Game of Thrones and the Bible – edited and expanded

#GameofThrones

In honor of the premiere of season 6 of Game of Thrones, I am bringing back a post from February comparing Game of Thrones with the Bible, edited and expanded a little.

Game of Thrones and the Bible (for mature readers)

I love Game of Thrones. It’s got political and sexual intrigue, dysfunctional family relationships, shocking violence, and you know what? It’s got nothing on the Bible. It’s still a couple of months before the beginning of Season 6, but I thought I’d go ahead and post this.

WARNING: THERE ARE PLOT SPOILERS. AND THE FOLLOWING MATERIAL INCLUDES GRAPHIC GORY VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

Genesis 34:1-31: Dinah and Shechem’s Red Wedding

All the fans freaked out over the Red Wedding in Season 3, Episode 9.

How’s this for a red wedding? Jacob’s large family of shepherds wanders into a city. The prince of the city (Shechem) encounters the one daughter (Dinah) of the patriarch. They have sex. The prince wants to marry the girl, but the family is offended because 1) he had sex with her before asking her parents to marry her, and 2) his people are not considered proper for marriage to one of their young girls. Shechem, however, is persistent. He really wants to marry her. He loves her.

Jacob’s family will agree on one condition: he and every male in the city must be circumcised, because as they say, they cannot allow her to marry from among the uncircumcised. He agrees. And since he is the prince, he is able to order the other men to follow suit. While the men of the city are still sore and recovering, two of her brothers sneak into the city at night, kill all the men, and take her back to her family.

So let’s see: There’s a prince who falls in love with the wrong woman. Agreements are made and then broken. Man in love apologizes sincerely to the offended party and tries to make amends. Offended party pretends to accept the apology then kills the offenders. I can almost hear The Rains of Castamere playing in the background.

2 Kings 9:30-37: Jezebel’s gruesome death

The Game of Thrones writers have given us some of the most ghastly tortures and deaths ever seen on television. However, even they have not given us a death more grisly than the infamous Jezebel.

[Jehu] looked up to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down; some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her. Then he went in and ate and drank; he said, “See to that cursed woman and bury her; for she is a king’s daughter.” But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. (2Ki 9:32-35 NRS)

And I thought Catelyn Stark’s corpse was treated roughly.

Judges 11:1-40: Jephthe “Snow-Baratheon”

Characters on Game of Thrones are not shy about their use of prostitutes. Prostitution was certainly part of the Biblical world, and one inevitable result of prostitution is illegitimate children, like Jephthe. He was the son of a prostitute who was rejected by his family and tribe, and yet had enough leadership skills to rise to prominence in spite of it. In the days before Israel had a king, Jephthe became one of the Judges and the head of his tribe. I wonder if Jon Snow was based on him.

Unfortunately, there is one other reason Jephthe is remembered. His greatest victory came at a dire cost. Just before a battle against a powerful enemy, Jephthe’s army was supposed to meet with a troop of Ephraimite soldiers, a neighboring tribe with whom he had formed an alliance. The Ephraimites did not show up, and the enemy was getting near. On their own, Jephthe’s men did not believe they were strong enough to defeat this enemy. Jephthe made a solemn vow to God that convinced them to follow their commander with the boldness of Viking Berserkers.

Jephthe’s army won and returned home in triumph, but now Jephthe has to fulfill his vow to the LORD [of Light?]:

“If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Jdg 11:30-31 ESV)

The word in Hebrew translated “whatever” is ‘asher. It could mean whatever or whoever. Jephthe may have had an animal in mind (whatever) or a slave (whoever). Instead, the first to come out to meet him is his one and only daughter. It’s obvious from his response she was not what Jephthe expected.

When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Jdg 11:35 NRS)

He vowed to the Lord (of Light?), and he cannot go back. A burnt offering, like Stannis Baratheon‘s daughter, Shireen.

When Abraham was sacrificing Isaac, an angel stopped him before he brought down the knife. Unfortunately for Jephthe’s daughter, no angel appeared.

1 Kings 1:1-43; 2:13-25 – Brothers are rivals who must die [New]

Speaking of Stannis Baratheon, he and his brother Renly were rivals to their family’s claim to the Iron Throne, so they went to war. Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light, helps Stannis by conjuring up a shadow of Stannis to kill Renly, removing his most immediate rival. None of the kings of Israel would do such a thing, would they? Think again.

After David died, there was a brief dispute between factions for Solomon and Adonijah as to who should succeed him. Solomon won peacefully. But when Adonijah wanted to marry one of David’s former concubines, he asked Solomon’s mother to intercede for him. Solomon saw it as a backdoor attempt to strengthen his claim to the throne.

