Friday, February 12

Psalms 106 (Greek & Latin 105): This psalm uses historical narrative as the structure of a sustained confession of sins and ongoing motive for repentance. The praise of God in this psalm, then, springs from the consideration of God’s fidelity to His people notwithstanding their own infidelities to Him: “Praise the Lord, for He is gracious, for His mercy endures forever!”

The examples of the people’s continued sin are drawn from the accounts of the Exodus and the Desert Wandering, a period of such egregious unfaithfulness that only a few of that entire generation were finally permitted to enter the Promised Land. The examples are detailed: the constant murmuring against the Lord both in Egypt and in the desert, the rebellion of Dathan and Abiron, the cult of the golden calf, the succumbing to temptation from the Moabites and other moral compromises with the surrounding nations, child-sacrifice to Moloch, and so forth. In all of these things God nonetheless proved His patience and fidelity to the people of His covenant: “Who will tell the mighty deeds of the Lord, or make all His praises heard?”

This poetic narrative, which summarizes much of the Books of Exodus and Numbers, deals with the period of the Desert Wandering as a source of negative moral example: “Don’t let this happen to you.” Such is the approach to that period through much of biblical literature, from Deuteronomy 33 to
1 Corinthians 10.

The value of this perspective is that it tends to discourage a false confidence that may otherwise deceive the believer. Never has there been missing from the experience of faith the sort of temptation that says: “Relax! God has saved you. You are home free. Once saved, always saved. Don’t worry about a thing. Above all, no effort.”

This temptation was recognized by certain discerning men in the Bible itself. Thus, the Prophet Jeremiah saw it working insidiously in the hearts and minds of his contemporaries near the end of the seventh century bc. They reasoned among themselves that God, because of His undying promise to David, would never permit the city of Jerusalem, to say nothing of His temple, to fall to their enemies. After all, had not the Lord, speaking through Isaiah a century earlier, promised King Hezekiah that such a thing was unthinkable? And had not the Lord, at that time, destroyed the Assyrian army as it besieged the Holy City? Even so, reasoned Jeremiah’s fellow citizens, there was no call now to fear the armies of Babylon. Thus, fully confident of divine deliverance, they permitted themselves every manner of vice and moral failing. After all, once saved, always saved. Much of the message of Jeremiah was devoted to demolishing that line of thought.

The identical sort of temptation seems likewise to have afflicted the first readers of Hebrews, whose author also took the period of the Desert Wandering as exemplifying their moral dilemma. Repeatedly, then, he cautioned those early Christians of the genuine danger of stark apostasy facing those who placed an unwarranted, quasi-magical confidence in their inevitable security. This entire book is devoted to warning believers that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).

The gravity of this temptation, of course, arises from its resting on a solid truth. God is faithful to His promises; He will never abandon those who place their confidence in Him. The danger here is not that of excessive trust in God’s fidelity, but of insufficient vigilance against man’s infidelity. Just as the Galatians were warned against forsaking the Gospel of pure grace, they were also instructed that “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

Even the believers at Philippi, though manifesting no discernible disposition to false confidence, were admonished to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

And even as the Ephesians were reminded of being sealed and rendered secure “with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13, 14), they were earnestly exhorted not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed” (4:30).

Saturday, February 13

Genesis 44: We come now to the final test. As we saw in the two previous chapters, Joseph is hard put to control his emotions. He longs to reveal himself to his brothers. He must control himself, however, because there is a practical task to be accomplished. Being a practical man, Joseph listens to his head more than his heart and prepares the final test (verses 1-6).

After the departure of his brothers, he has them pursued (verses 6-13). The brothers plead their innocence. With great confidence they offer the life of the guilty party if there be such a one among them. This is exactly what Jacob had said to Laban when the latter had complained about the theft of his household god (31:32). Once again the process goes by the oldest to the youngest, a procedure that permits the gradual build-up of suspense, reaching the climax of the scene in the discovery of the cup in Benjamin’s sack.

The brothers at this point are struck silent. There is not a word, not an excuse, not a protestation. They now return to the city in silence, each man dealing privately with his own desperation. According to the terms of the steward, all of them may return safely home except Benjamin, but then they must face their father without Benjamin. Joseph has them exactly where he wants them. The trapdoor is closed. The brothers have run out of options. Now Joseph will learn what they are made of.

Joseph bears down on his brothers in inexorable, unbearable terms (verses 14-17). At this point the author no longer speaks of “the brothers,” but of “Judah and his brothers,” a significant detail that serves to introduce Judah’s lengthy speech that forms the second half of this chapter. We saw earlier that Judah has become the spokesman for the sons of Israel, their natural leader. It was he who had endeavored to rescue Joseph in Genesis 37, and the entire following chapter had been devoted to him. He emerges now as the leader, who will become the father of Israel’s kings.

