Monday, August 3, 2020 Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Genesis 31:22-42; Romans 9:30-10:4

Note: This Psalm was also studied last week and these notes have been reproduced.

Psalm 17 is a prayer song that is mainly marked by petitions. Again, the lectionary has removed vss 8-14 which continue the appeal for God’s protection (Guard me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings vs 8) before launching into a description of his enemies’ actions (vss 9-12) and asking God for a gruesome judgement upon them (May their bellies be filled with you have in store for them – with enough left over to take down their children and even their little grand-children – all in vs 14). 

These details the lectionary spares us, focussing instead on the appeal for divine judgement and vindication (vss 1-2), the singers declaration of their own innocence (vss 3-5) and a renewed appeal for God’s hearing, and answer, of the petition, for both the individual singer (vs 6) and for all the faithful (vs 7).

It is difficult for us to appreciate the importance of psalms like this and what was the life-setting of such a prayer song. The singer stood accused of dishonesty, or worse, and came to the temple for sanctuary and for vindication – a divine declaration of the individual’s innocence. This was a legal function of the temple, although we cannot be sure just how the process of ‘trial’ and adjudication was discharged. A period of ‘lying in’ the temple at night (cf. vs 3a) may have been involved. We have other ancient Near Eastern texts describing how such rituals were carried out in surrounding cultures, but the Psalms do not reveal such details, instead focussing on the singer’s trust in, and appeal to, Yahweh rather than describing the mechanics of the process involved. In our world there is a clear distinction between the world of the courts and legal actions to clear one’s name or seek justice, and that of the church or the temple. It is only when we think of people going through anguishing and difficult legal proceedings that we can get a sense of the feelings and thoughts that this psalm is bringing to expression.

The final verse (vs 15) is included in the reading, although there has long been discussion as to how it should be interpreted. What was the ‘awakening’ and beholding your likeness of vs 15b?  For Martin Luther it was a prophecy of humankind’s final resurrection. Calvin saw it as the ‘awakening’ from the psychological nightmare of false accusation and legal threat. More recent scholars have seen in it the awakening on the morning after a night-long ‘having the heart tested by Yahweh’ while sleeping in the Temple (vs 3a).

Genesis 31:22-42 follows on last week’s reading of the escape of Jacob and his wives with their possessions (and some of Laban’s possessions!) When we are told that Laban took his kinsfolk and pursued him (vs 32) we are back in the world of the wild west when justice was enacted by a ‘posse’. We see similar actions by Abraham in Genesis 14.14. The warning of God in vs 24 protects Jacob.  

Laban protests that he has been treated shabbily (vs 26-27a, 28) and suggests he would have given a joyful farewell had he been told (vs 27b). In view of Jacob’s later rebuke (vss 36-42) we may wish to reserve judgement about that. Laban then mentions he has received a divine warning – after first making one himself to Jacob (vs 29). He then raises the key accusation, one that we (the audience) knows is true (vs 30).  Jacob answers Laban’s question in vs 31, but then makes a fateful promise (that whoever is found in possession of the missing ‘household gods’ shall die – vs 32) not knowing that they have been stolen by his favourite wife!

The story is well told: Rachel feigns her monthly period to remain sitting on the loot (vs 35), thus tricking her father, himself an inveterate trickster. Filled with self-righteous anger, Jacob criticises Laban, (vss 36-42) and rehearses all his complaints – twenty years worth! (vs 41)

Romans 9:30-10:4 engages with the paradox that the Jews who earnestly sought righteousness have missed their target, but the Gentiles who were not seeking righteousness have found it (vss 9.30-31). The reason is given in vs 32: because the Jews were relying on the basis of works and not faith. Commentators make the point that we should distinguish righteousness from salvation: while the Jews have not achieved righteousness (because that comes only through faith) that does not mean that will not find salvation (as chapter 11 will explore). Vs 33 introduces a theme that appears to have been widespread in the early church – the concept of the stumbling block (cf 1 Corinthians 1.23). The text from Isaiah is a combination of Isaiah 8.14 and 28.16.

