Monday, October 12, 2020Psalm 97; Exodus 32:15-35; Jude 17-25
The Psalms for this week (97 and 99) are both what have been termed ‘royal psalms’ in that they celebrate the kingship of Yahweh. Some scholars have seen these psalms as part of a cultic event called the ‘enthronement of Yahweh’ associated with the ancient Jerusalem traditions of God as king. Others see the tone of Ps 97 as more eschatological – reaching beyond the cult of Jerusalem to reveal Yahweh to all humankind. These scholars see echoes of Second Isaiah in this psalm. Whatever its setting, it is a praise song about Yahweh’s kingship and is structured in 4 clear sections.

Vss 1-2  acclaim Yahweh as king (vs 1a) and calls the whole world to rejoice in this (vs 1b,1c). Vs 2 offer two aspects of Yahweh’s greatness: the cloudiness and darkness that surround him (aspects of the thunderstorm theophany described in vss 3-6) and the foundations of righteousness and justice that support the divine throne (vs 2b).

Vss 3-6 describe a theophany – an appearance or revelation of Yahweh and the divine power. Vs 3 describes the fire of God which consumes his enemies and vs 4 focuses on the lightning – the form of that fire revealed in the storm. Vs 4b ascribes the thunder to the quaking of the earth at the sight of his lightnings. Vs 5 moves from the power of the thunderstorm to the presence of Yahweh in volcanoes and eruptions. Vs 6 describe the righteousness of God seen in the heavens and the glory all people behold there.

Vss 7-9 then outline the impact of all this revealed glory and power on humankind. Vs 7 relates the impact on worshippers of idols and on lesser gods. Vs 8 brings the focus clearly on Jerusalem and Mt Zion and Judah, before vs 9 zooms out and declares Yahweh’s universal supremacy.

Vss 10-12 then explore how this mighty, cosmic God cares for and protects the righteous who are called in vs 12 to rejoice and praise him.

Exodus 32.15-35: Exodus 32-34 were probably structured into the Exodus narrative late in the transmission of the tradition. The overall structure appears to be that chapter 32 relates the breaking of the Covenant in the worship of the golden calf, and chapter 34 relates its restoration. Chapter 33 is a composite of material that provides a bridge between breaking and restoration of the Covenant.

The earliest version of the tradition in chapter 32 can be seen in vss 1-6, 15-20 and 35. If you were to read the whole chapter these verses present a straightforward narrative. Vss 7-14 introduce a dialogue between God and Moses on the mountain that prefigure the narrative of vss 15-20 and vss 21-34 reflect on the role of Aaron and his failure of leadership, and Moses’ reasserting control through the organised violence of the Levites  (vss 27-29) and the calculus of sin and forgiveness that characterises the Priestly rendering of Israel’s story (vss 21, 30-34).

Jude 17-25: The letter of Jude shows marked similarities with 2 Peter, especially 2 Peter Chapter 2. Scholars have argued whether there was a direct dependence where one was a source for the other (with no consensus as to which was primary), or whether both texts may have depended on a common sermon tradition in the early church against false teachers. It was probably written late in the first century, around 90 CE. The late date can be seen in the retrospective reference to remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (vs 17).

The passage set for today includes exhortation to vigilance against mockers (vs 17-19), faith, love and the hope of eternal life (vs 20-21), an exhortation to mercy towards non-christians (vss 22-23) and one of the best loved doxologies of the NT in vss 25-26.

Vss 22-23 are difficult to interpret, as indicated in the footnote. Are there three categories of sinners to be saved (as in this translation) or only two, as some translations have vs 23: save others with fear, snatching them from the fire, abhorring the very tunic spotted by the flesh.  The background to these verses would appear to be Zechariah 3.2, 3-5 which refer to the brand plucked from the fire and the wearing and taking off of filthy clothes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020Psalm 97; Exodus 33:1-6; Philippians 3:13-4:1
For the Psalm see Monday.

Exodus 33 is a difficult chapter to interpret. There is agreement that separate stories have been rather loosely collected, but just what meaning the final redactor was intending to convey through this collection is harder to fathom. All the stories in the chapter revolve around God’s presence.

Through the catastrophic failure of Israel in the worship of the golden calf, Yahweh had decided not to accompany the people on their journey any further (see chapter 32.34). The critical verse is 33.3 where God decides to withdraw his presence, to be substituted by an angel (vs 2). God’s promise is preserved (vs 1) but God’s presence is ended (vs 3).

Now the structure of the chapter becomes clear, because after the interactions around the tent of meeting (vss 7-11 – see Thursday) in vss 12-23 the Lord repents and agrees that he will continue with the Israel on the journey).

Philippians 3.14-4.1: All our NT readings this week are of a paranetic character (advice, instruction). Following the Jude reading yesterday, this passage urges a forward looking, dynamic understanding of faith as a work in progress, of continuing in faith and growth (vss 13-16).

