’t actually see it, and so are you. We matter, we influence the outcome, we just have to keep trying to be the people who we are meant to be. The wonderful thing is that this never ends, however old we are, however ill we might be, we can still be part of the back story. What we say and do, how we live, can matter, even in the tiniest of ways, it matters. We can all be part of the plan.
Thanks for reading. Have a good week, and happy new year. Take care. Love, Anne x
Hello, Happy Monday! How was your Christmas? Mine was wonderful, though with a few mishaps (there often are in my house).
Our first less-than-professional action was when we had friends for curry one evening before Christmas. They come most weeks, and Husband (bless him) decided it was time to use those left-over crackers that everyone has lurking in the Christmas decorations box from a bygone year. He didn’t mention his good idea to me, otherwise I would have warned him.
Friends arrived, smiled when they saw there were crackers, decided who would pull one with who, all very excited. I arrived too late to say anything, and sat there wondering if Husband understood about the crackers and had planned accordingly. He didn’t, and he hadn’t. The crackers were those ‘fill-your-own’ ones that I had bought (and filled) a few years ago, stuffing them with paper hats and packets of seeds and miniature whiskeys. Husband had not stuffed them with anything, so everyone pulled a completely empty cracker! We searched through the recycling bin and found the hats and jokes in the bottom of the box, but to be honest, they weren’t a great success.
The next major mishap was Christmas dinner, because I forgot to get the turkey out of the fridge and bring it to room temperature before I put it in the oven. Which meant that everything was ready to eat, except the turkey. The vegetarians didn’t care (I don’t like to think they were gleeful and suggested that none of us should have been eating meat) but I felt very annoyed with myself. I ended up slicing it (it was a turkey breast, not even a whole bird, so really I have no excuse). I then fried it, and people ate it after they had started eating everything else. At least I realised in time and didn’t give everyone food poison, but it was a rooky mistake and I should have known better.
The rest of Christmas was great. People were very generous, and we had some lovely moments with the family, just relaxing together, playing games and chatting. The house is now a mess, and my jeans have shrunk (happens every year at this time) and I’m tired. But it has been good.
My boys (who aren’t really boys any more because they grew into men while I wasn’t noticing) are currently downstairs cooking dinner. They are making a dish that involves a whole packet of blue cheese. I don’t like blue cheese, but they tell me that I will like it in the dish they are preparing, as it will taste completely different. This is the sort of thing I used to tell them when they were little, so I don’t like to argue (plus I am very grateful that I don’t have too cook). I’m sure it will be delicious.
Hope you had a nice Christmas, and are looking forward to the new year. Hoping for a healthy one. Thanks for reading. Take care. Love, Anne x
I travelled to Bethlehem in a small cart. Every bump (and there were many) was agony. As I was jolted along, I was racked with pain. The baby’s time was near, you see and the pain was almost unbearable. Later, they would sing songs about a cute donkey carrying me. Nice thought! I don’t think there’s any way you could have got me on a donkey. As each contraction cramped every muscle in my torso, I huddled up like an animal and prayed for it to be over.
I could see Joseph, watching me as he walked alongside. He really didn’t have the first idea what to do. Oh, how I wanted my mother. I yearned for her to be there, holding my hand, telling me everything was all right and would be over soon.
When we arrived at Joseph’s uncle’s house, the women folk came and helped me inside. The room was crowded. All Joseph’s male relatives from miles around had come to the house for shelter and food. The women were busy cooking supper and the men were drinking wine and comparing stories. They all told Joseph how much he resembled his grandfather, Matthan and laughed at old stories from years ago. The smell of fish and fresh bread was nauseating. I was so tired and so uncomfortable.
Joseph knew I was suffering and asked if there was somewhere quiet that I could go. There was no chance that we would get a place in the inn, they had filled up days ago. Somewhere quiet, in a little house packed with relatives?
There were some fraught discussions and then his aunt suggested that the animal shelter, down on the lower floor of the house, might be best. It wasn’t terribly clean, but it would be quiet and private and at least it wouldn’t smell of fish!
Joseph helped me to go down, and a couple of the women came too. One of them examined me and told me the baby was a long way off yet, first babies always take their time in coming. This was not great news but I felt better having her there. I felt that she knew what was happening, had seen this before; it took some of the fear away.
