Friday, October 3
Job 40: This chapter permits Job to put in a word of his own. He uses the occasion simply to confess his vileness and to state his resolve to remain silent before the Lord (verses 3–5), sentiments that will be expanded in the book’s final chapter.
Job has no plans to debate God. He will say nothing further. His earlier aspirations have really been answered, after all, because God has now spoken, and this is essentially what Job had sought. God continues, then. As the two preceding chapters dealt with the mysteries of God’s activity in the realm of nature, the first part of this chapter turns to God’s presence in the order of conscience (verses 8–14). If Job understood next to nothing about the first, he knows even less about the second.
This revelation, too, comes min sa‘arah, “from the whirlwind” (verse 6; 38:1). Once again, as well, Job is commanded to gird up his loins like a man (verse 7; 38:3). Job is queried about who, on the evidence, is more righteous, himself or God (verse 8)? Does Job really desire a forensic setting to determine this question? Is Job capable of dealing with the myriad moral dilemmas involved in every man’s life, as God must do (verses 9–14)? In short, Job is trapped in his own subjectivity, unable to see the world from God’s perspective. There is no place where he may stand to indict the Lord.
Then, dramatically, the divine discourse goes from the realm of ethics and conscience to a consideration of two symbols of apparent chaos, both of them fearsome and incomprehensible: Behemoth and Leviathan.
Although “behemoth” is simply the plural of the Hebrew word for “beast” or “animal,” its description here seems largely to be drawn from the hippopotamus (hippos = “horse” and potamos = “river”—so “river horse”), huge, strong, invincible, even unchallenged, rightly afraid of nothing (verses 15–24). Other commentators have variously argued that the behemoth is really the crocodile, or a wild ox-buffalo, or some other kind of wild bull.
This is one of those questions that it is important not to decide. The reason for this has to do with the symbolic value of the description. The behemoth, though portrayed with features recognized in animals already well known, represents simply “the beast.” This is the general sense that the Hebrew plural form behemoth has in several places in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 8:7; 49:10; 73:22; Joel 1:20; 2:22; Habakkuk 2:17).
That is to say, this behemoth is a great deal more than any particular beast. It represents, rather, the wildness of untamed animal existence. It conveys in symbolism the truth that the world is not made according to man’s own measure. This Beast is irrational in the sense that it does not make rational choices. Yet, its behavior is not irrational, not chaotic, because it obeys the integral instincts placed in it by its Creator. It is not tame, but it is not really chaotic. In its own way, it declares the glory of God.
Saturday, October 4
Job 41:1-34: The second beast, the Leviathan, is a water monster mentioned elsewhere in Holy Scripture (Psalms 74:14; Isaiah 27:1). Although it represents any sort of sea monster (sharks, for instance), its description here seems to be drawn largely from the crocodile.
This latter animal obviously served as a chief model for the classical picture of the idealized fearsome dragon—the Dragon of all dragons, as it were—because of its very large mouth (resembling, in this respect, the hippopotamus), its many sharp teeth, its impregnable hide, and a tail so large and powerful that one can easily imagine it knocking down the very stars in heaven (cf. Revelation 12:4). Only a little imagination is required to think of this creature as breathing fire (verses 19–21). Leviathan, in short, makes for man a rather unsatisfactory pet (verses 4–5) and an even worse conversationalist (verse 3).
All of this goes to say that man cannot domesticate Leviathan. He is resistant to all human efforts to control him and thus remains in this world the symbol of everything in existence that is recalcitrant to man’s ability, especially his rational ability, to take it in hand.
It is worth remarking that, just as the Book of Job links Behemoth and Leviathan in this section, we know from Herodotus and Pliny that Egyptian traditions tended to pair the hippopotamus and the crocodile as two most dangerous animals.
But there is another consideration here as well. Both Behemoth and Leviathan are God’s household pets, as it were, creatures that He cares for with gentle concern, His very playmates (compare Psalms 104 :26). God is pleased with them. Job cannot take the measure of these animals, but the Lord does.
What, then, do these considerations say to Job? Well, Job has been treading on very dangerous ground through some of this book, and it is about time that he manifest a bit more deference before things he does not understand. Behemoth and Leviathan show that the endeavor to transgress the limits of human understanding is not merely futile. There is about it a strong element of danger. A man can be devoured by it.
It is remarkable that God’s last narrative to Job resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale, or at least that darker part of a fairy tale that deals with dragons. Instead of pleading His case with Job, as Job has often requested, the Lord deals with him as with a child. Job must return to his childhood’s sense of awe and wonder, so the Lord tells him a children’s story about a couple of unimaginably dangerous dragons. These dragons, nonetheless, are only pets in the hands of God. Job is left simply with the story. It is the Lord’s final word in the argument.
