Thursday, December 3, 2015

Haggai and the Samaritans - A Different Perspective

Good cannot come out of bad ... Holy cannot come out of the defiled or the profane ...
The Book of Haggai is the second-shortest book of the Old Testament, yet it contains several powerful and crystal-clear (and important) messages, including:

  • Put the Lord first in all things
  • Take care of the Lord and the Lord will take care of you
  • This New Temple will house Jesus - the reference to the "Desired of Nations" is a clear prophecy of the coming of the Son of God

However, there is another message in Haggai that isn't so clear.  But that message is one that - if you spot it - seems to offers a clear warning to today's Christians.  And perhaps because I live in Las Vegas (Sin City USA) and perhaps because our church has big building plans,  I think Haggai's message has very specific lessons for us.

After all, the whole book and the entire prophecy is about (re)building the Temple of the Lord.

To understand this message, a bit of background is in order. Specifically background on the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem in the day of the Babylonian exile, and background on the creation of the Samaritan people in the days of the Assyrian exile. 

This should also include background about the rocky path 42,000 Hebrews from the kingdom of Judah had to follow, as they undertook their journey from that Babylonian exile to the desolation of Jerusalem - and then, 20 years later - to the restoration of the Temple, the Home of the Lord God.  

For those not up-to-speed on the players here, at the time of the exile, the kingdom of Judah comprised the two surviving tribes of Joseph (after the Assyrians made off with the other ten tribes of Joseph several hundred years earlier). 

These Hebrews were returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile after 70 or so years, with a command from their Persian king to rebuild the Temple and restore Temple-worship Judaism.

The Israelites - residents of the Northern kingdom of Israel after Solomon's kingdom was slit asunder were the victims of (or the survivors of) the Assyrian exile of Israel. Those who were taken to Assyria and then lost to time became known as the Ten Lost Tribes.  Those among the Ten Tribes of Israel who remained behind (the farmers, shepherds and town laborers) became the Samaritans.

That's a quick overview.  However, to really understand what I believe Haggai was prophesying, and what that prophecy means for us today,  you need to know yet a bit more about the players and the background. So please bear with me.  It all wraps around what Haggai was really saying (the subtext) to his fellow Jews in Jerusalem in Haggai 2:10-14.

Caveat:  Admittedly, some scholars offer a different perspective than what I'm about to present here.  However, when you dig deep, I think you'll find that the ultimate message is pretty much the same, whether they're right or I'm right.  I'll return to this in my conclusion, and you can judge that for yourself.

Here is the section in question - Haggai 2:10-14 (NKJV):

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Now, ask the priests concerning the law, saying, 12 “If one carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with the edge he touches bread or stew, wine or oil, or any food, will it become holy?”’”
Then the priests answered and said, “No.”
13 And Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?”
So the priests answered and said, “It shall be unclean.”
14 Then Haggai answered and said, “‘So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.

At first, this doesn't seem to relate to the rest of the book, which is all about rebuilding God's House, the Temple of the Lord.  However, this does relate to the rebuilding of the Temple, and it is also the lessons this prophet offers us today.  That is what this brief commentary is all about.

Background:  In 520 BC (the date is quite specific), over a period of a few months that are also very specific, the prophet Haggai offered his fellow returned-to-Jerusalem Jews four short, pithy and very much to-the-point prophetic statements.  Haggai is referred to as a "minor prophet." But he is not "minor" in terms of the importance of his message, which includes a clear prophecy of the coming of Christ. 

Haggai is only "minor" based on the length - two pages - of his book.

Eighteen years after Haggai and the other Jews returned to Jerusalem - it took him that long to hear God's call and offer those four prophetic messages.  God had decided that His Chosen People had waited long enough - and then some - before restoring his House on earth.

Haggai was His messenger.

Three of the prophet's four messages were clearly related to their king-ordained - and God-ordained - mission of rebuilding the temple and restoring a temple-based Judaism to the world.  

However, two years after the returned Jews arrived in Jerusalem, and shortly after they started their task of restoring the Temple, the nearby Samaritans raised an objection in the Persian court and legally blocked the Jews from completing the new temple (apparently, they'd only gotten the foundation and altar completed by the time this ruling came down).  This is not mentioned in detail by Haggai - all of his audience knew this as well as they knew their own names, but it is spelled out by the prophet Ezra, Chapter 4.