King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite (see 1Ki 1:1-4) for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! For he is my elder brother; (1Ki 2:22 NRS).

What does Solomon do now that his elder brother has tried to undermine his rule? He sends one of his army commanders to kill his brother and rival. No shadow magic, but the result was the same. Was Adonijah really in love with Abishag? To the king, it does not matter. Just as in Westeros, a royal wedding has political consequences. Marrying for love can be dangerous, as Robb Stark found out.

Conclusion

Some people might say because I’m a Christian, I can’t watch a show with nudity, graphic violence, despicable rulers, ruthless power grabs, sexual deviancy, and people killing family members for power or revenge. Some might say about my novels or short stories, If you’re a Christian, how can you write sex scenes and blood and gore and scenes that show how seedy the Roman culture was? To them I say, Have you read the Bible?

I’m not saying we should read or write such scenes and stories just because we feel like it. I exercise discernment about these things when I write, and I expect readers to do the same whether they are reading about a historical world like in my novel, a fantasy world like George R. R. Martin’s, or the Bible. I don’t want to encourage the type of behavior I’ve described in this post, even if it is in the Bible. But if you tell Christian writers, you can’t write that because it’s sinful, or it might tempt some of the audience to sin, you are forcing us to ignore history and human nature. That makes for very boring stories and unbelievable characters. The Biblical authors tell the truth about human nature. Why shouldn’t we?

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Once you were not a people…

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1Pe 2:10 NRS).

This scripture was part of the Kerygma Bible study, and for some reason it struck me. Peter is paraphrasing a passage from Hosea, a prophet from the 8th Century BCE, originally delivered to Israel. The letter was written probably between 70 and 90 CE, so the book of Hosea was already about 800 years old. He wrote to five provinces in what is now Asia Minor, or Turkey. Israel, culturally, was as far removed from them as you can imagine. And yet, the churches in these territories were reading the Hebrew scriptures. That in itself is remarkable when you think about it.

I tried to place myself in the shoes of a Gentile Christian of that time. You don’t know much about Judaism, but somehow you’ve come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. As you gathered with other believers, you learned that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah promised in the Jewish scriptures. You’re a Gentile in a province of Asia. Besides living under Roman rule, what do you have in common with the Jewish Christians in your congregation? Just one thing: you believe in Jesus, and you have heard from those who knew him that everything he did and said was to fulfill scripture, including the way he died, his being betrayed by a close friend, and his rising from the dead.

You’ve heard letters from Paul and stories of Jesus called Gospels. All of them cite scripture after scripture that Jesus fulfilled, so you’ve learned more and more of the Hebrew scriptures. Maybe you have a vague sense that it is connected to you somehow. It is about Jesus and how he was revealed to be the Messiah. But it seems above you or beyond you. It comes out of a history that is alien to you.

In joining one of these churches, you had to renounce whatever gods you had worshipped before. Maybe you have been ostracized from your family. Your associates have stopped doing business with you. Your friends don’t understand why you won’t sacrifice to the same gods now, or why you won’t eat the meat they offer you. You have lost your identity. You are one of the “no-people,” a stranger and alien in what used to be your home.

Then you hear this from Peter. He’s quoting – or actually paraphrasing – some Jewish scripture, but this time it’s not about the Jews or even just about Jesus. It’s about you.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1Pe 2:10 NRS).

And it hits you: I am one of God’s people. You have found who you really are. A history that began thousands of years before you were born, a history that includes Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth and David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and all the prophets, that history doesn’t just belong to the Jews now. It belongs to you. The promises God made to Israel throughout history are to you as well. You and this church and every church everywhere are the people of God just as much as the Jews now, all because of Jesus. This isn’t just their story anymore. It is our story. It is your story. And now you can finally begin to understand who you are. You are a part of God’s people.

You are not just an individual who was born and one day will die for who knows what purpose. You are a part of a people that stretches back through history, long before you were born and will continue long after you are gone. A living history you can build on and contribute to and leave something for the next generation. You are not just an individual in some province of the Roman Empire.

You are one of a people that is in every locality, every city, every province, and is continuing to spread all through the empire and beyond even where Rome can reach. A people of every race, tribe, tongue, and nation who have one thing in common: You have all come to believe in Jesus Christ and his Resurrection power. And because of that, you are all God’s people and citizens of God’s kingdom.

For some reason, all of this came over me at once. Imagining what it would have meant to one of those original recipients of this letter, somewhere in Asia Minor, it came to me in such a clear and overwhelming fashion. I can’t help feeling my words have not even begun to capture it.

