Friday, August 31, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Judith 3-4 and Hebrews 4-5

Judith 3 – The people of the region try to placate Nebuchadnezzar, prostrating themselves before him and telling him he can have everything they have. He moves through the region and destroys all their religious sites and demands that they worship only him as a god.

The New Jerusalem note makes clear that all this is not really historically true; it was the Seleucid rulers, following Alexander’s example, who were the first to insist on divine status.

At the edge of Esdraelon, just outside the “great ridge of Judaea,” Holofernes stops to wait for supplies.

Judith 4 – I’ve mentioned the author’s literary rather than historical use of the character Nebuchadnezzar in this story. The time in which it takes place is also played with for literary (thematic) purposes.

The worst historical villain in Israel’s history – the conqueror who destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 586-87 BC -- is presented in this story as threatening the Jews just as they’ve returned from exile and reconstructed the Temple (c.500 BC).

Everyone of course is horrified to hear of what Holofernes is doing. Following the lead of Joakim, the high priest and the people’s Council of Elders at Jerusalem, they set guards at a narrow pass to watch for him. Everyone in the town is draped in sackcloth and humbling himself before the Lord to ask his help and He does hear them. The people also fast and offer sacrifice with ashes on their “turbans.”

Hebrews 4 – The comparison of the Christian community and the community led by Moses continues here. No one must think that they were born too late to be part of it. God’s work is done – as in the creation story; “God rested on the seventh day” (4:5). But we too can reach that “place of rest” God created for us; not everyone will reach it, but those who remain faithful will (4:8-11).

Barclay’s guide to Hebrews notes that he Greek word katapausis [putting to rest or resting place] is used here in three senses: the peace of God, the Promised Land and the rest God entered into on the seventh day of creation.

The writer is definitely concerned that those believers who have come AFTER the first generation of believers may doubt that they too have been included in the promise, but “none of you must think that he has come too late for it” (4:2).  We “who have faith, shall reach a place of rest” (4:3), quoting yet another Old Testament reference – Psalm 95:11.

“The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely; it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts” (4:12).

Again Barclay’s guide offers some interesting thoughts. Words were very special in Jewish thinking. “Once a word was spoken, it had an independent existence. It was not only a sound with a certain meaning; it was a power which went forth and did things” (Barclay 38-39). The word of God is penetrating – penetrating the divide between soul and spirit. The Greek psuche is the life principle (physical life). The Greek pneuma is spirit, man’s ability to think, to reason, to look beyond the physical.

We “must never let go of the faith we have professed” (4:14). We must be confident that we have been given the grace to succeed. 

Hebrews 5 – Barclay notes that the “doctrine of the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ” is the special fruit of this Epistle. The High Priests of Jewish tradition are regular people and as such share in the limitations of all those for whom he makes sacrifice, so they are able to empathize with the people. “No one takes this honor on himself, but each one is called by God, . . . “ (5:4). Christ too was given this honor as fulfillment of the words of Psalm 110. He offered up prayers for all during his life, and he suffered and was made perfect so “all who obey him” can find salvation through him (5:9).

Barclay notes that Jews were clear “that the sins for which sacrifice could atone were sins of ignorance. The deliberate sin did not find its atonement in sacrifice and this will be specifically addressed in Hebrews 10:26.

Christ did not “give himself the glory of becoming high priest, but he had it from the one who said to him: You are my son, today I have become your father, and in another text: You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever. During his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard” (5:6-7).

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Judith 1-2 and Hebrews 3

Introduction to Judith: This book is another one of the apocryphal books. It is in St. Jerome’s Latin (Vulgate) version of the bible (late 4th century); it was translated by Jerome from the Aramaic. Like Tobit, which is also part of the apocrypha, Judith is not intended to be historical. It uses historical personages to convey a larger message – in the case of Judith, the ability of God’s chosen people to be victorious over its enemies. The editors of the New Jerusalem bible say “The narrative . . . has a close affinity with apocalyptic writings. Holofernes, the henchman of Nebuchadnezzar, is the incarnation of the powers of evil. Judith (her name means ‘the Jewess’) represents the cause of God . . . This cause is apparently forlorn, but God makes use of the weak hands of a woman to procure his triumph and his chosen people go in triumph to Jerusalem. This book has clear points of contact with Daniel, Ezekiel and Joel; the action takes place on the plain of Esdraelon near the plain of Armageddon, where St John later places the great eschatological battle of Revelation . . . Judith’s triumph is the reward of prayer and exact observance of the rules of legal purity; yet the horizon of the book is not narrowly nationalist: the safety of Jerusalem is assured at Bethulia, in that very Samaria so hated by all ‘rightminded’ Jews, and the religious significance of the struggle is expressed by Achior, who is an Ammonite . . . and is later converted to the true God” (Boadt 603).

Judith 1 – This “historical” references the book opens with are not really historical – they are literary; Nebuchadnezzar II, who as the Neo-Babylonian leader conquered Jerusalem, destroyed its Temple in 587 BC and sent its people into exile represents the ultimate of “worldly” power.

