Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Seder 143: Psalm 101---A Royal Declaration of Commitment to Justice

 In Psalm 101 the king of Israel solemnly promises to rule justly.  A king who carries out these promises would be living up to the description in Deut 17:14-20.  In fact, he would have the qualities of the Messiah given in Isaiah 11:1-5.  Christians and Christian leaders are called to exhibit similar qualities (1 Ti 3:1-16; 2 Ti 2:14-16; Titus 1:6-9).  

The king desires to emulate God's example of "steadfast love and justice" (v 1).  He praises God in song for these attributes.  He seeks wisdom, pondering the ways of God (v 2) and seeking God's guidance in dealing with problems that he faces.  He wants to live a life of integrity before God, to seek excellence and put aside things that are worthless (v 3).  

The king is determined to avoid all forms of evil and to surround himself with those who do good (vv 4,6-8).  Rather than have evil "cling to him" (v 3), he wants to cling to God (Dt 11:22). Striving to lead a just administration, he wants to discourage slander and arrogant behavior (v 5), which can lead to false witness and unjust verdicts.  

Based on verse 1, the midrash on Psalm 101 attributes to David a determination to praise God whether he himself receives justice or mercy, following the example of Job 1:21.  The midrash connects the phrase "morning by morning" in verse 8 with Exodus 36:3, where Israel brings freewill offerings each morning.  Because Israel had done that, the midrash says, God would rid the land of wickedness.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Seder 142: Deuteronomy 10:12-11:1---What Does God Require?

 Deuteronomy 10:12 marks a key transition in Moses' address:  "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you....?"  

Paul comes to an analogous transition in Romans 12:1.  Micah asks the same question in Micah 6:8 and gives a three-part answer.

Moses' first answer to his question has five parts, one for each finger:  

  1. Fear God---i.e., have trusting awe.
  2. Walk in God's ways---as God walks, and as he instructs.
  3. Love God---demonstrate covenant commitment.
  4. Serve God.
  5. Follow God's commandments.  
There is a reason that obedience comes fifth.  Obedience arises out of fear, commitment, and submission. 

In verses 14-15 Moses explains why Israel should do these things.  God is the Owner and Ruler of everything and is Israel's gracious Redeemer.  

Moses gives a second answer to his question in verses 16-19.  This is a metaphorical answer.  Rather than being like stubborn animals, the Israelites should have "circumcised hearts."  There is an irony in Moses' use of this metaphor here, since apparently few of Moses' listeners were physically circumcised.  But the parents of this group had shown that physical circumcision was not enough.  They had been physically circumcised, but too few of them had submitted to God. 

Again, Moses gives reasons for his answer.  God is transcendent, greater than all powers; but his grace is imminent.  He cares for all people, and the Israelites should do the same.  Psalm 146:5-10 echoes this description of God. 

Moses offers a third answer in verses 20-22.  His emphasis can be seen in the Hebrew word order in verse 20, which has object first, then verb.  It is only God that Israel should fear, serve, and swear by.  This is the total commitment implied by the Shema.  In addition to being the Supreme Ruler of the universe, Yahweh is Israel's personal God, to whom they owe everything, and so this commitment is their fitting response.

Daniel Block identifies Dt 10:12-11:1 as the heart of the Gospel according to Moses.  The rest of the Tanakh continues Moses' declaration that devotion to God is more important than mere cultic service.  Examples include 1 Sam 15:22-23; Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; and Isa 1:10-17.  The New Testament follows up in passages like Matt 23:23; James 1:27; and Romans 12:1-2.

Block highlights three lessons:

  • True religion is not primarily external.
  • The ethics of God's people is rooted in theology, particularly in the character of God.
  • In worship the desires of God always supersede the desires of contemporary culture or personal taste.  

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Seder 142: Deuteronomy 10:1-11---God's Reaffirmation of the Covenant

 In Deuteronomy 9:1-10:11, Moses recalls the events at Mt. Sinai recorded in Exodus 32-34.  Commentator Daniel Block describes this section of Deuteronomy under the heading "The Grace of Covenant Relationship."  

After Moses' impassioned intercession for Israel, God reaffirms his commitment to the covenant that the Israelites have broken.  He has Moses bring a new set of tablets up the mountain.  God would write on those tablets exactly the same words that were on the original ones (Dt 10:2), symbolic of the fact that God had completely forgiven his people. 

One new detail mentioned in Deuteronomy 10 is the fact that God had Moses bring an ark (i.e., a box) in which to store the new set of tablets.  This was not the ark of the covenant, which would be built after Moses returned from this second trip up the mountain.  We don't know what happened to this box, just as we don't know what happened to the ark of the covenant.  But as Jeremiah stated in Jeremiah 3:16, it ultimately doesn't matter.  Both boxes have served their purposes.  

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Seder 141: Deuteronomy 9---Not Because of Righteousness

Commentator Daniel Block identifies Deuteronomy 9:1-24 as a "disputation speech."  This genre includes 

  1. An introduction.
  2. Quotation of a popular saying.
  3. A dispute negating the hypothesis posed by the popular saying.
  4. Presentation of a counter thesis offering an alternative interpretation.
In this instance, Moses begins by stating that the Israelites will cross the Jordan and conquer the land of Canaan.  The Canaanites are more powerful than the Israelites, humanly speaking, but that will not turn out to be relevant.  The ruler of the universe will give Israel the victory (verses 1-3).

Here the "popular saying" is that Israel will conquer the land because of its own moral superiority (v 4).  The counter thesis is that God will be driving out the Canaanites because of their wickedness (v 5).  The Israelites, in fact, have tended to be stubborn and rebellious (v 6).  

Moses dismantles the hypothesis by recalling events at Mt. Horeb during the first year of the Exodus.  While Moses was receiving instruction from God and neither eating nor drinking for 40 days, the people at the foot of the mountain were partying after constructing a golden calf to replace Moses.    

Moses then had to return to the Israelite camp to deal with the situation, as previously recorded in Exodus 32.  Here Moses adds a few details not mentioned in Exodus 32.  One is that his period of intercession for the Israelites required an additional 40 days.  Another is (v 18).  Another is that Aaron's life was in danger, so that part of Moses' intercessory task was to pray for mercy for Aaron (v 20).  

Themes highlighted by Deuteronomy 9 include 

  • the power of prayer.
  • the importance of God's reputation, to which Moses appealed in his intercession.
  • divine grace.
  • wretchedness of the human heart.  
In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on April 15, 2023, Kyle Kettering examined the theme of "crossing over".  He noted that a "Hebrew" is literally one who crosses over.  Abram, the first Hebrew (Gen 14:13), crossed from polytheism to faith in the one true God.  As children of Abraham, we leave our old lives behind and likewise cross over into God's kingdom.  

