Monday, October 26, 2020Psalm 119:41-48 ; Numbers 33:38-39; James 2:8-13
We have dipped into Psalm 119 at various times this year.It is the longest of all the Psalms and at 176 verses it is the longest single chapter in the Bible. 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. 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.

As we found when reading Psalm 19.7-14, there are similarities between Psalms 1, 19 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 Hans-Joachim 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).

This stanza of the Psalm reveals a particular life-setting which can be seen in vss 42-43. The singer is being taunted (vs 42a) and accused of lying (vs 43a). In the face of this attack the Psalmist makes her petition to God (vs 41). In vss 44-48 the psalmist takes hold of her delight in the law as the outworking of the Lord’s deliverance. This takes the form of 5 statements of a common structure: line 1: I [an action related to the law], Line 2: with this result. Note the reversal of the order in vs 45 where the result I shall walk at liberty precedes the saving function of the law: for I have sought your precepts. Note again the series of synonyms for the Torah (law / precepts /decrees / commandments (twice)).  Vs 46 is a powerful statement: if the taunting and critique of the psalmist has been that they have born false witness (vs 43a) then this has been answered in I will also speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame.

Numbers 33.38-39 tells of the death of Aaron. This small story is located within a wider narrative  of chapter 33 in which the stages by which the Israelites have travelled from Egypt are recorded by Moses (33.2).

There are marked similarities between the deaths of Aaron and of Moses, although the death of Moses is recorded at the end of Deuteronomy. Both went up a mountain (Num 33.38 cf. Deut 34.1) either at the command of the Lord (Num 33.38) or because the Lord showed him the whole land (Deut 34.1). Moses died at the Lord’s command (Deut 34.5). The ages of both are recorded (Aaron: one hundred twenty three years old (Num 33.39) Moses: one hundred twenty years old (Deut 34.7a).

James 2.8-13: The book of James has a fascinating history within the New Testament canon. It was only gradually accepted as Scripture in the early church. As late as the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote that it was ‘an epistle of straw’ and sought to have it excluded from the NT. The letter has many Jewish elements and has minimal references to Jesus Christ (1.1, 2.1). This passage follows the opening to chapter 2 which teaches on the importance of not showing partiality.

This theme is then picked up with reference to the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (vss 8). Vs 9 (…if you show partiality…) makes the link to the preceding passage clear. The passage is framed by references to the royal law and the law of liberty (vs 12). The first term would appear to reflect Jewish usage, and the meaning of the last is indeterminate: it is hardly a statement that Paul would make as it is affirming of the concept of law of which Paul was deeply sceptical. Vss 10-11 make the point that the law is a whole and whoever fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (vs 11). Vs 13 echoes a point of Jesus – that mercy will be shown to the one who shows mercy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020Psalm 119:41-48; Exodus 34:29-35; James 2:14-26
For the Psalm, see Monday.

Exodus 34.29-35 tells of Moses’ face shining after his time speaking with God and the fear this engendered in the Israelites (vs 30). The answer was to veil his face after speaking with the Lord and to remove the veil whenever he went in to speak with the Lord.

Exodus 34 describes the renewal of the Covenant. This part of the chapter describes the mysterious mask or veil that Moses wore. Scholars tell us that the prose form of this story changes between vss 33 and 34. The earlier verses (29-32) are told as a straight historical recitation, but from vs 33 the tenses change and the text seems to be describing not an event but a repeated process. The veil is mysterious in that it is only put on when Moses is NOT in his role as mediator with God or divine spokesperson. In both vss 31-32 and in vs 35 Moses speaks with unveiled face the words of the Lord. When he finishes speaking he puts the veil on again.

Some analysts see here a reversal of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the shaman-priest who donned a mask or headdress to assume his cultic role. His priesthood was donned along with the costume and his human features hidden by the terrifying mask. Here the teaching is the opposite: Moses is masked or veiled in his role as private citizen. When he is with the Lord as mediator and intercessor he beholds God face to face and the skin of his face shone in the reflected glory of that encounter.