Vs 10.1 reprises Paul’s concern and love for his people Israel (cf 9.1) before transitioning through vs 2 (they have zealbut it is not enlightened) to Vs 3. This verse puts the heart of Paul’s argument in a tight formulation:

Israel did not acknowledge God’s righteousness;

Israel sought to establish her own righteousness;

Israel did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Vs 3)

Vs 4 does present an interpretive issue. The Greek word for ‘end’ (telos) can be interpreted (like its English counterpart) in the sense of either ‘termination’ or ‘goal’. Is Paul meaning Christ is the end (i.e. the finish, termination) of the law, or Christ is the goal of the law? One’s reading of Paul’s entire intent in this passage (and throughout Romans) will influence which reading/translation we choose, which in turn affects the sense of the following ‘so that’ which links the telos of the law with righteousness for everyone who believes.

This passage, and indeed all of chapter 10, is Paul’s strongest criticism of Judaism in Romans, and perhaps in all his writings – although some might argue his commentary in Galatians is stronger in tone. It is worthwhile to quote Brendan Byrne at length as he places the harsh judgement of Paul on the Jewish Torah project in the context of both Paul’s focus on the centrality of Jesus and the Cross, and how a “modern hermeneutic may and must question” Paul’s conclusion. I draw your attention to the last two sentences in particular:

If this interpretation presents a Paul highly unsympathetic to the Jewish pursuit of the Torah, which of course continues today, we must keep in mind that for Paul all theology moves out from the centre constituted by faith in God’s action in the crucified Messiah, Jesus. Paul’s vision is wide but everything is viewed from this single, all-determining focus. Paul attributed Israel’s failure at the Cross to misguided zeal for the law. That is primarily a theological rather than a historical judgement. It is also the obverse of a wider, more positive perspective – the centrality of Christ. A modern hermeneutic may and must question whether faith in Christ necessarily implies such a judgement even in theological terms. While it is true that nothing masks human need for the gift of salvation so successfully as misguided religious zeal, that failure is not tied to any particular religion nor is the faith that overcomes it tied to any particular religious system – Christianity or any other. Both attitudes are possible within theistic systems and both are equally possible within Judaism and Christianity. (Byrne, 1996: 312-313)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Genesis 32:3-21; Romans 10:5-13
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Genesis 32.3-21 continues the Esau-Jacob saga. We studied this passage on July 20th (the Lectionary is a little repetitious at the moment). To save you having to search back through the church website, I include here the notes from that earlier week.

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 10.5-13 Having described the stumbling of Israel as a result of a false striving for righteousness, vss 5-13 present Scriptural confirmation of Paul’s prior argument. It falls into three main sections. Vs 5 quotes Leviticus 18.5 as scripture’s witness to righteousness by law. Vss 6-8 present texts from Deuteronomy to give Scripture’s witness to righteousness by faith and vss 9-10 relate this to Christian practice in Paul’s churches. Vss 11-13 show ‘how righteousness by faith serves the universal scope of salvation’ (Byrne 1996: 317).

In the argument that there is no distinction (vs 12) we hear clear echoes of the earlier teaching of Romans (3.22, 3.9b, 2.9-11) that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile – God treats ‘all’ equally and without distinction. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Isaiah 43:1-7; Romans 10:14-21
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Isaiah 43.1-7 falls within the part of Isaiah we know as Second-Isaiah – oracles relating to the return from the Babylonian Exile. The oracle rehearses God’s creation of Israel (vs 1a) and redemption of Israel, including the prophetic theme of ‘naming’ as part of that creative, salvific formation process (vs 1b). Vs 2 proclaims the Lord’s protection of Israel and vss 3a and 4a repeat the essence of the dual aspects of the covenant (I will be your God/you will be my treasured possession cf Ex 19.5, Deut 26.18) and vss 3b and 4b present the actions of God in defending his precious possession.

