Friday, February 13

Genesis 44: We come now to the final test. As we saw in the two previous chapters, Joseph is hard put to control his emotions. He longs to reveal himself to his brothers. He must control himself, however, because there is a practical task to be accomplished. Being a practical man Joseph listens to his head more than his heart and prepares the final test.

After the departure of his brothers, he has them pursued. The brothers plead their innocence. With great confidence they offer the life of the guilty party if there be such a one among them. This is exactly what Jacob had said to Laban when the latter had complained about the theft of his household god (31:32).

Once again the process goes by the oldest to the youngest, a procedure that permits the gradual build-up of suspense, reaching the climax of the scene in the discovery of the cup in Benjamin’s sack.

The brothers at this point are struck silent. There is not a word, not an excuse, not a protestation. They now return to the city in silence, each man dealing privately with his own desperation. According to the terms of the steward, all of them may return safely home except Benjamin, but then they must face their father without Benjamin. Joseph has them exactly where he wants them. The trapdoor is closed. The brothers have run out of options. Now Joseph will learn what they are made of.

Joseph bears down on his brothers in inexorable, unbearable terms.

At this point the author no longer speaks of “the brothers,” but of “Judah and his brothers,” a significant detail that serves to introduce Judah’s lengthy speech that forms the second half of this chapter. We saw earlier that Judah has become the spokesman for the sons of Israel, their natural leader. It was he who endeavored to rescue Joseph in chapter 37, and the entire following chapter was devoted to him. He emerges now as the leader, who will become the father of Israel’s kings.

As he begins his discourse, Judah stresses Jacob’s special fondness for Benjamin. The reader notices that something has changed. Back when Joseph had been the favorite son, the rest of the brothers had been jealous. Now, however, they are not jealous of Benjamin. Now they are concerned with the welfare of their father, not their own. Judah continues, stressing how the old man would be distressed by the loss of his youngest son.

He especially sets in parallel the earlier loss of Joseph and the now potential loss of Benjamin. This is the key. This is what Joseph must learn from his brothers. Will they treat Benjamin as they had, many years before, treated him? Will they permit Benjamin to become slave, as they had, many years before, sold him into slavery? Will that great betrayal be repeated? Judah himself perceives that this is exactly his own moral situation. Will he repeat the former offense to their father? After all, the idea of selling Joseph into slavery had been Judah’s idea (37:25–27).

Judah makes his final appeal, offering himself in slavery in place of his youngest brother (vv. 30–34). Judah will be the “substitute.” Like his distant Descendant centuries later, he will make the atonement in the place of his brother. He will take upon himself his brother’s offense, becoming the sacrificial victim to redeem the rest of the family. And he will do these things, like his distant Descendant many centuries later, out of love for his Father. This is Judah’s ultimate, compelling plea before the Throne: “The world must know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).

Saturday, February 14

Genesis 45: The tension has been mounting for several chapters, as Joseph has, step by step, put to the test the spiritual state of his brothers. He has now utterly reduced them, forcing them to face their guilt and to assume responsibility for their plight. They are completely hopeless and limp before him. At the same time, Joseph has been obliged to place very tight, unnatural restraints on his own emotions, and now the latter have mounted to flood stage behind the restraining wall of his will. The time has come, then, to bring everything out into the open. No good will be served by further delay. Joseph speaks.

The brothers are not able to come to grips with the situation. This powerful stranger has suddenly started speaking to them in their own language. The veil is removed. If the brothers were vulnerable and despairing in the previous chapter, now things have become infinitely worse. They are now faced with a reality that they had not even slightly suspected. Joseph must repeat who he is (v. 4), and for the first time he mentions a little incident that happened in Dothan many years before.

This reference can hardly provide comfort for the bewildered brothers, and Joseph must attempt to lessen their stark terror and anxiety (v. 5), for God’s providence works even in sin (Philemon 15). God commands us always to meet evil with good, and God Himself models that commandment. Anyone can bring good from good. Divine activity is chiefly manifest in bringing good out of evil. Joseph must repeat the lesson to be learned (vv. 6–8).

Joseph alternates between practical concerns (vv. 9–13, 21–24) and more emotion stirred by the moment (vv. 14–15). If the brothers actually said anything at this point, it was probably incoherent.

They become extremely passive and obedient. As long as they are in Egypt, chapter 45 will record not a single word from them. The entire impression from this chapter will be bewilderment to the point of stupefaction.

Joseph’s single question to them has to do simply with his father. Like Judah in the previous chapter, Joseph’s concern is with his father. This is entirely proper, because Jacob, on learning what had transpired, is overwhelmed with emotion (vv. 25–28). Some news is just too good to believe (compare Luke 24:37–38; Mark 16:9–13).

Sunday, February 15

Matthew 11:16-24: The fickle resistance that John experienced to his own preaching (11:17) is a sign of the people’s lack of interest in true conversion. This becomes the theme of the following verses. In Chapter 8-9 Jesus was meeting the resistance of elite enemies, the spiritual leaders of the nation. Here in Chapters 11-12, however, we see resistance to the Gospel on the part of large numbers. Just as the opposition to John the Baptist was total and unreasoning, so is the stand against Jesus.

This opposition of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum will lead to the plot against Jesus’ life in 12:14 and the subsequent tensions of that chapter. These verses also introduce the image of the Final Judgment, which will be the theme of Jesus’ final discourse, Chapters 23-25. The warning invoked against Capernaum here is taken from the cursing of Babylon in Isaiah 14:13-15; in the Book of Revelation Babylon will become, of course, the city symbolic of final unrepentance and eternal loss.

Genesis 46: The literary climax of the Joseph cycle has already occurred in the previous chapter. Now the story simply becomes a chronicle for a while. All that remains is for Jacob to die, thus finishing the narrative thread that had been relatively unattended for several chapters. This final part of Genesis chiefly prepares for Exodus.

God reveals Himself to Jacob at Beersheba (vv. 1–4), as He has done each time Jacob moved, at Bethel (ch. 28) and at Peniel (ch. 32).

God had also revealed Himself at Beersheba to Abraham (ch. 21) and Isaac (ch. 26). In that latter passage, as here in chapter 46, the message had to do with the great number of the promised posterity. Jacob now goes down into Egypt with few people, but they will be greatly multiplied over time. This is the latest in the series of migrations in Genesis, from Ur to Haran, from Haran to Canaan, from there to Mesopotamia, back down to Canaan, and now to Egypt (vv. 5–7).

There ensues a long list of those who went down into Egypt, their names preserved because these are the families who will form the company of the Exodus. These are, in short, the “first families” of the race. The list commences with the children of Leah (vv. 8–15), of which Levi’s sons are of special importance, for theirs will be the genealogy of Israel’s priesthood, including Moses and Aaron (vv. 11–12). The sons of Leah’s handmaiden are listed next (vv. 16–18), followed by Rachel’s children (vv. 19–22) and those of her handmaiden (vv. 23–26). The number “seventy” is a round number (cf. Acts 7:9–11).

Joseph is at last reunited to his father (vv. 28–30). The children of Israel were never to become sedentary in Egypt (vv. 31–34). They would never regard it as home.

Monday, February 16

Genesis 47: One discerns three stories in this chapter: (1) the movement of Jacob’s family into Egypt (vv. 1–11); (2) Joseph’s career as an Egyptian official (vv. 12–26); and (3) Jacob’s burial request (vv. 27–31).

The first story has two scenes: First there is a scene involving Joseph’s meeting Pharaoh with some of his brothers (vv. 1–5), and then a scene with Pharaoh and Jacob (vv. 5–11).

In the first scene, care has been taken to relate the settlement of the family in Goshen to the earlier accounts of their nomadic life. The Egyptians, as the Sacred Text reminds us, were not fond of shepherds, an attitude reflecting the frequent strife between sedentary and nomadic peoples (a strife that goes back to Cain and Abel). The reference to Rameses in the second scene is anachronistic (like saying “Columbus discovered America,” a country that did not even exist in the time of Columbus). The city did not acquire this name until the early thirteenth century before Christ, when Rameses II named it after himself. In verse 10 the verb “bless” should be preserved, as it is the best translation of the Hebrew barak. One recalls, “the lesser is blessed by the greater” (Hebrews 7:7).

The patriarch really did bless the pharaoh; Jacob did not—as the New American Bible would have it—simply “pay his respects” to Pharaoh. Barak is the same verb that will be used in the next chapter when Jacob blesses his grandsons.

In the second story (vv. 12–26) we see Joseph alter the entire economic and political structure of Egypt, not only saving the people in the time of famine, but also greatly strengthening the throne of Pharaoh. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that what Joseph produced was a kind of servile welfare state, in which the government owned everything and taxes were high (20%). The people even thanked him for it. (This detail is probably meant to be humorous. The writer is making fun of a people who, after being reduced to abject penury, are grateful for being taxed 20%. One also observes that Joseph, who has married into a clergy family, puts a clergy exemption into the tax code.)

