Friday, January 23
Hebrews 12:1-11: Even in advance of the darkness of the Passion, the celebration of Palm Sunday gives Christians a vision of the glory that will follow the Cross. They are not expected to step into the dark corridor without knowing where that corridor will lead.
Jesus Himself knew exactly where he was going when he began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross. Indeed, it was his vision that strengthened him to walk that path. He, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” He did not suffer the Cross for the sake of the Cross, but because of that final joy.
Christians, likewise, are not called to endure for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of glory. In this, they are to be modeled on Jesus: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” Several translations (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB) render this last expression as “our eyes fixed on Jesus,” which perhaps better catches the sense of aphorontes. We are, in fact, dealing with a fixation.
In the Christian life, very much depends of where we look, where we direct our attention. Recall Peter’s attempt to walk on water: “And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid” (Matthew 14:29-30).
This fixation is a function of concentration: “Consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (its only place in the New Testament) is the imperative form of analogizomai, which refers to critical, discursive thought—the labor of the mind.
In fact, one sees in this verb the same root found in the English “analogy.” This is all the more curious inasmuch as our author proceeds immediately to provide an analogy: “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?”
These reflections touch the very purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews: to encourage Christians who had become despondent because of the difficulties attendant on the life of faith. The author endeavors to fix their attention on those considerations that provide strength for the struggle. His model, in this respect, is Jesus Himself, who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Saturday, January 24
Hebrews 12:1-11: Esau is described as bebelos, translated traditionally as “profane” (KJV) or “irreligious”(RSV). He never developed the habit of reflecting on the moral nature of what he was doing. Esau, as we see in the instance of the bowl of soup, thought only of the present moment. Obeying the impulse of the moment, he neglected both the past and the future.
Hence, Esau was slow to learn that the future is very much tied to the inheritance from the past. Some blessings—and among them the very best—are inseparable from birthrights, so that the reckless squandering of the one renders unlikely the acquisition of the other. Those, therefore, who contemn the past, have little chance for a future. Esau stepped outside of salvation history, and he had only himself to blame.
Genesis 24: In this exquisitely crafted account of God’s historical intervention in response to prayer, two features should especially be noted:
First, the story is told twice: initially by the narrator (vv. 1–26) and then a second time by a character within the narrative, namely the servant (vv. 34–48). This deliberate doubling of the story, which obliges the reader to think about its implications a second time, also serves the purpose of placing the theme of divine providence more completely within the fabric of the tale. In the first telling, the reader is struck by how quickly the servant’s prayer is heard—“it happened, before he finished speaking” (v. 15). This promptness of God’s response is emphasized in the second telling—“before I finished speaking in my mind” (v. 45). God is encountered in the servant’s experience of the event that comes crashing in, as it were, on his prayer.
Second, the doubling of the narrative is not artificial. It is essential, rather, to the motive of Rebekah and her family in their decision that she should accompany the servant back to Abraham’s home and become the wife of Isaac. That is to say, the characters themselves are made aware that God has spoken through the narrated events. They perceive God’s providence: “The command [dabar] comes from the Lord; we cannot speak [dabber] to you either good or bad. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be your lord’s son’s wife, as the Lord has spoken [dibber]” (vv. 50–51). The event itself was a “word” from God, a dabar. That is to say, given the servant’s testimony, it was clear that all things had worked together “for good to those who love God.”
Sunday, January 25
Matthew 7:24-29: The reference to the building by a wise man puts the reader in mind of Solomon, remembered in Holy Scripture as both a wise man and a builder. It is the Day of Judgment which will reveal whether or not a man has wisely built on a strong foundation (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Genesis 25: Abraham, having spent most of his life childless, seems to have overdone it a bit toward the end. He married a woman named Keturah, who bore him quite a family (vv. 1–6). This was not bad for a man said to be “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:12).
This brief account sits somewhat outside of the central core of the biblical narrative, almost as an afterthought. Although it may have taken place prior to the marriage of Isaac in the previous chapter, the story is told at the very end, just before Abraham’s death. Its insertion into the Bible manifests a concern to show that the Israelites were related by blood to other peoples who lived in the region, particularly the Midianites and Kedemites (“Easterners”), nomadic tribes of the Arabian and Syrian deserts.
At the same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later family separate from Isaac (v. 6), who alone was the heir of the divine promises.
At Abraham’s death, he is buried in the same plot he purchased earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two households had been maintained (vv. 7–11). The scene of Abraham’s burial, uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in our own day.
Now that Abraham has died, the Bible’s interest will go to the history of Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author has tidied up Ishmael and his own progeny (vv. 12–18). Here we observe that twelve tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture, in Exodus and Chronicles for example.
Monday, January 26
Matthew 8:1-4: Here begins a series of Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt. It is significant that, in the first of these, the curing of the leper, the Lord invokes the authority of Moses (8:4).
