Monday, July 6, 2020Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Genesis 27:30-46; Romans 1:16-31

The Song of Songs (sometimes known as the Song of Solomon) is an ancient Hebrew love poem. At times it can be confronting in its sexual imagery. Many commentators have interpreted it through allegory, seeing in the erotic poetry a metaphor of the love between God and the soul. Perhaps the best known of these commentators was Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who preached and published 86 sermons on the Song of Songs – not bad for a book that is 8 chapters long! [Now I don’t feel so uncomfortable about the length of my series on Romans!] 

Without impugning any of the allegorical readings of the text, it is also helpful to read this text as a work of art, one of the world’s great love-poems. I have used passages from the Song of Songs in weddings. One prospective bride read a passage I suggested from the Songs of Song for her wedding. She put the Bible down and said in a hushed but appalled tone, “I couldn’t possibly ask my Auntie to read that!”

Fear not, today’s is one of the tamer passages. The structure of the book is essentially a dialogue between the alternating voices of ‘the Bride’ and her ‘Beloved’ with occasional ‘colloquies’ between the Bride and her friends (the so-called ‘daughters of Jerusalem’). In this passage the Bride speaks in vss 8-9 and then quotes her Beloved in vss 10-15. The Beloved invites her to leave the safety of the house for the winter is past, the rain is over and gone (vs 11) – perhaps a reference to a season of waiting and loneliness. He uses the metaphor of spring to anticipate their love.

In vss 16-17 the Bride herself summarises and celebrates their love. The image of ‘pasturing his flock among the lilies (until the morning breezes blow’ or until the day breathes and the shadows flee) is repeated in 6.3. Reading this second occurrence in the context of 6.2 reveals the erotic nature of the imagery involved.

Reading a passage like this in the depth of a southern winter reinforces the counter-cyclical tyranny of a lectionary built around the structure of the northern hemisphere seasons!

Genesis 27.30-46 follows on from last week’s OT reading. The deception perpetrated by Jacob and Rebekah is revealed and bitter is the response of both Isaac (vs 33) and Esau (vs 34).  The meaning of Jacob’s name (The Supplanter) has been lived out in the theft of both birthright and blessing – vs 34.

Isaac’s answer to Jacob’s request for a blessing is vss 39-40. You can see the ambiguity of its terms in the footnotes to the text: is it ‘away from’ the ‘fatness of the earth’ and ‘the dew’ that Esau’s future will be found or ‘of’ both the fatness of the earth and the dew that he will live? There is great psychological truth in vs 40. How often has a disinherited son found fame and fortune through force of arms or a military career? How often has an overshadowed sibling had to break free of the one who overshadows or supplants them in order to find their own fulfilment and future?

The passage finishes with mention of Laban (cf 25.20). Although Rebekah is concerned to protect Jacob from Easu’s wrath, (vss 41-45) she suggests to Isaac that she wants to stop Jacob from marrying Hittite women as Esau had done (see Gen 26.34-35). So the stage is set for the story of the next generation of the patriarchal family!

(Romans 1.18-25 is the lectionary passage set for this day. We dealt with this passage some weeks ago, but I have left it in here and reproduced those earlier notes. One reason for this is that the Sunday lectionary readings deal with Romans 8 in a very gradual and considered way, breaking the chapter over three successive weeks. We will look to Romans 8.1-11 tomorrow.)

Romans 1.16-31 is a long and densely constructed passage that opens with a summary statement (vs 16-17) that really stands as a ‘heading’ over the whole book of Romans, followed by an analysis of the sinfulness of humankind that sets the scene for the argument of the following chapters.

Vss 16-17 is the summary statement to which we can come back time and again as we grapple with the meaning of Romans. This is the theme, and the concepts named here will be unpacked in the chapters to come.

Paul opens with the statement For I am not ashamed of the gospel. How should we interpret this?  Is Paul using litotes (an ironic form of stressing his pride in the gospel) here? Or is the proper emphasis in reading the text ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel’, with the implication that some people are ashamed of the gospel – or perhaps think we should be ashamed. This is a key interpretive issue. My view (which I will present in next Sunday’s sermon) is that, taken together with the questions expressly asked in Rom 2.4, and implied in Rom 3.26, a perfectly sound reading of Romans is that serious questions are being asked whether the gospel is really ‘good news’, or a shameful, scandalous message that no moral or fair person could accept.

