Tag Archives: Hebrew Bible

Transitioning Into Exodus

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

When I started the biblical reflections portion of this blog almost four years ago, I didn’t realize how much I would learn and how much it would shape my ministry. Many Christians don’t know how to approach the Hebrew Scriptures that many call the Old Testament, and as much as I love the gospels and the letters of Paul I am learning how to hear those writings much more fully as I become more and more familiar with the Psalms, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Esther and Haggai. I am understanding more what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said,

I notice more and more how much I am thinking and perceiving things in line with the Old Testament; thus in recent months I have been reading much more the Old than the New Testament. Only when one knows the name of God may not be uttered may one sometimes speak the name of Jesus Christ. Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world. Only when one accepts the law of God as binding for oneself may one perhaps sometimes speak of grace. And only when the wrath and vengeance of God against God’s enemies are allowed to stand can something of forgiveness and love of enemies touch our hearts. Whoever wishes to be and perceive too quickly and too directly in New Testament ways is to my mind no Christian. We have already, discussed this a few times, and every day confirms for me that it is right. One can and must not speak the ultimate word prior to the penultimate. We are living in the penultimate and believe the ultimate. (DBW 8: 213)

As I have wrestled with some difficult pieces of the Bible it has caused me to think about ethics, faith, our current world and so much more. For me this is the more challenging way but it has also been incredibly rewarding. Finishing Psalms 21-30 as a transition between books now I stand ready to begin another large piece. Next will be the book of Exodus, the second of the Pentateuch that I have approached. It is a book that I am more familiar with than I was with Jeremiah or Deuteronomy when I began and it is more of a narrative than any of the books I have done previously. I have two trustworthy companions for the journey. Since this is one of the central books of the Torah and the defining drama of the Jewish people I am delighted to have Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible as he reads through Exodus: The Book of Redemption as one of my primary dialogue partners. I will also be taking along Carol Meyers commentary on Exodus from the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series. I have other resources that I have read in the past or that are on my shelf that may also be a part of this journey. With the forty chapters of Exodus the hope is to make the journey in approximately forty weeks, but as journeys go there are often unforeseen stops along the way. I am looking forward to this next exploration as I reenter the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt into the wilderness, from slavery into becoming the people of God and seeing how their journey and faith continue to shape and inform my own.

Ecclesiastes 4- The Things That Steal Our Peace

Ecclesiastes 4

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed– with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power– with no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; 3 but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

 4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
 5 Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh.
 6 Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.

 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

 13 Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice. 14 One can indeed come out of prison to reign, even though born poor in the kingdom. 15 I saw all the living who, moving about under the sun, follow that youth who replaced the king; 16 there was no end to all those people whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

The Hebrew word shalom is only used in Ecclesiastes in the previous chapter in the contrast between war and shalom (peace). Yet, beneath all of the vanity and chasing after the wind is perhaps the search for this concept of shalom, which is far more than an absence of conflict. Shalom has the sense of harmony, balance, living at peace with God’s will for one’s life and world. It is a greeting and a wish for one’s friends and neighbors and for one’s own life and yet then and now it seemed illusive. Qohelet turns his wisdom to the things that rob us of the joy and shalom of how life should be. In the brief verses of chapter four he addresses in a form that moves towards proverbs the issues of oppression, comparison and competition, overwork, isolation and institutional incompetency.

Oppression robs us of our humanity, both the oppressed and the oppressor. For the oppressed it means living in a sick society where their lives and work seem to matter less than those who operate in a more privileged state. For the oppressor it often means unconsciously adopting the views of a sick society that have allowed them to prosper only at the (often unseen) expense of others. Wisdom has opened the eyes of the privileged author of Ecclesiastes and it sickens him. The reality of oppression makes death better than life for him because it is not simply that an oppression can be stated and once brought into the open it dies under the light of day. Oppression involves a lifetime of learned and observed behaviors that require patience, prayer, struggle and dis-ease if the disease is ever to be healed. Oppression can be learned in families, in economic structures and in political systems and they in their own way are demonic. They so weave their ways into the thoughts and actions of ordinary people that they become a part of us. When the demons speak through us they reveal the uglier side of our lives and the inability to see one another as a gift, but instead we begin to see others as people who are to be oppressed or are our oppressor.

