Sometimes we can struggle to see the logic of the Lectionary in the texts chosen for each day. This week the logic is fairly clear. The first half of the week is built around Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, with related texts around trust, wisdom, truth and freedom – and an historical ‘anchor’ describing the liberation from Egypt as a counterpoint to Stephen’s treatment of the same theme in Acts. The passages for the second half of the week focus on the shipwreck of Paul and his companions in Acts 27 and the corresponding narrative of Noah and the Ark from Genesis chapters 6, 7 and 8.
Monday, May 11, 2020: Psalm 102:1-17; Exodus 13:17-22; Acts 7:17-40
Psalm 102.1-17 is a little over half of the Psalm (28 verses in the whole). For those familiar with Bible Chef podcast 2, the text of this Psalm has been ‘cut-up’ very differently by various commentators (that is, they analyse the structure in very different ways). There are elements of individual lament, communal hymn and even some elements of prophecy! How has all this come together? One scholar has referred to the ‘unusually misshapen structure’ of the Psalm. Another explains it thus:
“We have here an eloquent witness for the manner in which ancient prayers, originally written as an individual’s lament about sickness, have in later times been read. The words, contrary to the meaning that was obvious to the eyes, were applied to the all-important concern of that later time, to the longings of the people uprooted from their homeland.” (H. Schmidt)
At issue in the Psalm are the two layers of ‘individual petition’ (the song of an individual person) and the ‘communal hymn’ (the liturgical expression of the gathered community). This tension is seen in modern hymnody in the distinction between what in German are called ‘ich lieder’ and ‘wir lieder’: ‘I-songs’ and ‘we-songs’. ‘I songs’; are in the first person singular and ‘we-songs’ are in the plural. Some churches have ALL their songs in the I-song format (me! me! me! …) others are all about the shared affirmations that we make, and the shared praise that we offer (we! we! we! ….) There is a good case to be made that a healthy spirituality will have a balance of I-songs, we-songs and You-songs (hymns addressed to, or descriptive of, God)!
The Lectionary has simplified these issues for us by ‘peeling off’ the last 11 verses and giving us solely the first three sections of the Psalm. The ‘I-song’ predominates in vss 1-11 and the ‘we-song / you-song’ in vss 12-17. In the remainder of the Psalm these voices are more alternating or intermingled.
Vss 1-2: A formulaic address to God from an individual petitioner asking for help in a time of distress.
Vss 3-11: These verses are intensely personal and describe bodily experience of serious illness or old age and approaching death. Vss 6-7 evoke loneliness through bird metaphors. Some scholars quote similar references to birds from ancient Babylonian laments. In our own time these verses may evoke for some of us the imagery of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Like a bird on a wire’.
Vs 8 introduces the motif of ‘the enemy’. Throughout the Psalms we often find descriptions of personal pain and illness transitioning quickly to naming the role of enemies – in a way that is jarring to modern sensibilities. For us, illness is one thing, and conflict another. The world of the Psalms was very different. As we see in the book of Job, illness and misfortune were interpreted as the judgement of God for sin (a kind of reverse prosperity gospel). Job’s ‘friends’ gather around him to ‘suggest’ ways he might have sinned and call on him to repent. In times of illness a more aggressive probing of one’s character and actions would be done by ‘enemies’ – and these might simply be your pious neighbours who see God’s hand at work in everything.
In that ancient world, some scholars see another phenomenon familiar to us in the Australian indigenous belief in ‘pointing the bone’ – that magicians and cursing can cause mysterious illness and death.
The possible connection between our illnesses and those who don’t particularly like us, would occur to the ancient mind much more readily than to us. So completely have we separated personal feelings from our understanding of illness, that many people today feel a kind of personal moral failure if they express schadenfreude (or something stronger) when a person in authority who has denied, or obstructed responses to, a major health challenge like Covid-19 eventually gets the same disease. I suspect that the people who first worshipped with the Psalms would have had so such compunction: they would have dished it out in spades, relishing the irony and rejoicing in ‘the justice of the Lord’!
