Seventeens in Scripture (14)

This is not numerical literary style at all. It is simply an example of 17 occurrences of the same name. But since the name has a reference to joy, that wonderful word found 17 times in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I think it’s worth making an exception.

Abigail means my father is joy. In Hebrew, the word for joy alludes to a crown. I guess it’s appropriate that Abigail is one of the queens of Israel.

  1. Abigail…was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband, a Calebite, was surly and mean in his dealings. 1 Samuel 25:3
  2. One of the servants told Nabal’s wife Abigail: “David sent messengers from the desert to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. 1 Samuel 25:14
  3. Abigail lost no time. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. 1 Samuel 25:18
  4. When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. 1 Samuel 25:23
  5. David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. 1 Samuel 25:32
  6. When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing until daybreak. 1 Samuel 25:36
  7. Then David sent a proposal to Abigail, to take her as his wife. 1 Samuel 25:39

read more

Easter: to judge by the shops, it’s all about hot–cross buns, fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs.

Jolly pagan stuff, huh? Especially those bunnies. Symbolic of an ancient fertility rite and the revivification of the earth at springtime, they just reek of goddess worship. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian or not—one thing we’re agreed on: the bunny is an iconic pagan image.

About this time last year, I started to become excessively suspicious about this academic collectivism. In researching threshold covenants, it’s not possible to pass over the ultimate type: the Passover itself. That means returning to the original word—Pesach—and finding out what it means.

Now, scholars aren’t entirely sure about pesach. They think it means to leap, to spring, to hop, to pass over.

God leaping, springing or hopping isn’t an image that fits immediately and comfortably into my brainspace and I can see why the more dignified ‘pass over’ is the verb of choice.

read more

Two Kinds of Submission

During the conflict in Syria, refugees have been pouring into Wadi al–Nasara, the Valley of the Christians.

In the middle of my prayers for this nation in crisis, the word ‘nasara’ struck me as a very unusual name. It doesn’t look anything like the western word Christian. So what sense did it have for the Arabs?

Now Christians have been called by many names over the last two millennia. It’s a bit trendy to be a Christ–follower these days, rather than a Christian. A couple of decades ago, Jesus–freak was by no means a derogatory term.

The names change, even while the Lord remains the same. Even back in the first century, there was no standard terminology. Luke, for instance, uses seven different names in the Book of Acts:

  1. Saints
  2. Believers
  3. Disciples
  4. Brethren
  5. Followers of the Way
  6. Those being saved
  7. Christians

Still, I’ve got to admit I pricked up my ears at Nasara. In the book I’ve been working on most recently, God’s Panoply, the Hebrew word ’nasa takes prominent place. As soon as I heard of Wadi al–Nasara, I wondered whether there was any connection between the two words.

As it turns out, nasara is an Arabic word. It’s old. So old it’s used in the Quran, the Islamic holy book. Subsequent commentary on the passage which refers to Christians as nasara is exceedingly interesting. The expected word for Christians should be Masihiyyun (followers of the Messiah) but it’s not.

Rather, nasara is used 18 times in the Quran. By contrast, Christian is only used 3 times in the New Testament.

read more

Three Kings

My brother–in–law is a king.


It happened this way: he was involved in aid work in the Philippines. Some villagers asked him to write to the government on their behalf. They wanted the land taken from them back. Privately he thought their chances were nil but he gave it his best shot anyway.

To his surprise the government agreed. The villagers were so delighted they decided to make him their king. My sister travelled with him for the ceremony and asked what it meant to become a ‘datu’. ‘Our datu is our king,’ she was told. ‘He can go to Buckingham Palace and eat cucumber sandwiches with the Queen of England.’ My brother–in–law has not tested the earnest conviction of his loyal subjects on this score, possibly put off by Wikipedia’s insistence a ‘datu’ is merely a petty tribal chief.

read more

Names and Wonder

My garden has never been the same since the drought of three years ago. The flowers wilted and the rose bushes died and, although we’ve had a flood of rain since, I’ve never got around to replanting them.

