Monday, October 19, 2020Psalm 63:1-8; Exodus 40:34-38; Revelation 18:1-10, 19-20
Psalm 63:1-8: The lectionary has given us just the first 8 of the 11 verses of this Psalm. Why the truncation? It probably reflects the view of many commentators that the final three verses do not belong to the first eight.

However, some scholars see the setting as important and understanding the setting aright is the key to understanding the Psalm as an integrated whole. It is a prayer song as can be seen in vss 1-2 which outlines the exhaustion and ‘dryness’ of the petitioner (vs 1). However, the true theme of the Psalm is found in vss 3-5 which are a song of thanksgiving. Vss 6-8 are what one commentator has called thoughts of comfort.  

Many commentators have sought to make sense of the Psalm by rejecting vss 9-11 and then transposing vss 3-5 and vss 6-8 so that the structure is prayer call out of distress (vss 1-2), words of comfort (vss 6-8), and an answering/concluding song of thanksgiving (vss 3-5).

Another way to understand it is to take it just as it is and include the last three verses: vss 9-10 announce the confounding and destruction of the enemies of the petitioner and vs 11 affirms the king who is set over the temple where the petitioner finds justice. This would mean that vs 11 is the actual answer to vss 1-2, as a result of the judgement on his accusers delivered in vss 9-10 and 11b. All of this is prefigured in the thanksgiving of vss 3-5 and the comforting affirmations of vss 6-8.

Kraus writes: the statements of Ps 63 circle about the mystery and wonder of the deliverance of God. … The psalm is filled with expressions of thanksgiving and trust, for in nearness to God the oppressed person is permitted to be sure of his deliverance “under the shadow of the wings” of God. … This profound high esteem of the communion with God forms the actual centre of this profound psalm. (Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (1989: p.21)

Exodus 40.34-38 are the closing words of the book of the Exodus. They describe the culmination of the building of the tabernacle when the glory of the Lord enters the tent following its construction. A surprising detail is that Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord of the Lord filled the tabernacle (vs 35). Chapter 39 has detailed the arrangements for the priestly vestments and in vss 12-15 of chapter 40 Moses has consecrated a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come (vs 15b). Moses’ exclusion from the tabernacle is part of a transition in cultic leadership arrangements.

Revelation 18:1-10, 19-20 is a section of the dramatic chapter which describes the fall of Babylon that comes in the climactic judgement of the world at the end of Revelation. It is one of the most dramatic, almost theatrical, chapters of the Bible with a script that presents various ‘Greek choruses’ who raise lament over the great city (vs 19b) as sector by sector, industry by industry, the judgement of God is unfolded in stages. 

Vss 1-3 outline the angelic voice announcing the judgement to be followed by another voice calling Come out of her, my people (vs 4) and inviting God’s people to render to her… repay her double… give her a double draught  (vs 6) and give her a like measure of torment and grief (vs 7) and outlining her sudden punishment (vs 8).

Vss. 9-10 give the lament of the first chorus who lament her fall: the kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her.

Then follow (although not in our reading) laments from the merchants of the earth (vss 11-17a). The descriptive list of the wares sold by the merchants (vss 12-13) reads almost like an advertisement for the wonders of the modern marketplace until we reach the grizzly conclusion of the inventory: chariots, slaves – and human bodies and souls (vs 13c – see note).

The particular lament of vss 19-20 is raised by all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea (vs 17b) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020Psalm 63:1-8; Numbers 12:1-9; Revelation 18:21-24
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 12.1-9: If our reading yesterday hinted at the marginalisation of Moses through a structural transition in spiritual leadership, here we have another story of struggle among the three leading figures of the Exodus movement. We read of Aaron and Miriam rising against Moses in criticism (vss 1-3), and the Lord intervening (vss 4-9). If you read on (vss 10-16) you will see the aftermath of the story.

Vss 6-8 are a poetic oracle depicting the usual prophetic form of authority (vs 6b) but the contrasting peculiar and intimate relationship between the Lord and Moses (vss 7-8). Note that here the Lord stood at the entrance to the tent of meeting (vs 5b)  – the older ‘tent of meeting’ tradition in contrast to the tabernacle tradition.

Struggles within the leadership of the people of God have been with us from the beginning and will be with us to the end. As in human politics, the disruptions often involve who we marry – or form partnerships with (see the current controversies regarding the Premier of NSW). Jealousy also often plays a part: Has [the Lord] not spoken through us also? (vs 2b).

Unfortunately, we do not have the word of the Lord audibly spoken from a pillar of cloudy glory to resolve matters for us. We must rely on prayer, and wisdom, and discernment, and courage to resolve such challenges within the community of faith!