As he begins his discourse (verses 18-24), Judah stresses Jacob’s special fondness for Benjamin. The reader notices that something has changed. Back when Joseph had been the favorite son, the rest of the brothers had been jealous. Now, however, they are not jealous of Benjamin. Now they are concerned with the welfare of their father, not their own. Judah continues (verses 25-29), emphasizing how the old man would be distressed by the loss of his youngest son. He especially sets in parallel the earlier loss of Joseph and the now potential loss of Benjamin. This is the key. This is what Joseph must learn from his brothers. Will they treat Benjamin as they had, many years before, treated him? Will they permit Benjamin to become a slave, as they had, many years before, sold him into slavery? Will that great betrayal be repeated? Judah himself perceives that this is exactly his own moral situation. Will he repeat the former offense to their father? After all, the idea of selling Joseph into slavery had been Judah’s idea (37:25-27).

Judah makes his final appeal, offering himself in slavery in place of his youngest brother (verses 30-34). Judah will be the “substitute.” Like his distant Descendant centuries later, he will make the atonement in the place of his brother. He will take upon himself his brother’s offense, becoming the sacrificial victim to redeem the rest of the family. And he will do these things, like his distant Descendent many centuries later, out of love for his father. This is Judah’s ultimate and compelling plea before the Throne: “The world must know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).

Sunday, February 14

Genesis 45: The tension has been mounting for several chapters, as Joseph has, step by step, put to the test the spiritual state of his brothers. He has now utterly reduced them, forcing them to face their guilt and to assume responsibility for their plight. They are completely hopeless and limp before him. At the same time, Joseph has been obliged to place very tight, unnatural restraints on his own emotions, and now the latter have mounted to flood stage behind the restraining wall of his will. Then time has come, then, to bring everything out into the open. No further good will be served by further delay. Joseph speaks (verses 1-3).

The brothers are not able to come to grips with the situation. This powerful stranger has suddenly started speaking to them in their own language. The veil is removed. If the brothers were vulnerable and despairing in the previous chapter, now things have become infinitely worse. They are now faced with a reality which they had not even slightly suspected. Joseph must repeat who he is (verse 4), and for the first time he mentions a little incident that happened in Dothan many years before.

This reference can hardly provide comfort for the bewildered brothers, and Joseph must attempt to lessen their stark terror and anxiety (verse 5), for God’s providence works even in sin (Philemon 15). God commands us always to meet evil with good, and God Himself models that commandment. Anyone can bring good from good. Divine activity is chiefly manifest in bringing good out of evil. Joseph must repeat the lesson to be learned (verses 6-8).

Joseph alternates between practical concerns (verses 9-13,21-24) and more emotion stirred by the moment (verses 14-15). If the brothers actually said anything at this point, it was probably incoherent. They become extremely passive and obedient. As long as they are in Egypt, Genesis 45 will record not a single word from them. The entire impression from this chapter will be bewilderment to the point of stupefaction.

Joseph’s single question to them has to do simply with his father. Like Judah in the previous chapter, Joseph’s concern is with his father. This is entirely proper, because Jacob, on learning what had transpired, is overwhelmed with emotion (verses 25-28). Some news is just too good to believe (compare Luke 24:37-38; Mark 16:9-13).

Monday, February 15

Matthew 13:10-17: In the Gospel dialogue that immediately follows the parable of the sown seed, only Matthew quotes at length the long text from Isaiah found in verses 14-15. This text well fits the pattern of growing obstinacy on the part of Jesus’ enemies, a theme that has been growing steadily since 11:16. The argument the Lord uses in these verses is obscure, for the plain reason that hardness of heart is an obscure and mysterious subject.

If the workings of divine grace are difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to grasp is man’s willful refusal of that grace. Because a choice is both an effect and a cause, there is a tautology in human choice, and like all tautologies it can only be expressed by what seems a circular argument. That is to say, we choose because we choose. This is what is meant by “free” choice.

Mysteriously, then, the refusal to believe is also the punishment for the refusal to believe. These verses are also a sort of explanation of the following section, particularly verses 19 and 23, which contrast the “understanding” and “non-understanding” of God’s Word.

In this respect the disciples of Jesus are distinguished from the others who hear the parables. The “to you” is contrasted with the “to them” (verse 11). The “whoever has” is distinguished from the “whoever has not” (verse 12). There is an antithesis between those that see (verse 16) and those that do not see (verse 13).

Matthew thus introduces the historico-theological themes of grace and rejection. To those who have, more will be given, while from those who have nothing, even that will be taken away (verse 12). Matthew will return to this irony in the Parable of the Talents (25:29). The judgment aspect of this antithesis will be illustrated in the suicide of Judas (273-10).

