Daily Readings for the 24th Week after Pentecost

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 pastor@boxhillbaptist.org.au 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,

Jim Barr

Monday, November 9, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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, 2020Psalm 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.

Daily Readings for the 23rd Week after Pentecost

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:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6S9M8LkWiUw&app=desktop  

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).

Readings for the 22nd Week after Pentecost

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).

Readings for the 21st Week after Pentecost

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).