This week we will suspend our explorations of Romans so that we can follow the Season of Creation for the next 5 Sundays. Tuesday this week marks the first day of Spring. The indigenous seasons of Melbourne had a ‘true Spring’ season (called Pareip) from September through October. As we come to the end of winter and look to another season of light and growth, it is appropriate to focus on the Creation, the challenges all living creatures face together, and the stewardship of the human race over the Creation entrusted to our care.
The Sundays of this five-week cycle are inspired by a Zoom discussion we had as a church community months ago when we reflected on the 4 elements of ancient cultures – fire, earth, air and water. We will follow these in sequence and then share together in the final service on 4th October, the anniversary of Francis of Assisi!
The daily readings for the month will follow the usual pattern without amendment but the Sunday readings will follow the Season of Creation.
If there is a common theme to the readings presented this week, it would appear to be conflict –conflict between leaders and the people of God, conflict between the people of God and other nations, and conflict within communities of the people of God.
Monday, August 31, 2020: Psalm 83:1-4, 13-18; Exodus 4:10-31; Revelation 3:1-6
Psalm 83 is identified as A Song. A Psalm of Asaph (heading). This is one of a collection of 12 Psalms so identified comprising Ps 50 and Pss 73-83. A Song indicates that it was a community prayer song or community lament. The heading A Psalm of Asaph may indicate authorship by Asaph, or it may be a sign that theses Psalms are to be sung by the Asaphites, a group of singers within the Temple. In 1 Chronicles 6.39 Asaph is named as one of the two men David placed in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord and he is mentioned again in the time Solomon’s temple was dedicated at 2 Chronicles 5.12 where he is the first named of the Levitical singers.
The Psalm opens with a Call on Yahweh (vs 1). Vss 2-4 describe the conspiracy of the enemies which is clearly directed at your people (vs 3) Israel (vs 4)
Vss 5-8 name the various tribal enemies. Most of these enemies are local peoples of Canaan and the surrounding districts but vs 8 includes the regional superpower Assyria. Over the years many different ‘contexts’ have been attributed by scholars seeking to locate the precise historical circumstances in which such a precise alliance of forces rose against Israel. Can one assume a single context at all? Is this Psalm a plea for Yahweh’s help that embodies all the threats and invasions and wars that Israel had known over her history?
Vss 9-18 are petitions for God to act in defence of Israel by striking down their enemies. Vss 9-12 are quote strong and name specific peoples. The lectionary has (with some delicacy) removed vss 5-12!
There has been criticism of the ‘piety’ of this psalm because of the ‘wishes of malediction and vengeance’ in these verses (9-18). They are the prayers of a people under threat, a ‘model’ for many nations when we are threatened by alien powers. We should not be too judgmental: in times of great war when our nation has been threatened (as in the dark days of WW 2 when Japan marched like a whirlwind through Asia) many pulpits in this country would have echoed these prayers. Particularly powerful and jarring is the prayer that God might deal with them as fire consumes the forest, / as the flame sets the mountains ablaze (vs 14). Vs 15 appears to introduce the metaphor of a firestorm, as the image of the bushfire merges with that of the tempest and hurricane! Those who have lived through the summer of fire in 2019-20 in Australian might be reluctant to pray such terror on anyone, even our enemies!
Vss 16-17 focus on the infliction of shame on the enemies. Vs 18 strikes a less strident and vengeful tone with the prayer that the enemies may come to know the might of the Lord.
Exodus 4.10-31: Moses’ reluctant response to God (‘but suppose…’ (Exodus 4.1) now moves into its climax. Moses objects to his commission a second time (vs 10) to be met with God’s assurance of support (vss 11-12). A third time, Moses objects with the simple, elemental plea, “O my Lord, please send someone else” (vs 13).
Then the anger of the Lord was kindled… (vs 14) and the commission is altered to include Aaron, Moses’ brother (vss 14b-16).
Vss 18-20 tell of Moses leaving Midian. Vss 21-23 prefigure the eventual narrative of chapters 11-12.