Friday, May 5, 2023

Passover 2023: Joshua 5-6---Passover in the Promised Land

Shortly after the events recorded in Deuteronomy, Joshua led the Israelites in a miraculous crossing of the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.  It was a time for covenant renewal.  (It is interesting that one fragment of the book of Joshua found in the Dead Sea Scrolls places the material from Joshua 8:30-35 about the covenant renewal ceremony in between verses 5:1 and 5:2.)

The reader is surprised to learn that the younger generation of male Israelites, the ones born in the wilderness, had never been circumcised (5:2-9).  With Passover days away, a mass circumcision was carried out.  While the Israelites recovered at their camp at Gilgal, the Canaanites fearfully wondered what the invaders would do next.

We are not told why the younger generation of males had not been circumcised already.  One possibility is that conditions in the wilderness weren't conducive to carrying out and recovering from the rite.  Perhaps God declared a moratorium on circumcisions after the Passover celebration held during the second year of the Exodus (Num 9).  

Another possibility is that this was another area in which the older generation had been negligent.  In this scenario, their lack of attention to the sign of the covenant typified the apostasy of that generation. 

When the circumcisions were complete, God told Joshua, "Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you" (verse 9).  What was the "reproach of Egypt."?  I have heard several explanations:

  • the judgment on the older generation that left Egypt (Richard Hess).
  • the taunting that Israelites presumably received from Egyptians during the wilderness years (David Howard).
  • the shame of slavery.  Now Israel finally had a land to call home (Gordon McConville).
At this point the gift of manna to the Israelites ceased (vv 10-12).  The manna was a foretaste of the land, a promise that they were going to inherit it, and now they had arrived.

Verses 13-15 record Joshua's encounter with an angelic figure, the "commander of the Lord's army."  The commander made it clear to Joshua that God didn't play favorites.  He would be on their side if they were on God's side.

The appearance of the commander was a reminder that the Israelite army faced the important task of conquering the land.  The first target was the military outpost at Jericho, strategically located at the intersection of some major roads.  

Joshua 6:1 reports that "Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel.  None went out, and none came in."  The soldiers there feared the Israelites but were not surrendering.  Jericho's being "shut up" symbolized its resistance to the truth.  

Israel's conquest of Jericho was not a normal military operation.  It was instead a solemn religious ceremony.  The outcome of the battle was determined in advance.  

Rahab and those with her escaped and joined the Israelites, and Joshua 6 says almost as much about their rescue as about the destruction of the fort.  Rahab's example illustrates the fact that the inhabitants of Jericho had one last opportunity to repent during the seven days that Israel's army circled its walls.

At Church of the Messiah Rob Wilson gave a sermon on Passover on April 1.  On April 8, Kyle Kettering spoke on how the bitter herbs of the Passover Seder point to Jesus.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Passover 2023: Movie Review---"His Only Son"

So far my favorite movie of 2023 is "His Only Son," which dramatizes a crucial episode in the life of the biblical patriarch Abraham.

Recall that Abraham, according to the book of Genesis, received at age 75 a divine call to leave his homeland and go to a land that God would show him.  God promised Abraham and his wife Sarah that they would be progenitors of a great nation which would bring blessing to the entire world.

Abraham and Sarah followed God's direction and moved to the land of Canaan, but they struggled to understand how a great nation would come from them.  They were childless and becoming too old to have children.  Still, God assured them that they indeed would have a child, and after 25 years their son Isaac was born.  

This sets the stage for Genesis 22:1-18, the passage pictured in the movie.  The movie opens with Abraham being "tested" by God.  Inexplicably, God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering at a mountain in "the land of Moriah."  

With heavy heart Abraham complies, setting out on a three-day journey with Isaac and two servants.  At Moriah he sets up an altar and prepares to sacrifice his son.  Then God intervenes, providing a ram in Isaac's place and praising Abraham for his willingness to give up his promised son.    

The brief biblical account raises many questions, including:  What did Abraham tell Sarah about the purpose of the trip to Moriah?  What were Abraham's thoughts and prayers during the journey?  What was Isaac's reaction when he found out what Abraham had been asked to do?  

The movie offers plausible answers to these questions and others.  In doing so, it brings viewers into an ongoing conversation about Genesis 22 that stretches back over 2000 years.  There are rich bodies of Jewish and Christian tradition on this incident that intertwine in fascinating ways.  

For example, a tradition based on 2 Chronicles 3:1 says that Abraham's altar was located at the future site of Solomon's Temple.  The willingness of Abraham and Isaac to perform the sacrifice has been seen in Jewish tradition as a basis for the efficacy of sacrifices later carried out at the Temple.

A tradition recorded in the Book of Jubilees (second century BC) says that these events occurred near the time of Passover.  Pirke Avot, a rabbinic text from around 200 AD, suggests that the ram for the sacrifice was prepared during creation week.  A later rabbinic work, Genesis Rabbah, compares Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice to a man carrying his own cross.

Christians see in Genesis 22 a foreshadowing of God's offering of Jesus of Nazareth as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, a sacrifice planned "before the foundation of the world" and carried out in Jerusalem at the time of Passover.    

The movie gives an explicitly Christian portrayal of Genesis 22 but should be meaningful for all who value this text.  I recommend it enthusiastically.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Seder 140: Deuteronomy 8---The Perils of Prosperity

 In Deuteronomy 8 Moses notes that God has been teaching and training the Israelites in obedience throughout the wilderness years.  With this training, they have been equipped to continue following God when they reach the Promised Land.  

An important tool in this training has been their daily ration of manna, designed to teach the people to trust in God, the source of their daily bread.  

In the Promised Land, Moses explains, things would be easier for the Israelites in many respects.  The manna would no longer appear, but food would be more plentiful.  There would also be new challenges---in particular, they would be tempted to forget the source of their prosperity.  They would need to walk closely with God and give him thanks for their blessings.  If they stray from God and become like the Canaanites, Moses cautions, they will suffer the same fate as the Canaanites.  God would play no favorites. 

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Seder 139/140: Deuteronomy 7---The Canaanite Challenge

 In just a few weeks after Moses' final sermons to the Israelites, Joshua would lead the people across the Jordan into Canaan, where they would have the task of occurpying the land God had allotted to them.  Concerning the Canaanites, Moses instructed Israel that "when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction.  You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them " (Dt 7:2).  

These words sound harsh to us today when we first encounter them.  It is helpful to see them in the context of the rest of Scripture, paying attention to everything the Bible has to say about this subject.  

Commentator Daniel Block  points out several things to take into account: 

  1. God is sovereign.  He created us, and so he can do with us as he pleases.  But he did not create us in order to discard us, and he does not give up on us easily (2 Peter 3:9).  The physical death of a Canaanite did not determine that person's eternal destiny. 
  2. The Canaanites were under judgment for some serious sins.  The Exodus had been a warning to them, putting them on notice that they had 40 years to repent.  As the example of Rahab and her family shows, they still had that option when confronted by the Israelites (Joshua 6:22-25).  
  3. The primary thing that the Israelites were to destroy was the religion of the Canaanites, not the people themselves, who are pictured elsewhere as fleeing away (e.g., Ex 23:27-28).   
  4. God does not show favoritism.  Moses makes clear that if the Israelites live like Canaanites, they will suffer the fate of the Canaanites (Dt 8:18-20).

