Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tattoo v. Tallit

Someone recently asked me an interesting question. "In Revelation 19:16 it talks of his name being written on his robe and thigh... Is this Jesus?... And does this mean Jesus has a tattoo?"

Great questions! Aside from the fact that no one knows for sure what is going on in Revelation (since it is a very complex series of visions and contains a lot of symbolism), a knowledge of Jewish customs is very helpful in understanding what the writer (a Jewish man, self-identified as John of Patmos and traditionally believed to be the Apostle John) was trying to convey in this passage. And what he was not trying to convey.

Bible Study Principle #1: Common sense is a big help in studying the Bible.  Just as a realtor will tell you that there are three key factors in selling any property -- location, location, and location -- so the serious student of scripture needs to remember the three key factors in interpreting any verse: Context, context, and context! If something doesn't make sense, you may be taking it out of context.

The first and BIGGEST context issue is: Who wrote this?

Consider for a moment the following sentence:
I eat bacon at least three times a week.
If a Moslem writes this, it is a confession of grievous sin. If written by the owner of Hormel, however, it is merely an endorsement of his product. If a cardiac patient writes it, it is an admission of foolishness, and if written by a vegetarian, it is hypocrisy. But when written by a two-year-old child, it becomes a sign of budding literary genius.

Context, context, context.

Revelation was written by a first-century Jewish man.* So let's investigate what a first-century Jewish man means when he writes,

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords. (
Revelation 19:11-16, NIV)

In answer to the first question asked ("Is this rider Jesus?"), YES. Even if the rest of the book didn't make it clear, the key is in verse 13: "his name is the Word of God." John used this term for Jesus in his gospel (John 1:1).

The answer to the second question ("Does this mean Jesus has a tattoo?") has to be NO, if we keep in mind that a first-century Jewish man wrote Revelation. Presumably (here we go with common sense again) God is going to give people visions that make sense to them in the context of their own cultures. For example, it's highly unlikely that God would give me a vision in Mandarin Chinese because I don't speak that language and the vision would be meaningless to me. So when John writes about a rider whose name is written on his robe and on his thigh, he is describing something that he recognizes, something that makes sense to him.

When someone from my culture thinks of writing on clothing, the image is probably of embroidery or silkscreen art, am I correct? You may be picturing a uniform with a name tag, which (according to the leadership seminars I've taken) should always be displayed on the right side of one's chest and most definitely NOT on one's thigh. Face it, when someone is meeting you for the first time and trying to read your name tag, you do not want him staring at your thigh. Likewise, when someone from my culture thinks of writing on the thigh (or any other body part), the image is probably of a tattoo.

But what would a first-century Jew be imagining?

To answer this question, you need to go back to the beginning of the Bible, to the Torah, where God lays out some pretty specific instructions for how his people are to act and dress. Key to understanding the Revelation passage is Numbers 15:37-39.
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.
For centuries after this commandment was given, including the time period when Revelation was written, men commonly wore four-cornered garments similar to a blanket or poncho, and Jewish men added a tassel (tzitzit) to each corner in obedience to this command. (Observant Jews still observe this custom.) The tassels were tied in a distinctive pattern that symbolized God's character -- and thus, in Hebrew thought, his name -- and served as a constant reminder of God's presence. The blue thread, in particular, signified the "oneness" (ehad) of God.

To see how this relates to the Revelation passage, do this quick at-home experiment: Take one of those throw blankets that people usually keep near the living room sofa for chilly nights in front of the TV. (A Snuggie™ works, too, but only if you don't put your arms through the sleeves.) If you don't have one because you live in southern Florida or some other tropical paradise, use a really big beach towel instead. Wrap it around yourself, over your shoulders, like Granny's shawl. (See illustration.) Now, sit down. Where do the corners of the blanket fall?

If you get the same results I get, you'll notice that two of the corners are draped across your thighs. Of course, first-century Jews weren't wearing beach towels or Snuggies, or even Mexican throws. They called the garment a tallit (which means "little tent"). The Bible speaks of Jesus wearing such a garment (Luke 8:44, John 19:23), which is quite appropriate since he was a Law-abiding Jewish man. When a man wearing a tallit was seated (as the rider of this Revelation horse would be), two of the tassels would lie across his thighs. So when John speaks of the name of God written "on his robe and on his thigh" he isn't talking about embroidery or tattoos, but about the traditional clothing of a devout Jewish man.

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. (Malachi 4:2)
The corners of the tallit are commonly referred to as "wings." Something else to ponder!