Vs 17 introduces a key spiritual principle: that of imitating our teachers and elders. Vss 18-19 include warnings of false believers before the note of forward looking, eschatologically focussed faith emerges again in vss 20-21. Chapter 4.1 is a final call to stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020Psalm 97; 2 Kings 17:7-20; John 6:25-35
For the Psalm see Monday.

2 Kings 17.7-20: This is a leap from the story of the Exodus – but not such a leap as we might first think. Exodus 32.34b (see Monday) says Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin. This theology of sin-punishment-repentance is part of the Deuteronomic theology of Israel’s history. 

Here in this chapter we have just such a reading that looks back over Israel’s history with the same framework. In vs 10 we see the later failings of Israel in following the idols and religious symbols of Canaan, but vss 13-16 recount the past story, including they … made for themselves cast images of two calves (vs 16) which may be reference to the golden calf incident of Exodus 32.

Note that this comes from a time when Israel had split into Judah and the Northern Tribes (Israel – later Samaria) – see vss 18b-20). Just as Ex 32 had told of the sin of Israel, here in 2 Kings 17 the story is updated and reinforced!

John 6.25-35: Just as the Exodus narrative framed Israel’s experience through the ‘sin-punishment-repentance’ interpretation of Israel’s history, here Jesus takes the Exodus story and sees an abiding parable of grace and life, not sin and punishment. This encounter follows the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6.1-15) and Jesus walking on the water (vss 16-21) – both miracles suggestive of the Exodus narrative in the crossing of the sea and the sending of the manna. John explicitly invokes the example of the manna in the wilderness (vs 31 – placed on the lips of the crowds) only for Jesus to reinterpret the bread from heaven (vs 32) as the bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (vs 33) before closing the interpretive chain and identifying himself: I am the bread of life (vs 35)

Thursday, October 15, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 33:7-11; 3 John 9-12
Psalm 99 is one of the Psalms that affirm ‘Yahweh is King’ (Ps 96-99) but is slightly different to Psalms 96, 97 & 98. Here Yahweh is not presented as the King of all the nations (Ps 96) or the King of Creation (Ps 97) but as the King of Zion (vs 2), enthroned on the Cherubim (vs 1), which either refers to the figures atop the Ark of the Covenant or a metaphorical reference to thunderclouds. The whole Psalm seems to be anchored in the story of Israel, the origins and traditions of the priests and the cult of the Temple.

In determining the structure of the Psalm some commentators ‘cut it up’ into 1-3 / 4 / 5 / 6-9.

Vss 1-3 are a cry of homage and call to praise. Note that the holiness of God forms almost a refrain with its repetition in vss 3b, 5c, 9c. This would fit well with this structure, especially if vss 4 and 5 are linked.

Vs 4 (Mighty King – or a King’s strength) is a reference to military power (‘The Lord of Hosts’) but immediately links this power with the establishment of justice and equity. Vs 5 takes up the call to praise again but anchors that praise at his footstool – a reference to the Temple?  So the mentions of Zion (vs 2) the cherubim (vs 1) and the footstool (vs 5) seem to locate the focus of this Psalm within the Jerusalem cult.

Vss 6-9 would confirm this with the mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel all of whom not only held priestly office but ‘talked with God’ (vs 6). The mention of the pillar of cloud in the context of obedience to laws and statutes could be reference to the early Exodus tradition of the Wilderness, or to Leviticus and Numbers passages about the cloud.

Vs 9 concludes with the return of the holy is he theme and a final call to extol the Lord and worship at his holy mountain (conflating Sinai with Zion).

Exodus 33.7-11 introduces a very old tradition about ‘the tent of meeting’. The Tabernacle as described throughout the Pentateuch was an elaborate structure (see Exodus 25-26) at the centre of the camp (see Numbers 2.2) with an extended staff of Levitical priests (see Numbers 3.5-10). In this passage ‘the tent of meeting’ is erected outside the camp (vs 7) which in the OT is usually a place of impurity and exclusion. Here there is only one attendant – [Moses’] young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent (vs 11). It was a place where God met with Moses.

The Tabernacle held the Ark of the Covenant at its centre and was where God dwelled. In this passage, rather than residing in the Holy of Holies, the glory of God in the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent (vs 9). There is no mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the whole chapter.

In this fragment of an ancient tradition – some early precursor of the later elaborate cultic tent at the centre of Israel’s corporate life – we see some key elements of a national engagement that leads to the reversal of God’s decision to abandon Israel we read in vss 1-6. Moses, having been rejected in chapter 32 in the national apostasy, is here respected and revered as the people stand by the entrance to their tents whenever Moses goes to speak with God (vs 8). The pillar of cloud (vs 9) attends Moses showing the continuing presence of God (vs 9). Seeing the theophany of the pillar of cloud the people are moved to worship (vs 10). Vs 11 presents the intimacy and power of the Lord’s interaction with Moses: in all these narrative elements from a very ancient and simple tradition we can see the freshness and vitality that will lead to the remarkable re-negotiation of the relationship between the Lord and his people that follows in the rest this chapter, and the chapters that follow!

