Friday, January 27
Psalms 40 (Greek & Latin 39): The correct “voice” for this psalm) is not in doubt. We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death.
We may begin, then, by examining that interpretive context in Hebrews, which comes in the section where the author is contrasting the Sacrifice of the Cross with the many cultic oblations prescribed in the Old Testament. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).
In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes our psalm: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.
The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.
This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).
This spirit of obedience to God’s will is likewise the essential atmosphere of Christian prayer. “Your will be done” is the spiritual center and major sentiment of that prayer that the Lord Himself taught us.
Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to the psalm here under discussion, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’” (vv. 5–7).
The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).
The various sacrifices of the Old Testament, which are spoken of from time to time throughout the Book of Psalms, have now found their perfection in the one self-offering of Jesus the Lord. Again the author of Hebrews comments: “Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God’” (vv. 8, 9).
The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.
Saturday, January 28
Genesis 28: Rebekah does not want Jacob simply to flee from the possible vengeance of Esau. She correctly wants Jacob to be sent away by his father. There are several things to be said about Isaac’s sending Jacob away.
First, there is a sense of historical continuity. Isaac is aware that he is handing on a legacy that he himself received. The current family crisis is not treated simply as a matter of the present; it is subsumed into a larger historical picture.
Second, there is the prayer and promise of fertility. The effects of this prayer (twelve sons and a daughter!) show how powerful a man of prayer Isaac really was (cf. also 25:21).
Third, Jacob continues the tradition of being a “stranger” (verse 4), like his grandfather and father. This theme will be picked up in the New Testament: “By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tends with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9).
Esau, having twice failed to please his parents by his choice of wives, decides this time to choose a bride from within the family (verses 6-9). Alas, he marries into the discredited side of the family! One sometimes has the impression that Esau’s brow was branded with the word “Loser.”
The religious experience of Jacob at Bethel is divided into two parts: his vision, in which God speaks (verses 10-15), and his thoughtful reaction within the dream (verses 16-22). This division of religious experience into the visionary and the deliberative is found in other places of Holy Scripture, such as the case of Peter in Acts 10:9-17 and several places in Ezekiel. Jacob’s is a night-vision, like that of Abraham in Genesis 15 and Isaac in Genesis 26; indeed, God says to him (verse 15) much the same things that He said to Abraham (15:17-18) and to Isaac (26:24-25). Thus, all three of the patriarchs have visions in the night, and all three establish shrines: Abraham at Hebron, Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel.
Bethel (“house of God”) is the place where earth and heaven are joined, as though by an umbilical cord (verse 12). When Jacob rises in the morning, he consecrates the place, somewhat terrified that he had picked, as his place to sleep, the very spot where heaven and earth are joined; he was nearly run over by all the angelic traffic, as it were.
Bethel is a type and prefigurement, of course, of the real house of God, where heaven and earth are joined, Jesus Christ our Lord (John 1:43-51). Christians since the second century have regarded Jacob’s ladder as the ladder of Christ. For this reason, Jacob poured oil (chrisma) on the stone, making it a “Christian stone” (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 86).
Sunday, January 29
Genesis 29: At about noon (verse 7) Jacob arrives at the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already assembled with their flocks (verse 2). They are waiting for other shepherds to arrive, so that there will be enough manpower to remove the very heavy stone that covers the mouth of the well (verses 3,8). It says a great deal of Jacob’s physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job (verse 10). (And we recall that he was the weaker of the twins borne by Rebekah!)
Just as Jacob begins to inquire about Laban, his mother’s brother, his interlocutors point out to him that Laban’s daughter, Rachel, is approaching. Thus, like Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24, Jacob is promptly blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny (verses 6,9-12). Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob tells the whole story, “all that happened,” to Laban (verse 13).
Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (verses 13-30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle required. For Laban, however, Jacob’s preference in the matter posed a bit of a problem. While there would be no difficulty finding a husband for Rachel, Laban was less certain about Leah’s prospects. During those seven years, no one had sought the hand of Leah. (The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that Leah was afraid that, if Jacob married her younger sister, she herself would have to marry the older brother Esau, and she wanted nothing of that!)