Revelation 18: 21-24 is the climax of the judgement of Babylon. Many references to OT sentiments of judgement are here listed but the whole litany of misfortune and bereavement is framed by calls to rejoice over her addressed to God’s people immediately before this passage (vs 20), and immediately after we hear the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, Hallelujah! ….(Rev 19.1ff).

Wednesday, October 21, 2020Psalm 63:1-8; Numbers 13:1-2; Numbers 13:17-14:9; Matthew 17:22-27
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Numbers 13.1-2, 13:17-14.9: is a long passage describing the spying out of the land. The command of the Lord comes in vss 1-2, Moses’ instructions in vss 17-20 and the activities of the spies described in vss 21-24.

Their report is delivered in vss 25-29. Despite Caleb quieting the people and urging an occupation of the land (vs 30) the other spies bear a negative report (vss 31-33) so that the people again complain and urge a return to Egypt (14:1-4). This rebellion culminates in the mutinous “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (vs 4)

Noteworthy here is that Moses and Aaron do not seek the Lord but fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites (vs 5). In the face of this capitulation it is a new generation of leaders, Joshua and Caleb, who take over and sway the people, warning them about rebelling against the Lord and urging them to occupy the land (vss 6-9).

Sometimes it is a great crisis that shows the limitations of existing leadership and stimulates the emergence of a new ways of leading and new people to do that leading. What is the current pandemic and the disruption of this time teaching us about leadership? Is the Lord raising up even now, a modern Joshua or Caleb we must recognise, empower and follow?

Matthew 17.22-27: Mark has structured his gospel around three predictions of his passion by Jesus. Matthew maintains the three predictions and this passage is the second of them (cf Mark 9.30-32). Where Mark says the disciples did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him (Mk 9.32) Matthew says simply And they were greatly distressed (vs 23).

The point of the controversy story that follows (vss 24-27) is to provide a context for the saying “Then the children are free” in vs 26b.  The logic would appear to be that as we are the children of God who is the king of all the earth, therefore the temple tax is not payable by us – but to avoid offending the authorities a fish (part of the creation over which God is king) is caught with a coin in its mouth – so the king provides the tax for us.

In some parts of the world religious taxes are still paid (notably in Lutheran countries but also in some others). Just who should pay these taxes as a matter of justice can still be controversial.

Thursday, October 22, 2020Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 31:14-22; Titus 1:5-16
Psalm 90:  Today’s Psalm reading falls in two parts. The first part is (vss 1-6) are a lament in the form of a reflection on human mortality. The second part (vss 13-17) are a series of petitions that reveal something of the situation that has caused the people to lament.

Unusually, the psalm has been attributed to Moses. The tradition affirms that Moses sang songs (see Exod 15.1; Deut 31.19, 30; 32.1ff; 33.1 – passages we reading this week!) but this is the only psalm that is attributed to him. While some parts of the Psalm are very ancient, it is likely the final composition of this psalm dates after the Exile in Babylon (6th century BCE). One element of the Bible that seems very strange – or even dishonest – to modern minds is the way that writers attributed their work to previous prominent figures the tradition: a kind of ‘reverse plagiarism’. So this Psalm is seen as being in the tradition of Moses, just as others are attributed to David. This applies to some of the NT letters attributed to Paul (Colossians, Ephesians) or to John, and also to some OT prophets (notably Isaiah) where the oracles all share the themes and style of a common tradition but are so separated in their historical contexts as to not be the work of one historical person.

The dwelling place of vs 1 is actually the word for an animal’s den or hiding place and God is depicted as the hiding place or refuge of humankind. The cosmic implications of God’s presence and work are described in vs 2. In the context of that divine power and protection human beings become conscious of our proneness to death (vss 3-6). Vss 4-5 are a reflection on time (from divine and human perspectives) and memory, rather than mortality. Isaac Watts’ hymn O God, our help in ages past (Baptist Praise and Worship no. 389) is often misunderstood in this regard. The lines Time like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away are a reference to the years: it is years past, not human beings that fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.

In vss 13-17 the petitions that are expressed give shape to the suffering of the community that has stimulated this psalm. Their suffering has been of long duration (vss 13, 15) and has disrupted human working activity (vs 17b,c). In the Australian rural context one thinks of the impact of prolonged drought. In an urban setting the impact of the pandemic lockdown has caused similar questioning: How long, O Lord? When we see the economic and social disruption, the debt that we as a community will have to pay down, well may we pray prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands! (vs 17).

Deuteronomy 31.14-22: This week concludes with three readings from Deuteronomy, all of which relate in some way to the Song of Moses (Deut 32). Today’s reading treats the Deuteronomic version of the transition of authority from Moses to Joshua by the word of the Lord (vs 14-15). This contrasts with the Numbers reading yesterday in which that leadership was dramatically enacted before the people in a critical turning point in Israel’s history. How often does a leadership transition actually occur through events, before it is publicly ‘blessed’ by the religious authorities and then given divine approval?