Vss 24-26 are a strange and mysterious fragment. Commentator Brevard Childs writes, “Few texts contain more problems for the interpreter than these few verses which have continued to baffle throughout the centuries. The difficulties cover the entire spectrum of possible problems. … the passage seems to have little connection with its larger context. Why should Yahweh suddenly seek to kill his messenger? … the reaction of Zipporah is without explanation. How did she know what to do? .. how is it related to … circumcision? … how is one to account for the irrational, almost demonic atmosphere of the passage in which blood seems to play an apotropaic [having the capacity to avert evil influences or bad luck] role.” (Brevard Childs, Exodus, SCM Press, 1974: pp 95-96).
These verses tell of a mysterious encounter between God and the family of Moses. Some have interpreted it as a story related to the origins of circumcision. However, the origins of circumcision as a sign of the Covenant are explored in Genesis 17.9-14. Just two chapters before that, in Genesis 15, there is another passage introducing the covenant associated with dark and unusual rituals. In this passage (Genesis 15.7-21) there are some similarities to Ex 4.24-26: the man (Abram or Moses) is either asleep or passive; in Genesis 15 the Exodus is predicted by the Lord; the mysterious encounters happen at night; there is either terror and darkness for the man (Abram) or the intent of the Lord to kill him (Moses).
Rather than explaining the origins of circumcision, the story may reflect Moses’ failure to circumcise his son (perhaps because of his assimilation to Midianite culture) thus explaining Yahweh’s attack. Zipporah makes good Moses’ failure and saves the life of her husband. The exact significance of the words attributed to Zipporah (two separate sayings in vss 25b and 26b) probably reflect two different ‘layers of tradition’ that have struggled to understand and give meaning to this unusual story.
Vss 27-30 summarise the Lord’s word to Aaron, the meeting of Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, the beginning of their shared ministry (vss 29-30) and the response of the people (vs 31).
Revelation 3.1-6: The book of Revelation starts with an opening vision of Christ (Chapter 1.9-20 and then introduces seven ‘letters to the churches’ (2.1-3.22). Each letter starts with To the angel of the church in —– write: …. and the last four messages all end with Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. This week the Lectionary presents us with the letters to the churches in Sardis and Philadelphia.
Sardis lies in the western part of Turkey, close to the Aegean coast. The accusation against the church is given in vss 1b-2. The startling accusation is that while the church has a reputation of being a live church, it is actually dead. A repeated call to wake up (to yourselves?) follows in vss 2-3, with a reference to the early Christian theme of Christ coming like a thief in the night (vs 3b)
Then follows a reminder that there are a few who have been faithful (vs 4). Vs 5 presents the promise that will attend conversion and renewed devotion.
Tuesday, September 1, 2020: Psalm 83:1-4, 13-18; Exodus 5:1-6:13; Revelation 3:7-13
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Exodus 5.1-6.13 is a long passage. Here the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh is first joined and the basic lineaments of the struggle to come are outlined.
In vs 1 Moses and Aaron present their demand: Let my people go! The reason given is to worship in the wilderness – an ironic allusion to what will follow in the wilderness wanderings or a false reason to cover their escape? Their speech to Pharaoh is prefaced Thus says the Lord – words well known to us from the prophets but very rare in the Pentateuch. They only occur on the lips of Moses addressed to the Pharaoh.
The word of the Lord is met by Pharaoh’s disavowal of any knowledge of the Lord and his refusal to let Israel go (vs 2). Moses and Aaron then try a personal appeal (what God has said to us – vs 3) only to be personally rebuked and accused by Pharaoh (vs 4). A further reason for repressing Israel is then given (vs 5) and Pharaoh dictates a policy that is then implemented through the hierarchy of Egyptian power (vss 6-14).
When the Israelite foremen complained to Pharaoh (vss 15-16) the policy is re-affirmed (vss 17-18) and the effect of the repression is to drive a wedge between the foremen and the new Israelite ‘prophetic’ leadership of Moses and Aaron (vss 20-23).
