1 Corinthians 10 – The Idolatry in the Wilderness & The Lost Cities of South Asia and the Far East (4of 4)

The Serpent, Subtle and Brazen: Idolatry, Imagemaking, and the Hebrew Bible

Even the serpent managed to find a place on Noah’s ark.

We know because the serpent reappears in the wilderness, in the stark desert landscape that is Eden’s opposite.

This time, the serpent is not an agent of sin, but the model for a divine totem charged with the power to dispel a deadly plague among the wandering Israelites.

God’s most reviled creature, condemned to eat dust, somehow comes to occupy a salvific role.

In the New Testament, Jesus transforms this story into gospel by way of an analogy: “and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (King James Version, John 3:14).

The serpent’s journey from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high is a peculiar development. Even more peculiar, though, for those familiar with the Old Testament, is the fact that it achieves this exalted status as a “serpent [made] of brass,” as a graven image that shines like an idol in the right light.

It is a truism of biblical scholarship to say that the Old Testament is a long screed against idolatry.

The commandments are explicit in this regard. So, then, what are we to make of a moment of idolatry that God does not condemn but instead actively condones?

As we consider the brazen serpent, we are faced with a situation in which all the usual restrictions and taboos—against serpents and against idols—seem to be miraculously suspended.

The next picture tells more.

Tomorrow we’ll look at…

1 Corinthians 10
The Idolatry in the Wilderness

1 Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;

“Under the cloud” – under God’s leadership and guidance. 

2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;

3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat;

4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

“That Rock was Christ” – the rock, from which the water came, and the manna were symbolic of supernatural sustenance through Christ, the bread of life and the water of life (Jn 4:14, 6:30-35).

5 But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.

7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

“Idolaters” – referring to the incident of the golden calf (Ex 32:1-6).  The people ate a ritual meal sacrificed to an idol.

8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.

Refers to Israel’s joining herself Baal of Peor, participating in the worship of this god of the Moabites and engaging in sexual immorality with the prostitute virgins who worshipped this god.

9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.

10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer.

11 Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

12 Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.

13 There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

“Temptation” – temptation in itself is not sin.  Jesus was tempted (Matt 4:1-11).  Yielding to the temptation is sin.

“Bear it” – God’s enablement to resist the temptation to sin.

14 Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.

“Flee from idolatry” – like that described in Ex 32:1-6.  Corinthian Christians had come out of a background of paganism. 

Man Even Turns Good Things to Idols, i.e., Bad Things.
The reformer John Calvin famously wrote that the human heart is an idol factory.

Humans have a proclivity to take things, even good things, and turn them into objects of worship.

As I was reading through 2 Kings last week I found a powerful example of this – one I had never caught before.

Throughout 2 Kings we are witness to a series of bad kings pushing the nation of Israel towards worshipping local gods and breaking God’s covenant with His chosen people.
But then, in 2 Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah comes along and has had enough.

“[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).” – 2Ki 18:4

The Israelites took a good thing that God used (the bronze serpent) and turned it into an idol.

It happened slowly over time, but eventually a good thing God used replaced Israel’s worship of God Himself.

Temples for the worship of Apollo, Asclepius, Demeter, Aphrodite and other pagan gods and goddesses were seen daily by the Corinthians as they engaged in the activities of everyday life.

The worship of Aphrodite, with its many sacred prostitutes, was a particularly strong temptation.

15 I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

18 Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?

19 What say I then? That the idol is anything, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is anything?

20 But I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.

21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.

You can’t expect God to honor you if you give to the poor and also commit adultery, it doesn’t work that way. 

For example, the some of the things the Catholic church does is good, things that Oprah Winfrey does is good, but they both also sin willfully which makes everything they do for Jesus moot.

22 Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Yes we do when we try and manipulate Him (Gal 6:7-8), or as v. 21 says.

23 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

First Corinthians 10:12 is often quoted in the context of pride. “If you think you can stand, if you think you have it all together, if you think you’re untouchable—take heed that you do not fall.

To worship “ANYTHING” but Christ is idolatry. Even if you say you worship something in the name of Christ it is idolatry because you are not actually doing that.

Paul explains how Israel was “baptized into Moses.” They ate the same spiritual food, they drank the same spiritual drink, they experienced the same spiritual journey. But verse 5 lets us know that all was not well. “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.”

How does their journey intersect with our lives? Verse 6 says, “Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.” Paul wrote about their journey to help us avoid the same mistakes in our journey.