Paul then states the essence of his view of what the gospel is: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (vs 16b-17). As a formula, this is tightly woven and introduces a number of key concepts that will be expounded and explored in chapters to come. These key concepts include 

  • ‘everyone who has faith’, 
  • ‘the righteousness of God’, 
  • ‘the Jew/ the Greek’, 
  • ‘faith’ (as a concept) and 
  • ‘the righteous living by faith’. 

Every one of these concepts is laden in our good Christian minds with assumptions and understandings that a lifetime of listening to evangelical preaching has stored up in us. Part of the task of understanding Romans is to critique these inherited understandings and see whether an alternative reading of the text is possible. Again, we will have to hammer out our understanding of these concepts as we explore future chapters, coming back time and again to ‘test’ our reading of these 2 key verses.

If this reading is correct, Paul’s purpose in Romans is to explain and defend the gospel against a background of serious and sustained critique.

Paul then outlines a theology of human sinfulness, and how all human beings are sinners. This passage is celebrated by some as the clearest condemnation of same-sex relationships (vss. 26-27) in the New Testament. I believe this is a fundamental misreading of the text. Paul opens with The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness… (vs 18) and then proceeds to analyse human sinfulness in four sections. This is one of those times when the gaps or spaces in the text (between vss 23/24, 25/26, 27/28 – NRSV) are a helpful and accurate guide to the logic and grammar of Paul’s argument.

The first section (vss 19-23) is a general statement of human waywardness, grounded in a form of natural law theory that God’s greatness and goodness are evident in nature, so no human being has excuse for not acknowledging God. The basis of our waywardness is found in idolatry, futility and senselessness. This is the most general level of his argument.

He then applies and develops this general principle is three succeeding sections, each of which begins with the formula therefore/for this reason/and so …. God gave them up to… The parallelism of this structure is quite clear and there is a new beginning in each of vss 24, 26, 28.

The first of these three sections names the sin of human beings as the lusts of their hearts and the degrading of their bodies (vs 24). Vs 25 grounds this failing in the practice of idolatry. Note that this section says nothing at all about same sex relationships!! This is a general critique of human lust and bodily degradation, shared (or potentially shared) by all human persons.  The little paragraph space in the NRSV text between vss 25 and 26 is so important to observe here – especially for those who are quick to blame those terrible gay people for their sinfulness. Sorry guys, vss 24-25 seem to apply to all of us in a general way, or, if it is only some of us in view, it is certainly not just gay people that these verses are describing.

That comes in the second of the three sections (vss 26-27). This appears pretty clear – except that vs 26b might refer to lesbianism, but also might not. What does exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural mean? Is this done with men? Or with women? Vs 27 seems clearer (men with men).  Again, we cannot know what received in their own persons the due penalty for their error might mean. At the height of the AIDS crisis many critics bandied this phrase about, but that cannot have been Paul’s meaning. Did he refer to some form of humiliation or shame? Whatever our questions, Paul here clearly presents (some) same-sex relationships as sinful behaviour.

The third section presents a wide range of sins and sinners (vss 29-31), similarly ‘given up’ by God to a debased mind and to things that should not be done (vs 28). The list is fascinating, including gossip and foolishness, disobedience to parents, being haughty or boastful, or envious. God’s decree? That all such persons deserve to die! Is it just me, or does Paul here sound just a little ‘over the top’? 

Whatever your feeling on that point, Paul has undoubtedly argues that ALL human beings are sinful and stand under the judgement of God. Far from highlighting the particular sinfulness of gay people, Paul enlists them as a popular example of sinner (all good religious people agree about that!!) before throwing the net as wide as he can with his last catalogue of sins. All of this is laying the foundations for the dramatic argument that opens chapter 2.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Genesis 29:1-14; Romans 8:1-11

For the Song of Solomon, see Monday.

Genesis 29.1-14 tells of the meeting of Jacob and Rachel in the land of Paddan-Aram. It is an unusual story with Jacob objecting to the mingling of the three flocks of sheep, but the locals replying that they could not water any of the flocks until they all were watered together. Is this practice the background to another unusual story of chapter 30.25-43 involving the separating of the flocks of Laban and Jacob and the mutual trickery of these two kinsmen against each other? That story also involves the mysterious watering practices of Jacob with his sheep that led to his herds being stronger and greater than Laban’s. Are these stories somehow connected?

Although they greet one another warmly (vss 13-14) what follows reveals a relationship of mutual deceit and trickery. The trickster who defrauded his brother of birthright and blessing will meet in his own flesh and blood one equally capable of fraud and deception!