The Lord then responds with a recommissioning of Moses (6.1-8) but this is rejected by the people (vs 9). Again, the Lord commands Moses to go to Pharaoh (vss 10-11) but Moses refuses, neatly expressing how he is caught between the people of Israel and the Pharaoh of Egypt, neither of whom will listen to him. Vs 13 summarises the state of play, an apparent stalemate of practical action overshadowed by a call to, and vision of, freedom.
Revelation 3.7-13: Philadelphia was a small city that lay about 25 miles southeast of Sardis. The church was not strong (vs 8b) but this letter contains no rebuke, only encouragement. The church was in conflict with the local Jewish community (vs 9) and in opening the writer claims for the Risen Jesus the ‘power of the keys’ to open and shut (vs 7, repeated in vs 8). There is a promise that, because they have been faithful and endured, they will be spared the coming trial (vs 10).
Vss 11-12 promise that the Lord is coming soon and urges them to be steadfast. Vs 12 looks forward to the coming of the new Jerusalem in terms very similar to chapter 21. Two signs of ‘ownership’ and approval are promised – that the one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God (for the recognition of leaders as ‘pillars’ see Gal 2.9) and I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God. The revelation of that name is part of the unfolding drama of God’s final victory (see Revelation 19.11-16).
Wednesday, September 2, 2020: Psalm 83:1-4, 13-18; Exodus 7:14-25; Matthew 12:22-32
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Exodus 7.14-18: It is rare that one has opportunity to prepare study notes so perfectly suited to the contemporary context. As Melbourne lies under Stage 4 lockdown regulations because of a disease pandemic, and all drinking water must be boiled because of storm-damage to the water supply, the Lectionary delivers us the first of the plagues of Exodus – the undrinkable water of the Nile!
In the plague traditions we find a variety of sources that have been edited together. This composite nature of the narrative can be seen in some slight irregularities of plot. In this passage we see an inconsistency in whether it is Moses (vs 17) or Aaron (vs 19) who did the staff-wielding. Vs 20 harmonises this with Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he [who? Moses? Aaron?] lifted up the staff … This should not make us sceptical of the reliability of the text but reinforce how important these narratives were to Israel and how they were transmitted in different versions.
There is scholarly debate as to just how and why these narratives were shaped and why they were so important to Israel. Pharaoh emerges with his own distinctive personality and will. His obstinacy and repeated ‘failure to learn’ of the power of the Lord is developed at length. One fruitful suggestion as to how these stories were remembered and transmitted sees them belonging to those who treasured and embodied the conflicts between prophet and king that characterised much of Israel’s later history. In Moses we have the archetype of the prophet, and in Pharaoh the archetypal king. In the various bands known as a ‘school (or company) of prophets’, these stories may have circulated, been remembered and venerated.
In modern context, this struggle is not so much between organised religion and the powers that be, but between the press and political power. All of this is changing rapidly in an age of internet and social media – where once there may have been a struggle between the voice of morality (vested either in the prophet or the press) and the voice of power (political leaders), there now appears to be a three-cornered struggle between i) traditional media platforms, ii) tech platforms and social media and, iii) politicians.
What is fascinating in our time is how the very narratives of plague are still the focus of disputed interpretation. Anti-mask groups, anti-vaxers, medical authorities and health officials and politicians of various outlooks are all trying to shape our views of the current plague, and what its trajectory will be. It is helpful to consider what the faithful prophetic voice (in Biblical terms) would say in the current social context.
In terms of yesterday’s Exodus reading, we might see Moses as the true prophetic voice, caught between the power of the king (Pharaoh / politicians / governments) and the muttering and disbelief of the people (Twitter / QAnon/ anti-vax voices / Facebook).
Matthew 12.22-32 is a passage that first appears in the Christian tradition in Mark 3.19b-30. It is also paralleled in Luke 11.14-23. A full reflection on this key passage across the three Synoptic gospels is beyond the scope of these notes. Again, it is a story anchored in the controversy between Jesus and his detractors (in this instance, the Pharisees (vs 24)).
The key to this passage is vs 29: to the accusation that It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons (vs 24) Jesus uses the metaphor of robbing a strong man’s house: you can only rob his of his possessions (i.e. cast out demons) if you have first defeated him (vs 29).
