Friday, August 4

Mark 13:24-31: Jesus elaborates the question with which the chapter began: When will these things happen and what will be the signs thereof? That question, we recall, was raised by the Apostles in response to the Lord’s prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. All through this chapter the Lord has described, in dramatic imagery, the complex events that will culminate in that catastrophe. He could truly assert, therefore, “I have told you all things beforehand” (verse 23). Jesus has clearly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation, destruction so complete that it could foreshadow the end of the world itself.

And what are Christians to do in the face of these impending disasters? They are to remain vigilant, to watch and to pray and to trust in God.

These prophecies of the last times, whether in the present chapter of Mark or elsewhere in Holy Scripture, are too general to disclose such particulars of time. They serve, rather, as warnings for all times, exhortations of vigilance to the Church in every age. They instruct us less about God’s schedule than about our responsibilities.

Numbers 33: As Israel’s long journey draws nigh to its end, the inspired author of this book thinks it an opportune time to recount the stages, since Egypt, that the Chosen People have traveled (verse 1). This list is based on Moses own “log” of the trip, but the Lord Himself directed this recording of it (verse 2).

For us readers, nonetheless, identifying each of these places is a far from certain exercise. When the desert is called a “trackless waste,” full consideration should be given to that description. Deserts and their shifting sands are notoriously deficient in stable landmarks, and this record antedates by far the art of calculating one’s precise geographical position by reference to the stars. In addition, archeology has not been able, in every instance, to identify the place names listed in this chapter. If it did, we could confidently map out the entire period of Israel’s desert wandering.

An illustration of our difficulty is immediately provided by the name “Sukkoth” (verses 456-6), which means tents or booths. It may be the case that this place received its name for no other reason than the fact that Israel pitched its tents there.

The place names in the list in verses 5-15 correspond very closely to the account in Exodus 12:37—19:2. Dophkah (12-13), a name not included in Exodus, seems to be what is now called Serabit el Khadem, a site of turquoise mining in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. One suspects that Alush, also missing from Exodus, gave its name to Wadi el‘esh, just south of Dophkah.

Kadesh, which Israel reaches by verse 36, is not desert at all. It is a lush valley with abundant spring water. The major spring was Ain el-Qudeirat, twelve miles from which is Ain Qudeis, which still preserves the name Kadesh.

Saturday, August 5

Numbers 34: The present chapter may be read as a contrast with the chapter we have just finished, and this contrast pertains to both time and place. Having looked backwards in the previous chapter, the inspired writer now turns his attention to the future, and as the former chapter took the measure of the desert, the present chapter will measure the Promised Land.

The large territory considered in the first half of this chapter (verses 2-15) was not all conquered during Joshua’s period of conquest. Not until the monarchy in the tenth century before Christ did Israel occupy such a large area. When in this chapter, three centuries earlier, its distribution was being considered, the thought may have seemed fantastic.

Nonetheless, the territory outlined here really does correspond very closely to the “Canaan” over which earlier Egyptian pharaohs had exercised dominion until the close of the fourteenth century before Christ. In this sense it would have seemed normal to Moses and his contemporaries to think of Canaan (verse 2) in these same dimensions.

Having come up from the south, Moses first considered Canaan’s southern border. Under Israel’s occupation this southern border will be the land of Edom (verse 3)—that is, a line running westward from the border of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean (cf. Joshua 15”3-4; Ezekiel 47:19). The Wadi el-Arish (“river of Egypt”—verse verse 5) serves as a kind of natural division of the Negev from the Sinai Peninsula.

The “sea” (verse 5) and “great sea” (verse 6) are references to the Mediterranean, Israel natural western border.

On the north a line running eastward from the Mediterranean, somewhat north of Byblos, to the desert beyond Damascus, will border Israel. Zedad is northeast of Mount Hermon (verse 7-9).

Respecting the eastern border of Canaan, its northeastern corner will be Benaias (a later name, derived from the Greek god, Pan), the major source of the Jordan River. Then the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea will roughly form the natural eastern border (verses 11-12).

We note that these boundaries completely exclude the land recently claimed by Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. These latter tribes, therefore, are not considered in the division of the land just circumscribed (verse 13-15)

The chapter ends by listing the names of the men charged with the division of the Holy Land (verse 16-29).

Sunday, August 6

Numbers 35: Part of the disposition of the Promised Land, a theme now continued from the previous chapter, is the arrangement for regional “cities of refuge.” These were special place of sanctuary for those whose lives were endangered by families seeking blood vengeance.

