Friday, January 13

Matthew 4:18-25: As fishermen, the Aposltes follow a profession with a playful analogy with the ministry of the Church. That is, they become “fishers of men,” drawing the whole world into the Holy Spirit’s net, which is the Church. In the third Galilean pericope (23-25), the fishing is extended to the larger region of the Decapolis and Syria. The Church’s fishing net is being spread to cover a larger area. This text is a step in preparation of the Great Commission, given in Matthew’s final chapter, about the disciplizing of “all nations.” The people are gathering here, of course, to hear the Sermon on the Mount, which will fill the next three chapters of Matthew.

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 descendants, 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 peace making 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 “descendants” 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 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).

Saturday, January 14

The Old Testament provides a genealogy, at least in brief, for most of its “persons of the drama.” The clear exception is Melchizedek, who suddenly enters the biblical story in this chapter of Genesis and just as abruptly leaves it. Nothing whatever is said of his ancestry, the rest of his life, or his death. Melchizedek simply appears “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3).

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).

Melchizedek was, in addition, “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).

Sunday, January 15

Genesis 15: This, the first of two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram, is arguably the more dramatic and colorful. Here 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 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.

At this point in the story, 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.

Hebrews 6:9-20: Christians here are exhorted to “show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end.” “Diligence” is spoude in Greek. This word, which has the sense of earnestness and seriousness, also conveys some sense of speed and promptness. It was with spoude that Mary arose, after her encounter with the Angel Gabriel, and hastened south to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Perhaps it should be translated, in many New Testament texts, as “alacrity.”

In the present context, spoude is contrasted with sluggishness. The author of Hebrews goes on to urge “that you do not become sluggish.”

St. Paul regarded this alacrity as a proper mark of Christian leadership (Romans 12:8). The last thing the Christian people need is a sluggish leader.

Understandably, spoude often appears in the Bible’s exhortatory sections. Thus, when St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about certain problems in their congregation, he did so with spoude (2 Corinthians 7:12). And when the Corinthians received that admonition, they also exercised spoude (7:11).

This alacrity, which the New Testament clearly perceives as a proper mark of the Christian life, is often used in connection with deeds of charity and kindness. Paul wrote to the Romans about “not lagging in spoude (Romans 12:11).

Thus, too, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he used this noun three times: “But as you abound in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all spoude, and in your love for us—that you abound in this grace also. I speak not by commandment, but through spoude for others I am testing the sincerity of your love” (8:7-8). Finally, in respect to this collection, Paul wrote, “But thanks to God who has put the same spoude for you into the heart of Titus” (8:16).

Monday, January 16

Genesis 16: Like the precedent referred to in 15:2-4, the “legal fiction” found here in verses 1-3 (and later 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 that 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 (Galatians 4:21-25).

In this respect, furthermore, the Apostle to the Gentiles saw a prefigurement 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 (4:26-28). 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 (4:31). They are the children of Hagar! This idea closes off a chapter of Galatians that began with the transformation from slavery to freedom (3:29—4:7).

Tuesday, January 17

Hebrews 9:11-22: There is no proper understanding of this text without some appreciation of its Old Testament imagery, particularly the significance of the blood. In the Hebrew Bible, the blood is related to the soul. Consider: In the year 65 the Emperor Nero ordered the philosopher Seneca to take his own life. (Non-philosophers have a disposition to treat philosophers this way; one recalls the execution of Socrates by suicide.)

Seneca, given some discretion in the matter, decided to do it in the easiest way possible. No painful hanging for him, no bullet to the brain, and certainly nothing exotic, like jumping from a bridge or flinging himself under a subway train. Nothing violent. As a philosopher, Seneca hated violence, and he wanted to make it as easy as possible.

As there was no need to rush, Seneca decided to enjoy the experience: a little quiet supper with some friends invited over for his leave-taking. Seneca simply had a vein opened in his arm, so that he could die as peacefully as possible, without a lot of undue trouble and stress; it was just a matter of getting his flesh and his blood separated from one another. The separation of the blood from the body was the equivalent of the separation of the soul from the body.

Seneca would not have identified the soul with the blood. Indeed, he wrote a treatise On the Tranquility of the Soul, where he doesn’t say anything about blood. Yet, he knew that an infallible way of separating the soul from the body was to separate the blood from the body. There was no special theory involved, just a little practical application of hemadrometry.

Holy Scripture takes an even more explicit view of the matter: “the soul of the flesh is in the blood”—nephesh habbasar baddam (Leviticus 17:11). In the Bible, the blood was not just one of the “bodily fluids”; it was the medium of life.

The blood, consequently, was the inner being of a living animal. This is the reason why the Old Testament prohibits the consumption of blood.

As the body’s medium of life, the blood contained the inner being of the living animal, including man. To shed one’s blood was to give one’s life.

Because the blood represented life at its deepest contact with God, all of the Old Testament sacrifices prescribed for sin were blood sacrifices. Other sorts of sacrifices were offered, but for the sin offering only blood would suffice. As Hebrews will say a little later on, “without the shedding of blood is no remission” (9:22).

Wednesday, January 18

Genesis 18: Two scenes fill this chapter. The first is Abraham’s reception of “the Lord” in the guise of “three men,” whom the Christian Church has always pictured as three angels. These Three were either the prophetic prefiguration or the appearance of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in human/angelic form, according to the earliest Christian readings of the text. Because the prophetic promise given about Isaac in this chapter is definitively fulfilled only in the New Testament, it was appropriate that on that occasion God should appear as that Trinity of distinct Persons which the New Testament proclaims Him to be.

