Friday, February 19

Genesis 50: This chapter has three parts: (1) the burial of Jacob (verses 1-14), (2) Joseph and his brothers (verses 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 (verses 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 Genesis 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 Genesis 45. We contrast the magnanimity of Joseph with the petty, pitiful brothers, who were trying 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 Schechem (Acts 7:16). In the rabbinical tradition, however, that site was Hebron (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.8.2).

Joseph probably did not seem so far away to the early Church Fathers as he does to us. His tomb at Shechem was yet known in the third century and venerated by the Samaritans who lived there, according to Origen, and Jerome tells us, more than two centuries later, that it was still being visited.

That grave was the special possession of Shechem, the ancient tribal center of Manasseh and the scene of the covenantal renewal under Joshua: “And the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried at Shechem in a plot of ground that Jacob had purchased from the sons of Hamor for a hundred silver pieces” (Joshua 24:32). Doubtless it was at Shechem that Israel of old had chiefly narrated the epic charge of the dying Joseph to his relatives that his bones should be carried back at the time of the Exodus. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom regarded his words as a prophecy of the Exodus.

Moreover, because of the steps that he took to ensure that his very bones would partake of that salvific event, the hurried actions of Passover night included the opening of Joseph’s grave: “And Moses took the bones of Joseph, because he had exacted an oath of the sons of Israel, saying: ‘God will certainly visit you, and you shall bring up my bones from here’” (Exodus 13:19). Those bones are not mentioned again until their burial at Shechem, but the attentive imagination is fascinated by the thought of their being borne from place to place over the next forty years, completing the entire journey through the desert, over the dry bed of the Jordan and into the Promised Land, a sustained thread linking the Patriarchs, the Exodus, Sinai and the Conquest. It was in such an ample sense that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews spoke of Joseph’s last words as expressive of faith (Hebrews 11:22).

Saturday, 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 (musar), or self-mastery, as well as 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 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 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, religious docility to tradition is absolutely required for its attainment.

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

The first chapter closes with the first discourse of Wisdom (verses 20-33), an expression formulated by the feminine plural (hokmoth), designating an abstraction. 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 personification to be, in fact, a Person (Luke 11:31; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20). It is Wisdom that pours forth the Spirit (verse 23; cf. John 7:37-39).

Sunday, February 21

Romans 5:1-11: Paul now moves from the fact of justification to the actual experience of the Christian life. That is to say, he moves from proclamation (kerygma) to theology, from the righteousness of God to the love of God (verses 5,8), from the experience of becoming a Christian to the experience of being a Christian. In these eleven verses Paul introduces in a few words the ideas that he will develop at much greater length in Romans 8:1-39.

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).

We start to observe here (verse 1) a difference of tone or voice in Proverbs, when compared with the Bible’s prophetic literature. In the prophets the voice is vertical, so to speak; it comes “from above”: “Thus says the Lord!” In Proverbs, on the other hand, the voice is horizontal; it comes “from the past”: “Listen, my son.”

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 as well (verses 16-19). In context she is any young woman besides his wife, and he is told to avoid her. If she approaches him, she is up to no good, and 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 very strong evidence of some authorial hand other than that of Solomon!)

Monday, February 22

Proverbs 3: Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:7; Psalms 111 [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 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 own correction and refinement of 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 structure of the universe. Nonetheless, these verses do anticipate the metaphysical considerations that will be presented in 8:27-31.

The trust in God described in verses 23-24 puts one in mind of Psalms 91 (90):1-13, which for many centuries has been the daily evening prayer of Western Christians and the daily noontime prayer of Christians in the East.

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.

Tuesday, February 23

Matthew 13:36-43: Like the parable that it explains, this explanation is proper to Matthew. As in the case of the Parable of the Sower (verse 10), the explanation of the Wheat and the Weeds is given to the disciples in private—“in the house,” eis ten oikian. As an interpretation of history, it pertains to the divine mysteries; therefore, it is not shared outside the household of God. It is strictly “in house.”

This distinctive feature of “the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven” (verse 11) points to an important distinction of Christian theology, a distinction readily detected in the New Testament. Certain aspects of the Gospel are shared with the world at large, because they pertain to the kerygma, the message of God to the world, in order to bring the world to faith. These include the Lordship of Jesus, repentance from sin, justification by faith, Baptism and the rites pertinent to it, the return of Christ at the end of history, and the final judgment.