Sunday, October 5
Job 42:1-6: This last chapter of this book contains (1) a statement of repentance by Job (verses 1–6), (2) the Lord’s reprimand of Eliphaz and his companions (verses 7–8), and (3) a final narrative section, at the end of which Job begins the second half of his life (verses 9–17). The book begins and ends, then, in narrative form.
One observes in Job’s repentance, in today’s reading, that he arrives at a new state of humility, not from a consideration of his own sins, but by an experience of God’s overwhelming power and glory. (Compare Peter in Luke 5:1–8.) When God finally reveals Himself to Job, the revelation is different from anything Job either sought or expected, but clearly he is not disappointed.
All through this book, Job has been proclaiming his personal integrity, but now this consideration is not even in the picture; he has forgotten all about any alleged personal integrity. It is no longer pertinent to his relationship to God. Job is justified by faith, not by any claims to personal integrity. All that is in the past, and Job leaves it behind.
Ezra 2: This chapter, which is repeated verbatim in Nehemiah 7, accounts for 49,897 people who returned from Babylon to the Holy Land. This very high figure surely indicates, however, not those who were immediately repatriated in the year 518, but includes, rather, those who came in the ensuing years. That is to say, it includes those who arrived by the time of Nehemiah nearly a century later.
The introductory list of twelve names (verse 2) puts the reader in mind of the twelve original patriarchs of Israel. Both of these lists—like the New Testament’s lists of the twelve Apostles—indicates the fullness of God’s people. They represent “all Israel.”
Those listed in verses 2-20 are named according to their families, those in verses 21-35 according to their towns (which list, curiously, does not mention Jerusalem). This chapter lists a disproportionate number of priests (verses 36-39), which is exactly what we would expect. Since all the sacrificial worship of the Jewish religion, in accordance with the Deuteronomic reform of 622, was limited to Jerusalem, there was certainly no reason for priests to remain in Babylon.
The number of Levites (verse 40), on the other hand, seems disproportionately small, which disproportion will require the adjustments described in Ezra 8:15-20. Nehemiah 7 will list an additional forty-five singers.
These lists of names throughout Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are theologically important. This is the People of God, not an amorphous mass of nondescript ciphers. No one remains nameless in some anonymous flock, because the Good Shepherd knows each of His sheep and calls them all by name. Such lists, therefore, of which Romans 16 is a later example, are precious in the sight of the Lord and deserve to be held precious in our eyes as well. Ultimately the Book of Life itself is just a list of names.
Monday, October 6
Job 42:7-17: As we continue our reading of the final chapter of Job, the Lord turns to deal with the three comforters who have failed so miserably in their task. Presuming to speak for the Almighty, they have fallen woefully short of the glory of God.
Consequently, Job is appointed to be the intercessor on their behalf. Ironically, the offering God prescribes to be made on behalf of the three comforters (verse 8) is identical to that which Job had offered for his children out of fear that they might have cursed God (1:5). The Book of Job both begins and ends, then, with Job and worship and intercession. In just two verses (7–8) the Lord four times speaks of “My servant Job,” exactly as He had spoken of Job to Satan at the beginning of the book.
But Job, for his part, must bear no grudge against his friends, and he is blessed by the Lord in the very act of his praying for them (verse 10).
Ezekiel, remembering Job’s prayer more than his patience, listed him with Noah and Daniel, all three of whom he took to be men endowed with singular powers of intercession before the Most High (Ezekiel 14:14–20).
The divine reprimand of Job’s counselors also implies that their many accusations against Job were groundless. Indeed, Job had earlier warned them of God’s impending anger with them in this matter (13:7–11), and now that warning is proved accurate (verse 7). Also, ironically, whereas Job’s friends fail utterly in their efforts to comfort him throughout almost the entire book, they succeed at the end (verse 11).
Finally, in the closing verses we learn that Job lives 140 years, exactly twice the normal span of a man’s life (cf. Psalm 90:10). Each of his first seven sons and three daughters is replaced at the end of the story, and all of his original livestock is exactly doubled (Job 1:3; 42:12). St. John Chrysostom catches the sense of this final section of Job:
His sufferings were the occasion of great benefit. His substance was doubled, his reward increased, his righteousness enlarged, his crown made more lustrous, his reward more glorious. He lost his children, but he received, not those restored, but others in their place, and even those he still held in assurance unto the Resurrection (Homilies on 2 Timothy 7).
