Monday, July 20, 2020Psalm 139:13-18; Genesis 32:3-21; Romans 8:26-39

Psalm 139.13-18 is a portion of the Psalm we explored last week. It is a self-contained reflection on the creation of human beings – both God’s creation of humans in general and God’s knowledge of, and action in, the formation of the individual human being. In giving thanks to God the Psalmist praises the wonder of the creation of their own life.

The theology here is intensely personal:  For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (vs 13) For some this may be ‘a bridge too far’ – the idea of the personal involvement of the deity in one’s own formation is a kind of anthropocentric overreach. If so, it is shared by no less a figure than the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1.5). As a parent (and even as a child) I personally have wondered at the complexity of feeling, emotion and intention that goes through any person engaged in, or reflecting on, the wonder of conception and pregnancy. With modern science and the demystification of these processes we can easily lose a sense of wonder at these mysteries, and the unusual depth of connection that we can feel about a process which, once initiated, proceeds without our will, beyond our control, and yet in which we can feel profoundly engaged. Is not that sense of engagement itself a sign or marker or participation in an even more profound engagement (that of the Divine) which seems deeply connected with life itself and the mystery of the universe? I have no trouble with this personal theology, although I recognise that it has challenges and not everyone is comfortable with it.

Vss 13-16 outline the wonder of God’s engagement in personal creation/formation.

Vss 17-18 express almost the spirit of exhaustion or being overwhelmed that the psalmist experiences. The metaphor of the sand as that which is ‘innumerable’ is found in various places in the OT (Gen 22.17, 32.13, 41.49, Josh 11.4, Judges 7.12 Hosea 2.1 etc). Note the way this reflection finishes in vs 18b I come to the end – or, as the alternate translation reads, I awake. Given that the ‘thoughts of God’ which the Psalmist is counting have been named as innumerable, perhaps the second reading is more suited to the context.

Genesis 32.3-21 continues the Esau-Jacob saga. The logic of the reading selection is subtle. The week before last our readings dealt with Jacob’s betrayal of Esau in both Jacob’s swindling of Esau of his birthright and the outright theft of his blessing as the older son. Last week we had the readings from Obadiah and Jeremiah 49 being the oracles against Edom, and the historical conflicts between ‘the house of Israel’ and the ‘the house of Esau’. So we have already explored the deep back story of the enmity between these two brothers before we come here in this passage to their meeting again. 

Jacob has been away in Padan-Aram, married Leah and Rachel and grown wealthy – not least through his trickery of Laban his father-in-law. Now he returns to meet with Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom (vs 3). That Jacob is nervous as to how he will be received is clear and he divides his party in two (vs 7) hoping that if Esau attacks him at least one group will survive (vs 8).

What is poignant here is the longing to see the brother again, and the clear awareness that going home is a dangerous act!  How many ‘black sheep’ have left their family of origin in circumstances of conflict and disillusion only to return years or decades later to an uncertain and even dangerous reunion?

That Jacob has undertaken this journey in obedience to a command of the Lord is clear from his prayer (vss 9-12). The mention of the staff and crossing the Jordan (vs 10) evokes the staff of Moses in the desert wandering and Joshua leading the people of Israel across the Jordan. Vs 12 recapitulates the promise to Abraham repeated to Jacob – and the mention of the sand of the sea is a lovely echo of the Psalm we have just read (Ps 139.18)!

One of the things I love about this passage is the mention of the land of Seir (vs 3). Isaiah 21.11-12 contains a short oracle that I find deeply moving. It starts simply ‘the oracle concerning Dumah’. Nobody knows where Dumah was (as a place). In Rabbinic tradition (and also in Islam), Dumah was an angel with control over the wicked dead. Mervyn Himbury (formerly Principal of Whitely College) preached on this text pointing out that the word for ‘oracle’ is simply ‘burden’ (the ‘burden’ of the prophet for a certain place) and that the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘Dumah’ is ‘silence’. Mervyn’s sermon was entitled ‘The Burden of Silence’.

How do we interpret this little oracle? I prefer the wording of the Authorised Version:

The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?
The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

It is an enigmatic oracle, yet it fits so well with Genesis 32. The link between the oracle and Genesis 32 is the place name Seir. After decades of estrangement and separation, Jacob returns to Seir to meet his brother. No word of welcome or acceptance comes to him, only silence. He is about to spend a long night of anxiety and even wrestling with all sorts of dark presentiments and spiritual beings. After all of that, and still no assurance of what awaits him at the hands of Esau, the oracle almost sounds like the word of God to the one who cheated his brother: The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

If ever such a word found a ‘setting-in-life’, it is the night before a reunion of long-estranged family members: if ye will enquire, enquire (if you want to know, you’ll find out!); return, come (with all the risk and uncertainty, the invitation is there – for good or for ill, come home!)