Laban determined, therefore, to look out for the fortunes of his elder daughter. Accordingly, Laban pulls a rather mean trick, a trick rendered possible because the bride was veiled (verses 21-25). It is not hard to figure out the wily Laban, who does not shrink from taking advantage when he can. He studies situations carefully, spots weaknesses in his associates, and consistently uses people. There is a special irony in the account, as well. Jacob deceived his father in Genesis 27; now he is in turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a “false identity.”
Laban then makes the “magnanimous gesture” of offering Jacob both daughters wives (verse 27), which procures the wives’ father, of course, another seven years of service from Jacob. (This sororite marriage will later be forbidden in the Mosaic Law; cf. Leviticus 18:18).
Laban has clearly thought this whole plan out ahead of time. This procedure is Laban’s way of keeping his property in the family. He has now procured this apparently dim-witted nephew, an energetic worker that will do whatever is required of him. This nephew will be married to both of his daughters. All of their children will be Laban’s; all the property will be his; everything will be his (Genesis 31:43). From this point on, the story becomes a rivalry of wits between Jacob and Laban. Jacob will prove more than a match for him.
Monday, January 30
Genesis 30: This chapter describes two tests of wills: between Rachel and Leah, and between Laban and Jacob. In fact, this is an important chapter in the mounting tension and conflict of the Genesis story. We began with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Then came the conflict of Isaac’s household, between Esau and Jacob. After the present chapter, it will continue in the accounts of Jacob’s family, eventually leading to Joseph’s being sold by his brothers into slavery. Among the patriarchs there seems to have been precious little domestic tranquility. If one is looking for something along the lines of “The Secret to a Happy Family Life,” Genesis is generally not much help.
At the end of Genesis 29 the competition between Leah and Rachel was going strongly to the favor of the former. She has four sons to Rachel’s none, as Genesis 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (verses 1-2), Rachel resorts to a tactic earlier employed by Sarah; this legal fiction is well attested in the extant literature of that time and period, specifically the Nuzi Tablets from excavations near the Tigris River.
Rachel’s plan, which effectively gives Jacob a third wife, works to her advantage (verses 3-8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (verses 9-12). Now Jacob has four wives and eight sons. Very quickly, however, the two sisters go beyond the niceties of the law. Leah resorts to a fertility drug (verses 13-21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (verses 22-24), whose story will dominate the final chapters of Genesis.
The relationship between Laban and Jacob has been something of a domestic business arrangement all along. For all legal and practical purposes, Jacob has become Laban’s son and heir. Meanwhile, however, everything still belongs to Laban. When Jacob asks to have a little something for himself (verses 25-34), he appears to be requesting a mere pittance, because in the Middle East the sheep are normally white and the goats normally black. Speckled and spotted animals are the exception. Laban, however, takes steps to eliminate even that pittance (verses 35-36).
Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (verses 37-43). In putting three days’ distance between his own herds and those shepherded by Jacob, Laban intends to keep the speckled goats and the dark sheep away from him. This plan backfires, because it permits Jacob to have a three-days jump on Laban when it came time to leave!
Tuesday, January 31
Genesis 31: When Jacob wanted to leave in the previous chapter, it was his own idea. As we commence the present chapter, however, the initiative comes from God (verses 1-13).
Jacob summons his wives away from the tents and the ears of inquisitive servants who might report the discussion back to Laban. His argument is twofold, both earthly and heavenly. In purely earthly terms, he is fed up with working for Laban. As regards the heavenly, Jacob has heard from the God who had revealed Himself earlier, the “God of Bethel,” El-Bethel. That God had earlier promised to bring him back home (28:15), and now He is fulfilling that promise (verses 3,13).
It turns out that Laban’s daughters are none too happy with their father’s treatment either. In his injustice to Jacob, Laban has also been unjust to his own flesh. He has treated them, not as daughters, but as outsiders. He not only sold them to Jacob; he has already used up the money he got for them! Leah and Rachel do not agree about much, but they do agree that it is time to start thinking of the welfare of their own children (verses 14-18). They flee (verses 19-21).
When Laban overtakes them (verses 22-32), his complaints seem natural enough: “I did not get to say goodbye. I did not get to kiss my grandchildren. I did not get a chance to throw a going-away party. How could you treat me like this after all these years?”