Tuesday, October 7
Ezra 4: : At Judah’s deportation back in 586, the Holy Land was left rather much at the disposition of those people who would, in due course, be called the Samaritans. (And, purely for shorthand, that is what we will call them here.) They were a hybrid race from the miscegenation of native Israelites and those Gentiles who had been imported into the region by the Assyrians after the fall of Samaria in 722.
In the eyes of those Jews who were now returning home from Babylon, the religion of the Samaritans seemed as compromised as the purity of their bloodlines. If the lessons of the recent Captivity had taught these exiles anything, it was the necessity of avoiding contact—to say nothing of intermarriage–with those who professed to be Israelites but whose identity as Israelites was deeply compromised. In spite of overtures from these native inhabitants (verse 2), therefore, the Jewish leadership steadfastly insisted on a policy of separation from them.
This decision of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verse 3) commenced an important new development in the history of Judaism (cf. Haggai 2:12; Zechariah 3:9; John 4:9; 4:48). This new attitude contrasted sharply with that of King Josiah a century earlier, for he had invited these same people into the fullness of the Israelite worship and religion. The new policy, however, took into consideration the fact that the religion practiced in the Holy Land had been for a long time contaminated by idolatry and syncretism. The purity of the Jewish faith had been purchased at the great price of the Babylonian Captivity, and the Jewish leadership was not about to risk its corruption once again, thereby creating those same conditions that had led to Jerusalem’s downfall.
As we shall see, nonetheless, relatively few women were among the returning exiles. Consequently, many of the latter, who were young, unmarried men, would in due course take wives from the local population, in quiet defiance of their leaders. This defiance would lead to new problems that we will meet in the rest of Ezra and Nehemiah.
As we would expect, the local inhabitants, resentful of their exclusion from the company of the returning Jews, began to resist and confront them. Three stages are discernable in their animosity: their conspiracy to prevent the rebuilding of the temple (verses 1-5), their sustained effort to oppose that project, and their success in the opposition (verse 24).
Several other features of this chapter are worth observation:
First, we note the growing importance of the high priest, who in this book seems to enjoy a political authority nearly equal to the governor. In this book (as in Haggai and Zechariah), the two of them are often mentioned together. Perhaps the roots of this near parity should be sought in the Exile, when the Jews, who no longer had their own king, turned to the priestly families for leadership.
Second, we observe that the extensive Persian Empire (which would soon stretch from the Indus River to the Danube!) was blessed with a remarkably efficient postal system (verses 6-7). This gave cohesion to its political and economic institutions.
Third, our attention is drawn to Persia’s system of chancellors, or regional secretaries, who were directly responsible to the capital (verse 17). This institution, which clearly limited the power of the satraps themselves, demonstrated the empire’s mistrust of local governments that might become too powerful.
Fourth, we observe that the long final part of this chapter (verses 6-9) interrupts the chronological sequence. It is concerned with a later period of the general story, for it takes place during the reigns of Darius I (Ahasuerus), 485-465, and Artaxerxes I, 465-424. This narrative is inserted into this place, apparently as a further example of ill will on the part of the native population.
Wednesday, October 8
Ezra 5: Ezra 5: As we have just seen, there was a delay in the completion of the temple. It is worth observing that Holy Scripture has two interpretations of that delay:
First, the more obvious approach takes account of the historical circumstances, as they were observed at the time. This was the interpretation of Haggai, who began preaching in Jerusalem in August of 520 (Haggai 1:1), and Zechariah, whose ministry spanned the years 520-518. These prophets blamed the delay on a lack of resolve on the part of the returning exiles, who had lost their vision and become discouraged. Instead of building God’s house, they had spent nearly two decades building their own. They had failed to seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness (Haggai 1:2-10).
As the result of this prophetic intervention, which was implicitly critical of both Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the work on the construction of the temple resumed, somewhat to the suspicion and chagrin of the officers of the Persian Empire’s fifth satrapy, the region that included Jerusalem. After all, eighteen years had elapsed since Cyrus had authorized the construction, and there had been two changes of emperors since then. Naturally, no one around seemed to have a copy of that original authorization.
Meanwhile there had been quite a bit of political unrest in the empire, including a rebellion or two and the suicide of an emperor, the sort of unrest that might make anything new look suspicious (verses 2-4). In short, a new building permit was needed, or at least a clarification from the capital. The correspondence involved in obtaining this permit or clarification occupies verses 7-17 of this chapter, and the reply of Emperor Darius will be in the following chapter.
Second, the author of the present book adopts a larger and more theological perspective, less interested in the immediate moral concerns of Haggai and Zechariah. He has not a word of blame for the failure of the returning exiles with respect to the delay. He regards the postponement of the temple’s rebuilding, rather, from a more providential perspective. After all, the rebuilding of the temple could not be simply the execution of the will of Cyrus, any more than the building of the first temple could be simply a project executed by David. Neither king was really authorized to build a house for the Lord. The Lord would authorize the building of His own house when He saw fit. Indeed, both kings died before the construction even began.