Vss 5-7 bring the promise of the deliverance from the ‘scattered’ state of Exile, bringing God’s people from east and west, north and south, from the ends of the earth. Vs 7 neatly repeats the creation/formation theme of vs 1.

Romans 10.14-21 explores just why Israel has failed to respond to the gospel. Paul is rehearsing (and dismissing!) possible excuses for Israel’s continuing lack of faith. He opens (vss 14-15) with a five-layered model of mission that works ‘backward’ from the final result to call on God. To reverse the order given so that the missional process is expressed in its temporal, causal structure we find sending🡪 preaching 🡪 hearing 🡪believing🡪calling. The first two of these are the actions of God, the last three are the actions that must be followed through if people are to respond. Paul takes it as read that God has played God’s part with the first two. But what of the other three, the steps for which humans must accept responsibility?

Vs 16 declares that not all have obeyed the good news (‘the calling on God’ that marks response) with a confirming quotation from Isaiah 53.1.

Vs 17 names the two steps where Israel might be able to find an excuse for their failure to respond: they must have had opportunity to believe (have faith), and that means they must have had an opportunity to hear. Vss 18-19 deals with each of these possibilities in turn.

Have they not heard? asks vs 18. The answer – No! – is supported by a quote from Psalm 19.4, originally describing the movements of the heavenly bodies, but used by Paul as a description of the early preachers of Jesus spreading out from Jerusalem through all the world.

Did Israel not understand? (i.e. have faith) asks vs 19: have they acted in ignorance? Paul quotes from the Greek version of Deuteronomy 32.21. By stressing the authorship of Moses, Paul anchors this statement in the headwaters of Jewish history and the work of one of their foundational figures. Further, Paul makes the reference more pointed and direct by changing the original text I will make them jealous… to I will make you jealous… The rather puzzling mention of jealousy of those who are not a nation, with a foolish nation makes the implied point that Israel has been even more foolish, that any lack of understanding has been her own fault. This rather neatly prefigures Paul’s argument in chapter 11 of how jealously and ‘stumbling’ have been used by God to the mutual encouragement of both Jewish and Gentile communities.

Vss 20-21 bring two further quotations from Isaiah 65.1-2, the first describing the situation of the Gentiles and the second the situation of Israel.

Thursday, August 6, 2020Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Genesis 35:22b-29; Acts 17:10-15

Note: The Lectionary gave us the first 11 verses of this psalm on July 23rd. I have here adapted those notes and added notes for vss 16-22.

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

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.]

Vs 16-22 tell of the story of Joseph in Egypt. Located between the telling of promise of the land and the life of the patriarchs of Israel (vss 10-15) and the story of the exodus (vss 23-45), these verses are the ‘link’ or ‘hinge’ of the narrative of Israel’s story. God summoned famine against the land (vs 16) so that Joseph would go ahead of his people into Egypt (vs 17). All this is presented as the will of God (vs 19a). As Joseph prospered and became powerful (vss 20-22) the groundwork was laid for the miraculous intervention of God in saving the people of God (vss 23-45).

Genesis 35.22b-29 again repeats a passage we read recently. Perhaps a sense of decorum has led to vs 22a being hid from our gaze. The notes below are adapted from that earlier reading.

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).

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. Six of them were born to Leah and six 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.

The book of Acts is a continuation of Luke’s gospel relating the story of the expansion of the gospel of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1.8). This passage tells of Paul and Silas in Beroea, a city more receptive to the gospel than Thessalonica. Note that the mission began in the Jewish synagogue (vs 10). It notes that many of them (i.e. Jews) believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing (vs 12). Note i) that these ‘Greeks’ were included among these Jews (vs 11) and thus were Hellenistic Jews, and ii) that the women are mentioned before the men!

Paul was obviously a target of the Jewish community by this time and when out-of-town Jews from Thessalonica arrived, the Christian leaders decided to get Paul away, although Silas and Timothy carried on the mission (vs 14).

Friday, August 7, 2020Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Genesis 36:1-8; Acts 18:24-28

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Genesis 36.1-8 is the final resolution of the Jacob and Esau narrative, although we have seen in recent weeks how their troubled relationship continued in the relations between Edom (the House of Esau) and Israel (the House of Jacob).