In the United States there has been a long struggle among people of color, women and people who because of race, sexuality, economic status, religion (or lack of religion), manner of dress, or numerous other reasons have felt their voices and lives did not matter. While I hope that the struggles of the last several years may eventually lead to a society that moves towards greater equality, for now there is no one to console the tears of the oppressed or the comfort those in power as they deal with the ways privilege has stolen a piece of their humanity as well. Perhaps there may come a day when those who have not been born yet don’t have to wonder if black lives, to use one of the red hot points of struggle in our time, matter less than other lives. There are places where our society is sick and its disease has infected all of us making our lives less human and less worth living. The oppression has possessed the soul of our society in the way it allows us to demonize others and to not see or hear them. The conflict that oppression creates robs our lives and our society of the shalom that wisdom seeks. Ecclesiastes does not offer the cure, only the diagnosis of the thing that steals our joy and peace, both the privileged and the excluded.

Envy is what Ecclesiastes names the second element that steals our joy and peace. This seems to encompass the ways we compare and contrast ourselves with one another. One the one hand toil and skill in work come from learning from and measuring oneself from the work of others. The author of Ecclesiastes can find joy in his labor, yet it can also become a source of anxiety. If our lives are continually measured by the gifts, talents and abilities of others then we will rarely, if ever, be satisfied. Our gifts and talents are not another’s gifts and talents. There is joy in learning to do what one is able with one’s gifts and abilities, for seeking what excellence might look like with one’s talents. Yet, envy of another’s gifts can steal the joy we find in our skills and work.

In a transition it appears that Ecclesiastes pulls from some preexisting form of proverbs about laziness and overwork. There are reasonably close parallels within the book of Proverbs:

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 24: 33-34

Do not wear yourself out to get rich, be wise enough to desist. Proverbs 23: 4

Which Amy Plantiga Pauw (Pauw, 2015, p. 162) points out as possible connections with Proverbs, but for the second I actually find Proverbs 17: 1 closer

Better a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife. Proverbs 17:1

Especially when one takes into account the following verse about the slave who deals wisely and the child who acts shamefully in the context of the end of chapter four.

Ecclesiastes looks at the contrast between overwork and strife on the one hand and laziness and poverty on the other. Neither pole holds the answer, the wisdom is to find the balance point in the middle. A person who only applies their wisdom and knowledge in the quest for goods, wealth, and the insatiable quest for more will have to face the injustice that others will use the goods and wealth they have acquired. Overwork leads to an inability to the enjoy the gift of joy that God grants to the worker in their toil. Idleness also leads to a different type of challenge when the person doesn’t have what they need to feel filled or fulfilled. In our society being busy is a mark of success and achievement, as if the work of business is the work of busy-ness. As Ellen Davis can highlight,

“We regard work as primary, while the rest of what we do is “time-off.” But it was the opposite in the ancient world. The Latin word for “business” is neg-otium, literally, “not leisure”; the time when one does not have to work is the norm by which other activities are measured.” (Davis, 2000, p. 191)

There is wisdom in the practice of Sabbath, the practice of resting from one’s labor and toil. There is wisdom in finding joy in one’s work and pleasure in one’s leisure and knowing the balance of both. The wisdom of not wearing oneself out to be rich, of knowing when to desist but also not folding one’s hands only to consume one’s own flesh.

Isolation can also be a source that can rob us of joy. Sharing our labor with another, being able to share in the triumphs and the travails is one of the joys of life. Isolation can take many forms in life, isolation in the home, at work, in our leisure time and in our public time. A life that is driven by competition and envy shatters our community with one another. We were built for lives of partnership in our various vocations to support, strengthen and renew one another. In a world of increasing connection through digital media we face the struggle of maintaining the physical and personal connections that once formed the communities of our ancestors. In an unfair and often unjust world we need our solidarity with one another so that together we might be a cord not easily broken by the injustices and oppression of the world.

