Monday, September 7, 2020Psalm 121; Exodus 12:14-28; 1 Peter 2:11-17

Psalm 121: This well-known and much-loved Psalm in one of the treasures of the Hebrew Bible. The opening verse has been much misunderstood from the time of the King James Bible, in which the first and second lines are separated only by a comma and there is no question mark at the end of vs 1b. In fact, the two lines are completely separate sentiments: I look out to the hills; and I ask where will I find help? 

Personally, I have always been reminded to read this verse very carefully by the story of a trainee minister in Wales who preached his first ever sermon in Welsh on this text: I will lift up my eyes (Welsh: llygaid pronounced chlugg-eyed, with the ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’) to the hills. The only problem was he mispronounced it as another Welsh word (llygod pronounced chlugg-od) meaning “I will lift up my mice to the hills”. For months afterwards whenever it was his turn to preach anywhere his friends would come along and sit in the back row of the church dangling plastic mice in the air by their tails!

To read the Psalm aright we need to note several things: the heading tells us it’s ‘a pilgrimage song’ or, as the NRSV expresses it, ‘A Song of Ascents’. A pilgrimage journey is the perfect context for all this talk of feet slipping (vs 3), of one who doesn’t need sleep (unlike the weary pilgrim – vss 3b,4), of a provider of shade (vs 5) and protector against the sun and the moon (vs 6). The protection from all evil, he will keep your life (vs 7) is an overarching and comprehensive promise of safety. In vs 8 your going out and your coming in are the beginning and the end of a pilgrim’s walking day.

A second clue is that vs 1 poses a question: where will my help come from?  This question is asked (literally) in view of the mountains – probably the view of the mountains that surrounded Jerusalem, especially the mountains to the east that were dangerous to travel. The departing pilgrim looks to the journey she is about to start and asks the question every traveller asks: how will it go? Where will I find the resources for this challenge?

A third clue is that vs 1 is in the first person (I will lift up, my help…) whereas vss 3-8 are in the second person – they are all addressed to you /your. So the Psalm is a dialogue. The departing Pilgrim poses the questions in vs 1 and the answer comes – possibly from a priest in vss 3-8 which take the forms of a blessing on the traveller. Some have even seen in this psalm a father’s blessing on a son about to set out on a journey.

The puzzle is vs 2: This is still in the first person: My help comes from the Lord…. Is this an affirmation by the traveller, a self-answer to the preceding question? Or is it a personal testimony by the priest, or the one who gives the blessing? On this second reading the one responding gives their personal experience (My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth) and then expounds what this means for you (the traveller) (vss 3-8).

An interesting New Testament connection here is Matthew 17.15, where a man seeks healing of Jesus for his epileptic son. The word for epilepsy is from the Gk word for moon (selene) and literally means ‘my son is moonstruck’ (seleniazomai). While we interpret the couplet of vs 6 (The sun shall not strike you by day, / nor the moon by night) as an almost poetic expression of divine care, to the ancient travelling worshippers coming to, and leaving from, Jerusalem, it was all about the dangers of the sun on desert roads and the terrifying night-scape of mental injury and illness.

Exodus 12.14-28:  This passage tells of the foundation of the Passover, a key festival of ancient Israel, commemorating annually the liberation from Egypt. The passage outlines two main elements – the eating of unleavened bread (vss 15, 17-20), and the sacrifice of the Passover lamb (vss 21-27).

The festival was to last a week with a solemn assembly on the first and seventh days (vs 16). This structure of a week-long observance has carried over into the Christian practice of Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter, although many Christians observe an abbreviated three-day festival (Good Friday – Easter). Because of the differences between the Gregorian calendar (a solar calendar – based on the sun) and the Hebrew calendar (a more ancient lunisolar calendar – based on movements of both sun and moon) the days for the festival are set differently. In the Jewish calendar Passover always begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan (typically in March or April of the Gregorian calendar). The date of Easter is usually ‘the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox’ thus combining both movements of the sun and the moon in setting the great Christian Feast of the Resurrection.

1 Peter 2.11-17 comes from a letter written to a group of exiles or migrant workers (1 Peter 1.1) living scattered through the region we know as modern Turkey. In this passage their life-situation is reflected in vs 11. The status as aliens and exiles has sometimes been spiritualised as referring to earthly life contrasted to our heavenly ‘home’, but the letter should be read against the context of a migrant/refugee/alien group living in the midst of a suspicious and even oppressive culture.