Vss 31-32 have perhaps caused more anguish and guilt among Christians who have felt that they may have spoken against the Holy Spirit (vss 31-32) and thus earned unending and unforgivable condemnation. We need to think on these verses carefully as there is no doubt that Jesus’ charge is a very serious one. My own view is that Jesus is speaking of the fundamental misnaming of the work of the Holy Spirit as something demonic or destructive. For that reason I am very reluctant to use the language of the demonic realm – even though I think such forces are real and need to be engaged.
Thursday, September 3, 2020: Psalm 149; Exodus 9:1-7; 2 Corinthians 12:11-21
Psalm 149 is an unusual Psalm. It opens with an exhortation to sing to the Lord a new song, and offer praise in the assembly of the faithful (vs 1), sentiments reinforced in vs 2. It seems to be a straightforward call to worship the Lord and a praise song. The setting would appear to be the assembly for worship – confirmed by the mention of dance and music in vs 3.
However, in vss 4-5 the tone changes slightly with the description he adorns the humble with victory (vs 4) and the rather puzzling Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches (vs 5). Some scholars have emended this live to let them sing for joy according to their generations (which would align in parallelism with vs 4).
Vs 6 however introduces a startling note, hardly consistent with worship: Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands. Vss 7-8 make it clear that vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples and binding kings with fetters / and their nobles with chains of iron is the work of this praising throng.
Vs 9 exults that the faithful execute on them the judgment decreed. / This is glory for all his faithful ones. The context would appear to be that of holy war – of a spiritually ordained act of war by the host of Israel against some identified enemy.
Many Christians today would struggle to see this as appropriate to Christian worship. However, we should be honest enough to acknowledge that we worship in a society that is protected by treaties with nuclear-armed allies, and that our society has been shaped by the deployment of many double-edged weapons over two centuries of struggle with the less-empowered indigenous nations of this continent. We don’t wave the battle-axe in our hands as the praise of God fills our throats – but is that just because we are not as honest as our Israelite ancestors?
Exodus 9.1-7: For those who believe in the Chinese virus, this passage might be encouraging. The Lord made a distinction between Israel and Egypt so that none of Israel’s livestock died. The text does not tell us, but I wonder if the Egyptians called it the Israelite pestilence (vs 3)? Here we have a narrative that records that the impacts of the plague were felt along the lines of race and political identity.
Lest we think this is related to a far-off situation in the mists of antiquity, there is evidence that some social and ethnic groups are disproportionately impacted by the current pandemic. We should also remember the impacts of disease on indigenous communities after European settlement of Australia. Beyond the impact of ‘natural’ infection there is also evidence of some instances of infected blankets being used as a weapon to destroy indigenous people. It is to be celebrated that governments and citizens in the current plague have been very careful to protect Australian indigenous communities.
In more recent history, despite the banning of biological weapons, there is evidence that in the second half of the 20th century there were attempts to develop biological weapons (diseases) that were genetically targeted so that only some racial groups would be affected. (Hint: the aim was that white people would not contract such diseases.) Despite years of research it proved hard to achieve (apparently our common biological humanity gets in the way) and was abandoned. As you can imagine, details of this research are not readily available, but the Monash Bio-Ethics Review ran some articles on it in the 1990’s.
2 Corinthians 12.11-21 The second letter of Paul to the Corinthians is a rather tortured text – and that mood is revealed in this passage. It is fraught with tension between Paul and his readers. Some estrangement had arisen between them, and 2 Corinthians as a whole is Paul’s appeal to them for reconciliation and for the renewal of his authority to teach them. He rehearses some of the accusations that have been made against him – of having been a burden (vss 13, 14, 16), of being ‘tricky’ (vs 16) and exploitative (vs 17-18). He mixes endearments and warmth (vs 16b) with irony (vs 16) and sarcasm (vs 13b).
Vss 19 disavows any attempt to defend himself and declares his honest intentions. In vss 20-21 he expresses his fears for what he will find when he visits them and echoes some of the moral failings he had already found necessary to address in his first letter – see I Corinthians chapters 5 through 8.