Here the “character” Nebuchadnezzar is going to war with Arphaxad, the ruler of the Medes and he sends out a call to the leaders of many kingdoms in the western part of the Middle East, and none of them come. They are not afraid of him, because he seems “isolated” to them.

Nebuchadnezzar swears to avenge himself on them all. He is successful at defeating Arphaxad, and that is meant to show how incredible his power is because Arphaxad had constructed very strong defenses and Nebuchadnezzar is all alone, without allies. He captures and kills Arphaxad. Then he and his troops take to feasting and celebrating for 120 days.

Judith 2 – Nebuchadnezzar decides he will take revenge on all those kingdoms to the west that had left him hanging in his fight against Arphaxad.

He orders his commander Holofernes to look on “no one with clemency. Hand them over to slaughter and plunder . . . For by my life and by the living power of my kingdom, I have spoken (2:11-12).

Holofernes has a force of 120,000 and cavalry of 12,000 along with chariots, camels and donkeys. He follows a path from Nineveh to the plain of Bectileth to the highlands of Upper Cilicia and on to the Euphrates, across Mesopotamia and the territories of Cilicia towards the coastal area. People are in a complete panic.

Hebrews 3 – We are told we should “turn [our] minds to Jesus” (3:1), our Apostle and High Priest. He was endowed with even “more glory than Moses.”  While Moses was a faithful servant, Christ was “master of the house” (3:6) and “we” believers ARE the “house” (3:6).

We must “listen to him today [and] not harden [our] hearts” (3:8). This “today” is of uncertain duration, but we must live faithfully in it to the end (3:13).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 18-19 and Hebrews 2

Wisdom 18 – For the Jews, however, this time of darkness – the three days described in Exodus 10:21-23 was a time of light. “[F]or your holy ones all was great light” (18:1).

To them God granted a “pillar of blazing fire to guide them on their unknown journey” (18:3).

Then, as the Egyptians had earlier (c.1200 BC) attempted to kill all the firstborn of the Jews, they now suffered the loss of their firstborn in the 10th plague. It is this horrendous plague that gets them to acknowledge that the Jews were God’s “son” (18:13).  This is the only place I am aware of where the chosen people as a body are referred to as “God’s son” – interesting!

“When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt your all-powerful Word; into the heart of a doomed land the stern warrior leapt. Carrying your unambiguous command like a sharp sword, he stood, and filled the universe with death; he touched the sky, yet trod the earth” (18:14-16). There seem a good many “types” in this, but the writing is very dense and hard to understand easily.

The Jews too “felt the touch of death” in the exodus - referring to the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in Nb 17: 6-15. Aaron, in his role as High Priest, helps resolve this

Wisdom 19 – The Egyptians are further punished for their stubbornness in going after the Jews they had freed.

“For to keep your children from all harm, the whole creation, obedient to your commands, was once more, and newly, fashioned in its nature. Overshadowing the camp there was the cloud, where water had been, dry land was seen to rise, the Red Sea became an unimpeded way, the tempestuous flood a green plain; sheltered by your hand, the whole nation passed across, gazing at these amazing miracles” (19:6-8).

The seas became dry and birds were born from the sea to feed them (Nb 11:31); creatures that lived on land became sea-dwellers. 

Hebrews 2 – “We ought, then, to turn our minds more attentively than before to what we have been taught, so that we do not drift away” (2:1). Ray Brown notes that these words indicate that Christians of the second generation had in some ways wandered away from the key teachings of the apostles. But what teachings? That Christ was fully human as well as God? That Christ would return again – soon – to bring about the establishment of his kingdom? Maybe both?

The first thing he addresses is the full humanity of Christ. The teaching of the apostles on Jesus was that he fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 8: “What is man that you should spare a thought for him, the son of man that you should care for him. For a short while you made him lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and splendor. You have put him in command of everything” (2:5-8, quoting psalm 8:5-6). These words were probably originally seen as referring to human beings generally; I still think this is what was meant. But early Christians saw them being more appropriately applicable to Jesus, who was in their minds fully “man” AND fully God – “in command of everything.”

And they also saw that he was “put in command of everything even though the full glory and splendor is not yet completely visible. The world was still “hurting” during their time [and ours too]. The visible “kingdom” had not yet come:

“At present, it is true, we are not able to see that everything has been put under his command” (2:8). But there is still “glory and splendor” in Jesus because of the atonement he achieved: “he submitted to death; by God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind” (2:9). It is his full humanity, the fact that “he took to himself descent from Abraham” (2:16) that made him “completely like his brothers so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion, able to atone for human sins” (2:17).

