Saturday, July 13, 2024

Seder 31:Genesis 32-33 and Obadiah---Lessons about Self-Sufficiency

 Many people submit to God after reaching a point in life where they find that their own efforts are not good enough.  

The patriarch Jacob seems to have reached this point when he returned to Canaan and was faced with the prospect of meeting his brother Esau, who was accompanied by 400 men.  He placed his life in God's hands and asked for deliverance (Ge 32:9-12)  

His prayer was answered.  Esau greeted Jacob magnanimously, and the two had a joyful reunion (Ge 33).  We don't know what changes had taken place in Esau's life during the 20 years when Jacob was gone, but Esau was no longer angry with Jacob by the time Jacob returned.  

Did Esau submit his life to God?  We're not told.  

Many centuries later (perhaps in the early sixth century BC), the prophet Obadiah spoke of the need for Esau's descendants, the Edomites, to collectively repent of their self-sufficient pride:

"The pride of your heart has decived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, "Who will bring me down to the ground?' Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, declares the Lord" (vv 3-4).

Monday, July 8, 2024

Seder 30: Jeremiah 30---"For I am with you to save you...."

 When Jacob prepared to leave home and go to Haran, God conveyed an important message to him:  "Behold, I am with you and and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Ge 28:15).  

Twenty years later, God repeated this assurance:  "Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred and I will be with you" (Ge 31:3).  And indeed, God guided Jacob and his family safely to Canaan.

Now fast forward over a thousand years to the time of Judah's defeat by the Babylonians in the early sixth century BC.  At that point a number of Jews were taken away to Babylon.  But Jeremiah had an important message for Israel and Judah:  God would one day reunite and restore the nation. As he had been with Jacob in the past, so he would be with Jacob's descendants in the future:  

"Then fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the LORD, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity.  Jacob shall return and have quite and ease, and none shall make them afraid" (Jer 10:10-11).

Jeremiah's prophecy of restoration includes the promise of the Messiah and the coming of the messianic age (vv 21-22).    

Kyle Kettering gave a sermon on this motif at Church of the Messiah on July 6, 2024.  He carried the motif forward into the New Testament with Jesus' promise to his disciples before his ascension:  "And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20).  

Monday, July 1, 2024

Seder 29: Genesis 30, 1 Samuel 1-2---Rachel and Hannah

 After about seven years of infertility, Jacob's wife Rachel gave birth to a son, Joseph.  We are not told what use she might have made of the mandrakes she obtained from her sister.  The implication is that this detail is irrelevant.  Genesis emphasizes that it was God who "opened her womb" (Ge 30:22).  

Joseph is one of a series of special sons, miraculously given to couples struggling with infertility, who have important roles to play in salvation history.  Others include Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist.  

These sons were answers to prayer.  Genesis 30:22 notes that God "listened to" Rachel.  In the case of Samuel's mother Hannah, we are given some details about one of those prayers.  Hannah vowed to God that she would dedicate a son to his service "if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me..." (1 Sa 1:11).  Her language is very similar to that of Exodus 3;7, where God states, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people."  Hannah asked God to deliver her from infertility as he had always delivered his people.

When Hannah brought young Samuel to the tabernacle, she gave a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving (1 Sa 2:1-10).  Walter Kaiser, in his book on great prayers in the Hebrew Scriptures, divides the prayer into three parts:

  • In verses 1-3, Hannah expresses her great joy and praises God's greatness and incomparability.  In verse 3, when she says, "Talk no more so very proudly..," we can imagine that she has her personal tormentor Peninnah in mind, but the word for "your" in this verse is in plural form. 
  • In verses 4-8, Hannah describes how God watches out for those in need, stepping in to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  "The barren has borne seven," she declares in verse 5, and she would go on to have at least six children in all (verse 21).  
  • In verses 9-10, Hannah looks ahead to the culmination of God's plan, when God will judge the world and send his Messiah.  Samuel would later anoint the first two kings of Israel, contributing to the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Her prayer expressed the thanksgiving of all the barren women who had been granted children.  It also became a template for future songs of praise.  Mary's prayer in Luke 1:46-55 has similiar structure and content.  A psalm of David recorded in both 2 Samuel 2 and Psalm 18 has several parallels with Hannah's prayer:

  • In verse 1, Hannah says that God exalts her "horn"---that is, lifts her up and gives her strength---as does David in Psalm 18:2.
  • In verse 2, Hannah refers to God as her "rock," as does David in Psalm 18:2.
  • In verse 10 Hannah pictures God "thundering," as David does in Psalm 18:13.  In Hannah's case God answers the taunts of Peninnah.  In 1:6, the verb for thundering is used to describe Peninnah "irritating" Hannah.  
  • Hannah ends her prayer with an assertion of God's faithfulness to his anointed king, as does David in Psalm 18:50.  

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Seder 28: Gen 29:31-30:21---A Competition for Sons

Sibling rivalry is a major theme in Genesis.  The rivalry between Jacob and Esau is featured in Genesis 25 and 27.  The theme continues in Genesis 29 when Jacob marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah.  Leviticus 18:18 will tell us that this is a bad idea, and we see concrete examples of the problems that can arise with "sister wives" as we study the Genesis narrative.  

Jacob "loved Rachel more than Leah" (Ge 29:30), leading Leah to compete with Rachel for Jacob's love.  She hoped that Jacob would be drawn to her as she gave birth to four sons---Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah  (29:31-35).  

Meanwhile Rachel, who did not immediately give birth, felt left behind, and she competed with her sister in a kind of baby contest.  On one side were Rachel and her servant Bilhah.  On the other side were Leah and her servant Zilpah.  

When Bilhah gave birth to two sons, Rachel proclaimed, "With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed" (30:8).  Team Rachel had narrowed the lead of team Leah to 4-2.  

Team Leah responded by getting Zilpah involved in the action.  They extended their lead to 6-2 when Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher.  

Competitions between teams often involve trades as the season progresses, and that actually is the case here as well.  At one point Leah's young son Reuben found some mandrakes, plants believed to promote fertility.  Rachel traded a night with Jacob for the mandrakes.  

Rachel's strategy apparently backfired, however.  Leah went on to have two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, making the score 8-2.  

Jacob, an essential player, does not appear often in the Genesis account of the game.  His role is to occupy the tent to which his wives direct him each night.  When Rachel demands that he give her sons, we see the frustration in his response:  "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?"  (Ge 30:2)  Jacob is strong, diligent, and resourceful, but he cannot grant Rachel's request on his own.  

Despite the strife in Jacob's family, God worked with the situation to fulfill his promise to grant many descendants to Abraham (Ge 15:5; 17:4-6).   

Commentators often point out that Jacob's question in Genesis 30:2 was repeated by his son Joseph many years later in Genesis 50:19.  In that case Joseph stated that it was not his prerogative to judge the brothers who had sold him into slavery.  

Genesis 30:2 and 50:19 highlight God's roles as lifegiver and judge.  Those roles comes together in Jesus of Nazareth, as Philip H. Kern points out in chapter 5 of his book, Jacob's Story as Christian Scripture.  One place where these roles are mentioned together is in John 5:21-22.  

