Monday, September 28, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 18:1-12; Philippians 1:3-14

Psalm 42 actually forms a unit with Psalm 43. This can be seen from the identical refrain which appears in 42.5, 42.11 and 43.5. Seeing that refrain gives us a guide to the structure of this three strophe Psalm. Today we look at the first two strophes. It is a beautifully poetic Psalm that has inspired devotion and been the stimulus for many hymns and Christian songs.

It is a prayer song. However, it is not until 42.9b and especially 43.1 in the third strophe that we can see the cause of the singer’s suffering. Psalm 42 expresses the brokenness, sadness and longing of the singer. The refrain is an exhortation to quieten oneself, to address one’s spirit with a call to patience and hope.

The location of the singer would seem to be the headwaters of the Jordan (vs 6) which may also inform the longing for flowing streams (vs 1) and the remembrance of thundering waterfalls (vs 7a) and either the sea or a raging inland flood (vs 7b). Vs 4 remembers the good times of attending worship in the house of God (literally, the archaic word for tabernacle) so it is clear that the singer is at a distance from Jerusalem.

Vss 7-10 speak not so much of distance and loneliness as of deep sadness (vs 7) and possibly illness (vs 10). My enemies taunt me is reminiscent of Job in his suffering. In the midst of this suffering vs 8 sings of assurance and peace.

This is a powerful and much-loved psalm that has encouraged and sustained many in times of suffering and spiritual drought. It is one to which we can return over and over for renewal and peace.

Exodus 18.1-12: This passage brings Moses back together with his father in law, Jethro, the priest of Midian (vs 1), and his family – wife Zipporah and his sons Gershom and Eliezer (vss 3-4). The text has been silent to this point on Moses sending his wife and sons away (vs 2). When they are all reunited (vss 5-7) Moses tells what the Lord has done (vs 8). Jethro acknowledges the Lord and offers sacrifice (vss 9-11). Vs 12 suggests that Jethro has assumed some status in the eyes of all Israel because Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God. This sets the scene for the next part of the Jethro cycle.

Philippians 1.3-4 comprises the thanksgiving and greeting for the church at Philippi (vss 3-10).  Vs 7a includes one of the lovely ambiguities of the New Testament Greek text. The words for ‘your’ and ‘our’ in Greek are even more alike than in English: the letters are the same and the only difference is a small apostrophe (or breathing mark) over the first letter, leaning one way for ‘our’ and the other way for ‘your’. In the days of hand-written letters who can be sure which way an apostrophe is leaning? Is the writer ‘holding’ them in his heart? Or are they holding him in their hearts? We don’t know – and it doesn’t matter! In the church we should always be holding each other in our hearts and confident that we are held, even as we hold others in remembrance and love.

Vs 7b introduces two linked themes: my imprisonment and the defense and confirmation of the gospel. The relationship between these two is then explored further in vss 12-14.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 18:13-27; Philippians 1:15-21
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 18.13-27: This is a very significant passage. Jethro observes Moses sitting as judge for the people (vs 13) and then offers both a critique of Moses’ practice (vss 14-18) and a suggested new way of judging (vss 19-23). Moses accepts Jethro’s advice and institutes his suggestions (vss 24-26). After these changes have been established Jethro departs to his own country (vs 27).

The significance of the passage from a theological perspective is profound. The law will not be given until chapter 20, but here in chapter 18 Moses is already ‘judging’ and acknowledges his role in both hearing disputes and making known to them the statutes and instructions of God (vs 16). Jethro proposes that Moses refines his role to i) you should represent the people before God, and present their cases to God (vs 19); and ii) Teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do (vs 20); and iii) look for able men (vs 21) and Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves (vs 22).

What is being described here is the origins of a legal system, and the beginning of a ‘theology of law’. There are several things to note: the first is that all this is happening before the law is given to Moses by God. The primary act of justice is that of rendering judgement. Before law is codified or legislated Moses is rendering judgement, deciding cases, settling disputes. The second is that this act of judgement is grounded in Moses’ relationship with God. The third is that the formulation of laws and statutes is derivative of the first two.

In his book The Ways of Judgement, theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes of the primacy of judgement among the separated powers of government (the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary) so beloved of western political theory. He goes to far as to write that any act of governance (from exercising executive authority to drafting laws and regulations) is an act of judgement. As so many of the Psalms express it, the justice we seek from the king comes ultimately from God.

