Friday, February 15

Jacob in Egypt: While God’s direction of events in the Joseph saga consists in the providential oversight of all human activity, we also note a special emphasis on the divine management, as it were, of man’s sinful activity. This story is a fine illustration of God’s ability to bring good from evil. So the wise and forgiving Joseph can announce to his sinful brothers, “Now therefore, do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to save life” (45:5; also verse 7), and later, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (50:20).

The literary climax of the Joseph cycle has already occurred in the previous chapter. Now, for a while, the story simply becomes a chronicle. All that remains is for Jacob and Joseph 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 (verses 1–4), as He has done each time Jacob moved, at Bethel (ch. 28) and at Peniel (ch. 32). God had likewise 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 finally to Egypt (verses 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 (verses 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 (verses 11–12). The sons of Leah’s handmaiden are listed next (verses 16–18), followed by Rachel’s children (verses 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 (verses 28–30). The children of Israel were never to become sedentary in Egypt (verses 31–34). They would never regard the place as home.

Saturday, February 16

Joseph & the Famine: The reader discerns three stories in this chapter: (1) the movement of Jacob’s family into Egypt (verses1–11); (2) Joseph’s career as an Egyptian official (verses 12–26); and (3) Jacob’s burial request (verses 27–31).

The first story has two scenes: First there is a scene involving Joseph’s meeting Pharaoh with some of his brothers (verses 1–5), and then a scene with Pharaoh and Jacob (verses 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 that “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 has 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 (verses 12–26) we see Joseph alter the entire economic and political structure of Egypt, not only saving the people during the 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 (verses 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.

Sunday, February 17

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 (verses 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 (verses 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 (verses 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 (verses 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 a trait of Jacob’s personality.

First Sunday of Lent: Originally the word Lent, now associated exclusively with the observance of the liturgical year, was simply the Anglo-Saxon for “spring” and had no directly religious significance. In English usage, however, its reference was gradually limited to mean the season of preparation for Easter that does, in fact, occur in spring.

In many other languages of Western Christianity the word for Lent is some variant of “forty,” derived from the Latin quadragesimale. Traditionally this is a period of 40 days of fasting in imitation of the Lord himself, who observed exactly that length of time in fasting prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. It was also associated with the 40-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai and of Elijah as he journeyed to that same mountain.

As early as the second century we already find Easter being the preferred time for the baptism of new Christians. The reasons are rather obvious. It is in the Sacrament of Baptism, after all, that Christians are mystically buried and rise with Christ (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).

It was important to earlier believers that some period of prayer and fasting, by way of preparation, should precede the ritual of baptism. Even the Apostle Paul prayed and fasted for three days prior to being baptized (Acts 9:9,11,18).

Monday, February 18

Blessing the Patriarchs: It has long been noticed that some of the imagery in chapter 48 seems to be based on imagery from 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 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 (verse 4), Gemini (verse 5), Leo (verse 9), and Sagittarius (verse 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 (verses 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 (verses 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, the family of Judah (vv. 8–12).

Flavius Josephus tells us that Jacob lived seventeen 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.” That is to say, as Jacob had become Israel, Israel becomes a people. Hence, it was deemed inappropriate to come right out and say that Jacob had died. Jacob was Israel, and Israel was still very much alive.

Tuesday, February 19

The Death of Joseph: Genesis 50 has three parts: (1) the burial of Jacob (verses 1–14), (2) the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers (vv. 15–21), and (3) the death and burial of Joseph (verses 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 (verses 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 (verses 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.

This later account of Joseph and his brothers (verses 15–21) continues a theme from chapter 45. We contrast the magnanimity of Joseph with the pettiness of the pitiful brothers, who were trying to save their necks with a very thin 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 (verses 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).

Matthew 11:25-30: Because of its similarity to the Gospel and Epistles of St. John in the very terms of its expression, this text from Matthew is often referred to as the locus johanneus. This custom is perhaps unfortunate, for it conveys the impression that these verses in Matthew would fit the Fourth Gospel better than they fit Matthew.

In fact, however, these verses may be taken as the very key to the proper understanding of Matthew as a whole. They are the explanation of the Father’s voice in 3:17 and 17:5. God has hidden this revelation from the “wise and prudent,” such as the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.

Matthew’s use of these expressions, “babies and little ones,” to describe Christians themselves, accentuates his emphasis on the humility necessary to receive the divine revelation of the Father; hence, the invitation to learn of Jesus, for He is meek and humble of heart, modeling the meekness of those who will inherit the earth (5:5).

In these words Matthew indicates the proper path to Wisdom. This is the subject of the readings from Proverbs, which we will begin tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 20

Proverbs 1: 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 (musa), or self-mastery, as well as to 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 both 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 of the young person 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, a certain religious docility to tradition is absolutely required for the attainment of Wisdom.