Monday, March 27, 2023

Seder 139: Deuteronomy 6---the Shema

 In Deuteronomy Moses sometimes refers to the instruction he conveys to Israel as "the commandment" (6:1).  He communicates quite a number of precepts in Deuteronomy, but there is one that is most important:  exclusive loyalty to God.  If the Israelites would maintain that loyalty, they would prosper in the land. 

Deuteronomy 6:4 is Moses' famous declaration, "Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (ESV).  There are a number of variations in English translations of this verse.  Since the key issue is not how many God is, but who is the God of Israel, the translation "the Lord alone," as in the NRSV, is a good one.  Israel is to have no other gods alongside Yahweh.

Verse 5 expresses the Israelites' ideal relationship with God.  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."  The Hebrew word for "heart", lev, refers to both emotions and thoughts---all of our inner being.  The word for soul, nephesh, refers to one's whole person.  The word for "might," meod, is an adverb meaning "very."  In other words, one should love God with all of one's resources and possessions.  

So Deuteronomy 6:5 describes a total commitment to God.  Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:1 to "present your bodies as a living sacrifice" expresses a similar idea.  

In verses 6-9, Moses goes on to say that commitment to God is personal (v. 6), a family matter (v 7), and a public matter (vv 8-9).  Commentator Daniel Block recalls that when he was studying in Germany, he often walked past a house with a message carved into its outer wall:  "An Gottes Segen ist alles gelegen" (everything depends on God's blessing).  This was sort of a German Protestant analogue of a mezuzah.  

In the remainder of chapters 6-8, Moses describes tests of commitment that Israel would face.  One major test would be internal:  When they enjoyed the blessings of the land, would they forget God? Another was external:  How would they deal with the Canaanites?

In verses 20-25 of chapter 6, Moses raises and answers a question:  What is the point of the things God is asking them to do?  In answering the question, he begins by recalling the fact that God had delivered them from Egypt and guided them to where they were.  As always, he puts the commandments of God in the context of the Gospel.  He then says that the Torah leads to the fear of God and is the key to life, well-being, and righteousness.  

The centrality of the Shema reverberates through the rest of Scripture.   Jesus cited it as one of the two great commandments---Mark 12:28-34.  Paul stressed that our commitment to God includes commitment to Jesus (1 Cor 8:6).  

There is also a prophetic dimension of the Shema.  It looks forward to the time when the whole world will follow the one true God (Zech 14:9).  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on March 18, 2023, Kyle Kettering discussed the meaning of the Shema, the traditions surrounding it, and its application in the lives of followers of God.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Seder 138:Deuteronomy 5---Recalling the Revelation at Sinai

 The second sermon of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy begins in Deuteronomy 4:45 (verse 44 is a conclusion for his first address).  Moses takes his listeners back almost 40 years to the great theophany at Mt. Horeb/Sinai.  He declares, 

"Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today." 

Now in fact, many of those addressed by Moses had not witnessed those events in person.  Moses means that the covenant was not made just with their fathers, but with them as well.  Even though many had not been there in person, they should think of themselves as having been there.  It is not just their parents' covenant.

Moses then rehearses the words that God had spoken to Israel at Sinai, beginning with the key declaration in verse 6: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."  This preamble to the Decalogue makes clear that these precepts are instruction for the redeemed community, not a prerequisite for salvation. 

Commentator Daniel Block calls the Decalogue a "bill of rights"---specifically, a bill of the rights of others.  God has the right to exclusive allegiance.  People and animals have the right to a weekly rest from labor.  Parents have the right to our respect.  Neighbors have property rights and the right to live without fear of exploitation.  

Moses reminds the Israelites that at Sinai, Moses had been given the responsibility to convey God's instruction to them.  Their parents had asked him to do so, and God had endorsed this plan (Dt 5:23-29).  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is simply carrying out this responsibility.  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on March 11, 2023, Kyle Kettering observed that the Decalogue is a light for the whole world, a blueprint for an abundant life that Israel was to share with the nations.  Through Israel would also come the incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Messiah, to bring the light of salvation (Isa 9:1-7; Mt 4:12-17).  

Monday, March 6, 2023

Seder 136/137: Deuteronomy 4:1-40---Climax of Moses' Sermon

 After recounting events from Israel's history, Moses turns to the lessons he would like the new generation of Israelites to learn.  We see the transition in Deuteronomy 4:1:  "And now, O Israel,,,,,"

Daniel Block outlines Deuteronomy 4:1-40 this way:

  • 4:1-8  The Grace of Torah
  • 4:9-31  The Grace of Covenant
  • 4:32-40  The Grace of Salvation
In verses 1-8, Moses asserts that the teaching he is giving them is authoritative and comes from God.  As a result, they don't have the option of picking and choosing which things to follow.  The admonition about not adding to or subtracting from it (v 2) is a standard statement in ancient covenant documents.  (We see a parallel statement at the end of the Bible in Rev 22:18-19.)

Moses states that heeding this teaching will lead to abundant life in the Promised Land (v 1).  Those who had ignored it at Baal Peor were no longer alive (vv 3-4).  This teaching was also a key part of their mission to the nations.  People observing their way of life would be drawn to God and his wisdom (vv 6-8).  

One striking piece of evidence illustrating Moses' words in vv 6-8 comes from "Prayer to Every God," a document found at Nineveh.  Here a man believes he must have offended the gods because bad things are happening to him.  But he doesn't know which god he has offended, what he has done, or what he should do to appease whichever god he has offended.  We see the writer's frustration at the silence of the gods.

This document helps illustrate the grace of Torah.  Far from being a burden, God's revelation is a great gift, pointing the way to peace and abundant life.  In general, the more detail in the revelation, the more grace.  

In verses 9-14 Moses addressed the "grace of covenant past"  At Mt Sinai the Israelites had enjoyed the great privilege of having God appear and speak to them. God revealed there the "ten words" that summarize his covenant with them.  From that encounter Israel was to learn the lasting lesson of fearing God---not being frightened of him, but approaching him with reverent awe.  

Verses 15-24 deal with the "grace of covenant present."  The first principle of the Decalogue is exclusive loyalty to God, and Moses placed special emphasis on that one.  Since God had created people in his image to have dominion over creation, it would make no sense for the Israelites to worship parts of the creation rather than the Creator.  In particular, Israel should not transfer their loyalty to members of God's "heavenly host" that he had set up over the other nations of the world (v 19).  Wanting the best for Israel, God passionately guarded the integrity of his marriage relationship with them (v 24).

