Joachim and Anna and the Curse of Childlessness

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For those raised in the conservative Mennonite culture big families are a given. There were nineteen children in my dad’s family (sixteen biological, three adopted) and, while that is the extreme, it would be very unusual for a married couple not to have any children. In a culture where blessing is practically synonymous with children, a childless home would likely produce some whispers and infertility a very unpleasant matter.

Children have traditionally been a retirement plan and marriage commitment the first step. A person without any offspring would likely have nobody to care for them in their old age. Even in a time when the state has taken over that role of social security there is still need of a new generation of children to keep that kind of system solvent. As many industrialized nations have below-replacement fertility rates, childlessness could soon be the crisis for us that it would have been in the ancient times when this was written:

Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court. (Psalm 127:3‭-‬5 NIV)

Indeed, who will contend for the childless?

If you think that democratic institutions, in the hands of young people raised in a culture that values youth, will continue to provide for the elderly who have no familial connection to them then someday you’ll have a rude awakening. If anything the elderly are seen as a political obstacle in our modern times, a waste of limited resources when we have Google to provide our answers, and many of these youthful ignorant social engineers—rather than contend with a bunch of has-beens they don’t care to know—would delight in giving you a push to an early grave.

The Childless In Scripture

In ancient times, perhaps for the reason that there would be nobody to care for you in old age without children, there was a social stigma attached to being childless. In the case of Saul’s daughter Michal, who was critical of her husband David’s celebration antics, and her childlessness is expressed (2 Samuel 6:20-23) as if being a punishment. We are never told if that was simply a result of her relationship with her husband or not, but either way she did not produce an heir to David’s throne—which would be a serious setback to say the least.

There are patterns in Scripture and one of those patterns being that those most notably childless early on are often the most greatly blessed later. The most notable of those couples with a deferred blessing is Abraham and Sarah. They were elderly and had remained childless. We are told “she was not able to concieve” (Genesis 11:30) yet Abraham was promised to be “the father of my nations” (Genesis 17:4) and this seemed plain ridiculous given the advanced age of the couple. But, they were blessed by God, Sarah did bear Issac and was childless no more.

There is also the account of childless Hannah. In the first book of Samuel we read how she was treated especially well by her husband (who had two wives) because he loved her. And yet her rival would torment her over the fact that she could not bear children and this made her miserable to the point she couldn’t eat. Finally she cried out to God, weeping bitterly, she vowed:

Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head. (1 Samuel 1:11 NIV)

In other words, she promised her son would be a man dedicated to God.

The account goes on to say that Eli, the priest, who was watching her pray yet couldn’t hear her words, thought she was drunk and tells her to put away her wine. But she responds that this isn’t the case, that she is simply deeply in anguish, to which the priest tells her: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” (1 Samuel 1:17 NIV) This answer seems to have consoled Hannah who we are told began to eat again and would later become pregnant, bear a son Samuel—a name which basically means “heard by God” and he would, as a result of her commitment, become a great prophet.

Finally, before we move on to Joachim and Anna, there is this assurance given to the childless who remain faithful:

And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. (Isaiah 56:3‭a-‬5 NIV)

There are many who would love to have children and cannot. This is one of those terrible ironies given the numbers of abortions and abused or neglected children in the world. We will never know, at least on this side of eternity, why some who long to be mothers and fathers are denied the blessing of children. However, we do see that those who suffer this despite their righteousness will be rewarded in the end and therefore should always put their hope in God who will make all things good for those who love and obey Him.

Who Are Joachim and Anna?

These two, mentioned at the conclusion of each liturgy, “the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” despite being mostly forgotten in the religious tradition I was born into, have one of those great stories.

Joachim was from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of King David. His wife, Anna, was from the tribe of Levi, the same as the High Priest Aaron and the daughter of the priest Matthan. They had lived fifty years, as a married couple, and were unable to have children despite their devotion to God.

Joachim had faithfully, since his teenage years, given two-thirds of his income, one third to the poor and another third to the Temple, and were financially blessed for this. However, their childlessness finally became a cause of harassment. The High Priest, Issachar, confronted Joachim and told him, “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” And, with that pronouncement, he was pushed back by others, who had children.

Rejected and despairing in this disgrace, Joachim studied and found that, indeed, every righteous man in Israel had been blessed with children. He and his wife left with Jerusalem with profound sadness because of this. They began to pray for a miracle, like that which happened for Abraham and Sarah, him going into the mountains with his flocks and Anna returning home. Then the archangel Gabriel visited them both, promising them “a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world.” The picture is of them meeting again, at the city gates, upon hearing this.

