Friday, July 26

Acts 13:42-54: In this scene we discern the context of certain impulses that produced agitation in the early Christian mission. Judaism itself already had an extensive mission in the Greco-Roman world (cf. Matthew 23:15). As synagogues were established in the major cities, serious pagans were impressed by what they saw, because the life of the synagogue stood in stark contrast to the cultural and moral decay of the surrounding world, where despair was common. In the pagan world some of the major cultural institutions, particularly marriage and the family, were in serious trouble. Sex had become increasingly separated from marriage and from child-bearing, and there was some sense that this separation was related to various forms of polytheism.

What the pagans beheld in the local synagogues, however, were communities of great strength and hope, solid marriages and the joys of family life, a strict moral code in which all of life was integrated and filled with purpose, a firm emphasis on simple labor as the basis of economic existence, a rich inherited literature that imaginatively interpreted the life of the community, and the regularly scheduled, disciplined worship of a single, no-nonsense God. All of this proved to be very attractive to those serious pagans who felt distress and discomfort at the popular culture.

Some of these pagans accepted circumcision and the observance of the Law, thus becoming full-fledged Jews; these were known as proselytes (Acts 2:10; 6:5). Other pagans were unwilling to go so far, because such a decision obviously tended to cut them off from their own families and friends.

This second group simply attached themselves to the synagogues as best they could, bringing certain structures of Jewish piety into their lives, such as regular prayer and fasting and the study of the Scriptures; these were known as “fearers of God,” of which we have already seen examples in Cornelius and his friends. Thus, there were two groups of Gentiles who in varying degrees joined themselves to the local synagogues in the larger cities of the Roman Empire. Now both these groups felt a spontaneous attraction to the Gospel when they heard it proclaimed in the synagogue by Paul and his companions. In the Gospel they saw a form of religion with all the advantages of Judaism, but with none of the social disadvantages, such as circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law.

In the present reading, we observe that these people invite their other Gentile friends to come with them to the synagogue on the following Sabbath (13:44). Now, of a sudden, the Jews find their own synagogue over-run with all sorts of “undesirables.” They perceive Paul and his companions simply to be “taking over” the synagogue, preaching a doctrine that they themselves cannot control, and, from their perspective, things are getting entirely out of hand. The local Jews react with jealousy and animosity (13:45,50). After all, the Jewish religion had survived pure and intact by preserving those very disciplines that Paul and his friends seem to want to overthrow.

The Gospel, then, they experience as chaos. The very “popularity” of the Gospel becomes a reason for the stricter Jew to feel uncomfortable about it. Trouble breaks out. This sequence of events, repeated over and over again in the synagogues of the larger cities, causes the Christian Church to grow among the Gentiles, who are finally obliged to establish their own local congregations apart from the local synagogues (14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4,6,19; 19:8; 28:28).

Saturday, July 27

Numbers 20: Ancient Hebrew legend identified the “rock” in this passage with the rock in Exodus 17, a stone that actually traveled along with the people through the desert. The Apostle Paul identified that rock for us, remarking that “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

The Lord’s sudden wrath against Moses and Aaron (verse 12) apparently responds to their lack of faith (“because you did not believe Me”), perhaps indicated by Moses’ striking the rock twice (verse 11). In fact, the text does not even say that Moses was to strike the rock at all; he was to take the rod and “speak” to the rock. The text remains, anyway, a bit obscure, prompting various speculations from earliest times.

Our earliest comment on the point is Psalms 106 [105]:33—“They were provocative at the waters of Meribah / So it went ill with Moses on account of them; / Because they rebelled against His Spirit, / So that he spoke rashly with his lips.”

Having incurred the Lord’s wrath, neither Moses nor Aaron will be with the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan (verse 24). The site of this incident gave it the name Meribah, meaning “strife.”

It is worth remarking that Moses does not complain about the Lord’s judgment on his own ministry; he does not murmur at not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Moses accepts the judgment of God, rather, and continues on his way, evidently aware of himself only as an unworthy servant.

Israel seeks permission to travel through the territory of Edom, using the royal highway (verses 14-17), a traditional caravan road running north from Israel’s present position at Kadesh. Edom declines the request, thus discounting its ancient blood ties to Israel (verses 18-21).

