Monday, June 15, 2020: Psalm 126; Genesis 23:1-19; Romans 5.1-11
Psalm 126 presents various difficulties of interpretation that are not immediately obvious in English translation. It falls into three sections. Vss 1-3 look back to dramatic events of deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Vs 4 is a lament and call for the Lord to act again in the present. Vss 5-6 are set in the future tense and assure the hearers that God will indeed act to save.
The heart of the interpretive problem is that the tense of vss 1-3 could also be read as a future tense. Some scholars refer to this kind of grammatical construction as the ‘prophetic perfect’. Similar issues (and a very similar structure) are found in Psalm 85. The issue with these ambiguities of tense is just how we situate the psalm in the history of Israel so as to make sense of what it refers to.
You can see in the footnotes on biblegateway.com how the translation of the text is dependent on which context the translators think it is referring to.
If vss 1-3 are read in the (future) perfect tense, then this could be a prayer dating from the Exile where vss 1-3 predict what God will surely do, vss 5-6 confirm this and vs 4 is the substance of the people’s lament and petition from their experience of Exile.
If vss 1-3 are read as a past tense, referring back to the Exile, then the Psalm has a post-Exilic setting – but what was left for the Lord to do? Why did the joyous Exiles who had experienced great things need further deliverance?
One solution of this issue is to read the setting as indeed post-Exilic, but during that early time – the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the project of re-founding and rebuilding Jerusalem and Israel as a nation were indeed fragile. The mighty event of return from Exile has occurred, but more was needed. ‘We are finding that we are like a stream in the desert, running dry and failing’ (vs 4). Then comes the re-assurance of the promise of vss 5-6.
The ‘sowing with tears/reaping with joy’ metaphor could reflect some ancient Near-Eastern cultures in which ritual weeping was associated with the sowing season because the seed was seen as the body of the deity, interred in the earth in a form of burial. Without rain it would indeed be a burial and no crop would come forth (thus, for example, the cult of Osiris). It could also be a metaphor for the hard work of ploughing and sowing. Finally, if the setting of the psalm was the time of re-establishing the ruined Jerusalem with the danger and privations attested in Nehemiah and Ezra, ‘sowing with tears’ would be an apt way of describing those difficult years, from which future generations would reap a joyful harvest.
Genesis 23 contains the wonderful narrative of the death of Sarah. Note in verse 2 that She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan (vs 2). As explored in the notes for last week, Hebron is the second most holy place in Israel for both Jews and Muslims and is one of the focal points of conflict between Israel and Palestine. The grave is still there with a mosque and a synagogue sharing a common wall now erected over the Cave of Machpelah.
Abraham describes himself as a foreigner and a stranger among you (vs 4). There is no claim here of ‘the promised land” (in marked contrast to the current political situation’).
The dialogue in vss 4-16 – which reads to Western eyes as two very gentlemanly friends making offers to each other in friendship and kindness – is actually a negotiation couched in Eastern politeness. The repeated requests for permission to buy by Abraham (vss 4, 8-9, 12-13, 16) and the repeated offers of a tomb as a gift by the Hittites and then by Ephron (vss 5-6, 10-11, 14-15) are the elaborate stages of a negotiation establishing in carefully graduated steps the principle of the purchase of a tomb (accepted by the Hittites), identifying the preferred land and current owner by Abraham, offer of this land as a gift by Ephron, further request to purchase by Abraham, Ephron ‘carelessly’ mentioning the price (four hundred shekels of silver) before offering it again as a gift (what is 400 shekels of silver between you and me?) and Abraham accepting the price, weighing out the silver and handing it over.
In the final verse it identifies the location as the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. This sounds almost like the legal citation we have on our own deeds of title to property. The mention of Mamre is important, for although Abraham was a nomad, we see him at Mamre in Genesis 13.18 (after the promise of the land had been given to him), Genesis 14.13 where Abraham is described as living at the oaks of Mamre the Amorite and again in 14.24 (with further negotiations with the locals described), and again in Genesis 18.1 (where the mysterious ‘three men’ – the Lord?, angels? – came to him). Isaac died there and was buried (Genesis 35.27-29) as was Jacob (Genesis 49.29-33). Mamre was a centre for the wandering patriarchs, the tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives.