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Seder 27: Genesis 28-29---Jacob Enters a Time of Growth

 At age 77, Jacob reached a critical juncture in his life.  He would be leaving the land of Canaan, where he had lived his whole life, and heading over 500 miles away to Haran, where his mother had grown up.  At this time God brought encouragement, appearing to Jacob in a dream to emphasize that he would be with him throughout his travels (Ge 28:12-15).  

We have not been told anything up to this point about Jacob's relationship with God.  There are a couple of details that may indicate this relationship was not yet well developed. One is the fact that God revealed himself to Jacob in a dream---as he did to people like Abimelech (Ge 20:3) and Pharaoh (41:1)---rather than in, say, a vision, as he had appeared to Abraham (15:1).  

Fifty three years later, God did appear to Jacob in a vision (Ge 46:2).  By that time Jacob had been walking with God for many years.  

A second detail is the vow that Jacob makes after his dream.  Jacob vows that if God is with him and brings him back home, then he will worship God and give him a tithe (verses 20-22).  At this point Jacob's relationship with God seems rather transactional; the wording of the vow suggests that Jacob is trying to "cut a deal" with God.  

After receiving reassurance from God, Jacob makes the long walk to Haran with spring in his step.  Genesis 29:1 says that he "lifted his feet" as he continued his journey.  He will have many lessons to learn during his sojourn with Laban.  Some of them he will learn the hard way.

In particular, Jacob the deceiver will be the victim of deception.  When Jacob believes he is marrying Laban's daugher Rachel, Laban subsitutes his older daughter Leah on the wedding night.  One midrash imagines a later conversation between Jacob and Leah.  When Jacob asks Leah why she posed as Rachel, she reminds Jacob that he had once posed as Esau.  He had received a classic "measure for measure" consequence of his actions.  (Whoever was being deceived in Genesis 27, Jacob's intent had been to deceive his father.)

Through this lesson and others, Jacob will grow through experience.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Seder 26: Genesis 27, Hebrews 12, and Matthew 25---Don't Miss the Big Deadlines

 When Esau came back with the meat that his father had requested, he was chagrined to learn that he had missed out on the blessing for which he had hoped (Gen 27:30-38).  

A lesson is drawn from Esau's example in Hebrews 12:16-17.  Esau had undervalued his family's special calling and figured out too late what he was missing.  

There are other scriptures that tell us there are some important deadlines that are not to be missed.  For example, in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, the bridesmaids fall asleep when the bridegroom's coming is delayed, and some are too late to meet the bridegroom.  

Pentecost 2024: Gen 11 and Acts 2---Coerced Uniformity versus Unity in Diversity

 The people who came together to build the "tower of Babel" in Genesis 11:1-9 were a united group that did not want to be separated.  God's negative reaction to their project implies that they were in rebellion against God.  However, the text of Genesis 11 does not explicitly say what the problem was.  

One explanation, based on Ancient Near Eastern background, is that this group was building a ziggurat in order to try to control and manipulate God.  

Another explanation, one with a long tradition, is that this group was trying to launch an attack on heaven itself, saying like the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:13, "I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God; I will set my throne on high."  If this was their purpose, then they were sadly mistaken.  God and his divine council had to "go down" (verse 7) in order to examine their puny efforts.  

A third explanation, due to the nineteenth century Jewish commentator Netziv, is laid out by Judy Klitsner in her book Subversive Sequels in the Bible.  Netziv saw the group at Babel as a totalitarian state that imposed a rigid uniformity on its people.  It didn't want anyone to leave, and it didn't want any new ideas to come in.

One thing supporting this reading is a parallel between Genesis 11:3-4 amd Exodus 1:10.  In Genesis 11:4, those at Babel say, "Come, let us build ourselves a city....lest we be dispersed."  In Exodus 1:10, Pharaoh tells his people, "Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply..."  This "Come, let us, ....lest....." construction appears in the Bible only in these two passages.  

In Exodus 1, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, and they make bricks and built cities, as in Genesis 11.  This parallel leads to the idea that in Genesis 11, the people are being enslaved and forced to make bricks and build a city.  The group at Babel is trying to make a name for itself (Gen 11:4), but it is a collective name, with no individual names mentioned.  In Netziv's reading, this group is a collective like the Borg in Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  One midrash on Genesis 11 says that when someone carrying bricks up the tower fell to his death, people mourned for the loss of the bricks rather than the loss of a human life.  At Babel it was the collective that mattered, not the individuals.  

In this reading, we can see why God would put a stop to the group's efforts.  God created people in his image to be able to express their individuality and make free choices.  In particular, we can use our free will to seek a relationship with God.  The group at Babel was cutting itself off from any relationship with God.  

At Pentecost in Acts 2, an event that is kind of a reversal of Babel, the disciples of Jesus were unified, being "all together in one place" (verse 1).  Their unity was not a coerced uniformity, like the one at Babel.  Rather, they were united in love by the Spirit of God.  That unity is expressed in a diversity of spiritual gifts, as described in 1 Corinthians 12.  

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Seder 25: An Alternate View of Genesis 27---Who is Being Deceived?

 The narrative of Genesis 25-27 raises lots of questions about Isaac and Rebekah and their sons.  For instance, does Rebekah share with Isaac the special revelation she receives about Jacob and Esau before their birth?  

If the answer is no, then this would be an example of the biblical motif of a parent "keeping a saying in mind" or "hiding it in one's heart." If Rebekah kept the revelation to herself, that could help explain why Isaac seems to want to act contrary to it in Chapter 27 in his desire to bless Esau above Jacob.

One standard way to interpret chapter 27 is to see Rebekah taking matters into her own hands to carry out what she is sure is God's will in securing the primary blessing for Jacob.  Isaac's poor eyesight is then viewed as a sign of a lack of spiritual insight in regard to his sons.  

I recently learned about an interestng alternate interpretation championed by David J. Zucker.  Zucker proposes that Isaac and Rebekah work together in Chapter 27 to deceive Jacob.  

In Zucker's reading Rebekah has shared the revelation of Genesis 25:23 with Isaac, and the two agree that Esau is not qualified to be spiritual leader of the next generation of the family.  Esau has shown this in the lack of value he places in the family birthright, as well as in his taking two Hittite wives (26:34), a course of action that greatly disappoints his parents (v 35).  The two had worked closely together in addressing their fertility problems, and they continue to work together.  Their twins have reached age 77, and they would like Jacob to go out in the world to prove himself, and in particular to take a wife from their clan back in Haran.  If Jacob appears to steal a blessing from Esau, Esau's anticipated reaction will force Jacob to go out on his own.  

If Rebekah and Isaac plan the deception together, they are counting on Jacob being willing to deceive Isaac for a chance at a better blessing.  And indeed, Jacob seems to be less worried about the ethics of tricking his father than about the possibility of getting caught (27:11-12).  Jacob says that he is a "smooth man," which can be taken in more than one way.  The word for "smooth"---chalaq---is elsewhere used for smooth or flattering speech (Pr 5:3; 26:28; Eze 12:24).  Jacob's intent is to deceive, whether or not he is actually doing so.  