This passage forms the basis of teaching developed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3.7-18. Paul does ‘spin’ the story somewhat. Where Exodus makes clear the veil was to hide the shining glory so that the people would not fear (vs 33), Paul writes that the veil was there to hide the fact the glory was fading away (2 Cor 3.13). Paul develops a contrast between the old, fading glory of the ministry of death (2 Cor 3.7) and how much more the ministry of justification abound[s] in glory! (2 Cor 3.9)

There are ethical issues in every act of exegesis and interpretation. Are we being fair to the original text and what it was trying to convey? Are we bound to the authorial intention of the texts we invoke or do we have a freedom to use them in the service of our own meanings and interpretations?

James 2.14-26: This is perhaps the best known passage in James where he balances a justification by faith theology with a defence of justification by works – explicitly expounded in vs 24: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. That the writer is here arguing with Paul can be seen most clearly in his quotation of the same text that Paul uses in Romans 4.3 (“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” cf. James 2.23) but used to support a very different conclusion in vs 24.  The focus of the passage is expressed succinctly in the repeated conclusion of vss 17 and 26: So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020Psalm 119:41-48; Deuteronomy 26:16-27:7 ; Matthew 19:16-22
For the Psalm, see Monday.

The Lectionary is about to take us beyond the Pentateuch into Joshua and the story of ‘the Conquest’. Today’s passage from Deuteronomy 26 and 27 is our farewell to the long narrative of Exodus and Wandering that we have journeyed over many weeks. Vss 16-19 express the essence of the Covenant: obedience and diligent observation of the law (vs 16) serves the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways (vs 17), re-expressed again in vs 18: to be his treasured people, as he promised you , and to keep his commandments; before the results of this covenant for Israel are revealed in vs 19:  high above all nations…, in praise and in fame and in honour.

Having declared the essence of the covenant, Moses and the elders then outline how it is to be cultically expressed in a monument at the [future] crossing of the Jordan to possess the land which has been promised (vs 1-7 of chapter 27). The structure is strange with the repetition of the instructions of the memorial in almost contradictory terms.

Vss 2-3 prescribe a monument of stones covered in plaster with the words of the law written on them – presumably inscribed into the monument. Vss 4-7 prescribe a different memorial: stones and plaster as before, but this time on Mt Ebal and an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool (vs 5b). Vss 2-3 outline a memorial on which text of the law was to appear, engraved on large plastered stones. Vss 4-7 prescribe an altar of unworked stones (still plastered) on which sacrifice, rather than words of law, were to be the focus. There seem to be two traditions preserved here. The former seems linked to the Torah tradition of instruction and writing, and the latter to the cult of sacrifice and priesthood.

Do we find similar variant framings of faith in our own world? For instance, there are some people who treasure worship and singing and the drama of public liturgy (in whatever music tradition) while others are more engaged with issues of justice and ethics. I imagine the ‘worship’ fans might be drawn more to the vss 4-7 tradition, while the ‘justice and ethics’ crowd resonate more with vs 1-2.

Where do you feel more at home?

Matthew 19.16-22: This is a contentious story in the gospels. We really have only a third of it here – the story of the rich young man’s questioning and Jesus’ answers. The full teaching is Matthew 19.16-30. The parallels are found in Mark 10.17-31 and Luke 18.18-30.

Here the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man is allowed to stand on its own – with the ‘open’ ending of the young man going away grieving, for he had many possessions (vs 22). Left out from our reading today is the following debate about the ‘impossibility’ of Jesus’ teaching (vs 25) and the dialogue about relinquishment and blessing (vss 27-30).

Perhaps the simplest and truest reading of this text is the truth that clinging to our possessions is nothing but a source of grief!

Thursday, October 29, 2020Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Joshua 1:1-11; Romans 2:17-29

Psalm 107 has been called a “Liturgy of a Festival of Thanksgiving for the Liberated”. It has an interesting structure in which two ‘refrains’ or repeated statements recur throughout the Psalm:

The first is a statement of deliverance (found at vss 6, 13, 19, 28):

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

This alternates with a call to thanksgiving (found at vss 8, 15, 21, 31):

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,

    for his wonderful works to humankind.