Romans 5.1-11 marks a key transition in Paul’s argument. Having developed his idea of God dealing with all people fairly and justly from Romans 1.16 – 4.25, Paul now begins a long exploration of just how God has dealt with human sinfulness and how his ‘justification’ operates. This section of the book will unfold through chapters 5,6,7 and reaches its climax in chapter 8. Chapter 5 falls into two parts: 5.1-11 and 5.12-21. Today we explore 5.1-11.
A sign of how established our thinking about Romans has become, is the heading supplied to 5.1-11 in my edition of the NRSV: Results of Justification. This assumes that chapters 1-4 have been about ‘justification’ understood in a Reformation sense. Brendan Byrne’s commentary provides an alternative heading: The Hope that Springs from God’s Love.
Chapter 5 opens with the summary of where the argument of 1-4 has arrived: Therefore, since we are justified by faith (vs 1a – NRSV). I prefer the literal translation: Justified, then, by faith … (thus Brendan Byrne). There is no ‘faith in Jesus’ here – in fact, chapter 4 has all been about Abraham’s faith and how God ‘reckoned’ righteousness to him because of his faith. Faith as a way of living and responding to God leads to what we might translate rather clumsily as ‘righteous-ification’ or, to use the usual English word ‘justification’. Justice and righteousness are alternate English renderings of the same Greek word (dikaiosuné), but justification has become surrounded by a constellation of theological ideas associated with faith in Jesus that, as we saw in reflecting on Romans Chapter 3, might not have been what Paul was addressing. The text here does not say Therefore, since we are justified by faith in Jesus, but simply Therefore, since we are justified by faith…
Now there is a potential linkage of ‘faith’ and ‘Jesus’ in vs 2a but there two forms of the text that have come down to us. I will provide the variant reading in brackets – ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand…’ At the very earliest stages of the transmission of the sacred text there are questions around exactly how our language should express the relationship between three key concepts in the theology of justification: Jesus – faith – grace.
Then comes another question of interpretation. If you have good footnotes in your Bible you will see that there are footnotes providing alternative translations to vss 1b, 2b and 3a. The NRSV translation in each of those verses is:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith … (vs 1a)
… we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… (vs 1b)
… we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God… (vs 2b)
… we also boast in our sufferings …. (vs 3a)
This translates the words in the indicative mood – a simple statement that these things are now ‘done and dusted’. However, there is an alternative textual tradition (one followed by some of the early Church Fathers, including Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen) which translates the words in the hortatory or subjunctive mood – that these are things we should aim for. On this translation the passage reads:-
Therefore, since we are justified by faith … (vs 1a)
… let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… (vs 1b)
… let us boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God… (vs 2b)
… let us also boast in our sufferings …. (vs 3a)
Perhaps this simply reflects different attitudes to spiritual life? Some people understand that the work has been done and these realities (having peace, sharing the glory of God, boasting in our sufferings) are ‘a done deal’. Others, while acknowledging the work has been done, believe we still have to strive to see these things made real in our own experience. The difference in the Greek text is simply one letter – a short ‘O’ as against a long ‘O’ – similar in sound but in the Gk printed as ‘o’ (short) and ‘w’ (long). While the difference would have been clear on the written page, in spoken encouragement, or the excitement of a sermon, or the dictation of a manuscript, or just the inclination of a believing ear to hear the emphasis in different ways, we have the origins of the wonderful diversity of faith and doctrine that characterises the Christian church!
The main difference in these readings I think is this: is Paul here rehearsing the known facts of what comes from ‘justification’? Or is he encouraging his readers to understand that ‘faith’ leads to us being ‘reckoned righteous’, which means we can begin to find peace, and can hope to share in the glory of God, and even – amazingly! – boast in our sufferings…?
Vs 5 introduces a series that builds a causal chain of virtues, from suffering 🡪 endurance 🡪 character 🡪 hope, and hope does not disappoint us, for God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (vs 5). This is the first reference to the Holy Spirit in Romans. The metaphor of ‘pouring’ reflects that water is a symbol of purification. As we read Chapters 5-8 we will see how Paul develops his doctrine of the Holy Spirit in forming and empowering our relationship with God.