Vss 16-21 give a classically Deuteronomic reading of Israel’s history, this time in anticipation. The Lord knows already what will happen and, in a rather insensitive way (to my mind), proceeds to tell the dying Moses just how little he has achieved and how little the people have changed. As we approach death, we hope that our leadership and our lifework might have achieved something and affected our communities, but the emphasis here is on the implacable rebellion of Israel, foreseen by the Lord and placed here at the centre of the transition of authority and leadership from Moses to Joshua.

Titus 1.5-16: This passage treats of an underlying theme in this week’s readings, that of leadership – its authority, transitions and management. Here Titus has a task to put in order what remained to be done (vs 5) which means appoint elders (vs 5b-6) and perhaps even a bishop (vs 7-9), assuming that the roles have been differentiated by this time. Notice that the bishop has a doctrinal mandate to be exercised in both teaching and refutation (vs 9).

A second element of Titus’ task is silencing rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers (vs 10). We can see the identity and substance of those who are a threat through the naming of those of the circumcision (vs 10b) and the discussion of Jewish myths (vs 14) and the concept of purity (vs 15).

These related tasks of a. ordaining authorised leadership, b. teaching the truth and c. refuting error remain at the heart of Christian leadership today.

Vs 12 is an early expression of the liar paradox. The paradox arises from the fact that ‘All Cretans are liars’ was attributed by the writer to one of them, their very own prophet, known to history as  Epimenides, himself a Cretan. The essence of the paradox is: If a Cretan says ‘Cretans are always liars’, then by definition he is lying!’  The links will take you to further discussion of this intriguing paradox. At the very least, the verse is a salutary warning against making sweeping statements!

Friday, October 23, 2020Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 32:1-14, 18; Titus 2:7-8, 11-15
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 32.1-14,18: Here we have part of the Song of Moses that was alluded to in the last verse of yesterday’s OT reading. The scholar Gerhard von Rad divides the whole song of Moses into sections as follows:

Vvs 1-2: a didactic opening summons

Vvs 3-7: the subject of the poem, Yahweh’s perfect ways

Vss 8-14: Yahweh’s redemptive acts

Vss 15-18: Israel’s backsliding

Vss 19-25: the judgment

Vss 26-35: God’s argument with himself

Vss 36-38: announcement of Yahweh’s imminent coming to succour his people

Vss 39-42: Yahweh’s concluding words

Vss 43: a hymn-like ending

What this outline makes clear is that today’s reading comprises all of the first three sections, and the final verse of the fourth.

The language of the first two section (vss 1-7) reflects the concepts and thought of the Wisdom tradition. Vs 3 announces the great theme: the name of the Lord. Vs 4 gives one of those names: the Rock (cf. vs 18, vss 30, 31). Vs 7 introduces a key theme of Deuteronomy, that one generation should transmit the story of the Lord and his faithfulness to another.

Vss 8-14 are built around a theology of election (vs 9) and God’s deliverance and sustenance of his chosen people.

Vs 18 is the sole fragment of the accusation against Israel, reiterating the ancient name of the Rock that occurs four times throughout the Song of Moses (cf. I Corinthians 10.4).

Titus 2:7-8, 11-15:  Sometimes the lacunae, the gaps, the bits that are missing from a reading are very interesting: why was this left out? What doesn’t apply, or might be embarrassing to leave in? 

From this passage of ethical paranesis the Lectionary has suppressed vss 9-10, an exhortation for slaves to be submissive to their masters, and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour. Given that slaves were the property of their masters bound in all ways, and that their bodies could be used for sex, an exhortation to give satisfaction in every respect is deeply offensive today and could never be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour. It is rightly “glossed over” in the text, but we should remind ourselves it is there, especially if we are prone to point out the offensive parts of the Holy Books of other faiths!

Saturday, October 24, 2020Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 32:44-47; John 5:39-47
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Deuteronomy 32.44-47 returns to the prose narrative that tells the story of Moses and the people on their journey.  This narrative frames two elements of the tradition that are taught and enjoined upon the people: this song (vs 44) and this Law (vs 46). This is not an ‘empty word’ (or trifling matter)but rather your very life (vs 47). “There stands behind the sentence a long, mainly prophetic experience of the creative power of Yahweh’s word … (cf Isaiah 55.11)” (von Rad).

John 5.39-47: the key link between this passage and the OT lesson today is vs 40: Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (cf. Deut 32.47: this is no trifling matter … but rather your very life). As if he had the Deuteronomy passage in mind Jesus says, your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (vss 45b-47).

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