Friday, January 9
Genesis 9: With respect to the covenant with Noah, something should be said of the Mosaic covenant as described in Exodus 31. This latter text ties the covenant on Sinai to both the Sabbath rest and the covenant with Abraham. The “sign” of the Mosaic covenant is the Sabbath, which is described in terms very reminiscent of the covenant with Noah here in chapter 9. The Sabbath is the sign (’oth) between God and Israel (Exodus 31:13, 17), much as the covenant with Noah is between God and “all flesh.” More specifically, the Sabbath is the sign of Israel’s “perpetual covenant” (berith ‘olam) with God (Exodus 31:16). Thus, in the Exodus account we find the same vocabulary used with respect to the Sabbath that we have here in chapter 9 to describe the symbolic function of the rainbow.
It is instructive to observe three points with respect to these similarities between Genesis 9 and Exodus 31:
First, they are intentional and deliberately invite a theological comparison between the two covenants as they appear in the history of salvation, the covenant with mankind at the conclusion of the Flood and the covenant with Israel at the conclusion of the Exodus.
Second, both “signs” in these covenants are built on the structure of nature itself. This is true not only of the rainbow, but also of the Sabbath. It is clearly the teaching of Genesis 2:2–3 that the Sabbath pertains to the natural structure of that creature known as “time.”
Thus, each of these covenants is signified (that is to say, marked with a sign) by a component that God placed in created nature.
Third, in the case of the covenant with Noah following the Flood, God Himself preserves the sign of the covenant. He places His bow in the heavens (9:13). In the Mosaic covenant, in contrast, the maintenance of the covenant sign depends on Israel. It is Israel that is charged to preserve the Sabbath. Thus, the similarities between these two covenants introduce also a contrast.
Saturday, January 10
Hebrews 8:1-13: Rather early what Jesus had to say about the coming destruction of the temple prompted Christians to think more deeply about the transitory nature of any shrine or sanctuary that men might build. In their reflections on this point, they reviewed the biblical teaching that even the tabernacle constructed by Moses had been modeled on a heavenly type revealed to the prophet on Mount Sinai. That sanctuary on high—in the very heavens to which Jesus had ascended—was the authentic model.
These early theological reflections form much of the argument made in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as we see in the present text. Our author describes the Mosaic tabernacle as “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed.” This earthly copy he contrasts with “the sanctuary and . . . the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”
The superiority of the Christian dispensation, for the author of Hebrews, has partly to do with its direct relationship to the worship offered directly before God’s heavenly throne. He speaks in this text of Jesus “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”
Genesis 10: The present chapter describes the fortunes of Noah’s three sons with a view to the later stories of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land. The Egyptians and Canaanites, after all, are the descendants of Ham, while the Israelites are the descendents of Shem.
The present list of the nations, however, seems more preoccupied with geography than ethnicity. We note that the descendants of Shem (still called Semites) mainly inhabit the Fertile Crescent, while the offspring of Ham inhabit areas to the south and southwest of the Fertile Crescent, and the children of Japheth live to the northwest, in the area of the Turkish peninsula and the Aegean Sea. That is to say, this list covers roughly the three landmasses that contain the Mediterranean Basin: southern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa.
About seventy nations are listed. We remember, in this respect, that Jesus sent out exactly that number of apostles (Luke 10:1), a number indicating the universality of their mission to “make disciples of all nations.”
Sunday, January 11
Hebrews 9:1-15: A cultured people, a civilized people, builds its entire life around its sanctuary. This is as it should be, for the simple reason that human beings are made to worship. And those who do not worship are living lives seriously less than human.
Worship is not simply one of the things we do; it is the most important thing we do. It is the activity that best defines us. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, if we are pleasing to God, then we will spend all eternity in worship.
On the other hand, those who are not pleasing to God need not worry about it. Those who do not like to worship need not concern themselves. No one can force them to worship, either in this life or the next. If they don’t want to worship, no one will compel them. They will never have to worship again.