Qohelet seems to have little faith in the institutional structures of his day to provide wise, fair and just governance and a place where a life of shalom comes naturally. We live in an age where people have also become wary of the institutional structures of government, religion, and economics. There are some who still wonder, like Jesus’ disciples, that if a rich young man cannot easily enter the kingdom of God, then who can be saved, for the wealthy and powerful were supposed to be the blessed and the wise. Too many times we have seen the wealthy act only out of self-interest, the powerful act foolishly, and those supposed to be righteous commit horrible acts. Wisdom still has its place, even without power or wealth or fame, to navigate the way of the world. In the midst of oppression to find those moments of peace and the solidarity of one another. From the blindness of being the oppressor to cherish those moments, as difficult as they may be, when one’s eyes are opened and we can perhaps see a different future. Wisdom finds the balance between idleness and overwork and can find satisfaction in one’s own abilities and accomplishments. Like all things of shalom, they are transient. The seasons continue to turn and times of conflict do arise. The quest for permanence, security, and a lasting name ultimately give way to mortality and the turning of the seasons. These evanescent moments may not last for long but they are the gift of God that gives meaning to the toil and the struggle.

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and The World He Lived in Part 4

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and The World He Lived in Part 4: A Scripture Shaped World

Scroll of the Book of Isaiah

Scroll of the Book of Isaiah

When I originally did my presentation on the Gospel of Mark and the way that it interacts with the world in which Jesus lived and breathed I left out a very important part, the way the Gospel of Mark interacts with the Scriptures (at this time the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament most likely in its Greek translation the Septuagint) and uses the language and world of the scriptures to find a way to talk about who Jesus is and what the Kingdom of God means in a world of the Roman empire, Second Temple Judaism and a world where the conflict between good and evil was viewed in terms of conflict between various spiritual forces. Inhabiting a Jewish world where the language of the scriptures would have been a critical part of that world it is not surprising that Mark uses scriptures to help illuminate who Jesus is and to allude to a deeper engagement with the story of the God of Israel and the people of that God.

The question of Mark as a reader of scripture is normally handled by looking at the explicit places where the gospel quotes the scriptures and often without taking some time to examine the broader question of how Mark is using these scriptures to show who Jesus is. Richard B. Hay’s recent work on the way that the gospel authors utilized scriptures is a helpful and generative study of this question in a much more holistic light. In examining the interaction between the way that the Hebrew Scriptures were read by Mark and the way they form a linguistic world that the gospel is able to access Hays argues:

And upon rereading, we discover numerous passages scattered through this Gospel that offer intimations of a disturbing truth: Jesus’ identity with the one God of Israel. Unlike the Gospel of John—which explicitly declares that Jesus is the Logos, the Son who is one with the Father—Mark shies away from overt ontological declarations. Nonetheless, Mark’s Gospel suggests that Jesus is, in some way that defies comprehension, the embodiment of God’s presence. Mark never quite dares to articulate this claim explicitly; it is too scandalous for direct speech. For Mark, the character of God’s presence in Jesus is a mystery that can be approached only by indirection, through riddle-like allusion to the OT. (Hays, 2014, p. 19f.)Emphasis authors.

From the first direct citation in Mark 1: 2-3 which weaves together Malachi 3.1, and Isaiah 40.3, both passages which link back to the LORD, the God of Israel being the one who is coming, Malachi pointing to the LORD coming in judgment and Isaiah who proclaims the LORD God coming with might to rule and to gather together the people of Israel. Right at the very beginning there are the audacious and bold claims about the one who is coming, and yet throughout the narrative of Mark the characters in the story will wonder and will have the secret kept from them who this Jesus is. The demons may know who Jesus is but they are silenced, others may have flashes of who Jesus is but they are also told not to speak to anyone about it, Jesus’ identity is a mystery that is ultimately revealed by his actions and the way these actions resonate with the story of who God is in relation to God’s people.

Many of the conflicts that emerge between Jesus and the Pharisees early in the gospel revolve around Jesus doing things that are reserved for the God of Israel. In Mark 2.1-12, when Jesus heals the paralytic man who is lowered through his roof the accusation is, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And the scriptures do highlight in several places that the God of Israel does forgive sins, for example Hays lifts up Exodus 34.6-7:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.