Maybe you have had a similar experience, where you were reading the Bible and suddenly you realized God wasn’t hiding somewhere in the pages of history in some elusive mystical experience but was right there with you. Or suddenly you realized you weren’t reading about people buried in two or three thousand years of history. You were actually reading about yourself, your people, your history. If so, I would love it if you would share it in the comments below.

Grace and peace to you.

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 4 – The detective makes his case

So far in this series, I have taken the approach of a detective who has four witnesses. A detective will talk to each one individually, and when he has a complete statement from each of them, he compares notes. If he had any preconceived ideas of what happened, he re-examines them in the light of the witnesses’ testimonies. There will be some differences in their accounts. In fact, the most suspicious thing that could happen is if all four witnesses say exactly the same thing. That would mean they all met together to “get their story straight.” They are reading a script, not reporting what they saw and heard. So we should not be surprised that every detail is not exactly the same.

In some ways, the detective will be at a loss. None of these four are eyewitnesses to these events. They are all reporting what they heard from someone who probably heard it from someone else who probably heard it from someone else. I don’t know about first century Roman trials, but in our modern courts this would be inadmissible. It is hearsay. Nonetheless, that does not mean their testimonies are unreliable. They may have heard it from eyewitnesses that we don’t have access to today. I don’t have the exact references, but the Book of Acts reports members of the early congregations included members of Herod’s court, Roman soldiers, and slaves of governing officials. There were some within the Sanhedrin who joined as the Jesus movement was just getting started. Pilate’s wife might even have an ally if not a member of the church. So even if they are not admissible in court, I am going to treat them as reliable witnesses unless they prove otherwise.

Like a detective, I have made note of what was the same in each story. Are the similarities consistent with the evidence and real life? If so, these witnesses are mostly reliable. I have carefully compared the differences and asked if they matter. Is there a reasonable explanation for them? I have considered any biases each witness might have. As is often the case with people, each witness might be reliable in some ways but not in others. If two or more witnesses contradict each other in any of the details, I recognize I have to make a choice.

To consider any possible biases, I should say something about each of the witnesses. If you want to review my analysis of the scene in each of the Gospels, you can follow these links

Here is a quick summary.

Mark is probably the earliest written Gospel. He gives the most basic account.

Matthew is the same as Mark, except he shows Pilate putting forth more effort to release Jesus. He adds that Pilate’s wife tried to intercede and stop him from crucifying Jesus. It is in Matthew where Pilate washes his hands and declares, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (verse 24).

Luke is mostly the same as Mark, but his order of events is a little more confusing. He adds that when Pilate heard Jesus was a Galilean, he sent him to Herod. Herod did not pronounce him guilty of anything and sent him back to Pilate. Also in Luke, Pilate wants to have him flogged before releasing him. This seems to show he does not believe Jesus is totally innocent. He is, after all, claiming to be a king. He has stirred up the mob nearly to the point of rioting. That alone is enough to warrant some punishment. But what is most important to Luke is he has done nothing to deserve death (23:15).

Finally, John also has Pilate wanting to release Jesus, but the mob calling for him to be crucified. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Pilate flogs Jesus before handing him over. It appears, from the way John reports it, he was hoping that the crowd would be satisfied with the severity of that punishment, so that they might let him live.

From these four witnesses, I can say confidently

  • The Sanhedrin (Jewish Council) brought Jesus to Pilate
  • They wanted Pilate to crucify him
  • Pilate was suspicious of their motives
  • He wanted to release Jesus
  • Fearing a riot was about to break out, and perhaps fearing offense to Caesar, he handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Those are the main similarities. But there are a couple of issues I am still wrestling with: This custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover, and whether or not Jesus was silent before his accusers.

Passing Over Barabbas

They all say there was a custom in Judea where on Passover, the Ruler would let the people choose one prisoner to release from the sentence of death. They all say Pilate tried to release Jesus based on this custom, but the crowd called for a man named Barabbas instead. Even though they all affirm this custom, there is nothing in other literature to confirm it (except maybe Josephus, Antiquities, 20:215). Could this aspect of the story been made up? If I am objective, I have to say it is possible. Should I ignore my suspicions and accept their testimony on faith? That’s not my style. I must dig deeper.

Why would the Romans accept this practice?

This is the biggest reservation I have. I don’t see the Romans letting outsiders decide to let someone go like this. If someone is sentenced to death, he has certainly done very bad things. You let the people choose one person to release from execution, and they might choose a bandit who robs and kills people for their money, a murderer, an insurrectionist, someone like… Barabbas!

It works well with the story – maybe too well

It heightens Jesus’ innocence to contrast him with a thief and murderer. Some texts of Matthew make the contrast even more obvious by calling him Jesus Barabbas, which allows Pilate to say,

Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah? (27:17 NRS).

