Lent bible study for self study

Authored by Rev Suzanne Nockels for Tapton and Hillsborough churches




Last Summer, my husband and I went to Paris to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. I can remember sitting in a restaurant in the Palace of Versailles (yes, I know, very posh and tress romantic!) mesmerised by the swarm of swallows going in and out of the eves of the magnificent building. Versailles was the home of a few French kings and it seems hundreds of swallows. I have other memories about birds; watching ospreys in Rutland water and sea eagles on Mull. I often catch a charm of goldfinches from my living room window in Hillsborough. Isaac once astonished an RSPB stallholder when he finished the quiz in a couple of minutes. In these strange times the sight and sound of the birds is definitely ministering to me.

As for the ‘teeming waters’, I am not an angler, I am afraid I don’t find fish that exciting. However, they are the food-source of some of my favourite creatures on the planet: marine mammals. I have been blessed with sightings of Fin and Humpback whales and again on Mull, Minke whales. I will never forget, as long as I live, Joe welling up with joy and emotion at the age of 8 as dolphins played in the slipstream of our boat.

What are your experiences with the living creatures of the waters and the birds that fly?

How do these creatures minister to us (obviously this is not a conscientious thing on their part)?

The world does indeed teem with creatures. There are something like 11,000 bird species and as many as 30,000 fish species although no-one knows for sure. I once did a funeral for an entomologist and we had a huge model of a beetle on the communion table. Insects definitely win as the estimate is between 6 to 10 million different species. The biologist J.B.S Haldane is reputed to have said ‘God if he exists, must have ‘an inordinate fondness for beetles’. God not only looks at all His work on day 5 and calls it good, He blesses it. It is the first time in the text that God pronounces such a blessing and tells it to be fruitful. God’s blessing is not just reserved for human beings but all creatures. It is worth noting that ‘living creature’ is the same word that is used for Adam in Genesis 2:7. The Hebrew for ‘creature’ and ‘being’ is the same word ‘nepes’. ‘Nepes’ can also be translated as ‘life’ or ‘soul’ and our familiar Bible translations are far from consistent. For example, the King James translation has ‘moving creatures that hath life’ in Gen 1:20 and Gen 2:7 as ‘living soul’. We are perhaps not so different from other creatures than we think. We are all granted ‘nepes’ from God.

Does the idea that life, soul, creature and being are all the same word in Hebrew surprise you? What thinking does it confirm or challenge?

Doves, Ravens, Eagles, Sparrows and Chickens (!*!)

Write a list of all the birds that get mentioned in Bible.

Doves are among the best-known birds in the Bible. In the story of Noah’s ark, the raven is sent out first and then the dove. The dove becomes the hero/heroine by bringing back an olive branch thus showing that there is dry land and the time of self-isolation was over. While many of us picture a pure white dove, the biblical dove was a turtle-dove or a rock pigeon. When we think of the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit I quite like to think of a mob of urban pigeons instead of a dainty fairy-like thing. I like a Spirit that gets into the crevasses and corners of ordinary life.

Elijah is famously fed by ravens in (1 Kings 17:2-6) which doesn’t sound too hygienic to me. It’s a total role-reversal of the ‘Feed the Birds’ song in Mary Poppins. Through the birds we see God as a miraculous provider.

Eagles in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible are used metaphorically and beautifully.

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

One passage that has always appealed to me is Deuteronomy 32:11 which describes God as a mother eagle that stirs up the nest so that her young are forced to fledge. She then helps them to fly. What an awe-inspiring picture of a God! A God who disturbs our comfort so that we grow and develop. In the New Testament the mother bird theme continues. Movingly, Jesus looks towards a doomed Jerusalem and compares himself to a hen ‘How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Matthew 23:37)

When I young I had a storybook called ‘The Very Worried Sparrow’. It was based on Matt 10:29-31 and Luke 12:6-7. Sparrows were numerous and cheap (yes there is a pun there!) but God knows and cares for each one. Arguing from the lesser to the greater, if this the case with sparrows whom God loves, then just think how much your heavenly Father loves you.

Which of these bird passages appeals to you the most?

The Teeming Waters

Write down as many Bible stories that mention sea creatures or fish as you can.

As I said, I need someone to enthuse me about fish, but I loved David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ series and I eat just about anything that comes out of the sea. Despite having Jewish ancestry my adoration of shellfish knows no bounds. The earth is 71% water. We are indeed a ‘Blue Planet’. Billions of people rely on the sea as their main source of protein. Much of Jesus’ ministry is around the sea of Galilee and fish were a staple part of the diet. It was the first meal he ate after the resurrection. The creatures of the sea are also blessed.

here is the sea, vast and spacious,
    teeming with creatures beyond number –
    living things both large and small.
26 There the ships go to and fro,
    and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there (Psalm 104: 25-26)

Isn’t great that Leviathan, a great sea-beast of some kind, gets to play in the deep a bit like the dolphins on Mull? Jonah gets rescued by a big fish but forgets not only his fellow human beings but also other creatures when he moans that Nineveh has repented and God will not bring judgement upon them. God rebukes him that He has every right to care for the city’s 120,000 people and ‘also many animals’ (Jonah 4:11). God’s compassion is wide and for all living things. An abundance of fish is a symbol of the abundance of life including spiritual life. The waters that flow from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision are filled with large numbers of fish (Ez 47:1-12)

I don’t need to tell you that the birds of the air and the creatures of the sea are under threat from a decline in habitat (even sparrows are rarer), poisoning, plastics, changes in water temperature and disturbances on migration routes. The prophet Jeremiah saw the evils of habitat destruction; ‘I looked at the earth and it was formless and empty (a sort of un-creation) and at the heavens and their light was gone…I looked and every bird in the sky had flown away’ (Jer 4:23-25). Winston Halapua from the Pacific Islands writes of how a conch shell would be blown in a time of danger. He writes; ‘We need to blow a conch to alert the world of danger not only to ourselves but the whole planet’.

Ideas of how we can care for the birds and the creatures of the deep include; the church organising habitat clean-ups, not using bottled water at big events, eating sustainable fish and seafood and not eating cheap chicken that has been reared in cramped and intensive conditions.

Have you seen harm to the birds or to the seas?

What of the ideas to help mentioned would you find easy or difficult?

We’ve seen that God cares for His creatures and His character is seen through them. We’ve seen that we have more in common with other creatures than we thought. We all have ‘nepes’. What should our collectively Church response be?

A Prayer

Look and listen to the birds today or watch a nature video/film and give thanks.

God, You know my imperfections.
I ignore the baby chick within.
All that is fresh and new, and desires growth,
Sometimes I ignore it or fight it.
I am sometimes too fragile to allow the new within me to survive.
Create within me the ability to greet each day like Your birds.
And to care for animals as You would, God,
You who would gather us all within
Your outstretched wings.

From Carol J Adams, Prayers for the Animals.

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