Friday, January 20

Hebrews 11:8-16: Among the numerous and varied characters of the Old Testament, Abraham is perhaps the one most mentioned as a model for the Christian life. This theme is prominent in the Epistle to the Romans, where Abraham, described as “the father of us all” (4:16) is presented as the outstanding example of the life of faith (chapter 4 passim). For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was manifest in his adherence to God’s promises against all contrary evidence: “contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (4:18).

The Epistle to the Hebrews, though not neglecting that aspect of the Abraham story (11:11-12), emphasizes two other aspects of Abraham’s faith: his wandering and his response to the summons he received to offer Isaac in sacrifice.

Genesis 20: This chapter sounds rather familiar to the story in Genesis 12, where we also learned of the beauty of Sarah and the disposition of men to look upon her with a measure of “coveting.” In the present instance, we may bear in mind, Sarah is almost ninety years old and pregnant. This fact says either a great deal of Sarah’s beauty or Abimelech’s preferences in women.

We already learned a great deal about Abraham’s powers of persuasion when he turned to God in prayer. This was hardly surprising, because the Scriptures call him “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; Daniel 3:35 [LXX]; Judith 8:22 [Vulgate]; James 2:23), and God, like the rest of us in this respect, delights in doing favors for His friends. As God’s friend, Abraham was blessed with what the Bible calls parresia, confidence or even boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), in his approach to the Lord on matters of concern. Like the stalwart widow in the Gospel parable on this subject (Luke 18:1-8), Abraham could be rather persistent, perhaps a tad nagging, when he brought some point of concern to the attention of the Almighty. Accustomed to that mercantile dickering ever common in the Middle East, Abraham knew how to chaffer his way to a bargain, and he incorporated this skill too into his prayer, as it were. We saw this power of his intercessory prayer in Genesis 18:16-33.

Thus in the present chapter, even after God declared to Abimelech, “Indeed, you are a dead man,” He went on to promise that Abraham “will pray for you and you shall live” (verses 3,7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (verse17).

Saturday, January 21

Genesis 21: We come now to the long-awaited birth of Isaac, concerning which the New Testament says, “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. Therefore, from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars in the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11-12). While the author of Hebrews praises the faith of Sarah in this respect, the Apostle Paul tends rather to stress the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:19-22). The circumcision of Isaac (verse 4), commanded in Genesis 17:9-14), would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.

In Genesis 16 we already learned that all was not well between Sarah and Hagar after Ishmael was born. At that time, however, Hagar enjoyed the advantage that she had borne a son, and Sarah had not. In the present chapter that advantage is a thing of the past, and we are not surprised to see that now Hagar and Ishmael are regarded as the mere slaves that they were. Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” 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 “that slave girl’s son” (verse 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a non-entity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bore legal significance, the older boy is still Abraham’s son, and Abraham loves him.

Whatever Sarah’s reasons for expelling Hagar and Ishmael, God had His own reasons, and He permitted Sarah’s plans to succeed in order for His own reasons to succeed. This is true rather often; God permits evil to prevail for the sake of a greater good that only He can see and plan for. Had Hagar and Ishmael stayed on in Abraham’s household, they would have remained slaves. By their departure Ishmael was able to become the father of a great people on the earth (verse 13), a great people with us to this day, the great people of Arabia, for whom God manifested a special providential interest in this text. We will meet this theme of divine providence abundantly in the Joseph story toward the end of Genesis.

The biblical text tends to lose track of Hagar and Ishmael once they arrive in the Negev Desert. The legends of the Arabs tell their own story of how far the mother and child reached in their journey, namely, Mecca. The spring in verses 14-19 the Arabs identify as the spring of Zamzam, found near the Ka‘ba at Mecca, which spring allowed human life to flourish in that place. Thus, Ishmael is credited with the founding of Mecca, which is a religious shrine vastly older than Islam. Thus, according to the Bible the Arabs too are a great nation, close relatives of the Jews and regarded as their sometimes-bellicose cousins (Genesis 16:11-12).

January 22

Genesis 22: We come now to Abraham’s greatest trial of faith. Indeed, the reader is informed, right from the beginning of this story, that Abraham is being tried (verse 1). In this respect there is a great similarity here with the entire premise of the Book of Job, where the reader, but not Job, is instructed that a trial is taking place. In the case of Abraham, this notice to the reader is absolutely essential, because the Jew and the Christian both know that the God of the Bible hates human sacrifice. A trial of faith, on the other hand, is exactly what we should expect from the God of the Bible (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7).