In his request to the Edomites, Moses advances two lines of persuasion:

First, he appeals to the fraternity between Edom and Israel (verse 14), who are the respective descendents of Esau and Jacob. A good brother, Moses reasons, would want to aid his kinsman in the hour of distress (verses 15-16). This line of argument is especially persuasive in those societies where ties of blood are stronger than those of geography.

Second, Moses restricts his request solely to the use of the regular caravan route, the same road to which traders between Damascus and the Gulf of Aqaba normally had access. Edom, Moses argues, would not be inconvenienced.

Edom’s rejection of this diplomatic request—made twice—is accompanied by an open military threat. Having no divine mandate to fight the Edomites, Israel backs down and seeks another route to Canaan (verse 21).

This story overflows with irony. For example, having refused to enter the Holy Land, which abounded with various fruits (13:23-24), the people now complain of not finding these fruits in the desert (verse 5). Another point of irony is the fact that the Lord does not punish their rebellion in the present instance. They are already condemned to die in the wilderness, so why lay a further burden on them? (cf. Psalms 78:38)

Sunday, July 28

Numbers 21: The Israelites move further east and south to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites. Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the Brazen Serpent (verses 5-9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word Seraphim, by the way) serpents are so called by the effects of their bite, whether a fever or a painful inflammation.

It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period!

In due course, King Hezekiah was obliged to destroy this copper image, because the Israelites of the 8th century had started to treat it like an idol (2 Kings 18:4).

The deeper significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained in two later biblical passages.

The first is Wisdom 16:5-7:

For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these, they were destroyed with the biting of crooked serpents. But thy wrath endured not forever, but they were troubled for a short time for their correction, having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned to it, was not healed by that which he saw, but by thee the Savior of all.

The great irony of the serpent is this: The serpent was our tempter. The serpent, then, symbolizes man’s fall. God, as the “Savior of all,” assumes an image associated with sin itself. The brazen serpent, then, became a type or prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God’s Son assumed the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to redeem us.
The Jews, then, in looking at the serpent in faith, were in fact, looking forward to Christ, who was symbolized in that image.

The second text is John 3:14-16:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

The expression “be lifted up,” used by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus, is repeated halfway through John’s Gospel, again with reference to the crucifixion: “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (12:32–33).

In addition to being a reference to the Crucifixion, the expression “lifted up” also alludes to a prophecy of God’s Suffering Servant: “Behold, My Servant will prosper; He shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly” (Isaiah 52:13, LXX). As this text makes clear, the Lord’s lifting up refers not only to His crucifixion but also to His exaltation in glory.

Monday, July 29

Numbers 22: Throughout this narrative, we observe two facts about Balak:

First, he recognizes the political value of religion. For Balak, the divine is a politically useful force, and he is prompt to exploit its blessings. He tells Balaam, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (verse 6). This is an eerie paraphrase of God’s promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you,? and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). In the case of Abraham, this was a promise to be met with faith. Balak, however, is not a man of faith. He makes use of religious forces for political purposes, but he is not the least disposed to follow the obedience of faith.

Second, this political pursuit shows Balak to be uncommonly stubborn. Already in the present chapter we see him unwilling to take no for an answer. Throughout this story of Balaam, we will find him extremely persistent, as though imagining reality was malleable to the force of his will. This persistence will prove his undoing.

Balak is obliged to send a considerable distance to summon Balaam, who lived far, far north at Pethor (called Pitru in Assyrian records), a city on the west bank of the Euphrates, some twelve miles south of Carchemish (verse 5).

Divinely instructed to do so, Balaam declines the summons to come and curse Israel (verses 7-14). At this point he seems not to have been a bad man, and it is interesting to observe his knowledge of Israel and even the name of Israel’s God. He recognizes that this God is not one to trifle with. It is unfortunate for him that he does not persevere with that recognition.

Persistent Balak determines to summon Balaam a second time, enhancing the quality of his delegation (verses 15-17). The prophet, by divine instruction, accepts his second summons and prepares to make the journey south to the Plains of Moab.