Romans 8.26-39: In this passage Paul draws to a conclusion the long and detailed argument he commenced in 1.16.  He opens with a passage about the ‘groaning of the Spirit’ (vss 26-27), a parallel to two earlier ‘groanings’, of creation (vss 19-22), and ‘ourselves’ (vss 23-25). Whereas we and creation ‘groan’ out of a longing to be set free from present limitation, the Spirit groans to help us in our weakness (vs 26). The mysterious intercession of the Spirit which occurs within human beings and deeper than our consciousness may be linked with the intercession of Christ in the heavenly realm (vs 34). This intercession is in accordance with the will of God (vs 27) and thus is the basis of our hope.

Vss 28-30 summarise the preceding argument that we should be hopeful in a statement that ‘all things’ work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (vs 28). ‘All things’ could refer to the non-human world (the creation) and the Spirit, or it may refer to the sufferings of the present time (vs 18) that form the context for hope.  

Vss 29-30 describe the unfolding plan for God’s elect in a rolling repetition of verbs in the past tense in a sequence that reflects Paul’s understanding of the logic of salvation: foreknew 🡪 predestined 🡪 called 🡪 justified 🡪 glorified. Vs 29b interrupts this sequence briefly with a Christological exploration of the nature of that predestination or pre-ordaining.

We must carefully distinguish the second term of this series (which refers to our destiny to be ‘like Christ’) from the Calvinist theological doctrine of predestination (which relates to a more general set of considerations about God’s foreknowledge of human action and historical process and the nature of human freedom). The key term in this series – and one that has occupied the centre of his argument from at least chapter 3 onward, is justification. Here the series leads to its fulfilment in glorification, which has already been identified as the object of human desire (see 1.23, 2.7, 2.10) and the result of justification (see 5.2, 6.4, 8.17, 8.18, 8.21).

Paul now brings to a powerful conclusion his whole argument in chapters 5-8 in which he has defended an attitude of hope, of boasting in our sufferings (5.3). It has a rhetorical power in its form that can be best understood by analysing the structure.  Vs 31a poses a rhetorical question to open: What the are we to say about these things? Then follows two sections, each divided into two subsections: 

Part 1: Theme: God is for us who can be against us? (vss 31-34)

1a. God is for us – (vss 31b-32)

1b) Who can be against us? (vss 33-34)

Part 2: No separation from God’s (Christ’s) love (vss 35-39)

2a) Earthly trials (vss 35-37)

2b) Spiritual powers behind the earthly trials (vss 38-39)

if God is for us who can be against us? ….What shall separate us from the love of God?  These are words for people facing all the challenges that history can throw at them! In our own age, we are living through some of the greatest historical challenges that humankind has ever known – the crises of human-induced climate change, and of a global pandemic. Our world is being re-shaped in ways we cannot yet tell – economically, demographically, politically, culturally.  But the people of God have been there before (through wars, economic collapses, plagues, repression). Paul lists them all, with a sense of ‘Been there, done that! We’ll be right!’ without minimising or denying the risks and dangers involved. He finishes on a triumphant and encouraging note:-

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020Psalm 139:13-18; Genesis 33:1-17; Galatians 4:21-5:1

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 33.1-17: Yesterday’s Genesis reading ended with Jacob spending the night in the camp by the river Jabbok. The Lectionary is focussed on the relationship between Jacob and Esau, so it entirely omits the dramatic story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (or with God?) in Genesis 32.22-32.

Still fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacob again divides the group for safety, this time dividing his children between his two wives and his two maids (vss 1-2). He goes ahead, prostrating himself 7 times as he approaches his brother (vs 3). In a way similar to Jesus’ parable of the lost son (Luke 15), Esau runs to him, embraces him and kisses him (vs 4).

They discuss the ‘peace-offering’ that Jacob had sent ahead only to have Esau decline it, Jacob urge him, and Esau accept it in the pattern of OT negotiations we have seen in other texts (vss 8-11).

After such a tender reconciliation there is further discussion of travelling together (vs 12) but Jacob demurs because of the limitations of his flocks and herds and promises to follow more slowly to Seir as the health of the animals permits (vs 13-14). Esau offers some of his people to support Jacob, an offer which is declined (vs 15). After Esau leaves (vs 16) Jacob avoids Seir altogether and goes on to settle at Succoth (vs 17)!! 

