Category Archives: Bible

Z is for Zealots

z“These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;  Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;  Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-4 NIV)

So out of the group of people who followed Jesus around on a day to day basis, there were two Simons. One got his name changed to Peter, or Rocky, and the other who was simply known as the Zealot. The word zealot implies a fanatical devotion to a particular cause, usually trying to imply a willingness to do harm to others for the sake of the cause you champion. With Simon they aren’t trying to say something about his passionate concern and care for following Jesus, instead they are referring to his membership in an organization known as the Zealots who were part of Jewish culture under the Roman occupation.

Zealots were a group who opposed  the Roman occupation of Israel through whatever means necessary. They fought against Roman rule and leadership of their nation and of the flagrant god flaunting that Roman coins and military pageantry embodied in trying to proclaim the cult of emperor worship. The Zealots attempted many times to make a stand against Rome, but very regularly participated in guerrilla resistance that often involved targeted assassinations of both Roman officials and Roman collaborators. The funny part about the little band of Jesus’s followers is that it included Simon, a Zealot known for killing Roman collaborators, and also Matthew, a tax collector who worked for the Romans. I’m sure the rest of the group didn’t like to leave them alone since they didn’t think Matthew would last very long. Jesus had a bit of a sense of humor, I’m sure in bringing them both along.

Zealots were essentially the Assassin’s Guild of their time and culture. There was an extremist group of the Zealots who were known as the Sicarri. They were so named because they carried curved short swords, called sicarii,  in case the opportunity to murder a Roman came up. The term also referred to the class of gladiator who wielded similar weapons, so it was an innocuous enough phrase to keep them from too much suspicion.

Secretive societies and mysterious resistance cells make for great drama in a game play setting. The popularity of the Assassin’s Creed video games speaks to that quite well. What secretive elements of society exist in the games you play and what motivates them to take a stand against the status quo? Are they freedom fighters on a holy mission or are they invested in the economic problems that arise from an occupying force? Where powerful conquerors come in, there will almost always be some kind of rebellion or resistance that takes a variety of forms. The Jewish Zealots during the Roman occupation are a very interesting place to find inspiration for just how they would stand up against an oppressing force and we got a brand new word to describe those who are so consumed with passion that they go to extremes.


Y is for YHWH

yRemember how I said names were important? Well today’s post is a name so important, people wouldn’t even right the entire thing down. The writers of the Old Testament tried to demonstrate a respect and fear of the God they served by not actually saying His name or even writing it down. They held this particular name in such high esteem that to write it would be to lower it. Today many people still practice a form of this discipline by only writing G-d when referring to the God of Israel. Many Christians don’t hold the name with the same sacredness as part of a more intimate friendship with God.

The particulars of the name of God get interesting because the name was never fully written out or even spoken. In the original Hebrew manuscripts that record the early Old Testament, vowels are not used. At all. So translation was already a challenge except for the oral tradition (much of which is sung) by the priests and the rabbis who could help to guide the translation effort. But then we get to this name of God that isn’t written down completely or even spoken. Whenever the reader got to the name, they would simply say “The Lord,” which is why many versions of the Bible today have a little quirk where that word is written with small caps to help denote that the big name was being used. The first time that this particular name comes up is when Moses hears the voice of God of a bush that burns, but is not consumed.

“Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?’

God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

‘This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.'”

(Exodus 3:13-15 NIV)

The phrase is translated as “I am who I am” and the particular letters of the Hebrew alphabet that denote this name are Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh. It looks like this.

remember to read it from right to left.

Each of those letters are breath sounds and they form a back and forth rhythm that mirrors the breathing back and forth of air in the lungs. Yod, breath in, Heh, breath out, Vav, breath in, Heh, breath out. Given the fact that God breathes life into His creation and the same word in Hebrew is used for both breath and spirit, there is a wealth of symbolism behind this particular name of God. Because we lack the vowels for this name, it’s translated into two forms that are used extensively in the Christian tradition (since they allow themselves to use this name aloud). Jehovah, which in the Latin starts with an I, and the more recently accepted into common use, Yahweh, are both translations of the name that have found acceptance today.