Eventually this economic and political situation would come back to haunt the Israelites, who would resent being slaves in a slave state. It would appear that Joseph himself created the servile conditions that would lead eventually to the Exodus.

In the third story (vv. 27–31), Jacob, making it clear that Egypt is not the family’s real home, arranges to be buried in the Promised Land (cf. Hebrews 11:21). The exact meaning of the text, with respect to Jacob’s gesture, has been unclear almost from the beginning. Originally it may have meant only that he nodded assent on his pillow.

Tuesday, February 17

Matthew 12:1-8: Matthew now picks up again the Markan sequence that he had broken off back in 9:17. He does this with two stories that he has taken from the series of five conflict stories in the second and third chapters of Mark: the stories of the standing grain and of the man with the withered hand.

These two narratives, both of which concern the observance of the Sabbath, appropriately follow the previous sayings about “rest” and the “yoke.” Matthew’s version of the first of these stories is longer than Mark’s, augmented by the reference to the priests who serve in the Temple on the Sabbath.

The Lord’s reasoning here is as follows: If the servants of the Temple may work on the Sabbath, how much more the servants of the One who is greater than the Temple. The argument here is similar to that in 5:17-48; namely, Jesus’ superiority to the Mosaic Law.

Genesis 48: Because of his special role in saving the family, Joseph receives something like the blessing of the firstborn—that is, a double portion; he became the father of two of Israel’s tribes. That meant that his descendants would settle twice the amount of the Promised Land as any of his brothers. Ephrem and Manasseh became, as it were, the sons of Israel himself (vv. 1–7).

When Jacob is introduced to the two boys (vv. 8–11), his poor eyesight reminds us of aging Isaac, of whose blindness Jacob had taken advantage. The irony is striking. In that earlier case too the larger blessing had been given to the younger son. What Isaac had done by mistake, however, Jacob will do on purpose (vv. 12–15).

A Christian reader will take note of Jacob’s crossing of his hands in the act of blessing. It is noteworthy that at least one Christian reader of this text referred to this action as an act of “faith” (Hebrews 11:21, the only example of faith that this epistle ascribes to Jacob). In the blessing itself (vv. 15–16), Jacob reaches back two generations in order to reach forward two generations.

Joseph, though he governs Egypt, is unable to govern his old father (vv. 17–20). Jacob, let it be said, knew a thing or two about blessings: “I know, my son, I know.” Jacob has been reversing everything since the day he was born, right after tripping up his older brother as the latter emerged from the womb (25:22–23). Right to the end of his life he continues to take the side of the younger man. It is his abiding trait.

Ash Wednesday, February 18

Psalms 95 (Greek and Latin 94): Although the specific instance of infidelity recalled in this psalm was the people’s unbelief at the rock of Kadesh (Num. 20), God’s complaint is more general and takes in the entire forty years during which His unfaithful people wandered in the desert. Almost none of that generation entered into the Promised Land. This psalm stands as a warning that all of us are capable of a like infidelity and hardness of heart. What happened in the desert to Israel of old can also happen “today.” The day of decision is always “today.”

Such, likewise, is the point of the earliest Christian interpretation of this psalm, found in chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews, a work addressed to a Christian congregation which, the author feared, was in serious danger of falling away from the faith. After quoting the above lines of our psalm, the author goes on to comment:

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. . . . Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them” (3:12, 13; 4:1, 2).

Genesis 49: It has long been noticed that some of the imagery of this chapter seems to be based on figures in the Babylonian zodiac. The number of Jacob’s sons—twelve—lent itself readily to the imagery of a zodiac. (This will also be true of the Bible’s last book, where the symbolisms of Jacob’s twelve sons will be combined with the symbolisms of the twelve apostles. Zodiacal imagery is found everywhere in the Book of Revelation.)

That Babylonian zodiac, like all solar zodiacs, had twelve “signs,” some of which were identical to the later Greek and Roman zodiacs. Indeed, in the present chapter we find the images of Aquarius (v. 4), Gemini (v. 5), Leo (v. 9), and Sagittarius (v. 23). Other images in this chapter are not found in the later zodiacs, however, such as the ass, the serpent, the hind, the colt, and the wolf.

Reuben does not fare too well in the blessing (vv. 3–4), because of his sin (35:22). His tribe evaporated, as it were, rather early in Israel’s history, absorbed by the other tribes and by the Syrians. In the final list of the tribes it will appear second, after Judah (Revelation 7:5).