In the preceding chapter God had promised that Abraham’s true posterity would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12), but not Abraham is commanded to offer up his “only son” as a holocaust (verse 2). His obedience is immediate. Abraham, as we have seen, was 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. Genesis 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 (verse 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! Isaac himself says nothing in replay (verses 9-10). He is entirely silent. He is like a sheep led to the slaughter that opens not his mouth. Although the concentration of the story is directed at Abraham, we must not lose sight of Isaac, who prefigures the mystery of our redemption. The substitute for Isaac, the ram caught by its horns, prefigures the paschal lamb of the Mosaic Covenant, who would be slaughtered in place of Israel’s first born sons on the night of the Exodus. We are dealing here in Genesis 22, then, with the Bible’s earliest configuration of the mystery of the substitutionary sacrifice, which is one of the most important categories in the biblical theology of our redemption.

According to Hebrews 11:17-19, Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac displayed his faith in the resurrection. In receiving his son back again, moreover, he enacted a “parable” of the future. (By translating en parabole as “in a figurative sense,” the New King James Bible distorts the intent of the text. Abraham did not receive Isaac back in a figurative sense, but in a literal sense. The “parable” of the event indicates its prefigurative sense, in which God Himself received back (alive!) His only Son whom He had handed over in sacrifice for our salvation.

Monday, January 23

Hebrews 10:19-31: What the Jewish high priest could do only once a year—enter the Holy of Holies—the Christian can do everyday, by reason of the blood of Christ. It is the blood of Christ that gives the believer intimate access to God.

The author begins by speaking of boldness—parresia, an expression of which he is fond: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus.”

In context, this boldness comes from the full certainty of faith: en plerophoria pisteos: “having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full certainty of faith.”

This word, plerophoria is found four times in the New Testament, two of them in Hebrews. The other place is 6:11—“and we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full certainty of hope [plerophoria elpidos] until the end.”

And what does “full certainty” bring? Boldness—parresia. The full certainty of faith finds expression in boldness of the heart.

Whereas the Acts of the Apostles had used this word, parresia, to describe the proper tone in Christian preaching (Acts 4:13,28,29,31), St. Paul used the expression to speak of our relationship to God. He wrote that in Christ, “we have boldness [parresia] and access with confidence by the faith of Him” (Ephesians 3:12).

This is the normal sense of the word also in Hebrews, which is similar, in this respect, to Ephesians. Thus, our author says that we are the house of Christ, “if we hold fast the boldness [parresia] and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end” (3:6). Again, he exhorts his readers, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). And somewhat later in the present chapter, he further exhorts, “Therefore do not cast away your boldness [parresia, which has great reward” (10:35).

This attitude of boldness in the Epistle to the Hebrews is not limited to the four times when the word is used in this book. The boldness of the Christian soul in approaching God is, rather, a presupposition of the whole book. We find it later, in chapter 12, where the author contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. Mount Sinai, he says, “burned with fire, and . . . blackness and gloom and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet” (12:18). It was a very scary place, of which Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling” (12:21). This was the kind of place where no one could safely feel bold.

It is not to Mount Sinai, however, that Christians are called, but to a gentler mountain: “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” (12:22).

Tuesday, January 24

Genesis 24: The doctrine of divine providence is asserted in the biblical thesis that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This “working together” of historical events under divine governance for particular and inter-related purposes is a mystery, of course, but a mystery in two senses.

First, divine providence is a mystery in the sense that it is humanly inscrutable, exceeding even the furthest reaches of our thought, and is known only by faith. That is to say, it pertains to divine revelation. It is not the general, natural pronoia of the Stoics and Middle Platonists, but a special providence revealed by God’s particular interventions in the structure of history. For this reason Holy Scripture never attempts to explain it. Although the Bible affirms divine providence, it teaches no theory of the matter.

Second, divine providence is also a mystery in the sense that we are initiated into it. It is rendered accessible, that is, to our revelatory experience of it, the discernment of which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is particular and personal, sensed through the coherent structure of events. For this reason Holy Scripture not only affirms divine providence, but also portrays the mystery of it through narratives about events.

One 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. A fetching example of this literary device is found in the present chapter of Genesis, which describes the journey of Abraham’s servant to Mesopotamia in order to find a suitable bride for Isaac (namely, Rebekah). In this exquisitely crafted account of God’s historical intervention in response to prayer, two features should especially be noted.

First, the story is told twice, initially by the narrator (verses 1-26) and then a second time by a character within in the narrative, namely the servant (verses 34-48). This deliberate doubling of the story, which obliges the reader to think about its implications a second time, also serves the purpose of placing the theme of divine providence more completely within the fabric of the tale. In the first telling, the reader is struck by how quickly the servant’s prayer is heard — “And it happened, before he had finished speaking” (verse15). This promptness of God’s response is emphasized in the second telling — “before I had finished speaking in my heart” (verse 45). God is encountered in the servant’s experience of the event that comes crashing in, as it were, on his prayer.