We are considering this passage at a time that the US is focussing on the appointment of a new member of their Supreme Court. If you are following the controversies surrounding that process you will know it is not proceeding nearly as smoothly as Exodus 18! One of the prime difficulties is actually theological in nature: the Republican Party seek a judge who feels bound to the understanding of Constitution that was in the minds of the original founders of the nation – bound, as it were, by the letter and ancient spirit of the law. This is not what is expounded in Exodus 18: Moses remains in relationship with the Lord and brings the tough cases him. There is room for change, for evolution, for a fresh word, a new insight!

Ironically, many of those most enthusiastic for a rigidly conservative or ‘originalist’ approach to the Supreme Court are evangelical Christians. However, when it comes to both justice and government, it is important to reflect on the Biblical teaching about these matters and to build a thoughtful and Biblical ‘political theology’. Some Christians disparage the term ‘political theology’, thinking it refers to party-politics, but it concerns far more than that. It is about how our states and our courts are to operate and how the philosophical and theological underpinnings of law and governance are understood and how they might guide our practices of statecraft & justice.

Philippians 1.15-21 outlines two possible motivations for proclaiming Christ: either envy and rivalry (vs 15) and selfish ambition … intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment (vs 17); or goodwill (vs 15) and love, knowing that I have been put here for the defence of the gospel (vs 16).

Paul doesn’t mind which it is and rejoices that all will be well for Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by my life or my death (vs 20).

This is a great way to live, if we can attain Paul’s assurance and calm, greeting life or death with equal satisfaction and confidence, knowing that to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (vs 21).

Wednesday, September 30, 2020Psalm 42; Exodus 19:9b-25; Matthew 9:2-8
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 19.9b-25 jumps over vss 1-9a, a poetic and artistic passage that now serves as an introduction to the chapter. We can also see that vss 20-25 forms a distinct unit with a different sense. Vss 20-25 prohibit completely the people going up the mountain whereas vs 13b states “When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” 

The passage reads more clearly if we break it at the end of vs 19 and see vs 20 as a new beginning of an alternate version of this ancient tradition.

The passage is about consecration. It is the background for the wonderful words of Hebrews 12.18-24 which contrast the worship of the Christian church with the worship experienced by ancient Israel in this profound formative moment of their tradition.

Matthew 9.2-8 is a combination of a healing story and a controversy with the scribes. My New Testament professor always taught that a healing story is like any ad for medicine or a health product. They always have three parts: i) this is how sick I was, ii) this is what I took or what happened or what I bought, and iii) look at me now!  Watch any TV ad for a health or diet product and you’ll see this basic format still working 2000 years later. We can see the structure of the healing story as follows: i) he was paralysed and had to be carried – vs 2a;  ii) Jesus healed through a pronouncement/healing word (vs 6c); and iii) he stood up and went to his home (vs 7). The original healing story that would have circulated in the early Jesus community would have been:

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, …“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. 

Into this straightforward healing is inserted a controversy with the scribes in vss 3-6a. The ‘seam’ between the two elements is vs 2c which adds to the original word of healing (vs 6c) a saying about sin which sets off the controversy (vs 2c). The other seam is the repetition of he said to the paralytic found in both vs 2b AND in 6b. So the interpolated controversy reads:

… he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— [he said to the paralytic] – …

Matthew binds the two stories together with the closing verse (vs 8) that emphasises the authority of Jesus over both sickness and sin.

Thursday, October 1, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:1-9; Colossians 2:16-23

Psalm 19 is actually two Psalms. Vss 1-6 (Psalm 19A) praise God in nature. Vss 7-14 (Psalm 19B) deal with the glory of the Torah. Both the theme and the poetic rhythm of these two sections makes clear that they are different. We will explore each separately and then consider why the tradition has brought them together and passed them on to us as they are.

  1. Psalm 19A shows singular forms, yet it has elements of a song of praise, or a didactic poem. It exhibits signs of great age. Both parts of the psalm were probably intoned as cultic songs in the worship of Israel, probably in the cycle of autumnal festivals (see Friday’s reading on the Exodus passage). 

Vs 1 announces the theme which is then developed in two parts: vss 2-4a describing the process of communication and vss 4b-6 describing the actions of the sun.

Vss 1-2 include four verbs (declare & proclaims in vs 1 and pours forth and declares in vs 2) that describe the powerful testimony of the heavens. The word translated pours forth is literally ‘to bubble forth’ denoting ecstatic, bubbling, excited speech. Words describing singing or praising are noticeably absent. In vs 2 the transmission day to day and night to night are “like two choruses that take turns” (F. Nötscher). 

Vs 3 introduces a paradox – there is no speech and a voice is not heard, yet their ‘voice’ (see footnote: the Hebrew is ‘line’) goes out through all the world. The Hebrew word ‘line’ is unusual. In Isaiah 28.10, 13 it is used of the “stammering utterance of ecstatic prophets”: it refers to speech that is unintelligible. 