In verses 25-31 Moses spoke as a prophet, setting the stage for the prophets who would come later.  He foresaw that at some point in the future, the Israelites would break that first principle of the covenant and do "what is evil" (literally "the evil") by turning to other gods.  Then they lose the land and go into exile.  This development would not mean that the covenant was off, but rather that it was "on". The punishment of exile was the culmination of the covenant curses (Dt 28).  

Judgment, however, would not be the last word, and this was also part of the covenant (vv 29-31).  When the Israelites in exile turned to God in repentance, God would let himself be found by them.  This is also because of "the covenant with your fathers."  Here "the fathers" includes both the earlier patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Exodus generation, the parents of Moses' audience.  (Lev 26:45 and Jer 34:13 are two examples where the phrase is used for the latter group).  In Deuteronomy Moses does not make a sharp distinction between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.  Daniel Block observes that "in Deuteronomy the covenant with the fathers is one."  He also explains that the Mosaic covenant was "the means by which the promise made withjn the Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled."

Moses' address comes to a stirring conclusion in verses 32-40.  In verses 32-34 an 36-38, he gave a history lesson, pointing out the unprecedented events that they had witnessed as they experienced God's salvation.  These events lead to an important theological conclusion on the uniqueness of the God of Israel (vv 35,39).  The bottom line:  Israel should remain loyal and obedient to God to prosper in the Promised Land.    

In a sermon on Deuteronomy 4 at Church of the Messiah on March 4, 2023, Kyle Kettering pointed out that the word "love" appears in the book of Deuteronomy more than in any other book of the Bible except Psalms.  God's love shines through as a main theme of Deuteronomy.  

We also read in Scripture that God hates evil and calls upon us to do the same (Ps 97:10; 26:5; 31:6; 5:5-7; 11:5; Amos 5:15; Prov 8:13).  But how can we hate evil without hating those who do it?  Kyle concluded that the best place to start is to hate the evil that we see in ourselves.  

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Seder 136: Deuteronomy 3:23-29---Moses Pleads with God

 After reminding the Israelites of events from the recent past, Moses revealed that even though God had told him he would not be leading them into Canaan, he continued to pray that God would change his mind.  Moses said that he "pleaded with the Lord at that time."  The Hebrew word for "pleaded," chanan, is a word for both asking for, and bestowing, grace or mercy.  Moses knew God's merciful character, and so he continued to pray for mercy on this matter until God let him know that he should stop.  

Moses was someone who had repeatedly received what he asked for from God.  In a sermonette at Church of the Messiah on February 25, 2023, Frank Fenton noted that one  Jewish tradition, based on using gematria with va'etchanan, the Hebew for "and I pleaded" in verse 23, said that Moses prayed 515 times  before God told him to stop.  According to this tradition, he said that he would be willing to go into the land as an animal if he could not do it as a human being.  Joseph's bones were going to be carried into the land.  Why couldn't Moses go too?  Frank urged us to keep praying as well, acknowledging that we are completely in God's hands.    

There are a number of examples of such prayers in the Bible (e,g, Psalm 123; Isa 33:2).  Jesus' parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) urges us to keep praying.  At Gethsemane Jesus prayed one last time that his mission could be accomplished by some other means than the crucifixiom (Lk 22:41-42), even though he had come to Jerusalem for that purpose.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on February 25, 2023, Kyle Kettering also urged us to plead for God's grace, even for things that seem impossible.  

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Seder 135: Deuteronomy 2-3---Victories over the Amorites

   In year 40 of the Exodus, God directed the Israelites not to bother their brother nations Edom, Moab, and Ammon.  On the other hand, he did have them defeat, and take the land occupied by, Sihon and Og.  At this point, apparently, the "iniquity of the Amorites" was complete (see Gen 15:16).  

The victories over Sihon and Og were total.  These were intended to be warmups for battles on the other side of the Jordan River.  Commentator Daniel Block has identified six characteristics of this kind of warfare:

  1. God identifies the target.
  2. God initiates the war.
  3. God determines the strategy.
  4. God accompanies Israel into battle.
  5. God engages in psychological warfare, doing things like hardening Sihon's heart and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.
  6. God gives the victory.
The Israelites were facing large people and fortified cities, but there was no problem.  In describing these victories, Moses again is implicitly referring to the worries of the parents of this new generation 38 years before (Dt 1:26-28).  The rebels claimed that God had brought them out of Egypt in order for their children to be slaughtered by the Amorites.  Instead, it was the rebels who had died, while their children defeated the Amorites.    

Why had God mandated the defeat of Sihon and Og?  There are hints in the text that they were connected to evil forces that were especially opposed to God.  He was the last of the Rephaim, a race of giants (Dt 3:11).  The giants were related to the Nephilim, the offspring of rebellious angelic beings (Gen 6:4).  

In The Unseen Realm, p. 198, Michael Heiser points out that the dimensions of Og's bed, 9 cubits by 4 cubits, are the same as  the dimensions of the cultic bed in the ziggurat Etemenaki, which may have been the tower of Babel.  That bed was said to have been used by the god Marduk and his consort for annual fertility rituals.  The implication is that Og had some connection with this kind of false religion.

The book of Joshua shows that giants were a special target of the battles in the conquest of Canaan.  It was at this time in history that God had chosen to deal with them and the evil supernatural forces behind them.  

Moses urged the Israelites not to be afraid.  God would give them the victory.  Analogously, Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion urged his disciples not to be afraid (Jn 14:1, 27), and Paul at the end of his life urged Timothy not to be afraid (2 Tim 1).  On February 18, 2023, Kyle Kettering gave a sermon on 2 Timothy 1 at Church of the Messiah. 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Seder 135: Psalm 136---God's Steadfast Love Endures Forever

 Psalm 136 begins in a familiar way:  "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love [Hebrew chesed] endures forever."  We also find these words in Ps 106:1; 107:1; 118:29; 1 Ch 16:34. 

But Psalm 136 differs from these other psalms in that the refrain "for his steadfast love endures forever" is repeated in each of its 26 verses.  The verses bring out how God's love of Israel is shown in great works of redemption, and his love for all mankind is shown in his works as Creator.  

There is an interesting midrash on Psalm 136:4 ("to him who alone does great wonders").  This midrash says that it is only God who does great wonders, and it is only God who knows what all of these wonders are.  Each day God is doing wonders of which we may be totally unaware.  

We're not sure when this psalm was written.   Commentators point out that the designation for God in verse 26 ("the God of heaven") appears most often in post-exilic books like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel. Verse 23 ("It is he who remembered us in our low estate") could refer to the Exodus and also to exile. 

On the other hand, nothing else in this psalm is necessarily post-exilic.  There is another midrash that says it would have been fitting for this psalm to have been written right after the victories over Sihon and Og (vv 19-20), much as Exodus 15 celebrated the victory over Pharaoh at the Red Sea.  

A third midrash reflects on the magnitude of the victory over Og the giant.  According to this midrash Og picked up a mountain and threw it at the Israelites, but Moses thwarted that attack with a pebble over which he had pronounced the Divine Name. 

