We are nearing the end of the church year. I have enjoyed writing these notes on the daily readings and have learned so much in so doing. (I even bought special reading glasses so I could read my ‘book commentaries’ and also the computer screen without having to change glasses). The notes were a response to the lockdown and the loss of face-to-face worship which started before Easter this year. Now that we are slowly coming out of lockdown, we need to decide whether to maintain the discipline and the time investment of researching and writing these notes each week.
They will probably become shorter and less detailed (I did get rather carried away when we were studying the letter to the Romans in some depth!) but I think whether to continue the notes or not should be a community decision. If you use these study notes and would appreciate continuing to have them posted to our website, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comment or feedback you may have. Even a simple message that you do read them – even if not every day – would inform the decision we make about whether to continue or not. Of course, any suggestion as to how they might be improved is also very helpful!
We will continue to use the website, Zoom and various digital tools to communicate with each other and deliver teaching and other material, but response and feedback as to how this is working really assists us in developing tools to assist and support you in your discipleship.
Grace and peace,
Monday, November 9, 2020: Psalm 78; Joshua 24:25-33; 1 Corinthians 14:20-25
We commenced looking at Psalm 78 last week, dipping our toe in the water with the introductory verses. I offer again the introductory paragraphs from last week but direct you to my comments last Thursday November 5th.
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 vss 1-7 are 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.
I will not repeat the commentary on vss 1-7 other than to note that vss 5-11 complete the introduction and are focussed on the two great themes of the Deuteronomic history of Israel, covenant and law.
Vss 12-31 begins the narration of the history in alternating sections declaring the saving actions of God together with God’s judgments (vss 12-16, then 21-31) and then the faithlessness of the people (vss 17-20).
Vss 32-41 narrate the continuous failure and sin of the people before the Psalmist turns in vs 42 through vs 53 to describe God’s action in the tradition of the exodus.
In vs 54 the history turns abruptly from the exodus tradition to the Zion tradition, the holy hill (vs 54) in Jerusalem which was the main cultic centre displacing other cultic centres such as Shiloh (vs 60). Associated with this tradition is the elevation of Judah (vs 68) over the other tribes. In vs 70 the end point of this narration of the history of God’s people is He chose his servant David … to be the shepherd of his people Jacob (vss 70-71). The rejection of: the tent of Joseph, he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim (vs 67) appears to be related to the rout of his adversaries (vs 66). It reflects the split of Judah (centred on Jerusalem) from the tribes of middle Palestine who then formed the northern kingdom (Israel).
One of the great questions in interpreting this text is just how the great narrative of God’s deliverance and the faithlessness of the people – bringing both God’s judgment but then further deliverance – is being deployed. Up until vs 54 the story has been the story of the twelve tribes, whom God loves and saves. From vs 54 to vs 72, the focus is more on the southern kingdom (Judah) with specific mention that God has NOT chosen those dreadful northern tribes (vs 67, almost as a continuation of the battles against adversaries of vs 66). Is this psalm actually some ancient version of MJGA: Make Jerusalem Great Again?
I am writing these notes on the day that Joe Biden was acclaimed the President of the United States. His narrative is very different to this Psalm: I am President of the UNITED States of America. I want to govern for ALL the tribes, those who voted for me (Judah) and for the tribes who voted against me (Joseph and Ephraim).
It raises the question of how we use holy texts, and even how much ancient animosities can sometimes be ‘baked in’ to the words of the text itself! How we choose and use passages from the Bible can have deep implications for our communities. It is significant that Biden did not quote any Biblical passage about how terrible and hateful the ‘other mob’ are (of which there are many examples), but a text from Ecclesiastes 3 about it being a time to heal.
Joshua 24.25-33: Having just heard in the Psalm how the ancient shrines have been overthrown and rejected, here we have the earlier story of how the covenant was enacted and a shrine established. Note that the shrine had both a stone of witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us (vs 27) and the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord (vs 26). Here we have a combination of a sacred tree and a stone of witness both set up in the sanctuary of the Lord. It’s a lovely thought that the stone were not just a tablet on which the law was written: the stone heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us (vs 27).
How often we think that it is what we humans write on nature through poetry or engineering or agriculture that is our great statement to the world, and perhaps even to God. But this text suggests that a greater statement is what God has spoken to us, that nature has heard and retains in witness against us!
Vss 29-33 tell of the death of Joshua and Eleazar son of Aaron and their burial, along with the bones of Joseph in the very lands that today’s Psalm has said are rejected by God. Remember that these lands are in the middle of the West Bank, centred on modern Nablus in the heart of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Whether Jerusalem will continue to dominate and subjugate the tent of Joseph, … the tribe of Ephraim (Ps 78.67) is still a central issue in Middle East politics. This is not ancient history we are reading, but the deep background of a very real and contemporary struggle for justice!
