The Dragon of the Sea

On that day Yahweh with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Before the universe existed there was ocean. The ancient Israelites did not believe in a creation from nothing, per se, but creation from water. There was a primordial sea, chaotic and empty, which was the closest concept to ‘nothingness’ they had. From this endless sea, the first gods came to be. But there was a problem: the sea was the primeval deity, terrible and powerful. So the gods killed the sea that birthed them.

The Death of Judah Iscariot

Matthew 27.3-10 & Acts 1.15-20

Judah was a dreadful, walking example of impiety in this world.

How did Judah Iscariot die? He got so obscenely fat he couldn’t even see, and eventually his disease-ridden body exuded feces and worms to such an extent he died, and even a hundred years later the location of his unfortunate fate reeked of death.

Judah was a dreadful, walking example of impiety in this world. His flesh bloated to such an extent that he could not walk through a space where a wagon could easily pass. Not even the huge bulk of his head could go through! It is related that his eyelids were so swollen that it was absolutely impossible for him to see the light and his eyes could not be seen by a physician, even looking through an instrument, so far had they sunk from their outward projection. His genitals appeared entirely disfigured, nauseous and large. When he carried himself about, discharge and worms flowed from his entire body through his genitals only, on account of his outrages. He died after many tortures and punishments, in a secluded spot which has remained deserted and uninhabited up to our time. Not even to this day can anyone pass by the place without shielding his nostrils with his hands. Such is the flow that went through his flesh and upon the earth.

Reading that might have thrown you for a loop, especially with how unnecessarily graphic it is. Who made up this outlandish story? In fact, it was Papias, a student of John the Elder (possibly the author of the three Johannine letters). The passage above happens to be one of the few surviving fragments from a huge, five-volume treatise Papias wrote on the teachings of Jesus. This surviving fragment, though, illustrates the dilemma with our current topic: How did Judah Iscariot die? We don’t know.

A Son Is Born for Us

Isaiah 9.6-7

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and forevermore. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will do this.

Isaiah 9.6-7 is traditionally interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about Jesus, quoted in sermons every Christmas. It follows on the heels of Isaiah 7.14, which is applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. As with Isaiah 7.14, however, the original context prevents this view.

Overview: The Book of Isaiah

The First Major Prophet

If the Book of Ezekiel was fairly straightforward, and Jeremiah was a tangled web, then Isaiah is the most confusing of the three to work through.

Where the Book of Jeremiah had a handful of later additions, the Book of Isaiah is a composite text coming from at least four different authors, across a span of about three or four centuries. We call the three main contributors to the book Proto-Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah. Somewhat similar to the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah is the result of a core collection of prophecies, with later prophecies added on in stages with careful intent.

Six Hundred Sixty-Six

Revelation 13.16-18

This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.

Every decade or so, end-times hysteria grips American evangelicals. Justified or not, a new scapegoat is found and said to be 'the beast' of John's Revelation. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Bill Gates, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Barack Obama, and the World Wide Web have been contenders in the past.

Readers invent an interpretive system that enables them to make the connection they 'always knew' was right. Ronald Wilson Reagan was identified because his full name consists of three six-letter names. Barcodes were implicated because someone badly misunderstood how they work, and erroneously determined the guard bars in every barcode (the slightly taller lines on the sides and in the center) were actually three sixes, hidden in plain sight.

No one seeking to identify a present or future villain with 'the beast' will ever succeed, because John expected his original readers to be able to do it.

Babylon, Destroyer of the Temple

Revelation 14,16-19

In the Book of the Revelation, the author John identifies one of the chief antagonists of his visions as a 'great city' which he calls 'Babylon'. Given the immense symbolism of the book, it seems evident that he is using the name 'Babylon' as some sort of metaphor. While many various guesses are based on pure whim, the simple fact is that the true identity of 'Babylon' would have been obvious to any reader with a Judean background (as John's original, contemporary audience was at least partly comprised of Judean followers of Jesus).

In 587 BC, the historical kingdom of Babylon, under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, conquered the kingdom of Judah, occupied their capital Jerusalem, and destroyed the city's temple. Many of the Judeans (particularly the nobility and 'upper class') were deported back to the land of their conquerors. When this Babylonian Exile came to an end, the Judeans returned to their homeland and began a reconstruction of Jerusalem. This included building a second temple.

Parallels: The Prophet Balaam

Numbers 22

A friend of mine, Justin, once followed a Bible In A Year reading plan. Such plans are excellent in helping readers familiarize themselves with the bible outside of the few popular stories we all know.

The plan also helps readers notice peculiarities in the biblical texts which would otherwise go unnoticed. Justin immediately noticed a thematic and verbal parallel between the stories of Ruth and Elisha: they both attached themselves to a mentor, who told them to 'go return'; Ruth and Elisha each refuse to 'return from following', objecting that they 'will not leave you'.

However, some of these peculiarities are more confusing than enlightening. Justin came to the famous story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22. In this passage, the Israelites are in the land of Moab. The Moabites are worried that the Israeites will be overrun by the Israeites. So, Moab sends for a famous prophet, Balaam, to come to them. Balaam rides on his donkey to Moab, who hire him to prophesy a curse over Israel.

Justin didn't make it very far into the story before he ran across this puzzle: