Monday, September 21, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Exodus 16:31-35; Romans 16:1-16

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.

Vss 97-104 juxtaposes the spirituality of the law (the Torah tradition) with that of Wisdom. The superiority of the law as a spiritual path is shown in the superior wisdom of the person devoted to the law over enemies (vs 98), teachers (vs 99), and the aged (vs 100). It is more effective than wisdom in guiding the feet (vs 101) for it is taught by the Lord not a human teacher (vs 102). Vss 103-104 celebrate the pleasures and reliable guidance that come through the law.

Exodus 16.31-35 brings together various traditions about manna.  Vs 31 starts with its name followed by a description of its appearance and taste. The description of the taste as wafers made with honey differs from that of Numbers 11 which describes a taste of cakes baked with oil. The rabbinic interpretation took this to mean that its wonderful properties allowed it to change at will and suit every man’s taste to a delicacy (Brevard Childs).

Vss 32 and 33 double up in their statement of a command to preserve an omer (a daily ration) of manna to be preserved throughout your generations as a testimony to the Lord’s keeping of the people. This stands in tension with the tradition that the manna would only keep for a day, except on the Sabbath. Vss 34 includes the problematic placement of the jar of manna before the covenant (or treaty or testimony) where the Ark of the Covenant had not yet been either commanded or built. All this suggests that the writer is drawing together the traditions from long ago and binding together at the heart of Israel’s worship not just the law reflected in the covenant, but God’s gracious provision and deliverance as experienced in the wilderness wanderings.

Vs 35 would confirm this perspective with a historical note that the reliance on manna only continued while the people were in the desert, and after they entered the promised land they relied on more usual food sources.

Romans 16.1-16: I plan to preach on this chapter in October and will not make detailed commentary here. It is essentially a chapter of greetings and commendations, typical of the form of Biblical letters which open with a thanksgiving and blessing, convey their theological and ethical teaching, and conclude with personal greetings and information. Within the doctrinal focus that many evangelicals have brought to the letters, and being at such remove from the historical circumstances described in these greetings, we have tended to gloss over and even avoid these chapters. They are a bit like the OT genealogies: faced with long lists of either ‘begatting’ or of greeting, our eyes tend to glaze over and we move on.

But in an age of quarantine and lockdown the greetings at the end of the New Testament letters are rich sources of both encouragement and ideas! This was people keeping in touch when they were prevented from meeting by distance and the limited communications of their day. This was how they held communities together, and encouraged people who they couldn’t touch, or telephone, or email. The way Paul talks to them can teach us much about how we might address, affirm and encourage one another.

One of the significant elements of this long collection of greetings is found in vs 7, addressed to Andronicus and Junia (or Junias, or Julia). The most ancient papyrus manuscript we have has the feminine form Julia. What is significant is that Julia is described as prominent among the apostles and [was] in Christ before me (vs 7b). Feminist historians see here evidence of leadership by a woman at the highest levels of the early church, evidence subsequently erased by the emendation of Julia (fem.) to Junia (masc.). Or did the copyist who wrote out that earlier manuscript simply make a mistake?

Read the greetings and see if any of Paul’s feelings resonate with you about people you have known in the church. Try replacing the names Paul uses with some of those you know. How would you affirm them? What messages would you have passed on to them?

Note that there is mention of the church in their house (vs 5) and a family (vs 10b), and two lists of people who seem to belong together in separate groups (vs 14, and vs 15). What are the affinity groups, networks and families that you would like to address in your church?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Numbers 11:1-9; Romans 16:17-20

For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 11.1-9 presents another tradition of the manna. The Exodus story (see yesterday) comes from before the people get to Sinai. This story comes after the people leave Sinai (see Numbers 10.11 ff). Note the threatening anger of the Lord and the recurring motif of the people’s complaining (vss 1-3). Vs 4 draws an interesting contrast between the rabble among them and the Israelites also… Their graphic recall of the food of Egypt and their disdain for the manner are clear (vss 4b-6).

The manna is described differently. While still shaped like coriander seed, the colour and flavour are different (cf. yesterday’s reading). There is also a description of how it was processed to be eaten (vs 8).

Romans 16.17-20 moves from greetings and encouragement to warnings and denunciation. As we worked our way through the earlier chapters of Romans we could sense a debate or dispute within the community about the relative place of law on the one hand and faith and grace on the other. Without naming it in these terms, Paul here brings a dispute into the open identifying those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching you have learned (vs 17). Their implied judgement (vs 20a) is harsh.  Vs 20b looks like a closing benediction but Paul resumes his greetings in vs 21 and then offers an extended final doxology in vss 25-27.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020Psalm 119:97-104; Numbers 11:18-23, 31-32; Matthew 18:1-5
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 11.18-23 follows yesterday’s reading in which the grumbling of the people was treated in detail. Here God’s answer to their complaint of a lack of meat is given. Vs20 expresses this abundant gift almost as a punishment: You shall eat … for a whole month – until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.  

The description of the quails on the ground is of hyperbolic abundance: they lay on the ground all around the camp to a radius of a day’s journey, piled on the earth in every direction to a depth of two cubits (approximately 1 metre). A sceptic might ask whether the ‘day’s journey’ was measured under normal conditions or when wading waist-deep in quails?  

With the manna, one omer (approximately 2.3-2.5 litres) was a daily ration – but with the quails the least anyone gathered was ten homers (one homer = approx 220 litres). So according to Numbers 11 the minimum any single person gathered of quails was 2,200 litres. They were then spread around the camp, presumably to dry.

Now if we ‘do the math’, 600,000 people gathering a minimum of 2,200 litres each yields a harvest of 1,320,000,000 (=1.3 billion) litres of quail. Estimates today of total world production of farmed quail is 1.4 billion individual birds, but the Numbers figure is 1.3 billion litres of quail. That certainly is an image of abundance bordering on the noisome! It also makes sense of vs 20 and quail coming out of your nostrils – the stench of that many drying quail would have ‘got right up your nose’.

Last week I provided the link to a song Then the quail came by Noel Paul Stookey – a folk song based on this passage. If you didn’t listen then, it is even more poignant to hear in the context of today’s reading.

Matthew 18.1-5 has no parallel in Mark or Luke, although Mark 10.14-15 contains a similar (but slightly different) teaching. Note that here Jesus is using the child as an example, as a simile: unless you become like children you will never enter the kingdom of God (vs 3)  and Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (vs 4) (emphasis added). In Mark the kingdom belongs to such as these (Mk 10.14). Mark states whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it (10.15). It may just be a matter of style, but Mark seems to have a stronger identification of child-likeness with the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, September 24, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Isaiah 48:17-21; James 4:11-16
Psalm 78 is a recitation of the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, and the people’s perfidy and resistance. Psalm 78 is unique piece in the Old Testament and it is hard to categorise. It could be designated a historical psalm, but there are also elements of thanksgiving. Vss 1-2 suggest that what follows would be a wisdom poem, but throughout the principles of the Deuteronomic history can be seen in how the historical material is presented. It is a didactic poem which joins together various traditions already established within Israel.

It begins with a formula for opening a teaching session and I will utter dark sayings from of old (vs 2b) suggests the revelation of enigmatic, even secret principles.

In vss 12-16 we can see why this Psalm has been included in this cycle of the Lectionary: here yet again is retold the history of the deliverance from Egypt (vs 12) the miracle by the sea (vs 13) , the pillars of cloud and fire (vs 14) and the miracle of the water from the rock (vss 15-16).

Isaiah 48.17-21 is an oracle of deliverance announcing the departure of Israel from their captivity in Babylon (see vs 20) in the early 6th Century BCE. The prophetic ‘signature’ Thus says the Lord opens vs 17 and vss 18-19 are a rebuke alluding to the faithlessness of Israel. Vs 20 announces God’s purpose and calls on the people to depart from Babylon / Chaldea. Vs 21 draws a direct parallel between this deliverance and the events of the Exodus / Wilderness Wandering that we have been reading through the lens of so many other parts of Israel’s story. Vs 15 retells the Meribah story.

James 4.11-16:   The letter of James is an unusual book. Luther deemed it ‘an epistle of straw’ and wondered why it had been included in the New Testament. He believed that it tended towards a faith built on law and judgement rather than grace. It has none of the usual greetings and personal touches that mark other New Testament letters and has the form more of a tract than a real letter written to address a particular issue. It has minimal reference to Jesus or Christ after the opening verse. There are several references to ‘the Lord’, but it is not always clear that this is a reference to Jesus: see 3.9 (the Lord and Father), 5.4 (the Lord of hosts). Even the coming of the Lord (5.7) could be a reference to the OT concept of the day of the Lord. It appears to have origins in Judaism or at least a Jewish worldview yet is written into a Christian context.

Today’s passage engages ethical teaching on two main themes: judging another (vss 11-12) and ‘boasting about tomorrow’ (vss 13-16). The first has a fascinating argument – the one who judges another actually speaks evil against the law and judges the law (vs 11b). This is consistent with James’ high estimation of the law (e.g. 2.8-13) and in contrast with Paul’s view of the law as seen in (for instance) Romans 4.13-16 and Romans chapter 7. For James, all judgement belongs to God (vs 12a) which then excludes any right for us to judge (vs 12b)

Vss 13-16 teach a humble and trusting attitude to the future in which believers should not presume

to know what tomorrow will bring. The saying in vs 15b has been taken up in the Islamic world as:

إن شاء الله

 ‘inshallah’ meaning “if Allah wills”

I think one of the cultural differences between Christians and Muslims is the much stronger sense in Islamic thought of the sovereignty of God as a day-to-day reality. The phrase ‘inshallah’ falls more readily to their lips than to ours and in this I think they have honoured God somewhat better than we have.