Since these assigned cities of refuge were all priestly cities, however, the chapter begins with the disposition of the priestly cities (cf. also Leviticus 25:32-34; Joshua 21:1-40). The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe was to inherit forty-eight cities, including the six cities of refuge, dispersed throughout the whole Promised Land (verses 6-7). Attached to this inheritance is pasture land in the vicinity of the priestly cities (verses 2-5).

Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to the cities of refuge themselves (verses 10-34). Because they were priestly cities, these cities of refuge had shrines and altars that would serve as precincts of sanctuary (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:51).

Three were assigned to Canaan, three to Transjordania (verse 14).

These assigned cities served two discrete purposes: first, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the “city of refuge” was to place rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge.

While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that may be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tired (verse 12). If granted further asylum that that trial, the accused person was safe until the death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason.

Thus, these cities of refuge, beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, are also possessed of a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind’s control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often invoked to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Revelation 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions.

Time is on the other side, that of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Proverbs 16:32; James 1:19).

Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession. Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time,” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason’s most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment. The true city of refuge, then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.

Monday, August 7

2 Peter 2:1-11: Like the apostle Paul taking leave of the Asian churches for the last time (Acts 20:29-30), part of Peter’s final legacy here consists in a warning against false teachers who will arise from within the congregation after his departure. These will carry on the deceptive work of the false prophets, begun in Old Testament times and frequently spoken of in Holy Writ (for example, Deuteronomy 13, Jeremiah 28).

Peter proceeds to provide biblical illustrations of this road to perdition. He cites, first of all, the fallen angels, those original tempters of our race (verse 4; Jude 6), and then goes on to speak of the destruction of sinners in the Deluge and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just as God spared Noah in the former instance, He spared Lot in the latter. Peter’s picture of Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” is paralleled in his contemporary, Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1), and in Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians a generation later (7.6). Likewise, Peter’s very positive attitude toward Lot, which contrasts somewhat with the less flattering image in Genesis 19, reflects the picture of Lot in Wisdom 10:6 (“When the ungodly perished, [Wisdom] delivered the righteous man, who fled from the fire which fell down on the five cities”) and will likewise appear again in Clement of Rome (11.1).

The false teachers, by way of contrast, are said to introduce “heresies of damnation” (haireseis apoleias — verse 1), driven by fleshly lust (verses 2,10,13,14, 18) and rebellion (verses 1,10). Peter appreciates the moral “underground” of heresy. It is not simply false and unsound teaching, but a teaching prompted by lust and sustained by rebellion. If a person “loses the faith,” he has usually lost something else first, such as chastity, or patience, or sobriety. Heresy, that is to say, is normally a cover for some deeper vice. This is one of the reasons that the Bible takes such a dim view of false teachers.

Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of 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 a prohibition against these heiresses, if they do claim their inheritance, 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.

August 8

Joshua 1: Since the conquest and settling of the Holy Land is the entire story in the Book of Joshua, it is important to understand this opening chapter. 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. The death of Moses marks the end of a specific era. All Israel was waiting for him to die; at last they were able to enter the Promised Land.

Second, this division pertains to space, as well as to time; the Jordan River is a geographical boundary; its crossing meant 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 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 it.

Christian theology declines to separate God’s gift of the land to Israel from the larger context that defines it. God makes no promises—God gives no gifts—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.

Wednesday, August 9

Psalms 82 (Greek & Latin 81): In the Gospel of St. John (10:34, 35) our Lord gives us a key to understanding this psalm, when He quotes and interprets a line therefrom: “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, ‘You are gods’”? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came . . . .’” In context, those “to whom the word of God came” were the ancient judges and rulers of Israel. That is to say, the Bible sometimes uses the word “gods” to refer to certain men who exercised an exalted and godly office, human beings who, because the word of God came to them, served as judges to God’s people.

It is a rather high thing to speak of judges as “gods,” but the impulse to do so makes some sense if one bears in mind that judging is itself radically and ultimately a divine prerogative.

Indeed, this latter truth is the real point of the psalm: “God stands in the gathering (synagogue) of the gods. In their midst, He judges the gods: ‘How long do you judge unjustly, and respect the persons of the sinful? Give judgment for the orphan and the poor man, grant justice to the man meek and needy. Deliver the needy and poor man, save him from the hand of the sinner.’ But they do not know nor understand; they walk about in the darkness. Let all the foundations of the earth be shaken. I said: ‘You are gods, and sons of the Most High, all of you. You will die, nonetheless, like men, and fall like one of the princes.’ Arise, O God, and judge the earth, for You will inherit all the nations.”