Vss 6-7 introduce the theme of the hope that springs from God’s love through Christ’s death for the ungodly. The emphatic contrast is made between how one might rarely die for a righteous person but that God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (vs 8).
Who is ‘us’? I think there is a great temptation – implied in the heading in my Bible Results of Justification – to see ‘us’ as those who have been justified by faith in Christ and are part of ‘the Jesus mob’. But Paul has just spent 4 chapters arguing that ALL are ungodly, all are sinners. When Christ died for the ungodly, he died for all. ‘Us’ then, is the whole of humankind.
A really vital concept to get hold of is the first two words of vs 9: Much more… Paul is at pains in this chapter to present the profound asymmetry of grace. If you read on through chapter 5 you will see ‘much more…’ mentioned repeatedly (vss 9, 10, 15, 17) and other expressions of the great imbalance between sin and death on the one hand, and the abundant (super-abounding!) impact of grace and life on the other.
Note the subtle shift in metaphor in vs. 10. From a justification framework in vs 9 (grounded in notions of guilt and judgement) Paul changes to a reconciliation framework in vs 10 (grounded in notions of enemies and friendship-making).
Vs 9 translates ‘the wrath of God’ where the Greek has only ‘the wrath’. ‘Wrath’ occurs 11 times in Romans (1.18, 2.5, 2.8, 3.5, 4.15, 5.9, 9.19, 9.22, 12.19, 13.4, 13.5). It’s a significant part of Paul’s argument and the sense of the word is not consistent. Sometimes it is ‘the wrath of God’ and at others simply ‘the wrath’, and sometimes even just ‘wrath’.
Vs 11 makes clear that our reconciliation has been achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ. Just how ‘faith’ and ‘grace’ and what the Lord has achieved all fit together is not quite so clear-cut as the traditional Reformation doctrines of ‘justification’ would suggest.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020: Psalm 126; Genesis 25:7-11; Romans 5.12-21
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Genesis 25.7-11 tells with stately dignity of the death of Abraham. The biblical phrasing of an old man, full of years; and he was gathered to his people (vss 8-9) I find poetic and beautiful. Whether it would change our view of the aged if we saw them as ‘full of years’ I do not know, but what strikes me in this description is that modern funerals and burials are experienced more as a separation and a letting-go of family (understood of course as the ‘family of the living’) rather than being gathered to one’s people. There is much power and blessing in the latter view I think.
The text tells us that Isaac was then living at Beer Lahai Roi, where he first saw Rebekah (Genesis 24.62-67). The literal translation of the place-name I have always loved: The Well of the Living One who Sees Me. How many of us when we first laid eyes on the ones we have loved and married have experienced a similar sense of well-watered blessing?
Romans 5.12-21 develops the ‘types’ of Adam and Christ as a way of exploring how the constellation of sin (and law) and death, introduced through Adam as the context of human experience (vs 12), has been displaced and overcome by the gift of grace and righteousness and life, introduced through Jesus (vs 17).
Vs 12 has been used by many after Paul as an element of doctrines of ‘original sin’ that go far beyond what Paul is teaching. Adam is used as the symbol and originator of the common experience of humankind. Today we see death as a normal part of human life, not as the result of sin. When considering ‘sin’ and ‘death’ – and especially ideas of a transmissible, intergenerational ‘original sin’ – there is much in the Christian tradition that we should probably ‘unlearn’. I cannot do better to assist in this ‘unlearning’ than to quote Brendan Byrne’s treatment of these verses – using a concept particularly relevant to our current social context:
[Paul] personifies sin and death as tyrant powers which come, through Adam, to exercise Lordship over human beings. He sets up in this way a quasi-drama in which believers are rescued from the tyranny of ‘Sin’ and ‘Death’, so as to come, through Christ, under the sway of ‘Grace’ and ‘Righteousness’, similarly personified. The personification lends a somewhat mythological tone to the entire discussion. But, in personifying sin, Paul in no way wishes to suggest that human beings become helpless tools of a power somehow separate from themselves. Sin for Paul represents a kind of deadly virus in human life, a fundamental revolt against the Creator that places self and the perceived needs of self in the positions that should only be occupied by the sovereignty of God. Without denying individual responsibility, Paul’s view of sin is collective in that it holds the sins of individuals to be manifestations of this force of radical selfishness that holds all human lives within its tyrannical grip…
…The picture would seem to be that Adam’s act unleashed in the human milieu a force of selfishness that was waiting to burst out and take control. All subsequent human lives enter the ‘solidarity’ of sinfulness thereby created – a solidarity which both precedes each one’s moral history and works destructively upon it…. Paul conceives, therefore, of a solidarity in sin, over against which he will shortly set a (much more powerful) solidarity in grace.