I do not know whether Zucker's reading is correct, but I confess that I would like it to be.  I do not think it contradicts the biblical account in any way, and it fits well with a number of things in the text, including:

  • the fact that the text does not mention any damage to the relationships among Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob.  Isaac does not seem to get angry at either Rebekah or Jacob, for example, when the deception is revealed.
  • the fact that Isaac seems to basically know that the one who has come to him for a blessing isn't Esau, but he goes ahead with the blessing anyway.
  • the verses in Chapters 24-26 that imply a close relationship between Isaac and Rebekah.
  • the blessing that Isaac gives to Jacob seems to be a better fit for a herdsman/farmer than for a hunter.  
Whoever was being deceived, the blessing Isaac gives to Jacob in chapter 27 is not the full covenant blessing.  Isaac conveys that to Jacob in Ge 28:1-4.  Perhaps he had planned to give that to Jacob all along, regardless of his intentions for the blessing of chapter 27.  

It is also notable that the blessing of chapter 27 has messianic implications.  Since Jacob only has one brother, the plural in verse 29 seems to look ahead to a descendant or descendants of Jacob.  Kevin Chen, for example, argues that this is a messianic prophecy.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Seder 24: Psalm 87---Praise to Zion, Mother of Nations

Psalm 87, a hymn of praise to Zion, may be associated with Israel's pilgrimage festivals, when people from all nations came to Jerusalem to worship God.  

Verse 3 declares, "Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God."  Here the words of the prophets may be particularly in view, in passages like Isaiah 2:1-4; 26:1-2; 60:15-22; 61:1-7.  Such verses picture Zion's restoration and people from all nations coming to Jerusalem to worship the true God.  

A representative sampling of the nations from which people flock to Jerusalem are listed in verse 4.  "Rahab" is listed here as a way of referring to Egypt (see Ps 89:10; Isa 30:7; 51:9).  Rahab is the name of a mythical sea monster, and God's victory over Egypt at the Red Sea can be pictured as a victory over that sea monster and the forces of chaos.  

When people from the nations submit to the God of Israel, they are counted as citizens of Zion.  In the Septuagint, verse 5 speaks of "Mother Zion."  It's possible that Paul is thinking of this verse in Galatians 4:26 when he speaks of "Jerusalem above" which is "our mother."

At the festivals in Jerusalem, singers and dancers declare, "All my springs are in you" (verse 7). They are celebrating at the place from which living waters flow (Jer 2:13; Isa 12:3; Eze 47; Rev 22:1-5).  

Monday, April 29, 2024

Seder 23: Luke 12:22-34---Trusting God in the Midst of Uncertainty

 After Sarah's death, Abraham remarried and had several children with Keturah  Keturah was a concubine, a wife of lower status than Sarah, and Abraham gave gifts to her children but left the bulk of his estate to Isaac (Gen 25:1-6).  

Abraham was to be a father of many nations, and the nations that sprang from these children were among them.  Specifically, these were peoples in Arabia who were prominent in the spice trade, for example.  Isaiah 60:1-7 pictures these nations joining with Israel in the messianic era.  

King David, after he began to reign from Jerusalem, added more wives and children to his family, including four sons with Bathsheba (2 Sam 5:13-16).  2 Samuel 5:13-6:1 is a haftarah reading connected with Genesis 25:1-19 in an ancient Jewish lectionary.  

While Abraham and David could add to their families, there were lots of things that were beyond their control.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on April 20, 2024, Kyle Kettering observed that the very reason we should not worry about the future is that the future is uncertain.  We can't control it.  We should plan for the future, but not count on those plans, as James 4:13-15 counsels.  We should place our lives in God's hands, as the psalmist did in Psalm 71:1-3.  God will take care of us, as Jesus taught in Luke 12:22-34.  

Monday, April 15, 2024

Seder 22: Genesis 24---A Biblical Love Story

 Genesis 24 tells the story of how Isaac and Rebekah came to be husband and wife.  Verse 67 concludes the chapter, the second longest chapter in the Pentateuch (after Numbers 7):

"Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.  So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."

This is the first mention in the Bible of a man's love for a woman.  Rebekah filled a void in Isaac's life and played a key role as the next matriarch of the family.  

There is a rich body of tradition about the tent of Sarah.  According to one tradition, after Sarah's death her disciples kept her tent ready for whoever its next occupant would be.  Another tradition imagines that a cloud of God's presence hovered near the entrance of the tent while Sarah was alive, and it returned when Rebekah arrived.  Such traditions point to how important Sarah and Rebekah were in the plan of God.  

Every married ouple has a story about how they met, married, and grew closer over time.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on April 13, 2024, Kyle Kettering related his story and opened the floor for others to do so as well.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Seder 21: 1 Kings 1---A Successor for David

 "Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years..." begins Genesis 24.  The Hebrew phrase for "old, well advanced in years" appears just a handful of times in the Bible.  Two of then are in Joshua 23:1 and 1 Kings 1:1, where the same thing is said of Joshua and David, respectively.  

In all three of these chapters an aging leader takes steps to advance God's purposes for a coming generation.  In the case of David, when the king is unable to respond sexually to Abishag, the young virgin who has been brought in to keep him warm in bed (1 Ki 1:1-4), people in the royal court assume that he is effectively out of the picture.  He didn't "know" Abishag (verse 4) or what was going on around him.  

At this stage Adonijah, David's oldest remaining son, began to gather support in a bid to become king.  The narrative pictures him as similar to his older brother Absalom, who had earlier tried to usurp the throne (vv 5-6)   Those supporting Adonijah included Joab and Abiathar, members of the tribe of Judah and  allies of David going all the way back to his pre-Jerusalem days.

Nathan the prophet moved quickly to counter Adonijah's plans.  He and Bathsheba went to David and told him what was happening, and  David responded with decisive action, having Solomon anointed as the next king of Israel.  Adonijah, who at the time was having a banquet with his friends, was taken by surprise.  David wasn't impotent after all.

Commentators have noticed some wordplay with names in 1 Kings 1---see for example Iain Provan's commentary on First and Seond Kings.  Adonijah's mother is Haggith, a name with the same root in Hebrew as chag, the word for "feast."  Solomon's mother is Bathsheba, the second part of whose name is close to the word for "oath."  Provan explains, "While the son of the feast-lady eats, the daughter-of-the-oath reminds the king of what he has sworn and so ensures that Adonijah for his life is dependent for his life upon Solomon's own oath" (p 30).  

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Resurrection Day 2024 Sermon: The Importance of Resurrection

 The first Christians proclaimed a message of Jesus' resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:22-38; 4:2).  Jesus declared himself to be "the resurrection and the life" (Jn 11:25). 

The resurrection has always been at the heart of the Christian message.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on March 39, 2024, Kyle Kettering  emphasized the importance of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.  