For me, Romans 8 is one of the greatest chapters of the New Testament! It is the climax of the first half of the book of Romans and perhaps Paul’s clearest statement of what the new life in Jesus Christ looks like. The lectionary has split the chapter into three passages for each of the coming three Sundays so, together with Christians around the world who are following the lectionary, we will reflect on Romans 8 in a slow and considered way.

Romans 8.1-11 brings a change of tone in the argument of Romans. It is best read in close contrast with chapters 6 and 7 which have explored ‘the necessity and possibility of “living out” the gift of righteousness begun at 6.1’ (Brendan Byrne).  From the preceding chapter we have seen the impossibility of living out this righteousness through the law, and here Paul announces the end of condemnation and the liberty and freedom that comes through Jesus. Just as the law of sin and of death held us captive, now the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free (vs 2). Note that, after very critical comments about the concept of law in previous chapters Paul here presents the law of  the Spirit of life (vs 2) in a positive sense. This is not the law of the previous chapters, but the ‘law’ of the new righteousness that comes through life in the Spirit.

Vss 3-4 tell how this was done through Jesus Christ who was sent to deal with sin (vs 3). Note here an alternate translation in the footnote as a sin offering. Paul has left the language here (deliberately?) ambiguous: the simple Gk preposition ‘peri’ (concerning, about, related to) can simply mean ‘to deal with’ or it can be read as evoking the technical language of the OT sin offering. 

Vss 5-11 contrast the trajectory of ‘living according to the flesh’ with ‘living according to the Spirit’. Note again how right through this passage (at vss 4, 5 (twice), 6, 9, and 10) the word Spirit can also be translated spirit. We tend to read the passage through a later lens of Trinitarian thought – and this passage is clearly Trinitarian naming ‘God’ and his own Son (vs 3) with multiple mentions of the Spirit (or spirit). However, for Paul and his hearers, the word may not have had the capitalised sense that we associate with it.

In contrasting the realms of ‘the flesh’ and ‘the spirit’ Paul is not disparaging embodied life. We moderns have tended to read ‘the flesh’ and especially ‘the sins of the flesh’ as a reference to physical, and sometimes particularly sexual, matters.  Paul uses two Gk words here – sarx (flesh) and soma (body). Soma (the body – symbolising our physical existence) has a positive connotation and is actually given life through (or on account of) his spirit that dwells in you (vs 11). Sarx (the flesh) is a summary term that refers to the ‘old way’ of sin-law-death from which we have been liberated by the new freedom of the Spirit (or spirit).

Wednesday, July 8, 2020Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Genesis 29:31-35; John 13:1-17

For the Song of Solomon, see Monday.

Genesis 29.31-35 has taken us quickly from Jacob meeting Rachel and Laban (yesterday!) to some point at least a decade later. We know this because of the story of 29.15-30 omitted from the lectionary. This story tells of Jacob’s love for Rachel, and how he served Laban for seven years to win her hand in marriage, only to have Laban switch brides on the wedding day to marry off the older sister first (vs 26). Jacob and Laban then agreed for Jacob to marry Rachel as well – in return for a further 7 years of labour!  The names of Leah’s sons (the ancestors of the first four tribes of Israel) reflect the dynamics of her marriage.

John 13. 1-17 is the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet. It is a significant part of John’s telling of the Jesus story. A theme of all four gospels is that Christian leadership involves service (cf. Mark 10.41-45 and parallels). It is only John’s gospel that recounts this action of Jesus. John also omits the story of the ‘last supper’ in the form given in Matthew, Mark and Luke: there is the story of ‘dipping the bread in the dish’ (vss 21-30) that follows this passage which is the closest correlate to the last supper that we find in John.

Thursday, July 9, 2020Psalm 119:105-112; Exodus 3:1-6; Romans 2:12-16

Psalm 119 is the longest of all the Psalms. At 176 verses it is the longest single chapter of Scripture. It is an extended poem modelled on the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters in acrostic format of 22 eight-line stanzas each starting with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (22 x 8 = 176 verses). The theme of the extended poem is the Torah, the Law, the ‘commandment’ of God. What an irony that the lectionary serves up passages from Romans – Paul’s great treatise on the limitations of law, alongside the greatest celebration and affirmation of the law that we find in Scripture! The poem is firmly rooted in the Wisdom Tradition of Israel with a strong element of Torah piety – devotion grounded in the love of the Law. Psalm 119 brings together many sayings and themes from the Torah piety tradition.