(Romans, 1996, p175-176)
In exploring that ‘solidarity in grace’ Paul develops the ‘much more’ formula (vss. 15, 17) to stress how asymmetric and imbalanced is the answer of grace to sin. In vs. 20 Paul uses a word describing grace that doesn’t just ‘abound’, it ‘hyper-abounds’.
In exploring how this hyper-abounding grace undoes the work of sin and death, note that just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all (vs 18 – emphasis added). Again, we need to ask how accurately we read this chapter. Who is ‘us’ – in our minds – as we read the promises of vss1-3? Who is ‘all’ as we read the promise of vs 18? Vs 19 refers not to ‘all’ but to ‘many’. What significance do you see in these verses?
What is clear in this passage is that ‘law’ plays a subsidiary role to sin – law is there to help identify sin (vss 13, 20) and render it liable to punishment. Before there was law, there was still sin (vs 13) and it is sin and death that have been overcome by grace and life in Jesus Christ (vss 19-20).
Wednesday, June 17, 2020: Psalm 126; Nehemiah 9:1-8; Luke 6:12-19
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Here in Nehemiah 9.1-8, we have a context in which the Psalm for the day, as interpreted above, makes sense. Chapters 4,5 and 6 of Nehemiah reveal the political, social and security challenges of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile. While they had returned with joy and thanksgiving to their beloved land, there were enemies, problems and threats to their work and their future with which they had to deal. In chapter 8 Ezra had called them to a renewal of their faith, their ethnic identity and their worship of the Lord.
The praise of vss 5b-8 makes two points. Vss 5b-6 praise the Lord of the heavens the creator, who gives life to all things and is worshipped by the multitudes of heaven. Vss 7-8 anchor this God’s relationship with them in the story of Abraham and his emigration from Ur and the gift of the land (together with a list of the displaced tribes).
Given our reading of Romans and the questions about the righteousness of God and whether Romans calls us to have faith in Jesus, or to have the faith of Jesus, it is fascinating to see here the description of Abraham as You found his heart faithful to you (cf. Romans Chapter 4) and You have kept your promise because you are righteous (cf. Romans 3, 25, 26).
Luke 6.12-19 tells of the calling of the disciples and introduction to the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s somewhat shortened version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew Chapters 5,6,7).
What is fascinating is Luke’s description of the disciples. If we can identify the disciple named ‘Matthew’ (Lk 6.15) as the disciple converted at the tax booth in Luke 5.27-32 (where the tax collector is identified simply as ‘Levi’ cf. Mt 9.9 where the tax collector is named as ‘Matthew’) then the list of the disciples shows how inclusive the group is.
Matthew, a former tax collector, was a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, a person hated by Jews and seen as money-grubbing and unclean, a part of the oppression visited on the people in the name of Rome. But his fellow disciple was ‘Simon, who was called the Zealot’ (Lk 6.15). The Zealots were revolutionaries and insurrectionists who wanted to foment war against the Romans. If a Zealot met a tax collector in a dark alley at night, only one of them would walk out alive. Yet here were Simon and Matthew both part of the community of Jesus, united in love and mutual service!
Thursday, June 18, 2020: Psalm 86:1-10; Exodus 12:43-49; Hebrews 2:5-9
Psalm 86.1-10 has been edited down by those constructing the lectionary. Although headed A Prayer of David it shows signs of being quite late with many borrowings and references to other Psalms. The full Psalm includes references to God delivering the singer from death (vs 13) and also from arrogant foes who are attacking me (vs 14). In just selecting the first ten verses the lectionary editors have given us a unified and focussed psalm that deals with the appeal of the psalmist that God might hear.