Second, the doubling of the narrative is not artificial. It is essential, rather, to the motive of Rebekah and her family in their decision that she should accompany the servant back to Abraham’s home and become the wife of Isaac. That is to say, the characters themselves are made aware that God has spoken through the narrated events. They perceive God’s providence: “The thing (dabar) comes from the Lord; we cannot speak (dabber) to you good or bad. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the Lord has spoken (dibber)” (verses 50-51). The event itself, the “thing,” 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.”

Wednesday, 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 (verses 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.

At the same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later family separate from Isaac (verse 6), who alone was the heir of the divine promises.

At Abraham’s death, he is buried in the same plot that he purchased earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two household had been maintained (verses 7-11). The scene of Abraham’s burial, uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in our own day.

Now that Abraham has died, the Bible’s interest will go to the history of Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author had tidied up Ishmael and his own progeny (verses 12-18). Here we observe that twelve tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture, in Exodus and Chronicles for example.

The latter part of this chapter concerns Isaac’s own sons, twins who begin to fight even in Rebekah’s womb (verses 22-23). These men were already rivals, and, according to Romans 9:10-13, God had already chosen one of them in preference over the other. Just as God chose Isaac in preference to Ishmael, He chose Jacob in preference to Esau. “Choice” in this context does not pertain to eternal salvation, but to the role that Jacob was destined to play in the history of salvation. God’s “rejection” of Esau means only that he was not chosen to play that role; in the same sense, God will “reject” the older brothers in favor of David (1 Samuel 16:5-12). There is nothing in the Sacred Text, either in Genesis, Malachi 1:1-5, or Romans, even faintly to suggest that Esau was predestined to hell. No more than the brothers of David was Esau “rejected” in the sense of being damned to hell. (Moreover, “predestination” in Holy Scripture is always an aspect of divine grace; we are “predestined” only in Christ. Holy Scripture knows no other meaning of the word. Thus, to speculate about a “predestination to hell” is to speculate without biblical support and at variance with a biblical concept.) The important point is that Jacob was chosen for this role in the history of salvation, not because of any merits of his own, but solely by the grace of God.

Thursday, January 26

Genesis 26: Genesis 26: God’s choice is now furthered narrowed; the promises made to Abraham are now made to Isaac, as they had not been made to Ishmael (verses 1-5). On the other hand, Isaac is clearly a “transition patriarch,” between Abraham and Jacob. There are almost no stories about Isaac, except in relation to either his father or his sons. Whereas both Abraham and Jacob traveled in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, Isaac never leaves the Promised Land.

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 that they are husband and wife. Indeed, as it turns out, Abimelech himself never admits being interested in Rebekah; he simply explains that he feared that somebody else might be!

The “revelation” in this chapter happens differently from those in Genesis 12 and 20. In the former two stories, God manifested the truth by a supernatural intervention easily discerned. In the present story God’s revelation to Abimelech is more subtle; indeed, God is not even mentioned in connection with it. That is to say, God’s intervention and deliverance need not be spectacular in order to be real. It is sufficient that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

In the controversy about the wells (verses 12-22), the word “Philistine” is an anachronism, because the real Philistines, to whom the regions about the Aegean Sea were native, would not arrive on the coast of Canaan for several centuries. The mention of them here is something on the order of saying that “Columbus discovered America.” While there may be some disagreement whether or not Columbus actually did so, no one disagrees that the name “America” was not in place when Columbus arrived. Similarly here, the “Philistines” are simply those who lived in the land that would later be inhabited by the Philistines.

In this story, we observe that Isaac has inherited the peace-loving, non-assertive disposition of his father. When there is trouble, he defuses it by meekness. And in his case too, the “meek shall inherit the earth.”

The account of Isaac’s vision (verses 23-25) links his name to the ancient shrine of Beershebah, much as Abraham’s name was associated with Hebron, and Jacob’s will be to Schechem and Bethel. The account itself is similar to that in Genesis 17.

Friday, January 27

Psalms 40 (Greek & Latin 39): The correct “voice” for this psalm) is not in doubt. We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death.

We may begin, then, by examining that interpretive context in Hebrews, which comes in the section where the author is contrasting the Sacrifice of the Cross with the many cultic oblations prescribed in the Old Testament. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, 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 our psalm: “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).

This spirit of obedience to God’s will is likewise the essential atmosphere of Christian prayer. “Your will be done” is the spiritual center and major sentiment of that prayer that the Lord Himself taught us.

Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to the psalm here under discussion, 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, which are spoken of from time to time throughout the Book of Psalms, 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.”

This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.