Sunday, 6 November 2011

Huldah's untold story

I was sceptical.

It looked like a footprint … but come on!

It was the day when we were going to walk down from the Mount of Olives on the road Jesus followed that first Palm Sunday.

The coach had dropped us off by a holy site, a place of Christian pilgrimage since the 4th Century. There it is! Our guide pointed it out to us. The massive rock with a a footprint. This, we were assured was the footprint left by Jesus when he used this mounting block to get on to the donkey.

As I said, I was sceptical.

What fascinated me more was the associations this holy site had for those ancient pilgrims. They had decided this must be the tomb of one of the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets.

It was said to be the tomb of The prophet Huldah.

Huldah, I hear you, say … who was that.

You won’t find Huldah among the book of the twelve.

But Huldah was of great significance for the Jewish people … and still is.

We made our way down from that spot on a route that Jesus must have followed. And there at one moment we rounded a bend and before us lay the old city of Jerusalem. It was Jesus’ first site of that city and of the temple itself. And when he saw it, he wept. Would that you had known the things that make for peace, he lamented, but you did not.

We made our way into Jerusalem … and to a museum under the walls of the temple mount..

And there we sat on steps that the archaeologists had discovered going up to the wall that dated right back to the time of Herod.

This time, when we were told that these must have been steps that Jesus would have walked up there could be no doubt.

And there was something special I felt as I sat there.

At the top of the steps was the base of the incredible wall that Herod the Great had built as the Plaza on which the Temple once stood. There were two small doorways, now of course blocked up.

We were taken to a visitor centre in the museum, and our guide, Hannah, took us through a computer generated slide show showing how in the days of Jesus these steps were the main entrance to the temple. The two doors would were tiny. Going through them you would then be confronted with a long flight of steps going up on to the temple mount. It would have been dark.

The size of the temple mount is something like six times the pitch area of Wembley Stadium. So imagine that you are climbing the steps from the bowels of something six times the size of Wembley – up through the players tunnel. Climbing to the top of the steps it’s getting lighter and at the very top of the flight of stairs you emerge into the courtyards of the temple – and there in front of, towering above you is the lavish, shining like gold, newly re-built temple Herod the Great had created.

Wonderful – and in honour of Huldah’s significance as one of the greatest of the Prophets, those two gates we have just come through are known as the Huldah gates. Doubly appropriate because in Hebrew the word Hulda means mouse or mole – and those tunnels were just like mole’s tunnels!

So who is this Huldah?

The great eighth century prophets – Amos, Hosea, Micah and greatest of them all, Isaiah finished their time of prophecy in the reign of Hezekiah. They each speak powerfully of the call for righteousness and justice. And each bemoans the failures of the kings of Israel in the north and of Judah in the south. Isaiah gave wonderful word pictures of what a king should be like who was anointed of God – and of the passion he would have for justice and righteousness and peace.

But tragically, it was not to be.

At Hezekiah’s death he was succeeded by his son Manasseh.

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned for fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, following the abominable practices of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done, worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, ‘In Jerusalem I will put my name.’ He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. He made his son pass through fire; he practised soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.

This was awful. And there was 55 years of Manasseh’s reign.

His son was no better. Amon ‘did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his father had done.

This was one of the lowest points for the southern kingdom of Judah.

All the hopes that had been attached to those great eighth century prophets were dashed. Everything had been lost. What made matters even worse was that the temple had been allowed to go to rack and ruin. And all the carefully preserved documents and tablets with the books of the law on them had been damaged or even lost.

The servants had had enough. And a people’s rebellion overthrew the king. 2 Kings 21:23 – it was the servants of Amon who conspired against him, and killed the king in his house.

But the people of the land – a richly fascinating phrase were wary of those servants and concerned lest they should take power themselves and so destroy the dynasty of David.

So it was that the people of the land killed all those who had conspired against King Amon, and the people of the land made his son JNosiah king in place of him.

There was just one hitch.

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign.

The people of the land saw to it that things now changed.

Josiah grew up to know the evils of his father and grandfather … it was as if he took seriously the model of kingship that had been outlined by Isaiah and those other 8th Century prophets. So it was that he ‘did what was right in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of h is father David; he did not turn aside to the right or the left.

The prophetic historians in II Kings 22 take up the story in the eighteenth year of the King Josiah.

Carpenters and builders and masons had been organised by Shaphan the Secretary of State in consultation with Hilkiah the High Priest and had set about reparing the damaged and desolate temple. It took quite a lot of money – and Shaphan organised the taxation that was required.