Vss 12-17: These verses describe the steadfastness of God (vs 12) and the hope of the future (vs 13-17) in terms much more redolent of the voice of the community. What is very interesting is that instead of recounting the great acts of God in the past (the usual further development of the affirmation expressed in v 12), this Psalm moves into a prophetic mode and confidently predicts the great acts of God in the future (vss 13, 15-17). This prophetic voice is not widespread in the Psalms. The context here would appear to be the time of Exile, indicated by vs 14 which affirms how much ‘your servants’ (note the plural and clear naming of the community) hold dear the rubble and dust of the destroyed city of Jerusalem (or Zion).
Exodus 13.17-22 tells of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the people in the Exodus. It is here as a counterpoint to Stephen’s preaching about Moses. A fascinating detail is vs 17 – that God did NOT lead them the short way through the land of the Philistines (today’s Gaza Strip) because of the danger of war. The route took them ‘the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea’ (18a) with the rather contradictory statement The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle (18b). Does this verse refer to an ancient and enduring antipathy between the Philistines (that is, the Palestinians – the modern form of the ancient name) and Israel that runs through the book of Judges, the time of David and Solomon and right through to modern times?
Acts 7.17-40: The death of Stephen was the reading for Sunday (yesterday), and today and tomorrow we have large swathes of Stephen’s long sermon that preceded it. A detailed comparison of the Exodus narrative and Stephen’s telling of the story reveals just how much Stephen was deconstructing or attacking the Jewish reading of their founding prophet: Stephen sees Moses as anointed from birth (he was beautiful before God vs 20); Stephen seems to affirm the wisdom of the Egyptians and notes that Moses was powerful (vs 22); Moses’ awareness of his role as deliverer predates the burning bush epiphany (vs 25) and Moses’ key identity to Stephen was as a resident alien in the land of Midian (vs 29 cf Stephen’s denial that the land was given to Abraham as his heritage (vs 5) and that Abraham too lived as a resident alien (vs 6). Stephen directly names both Abraham and Moses as resident aliens and implies as much for Jacob and Joseph (vss 9-16).
Stephen also frames the death of the infants in Egypt not as the command of Pharaoh to ‘all his people’ that all Hebrew baby boys be killed (Exodus 1.18-22), but that Pharaoh dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die (vs 19). Stephen lays the death of their sons directly at the door of the Israelites! He stresses over and over how the people of Israel rejected Moses, but how Moses prophesied that God would raise up a new prophet (vs 37) who Stephen identifies as Jesus.
Note too that Moses is not portrayed as the one who receives the law, but as the one who received living oracles to give to us (vs 38), a description more applicable to Moses as the forerunner of Jesus than Moses as the great founding law-giver of Israel.
This is hardly a neutral telling of the story of Israel, but a condemnation of Israel’s historical self-understanding.
- Tuesday, May 12, 2020: Psalm 102:1-17; Proverbs 3:5-12; Acts 7:44-56
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Proverbs 3.5-12 is a part of the Wisdom tradition (found mainly in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs). While not directly invoking Wisdom in personified form, these verses speak of the blessing that results from trusting and serving the Lord, accepting discipline and knowing that when we are disciplined, the Lord delights in us.
As a High School student vss 5-6 were very important to me. I would recite them to myself in every exam season with a slight amendment in vs 6: In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your pass. I happily sailed through all my school exams, but by the end of first year university I had been elected the Secretary of the Evangelical Union and I knew that this was a dishonest use of Scripture. So I stopped invoking it to myself every October – and promptly failed Economics 1 and just scraped through Pure Maths!
