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).

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