Friday, January 11

The Tower of Babel: In spite of the national diversities outlined in the previous chapter, all mankind, up to this point, speaks a common tongue (verse 1).

The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (verse 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God that we have seen, starting in chapter 3.

God’s response is twofold. It is both a punishment against the rebels and a preventative measure against their becoming even worse. That is to say, even God’s punishment is an act of mercy.

In the more general symbolism of Holy Scripture, Babel also represents Babylon, the city of power and godless rebellion, which is overthrown definitively in the Book of Revelation. There is a symbolic identity, therefore, uniting the present story to the destruction of Babylon described in Revelation 17 and 18. This city represents any political and economic establishment characterized by arrogance and the love of power.

Its punishment by the division of tongues was especially appropriate. Saint Augustine of Hippo comments on this chapter:

As the tongue is the instrument of domination, in it pride was punished, so that man, who refused to understand God when He gave His commands, should also be misunderstood when he gave commands. Thus was dissolved their conspiracy, because each man withdrew from those who could not understand and banded with those whose speech he found intelligible. So the nations were divided according to their languages and scattered over the face of the earth, as seemed good to God, who accomplished this in hidden ways that we cannot understand (The City of God 16.4).

Saturday, January 12

The Call of Abraham: The genealogy of Shem’s descendents, at the end of Chapter Eleven, prepared us for this beginning of the story of Abram, whom we first find at the city of Ur, in the extreme southeast end of the Fertile Crescent. That genealogy also introduced other aspects of the later story. It told us, for instance, of the barrenness of Abram’s wife (11:30), which is a detail crucial to the later narrative. Likewise, it introduced Lot, Abram’s nephew, who will appear at significant points in the story later on. Similarly, it told of those relatives who were left behind; these, too, will be important in later aspects of the story.

The first migration goes from Ur up to Haran, at the very top and center of the Fertile Crescent (11:31), and from there Abram’s company proceeds to migrate south and west (verses 5,9). Passing through Canaan, also known in the Bible as Palestine (the Roman name for Philistina), Abram arrives in Egypt, the southwestern extremity of the Fertile Crescent. All of this migration is in obedience to God’s call (cf. Acts 7:1-5; Hebrews 11:8-10). Nor was Abram a young man at this point; he was already seventy-five years old (verse 4).

Abram’s brief sojourn in Egypt (verses 10-20) prefigures Israel’s later experience of that country. Thus, he is driven into Egypt by a famine in Canaan (verse 10), exactly as Israel will be in the final chapters of Genesis (41:57—42:2). In Egypt Abram encounters Pharaoh, king of Egypt, as Israel will do near the end of Genesis and at the beginning of Exodus. Indeed, one already observes Pharaoh to be a rapacious, threatening, high-handed man of arbitrary behavior, exactly as we will find the other Pharaoh encountered by Moses.

Similarly—and again like Moses—Abram will outsmart this Pharaoh in a trial of wit and cunning. Moreover, Pharaoh is visited with divine plagues (verse 17), as the other Pharaoh will be in the case of Moses (Exodus 3:19-20). Like Moses and the children of Israel later, Abram and his family depart from Egypt. When he does so, Abram leaves with the wealth of the Egyptians (verses 16,20), as Moses will do later (Exodus 3:21-22; 11:1-3; 12:35-36). One also notes that Abram and Moses were about the same age (75 and 80) at the time of their departure from Egypt.

All of these elements in Genesis 12 prefigure the Exodus story: the arrogance of Pharaoh, the Israelite leader outsmarting and overpowering the Egyptian, God’s intervention in sending plagues, the vindication of the Chosen People, the departure from Egypt, the enrichment of the Israelites with the wealth of the Egyptians. Thus, in just eleven verses of the present chapter, we have a sort of synoptic prefiguration of the last dozen chapters of Genesis and the first dozen chapters of Exodus. Moreover, the later Exodus of Moses will be foretold to Abram (Genesis 15:13-14; cf. Acts 7:5-7; Hebrews 11:8-10,13-16).

Sunday, January 13

Genesis 13: When Abram left Egypt, he and his family were very wealthy because of Pharaoh’s generosity to someone he was trying to gain as a brother-in-law! Now Abram and Lot find that the sheer size of their flocks requires them to live apart (verses 1-7). The story of their separation (verses 8-13) demonstrates Abram’s humility in giving his younger relative the choice of the land (verse 9), while he himself takes what is left. This humble action of Abram illustrates the meaning of the dominical saying that the meek shall inherit the earth. Abraham’s descendents, not Lot’s, will inherit all this land. In this story we discern the non-assertive quality of Abram’s faith. He is not only meek; he is also a peacemaker. Meekness and peacemaking are qualities of the man of faith.

