Friday, July 19
Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of five heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1-11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (verse 3). That is to say, what is needed is a further clarification of the earlier ruling, and Moses perceives the need for this clarification (verse 5).
The solution to the difficulty is to prohibit these heiresses, if they do claim their inheritance, from marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (verse 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition-namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (verse 8).
These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (verses 10-13).
The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22-36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai.
The legal determination in this chapter was consistent with an overriding preoccupation in the allotment of the Promised Land among Israel’s tribes: A concern to distribute the available real estate evenly, so that no one family or group should gain—at least initially—an undue prominence or advantage over the others.
This concern was the reason why, when the land was apportioned, the task fell to representatives of all the tribes (34:16-29). These men were to guarantee an equitable distribution, based on an elementary principle: “And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; everyone’s shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers” (33:54).
This arrangement, bolstered by Israel’s jubilee rule (cf. Leviticus 25:10-34), encouraged a rough equality of resources in Israel, not only among the tribes, but also among individual households. The inspiration for this system may be described as a benign egalitarianism. It would distinguish Israel from the money-grubbing nations round about.
This egalitarianism, on the whole, lasted for centuries. Even as late as the reign of Solomon (961-922), it could be said, “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).
Afterwards, this benign egalitarianism was corroded by Israel’s commercial dealings with Israel’s neighbors, chiefly the Phoenicians. We detect an early example of this corrosion in the ninth century, in the case of the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard by Ahab and Jezebel. It is worth observing that the outspoken critic of this seizure was the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 21).
Saturday, July 20
Joshua 1 The Book of Joshua is introduced in a decisive—not to say abrupt—fashion:
It came to pass, after the death of Moses, the Lord’s servant, that the Lord spoke to Joshua ben-Nun, Moses’ deputy, saying, “Moses My servant is dead. Now, then, rise up, cross over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them-the sons of Israel. As I declared to Moses, I have given you every place that the sole of your foot may tread. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the Great Sea toward the setting of the sun, shall be your territory.”
Since the conquest and settlement of the Holy Land is the entire story in the Book of Joshua, it is important to understand these opening lines. We may begin by observing that—in at least two senses—boundaries are being crossed.
First, with respect to time: The death of Moses is a distinct dividing line in biblical history; it marks the end of a specific era. All Israel was waiting for him to die; at last they would be able to enter the Promised Land.
Second, with respect to space, as well as to time. The Jordan River is a natural geographical boundary; its crossing means the end of wandering and the commencement of geographical stability. Thus, the text presents a crossover (‘abar, the root word of “Hebrew”) in both time and space.
The details of the Lord’s command to Joshua convey the impression of “here and now”: Moses is dead. “Now then”—we’ttah—rise up, cross over. Although everyone is to go over the river, the Lord’s command is laid on Joshua specifically; this emphasis is conveyed by the singular imperative form of the verbs: ‘rise up, cross over” (qum ‘abor).
In the repetition of the adjective “this” (hazzeh) the reader senses a physical immediacy, as though the Lord, in the act of commanding Joshua, is actually pointing to “this Jordan,” “this people,” “this Lebanon.”
Within the Lord’s command, the reader feels a tension, as it were, between the established past and the still indefinite future. This is conveyed in the tenses of the two verbs: “I have given you every place that the sole of your foot may tread.” The “I have given” (netattiv) is a “perfect of certitude”; the gift of the Land has already been made. The “may tread” (tidrok) is an “imperfect of possibility.” An established past and a somewhat indistinct future are combined.
With respect to the past, this command to Joshua is based on the Lord’s promise to Abraham: “To your seed I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7; cf. 15:7; 17:8). Two qualifications attended that gift. First, it was not an untrammeled real estate endowment; it was a clause in a covenant. To understand the gift, it is essential to understand the covenant. Second, the sons of Israel could never possess the land except as tenants: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. (Leviticus 25:23).