This, then provides the context for reading the ethical teaching of political submission in vss 13-17 – a passage of teaching very similar to Romans 13.1-7 we explored some weeks ago and will read again tomorrow. One of the issues in both passages (Romans and 1 Peter) is whether we can build an overarching theology of ‘submission to authority’ as a totalising Christian position applicable in every situation, or whether Paul’s words to the Romans and Peter’s to the ‘exiles of the dispersion’ are directed to specific people in particular contexts. We are reading these passages in a context where widespread restrictions on civil liberties have been imposed in an attempt to control a spreading pandemic. Many of us would see the words of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 as very applicable to our context and agree with what Peter says about our governors, sent by him [God] to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right (vs 14). However, I suspect that very few of those currently protesting the lockdown or flouting health regulations have read either Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 and would be hard pressed to mount a reasonable theological defence of their resistance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020Psalm 121; Exodus 12:29-42; Romans 13:1-7
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 12:29-42 tells of the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn, described in vs 29-30.  In vss 31-32 Pharaoh finally relents and grants the release of Israel. A telling reference to the previous struggle of wills over the terms of release (whether the herds and flocks would go with them as Moses insisted – Ex 10.25-26) is seen in Pharaoh’s words Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone (vs 32).

Vss 33-39 narrate the departure of the people, and vss 40-42 summarises the time that Israel had been living in Egypt.

From an ethical perspective, there are three ‘troublesome’ passages in Exodus that describe how the Israelites plundered the Egyptians. They are Exodus 3.21-22; 11.2-3; and 12.35-36; cf Psalm 105.37. For Jewish and Christian expositors these passages have presented ethical concerns about the spoliation of Egypt’s wealth. To place the issue in more recent context we might consider the plundering of art works from Jewish families by the Nazi regime of 1930’s Germany, or the plundering of Australian indigenous artefacts and even human remains by settlers and scientists. Even in my own family we have two or three indigenous artefacts that have come down to the present generation from a 19th century settler ancestor. We are now seeking to restore them to representatives of the traditional owners.

Through the history of exegesis the ethical difficulties have engaged the minds of commentators since Tertullian and Marcion, Josephus and Augustine. Sometimes (as with Marcion) the polemical aim has been to contrast the ethics of the God of the Old Testament (who commands this pillage) with the God of the New Testament. Others have sought to justify and explain the action. Commentator Brevard Childs lists 7 types of explanation/justification that have been offered over the centuries but invites us to see the event in the original context of the book of Exodus before we do our ethical reflection on the passage. 

Childs writes: The closest Old Testament passage to this … usage is II Chronicles 20.25, which signifies the taking of spoils from a defeated army after a military victory. The point of the tradition focusses on God’s plan for the Israelites to leave Egypt as the victors from a battle. In striking contrast to the entire history of exegesis, the Old Testament makes no attempt whatsoever to justify the act. Rather the concern of the text is to explain how it came about …  (Brevard Childs, Exodus, 1982: 177)

Romans 13.1-7: Here we have one of the most difficult and even contentious passages in Romans. To quote Brendan Byrne at length in his reflections: 

The unqualified injunction to be submissive to worldly authority, along with the rationale accompanying it, has been one of the most influential passages of Romans down the ages. Theologies of Church-State relations have been erected upon it, and autocratic governments or those who have supported them have demanded civil obedience in its name. Believers who have found it necessary to resist or seek to overthrow civic power in certain of its historical manifestations have found the passage at best an embarrassment, at worst something to be rejected in the name of the broader claims of the gospel. For some it represents the “most hateful” passage in scripture. (Byrne, 1996: 389)

This passage is to be understood within the historical context to which it is addressed – the city at the centre of a great Empire. That city experienced in the late 50’s CE civil unrest caused by abuses in the collection of taxes. Things became acute in 58 CE when Nero seriously considered abolishing all indirect taxes but was persuaded by his advisers to undertake reforms in how they were collected. Given that we know there were tensions in the early Christian communities about paying taxes (Matt 22.15-22), perhaps Paul suspected the Roman Christian community was divided on the matter. He may have been trying to guide a weak and vulnerable community away from contentious social/political positions. Given the persecution of the Christians that emerged under Nero in the decade after 58 CE, Paul’s teaching was wise. He may also have been trying to reassure the Roman authorities that he was not an agitator or a threat.