Lot serves in this story as a kind of foil to Abram. The meek and peaceful Abram takes what is left, whereas Lot, obviously having failed to do a proper survey of the neighborhood, chooses to live in Sodom. This was to prove one of the worst real estate choices in history.

The present chapter closes with God’s solemn asseveration to Abram, promising him the land and the “seed” (verses 14-18). Unfortunately the rich ambivalence of this latter noun (zera‘ in Hebrew, sperma in Greek, semen in Latin) is lost in more recent translations that substitute the politically-correct but entirely prosaic “descendents” for “seed” (verses 15-16).

Besides Sodom, two other important Canaanite cities are introduced in this chapter, Bethel (still called Luz at this period — cf. 28:19) and Hebron. Both of these cities will be extremely important in subsequent biblical history, and Abram is credited with making each of them a place of worship (verses 4,18).

Hebrews 10:26-39: Here we find one of Holy Scripture’s most solemn declarations of judgment. Having exhorted his readers to boldness in their access to God (10:19-22), our author now describes the alternative in frightening terms.

In both instances—the exhortation to confidence and the warning of judgment—he uses the description “living, declaring that we have a new and living way,” and then reminding his readers, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” In both cases the modifier serves to put the reader on notice that these things are not matters of theory and abstraction. “Living,” in each of these contexts, indicates real, actual, existential. It means that both salvation and damnation are worthy of our most serious attention.

These verses depict the gravity of falling away from God. The author recalls that such falling away, even at the time of Moses, was dealt with in a radical manner—namely, those who rejected the rule of Moses were devoured with fiery indignation (verses 27-28). Our author, who has been at pains to emphasize the superiority of Jesus over Moses, argues here that this superiority implies a greater severity in those who fall away: “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be deemed worthy who has trampled underfoot the Son of God” (verse 29). He had earlier contrasted Moses and Jesus, calling the first God’s servant and the second God’s Son (3:5-6). Now, he asks, which of them is it more dangerous to abandon?

Monday, January 14

The Pagan High Priest: For someone distressed by what may seem an endless series of “begats” in the first chapters of the Bible, Melchizedek appears on the scene as a welcome relief, inasmuch as he arrives on the scene as though out of nowhere, “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life.”

The very brevity of his appearance in the biblical story—which forms but an instant in the narrative, and not an element of sequence—becomes a symbol of eternity, inasmuch as eternity is an unending “now,” an instant without sequence. Our experience of eternity in this world is always an instant—a “now”—not a sequence. Thus, the “now-ness” of Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood represents the eternal “today” of the sonship of Christ: “ You are My Son, / Today I have begotten You” (Psalm 2:7; Hebrews 5:5).

Genesis 14 tells us only five things about him:

First, Melchizedek was a king. “Salem,” the city of his kingship, was an old name for Jerusalem (Psalms 76 [75]:2). Indeed, the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, took Melchizedek to be the founder (ho protos ktisas) of the holy city (The Jewish War 6.438). Speculating on the etymology of Melchizedek’s name (melek-hassedeq), Josephus calls him a “righteous king” (basileus dikaios) (Antiquities 1.10.2).

Exploiting the resemblance of the name “Salem” to the Hebrew word for “peace,” shalom, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls Melchizedek “king of peace.” Like Josephus, he sees etymological symbolism in Melchizedek’s own name, calling him “king of righteousness” (basileus dikaiosynes) (7:2).

Second, Melchizedek was “the priest of God Most High.” In fact, he is the first man to whom Holy Scripture gives the title “priest” (kohen), and it is Melchizedek‘s priesthood that receives the greater attention in the Bible. For example, while the Book of Psalms speaks of the Messiah’s kingship as derived from David (Psalms 78 [77]:70; 89 [88]:3-4,20,39,45; 110 [109]:1-3), the Messiah’s priesthood is said to be “according to the order of Melchizedek” (110 [109]:4).

Melchizedek was “the first to serve as priest to God” (ierasato to Theo protos), Josephus wrote, and long before Solomon built a temple at Jerusalem, Melchizedek had already done so (to hieron protos deimamenos). Indeed, Josephus traces the very name of Jerusalem (in Greek Hierosolyma) to this “priest of Salem” (hierus Salem) (The Jewish War 6.438).

Following the lead of Psalm 110 (109), the author of Hebrews sees in the priesthood of Melchizedek the “order” (taxsis) of the definitive priesthood of Christ the Lord (5:6,10; 6:20; 7:17). The Bible’s very silence with respect to the death of that ancient priest of Salem is taken as a prefiguration of the “unchangeable priesthood” (7:24) of God’s Son, to whom Melchizedek was “made like” (7:3). The latter was a living prophecy of the definitive Priest who ‘has become the surety of a better covenant” (7:22).