With respect to the future, as well, Israel’s possession of the land is still a covenantal clause, not a real estate bequest separable from that covenant. When Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, took possession of the land, it was to prepare for the covenant’s fulfillment, in which—as God told Abraham—all the nations of the world would be blessed.
We Christians have a specific understanding of that fulfillment; it was declared by a rabbi who bore witness to it:
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your seed,” who is Christ (Galatians 3:16).
The covenant with Abraham—of which the possession of the land was a clause—was fulfilled in Christ; Paul identifies Christ as the “seed” to whom the original promise was made.
The Israelites, then, conquered the land in order to prepare a place for God’s Messiah, Abraham’s seed, to be born and to live and to effect the work of salvation. Their territorial possession prepared for the rooting of the Cross in the promised soil. The ultimate consecration of the Promised Land came when the Messiah—who, like its original conqueror, was named Yeshuah—rose from a grave in the middle of the Land.
Christian theology declines to separate God’s gift of the land to Israel from the larger context that defines it. God makes no promises to Israel—God gives Israel no gift—apart from the Messiah. He is the divine affirmation, God’s yes, to mankind: “For all the promises of God in him are yes” (2 Corinthians 1:20). This consideration is essential to the proper theological understanding of the Promised Land: It pertains to that greater contract which is the salvific blessing of the human race.
Christian theology refuses to isolate God’s gift of the Promised Land from the canonical fullness introduced into history by the arrival of the Messiah.
Sunday, July 21
Mark 10:13-22: From a discussion about marriage Jesus passes to the subject of children. The subject arises when children are brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (verse 13), a scene found in all the Synoptics (Matthew 19:13-22; Luke 18:15-17).
Once again, of course, the Apostles attempt to gain control of the situation, not yet grasping the Word of the Cross (verse 13). All of the Evangelists include this objection of the disciples against what they evidently regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the Lord’s time and attention. The Apostles have forgotten the message of servanthood.
It has been suggested that the early (pre-Scriptural) Church preserved the memory of this scene because it answered a practical pastoral question abut infant baptism. Read in this way, Jesus is affirming the practice of infant baptism: “Let the little children come to Me.” Indeed, the verb that Matthew uses here, koluein, “forbid them not,” is identical with the expression used with respect to the baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch and the friends of Cornelius (Acts 8:36; 10:37; 11:17).
I do not think this interpretation of the passage to be likely, because there is simply no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was a problem. On the contrary, as the Christian replacement for circumcision, it is reasonable to presume that baptism was available to infants, just as circumcision was. In each case it was admission to the covenant. It would be strange indeed, if Jewish children could belong to the Mosaic covenant, while Christian children could not partake of the Christian covenant. Moreover, the baptism of entire households in the New Testament (Acts 11:14; 16:15,31-33) indicates that it was normal to baptize infants in Christian families.
Although the pastoral practice of the Christian Church varied in this matter, the “validity” of infant baptisms was not challenged for well over a thousand years. Consequently, to see a reference to a “controversy” about infant baptism in these lines of Mark seems to me an unlikely interpretation.
Then comes the story of an inquirer (verses 17-22). Because in Matthew (19:16-22) this inquiring individual is called a “young” man, we readers tend to think of him as such here in Mark (and Luke) as well. Thus, the heading in the New King James Bible for this section reads, “Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Man.” While this title fits Matthew’s version of the story, it does not so easily describe the story as Mark narrates it. First, there is nothing in Mark’s story to indicate that the man is young. On the contrary, the fellow talks about his youth as past (verse 20). Second, in Mark’s account Jesus does not really “counsel” the man. Unlike Matthew’s version of the story, Mark’s account does not say “if you want.”
On the contrary, in Mark’s narrative it is clear that something is still “lacking” in this rich man (verse 21). He may pass as an excellent law-keeper, but he does not yet understand the Word of the Cross. So he is told to give away his possessions, which are an impediment to the Kingdom, and take up his cross and follow Jesus. (This detail about taking up the cross is missing in Matthew’s version.) He goes away sad (verse 22), and we readers are sad for him. His departure may have represented the loss of his soul (cf. Mark 8:34-37). This is arguably the saddest story in the Gospels.