*Even if someone other than John the Apostle was the author, it was someone from the same time period and culture. However, the earliest church fathers (Polycarp--who was John's disciple-- Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, etc.) agreed  that John of Patmos was John the Apostle. This identification was not questioned until the 4th century. Since Polycarp was there, I'm going to take his word for it. And yes, technically John was a Galilean but I am using "Jewish" in the ethnic sense; the Jews and Galileans had a similar culture, much like New Yorkers and Floridians.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

No Place Like Home (conclusion)

Dorothy was right. There's no place like home. Or, as musical artist Chris Daughtry put it,
I'm going home, back to the place where I belong / where your love has always been enough for me.
But can a person who has never known the sense of belonging, family, and unconditional love that we associate with being "home" ever really hope to go back there?


When asked what the greatest commandment in all of Scripture was, Jesus replied, "Love God with all your heart" (Mark 12:30). We have a saying, "Home is where the heart is." So if you are loving God with all your heart, then your home is with him. In other words, God is saying to you, "Mi casa, su casa."

Jesus was pretty clear about this in his farewell speech to his disciples around the dinner table (John 14:2-3):
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
That's right, a room of your own in God's house. Fairly cool, if you ask me. Think "Extreme Home Makeover" with God as your personal designer! The One who created you, who knows you better than you know yourself, is preparing a place specifically for you ... talk about belonging! And you won't be there alone; you'll have your real family with you: your Bridegroom (John 3:29), your Big Brother (Romans 8:29), your Father (Romans 8:15), and a huge extended family (Matthew 19:29).

As for unconditional love, no one does it better than God, who embodies the concept so totally that when you look up the word "love" in the Unabridged Dictionary of Eternity, you see God's picture (1 John 4:8). Well, that's not totally true. There is one small condition attached to God's love . . . you have to actually accept it (John 1:12). Let him love you.

And then you will begin to understand what it really means to be home. We aren't there yet, but one day we will be. He promised.

You know, I have a feeling that the room Jesus is preparing for me will contain (among other things) a Franklin dollhouse kit. And when I get there, I will finally open the box and put it together!

Friday, January 18, 2013

No Place Like Home (part 3)

Homelessness leads to hopelessness.

And that's what I was feeling not too long ago. Hopeless. Homeless. Whether I lived under a certain roof for three months or three years, it simply didn't feel like my home. Why not? What is it that makes a place "home"?

Home is where the heart is. Or so they say. For some, home is where the hurt is. But that's not the way it should be. Ideally, home is about . . .

. . . belonging.
Home is the place where I belong, and it is also the place where I have my belongings around me.  Dorothy wasn't in Oz very long before she realized that she simply didn't belong there. (She wasn't a good witch or a bad witch -- she wasn't a witch at all!) And the prodigal son certainly didn't belong in a pig sty. You might say, "Make yourself at home," or "Mi casa su casa," but the truth is, if I have to bring a suitcase and a toothbrush with me, it isn't my home.

. . . family.
Home is the place where my family is. That's why people talk about going home for the holidays, and then leave home to travel halfway across the country. Dorothy missed Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. The prodigal son missed his father. If I'm not with my loved ones, then I'm not really home, even if I do have a key to the door and a deed to the property.

. . . unconditional love.
Home is where I can be myself, mess up, and still be welcome. Try that on the job and you will soon find that "your" office is not really yours at all. Auntie Em welcomed her little runaway back with open arms. The prodigal son received an extravagant welcome from his father. If I don't feel loved for who I am, then I can't really relax and be at home in a place.

When these three things are present -- belonging, family, unconditional love -- then I am home. When any of them is missing, I am unsettled, transient, spiritually homeless. But how many of us can honestly say that we have all three of these things under one roof?

Dorothy hoped to find such a place "somewhere over the rainbow." Many go looking for those blue skies and green grass on the other side of the fence. The prodigal son sought it in a hedonistic lifestyle. But the moral of the story is the same each time: you don't need to go looking farther than your own back yard.


(Next installment: yes, really.)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

No Place Like Home (part 2)

So Dorothy returns home ("Oh Auntie Em, there's no place like home!") and the Prodigal Son returns home ("Fire up the barbecue!"), but can someone who has never really had a home ever find a happy ending?

Years ago (not too long after Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star), I bought a dollhouse kit. I was working in an upscale toy store at the time and was fascinated by all the intricate miniatures that were available. We even sold individual clay roof tiles in 1/12 scale. The kit I bought was called "The Franklin" and retailed for $99. I saved up for it for two months, and even put some furniture on layaway.

When assembled, the dollhouse would be 31 inches long, 19 inches deep, and 34 inches high. Since I was living in a college dorm when I bought it, I made the decision not to open the box until I was home. This beauty was going to take a while to assemble, and then the fun would start as I added all the custom features not included in the kit. This was my dream home, and I was going to make it extra special. We are talking labor of love here, folks. Not something to be rushed. Definitely not something to be thrown together in haste and then moved from place to place. No, I would wait until I was settled in a permanent location and then I would build it.