1 Corinthians 14.20-25 takes us into the heart of a dispute within the early Church. Paul writes in the law it is written but the text is actually from Isaiah 28.11 (vs 21). The original setting and meaning of the Isaiah passage can be interpreted in several ways, but here Paul uses it against the advocates of speaking in tongues (vs 23) within the Corinthian church. The contrast is between tongues which just lead unbelievers to think you are mad (vs 23) and prophecy (which we would call preaching) which might speak to the heart of the unbeliever (vs 24). It is difficult to see how vs 22 fits with what follows, unless we interpret vs 22 as the principle affirmed by the church in Corinth, which Paul then contradicts and argues against in vss 23-24.
Tuesday, November 10, 2020: Psalm 78; Nehemiah 8:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Nehemiah 8.1-12, like yesterday’s reading, brings us to a renewal of covenant ceremony. The setting here is the restoration of Jerusalem following the Exile. In Ezra we have a religious figure who is both scribe (vs 1) and priest (vs 2), both a teacher and worship leader. Nehemiah is a political leader (vs 9 – see also this verse for confirmation of Ezra’s roles).
Significant in this text is the emphasis on hearing with understanding (vss 2b, 3b, 7b, 8b). In many ways this is similar to the Protestant spirit of enquiry and understanding, and in vss 7-8 you can almost sense an ancient form of the Methodist Bible class, or a Baptist all-age Sunday School class.
Vss 9-12 describe a subsequent ritual celebration of the covenant in gladness and feasting because they had understood the words that were declared to them (vs 12).
1 Thessalonians 3.6-13 has two main sections. Vss 6-10 describe Timothy’s report about the Thessalonian church (vs 6) which Paul responds to with eloquent and heartfelt joy. Vss 7-10 are a series of beautiful affirmations of what this church means to Paul.
Vss 11-13 are blessings. Vs 11 is a prayer that the divine SATNAV might bring Paul to Thessalonica. Vss 12-13 are more personal blessings for the church there.
Wednesday, November 11, 2020: Psalm 78; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 24:29-35
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Jeremiah 31.31-34 introduces a whole new vision of covenant. Over recent weeks we have seen covenants enacted in rituals, focussed in altars and sacrifice, established through law and preaching and understanding, graven on stones, or listened to by stones. Here Jeremiah speaks of the law written on their hearts (vs 33). From something symbolised externally in sacred object, shrine or ritual, the focus changes to the internal, for I will put my law within them (vs 33).
Note that the historical narration of alternating salvation and apostacy/failure that has characterised so many of the texts we have read over recent weeks, is here supplanted by a sense of abiding repentance and faithfulness on the part of the people, and complete forgetting of their failure by the Lord (vs 34).
In Matthew 24.29-35 we have an early view of the end-time, the Parousia or return of the Son of Man (vs 30). That this was seen as imminent is clear in vs 34.
The title Son of Man is here probably reflects the vision of Daniel (see Daniel 7.13) in an earlier strand of apocalyptic literature. Some scholars have suggested that the Son of Man on the lips of the historical Jesus was an Aramaic expression (bar-nasha) which in Jesus’ time may have been a vernacular expression meaning something like everyman. For those who remember the African-American street slang that was taken over into protest culture of the 1970’s you may recall the expression ‘the Man’, as in Roy Orbison’s song Working for the Man. ‘The Man’ was a metaphor for ‘the system’, the exploitative class.
In the ancient Aramaic idiom, scholars believe ‘the son of man’ was a metaphor for ‘the common man’, ‘ordinary people’. When the phrase is heard from the lips of Jesus this interpretation brings a poignant meaning: Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the ordinary person (the son of man) has nowhere to lay his head.
Christian tradition took the phrase and located it within the poetic tradition of some of the Psalms, and the apocalyptic traditions of Daniel and Ezekiel, which is definitely the sense in which it is used in this passage.
Thursday, November 12, 2020: Psalm 123; Judges 2:6-15; Revelation 16:1-7
If the Psalm for the first part of the week is a long celebration of God’s deliverance and reliability, Psalm 123 is a short and focussed lament in a time of suffering and humiliation. It has the form of a prayer song of an individual (vs 1) which transitions at the end of vs 2 into a communal prayer: Have mercy upon us O Lord… vs 3a). What opened in the singular (I lift up my eyes… vs 1) becomes profoundly communal (for we have had more than enough of contempt… vs 3).
Prayer songs often begin with an indication of the physical posture of the petitioner. The look of entreaty and dependency is indicated in vs 1, along with the affirmation that you … are enthroned in the heavens. This cosmic identity of God’s dwelling contrasts with all talk of holy mountains and the temple and may well reflect the days of exile and separation from the temple. The description of the contempt and humiliation that the people experience (vss 3b, 4) is also consistent with the privations of exile.
The book of Judges describes the history and social organisation of early Israel immediately after the “conquest” of the promised land and prior to the institution of kingship. In those days there was no king in Israel: all the people did what was right in their own eyes describes the form of political organisation and this is declared in Judges 17.6 and in the last verse of the book (Judges 21.25).
With such an anarchistic lack of social organisation, when a disaster such as invasion threatened, the people of Israel were dependent upon the Lord raising a leader, called a judge, to bring the people together and lead them. The book of Judges describes this period of Israel’s history and the succession of charismatic (?) leaders that Yahweh raised up to lead Israel.