Somebody in Jacob’s party (and the reader already knows who) has, in addition, pilfered one of Laban’s household gods. This incident does say something about the introduction of idolatry into the family, a problem that will prove to be chronic in biblical history. Holy Scripture provides numerous instances of idolatry introduced into Israel by the wives of Israel’s kings (cf. 1 Kings 15:13, for instance).
To cover her tracks, Rachel resorts to a ruse (verses 33-37), about which two points may be made. First, the reader is expected to be amused that a god is being sat upon. Second, there seems to be no end of deception in this family!
Feeling vindicated by Laban’s failure to find the absconded god, Jacob then upbraids his father-in-law, laying it on pretty thick (verses 43-54). It is a masterpiece of self-justification, in which the speaker is manifestly enjoying himself. By ascribing all his success to God, Jacob also intends to make Laban pause for thought; does Laban really want to be tough on someone whom God favors? Laban, evidently chagrined at not finding the stolen god, is at some disadvantage; he is unable to answer Jacob. The two men make a covenant and call it a day (verses 41-54). Jacob heads for home.
Wednesday, February 1
Genesis 32: After taking leave of Laban, Jacob must think about how to approach Esau, for Esau represents the tricky aspect of Jacob’s homecoming (verse 4-7). Esau, meanwhile, has moved south to the land of Edom, a dry and inhospitable land that lucidly explains the words of God, “Esau have I hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage, for the jackals of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3).
If Jacob is feeling threatened by Laban, he now feels even worse from the information that his older twin is coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. That last part is hardly the sort of detail calculated to allay anxiety. Indeed, a certain sense of anxiety may be exactly what Esau wants to inspire in Jacob. If so, the maneuver is successful.
Jacob does two things (verses 8-13). First, he prepares for the worst, taking certain practical steps with a view to at least a partial survival of his family. Second, he takes to prayer, certainly the most humble prayer he has made so far.
Ultimately, after all, this is a story of Jacob’s relationship to God. Up to this point, God is still Isaac’s God, the “God of my fathers” (verse 9). Jacob has not yet done what he promised at Bethel — take God as his own (28:21). God had also made certain promises to Jacob at Bethel, and Jacob now invokes those promises.
He continues his preparations for meeting the brother he has not seen in twenty years (verse 14-23). He sends delegations with gifts, which are intended to impress Esau. Jacob, after all, knows that Esau has four hundred men, but Esau does not know how many Jacob may have. Jacob’s gifts, including five hundred and eighty animals, verge on the flamboyant.
Jacob approaches the fords of the Jabbock, at a place called Peniel, or “face of God” (verse 30). To prepare the reader for this place, verses 22-23 used the word “face” no fewer than five times. Jacob knows that Esau will soon be “in his face.” He must “face” Esau, which is why he is going directly toward him. Up to this point, Jacob has been a man of flight, flight from Canaan, flight from Haran, flight from Esau, flight from Laban. This all must change. Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.
Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else (verses 23-33). This encounter with God, which apparently Jacob has not anticipated, is far more significant than his encounter with Esau. A millennium later the prophet Hosea would meditate on this scene. This wrestling match is Jacob’s decisive encounter with God.
Thursday, February 2
Luke 2:22-40: a point of similarity between the first and last visits of Jesus to the Temple. In his first visit, today’s visit, the price of his redemption is the sacrifice of two birds. This was the offering of the poor, who could not afford the price of a lamb. These two birds were all Joseph and Mary could afford. They were poor people, and their offering reflected their poverty.
On Jesus’ final visit to the Temple, Luke tells us, there was another poor person, a widow, who possessed only two small coins. These two coins were all she had, says Luke, everything she possessed. She gave it all to the service of God. These two small coins stand in correspondence to the two little birds offered by Joseph and Mary.
In both cases we are struck by the poverty of the offering. These two stories—two birds and two coins—inform us of what God thinks of the offerings of the poor.
The poor widow in the Temple gives her entire existence to God; she holds nothing back, just as Jesus, when he came to his Father’s house, held nothing back.
Genesis 33: One is struck by Jacob’s great deference to his older brother, whom he had severely wronged a couple of decades earlier (verses 1-4). As it turned out, however, it was not necessary for Jacob to appease Esau. Even without his primogeniture inheritance and the blessing of the firstborn, Esau had done very well for himself and appeared not to hold a grudge against his brother. Evidently the blessing that Isaac pronounced over Esau by Isaac was very potent (27:39).
