Friday, January 21

Genesis 21: Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” (NKJV) at the younger child Isaac, perhaps a reference to the kinds of teasing that younger children have been known to suffer from older children. Indeed, one may reasonably speculate that Ishmael had heard disparaging remarks about Sarah and Isaac from his own mother and was simply acting them out. At the very least, Sarah does not want her son playing with a mere slave boy.

So Hagar must go. Ishmael’s true situation is revealed in the fact that he is not even named; he is simply “the son of this maidservant” (v. 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a nonentity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bears legal significance, the older boy is still Abraham’s son, and Abraham loves him.

Galatians 4: 21-31: It seems significant that the covenants of God with Abraham and David are each ushered into history by an account of a barren woman. Thus, Holy Scripture introduces the covenant with Abraham by telling of the barrenness of Sarah, and the narrative of the Davidic covenant is introduced by the story of barren Hannah. It is not surprising, then, that the account of barren Elizabeth should introduce the story of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is, after all, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

St. Paul, moreover, explicitly appeals to the story of barren Sarah in order to illustrate the Christian covenant. He writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic” (verses 22-24).

Paul’s insertion of this image into his exposition of the Christian covenant prompts us to reflect more in detail on what the story of ancient Sarah means to the Christian mind. Perhaps we may summarize these reflections under three headings: frustration, humor, and faith.

First, let us recall Sarah's frustration. She wanted a son, and she was willing to do just about anything to get one. We all know the story of her attempt to use ancient Middle Eastern adoption laws to have her handmaid act as her surrogate. We recall how she urged Abraham to father a child with that servant, Hagar. We also remember that the arrangement did not work out very well.

Second, let us consider the humor of Sarah. We recall the famous scene where Abraham and his wife showed hospitality to the Three Strangers in Genesis 18. We remember well the promise that God made to them at that time: “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son." Sarah, 89 years old at the time, was listening to this conversation behind the flap of the family’s tent, and when she heard the divine promise, says Holy Scripture, she laughed. Really, what else could she do?

Third, let us consider the faith of Sarah. If we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on this point, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. Fortunately, however, we have the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (11:11).

Indeed, the faith of Sarah illustrates something truly essential to the very nature of faith—it accomplishes what is humanly impossible. Sarah did not regard the prospects of bearing a child at age 90. On the contrary, “she judged Him faithful who had promised.” That is to say, she trusted the fidelity of God to do what He has promised to do.

Saturday, January 22

Genesis 22: In the preceding chapter God had promised that Abraham’s true posterity would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12), but now Abraham is commanded to offer up his “beloved son” as a holocaust (v. 2). His obedience is immediate. Abraham, as we have seen, is not the least bit bashful about speaking his mind to God. On the other hand, when he receives from God a direct order, his obedience is invariably prompt and unquestioning (cf. 12:1-4). It is the same here. The trial of faith always has to do with obedience (cf. James 2:20-24).

The two of them, father and son, climb the mountain of sacrifice (v. 6). Since Melito of Sardis in the mid-second century, Isaac’s carrying of the wood has always signified to Christians the willingness of God’s own Son to take up the wood of the Cross and carry it to the place of sacrifice. In the enigmatic conversation between the two climbers (verses 7–8), we observe the rich mystery inherent in Abraham’s reply that God Himself would provide the victim for the sacrifice; truly He would!

Matthew 8:5-13: Here we have the second of the Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt.

In the first of these, the curing of the leper (verses 1-4), the Lord invoked the authority of Moses (8:4), and now, in the second miracle, He extends the blessing of the Chosen People to the faith of the Gentiles (8:11).

Matthew 7:29 introduced the theme of the Lord’s “authority” (exsousia), which appears here again in 8:9. It will reappear presently in the matter of the forgiveness of sins (9:6), where we will learn that this authority is shared with the Church (9:8).

These Ten Miracles illustrate this authority of Christ: over sickness and paralysis, over the demons, and over the forces of nature. Just as the Lord teaches with authority (7:29), we also find Him healing with authority; unlike the prophets and rabbis, Jesus heals by command, not by intercessory prayer.

