Monday, November 2, 2020Psalm 128; Joshua 4:1-24; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20
Psalm 128 is a didactic poem with many elements from the wisdom tradition. Vss 1 and 4 are declaratory in sense – general observations about blessing expressed in the third person. 

Vss 2-3 and 5-6 are addressed to the hearer, perhaps by an officiating priest (the Psalm is headed A Song of Ascents otherwise translated A Pilgrim Song for those coming to the Temple). These verses are in the second person, addressed to You…, Your…, Your…, You…, Your…

The opening sentiment is shared by many psalms (cf Ps 1) which announce happiness and blessing on those who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him (vs 1), a theme reprised in vs 4.

Vss 2-3 then express this in terms of a direct promise with almost the tone of prophecy, speaking of domestic content and prosperity, of a farmer living well on the fruit of your labour (vs 2). This promise of idyllic home life is extended to the blessings of a large family in vs 3. The reference to this personal idyll causes many scholars to see the Psalm as clearly post-Exilic as this promise of settled, prosperous life and large family contrasts with the privations of the exile in Babylon.

Vss 5-6 take the personal promises of vss 2-3 and link them more to the collective context of corporate experience in Zion (vs 5a), Jerusalem (vs 5b) and Israel (vs 6b), all of which is undergirded by the blessing (vs 5a) and peace (vs 6b) of the Lord.

After the privations and disasters of this year we have started to really value the simple things of life, such as meeting with family, or a meal with friends. We have realised how fragile such pleasures can be, and how we are dependent on cities, communities and states for basic security, health support and the resources to live. A poem like Psalm 128 is like an idyllic picture within a black frame: it needs the ‘frame’ of remembered privation in exile or lockdown to really show the beauty and power of the words!

Joshua 4.1-24 tells of the crossing of the Jordan. Vss 1-8 tell of Joshua commanding the setting up of a memorial of twelve stones from the river to be erected at the site of the camp once the river has been crossed. Vs 9 tells of a different tradition in which the twelve stones are set up in the river. 

Vss 10-18 then relate the crossing of the river, and vss 19-24 tell of the setting up of the memorial at Gilgal. The parallels between the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordon are recognised (vs 23).

Early Israel had a number of cultic sites (such as Gilgal, Bethel, Shiloh) all associated with events and interpretations of events in their history. Later there was a suppression of these regional shrines and centralisation of worship in the Jerusalem cult. 

Within our own country there are many sites sacred to our indigenous people. In our day it is the power of corporations and the economic order that lead to the suppression and destruction of these sites.

There is a wonderful vibrancy in 1st Thessalonians! It is probably the earliest of the New Testament writings and we can see the traces of the energy of the new movement that grew up around Jesus in today’s reading. Vss 13-16 draw the comparison between the struggles faced by the early Jesus communities in Judea and Thessalonica. Vss 17-20 are bursting with warmth and longing. How beautiful is that metaphor of we were made orphans by being separated from you (vs 17)?  The immediacy of the expectation of the Lord’s coming is seen in vs 19. Paul speaks with such love: you are our glory and our joy! (vs 20).

We do not always have that sense of delight in our sisters and brothers. In the church in which I was raised there was a woman who had that delight in being at church. All through her teenage years she never missed a Sunday. She was married to her sweetheart one Saturday, and on the Sunday morning they were both there in church at 11 am to start their married life together. They holidayed each year 50 miles from our town and always drove back for Sunday worship. She never missed a Sunday. When children came along, she would be there ‘great with child’ one Sunday, and back the following Sunday with a baby in her arms. She gave birth to four children and never missed a Sunday! It was a remarkable record, and personally I wouldn’t recommend it – we all need variety in teaching and worship from to time – but she wasn’t driven by duty or rules. That woman looked around the church and felt Yes, you are our glory and our joy!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020Psalm 128; Joshua 6:1-16, 20; Acts 13:1-12
For the Psalm see Monday.

Joshua 6.1-16 is the well-known story of how Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho … and the walls came tumbling down (as the Negro spiritual has it). It depicts the close relationship between the cultic/religious and military experience of Israel. Where the Exodus was achieved solely through the actions of God who fought against Pharaoh and Egypt on behalf of Israel, here it is more of a partnership between the Lord and his servants, and the men bearing arms (see vss 7b, 9, 13b).

