Fortune Tellers or Memory Keepers
Here’s a great question to ask the next time you play a round of Would You Rather: Would you rather know the future or remember the past? Think about that for a moment. We’ll come back to it.
We just finished 1 Chronicles in our Bible reading plan. Like several other Old Testament books (and the Gospel of Matthew), it begins with what looks like the contact list on your smart phone – a bunch of names.
The first one even starts with an “A” – Adam. A decade ago, I would have said it reads like a phone book, but nobody knows what those are anymore. Anyway, it’s a challenge to get through those first few chapters.
Finally, in chapter 10, we get some action. The chronicler picks up the story near the end of Israel’s long national nightmare. Saul, the deposed king, falls on his sword – literally – to avoid capture by the Philistines. In chapter 11, David is anointed Israel’s new king and quickly conquers Jerusalem. Then we’re confronted with another long list of names that stretches all the way through chapter 12. This time, though, the writer teases us with some interesting details.
There was this guy named Abishai. He single-handedly took on three hundred of the enemy and won. Or Benaiah who “went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.” When he wasn’t looking for lion trouble, he was disarming 7-foot tall Egyptians and dispatching them with their own spears. There were the switch-hitting Gibeonites who could shoot arrows or sling stones with either hand. And the gloriously bearded Gadites whose “faces were the faces of lions.”
The group that gets the most attention from Christians, though, is the men of Issachar. They “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” You’ve probably heard sermons or read blog posts about them – which usually go something like this:
The men of Issachar possessed such uncanny cultural insight that they were able to figure out what Israel’s next right steps should be. They were like the Precogs in Minority Report or the Oracle in The Matrix. Talking to them was like looking into a crystal ball. Like them, we should do the hard work to really understand our own culture – to know the signs of the times – so that we can effectively communicate in our context and be prepared for a rapidly approaching future.
At least that’s how I have preached this passage in the past – even the very recent past. But now that I’ve dug a little deeper, I no longer think of the men of Issachar as Old Testament oracles.
For one thing, when David needed advice he did not send Joab to hustle the men of Issachar to Jerusalem for a confab. In 1 Chronicles 13, when the Philistines went on the warpath, he inquired of God whether he should attack them. (Yes.) In chapter 17, the prophet Nathan gave him guidance on whether he was the one to build a temple for God. (No.) If the men of Issachar were so savvy, you’d think someone would have asked them for advice.
Some scholars suggest that their insight was political. Their perceptive observations of the political situation in the kingdom led them to abandon Saul and support David at just the right historical moment. Not too soon. Not too late. But if you add up the numbers in chapter 12, there were at least 340,000 others who jumped on the David train at the same time. Sounds like virtually everyone in Israel knew what Israel should do and when to do it.
So what was the nature of their knowledge? Toward the end of the first century BC, the Hebrew language was pretty much restricted to religious education and worship. Regular folks spoke Aramaic. The Jewish Targum was an Aramaic commentary/translation of the Jewish scriptures. Kind of like an ancient version of The Message. The Targum on 1 Chronicles suggests that the men of Issachar were skilled at observing the movement of the sun, moon and stars. They were astrologers.
If that’s correct, why would the writer of Chronicles consider that a good thing? The Jewish calendar was based on the cycles of the moon. Apparently, the men of Issachar were skilled at observing the lunar cycle – that’s what “understood the times,” means – and at pinpointing when the various feasts should take place – “and knew what Israel should do.” It’s not like ancient Israelites could pull up their Outlook calendars to figure out how many shopping days were left before Passover. Or any of the other feasts, festivals and religious convocations stipulated in the Law. (Photo by Tawan Rapipong on Unsplash)
In other words, the men of Issachar were not trend analysts who provided Israel with possible, probable or preferred future scenarios. They were not looking ahead. They were looking up. They were not fixated on the future. They were focused on the feasts. And the feasts were not about what might happen next – they were about what God had already done. The men of Issachar were not fortune tellers. They were memory keepers.
So would you rather know the future or remember the past? It is wise to think ahead about how the future might unfold and what we can do to be prepared for it. It is important that we understand our culture and how best to communicate the message of Jesus in our context.
It is imperative, however, that we remember what God has already done. His faithfulness in the past is our promise that no matter what happens next, God will be with us.