Esau meets the rest of the family (verses 4-7), and all manner of politeness is exchanged (verses 8-11). Stress is laid on the great wealth of each of the brothers, in terms that may remind the reader of Solomon later on (1 Kings 10:14-25).
Esau is concerned for Jacob’s safety as he traveled with considerable wealth but with no adequate military escort. Jacob moves on, however, and settles down for some time at Succoth (verses 12-17). He eventually goes to Shechem (the modern Nablus, a corruption of the Greek neapolis or “new city”). There he builds a shrine (verses 18-20).
Comparing the present account with Jacob’s earlier prayer at Bethel in chapter 28, we observe in him a new level of spiritual maturity. Whereas in that earlier scene the Lord had identified Himself as “the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (28:13), in the present text the shrine is dedicated to El Elohe Israel, “God, the God of Israel.”
Genesis 34: The other inhabitants of Shechem are called Hivites in the Hebrew text, Hurrians or Horites in the Greek text. Non-Semites, they did not practice circumcision, and their introduction to the practice will be something less than felicitous.
Jacob’s daughter went a gadding about (verses 1-4) and came to the attention of a local young man who was evidently accustomed to getting what he wanted. His name was Shechem too. In spite of the New American Bible’s indication of violence (“he lay with her by force”), the Hebrew wai‘anneha is perhaps better translated as “he humbled her” or “he seduced her.” Subsequent events suggest that this was not an act of violence. As it turns out, in fact, Dinah is already living at the young man’s home.
We noted that this young Shechem was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Now he is about to be introduced to Dinah’s big brothers, who have some ideas of their own and also knew what they wanted. This will be Israel’s first recorded armed conflict. As in the case of the Greeks assembled before the walls of Troy, they will be fighting over a woman.
Down through the centuries this biblical story has been told chiefly for its moral message. For instance, in the twelfth century St. Bernard of Clairvaux used Dinah as an example of a gad-about, exemplifying the vice of curiosity, which Bernard called “the first step” on the inversed ladder of pride.
Jacob and Hamor, the fathers of the two young people, are remarkably patient, but not Dinah’s brothers (verses 5-7). As we shall see in the cases of Reuben and Judah in the next few chapters, Jacob’s sons are not all models of chastity, but they were genuinely concerned for their sister’s wellbeing and their family’s honor.
To describe what has happened Dinah, they employ the word nebelah or “folly,” which term rather often indicates a sexual offense. For instance, this word appears four times in Judges 19-20, where it refers to a woman’s being raped to death. It also refers to Amnon’s rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:12, to adultery in Jeremiah 29:23, and to the infidelity of an engaged girl in Deuteronomy 22:21. The word is perhaps better translated as “outrage.”
A meeting takes place, as though by accident (verses 8-12). Hamor and Shechem offer a deal. After all, Dinah is living at Shechem’s house. Why not simply legitimize the situation? Any solution but marriage would make things worse. Besides, the Shechemites reason, if they were all going to be neighbors anyway, why not a general miscegenation of the two peoples.
Here we touch upon an important point of theology, because the very concept of intermarriage might mean that the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would cease to be distinct; the very notion of a chosen people might be lost. Intermarriage with these Shechemites would have led to quite another result than that envisioned in the Bible (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Jacob’s sons make a reasonable proposal, but not sincerely (verses 13-17). They speak “with guile,” bemirmah. This is the identical expression we saw in 27:35 to describe what Jacob had done: “Your brother came bemirmah and stole away your blessing.” Guile seems to run in this family.
Shechem’s family, anyway, agree to submit to circumcision (verses 18-24). Do they realize that they would thereby be accepting the covenant in Genesis 17? Probably not, but the question is moot anyway. Circumcision is simply part of a deceitful plan in this instance.
The sin of Simeon and Levi (verses 25-29), in addition to its cruelty, has about it a touch of deep irreverence. God gave Abraham’s sons the rite of circumcision as the sign of a special covenant. That is to say, circumcision was God’s chosen sign for blessing. By their actions in this chapter, Simeon and Levi distort that sign, turning it into an occasion of violence against their enemies. They take something sacred and transform it into the instrument of their own vengeance. Their action in this case points to the danger of using the blessings of God against our fellow man.