Proverbs 4: The Book of Proverbs does not claim to contain the fullness of Israel’s wisdom tradition. It only serves as a guide, rather, and a bulwark of that tradition, the larger body of wisdom being contained and transmitted chiefly through oral delivery (verses 1-9). Consequently the Book of Proverbs is constantly indicating a larger historical context beyond its own text. (In this respect, Proverbs resembles the New Testament, another literary collection that presupposes and addresses a larger social and doctrinal context. Though that context is always present in the New Testament, it is sometimes referred to explicitly, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; 15:1.)

The chief thing a man must teach his son is the Torah (verse 2; Deuteronomy 6:7). Indeed, throughout this chapter we note that the wise man speaks of Wisdom in much the same terms Deuteronomy uses to describe the Law.

Wisdom must become a man’s bride (verses 7-13; cf. Sirach 14:20-27; 51:13-22; Wisdom of Solomon 8:2).

The theme of the “two ways” (verses 10-27) is common in our inherited pedagogy, both Jewish (Deuteronomy 30:15; Jeremiah 21:8; Sirach 15:7; the Qumran Manual of Discipline 3:13—4:26; 2 Enoch 30:15) and Christian (Matthew 7:13-14; Colossians 1:12-13; Didache 1.1—6:2; Pseudo-Barnabas 18.—21:9). Especially stressed is custody of the heart (verse 23; cf. Matthew 12:34; 15:19; 16:23).

Wednesday, February 24

Matthew 13:44-52: This remaining section of the Parables of the Kingdom is completely proper to Matthew. It contains three parables: the Hidden Treasure (verse 44), the Pearl (verses 45-46), and the Dragnet (verses 47-50). These are followed by a brief exchange between Jesus and the disciples with respect to their understanding of the parables (verses 51-52).

The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl pertain to the third seed sown in the Parable of the Sower—the seed sown among thorns (verse 7). That seed, we recall, was strangled by “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” (verse 22). This preoccupation with wealth is addressed in the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl; in each case the man who finds the treasure or pearl gives up all that he has in order to obtain the desired prize. Following the outline of the Shema, such a one loves God with all his strength.

These two parables, concerned with the cost of discipleship, are a corrective against any notion that, because grace is absolutely free and undeserved, grace makes no demands on us. The divine irony is that what is free may, in fact, cost us everything. In both cases, in fact, the discoverer sacrifices “whatever he has,” or “all that he has”; this is the cost of discipleship (cf. 18:21,27).

Proverbs 5: Except for consecrated celibates like the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul, the godly and productive life of a man normally requires the proper governance of his home. It is the teaching of Holy Scripture, however, that a man cannot govern his home unless he can govern himself. Self-control and discipline, therefore, are among the primary requisites of a good husband and father, and these are qualities to be developed from an early age. Consequently the Book of Proverbs is emphatic on the prohibition of sexual activity outside of marriage. Sex outside of marriage is also outside of God’s will.

A man’s marriage, in fact, can be damaged long before the marriage takes place. Sex before marriage often involves exploitation and disrespect, and it always involves irresponsibility, selfishness, and rebellion. These are bad habits to learn, not qualities in a man that will make him a good husband and father.

The present chapter of Proverbs, accordingly, warns a young man against the wiles of the adventurous woman. With keen psychological perception the Sacred Text indicates that the attraction of such a woman most often has as much to do with vanity as with lust. The young man feels flattered by the woman’s attention (verse 3); it causes him to “feel good about himself,” and it is a simple fact of experience that most of us are disposed to befriend, like, and cultivate those who make us feel good about ourselves. It is one of our great and abiding weaknesses.

Hence, the young man is warned chiefly against the deceptive nature of flattery (verses 4-5). The flattering, adventurous woman has no idea where she is going, so it is very unsafe to follow her (verse 6). Indeed, a sensible man will put as much distance as possible between himself and such a woman (verse 8), for she is Big Trouble (verses 9-14).

In very figurative and flowery language, reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, the young man is exhorted to find joy in his wife (verses 15-20).

Thursday, February 25

Matthew 13:53-58: Nazareth’s negative response to Jesus indicates a new level of resistance among the Jews with respect to the Gospel. We will see this resistance intensify through chapters 14-16.

This section begins with the normal formula that ends each of the five dominical discourses in Matthew (verse 53; cf. 7:28; 11:1; 19:1; 26:1): “When Jesus had ended these sayings . .”