I was frightened, you see. I was horribly afraid that somehow I would damage my baby. My baby and God’s. I knew he was going to be special, I knew I had a great task ahead of me but it all seemed to be going horribly wrong. I trusted that God was still in control but he felt so far away.
Could the baby not have been born in a palace, surrounded by comfort? Would these poor beginnings really be part of a plan? Could they really make this king accessible to the people? I had no idea.
I was a mere girl; I had no education and my memory of scriptures was often fuzzy. To be honest, at this present moment, I didn’t even care. I just wanted this baby OUT! Special or not, my body was tired of carrying him, tired of being stretched and pushed, of fitting something inside that was now too big to be there. I needed this baby to be born and I was too exhausted to wait much longer.
How I longed for sleep. The pain in my back was terrible. Great waves of cramp that seared through my body, making me oblivious to everything else. I was vaguely aware that someone was sweeping the floor and moving the animals to a far corner. They had laid out a mattress and blankets for me to rest on but I couldn’t lie still for long. I felt better standing, rocking in time with the pain, trying to remember to breathe: in out, in out. Someone offered me water but I couldn’t drink. I wasn’t thirsty—I just wanted this baby to be born.
I could see Joseph with his big anxious eyes watching me. He didn’t know what to do. Someone suggested he should go into the house to eat and I nodded in agreement. There was nothing he could do and the poor man must have been tired too. He had endured such an emotional time lately. First there was his fear and anger when he first heard about the baby (now that was a difficult conversation!) Then he had to endure the smirks of his friends when the pregnancy became public knowledge. He never complained, but I know he felt embarrassed, wished that God could have chosen a different girl.
We had been travelling for five days, with hardly any rest and the last couple of days had been chilly. I know he felt the burden of caring for me, watching for bandits on the roads and wondering if we would make it to Bethlehem in time. If the baby had come early I don’t know what he’d have done—left me with strangers on the road somewhere I guess and come to register on his own. One didn’t mess with a Roman decree. . .
The pain eventually became almost constant. Joseph had eaten and rested but I continued to sway in discomfort in the little room of animals. Every so often one of them would poop, and although the women with me cleaned it up quickly, the smell pervaded the atmosphere. It was hard to ignore.
I could hear the musicians gathering outside, someone must have told them the birth would be soon. That gave me hope, maybe soon the baby would arrive.
Then at last, in a final searing pain, the baby was born. I looked down at his blue waxy body as he wriggled on the blanket, and I knew that he was mine. My love for him was overwhelming. He was part of me, I would die rather than let anything hurt him.
One of the women wiped him down with oil and salt and I held him in my arms while they looked for the swaddling bands in our luggage.
How beautiful he was. His indigo eyes would soon turn brown and they gazed at me trustingly. I loved him with my whole being.
Outside, there was the sound of music and singing as the musicians heralded the arrival of a boy, and I smiled, knowing they would have quietly slid away into the night if the baby had been a girl. But there had never been chance of that, not this time.
Joseph came and took the baby from me. He held the tiny baby in his giant carpenter’s hands, hands that spoke of hard work and safety. He didn’t say anything, this man who had been chosen to protect me, he simply stared at the baby—looking, wondering.
Then the baby started to mouth for food and Joseph passed him back. The women showed me how to feed him, but he was soon asleep. Then we gently wrapped him in the swaddling bands, securing his tiny limbs so he would feel snug and secure and his bones would grow straight and true. He was so beautiful. It was hard to remember what the angel had told me, that this was God’s son too. I began to wonder if I had imagined it, if it were all a dream. This baby did not look like God, he was a baby. My baby.
“If it’s true God,” I thought, “Let there be another sign. He is so little and I love him so much, but this doesn’t feel like a miracle anymore, this hasty trip to Bethlehem, this crowded little house with me downstairs with the animals. Are you still in control? Do you still see me? Remind me again…”
I too needed to sleep. Joseph fetched fresh hay and put it in the animal’s manger, covering it with a soft blanket. I didn’t want him to put the baby there, I wanted to keep him on the bed next to me, but Joseph was worried I might roll on him in my sleep. Then he laid the baby down and told me to sleep. He looked deep into my eyes and brushed my collar bone lightly with his fingers.
“Soon you’ll be truly mine,” he whispered. I knew what he meant and felt myself blush. I was so tired, I thought I would sleep for a week.