Since all human beings are designed—constructed—in order to worship, God sent His only Son into the world to make true worship possible, and it is only in this Son that we are able to offer to God that true worship for which we were created.
The Old Testament sanctuary, about which we read today, was constructed on a heavenly model, and it is in that heavenly sanctuary the Son enables us to worship. Indeed, we already have access to that heavenly sanctuary. This same author says to us: “ye have come unto Mount Zion and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are written in Heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”
Genesis 11: In spite of the national diversities outlined in the previous chapter, all of mankind, up to this point, speaks with a common tongue (v. 1).
The construction of Babel, the second city to be founded in the Bible, prompts us to recall the moral ambiguity of the first city, founded by the world’s first fratricide (4:17). Babel, like that first city, represents the development of technology (v. 3; 4:22). The tower of Babel symbolizes man’s arrogance and his rebellion against the authority of God. Not trusting God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood (9:15), the men of Babel decide to build this tower as a sort of insurance policy against God’s punishment. Its construction, therefore, is of a piece with all the earlier rebellions against God we have seen, starting in chapter 3.
Monday, January 12
Hebrews 9:16-28: Both in the Old Testament and the New, the sacrificial blood is the medium of consecration—It is consecrated life poured out in devotion to God. It is, therefore, “covenant blood,” through which God and man are joined in atonement. The blood of Christ means the “life” of Christ. The image in the Book of Revelation is “washed” in His blood.
The physical place of the worship—the place where God and man were reconciled—needed to be sanctified by this expiatory blood.
If this was true of the Tabernacle in the time of Moses, says the author of Hebrews, why should we imagine it not to be true of the true Tabernacle, the eternal model in heaven? Consequently, as the blood of the ancient sin offering purified and consecrated the ancient Tabernacle, so the sacrificial blood of Jesus had to purify and consecrate the heavenly sanctuary, that which was made without hands: “Therefore was it necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.”
The application of this imagery, to elaborate the theology of redemption, is based on the prior understanding of Jesus’ death as a “sin offering.” This term, in Hebrew, is ’attata’t, literally “sin.” The LXX translation is literal: hamartia,.
In Leviticus the verb used to “make” this sin offering is ‘asah (three times in Leviticus 4:8-9), which is a normal verb connoting the performance of many sacrifices (cf. 5:10; 6:15; 8:34; 9:7,16,22; 14:19; 15:15,30; 16:9,15,24; 19:9; 22:23; 23:12,19). In the Greek text of the Septuagint this ‘asah was translated as poiein. This is the same verb used by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where he says that God “made [Jesus] a sin offering” (hamartian epoiesen).
This latter text is concerned with man’s reconciliation with God through the sacrifice of Christ: “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ . . . God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (5:18-19). This is the context in which Paul wrote, “He made Him, who knew no sin, a sin offering for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21).
That is to say, while St. Paul used the theology of the sin offering to interpret the sacrificial death of Christ, the Epistle to the Hebrews extends that theology to describe the glorification of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary.
Genesis 12: The genealogy of Shem’s descendants, at the end of chapter 11, prepared us for this beginning of the story of Abram, whom we first find at the city of Ur, in the extreme southeast end of the Fertile Crescent.
That genealogy also introduced other aspects of the later story. It told us, for instance, of the barrenness of Abram’s wife (11:30), which is a detail crucial to the later narrative. Likewise, it introduced Lot, Abram’s nephew, who will appear at significant points in the story later on. Similarly, it told of those relatives who were left behind; these, too, will be important in later aspects of the story.
The first migration goes from Ur up to Haran, at the very top and center of the Fertile Crescent (11:31), and from there Abram’s company proceeds to migrate south and west (vv. 5, 9). Passing through Canaan, also known in the Bible as Palestine (the Roman name for Philistia), Abram arrives in Egypt, the southwestern extremity of the Fertile Crescent. All of this migration is in obedience to God’s call (cf. Acts 7:1–5; Hebrews 11:8–10). Nor was Abram a young man at this point; he was already seventy-five years old (v. 4).
