Friday, August 16

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.

Second, the moral life: 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. He 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.

It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. Their comments in this respect are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself. Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f (“Go . . . Deploy . . . Take”) are met by the poltroonish, foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” The very sounds of the Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah (lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak (’im telki ‘immi wahalakti, we’im lo’ telki ‘immi lo’elek).

This amusing contrast is further heightened by the fact that Barak’s very name means “lightning bolt.” The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, trying to convince this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again: Qum—“Up!” (4:14) This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12. It is not surprising, perhaps, that Christian readers have traditionally seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. On the other hand (if one may safely venture the remark) the woman in this contrast seems to be quite a bit more reliable than the man.

Saturday, April 17

Acts 22:22—23:10: It is clear that Paul’s life is in danger (22:22; 25:24). Since he had been speaking to the crowd in Aramaic, Paul’s message was not understood by the commander of the fortress, so the latter is bewildered and troubled by the crowd’s violent reaction (verse 23). His own reaction is understandable. In due course he will be obliged to render an account of this recent disturbance to the Roman procurator of the region at Caesarea, but up to this point he has no idea just what has transpired.

Since he can make no intelligible sense of the yelling and actions of the crowd (21:34), he orders Paul to be tortured by beatings, in hope of obtaining some solid information on the matter (verse 24). Paul, however, will have none of it. When he was beaten earlier at Philippi by the governmental officials in Acts 16, he had not mentioned his Roman citizenship, the Lex Porcia, until after that event. On the present occasion, however, he speaks up ahead of time, indicating the high status that precludes his being tortured. Indeed, the commander has already gone too far by having Paul handcuffed without legal warrant (verse 29). Thus, the matter of Paul’s Roman citizenship is introduced into the narrative for the second time. In due course it will be that special legal status that permits Paul’s recourse to a court in the capital city. Paul’s Roman citizenship, then, is an important component in the dynamism of the whole account in this book, which narrates the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.

Luke does not tell us if Claudius Lysias interrogated Paul further, but it is reasonable to think that he did. He would not have learned from Paul, however, any solid information that would clarify the legal situation. The fortress commander thus finds himself in a dilemma. He has arrested a prisoner on the basis of no identifiable offense. This is all quite embarrassing. How would he ever explain this serious irregularity to the authorities at Caesarea when official inquiries were made? If, on the other hand, Claudius Lysias were simply to release Paul, he may be setting free a criminal, possibly a revolutionary and subversive. Caught in this conflict, Lysias determines to consult the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest governing spiritual authority.

Thus, Paul must now defend himself before the Sanhedrin, and he does this masterfully. Well aware of the major theological division of that body into Sadducees and Pharisees (verse 6), Paul goes to some lengths to identify himself with the latter party. Why, after all, is he being held as a prisoner? Is it not because of his affirmation of the resurrection from the dead? And is not the coming resurrection from the dead one of the major and characteristic features of Pharisaic belief?

By this insistence, therefore, Paul succeeds in dividing his opponents (verses 7-10), this time not among a rioting mob but within the highest and most dignified religious body in Judaism. Lysias, frustrated that he has no more reliable information than he had before, has Paul locked up again.

Sunday, August 18

Acts 23:11-22: During the night after his hearing before the Sanhedrin, Paul was visited by the Lord in a dream, in which he was encouraged by the explicit assurance that he would be going to Rome. Consequently, in spite of outward appearances, Paul knew that his life was not in danger for the moment (23:11). When the Lord speaks to strengthen His apostle, He sets in parallel Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem with his coming preaching in Rome. Paul’s journey to Rome has been decreed by God (dei, “it is necessary,” in verse 11), no matter what strange human circumstances may serve to bring it about.

Such encouragement was exactly what he needed, for a new trouble arose on the next day. More than forty men, conspiring to murder him, vowed not to eat or drink until the deed was done (23:12-13). It is instructive to note that the plotters involved the Sadducees, the priestly party, in their conspiracy (23:14-15), but not the Pharisees. It was this latter group, we recall, that expressed sympathy for Paul’s message.