Third, Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, just as Abraham’s children gave tithes to the Levitical priests (7:8-10). That detail argues for the superiority of the “order of Melchizedek” over the “order of Aaron” (7:11).

Fourth, Melchizedek blessed Abraham, saying: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (verses 19-20). This priestly blessing too indicates the superiority of the “order of Melchizedek,” inasmuch as “the lesser is blessed by the better” (Hebrews 7:7).

Fifth, Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine” (verse 18). His offering of bread and wine, moreover, was recognized as a priestly act; that is to say, Melchizedek did this precisely “because he was” a priest (as is clear in the Septuagint’s en de and the Vulgate’s erat enim). Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine, of course, was a type and prefiguration of what transpired that night when God’s priestly Son took the loaf of bread and the cup of wine into His holy and venerable hands and identified them as His Body and Blood.

Tuesday, January 15

A Covenant With Abram: This, the first of two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram, is arguably the more dramatic and colorful.

Here in Genesis 15 we also find two expressions appearing for the first time in Holy Scripture: (1) “the word of the Lord came to . . .” (verse 1), and (2) Abram “believed (’aman) in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (verse 6). That first expression will be especially prominent in the Bible’s prophetic literature, and the second, which introduces the theme of righteousness by faith in God’s promise, will dominate much of the New Testament, particularly the Pauline corpus. Indeed, St. Paul wrote the first commentary on this verse, Romans 4:1-5:

What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

At this point in the story, that is to say, Abram is not called upon to do anything. He is summoned simply to live by trust in God’s promising word. Eventually, of course, he will be called upon to do certain things, but the important point that St. Paul sees in this passage is that already, before he has done anything, Abram is called righteous. From this fact St. Paul argues that godly righteousness consists radically in that profound trust in God known in the Bible as faith. This faith is now explicitly spoken of for the first time in Holy Scripture. Hence, the importance of Genesis 15 for Christian theology. This is why Abraham is called “our father” in faith; his faith stands at the door of the history of salvation.

For St. Paul Abraham’s righteousness, prior to the works of the Mosaic covenant, became the point of departure for examining the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses, which was one of the most difficult and practical questions raised in New Testament times. For example, it was important to St. Paul that Abraham, at this point in the story, has not yet received the command to be circumcised (Romans 4:9-12); that command will not come until Chapter 17. That is to say, Abraham was declared righteous before circumcision.

Wednesday, January 16

Sarah’s Plan Backfires: Like the precedent referred to in 15:2-4, the “legal fiction” found here in verses 1-3 (and later on in the Jacob cycle) was never part of Israelite law, though both customs are well attested otherwise in Mesopotamian literature of the first half of the second millennium before Christ — that is, the very period under discussion. This fact is irrefutable evidence of the historicity of both of those narratives.

Hagar was one of the Egyptian slaves Pharaoh gave to Abram back in 12:16. The idea of Abram’s begetting children by this younger woman was Sarai’s, but when things backfire (verse 4) Sarai lays all the blame on Abram (verse 5)! The latter just shrugs his shoulders and tells his wife to handle the matter (verse 6).

The slave Hagar, being an Egyptian, heads south in her flight, though we know from another contemporary document, Hammurabi’s Code, that she endangered her life by running away. She travels the many miles from Hebron to Shur, southwest of Beersheba, which was a pretty good distance for a pregnant woman to walk, and there she encounters the “angel of the Lord” (malek Adonai), an expression that appears here for the first time in Holy Scripture (verse 7). The angel’s promise to Hagar (verses 10-12) stands parallel to the promises that Abram himself received in the Chapters 13 and 15. Although she herself is a slave, the angel tells Hagar that her son will not be.

It is a source of wonderment to this slave that she has been noticed by God (verse 13) in this story of God’s concern for the poor, the simple, and the persecuted. Hagar discovers her worth, when God’s sends His angel to care for her. God appears already as the champion of the downtrodden, as He will be especially portrayed in the Bible’s great social prophets.

What should be said about Abram’s taking of this slave girl as a sort of second wife? We observe that God did not tell him to do this; it was Sarai’s idea. The whole project, that is to say, was of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It is no great thing for a young woman to conceive and bear a child, but a great thing is what God had in mind to do. Sarai’s plan was a classic case of man interfering with the plans of God. This was simply a work of the flesh, as St. Paul observed in Galatians 4:21-25:

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.

In this story the Apostle to the Gentiles saw a prefiguration of the situation of the Jews and Christians with regard to Abraham. The Jews, he argued, were children of Abraham is a fleshly way, unlike Abraham’s spiritual paternity of Christians. Christians, not being slaves, are not children of Hagar, whereas the Jews, unfamiliar with freedom in Christ, are still slaves to the flesh and the Law. They are the children of Hagar!