Tuesday, January 13
Hebrews 10:1-10: An interpretation of Psalm 40 (39) comes in the center of the major argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews: the heavenly significance of the Lord’s death on the Cross. As we have seen, the author appeals to the Mosaic prescriptions about the ancient Tabernacle to elaborate that significance. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, he says, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1).
That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).
In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.
The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.
This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).
Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to Palm 40, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’” (vv. 5–7).
The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).
The various sacrifices of the Old Testament have now found their perfection in the one self-offering of Jesus the Lord. Again the author of Hebrews comments: “Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God’” (vv. 8, 9).
The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
Wednesday, January 14
Genesis 14: The Old Testament provides a genealogy, at least in brief, for most of its “persons of the drama.” The clear exception is Melchizedek, who suddenly enters the biblical story in this chapter of Genesis 14 and just as abruptly leaves it. Nothing whatever is said of his ancestry, the rest of his life, or his death. Melchizedek simply appears “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3). In fact, Genesis 14 tells us only five things about him.
First, Melchizedek was a king. “Salem,” the city of his kingship, was an old name for Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2). Indeed, the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, took Melchizedek to be the founder (ho protos ktisas) of the holy city (The Jewish War 6.438).
Second, Melchizedek was “the priest of God Most High.” In fact, he is the first man to whom Holy Scripture gives the title “priest” (kohen), and it is Melchizedek’s priesthood that receives the greater attention in the Bible. For example, while the Book of Psalms speaks of the Messiah’s kingship as derived from David (Psalm 78:70; 89:3–4, 20, 39, 45; 110:1–3), the Messiah’s priesthood is said to be “according to the order of Melchizedek” (110:4). (This psalm is appointed for morning prayer today.)
Melchizedek was “the first to serve as priest to God” (ierasato to Theo protos), Josephus wrote, and long before Solomon built a temple at Jerusalem, Melchizedek had already done so (to hieron protos deimamenos). Indeed, Josephus traces the very name of Jerusalem (in Greek Hierosolyma) to the “priest of Salem” (hierus Salem) (The Jewish War 6.438).
Following the lead of Psalm 110(109), the author of Hebrews sees in the priesthood of Melchizedek the “order” (taxsis) of the definitive priesthood of Christ the Lord (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17). The Bible’s very silence with respect to the death of that ancient priest of Salem is taken as a prefiguration of the “unchangeable priesthood” (7:24) of God’s Son, to whom Melchizedek was “made like” (7:3). The latter was a living prophecy of the definitive Priest who “has become a surety of a better covenant” (7:22).
Third, Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, just as Abraham’s children gave tithes to the Levitical priests (7:8–10). That detail argues for the superiority of the “order of Melchizedek” over the “order of Aaron” (7:11).
Fourth, Melchizedek blessed Abraham, saying: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19–20). This priestly blessing too indicates the superiority of the “order of Melchizedek,” inasmuch as “the lesser is blessed by the better” (Hebrews 7:7).
Fifth, Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine” (Genesis 14:18). His offering of bread and wine was recognized as a priestly act; that is to say, Melchizedek did this precisely “because he was” a priest (as is clear in the Septuagint’s en de and the Vulgate’s erat enim).
Thursday, January 15
Matthew 6:1-4: These first four verses, on the subject of almsgiving, are proper to Matthew.
The first word, a plural imperative, is a summons to caution: “Take care,” prosechete. The Christian moral life has this in common with any serious moral system—namely, that an intense, reflective custody of the soul is necessary. In the present instance this custody has chiefly to do with the purity of one’s intentions. The entire moral life can be radically undermined by wrong intentions. Purification of intentions requires a most serious vigilance over the mind and will.
Jesus, having told us in a series of five contrasts, that our righteousness must excel that of the scribes and Pharisees, now insists that this righteousness (dikaiosyne) must not be “done” (poiein) for the benefit of human approval. Were this later to be the case, that human approval must suffice as its reward.