The relationship between the violence of war and the blessing of religion has a long and chequered history. The Collins Street Baptist Church where I pastored for ten years played a role in WW1. The then minister, the Revd T.E. Ruth, was all for ‘God, King and country’. His Sunday night preaching (often taking issue with the Friday night ‘lecture’ given at St Patrick’s Cathedral by Archbishop Daniel Mannix who opposed conscription) was so popular that the church hired a theatre opposite the church to accommodate the crowds. Every Sunday night the theatre would be packed, often with hundreds in overflow crowds and dissenting protestors filling Collins Street. The Deacons would pray with the minister in the church and then form a bodyguard to escort him across the road to the theatre through the jeering and cheering crowds. This didn’t have the silent dignity of Joshua 6, but I think there is a connection to be drawn between the two stories and the long history of the blessing of war in the Lord’s name. This is but one of the troubling questions that arise from the narrative of Joshua.

Acts 13.1-12 marks a distinctive turn in the book of Acts, a turn that has been decisive for all of Christian history. Up until this chapter (with the exception of some of chapter 9 about Saul’s conversion and early preaching) all the action has focussed on the other apostles – Peter, Stephen, Philip, James. Here Saul (soon renamed as Paul in vs 9) and Barnabas are among the prophets and teachersin the church at Antioch (vs 1). Who now remembers anything at all about Simeon the Black, Lucius of Cyrene or Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler (vs 1)? Yet at the start of this chapter they were all just colleagues and presumably friends with Saul and Barnabas in the first great Christian church outside Palestine.

Vs 2b are some of the most momentous words in the New Testament: Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. From this flowed so much that shaped all of subsequent Christian history.

When we look back on life there are many with whom we worship and with whom we work. We are all potentially another Simon Black or Manaen, just one of the crowd remembered solely because we happened to be around the place when Paul and Barnabas were called. But who can tell when the call of the Lord might be for us, when we might be commissioned to be the Barnabas or Saul whose words and thought shape the people of God for another thousand years?

Wednesday, November 4, 2020Psalm 128; Joshua 10:12-14; Matthew 15:1-9
For the Psalm see Monday.

Joshua 10.12-14 is a cheery little text remembering that great day when the sun stood still and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies (vs 13). Victors often see miracles at work when they win a great victory! How wonderful that God is on our side! Hallelujah!!

I have, resting on my Bible as I type this, something I have inherited from my grandfather. It is a small belt buckle ‘souvenired’ from either Gallipoli or the Western Front in WW1. It bears the inscription “Gott mit uns” (God with us)! I keep it with me to remind me that it is not only the victors who believe in miracles and call on the name of the Lord. I hope and pray that the soldier to whom the buckle was issued suffered nothing more than falling trousers, but I fear he had already suffered far more than that before the buckle came into my family’s possession.

The book of Joshua raises great questions about whose side God is on, how God acts in war. Vs 14 is telling: There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.  What does this say about prayer? Does God really heed human voices and take sides in battles between nations?

Matthew 15.1-9 is a controversy story where the Pharisees and scribes dispute with Jesus. Note that they come from Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religion and cult. Jesus turns their accusation against them. They accuse him of allowing his disciples get away with not washing their hands (vs 2). He accuses them of allowing people to leave their parents destitute and abandon their family obligations (vss 4-6). Vss 8-9 turn the prophecy of Isaiah directly against the Jewish tradition. 

Given the OT reading today and the questions raised just two paragraphs above, what does the Matthew reading teach us about the authority of received texts and traditions, especially a text as celebratory of war and even genocide as the book of Joshua?

Thursday, November 5, 2020Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 5:10-12; Revelation 8:6-9:12
Psalm 78 is a recitation of the story of God’s deliverance of Israel, and the people’s perfidy and resistance. We came upon this Psalm (with a different range of verses) on September 24 where it was paired with the description of the escape from Egypt in the Pentateuch. Of the 72 verses of the Psalm today we are only given vss 1-7, part of the introduction to this great recitation of God’s saving acts. 

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. 

H-J Kraus writes ‘One must speak of a doctrine of history as it is laid out in Psalm 78’ (Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 1989: 122). The ‘history’ as told appears to be very early with no apparent reference to events after the 9th century BCE. 