This is one of the eight-line stanzas. Vs 105 is praise of the instruction of Yahweh, a phrase that is still part of many Christian liturgies. The oath of vs 106 might originally have been part of a special ceremonial. Elements of personal lament are found in vss 107, 109 and 110, but these are placed within a context of trust and confidence emerging in vss 106, 111, 112.

The presence of the Psalm amid the Romans readings does raise an issue as to how we are to reach a settled and balanced view of ‘grace’ and ‘law’. The reading of Romans that I have been following presents Paul’s teaching about law as very critical. But this is not the whole voice of Scripture. ‘Grace’ is the essence of the gospel, but should we go as far as some modern preachers in declaring the Ten Commandments completely outmoded and life-denying? Is there any room for moral principle or moral training within a thoroughly Reformed Christian preaching??  

I think moral and ethical discourse is very important – not least for the raising of our children who need form boundaries and clear guidelines. We also need to be able to reflect ethically and morally on complex issues of social order and personal responsibility. I am not an ‘antinomian’ person (someone completely opposed to any form of law or rule).  Paul himself is always trying to balance things out, teaching the importance of grace and freedom to legalistic communities like the Galatian churches, and teaching restraint and moral order to antinomian, (almost!) libertine communities like that of 1 Corinthians. How that balance and dynamic engagement is to be found in our context is one of the great challenges of the age.

Exodus 3.1-6 is one of the turning points of the story of Israel. If Genesis 12 was the start of the patriarchal narrative, of the deep beginnings of the people of Israel, Exodus 3 amounts to ‘hitting the reset button’ on the story.  Genesis ended in chapter 50 with Joseph and his brothers living in Egypt. Exodus opens many, many years later in a time when a new king arose Egypt who did not know Joseph (Ex 1.8). Exodus 1 and 2 give the back story of the birth and youth and flight into Midian of Moses, but it is not until chapter 3 that we hear the voice of the Lord, and that the Lord has heard the cry of the Israelites.

The Lord identifies thus: I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (vs 5) thus sealing the link with the earlier patriarchal narratives. While the narrative is related as a consistent history, there are signs that, some scholars have concluded, indicate various traditions and tribal narratives have been woven together to form a shared heritage behind a tribal ‘amphictyony’ (a ‘league of neighbours’ – an ancient form of religious alliance among tribes). The fourfold naming of the Lord as the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may reflect the deep roots of such a league. Another sign of the blending of various traditions are the differing names for God used through the Genesis account – a clear sign of different traditions that have been brought together.

The burning bush has been a potent symbol throughout Jewish and Christian history. The Kirk of Scotland has celebrated it in their coats of arms where it is seen as a symbol of the fire of the Holy Spirit and of the powerful divine voice calling humankind.

Romans 2: 12-16 was included in our readings for the first week after Pentecost. I include here the notes that were presented back then:

Romans 2.11-16 opens with a statement that reinforces what has just been said in vss 9-10: For God shows no partiality.  This is a key statement and a major theme of chapters 3 and 4. Buried deep in chapter 3 is a related statement: it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous … (3.26). God had something to prove? God had to prove that he is righteous (as in fair, just, impartial…)?  You can see this undercurrent running through the book. Having despatched the human tendency to judge others in 2.1-10, Paul now turns to ‘defending’ (or explaining?) how God’s judgement works. His argument is very logical. Those who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law and those who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law (vs 12) – perfectly symmetrical and even-handed. 

Then comes a vital point in the argument: it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (vs 13)

This means that the obverse of vs 12 has a marked asymmetry! Where a Gentile does what the law requires they are a law to themselves (vs 14). Please note that Paul’s use of this phrase is the opposite of what we mean when we say someone is ‘a law to themselves’: we mean they are renegade, lawless!  

In vss 15-16, this is expanded in the concepts of a law written on their hearts, and the witness of their own conscience which will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (vs 16)

This is pretty strong stuff. No claiming of the name of Jesus. No being part of the people of God. Just the Gentile whose conscience may perhaps excuse them on the day of God’s judgement, exercised through Jesus Christ (vs 16).