There is little to differentiate it from other Hellenistic teaching on attitudes to government and similar (but independent) teaching can be seen in 1 Peter 2.13-17, 1 Timothy 2.1-3 and Titus 3.1-3. However, there are three things we should note that are important ‘balancing principles’ that mitigate the message of complete submission.

  1. Vss 2-4 make clear that the power of the state or civil authority is not supreme or untrammelled – it is appointed by God and accountable to God.  There is no teaching here of an independent or supreme authority of human rulers.
  2. Vs 5 introduces, alongside the obligation to ‘be subject’ (not ‘be obedient’!) because of wrath (i.e. the fear of retribution) another reason: but also because of conscience. Alongside submission, Paul also introduces conscience, with the assumption that they will align. When they do not align (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in the days of Nazi Germany), we must obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5.29).
  3. This whole passage presses towards teaching about paying ‘what we owe’: taxes, revenue, respect, honour (vss 6-7). Whether we can take the teaching to a wider context of Christian attitudes to government is debatable.

Taking all this into account, I think Romans 13.1-7 does not apply (for instance) in the contemporary context of Belarus, where the people are arising against a dictator who has dominated them for decades.  However, I think it does apply to modern Australia, and Great Britain and United States, where in a situation of a public health emergency we have people claiming to be ‘sovereign citizens’ who don’t owe anything to anyone, who will not obey public health guidelines, who will disrespect and resist authority whether it be in the form of police, or health workers, or political leaders trying to manage a complex situation.

What do we think about those who, defending the rights of racial minorities or refugees, or the urgent need for climate reform, protest in defiance of health advice/regulations limiting public assembly? How would you explain Romans 13.1-7 to them?

What would we say about a ruler who actually IS a terror to good conduct (cf. vs 3a) and encourages both vigilantes and law enforcement officers to attack peaceful protestors?

Part of what Paul is trying to teach (I believe) is a measure of civic engagement, of shared or mutual commitment to the work of being a community together, of seeking to resist and control wickedness or wrongdoing, and promote or encourage what is good. To build a ‘totalising’ theology of complete submission to whatever form of civic authority might exist at the time is naïve, and even abusive.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020Psalm 121; Exodus 13:1-10; Matthew 21:18-22
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 13.1-10: This passage brings to an end the Passover Narrative that began in 11.1. At first it appears that vss 1-2 are disconnected from vss 3-10 in that the earlier verses introduce the law of the consecration of the firstborn whereas the latter deal with the feast of unleavened bread. This apparent disconnection derives from the lectionary excising verses 11-16. If you read on through verses 11-16 you find detailed exploration of the consecration of the first born. The structure of these verses (vss 11-16) mirrors the structure of vss 3-8 and makes clear how the Feast of Unleavened Bread (repeatedly annually) and the Consecration of the firstborn (a once in a lifetime event for every animal or person that gives birth) are joined together in commemoration of the final plague in the deliverance from Egypt. This common structure between vss 3-8 and 10-16 can be seen:

  • both are related to the entry into the promised land – vss 5 // 11
  • both focus on the answer to the son (or ‘child’ in our translation) – vss 8 // 14
  • both require the visible signs of remembrance on the hand vss 9 // 16
  • both end with the Exodus formula – vss 9 // 16.

When this structure is revealed it is clear that vss 1-2 are the heading and introduction to the whole section.

The consecration of the firstborn reflects an ancient cultic claim, related to the offering of the “first fruits” of the harvest which was widespread in ancient cultures (see Exodus 23.16, 19). A full exploration of these rich and evocative concepts is beyond the scope of these notes, but it central to Christian reflection on a wide range of subjects from stewardship in Christian life, to the management of the economy, to our understanding of family dynamics.

Matthew 21.18-22 is a puzzling story from the gospels. At least one great Western philosopher (Bertrand Russell) has quoted this story in support of his considered atheism:  how could one venerate someone who went about cursing fruit trees without fruit, especially if (as Mark carefully tells us) for it was not the season for figs (Mk 11.13b)?  In taking the story from Mark, Matthew appears to recognise the ethical issue in that he quietly deletes Mark’s comment about it not being the season for figs. Comparison of the versions of Mark and Matthew reveals that Mark has split the story into two parts – Jesus cursing the fig tree (11.12-14) and the disciples discovering it withered the next day (11.20-24). Between these Park has inserted Jesus ‘Cleansing the Temple’ (11.15-19). Clearly the fate of the fig tree is meant to pre-figure that of the Temple: Jesus is not so much Cleansing the Temple as Cursing the Temple!