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. The references to things …that our ancestors have told us (vs 3) and we will tell to the coming generation (vs 4a cf. vs 6b) reflect a culture of oral transmission. 

Vss 1-4 relate to the teaching (vs 1) and how it is to be transmitted generation to generation. The teaching is variously described as the words of my mouth (vs 2), a parable (vs 2), dark sayings from of old (vs 2) and things that we have heard and known (vs 3). They relate to the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done (vs 4).

Vss 5-7 change the register to a law in Israel which is described as a decree, and something commanded our ancestors to teach to their children (vs 5). Just as the dark sayings of vss 1-4 are to be transmitted to coming generations, so too are the commandments (vs 7).

One of the failures of our generation (collectively understood) is the failure of our transmission of the religious culture and doctrines we have known (and perhaps our cultural and historical traditions generally?) to the rising generation. Is this because we have stopped telling our story to the coming generation? Is this poem, nearly three millenia old, an accusation against a culture where everything is written down, but largely unread? Even the basic disciplines of writing, editing and publishing through which books, newspapers and magazines are formed have now been supplanted by the immediacy and idiocy of social media, where things … that our ancestors have told us have been replaced by salacious gossip about vacuous celebrities, and glorious deeds by dotty conspiracies. 

Our culture and the violence of the colonial project has displaced and disrupted oral transmission of the stories of this land and had a devastating impact on indigenous society and culture. Will digital culture similarly disrupt and displace the written culture of western Enlightenment in which the Protestant Free-Church tradition belongs? Does Psalm 78 call us to a revaluation of how we know history and culture and how we share and teach it?

Joshua 5.10-12 is a part of the Gilgal tradition. On Monday we read how the heart of the Gilgal shrine was the memorial stones of crossing the river. Here another strand of the meaning of Gilgal is unfolded: the manna that sustained them in the desert was replaced by eating the produce of the land (vs 11). Note the transition from they kept the passover (small ‘p’ – vs 10) and the day after the passover (vs 11) which almost implies moving beyond the passover – that along with the manna it belonged to the earlier traditions. But we know that Passover continued (with a capital ‘p’) as a great cultic festival. 

I find it fascinating to consider how our traditions need memorials, statues and stones to mark them in time and place, but also rituals, festivals and food to keep them alive in hearts and minds.

Revelation 8.6-9.12: there’s lots of trumpeting happening this week, from Jericho and them tumbling walls to the terrible seven trumpets of Revelation that signify the terrifying curses cast on earth. Vs 7 presents the first woe and takes us back to our own recent summer season of bushfire and flood. Then follow burning mountains (vs 8), falling stars (vs 10), ruptured sun and moon and constellations (vs 12) followed by a sombre and even more harrowing prediction of the final three trumpets (vs 13).

Two of the last three trumpets announce very significant woes. Today’s text presents a plague of scorpion-like locusts (chapter 9.1-6) which are described in gruesome detail in vss 7-11.

Revelation is a densely structured book with seven letters (chapters 2-3), seven flaming torches (4.5) seven seals (chapter 6), seven bowls of wrath (chapter 16). I think the best way of understanding is to not micro-analyse each verse or sign but immerse ourselves in the sweep of the narrative.

Should you think that angels and trumpets as harbingers of a doom-laden future are just ancient superstition and not at all real, I draw your attention to a recent New Zealand TV piece on the Trumpettes, a group of ‘socialites’ meeting in Florida at Mar-a-Lago recently:  

Further comment, I think, is unnecessary.

Friday, November 6, 2020Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 8:30-35; Revelation 9:13-21
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Joshua 8.30-35 describes the renewal of the covenant at Mt Ebal. Mt Ebal (vs 30) and Mt Gerizim (vs 33) are the two mountains either side of the valley in which lies the modern city of Nablus (= biblical Shechem, another ancient shrine). The mountains are two of the highest peaks in the West Bank.

As we saw recently in reviewing Deuteronomy, there was some ambiguity about whether the stones were to marked or unmarked, monument or altar. Here the stones are unhewn (vs 31) and built into an altar, but are then wrote on (vs 32) with a full copy of the law. Some ancient traditions of the Samaritans report that the division of the people on the two mountains (vs 33b) was accompanied by a ritual of one group repeating all the blessings of the law and the other repeating all the curses of the law.