One surprising survivor is a cluster of storm lilies that comes up every time there’s a sunshower. A soft blend of translucent cream and lilac, they are—unfortunately—rarely there more than a day. They epitomise to me the wonder of life in all its transience, fragility and beauty.

I have a serious addiction to wonder. It’s probably the reason I’ve never outgrown that child-like asking of, ‘Why?’ Sooner or later, that is the question which leads to a moment of spellbound awe. CS Lewis admitted to the pursuit of joy; for me, it’s wonder.

It was Martin Luther who said, ‘If you truly understood a grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.’

read more

Transit of Venus

At lunchtime yesterday, I got out my ‘solar eclipse’ glasses to check out the transit of Venus. The weather was perfect for observation and my boss, lured by the winter sunshine and the simplicity of the glasses (he’d already tried the pinhole technique without success), decided he’d try to photograph the event for posterity.

He just wasn’t sure he’d be around for the next transit in 105 years. It took considerable ingenuity to rig up a suitable system, using only cardboard off-cuts, but his efforts were worth it. One of his photos is featured.

All of this recent focus on the planet Venus has a bit of extra fascination for me. I’ve been collecting names for the ‘morning star’ recently. This is because I’m in the middle of writing up some teaching material for my latest fantasy novel, Daystar.

Yes, there’s quite a few by that name at the moment but I’ve been working on this one decades, so it’s hard to change. Daystar is an archaic term, which is actually disputed in meaning: some places say it refers to Venus and some say it’s another name for the sun.

One thing’s for sure: in a transit of Venus across the face of the sun, you’re definitely observing the ‘daystar’, whatever it originally was.

It’s been a real treat for have an excuse (as if I needed one, being a name ferret) to look up more names meaning the morning star.

read more

Discovered or Improvised?

Back when I was at school, algebra was taught as a symbolic language. Over the years, the emphasis changed and, by the time I left mathematics teaching, it was being introduced through arithmetic patterns. Somehow I got the best of both worlds: I was equally at home with algebra as a language or as a system of recognising numerical relationships.

These two ways of thinking about the nature of equations could not be more different but I was fortunate in being able to move from one system to the other without missing a beat. Despite the disdain of modern mathematics educators for symbolic language, I’m deeply grateful I was brought up with it. Because the day came when I realised that, once you are fluent in one symbolic language, you have the essential grammar of them all.

Dream symbols operate according to the same rules of language as algebra; literary symbols often do too, especially when those symbols are ‘invented’ names within a ‘made-up’ plot.

In Discovered or Invented?, I looked at the question which perplexes some very eminent mathematicians: Is mathematics a construction of the human mind or does it exist somewhere ‘out there’, just waiting to be found?

In Discovered or Imagined?, I looked at a similar question in relation to fiction: Do storytellers make up their ‘secondary worlds’ or do the stories exist somewhere ‘out there’, just waiting to be told?

On an even deeper level: Are the names we think we ‘make up’ for characters simply a random conglomeration of suitable syllables or are they already ‘out there’, just waiting to be exposed?

read more

Threshold Thursday

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whom I’m writing for. Is it me? Well, of course it is, at least in the first instance. I’m very much of CS Lewis’ philosophy when it comes to writing: I write the sort of things I would have wanted to read or know as a kid or younger adult.

However, there’s an aspect of my writing that is not me. At the end of the day I want to communicate to the widest possible audience. So I make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

Lately, as I’ve struggled to communicate the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to many writers who reject the idea, I’ve looked more deeply at the way Scripture writers told their stories. I’ve tried to see how they responded to the taste of their age and the target audience of the day.

So because today is the Thursday before Easter, I’d like to take a specific look at the story of Jesus in front of Annas and Caiaphas as told one of my heroes: a man who used numerical literary technique so exquisitely he raised it to an artform, an author who fused number and word design in ways that bubble with humour. But he also faced a complex problem that I’m glad I don’t: he wrote in Greek to communicate a Hebrew understanding of the world. Writing to Gentiles in their own language, he nonetheless wanted to convey to the Jews of the time the message that Jesus really is the Messiah.

John, the son of Zebedee, was clearly presented with a unique challenge.  How he responded is quite surprising: to me, it’s clear he selected his information so that the story of Jesus’ trial was told with specific reference to doors. 

