Friday, September 9

Judges 4: The story of Deborah is chiefly preoccupied with two themes: soteriology and the moral life.

First, soteriology. The Deborah story is mainly an account of God’s deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies (“And the LORD routed Sisera”—Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of God’s deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of God’s repeated deliverance of His people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.

With regard to the theme of the moral life, on the other hand, one readily admits that this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all!

In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between Deborah and the timid Barak.

Thus, St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. Jerome went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged Apostles.

Luke 6:20-26: Luke’s list of the dominical Beatitudes is marked by the way they are contrasted to a list of “woes.” This style is very common in Luke, whose message is so often conveyed through contrast: the two thieves on Calvary, the rich man and Lazarus, the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple, the Good Samaritan and Israel’s two priestly leaders, the two servants who await their master’s return, the two sons, and so forth.

Saturday, September 10

Luke 6:27-36: During the heyday of Deism, some Christians went to great lengths to demonstrate that the moral requirements of their faith were rational. According to this line of thought, Christ our Lord gave us moral commandments that have a solid foundation in reason, so that, in keeping his commandments, we are behaving rationally.

This line of thinking breaks down completely, however, in the dominical mandate to love our enemies. No amount of moral reasoning would ever have led us to such a conclusion. This command to love our enemies is based entirely on the authority of the person who gave it to us. Forgiveness of offenses and love of enemies makes absolutely no sense apart from him. That is to say, in commanding forgiveness of offenses and love of enemies, Jesus is not teaching a universal moral truth—something true apart from Jesus himself.

It is imperative to consider this matter seriously. Otherwise, there is the distinct temptation to employ forgiveness and love as political devices. Although forgiveness and love of one’s enemies may, in fact, turn out to be useful political tactics, political advantage is not why we love and forgive.

That is to say, it may happen that the man who slaps me on one cheek will be converted when I turn the other cheek, but this is not the reason I turn the other cheek. I do not turn the other cheek in order to score a political point.

If the person who slaps me is brought to repentance by my turning the other cheek, then God be praised. However, we are to love our enemies and forgive the undeserving even when there is not the slightest chance of their conversion. We must do this for one reason only—to be like Jesus, to be transformed in Christ.

If we want to know what forgiveness and love of enemies looks like, we must gaze at the Cross and listen to Jesus pray to his Father for the forgiveness of his murderers. In doing this, Jesus did exactly what he saw the Father do. Jesus loved and forgave the undeserving because he thereby revealed the Father who is rab-chesed, “rich in mercy.”

Sunday, September 11

Judges 6: By his overthrow of the powerful Canaanite kings, Barak had removed a formidable military presence which prevented various tribes of Bedouin nomads, notably the Midianites and their confederates, from ravaging the cultivated fields, orchards, vineyards, and granaries of the Promised Land. Now, with the elimination of that impediment, those marauders could ride in on their camels and pillage the countryside at will.

Fearsome and unscrupulous predators, the Midianites were also cunning, for they habitually scheduled their invasions at harvest times, causing economic disaster, even famine, among the Israelites (cf. Ruth 1:1). Judges 6 describes how the Lord raised up Gideon as a champion to meet this crisis.

Gideon’s task, however, would be more than merely political and military, because the crisis itself was more than political and military. In the Bible’s analysis, the theological root of the problem was Israel’s infidelity to the Covenant of Mount Sinai. Beyond the political aspects of their plight, it was clear to Gideon that God was punishing the Israelites for their involvement in the worship of Canaanite gods, whose chief was Baal. Indeed, Gideon’s own father was a worshipper of Baal. The success of Gideon’s mission would depend, therefore, on his first addressing that theological root of the difficulty.

He did so at once, taking ten men to assist him in the overthrow of the Baal shrine maintained by his father. From that point on, events began to unroll pretty rapidly, for a large invasion force of Midianites and others suddenly arrived from the east, crossed the Jordan River, and camped in the fertile valley of Jezreel. Probably impressed by the sheer boldness of Gideon, manifest in his attack on the worship of Baal, his countrymen spontaneously accepted his leadership to meet the impending attack.

It was clear to everyone, anyway, that Gideon was in charge of the situation, for the Spirit of the Lord took decisive hold of him (Judges 6:34). The Hebrew verb used to describe this transformation is especially striking, for it literally says that the Spirit “clothed itself” (labshah) with Gideon. This expression, sometimes used for the putting on of armor, indicates that Gideon would serve as the instrument of God’s Spirit in the events to come.