In the Jewish world of the first century, Kyle explained, many believed in the resurrection.  For example, the martyrs in 2 Maccabees 7 declared that they were not afraid of their persecutors because God would resurrect them (see e.g. verse 9).  In talking with Jesus about her brother Lazarus, Martha professed her faith in "the resurrection on the last day" (Jn 11:24).  The Pharisees, of whom the apostle Paul was one, were strong believers in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). 

Not all Jews believed in the resurrection, though.  The doctrine is not so easy to discern from just the Pentateuch, and the Sadducees were skeptical of it (Mt 22:23-33).  

Greek thinking, which valued an immaterial soul over the human body, did not accept the idea of resurrection.  Paul defended the resurrection to a largely Gentile audience in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15.  He emphasized that this was a teaching "of first importance," one that validates the idea of Jesus' atoning death.  Without it, Paul said, "we are of all people most to be pitied" (v. 19).

Kyle concluded that the resurrection 

  • validates Jesus' mission and teaching.
  • provides power; it is thanks to the resurrection that Christ lives in us.
  • gives us hope. 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Resurrection Day 2024: 1 Corinthians15:3-9---Four Categories of Apostles

 In 1 Corinthians 15:3-9, Paul mentions a number of individuals and groups of people to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared:

  • Cephas (Luke 24:34)
  • the twelve
  • five hundred brethren
  • James
  • all the apostles
  • Paul, "the least of the apostles"
This listing raises the question of how "apostle" ("one sent") was defined.  We know that the twelve were apostles, and they were people who had traveled with Jesus from the time of his baptism until the time of his ascension (Acts 1:22).  

Jesus' half-brother James was also an apostle (Gal 1:19).  James may have become a follower of Jesus when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him.  James became the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem.  Those who led the Jerusalem Christ-followers seem to have been called apostles in the book of Acts. 

Paul also became an apostle a few years after James did.  The risen Jesus appeared to him and commissioned him.  

There are also cases where a person who was sent by one congregation to help another is called an apostle.  Titus (2 Cor 8:23) and Epaphroditus (Phl 2:25) are examples.   Today we call people like this missionaries or church planters.

So there seem to be four categories of apostles in the New Testament:'

  1. The Twelve
  2. James and other leaders of the early Jerusalem congregation.
  3. Paul, who is in a kind of category of his own.
  4. People sent be one congregation to help another.
The people in the first three categories had seen the risen Jesus.  These categories seem only to have existed in the initial generation of Christianity.  There are people in the fourth category throughout Christian history, but we probably should not loosely throw around the title of apostle for them, since this designation has such exalted connotations. 

Michael Heiser gives a concise discussion of this topic in the Logos Mobile Ed Course BI 165,  one of a series of courses on difficult passages in scripture.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Resurrection Day 2024: 1 Corinthians 15:29---What Was Baptism for the Dead?

 One of the strangest verses in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 15:29:  "Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?" (ESV)

In chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, Paul argues against the view that Christian believers will not be resurrected from the dead in the future.  He asserts that denying the reality of resurrection means denying that Christ was resurrected, and Christ's resurrection is the cornerstone of the gospel.  Verse 29 is part of that discussion, with Paul saying that "baptism for the dead" makes no sense if there is no resurrection.  

But what was baptism for the dead?  Michael Heiser discusses this question in three videos from the Logos Mobile Ed Course BI 161, a course on difficult passages in the Bible.  He says that over the course of Christian history, there have been over 40 different proposals for what is going on in verse 29.  One's interpretation depends on the way one answers several questions:

  1. Is this baptism literal or metaphorical?
  2. Who is being baptized, and why?
  3. How are we to interpret the Greek preposition hyper, which is translated "on behalf of" in the ESV.  Does it mean "in the interest of", "because of", "in place of"?  All these are possible.
  4. Is Paul simply reporting a practice that is occurring, or does he endorse the practice?
Heiser goes on to talk about some of the leading options:

  • The metaphorical view sees "baptism for the dead" as a way of saying "martyrdom."  In this view, to be baptized for the dead is to die for the faith, experiencing that type of "baptism of fire."  Why would one die for the faith if there is no resurrection?
  • In the inspirational view, people are being baptized becuse they are inspired by the courage of a martyr they have heard about.  Baptism for the dead would then be "baptism for those who have died."
  • In the last-day resurrection view, people are being baptized in order to be united with dead loved ones in the future resurrection.
  • In the deathbed baptism view, people are being baptized shortly before they die, when they are nearly dead.  John Calvin favored this interepretation.
  • In the vicarious baptism view, which may be the most popular one, people are being baptized for the benefit of those who have already died.  If this is what Paul was referring to, then he was reporting the practice without endorsing it.
Heiser himself leans toward an interpretation proposed by James E. Patrick in the paper "Living Rewards for Dead Apostles:  'Baptised for the Dead' in 1 Corinthians 15.29," New Testament Studies 52 (2006): 71-85.  In Patrick's reading, people in Corinth were dedicating their baptisms to Christian teachers---some of whom had already died---who were instrumental in bringing them to faith in Jesus.

This interpretation takes into account the whole letter.  Back in chapter 1, Paul mentions there were rivalries among Corinthian revolving around their special heroes in the faith.  Different people considered themselves the disciples of different apostles (1:10-12).  These heroes had been witnesses of Jesus' resurrection.  Why honor these heroes, Paul asks, if you don't actually believe in resurrection?

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Good Friday 2024: Mary the Wife of Clopas

 In the 1980s sitcom Newhart, three Vermont woodsmen were among the cast of eccentric characters.  Larry, their spokesman, introduced the other two as "my brother Darryl" and "my other brother Darryl."

I can't help thinking of the Darryls when I read John 19:25, which says that those standing near the cross of Christ included "his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene."  Since the mother of Jesus was named Mary, three different Marys are mentioned in this verse.

The presence of three Marys together is not as unusual as we might imagine at first.  Available data indicate that the name Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was held by nearly a quarter of the women in Judea in the first century AD.  There are reasons this name was so popular.  The original Miriam, the sister of Moses, was a prophet of Israel.  Shortly before the time of Jesus, two wives of Herod the Great bore that name, so it was a name associated with queens and princesses.

The Bible tells us about additional women named Mary among the first followers of Jesus.  One of them was Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus' feet with ointment about a week before the crucifixion (John 12:1-3).  We also know that the mother of John Mark, author of the Gospel of Mark, was named Mary (Acts 12:12).         

Mary the wife of Clopas is perhaps the least familiar of these Marys.  According to Eusebius'  Ecclesiastical History (Book 3, Chapter 11), Clopas was a brother of Joseph, the husband of Jesus' mother Mary, making Clopas' wife the sister-in-law of Jesus' mother.  

This information helps answer one of the main questions raised by John 19:25:  How many women are being referenced there? In one reading there are four:

  1. Mary the mother of Jesus
  2. An unnamed sister of Mary.
  3. Mary the wife of Clopas.
  4. Mary Magdalene.
But since Mary the wife of Clopas was the sister-in-law of the mother of Jesus, and since the word for "sister" in John 19:25 can be used for a wider range of relationships than just "sisters," there may be only three women in John 19:25:

  1. Mary the mother of Jesus
  2. Mary's sister-in-law Mary the wife of Clopas.
  3. Mary Magdalene.
Richard Bauckham considers this reading to be the more likely one  (see Chapter 6 of Gospel Women).