In the case of David, the Lord’s will in the matter of the temple was revealed through the word of His prophet, Nathan. In the case of Cyrus, the Lord’s will about the rebuilding of the temple was revealed through two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah. The correspondence between these two narratives is consistent with our author’s concern to frame his historical survey from a theological perspective.
Thursday, October 9
Luke 13:1-9: It is instructive to observe that the Evangelist Luke, who omits the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree (found in Matthew and Mark), is the only New Testament writer to include the parable of the fig tree that got a second chance!
Ezra 6: In his response to the inquiry Darius refers to his empire as “Babylon,” a name that was retained even after its conquest by the Persians.
The emperor’s letter (verses 3-12) reports on the search in the imperial archives (verse 2) and contains the earlier decree of Cyrus, authorizing the rebuilding of the temple nearly two decades earlier. These pagan documents are incorporated into the narrative here and become, thus, integral to God’s inspired Word.
In spite of Cyrus’s requirement that the temple be completed at royal expense (verses 4,8), we know that it was the Jews themselves who paid for the work and supplies (2:68).
Five years were required to finish this work, and the temple was completed on March 12, 515, which was a Sabbath day that year. It was solemnly dedicated that same spring, on Friday, April 1 (cf. 1 Esdras 7:5; Josephus, Antiquities 11.4.7 §107). There seems to have prevailed the idea, already clear in Solomon’s dedication of the first temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:1; 2 Chronicles 3:2), that such a dedication was appropriately associated with the Passover (verses 19-22). This association will prompt Christian readers, surely, to remember that in the Gospel of John Jesus is identified both as the New Temple and as the Lamb of God.
The second temple was a humble structure, as we have seen, because the circumstances of the people were humble. Whereas Solomon had offered a thousand bulls at the dedication of the first temple, these returned exiles could afford only a hundred (verse 17).
We may also note at this point that we hear no more of Zerubbabel, who is not mentioned at all in regard to the temple’s completion. One suspects that he returned to Babylon to live out his remaining years.
In the chapter’s final verse the Persian Empire is referred to as Assyria, so persistently do conquered territories tend to retain their more ancient names.
Friday, October 10
Luke 13:18-21: Because the great similarity between Luke’s version of the parable of the mustard seed and that of Matthew (13:31-32), it appears that they derived it, not from Mark 4:30-32, but from some other common source that would explain the similarity. In each of its versions this story emphasizes the contrast between the tiny seed and the large size of the plant into which that seed grows.
The second parable here, again common to Luke and Matthew, continues the theme of growth, but this time the point of similarity does not come from the forces of nature but from the human labor that causes the increase. Both parables illustrate the dynamism of the Kingdom.
Ezra 7: Now we come to the ministry of the man for whom this book is named. There are two parts to this chapter. The first (verses 1-10) is a summary of Ezra’s journey, and the second (verses 11-26) the original letter of authorization for his mission.
Our treatment of this section will follow the traditional view that Ezra arrived at Jerusalem in 458, thirteen years before Nehemiah. Those historians who date his arrival thirty or even sixty years later are obliged to presume that there are mistakes in the transmission of the text, along with other hypotheses that seem improbable to me. I believe that the traditional date, 458, is the safest and most likely date for the events narrated in the present chapter. Accordingly, we are going to presume that the Artaxerxes in these texts is Artaxerxes I (465-425), not Artaxerxes II (404-358). Thus, the “seventh years of Artaxerxes” was 458. Thus, there is a lapse of 57 years between chapter 6 and chapter 7.
Ezra came to Jerusalem with a retinue of clergy for the temple worship (verse 7), authorized by a letter from the emperor (verses 11-28), as well as with arrangements for finances and appointments for the temple. Ezra was not the high priest, but he was of a priestly family. He was, in fact, a descendent of Seriah (verse 1), the last high priest to die at Jerusalem prior to the Captivity. His own son, Jehozadak, was deported to Babylon 120 years before Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 6:14).
It is clear from this letter of Artaxerxes that the Persian government expected Judea to be ruled according to the Law of Moses (verses 25-26). An important and explicit item in that authorization exempted the temple and its clergy from royal taxation (verse 24). This should not surprise us, because we know that Darius made a similar exemption for the priests of Apollo at the temple in Magnesia.
Throughout the present chapter Ezra acts alone. In the next chapter he will be joined by other leaders, who will accompany him.