A plot involving so many people is hard to keep secret, and Paul, not confined by maximum security, was able to learn of it and, using the services of a nephew, to take steps against it (23:16-17). We are probably correct in suspecting that Luke’s source for this account was the boy himself.

Mark 15:33-41: Jesus did not simply die. He willingly tasted death, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews. He deliberately went through the actual experience of dying. The gospels indicate that Jesus was conscious and self-aware to the end. There was no coma, no disorientation, no mental befuddlement. The gospels testify, in fact, that he declined a narcotic that would have disguised and muted his pain. Jesus knew what he was doing.

He knew, moreover, why he was doing it. It is remarkable that his disciples—then and now—express the conviction that Jesus, in the act of dying, thought of them and poured out his life for each of them. More than two decades after the event, someone who had not known Jesus on earth, was so confident on this point that he declared,

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and my life in the flesh I live now by faith of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 emphasis added)

.

Monday, August 19

Acts 23:23-35: About nine o’clock that very night, Paul was moved out of the city under armed guard, Indeed, the large retinue included nearly half of the forces garrisoned at the Fortress Antonia. We are not told whether or not the frustrated plotters actually persevered in their vow of starvation!

A letter about Paul was sent to Antonius Felix, the well known and often cruel procurator of Judea from A.D.52 to 59/60 (cf. Suetonius, Life of Claudius 28; Tacitus, Histories 5.9; Josephus, Antiquities 20.7.1 [137-138]; 20.8.9 [182]; Jewish War 2.12.8 [247]). Claudius Lysias, in his letter to Felix, painted himself in the most favorable light. The whole matter, he explained as an obscure Jewish problem, and the Jews were to blame. Lysias, for his part, had done no more than rescue a Roman citizen from Jewish violence! The stress of the message was on Paul’s innocence (23:29), a point that Luke will continue to make as the story progresses (cf. 25:18,25; 26:31; 28:18).

When the retinue and its prisoner reached Antipatris, in largely Gentile territory, the large bulk of the force, no longer needed, returned to Jerusalem. The exact location of Antipatris is disputed, but it may have been the site of the modern Kulat Ras el’Ain, about twenty-five miles from Caesarea.

Mark 15:42-47: Because Jesus could not rise from the grave unless He had been buried, an explicit insistence on His burial may be noted in the Church’s earliest proclamation. Paul himself, who knew its importance from the earlier tradition (1 Corinthians 15:4), included it in his own preaching (Acts 13:29) and writing (Romans 6:4). All the canonical Gospels, moreover, agree that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin.

This Joseph, precisely because he “waited for the kingdom of God,” had intended to be buried, not in Ramathaim, his native village, but in
Jerusalem itself. The grand prophecies of messianic restoration, after all, especially those of Ezekiel and Zechariah, were centered in Jerusalem. Accordingly, in the holy city, Joseph had purchased for himself a special burial vault that was situated, says John (18:41–42), in a garden not far from where Jesus had died. According to Matthew and Mark, this tomb was carved out of solid rock. Luke and John both mention that it was brand new.

Tuesday, August 20

Acts 24:1-9: Paul now makes his defense before an official representative of the Roman government. To be his prosecutor, the Sanhedrin put forward a trained orator, Tertullus, who begins his argument by attempting to ingratiate Felix. It is shameless. When he credits Felix’s administration with the blessings of peace (24:2), for instance, the statement is true only in the sense that Felix had rather ruthlessly suppressed rebel uprisings and acts of terrorism (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.13.2 [252]). Tertullus diplomatically passes over those activities of Felix’s administration—rapacity and harshness—that would in due course lead to the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Tertullus, aware of the attitude of Felix toward anything smacking of sedition, endeavors to portray Paul as a sort of revolutionary. The allegedly seditious party represented by Paul and here called the Nazarenes, is described as a “heresy” (24:5; cf. 24:14; 26:5; 28:22). This is hardly the first occasion on which Paul is portrayed as a troublemaker (cf. 16:20; 17:6).