I actually slept for about two hours! I was abruptly woken by loud voices and a draft of cold air as the door was flung open. There, standing uncertainly in the doorway was a group of youths. Their clothes were dirty and exuded the strong smell of sheep. Joseph was with them.
“Mary? Are you awake?” he asked.
It would be hard not to be with all the noise from outside.
“These shepherds want to see the baby. They were told by angels where they could find him and they have come to look at him.”
I checked I was decently covered before nodding, letting Joseph know that it was all right, they could come in. They trouped into the room. They seemed so big and clumsy in such a small space, with their long limbs and rough clothes. I worried they might hurt the baby.
But they didn’t try to touch him, they just stared for a while and then one of them knelt and they all followed suit, kneeling before the manger, staring at the baby.
Then they told me their story, how they had been in the fields and an angel had appeared. They had thought they were going to die, to be struck down right where they were.
The angel had reassured them, told them that a saviour had been born, the Christ who we’ve all been waiting for. They would find him lying in a manger. Then suddenly there were lots of angels, all praising God and saying he was pleased with people on earth.
After the angels had gone, finding they were still alive after all, the shepherds decided to come at once and see for themselves. It was as though they couldn’t quite believe what they had seen and heard, they needed to actually see the baby with their own eyes.
I felt so humbled and so cared for. God had heard my thoughts. He was reassuring me. It was all his plan, not some terrible mistake; circumstances hadn’t caused us to drop out of his control, he could still see me. We were meant to be here. He even knew about the manger!
I listened and smiled and treasured my thoughts.
The shepherds left as noisily as they came. I could hear them in the streets, shouting their news, telling everyone what had happened. They were so excited, I expect they woke up half the town.
They had of course woken the baby who was now crying with a thin wail that jarred my nerves and was impossible to ignore. I fed him some more and then we both slept. A tired, contented sleep borne from exhaustion and wonder.
After eight days, Joseph came and circumcised the baby. How he wailed! It felt cruel, though I knew it was the right thing to do, even in this strange place we must obey the Jewish laws. We also formally gave him the name Yeshua, the name we had been told to give him by the angel all those months ago.
I wondered if Joseph minded, people would know it wasn’t a family name. I also had no one called Yeshua in my own family, though I did know a boy from my childhood with the name.
After forty days, we had to travel to Jerusalem, to pay for redemption at the temple. As Joseph was from the tribe of Judah, we had to pay five shekels of silver. We couldn’t afford a lamb, so bought two pigeons to sacrifice.
It was nice to leave Bethlehem and to have some exercise at last, to see people and to take my baby into the world. I felt quite excited as I approached the temple, our holy place. I didn’t recognise anyone, but everyone could see we had a new baby and lots of the women came over to see him. I felt so happy!
We walked through the Beautiful Gate and up to the Gate of Nicanor.
It was then that something strange happened. As Joseph and I walked through the temple, a man approached us. He came to look at Yeshua and indicated that he wanted to hold him. That was a little unusual but there was something about him, something that made you sure he was a good man, someone you could trust.
When he looked at the baby, the old man got all emotional and prayed, thanking God and saying that now he could die in peace. He blessed me and Joseph too and then he leant towards me and said something which was very strange.
He said Yeshua would cause “the fall and rising of many in Israel” and would be “a sign that would be opposed so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
What does that mean? I know that he is God’s own son and that he is part of the plan to establish God’s reign on earth. Will he be opposed? Surely everyone will accept God’s anointed one, we have waited so long for him.
But then he said something that made me afraid, this old man with his determined face and bright eyes. His face was very near, I could smell his breath.
He said that a sword would pierce my soul.
Something inside contracted, all the joy of entering the temple evaporated into a lump of fear. Fear and anger. I practically snatched Yeshua away from him. I want my son to grow strong and be happy, will I suffer for this? I will do everything in my power to protect him, he is mine.
I knew I was tired, not getting enough sleep and it was hard to care for a new baby in a strange place without my mother to help me. I felt that I did not want to hear the man’s words, even if they were true. I was coping with enough, and I felt that although I had been brave, I couldn’t be brave any more.
Thankfully the man left us and almost at once an old lady approached. She was ancient, her white hair showed under her mitpahath and she leant heavily on a stick. What I noticed most were her eyes. They almost sparkled! You could tell at once that she was a holy woman and also one who loved to laugh.