Does this mean that vs 3 says that the declaration poured forth in vss 1-2 is then unintelligible to humankind? This raises important questions about ‘natural theology’: can humankind learn what we need to know about God from ‘the book of nature’? Romans 1.18ff would suggest that we can’t. The Romantic movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries says we can. We tend to read Psalm 19 through romantic eyes which makes sense to us, but we need to remember that such a reading might not be true to Scripture! Vs 3 of Psalm 19 deserves careful consideration.

Vss 4b – 6 tell of the sun. Many ancient Near Eastern cultures had narratives of a sun god, but here the important part is vss 4b-5a, that God has set a tent for the sun which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy. Far from being a deity, the sun lives in a tent (a reference to Israel’s earlier social context as tent-dwelling wanderers) and is likened to a bridegroom and a strong man (vs 5b).

  1. Psalm 19B is a hymn in praise of the Torah but from vss 12ff it can also be categorised as a prayer song. It cannot be dated before the time of Ezra (the restoration of Israel following the Babylonian captivity).

It is similar to Psalms 1 and 119 in focussing on the Torah. As Christians we need to take care in reading these Psalms. We have been conditioned by the New Testament polemics about the limitation, shortcomings and powerlessness of ‘the law’. The Torah in the Old Testament was not associated with a strictly nomistic (= legalistic) conception. According to H-J. Kraus, Torah is Yahweh’s merciful expression of his will, which is an ‘instruction’. It comes to human beings and marks out a way for them as guide. It is a working power that radiates light and brightness in which human beings experience ‘joy’, ‘love’ and ‘cheerfulness’ (Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (1993): 273). Kraus goes on to say: ‘the translation ‘law’ should be avoided as much as possible… we ought to consider presuppositions that exclude every thought of nomism, Judaism and narrow observance’ (Kraus, 1993: 274).

Vss 7- 10 are a hymn extolling the Torah with a cascading series of six synonyms for the Torah (= decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, ordinances), in each case … of the Lord. Ascribed to each of these synonyms are six differing attributes or effects of the Torah (reviving, making wise, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, enduring forever, righteous altogether). Vs 10 ties these together with a poetic description of the desirability and sweetness of the Torah.

Vss 10-14 comprise a reflective question in vss 11-12a, followed by a prayer for protection from hidden faults (vs 12b) and the insolent (vs 13a). Vs 14 is a formula of dedication.

  1. Why have these Psalms been combined and what is their meaning? Many commentators have spoken of the mysterious life force in nature as witness to the glory of God, that is here linked to another living entity in the unbreakable demand of the moral commandment. Kant spoke of the ‘starry heavens above’ and the ‘moral law within’ as a ‘divine unity’. The Catholic synthesis of natural law and biblical revelation reflects this approach.

But if our reading of vs 3 is correct then the teaching and praising of nature, which powerfully penetrates heaven and earth, remains an unfathomable secret… a powerful message comes our way, but we do not understand it. The glossolalian [= speaking in tongues] ciphers of transmission in the heart of nature, which praise and teach the Creator, no one can perceive. The cosmos celebrates God’s glory, but it does not teach his will. (Kraus, 1993: 275).

This has profound implications for people of faith – for our understanding of nature and its appreciation (contra the intuitions and values of Romanticism), the aesthetics we bring to art in its depiction of landscape and the natural world, our views on the limitations and insights of science as a way of perceiving and understanding the universe, and our theological grasp of natural law and revelation.

Exodus 23.1-9:  The giving of the law commences in Exodus 20 and runs through to Exodus 31. In chapter 32 the narrative of Exodus resumes with the worship of the Golden Calf. The Lectionary has passed over the opening three chapters of the giving of the law (Ex 20-22) and over the next three days brings us three collections of laws from Exodus 23.

Vss 1-9 follow on from the readings from Tuesday this week and relate to procedural justice – how fairness will operate in bearing witness (vs 1), conducting lawsuits (vss 2, 6-9). Vs 4-5 deal with how we are to deal with the animals of our enemies, with the underlying principle that we are not to oppress or abandon animals if their owners are our enemies: the beginnings perhaps of ‘animal rights’? Vs 9 introduces a key principle for the protection of aliens and refugees grounded in the people’s memory of Egypt.

Colossians 2.16-23: This passage is a counterpoint to the Exodus readings for the week which deal with the inauguration of the Jewish festivals (see tomorrow). Here the writer of Colossians speaks of Christian liberty from observing festivals (vs 16) or other ‘inspired’ views of what is required in worship (vs 18).  What matters is holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body … grows with a growth that is from God (vs 19).