Inasmuch as these things cannot be understood, they are called “mysteries” (verse 11—contrasted with the “mystery” in Mark 4:11), indicating God’s free and mysterious (and mysterious because free!) interventions in history through grace and rejection. Matthew, in his own lifetime, was watching the fulfillment of these words of Jesus in the very painful relations between the Church and the Jews.

Tuesday, February 16

Genesis 47: One discerns three stories in this chapter: (1) the movement of Jacob’s family into Egypt (verses 1-11); (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). (Since the two scenes are somewhat repetitious, it was inevitable that the textual reconstructionists would find two “sources” behind them.) 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 Able).

The reference to Rameses in the second scene is anachronistic (like saying “Columbus discovering 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 in the time of famine, but 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, makes a clergy exemption in 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.

Ash Wednesday, February 17

Matthew 6.16-24: This section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with a treatment of the third component of Matthew’s ascetical triad, fasting (verses 16-16). Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting are the traditional components of the Lenten discipline.

It should first be noted that Christians are given no discretion on whether or not to fast. It is when you fast, not if you fast, and the early Christian would have been astounded at any notion that fasting was not required of him. Indeed, the Christian was certain he was expected to fast no less frequently than did the devout Jew.

The Jew at that time, as we know, fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These two days, equally distant from the Sabbath, marked the first and last days of the forty-days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai. The twice-weekly fast, therefore, served to honor the Torah, on which all of Jewish piety was based.

The early Christians, on the other hand, not to be mistaken for Jews, but certainly determined to fast no less often, the changed those days to Wednesday, the day the Lord was sold for thirty pieces of silver, and Friday, the day that the Bridegroom was taken away. This discipline was common and in place well before the year 100 and possibly several decades earlier. Unlike the weekly fast days of the Jews, therefore, the two Christian fast days were concentrated on the Passion and Death of Christ. Their observance was a way of honoring the mystery of the Cross.

In addition, Christians fasted at other times, such as during the period before baptisms in the congregation. Gradually, these became the standard seasons of fasting in the Christian calendar, the major one being Lent.

The absolution of the apostles from the duty of fasting (9:14-15) pertained only to the period prior to the Lord’s Passion.

Dominating the early part of Matthew 6 (the triad of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) was the warning not to work for an earthly reward. These next verses (verses 19-24) maintain that theme, exhorting us not to burden our hearts with divided loyalties.

The sustained exhortation to purity of intention with respect to almsgiving, fasting, and prayer is not to be used (as it often has been used) to justify the neglect of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Indeed, done for the glory of God, and with the intention of pleasing the Father who sees in secret, these three things seem to be the content of what is called “treasure in heaven” (verses 20-21). The biblical caution against “works righteousness” must not be interpreted to preclude the reward (misthos) that God’s children may expect from their Father in heaven (verses 4,6,18; cf. 10:41-42).

The image of the “evil eye” in verse 23 seems to be a reference to envy (cf 20:15; Mark 7:22; 1 John 2:16). The metaphor of the eye as a lamp, found in the biblical Wisdom tradition (Proverbs 15:30; Sirach 23:19), also appears in Tobit 10:5).

Dominating the early part of Matthew 6 (the triad of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) was the warning not to work for an earthly reward. These next verses maintain that theme, exhorting us not to burden our hearts with divided loyalties. The image of the “evil eye” in verse 23 seems to be a reference to envy cf 20:15; Mark 7:22; 1 John 2:16). The metaphor of the eye as a lamp, found in the biblical Wisdom tradition (Proverbs 15:30; Sirach 23:19), also appears in Tobit 10:5).

Thursday, February 18

Psalms 119: We continue praying this lengthy meditation on the Torah, God’s Law of God that reflects the very being of God. The Christian will insist that the eternal Law is really derived from God’s eternal thought, and that God’s eternal thought is His Word, that same Word that for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. The Torah, that is to say, speaks of Christ; the Law of God points to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ. The final purpose of language is that men may know Christ. He is, after all, the Word, the very Word that was in the beginning. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of language (cf. Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), both human and divine.

Christ, as the Latin Fathers called Him, is the verbum abbreviatum, God’s Word abbreviated, in the sense that all that God has to say is summed up in Christ. Christ is likewise the goal of man’s own language, because the purpose of human language is that men may know the truth, and Christ is the truth, the very truth that makes true all things that are true.

Genesis 49: It has long been noticed that some of the imagery of this chapter seems to be based on figures in 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 solar 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 fair 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 be 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, which are displaced in seniority by the royal tribe, the family of Judah (verses 8-12).

Flavius Josephus tells us that Jacob lived seventeen years in Egypt (Antiquities 2.8.1). The biblical description of Jacob’s death (verses 28-33) is remarkable for its failure to mention death! Jacob simply goes “to his people” (el-‘ammiw). Jacob had become Israel, and Israel had become a people. Hence, it was deemed inappropriate to come right out and say that Jacob had died. Jacob was Israel, and Israel still lived.

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).