As soon as she saw Yeshua, the elderly woman started to pray loudly, thanking God and telling people nearby that if they wanted Jerusalem to be redeemed, they should look to the baby. I was glad that no Romans were allowed in the temple, we would have been in trouble!
We finished making the offerings and then went back to Bethlehem. I didn’t know whether to tell Joseph what the old man had told me. I kept thinking about his words, worrying about what they might mean. I was so tired, I decided I would wait and maybe tell him later.
The months passed and we settled into life in Bethlehem. We moved into a little house and Joseph found work on the many building projects that the Romans have introduced.
Yeshua continued to thrive. He grew into a sturdy toddler and would walk around the room holding onto the stools and baskets. I loved to feel his solid weight when I carried him on my hip, the light touch of his chubby fingers when he reached up to touch my face. There was pure joy in the gurgle of his giggles. He started to sleep much better at night and Joseph and I were thinking about having another child. But then everything changed.
It was one evening, still quite early but we had filled the lamp with olive oil and lit the linen wick. Joseph put it on a bushel basket, so the room was well lit and we could talk about the day. Suddenly, there was a banging at the door.
Joseph went at once and there, in the road, was a group of Persian travellers. They had dismounted from their horses and were peering intently into the house. They told Joseph they had seen a star and had come to worship the king. I was so glad I hadn’t gone to bed yet!
We let them into the house and I went to get Yeshua. He was damp from sleep and his tired eyes looked blearily around him. I wondered if he would cry but he seemed fascinated by our strange visitors. They wore their hair in long curls and one had a band of gold on his head. It glinted in the lamp light and I could see Yeshua watching it intently. Their clothes were patterned with birds and flowers.
We offered them wine, it was clear they were tired from their journey. I was embarrassed that we only had two stools to offer them, but they didn’t seem to mind and in fact insisted that I should sit on one with Yeshua and they were happy to sit on the rush mat. They didn’t really sit anyway, they wanted to kneel before Yeshua.
Then they gave him gifts. They were beautiful to look at. They gave him gold, signifying that he is a king. They gave him frankincense. The strong aroma filled the house and I wondered if Yeshua was to be a priest, even though he is not descended from Levi. They also gave him myrrh. Myrrh is costly but is for embalming a body. It was a strange gift for a baby and I wondered what it meant.
They told us their story before they left. In their Persian home, they were magi, watching the stars and foretelling the future. Many months ago, at the time of Yeshua’s birth, they had seen a special star which they knew meant a powerful new king had been born and they determined they would find him and worship him. Unfortunately, following the star caused them to go to Jerusalem first (I always knew that star gazing was a misleading activity!) They went to Herod’s palace and asked where the new king was. This was scary, Herod had shown he was not a king to be trusted and his cruelty was well known. I would not have wanted to visit his palace.
However, it sounded as though he had decided to be helpful. Herod asked the scribes to research the early scriptures and they discovered that the promised king was to be born in Bethlehem. The king told the Easterners, asking them to find the king and then return and tell him theexact location, so that he too could worship.
I wondered what would happen next. Would Herod himself come to visit my precious baby or would we be summoned to the palace? This was not a comfortable thought.
I also wondered, why had the palace scribes not come to visit us? Why didn’t they travel with the Easterners to see the baby? Did they not believe the scriptures that they studied so diligently? Surely, if they were truly expecting a redeemer they would also have come? I frowned, feeling uneasy. There was something that I didn’t understand, and it nagged at me.
The men left. They planned to sleep in an inn and return to Jerusalem the next day. We could not offer them lodging in our tiny house and they seemed content to leave now they had seen Yeshua.
I returned Yeshua to bed and soon afterwards Joseph and I also went to sleep.
I had not been asleep for long when Joseph woke me. He shook me awake, then went to light the lamp. I could see his face was tense and instantly turned to check Yeshua was well. He was sleeping soundly.
Joseph told me I needed to get up—at once—we needed to leave. He said that he had had a dream, like the dream when the angel told him that the baby inside me was God’s son. It was so intense, so real, that he could not ignore it. Joseph said he had been told we must leave Bethlehem, leave Israel; Yeshua is in danger, Herod plans to kill him.
For a moment I paused, wondering why I too had not been warned. But then understanding flooded through me, as I realised—God had told Joseph to take care of me and Yeshua—that was a hard task for a man, to care for a son that was not his own. So now, God was telling Joseph alone what we needed to do, underlining his role, establishing him as head of our family. It was a kind act, asserting Joseph’s value, his part in all this.