3 John 9-12: These four verses from one of the shortest books of the Bible lead us into a dispute in the early church. The focus is a dispute with a powerful figure in the church, Diotrephes, against whom two charges are laid: vss 9b & 10a -that he does not acknowledge the authority of ‘the elder’ (the writer of the letter – see vs 1); and vs 10b – that he refuses to welcome the friends and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church. Diotrephes is clearly a powerful figure within the church. Is he an office-holder or leader, perhaps even a bishop? Whatever his power base he is opposed by ‘the elder’. The reference in vs 9 I have written something to the church… may be a reference to 1 John 2. In both letters there is reference to coming to you (2 John 12, 3 John 10).

In contrast is the witness to Demetrius, perhaps the bearer of the letter, who is trustworthy and true. Between these two different men and their actions stands the injunction to not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good vs 11.

Friday, October 16, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 31:1-11; 1 Peter 5:1-5
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Exodus 31.1-11: This is an interesting passage. We read on Monday and Tuesday of some of the difficulties of interpretation in Exodus 32, and on Thursday of Exodus 33.7-11, a very ancient tradition of ‘the tent of meeting’ which almost certainly predates the elaborate descriptions of the Tabernacle given elsewhere in Exodus. The design of the Tabernacle and its contents are described in Exodus chapters 25-35.11 (ending with today’s passage) in the context of the Lord giving detailed instructions to Moses on the Mountain at Sinai. Vss 12-18 (the remainder of chapter 31) are a re-statement of the Sabbath law. 

In chapter 35 we have another restatement of the sabbath law (vss 1-3) and then the detailed description of the building of the Tabernacle from 35.4 through to Exodus 39. The form largely recapitulates the earlier chapters 25-35 but sometimes in changed order. In between are the crucial chapters of 32, 33 & 34 discussed above.

The treatment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur and of Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan is paralled in both Ex 31.1-11 (today’s passage) and Exodus 35.50-36.7. The name Bezalel means ‘in the shadow of God (El)’ and Oholiab means ‘the divine father is my tent’. There are similar ancient near-eastern names associating various divinities with tents reflecting a widespread background of tent shrines. The skill of these men is attributed to being filled … with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft (vs 3). 

This passage contributes to a biblical view of aesthetics and art but it also reflects the layering of a decorative and complex symbolic architecture over the more ancient and simple traditions of ‘the tent of meeting’. Part of the work of the authors of Exodus is to relate these traditions to each other, something that can be seen clearly in the detail of Exodus 40 where both terms (the Tabernacle / the tent of meeting) are used throughout the chapter either alternately or in combination.

1 Peter 5:1-5: This passage addresses a word to ‘the elders’ of the congregation and those who are younger. By the time of 1 Peter was written the ‘offices’ of ministry were beginning to take shape. Elders (or Presbyters) were one form of authority, as were Bishops or Overseers (episkopos). We can see in vs 2 that part of the role of these ‘elders’ was exercising the oversight – but note the question-mark over the text in the footnote: was the exact shape of leadership and the roles of ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ (Bishop) still evolving?  Vss 1-5 are wise advice for anyone exercising leadership within a Christian community. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020Psalm 99; Exodus 39:32-43; Matthew 14:1-12
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Exodus 39.32-43: As we noted yesterday, there are two large blocks of material detailing the Tabernacle in Exodus: chapters 25-31 describing its design and chapters 35-39 describing its construction. Just as yesterday we read part of the last chapter of the first block of this material, today we read the last passage of the second block of this material. In this final summary of the structure you can see its complexity and grandeur, and sense its symbolism.

However, personally I long for the majesty and power of the description of ‘the tent of meeting’ of Ex 33.7-11 (see Thursday) and the simple dignity of the wandering tribesmen standing to honour Moses at the door of their tents as he went to meet with the Lord in the pillar of cloud and talk with him face to face.

Matthew 14.1-12: The fate of John the Baptist prefigures that of Jesus. This made very clear in the earliest strand of the gospel in Mark, where the author places the beheading between the sending out of the twelve disciples on mission (Mark 6.7-13) and their return with reports of what they had done (Mark 6.30-32). Matthew has simplified Mark’s account and changed some elements. Whereas Mark tells us that Herod feared John … and protected him (Mk 6.20) and attributed the desire to kill John to Herodias, Matthew says Herod wanted to put him to death (vs 5).

Luke’s gospel includes a long passage of John sending messengers to Jesus (Lk 7.18-35) but his treatment of this story omits the details of John’s execution, but has a reflective question from Herod about John’s death and Jesus’ ministry: ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ (Luke 9.7-9).

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