This passage is a helpful reminder than relations between Christian leaders and those they seek to lead are not always smooth and harmonious. Conflict, misunderstanding and disagreement can sometimes mark the territory and need to be engaged with candour, courage and love.
Friday, September 4, 2020: Psalm 149; Exodus 10:21-29; Romans 10:14-21
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Exodus 10.21-29: When the Lectionary readings were chosen the world hadn’t yet heard of Covid-19. I wondered whether the compilers were particularly prescient and knew what was ahead, and decided to spare us six of the ten plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, boils, thunder and hail, locusts) and give us only four: water into blood (Wednesday), dead livestock (yesterday), darkness (today), and the plague on the firstborn (tomorrow).
This is an unusual plague – simply darkness! Nothing is harmed, and there is no physical interruption to the life of Egypt through damage. Some interpreters have found the darkness that can be felt (vs 21) anti-climactic, even comic, after the terrifying plagues preceding it. Others have stressed the unique terror that such darkness for three days imposed.
It forms the backdrop for the final negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh makes an offer but includes a limit – the flocks and herds presumably being kept as a guarantee that the Israelites would return after their worship (vs 24). But Moses holds a hard line (vss 25-26) leading to a breakdown in the discussions (vs 27). Pharaoh’s final threat (vs 28) is accepted by Moses as an ironic judgment on Pharaoh: “Just as you say, I won’t see you again. I’ll be gone!” (vs 29).
(The notes below are drawn from our previous consideration of this passage on 5th August.)
Romans 10.14-21 explores just why Israel has failed to respond to the gospel. Paul is rehearsing (and dismissing!) possible excuses for Israel’s continuing lack of faith. He opens (vss 14-15) with a five-layered model of mission that works ‘backward’ from the final result to call on God. To reverse the order given so that the missional process is expressed in its temporal, causal structure we find sending🡪 preaching 🡪 hearing 🡪believing🡪calling. The first two of these are the actions of God, the last three are the actions that must be followed through if people are to respond. Paul takes it as read that God has played God’s part with the first two. But what of the other three, the steps for which humans must accept responsibility?
Vs 16 declares that not all have obeyed the good news (‘the calling on God’ that marks response) with a confirming quotation from Isaiah 53.1.
Vs 17 names the two steps where Israel might be able to find an excuse for their failure to respond: they must have had opportunity to believe (have faith), and that means they must have had an opportunity to hear. Vss 18-19 deals with each of these possibilities in turn.
Have they not heard? asks vs 18. The answer – No! – is supported by a quote from Psalm 19.4, originally describing the movements of the heavenly bodies, but used by Paul as a description of the early preachers of Jesus spreading out from Jerusalem through all the world.
Did Israel not understand? (i.e. have faith) asks vs 19: have they acted in ignorance? Paul quotes from the Greek version of Deuteronomy 32.21. By stressing the authorship of Moses, Paul anchors this statement in the headwaters of Jewish history and the work of one of their foundational figures. Further, Paul makes the reference more pointed and direct by changing the original text I will make them jealous… to I will make you jealous… The rather puzzling mention of jealousy of those who are not a nation, with a foolish nation makes the implied point that Israel has been even more foolish, that any lack of understanding has been her own fault. This rather neatly prefigures Paul’s argument in chapter 11 of how jealously and ‘stumbling’ have been used by God to the mutual encouragement of both Jewish and Gentile communities.
Vss 20-21 bring two further quotations from Isaiah 65.1-2, the first describing the situation of the Gentiles and the second the situation of Israel.
Saturday, September 5, 2020: Psalm 149; Exodus 11:1-10; Matthew 23:29-36
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Exodus 11.1-10 brings the cycle of plagues to its climactic, grizzly conclusion. Again, the targeting of the plague to affect only the Egyptians is highlighted with the haunting image of widespread wailing in Egypt, but among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal (vs 7).
The reason for the asking of silver and gold from your Egyptian neighbours, is not given until 12.36. This chapter is a link passage, bringing the plague narrative to its conclusion but also foreshadowing both the institution of the Passover and the plundering of the Egyptians (both in chapter 12).