Their daughter, Mary, the mother of Jesus our Lord, was specially dedicated to God and, like Hannah’s son Samuel, was brought up at the Temple at the age of three to be raised with other girls there. Their righteousness was finally rewarded having waited those many years. Their story is one that is a good reminder to those who have been faithful yet have not been blessed like others. They are the grandparents of our Lord and Savior.

Anyhow, by coincidence, the conception of Mary is celebrated today, December 9th, which is something I didn’t know when I began writing this blog.

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The People Want a King…, Part 1

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I felt like the dog who finally caught the car.  I was perplexed with a question: Now what?

My goal in blogging is to make a difference with the ideas that I share.  I know ideas are powerful.  I want to share good ideas and debunk or discourage destructive ideas.  It has been my goal from the beginning to write things worthwhile in hope of creating dialogue.

It was exciting when Good Men Do Not Blame Women quickly surpassed my previously most viewed blog in a matter of hours.  It was also terrifying that my words were being read by hundreds of people rather than just the usual handful of friends and followers.

But, amid worries about if I had proofread enough and given fair treatment to a complex topic, I enjoyed my new found popularity.  I enjoyed it so much that I worried that I enjoyed it too much.

I worried that maybe I was ‘going negative’ instead of sharing something helpful and constructive.  Just a week or so prior I had remarked to a friend that people who criticize other people (not like them) seemed to build a fan club quicker than those who shared good ideas.

I had to think there’s a danger of becoming a different version of what we preach most passionately against.  I do not want to contribute in an overreaction in the opposite direction and abandon what is good in proper order or at the right priority level.

I had a taste of power that I both liked and that I did not like.  It provoked many questions in my mind about what would happen if I gained a following.  Would I be an example of the ideals in my mind of leadership?  Or would I insulate myself from criticism and become arrogant?

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  (Lord Action)

The good news is that my blogger stardom was very short lived and—besides a few new friends—I’m back to blogging to my usual small audience.  It means less pressure.  I feel I can share again without worrying as much about my imperfections being amplified over a large audience.

The people want a king to lead them…

In the beginning God was sufficient to lead his people.  The patriarchy of Abraham gave way to tribal elders and officers.  Later Moses acted as a prophet and arbitrator in disputes. However, eventually it was too much for Moses, the task was taking all of his time from “morning to evening,” which led to his visiting father-in-law to ask him why:

“Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”  Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.  Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.  But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.  That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.  If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”  (Exodus 18:15-23)

Moses took the advice, he delegated the task of settling disputes to other capable men and that became the system for hundreds of years. 

It was a sort of anarcho-theocracy.  The prophet was the liaison between God and the people, the messenger of God, but not a ruler per se.  The laws handed down by Moses were the standard for judgment.  Enforcement of the law was carried out by the people rather than delegated to a few people and judges a final arbitrator between parties as needed…

“At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.  In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”  (Judges 21:24-25)

There was a time after the Exodus of freedom from oppression and obligation.  Judges came and went as heroes who did God’s work to save the people from captivity.  Judges were representatives and deliverers of the people, but not rulers like a king.  However, eventually, when a worthy successor could not be found for Samuel amongst his sons, the elders of the people made a fateful demand:

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord . And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”  (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

Samuel went on to warn how kings would take their sons for wars and daughters as workers.  He spoke of how the future kings would take the best of their possessions for themselves and for their own purposes.  Still, despite the warning, he did not persuade them, the chapter continues:

“But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said.  “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”  (1 Samuel 8-19-20)

The people were delusional just like their forefathers who begged Moses for a return to slavery and Egypt.  Despite Samuel’s warning of conscription, they apparently had an idea a king could miraculously do all the fighting for them and they ignored all rational concern.

A couple of the kings were good, David and Solomon notable examples, but a majority were more concerned with themselves, they all took special privileges for themselves and loaded the people down with increased burdens.  The prophecy of Samuel became reality—the people traded their greater freedom for a false security and eventual rule of tyrants.  Instead of protecting against oppression the kings became oppressors themselves.

Consequence #1: Increased Burden

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”  (Gerald R. Ford)

Kings and government leaders promise big things to their people.  But what often is forgotten by the enthusiastic crowds is that nothing is free.  When a Pharaoh promised a pyramid for the glory of Egypt Pharaoh, he wasn’t planning to build it on his own time with godlike powers.  No, the people paid the price of a king’s grandeur with their own backs and we still bear the weight of the audacious promises of our leaders. 

The burdens never seems to be lightened either. Consider when Rehoboam took over after his father Solomon and was confronted by the people:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” … The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier.  My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”  (1 King 12:4-14)

King Reheboam was more concerned with pleasing his young peers than he was in listening to the people or the elders.  As a result some did not accept his rule over them and the nation was divided.  It is interesting to see this same pattern play out today.  Leaders pursue their own vision, they increase the burden on the people without ever easing up, which leads to division and eventual rebellion.