Sunday, January 23

Genesis 23: In an earlier story (chapter 18), when Abraham learned of the Lord’s plan to destroy Sodom, he feared for the fate of his nephew Lot, a resident of the city. With an enviable but bewildering optimism he endeavored to change the Lord’s mind, engaging Him in what is arguably the boldest enterprise of “haggling” ever recorded.

No attentive reader will forget how Abraham resolutely lowered the original price, as it were, arguing the sum of required just men from fifty down to ten. The bargaining ended only when the Lord Himself, as though desperate of winning the arbitration, suddenly broke it off!

In chapter 23 all is different. After Abraham has lain prostrate for a while before the dead body of his wife, he rises, sobered by sorrow, and approaches a local Hittite chieftain in order to obtain a piece of land wherein to bury the cherished companion of his long life. He describes himself now as “a sojourner and a stranger,” designations rendered doubly significant in the context of death. Abraham is solemn and deferential. There is no haggling now. His whole demeanor is one of gravity and respect. Sarah is gone. What else matters?

Hebrews 12:1-11: “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (the 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?” This citation from Proverbs marks one of the few places in which a New Testament author appeals directly to the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament in order to make a moral point.

His 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.”

Monday, January 24

Genesis 24: Sometimes the Bible conveys the providential nature of a story by the direct insertion of it through the voice of the narrator. By means of such an insertion, the story takes on an entirely different flavor, being transfigured, so to speak, from secular to sacred.

For instance, the tale of David’s escape from Saul at Hachilah (1 Samuel 26) is transformed into an account of divine providence by the plain statement that “all were sleeping, because a deep sleep from the Lord fell upon them” (26:12). Similarly the biblical narrator says, in the context of Absalom’s revolt, that “the Lord had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahithophel, to the intent that the Lord might bring disaster on Absalom” (2 Samuel 17:14, NKJV).

Another literary method of conveying God’s providential purpose in a biblical story is to place the affirmation of it in the mouth of one of the characters. As I have mentioned, this is the method followed in the Joseph story, in the scene where he reveals himself to his brothers (45:5–7; 50:15–20).

This style also characterizes the present account of the wooing of Rebekah. In this story the characters themselves are made aware of divine Providence through the narrated events. They perceive that God has spoken to them: “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]” (verses 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.”

Tuesday, January 25

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 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.

Hebrews 12:12-29: Hebrews outlines a contrast between two mountains: Sinai and Zion—the mountain of the Law and the mountain of the Temple, or the covenant with Moses and the covenant with David.

A similar contrast between these two mountains—Sinai and Zion—was made by St. Paul, much to the same effect: “For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).

In both texts—Galatians and Hebrews—there is a contrast between the bondage of the Law and the boldness of the Christian. With respect to this contrast, St. Paul writes, “you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). In both cases, we observe, Mount Zion is called the heavenly Jerusalem: According to Galatians, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” According to Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”

One suspects that this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion may have been a rhetorical trope in early Christian preaching. This suggestion would explain why we find it in both Galatians and Hebrews, in spite of the great differences between these two works. This contrast is used in both places and adapted to the theme of each work.

Here in Hebrews, the two mountains are contrasted with respect to what we may call “comfort”: Mount Sinai provokes fear and trembling, whereas Mount Zion inspires boldness, or parresia. In Hebrews, this word describes the spirit in which believers have access to God.

Thus, we read earlier of Christ as “as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the parresia and the rejoicing of a firm hope” (3:6). Or again, “Let us therefore come with parresia to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). There is an irony in this verse: We might imagine that the way to obtain mercy is not to demonstrate too much boldness. On the contrary, says Hebrews, boldness is the path to mercy!