Secretive names of a deity are not a new thing to roleplaying games at all. I played in a recent game where the secret name of the Raven Queen, something she had taken great efforts to wipe from the mortal world, was the driving force of the opposition in our first adventure. The rites and rituals that suround the very names of the holy is inspiring to me. If gods are simply elevated versions of our mortal selves, then they are somewhat lackluster, but if they are something much greater than all that, then even their name has to have some serious power behind it. What kind of means might a deity or their servitors take to protect that name, whether hiding it from knowledge or building in some kind of magical defense or taboo around it to keep it sacred? It’s an interesting direction to explore and takes something as simple as a name and makes it a driving, powerful force.


X is for Xerxes

xThere are a few historical figures who pop up in the stories of Scripture that warrant a second look. In the New Testament, the author, Luke, makes a very big deal about who is Caesar and who was governor of what province as Luke is primarily a historian and doctor by trade and is specifically rooting his tale in the historical reality of his time. In the Old Testament, after the defeat of Israel, first by the Assyrians who spread their people all over the Assyrian Empire, then by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, the people of Israel found themselves in captivity (as was the practice of the Babylonians and the Persians who followed them) in a foreign land. The best of the people were carried off to Babylon to be assimilated into the Babylonian (then Persian) empire and culture. So those many armies of the Persian empire who made up the huge army that faced down the Spartans in 300, Israel was one those conquered people who folded into the Persian war machine, but without the crazy war rhinos.

Xerxes’s story is found in the book of Esther, one of two books in the Old Testament specifically focused on a female lead character. Esther is a Jewish woman living in exile as an orphan. She’s cared for by her uncle and her story takes a dramatic turn when the king, Xerxes, becomes fed up with the many personal slights of his wife, the queen. He removes her from her role and throws a beauty pageant to choose his next wife who will become queen of Persia. Esther happens to win this pageant and goes from an occupied inhabitant of the Persian capital to its celebrated new queen.

That is where this story takes a turn for the awesome. Esther’s uncle hears about a conspiracy against the king and reports it through Esther. He is honored by the king for his service, which makes one of the king’s viziers jealous and that adviser decides to try and murder all of Esther’s people in retaliation. Little overkill, <sarcasm> but we’ve all been there, am I right?!? </sarcasm>

So this elaborate plot is put underway by the king’s vizier to single out Esther’s people (which no one realizes that she is Jewish at this point) and she is watching this all as it transpires. So she hatches her own elaborate plan and flips the machinations of the evil vizier on his head. She has him run out of town and the story ends with a delightful ending where the evil vizier is impaled on a pike. Grim, but fair.

Political intrigue and the behind the scenes machinations of court are not my personal cup of tea when playing games, but seeing an elaborate game of political chess come to fruition is very satisfying to watch. Setting the pieces in motion takes finesse and long term strategy that I lack patience for personally, but makes for a fascinating spider web of intrigue and mystery.

The book of Esther is read regularly at festivals within the Jewish community as a testimony to not only God’s protection, but of the courage of one person taking a stand and what one person can really do. It’s a short book and is maybe worth your time to witness one of history’s earliest femme fatales. It doesn’t take long and for someone who’s not so good at political intrigue it definitely inspires my imagination in regards to how you might navigate your way out of a difficult and potentially deadly political situation.


W is for Wine

w
I actually went back and forth a long time on this one because originally I was going to do “W is for Wrath”, but the imagery of wine is extremely prevalent in Scripture and I live in the Northern California bay right outside Napa Valley, so wine culture is something I’ve come to enjoy. Wrath is another big concept in Scripture, but grapes are an image that has several facets that I find more compelling than the righteous judgment fueled by a desire to bring justice to the broken (although that is pretty awesome too).

Wine was a pretty huge part of Mediterranean culture as it was a great region for grape growing and alcohol made water more sanitary and a safer option for drinking than normal drinking water. And it’s tasty. Wine stories start in Genesis when Noah, having just survived a crazy flood, drinks a little too much and embarrasses himself in front of his family (the story of the curse he places on his family members after his drunken episode is majorly complex, but a sobering reminder of the dangers of drunkenness). Wine becomes a component of offerings offered in step with the animal sacrifices which make a parallel between blood and wine (and they already look very similar). Jesus says that new wine must be put in new wine skins and not old ones because as wine ages in a wine skin, it expands the contained skin and stretches it out. Pouring new wine into an already stretched skin can cause it to burst, spilling the wine everywhere. The most powerful image of wine in the New Testament is at the Last Supper when Jesus sits down with His friends before His death and passes a cup of wine to them and states that His blood is like this wine and that they must drink this wine as a symbol of the covenant that He is establishing with the pouring out of His blood. Wine became a huge element of the religious ritual of communion from that point forward. The image of wine and blood as parallels is continued into the New Testament in the book of Revelation in a powerful image of judgment and death.

“Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.’ The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.” (Revelation 14:17-20 NIV)

So what is wine in your game? Is it merely another beverage of choice in the local tavern, or is it a symbolic foreshadowing? Does it hold ritualistic power or special significance? Could it unlock deeper secrets behind a dungeon entrance that only the correct goblet and specific wine open she drank in conjunction with each other. Could wine offer immunity to some painful effect while weakening your mental resolve and willpower? It has an interesting potential role to play in a game setting other than a passing detail in celebration of your victory in the local saloon if you are willing to explore and try something new. Salud!


V is for Violence

v
The Bible is full of stories of violence. From beginning (Cain murdering his brother Abel) to the end (war that ravages the entirety of the planet), the Bible is a testament to the incredible inventive and pervasive nature of humanity’s dark and selfish violence. The time that the Bible was written into was violent and produced some of the earliest law codes that placed limitations on the violence that people could inflict on each other, even in retribution for violence done against them. The Code of Hammurabi and the Levitical law of the Bible both contain the rule of “an eye for an eye” to specifically reduce the escalating cycle of vengeance that ends in wars.

Roleplaying games are full of violence too. Most roleplaying games today thrice off of various combat simulations and conflict resolution mechanics of varying levels of tactical expression. Finding justice for wrongdoing is a common theme throughout RPGs and being the force that stands against injustice and drawing the line against a violent oppressors is something that comes up frequently, but what if there was a another response against the violent offender? What if the response of force against force wasn’t the only option? Jesus had something to say about this specific issue.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42 NIV)

Many have cited this example as a reason to endure abuse or to merely passively engage with an offender, but there is a slightly off component to Jesus’s advice that doesn’t come up all that often. Each of the slights and responses that He discusses had a cultural context. Turning your cheek into the slap forces your opponent to attack you either with a fist and acknowledge you as an equal or slap you with the left hand and be shunned for breaking cultural taboos. Roman soldiers could force an occupied person to carry their equipment and march with them, but only for a mile. Jesus’s suggestion is delightfully loving yet subversive to show that you can’t put them down.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should turn all your combat resolutions into peaceful protests or civil disobedience, but some of the best little moments in my roleplaying experience have been when violence or killing was not an option. The time I took my players weapons away after they were knocked out with sleeping gas and they had to not only break out of jail, but escape with out their lethal tools. It was hilarious seeing them come up with alternative ways to face their opponents. I also played a character in a campaign once who had never killed a thing in his life. Whenever he attacked, he deliberately tried to knock his opponent unconscious and find the means to release them safely. When his friend was mortally wounded by a creature and he resorted to real violence and killed the beast, it was a turning point for him. Lastly, I played in an adventure where we were investigating strange doings in a mine that was being haunted by Orc ghosts whose burial grounds had been disturbed. We couldn’t make them stay dead or dissipated, so we had to do some problem solving to satisfy their angry disposition and set them at rest and it was a very compelling and interesting adventure to explore.

Basically, violence doesn’t have to be the main theme of a game you play. Overcoming adversity and even combat can and should be a big part of the roleplaying game experience, but there is no need for it to remain a bloodbath. There is something empowering and in my opinion more interesting about finding a solution that might take a bit more time and creativity than simply at the end of a bloody dagger.


U is for Uriah

uA lazy king sleeps with a woman after being captivated by her beauty and kills her husband to cover up his indiscretion after failing to trick her honorable husband into sleeping with her to explain her pregnancy. Sounds like something out of Game of Thrones, right? Wrong. It’s from the Bible.