In verses 7-10, Paul points to 4 evil things they did:

“Do not be idolators” (v.7)
“Nor let us act immorally” (v.8)
“Nor let us try the Lord” (v.9)
“Nor grumble” (v.10)

We’re all guilty of these types of sins. If we do not see our involvement, we will rest in our innocence.

When we rest in ourselves instead of staying dependent upon God, it’s only a matter of time before we fall.

“All things are not expedient” – personal freedom and desire for one’s rights are not the only considerations.  One must also consider the good of his neighbor.

24 Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.

25 Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:

“Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat” – even if it has been sacrificed to an idol, because out in the public market it has lost its pagan religious significance.

26 For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.

27 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.

28 But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:

“For his sake that shewed it’ – if the meat has been identified as meat sacrificed to idols and you eat it, the man – whether a believer or an unbeliever – might think you condone, or even are willing to participate in, the worship of the idols the meat has been offered to.

29 Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?

“My liberty” – the exercise of one’s personal freedom is to be governed by whether it will bring glory to God, whether it will build up the church of God and whether it will encourage the unsaved to receive Christ as Savior and Lord

We are supposed to do our best not to offend people.  Yet, if standing up for Jesus Christ offends someone then let them be offended.

30 For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?

31 Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.

“All to the glory of God” – the all-inclusive principle that governs the discussion in chapters 8-10 is that God should be glorified in everything that is done.

32 Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:

“Give none offence” – the particular case of stumbling Paul had in mind was that of eating meat offered to idols.  Living to glorify God will result in doing what is beneficial for others, whether Christians (“the church of God”) or non-Christians (“Jews, Gentiles”).

33 Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

“Please all men in all things” – Paul does not mean that he will compromise the truths of the gospel in order to please everybody, but that he will consider his fellowman and not cause anyone’s conscience to be offended by his daily life, thus keeping that person from receiving the gospel.

The Lost Cities of South Asia and
the Far East (4of 4)

Fujiwara-Kyo

Location: Asuka, Japan
Date of Construction: 682 C.E.
Abandoned: 710 C.E.
Built By: Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito
Key Features: Street Grid; Imperial Palace; Halls of State; Imperial Audience Hall; Suzaku-Mon (Main Gate); Ceramic Roofing; Yakushiji Temple; Inscribed Wooden Tablets and Coins

Japan is renowned as a nation where history and tradition are paramount, yet in some respects it has a relatively short history. Construction at Fujiwara-Kyo, effectively Japan’s first city, was only begun around 682 C.E.

While in the same period Japan’s rulers introduced several technologies commonly associated with civilization, which seem to have been absent until this point.

Despite coming to the party late, however, the builders of Fujiwara-Kyo – the City of the Wisteria Plain – produced an impressive and well-planned city dominated by a huge imperial palace complex that included the largest building Japan had ever seen.

The construction of Fujiwara-Kyo, also Japan’s first permanent capital (although this designation is ironic given that it was occupied for just 16 years before the imperial court and the rest of the city’s population were uprooted and transplanted to a new capital), was one of the most significant elements of a profound political, social and cultural transformation.

It marked and facilitated the transition of Japan from a disparate group of competing chiefdoms to a nation state and can only be understood when interpreted in this light.

Japan in Transition

Japan emerged relatively late from its prehistoric period and its protohistoric period extends up to the founding of Fujiwara-Kyo.

Asuka is a village located in Takaichi District, Nara Prefecture, Japan.

As of February 29, 2012, the village has an estimated population of 6,035, with 2,180 households, and a population density of 250.62 persons per km. The total area is 24.08 km².

Asuka is the land where ancient Asuka palaces were located. There are strict rules governing construction in this historic town.

Asuka can be reached from Okadera or Asuka Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line train line.
Although it’s outside Asuka, Kashiharajingū-mae Station in neighboring Kashihara has service on the Kintetsu Kashihara, Minami-Osaka and Yoshino Lines. By car, Asuka is on Route 169.

In the 4th and 5th centuries geo-political control was divided amongst the nobility, who comprised a number of powerful and constantly competing families or clans. Among them was the imperial clan from the Yamato region.

By the 7th century, however, most of the core territory of Japan had been consolidated under control of the imperial court (which itself was often controlled by one or more non-imperial clans).

The Asuka region had emerged as the locus of this control, but the site of the imperial palace, and therefore the de facto capital of Japan, shifted within this area. This period is now known as the Asuka Era.

As Japan became more centralized, it also developed its links to the mainland, to the sophisticated and dominant cultures of China and Korea.

The Asuka Era saw large influxes of immigrants from these areas and the introduction of Buddhism as the state religion, among many other Chinese and Korean cultural influences.