The form of this psalm is a prayer-song of an individual. The structure of vss 1-4 is a series of petitions to God (first half each verse) with a reason supporting the petition that describes the situation of the psalmist (for I… – the second half of each verse).
Verse 5 affirms that God is forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call.. before vss 6-7 return to the structure of ‘petition to God to hear’ linked to ‘the dependence of the petitioner on God’.
Vss 8-10 end on a note of praise and affirmation of the Lord.
The Passover restrictions of Exodus 12.43-49 echo the reading yesterday of Nehemiah 9. Here were the Israelites about to eat the first Passover as the final plague overwhelms Egypt and the Lord gives regulations for the Passover that MUST relate to a much later time: foreigners (vs 43), temporary residents, hired workers (vs 45) could not eat it. But how could such persons be part of the Israelite slave community in Egypt? It can be seen even more clearly in vs 44 where any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him.
In Egypt the Israelites were the slaves, not the slave owners. These regulations must come from a later age where the Israelites had land, owned slaves, had hired workers and temporary residents. They have then been ‘written back’ into the accounts of the earliest origins of the festival. Like Nehemiah 9, there is an urge to separate from foreigners and preserve the ethnic purity of the nation with male circumcision as the symbolic boundary to be enforced around the community.
Friday, June 19, 2020: Psalm 86:1-10; Genesis 35:1-4; Acts 5:17-26
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Genesis 35.1-4 continues the theme of purification within the history of Israel that we saw in yesterday’s Exodus reading. Sometimes that urge to purification was directed at outsiders, sometimes at the foreign gods of those outsiders.
If you read the context of this ‘call of the Lord’ in Genesis 35.1, it immediately follows the story of the rape of Dinah (Jacob’s daughter) by prince Shechem, son of the ruler of the city after which prince Shechem was named. The story is told in Gen 34, how the sons of Jacob dealt treacherously with the men of Shechem and committed genocide against them (Genesis 34. 25 ff). All in all, this one of the racier chapters in the Bible – sex and violence, romance and true love, cunning, deception and trickery, ending with the murder of all the men of Shechem and the enslavement of all the women and children, and the looting of the wealth of the city by Jacob’s sons.
Perhaps wisely (in the circumstances), the Lord suggests to Jacob it is time to move on before the surrounding tribes get restless! (see Genesis 34.30-31 for Abraham’s rebuke and his sons’ riposte.)
Jacob took the foreign gods surrendered by the members of his own household (presumably the women captured and taken as concubines or slaves by his sons) and buried them, ‘under the oak at Shechem’ (Gen 35.4). This would have been part of the plunder from ‘the rape of Shechem’ by Jacob’s sons and is perhaps a form of sacrifice or even restitution for what his sons had done. The oak (or ‘terebinth’) would have been some kind of cultic site in Canaanite religion.
On Monday we saw that Mamre (Hebron) was a significant place in the Abraham narrative. So was Bethel, the place where Jacob now returned to live, and where Abraham had first camped and built his first altar to the Lord in Canaan (Gen 12.7).
We cannot be exactly sure of the location of ancient Bethel – it was either 12 miles from Jerusalem or 3 miles north east of Ramallah (Ramallah and Jerusalem are quite close). So Mamre (modern Hebron), and Bethel (close to modern Jerusalem and Ramallah – the administrative capitals of Israel and Palestine respectively) are still centres of resistance and politics within the modern Holy Land.
Abraham had also journeyed through Shechem (Genesis 12.6) – note the reference there to the ‘oak of Moreh’ at Shechem. Shechem was named in the Old Testament as the first capital of Israel. It was located in the middle of the northern part of the country. Its modern name is Nablus – an Arabised version of the Roman name Flavia Neapolis (“the New City of the Emperor Flavius”). How typical of an imperial power to take an ancient city and rename it as the ‘New City of […insert name of conqueror here…]’. Nablus (= Neapolis) is a centre of Palestinian culture, identity and resistance. If you read the history of Old Testament, Shechem was often the place where rebellion was plotted against the king in Jerusalem. It became the capital of the Northern Kingdom when Israel split following the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12.1, 14.17; 2 Chronicles 10.1). It was a political and urban centre for the Samaritans. It is still a distinctively political and cultural centre in modern Palestine and is sometimes even in tension with Ramallah!