The midrash on Psalm 136 also includes traditions about Israel's miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.  One of these traditions says that "the depths crystallized on both sides of the children of Israel and became a kind of glass," based on Exodus 15:8.  This tradition links Exodus 15 and Revelation 15, which pictures a "sea of glass" in heaven.  

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Seder 134: Deuteronomy 2---Pharaoh and Sihon

 As the Israelites approached the land occupied by King Sihon and the Amorites, Moses contacted Sihon, politely asking for safe passage through his territory (Num 21:21-22; Dt. 2:26-29).  

One question that arises here is whether Moses was telling the truth when he suggested that Edom and Moab had given the Israelites safe passage through their territories (v 29).  Numbers 20:19-21 suggests that the Edomites had not been receptive to an offer of this kind from the Israel.  

It's possible that Moses was withholding information in order to give the Amorites every reason to accept Israel's request.  Remember that 40 years before, Moses  had not told Pharaoh the whole truth all at once when he approached the Egyptian ruler to get permission for the Israelites to worship God in the wilderness (Ex 5:1).  Pharaoh was given every opportunity to agree to Israel's request before he reached a point of no return.  

If Moses was shading the truth, was it right for him to do so?  Not necessarily.  Here it is helpful to remember that when the biblical narrative reports that someone did something, it usually does not comment upon whether that thing was right or wrong. It is easy to assume, mistakenly, that when a biblical "hero" does something, that thing must have been right.  But the real main character in the Exodus narrative is God, and it's his grace that is a main theme, not the moral examples of the main human characters.     

Like Pharaoh, Sihon did not accede to Moses' request.  Deuteronomy 2:30 tells us that "God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate."  God was giving the new generation of Israelites their own "Exodus experience" and sending a message to the surrounding nations, as he had 40 years earlier.  Soon he would part the Jordan River for the Israelites, as he had parted the Red Sea for their parents (Joshua 3).  

Seder 134: Deuteronomy 2---God's Direction of the Nations

After recounting the disastrous results of the reconnaissance mission from 38 years before, Moses turned to more recent events.  Earlier that year, God had directed the Israelites to head north (Dt 2:3) but to steer clear of the Edomites.  

Based on Numbers 20:13-21, it appears that Moses had asked the Edomites for permission to cross their territory on the king's highway, an important trade route.  Edom had denied the request and threatened to attack.  It may have been at that point that God gave the instructions recorded in Deuteronomy 2:4-6, telling the Israelites not to engage in battle with Edom.  God had given these relatives of Israel their land, and Israel was not to fight with them over it.  

God gave similar instructors regarding the Moabites and Ammonites.  They were living in the places God had allotted to them.  

This was not the case, however, for the Amorites who lived further north.  God intended for the land they currently occupied to be part of Israel's inheritance (Dt 2:24, 31), a detail that had not been mentioned back in Numbers 21.  

A key message of Deuteronomy 2 is that God rules over, and has plans for, all nations.  This theme is picked up in Deuteronomy 32:8, which says that at the tower of Babel, when God "divided mankind," he "fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God."   Fifteen hundred years later in Athens, Paul would speak of God "having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling places" (Acts 17:26).  

The implication is that since God had set up Edom, Moab, and Ammon, in their own territories, he would do the same for Israel.  In particular, God had helped Edom and Moab drive away giants, and he would do the same for Israel. The new generation of Israelites could trust in God to lead them in conquering the territory he had allotted to them.  

Monday, February 6, 2023

Seder 133 Sermon: Deuteronomy 1---Moses' Rebuke

 In Jewish tradition the book of Devarim (a.k.a. Deuteronomy) is often described as Moses' final rebuke of the children of Israel.  The places listed in Deuteronomy 1:1 are associated with the nation's failures during the Exodus years, as laid out in the Targums.  There is implicit rebuke in verse 2, which notes that Israel spent 38 years on an 11-day journey.  

We have a tendency to view rebuke as a negative thing.  But in a sermon at Church of the Messiah on February 4, 2023, Kyle Kettering explained that rebuke can also be viewed positively, as encouragement that points to better results in the future.  A person who rebukes you is one who cares enough about you to do so and feels you are worth the time and effort. 

The book of Proverbs says that responding positively to rebuke is a characateristic of the wise.  "A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool," we read in Proverbs 17:10.  Ecclesiastes 7:5 adds, "It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools."

Kyle passed along some interesting Jewish traditions about rebuke.  One said there was a reason that Israel was blessed by an enemy (Balaam) and rebuked by a friend (Moses), rather than the other way around.  Blessings from an enemy and rebukes from a friend are recognized as genuine, while blessings from a friend and rebukes from an enemy may not be taken seriously.

Another tradition says that the nations rebuked Israel after the rescue of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace.  "You have a God like this, so why did you worship idols?" they wanted to know.  

Kyle reviewed the principle of rebuke in Lev 19:17 and the procedure for Chistian conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-17.  He listed several purposes of rebuke:

  • It can turn a brother away from error.
  • It can create unity and harmony.
  • It can take spiritual life to a new level.
  • It can merit a reward---Proverbs 24:25.
He also talked about how to properly give rebuke, based on Matthew 18.  

Seder 133: Deuteronomy 1---Learning from History

 In the book of Deuteronomy Moses preaches his final sermons to the people of Israel at the end of the fortieth year of the Exodus.  Commentator Daniel I. Block calls this book "the gospel according to Moses."  It is a book often quoted by both Jesus and Paul.  

Deuteronomy belongs to a couple of different genres.  It is a farewell address, with Chapter 33 paralleling Jacob's blessings to his children in Genesis 49.  Jesus' upper room discourse (John 13-16)  is a New Testament farewell address.

Deuteronomy is also a document of covenant renewal, with a structure similar to ancient Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties.  At the end of the 40 years in the wilderness, it is time for the children of the Exodus generation to embrace the covenant for themselves.  The members of the new generation were either young children, or not yet born, when the covenant was ratiifed at Mt Sinai.  

In addressing this generation of Israelites, Moses highlights a few key lessons from the first 39 years of the nation's journey.  First he recalls when they left Mt Horeb (a.k.a. Mt Sinai) in the second month of the second year of the Exodus.  At that point God charged them to go and conquer the Promised Land, whose borders had the potential to extend all the way from the Nile to the Euphrates as they carried out their mission to bless all nations (vv 6-8).

By that point they had grown from an extended family to a small nation, too big for Moses to govern on his own (see Ex 18; Num 11), as God carried out his promise to give Abraham many descendants.  Moses needed a group of godly assistants to serve as judges under him then, and the same thing would be true in the Promised Land.

The Israelites were just a few weeks' journey from their destination when they left Mt Horeb, and Moses had encouraged them to take courage and carry out their mission (vv 19-21).  At that point Moses was asked to send a group of men to scout out the land (v 22).  Such a strategy certainly was not necessary, but it had the potential to get the Israelites excited about the land they would be invading.  (For more discussion, see my post on Numbers 13.)   