The whole cycle of the plague narratives presents some interesting challenges. In the battle between the Lord and Pharaoh it almost seems as if the adversaries are evenly balanced (it did take ten disasters after all!) The narrative stresses however that the Lord was hardening Pharaoh’s heart, almost as if to extend the theatrical element of the contest. This is emphasised as a kind of theological coda to the whole plague cycle in vss 9-10.
It raises important questions about Christian attitudes to emergencies and disasters. I well remember an essay question from my undergraduate theology classes: Discuss the ethics of praying for rain. By the time I had finished researching, reflecting and writing I had a much more balanced grasp of the scientific, ethical and pastoral implications of such a prayer. It has been fascinating to read the reflections of Christian leaders (or their surviving family members!) who have been naively certain the Lord would protect them from Covid-19 infection in the current pandemic – possibly encouraged by passages such Exodus 11 – only to then contract the disease.
One of my questions is whether our attitude to plague and pestilence (fearfulness, resistance, anxiety, suspicion, on the one hand; or calmness, confidence, trust and hope, on the other) actually feeds into our experience and outcomes with regard to living through, and coping with, the pandemic.
What is coming much clearer to us is just how much Biblical material there is regarding the reality and experience of plagues and disease, not only here in Exodus, but in some of the prophetic narratives, in the history of Israel (eg. 2 Kings 7) in the apocalyptic tradition (Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation) and not least in the healing ministry of Jesus (of disease, rather than plague). If we want some indication of how different our experience is to those who lived only 150 years ago, review the children’s hymns in any collection of traditional Christian hymns from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In most collections around 80% of children’s hymns have a verse about dying – because infant mortality was so much a part of many families’ experience at that time.
We have lived in a very privileged age that has known the miraculous benefits of anaesthesia, antibiotics, vaccines, organ transplants, and gene therapy. Of these, the last four have been with us for less than a century. What we are experiencing now in the pandemic is actually closer to ‘the normal’ of human experience. As we face a rising tide of anti-biotic resistance in micro-organisms and increasing disruption to the biosphere through climate change, and a pandemic that may be with us for years, part of the long-term outcome may yet be an altered sense of our own physical/medical vulnerability and a very different sense of our mortality. We may come back to all these Biblical resources about plague and pestilence with different questions and needs and whole new solutions to the spiritual and human challenges of these difficult realities!
Matthew 23.29-36 has a parallel in Lk 11.47-51. The origins of this passage lie in a sayings source that circulated in the early traditions of the Christian communities. The Lukan version lies closer to the original tradition.
In vss 29-32 Matthew outlines the dynamic of the teachers of the law and Pharisees (vs 29) who today venerate and revere the prophets of yesterday – whose words have become today’s orthodoxy. They proudly say “if we had been around then we would never have persecuted them!” even as they complete what your ancestors started (vs 32) by persecuting the prophets and sages and teachers that have been sent to this age (vs 34).
As I look at the contest between truth and error that is so much a part of contemporary life, I find these words of Jesus ever more relevant to our context. Who were all these protagonists (teachers of the law / Pharisees on the one hand; and prophets / sages / teachers on the other) in Jesus’ day, and who are they in our day? While the battle may have been between the synagogues and the early church communities in the time Matthew and Luke wrote, in our day it is far more likely to be between figures within the church across the broad spectrum of faith, and between Christians in the prophetic tradition and the intellectuals and ‘-isms’ of our day. If Jesus came back today, who would find themselves on the sharp end of his tongue? Would I be numbered among the contemporary Pharisees?
In my view, one of the failings of modern Christians (and for this the Baptist view of liberty of conscience bears some responsibility) is that we do not call out the silliness, moral turpitude or glib prudery that we see in various Christians around us. I am firmly committed to freedom of conscience, but it shouldn’t stop us saying “You have a right to believe and propagate what you believe, but I think it is simply wrong – and here are my reasons…”
As so-called ‘cancel culture’ and political correctness are protested by those who hold deeply objectional views, we have a responsibility to hear those views, even as we name the snakes and broods of vipers that hold them. Having a right to your opinion, does not make your opinion right!