At a time when we are exploring the book of Romans against a background of ‘tribalism’ and tensions between Jews and Gentiles, it is fascinating that other Bible readings this week (that I stress I did not chose!) reveal the deep problems of tribalism, suspicion and violence dating back to the time of the patriarchs (later seen as Jews vs Samaritans) and still continuing into contemporary times (Israeli Jews vs Palestinians).
Acts 5.17-26 continues with a similar theme – suspicion by one religious group (the Sadducceean party of the Jewish leadership) against another (the apostles). The motive for this enmity was described as being filled with jealousy (vs 17). The successful and quite spectacular ministry of Peter and the other apostles is described in vss 12-16. The apostles are imprisoned (vs 18), then mysteriously and miraculously delivered (vs 19) and resume their popular ministry (vs 21a). They are finally recovered from the Temple and brought before the authorities, but without violence because they [the temple police] were afraid of being stoned by the people (vs 26).
There was no ethnic dimension to this dispute – all those involved were Jews. It is not until Acts 6 that disputes arise between the ethnically Jewish Christians and the Greek (converts to Judaism?) Christians. They fall out and develop separate leadership structures, eventually leading to the kind of dynamics that are the sustained focus of the book of Romans.
Again, I could not but think how contemporary the Scripture is! As I write this reflection, various politicians in Australia (including our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister) have lamented the antipathy of the demonstrating crowds (opposed to racism) to the police (who are seeking to suppress and limit the size of demonstrations for reasons of public health). In the USA, General Milley, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has apologised two days ago for walking with the President from the White House to St John’s church after the military police and park police had used force to clear demonstrators from Lafayette Park and the road before St John’s Church. (It is interesting that we moderns have park police, whereas in Peter’s time they had temple police – a sign of what we value?) Many U.S. and even Australian police are now avoiding violence and showing their respect for the crowds by ‘taking a knee’, as have many footballers as the AFL and NRL seasons commence!
When you read through the remainder of Acts 5 you will see members of the Jewish Council who are filled with rage (vs 33) and seek to ’dominate the battle space’ (to use the modern expression). Others, like the Pharisee Gamaliel (vs 35 ff), urges caution and reminds them of previous demonstrations that, while violent, didn’t come to anything, so let’s not overreact. He also rather guilelessly points out that the insurgents/demonstrators may be right – that God might actually be on their side (vs 39)! Again, Gamaliel was a Pharisee, a member of the opposition party to the Sadducees.
The ‘counsel of Gamaliel’ won the day (vs 39b) and has passed into English idiom. Such wisdom is desperately needed this week – from Canberra to Washington, Melbourne to New York, Berlin to London!
Need I point out that the cause of these events, both then and now, was the death of an innocent man while in the custody of the authorities?
Saturday, June 20, 2020: Psalm 86:1-10; Ezekiel 29:3-7; Luke 11:53-12:3
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Ezekiel 29:3-7 is a clever prophetic oracle denouncing the Pharaoh and Egypt. Ezekiel was writing from Babylon in the early days of the Exile: what threat could Egypt possibly be?
Something seen in all world literatures is that oppressed and occupied people need to find forms of speech to express their hope and their critique of their captors that will not bring down violence on their heads. In Welsh poetry of the period after 1300 when Edward 1 of England had conquered Wales, there were traditions of satirical poems lambasting the ‘kingdoms’ of the mole and the rat and the owl – all just local colour to the colonising English, but the common Welsh people knew which English kings ‘the mole, the rat and the owl’ were referring to!
Ezekiel takes 7 chapters to deliver prophetic denunciations and judgements against the nations to the west of the vanquished land of Israel and a few small nations very close to the old Israel: Ammon, Moab, Edom and Philistia in Chapter 25. Tyre (west of Israel on the Mediterranean coast) gets three whole chapters (26-28) and then he lays into far-away Egypt over four chapters – 29, 30, 31 and 32!! Our reading today comes from the beginning of this long denunciation of Egypt.
Part of Ezekiel’s purpose can be glimpsed in chapter 31. Ezekiel is an exile in Babylon – far to Israel’s north-east. He makes no denunciation of this dominant nation and military power which had destroyed his own nation – that would be far too dangerous! Look to the west and the immediate neighbourhood of the old Israel. Remind far-away Egypt of how vulnerable it is to God’s justice and action.