Like Reuben, Simeon and Levi (vv. 5–7) would cease to exist as political entities. Simeon would be absorbed by Judah, and Levi, as the priestly tribe, would be divided up among all the others as a special class without specific tribal territory. Neither tribe will show up in the roll in Judges 5, and in the final blessing of Moses, in Deuteronomy 33, Simeon is not mentioned at all. In short, a certain cloud hangs over Jacob’s three oldest sons, whose tribes are displaced in seniority by the royal tribe, Judah.

Flavius Josephus tells us that Jacob lived seventeen more years in Egypt (Antiquities 2.8.1). The biblical description of Jacob’s death (vv. 28–33) is remarkable for its failure to mention death! Jacob simply goes “to his people” (el-‘ammiw). Jacob had become Israel, and Israel had become a people. Hence, it was deemed inappropriate to come right out and say that Jacob had died. Jacob was Israel, and Israel still lived.

Thursday, February 19

Genesis 50: This chapter has three parts: (1) the burial of Jacob (vv. 1–14), (2) Joseph and his brothers (vv. 15–21), and (3) the death and burial of Joseph (vv. 22–26).

Egyptian embalming was one of the great curiosities of the ancient world, a feature that made Egypt famous. Whereas modern techniques of embalming are designed to disguise the effects of death for only a short time, Egyptian mummification was an attempt to resist the effects of death as much as possible, an endeavor to defy permanently the decay and corruption of the body. Jacob’s embalming required forty days (vv. 1–6).

By Egyptian standards, this was pretty short. Ancient Egyptian texts suggest something closer to seventy days, which is the number of mourning days indicated in verse 3.

The large retinue of Jacob’s funeral cortege (vv. 7–9) serves to stress his prestige and importance. The site of his burial (vv. 10–14) ties this story back to the earlier accounts in the patriarchal narrative. This property had been “in the family” ever since Abraham purchased it in chapter 23 as the family burial plot. Sarah, we recall, was the first to be buried there.

The later account of Joseph and his brothers (vv. 15–21) continues a theme from chapter 45. We contrast, once again, the magnanimity of Joseph with the pettiness of the pitiful brothers, who were trying to save their necks with a very thin and improbable fabrication. Josephus places this story up in the land of Canaan, immediately after Jacob’s burial. He says that the brothers were fearful of returning to Egypt with Joseph.

The reference to Joseph’s “brothers” at his burial (vv. 22–26) should be interpreted simply to mean his relatives, which is the normal meaning of the word “brother” in Holy Scripture. Joseph was, after all, younger than most of his blood brothers. Stephen’s sermon seems to indicate that all of Jacob’s sons were buried at Shechem (Acts 7:16). In the rabbinical tradition, however, that site was Hebron (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.8.2).

Friday, February 20

Proverbs 1: Verses 2-6 of this chapter form a single sentence stating the intent of the book. Proverbs is an educational work, designed to lay down certain insights of prudence, or practical wisdom, in the form of short, pithy sayings, or “proverbs” (mishlim). The wisdom (hokma) conveyed in these sayings has to do with the practical moral assessments that a man must make to lead a godly, just, and productive life (verse 2). This teaching, therefore, pertains to discipline (musar), or self-mastery, as well as the ability to make moral distinctions based on discernment (bina).

Therefore, the wise person (verse 3) will be cautious in the conducting of his life (hashkel), acquainted with the requirements of righteous living (sedeq), able to make sound judgments (mishpat), and to do what is honest (mesharim). If someone learns such things when he is young (verse 4), his wisdom will increase as he grows older (verse 5; cf. 4:18).

This instruction will be grammatical, rhetorical, and imaginary (verse 6), but its principle is moral (verse 7), and its transmission comes from parental tradition (verses 8-9). Hence, religious docility to tradition is absolutely required for its attainment.

One of the first things to be acquired in the pursuit of wisdom is the courage to resist peer pressure (verses 10-19). The clear presumption here is that a young man is surrounded by other young men equally ignorant, who, left to their own devices, will simply pool their ignorance for some common venture ill conceived. Therefore, the young man is first of all warned against the nefarious influence of his possible companions. All through this book we see an insistence on this point: Wisdom is to be learned from the past, not from one’s contemporaries.

The first chapter closes with the first discourse of Wisdom (verses 20-33), an expression formulated by the feminine plural (hokmoth), designating an abstraction. This is Wisdom as it comes from the mind of God (cf. also Proverbs 8; Sirach 1 & 8; Wisdom of Solomon 6-9). The Christology of the New Testament will show this personification to be, in fact, a Person (Luke 11:31; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20). It is Wisdom that pours forth the Spirit (verse 23; cf. John 7:37-39).