The psalm as a whole comprises 43 verses but we are only given 12 of them in two sections:

Vss 1-7 are the introduction to the Psalm. Vs 1 is an imperative calling the people to thanksgiving. Vss 2-3 might have been included within a much earlier Psalm after the deliverance from exile. Vss 4-5 reflect the desert wandering experience.

Many scholars think the second section (vss 33-37) is a separate song appended to an older Psalm. If you read vss 8-32 there is a different vocabulary and a very graphic style. Vs 32 almost seems a natural end point. Vss 33-37 show a clear connection to the work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) with the metaphors of ‘waters in the desert’. The Psalm probably reflects the evolution of Israel’s worship in which the older strata of the tradition (vss 1, 4-32) were expanded by later poetry (vs 2-3, 33-43) reflecting further experience which were integrated together into narrative of historical deliverance which called forth praise and thanksgiving.

Joshua 1.1-11 begins the new narrative of entry into the promised land. In this passage we hear the announcement of Moses’ death and the succession of Joshua (vs 1), the voice of God recommissioning Joshua (in vss 2-9) and Joshua’s first exercising his new authority (vs 10-11).

Note the description of the territory I have given you as I promised to Moses (vs 3b). The Great Sea in the west is the Mediterranean (vs 4b) but the landside boundary is given as from the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites (vs 4a). This includes Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and much of Iraq. If you look at the flag of modern Israel you will see two bands of blue on a white background: the blue bands represent the territory from the river (the Jordan? the Euphrates?) to the great sea (the Mediterranean).

One of the mysteries of modern Israel is that we are all asked to acknowledge Israel’  ‘right to exist’, but I have never found anyone who can clarify just which set of borders we acknowledge Israel as ‘existing within’. Is it the partition borders agreed by the United Nations in the late 1940’s? Or the borders taken by conquest in the 1967 War? Or the current borders of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories taken together? Or the ‘ambit claim’ of Joshua 1.4 of all the territory from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean?  Unfortunately, the status of debate today is such that to even politely ask that question is to risk being labelled anti-Semitic.

Two elements of the commission are significant: the injunction to Be strong and courageous, repeated in vss 6a, 7a, 9a. The second is the repeated mention of the linked themes of the promise of the land (vs 2-4, 6) and the keeping of the law (vss 7b, 8).

The heading of the passage beginning in vs 10 is instructive: Preparations for the Invasion. How do we understand what this whole exercise is about?  An invasion? A ‘Conquest’? A reclaiming of what was Israel’s by right? An uprising by marginalised social outcasts of the rural and wilderness areas against the settled and relatively prosperous towns of the region? Was it ethnic cleansing by one racial group of others? Or an uprising of the poor against their oppressors – perhaps led by an incoming group of desert-hardened wanderers with a new vision of God?  All of these theories have been applied to the story we are about to read, and each in turn can be argued from the evidence within the book itself. It is helpful to suspend judgement for a while and keep asking the question ‘what is this all about?’ The chapters ahead include violence, ethnic cleansing and perhaps even genocide. Can we really say “This is the word of the Lord?” to everything in the book of Joshua?

Romans 2.17-29 addresses directly those who pride themselves on their Jewish heritage and value their relationship to God and to the law. It falls into two main parts.

Vss 17-24 stresses the law. Vss 17-20 tease out the self-understanding of the skilled practitioner of the law. The hinge of the argument is vs 21 – you that teach others, will you not teach yourself? The assumption of vss 21b to 23 is that a teacher is a hypocrite, committing the sins against which he is teaching. Here Paul is re-asserting the point of vs 13 – that it is not the hearing (or the teaching!) of the law which matters, but the doing of the law. Commentator Brendan Byrne says of this passage:-

Within an established rhetorical pattern, he is attempting to drive home the point that possession of the law has not prevented Jews from failing to abide by its key moral precepts as formulated in the Decalogue (Byrne, 1996, 98)

The passage ends with the statement that such failure to perform the doing of the law leads to the Gentiles blaspheming the name God because of you (vs 24).