Friday, July 10, 2020Psalm 119:105-112; Deuteronomy 32:1-10; Romans 15:14-21

For the Psalm, see Thursday

Deuteronomy 32.1-10 is the opening verses of the Song of Moses, a poem placed on the lips of Moses celebrating the action of God in delivering – but also in disciplining – God’s people. It raises some challenges in interpretation, especially for those who affirm the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible. Chapters 32-34 tell of the end of Moses’ life, including the hidden circumstances of his death (34.1-8). Even for a man as skilled and wise as Moses, it is hard to write the description of one’s own death and its aftermath.

Another way of reading Deuteronomy is to see it as a later work (the name means Second Book of the Law) perhaps associated with the ‘discovery’ of a law book in the 22nd Chapter of 2 Kings that led to a reform and revival of the Jewish faith (2 Kings 23). Given that the narrative of Deuteronomy and of the Song of Moses itself, includes reference to the past sins and failures of the people, the natural setting of such a book would be a time of reform and renewal when past failures are recognised and repented.

Vs 4 introduces mention of The Rock as a metaphor for God (no, not Dwayne Johnson, the wrestler and actor), a reference repeated in vss 30-31, 37. There is a clear reference to this metaphor from Paul in 1 Cor 10.4. This Pauline reference also reflects the critical tone of the Song of Moses as a listing of the people’s failures.

Vss 5-6 carry this tone of critique. Vss 7-8 call on people to remember the past and the faithfulness of God. Vss 8-9 seem to suggest the apportioning of the land to the tribes of Israel, associated with a later time, so that reading the Song of Moses against a later period makes more sense.

Vs 10 summarises the experience of Exodus, but also of the return from Exile, centuries later.

Those who come from oral cultures know the role of epic ballads that tell the great stories of the past. The Celtic bards of Scotland, Wales and Ireland composed ballads that retold the stories of the great heroes of their tradition. We find similar poems throughout Scripture – the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), another Song of Moses (or The Song of Miriam – Exodus 15), the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2) and the Song of Mary (the Magnificat – Luke 1.46-55). They are the remnants of pre-literate cultures where mighty deeds were remembered and recounted in poetic form – recited or sung from generation to generation – before people had the tools to write them down and transmit them on parchment, tablet or papyrus to future generations.

Romans 15.14-21 is Paul’s general description of his own ministry. This interesting self-presentation precedes Paul’s announcement that he is planning to come to Rome on his way to Spain (vss 22-33).

Paul opens with an affirmation of confidence in the faith of the Roman Christians and their capacity to teach and instruct each other – redolent of his opening prayer of thanksgiving in 1.8-15.  Here vs 15 brings in a new note, expressing that on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, (vs 15) and anchoring this boldness in the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles (vs 15b, 16). Paul is balancing his affirmation and respect for his hearers with a clear statement of his own experience and even authority (in vss 17-19).

The word ‘boast’ has a particular provenance in Romans: boast or boasting occurs 8 times chapters 1,2,3,4 and 5. The first four occurrences bear a negative sense (1.30, 2.17, 2.23, 3.27). The second four occurrences carry a more positive sense (4.2, 5.2, 5.3, 5.11). Ten chapters later Paul includes himself in the positive list of people who have a right to boast – but only In Christ Jesus (vs 17).

Vs 20-12 make clear what Paul’s agenda is: just as he has ‘boasted’ of the effectiveness of his ministry from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum (vs 19), he is hoping to proclaim the good news to people further west who have never heard the gospel and is hoping for their support.

Saturday, July 11, 2020Psalm 119:105-112; Isaiah 2:1-4; John 12:44-50

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Isaiah 2.1-4 is an oracle of restoration and hope focussed on ‘the mountain of the Lord’ – the temple mount of Zion in Jerusalem. The metaphor of ‘this mountain’ or ‘the mountain of the Lord’ recurs through Isaiah (cf. 11.9, 10.12, 25.6-10 etc). Here it is mentioned in vss 2 and 3. The prophesied prominence of the mountain (vs 2) will make it a centre for teaching and instruction (vs 3) and a centre for peace-making (vs 4).

John 12.44-50 is headed Summary of Jesus’ Teaching in the NRSV. Chapter 13 begins with the Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on the night before the crucifixion. John has structured all of chapters 13-17 as a long discourse by Jesus to his disciples set entirely on this night. So the closing verses of chapter 12 are the transition from the narrative of Jesus’ signs and teaching in chapters 1-12. Some of the great themes of John are emphasised: Jesus’ oneness with the Father (vss 44-45, 49-50); Jesus as light (vs 46); his role not as judge but as Saviour of the world (vs 47) and his authority as the bearer of the divine word (vss 49-50).

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