Nonetheless, the Lord may already have sensed some inner infidelity in Balaam, because He becomes angry and sends an angel with a sword to convey one last warning message to Balaam (verse 22). At this point Holy Scripture introduces the arguably most interesting character in the whole Balaam story—the donkey, who is able to see reality a great deal better than this professional “seer”!

Comparative literature provides an analog to Balaam’s donkey in Xanthus, one of the horses belonging to Achilles. According to Homer, the goddess Hera gave the power of speech to Xanthus, in order to inform Achilles of his coming death (Iliad 19.407-417). This literary parallel consists in more than two talking equines, however. In the cases of both Balaam and Achilles, the respective beasts are able to see the unseen and to convey warnings to their owners.

Tuesday, July 30

Mark 10:46-52: At the end of this section of Mark, and just prior to the Lord’s
entrance into Jerusalem to suffer and die (11:1), we meet blind Bartimaeus, who sits “by the road [or “way,” para ten hodon]” and receives his sight from Jesus. This new sight enables Bartimaeus to do what the other disciples have all along resisted doing: “And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road [or “way,” en te hodo]” (10:46–52). Bartimaeus thus represents the true disciple who follows Jesus on the way of the Cross. At last the seed falls on good ground and bears fruit (4:8, 20).

Acts 15:22-29: James reminds the rest of the council that a certain pastoral delicacy will be needed in its application. If all of the Mosaic Law is neglected by the Gentile Christians indiscriminately and right away, the result may be a considerable scandal, because Jewish sensitivities may be deeply (and unnecessarily) offended. If, James argues, the Gentile converts should not be disturbed (verse 19), neither should the Jewish Christians (verse 21). Therefore, he urges that four restrictions be placed on the Gentile converts with respect to the Mosaic Law (verse 20).

James is not pulling these four restrictions out of thin air. He is drawing them from Leviticus 17-18, which contains a list of rules for aliens living in the Holy Land: abstention from food sacrificed to idols (Leviticus 17:8-9), from the consumption of blood (17:10-12) and strangled animals (17:15), and from illicit sexual intercourse (18:6-18). Later on, even though St. Paul’s epistles never refer to this decision of the Jerusalem council, we will find him applying exactly the same sensitivity that James expresses here to address a concrete pastoral situation (1 Corinthians 8-10).

Numbers 23: These next two chapters contain four oracles of Balaam relative to Israel, each of which is set in a liturgical context, complete with the offering of sacrifice. The words of the oracles come from the Lord Himself (verses 5,16).

The first oracle (verses 8-10), called a “parable” (mashal—-verse 7), testifies to the futility of defying God, even by religious means, such as blessing and cursing. In mystic vision Balaam see that there is more going on than meets the eye in Israel’s sudden appearance in this time and place. There is more happening than human force can control or explain. Even this pagan and unworthy prophet can discern that God’s secret purposes are at work, such as only a fool would undertake to resist. Israel, says Balaam, is not like other nations (verse 9).

Needless to say, this is not what Balak had in mind to hear (verse 11), and the Moabite king, evidently of the opinion that a change of view might be helpful to his cause, takes Balaam up to a higher place and asks him to give it a go from a new angle, as it were, a fresher approach to the situation (verse 14).

From Balak’s perspective, this new angle is no help at all. Indeed, it simply amplifies the former message, insisting that on the inevitability of God’s purpose respecting Israel (verses 18-24).

Completely frustrated, Balak wants to cancel the whole performance (verse 25), but the show must go on, says Balaam (verse 26). It is too late to stop. All right, answers Balak, let’s try to find a third angle from which to view the thing. So everyone prepared to go through the whole complicated process once again (verses 27-30).

We behold Balak’s bewilderment, as he continues to imagine that the gist of prophecy consists in changing one’s perspective and looking at things from a different angle. This frustrating exercise is also part of the Lord’s plan, so He permits the charade to continue. This next message will be of a piece with the other two.

Wednesday, July 21

Numbers 24: Unlike Balak, Balaam has the situation figured out. He knows that it is hopeless; Israel cannot be cursed. Balaam turns his back, therefore, and stares into the wilderness; he will not look at Israel (verse 1). Even there, however, and apparently in mystic trance (verse 4), he beholds the hosts of the Israelites, and the Holy Spirit of prophecy descends upon him.