Our reading today sets the scene with the death of Joshua and his whole generation (vss 6-10). With the loss of that pioneering generation the people lost their way in idolatry (vss 12b , 13) so that the Lord punished them through military weakness and failure, so that they were in great distress (vs 15c).
Revelation 16.1-7: The book or Revelation almost requires an abacus or calculator to keep up with the narrative. After seven letters (chapters 1-3), seven seals (chapter 6), seven angels with seven trumpets (chapters 8-11), one dragon and two beasts (chapters 12-13), one lamb with 144,000 worshippers and another either six or seven angels (chapter 14), we come to chapters 15 and 16 which feature seven angels with seven bowls of the wrath of God. It is a highly figurative book and all those angels and beasts and trumpets and bowls and plagues can merge into one another if we don’t keep count (and we almost wonder whether that ‘merging together’ was John’s aim in writing as he does).
In this passage we have the first three bowls of wrath: pestilence and sores (vs 2), and then the sea (vs 3), and the rivers (vs 4), turned to blood.
In vss 5b-7 the angel of the waters declares, and the response from the altar affirms of God that your judgements are true and just!
Friday, November 13, 2020: Psalm 123; Judges 2:16-23; Revelation 16:8-21
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Following the description of the death of Joshua, Judges 2.16-23 outlines the basic structure of the narrative to follow: vs 16 presents the role of the ‘judge’. Even though the Lord raises up a judge, the people turn from Yahweh and the judge. Vs 18 presents this as a recurring pattern.
Vss 20-23 present a sub-narrative in which the nations harrassing and seducing Israel had been left by God to test Israel (vs 22). This narrative subverts the greater narrative of the complete conquest of the land that was the theme of the book of Joshua.
Revelation 16.8-21 presents the last four of the bowls of wrath. Vss 8-9 describe a bowl poured … on the sun with a result of fierce heat. Vss 10-11 describe a bowl poured on the throne of the beast and upon the followers of the beast.
Vss 12-16 describe the sixth angel [who] poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates with results that take 4 verses to describe.
Vss 17-21 describe the seventh and last bowl which brings a decisive judgment against the great city (vs 19). This then described in eloquent detail in chapter 18.
The bowls of the wrath of God are the action of God in judgment against injustice and violence. Despite the catastrophic impacts of the pouring out of the bowls, they are in support of justice-making and the setting right of God’s world. Despite the dramatic consequences of the poured-out bowls, humankind did not repent or give God glory (vss 9b, 11b, 21b).
Saturday, November 14, 2020: Psalm 123; Judges 5:1-12; Matthew 12:43-45
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Judges 5.1-12 introduces us to Deborah and Barak, two of the great heroes of Israel. The events of their great military exploits are told in Chapter 4. All of chapter 5 (31 verses) is the song of victory that was inspired by their success.
When locks are long in Israel (vs 2) is a reference to the Nazarites, those who devoted themselves by vow to the Lord and did not cut their hair (see Numbers 6.1-21).
Vs 3 calls on the kings and princes of the earth to hear the song. Vss 4-5 recall the acts of God in delivering the people after Egypt, at Sinai.
VS 6 takes up the song of praise of Deborah again. Vs 6 says the peasantry prospered in Israel (cf the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel -vs 11b).
Vs 8 expresses the basic structure of yesterday’s reading: the people rebel by choosing false gods and war is the response. The lack of preparation for war is reflected in vs 8b.
So the subject of the song is how Deborah and Barak raised the peasants in an army and conquered their enemies. This is so remarkable that the rich who ride on white donkeys and sit on rich carpets should sing of it (vs 10) and at the desert oases the caravans must sing of it (vs 10).
Matthew 12.43-45 speaks of demon possession. These verses are paralleled in Luke 11.24-26, almost word for word. Matthew has taken these words from the source that he shared with Luke and linked them with teaching from Mark chapter 3.
Mark 3.19b – 35 has two passages that Mark links together. The first is that of Jesus and Beelzebul (by the ruler of demons he casts out demons Mk 3.22), and the second is how the family of Jesus come to take charge of him for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind” (Mk 3.22).
Matthew has taken these two stories of Mark 3.19b-35 and expanded them by interpolating between Mark’s first and second stories three more stories: about a tree and its fruit (Matt 12.33-37); Jesus’ sayings about ‘the sign of Jonah’ (Matt 12.38-42); and these verses about the return of the unclean spirit (Matt 12.43-45).
Luke has also linked Mark’s Beelzebul tradition, the return of the unclean spirit, and the sign of Jonah, but in a different order to Matthew (see Luke 11.14-32). Luke deletes Mark’s story about Jesus’ family coming to take him in hand.
So here we have a rich layering of gospel tradition. In itself, today’s passage about the return of the unclean spirit deals with the risks of apostasy, of turning away from Jesus once one has trusted him, had ‘one’s house put in order’, only to turn back and find oneself in a far worse position.
The gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) have linked this with the teaching from Mark 3 (probably because of the common theme of demon possession). It is worth reading the three accounts side-by-side and seeing what differences in meaning you can discern, how the various ‘readings’ of Jesus’ teaching might speak to you in different ways.