Close to the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq lie the ruins of the ancient Biblical city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire and the largest and most powerful city in the world for some 50 years. Its might is celebrated in Lord Byron’s poem – The Destruction of Sennacherib – which recountsbiblical story of the Assyrian’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC. To the rhythm of a galloping horse the poems opens with
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
About 250 years ago – in 1872 – an English engraver of bank notes, George Smith, managed to decipher some of the surviving clay tablets that came from that earlier period in Assyria. They reveal that a massive flood had once occurred in the Nineveh region. Smith thus proved that the story of the great flood in the Bible, as was long thought to be the case, was not the only account of this disaster; and that the flood most likely had the magnitude and effects similar to the tsunamis in Japan in 2011 and the Indian Ocean in 2004.
The pagan account of the Flood presented it as sent by their gods to blot out the results of their plans for the earth that had gone horribly wrong. The Flood was to wipe out everything so they might start all over again.
The biblical story of Noah and the Flood has similarities to the pagan interpretation of the disaster. The author of the Book of Genesis also interpreted it as God ‘starting all over’ again with his creation but sees it in a more positive light. After the Flood it’s a purified human race, represented by Noah who expressed his loyalty to God, that is taken into God’s protection in an arrangement or ‘covenant’ notable for its extension to all living creatures. And whereas in the pagan account the appearance of rainbow was a threatening weapon of the gods, in the Bible it is a symbol of God’s covenant or loving pledge to all creation.
The covenant with Noah is the first such agreement recorded in the Bible. It is later followed by covenants with Abraham, with Moses, with David, with some other minor figures and, finally, with the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ announced by Jesus at the Last Supper.
In our Gospel reading we find Jesus at the beginning of his public life (Mark 1:12-15) being driven into a ‘wilderness’ where he is tempted among the ‘wild beasts’ not to take on the role of sealing the ‘everlasting covenant’ between God and his people.
In those days the wilderness/desert was believed to be the haunt of evil spirits or demons which were responsible, it was believed, for much of the sickness and torment that people suffered. These demons, they understood, were led by Satan, the name they gave to the leader of the evil spirits. He was believed to be a fallen angel who declares in Milton’s Paradise Lost that he preferred ‘to reign in hell than to serve in heaven’.
In the Bible Satan means ‘opposer’ of God. While many people no longer believe in him (I say he!) as such, we still know only too well the reality and sickening presence of evil in the world … the countless wars that have erupted over the centuries and still do to this day, crushing the lives of millions of innocent people; the trafficking of children and adults for money or sexual exploitation; the modern day slavery taking place under our noses for making our low-cost cast-away clothing; the poverty, starvation and malnutrition suffered by millions while their governments spend more and more on armaments (even supplied by our elected governments). There are a lot more ‘evils’ we could add to this list. So, as some people suggest, might Satan’s greatest achievement be to convince us he does not exist?
In St Mark’s Gospel Jesus is shown to be caught up in a life-long struggle with the evils of his day which were manifested in the broken, sick, tormented and suffering people he supported. In today’s reading we find that before he began his public ministry, Jesus spent time in a ‘wilderness’ where he was assailed by Satan and the ‘wild beasts’ of doubt and temptation not to be the Suffering Servant. In Lent we take time to reflect and lovingly respond by way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to what Jesus underwent then and subsequently later for us.
From time to time we may ourselves be driven, like Jesus, into a ‘wilderness’ or place of darkness, when personal demons assail us in periods of trial, insecurity, doubt, guilt and even desperation. But we remember that Jesus did not suffer alone in his wilderness – St Mark tells us that ‘the angels looked after him’; St Matthew says that angels ‘ministered’ to him. So as we remember what Jesus endured, we pray also in Lent for the comforting and strengthening presence of those same angels who ministered to Jesus – especially when we are tested in our own places of darkness and are at our lowest and most haunted by our ‘demons’.
Holy Name, Jesmond
21 February 2021