This view of Christian freedom is then grounded in our liberty from the elemental spirits of the universe (vs 20). In vs 23 the writer denies that asceticism is of value in checking self-indulgence.

This view of the body is quite different to Paul’s concept in 1 Corinthians 12.12ff. There we are all members of the body and the body is Christ. There we might be an eye or ear, but in Colossians Christ has become the head and Christians are but subordinate ‘members’ under the control of the head, who is Christ.

Friday, October 2, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:14-19; Philippians 2:14-18; 3:1-4a
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 23.14-19: The heart of this passage is the establishment of the Jewish calendar. Scholars note that this is the oldest version of the various Jewish calendars (see Deuteronomy 16, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28ff which are later versions of Israel’s calendar). The three festivals are unleavened bread (vs 15 – note that it is not here associated with Passover which is unmentioned, and the separation of unleavened bread from some kind of Passover sacrifice may lie behind the unusual prohibition of vs 18), the festival of harvest (vs 16a) and the festival of ingathering (vs 16b). These were believed to occur around the time of the barley harvest (around the time of Passover in April), the wheat harvest 7 weeks later (around Pentecost in June) and then the ‘final ingathering’ of olives and grapes in September. It is an agricultural calendar rather than a cultic calendar.

Life has always been governed by various overlays of time. In agricultural economies such calendars were determinative of sowing and harvest and so much of life. We live with different rhythms, but rhythms no less determinative of life: the financial year, the football year, the holiday seasons, the cold and heat of our various seasons. 

Now that I have an electronic calendar I have constructed my own calendar and sense of time. This is built primarily around the ancient Celtic calendar of two main festivals a year (Samhain – Nov 1; and Beltane – May 1) that happily synchronise (approximately with the liturgical calendar (Easter – April/May; and All Saints – Nov 1). Fitting almost as neatly is the calendars of the Indigenous Bunurong people native to where I live with their 6 seasons. In that calendar summer (Bullarto-n’yoweenth) begins around early November and deep winter (Perrin) in early May. By also linking in other cultures and nations I know (for instance) that yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Mooncake Festival in China and tomorrow is the start of the Jewish feast of Succoth.

What calendars regulate or inform your life? Is your team still in the football competition or has your ‘season’ ended?  And what of the ‘roadmap to Covid-normal’ – the calendar that regulates all our lives now? 

Vs 19a introduces the concept of ‘first fruits’, something worthy of far more in-depth teaching than we can manage here, and 19b is thought to refer to a Canaanite ritual, possibly of a fertility cult that was prohibited to Israel.

Philippians 2.14-18 is a lovely passage of teaching. It continues the warm and encouraging tone of the earlier readings from Monday and Tuesday. Paul enjoins and positive and peaceful approach to faith (vs 15) before quoting Deuteronomy 32.5 in vs 15b and Daniel 12.3 in vs 15c. The motto of the Baptist College of Victoria is Ad Iustitiam (Towards Rightousness) and is also drawn from Daniel 12.3.

Vs 17a introduces a sombre tone before the mood of rejoicing and gladness is reasserted in vss 17b-18 and 3.1a.

Philippians 3.2-4 introduces a strongly polemical passage, clearly directed against a group committed to circumcision which Paul contrasts with his own confidence in the flesh and that it is we who are the circumcision who worship in the Spirit of God (vs 3.3)

Saturday, October 3, 2020Psalm 19; Exodus 23:10-13; John 7:40-52
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Exodus 23.10-13: These few verses outline the law of sabbath for the land (vss 10-11) and for humans and animals (vs 12). Note the contrast with the alternate law on the sabbath (Exodus 20.8-11) where the Sabbath was grounded in the creation and God resting on the 7th day. Here the purpose of the law is that the land shall rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. (vs 10b).   The purpose here is threefold – to let the land rest, for the poor to eat, and the wild animals find food. 

Similarly, here the Sabbath is for the sake of humans and animals so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed (vs 12).

How different might the world have looked if this understanding and logic of the Sabbath had entered into Western consciousness rather the Exodus 20 rendering of the law?

John 7.40-52: This passage deals again with the issue of Jesus’ authority. The crowd has different views of Jesus (vss 40-44) and while some wanted to arrest him, his authority has overawed the temple police (vs 46). 

While the people were divided in their view of Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees are united in their unbelief.  Vs 48 is filled with irony. In suggesting that no one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him, the Pharisees set up the rejoinder from Nicodemus in vs 51. John reminds us that Nicodemus had already sought Jesus out (vs 50). Their final rejoinder to Nicodemus again emphasises that Galilee is no place from which a prophet comes.

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