The fact-finding trip ended up revealing that the Israelites were not ready to conquer the land.  Instead they would remain in the wilderness for another 38 years, until all who had been counted in the military census of Numbers 1, except Joshua and Caleb, had died (Num 14:29).  

This episode in Israel's history continued to haunt Moses 40 years later.  The sequence of events begun by Israel's rebellion eventually led to Moses himself losing a chance to enter the Promised Land (Deut 1:37).   

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Seder 133: Psalm 56---Trusting in God in a Time of Trial

 The superscription associates Psalm 56 with David at a time "when the Philistines seized him in Gath."  (Psalm 34 has a similar setting.) 1 Sam 21 records that David, in flight from King Saul, at one point escaped briefly to Gath.  However, David was soon recognized as the Israelite leader who had killed Goliath, so after feigning madness, he fled Gath as well (1 Sam 21:10-22:1).  

Whatever the original setting, the psalmist is feeling constant pressure.  He uses the phrase "all day long" three times (vv 1,2,5).  

He realizes, though, that his oppressors are only human beings, and he can place his trust in the King of the Universe (vv 3-4).  He praises God's Word (v 4), which declares God's love and faithfulness to his people.  

Verses 10-11 echo verses 3 and 4.  There is parallelism in verse 10:  "In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise."  The midrash on Psalm 56 suggests that in the first clause, which uses "Elohim" for God, the psalmist is praising God's justice; while in the second clause, which uses YHWH for God, he is praising God's mercy as expressed in Ex 34:6-7.  

Certainly in this psalm he is asking for God to mercifully deliver him from his trial.  He is also asking that God's justice be applied to his oppressors (v 7).  He is confident that God is keeping track of everything that is happening and will make things right.  Verse 8 contains the striking image of a bottle in which all his tears are collected, an image related to God's book in which everything is recorded (Ps 139:16).  

He is confident that God will deliver him and looks forward to giving a public sacrifice of thanksgiving when that has occurred (vv 12-13).

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Seder 132: Psalm 62---God Alone is our Refuge

 Psalm 62 has been designated a "psalm of confidence."  The psalmist describes God as his rock, fortress, salvation, and refuge.

He bases his assurance on two facts, expressed in verses 11-12.  The first is that "power belongs to God''---God is able.  The second is that God is loving and faithful to his covenant.  

Furthermore, God is the only one possessing these qualities.  The Hebrew word ak, which can mean "only", "surely," and "truly," appears five times in this psalm.  Knowing he has come to the only sure source of rescue, the psalmist resolves to wait patiently for God's deliverance.  

He contrasts God with human beings, who are unreliable and tend to be selfish, deceitful, and destructive (vv 3-4; 9-10).  People may appear to succeed through these qualities, but that apparent success is temporary and fleeting.  God will ultimately make things right (v 12), and he is the one to trust. 

Seder 132: Numbers 35---Cities of Refuge

 In the Promised Land the tribe of Levi would not be allotted one chunk of land, but would live in 48 towns among the other tribes--Num 35:1-8.  Ideally these representatives of God among the people would teach each tribe the ways of God.  

Six of those 48 towns---three east of the Jordan and three west of it---would be designated "cities of refuge," to which a person who had committed manslaughter could flee in order to receive a fair trial and be protected from the relatives of the victim.  

The cities of refuge are identified later in Joshua 20:7-8.  They include Hebron, Shechem, Kedesh, Ramoth, Bezer, and Golan.  

A person found guilty of manslaughter but innocent of murder would be sentenced to live in the city of refuge until the death of the current high priest.  If the person left the city of refuge before then, the victim's family was allowed legally to avenge the death of their relative.

It's not that the high priest's death atoned for the spiritual sin of the manslayer; this was a sentencing rule for a human court.  The rule had the effect of closing all of the cases of the outgoing high priest, leaving the next high priest with a clear docket.  

But in the rule about the death of the high priest, Christians see a foreshadowing of the atonement carried out by Jesus, our heavenly high priest.  

Numbers 35 makes a clear distinction between first-degree murder and manslaughter, as does Exodus 21.  Successful prosecution of first-degree murder required multiple eyewitnesses.  In a case where first-degree murder was proven, the death penalty was required---Num 35:31.  This verse implies that for other capital crimes, the death penalty was a maximum penalty but not a required one. 

There is no information in the Bible about manslaughter cases in ancient Israel.  It is interesting to imagine what kinds of cases there might have been.  Novelist Connilyn Cossette presents one such scenario in A Light on the Hill (2018).  In her story, a young woman who is responsible for the accidental poisoning of two boys has quite a challenge reaching Kedesh, since the father of the boys is bent on avenging their deaths. 

The cities of refuge were intended to defuse vicious cycles of killing and revenge, feuds between families like the notorious American feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on January 28, 2023 entitled "Hillbilly Justice," Kyle Kettering reflected on the wisdom behind these provisions.  This was a situation where God met the Israelites where they were and pointed them toward a better way.  The cities of refuge were meant to protect everyone involved from innocent bloodshed and bring about a better future.  

Friday, January 27, 2023

Seder 131: Ezekiel 45-48---Vision of a Future Restoration of Israel

 The mysterious vision recorded at the end of the book of Ezekiel has some links with Numbers 34.  For one thing, the boundaries given in Ezekiel 47:13-20 mention some of the same places listed in Numbers 34.

Numbers 48 describes a division of the land among the twelve tribes.  Included is a holy district within which a square block of land 25,000 cubits on a side is to be allotted for a sanctuary, a place for priests and Levites to live, and a special city to be set up.  To the east and west of this special square block will be land for the prince, a civil leader, to keep flocks for sacrifices (Ezek 45:1-8; 48:8-22).  

The special city will also have  the dimensions of a squre.  There will be 3 gates on each of the four sides, one for each of the tribes. The city will be known as "the Lord is there."  It sound like a kind of forerunner of the New Jerusalem pictured at the end of the book of Revelation.   

It's not clear whether Ezekiel's vision is describing things that will happen fairly literally on the ground at some future date.  It is safe to say, though, that the vision communicated some key spiritual messages to Ezekiiel and his contemporaries in images that they could understand.  

One of those messages is that Israel would be restored to the Promised Land, and God would be present there among his people.  Civil government would no longer exploit people but would instead serve God and the people (45:8-17).  True worship would occur regularly, with holiness of the land, sanctuary, and city maintained.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Seder 131: Numbers 34---Boundaries of Canaan

 Numbers 34 lays out the boundaries of Canaan, the land that God was granting to the Israelites.  Commentators note that Canaan was a recognizable entity at that time.  It is mentioned, for example, in some Egyptian texts.  

The land area described in this chapter includes more than Israel ever managed to claim, even in the time of David and Solomon.  We might call the boundaries listed in Numbers 34 "aspirational boundaries" for Israel.  