The transformation of Gideon was evident to all. Whereas fear had prompted him to use the cover of night in destroying Baal’s shrine (6:27), Gideon now began to act with open, executive boldness, sending out messengers to the other Israelites to seek their assistance in the impending battle.

Next, there was a consultation of the Lord by means of “putting out a fleece” (6:36–40). The purpose of this experiment was to determine whether Gideon’s resolve was truly of God, and not simply a human impulse for glory and vengeance. Just as Israel’s crisis was radically spiritual, its resolution would have to be radically spiritual, so Gideon wanted to be quite certain that the new strength he felt was truly of the Holy Spirit, and not just a burst of what we today call adrenaline. It is most important not to confuse the flesh and the Spirit, especially during a crisis.

Monday September 12

Judges 7: This chapter records the curious exercise by which, at the Lord’s bidding, Gideon reduced the size of his gathered army. Indeed, the reduction was of ridiculous proportions—from thirty-two thousand to three hundred (7:1–8)! If this victory was to be truly of God, it was important that no human being could take credit for it, because the Spirit of God is not to be identified with any human force or fleshly impulse.

There follows the account of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites by the singularly improbable means of the breaking of jars and the blowing of trumpets (7:15–23). This latter action is, of course, reminiscent of Joshua’s overthrow of the walls of Jericho and conveys the identical message; namely, that God, alone victorious over His enemies, alone deserves the praise—a truth to which Gideon himself bore witness by his subsequent refusal to become king (8:22–23). This was a lesson God’s humbled people needed to learn, and their defeat of the Midianites would be in vain if they did not learn it.

Hosea 6:1-11: Hosea calls for a “return.” In the context of his whole message, he has in mind Israel’s desert years, which he thinks of as a sort of honeymoon, following the Lord’s espousals with the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

Hosea hoped for a renewal of that time, a sort of second honeymoon: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, / Will bring her into the wilderness, / And speak comfort to her. / I will give her her vineyards from there, / And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; / She shall sing there, / As in the days of her youth, / As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15).

Hosea knew perfectly well, of course, that “with most of them God was not well pleased, for they were scattered in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Nonetheless, this prophet chose not to dwell on those sad thoughts. He deliberately turned his attention to the brighter and happier days, prior to the incident of the Golden Calf. To maintain the Lord’s marriage to His people, he knew, it was important to remember the good times and try not to dwell on the bad.

One suspects that Hosea’s decision in this matter was determined by the circumstances of his own vocation. Like the Lord of the Exodus, Hosea, too, had married a whore, a loose woman who would prove consistently unfaithful. Rather than dwell on those many infidelities, however, the prophet determined to fix his mind on the happier days, when the Lord commanded him, not only to marry that woman (1:2), but also to love her (3:1). Like the Lord with unfaithful Israel, Hosea kept those better times in mind, no matter how short they were.

Tuesday, September 13

Luke 7:1-16: As an account of a person beseeching the Lord on behalf of someone else, this story resembles other stories in the Gospels, such as Jairus and the Syro-Phoenician woman praying for their daughters (Mark 5:23; 7:24–30), another man and a centurion pleading for their sons (9:17; John 4:46–53), Martha and Mary of Bethany interceding for their brother (11:3). These are all accounts of petitionary prayer on behalf of loved ones.

Such stories surely had a great influence on the patterns of Christian intercessory prayer. We note, for instance, that the petitions in these accounts are addressed to Jesus. Although in Jesus’ specific teaching about prayer, the normal emphasis was on prayer addressed to the heavenly Father (Luke 11:2) in Jesus’ name (John 15:16), the perspective is different in these particular Gospel stories. One of their singular values is that they unambiguously answer a practical question that might arise among Christians; namely, “If one of your loved ones gets sick, is there some special Trinitarian protocol to follow, or is it all right just to take the problem right to Jesus?”

However, the idea of taking one’s problems “right to Jesus” is surely not to be understood in the sense of forgoing the mediating prayer of others. It is not as though the unique mediation of Jesus our Lord (1 Timothy 2:5) excludes certain saints from mediating on behalf of other saints, and these various Gospel stories are the proof of it. In fact, it is the entire point and the whole business of the foregoing stories to validate such mediation. This is called intercessory prayer.

To see how this works out, let us regard the story of the centurion pleading on behalf of his servant, as Luke tells it:

First, the centurion himself does not approach Jesus directly. He sends some friends who will speak for him. Now this is interesting, because it introduces a second level of mediation. The friends are interceding for the centurion, who is in turn interceding for his servant. We have here the beginnings of a prayer chain, as it were.