Thursday, January 17

The Son of Laughter: Isaac is one of the most engaging figures in Holy Scripture, probably because he is the most associated with the exuberance of laughter. Isaac was named for laughter, in fact, because that name, formed from the verbal root shq, literally means “he will laugh.” It is ever a marvel and a grace, for sure, to hear a little infant laugh, and I confess, for my part, a preference for the view that babies, when they come to earth, bring along with them the laughter of the angels.

In the birth of Isaac, however, the circumstances attendant on his unexpected appearance in this world afforded an even ampler ground for mirth. No one felt this better than his mother, Sarah, who conceived him at the age of eighty-nine, and the happy laconism that she delivered, right after delivering her son, was smartly to the point: “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).

Truth to tell, the laughter had begun already, a year and more before. Abraham, when first he heard the tidings, bent himself upon the earth, prostrate in a solemn posture of devotion. The gravity of his reverence, however, and the deep mood indicated by his downward frame, were more than faintly muted by the smile that formed around his mouth. How should a ninety-nine-year-old man respond, after all, on being told, with respect to his eighty-nine-year-old wife, “I will bless her and also give you a son by her”? (17:16). Unfamiliar with a better rule for how to receive this sort of information, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17).

According to the full, Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the joy of Abraham and Sarah at the promised birth of Isaac was burdened with the gold of prophecy, for his miraculous begetting foretold a later conception more miraculous still. Isaac was, in truth, a type and pledge of “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). And Mary, mother of this Newer Isaac, having conceived Him in virginity just days before, made perfect her responding song of praise by remembering the mercy that God “spoke to our fathers, / To Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:55).

Did not Abraham himself anticipate with joy the later coming of that more distant Seed? Surely so, for even our Newer Isaac proclaimed, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Like Moses (5:46), Isaiah (12:41), and David (Matthew 22:43), Abraham was gifted to behold, in mystic vision, the final fulfillment of that primeval word, “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21).

In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons expressed the mystery inherent in the figure of Isaac:

Abraham, knowing the Father through the Word, who made heaven and earth, confessed Him as God, and taught by a vision that the Son of God would become a Man among men, by whose arrival his seed would be as the stars of heaven, he longed to see that day, so that he too might embrace Christ, as it were; and beholding Him in the Spirit of prophecy, he rejoiced (Against the Heresies 4.7.1).

Friday, January 18

The Tent of Meeting: The “tent” (Latin tabernaculum where Abraham receives the Lord prefigures the later Tabernacle which Moses, at divine instruction, caused to be set up in the Desert as the place where Israel would meet the Lord. In both instances, the Hebrew word is identical—’ohel. At each place where Israel stopped during the forty years of wandering in the Desert, this ’ohel was erected, and it was taken down again when the People moved on. Whenever the People were on the move, the ’ohel was carried by the priests, and, wherever they camped, the ’ohel stood in the middle of the camp.

The later tabernacle (’ohel) set up in the desert was based on the original tyoe, the tabernacle “not made with hands,” which Moses beheld in mystic vision on Mount Sinai. As we are in the process of reading in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the ascended Jesus, our High Priest, entered into that heavenly tabernacle.

To return to the ’ohel in Genesis 18—-when Sarah first learned the news of the child she was to bear, she was eavesdropping—from within this tabernaculum—on a conversation between her husband and the Lord, whom he hosted outside. “Sarah your wife shall have a son,” she heard the Lord say. Her response? “Sarah laughed within herself,” asserts the Sacred Text, a reaction that she was a tad too quick to disavow when questioned on the matter. “I did not laugh,” she insisted. “No,” the Lord pressed the point, “but you did laugh!”

Her laughter was prompted, of course, by the sheer incongruity of the proposition, because “Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.” Did her laughter also betray skepticism about the promise? A first reading of the text may suggest it did, because her laugh was accompanied by the remark, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

Nonetheless, our earliest Christian commentator on the passage evidently did not think this to be the case. He even counted Sarah among the heroes of faith: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11).

Hebrews 12:18-24: The author of Hebrews outlines a contrast between two mountains: Sinai and Zion—the mountain of the Law and the mountain of the Temple, or the covenant with Moses and the covenant with David.

A similar contrast between these two mountains—Sinai and Zion—was made by St. Paul, much to the same effect: “For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).

In both texts—Galatians and Hebrews—there is a contrast between the bondage of the Law and the boldness of the Christian. With respect to this contrast, St. Paul writes, “you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). In both cases, we observe, Mount Zion is called the heavenly Jerusalem: According to Galatians, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” According to Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”

One suspects that this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion may have been a rhetorical trope in early Christian preaching. This suggestion would explain why we find it in both Galatians and Hebrews, in spite of the great differences between these two works. This contrast is used in both places and adapted to the theme of each work.