Clopas and Mary had a son named Symeon who became the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Jesus' brother James in 62 AD.  Symeon held that position for many years, eventually dying as a martyr himself (Book 3, Chapter 32).  

Since Mary is identified as "the wife of Clopas" rather than as the mother of Symeon, she and Clopas were likely known for more than just being Symeon's parents.  In his book Gospel Women, scholar Richard Bauckham points out that in the early church, a number of married couples worked together to spread the Gospel. (Think of Prisca and Aquila as an example, or Andronicus and Junia---Romans 16.)  Among these couples were relatives of Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:5), so Mary and her husband Clopas may have been such a husband-and-wife team of evangelists.  

Each of the Marys mentioned in the Gospels made a unique contribution to the early Christian movement, and it is worthwhile to learn what we can about their lives.  The example of Mary the wife of Clopas highlights the substantial role played by the extended family of Jesus in the early church.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Purim 2024 Sermon: Dealing with Fear

 The Masoretic Text of the book of Esther does not tell us much about what Esther was thinking as she considered what to do about the dire threat faced by her people.  She sounds brave in Esther 4:16, when she says, "Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish."

However, the expanded version of the book of Esther that was part of the Septuagint gives more details about Esther's inner turmoil at the time.  This version of Esther, which was read by many Greek-speaking Jews and early Christians, includes a heartfelt prayer of Esther in which she admits her fears.  She prays for deliverance for her people and deliverance from her fears.  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on March 23, 2024, Kyle Kettering read Esther's prayer from Greek Esther and made several points:

  • Esther had a good counselor in Mordechai--see Esther 4:13-15.
  • Esther took time to seek God's direction, praying and fasting.
  • She assessed the risk that she faced.
  • She took timely action despite her fears.
Kyle observed that knowing and doing what must be done at the right time are the things that tends to cause us the most anxiety.  He reminded us that, as 2 Timothy 1:7 says, "God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."

Friday, March 22, 2024

Palm Sunday 2024: The Triumphal Entry---Four Gospels, One Message

All four canonical Gospels describe Jesus' dramatic arrival in Jerusalem about five days before Passover in the year of his crucifixion and resurrection (Jn 12:1-12).  As Jesus rode from Bethphage on a donkey, a crowd of pilgrims spread cloaks and leafy branches on the road and hailed his coming with joyful shouts.  This event, traditionally known as the Triumphal Entry, is commemorated by Christians each year on Palm Sunday.  

Each Gospel account contributes to our understanding of what happened.  From John we learn that Jesus had been in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, visiting his friends Mary and Martha.  There he raised their brother Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, back to life (Jn 11).  News of this miracle spread quickly, attracting people who wanted to see Jesus and Lazarus (Jn 12:17-18).

Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-35 explain that when Jesus began the walk from Bethany to Jerusalem, he sent two disciples to Bethphage, where they would find a young colt that had never been ridden.  They were to untie the colt and bring it to Jesus.  Matthew 21:1-7 adds the information that the colt was a donkey, that it would be with its mother, and that the disciples were to bring both animals.  All three Synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus sat on the colt after his disciples draped it with cloaks. (Some have mistakenly thought that Matthew 21:7 is claiming Jesus sat on both animals, but this verse instead is saying that he sat on the cloaks spread over the colt.)

Seeing Jesus on the colt may have reminded onlookers of the reference to a donkey and a donkey's colt in Genesis 49:11, or to Solomon's riding King David's mule when he was anointed king (1 Ki 1:38-40).  More importantly, as Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15 point out, Jesus' actions evoked the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9:  ``Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

The symbolism of the donkey was not lost upon the crowd.  They waved and scattered leafy branches, and they expressed their messianic hopes by shouting words from Psalm 118:25-26: ``Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!'' (Mk 11:9-10)  These are actions associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, and more broadly with  messianic expectation.  Judas Maccabeus received similar acclamation in 164 BC when his victories led to the rededication of the Temple (2 Macc 10:6-8).  So did Judas' brother Simon when he expelled the Syrian forces from the Akra citadel in 141 BC (1 Macc 13:49-52).     

This rejoicing may have continued for some time.  In those days, whenever someone in a group shouted, ``Blessed is he who comes,'' it was customary for the others to automatically add, ``in the name of the Lord!''  Scholar David Instone-Brewer (in his book The Jesus Scandals) has suggested that children in the crowd may have enjoyed starting this cheer repeatedly in order to get others to respond in the usual way.  (Matthew 21:15 mentions children cheering in the Temple area the next day.)

Not everyone in the crowd was comfortable with the celebration.  Some Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his disciples.  He responded, ``I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out'' (Lk 19:40).  His reference to stones reminds us of some previous verses in Psalm 118:  ``The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes'' (vv 22-23). 

 After coming to Jerusalem, Jesus went to the Temple area and looked around before returning to Bethany that night  (Mk 11:11)  Supporters of Jesus may have been disappointed that he made no move to gather troops or call for the overthrow of Roman rule.  However, we should not conclude, as some have, that the crowd cheering Jesus during the Triumphal Entry became the crowd that called for his crucifixion a few days later.  This second crowd was likely composed of an entirely different group of people---e.g., Temple authorities who saw Jesus as a threat to the status quo.  

Jesus' disciples at first did not comprehend the full meaning of the Triumphal entry, but their understanding grew in light of subsequent events and is reflected in the Gospel accounts (Jn 12:16).  In riding a donkey's colt that had never had a rider, Jesus demonstrated his authority over creation and hinted at the coming of the ``peaceable kingdom'' described in Isaiah 11:6-9.  His actions pointed to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-11, which pictures the Messiah as one who brings salvation and peace to the nations and whose rule will extend ``to the ends of the earth.''  Significantly, God declares in Zechariah 9:11 that ``because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.''  This prophecy reminds us of Jesus' intention to lay down his life for the sins of mankind on this trip to Jerusalem (Lk 9:22; 51; Mt 26:28).  

Both Matthew and John link Zechariah 9:9 with prophecies from Isaiah.  Matthew 21:5 connects the Zechariah passage with Isaiah 62:11:  ``Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your salvation comes...''  John 12:15 makes a connection with Isaiah 40:9:  ``...Fear not; say to the cities of Judah, `Behold your God!'.''  These verses from Isaiah complement Zechariah 9, speaking of the deity and mission of the Messiah.

All four Gospel accounts portray Jesus as the promised Messiah.  They also emphasize Jesus' detailed foreknowledge and control over  the course of events.  One has the sense that he was orchestrating everything that happened during Passion Week, from the Triumphal Entry to his arrest and crucifixion.  All of these things were carried out according to a predetermined plan.  When we, like Jesus' first disciples, find life difficult to comprehend, we can take comfort in the fact he is in charge as that plan continues to unfold. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Seder 20: Genesis 23---Abraham Purchases a Cave (and a Field)

 After Sarah died at age 127, Abraham sought to purchase a burial place from the Hittites who lived in the region.  Specifically, we wanted to obtain the cave of Machpelah, which was in a field owned by Ephron.  