Mark 16:1-8: The four traditional components of the story of salvation—as listed by Paul in First Corinthians—are clearly discernible in our earliest written Gospel—Mark. In considerable detail, beginning with the final supper, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ death, mentioning those who witnessed it (Mark 14:33,66; 15:21,39-41). He records Jesus’ burial, once again naming the witnesses (15:42-47).

Finally, Mark writes of Jesus’ Resurrection (16:1-6). With respect to the subsequent appearances of the risen Christ, Mark refers only to those in Galilee: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (16:7; cf. 14:28).

Paul, listing the authoritative witnesses to the risen Christ, declared, “he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5). Although none of the Evangelists describes the appearance to Cephas prior to the rest of the Apostles, Luke does speak of it (Luke 24:34). This special appearance is also intimated by Mark, who records the angelic commission to the myrrhbearing women, “But go, tell His disciples—and Peter”(Mark 16:7).

Wednesday, August 21

Mark 16:9-20: Because these final verses of the canonical text of Mark are found neither in the more reliable manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) nor in other ancient versions (Armenian, Georgian, etc.), it is reasonably conjectured that we have received them from a hand later than Mark himself. It would appear that they were added by a copyist who felt that Mark 16:8 was too abrupt an ending, so he added these post-Resurrection appearances in order to make the ending of Mark more closely resemble the endings of the other gospels.

In fact, the components of this material is largely drawn from those sources: The story of Mary Magdalene (verses 9-11) is drawn from John and Luke; the account of the two journeying disciples (verses 12-13) is taken from Luke; the Great Commission (verses 14-18) is adapted from Matthew, Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles; and the Lord’s Ascension comes from Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

These considerations, however, have to do solely with literary history, not theology. They impugn neither the divine inspiration nor the canonical authority of Mark 16:9-20, inasmuch as the Church has received this text as Holy Scripture.

Acts 24:10-27: The opening sentence of Paul’s rebuttal is an exercise in irony that may, without exaggeration, be paraphrased as follows: “Well, there you have it, your Honor, you already know what these Jews are like, so you surely are not impressed by these trumped up accusations.”

In the course of Paul’s argument we learn that only twelve days have elapsed since his arrival in Jerusalem, a sum attained simply by the compound of seven (21:27) and five (24:1).

Explaining that he has come to Jerusalem solely as a pilgrim (“to worship” in 21:11) and to bring aid for the poor (21:17), Paul makes three points by way of “defense” (apologoumai in 21:10): First, no witnesses have testified to the charges brought against him (24:12-13,19). Second, he is, and has always lived as, a loyal, religious Jew. This is a scoring point, which Paul emphasizes by mentioning the Law and prophets (24:14). Because the Sadducees do not accept the prophetic books of the Bible as canonical, Paul is appealing once again to the judgment of the Pharisees.

Third, Paul shares in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, a standard doctrine taught by the Pharisees (24:15,21), a doctrine he himself had proclaimed before the Sanhedrin. As in his earlier appearance before that body, Paul is endeavoring to draw attention to an internal doctrinal split among his accusers.

Thursday, August 22

Judges 10: The forms of idolatry listed here (verse 6) come from all around Israel: Canaanite, Syrian, Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, and Philistine. Israel’s every border becomes an entrance for idolatry.

Such infidelities bring their own punishment. Having permitted themselves to be invaded spiritually, the people are soon attacked physically. The Philistines attack from one direction, the Ammonites from another (verse 7).

These two invasions prepare for the next two judges—Jephthe against the Ammonites, Samson against the Philistines. The accounts of these two men are distinctly grotesque. Even the stories of their deliverance are somewhat oppressive. Jephthe and Samson are two really strange characters.

In God’s response to the people (verses 11-12), he lists seven (the number of perfection) occasions when He delivered Israel in the past. That is, God has always been faithful. He has forgiven them seven times.

There is nothing automatic about the divine forgiveness. God is not a slot machine in which we simply put the right coin. God is not a computer where we may hit the right keys. God is personal, and He deals with man personally. When we offend Him by sin, is a personal offense, and God “takes it personally.” Offending God is not like neglecting to get an oil change. God does not respond to sin like a neglected engine. Sin always takes place within a personal relationship. It always has the quality of a personal insult.