The reaction of the Nazarenes is expressed by their wonder at Jesus’ unexpected authority. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the wonder of the people expressed a positive tone (7:28-29), but now it becomes an expression of skepticism (verse 56), scandal (verse 57), and unbelief (verse 58). They do not even refer to Jesus by name but speak contemptuously of “this man” (verses 54,56). Commenting on this verse, Father Augustine Stock remarked, “Jesus, the final prophet of God, experiences the definitive rejection of Israel; thus does he recapitulate the rejection of all of the persecuted prophets before him.”

Proverbs 6: This chapter begins with four short poems that depict the qualities of folly. The first poem (verses 1-5) warns against financial irresponsibility in the form of unwise generosity towards one’s friends. Financial entanglements have spoiled many a friendship, and exhortations on this matter appear rather often in the Book of Proverbs (11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27).

The second poem (verses 6-11) is directed against laziness. Like Aesop, the author sends us to the animal world for moral lessons (24:30-34). The Septuagint version adds a consideration of the bee to that of the ant.

The third poem (verses 12-15) depicts the ne’er-do-well schemer, full of plans for his own quick profit at the disadvantage of his fellow men. Avoid him, is the counsel.

The fourth poem (verses 16-19) is the first of the “numerical proverbs” in this book. These are found in all parts of the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 32:30; Amos 1—2; Micah 5:4; Job 5:19; 40:5; Sirach 25:7; 26:5,19), and Proverbs will later give a series of them (30:15-31).

In verses 20-23 wisdom is described very much the way that Deuteronomy describes the Law. Indeed, the two things are nearly identified here (cf. especially verse 23, which may remind readers of Psalms 19 and 119).

The last part of the chapter (verses 24-35) returns to the theme of the adventurous woman, who would lure the young man to an early destruction. She is more dangerous than a thief (verses 30-35). Although the earlier penalty for adultery in Israel was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 22:22), the punishment envisaged here seems to be the humiliation of a flogging (verse 33).

Friday, February 26

Matthew 14:1-12: In this story of Herod, attention should be drawn to the king’s similarity to the ancient King Saul, who was likewise tormented by the unforeseen but lamentable consequences of an unwise, incautious oath (cf. 1 Samuel 14:24-30,43-46).

Another Old Testament parallel with this story is perhaps even more obvious. Accordingly, we observe John as a new Elijah, Herod as new Ahab, and Herodias as a new Jezebel.

In placing the arrest and death of John immediately after the rejection Jesus at Nazareth, Matthew augments the sense of tragedy in both events. Each prophet, John and Jesus, is rejected by Israel in a single generation. Jesus will now withdraw from the public scene (verse 13).

Proverbs 7: The Book of Proverbs’ sustained warnings against sexual aberration, especially adultery, which directly attacks the institution of the family, argue that one of man’s chief areas of stewardship is sex. Moreover, the book’s several warnings about adulteresses should be viewed as integral to the image of wisdom as Lady Wisdom, which a wise man is said to take as a bride. And just as Lady Wisdom becomes personified in a man’s own wife, Dame Folly is personified in the adulteress. The entire present chapter is devoted to this theme.

Mockery and sarcasm, rhetorical forms used in both the prophetic and sapiential literature of the Bible with some frequency, enjoy the advantage that comes of not taking someone or something as worthy of serious consideration. This chapter illustrates the advantage. The adventurous woman is held up to considerable ridicule, and so is the young fool who falls for her. Indeed, the young man is here given the very words and gestures that she will employ to seduce him. She commences with flattery (verses 5,21); that is to say, she gives the young man “a positive self-image.” (A man who builds his self-confidence on a woman’s approval already demonstrates his immaturity. Prior to the present age it was taken as axiomatic that a young man should not even seek a woman’s approval, and had no right to expect it, until he had proven himself among men in manly pursuits.)

We see the young man walking down the street, dripping with inexperience, a virtual lamb ambling toward the slaughter (verses 6-7). The very fool, he is strolling aimlessly after dark (verse 6-7; Sirach 9:7), unaware that, even if he is not looking for trouble, trouble is looking for him (verses 10-12). The restless lady comes along and promises him a rollicking good time (verses 13-18), mentioning that her husband will be out of town for a while (verses 19-20). (One thinks of Mrs. Potiphar approaching Joseph in Genesis 39.) Thus is the young fellow suckered into sin (verses 21-23). The chapter ends with the exhortation to be on guard, especially keeping custody of the heart (verse 25). What is to be eschewed is the path to death (verse 27), the other of the Two Ways.