Genesis 23 describes the typical Middle Eastern negotiation that led to Abraham's purchase.  First Ephron offered to give the field, including the cave, to Abraham (verse 11).  This was Ephron's way of saying that he was willing to sell the cave to Abraham if Abraham was also willing to buy the field.  

Abraham answered that he was indeed willing to buy the whole field, not just the cave (verse 12).

In the next stage of the negotiation, Ephron still offers to give the field to Abraham, but he also declares that the field is worth 400 shekels of silver.  This was his initial asking price (verse 15).  

It would have been OK for Abraham to make a counteroffer at this stage, but instead, he handed over the 400 shekels and sealed the deal.  Perhaps he didn't want there to ever be a complaint that he had taken advantage of Ephron.  

Abraham's purchase of the field and cave showed his faith in God's promise that his descendants would inherit this land.  He and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah would all be buired there.

Why was he interested in that particular burial place?  There is a legend that he had found out that Adam and Eve were buired there.  

Friday, March 15, 2024

Seder 20: Comparing Abraham and Job

 In her book Subversive Sequels in the Bible, Judy Klitsner identifies a number of parallels in the biblical narrative and places the parallel accounts in conversation with each other.  

One of her examples comes from Genesis 22, where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  At the end of the chapter are listed some names of the children of Abraham's brother Nahor.  Three of these names also show up in the book of Job, but not in many other places:

  • Uz is Nahor's first son (Ge 22:21), and Job lived "in the land of Uz" (Job 1:1).
  • Buz is Nahor's second son, and Elihu in the book of Job is a "Buzite" (Job 32:6).
  • Chesed is another son of Nahor (Ge 22:22), and in Job 1:!7, some Chaldeans (plural of Chesed) make a raid on Job's camels. 
There are also parallels between Abraham and Job themselves:

  • Both feared God (Ge 22:12; Job 1:1).
  • Both compare themselves to "dust and ashes" (Ge 18:27; Job 42:6).
  • Both are old and contented when they die (Ge 25:8; Job 42:17).
Their narratives contrast two different ways to react to the prospect of a sudden loss.  Abraham responds to God's directive in uncomplaining obedience, while Job vocally questions God.  Their widely divergent responses have recently been discussed in Richard Middleton's book, Abraham's Silence;  The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God.  

Friday, March 8, 2024

Seder 19: Psalm 131---Praying in a Childlike Attitude

 Commentator Willem Van Gemeren (REBC) classifies the brief Psalm 131 as "an individual psalm of confidence."  The psalmist (traditionally David) wants to encourage the community by telling about his own experience with God.  He comes before God in an attitude of humility and contentment "like a weaned child with its mother" (verse 2).  

In an essay about Abraham and Sarah (collected in the book Abraham's Journey), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik looks at the report of Sarah's death in Genesis 23:1.  Her age was "a hundred years and twenty years and seven years."  Soloveitchik notes that these three groupings of years describe a child, a young adult, and a mature adult.  

He says that we usually think of a person going through these three stages of life consecutively, one stage at a time.  But Sarah and Abraham were in some sense in all three stages simultaneously.  Becoming parents when Sarah was 90 and Abraham 100, they were like younger adults again when Isaac was born and grew up.  

Going one step further, Soloveitchik asserts that every person of faith needs to be the same way.  In the study of God's Word, we advance as we grow in knowledge, sophistication, and wisdom.  Bible study is for mature adults.  

On the other hand, in prayer and acts of faith we need to relate to God with childlike trust and submission.  So we need to be mature and childlike at the same time as we grow in a relationship with God.  Soloveitchik cites Psalm 131:2 in reference to the proper attitude for prayer. 

Seder 19: Genesis 21:9---What Did Ishmael Do?

 When Isaac, the promised son of Abraham and Sarah, reached the age when he was weaned (perhaps age 2 or 3), Abraham "made a great feast" to celebrate (Ge 21:8).  

At that feast, or perhaps later, Sarah saw Ishmael, Isaac's older half-brother, "laughing" (ESV).  Laughter is a recurring element in this part of the book of Genesis, whether laughter of incredulity or joy.  We don't know why Ishmael was laughing, but Sarah had a strong negative reaction.  She became determined that it was time for Ishmael and his mother Hagar to leave.  

What exactly had happened?  From the context, one possibility is that Ishmael was mocking (NIV, CSB,NET, e.g.), scoffing (NKJV), or making fun of Isaac (NLT).  These translations are supported by Paul's interpretation in Galatians 4:29.  Paul says that Ishmael "persecuted" Isaac. 

Readers through the centuries have puzzled over this incident.  For example, the Book of Jubilees (2nd century BC) pictures Abraham at the feast rejoicing over both of his sons (Jubilees 17:1-4).  Jubilees 17:4 begins,  "And Sarah saw Ishmael playing and dancing, and Abraham rejoicing with great joy, and she became jealous of Ishmael..."  In this reading, Sarah may have been upset because of Abraham's love for Ishmael.  

On the other hand, Josephus (c. 100 AD), explained that Sarah "was not willing that Ishmael should be brought up with him [i.e. Isaac], as being too old for him, and able to do him injuries when their father should be dead" (Antiquities 1.215).  

At any rate, God endorsed Sarah's wishes, explaining to Abraham that he would be watching over Hagar and Ishmael.  Abraham complied, though it pained him to do so.  Some listings of the 10 trials of Abraham list the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from his camp as one of these trials (see e.g. Jubilees 17:17).

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Seder 18: Judges 8-9---Abimelech and the Short Duration of Gideon's Dynasty

 After God delivered Israel from the Midianites through Gideon's army, Gideon was asked to become a king (Judges 8:22).  Gideon declined, but his subsequent actions belied his words.  He had his men give him gold earrings from their booty as a pledge of loyalty, then used the gold to make an ephod that he draped over an idol.  Like a king, he was sponsoring worship.  (Gideon's behavior here also reminds us of the golden calf incident in Exodus 32.)    

Gideon also had a harem and fathered 70 sons (v 30), again acting like a king.  Perhaps he intended to found a dynasty, despite his denial in Judges 8:23.  The name of one of his sons, Abimelech ("the king was/is my father") suggests that Gideon was thought of as a king.

Abimelech had a Shechemite mother, and he took advantage of that fact to gain support for his leadership in Shechem.  After having all but one of his half-brothers killed, he was declared king in Shechem (9:1-6).  The place where this slaughter took place could have been something like this ancient altar for Baal Berith, the local god at Shechem.  

Gideon's other surviving son, Jotham, condemned Abimelech from the top of Mount Gerizim.  He told a clever fable that pictured the trees looking for a king from among their ranks.  The olive tree, fig tree, and grapevine declined.  They were too busy making productive contributions.  The trees then asked the worthless bramble (v 14), who wasn't sure that their request was sincere and hoped they would be destroyed if it wasn't.  After telling this fable, Jotham expressed the hope that Abimelech and the Shechemites would destroy each other as a punishment for their treachery (vv 16-20). 