Sixteen years after the Temple's re-construction had been blocked by Samaritan-inspired royal decree, a new Persian leader took the throne.  He eliminated all of his predecessor's royal decrees, including the one that had blocked the Temple's re-construction.  However, for a variety of reasons that Haggai ascribed to self-centered selfishness, Jerusalem's returned Jews did not act on this new freedom to resume Temple construction. 

This led God to inspire Haggai to exhort (successfully) the Jews to re-start the rebuilding of God's own Temple, and then to stick with it when the going got a bit rough.

This news quickly spread to the Samaritans, the Jews' next door neighbors.  Upon realizing that they'd lost their attempt to derail the rebuilt Temple, they decided to make the best of a bad deal (from their perspective).  With this new "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" resolve ...

... even though they had their own Temple which they maintained was the only "real" Jewish Temple and the only "real" House of the Lord God Yahweh, the Samaritans stepped forward and offered to help rebuilt God's Holy Temple in Jerusalem. 

The Samaritans offered to do so with funds and resources and - perhaps - laborers.  This Samaritan reversal of strategy (and their suspicious offer of help) is also alluded to in Ezra Chapters 4, 5 and 6, which summarizes this entire two decade-long battle in court between the Jews in Jerusalem and the Samaritans - descendants of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel - from their capital in Samaria. 

It had been a long, political wrangle, and it had an impact on all the parties involved.  This Samaritan-inspired ongoing conflict, and the unusual half-Jewish/half-Pagan nature of the Samaritans themselves, is why I believe Haggai gave the specific prophecy about sanctified meat offerings and defilement.

Who were the Samaritans?  Wikipedia reports that there remain 777 living and self-professing Samaritans today.  However, in Roman times, there were a million Samaritans in Samaria, and there were certainly at least several hundreds of thousands of them living in the land of the Ten Lost Tribes at the time when Haggai gave his four prophecies. 

The Samaritans, who claim to be descended from two of the twelve tribes established by Joseph, first appeared on the world's stage as a separate people shortly after the united nation of the Hebrews was split in two.  That was shortly after the end of King Solomon's reign.  The people who were to become the Samaritans lived in the northern state of Israel, which had its capital in the city of Samaria. 

These Samaritans, claiming to be members of the ten tribes, practiced a kind of Judaism that was based on a somewhat different Pentateuch - and, they claimed - a more accurate form of Judaism than Talmudic Judaism.  

They also had their own Temple on their own Holy Mountain, and denied the primacy or validity of Jerusalem as the home of God's Temple and the seat of Temple-Worship Judaism. 

This may have been what led the holy men of Judah (the land of the southern two tribes) to claim that the Northern Jews practiced a bastardized kind of faith, one that dishonored the Lord God Yahweh. Some even claimed that the ten tribes had blended pagan worship of local gods into the One True Faith of the followers of Abraham. 

That claim - that Temple worship had been blended with pagan idol worship - seems to be supported by recent archaeology.

A couple of centuries later, Assyria's Sargon II conquered the "Jewish" state of Israel. He then deported more than 27,000 Israelis to Assyria. These "chosen people," the leaders and priests in Israel, became known to history as the Ten Lost Tribes. They went into an exile in Assyria from which none returned. 

However, instead of taking everyone, what Sargon did was decapitate the local leadership.  The secular and religious leaders of Israel were dragged into permanent exile.  However, hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file Israelites - farmers and craftsmen and town dwellers - remained in what had been Israel, continuing their agrarian existence. But now, they did so under the rule of the Assyrians, instead of under the rule of the Israelite kings and priests.  And they did so without any Hebrew priests to guide their spiritual lives, or to maintain Temple worship as they saw it. 

To balance this population's loss, and to provide local leadership presumably loyal to him, Sargon imported at least 27,000 non-Israelites of the religious and ruling classes to take the place of those Israelite leaders he'd sent into permanent exile. 

These newcomers to Samaria brought their own gods, and their own sworn loyalty to Sargon.  

However, these new local leaders soon discovered that they'd come to a land of chaos and danger.  Quickly, they decided they could use some divine help, and petitioned (perhaps begged is a better word) Sargon to send a cadre of Israelite priests back to Samaria to help the new Samaritan leaders to worship the local god (Yahweh) as well as their own pagan gods. 