Note: After some struggle, trying to understand what I am meant to understand in these words of Hebrews, I turned to Thomas a Kempis and read the following – I have to admit it seemed like God speaking to me: “ . . .when we have trouble reading a verse, we should read the next one, then the one after that, and so on until the muddy pool clears. If you want to satisfy your thirst for the Scriptures, forget about scholarship. Read humbly, simply, faithfully; that’s the way they were written” (Griffen translation of Imitation of Christ, 11).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 17 and Hebrews 1

Wisdom 17 – “Your judgments are indeed great and inexpressible, which is why undisciplined souls have gone astray. When impious men imagined they had the holy nation in their power, they themselves lay prisoners of the dark, in the fetters of long night, confined under their own roofs, banished from eternal providence” (17:1-2). This passage is very difficult to see at first; it is about the ninth plague suffered by the Egyptians – three days of darkness [see Exodus 10:21-23]. “No fire had power enough to give them light, nor could the brightly blazing stars illuminate that dreadful night” (17:5). The magicians of Egypt could not conquer the darkness, so fear reigned.

“Fear, indeed, is nothing other than the abandonment of the supports offered by reason; the less you rely within yourself on these, the more alarming it is not to know the cause of your suffering” (17:11-12).

While the darkness reigned in Egypt, everyone was paralyzed by fear. 

Introduction to Hebrews: The Epistle to the Hebrews is a very interesting book and one that I think was extremely important to George Fox and early Friends (Quakers). It is full of references to what were seen as "types and figures" [metaphors and allegorical references] in the Jewish Scriptures that  seemed to prepare the way for Christ, for an understanding of his identity and role in the salvation narrative. Fox says in his Journal that "as man comes through by the Spirit and power of God to Christ, who fulfills the types, figures, shadows and prophecies that were of him, and is led by the Holy Ghost into the truth and substance of the Scriptures, sitting down in the author and end of them, then are they read and understood with great delight" (32).

In Christ, in the idea of Christ, and in his substance, a number of things come together: the Hebrew narrative of the creation, and the history and development of God's "chosen people," their Mosaic Law and prophetic tradition; the "Wisdom" literature [rooted in very ancient times and prominent in the Hellenistic times in Jewish history] that saw Wisdom as a female "figure" - beloved consort or spouse of God; and the Logos philosophy that was adopted from the Greeks, fused with concept of "types" and "figures" and articulated by Philo [20 BC to 50 AD] in the time when Jesus was with us on earth and which found its way into the thinking of some of the earliest Christians. 

As I go through Hebrews, I will occasionally make reference to several scholarly studies of the piece: one by Raymond Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament and the other William Barclay's Letter to the Hebrews (1976). Barclay notes in his book that the author and time of composition are hard to determine. The earliest mention of Hebrews is in the 2nd century AD. Early Alexandrian Christians like Clement and Origin loved it, but Eusebius [3rd/4th c. from Caesarea] placed it among the "disputed books." By the 4th c. it was accepted into the "canon" as a work of Paul, but few today think it was written by Paul.

Hebrews 1 – “In the past God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. He is the one through whom God created the universe, the one whom God has chosen to possess all things at the end. He reflects the brightness of God’s glory and is the exact likeness of God’s own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word. After achieving forgiveness for the sins of all human beings, he sat down in heaven at the right side of God, the Supreme Power” (1:1-3).

After this introduction, the author spends time arguing that Christ was/is higher and closer to God than the angels. Angels were very much part of the thinking of Jews in Jesus' time and the origin of the belief in then is also very complex. The syncretism or blending of ideas, traditions and approaches to religious "truth" is something that has been going on throughout history. Some people hate it and some - like me - think it enriches the spirit. And I would argue, without it, Christianity would never have been born. The author writes, "God has never said to any angel: You are my Son, today I have become your father; or: I will be a father to him and he a son to me" (1:5). 

The Son celebrated here is the incarnated Son, the one whose kingdom "will last forever and ever (1:8) and who will sit at God's right hand until God "put[s] your enemies as a footstool under your feet" (1:13). The angels "are spirits who serve God and are sent by him to help those who are to receive salvation" (1:14), but the Son is much greater than they are. He has destroyed the “defilement of sin” and “has gone to take his place in heaven at the right hand of divine Majesty” (1:4).

Monday, August 27, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 15-16 and 1 Peter 5

Wisdom 15 – The justice and patience of God are focused on here. “If we sin, we still are yours, since we acknowledge your power, but knowing you acknowledge us as yours, we will not sin” (15:2).

Those who fashion works of clay or silver or gold forget that they too have been fashioned from earth, but they spend no time thinking of the “imminent death or on the shortness of life” (15:8). They misconceive “the One who shaped him, who breathed an active soul into him and inspired a living spirit” (15:11).

He returns to the Egyptians - they “have taken all the idols of the heathen for gods, which can use neither their eyes for seeing nor their nostrils for breathing the air nor their ears for hearing nor the fingers on their hands for handling; while their feet are no use for walking, since a human being made them, a creature of borrowed breath gave them shape” (15:15-16).  Such men do not understand that they themselves are “worthier than the things [they] worship” (15:17). Human beings at least have life.

Wisdom 16 – The comparison between the Egyptians and the Israelites continues in this chapter. The approach is seen as an example of what the Jews call “midrash” or commentary on the scriptures.