Matthew has brought the two halves of Mark’s fig tree story together, made the withering instantaneous (vs 19b) and it is the rapidity of its withering that astonishes the disciples (vs 20 cf. Mark 11.21). In both Matthew and Mark the miracle supports the effectiveness of prayer, but in Matthew it has lost the overtones of modelling the fate of the Temple that it clearly has in Mark.

Thursday, September 10, 2020Psalm 114; Exodus 13:17-22; 1 John 3:11-16
Ps 114: (We last read this Psalm on April 20th this year. These notes come from that time.) This beautiful, polished little Psalm does not have the responsive, hymnic form found in many Psalms that were designed for public praise in the liturgies of the Jerusalem temple – apart from a call-response pattern appearing in vs 8.  Scholars have discussed (without resolution) the original setting of the psalm suggesting three alternatives 1) the enthronement of Yahweh festival 2) the extended festival of the Passover and 3) the early Gilgal festival associated with the alliance of the 12 tribes in the time of Joshua (thus H-J Kraus – see Joshua 3-5). 

The mention of Judah as ‘God’s sanctuary’ and Israel as ‘his dominion’ (vs 2) has some scholars situating this Psalm within the post-exilic context of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. ‘Dominion’ in this context carries the same sense that Australia and Canada had as ‘Dominions’ when they were seen as subservient to Great Britain as the centre of Empire. Those who locate the Psalm first within the early Gilgal tradition read ‘Israel’ (vs 2) in the incorporative sense of ‘all the twelve tribes’) and read vs 2a and 2b as an identical parallelism. They then see the Psalm in a later age being adapted into the Passover liturgies.

It has a simple but elegant structure: vss. 1-2 tell the story of Exodus and establishment in the promised land with power and brevity.

Vss 3-4 tell of the parting of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan and the skipping of the mountains and the frolicking of the hills.

Vss 5-6 ask why this was so, what it was that seas, rivers, mountains and hills have ‘seen’.

Vss 7-8 call on the earth to make thunderous reply, trembling at the presence of the Lord (vs 7) and then almost reversing the actions of vss 3, 5 (the waters becoming dry land) with the declaration of vs 8 that the Lord makes the rock become a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Vs 3 has a simple but very powerful poetic form in which ‘the sea’ ‘sees’ and ‘flees’. ‘Seeing’ and ‘fleeing’ (the latter with an almost military overtone) presents the sea with almost human characteristics – simple, brief but very powerful use of imagery.

Exodus 13.17-22 introduces the beginning of the long march to the Promised Land. Vss 17-18 indicate the Lord was worried about the prospect of battle with the Philistines and so did not lead them by the way of the Philistines. This border remains closed even today for the country named in this passage is actually the Gaza Strip. If Egypt and its Pharaoh have been the enemy to this point in the narrative, the future enemy of the people of Israel is here ominously prefigured. Etymologically there is a link between the names Philistine and Palestine and the ancient enmity here named is surprisingly contemporary.

The readiness of the people for battle is noted (vs 18b). Why then was the Lord concerned at the prospect of fighting the Philistines? The dramatic protection of the Lord is identified in the twin pillars of cloud and fire that led them (vss 21-22).

1 John 3.11-16: The letters of John are a development of the Johannine school of theology that gave us the gospel of John. 1 John explores and expounds the place of love in Christian living, especially in this passage and in chapter 4.7-21. 

This passage anchors its teaching on love in the example of Cain from the Hebrew Scriptures (vs. 12 cf Genesis 4.1-16. See also the discussion of firstborn and first fruits yesterday because it was matters of sacrifice and ‘first fruits’ that led to Cain’s sacrifice being rejected.) It then refers to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (vs 15 cf. Matthew 5.21-22).

Vss 23 brings these two streams of ethical thinking together in a clearly Christological foundation for self-sacrificing love in the example of Jesus!

Friday, September 11, 2020Psalm 114; Exodus 14:1-18; Acts 7:9-16
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 14.1-8 brings us with the fleeing Israelites to the sea – the site of the final and decisive defeat of the Pharaoh and his armies. Scholars believe the narrative from 3.17 – 4.30 is a closely worked compilation of at least three ancient sources. This reflects how important this story was to the ancient Israelites – it was remembered in different traditions and sources and re-edited at various times in their history. To the ancient source writers (known to scholars by names like the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist etc) we must add another – the Filmist – who has influenced reading of this story perhaps more than any of the others. The Filmist, of course, is Cecil B. de Mille who produced, directed and narrated the 1956 classic film The Ten Commandments. This movie, far more than the Bible, has shaped how we read and understand this story.