At the start of the 7th century the Soga clan controlled power, but in 645 the imperial clan reasserted its own dominance.

Under Prince Naka-no-Oe, who later became Emperor Tenji, it followed a twin course of adopting Chinese political and socio-economic models domestically, while pursuing a foreign policy designed to limit Chinese influence.

The former strategy was known as the Taika Reform, while the latter involved military adventures in Korea, allying Japanese armies with the Korean kingdom of Baekje, which was engaged in a struggle with the southeastern Korean kingdom of Silla and its Tang Chinese allies.

In 663, the imperial court sent an army of 27,000 troops to Korea to assist Baekje, but their combined forces wear defeated at the Battle of Hakusonko, and the Tang-supported Silla took control of the whole peninsula. 

Many Baekje took refuge in Japan and it was feared that the Tang would retaliate and follow on their heels.

Tenji pressed on with the domestic reforms aimed at transforming Japan into a viable, strong nation state, able to defend its borders against aggression from similar entities (i.e., Chinese).

The key reform was the introduction of ritsuryo, a system of penal and administrative law copied from China, as the basic legal code of the new state.

Under ritsuryo the entire population was subject to legal control – including taxation – from the center, with the emperor at the top of the pyramid.

Administering this new system required an ever-larger bureaucracy and by the 670s it was clear that the confines of the traditional and impermanent imperial palace were insufficient. 

There are many wonderful temples located within the relatively small confines of Nara City.

At Jurin-in temple, I encountered a stone image of Jizo-Bosatsu with a very mild facial expression. Jizo-Bosatsu is popular as a guardian deity for children.

I was particularly impressed by the offerings of a box filled with sand dedicated to victims of the tsunami in Japan’s Tohoku region.

Plans were put in motion for a new, permanent capital city, following Chinese models.

For the first time in Japan, a large settlement would be planned in advance and laid out accordingly.

Short-Lived Capital

Construction of the city was begun during the reign of the Emperor Tenmu. A site in the Asuka region was chosen – a plain between three hills in the present day Takadono district of Kashihara-shi, where three of Japan’s main roads converged: the Nakatsumichi, Shimotsumichi and Yoko-oji, which were to mark the east, west and north boundaries of the city, respectively.

The location had originally been known as Fujiigahara, or ‘plain of the wisteria well’, but later this was shortened to simply Fujiwara, ‘wisteria plain’ and so the city became Fujiwara-Kyo, ‘city of the wisteria plain’.

Canals were dug to allow timber and stone to be brought to the site (although these were later filled in before the city was actually occupied).

Tenmu’s death in 687 brought a temporary halt to construction, but the project was continued under his widow, the Empress Jito, and finally completed in 694, whereupon Fujiwara-Kyo served as her capital.

A poem composed by Prince Shiki records some of the emotions stirred by the move to the new city: ‘Asuka breezes that once curled back the palace maidens’ sleeves; seeing now the court so far, they blow without purpose.’

Fujiwara-Kyo was the capital of Jito’s successors, the Emperor Mommu and the Empress Gemmei, but in 710 the capital was relocated 9 miles north, to Nara.

The martial arts village of Yagyu in the northeast of Nara is known from “Yagyu Shinkage Ryu”, which was diligently practiced by famous samurai such as Yagyu Jubei with the aim of becoming strong.

Today, this is a rural area rich with nature, so I was genuinely surprised to find the Yagyu no Ittoseki stone here. Legend has it that the mysterious slash in this stone, which stands some 7 meters tall, indicates the results of samurai battles.

Fujiwara-Kyo was stripped of all recyclable materials and what remained may have been further devastated by a fire in 711. By the 9th century the site had largely returned to farmland and it was not definitively rediscovered until excavations began in 1934.

Chinese Model City

The city was laid out according to the jobo grid system, like a Go board, along the lines of Chinese cities like the Tang capital of Changan.

Although it could not compete with Chinese metropolises for size, recent excavations have revealed that it may have covered as much as 9¼ square miles, considerably bigger than traditionally believed.

The city was divided by orthogonal oji, or avenues, into twelve jo (north-south blocks) and eight bo (east-west blocks).

Whereas in later capitals the city blocks were delineated by numbers, at Fujiwara-Kyo each block had its own name – e.g. Ohari-machi and Hayashi-mach.

As many as 30,000 people may have lived here. One clue to the population comes from a document called the Shoku Nihongi, which records that in 704, 1,505 households in Fujiwara-Kyo received bolts of cloth.