Then, when Jesus starts moving towards the centurion’s home, the latter dispatches another group of friends, who will speak the famous words that characterize this story: “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6). It is surely significant that the centurion does not speak these words, deeply personal as they are, to Jesus directly. Others say them to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. In Luke’s version of the story, in fact, there is no face-to-face encounter of the centurion with Jesus at all. The centurion’s faith is conveyed by those he chooses to intercede for him.

Wednesday, September 14

Numbers 21:4-9: The second part of this chapter (verses 4-9) begins when the Israelites move further east and south to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites. Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the Brazen Serpent (verses 5-9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word Seraphim, by the way) serpents are so called by the effects of their bite, whether a fever or a painful inflammation.

It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period!

In due course, King Hezekiah was obliged to destroy this copper image, because the Israelites of the 8th century had started to treat it like an idol (2 Kings 18:4).

The true significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained in two later biblical passages.

The first is Wisdom 16:5-1:

For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these, they were destroyed with the biting of crooked serpents. But thy wrath endured not for ever, but they were troubled for a short time for their correction, having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned to it, was not healed by that which he saw, but by thee the Savior of all.

The great irony of the serpent is this: The serpent was our tempter. The serpent, then, symbolizes man’s fall. God, as the “Savior of all,” assumes an image associated with sin itself. The brazen serpent, then, became a type or prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God’s Son assumed the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to redeem us. The Jews, then, in looking at the serpent in faith, were in fact, looking forward to Christ, who was symbolized in that image.

The second text is John 3:14-16, our Gospel reading for today.

The expression “be lifted up,” used by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus, is repeated halfway through John’s Gospel, again with reference to the Crucifixion: “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (12:32–33).

In addition to being a reference to the Crucifixion, the expression “lifted up” also alludes to a prophecy of God’s Suffering Servant: “Behold, My Servant will prosper; He shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly” (Isaiah 52:13, LXX). As this text makes clear, the Lord’s lifting up refers not only to His crucifixion but also to His exaltation in glory.

Thursday, September 15

Psalm 74 (Greek and Latin 73): Asaph the Seer, as he contemplates the works of Creation, perceives both conflict and covenant. In the poem that he devotes to this double consideration, he moves back and forth between these two themes, but my analysis of the poem is better served, I believe, by taking them in sequence. I propose to start where Asaph starts: with conflict. The current state of Creation, Asaph perceives, is a constant fight against chaos. He begins his meditation, then, by wondering out loud whether God has cast off—in anger and forever—the sheep of His pasture. The poet returns to this theme repeatedly, distressed that those who hate God are glorified. He is bewildered that the sanctuary is destroyed, and he is scandalized that blasphemy walks the earth unchecked. Chaos prevails without reprieve, with neither sign nor prophet to contradict it. What can the just man do but lament and pray for deliverance? As he laments, however, Asaph reflects that the very act of Creation was a deed of deliverance. Making things from nothing, the Lord did battle.

Nothingness was not neutral. Existence is not natural to nothingness. The creating God, therefore, conquered a force perverse to His purpose. Centuries before parting the Red Sea, He divided the more primitive waters, cleaving the fountains and the flood, cracking open the multiple heads of the sea monster in order to feed, with their meat, the peoples of Ethiopia. Creation, that is to say, was the initial Exodus, a deliverance from bondage, a redemption from the deep dungeon of non-being. The Lord smote that more ancient Pharaoh and fed him to His hungry creatures. Creation, then, was a both moral and metaphysical act. The Lord imposed a moral order in the very act of conferring a metaphysical form. When the Lord took hold on the tohu wabohu and invoked His light over the darkness of the abyss, He wrought salvation in the midst of the earth. He did this in the sense that in the very heart of Creation, its arche or principle, there is a deed of redemption, the world's deliverance from the oppression of primeval chaos. Consequently, it is to that very ancient deliverance that Asaph appeals when He prays God to rise once more in vindication of His cause against the wicked and the daily blasphemer. In making this prayer, the poet explicitly invokes a covenant implicit in the act of Creation. Respice in testamentum Tuum, he pleads, "Look upon Your covenant." He means the covenant which man, when he entered the world on Creation's sixth day, found already in place.