Within a few years, Jotham's curse came to pass.  A man name Gaal arose as a rival for Abimelech, apparently claiming to be a descendant of the ancient rulers of Shechem.  (This seems to be another example where the Israelites did not complete the expulsion of the Canaanites and suffered the consequences.)  Abimelech defeated Gaal and went on to kill many in Shechem.  But he was himself killed in battle.  After executing his brothers on one stone, he was killed by a stone thrown from a tower.  

The book of Judges shows God's faithfulness to Israel despite their frequent apostasy.  Commentator Daniel Block says that the book describes the "Canaanization of Israel."  In Gideon and Abimelech, they had leaders who were much like Canaanite rulers.  

Monday, February 26, 2024

Seder 17: Genesis 19 and Matthew 14---Hospitality in the Evening

 After visiting Abraham, two angels headed on to Sodom, arriving in the evening (Gen 19:1).  The question of why they arrived so late in the day was asked by the sages.  After all, angels are not subject to the constraints in space and time faced by humans.  

One suggested answer is that they were not anxious for the cities of the plain to be punished.  They wanted those towns to have every opportunity to repent and escape destruction.  This answer is consistent with God's merciful nature and desire that as many as possible come to repentance (see 2 Pe 3:9).  As Frank Fenton pointed out in a short teaching at Church of the Messiah on February 24, 2024, the Day of the Lord is not necessarily something to which to look forward (see e.g. Amos 5:18).  He urged us to help as many as possible find the Messiah before that time comes.  

A major theme in Genesis 18 and 19 is hosptality, as exemplified by both Abraham and Lot, who "entertained angels unawares" (Heb 13:2).  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on February 24, 2024, Kyle Kettering looked at the feeding of the 5000 as an example of hospitality.  

This famous miracle occurred shortly after the death of John the Baptist (Mt 14; Mk 6).  Jesus had wanted some time alone, perhaps to come to terms with what had happened and consider how John's death would affect his own ministry (Mt 14:13).  But a large crowd, perhaps a crowd including a number of John's disciples, had other ideas.  

Jesus had compassion on this crowd "because they were like sheep without a shepherd" (Mk 6:34).  And so he exercised hospitality in providing for them.  Biblical hospitality, Kyle pointed out, often means putting aside our own wishes and plans.  He urged us to "show hospitality to one another without grumbling," as Peter instructed in 1 Peter 4:9. 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Seder 16: Genesis 18:22-33---How Many Are Required to Transform a Culture?

 Abraham's bold intercession in Genesis 18:22-33 is recognized as one of the great prayers of the Bible.  Acting as a counsel for the defense in the trial of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham asked God to consider sparing the cities of the plain if a sufficient number of loyal followers of God were there.  

Walter Kaiser points out that Genesis 18:22 contains one of eighteen places in the Tanakh where scribes deliberately altered the Hebrew text for theological reasons.  The MT says that Abraham "still stood before the Lord," while the original text said that the Lord stood before Abraham.  The original wording may suggest God's openness and willingness to be "put on trial" by Abraham.  Abraham, trusting both in God's justice and God's mercy, asked rhetorically in verse 25, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"  

After God agreed that he would spare the cities if there were as many as ten righteous people there, the defense rested.  Abraham left the matter in the hands of the righteous judge.  

A reason for Abraham to request that the cities be spared is the fact that a righteous remnant can transform a culture.  We see this later in history, when the early Christians, a minority in the pagan Roman Empire, transformed that culture over the course of several centuries.  Peter in 1 Peter 2-3 instructed early Christians in Asia Minor in ways to do that in their circumstances.  

In the case of the cities of the plain, there just weren't enough righteous people present to salvage those towns.  Lot was there, but he doesn't seem to have had any help. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Seder 16: 1 Peter 3:1-7---Following Sarah's Example

 In his first epistle, Peter writes to Jewish Christians in Asia Minor (1:1), people who may be both literally and spiritually "sojourners and exiles" (2:11).  He counsels them to be willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, following in the footsteps of Jesus.  

One group that Peter addresses consists of wives whose husbands "do not obey the word" (3:1).  If they live righteous lives, he says, they may win over their husbands.  

He says that a beautiful character is a better adornment than beautiful clothes or jewelry, and he instructs these women to follow the example of Abraham's wife Sarah.  Sarah, Peter states, "obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.  And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening" (3:6).

In saying that Sarah called Abraham "lord," Peter is referring to Genesis 18:12, which gives Sarah's reaction when she hears that she will be giving birth to a son in a year.  At that point Sarah laughs and says, "After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?"  This verse gives an indication of Sarah's respect for Abraham, since she referred to him as "my lord."  

Genesis 18 does not give much in the way of examples of Sarah's obedience to Abraham.  (We're not told, for example, what happened with the bread Abraham told her to make in verse 6.) So what might Peter have had in mind when he wrote of her obedience?  

New Testament scholar Troy Martin noted in a 1999 paper that the Testament of Abraham, a Jewish work from either the first century BC or the first century AD, pictures Sarah addressing Abraham as "my lord Abraham" several times.  So apparently by the Second Temple Period, the brief reference in Genesis 18:12 had grown into a tradition about Sarah's respect for Abraham.

Scholar Mark Kiley has argued, in a 1987 paper in the Journal of Biblical Literature, that some relevant examples of Sarah's obedience are to be found in Genesis 12 and 20, where Sarah obeyed Abraham's request that she not reveal she was his wife.

In those situations in Egypt and Gerar, Abraham and Sarah were "sojourners and exiles," people in a vulnerable situation away from home.  Abraham in those cases was, like the husbands in 1 Peter 3:1,  "not obeying the word."  But Sarah chose to honor her husband's misguided request, placing her future in God's hands when she was abducted by foreign rulers.  Those were frightening situations for Sarah, and she needed to trust God to get through them..   

1 Peter 3:1-6 has been misapplied by some who have unbalanced views about submission of wives to husbands.  We should remember that the Bible teaches mutual submission among Christians (Eph 5:21).  Peter goes on in verse 7 to address husbands:  

"Likewise husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered."  

Here Peter instructs husbands to honor their wives, and he places men and women on an equal footing, "joint heirs" of eternal life.  In the case of Abraham and Sarah, we know that Abraham often honored Sarah's wishes, as in the case of their parting ways with Hagar and Ishmael (Ge 21:8-14).  Since Abraham loved Hagar and Ishmael, this was not an easy thing for him to do.  We note that Abraham's prayers in Genesis 20 were "not hindered."  

In his epistle, Peter teaches a way of sacrificial love in imitation of Jesus, for men and women in all circumstances in life.  