By the way, Barabbas means “son of the father.” And who is really the “Son of the Father”? Uh-huh! So the choice Pilate presents is actually Jesus who is called the “son of the Father,” or Jesus who is really the “Son of the Father.” That is just a little too perfect, which is probably why “Jesus Barabbas” is not recorded in all the manuscripts. Or the other Gospels.

Despite all this, I could still make a good case for this custom. Pilate is always presented as trying to release Jesus, a man who has been accused of insurrection and claiming to be a king apart from Caesar. Why wouldn’t Pilate want to crucify him? This custom helps me believe that. Given the choice, it is easy to see why Pilate would want to release Jesus. While Jesus was accused of insurrection (For a Roman official this was the most serious charge that could be made against any one), it was only an accusation and he had committed no violence. Barabbas had already committed violence (called a bandit in John) and/or been found guilty of murder and insurrection (according to Matthew and Mark). If all four were right about Pilate’s intention, maybe they were right about this custom as well.

In the final analysis, my objective, rational mind cannot decide. In cases like this, where I cannot disprove it and it makes sense within the story, I will usually give the benefit of the doubt to the scriptural accounts.

The Sound of Silence?

John has Jesus answer Pilate’s questions to him. The other Gospels say he was silent. In John, Pilate pulls Jesus aside into his judgment chamber, where the Jews won’t go. Perhaps Jesus was willing to speak to Pilate apart from the Jews. They had heard him teach in the synagogues and in the temple, but Pilate not so. Maybe he was willing to share his message with someone who had not heard it before.

That makes sense, but a couple of problems with that. 1) It’s such a simple explanation, why didn’t the other Gospels mention it? 2) The same discrepancy shows up when Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin. In the Synoptics, Jesus has all kinds of accusations made against him, he is beaten, and he remains mostly silent throughout. He does not call anyone out for treating him unjustly. In John, when one of the Temple police punches him, he says, If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?
(Joh 18:23 NRS). So here is another instance where in the Synoptics, Jesus is silent, but in John he challenges his accusers.

As I said earlier, when sources contradict each other, we have to make a decision which is more likely to be true to the facts. I am more inclined to believe he was silent because

1) There are three witnesses who agree on that point.

2) They also agree on the one exception to that. When Pilate asked if he was a king, Jesus said, You say so.

3) I know Jesus said repeatedly everything he did and said was to fulfill scripture. We have this from Isaiah:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away (Isa 53:7-8a NRS).

The idea of Jesus being innocent and silent, like a lamb led to the slaughter, the Lamb of God, the lamb whose blood takes away our sins, the lamb who is sacrificed for our Passover from bondage to freedom, the lamb who is oppressed and afflicted yet does not open his mouth despite the perversion of justice against him. This is so consistent throughout the Gospels it had to have developed early, so early in fact that I believe it must have come from Jesus himself. This is the portrait Matthew, Mark, and Luke present of Jesus before both the Sanhedrin and Pilate.

If they are all consistent, why does John depart from them on this point and have Jesus speak in his own defense? That is what I would like to examine in the next post. As a quick preview, here are three possible reasons I see for it.

  1. A writer’s sensibilities
  2. A persecuted community
  3. A greater satisfaction

Grace and Peace

Resurrection 2016

I must confess I’m a little behind in where I wanted to be in this series. Last week, I really wanted to say something about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, because these services have become very meaningful for me in the last few years. I couldn’t get them done in time, so instead I reblogged some posts I found relevant and uplifting. Then there was the Easter bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, that killed over 70 and wounded some 300. Of course I wanted to comment on that, but sometimes life and other responsibilities take me away from writing. It may be late, but I would like to say something. After doing a little quick reading on it, and it’s clear the Christian minority in Pakistan need our prayers. They are particularly vulnerable to extremists there because of two extremist groups – one that uses suicide bombers and one that stirs up mobs against them – and a government that is not doing enough to protect them. Although there are signs the latter may be changing.

Obviously, the terrorists chose Easter because it is for Christians the most holy day of the year. Easter is the day we remember Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and in a twist these terrorists may not understand, it is the very thing that guards us against the kind of despair they were trying to instill in us. In Jesus’ resurrection, we see that no matter what they do to our bodies, our spirits and souls live on. These 70+ martyrs who committed no violence, who were there just to celebrate the triumph of life over death, good over evil, live on with the saints who have gone before them. Therefore, as Paul said, we may sorrow over their loss here on earth, but our sorrow is not without hope (1Thes 4:13).

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1Co 15:58 NRS).

P.S. Click the link for coverage of the Pope’s Easter message as he addresses terror attacks, war, poverty, and refugees.