This new “parable” (mashal—verse 3), the most solemn hitherto (verses 5-9), invokes the lion symbolism that Jacob had used of Judah (verse 9; Genesis 49:9) and the imagery of the water and trees of Paradise (verse 6; Genesis 2:9-10).

Barak, naturally quite exasperated by now (verse 10), orders Balaam to leave at once (verse 11). The latter, however, after defending himself (verses 12-14), has one more parable “for the road,” as it were, this one not sought by Balak. Indeed, this final prophecy is a multiple parable (mashal—verses 15,20,21,23), a prophecy in parts, in which Balaam announces what Moab and its neighbors may expect of the Israelites in the years to come.

The star rising from Jacob (verse 17) is, of course, the Star of David and refers to the Messianic line of David’s sons. Just as it was the pagan prophet Balaam who first saw this star in mystic vision, it was the pagan sages that beheld its coming with their own eyes (Matthew 2:2,7,9,10).

The Christian interpretation of this star emerged early:

And that He should rise as a star from the see of Abraham, Moses demonstrated ahead of time when he said, ‘A star shall arise from Jacob, and a leader from Israel'; and another Scripture says, ‘Behold a Man, the East is His name.’ Accordingly, when a star arose in heaven at the time of His birth, as is recorded in the memoirs of the Apostles, the Magi from Arabia, recognizing the sign by this, came and adored Him (Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho 106).

And again:

Therefore there is one and the same God, who was proclaimed by the prophets and announced by the Gospel; and His Son, who was of the fruit of David’s body, that is, of the Virgin descended from David, and Emmanuel; whose star Balaam also prophesied, ‘A star shall arise out of Jacob, and a leader shall arise in Israel.’ But Matthew says that the Magi, coming from the east, exclaimed, ‘For we have seen His star in the east and are come to adore Him”; and having been led by the star into the house of Jacob, to Emmanuel, they showed by the gifts that they offered Him just whom they were adoring (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.9.2).

Thursday, August 1

Acts 16:1-15: Beginning in verse 10 appears the first of the “we” sections of this book, those parts written in what grammarians call the first person plural. The present “daily reflections” on the Book of Acts assume as accurate the ancient view that the “we” sections of Acts narrate those incidents and events to which the book’s author, the physician Luke, was a personal eye-witness. Thus, it appears that Luke joined Paul’s company at the coastal city of Troas, near the site of primitive Troy (16:6).

Was Luke converted during Paul’s brief sojourn at Troas, or had he already been a Christian for some time? The answer to this question should take into consideration that Luke already appears to be a mature Christian, capable of assuming difficult pastoral responsibilities. When Paul leaves Philippi only a short time later (16:40), he is able to leave Luke in charge of the new congregation in that city, where he will once again join Paul some eight years later (20:5). (Thus, it is reasonable to understand Paul’s mention of his “loyal yoke-fellow” in Philippians 4:3 as a reference to Luke, who pastored that congregation, as far as we can tell, between the years 49 and 57.)

The burden of the present reading in Acts is to show how the ministry of the apostle Paul passed from Asia to Europe (16:9-11). Thus, the last Asian city to be evangelized by Paul on this second journey was Troas, to which he would return briefly in the mid-50s (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:12). He would come back there one last time in A.D. 57, making his final journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:5-13). When in Troas at that time, Paul will lodge with a Christian named Carpus (probably the owner of that large three-storied house described in Acts 20:8-9), at whose home he inadvertently left a cloak, some books, and some expensive parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).

In the present account we see that Paul’s initial trip to Macedonia from Troas required only two days (verse 11), a trip facilitated by the steady current that flows from the colder Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, into the warmer waters of the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean basin. Paul’s later return trip to Troas will take much longer and require either very strong favorable winds from the west or the labor of galley slaves (20:6).