Uriah was a man in the time of King David who had the unfortunate honor of being married to a beautiful woman the king desired. Her name was Bathsheba and her infidelity with King David and the shenanigans that followed have become a cautionary tale of the corrupting power of authority and the need for accountability for leaders. Uriah was a soldier in King David’s army and he had a lovely wife and while he was off fighting in wars for his king and country, the king slept with his wife and got her pregnant. So the King did the logical thing, he summoned the soldier home for a little shore leave to help cover up his indiscretion. The problem was that Uriah wouldn’t go home.

“Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!’

Then David said to him, ‘Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.’

So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.

(2 Samuel 11:11-17 NIV)

Uriah was too dang proud and loyal to his comrades-at-arms to take real leisure while at home so David had him killed to cover up his crime. Cool guy that David.

Murder mysteries and corrupt royals have a regular place at the gaming table and many unjust rulers get toppled through roleplaying games. How do you confront evil and corruption within the mighty? How do you try to correct those who have abused their power? Is there still hope for reconciliation or does a particular crime mean that a leader cannot be allowed to rule any longer? How is justice best served and should you be the one to help bring it?

The way this particular story pans out is pretty excellent. A man named Nathan was a prophet who spoke for God. He had come before David before and he arrived in the King’s courts with a story to tell asking for the King’s Justice. He tells the story of a rich man who had everything  and a poor man who only had one little lamb who he had cared for for years. When a guest came for the king, he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it and served it to his guests. Nathan finished his story and asked for the King to declare judgment. David ranted and screamed that this man must be brought forward and punished most harshly. Nathan stops and simply says, “You are that man.” The King realizes what he is done and grieves his sinfulness. He is still punished, but he becomes a much better king because of it.

The way we answer that question of how far can a hero go before they fall beyond recovery can define an entire campaign. David had his foibles, but he is still lauded as an incredible poet and warrior who knew the heart of God. Nathan (and God by extension) saw the potential for good in David and went the route of reconciliation for him. How far are you willing to go in a game to bring someone back and how much will you let stand before justice must rise above? Alignments in rpg’s give direction as to how you approach the answers of these questions, but I’d not seen many responses like Nathan’s. He’s Lawful Creative or something like that.


T is for Tests

tThroughout the Old Testament, there is an abiding theme of God testing His people and putting trials in front of them in order to demonstrate or prove their faithfulness to Him. The most famous of these tests is a story about Abraham and how God tested his priorities and his faith in God’s ability to keep His promises.

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’

‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.

‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’

Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied.

‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.'”

(Genesis 22:1-8 NIV)

Now that’s a crazy story. There is so much controversy tied up in this. How could Abraham possibly feel justified in killing his son?!? Especially since as part of Abraham’s story he had been childless and waiting for so many years waiting on the promise that God would give him offspring even as he entered into old age. And we don’t know how old Isaac is in this story. Most artwork depicting this scene show him as a young man or child, but some believe Isaac may have been a grown man when this happened, which really changes his role in the story.

These tests seem harsh and cruel, but the response that God heaps out on Abraham is also mighty. In games, tests are a regular part of the way that we challenge players. Their decisions, their priorities and their integrity is on display throughout games and how they handle the decisions that are put in front of them. Tests sometimes put temptation directly in front of the player and see what they do with it  and what that says about who they are. Like Galadriel in the Fellowship of the Ring when she rejects the One Ring and remains who she truly is. I did this in my once a month lunch game of Dungeon World by dropping a magical cursed dagger in front of the halfling thief who was more than intrigued when it started whispering to him and offering him power at a price. I did something else like this in a special one shot adventure for one of my long time players who was performing the ritual trials required to become Queen of the Dark Elves. The end of the ritual would have given her the chance to reform the crystalline heart of the Drow and rededicate them to Lolth’s service or she could carve out her own heart and place it on the crystalline pedestal and take the Drow heart for herself which would free her people from Lolth’s influence. It was a weird test and she wasn’t sure what it would mean for her or her people.

Tests bring out some of the best of us. It is the challenge of not knowing how we will respond that makes it interesting and roleplaying games are awesome at this kind of thing. So test yourself, test your players, and put situations that are more complicated and challenging than merely knocking down pegs, but that draw those deeper questions out about who you are and who you are playing. It makes for a much more compelling experience and takes advantage of all the fun possibilities that roleplaying games offer to explore identity and morality as well.