But life didn't go the way I had planned that year, and I had to move twice. Each time, I carefully loaded the cardboard box (which weighed about 20 pounds) into my car and brought it with me, still unopened. One year turned into two years, and then five years, and then ten years, and still I was not living in a place I considered "home." The Franklin remained in its box, moving from closet to closet to attic to garage . . .  and then one day, after I'd been moving around for twenty years, I realized it was never going to happen. I was never going to be "home" no matter what house I lived in. As I loaded my possessions into a moving van for the dozenth time, I pulled that battered cardboard box down from the rafters of the garage and tossed it into a garbage can. Why? Simple. I'd lost hope.

Homelessness often leads to hopelessness.

(Next installment . . . the solution.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

B-book or E-book?

So what do you think . . . are e-books "real" books?

This question jumped out at me a few days ago as I was reading aloud to my son, an avid Rick Riordan fan (thanks to me, an equally avid fan), from his latest Percy Jackson novel, The Mark of Athena. I'd already read the entire book the day after it was released last October, but now my son and I are going through it together a few chapters each week. We've already read seven Percy Jackson books this way.

(Side note: Parents, read to your children, even when they are old enough to read for themselves. If nothing else, it will give you something nonthreatening to talk about at the dinner table.)

Reading through the novel a second time, much more slowly and constantly interrupted by my son's questions, I find myself appreciating the finer nuances of Riordan's storytelling. In chapter XXVII two of the heroes encounter a minor Greek god, Achelous, who expresses indignance when they show him their guidebook. Here's the excerpt:

    "You hate . . . books?" Piper asked.
    "Bah!" Achelous's face flushed, turning his blue skin eggplant purple. "That's not a book."
    He pawed the water. A scroll shot from the river like a miniature rocket and landed in front of him. He nudged it open with his hooves. The weathered yellow parchment unfurled, covered with faded Latin script and elaborate hand-drawn pictures.
    "This is a book!" Achelous said. "Oh, the smell of sheepskin! The elegant feel of the scroll unrolling beneath my hooves. You simply can't duplicate it in something like that." He nodded indignantly at the guidebook in Jason's hand. "You young folks today and your newfangled gadgets. Bound pages. Little compact squares of text that are not hoof-friendly. That's a bound book, a b-book, if you must. But it's not a traditional book. It'll never replace the good old-fashioned scroll!"

The first time I read this, I confess, I just raced through it to get on with the plot. But this time I got Riordan's message and began to laugh. Naturally enough, my son asked what was so funny. "Riordan's not really complaining about books," I explained to him. "He's making fun of people who say e-books aren't real books."

We were reading from a b-book, and the twenty or so bookshelves in my home are loaded up with b-books. But last year I purchased a Kindle for every member of the family in the hope that my sons would read more if they were holding an electronic device. So we could just as easily have been reading this particular story in e-book format.

Why weren't we? Why did I shell out $20 for a b-book? Am I just as prejudiced as Achelous?

My own novels came out first in e-book format because I listened to some people who convinced me that this was going to be the new paradigm for publishing. Also, it is very inexpensive to produce and sell an e-book. I can give away free copies without losing anything except opportunity cost. People I know, however, want something with turnable pages. They want to feel the book in their hands. Until I put The Carpenter into a paperback format, I hadn't really written a book. Or had I?

So what do you think . . . are e-books "real" books? Or will they soon go the way of the 8-track and Betamax?

Friday, January 11, 2013

No Place Like Home

There's no place like home. 
There's no place like home.
There's no place like home....
                   --Dorothy Gale

Most of us know the story.  Dorothy isn't happy at home. No one listens to her, life in Kansas is gray and boring, and mean old Miss Gulch wants to have Toto destroyed. So Dorothy runs away. Before she knows what's happening, however, a whirlwind whisks her away to a place she never meant to go --- a place where the problems come in full Technicolor. She spends the rest of the movie trying to return to Kansas, pursuing one dead-end after another, until finally she realizes that she's had the power all along. She simply needs to want to go home badly enough, and voila! she is back in Auntie Em's loving arms.

Jesus told the same story 1900 years before Frank Baum or MGM thought of it. Luke records the parable in his gospel (Luke 15:11-31). A young man isn't happy at home. Farm life is gray and boring, so he takes his share of the inheritance and goes out into the world to live life on his own terms. Before he knows what's happening, however, a drought and famine drop him in a place he never meant to go --- a real pig sty! He finally realizes that he had it pretty good at home, and voila! he is back in his father's loving arms.

I don't know what goes through your mind when you hear the word "home." For some, it's a warm fuzzy; for others, it's a bit of a downer. There are many people in the world today who have no roof over their heads, no permanent address on file with the post office --- we call these people "homeless." But how many more wake up in the same bed each morning, toss their junk mail in the trash, and wander through the day feeling disconnected from any particular place? How many can be classified, perhaps, as "spiritually homeless"? Dorothy was able to return home; the prodigal son was able to return home; but what about the spiritually homeless? Is it possible to return to a place you've never been?

To be continued....