It would be easy, one supposes, to read this psalm as a simple calling of human judges to task by reminding them that, at the end, they too will face the higher tribunal of the justice of God. Read in this way, the sense would be that of Socrates, at his trial, reminding his own judges that he was about to go to the gods above, who could distinguish between a just and an unjust man.

Such a consideration would not, however, exhaust the proper exegetical potential of this psalm, which is better understood, it is here suggested, by the psalm’s most prominent place in the liturgical worship of Holy Church. “Arise, O God, and judge the earth” is a cry for the Resurrection of Christ. All of the injustices of human history come from a single source, which is man’s enslavement to the powers of darkness.

This is the deeper root and more radical meaning of the line: “But they do not know nor understand; they walk about in the darkness.” It is in the Resurrection of Christ, in the great earthquake that accompanied the rolling away of the heavy stone from the door of His tomb (cf., again, Matt. 28:2), that we find the real meaning of the line that reads: “Let all the foundations of the earth be shaken.”

The divine judgment, manifest in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, is not a simple forensic decision, but a vindication of God’s righteousness against the enslaving forces of demonic darkness. It was they who aspired to equality with God. The Christian sense of this psalm , then, is very much the same as Psalm 68: “Rise up, O Lord! Let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.”

To pray for the vindication of God’s righteousness, as we do in this psalm, is to make a distinctly political prayer. Indeed, true prayer is possessed of a certain political component. When Christians pray on earth, a kind of political interest, as it were, is stirred in the heavens. Our prayer ascends in God’s sight as the incense, to the tone of trumpets, we are told, and God’s angel pours on the earth “hail and fire . . . mingled with blood” (cf. Rev. 8:4–7). Pharaoh’s throne is once again threatened. When we pray, God arises to judge the earth in His righteousness.

Thursday, August 10

Mark 11:12-19: 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.”

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).

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.”

2 Peter 3:8-13: Since only God knows the length of the eleventh hour, the Lord’s return will confound all human calculations of its timing. The simile of the thief in the night, for instance, must not be taken literally, because it is never nighttime everywhere at the same time, and the Bible contains no hint that the Lord will return to the earth by following the sequence of its appointed time zones!

This comparison with the thief’s nocturnal entrance was doubtless common among the early Christians (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:5). It will all happen with a “rush,” this onomatopoeia corresponding to the Greek verb rhoizedon in verse 10. Watchfulness, therefore, and a holy life are the proper responses to our true situation in this world (verse 11; Matthew 24:42-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Both heaven and earth will be renewed (verse 13; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1; cf. Romans 8:19-22).

Friday, August 11

Psalm 88 (Greek & Latin 87): It is appropriate that this psalm of the Passion be prayed on Friday, the “day when the Bridegroom is taken away.” Thus, the “voice” of this prayer is that of Christ, who, in his assumption of man’s sin, felt the full measure of the divine wrath. St. Luke calls this utterly mysterious experience an agonia, which prompted our Lord to pray “more earnestly.” His prayer was so intense that “his sweat became as large drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).
,
The divine wrath is revealed in the staggering realism of death. Thus, Jesus prays here, “My soul draws near to the realm of the dead (sheol, hades); I am numbered among those descending into the pit.” In this prayer he freely assumes the mortality of fallen man. “I am helpless, adrift among the dead, like the slaughtered lying in the grave.”

According to the Apostle Paul, “sin reigned in death” (Romans 5:21). Christ’s agony consisted in his confrontation with death, the inheritance bequeathed to this world by man’s sins, beginning with Adam. This is the revelation of the divine anger, because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). Jesus, in his agonia, experienced the force of that wrath manifested in death. Thus, he prayed, “You placed me in the deepest pit, in darkness and the shadow of death. Your anger lies heavy upon me.”

In this psalm, there is no relief from the experience of the divine wrath. Even at the end, it is still the case that, “Your fierce anger has come upon me;? Your terrors have cut me off.”

For all its gloom and shadow, for example, is it without significance that the psalm begins by thus addressing the Almighty: “O Lord, the God of my salvation”? The intimacy and quiet hope of this address put one in mind of Psalm 22, in which the crucified Jesus, asking why God has forsaken Him, nonetheless continues to call Him “my God, my God.”

Bearing in mind that our fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within us, we should be mightily consoled to think that the Holy Spirit, in this psalm, has made such generous provision for this fleshly side of ourselves. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, gives our fleshly fear its due. If we yet feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit is careful for this fear to find expression in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God, that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear.

Jesus took on Himself, not our pristine, unfallen nature, but our nature as tainted at the ancient tree and throughout the rest of our history. So the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. If, in addition, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must surely imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? Likewise was His perception of death vastly more ample and accurate than our own. And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of the rest of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could.