Advent Animals Series: The Lamb and the Serpent

In this series of Advent animals we now come to the Lamb of God and the Serpent. Both are in Bethlehem–along with shepherds, wisemen, Mary, Joseph, donkey, sheep, and camels.

Perhaps the Ancient Deceiver, disguised as a snake, doesn’t pick up immediately that something BIG is happening in this insignificant sheep town. Then, he hears angelic hosts singing, “Glory to God.”

A serpent's head

Such singing really stings. The Serpent, aka Satan, has stopped cow-towing to God long ago and prefers feasting on violence and death. It doesn’t take him long to slither his thoughts to King Herod. Soon, all Bethlehem boys, ages two and under, are slaughtered (Matthew 2).

Hanging by a Thread

Although our salvation hangs by a threat, the Lamb of God is completely safe under God’s will. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with enough Christmas gifts to keep them comfortable until they return to Nazareth after Herod dies.

Joni says, "Infant Jesus painted in oils in the center of a tree slice that shows age rings. I wanted this to show the significance of the birth of Jesus to all generations."
“Jesus, born for all Generations” by Joni Ware. Joni, my friend, says, “Infant Jesus is in oils in the center of a tree slice that shows age rings. I wanted this to show the significance of the birth of Jesus to all generations.”

“Behold the Lamb of God”

From Genesis to Revelation, the story of the Lamb of God is a connecting thread. Also, throughout scripture, is the thread of the Serpent: this Ancient Foe, who does everything imaginable to keep the Messiah from entering the world through King David’s line.

In the Old Testament it is the blood of lambs that protects the Israelites  in Egypt while the Angel of Death passes over each house. Families whose door posts bear no blood mark suffer the death of their firstborn sons (Exodus 12). For centuries thereafter, the yearly Jewish Passover requires many sacrifices of spotless lambs. It is into this context John the Baptist announces Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

The Serpent Has a Bible Thread Too

In Genesis 3 we read that God says to the Serpent, “Because you have done this [deceived man and woman to disobey], cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

The crushed head is more than your typical snake-rake killing. The promise to Adam and Eve is one of hope and rescue. But it is costly. God himself must leave home to become a baby and make us holy and wholly healed.

What an incredible story that turns rationality upside-down! God stoops to be a baby and experience what we experience—growing up, with its good, bad, and ugly. He is tempted as we are tempted, but he does not falter–ever. The perfect lamb is sacrificed for us. We are the “joy set before him” that compels him to the cross. Now, life and resurrection await all who believe. Our good God just can’t help being good and rescuing his wayward little folk.

Bible Story for Grown-ups

If you desire a more grown up version of the Christmas story than Luke 2, read Revelation 12. In this metaphoric depiction of warfare in heaven and earth, Satan is called a dragon, which comes from the Greek word “drakon,” to look; fascinate.

Lion and lamb

Of course, Revelation is scary, fascinating horror, unless the reader zeroes in on the Lamb of God. As John struggles to capture this vision he writes: “I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll.…I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain….And he went and took the scroll…and the elders fell down before the Lamb singing a new song.

John doesn’t miss a beat morphing a slain lamb with a resurrected lion. He records:

The New Song

Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation….

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” (from Revelation 22, ESV).

This story has a happy ending and is our Merry Christmas. Baby Jesus grows up to be the Lamb of God. Some day, He promises, earth’s troubles will be rolled up like a scroll. The Lamb will return to rule, and that Serpent gets thrown into a lake of fire.

John concludes:

The Lamb in Revelation 22

“Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed.

The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age…” (Revelation 22:1-5, The Message).

Stained Glass Lamb

Christmas Animal Series: Camels, Ships of the Desert

King Herod’s palace is in an uproar. Wisemen from the East, arriving on camels, are asking, “”Where is the child born to be King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him?”

Camels can take the heat and wind.

Jerusalem scholars have studied that incredible star, too. But they don’t tell Herod it means the birth of a new king, because that would mean, “Off with their heads!”  Instead, the scribes deceive. Possibly they tell the paranoid King the star is a sign of God’s good pleasure on his reign. After all, hadn’t Herod recently restored their beloved temple?

Whatever mumble jumble the priests conjure up apparently appeases Herod until those pesky foreigners arrive. Assuming the new prince is at the palace, the visitors innocently ask, “Where is he?”

When Herod meddles, all hell breaks forth. He demands the truth, and his scribes quote Prophet Micah:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2, NIV version).