Friday, September 25, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Numbers 20:1-13; Acts 13:32-41
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Numbers 20.1-13 is a parallel account of the miracle of Exodus 17.1-7. Comparison of the two accounts yields significant agreement and variations. The place is called Massah (=test) and Meribah (=quarrel) in Ex 17 but only Meribah in Numbers 20. The language of Numbers reflects a more liturgical or religious framing of the narrative: (the (whole) congregation – vss 1, 2a, 8b, 11b; the assembly (of the Lord) – vss 4, 6a, 10, 12; assemble the congregation – vs 8). Vs 12 introduces a new element – the judgement of Moses for his lack of faith with the Lord pronouncing that he (Moses) shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.

How has Moses failed to trust in me enough to honour me as holy in the sight of the Israelites (vs 12)? Moses, in word and action has been entirely responsive to the Lord until vs 10. He was instructed to speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water (vs 8) but he raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff (vs 10). Whether it was the striking instead of speaking, or the striking twice (where in Exodus 17 he only struck once) or the self-aggrandizing statement of vs 10b that does not acknowledge the Lord but says “Listen, you rebels, must we [not the Lord!] bring water out of this rock?” – or whether all three betray a rising sense of power and arrogance on the part of Moses and Aaron – we cannot be sure, but the Lord saw their actions as a lack of trust and a betrayal of the Lord’s holiness.

Acts 13.32-41 is part of a sermon Paul preached in Antioch in Pisidia in the centre of western Turkey – not Syrian Antioch which was the church that had commissioned Paul and Barnabus for their preaching journey. The sermon was addressed to You Israelites and others who fear God (vs 16b cf. vs 26). The Jewish audience can also be discerned in reference to our ancestors (vs 32). Paul then explains the resurrection by referring to three texts from the OT. The logic seems to be:-

33b:  you are my Son (addressed to David – and Jesus?)

34b: I will give you (Jesus) the holy promises made to David (i.e. Jesus is made holy by receiving the promises)

35b: You will not let your Holy One (Jesus) experience corruption.

Vss 36-37 clarify that David died and experienced corruption but not Jesus followed by a succinct expression of the gospel (vs 39) and a warning, again grounded in the OT (vs 40-41).

Saturday, September 26, 2020Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Numbers 27:12-14; Mark 11:27-33
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Numbers 27.12-14:  Following yesterday’s divine declaration that Moses would not lead the people into the land given to Israel, today’s short reading begins the story of the succession of power and leadership from Moses to Joshua. Only half the story is told as vss 15-23 tell of the commissioning of Joshua. In vss 12-14 the judgement of the Lord already rendered is given greater clarity and detail as Moses is commanded to go into the mountains, view the promised land, after which he will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was (vs 13). This sounds as if ‘the gathering’ is imminent, but the book of Numbers has another nine chapters to go with no description of the aging or death of Moses. It is not until the end of the next book, in Deuteronomy chapter 34, that Moses dies and is gathered to [his] people.

The key point in this reading is in vs 14: because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarrelled with me. On this occasion the NIV perhaps captures their failing more accurately when it renders the text: for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.

Mark 11 tells the beginning of the last climactic week of Jesus’ life. Vss 1-26 tell of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing (or cursing?) of the temple, and the withering of the fig tree before we come to this argument with the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vs 27). This passage begins a series of arguments/controversies that continue unbroken with various enemies until 12.40. Then follows teaching about the end from 12.41 to 13.37. Chapter 14 opens with the plot to kill Jesus and unfolds the events of the Thursday before Passover.

Jesus’ enemies are variously described and it was as early as 3.6 that the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. This is not the place to analyse the range of enemies arrayed against Jesus, but here three significant groups – the chief priests, the scribes (see Mk 3.22) and the elders – come together arguing with Jesus. This particular encounter ends in a stalemate (vs 33), but by Mark 14.53 this group have the upper hand: They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders and the scribes were assembled. This was the council (Mk 14.55), the leadership of the Jewish people (that is, the Temple leadership), rather than the Herodians (a group clustered around the political leadership of Herod) and the Pharisees, a moral and religious group more identified with local synagogues and dispersed Judaism than temple-focussed religion.

It is appropriate and fitting that in every age we should reflect on who are the enemies of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is political folks (like the Herodians) who are the power as it was under the Nazis). Perhaps in some ages it is the centralised power of the church authorities – popes and councils who have condemned heretics and destroyed new spiritual movements. It may be movement like the Sadducees – highly cultured people suspicious of miracle and the spiritual realm.  It also sometimes can be the Pharisees – very devout and religious people committed to their communities and highly moral, but inflexible and judgemental. 

All these groups (or people who have drunk deep from the spirit of them) are found among the people of God. (On a personal note, I confess that my own personal temptation may be that of the intellectualising Sadducee.) In our zeal to share the good news with others, it is always salutary to remind ourselves of the saying of Jesus: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Mt 23.25). 

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