Friday, January 22

Matthew 7:21-29: The Sermon on the Mount with a reference to the day of judgment, which will also be the case in the fifth and last of the Lord’s great sermons in Matthew, the discourse on the Last Things (25:31-46). The reference to the building by a wise man puts the reader in mind of Solomon, remembered in Holy Scripture as both a wise man and a builder. It is the day of judgment which will reveal whether or not a man has wisely built on a strong foundation (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

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 firstborn 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.

Saturday, January 23

Hebrews 11.30-40: This summary of the “great cloud of witnesses” may be described as centered on the author’s reference to what he calls “a better resurrection.” In the context, the comparative adjective, “better,” distinguishes this resurrection from the dead from earlier biblical stories in which, as he says, “women received their dead raised to life again.” Those earlier stories include those accounts in which Elijah and Elisha raised to life the deceased sons of the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman.

These true resurrections from the dead may be compared with Jesus’ resurrections of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the daughter of Jairus. These were true resurrections, genuine victories of life over death, and Holy Scripture uses the same word—anastasis—to describe them.

For all that, however, those resurrections were not complete, because those who were raised were still obliged to face death once again. When our author speaks, therefore, of a “better resurrection,” he has in mind that definitive victory over death, which was Israel’s most precious hope. “Others were tortured,” he tells us, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”

Genesis 23: We come now to the death and burial of Sarah. In a rather gentlemanly fashion, Holy Scripture is generally reluctant to give women’s ages (Luke 2:36-37 being an exception), but here we are told that Sarah was 127 years old when she died (thus making Isaac 37 years old at the time). This is the first death mentioned in the family since Abraham began his travels.

At Sarah’s death Abraham appears a broken man, as it were. In spite of his gift of haggling over prices, as we have seen, he here allows a local chieftain to charge him an excessive price for Sarah’s burial place. He would not dishonor Sarah’s memory by displaying a mercenary spirit in the transaction.

This purchase of the burial plot introduces the biblical theme of the graveyard and the biblical mandate that the dead must be buried (not cremated, like the Hindus and other pagans who do not believe in the final resurrection and the transformation of the physical order). This prescribed custom of burial, followed likewise in the case of the One who was laid to rest in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, found its theological foundation in the biblical belief in the resurrection of the dead. After Sarah, Abraham would be buried there, along with his son, his grandson, and their wives; all of them rest there still, awaiting the return of the One who, for a short spell, occupied the grave of the Arimathean.

Sunday, January 24

Hebrews 10:1-10: This 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).

Monday, January 25

Genesis 25: Abraham, childless most of his life, 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. 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.

Jacob is obviously the shrewder of the two men (verses 29-34). Indeed, Esau comes off as a bit of a spiritual klutz, forfeiting his birthright for a single meal. He should serve as a warning to Christians themselves, who may be tempted to squander their own birthright in favor of some immediate satisfaction (cf. Hebrews 12:14-17). The attaining of a birthright requires patience and endurance; it is something to be valued and waited for. In this respect, we learn something of the superior patience of Jacob, which will become even clearer in his dealings with Laban later on.

Tuesday, January 26

Psalms 69 (Greek & Latin 68): From the very beginning the Christian reading of this psalm has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the Lord’s suffering and death. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come even unto my soul. . . . I have come to the depths of the sea, and the flood has submerged me,” prays the Man of sorrows who described His approaching Passion as the baptism with which He must be baptized (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; Rom. 6:3).

This same Sufferer goes on to pray: “Zeal for Your house has consumed me,” a verse explicitly cited in the New Testament with respect to the Lord’s purging of the temple (John 2:17). In the context this consuming of the Lord was a reference to His coming Passion; He went on to say to those who were plotting to kill Him: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In saying this, the evangelist noted, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (vv. 19, 21).

The very next line says: “The reproaches of those who reproached You have fallen on me,” a verse later cited in Romans as bearing on the sufferings of the Lord. The apostle’s lapidary and understated comment was that “even Christ did not please Himself” (15:3). In this passage St. Paul could obviously presume a common Christian understanding of Psalm 68, even in a congregation that he had not yet visited.

Still later in our psalm stands the line: “Let their dwelling be deserted, and let no one live in their tabernacles.” Even prior to the Pentecostal outpouring, the Church knew this verse for a reference to Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:20), that dark and tragic figure who guided the enemies of Jesus and betrayed his Lord with a kiss.

Psalm 69 is the prayer of Him “who, in the days of His flesh . . . offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The Christian Church has ever been persuaded that Psalm 69 expresses the sentiments of that soul “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In Psalm 68 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of His Passion: “Deliver me from those that hate me, and from the depths of the waters. Let not the flood of water submerge me, nor the depth swallow me down, nor the mouth of the pit close over me.”

This is the Christ who in dereliction sought in vain the human companionship of His closest friends during the vigil prior to His arrest: “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). Psalm 68 speaks of this disappointment as well: “My heart waited for contempt and misery; I hoped for someone to share my sorrow, but there was no one; someone to console me, but I found none.”

According to all four Gospels, the dying Christ was offered some sort of bitter beverage, oxsos, a sour wine or vinegar, as He hung on the Cross. This is the very word used at the end of the following verse of Psalm 68: “And for my food they laid out gall, and for my drink they gave me vinegar.”

But there is another dimension to the Passion of the Lord—the resolve of His victory. Even as He was being arrested, His enemies were unable to stand upright in His presence (cf. John 18:6). This was the Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). No man takes the Lord’s life from Him, for He has power to lay it down and to take it up again (cf. John 10:18). This is the Christ whom death could not hold, who descended a very conqueror into hell to loose the bonds of them that sat in darkness, and who “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19).