In Acts 7.44-56, Stephen, having already attacked the place of both Abraham and Moses in Israel’s history, decides to give the Temple the same treatment. He grounds the Temple in the ancient tent of testimony (itself an interesting concept) (vs 44) which is quickly traced through Joshua and David (as the tent) and then Solomon who built a house for him (vss 45-47). Stephen then demolishes the whole concept of ‘the house of God’ with the prophetic denunciation of vss 49-50. The tension between ‘the creator of heaven and earth’ then ‘living in a house made by human hands’ is recognised and negotiated by Solomon in the service of dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 6, see especially vs 18) but here Stephen invokes the prophets who voice God’s scorn for the Temple.
Having attacked Jewish understandings of Abraham and Moses, depicted Israel as perpetually faithless and disobedient, and then demolished the legitimacy of the Temple, Stephen closes by adopting the pastoral approach of John the Baptist (You brood of vipers! ….) and addresses his conclusion directly to ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit…’
Perhaps understandably, his listeners then took up stones and killed him.
What sort of person was Stephen? Where in the tradition of strong, denunciatory preaching from the ancient prophets through various figures in the history of the church shall we place him? He comes to our notice after a stoush between Jewish and Gentile factions in the early church, and then was at the centre of a Christian/Jewish dispute in the synagogue of the Freedmen (both in Acts chapter 6). By the end of chapter 7 he was dead – a brilliant, courageous, but perhaps inherently adversarial and controversial man. I have always found most of the Stephen’s (and the Stephanie’s) who I know to be peaceable, rational and calm people (as much as one can generalise). Perhaps they are all still recovering from the spirit of their namesake!
- Wednesday, May 13, 2020: Psalm 102:1-17; Proverbs 3:13-18; John 8:31-38
For the Psalm, see Monday.
In Proverbs 3.13-18 (the continuation of yesterday’s reading) the framework of ‘trusting the Lord’ changes to a commitment to finding ‘wisdom’ which, from vs 14 on is personified in female form. In the Orthodox tradition in particular, this personified Wisdom is seen as a form of the Logos (the Word), is named by the Greek word for wisdom Sophia, and in some formulations would almost appear as a part of the Trinity. The imagery of vss 15-18 is both beautiful and powerful.
John 8.31-38 appears disconnected to anything else in the readings this week, until we recognise that it is a kind of ‘hinge’ between the Stephen themes of the previous few days (going back to last Thursday) and the emerging dramatic story of the shipwreck of Paul in Acts 27. Note too that Saturday brings John back again!
In this passage Jesus is teaching (or arguing with?) the Jews who had believed in him (vs 31). They claim freedom through being descendants of Abraham (cf. Stephen’s argument with the Jews), but Jesus seeks to ground freedom in the truth of the Son’s word (vss 32, 36).
- Thursday, May 14, 2020: Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 6:5-22; Acts 27:1-12
The reading from Psalm 66 again presents us with a part of a Psalm. The first 7 verses have been ‘peeled away’, perhaps because they are in the form of a great hymn shared by the people in a public liturgical setting. Vss 8-12 are in the collective voice – a ‘we-song’ – expressing on behalf the people praise for God’s protection (vss 8-9) and describing the suffering that God’s testing (vs 10) has laid upon them in terms evoking imprisonment and heavy labour in Egypt (vs 11) and the miracle of the Exodus (vs 12).
In vss 13-20 we have a different voice – an individual singer (an “I-song”). Vss 13-15 are a declaration of personal commitment to sacrifice and 16-20 is a proclamation from the individual to the community of how God has delivered him. Note that the sacrifices described in vs 15 are extensive and would indicate the sacrifice offered by a very wealthy person.
In asking the question of how these two very thematically- and rhythmically- different halves of the Psalm (vss 1-12 and vss 13-20) came to be linked together one scholar puts the twinned message very succinctly: “Yahweh liberates his people” (vss 1-12) and “Yahweh helps an individual person” (vss 13-20). Isn’t that the heart of the gospel: that we proclaim not only what God has done for us (the community), but also what God has done for me (each individual)? I-songs and We-songs always belong together!