Yes, doors.

Possibly you’ve never noticed them. So I’m going to point them out. In fact, John was so focussed on doors and words related to them that he occasionally offered us some really awkward constructions. Check out the words in bold: Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (John 18:15-16)

It would be so much simpler if we had a name instead of ‘the other disciple, who was known to the high priest’. Many commentators believe the ‘other disciple’ was John himself and this is his rather inelegant attempt at humility. However, I don’t believe that needs to be the case at all. The disciple could have been anyone, male or female, close or distant. In my view, John simply didn’t want to mix his metaphors by mentioning a disciple whose name was not about a doorway.

read more

Be Thou My Vision


Last Sunday I was in church singing Be Thou My Vision when a couple of lines leapt off the page and grabbed my attention:

Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;

Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my armour, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight

The first two lines are from the end of the second verse and the next two from the beginning of the third. I was entranced. How could I have missed this before? It was about the making of a covenant. It was about oneness, about the exchange of armour and weapons, about offering dignity through the swapping of mantles. An eighth century hymn that preserves the notion of covenant we in the twenty-first century have lost entirely—how exciting!

As soon as I got home, I typed these words into Google and… …how very odd! Not a single instance of them were to be found anywhere in the entire world.

There are nearly 2.7 million results on Google for Be Thou My Vision but not one of them with these exact words. For a moment I thought I was seriously losing my memory but then I decided to change the spelling of ‘armour’ to ‘armor’.

Aha! One result. On YouTube. Hmm, the account was closed. It was just baffling. One occurrence in the whole world and it was no longer verifiable. How could there be just one and no more?

I decided to check out the 2.7 million results for Be Thou My Vision to see why this discrepancy existed—no, not all of them. Just a few. I quickly realised that, in a significant number of cases, ‘armour’ had been changed to ‘breastplate’, ‘dignity’ had been changed to ‘armour’ and ‘delight’ had been changed to ‘might’.

Van Morrison, Rebecca St James and Máire Brennan all have recorded the second version. At this rate, it won’t be long before this is the most common wording.

Does it matter? I think it does. To change the symbols of covenant to symbols of battle results in a profound loss. Instead of being about unity and defence, it’s about force and attack.

read more

I was up early again this morning to check out another astronomical wonder: a total lunar eclipse.

Apart from the faint blood hue towards sunrise, a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed too much difference from an ordinary moon. Except for the first fifteen minutes, that is, when it really did look as if a huge bite had been taken out of it. No wonder the Vikings of old believed a ravening wolf was chasing the moon.

They called the moon, Mani, and considered it to be one of those giants I’ve looked at in earlier posts in this series. One of the stories about Mani tells how he captured a pair of children, Hjúki and Bil, who had gone to a well to fetch some water. They carried a bucket on a pole laid across their shoulders. This tale of Hjúki and Bil is sometimes said to be the origin of our nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill.

The Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology says nineteenth century mythographers considered Jack and Jill were two asteroids captured by the moon. Imagine—a world in which the moon was circled by two moons of its own! And then somehow, in some ancient cataclysm, they were drawn into earth’s gravitational well and spun out of control to a watery splashdown in one of earth’s oceans. Through most of the twentieth century, this scenario was regarded as verging on impossible within historical times—but in the twenty-first, it’s coming into favour again.

Jill Pole is, of course, one of the major characters in The Silver Chair. She arrives in a watery splashdown, dropping into Narnia after an astronomical fall. Perhaps I should retract my assertion The Silver Chair is about giants, Jupiter and Thursday, rather than—as Michael Ward suggests in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis—the moon.

read more

By Any Other Name 1

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

One of my favourite websites for exploring the meaning of names offers this definition of what a name is: ‘Generally a name is a label for a noun – a person, place or thing. More specifically a name is a label for a specific person, place or thing.’

Oh, really? Just a label?  Surely not!

It seems this very popular site would agree with Shakespeare’s famous assessment about the rose and the sweetness of its perfume: That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Now I disagree with both the Bard and the website.

read more



read more