This passage relates Esau’s wives and descendants (vss 1-5). Note that he took his wives from the Canaanite tribes – Hittites and Hivites, as well as one of the daughters of Ishmael – his father Isaac’s half-brother. 

Vs 6-7 outlines how the success and wealth of the two brothers – Esau and Jacob – was such that they had to separate to find ‘grazing room’ for their flocks which led Esau into the land of Edom, south of Israel in the eastern part of the Negev.

Acts 18.24-28 is part of the narrative of Apollos. I say ‘part of’ because Apollos is ‘mentioned in despatches’ twice in Acts (here and 19.1), in Titus 3.13 and another 7 times in 1 Corinthians. It would appear from 1 Corinthians that there was some politicisation of the Corinthian church around Pauline and Apollonian parties, which Paul is keen to play down and minimise. From 1 Cor 16.12 it appears Paul was still on good terms with Apollos.

This passage presents him as an able, even charismatic figure. It is interesting that he was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures who had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus (vss 24-25) but knew only the baptism of John (vs 25b). Priscilla and Acquila took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately (vs 26).  

It is fascinating that even in the earliest days of the church issues of doctrine, and of the formation and authorisation of leadership were issues to be managed. Vs 26-27 indicate he was further authorised and sent to Achaia where he had a further powerful ministry.

One of the significant issues in every spiritual tradition is how leadership is authorised and how teaching is safeguarded. This study guide is not the place for a full exploration of how these issues of leadership and teaching are managed within different churches (and also in other faiths – topical as are currently exploring Romans 9-11). It would be worthy of a dedicated reflection in another context.

Saturday, August 8, 2020Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Genesis 37:5-11; Matthew 16:1-4

For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Just as the Psalm has treated the place of Joseph in the history of Israel, here he takes his place in the narrative of Genesis 37.5-11. The sons of Jacob have been previously named (Gen 35.22-26). Joseph was the second youngest and continues the Genesis theme of younger sons overshadowing the elder. Vss 2-4 of this chapter are the back-story explaining why Jacob was hated by his brothers. He had brought a bad report of [his brothers] to their father (vs 2). He was also Jacob’s favourite and this was rather obvious (vs 3) with the usual reaction from the non-favoured siblings (vs 4).

Reading this story, and Joseph’s trumpeting of his dream (vs 6), we do get a sense of a rather self-absorbed character, full of confidence in his own abilities. The brother’s attitude is clear (vs 8) and they pushed back against him.

Not at all subdued, Joseph does it again (vs 9), but this time includes his parents among those he dreams of dominating. This earns a rebuke from Jacob (vs 10) but only reinforces his brother’s jealousy. The stage is set for the action to unfold!!

Matthew 16.1-4: I love this story! You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times (vs 3b). This a text for everyone who watches the evening news and weather! The parallel is found in Luke 12.54-56 where it is addressed not to the Pharisees and Sadducees but to the crowd. Further, Luke has separated it from the saying about no sign will be given to [this generation] but the sign of Jonah.

I treasure this text because I think we in the church have so often stood with the crowd (or with the Pharisees and Sadducees) in blissful and even wilful ignorance of what is happening in the world around us. Preachers and apologists in various ages have gone galloping through the happy hunting grounds of ancient prophecy and John the Seer’s Apocalypse, inventing visions and pronouncements that would make Nostradamus blush. The tragedy of this is that the prophets themselves (and John the Seer!) were highly insightful interpreters of the signs of their times and among God’s greatest gifts in helping us discern the signs of our own.

One of the wonderful things about a community like Box Hill Baptist Church is that we have faithful Christians who are surgeons, CEO’s, historians, scientists, public health professionals, nurses, artists, gardeners, teachers, mothers, grandparents, librarians and so many other skills that are vital to the church’s tasks of interpretation and discernment in the modern world.

Jim Barr

2nd August 2020

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