In Galatians 4.21 ff. Paul takes us back into the Genesis story of the patriarchs (Genesis chapters 16, 22). The basic contrast between the two women (Hagar and Sarah) is construed as the contrast of ‘slave’ and ‘free’ because this is the argument Paul is making regarding ‘law’ and grace’: to place oneself under law is to reject the freedom of Christ and embrace slavery. On the surface it bears some similarity to his arguments in Romans, but the detail shows marked differences. In Romans the figure of Abraham is invoked as the model of faith, the one who trusted the promise (Romans 4) and while the image of slavery is used in Romans 6.15-23, there it is slavery to sin which is argued, not slavery to law.

Here the children of promise are identified with freedom (vs 28). Furthermore, Paul says that just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. That is a rather interesting reading of the Genesis narrative where the only reference to a possible persecutory action initiated by Hagar or Ishmael is Gen 16.4. In Chapter 22 Hagar and Ishmael are the ones being persecuted. A complicating factor is that the ‘child of promise/freedom’ is in fact Isaac – the father of Israel, the people who live according to law. If Paul was taking aim at a ‘Judaising’ group within the Galatian church he is subversively enlisting the ancestor of the Jews to do it!

Now as we saw with Edom/Esau in the previous Genesis readings, enmity can be more than personal: tribal conflicts are also expressed in, and attributed to, ancestral figures. However, bearing in mind the long history of persecution of Jews by Christians, we need to reflect very carefully on this text and how we interpret it and expound it.

Within the Christian tradition for much of our long history there has been conflict between Christian and Christian. In every generation, the fault lines have gone by different names and labels (e.g. fundamentalists vs. liberals, Protestants vs Catholics, conservatives vs. progressives etc), but it would be more honest for us to use Christian names for the parties involved than to project our internal fights onto other spiritual communities like the Jews. Where the other group are our sisters and brothers, or at the very least first cousins, (like the Jews!) it is so much easier – and quite pernicious – to project onto them our own dislikes and squabbles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020Psalm 139:13-18; Genesis 35:16-29; Matthew 12:15-21

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 35.16-29.  In these brief verses so much of the basic history of the patriarchs is given. It is all about naming. Noteworthy is the twofold naming of the same man as Jacob (vs 20) and Israel (vs 21 – see Genesis 32.28, 35.10).  The dying Rachel names her son Ben-oni (Son of my Sorrow ) only for Jacob to rename him Benjamin (Son of my Right Hand or Son of the South – all in vs 18). We are told of Rachel’s death and burial near Bethlehem, the setting up of the grave marker and Israel moving on beyond the tower of Eder (vss 19-21).

Vs 22 might sound like a rather rude interruption to this family story, but then the Lectionary has spared us Chapter 34, a story of rape and romance, deception, betrayal and genocide to rival anything in the Bible. Reuben’s transgression brings no sanction, apart from his father’s disappointment which seems implied in 22b.

Vss 22b-26: Then the sons of Jacob, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, are named according to their mothers – 2 wives and 2 concubines. Half of them were born to Leah and half to the other three women. All were named as being born in Paddan-Aram.

Vss 27-29 deal Jacob coming ‘home’ to his father Isaac at Mamre and the death of Isaac, who was buried by Esau and Jacob together.

Thursday, July 23, 2020Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Genesis 29:1-8; 1 Corinthians 4:14-20

Psalm 105 is a long psalm of 45 verses. Like Ps 106, it recounts the history of God’s people, albeit in very different terms. Both psalms belong to the category of history psalms presented in hymnic style. The Lectionary has given us the first 11 verses of this psalm which falls into two parts: vss 1-6 – introduction, and vss 7-11 – statement of the theme.

Scholars have discussed over the years just how the elements of history and hymn have comingled in this psalm. Earlier generations emphasised the telling of history, whereas later scholars have emphasised the singing of a hymn. The setting for such a hymn can be seen in the establishment of the Ark of the Covenant in the temple described in 1 Chronicles 16 which involved the singing of psalms (outlined in 1 Chronicles 16. 8-36) glorifying the God of Israel and proclaiming all his wonders. Ps 105 is older than Chronicles but did not originate earlier than the Exile (Kraus).

In the introduction (vss 1-6) imperatives predominate. The mood is one of ‘commanding’ people to give thanks, praise, sing, seek, remember and glory in his holy name (vs 3). Kraus writes that there are ‘admonitions to recall, inwardly to appropriate, and urgently to explore the great wonders of Yahweh in the history of his people’ – which I think is a fine definition of what happens in worship!