St. Ambrose of Milan thus commented on this scene in the second half of the fourth century: “Prepared to receive strangers, faithful to God, dedicated to ministering and prompt in His service, Abraham beheld the Trinity in a type. He supplemented hospitality with religious fealty, when beholding the Three he worshipped the One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, he addressed One Lord, offering to Three the honor of his gift, while acknowledging but a single Power. It was not learning that spoke in him but grace, and although he had not learned, he believed in a way superior to us who have learned. Since no one had distorted the representation of the truth, he sees the Three but worships the Unity. He offers three measures of fine meal while slaying but one victim, considering that a single sacrifice is sufficient but a triple gift; a single victim, but a threefold offering” (Faith in the Resurrection 2.96).

The second scene is Abraham’s supplication on behalf of Sodom, where Lot resides. Knowing that the Lord is prepared to destroy that city for its wickedness, and fearing for the welfare of his nephew and his family, Abraham bravely endeavors to “arrange a deal” with the Lord, in hopes of having the city spared. In one of the most colorful scenes in a very colorful book, Abraham plays the part of the Bedouin trader, a type commonly met in the Middle East, attempting to arrange a lower price by the process of haggling. Particularly good in this art, Abraham works from a “price” of fifty just men down to a mere ten. He thus serves as the very model of fervent intercessory prayer, unafraid of “pressing a point” with God. Alas, Abraham knows that there are not even ten just men left in Sodom. Before he can suggest a lower figure, however, the Lord abruptly breaks off the negotiations and departs (verse 33). Sodom is doomed.

Thursday, January 19

Genesis 19: To the fine example of hospitality shown by Abraham and Sarah in the previous chapter we now find opposed the terrible example of hospitality shown by the residents of Sodom. Although their failure in the matter of hospitality may not have been the worst of their sins, it was sufficiently serious for Jesus to speak of it in the context of the hospitality that He expected His own apostles to receive when they entered a town (Matthew 10:11-15).

Throughout Holy Scripture, Sodom will be remembered as a very bad place that got exactly what it deserved (Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19; Jeremiah 49:17-18; 50:40; Ezekiel 16:46-48,55-56; Matthew 11:23-24; Revelation 11:8).

There are striking similarities between Psalm 11 (10) and this chapter’s description of the overthrow of Sodom. Consider the psalm: “Snares will He rain upon the sinners — fire, brimstone, and windstorm — these are their portion to drink.” And Genesis: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” Or, again, in the psalm: “In the Lord have I trusted. How say to my soul, ‘Fly to the mountains like a sparrow’?” And the angels say to Lot in Genesis: “Escape for your life; look not behind you, neither stay in the plain; escape to the mountain lest you be consumed.” To which Lot answers: “I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil overtake me, and I die.” And yet again in the psalm: “For the Lord is just, and justice He loves. His face beholds what is upright.”

But according to the Apostle Peter, this explains precisely what transpired in the present chapter of Genesis, where God is “turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemning them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked; for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds” (2 Peter 2:7f). And the psalm once more: “The Lord is in His holy temple. The Lord! His throne is in heaven. His glance regards the poor man; His eyes will examine the sons of men. The Lord will test the just man and the unjust. The lover of evil hates his own soul.” And once again Peter, commenting on the present chapter of Genesis: “For the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of trials, and to reserve the unjust unto punishment on the day of judgment” (2:9).

Similarly, when Jesus would tell us of the final and catastrophic times, it is to Sodom that He sends us: “Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28-30). Indeed, “even so,” for we ourselves yet abide in the cities of the plain, “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities round about them in a similar manner to these” (Jude 7).

Friday, January 20

Hebrews 11:8-16: Among the numerous and varied characters of the Old Testament, Abraham is perhaps the one most mentioned as a model for the Christian life. This theme is prominent in the Epistle to the Romans, where Abraham, described as “the father of us all” (4:16) is presented as the outstanding example of the life of faith (chapter 4 passim). For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was manifest in his adherence to God’s promises against all contrary evidence: “contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (4:18).

The Epistle to the Hebrews, though not neglecting that aspect of the Abraham story (11:11-12), emphasizes two other aspects of Abraham’s faith: his wandering and his response to the summons he received to offer Isaac in sacrifice.

Genesis 20: This chapter sounds rather familiar to the story in Genesis 12, where we also learned of the beauty of Sarah and the disposition of men to look upon her with a measure of “coveting.” In the present instance, we may bear in mind, Sarah is almost ninety years old and pregnant. This fact says either a great deal of Sarah’s beauty or Abimelech’s preferences in women.

We already learned a great deal about Abraham’s powers of persuasion when he turned to God in prayer. This was hardly surprising, because the Scriptures call him “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; Daniel 3:35 [LXX]; Judith 8:22 [Vulgate]; James 2:23), and God, like the rest of us in this respect, delights in doing favors for His friends. As God’s friend, Abraham was blessed with what the Bible calls parresia, confidence or even boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), in his approach to the Lord on matters of concern. Like the stalwart widow in the Gospel parable on this subject (Luke 18:1-8), Abraham could be rather persistent, perhaps a tad nagging, when he brought some point of concern to the attention of the Almighty. Accustomed to that mercantile dickering ever common in the Middle East, Abraham knew how to chaffer his way to a bargain, and he incorporated this skill too into his prayer, as it were. We saw this power of his intercessory prayer in Genesis 18:16-33.

Thus in the present chapter, even after God declared to Abimelech, “Indeed, you are a dead man,” He went on to promise that Abraham “will pray for you and you shall live” (verses 3,7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (verse17).