I began to pack our things, Joseph was hurrying me, telling me to only take what was essential, we needed to leave.
We were to go to Egypt. Egypt! Could this be right? Was Yeshua not to be king of the Jews? I packed hurriedly and we left that very night.
What would the future hold? Would we ever return to our home town? The future was uncertain but I knew that something bigger than us was happening. Whatever happened, God had a plan and no one could alter the course of that, not Herod, not the Romans. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were part of the plan—and that was enough.
Thank you for reading.
This account necessarily involves some imagination but I believe it is also as historically correct as possible (and more accurate than some of our Christmas carols!) If you are aware of any historical errors, please tell me and I will modify it. I used a variety of sources including: The gospels of Matthew and Luke Geoffrey Bromily (1995) William Hendriksen William Barclay Joseph P Amar (university of Notre Dame) Michael Marlowe Tessa Afshar Kenneth Bailey
I hope you have a very happy day. Take care. Love, Anne xx
Hello and how was your week? And are you ready for Christmas? A little bit? I am not, and it will worry me soon but at the moment I am too busy.
My college lectures finished—well, more fizzled out, due to Omicron and Boris and having to revert to being on zoom which doesn’t feel as satisfying. No big farewells and ‘Happy Christmas’ or silly jumpers. (Not that there necessarily would have been even if we had all met in person, but probably I would have done those things, even if no one else did.)
Next on my list was essays (just practice ones) then getting the results and realising that writing an academic essay is far-removed from the fun of writing a blog. We are meant to provide lots of quotes to show we are well-read (I do read lots, but am not very good at remembering who said what, where, and we have to splatter our essays with page numbers, which is very unsatisfying). We also have to give our own opinion (no problem there!) but not in a personal way (is that even possible?) and it has to be backed up with evidence. I’m not sure anyone else shares my views, so the evidence bit is not easy. I am also very bad at extracting relevant information from books, whilst not reading the whole book. I start to skim read (which feels like cheating, by the way) but then the author writes something interesting, and before you know it, it’s 6pm, Husband is asking what’s for dinner (nothing) and I have read the whole book and completely forgotten to write the page numbers of bits relevant for my essay. Which means I am enjoying my course tremendously, and learning lots, but I may well fail due to chatty unsubstantiated essay-style.
Another distraction was having the Covid booster. This was all very efficient except for the last bit, when having socially-distanced in the queue and shown into an individual booth to be stabbed, we were then told to wait in a crowded seating area in case we turned blue or something. Of course, neither me nor Husband are very good at obeying rules, so we looked into crowded waiting area and decided we would sit in our car instead. Neither of us turned blue. Though I did have a horrible reaction later, and had a temperature that wouldn’t go for two days. Very unpleasant but presumably less unpleasant than having covid.
We also had our traditional family meal in London. We went to The Ivy this time, at Tower Bridge. Very lovely. I drank pink G&Ts and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I like my family (even without the G&T I like them, they make me laugh). London is very pretty at night, and there were Christmas lights, and it was all wonderful. We wandered back to the station via Hay’s Galleria, which had a big Christmas tree, and I tried to encourage the family to sing carols (this might have been due to the G&T) but none of them would. Never mind, lovely evening.
Another nice thing is my cyclamen plants. Now, I am not very good with plants, and generally have a row of dead plants on my windowsill, but I try. A few years ago, my sister-in-law gave me a cyclamen for my birthday, and surprisingly, it has survived. I noticed that it was growing buds that weren’t buds, so checked online and sure enough, they were seed pods. The internet said I should wait until they opened, and then wash the seeds in washing-up liquid before soaking overnight in clean water. This is because they have a sticky coating and a hard shell. In the wild, ants will carry them away from the main plant, eat the sugar from the coating and pierce the hard shell, so the seed can then grow. They then need to be left somewhere cold and dark.
I have a lot of bad luck with cats sleeping on my seedlings, so after the washing/soaking thing, I planted the seeds and put them in the loft. I left it a few days, then went to check if they needed more water. A mouse had dug them all up and scattered the mud all around the loft. I shoved them back into the pot (the seeds, not the mouse) and put them on a windowsill instead. Two chances. Live or not. I assumed not, but you never know. Anyway, when I looked yesterday, there are two tiny cyclamen plants just sprouting. How exciting is that!