Much more expansive is the description of the promised land that God gave to Abraham in Genesis 15:18:  "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates."  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on January 21, 2023, Rob Wilson explained the possibility that Gen 15:18 is intended as a merism, in this case a way of referring to the whole world.  It is God's plan to bring salvation to all nations through the seed of Abraham.  In this reading, Gen 15:18 is a Messianic prophecy.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Seder 130: Numbers 33---Stages of the Journey

Numbers 33 lists 42 stages in Israel's exodus journey, as recorded by Moses at God's direction.  The children of Israel had experienced much during the 40 years in the wilderness, and the names of the places they camped would have reminded them of the lessons they learned at each stage.  

Some of the place names in Exodus 33 are familiar from previous accounts in Exodus and Numbers.  Others are first mentioned here.  For example, Dophkah and Alush in verse 13, from the initial pre-Sinai part of the journey, are not mentioned back in Exodus 15-17.  

Many of the names of their camps are mentioned only in Numbers 33 (e.g., stages 15-26).  Some of these names may be ones that the Israelites came up with themselves to refer to things that happened at those stages of their travels.  All we have now are the names.  

Commentaries on Numbers often contain translations of the names in the list.  Here are some interesting ones from the list given by commentator Dale Brueggemann:

  • Rithmah (stage 15)  "sage city"
  • Rimmon-perez (stage 16) "pomegranate gap"
  • Libnah (stage 17) "white place"
  • Mount Shepher (stage 20)  "mount of beauty"
  • Haradah (stage 21) "frightening" or "trembling"
  • Makheloth (stage 22) "place of assembly"
  • Mithcah (stage 25) "sweet place"
  • Moseroth (stage 27)  "reins, bonds straps"
  • Jotbathah (stage 30) "pleasantness"
  • Zalmonah (stage 35) "black place"  (Brueggemann suggests "Gloomsville")
The majority of the 40 years may have been spent around Kadesh, stage 33.  

By stage 42, they are at the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.  Their next task will be to "depaganize" the land of Canaan (vv 50-56).  If they fail, Canaan will paganize them and they could suffer the fate of the Canaanites.  

Throughout the 42 stages, one thing has been constant:  God has been with them throughout the journey.  Rob Wilson stressed this in a sermon on Num 33-34 at Church of the Messiah on January 21, 2023.    

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Seder 129: Numbers 32 and Joshua 22---the Transjordan Tribes

 The tribes of Israel had worked in unity in carrying out God's judgment upon Midian in Numbers 31.  But that unity was soon put in jeopardy by a request from the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who requested that their tribes be allowed to claim territory east of the Jordan in the land Israel had already conquered (Num 32:1-5).  "Do not take us over the Jordan," they asked Moses.  

Moses responded with a stern reprimand, recalling what had happened 38 years before, when 10 of the spies sent to report on the conditions in Canaan discouraged the Israelites from wanting to claim the Promised Land (vv 6-15).  Moses felt the request from these two tribes had the potential to create similar conditions.  

Some commentators have seen Moses' reaction as further evidence that he was not the one who would be able to lead the second generation of the Exodus across the Jordan.  When he looked at this younger generation, all he saw was their parents.  

On the other hand, it can also be said that Moses was reminding the Israelites of important lessons from their history.  The tribes would have to work in unity to succeed in conquering Canaan.

The Reubenites and Gadites responded by offering to lead the way in the effort to claim the land west of the Jordan (vv 16-19).

Moses was receptive to their offer, but he had some additional correction to give, perhaps sensing an attitude of greed or materialism in their proposals.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad said that they were "ready to go before the people of Israel" (v 16).  Moses reminded them that this was a divine mission that they would be carrying out "before the Lord" (vv 20-22).  They would need to be sure to follow through on their proposal and do their part fo further that divine mission.

Some also see significance in the way in which the two tribes stated their proposal.  They said, "We will build sheepfolds for our livestock, and cities for our little ones" (v 16).  When Moses answered them, he said, "Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep" (v 24), reversing the order in which these two tasks were stated.  Was he charging that the Reubenites and Gadites had their priorities wrong, valuing their flocks over the welfare of their families?  

An agreement was reached, and these two tribes, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, would receive land east of the Jordan. 

A few months later Joshus reminded the tribes of Reuben and Gad of their promise (Joshua 1:12-18), and these tribes did honor their commitment.  Still, the Israelites would face challenges  in trying to attain and maintain unity with the Jordan running through the middle of their territory.  

Some mutual distrust is already evident in Joshua 22, when the tribes of Reuben and Gad depart to go back across the Jordan.  These tribes were afraid that future generations of Israel would treat their tribes as outsiders.  To remind the other tribes of their shared commitment to the God of Israel, they built a large memorial in the form of an altar near the river (Joshua 22:10).  

The other tribes questioned the motives of Reuben and Gad.  Why did they want to live on the other side of the Jordan?  Were they planning to set up a competing worship site, contrary to God's instruction?  Were they planning to worship other gods?  Fortunately, representatives of the tribes met to talk things over, and misunderstandings were cleared up.  

Later on, there were times when the commitment of the trans-Jordan tribes to the rest of the nation seemed to be lacking (Judges 5:15-17, 8:6; 21).  There is a tradition that these tribes were the first to face exile because of such a lack of commitment.  

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas 2022: Matthew 2:1-12---the Mysterious Magi

 The biblical account of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12 raises lots of questions for readers: From where in "the east" did they come? How many of them were there? What was the nature of the "star" that led them to Jerusalem?

One imaginative ancient attempt to answer these questions and others is found in Revelation of the Magi, a work of Christian apocrypha that may have been written as early as the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. The first translation of this work from Syriac into English was carried out in the Harvard dissertation of Brent Landau (now at the University of Texas). 

Revelation of the Magi imagines the magi as an ancient religious order of twelve men from the land of Shir in "the outer part of the entire East of the world" (2:3-4). Each month these men climbed the Mountain of Victories to pray silently at the Cave of Treasures, which housed books of revelation written by Adam's son Seth as well as the precious gifts that were to be given to the Messiah at the time when the star appeared. The magi taught the contents of the books to their families. When one of them died, his son would replace him in the order.

When the star appeared, its light took the form of a small human, a manifestation of Christ who instructed them in what to do next. To each of the men, the human appeared differently. One saw him as a boy. Another saw him on the cross. A third saw him rising from the dead. A fourth saw him ascending to heaven, etc.

The "star child" guided the magi on the long trek to Jerusalem. During that trip, their provisions were continually replenished and rough terrain was smoothed out before them. The magi were led to Bethlehem where they worshiped Christ and presented their gifts to him.

Christ, in this work, is present everywhere simultaneously. At the same time that he is living his life as a human in Galilee and Judea, he is also with the magi, whom he guides back to Shir. There they spread the good news to their countrymen, who also experience special visions and revelations when they eat the miraculous provisions that the magi bring back with them. Later the apostle Thomas comes to Shir. He baptizes the magi and others, and they carry out the Great Commission together.