What is interesting here are the references to alien as well as citizen (vs 33) and the aliens who resided among them (vs 35). The book of Joshua is a narrated as an invasion of an ethnically pure Israelite movement of twelve tribes who completely displace the people of the land through conquest and even genocide. Yet here there is definite reference to a composite identity of citizen and alien that is in tension with the overall narrative. If you read chapter 9 you will see another account that explores the history of Israelites and Gibeonites and undercuts the narrative of total displacement of the Canaanites and the ethnic purity of the Israelites.

Most nations have a polyglot, multi-cultural structure in various degrees, and tell narratives of unity and a common history that form the mental scaffolding of national identity. Within that scaffolding there are minority identities that hold their own memories and meanings. For many nations, as in Australia today, these identities and memories are being constantly negotiated.

Revelation 9.13-21 presents the sixth blast of angelic trumpet. Here four ‘angels’ (vss 14-15) are unleashed in the form of an army of 200 million … troops of cavalry (vs 16 – cf. the four ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’ in chapter 6.1-8?). From this terrible event a third of humankind was killed (vs 15) but the remaining two thirds of humankind did not repent of the works of their hands … worshipping demons and idols … their murders or their sorceries, or their fornication or their thefts (vs 20-21).

In our recent Deep Dive (Apocalypse and Eucalypts) Keith Dyer explored how the meaning of apocalypse has been transformed from revelation to catastrophe. The Lectionary does not help us this week in that it has served up six of the seven trumpets – all of which are doom, gloom, death and disaster – and left out the last one (Rev 11.15-19) which is all about the deliverance and justice that comes from God!  We have heard all the bad stuff, but not the good stuff which is the whole point of this graphic series of woes. 

So be kind to yourself: after wading through all the trauma, treat yourself to the four verses that put everything in perspective and frame what is still to come (Revelation 11.15-19). 

Then it will start to sound like revelation and good news and not catastrophe upon disaster!

Saturday, November 7, 2020Psalm 78:1-7; Joshua 20:1-9; Matthew 24:1-14
For the Psalm see Thursday.

Joshua 20.1-9: This is an enlightened tradition indeed! The background to the cities of refuge (vs 1) is that of a culture of revenge and retribution. The shedding of blood created an obligation for an avenger of blood (vs 3b) to ‘slay the slayer’. It was death itself that created this obligation, without reference to mitigating facts, motive or circumstances of the death. Here in Joshua 20 an alternative to local retributive justice is established. The cities are nominated in vss 7-8 and their function summarised in vs 9.

The process is clear. The slayer … shall stand at the entrance of the gate of that city: and then explain the case to the elders of that city (vs 4). Once taken in the slayer becomes the fugitive (vs 4b) and is not to be given up. Vs 6 describes two processes for the discharge of the charge of slaying (a trial before the congregation and the death of the one who is high priest at the time) without clarifying how the two work together.

Vs 9b puts it succinctly: anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so as not to die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until there was a trial before the congregation.

Matthew 24.1-14: This has been week of building and demolishing: altars built and walls demolished in Joshua. Mayhem and destruction in Revelation. How fitting to end the week with the ‘little apocalypse’ of Jesus from Matthew’s account. 

Jesus does wonderful things with this tradition. While predicting plenty of destruction and disaster (vss 2, 6a, 7, 9, 10-12) he ends with words of reassurance and comfort (vss 13-14) along with reminders salted throughout to keep things in perspective (vss 4, 6b, 8).

Perhaps the modern taste for horror tales and disaster stories has been deeply ingrained in human nature from the beginning. Personally, I have never enjoyed horror movies and don’t really understand those who do. Disaster movies are more accessible, but not necessarily enjoyable. Whether it is Jesus’ words here, or the writings of John the Seer, or the more blood-curdling tales of violence from Joshua, as Christians we need to keep the text in context. We need to see that, while our minds might be drawn to the lurid and spectacular and destructive, what the Bible is saying over and over again is the one who endures to the end will be saved (Jesus), they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood (Joshua), the kingdom of the world, has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 11.15).

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