Perhaps wisely, the Lectionary has given us only the first half of chapter 14. The second half of the chapter introduces some confusing themes – for instance whether the rescue is effected by the Lord or the angel of God (see vs 19), whether the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind and turned the sea into dry land (vs 19b) or whether the waters were divided (vs 19c). Did the Egyptians panic (vs 24) so that (literally) ‘the wheels fell off’ (vs 25a – see note) or were they drowned when the split waters reunited (vs 26b) or was it that As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea (vs 27b). None of these are contradictory plot elements, but they do suggest a range of narrators with different emphases and narrative details that have been worked together.

One question in understanding the multiplicity of sources is whether the deliverance by the sea was originally part of the Exodus story – the escape from Egypt – or integrally linked with the wilderness traditions – the wandering in the desert. The desert wandering started with the crossing of the sea and ended with the crossing of the Jordan river. This would suggest that it belongs with the wilderness traditions. Supporting this is the unusual detail of 14.2 where the Lord says to Moses Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp. Chapter 13.17 has already told us that the Lord did not lead them by the easiest route: does the turning back of 14.2 reflect a switch from the obvious route to the wilderness way? Or is it a subterfuge to convince Pharaoh that the Israelites are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them (vs 3)? The narrative ‘hiccup’ suggests that the writers were trying to fit the traditions into a coherent plot line.

However, in the later history of Israel, especially in post-Exilic Judaism, the Passover came to assume a greater role in the life of the people, and the dramatic rescue by the sea came to be less associated with the wilderness and much more connected with the plagues and Exodus tradition.

This is a multi-layered story that lives through the ancient remembered traditions of Israel, the written Scriptures of Jewish and Christian faiths and the various cinematic and video renditions that have so formed our modern consciousness. If one wished to understand the labours of the Biblical scholars, it might be interesting to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s two movies on this theme one after the other – his silent classic The Ten Commandments (1923) and the colour epic of the same name (1956) – and compare how the story has been told in those two moments of history with the skills of the story-teller’s art at each time.

Acts 7.9-16 is part of the sermon of Stephen. Stephen recounts the Joseph narrative which underlies the Exodus story. We have explored various aspects of this narrative in our recent readings from the Abraham, Jacob and Joseph cycles from Genesis.

The end of the Stephen’s recounting of the Joseph narrative leads into his telling of the Moses story (Acts 7.17-44) in which the narratives of the ten plagues that we have just reviewed, the crossing of the Red Sea and 40 years wandering in the wilderness are all told in just one verse (Acts 7.36)!

Saturday, September 12, 2020Psalm 114; Exodus 15:19-21; Matthew 6:7-15
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 15.19-21 is the Song of Miriam. Here two ancient poems recounting the deliverance by the sea are recorded. Vss 1b-18 of this chapter are the Song of the Sea, sung by Moses and the Israelites (vs 1a). Vs 19 is a prose summary of the event separating the two songs. Vs 20 is an introduction to the Song of Miriam and vs 21 is the content of Miriam’s Song. This content is nearly identical to the opening of the Song of Moses (vs 1b). A question that is hotly debated is whether the Song of Miriam is the more ancient, original version of this song, and the Song of Moses is the later version (what we might call a ‘cover version’) or whether it worked the other way around.

Another possibility is that, just as in indigenous communities, there were traditions that were ‘men’s business’ and others that were ‘women’s business”. One of the things I miss is the tradition of parts singing – of SATB harmony in the hymns of the church. In some of the old hymns there were even completely different lines or ‘repeats’ for men and women. Does anyone else miss having distinctive traditions of music for men and women in the worship of the community?

Matthew 6.7-15 is the Lord’s Prayer – the best-known prayer in the Christian world. It is presented as part of the Sermon on the Mount. This prayer is part of the tradition shared by Matthew and Luke (see Luke 11.1-4). 

Matthew’s version of the prayer is slightly longer than Luke’s who had omitted vs 10b, 10c, and 13c. Matthew and Luke have different introductions to the prayer (Luke places a request for Jesus to teach them to pray in the mouths of his disciples, whereas Matthew has Jesus warning against piling up words – vs 7). Matthew has some teaching about prayer before this passage, whereas Luke includes different teaching about prayer in the forms of several parables after this passage (Luke 11.5-23).

 Jim Barr

6th September 2020

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