One of the first things to be acquired is the courage to resist peer pressure (verses 10-19). The clear presumption in this respect 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 and ill-conceived venture. Therefore, the young man is first of all warned against the nefarious influence of his contemporary companions. All through this book we see an insistence on this point: Wisdom is to be learned from one’s elders, not from one’s buddies.

This initial chapter closes with the first discourse of Wisdom (verses 20-33), an expression formulated by the feminine plural noun (hokmoth). 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 literary personification to be, in fact, a historical Person (Luke 11:31; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20).

Thursday, February 21

Proverbs 2: This chapter is a poem of six stanzas on the blessings of wisdom. It begins by enumerating the conditions necessary for attaining wisdom (verses 1-5).

In this text we start to observe here a difference of tone or new voice in the Book of Proverbs, especially if we compare it with the Bible’s prophetic literature. In the prophets the voice is vertical, so to speak; it comes down “from above”: “Thus says the Lord!” In Proverbs, on the other hand, the voice is linear, or horizontal; it comes “from the past”: “Listen, my son.” This is one of many rhetorical differences between the Bible’s prophetic and sapiential books.

Wisdom is a gift of God, first of all (verse 6). It is religious before it is practical (verse 5), and it has to do with holiness (verse 8), which is the source of understanding (verse 9). Real wisdom abides in the heart (verse 10; cf. 4:23). Once again the young man is warned against bad companions (verses 12-15).

But now, for the first time, the young man is also warned against a certain sort of woman (verses 16-19). In context she is any young woman besides his wife, and the young man is told to avoid her. If she approaches him, he knows she is up to no good; he should eschew her as something lethal.

Just as God’s Wisdom is personified as a lady solicitous for man’s wellbeing (1:20-23), so folly will be personified, in due course, as a loose woman who will bring a man to destruction. It is thematic in the Book of Proverbs that wisdom is not attained without the strenuous discipline of the sexual passion, of which the proper expression is found only in marriage. (The monogamous ideal portrayed in the Book of Proverbs is rather strong evidence of an authorial hand other than that of Solomon!)

Matthew 12:9-14: The narrative in Matthew continues the theme of the Lord’s relationship to the Sabbath. Rabbinical theory permitted acts of healing on the Sabbath only in danger of death; otherwise such actions had to be postponed. In this text—and generally throughout the gospels—Jesus ignores this distinction.

In the present instance Jesus’ enemies are completely frustrated, because he does not do anything with which they can directly accuse him. We observe, for instance, that he does not touch the afflicted man; he does not speak a single word that could be interpreted as an act of healing. He simply tells the man to extend his impaired hand—and immediately the hand is healed! In their frustration the Lord’s enemies take the action to which most of the narrative has been building: they resolve that he must die.

Friday, February 22

Proverbs 3: Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:7; Psalms 111 [Greek 110]:10), something must be said rather early about a man’s relationship to God (verses 1-12). Because the Book of Proverbs has often been regarded as (and criticized for being) a work of selfish interest, motivated by secular concerns, it is important that we stress this matter of the fear of the Lord as wisdom’s beginning. This fear of the Lord is crucial, in fact, to the entire enterprise envisaged in Proverbs.

The fear of the Lord is that quality of mind and soul called reverence, and in biblical thought the quest of Wisdom is inseparable from the cultivation of reverence. The wise man of the Bible is not an arrogant, self-made man who lives by his own lights (verse 5). The wise man is most emphatically NOT the man who “marches to the beat of a different drummer.” He does not make up the rules as he goes along and as they suit him. The wise man lives, rather, in the sight of God at all times, holding his conscience as open as possible to the divine gaze. He trusts in God with all his heart (verses 6-7,26).

This attitude of reverence determines two other things: First, it is the basis of the wise man’s stewardship over the resources that God puts into his hand (verses 9-10). Second, it directs the way a wise man meets the trials of life, namely, for his correction and the refinement of his character (verses 11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6). The sufferings of life, for the man keen in the pursuit of wisdom, are pedagogical.

The second section of this chapter (verses 13-35) is part of a longer meditation (through 4:9) about the merits of wisdom. These merits are considered in detail, lest the young man become discouraged by the recent mention of suffering and trial.

In this description of wisdom’s merits, wisdom is again personified as “Wisdom” and this time more closely associated with God Himself (verses 18-20). The teaching, however, still seems more moral than metaphysical. That is to say, the abiding interest in these verses is not the structure of the universe, but the kind of behavior that places a man in accord with the rules of the universe. Nonetheless, these verses do anticipate the metaphysical considerations that will be presented in 8:27-31.

From his relationship to God, the wise man goes on to consider his social duties to his fellows (verses 27-30; cf. 11:24-26; 14:21,31; 21:13). Above all, the wise man must not be shaken in his resolve when he beholds the prosperity of the wicked (verses 31-35). Even the admission that the wicked may prosper in this world goes strongly against the philosophical current of the Book of Proverbs and touches, however lightly, the moral dilemma faced squarely in the Book of Job.