This covenant's preamble had been composed on the second day, when the Lord, with a firmament, divided the waters. The first article of the covenant was composed on the third day when the dry land appeared and began to grow food for those who were to live upon it. This covenant of Creation, necessary for all the subsequent covenants of salvation history, was formulated for the sake of man. It gave initial shape to the congregation that God possessed from of old, the rod of the inheritance that He redeemed, even as He dried up the rivers of Ethan and destroyed the demon of the deep. By reason of this covenant, Asaph reflects, God is our king before the ages. On the fourth day, the Lord inscribed into His covenant the possibility of history, by placing a chronometer into the composition of the universe: "Yours is the day, and Yours the night. You have crafted—Tu fabricatus es—the dawn and the sun." This chronological shape of existence, too, was intended for the sake of man, the only creature able to reflect on the measure and meaning of time. In the covenant of Creation, then, God formed both space and time, consecrating the first by His sanctuary and the second by the liturgical calendar. Of all the evils lamented by Asaph, therefore, the worst are the desecrations of sacred space and sacred time. God's enemies destroyed the first with ax and fire, the second by the suppression of feast days. Man becomes the Lord's enemy in the space dedicated for worship and glorifies himself in the sacred time set aside to glorify God. Both space and time are thus defiled. Rebellious man, by this desecration of his life, returns Creation to the primeval chaos. Living outside the covenant inherent in the structure of the world, he endeavors to undo what God has done.

Friday, September 16

Judges 11: By way of preparing us for the establishment of Israel’s monarchy near the end of the eleventh century BC, the Book of Judges ends with a discouraging analysis of the moral climate of the period prior to that of the kings: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Since the identical words appear earlier, at the beginning of the account of Micah and the Danites (17:6), we are likely correct in thinking that this melancholy assessment pertains especially to the wild and, frankly, disedifying stories that lie between those two verses: the migration of the Danites and their kidnapping of Micah, the gory account of Gibeah and the Levite’s concubine, Israel’s war with Benjamin, and the abduction of the virgins of Jabesh Gilead.

Earlier accounts in the Book of Judges, however, also indicate a considerable lack of moral direction throughout Israel during that early period. The stories of Jephthah come to mind. Did the Bible not explicitly tell us that “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), some of us might really wonder. Even so, quite a number of students of Holy Scripture, over the years, must have shaken their heads in bewilderment at the behavior of Jephthah.

Most conspicuous in this respect, surely, is the story of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter (11:29–40). Although various commentators have endeavored to “explain away” the obvious meaning of this story, such explanations will not stand up to literary and historical scrutiny. However uncomfortable it makes us, Jephthah really did offer his daughter in sacrifice.

Other writers, perhaps taking their cue from the story of Herod Antipas and John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:22–29), have spoken of a “rash oath” on the part of Jephthah. Dante, for example, read the text this way (cf. Paradiso 5:64–68).

However, there is nothing in the account of Jephthah to suggest that the vow was incautious on his part, except in its unexpected result. It is portrayed, rather, as his deliberate pledge to sacrifice a precious human life, an oath that Jephthah apparently believed he would fulfill by sacrificing a slave or some other person less significant than his own daughter. The literal meaning of the narrative is very plain.

It is also conspicuous for its lack of moral comment, the author using a restraint markedly in contrast to other places where the Holy Scripture speaks of human sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Micah 6:7). Likewise, the tragedy of Jephthah and his daughter is told in the starkest terms, with emphasis on his own grief and on the daughter’s bravery in accepting her allotted fate and her compassion for the dereliction of her father. There is no doubt or hesitation in the mind of either of them.

Unlike the case of Abraham, God does not intervene to save the situation. Nor would Jephthah be long in following his daughter in death (Judges 12:7). A great sense of irony and doom hangs over this whole story, told as an unmitigated tragedy.

The oath of Jephthah, once he makes it, seems to carry an iron-like inevitability which, from a purely literary perspective, may put one in mind of the Greek tragedies. Indeed, readers have often remarked on the thematic similarity between the stories of Jephthah and Agamemnon, who also sacrificed a daughter in connection with a military operation. Dante (Paradiso 5:64–72), for instance, believed that the stories would always be remembered together.

Arguably more prominent, however, are the ways in which these two accounts stand in contrast. First, unlike Jephthah, Agamemnon is not struck by a misfortune unforeseen; his sacrifice of Iphigeneia is planned and very deliberate. Second, unlike the bloody details in Aeschylus’s portrayal of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, the Bible’s narrative is very sober and subdued; there is no direct mention of the sacrifice itself. Indeed, from a strictly dramatic (as distinct from theological) point of view, it may be argued that the sense of inevitable doom in the biblical story of Jephthah is even more “Greek” than the Greek tragedy.