This dual pagan-and-Temple worship seemed to be embraced by all Samaritans.

Certainly, the farmers and town workers did not burst into spontaneous revolution, which has always seemed to be a hallmark of real Jews (Ezra 5).

What did happen in the immediate aftermath of Sargon's epic and effective ethnic cleansing was the emergence of what the Jerusalem Hebrews considered to be a bastardized, mongrelized race of people. They had some Jewish roots, but they also had the blood (and cultural influence) of different peoples sent to Samaria from all over Sargon's vast empire.  Ezra even offers a list of the various "contributing" nations.

These former Israelites - along with the newly transplanted residents of Assyrian Samaria -  intermarried and intertwined their religions, combining pagan beliefs and gods with the One True God of Abraham.  As an aside, this, I believe, is why Samaritans are scorned by proper New Testament Jews.  But these Samaritans were not scorned by Jesus.

But in the time of Haggai, the Samaritans were clearly a mixed-breed of people with puffed up notions of being the only authentic sons of Abraham. Yet they were a people who practiced both a modified kind of Temple worship (in their own Temple, away from Jerusalem) AND the worship of pagan gods using pagan rituals. 

These Samaritans also seemed to be concerned about the long term impact of the return of the people of Judah in their midst.  They were also concerned with the rebirth of a Hebrew brand of Judaism, one based around authentic Temple Worship in line of succession from Moses and David.  They showed this concern (as explained in Ezra, Chapter 4) by legalistically stopping the re-construction of the Temple when the Jerusalem Jews had first returned.  Then, after they realized that their attempt at playing Court Politics had ultimately failed - they decided to be "good neighbors" and offer to help the Hebrews rebuild God's own Temple. 

They did this even though they had their own Temple, which they proclaimed was the One True Temple of the Lord God Yahweh.

Haggai, speaking as the prophet of God, did not trust their motives.

Haggai and the Samaritans:  Once the Lord God's Hebrews had heard the first two prophecies from Haggai - one commanding the Hebrews to get started rebuilding the Temple, and the other encouraging those same Hebrews to take the long view and not get discouraged over the slow progress they were making in rebuilding the Temple - Haggai seemed to suddenly take a different tack, and offer a different message. 

He could see that his people were now back on track, rebuilding the Temple.  But with that sacred construction now finally moving forward ...

... Haggai now had something more - and something different - to tell God's Chosen People.

In his next prophecy (Haggai 2:10-14), Haggai seemed to go off-point. Instead of prophesying about the restoration of the Temple, he started talking about consecrated sacrificial meat and its ability (if any) to sanctify other food by contact (it can't happen). He also spoke of the ability of ritually unclean people, ones who'd touched a corpse and had yet to be ritually purified, to defile otherwise sanctified sacrificial meat offerings (they can).  

Haggai clearly had a message from God for his Jerusalem Jews, but this newest prophecy remains frustratingly vague (at least to modern eyes) on what that message was. Certainly, this prophecy was vague, at least when compared to  Haggai's other very specific, very clear prophecies. 

Having gotten the Temple priests to agree that sanctified meat cannot sanctify other foods, and that a ritually defiled person can defile sanctified meat, he doesn't conclude with, "so, what I'm saying here, is _______." 

Instead, he just kind of ends, leaving the local priests and Jewish returnees to figure out what he meant. 

His audience knew exactly what Haggai meant - God didn't need to spell it out for them.  

Those Jews were up on the major issue of the day, and understood the analogy, as well as how it applied to them.

More than 2,500 years later, though, I think that a bit of clarification might be in order.

Some scholars say that the returned Jews of Jerusalem were tempted to use (or were actually using) resources and materials to restore the Temple that came from less than sanctified sources. Alternatively, they themselves might have been working on the Temple even though they had not first been sanctified themselves. 

If either one of those alternatives was the case ...

... As God's own prophet, Haggai was telling His people that they needed to clean up their act before they continued working on the Temple.

As I said right up front, I take a different view. 

I've found a few supporting references for my "take" on Haggai's third prophecy.  But let's acknowledge that this issue - including the idea I'm about to present -is admittedly a bit difficult for some scholars to suss out. 

Men and women with far more training, experience and insight than I have still struggle with Haggai's third prophecy.  

Here's my take: God was talking about the Samaritan's offer. 