Monday, July 22
Canticle of Solomon 2:15—3:11: If the imagery of this book seems too erotic to have a spiritual meaning, it would be good to remind ourselves that there are other instances where the imagery is just as erotic and the spiritual meaning is even more explicit. For example, here is how Ezekiel describes the Exodus:
”I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord God” (16:7-8).
Today’s mention of “King Solomon with the crown with which his other crowned him on the day of his wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart” (3:11) has long been read by Christians as a reference to Jesus’ crowning with thorns by His mother, the synagogue that condemned him on the day that he took the Church to himself as His Bride forever.
John 20:11-18: Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1–4), Mary Magdalene rises early while it is still dark and goes out seeking him whom her soul loves, the one whom she calls “my Lord.” In an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden of his burial (19:41). Indeed, she first takes Him to be the gardener, which, as the new Adam, He most certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know him. He speaks to her, but even then she does not recognize his voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: “Mary.” Only then does she know Him as “Rabbouni,” “my Teacher.”
In this story, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name . . . , for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4). This narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an “in-house” memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.
Tuesday, July 23
Mark 10:23-34: Over the centuries of Old Testament history we can discern a deep transformation in Israel’s thinking about wealth. The ancient Wisdom tradition had associated the accumulation of wealth with the virtuous life, as we see in Proverbs. That earlier literature, while not unaware of the spiritual dangers associated with wealth, had spend little space expounding on those dangers. It was Israel’s prophetic voice, rather, beginning with Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab in the 9th century, that began to elaborate the theme of the dangers posed by too much preoccupation with wealth. This was a major theme, of course, in the great social prophets of the 8th century. Gradually it found its way more explicitly in the Wisdom literature as well, Sirach 31:3-5 being one of its more eloquent expressions. Jesus’ approach to the subject in the present text is of a piece with what we find in Sirach.
Jesus here tells the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle in response to Peter’s bewilderment of what just transpired with the rich man. As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?
The answer is contained, I think in the subsequent verse. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is any impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 27). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.
This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.
Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 28) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up? After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.
Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).
Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 29-30). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.
Wednesday, July 24
Mark 10:35-40: Mark and Matthew (20:2023) follow the Lord’s third prophecy of His coming Passion by recording the occasion on which the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, request of the Lord the privilege of sitting to his immediate right and left when he enters into his kingdom. Still worldly and without understanding, the two brothers are portrayed as resistant to the message of the Cross.
In both Gospel accounts the Lord’s response to their request is to put back to the brothers a further query about their ability to “drink the cup whereof I am to drink,” and Mark’s version contains yet another question about their being “baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”
Both images used by our Lord in this context, baptism and the cup, are found elsewhere in the New Testament as symbolic of the Lord’s Passion (Luke 12:50; Matthew 26:39-42). Obviously, in the context of the New Testament churches the baptism and the cup referred symbolically to two of the sacraments, and it was understood, moreover, that these two sacraments place their communicants into a special relationship with the Lord’s Passion (Romans 6:3f; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26). The questions about baptism and the cup, then, were most instructive for the Christians attending divine worship where these Gospel texts were read and interpreted. These questions, raised in the context of the Sacraments, were of special importance to Mark’s Christians at Rome, whom Nero was torturing and killing in the aftermath of the fire of July in A.D. 64.
Given the historical context of actual martyrdom in Rome, it is not surprising that Mark lays a special stress on the necessity of the cross. This emphasis is obvious in so many places, almost from the beginning: “But the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away (2:20). . . . And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him how they might destroy him (3:6). . . . And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him (3:19). . . . Afterward, when affliction or persecution arises for the sake of the word (4:17). . . . Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (8:34). . . . Whoever will lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, the same shall save it (8:35). . . . For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many (10:45). . . . And they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard (12:8) . . .”, and so on. Although the account of the Lord’s passion is covered in only two (though the two longest) chapters, it is fair to say that the mystery of the cross permeates the entire perspective of the Evangelist Mark.