We have seen how God used water – the water turned to blood and later the waters that drowned the pharaoh and his men as they chased after the Israelites – to punish the Egyptians but used it to nourish the Jews as the crossed the desert. Similarly the Egyptians were cursed by animals – frogs, flies, locusts and serpents – while the Jews were fed with manna, the “food of angels” (16:20) and saved by things like the bronze serpent on Moses’ staff, so people bitten by the serpents could look at it and be saved.

This bronze serpent seems to me not much different from the “tutelary” deity decried in Wisdom 14, but the author here emphasizes that they were saved not really by the “token” or magic image but by God directly. It is the faithfulness of the Jews that saves them from the venomous bites while the idolatry of the Egyptians makes them vulnerable to the bites of locusts and flies.

Nature is an extension of God’s hand: “For creation, in obedience to you, its maker, exerts itself to punish the wicked and slackens for the benefit of those who trust in you” (16:24).

1 Peter 5 – To the elders of the churches he is writing to encourage them to “be shepherds of the flock of God that is entrusted to you: watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, because God wants it; not for sordid money, but because you are eager to do it. Never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge, but be an example that the whole flock can follow” (5:2-4).

As for the flock, they should follow the elders’ advice and “wrap [themselves] in humility to be servants of each other . . . Bow down, then before the power of God now, and he will raise you up on the appointed day; unload all your worries on to him, since he is looking after you. Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith and in the knowledge that your brothers all over the world are suffering the same things” (5:5-10).

Peter notes at the end that he is writing the epistle through Silvanus and refers to the church in Rome as “your sister in Babylon” (5:13). “Peace to you all who are in Christ” (5:14).

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 13-14 and 1 Peter 4

Wisdom 13 – Those who worshipped the beautiful things in nature – fire, wind, stars, etc – rather than their creator are next addressed. They are less to blame:

“Small blame, however, attaches to these men, for perhaps they only go astray in their search for God and their eagerness to find him; living among his works, they strive to comprehend them and fall victim to appearances, seeing so much beauty (13:6-7). Still, if they are so intelligent, they should be able to go beyond nature to its creator.

How stupid to worship things made by human hands as gods – idol worship. It seems so stupid to the author:

“He does not blush to harangue this lifeless thing [this idol] – for health he invokes weakness, for life he pleads with death, for help he goes begging to utter inexperience, for his travels, to something that cannot stir a foot; for his profits and plans and success in pursuing his craft, he asks skill from something whose hands have no skill whatever” . . .(13:18-19).

Wisdom 14 – Others worship “tutelary” gods (animistic protectors); things like an effigy placed at the prow of a ship to assure that it will come safely to its destination. This may not be as bad as child sacrifice, but it is the kind of thing that leads to all kinds of bad stuff.

The author examines the image of a merchant’s ship using such a tutelary god to bring it to port. What is force that brings the ship into existence, that sends it forth and brings it safely in?  Human desire plays a part. It is the merchant’s “craving for gain” that makes him want the ship in the first place. The building of the merchant’s ship taps into the “wisdom of the shipwright” but it is ultimately God’s “providence” that steers it through the ocean’s waves and brings it safely to port.

The Jerusalem Bible note indicates that this is the first appearance of the word “providence” in the Old Testament. That is pretty amazing: the first use of the word “immortality” in chapter 3 and now the first use of another fundamental notion, “providence.”  While the idea of God’s providence is very much a part of the scripture narrative, the word itself is borrowed from the Greeks. The Encyclopedia Britannica says the term was used around the 4th c. BC by poet and philosopher Cleanthes and later became part of Stoic thinking.

It is clear that idols will eventually be destroyed. He says that the “invention of idols was the origin of fornication, their discovery the corrupting of life” (14:12). Man was initially monotheistic, the author seems to believe; but “in the course of time the godless custom hardens, and is observed as law and by command of prince, the carved images receive worship” (14:16-17).

“With their child-murdering initiations, their secret mysteries, their orgies with outlandish ceremonies, they no longer retain any purity in their lives or their marriages, one treacherously murdering the next or doing him injury by adultery” (14:23-24). Here the writer is apparently making reference to the orgies of Bacchanalians or to Dionysian or Phrygian Mysteries.

1 Peter 4 – We should remember always what Christ suffered and try to take on his resolution; bodily suffering helps us to break from sin and superficial desires. Again, the writer notes that even those who had died before Christ’s coming have been approached by him “so that though, in their life on earth, they had been through the judgment that comes to all humanity, they might come to God’s life in the spirit” (4:6).

Like Paul and other early Christians Peter believes the end of time is soon approaching. Still they are to remain calm and loving. And each person should put themselves to the service of others. “If you are a speaker, speak in words which seem to come from God; if you are a helper, help as though every action was done at God’s orders; so that in everything God may receive the glory, through Jesus Christ, since to him alone belong all glory and power for ever and ever” (4:11).

He reminds them that they may indeed be “tested by fire” (4:12). This is our way of sharing in the suffering of Christ. “So even those whom God allows to suffer must trust themselves to the constancy of the creator and go on doing good” (4:19).

Friday, August 24, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 12 and 1 Peter 3

Wisdom 12 – “Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend, you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned, so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord” (12:1-2).