Exceedingly Great Joy!

Picture the wisemen’s “exceedingly great joy” when they leave the palace and see that the beautiful star has reappeared over Bethlehem. The caravan plods those final six miles. Then, camels kneel so the wisemen can dismount. The foreigners go into a simple home and worship the baby, offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Of course this humble environment is acceptable. They recognize the King of kings is not meant just for Bethlehem or Judea but for everywhere. That night as they sleep they experience the same dream. It holds a command: “Do not revisit Herod and tell him about this baby. Go home a different route.”

In the morning those wisemen compare their dreams and hurriedly break camp. Their camels can run top speed for an hour if they need to, and without heavy loads some camels easily go 12 to 25 mph. Those long necks and adorable heads press into the journey home.

One Camel Problem

Three puppet camels
Three camels for a nativity program.

However, there is a caveat. Camels are not mentioned in the Bible’s Christmas story, but logic dictates these “ships of the desert” were the transportation of choice. The Bible doesn’t mention how many wisemen there were either. Church tradition reasons there were three gifts, therefore, three wisemen. But I sense there were more men and maybe more gifts.  The wisemen, probably from Iran where Prophet Daniel lived long before, needed lots of camels and servants for protection and provisions on their long journey.

Bible Camels

Like the donkey, the camel is not kosher food for the Jewish people. In the Old Testament, however, camels are counted as a sign of wealth. They are used mainly as pack animals and for farm labor.

Whether they possess one hump or two, camels daily eat about nine pounds of food and drink up to 50 gallons of water. Their tough tongues handle thorns and wood, but they prefer leaves, grass, and figs. Two sets of eye lashes protect their sight from desert wind and sand. Of course, those fatty humps of reserve allow them to endure thirst and starvation for many days.

Camels in the New Testament

Although the camel is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, notations are worthy.

The gospels tell us the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Can you imagine a toddler in Egypt pointing a chubby finger at camels? Perhaps some gracious Egyptian merchant allows the little boy to sit behind his camel’s hump and touch the fur.

The New Testament tells us the Holy Family returns to Nazareth after King Herod dies. Just before Jesus begins his adult ministry his cousin John the Baptist announces, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!” John, in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, knows how to get people buzzing about his “brand.” Unlike the pharisees and scribes who flaunt the Versace and Dior of their day, John wears camel hair tied with a leather belt.

Teacher Jesus and Camels

In his teaching there are only two recorded times Jesus uses the camel as an outrageous picture to condemn Jerusalem’s spiritually blind leaders. Remember the camel stands seven feet high at its hump and can weigh over 1000 pounds:

Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: “You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.”

That set the disciples back on their heels. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked.

Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” (Mark 10:23-27, The Message)

And,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24, Berean Study Bible).

Camel Knees

The only other New Testament connection I found about camels concerns Jesus’ follower James the Just, who also possesses an unusual nickname. This author of the Book of James writes much about prayer.  Bible Gateway explains, “Because of his habit of always kneeling in intercession for the saints, his knees became calloused like a camel’s; thus he became known as ‘The Man with Camel’s Knees.’”

Camels and Us

As I think about the camels of Christmas I am drawn to their ability to endure

Camel and heart by Tom Taylor
Colorado artist Tom Taylor has a love theme around numerous animals, including this camel. His art can be found at https://www.saatchiart.com.

heavy loads and persevere. When resources are few, the camels have their built up fatty humps to help them survive. These animals develop calluses on bended knees. For us, too, preparation when possible and perseverance during hard times on praying knees are not shabby gifts to offer the Savior.

As Camel Knees writes, “My friends, follow the example of the prophets who spoke for the Lord. They were patient, even when they had to suffer….The prayer of an innocent person is powerful, and it can help a lot. Elijah was just as human as we are, and for three and a half years his prayers kept the rain from falling. But when he did pray for rain, it fell from the skies and made the crops grow” (James 5:10, 16-18 CEV).

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Below is a two-minute Youtube video about a camel who recently won a weight lifting competition in Pakistan. Notice this animal’s calloused, bended knees; patient strength; and amazing height.

https://youtu.be/dGOWhRSIFnM

Christmas Animals Advent Series: The Sheep

Have You Called Sheep Lately?