Vss 25-29 deal not with ‘the law’ as such but with circumcision, the sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. Again, the contrast is made between circumcision being not an outward sign but something embodied in the keeping of the law. The clearest statement of Paul’s thesis is vs 27 where the physically uncircumcised who keep the requirements of the law will condemn you that have both the written code and circumcision but break the law.

The possessing of the law, and the status of the circumcised, mean nothing in the eyes of God: what matters is the doing of the law. In the final verse Paul redefines Jewish identity as matter of the heart, an inward, spiritual reality.

Friday, October 30, 2020Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Joshua 2:1-14; 2 Peter 2:1-3
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Joshua 2.1-14 tells of the heroism of Rahab the prostitute and her faithfulness to the Israelite spies. We are not told of how the King of Jericho discerned that the spees had come to Rahab (vs 3), but Rahab gave the classic Holywood misdirection “They went that-a-way!” (vss 4-5) getting the pursuers out of town with the gate locked behind them (vs 7).

In vss 8-14 Rahab tells of how the dread of the invaders has fallen on her people and even rehearses the events of the Red Sea and the escape from Egypt (vs 10). Acknowledging the Lord God (vs 11b) she negotiates a contract, a treaty: I will protect you now, if you protect me and my family in the future.

If the name Rahab seems familiar, she is remembered in our reading from James on Tuesday this week where she is remembered as an example of someone justified by works (James 2.25). Other New Testament witness to Rahab is found in Hebrews 11.31: By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish… and in Matthew 1.5 where in a long list of the forefathers of Jesus she is remembered as one of only four women (apart from Mary) honoured in the genealogy of Jesus.

2 Peter 2.1-3 is a succinct treatment of an issue treated in various parts of the Bible – that of false teachers. Vs alludes to the phenomenon of false prophets in Jewish history and their counterpart in the Christian community false teachers. They are characterised by secrecy, destructive opinions and even denying the Master who bought them (vs 1). Added to the charges against them are licentious ways, deceptive words (vs 2) and greed and exploitation (vs 3).

The impact of such teaching is that the way of truth will be maligned (vs 3b) but their condemnation and destruction are assured (vs 3c).

Are we conscious of false teaching in the church of today? How do we test for the truth? In the Baptist tradition especially, because we treasure liberty of conscience and the freedom of faith, we do need to be vigilant in defending good teaching, discerning false teaching and holding to truth.

Saturday, October 31, 2020Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; Joshua 2:15-24; Matthew 23:13-28
For the Psalm, see Thursday.

Joshua 2.15-24 is the sequel to the night treaty agreed by Rahab and the spies. In vs 16 she gives further aid, and in vss 17-21 the spies outline her obligations to co-operate in sparing her family in the coming siege. In vss 22-24 the spies report back to Joshua and hearing their report Joshua is reassured that Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands (vs 24).

Matthew 23.13-28: Following the warnings against false teachers yesterday in 2 Peter, today’s reading lists the six woes Jesus proclaimed against the scribes and Pharisees. The first denunciation (vs 13) is against their ‘blocking up the doorway’ – for not entering the kingdom themselves and preventing others to do so. The next denunciation is actually missing from our text – vs 14 is now generally not held to be a genuine part of the text (see footnote).

The second denunciation is one that I as a preacher feel acutely: for you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (vs 15 – a text that every evangelist should take very much to heart!)

The third Woe is extensive and has to do with the ordering of values and the technicalities of swearing oaths (vss 16-22).

The fourth denunciation is against how the Pharisees have finely graduated calculation of the tithe and yet have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith (vss 23-24).

The fifth and the sixth Woes are directed against a ritual cleaning of the outside not the inside vss 25-26) and the similar but summary Woe uttered against those who are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but on the inside…. (vss 27-28).

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