Vss 7-11 move from the imperative mood to the indicative, describing the character of the Lord, especially God’s role as judge (vs 7) and covenant faithfulness (mentioned separately in each of vss, 8,9 and 10 before the content of that covenant is expressed in vs 11 as the giving of the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.

Genesis 29.1-8:  If this passage sounds familiar, it is because the Lectionary offered it to us on July 7th. It tells of the precursor encounter before 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?

1 Corinthians 4.14-20: Of all the churches with which Paul corresponded, it appears that his relationship with the Corinthian church was the most sensitive and difficult. He could speak strongly to the Galatians and never ‘pulled his punches’, but with the Corinthians, especially in 2 Corinthians, there seem to be deep issues of tension and estrangement.

Here one cause of the tension is revealed in vs 18 – some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant. Paul has defended his ministry in vss 1-13. In vs 14 he disclaims any desire to shame them but invokes not just guardianship (see chapter 3!) but fatherhood (vs 15). His intention to come to them is stated in vs 19a along with a veiled threat to find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power (vs 19b) which rests on the underlying principle For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power (vs 20).

Friday, July 24, 2020Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Genesis 29:9-14; Acts 7:44-53

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 29.9-14:  Again, we read this passage not long ago. Here Jacob meets his future wife, identifies himself and then is greeted by Laban, his uncle.

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! But more of that tomorrow…

Acts 7.44-53:  Again, this passage is repeated (for some reason) by the Lectionary from the fifth week after Easter. I reproduce my notes from that week.

 In Acts 7.44-53, 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 tentof 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!

Saturday, July 25, 2020Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Genesis 29:31-30:24; Matthew 12:38-42

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 29.31-30.34: In some quarters there is a fascination with the kind of ‘extended families’ that is described here in Genesis 29-30. Big Love was a TV series built around the life of a polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon family. Polyamory is a modern ideology of complex and multifaceted loving relationships. I wonder whether today’s Genesis passage should be mandatory reading for all such people!

If what we see here was not complicated enough, we read on Wednesday it was further impacted when Reuben (Leah’s oldest son) slept with Bilhah (Rachel’s maid) (Genesis 35.22). When I read that story, I was surprised that when Jacob heard of it he didn’t take any further action. After reading this passage, I can understand more why Jacob might have settled for a ‘hands-off’ attitude to trying to manage his family.

I am just a ‘common or garden’ pastor: I suspect one would need vast experience as a family therapist to really be able to explain the jealousy and insecurities of the sisters Leah and Rachel, Rachel’s blaming of Jacob for her infertility (30.1), and Jacob’s ‘rage in reply’ (30.2), Rachel’s procuring of her maid as concubine for her husband, and Leah’s using of her son and his mandrakes to buy from her sister (Rachel) Jacob’s sexual services (vss 14-21). Wiser heads than mine can shed light on the dynamics of this family.

But please note two things that are yet to come:  1. Reuben’s sleeping with Bilhah (Genesis 35.22) – a further  (intergenerational) sexual liaison within the family; and 2. The story of Dinah (born here in vs 21) and Shechem that follows in Genesis 34. Families that have this kind of dynamics cast a long shadow down the generations!

Matthew 12.38-42:  When it comes to seeking ‘signs’ from the Lord there are very different teachings presented in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk) and John. In John’s gospel, Jesus did perform signs, and they were identified as such and even numbered (see John 2.11, 4.54). In contrast, the Synoptic tradition took a negative view of the desire for a sign.

Mark 8.11-12 puts the basic Synoptic position with Jesus replying to the Pharisees request for a sign with a deep sigh in his spirit and a rather exasperated “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

Here in Matthew 12.38-42 that basic position is repeated, with the exception of the ‘sign of Jonah’, a prediction of the Cross and Resurrection. This is paralleled in Luke 11.29-32 (see also Luke 11.14-23)

There is a second passage in Matthew which deals with the desire for a sign found in Mt 16.1-4, paralleled in Lk 12.54-56 – but there stripped of the demand for a sign. Both these passages call on the listeners to be able to discern ‘the signs of the times’.

The demand for signs, for verifiable ‘proofs’ or tests of God’s presence and power have accompanied Christian witness through the centuries. ‘Signs and wonders’ even has its own Wikipedia entry. In modern Pentecostal belief it plays a part with various emphases in different parts of the movement. As our brief survey of the gospel materials would suggest, there are different views within the Scripture itself. Our attitude to seeking a sign will depend on our theological and spiritual outlooks, our historical and cultural contexts and our discernment of what the Spirit is saying to the churches within those historical and cultural contexts (which is what I think Jesus meant by ‘interpreting the signs of the times’).

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