Of course, all this means I have done almost nothing to prepare for Christmas. I would delay it for a few weeks if I could, but instead I will have to hide my books in case I read them by mistake, and force myself to wrap some gifts and bake some gingerbread. I did decorate the too-big-because-I-wasn’t-there tree that Husband bought, but to be honest, I just sort of flung ornaments on it while cooking sausages because I was trying to read about Calvin. I still have a week, it will be fine…
Hope you have a wonderful Christmas. Thank you for reading. Take care. Love, Anne x
I am writing this in Zurich. My college had a week with no lectures, set aside for reading and reflection, and it coincided rather nicely with Husband having to visit Zurich for work. I had a mountain of reading to do, plus an essay to finish writing, but we agreed that I could work in the room, and breaks would be spent wandering the city and eating meals that I hadn’t had to cook. An excellent plan (which I hoped would turn out better than the Devon ‘excellent plan’ of earlier!)
We arrived late Friday night. As the aeroplane neared Zurich, I could see the Alps, white with snow, shining in sunlight. We appeared to be flying over a sea with islands, but as we dropped, I realised the sea was cloud, and we dropped down, into the misty ‘water’ to the gloom of a city in dusk. The mountains were like a basin of cloud, and the sunlight was hidden from the land below.
As this was a ‘work trip’, our room was a rather lovely suite opposite a park in the city centre. We had the weekend to explore, so after a run round the park and breakfast in the hotel, we set off. (The breakfast was good, but there was a lot of sausage on offer, and I am pretty sure one of the fruit options was coleslaw.) The weather was crisp but dry, and gradually some of the clouds dispersed so we could almost see mountains beyond the city.
The city has the river Limmat flowing through it and we walked beside it to the large glacial lake, the Zűrichsee. The houses are very Germanic, with pointy roofs and shutters at the windows. It was all very pretty. It was also hideously expensive for British travellers, as the exchange rate is very bad at the moment. There were coffee shops with seats in a pretty square, huddled around patio heaters, all the seats lined with fur to keep people warm. But to pay £6 for a coffee was off-putting, so we enjoyed looking but kept walking. Luckily we had access to the ‘members lounge’ in the hotel, where there was a coffee machine for free.
As I am studying theology, I felt that I should visit the church where Zwingli preached. Who, you might ask, was Zwingli? Ulrich Zwingli (not a looker, but you wouldn’t expect him to be with a name like that) was quite a character in the 1500s. He was a priest in the large Grossműnster church, during a time when the church was ruled from Rome and was very powerful. Zwingli began to preach against some of the practices (which made him popular with the people, but not especially liked amongst his clerical peers). He decided that fasting in Lent was wrong, and (somewhat controversially I feel) attended a sausage supper during Lent.
He learnt Greek and Hebrew (so must be a good chap) and sought to find the correct translation to passages that he felt the church had corrupted. He preached against celibacy for priests (which I cannot help but feel sceptical about, as he had a wife at the time so I feel he was perhaps slightly biased). He also tried to rid the church of icons, and told people they shouldn’t worship saints. He was a contemporary of Luther (who is more famous) but they disagreed over the Eucharist, and were never friends. When there was a plague in Zurich, many people left the city but Zwingli stayed to help the sick. He survived the plague, but died during a battle (which I think he partly caused by speaking out against the church).
So, an interesting chap with some strong beliefs. It seems silly now, that he and Luther didn’t work together, simply because they disagreed over one point of doctrine. It seems to me that Christians still do this today, it can feel a little like a club, where if you don’t agree with all the rules some people don’t think you belong. Perhaps that’s why Jesus never tried to start a new religion, he showed people how to live and left them to copy.
We saw Zwingli’s statue, and went to the Grossműnster, which was very plain because he had removed all the icons and decorations. I blame him a little, for the ugliness of Baptist churches. I understand the sentiment, that we should be worshipping God not the building/statues/icons. But I do feel people go too far. Baptists seem to thrive on very ugly places in which to worship. I find it off-putting.
I will leave you with some photos of Zurich. Lovely clean city, mortgage your house and pop over for a weekend. You will need proof of two vaccines to enter any public building, and people here wear masks whenever they’re inside a public building. Other than that, it’s almost the same as pre-Covid times.