The author explains that God made way for the Jews in the holy land of Canaan because the ancient people there practiced loathsome rites of child sacrifice. Yet God “treated them [the Canaanites] leniently . . . [giving] them a chance to repent” (12:9).

The theme seems to be that while God intended to supplant the Canaanites so that his people could be established in their Promised Land, he treated the Canaanites with justice and patience – as an example of how all power should be exercised. Even the practices of child sacrifice and cannibalism [not proven historically according to the New Jerusalem footnote] did not bring on sudden and definitive destruction.

“You show your strength when your sovereign power is questioned and you expose the insolence of those who know it; but, disposing of such strength, you are mild in judgment, you govern us with great lenience, for you have only to will, and your power is there” (12:17-18).

By being this kind of God you teach us “how the virtuous man must be kindly to his fellow men, and you have given your sons the good hope that after sin you will grant repentance” (12:19).

1 Peter 3 – Wives are advised to submit themselves to their husbands “so that if any of them do not believe God’s word, our conduct will win them over to believe” (3:1). He also advises women not to spend time worrying about outward things like dresses or jewelry. “Instead, your beauty should consist of your true inner self, the ageless beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of the greatest value in God’s sight” (3:4). And again, he points to Sarah as an example of a woman who “obeyed” her husband and called him “master” (3:6). Husbands should treat their wives with respect.

It is understandable that many women find this kind of advice hard to listen to, and for some it undermines the respect they have for Scripture generally. Somehow it has never struck me this way. I see Scripture as embodying the culture of the age in which it was written, but it also reflects a gradual movement of God’s spirit of love into the culture and thinking of those who are trying hard to be faithful.

Members of the churches are advised above all to “love one another, and be kind and humble with one another” (3:8).

Have “reverence for Christ in your hearts, and honor him as Lord. Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have . . . but do it with gentleness and respect” (3:15).

If you suffer for doing what you are called to do as a Christian, you will have a clear conscience. “For Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God. He was put to death physically, but made alive spiritually, and in his spiritual existence he went and preached to the imprisoned spirits . . . the spirit of those who had not obeyed God when he waited patiently during the days that Noah was building his boat” (3:18-20).  The writer refers to the Noah story here to note that the water of the flood was “a symbol pointing to baptism, which now saves you. It is not the washing off of bodily dirt, but the promise made to God from a good conscience” (3:21).

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 10-11 and 1 Peter 2

Wisdom 10 – He starts here to go over the history of human beings and Wisdom’s place in that history from Adam to Moses. “The father of the world, the first being to be fashioned, created alone [unique in nature], he had her [Wisdom] for his protector and she delivered him from his fault; she gave him the strength to subjugate all things” (10:1). The Jerusalem Bible footnote explains that “she” delivered Adam through the practice of repentance and atonement.

Cain deserts Wisdom and through the evil of his descendants brought on the flood. But Wisdom saved the world again, piloting the virtuous Noah and later Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, the “virtuous man” who was sold into slavery.

The author overlooks some of the chosen peoples’ unfaithfulness in praising them as a “holy people and a blameless race” (10:15). “She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord, and withstood fearsome kings with wonders and signs” (10:16). Israel was delivered from slavery: “she led them by a marvelous road; she herself was their shelter by day and their starlight through the night” (10:17).

Wisdom 11 – “At the hand of a holy prophet [Moses] she [Wisdom] gave their actions success. They journeyed through an unpeopled wilderness and pitched their tents in inaccessible places” (11:1-2).

And, as they passed through the desert, ‘[o]n you they called when they were thirsty, and from the rocky cliff water was given them, from hard stone their thirst was quenched” (11:4).

Egypt and Israel are compared in a number of ways: the punishing waters that afflict the Egyptians when Moses turned it into blood [and I would add the waters that inundated them when they tried to catch up to the Israelites in the exodus] vs. the saving water that flowed from the rock to the Israelites; the foolishness of Egyptian worship of “mindless reptiles and contemptible beasts” (11:15) vs the faith of the Israelites. Perhaps he spends time on the sins of the Egyptians because the author is probably living in Alexandria and he is commenting on the problems with Egyptian history.

God punishes the Egyptians, but the author seems to stress that even they might look to God for forgiveness: “Yet you are merciful to all, because you can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent. Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it” (11:23-24). “You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all” (11:26).

1 Peter 2 – How then should we behave toward one another? Do not be “spiteful, or deceitful, nor hypocritical, or envious and critical of each other” (2:1). 

Jesus is the “precious cornerstone” God has chosen to complete His holy temple. Believers are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praise of God (2:9).

They are “visitors and pilgrims” (2:11) who should act honorably always so as to give testimony to those who “denounce” them now but who will someday see them as holy.

Peter tells believers that they should “accept the authority of every social institution: the emperor . . . the governors . . . commissioned by him to punish criminals and praise good citizenship” (2:14-15). They are “slaves of no one except God” (2:16) but should not use their freedom “as an excuse for wickedness. Have respect for everyone and love for our community; fear God and honor the emperor” (2:16-17).

Then come the words we find so problematic, “slaves must be respectful and obedient to their masters, not only when they are kind and gentle but also when they are unfair . . . there is some merit in putting up with the pains of unearned punishment if it is done for the sake of God but there is nothing meritorious in taking a beating patiently if you have done something wrong to deserve it” (2:19-20).

Christ should be our example. He suffered but was innocent of any wrongdoing, but he “did not retaliate with insults” (2:23); he “put his trust in the righteous judge. He was bearing our faults in his own body on the cross, so that we might die to our faults and live for holiness; through his wounds you have been healed. You had gone astray like sheep but now you have come back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (2:24-25).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 9 and 1 Peter 1

Wisdom 9 – Here Solomon pleads with the Lord to grant him Wisdom: “‘God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy who by your word have made all things, and in your wisdom have fitted man to rule the creatures that have come from you, to govern the world in holiness and justice and in honesty of soul to wield authority, grant me Wisdom, consort of your throne, and do not reject me from the number of your children” (9:1-4).

We – like Solomon – are “feeble . . . with little time to live, with small understanding of justice and the laws” (9:5). How can we order human society, manage our presence on this earth with all the demands we bring, all the problems we are so good at multiplying? It is so interesting how the author sees Wisdom as a “consort” – cohabiting heaven, the realm of the spirit, with the Source of All. Wisdom – the Logos – Christ: interesting to see these three as somehow ONE.

“With you is Wisdom, she who knows your works, she who was present when you made the world” (9:9). “Dispatch her from the holy heavens, send her forth from your throne of glory to help me and to toil with me and teach me what is pleasing to you, since she knows and understands everything” (9:10).

He asks for her so he may govern God’s people justly. I like this: “The reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable; for a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weights down the teeming mind. It is hard enough for us to work out what is on earth, laborious to know what lies within our reach; who, then, can discover what is in the heavens? (9:14-16) Our only hope is to be blessed with Wisdom, God’s “holy spirit from above” (9:17). 

1 Peter 1 – Peter writes this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, “living among foreigners in the Dispersion of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1:1)

He sends his blessing on those who have been given a “new birth” as sons of God “by raising Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Though they may be “plagued by all sorts of trials” (1:6) for a time, they will eventually have praise, glory and honor before God. Unlike the apostles, who knew Jesus in the flesh, they “did not see him, yet [they] love him” and are “filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described” (1:8).

Peter calls the salvation he describes as one foretold by the prophets. “Remember, the ransom that was paid to free you from the useless way of life your ancestors handed down was not paid in anything corruptible, either in silver nor gold, but in the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ; who, though known since before the world was made, has been revealed only in our time, the end of the ages, for your sake” (1:18-19).

He urges them to let their love for each other be real and from the heart—your new birth was not from any mortal seed but from the everlasting word of the living and eternal God. All flesh is grass and its glory like the wild flower’s. The grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever What is this word? It is the Good News that has been brought to you” (1:23-25).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 6-8 and Jude

Wisdom 6 – This is addressed specifically to the kings of the world. Power is a gift from God and must not be abused.  We can see it as advice to all who have political power and ever all who have any kind of authority over other people:

“[P]ower is a gift to you from the Lord, sovereignty is from the Most High; he himself will probe your acts and scrutinize your intentions” (6:3).

 “Wisdom is bright and does not grow dim. By those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her”(6:12).  It begins with a desire for discipline.

“In the greatest number of wise men [and women] lies the world’s salvation, in a sagacious king [or leader] the stability of a people” (6:24).

Wisdom 7 – Here attention is drawn to Solomon specifically. He is like all kings born into life the same as anyone – “for all there is one way only into life, as out of it” (7:6).

He prayed for wisdom and valued “her” more than power or wealth. From her comes knowledge of “the structure of the world and the properties of the elements” (7:17), knowledge of “the times” [in 8:8 this will be called “the unfolding of the ages and the times.”] and of the natures of animals, varieties of plants and everything.  “All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know, instructed by Wisdom who designed them all” (7:21).

In Wisdom there is a “spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp, irresistible, beneficent, loving to man, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying, penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits; for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things” (7:22-24).

“She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her” (27:5). Evil can never triumph over Wisdom. She orders all things for good (8:1).

It seems a little puzzling to me that such a Being would be personified as a woman in the times from which this writing comes! This orderly, intelligent, all pervasive presence does not usually take the form of a female. Is this Greek influence? My theory is that it the closeness of Wisdom to God – a closeness that is like a marriage where the two are essentially one, that caused the writers to conceive of her as a female. I am glad they did.

Wisdom 8 – Also perhaps because it [Wisdom being personified as a woman] is something sought after like a lover by Solomon from his youth. “She it was I loved and searched for from my youth; I resolved to have her as my bride, I fell in love with her beauty. Her closeness to God lends luster to her noble birth, since the Lord of All has loved her” (8:2-3).

“I [Solomon] therefore determined to take her to share my life, knowing she would be my counselor in prosperity, my comfort in cares and sorrow” (8:9). And she will bring him fame and respect from others. “I shall leave an everlasting memory to my successors” (8:13).

She is also the teacher of the four Greek virtues – temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude. Because of all the things Wisdom bestows, Solomon knows he will leave a good legacy, govern well, and gain gladness and joy. He sought her from the Lord.

Introductory Information for the Epistle of Jude – Ray Brown notes that the name Jude is the same as Judas and was used to differentiate the writer from Judas Iscariot. The writer refers to himself in the letter as the brother of James and thus one of the four named brothers of Jesus (see Mark 6:3). This would give him a status that might lend greater authority to his observations. There is no certainty as to the date of authorship or the community it is concerned about.

Epistle of Jude - This letter from a writer who claims to be the brother of James, and thus by implication with Jesus as well is full of concern for the well-being of the faith community that is being undermined by people who “have infiltrated” and who deny “all religion, turning the grace of our God into immorality, and rejecting our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Among the faithful, as also among those rescued from Egypt and those angels who also were unfaithful, there are those who “defile their bodies and disregard authority.” I do not know who exactly Jude is concerned about, but they sound like men who claim to be part of the community but who actually do not accept all that seemed vital to Jude. “They are like clouds blown about by the winds and bring no rain, or like barren trees which are then uprooted in the winter and so are twice dead; like wild sea waves capped with shame as if with foam; or like shooting starts bound for an eternity of black darkness.”

They are people who “sneer at religion and follow nothing but their own desires for wickedness. These unspiritual and selfish people are nothing but mischief-makers.”

We must be patient, and help those who have doubts, and continue to hope for the eternal life promised to those who have faith in Christ.

It is pretty clear that this letter was written to warn the faithful that there were some among them who claimed to be believers, but who were doubters and vacillators – interpreting themselves around clear elements of faith, using reason to undermine the faith of others. I think people like this are always a challenge - certainly among Friends but also in other faith communities where people claim to be one with what is defined as "the faith" but who redefine, redraw the history and end up being a real obstacle to those who are drawn to the promises of Christ.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 3-5 and Acts 27-28

Wisdom 3 – The souls of the virtuous are in God’s hand. It is true their death seems like annihilation, but they are at peace. “Their hope was rich with immortality” (3:4) The New Jerusalem note says this is the first use of the word “immortality” in the Old Testament. It means the abiding unity of the soul with God and does not yet mean resurrection of the body. “Those who are faithful will live with him in love; for grace and mercy await those he has chosen.”

Wisdom 4 – The godless will be judged and punished. Even those thought to be without much status in society – women without children, eunuchs, the lowly – all will have greater reward than those who reject wisdom.

Wisdom 5 – At the judgment, the virtuous will face their oppressors. They will confess their sins. They have pursued every path of worldly pleasure and gain through life but have never sought out the path to God. There follows several passages of beautiful poetry. It starts, “All [the worldly mockers]. . .have passed like a shadow. . .like a ship that cuts through heaving waves – leaving no trace to show where it has passed” (5:10). But the virtuous will live forever. Evil doing will bring the thrones of the mighty down.

Acts 27 – Luke starts again, saying that they were ready to sail for Italy in the custody of a centurion named Julius. They leave from Adramyttium (near Antioch) and sail along the coast. The centurion allows Paul to visit with friends along the way. It takes a fortnight (15 days) to get to Myra where they get on an Alexandrian ship for Italy.

They have rough wind for a time, and end up in Lasea (southern Crete). A “north-easter” hits them on their way west – they start throwing things overboard and pretty much give up hope. Paul tells the crew he had a vision, an angel who told them not to fear. In the Adriatic, still torn by the weather, some men try to abandon ship but Paul tells the captain and the boat they were going to escape on is cut loose. Paul gives everyone hope that they well survive. But the boat runs aground. The soldiers think they should kill the prisoners so they won’t escape, but the centurion is committed to bringing them through. They all get safely to shore.

Acts 28 – They discover they are on the island of Malta – south of Italy.  They are received well and taken care of. Paul is bitten by a snake, and some of the “natives” think it means Paul is a murderer suffering “divine vengeance” (28:5). He shakes it off into the fire and is fine; they are so surprised they end up thinking he was a god (28:6).

Publius is the prefect of the island. He entertains them for three days. Publius father was in bed with fever and dysentery, and after Paul lays hands on him he is healed. This leads to a long line of sick from the island visiting Paul. After three months they said again to Syracuse, spend three days there and then go up to Rhegium and then Puteoli, where they encounter Christians and stay a week with them.

Finally, they arrive in Rome where they are greeted by Jews and permitted to lodge with them, accompanied by a guard. Paul calls the leading Jews together and tells them his story, but they have heard nothing from Judaea or elsewhere about him. They are willing to hear his side, but they tell him “all we know about this [Nazarene] sect is that opinion everywhere condemns it” (28:22).

They arrange a day to listen to his case. He talks to them all day and some are convinced (28:24), but many remain “skeptical”. Paul leaves them with this quote from Isaiah: “Go to this nation and say: You will hear and hear again but not understand, see and see again, but not perceive. For the heart of this nation has grown coarse, their ears are dull of hearing and they have shut their eyes, for hear they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed by me” (28:26-27). So the salvation God meant for them has been sent out to the pagans – “they will listen to it” (28:28).

Paul spends two years in his own rented place, welcoming visitors and proclaiming the kingdom of God and “teaching the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ with complete freedom and without hindrance from anyone” (28:31).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Wisdom 1-2 and Acts 26

Introduction to the Book of Wisdom from Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament

The Book of Wisdom is known only in Greek and was possibly the last Old Testament book written. It contains philosophical arguments found in Philo of Alexandria and other Jewish writers in 1st c. BC. The author is interested in reassuring the Jewish community in Egypt that keeping their faith is worthwhile despite hardship in a pagan land. The focus is on salvation history as a path to learning wisdom. It is interesting that the idea of immortality enters Jewish thinking as an explanation of how God rewards the sufferings of the just.

The Wisdom “movement” in Jewish history lasted longer than the prophetic movement. The prophets borrowed from it. The following themes are part of the wisdom movement:
·       The importance of order in understanding God’s creation and the role of people in God’s plan
·       The importance in cause & effect in God’s moral order acts have consequences
·       Time is important – Israel’s sense of history was oriented to the future – nothing was ever hopelessly lost. They were a “people of hope”
·       The idea that God is revealed in the creation – its beauty and order
·       Wisdom is personified, seen as standing by God’s side – a bride
·       Suffering has meaning – it is either a consequence of sin or way of testing faith
·       Life is positive – enjoy it
·       Humans are responsible for the world – co-creators with God and his deputies over the earth
·       The divine plan is known by wisdom to be a gift beyond human control or total understanding.
·       Wisdom is above all ethical
Wisdom knows its limits. God’s thoughts are beyond our understanding. The basic virtue of the wise is trust.

Wisdom 1 – Love virtue you who are judges on earth, let honesty prompt your thing about the Lord, seek him in simplicity of heart” (1:1). Virtue means the perfect accord of behavior with the will of God. The two traditions of the Jewish people, the tradition of wisdom and the tradition of prophetic ministry, both involve seeking God. The wisdom of this book is directed at those who are given power over others – kings, judges, people in power in whatever form of government.

“Wisdom is a spirit, a friend to man, though she will not pardon the words of a blasphemer, since God sees into the innermost parts of him” (1:6).

“The spirit of the Lord, indeed, fills the whole world, and that which holds all things together knows every word that is said. The man who gives voice to injustice will never go unnoticed, nor shall avenging justice pass him by” (1:7-8). Every thing we do and everything we say has consequence: blasphemy, complaint, fault-finding, lies. They deal death to the soul.

“Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living . . . and Hades holds no power on earth; for virtue is undying” (1:13-15).

Wisdom 2 – It is the “godless” who are partners of death - the worldly philosophers of Alexandria who say “life is short and dreary” (2:1), that we are only here “by chance” and “after this life we shall be as if we had never been” (2:2). This sounds as if it is directed at the Epicureans who were known for promoting these ideas and argued that if death is the end of all, we should “eat, drink and be merry.”

Go ahead, they say, exploit the poor, the widow, the old. The virtuous are annoying people who reproach conduct like this.  They talk about God protecting them but let’s test that, they say.

The writer ends by saying: “This is the way they reason, but they are misled, their malice makes them blind. They do not know the hidden things of God, they have no hope that holiness will be rewarded; they can see no reward for blameless souls. Yet God did make man imperishable, he made him in the image of his own nature” (2:21-23).

Death came into the world through the envy of the devil.

Acts 26 – Paul presents his case, saying to Agrippa that it pleases him to be able to do it before him whom he considers to be “an expert in matters of custom and controversy among the Jews” (26:3). 

Paul tells of his life and especially how he “followed the strictest party . . . and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5). He says he is on trial because of his “hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors . . .the promise that our twelve tribes . . .hope to attain” (26:6-7). He says he tried to suppress the Nazarene sect, even pursuing them into foreign lands. It was during a pursuit like this that he “[saw] the light” that changed him.

Paul recounts how in Jesus’ appearance to him, he heard Jesus say to him the words that became Paul’s “call” in life:

“I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant. You are to tell others what you have seen today and what I will show you in the future. I will rescue you from the people of Israel and from the Gentiles to whom I will send you. You are to open their eyes and turn them from the darkness to the light and from the power of Satan to God, so that through their faith in me they will have their sins forgiven and receive their place among God’s chosen people” (26:16-18). Then he tells Agrippa how he started preaching and how this led to the anger he faced from Jews who disagreed with him.

Hearing all this, Festus shouts that Paul is “out of his mind” (26:24). But he seems also convinced by Paul’s arguments and says, “’A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me” (26:28).

After conferring a little with Festus, Agrippa says he can find nothing in what Paul is doing that deserves death or imprisonment. He says he would have set him free if he had not appealed to Caesar.