Genesis 15: This, the first of two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram, is arguably the more dramatic and colorful. Here we also find two expressions appearing for the first time in Holy Scripture: (1) “the Word of the Lord came to . . .” (v. 1), and (2) Abram “believed [’aman] God, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (v. 6). That first expression will be especially prominent in the Bible’s prophetic literature, and the second, which introduces the theme of righteousness by faith in God’s promise, will dominate much of the New Testament, particularly the Pauline corpus. Indeed, St. Paul wrote the first Christian commentary on this verse, Romans 4:1–5.
At this point in the story, Abram is not called upon to do much of anything. He is summoned simply to live by trust in God’s promising word.
Eventually, of course, he will be called upon to do certain things, but the important point that St. Paul sees in this passage is that already,
before he has done anything, Abram is called righteous.
From this fact St. Paul argues that godly righteousness consists radically in that profound trust in God known in the Bible as faith. This faith is now explicitly spoken of for the first time in Holy Scripture. Hence, the importance of chapter 15 for Christian theology. This is why Abraham is called “our father” in faith; his faith stands at the door of the history of salvation.
For St. Paul, this reference to Abraham’s righteousness, prior to the works of the Mosaic covenant, became the point of departure for examining the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses, which was one of the most difficult and practical questions raised in New Testament times.
For example, it was important to St. Paul that Abraham, at this point in the story, has not yet received the command to be circumcised (Romans 4:9–12); that command will not come until chapter 17. That is to say, Abraham was declared righteous before a single word was said about circumcision. The law of circumcision was not the justifying factor.
Friday, January 16
Hebrews 10:11-25: Citing Jeremiah 31, which he quoted at greater length in chapter 8, the author contrasts the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law with the sacrifice offered in the Passion of Jesus.
There are several points of contrast:
First, the Old Testament priest “stands,” whereas Jesus is enthroned: “And every priest stands ministering daily . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” From the very beginning of this work, Jesus is portrayed as “seated” in glory: “when He had purged sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). Later on the author will say of Jesus that He “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
This image of Jesus seated in glory is drawn mainly from Psalm 109 (110), cited at the beginning of this work (1:13) and obviously much favored in the early Church (cf. Mark 16:10; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Revelation 3:21).
Second, the Old Testament sacrifices were many, whereas the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together.
This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).
This “once” contrasted with “many” is related to the “seated” contrasted with “standing.” The “once” and “seated” indicate finality and fulfillment—the end of history—whereas the “standing” and “many” suggest an ongoing process.
Third, the Old Testament sacrifices were unable, of themselves, to atone for sins and purify the heart: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, and “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.”
Implied in the development of this theme is an underlying judgment on the Jewish religion itself: Now that the fulfillment of its history has come in Christ and His redeeming work, the Jewish religion no longer represents God’s will for history. This is why it is called “the old covenant: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). The continued existence of a “Jewish religion” alongside the Christian Gospel remains an anomaly yet to be resolved.
Genesis 16: What should be said about Abram’s taking of this slave girl as a sort of second wife? We observe that God did not tell him to do this. It was Sarai’s idea. The whole project, that is to say, was of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It is no great thing for a young woman to conceive and bear a child, but a great thing is what God had in mind to do. Sarai’s plan was a classic case of man interfering with the plans of God. This was simply a work of the flesh, as St. Paul observed (Galatians 4:21–25).
In this respect, furthermore, the Apostle to the Gentiles saw an allegorical prophecy of the situation of the Jews and Christians with regard to Abraham. The Jews, he argued, were children of Abraham is a fleshly way, unlike Abraham’s spiritual paternity of Christians (4:26–28). Christians, not being slaves, are not children of Hagar, whereas the Jews, unfamiliar with freedom in Christ, are still slaves to the flesh and the Law (4:31). They are the children of Hagar! This idea closes off a chapter of Galatians that began with the transformation from slavery to freedom (3:29—4:7).