You can call out to sheep, and most likely they will give you half-hearted attention (like the ones above did to me). That’s because sheep know their master’s voice and only answer to his or her call. For the second week of Advent our hands touch the woolly head of the animal most often mentioned in the Bible. Sheep are, indeed, important to the Christmas story, because we know:

“There were sheep herders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-12, MSG).

Fearful Shepherds, Frightened Flock?

The shepherds were terrified. Throughout scripture it seems God’s messengers often have to say, “Fear not!” And then the receivers of the messages are obedient; these lowly sheep herders hurry to Bethlehem to see the newborn king.

Have you ever thought about the flock’s reaction that night? Sheep are gregarious, yet they also like familiarity.

Shepherdess and sheep walking over a bridge
“Homeward Bound” sculpture by Allan Houser (1914-1994), photographed in Santa Fe, NM.

A sheep recognizes up to 50 different faces, so they know when something is awry. Were they terrified like their masters?  Or, did they recognize creator goodness in those heavenly heralds? Maybe they simply thought, “Oh, wonderful! There’s light! Now we can eat a midnight snack.”

I’ve also wondered: Did some old, crippled shepherd or the youngest rookie get stuck staying with the flocks while the others went running to check out the most important news of humanity? Probably, but I imagine they received their turn when the others came back.

Sheep Have Velcro Coats

As a child, I had two lambs for a couple of months. “Mary had a little Lamb” was fullsizerenderall I knew about the creatures. I was sorely disappointed when they didn’t follow me around, and I was repelled by their smell and dirt. Think about an outdoor pet wearing a Velcro coat for twenty-four hours a day.

Eventually, Dad realized it was a mistake to keep these little fellows, and they were sold. I am embarrassed to say they are the only pets I did not grieve. So, when the Bible repeatedly compares people to sheep, it brings to mind the image of dirty, not-so-bright animals, who need protection.

The people-are-like-sheep theme runs consistently through the Good Book, so it is not surprising that the lowly shepherds received the Good News first. Besides, it was the profession of Jesus’s ancestor King David, who had watched his flock by night in that same area.

A desk top bronze sculpture of a shepherd, his dog, and two sheep
“Shepherds of the High Plains” by Veryl Goodnight

Nativity Sets Get It Wrong

Also, the Advent sheep are not just in the fields. Most likely sheep were near Jesus’s manger too. I might shock you by declaring our nativity sets do not get it right.

Bible Scholar Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey gives convincing evidence in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes that Joseph and Mary were most likely housed in a common two-room home of a Bethlehem relative. The “no room in the inn” is better translated  “no room in the guest room” (because other guests were already occupying it). According to Bailey, the idea of a public innkeeper in the Christmas story is traced to an account of Jesus’s birth dating 200 years after his birth called “The Protevangelium of James.” Its nonJewish writer was unfamiliar with Middle Eastern hospitality of sacrificially making room for guests.

A rectangle diagram labeling Stable lower than Manger in Family Living Room with Guest Room (kataluma)
Stable on left, lower than the two Mangers in Family Living Room, with Guest Room (kataluma) to the far right (diagram is from Bailey’s book).

Also, Bailey says the manger was a hole in the living room floor for hay. At night the animals were corralled inside the house’s lower corner. Larger animals, like donkeys and ox, would eat by lifting their heads to the manger in the ceiling. According to Bailey, even today one can find homes in rural Palestine that have this simple floor plan.

Hearing and Speaking

Here’s what strikes me in thinking about sheep this Advent. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” is a familiar quote from Jesus in John 10. But it is also true that this Great Shepherd hears our voices and comes to us when we call out, whether for companionship or crisis rescue. This kind of individualized care for each person, sheep or little lamb, is precious. So, during this Advent week may we not only hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, but may we call out confidently to him. He is right there.

 

Climb a high mountain, Zion.
You’re the preacher of good news.
Raise your voice. Make it good and loud, Jerusalem.
You’re the preacher of good news.
Speak loud and clear. Don’t be timid!
Tell the cities of Judah,
“Look! Your God!”
Look at him! God, the Master, comes in power,
ready to go into action.
He is going to pay back his enemies
and reward those who have loved him.
Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock,
gathering the lambs in his arms,
Hugging them as he carries them,
leading the nursing ewes to good pasture.”

 (Isaiah 40:9-11, The Message)

Book jacket for "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes--Cultural Studies in the Gospels by Kenneth E. Bailey
For the Bible student, this InterVarsity book is excellent.

Below is a video of a Norwegian farmer, whose sheep hear his voice in a fog and come running to him.