The work is replete with allusions to scripture and the traditions of early Syriac Christianity.  In one interesting tradition, the sword that Simeon prophesies will pierce Mary's soul (Lk 2:35) is seen as reversing the effect of the swords which guard the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24). Through the work of Christ, access to Eden is restored.

It turns out that the contents of Revelation of the Magi were summarized in a 5th century Latin commentary on Matthew that became popular in medieval Europe because of an alleged connection with John Chrysostom. As a result, some medieval art pictures the magi being guided by the "star child."

Revelation of the Magi is an imaginative work that tells us much more about the beliefs and traditions of its writer and his communiuty than it does about the historical magi.  It is more likely that the magi were royal advisors who used astrology in their work, and that the star was some distinctive astronomical phenomenon.  A number of candidates have been proposed for this phenomenon:
  • Colin R. Nicholl's The Great Christ Comet makes the case for the Star of Bethlehem being a comet. 
  • Mark Kidger in The Star of Bethlehem points to a combination of astronomical phenomena between 7 and 5 BC as a good candidate. 
  • Ernest L. Martin in The Star that Astonished the World proposes a combination of astronomical phenomena in 3-2 BC.  He says that Jesus was born on the Feast of Trumpets in 3 BC.  
There is no general agreement on the identity of the star, as far as I know.  But studying the issue could be a fun way to learn more about ancient history and astronomy.

Whoever the magi were, wherever they came from, and whatever the star was, Matthew 2:1-12 carries the message that God's plan of salvation through Jesus the Messiah encompasses the entire world.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Seder 128: Isaiah 49 and Luke 11---Defeating the Strong Man

Isa 49:24 poses a question:  "Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?" 

Verse 25 then gives an affirmative answer to the question.  Yes, God is perfectly capable of doing those things.

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on December 10, 2022, Kyle Kettering suggested that Jesus may have been alluding to Isa 49:24-25 in Luke 11:21-22, when he was answering accusers who questioned the source of his miracles.  Jesus had cast a mute demon out of a man (v. 14), and some had accused him of being empowered by the prince of demons (v 15).  

Jesus had pointed out that this accusation didn't make any sense. He had also made the point that to defeat a "strong man," one had to be even stronger (vv 21-22).  Here was where Jesus may have had Isa 49:24-25 in mind.

In our battles with the adversary, Kyle said, we should remember that Jesus is stronger than all the forces of evil, as he demonstrated in Luke 11 and elsewhere.  

Seder 127/128: Numbers 31---Judgment of the Midianites

 At Balaam's instigation, the Midianites had tempted the Israelites to commit idolatry and adultery at Baal Peor.  God then instructed Moses to carry out judgment upon these Midianites for actively opposing God's plan and people (Num 25:16-18).  

The Midianites apparently consisted of a number of clans, some of whom were nomadic herdsmen.  Some, like Moses' in-laws, were friends of the Israelites, while others opposed them.  It was the clans in this latter group who were to be punished.  

The details of how this judgment was done are recorded in Numbers 31.  This was a special holy war, using a small percentage of Israel's army (one eleph from each tribe).  This small force totally defeated the offending Midianites, suffering no casualties in the process.  

This battle was a "warm up" for the conquest of Canaan, which would begin in a few months.  It would have given the Israelites some encouragement for that task.  As Frank Fenton noted in a short teaching at Church of the Messiah on December 10, 2022, when God gives his people a task, he provides the means necessary to carry it out.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Seder 127: Psalm 58---Crying Out Against Injustice

 Psalm 58 is classified as an imprecatory psalm, like 35, 69, 83, 109, and 137.  It begins with a rhetorical question:  "Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?" (ESV)  Here the gods being referenced could be the members of the divine council that God placed over the nations at Babel.  As we also see in Psalm 82, these heavenly beings have often mishandled their responsibilities.  The only just government in the world comes from God.  All other authorities are imperfect.  

The psalm compares wicked rulers to venomous snakes that cannot be controlled by their handlers (vv 3-5).  Since they actively oppose God and plan, the psalmist prays for God to deal with them, expressing some of the most colorful imprecations in scripture.  He prays that the wicked would evaporate or melt away and no longer see the light of day (vv 7-8).  

Verse 9 is one of the most obscure verses in the Bible.  "Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!"  The midrash on Psalm 58 proposes that the imagery here is of destroying briar shoots before they can turn into brambles.  

The psalm ends on a note of confidence that God will judge the wicked and bring justice to the world.God's kingdom will advance, and the righteous will be rewarded (vv 10-11). 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Seder 126: Matthew 23---Being Phair to the Pharisees

 The Gospel accounts include frequent interaction between Jesus and a group of Jewish teachers called the Pharisees.  Sadly, na├»ve readings of these encounters have left this group with an undeservedly negative reputation.  There are several recent books that try to correct negative stereotypes about them and give a more accurate picture, including books by Kent Yinger and Israel Knohl and a collection of essays by a group of scholars.  

There are several things to take into account when reading about the Pharisees in the Gospels:

  • Jesus shared many beliefs in common with them.  Brad Young in his book Meet the Rabbis shows, for example, that almost every one of Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is paralleled by teachings of the rabbis, the successors of the Pharisees.
  • Jesus' interactions with them were not always hostile--see for example Luke 13:31, where Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas wishes to kill him.  Paul's teacher Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee, urged toleration toward the Christian movement (Acts 5:33-39).  
  • A number of Pharisees became followers of Jesus, most notably the apostle Paul, who was a "Christian Pharisee" rather than a "former Pharisee."  Nicodemus is another example.
  • Jesus' critiques of the Pharisees were intra-Jewish discussions.  The Pharisees were innovators, and Jesus sometimes disagreed with their innovations (see Mark 7).
  • Jesus corrected Pharisees because he cared about them and believed they were worth correcting.  This correction can be likened to the words of the biblical prophets or to a corrective sermon.  There was also lots of correction of the Pharisees in the literature of later rabbinic Judaism.
  • The Pharisees can be compared to deeply religious people in any setting.  When people profess high ideals, they then become subject to close scrutiny on whether they are living up to those ideals.  In order to be accused of hypocrisy, one has to actually believe something.  Jesus wanted them to live up to their high ideals, and his words to them are also a challenge to religious Christians who strive to obey God and have high ideals.   
In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on November 26, 2022, Kyle Kettering brought out many of these points.  In particular, he reflected on the challenge posed in Matthew 23:23, where Jesus says that we should emphasize the "weightier matters of the law" while not neglecting the details.  He observed that there is lots of confusion today in the Christian world; often serious sins are overlooked with appeals to God's love.

Seder 143: Psalm 101---A Royal Declaration of Commitment to Justice

 In Psalm 101 the king of Israel solemnly promises to rule justly.  A king who carries out these promises would be living up to the descript...