Paul’s first European city, Philippi, was served by the port town of Neapolis (“new city”), which is the modern Kavalla. The river referred to here is the Gangites, slightly outside the city. It was at this river that the imperial forces of Octavius and Mark Anthony had defeated the republican army of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. The local Jews met at this site, outside the city, for reasons to be mentioned later. It is here that Paul makes his first convert in Europe, a business woman from the Asian city of Thyatira, which would eventually have a Christian congregation of its own (cf. Revelation 2:24). Lydia was a “fearer of God” (verse 14), much like Cornelius in Acts 10.

Friday, August 2

Acts 16:16-24: In the year 49–the very year in which Paul began this journey–the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (cf. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars “Claudius” 25; Acts of the Apostles 18:2). It should not surprise us that such a decree would be taken seriously at the Macedonian city of Philippi, where Paul and his company were struggling to establish a new church. Philippi was, after all, a “colony” of Rome (16:12), a sort of legal extension of Rome itself.

Founded by Philip II in 358 B.C., it was settled largely by the families of the imperial soldiers who had been bequeathed real estate in the place as a reward for their part in the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. These were Romans, whom the Roman penal code prohibited from becoming Jews (cf. Cicero, On the Laws 2.18,19; Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14). In the present reading Paul is accused (falsely) of trying to win proselytes to Judaism, teaching customs which “we Romans,” the Macedonians insist, could not lawfully accept (16:21). Indeed, unlike the other cities that Paul had evangelized, Philippi has no synagogue. The few Jews in the city are obliged, as we saw, to worship outside of the city limits, and these seem chiefly to be women (16:13). The matter of Roman citizenship will become rather ironical in this chapter. Whereas Paul is arrested for teaching things unacceptable to Romans, it turns out that he is himself a Roman citizen and will make a sharp point of this fact at the end of the story (16:36-38; cf. Also 22:25-29; 23:37).

This matter of proper citizenship will remain a touchy subject for the church at Philippi. Paul would later remind them that their real citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, they were to “live out citizenship (politevesthe) in the Gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Christians, after all, are “fellow citizens (sympolitai) with the saints” (Ephesians 2:19).

Numbers 26: The census at the beginning of this book was taken forty years earlier and counted a population that by now has disappeared. An entire generation has died in the wilderness, replaced by its children, and these already have children, and, doubtless, even grandchildren, of their own. Therefore, it is time for a new census before Israel moves again, this time across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Thus, the narrative of the Book of Numbers lies between two demographic lists.

Moreover, the direct purpose of the present census is to determine the demographic figures necessary for the coming distribution of the Promised Land. It is no accident, therefore, that the census in this chapter is followed by an outline of inheritance laws in the next chapter. Israel is exactly at the point when its existence will soon pass from migratory to sedentary, and it is the proper context for matching needs with resources. This census will indicate the territorial needs of each tribe.

The census complete, the distribution of the Promised Land is to be done by a double method of casting lots and maintaining equity in the distribution. Since there is great disproportion in the size of the inheriting tribes, this process is bound to be both complicated and difficult (verses 52-56).

Comparing the figures in this census with the earlier one in Numbers, we observe that some of the tribes have declined slightly, a thing not surprising in view of the extreme rigors of the desert. For instance, respecting the tribe of Reuben, one may compare the figure in verse 7 with Numbers 1:21. The tribe of Simeon, we note, has diminished by more than half (verse 14; 1:23), a circumstance that may explain why Judah eventually absorbed this tribe. Other tribes have declined as well: Zebulon (verse 27; 1:31), Ephraim (verse 37; 1:33), Naphtali (50:1:43).

Other tribes have actually grown. For instance, the tribe of Judah, eventually the royal tribe and of which we have already discerned an increasing prominence, has grown slightly (verse 22; 1:27), as have Dan (verse 43; 1:39), Issachar (verse 25; 1:29), and Asher (verse 47; 1:41). Even more pronounced is the growth of Benjamin (verse 41; 1:37). Manasseh has almost doubled in size (verse 34; 1:35), a fact that will explain why half of this tribe will settle on the east side of the Jordan.

Unlike the earlier census (1:49), this one does count the Levites, but care is still taken to keep their census separate from that of the other tribes (verse 62; cf. 1:47).

Eventually there will be some discussion about female inheritance in families that produced no male heirs. For this reason, two cases are mentioned in the present chapter (verses 33,46).