Household registers (known as koseki) from the era – a device introduced as part of the ritsuryo system to help keep track of tax payers – show that each household numbered on average more than 16 people, suggesting a minimum population for the city of at least 24,000.

The focal point of the city was the Fujiwara-no-miya, the imperial palace. Like a Chinese palace this was actually a compound or complex of walls, plazas and buildings.

Genjo Sanzo is a protagonist of the famous Chinese classical novel entitled “Journey to the West”.

This is a tale of Genjo Sanzo’s journey from China to India in order obtain sacred texts, in which he battles with monsters with help from Songoku, the ghost of his monkey servant.

Some 1,300 years ago, various cultures came into Nara via the Silk Road.

Processions of masked people can be seen at the Genjosanzo-e Taisai Festival, which is held at Yakushiji Temple on May 5th every year, reminding me of ancient times in which Nara was connected via the Silk Road all the way to Europe.

Sited in the central north zone of the city, so that the monarch could symbolically look south to  survey his dominions, the palace was approximately 1/3 square mile and was surrounded by a 16½  wide outer ditch, wooden walls about 16½ feet high and then another, inner ditch.

There were three main gates; the main one, the Suzaku-mon, was in the south wall.

It led to the heart of the complex: the Dairi, the emperor’s personal residence and the Chodoin, the Halls of State, of which the most important was the Daigokuden, the Imperial Audience Hall. At 147½ feet wide, 69 feet deep and 82 feet high, this was the largest building in Japan.

The omiya dodan, or ‘earth platform of the great palace’ upon which the Daigokuden rested, still rises above the surrounding plain at the site.

Significantly the Audience Hall and other palace buildings were the first in Japan to be roofed with ceramic tiles – another innovation from China.

It is estimated that up to two million tiles were used on the palace. Also as in China, public buildings were cited in the midst of wide plazas to enhance their impact on the sovereign’s subjects.

Around the palace were the mansions of aristocrats and high-ranking officials. One such mansion near the Suzaku-mon covered 129,166 square feet. Lesser bureaucrats and commoners lived further out.

There were also several Buddhist temples in the city. One of them, Yakushiji, still exists, having been moved along with the capital to the new site at Nara, where it still stands today (although most of it has been reconstructed at one point or another).

Just as the city itself was an innovation, so its construction and habitation involved other innovations. Fujiwara-Kyo saw the first latrines yet found in Japan.

Analysis of their contents shows that the inhabitants ate raw vegetables and undercooked fish, such as carp and trout, which gave them worms. To help regulate and facilitate trade, the city also saw the first coins ever minted in Japan.

Tenji, in full Tenji Tennō, Tenji also spelled Tenchi, original name Nakano Ōe (born 625/626, Japan—died Jan. 7, 672, Ōtsu, Ōmi province), 38th emperor of Japan, from 668 to 672, and the ruler who freed the Japanese court from the domination of the Soga family.

Tenji implemented a series of reforms that strengthened the central government in accord with the Chinese model and restored power to the emperor.

In 1999, archaeologists found a cache of Fuhonsen coins, named for the two kanji characters on the front – fu and hon, meaning ‘wealth’ and ‘basis’, thought to be a reference to a legendary Chinese epigram, ‘the basis for wealth of the people is food and money’.

These coins, dating from the late 7th century and predating the previous earliest known Japanese coins of 708, are thought to represent another stage in the Taika Reform project to modernize Japan, transforming it into a nation state along Chinese lines.

It is even suggested that the coins were specifically designed to help educate the public about how to use money.

Another innovation from this period was the use of mokkan, inscribed wooden tablets or batons used to help administer the ritsuryo system.

They could be used as luggage or goods labels, as tallies to help keep track of taxes or as official documents.

Over 7,000 have been discovered at Fujiwara-Kyo, providing valuable insights into the business of government at this crucial period in Japanese history.

Moving Time

After expending so much time and effort to create a city from scratch, why abandon it after such a short time?

The relocation was probably down to political/symbolic reasons, with the new capital intended to provide an even larger and more impressive backdrop to the new system of government, one which was not associated with the traditional ruling region of Asuka (Nara was slightly further to the north).

But historian Hisashi Kano suggests that geomancy – landscape magic – may have played a part in the decision, with the hill directly to the south of Fujiwara-Kyo effectively disrupting the feng-shui of the palace.

Rather than the emperor overlooking his domain from the palace, the hill meant that his palace was itself overlooked.

…tongue-speaking in Christian and Pagan worship.