Then in Chapter 31 he points out to Pharaoh the example of Assyria, described in its glory days (Ezek 31.3-9) and how God acknowledged its greatness and pride (Ez 31.10) only to pronounce the judgement I gave it into the hand of the Prince of the nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves (Ez 31.11). Very clever: denounce the king of Egypt (who is safely far away to the south-west), and rub his nose in the fact that great Assyria (right next door to Babylon) was dealt with by the prince of the nations. Who would that prince of nations be? Why, the king of Babylon, of course, who overthrew the Assyrians – and destroyed my nation – and will in his turn be overthrown by the Persians!! But I have only said nice things about him, and I would never comment on the politics of the place where I am living.
So I will call the Pharaoh a crocodile and mock his love of his great river (vs 3) [Oh, does Babylon also have – not one river – but two, Tigris and Euphrates? What did I write? …you great monster lying among your streams (plural!) vs 3 – NIV. But the Babylonians don’t have crocodiles so it can’t be them – can it?] I will hook his jaws and make the fish stick to his scales (vs 4) – until he is left in the desert to die and I will give you as food for the beast of the earth and birds of the sky (vs 5). Hmmm. A great river flowing through desert country: who on earth might he be talking about?
Vss 6-7 is a fascinating study – the ‘staff of reed’ injures through its weakness! Although you, mighty king, may have injured my people, it is only because you were weak and unreliable.
Like the medieval Welsh, Ezekiel knew a thing or two. Don’t go criticising the powerful who rule you, but moles, rats, owls – and crocodiles – are fair game!
Luke 11.53 -12:3 resonates with yesterday’s Acts reading about the machinations between Jewish parties and Jesus’ followers (although here it is the Pharisees who are warned against). While they are the good guys in the story of Acts 5, the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy (vs 1) is criticised here by Jesus. The gospel accounts describe the enemies and opponents of Jesus is various ways – Scribes, teachers of the law, Pharisees, Sadducees. These were distinct groups.
Whether Pharisees and their approach to moral rigour continued to be an issue within the early community of Jesus we cannot be certain. There was certainly tension between Judaizers and those who followed Paul’s gospel of grace (see Galatians for instance). But was that a specifically Jewish/Gentile cultural boundary (in that moralism tended to find expression through Jewish laws and rules) or was there an issue between moral ‘hard-liners’ and moderates quite apart from the question of Jews and Gentiles? In later centuries the hard-line and very moral Christian movement known as the Donatists was widespread through North Africa and the Near East – that was entirely a struggle within Christianity as to what the gospel should look like.
Jesus teaches here that the flaw of the Pharisees is not their moralism but their hypocrisy (vs 1). This accords well with Paul’s teaching in the opening verses of Romans chapter 2. Jesus argues the antidote to hypocrisy is transparency – the broadcasting of secrets, the revelation of that which is hidden (vs 2) and (in a curious mixed metaphor) what you have said in the dark will be heard in the light (vs 3a) and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops (vs 3b – NRSV). This is one occasion when I think the NIV translation is actually more accurate: And what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (vs 3b).
The word for ‘inner room’ has the sense of ‘hidden or secret room’. It is this word for room that Jesus urges us to go into to pray (Mt 6.6). It is the same word for secret room or storeroom (in the sense of a hidden or secure room) that Jesus uses later in this chapter in his parable of the trusting ravens who don’t have such rooms (Lk 12.24). There is the sense that what happens in our hidden room will eventually come out.
In support of this idea, there is an artful use of language weaving through Luke 12. Jesus uses the word for storehouse/inner rooms (tameiois) in 12.3 (where what is whispered in the inner rooms will be shouted from the housetops), and the word for storage barn (apothekas) in 12.18 (where the foolish man thinks bigger barns to store more stuff will save him). Jesus then uses both words in 12.24 to describe the ravens (who have neither storehouse (tameion – singular) nor barn (apotheke – singular) but God still looks after them! There is no security in either keeping secrets (playing political games?) or amassing wealth – only trusting in God will make you secure.