Then it was that Hilkiah reported a discovery to Shaphan the secrtary of state when he said, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.”

What was that ‘book of the Law’ that had been discovered. It’s fasincating that many commentators suggest that it was the book of Deuteronomy. Remember that the book of Deuteronomy is made up of speeches made by Moses as he stands on the threshold of the Promised land and amounts as the title suggests to a second reading of the Law. It contained that basic chioice – choose good and not evil, choose life and not death. And it was in Deuteronomy that the basic principle had been identified that is shot through Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, those former prophets – obey God and things will go well, disobey God and all will fall apart and go from bad to worse.

I want to read on in the story … because it is one of the most powerful and remarkable of all the stories in the Old Testament. And it is a story that has not been told.

Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, ‘Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the LORD.’ Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’
This is a key moment that goes to the heart of what these prophetic historians are all about. Josiah recognises that the book of the Law offers a framework for himself as king and for the ordering of the kingdom and the people. He sees the awfulness of the situation as he reads the book of the law …. And he can tell that it is the neglect of this law, and the loss of this book that has caused so much to go wrong.

As Christians who seek to be true to the Scriptures we need to value the importance of a framework of law for the living of our lives and the shaping of life together. One small reflection that I will come back to in the next couple of weeks. I don’t know what I would have done had I been in the shoes of the staff of St Paul’s. One person who has come out of that whole period well is the Archbishop of Canterbury. His writings since the summer – in the Financial Times this week – have been spot on. It is no coincidence that the occupation of the square in front of St Paul’s has come on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Big Bang – the wholesale dismantling of all the banking regulations that you and I grew up with. The collapse of the financial system, is the collapse of a system that was put in place only 25 years ago. We cannot simply go back to the previous system, the Bretton Woods system but what is desperately needed is a new approach to the financial system f the world. It would be no bad thing to start such a re-structuring with what Rowan Williams has been advocating, a Robin Hood Tax.

The insight of these prophetic historiand is that we need such structures.

Notice how he calls into his presence all the chief leaders of the land – in the priesthood and in the court.

They are to go and enquire of the Lord.

But how are they to do that?

If the king wants to know what God’s word is in a particular situation, who does the king turn to?

Remember Josiah is one who has heeded the counsel of the likes of Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah – he has modelled his kingship on the principles of justice they have enunciated. There is only one person they can go to.

It has to be a Prophet.

So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah [that’s to say, all the great and the good from the court of the King and from the Temple itself] went to [wait for it!] the prophet Huldah? Not quite the NRSV spells it out. They went to] the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe;

I love that roll reversal. Shallum the husband is the keeper of the wardrobe. Huldah the wife is the prophetess!

she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. She declared to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD,

I love those words! What Huldah goes on to say are words of stern warning … that wonderful though the reforms of Josiah are, it’s too little, too late, and the people will face the consequences of the wrong-doing of the kings. Huldah’s words of prophecy set a theme that we will see over the next few weeks taken up by Jeremiah and the three minor prophets associated with him – Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephania.

But for today, I simply want to stay with those words.

They should be writ large against the backdrop of all the debates over the place of women in church.

It is simply not biblical to say that women cannot speak the word of God to men.

Tell the man who sent you, Thus says the Lord.

Christmas is coming, the carols the Thames Head singers will be singing in our carol service on 10th December have already been chosen and the readings will soon be there! Among the Christmas readings we will hear tell of the presentation of Jesus in the temple and of Simeon’s response as he shared the song that has come to be known as the Nunc Dimittis – lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. Alongside Simeon was a Prophet Anna, the daughter of Phanuel. A widow of 84, she never left the temple but worshpped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment when the baby Jesus had been taken by Simeon into his arms she came and began to praise God.

But that’s not the significance of the story of Anna. Not only did she praise God but she began to o speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jersualem.

The first person to declare that Jesus was the one who would come to set the people of Jersualem free was a woman.

Jesus himself had time for women, honoured the women in his midst and as we heard in that story of the Syro-phoenician woman listened and heeded the words of wisdom spoken to him by a woman.

Never mind the stone and the footprint. I am glad I visited a place associated with Huldah. Never mind the steps to the temple where Jesus actually walked. I am pleased to have sat by the Huldah gates.

We cannot read the Prophets without honouring Huldah – and her message as we shall see is one taken up by Jeremiah and the others. We too need to recognise the folly of the last 25 years experiment with a no-holds barred de-regulated financial system that has been demonstrated to be rotten to the core and we need a just framework for the financial world as for every other part of society’s life together.

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