This sense of Christ’s victory also dominates the final lines of Psalm 69: “I am poor and distressed, but the salvation of Your face, O God, has upheld me. I will praise the name of God with song; and I will magnify Him with praise.”

The victory of Christ is the foundation of the Church, those described when our psalm says, “Let the poor see and rejoice. Seek God, and your soul will live. . . . For the Lord will save Zion, and the cities of Judah will be built, and they shall dwell there and hold it by inheritance, and the seed of His servants will possess it.”

Wednesday, 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. Two peoples will be separated from your body; one people 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 in the right direction, as it were. Moved by a mixture of both faith and anxiety, Rebekah decides to take the fulfillment of prophecy into her own hands. (We recall that Sarah also did that, when she gave Hagar to Abraham as a second wife.)

Christians have long been bothered by Rebekah’s and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Their discomfort is understandable, but we should bear in mind that Holy Scripture is simply telling us what happened. The cunning of the mother and the mendacity of the son are not being held up for our emulation. Ultimately this is a story about what God does, not man. This is “mystery, not mendacity,” said St. Augustine.

There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah had received that revelation of God’s plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it. Thus, his physical blindness becomes a symbol of his inability to see what is going on, according to God’s plan. His favoring of Esau over Jacob already puts him outside of God’s will; that is to say, his preference between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God’s will, therefore, he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God’s will is a sure step toward deception. On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is acting blindly.

The blessing of the promised land, then, goes to Jacob, not Esau (verses 26-29). Isaac unwittingly shifts God’s promises to his younger son, Jacob, and these promises will, in due course, pass to the latter’s descendants (Deuteronomy 7:13-14; 33:28).

The account of Esau’s return (verses 30-33) is especially dramatic. The inspired author is not so preoccupied with the underlying theology as to lose contact with the human and emotional components of this remarkable story. Isaac begins to tremble. At once he becomes aware that he has been acting in ignorance. Yet, that blessing, once given, was the instrument of the divine will. He had become the unwitting agent of God’s purposes, which were quite distinct from his own. Thus, this is one of the Bible’s great stories of those who accomplish God’s will in ignorance and even contrary to their own intentions.

Thursday, January 28

Matthew 9.14-17: Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew.

In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who faster on Mondays and Thursdays.

Genesis 28: As we saw in the previous chapter, Rebekah does not want Jacob simply to flee from the possible vengeance of Esau. She correctly wants Jacob to be sent away by his father. There are several things to be said about Isaac’s sending Jacob away (verses 1-5).

First, there is a sense of historical continuity. Isaac is aware that he is handing on a legacy that he himself received. The current family crisis is not treated simply as a matter of the present; it is subsumed into a larger historical picture.

Second, there is the prayer and promise of fertility. The effects of this prayer (twelve sons and a daughter!) show how powerful a man of prayer Isaac really was (cf. also 25:21).

Third, Jacob continues the tradition of being a “stranger” (verse 4), like his grandfather and father. This theme will be picked up in the New Testament: “By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tends with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9).

Esau, having twice failed to please his parents by his choice of wives, decides this time to choose a bride from within the family (verses 6-9). Alas, he marries into the discredited side of the family! One sometimes has the impression that Esau’s brow was branded with the word “Loser.”

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 (verses 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 Genesis 15 and Isaac in Genesis 26; indeed, God says to him (verse 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, Jacob at Bethel.

Friday, January 29

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew.

In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who faster on Mondays and Thursdays.

Genesis 29: At about noon Jacob arrives at the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already assembled with their flocks. They are waiting for other shepherds to arrive, so that there will be enough manpower to remove the very heavy stone that covers the mouth of the well. It says a great deal of Jacob’s physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job. (And we recall that he was the weaker of the twins borne by Rebekah!)

Just as Jacob begins to inquire about Laban, his mother’s brother, his interlocutors point out to him that Laban’s daughter, Rachel, is approaching. Thus, like Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24, Jacob is promptly blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny. Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob tells the whole story, “all that happened,” to Laban.

Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (verses 13-30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle required. For Laban, however, Jacob’s preference in the matter posed a bit of a problem. While there would be no difficulty finding a husband for Rachel, Laban was less certain about Leah’s prospects. During those seven years, no one had sought the hand of Leah. (The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that Leah was afraid that, if Jacob married her younger sister, she herself would have to marry the older brother Esau, and she wanted nothing of that!)

Laban determined, therefore, to look out for the fortunes of his elder daughter. Accordingly Laban pulls a rather mean trick, a trick rendered possible because the bride was veiled. It is not hard to figure out the wily Laban, who does not shrink from taking advantage when he can. He studies situations carefully, spots weaknesses in his associates, and consistently uses people. There is a special irony in the account, as well. Jacob deceived his father in Genesis 27; now he is in turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a “false identity.”

Laban then makes the “magnanimous gesture” of offering Jacob both daughters wives (verse 27), which procures the wives’ father, of course, another seven years of service from Jacob. (This sororite marriage will later be forbidden in the Mosaic Law; cf. Leviticus 18:18).

Laban has clearly thought this whole plan out ahead of time. This procedure is Laban’s way of keeping his property in the family. He has now procured this apparently dim-witted nephew, an energetic worker that will do whatever is required of him. This nephew will be married to both of his daughters. All of their children will be Laban’s; all the property will be his; everything will be his (Genesis 31:43). From this point on, the story becomes a rivalry of wits between Jacob and Laban. Jacob will prove more than a match for him.