Consequence # 2: Increased Corruption

“Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation [of power] first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Kings and government leaders represent a consolidation of power and with consolidation of power comes increased opportunity for corruption.  Many leaders rise to power on their idealistic vision, but once they have power the vision fades and the desire to hold or increase power becomes the bigger priority.  We may call it “special interests” and political pandering today, but here’s how the Bible describes it:

“See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!   Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.  Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.  They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  (Isaiah 1:21-23)

Described above is the chipping away of principles.  Many institutions of men are founded with good intentions but become corrupted over time.  Corruption is a natural product of consolidation of power.  When power is given to one person (or a small body of people) they seem to inevitably try to use that power to secure more power for themselves.  There is no system of external controls that seems to be able to keep it in check.  Those in power have the tools to manipulate the rules for their own gain.

Consequence #3 Loss Without Gain

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”  (Barack Obama)

Kings and government leaders are established to protect the people against harm.  But, not only do they fail to be able to protect a people from harm, they themselves often another source of harm.

The strength of a king is not in themselves as much as it is in the strength of their people.  As Samuel had warned, a king takes and can only give back what is taken and thus a corrupted people produce corrupt leaders:

“You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.  Where is your king, that he may save you?  Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’?  So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away.”  (Hosea 13:9-11)

Installing a king ultimately did not solve anything.  The people still ended up taken captive by other nations as they had before, they also endured the abuses of power hungry and corrupt leaders when not in captivity.  They gave away freedom for security and got captivity because they were corrupted themselves.

People want a king to blame…

The paradox of kings is that kings need strong people to maintain power—but strong people don’t need kings.  Weak people turn to leaders to do their work for them, but a man wearing a fancy crown and holding a scepter is only empowered by those who do his bidding.

It feeds a vicious cycle.  When things go wrong people blame the king.  As a result the king is driven to take more power upon themselves or risk losing power they already have.  Of course, since their power is derived from other people this means taking more from the people who are able to give.  It can only last so long as their are enough strong people to take from—when the weight of dependents comes closer to outweighing those able (or willing) to provide there is nothing a king can do but manage the decline.

Only, it is worse than that, because as already mentioned, consolidation of power is like a petri dish for corruption.  So, not only do these kings give a convenient scapegoat, they also are too often the goats among the sheep and motivated by their own gain rather the good of all in the herd.  In other words, if a couple sheep get thrown to the wolves and it saves a goat from an undesirable outcome and nobody notices, what sheep, right?

It is exactly what king David did to Uriah.  David goofed, he got Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) pregnant.  He evidently didn’t want to suffer the political repercussions and attempted to hide the adultery.  So plan ‘A’ was urge Uriah to spend some quality time with Bathsheba and thus disguise the origin of the pregnancy.  Unfortunately Uriah, a true warrior, would not go home to his wife while his comrades were still fighting and David needed another plan.  Plan ‘B’ was to deliberately set Uriah up to be killed in battle.  It worked, except the prophet Nathan knew and he confronted the king with a story about a wealthy man who killed a neighbor’s pet sheep.

And David was one of the good kings and probably mostly because he could admit his sins…

This post is about faith, not kings…

My point here is not purely political or just historical.  I am using kings and government leaders as a metaphor for anything (be it an institution, a system of philosophy or theology, a man, etc) that replaces our own obedience to God. 

We cannot expect the world to be good if we continually delegate the tasks of our own conscience to others.  Faith is about being the solution ourselves and not sending others (who we can conveniently blame for the eventual failure) to do what is impossible for them to do alone.  We cannot expect the fullness of God’s blessing when we look to men to lead us.  If God is alive in us then we must be the agents of good in the world with our own abilities and be faithful to our calling.

This is not a call for a return to anarcho-theocracy and judges either.  Kings and governments rise in prominence because the people aren’t doing their jobs.  Therefore, the solution is not to reform government, the solution is to reform people and make government irrelevant.  If we were taking care of the widows and fatherless as we ought, for example, what need would there be for corrupt welfare programs?  If fathers weren’t leaving their sons to be raised by the brutal streets, what need would their be for police as brutal?

“Every country has the government it deserves.”  (Joseph de Maistre)

It is a collective problem when the people demand a king.  It becomes an individual problem when the people finally empower a man to do their dirty work.  There is always someone all too willing to seize power—those with an appetite for power—who will take the glory for themselves and then delegate responsibility for failure to others, exploits position, etc. 

It is a spiritual problem.  It is often only our own sloth, envy, pride, mistrust, fears, poor judgments and overreactions that are reflected back to us in the immoral whims of our leaders.  We delude ourselves when we abandon accountability to God for kings that are no better than us.

Now, enough said for now, back to chasing cars for me…