Genesis 26: God’s historical choice is now furthered narrowed; the promises made to Abraham are now made to Isaac, as they had not been made to Ishmael (vv. 1–5). On the other hand, Isaac is clearly a “transition patriarch,” between Abraham and Jacob. There are almost no stories about Isaac, except in relation to either his father or his sons. Whereas both Abraham and Jacob traveled in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, Isaac never leaves the Promised Land.
The story about Rebekah and Abimelech (vv. 6–11) is strikingly similar to two earlier stories about Sarah, and the she-is-my-sister trick is something that Isaac evidently learned from his father. There are differences among the stories, nonetheless. In the present case, we observe that the wife is not actually removed to the other man’s house; Abimelech does not go quite so far on the present occasion.
He has evidently become just a wee bit more cautious; this time it does not take a divine revelation for him to discover the truth. He simply watches the couple more closely, until one day he sees them engaged in amorous exchanges (we will not speculate) that reveal that they are husband and wife. Indeed, as it turns out, Abimelech himself never admits being interested in Rebekah; he simply explains that he feared somebody else might be!
The “revelation” in this chapter happens differently from those in chapters 12 and 20. In the former two stories, God manifested the truth by a supernatural intervention easily discerned. In the present story God’s revelation to Abimelech is subtler; indeed, God is not even mentioned in connection with it. That is to say, God’s intervention and deliverance need not be spectacular in order to be real. It is sufficient that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
In this story, we observe that Isaac has inherited the peace-loving, unassertive disposition of his father. When there is trouble, he defuses it by meekness. And in his case too, the “meek shall inherit the earth.”
The account of Isaac’s vision (vv. 23–25) links his name to the ancient shrine of Beersheba, much as Abraham’s name was associated with Hebron, and Jacob’s will be with Shechem and Bethel. The account itself is similar to that in chapter 17.
Tuesday, January 27
Genesis 27: The shrewdness of Rebekah (vv. 1–13) was a family trait, which we have already seen in Jacob’s snatching of Esau’s birthright. Very shortly we will find Jacob matching wits with Rebekah’s brother, Laban. If we are disposed to judge Rebekah’s favoritism too harshly, it will be useful to bear in mind that the Lord had already given her a special insight into the matter:
Two nations are in your womb, / And two peoples shall be separated from your body. / One shall be stronger than the other, / And the older shall serve the younger (25:23).
Rebekah knows which son is which, so she knows which son will do the serving and which will be served. If such was God’s plan, Rebekah sees no harm in moving things in the right direction, as it were. Moved by a mixture of faith and anxiety, Rebekah decides to take the fulfillment of prophecy into her own hands.
There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah received that revelation of God’s plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it. Thus, his physical blindness becomes a symbol of his inability to see what is going on according to God’s plan. His favoring of Esau over Jacob already puts him outside of God’s will; that is to say, his preference between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God’s will, therefore, he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God’s will is a sure step toward deception.
On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is acting blindly.
The blessing of the Promised Land, then, goes to Jacob, not to Esau (vv. 26–29). Isaac unwittingly shifts God’s promises to his younger son, Jacob, and these promises will, in due course, pass to the latter’s descendants (Deuteronomy 7:13–14; 33:28).
The account of Esau’s return (vv. 30–33) is especially dramatic. The inspired author is not so preoccupied with the underlying theology as to lose contact with the human and emotional components of this remarkable story. Isaac begins to tremble. At once he becomes aware that he has been acting in ignorance. Yet that blessing, once given, was the instrument of the divine will. He had become the unwitting agent of God’s purposes, which were quite distinct from his own. Thus, this is one of the Bible’s great stories of those who accomplish God’s will in ignorance and even contrary to their own intentions. It is not a story about fate, but it does have some literary similarities to Greek stories about fate. (The story of blind Teiresias, in the Antigone of Sophocles, comes to mind.)
Wednesday January 28
Genesis 28: As we saw in the previous chapter, 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 (vv. 1–5):
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” (v. 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 tents 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 (vv. 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 (vv. 10–15), and his thoughtful reaction within the dream (vv. 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 chapter 15 and Isaac in chapter 26; indeed, God says to him (v. 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 (v. 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).
Thursday, January 29
Genesis 29: At about noon (v. 7) Jacob arrives at the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already assembled with their flocks (v. 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 (vv. 3, 8). It says a great deal of Jacob’s physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job (v. 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 chapter 24, Jacob is promptly blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny (vv. 6, 9–12). Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob tells the whole story, “all that happened,” to Laban (v. 13).
Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (vv. 13–30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle requires.
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 be obliged 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 (vv. 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 chapter 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 as wives (v. 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).
Friday, 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 chapter 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 chapter 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (vv. 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 (vv. 3–8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (vv. 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 (vv. 13–21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (vv. 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 (vv. 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 (vv. 35–36).
Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (vv. 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 comes time to leave.