Mount Sinai inspired a sense of awe and fear, even to the point of cringing. The author of Hebrews will have no cringing Christians. They are to approach God’s presence in a bold and confident spirit. He wrote earlier, “Therefore, brethren, having parresia to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near with a true heart in the full certainty of faith” (10:19,22). In this text we observe that Christian boldness comes from Christian “certainty”—plerophoria.

Indeed, for the author of Hebrew, this Christian boldness is a thing to be protected. We must labor not to lose it: “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward” (10:35).

This boldness of Christians pertains especially to worship, as we see in the present text. Indeed, this consideration points to a major difference between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion: the former was as remembered the place where the Torah was given—where the “law was laid down”—whereas Mount Zion was the place of Israel’s worship.

In the present text, therefore, the author of Hebrews describes the components of Christian worship: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (verses 22-24).

This is a description of Christian prayer. It is an account of what takes place when a believer comes to God with confidence in the blood of Christ: Heaven and earth are joined, we are in the presence of the angels and the perfected righteous figures of history, and we have this approach by reason of the eloquent blood of Jesus. It is not the old covenant mediated through Moses, but the new covenant mediated by Jesus. In this final contrast, the author of Hebrews repeats what he has made the major theme of this entire work.

Wednesday, January 26

Genesis 26: The story about Rebekah and Abimelech (verses 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 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!

Hebrews 13:17-25: The closing verses of Hebrews contain two parts: First, there is a blessing, which invokes Jesus as the Great Shepherd (verses 20-21). This blessing closes the body of the work, which is here called a “word of exhortation.” Second, there is a very brief “cover letter,” or postscript, which follows the book itself (verses 22-25). We may examine these separately.

First, it may be the case that the work’s closing benediction already existed as a standard form of blessing. The reason for this supposition is that the benediction introduces two ideas that are not explicit or elaborated in the work itself.

The first of these “new” ideas is that of Jesus as the Shepherd: “that great Shepherd of the sheep.” Whereas the Epistle to the Hebrews is rich in its development of Christological titles—Son of God, High Priest, Mediator, Author of the faith, and so on—it does not otherwise speak of Jesus as Shepherd. Nor does our author otherwise describe Christians as sheep. These images, which are introduced, without elaboration, right at the end, remain thematically separate from the core collection of the book’s Christological and ecclesiological motifs. It is reasonable, therefore, to think of these images as simply borrowed from the early Church’s standard forms of closing benediction. As matters of theme, we would associate them especially with the Gospel of St. John.

The second “new” idea is the Resurrection: “the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Except for the brief mention of Isaac’s restoration to Abraham in 11:19, Hebrews does not otherwise speak of the Lord’s Resurrection. On the contrary, his Christological and soteriological emphasis is consistently placed on the Lord’s Ascension into heavenly glory. That is to say, the sudden reference to the Resurrection, at the work’s very end, is better explained as coming from a common benediction in use among the early Christians.

What should be said about the expression “blood of the everlasting covenant” in this benediction? Certainly Hebrews earlier speaks of “the blood of the covenant” (10:29), and it is definitely a theme elaborated in the course of this work. These considerations are not strong evidence, however, that the author of Hebrews is also the author of the closing benediction. The expression ‘blood of the covenant” is hardly limited to the Epistle to the Hebrews (cf. Matthew 26:28 and parallels).

Several features may be observed in the brief postscript that follows the final benediction of Hebrews:

First, it describes itself as short: “I have written to you in few words.” This is NOT a reference to this book as a whole, which certainly cannot be described as “few words.” It is a reference, rather, to these four closing verses, which follow the benediction.

Second, the book itself, commonly called the Epistle to the Hebrews, is designated as a sermon, “the word of exhortation”—logos tes parakleseos. This term taken over from the normal synagogue service:

“But when [Paul and his companions] departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men, brethren, if you have any word of exhortation [logos parakleseos] for the people, say on” (Acts 13:14-15).

This regular synagogue sermon, which followed the prescribed readings from the lectionary—“the Law and the Prophets”—was taken over into the normal Christian gatherings, whether at the Sunday Eucharist or at the canonical hours during the week. An early witness of this Christian practice is St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67. This verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews indicates that such a sermon was sometimes written out and sent to a congregation.