God was saying ... "Good cannot come out of bad ... Holy cannot come out of the defiled or the profane ...

Haggai, The Temple and the Samaritans:  Sixteen years before Haggai's prophecy, the Samaritans had blocked the Jews' attempt to rebuild the Temple by playing an underhanded game of Court Politics.  However, at the time of Haggai, Ezra tells us they'd finally been thwarted (by someone who was better at playing Court Politics), and the Jews were now proceeding with a clear imperial mandate, as well as a clear mandate from the Lord God Yahweh, one reinforced by several prophets, including Haggai.

Unable to thwart them again, the Samaritans decided to offer to help the Jews with their Temple ...

... even though the Samaritans believed that their Temple was the only true Temple of Yahweh

Clearly, they had something up their sleeves.  What, we may never know, but they had their reasons.  However, having intermarried with Sargon's imported pagans, and having embraced those interlopers' pagan gods along with Yahweh (and perhaps blending their pagan rituals into supposedly sanctified worship of the One True God), anything the Samaritans could offer was, by definition, ritually tainted.  Impure.  Beyond redemption.

The question for Jerusalem's priests and citizens seemed to be, "can we use what we know comes from a bad source to help us achieve a good and Godly end?"

The Lesson (and you knew I'd get to it, eventually):  The answer to that is No! 

This is what Haggai was reminding the Jerusalem priests and their followers.  God will not accept sacrificial offerings that have been made ritually impure, and for men to try to use ritually impure offerings (or tools, laborers or resources) only courted trouble.

Good cannot come out of bad ... Holy cannot come out of the defiled or the profane ... not without the Lord's own sanctification ...

Which, if you think about it for a moment, is the exact reason that God sent Jesus to redeem all of us sinners ... to sanctify us so that good can come out of us ... 

Specifically, the Jews could not build a sanctified and holy Temple, earthly home to the Lord God Almighty, from tainted, impure and ritually unclean materials, funds or workers. 
Nothing the Samaritans had to offer could possibly be found acceptable by God.

That is the message Haggai gave his fellow Jews.  And, I believe, that is the message Haggai has for us today.  Good cannot come from bad, not without the intervention of God.  If you're building a church today (as is my home church), this means, among other things, that you can't take funds for the building of your church that are themselves tainted. 

One More Thing:  Let me bluntly clear: 

I trust my church's leaders - I am in no way trying to "send them a message."  

This is not about my church, our leaders, or their decisions.  Period.

However, I found that this lesson, which I perceive to from Haggai, seems to be glossed over in many sources.  Yet it called to me with a clear voice.

As a friend said to me just yesterday (as I write this), after I'd explained my insight to him, "I guess we'll have to cancel the stripper's fund-raiser for the church." 

He was joking, but in fact, tainted money abounds (one of the world's largest supporters of the Catholic Church is reputed to be the Italian Mafia).  Any congregation which knowingly accepts tainted money for use in building a church intended to be sanctified to God's work had better pray about that decision long and hard.

God wants us to build churches to his glory, for the redemption of many, but if Haggai's right (and I think he is - which is to say ... "if I'm right about what Haggai is saying") ...

He wants us to build his Temples the right way.  Using sanctified tools and supplies, sanctified labor and sanctified funds.

Remember when I said (above) that the lesson from Haggai 2:10-14 was the same whether you follow the scholars who disagree with me, or whether you see where I'm coming from? 

It really is the same lesson, the same message. 

There are scholars who are deeply knowledgeable and deeply faithful who honestly feel that Haggai was speaking to Jerusalemites who had not properly sanctified themselves before the Lord.

I, with no such scholarly training or reputation (but at least I hope and pray that my heart and mind are in the right place), offer the suggestion that this sanctification referred to  "help from others" - people who are not really on your side, but who want to help for their own nefarious reasons. 

Either way, the bottom-line message is the same.

Before you build or rebuild God's Church, be sure that you, your resources, your materials - and the help you receive from others who have no obvious stake in your success - has been sanctified to the Glory of God.

Disclaimer:  I have no special knowledge or authority. This represents my belief at this moment in time, based on my reading of Haggai, Ezra 4-5-6, and some of the commentary that's available out there.  Please, if this matters to you, do your own reading, your own research, and pray over what you seek and what you find. 

And if you reach a different conclusion (or even the same conclusion), I'd love to hear from you.

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