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Seder 15: Jeremiah 33---God's Faithfulness to His Covenants

 In the final days of the kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem falling to the Babylonians, God sent a message through the prophet Jeremiah giving assurance that he had not abandoned his people.  Restoration would come, with spiritual cleansing and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Jer 33:6-11).  The Messiah would come to rule over Israel (vv 14-16).  

God affirms his commitment to his covenants, including the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:16) and his covenant with Phinehas (Num 25:11-13).  These things, God says, are as sure as the rising and setting of the sun (Jer 33:20-21), which is guaranteed by God's covenant with Noah (Gen 8:22).

Christians believe that Jesus is now the eternal occupant of the Davidic throne.  Jesus' connection with David is emphasized in the Gospels, beginning in Matthew 1.  Luke's genealogy in Luke 3 traces Jesus' legal ancestry---the ancestry of Joseph---back to David (and ultimately to Adam) by a different route

How God's commitment to the Levitical priesthood might play out in the future is as yet unknown.  We know that a future role for Levites is also part of Ezekiel's visions (Ezek 40:46; 43:!9; 44:15; 48:11). On the other hand, we don't know for sure that there will ever be another earthly temple.  In their commentary on Jeremiah, Walter Kaiser and Tiberius Rata ask, "Is this language, then, using older liturgies to make the future understandable to those in Jeremiah’s time? This is one suggestion as to how we are to understand such contrasting ideas" (p. 470).

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Seder 14: Genesis 16---Setting the Record Straight on Ishmael

 In their book Urban Legends of the Old Testament, David Croteau and Gary Yates discuss 40 common misconceptions about biblical passages.  One of the misconceptions they address is the idea that today's Middle East conflicts have their roots in strife within Abraham's family, and that today's jihadists are motivated by a "spirit of Ishmael."  

To our ears, the angel of the Lord's prophecy about Ishmael in Genesis 16:12---"He shall be a wild donkey of a man:---does not sound like a blessing.  However, Croteau and Yates point out that it is similar to Jacob's blessings for the tribes of Israel recorded in Geneis 49.  There, for example, Judah is compared to a lion's cub, Issachar to a strong donkey, Dan to a serpent, and Benjamin to  a "ravenous wolf."  The imagery of the wild donkey probably connotes independence and strength.  The descendants of Ishmael would not be city dwellers, but desert nomads, not following other people's rules.  Hagar was a slave, but her children would not be anybody's slaves.  

Certainly there was friction between Sarah and Hagar, leading to a parting of the ways (Gen 21), but there are also indications that Abraham and Isaac maintained a close relationship with Hagar and Ishmael.  For example, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father (Ge 25:9-10).  

A certain amount of conflict between Israel and Ishmaelites is mentioned in the Bible.  It was to Ishmaelite traders that Joseph was sold (Ge 37:28), although of course it was Joseph's brothers who were responsible for the sale.  Gideon's forces did battle with some Ishmaelites (Jdg 8:24).  And Ishmaelites are among the antagonists enumerated in Psalm 83 (see verse 6).  But in the end there will be a coming together of Israel and Ishmael in the messianic kingdom (Isa 60:6-8).  

Seder 14: Isaiah 54---The Barren Woman Gives Birth

 An important biblical motif is that of the woman who has been unable to give birth and is finally granted a child.  This theme starts with Sarah and continues with Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, Hannah, and Elizabeth.  

In the prophecies of Isaiah, the experiences of these individual women represent the experience of Israel as a whole.  The nation would endure hard times of exile, but God would one day make them fruitful again.  For example, we read in Isaiah 49:21, "Then you will say in your heart:  'Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these?  Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?' "

There is similar imagery in Isaiah 54, a song of rejoicing that comes immediately after the sacrifice and triumph of the Servant in Isaiah 53.  It is the work of the Servant that is the basis for this rejoicing.  The chapter begins,  "Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor!" 

The promise in verse 3 ("For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offsptring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.") reminds us of the blessing of Jacob in Gen 28:13-14.  Israel is pictured as a bride who has endured "the shame of her youth" (slavery in Egypt) and "the reproach of her widowhood" (later exile).  But she has a powerful husband---the creator and ruler of the whole world (v 5).  And that husband is faithful to his commitments (vv 9-10).  

Verses 11-12 describe the restoration of Zion in terms that anticipate the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.  The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven "prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev 21:2).  All the sufferings of the past will be forgotten in a time of blessing (Rev 21:4).  

Monday, January 29, 2024

Seder 13: Abram's Faithfulness

 Genesis 15 begins with the phrase, "After these things....", a phrase that also appears in Genesis 22:1, 20.  Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that this phrase marks transitions in Abram's life and divides his life into four periods.  The second one is covered in Genesis 15-21, chapters that feature God's covenant with Abram.

At this point God comes to Abram in a vision, as he would later to other prophets.  Commentator John Sailhamer sees Abram portrayed as a forerunner of Jeremiah, who later would be given a message about Judah's exile and return.  God reveals to Abram that his descendants would endure slavery in Egypt before settling in the land promised to them (vv 12-16).  

But before receiving that revelation, Abram asks God about something that is troubling him.  God has promised him numerous descendants (Ge 13:16), but he is still childless.  God assures Abram that the promise will be carried out (Ge 15:2-5).  The narrator then reports in verse 6, "And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness."

Abram's belief was not something that occurred in an instant.  He grew in faith as he walked with God over many years.  James the brother of Jesus saw Genesis 15:6 exemplified by Abram's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. In this case Abram's obedient actions demonstrated his faith (James 2:14-26).  

Language similar to Genesis 15:6 appears in Ps 106:30-31, where it is applied to Phinehas.  When Phinehas took decisive action to stop the apostasy at Baal Peor, "that was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever" (verse 31). 

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on January 27, 2024, Kyle Kettering explored the meaning of Genesis 15:6.  He noted that this verse marks the first appearance in Scripture of tzedakah, the Hebrew word for "righteousness."  Looking at other places where the word is used (Ge 18:19; Dt 6:25; 24:13, e.g.), we can see that the word often designates "right deeds or actions that accord with God's desire and plan."  Psalm 106:3 declares, "Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!"

By Jesus' time, the word had come to be used specifically for deeds of charity.  Jesus uses the word this way in Matthew 6:1-4.  

Kyle observed that righteousness is a goal of man's relationship with God, and that trust is an essential component of biblical righteousness.  As Hebrews 11:6 says, "without faith it is impossible to please him." Habakkuk famously wrote that "the righteous shall live by his faith" (Hab 2:4).  The ESV footnote observes that "faith' In Habakkuk 2:4 means "faithfulness."    

In Romans 4, Paul holds up Abraham as example on one who was deemed righteous based on his faithfulness, not on specific deeds of the Torah.  

In the phrase "he counted it to him as righteousness," there are technically two ways to identify the antecedents of the pronouns "he" and "him."  We almost always think of "he" as God and "him" as Abram, but the other way around makes sense as well.  Certainly Abram deemed God to be righteous as well.

Seder 31:Genesis 32-33 and Obadiah---Lessons about Self-Sufficiency

 Many people submit to God after reaching a point in life where they find that their own efforts are not good enough.   The patriarch Jacob ...