Genesis 6.5-22 commences the saga of Noah and the Ark which will be read over three days. It is placed in parallel with the shipwreck of Paul and his companions in Acts 27, read over two days (this week – one day next week). This parallelism is interesting: the ancient story of the judgement of the world and the saving of humanity through Noah, presented as a ‘type’ of the extended story of a shipwreck involving Paul and some sailors and soldiers. The people who juxtaposed these stories are suggesting that, just as humanity was saved and ‘recommenced’ through Noah and the Flood, so the world was ‘saved’ and begun again through the survival of Paul and his companions through the shipwreck.
Vss 11-13 seem to be a repeat of vss 5-8. Vs 11 is a new beginning but 11-13 conveys substantially the same information as 5-8. Note that the word used for God in vss 5-8 is the LORD (small capitals indicating the Hebrew word Yahweh) whereas vss 11-13 use ‘God’. These parallel accounts are from different sources and are arranged around a description of Noah and his family (vss 9-10).
Vs 18 introduces ‘my covenant with you’. There are various ‘covenants’ between God and God’s people. This Noahic Covenant is expressed in two passages – Genesis 8.20-22 from the source who uses the name ‘the LORD’, and Genesis 9.1-17 (in terms reminiscent of the Adamic Covenant of Genesis 3) by the source who uses the name ‘God’.
Acts 27 is one of my favourite Bible passages – perhaps because I like boats and sailing! The first thing to note is that it is an extended and detailed narrative. Luke-Acts is a two-volume work (read the opening verses of the two books). Both books have long and detailed narratives just prior to their conclusions (Luke – the Emmaus Road; Acts – the shipwreck) as a kind of narrative summary and climax to the books. Today’s passage is the introduction to the exciting narrative of the shipwreck. Julius the centurion (vs 1), and Paul’s prophetic advice of what will unfold (vs 9) are introduced. Julius is kind to Paul (vs 3), but disregards Paul’s crucial advice (vs 11) – and the stage is set!
- Friday, May 15, 2020: Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 7:1-24; Acts 27:13-38
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Genesis 7 is one of the great epic passages of the Bible. The language and style is majestic: I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made (vs 4); …on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened (vs 11); then the LORD shut him in (vs 16).
Again, the name of God used is ‘the LORD’ – indicating a particular tradition of ancient Israel (in which God is always called ‘the LORD’). Chapter 7 almost follows on perfectly from chapter 6.5-8 (which comes from the same source).
Acts 27.13-38 is part of the main body of the shipwreck story. Full commentary on this wonderful passage is beyond our scope here, other than to note; the detailed descriptions of weather and geography (vss 13-15); the extensive and escalating attempts to save the ship which are consistent with marine practices (vss 16-20, 27-29, 38); and two interludes in which Paul encourages (vss 21-26) and directs his companions (vss 30-36). In the latter episode, the shared meal has all the signs of a Communion meal (vs 35).
- Saturday, May 16, 2020: Psalm 66:8-20; Genesis 8:13-19; John 14:27-29
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
The Genesis 8 passage does not follow on directly from yesterday’s narrative. Note that again the name of the Divine Being changes to ‘God’. The language is not so grand. It is clear that throughout Genesis 6, 7 and 8 the Noah story is woven together from two different sources who used different names for God.
Rather than giving us the ending of the shipwreck story (we have to wait until Monday!) the lectionary gives us John 14: 27-29: this passage has artful echoes of John 14.1-3 (Do not let your hearts be troubled / Jesus going away, with the associated theme of ‘in my Father’s house are many dwelling places’ – reminiscent of both Psalm 102 that opened the week which looked to God’s rebuilding of Jerusalem, and also last Sunday’s reading from 1 Peter about being built into a spiritual house). The passage also looks forward to John 20.19-23 with Jesus announcing the blessing of peace.