As we see in both Hebrews and the Acts of the Apostles, this logos parakleseos consists in an exposition of the biblical texts.

A third feature of this postscript is the mention of Paul’s companion, Timothy: “Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly.” This is our only biblical evidence that Timothy was imprisoned. A footnote in the King James Bible even ascribes this book itself to Timothy.

A fourth feature of this postscript asks that the recipients “Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints.” These “rulers”—hegoumenoi—are those who govern the Church. They had been referenced earlier in this same chapter: “Obey those who rule over you”—peisthesthe tois hegoumenois hymon.” They are the ones who “watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (verse 17).

A fifth feature of this postscript sends from “those from Italy.” This likely means that the work itself was sent from Italy, and it is commonly likened to other early Roman Christian literature, particularly to the letter that Clement of Rome sent to Corinth toward the end of the first century. If this is the case, it may explain why the Epistle to the Hebrews is not found in the Muratorian Fragment, our first list of the New Testament canon at Rome.

Hebrews ends with a common Christian greeting: Grace with you all. Amen.”

Thursday, January 27

Genesis 27: The shrewdness of Rebekah (verses 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 knew which son was which, so she knew which son would do the serving and which would be served. If such was God’s plan, Rebekah saw no harm in moving things, as it were, in the right direction!

Romans 1:1-17: In this epistle’s initial greeting we observe its emphasis on Christology, its avowal of the historical Jesus, "born of the seed of David according to the flesh," and the Christ of faith, "declared [horisthentos, not "predestined" or prooristhentos] to be Son of God with power." These are two descriptions of the same Jesus Christ, of course, along with the recognition that His resurrection from the dead (verse 4) is the historical fact manifesting and demonstrating His true identity (cf. Acts 2:34-36; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 3:10). Paul’s reference to "the obedience to the faith" (verse 5) is more literally translated as "the obedience of faith" (hyupakoe pisteos), an appositional genitive (“the obedience which is faith”) indicating that faith is active, not simply passive; it is commitment and not just reception (cf. 10:17; 16:26). It is not a mere assent of the intellect but a dedication of the heart.

Paul is very conscious that his own faith is shared by the believers at Rome (verse 12), even though he had not evangelized there. This consciousness is an important key to the interpretation of this epistle, because it implies that the doctrines presumed in this work pertained to the general deposit of faith common to all the early preachers of the Gospel. This shared deposit of faith formed the context within which Paul addressed the major preoccupation of this epistle, as well as the evangelism (evangelisthasthai) that he hoped to accomplish there (verse 15).

This last reference brings Paul to the subject of the Gospel (evangelion) in verse 16. The Gospel means both "salvation" (soteria) and "righteousness" (dikaiosyne), a pairing that is common in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 98 [97]:2; Isaiah 45:21; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10-11). The Good News is not a simple message, even less a religious philosophy; it is "the power of God" (dynamis Theou). It is God's power working through His word, giving godly shape to history (1 Corinthians 2:4; 4:20).

Friday, January 28

Genesis 28: The religious experience of Jacob at Bethel is divided into two parts: his vision, in which God speaks (verses 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, and Jacob at Bethel.

Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the "power" (dynamisI) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, has been unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman. Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as "abandoned," "handed over," "forsaken" by God (verses 24,26,28). The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also "known" (to gnostonI), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it. Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, they are aware, they will never have to render an account. This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28).

Thus, homosexual behavior, which is "against nature" (para physin, contra naturam—verse 26), is the social and cultural progeny of an engendering idolatry. Other sexual sins, such as fornication, at least show deference to the structure of nature. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to do so, is deceptive in a radical sense: It is the very embodying of a lie. Besides sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of other sins (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), the Apostle is immediately familiar with these sins. We should bear in mind that Paul, in his assessment of the world of his time, is speaking of society as a whole, not every single individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved.