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).

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