And this is the reason why God relents once more, when the people put away their false gods. God forgives for His own compassion’s sake.

Hitherto in Judges, when Israel was oppressed, the Lord raised up a hero to defend them. It was not up to the people to choose their own. All of Israel’s champions so far were raised up by God. Now, however, the people go look for a deliverer, to whom they will offer the crown.

God will certainly pour out His Spirit on Jephthe, and the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:32) will list him among the heroes of faith, but God will not permit Jephthe to do things his own way. In particular, Jephthe will not be able to found the dynasty he intended.

It is worth remarking on the similarities between Jephthe and Remus, the brother associated with the founding of Rome. Both characters are illegitimate sons, outcast by their families, and both become leaders of impoverished, oppressed men. Neither man leaves a dynasty.

Jephthe has no home, no family, no specific city of either birth or burial. He has no past, and, as the story develops, he will have no future. Jephthe receives no inheritance, nor will he leave one. He is a tragic character, and the entire account of his deliverance is freighted with tragedy. Jephthe will make many mistakes, and all of them will be costly mistakes. His final mistake will deprive him of offspring.

In a way peculiar to himself, Jephthe represents the weakness of God, which is the Cross, but his story will also demonstrate that the weakness of God is stronger than men, as the foolishness of God is wiser than men. In all of this tragedy, in all of this darkness, Jephthe’s faith is tried by fire, and this is exactly how the New Testament remembers him.

Friday, August 23

Judges 11: Jephthe is a mixed man. He is personally ambitious and clearly wants to be chief over Gilead. At the same time, he is a believer and a God-fearing man, as we see in his response to the Gileadites: “if . . . the Lord gives them before me.”

God does, in fact, used mixed people to accomplish His purposes, Perhaps the Lord would have chosen someone better to defeat the Ammonites, but He too makes the best of what He has. This fact suggests that if God does not wait around for ideal conditions, neither should we.

Jephthe’s first act (verses 12-13) demonstrates that he is really a man of peace. He appeals to the Ammonites in the hope averting war. His first thought is to avoid bloodshed if possible, so he seeks a discussion with the Ammonites. He is not a rash nor violent man.

Indeed, Jephthe’s overture to the Ammonites may be taken as sort of foreshadowing of the Gospel of peace proclaimed to the Gentiles. It calls on the Ammonites to forsake the ways of war, to reconsider and repent of the paths of violence.

The Ammonite response, however, was to argue back. They rehearsed their historical grievance as best they could remember it: “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now, therefore, restore these lands peaceably” (verse 13). Perceiving a misunderstanding on their part, Jephthah went to some pains to spell out for the Ammonites several points on which his memory of the matter differed from theirs.

First, he said, Israel had always been careful to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors east of the Jordan (verses 14-18).

Second, the land under dispute had not belonged to the Ammonites anyway but to another group called the Amorites. Moreover, the territory in question had been seized from the Amorites when the latter attacked Israel, not the other way around (verses 19-23). In this reference to the ancient events narrated in Numbers 21:21-26, Jephthah also gently reminded the Ammonites that they themselves had formerly lived under Amorite rule, from which Israel had delivered them and restored them to their ancestral property (verse 24; cf. Numbers 21:29-30). With this they should be satisfied. For this they should be grateful.

Third, three hundred years had elapsed since all these things had happened (verse 26). Why had the matter never been brought up before?

The Ammonites, in short, were engaged in an exercise of historical revisionism, which consisted in treating old events with a new theory. Viewing history under the lens of a “fresh interpretation,” the Ammonites concluded that three centuries earlier they had suffered an injustice that now needed to be set right. Thus, having lived in peace with Israel for three hundred years, they were now commencing a war for the purpose of correcting an alleged wrong from a time before even their grandparents were born.

It came to pass, of course, that the Ammonites failed in this endeavor. Their historical revisionism brought upon them only further suffering-indeed, “a very great slaughter” (verse 33).