Thursday, July 25
Mark 10:46-52: All through chapters 8 to 10 Mark has narrated Jesus’ journey along the way (hodos) of the Cross, a story structured on the Lord’s three predictions of his coming Passion. At each stage in this journey His own disciples, the twelve Apostles, have shown nothing but resistance to the Word of the Cross. The time has now arrived for Jesus to begin the week of the Passion. He journeys through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem.
The “way” (hodos of the Cross is mentioned several times during these chapters. It is Mark’s travel motif> Indeed, the opening dialogue of this section is placed “on the road.” Now Jesus and his disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road [hodos] He asked His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’”
At the very time Jesus was giving the disciples his second prophecy of the Passion, they were arguing among themselves which of them had preeminence. This happened “on the road”: “Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road [hodos]?’ But they kept silent, for on the road [hodos] they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.
In the present chapter, it was “on the road” that the rich man approached Jesus: “Now as He was going out on the road [hodos], one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’”
The word appears again, when Jesus gives the third prophecy of the Passion: “Now they were on the road [hodos], going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were discomfited. And as they followed they were afraid.”
Finally, in the story of the blind man, we are told, “As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road [hodos] begging.” This beggar cries out for mercy.
As usual the disciples, endeavoring to exert their own authority, try to stifle the cries of the blind man. He cries out all the more, calling Jesus the “Son of David.” Up till this point in Mark, Jesus has resisted this messianic title, which in context was fraught with dubious political implications. This time, however, He does not forbid the man to call Him “Son of David.” The context has changed; Jesus is on the threshold of His Passion.
The curing of the blind man in this scene, the last miracle of healing in the Gospel of Mark, represents the curing of the spiritual blindness that has characterized Jesus’ disciples all through these past three chapters of Mark. For three chapters Jesus has been summoning men to follow Him along the way of the Cross. This blind man, now able to see, follows Jesus along the way (hodos—verse 52).
The memory of this blind man’s name indicates that he was a person well known among the early Christians.
Friday, July 26
Mark 11:1-11: We should begin our consideration of this story by recalling that the coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, / And make them joyful in My house of prayer. / Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices / Will be accepted on My altar; / For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”
Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, are the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it:
”Behold, I send My messenger, / And he will prepare the way before Me. / And the Lord, whom you seek, / Will suddenly come to His temple, / Even the Messenger of the covenant, / In whom you delight. / Behold, He is coming,” / Says the Lord of hosts. / “But who can endure the day of His coming? / And who can stand when He appears? / For He is like a refiner’s fire / And like launderers’ soap. / He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; / He will purify the sons of Levi, / And purge them as gold and silver, / That they may offer to the Lord / An offering in righteousness. / Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem / Will be pleasant to the Lord, / As in the days of old, / As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4).
The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s post-Exilic worship, to which the prophet was witness (1:6-10,12-14).
The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).
As described in the New Testament, however, the “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail: “And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).
To grasp this context we should bear in mind that the greater part of the people in the Temple during the major feasts (and all the Evangelists place this incident near Passover) came from great distances. Naturally they brought no sacrificial animals with them, reasonable expecting that local vendors on the scene would meet their needs. These vendors brought the necessary herds and kept them in the immediate vicinity of the Temple. Indeed, without their mercantile provision, the ritual sacrifices of the Temple would have been rendered impossible, and the activity associated with this arrangement was considered part of the normal business of the Temple, rather much as the sale of Bibles, prayer books, icons, and rosaries in the shops near St. Peter’s in Rome. The action of Jesus, then, was not directed against ritual and moral pollutions but against the normal business of the Temple.
Hence, what the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance to the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, much in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).