A similar dynamic is at play with Jesus declaring he is Lord of the Sabbath at the end of chapter 2, where now Jesus is able to interpret what the commands of God mean and becomes an authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. Perhaps this is some of the wonder that Mark records in 1.22 where the crowds are amazed at him teaching as one with authority.  Mark continues, through Jesus’ actions, to invite us to wonder who Jesus is and how he is connected with the God of Israel, from his healings and exorcisms to the walking on water in Mark 4. 35-41 where the disciples wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” and whether Mark directly evokes Psalm 107 or not, it provides an evocative answer to the question, “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress; he made the storms be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Psalm 107. 28f. Continuing in the story of the feeding of the five thousand with the evoking of the image of the people as sheep without a shepherd there are numerous allusions to the LORD, the God of Israel being the shepherd of the people, most memorably Psalm 23, but more pointedly Ezekiel 34 which rails against the leaders of Ezekiel’s time who have not proved to be faithful shepherd and in response the LORD declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the LORD God.” Ezekiel 34.15.  We are left to wonder after each event who is this Jesus, and how is he able to speak in ways that reflect God’s speech, how is he able to act in ways that reflect God’s actions and how does he embody the presence of the God of Israel who has drawn near with God’s kingdom. Mark points us continually to the suggestive but never overt answer that Jesus is fulfilling the role that God has promised to fulfill in the scriptures. That Jesus can forgive, can be Lord of Sabbath, can master the elements and the demonic forces that threaten God’s people and can be the faithful shepherd that the people has longed for.

Mark continues to invite those with eyes to see and ears to hear to sit and wonder about who Jesus is and to listen to the frequently allusive way in which the language of scriptures helps to paint this picture in a suggestive way. Yet it is a mystery that Mark invites his readers into, the mystery of the kingdom of God that arrives in parables rather than outright proclamation. Most of Jesus’ overt quotations of scriptures come at the end of the book of Mark where the question of who Jesus is comes to its ironic and sharply contested conclusion. Jesus’ authority is continually questioned by the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes and the chief priests and Jesus continues not only to allude to scripture but to embody it. Whether it is the allusion to Jeremiah’s temple sermon when Jesus enters the temple in Mark 11.17 and contrasting it with the vision of Isaiah in 56.7 and Jesus continuing to embody the role of Jeremiah in conflict with the temple of his day (see the previous post particularly on Jesus and Jeremiah), and the way this plays into the image of the cursed fig tree and the oracle of Jeremiah 8.13. The allusion to Isaiah 5 with both the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12. 1-12 and the denunciation of the scribes in Mark 12. 38-40. The language of Daniel 7 forms the answer to the High Priest in the trial where Jesus is accused of blasphemy, but also forms the background for the Son of Man imagery used throughout the gospel.  Mark uses these images poetically and sometime Jesus seems to take on the role of the God of Israel, other times Jesus walks in the place of Israel and is able to cry out to their God, sometimes he is the fulfillment of the hope of Israel and the scriptures, and yet in every place Mark leaves us with the mystery of the kingdom of God. Yet the use of scriptures continually points that somehow, evocatively, in Jesus we in some way encounter the divine presence of the God of Israel. Mark is not interested in explaining how this comes to be but rather inviting us into the journey and experience of the new people of God trying to find the language to explain who this Jesus was and what he did and finding in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures a vast set of hopes and expectations and words that describe the relationship of God to God’s people. And into that web of images the experience of Jesus mysteriously seems to fall and we wonder with the first hearers of the message what that means for our experience of this Jesus Christ the Son of God whose gospel we receive from Mark.

The Ballad of Ruth

The Ballad of Ruth[i]

William Blake, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah

There was no bread in the house of bread[ii] and so from the house of bread the breadless fled

To Moab went Elimelech and Naomi[iii] the sweet with two sons, departing hungry yet full

Foreigners in a foreign land they seek life but find only death and emptiness

A father dies, but leaves two sons behind to watch over the sweet one and to carry the name on

And yet the names of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, tell a tale all their own and a short tale it is

For Ruth and Orpah marry men whose part in the story seems only to perish, and perish they do[iv]

So in Moab is left Naomi the sweet made bitter, no longer hungry but empty

And yet in the house of bread, bread has returned

In the land of Moab sweet has turned bitter, bitterness has filled Naomi from bone to bile

In a foreign land the blessing of God seems to have turned to a curse, fullness to emptiness

The joy of wedding and the blessing of hope into the dirge of mourning and sons buried too soon

There is no gift for the wives of her children except to send them home to their father’s house

No sons left to give or bear, only a wish for the Lord’s kindness and a new beginning

For with Naomi there is only death, what is left but to return home to die

Breadless, childless, loveless, hopeless and bitter

And yet to the house of bread, Naomi will return

In the land of Moab, Orpah returns home to her father’s home but Naomi will not return home empty

The love of God comes wrapped in an unexpected form, the Moabite wife of her son

She becomes not only the bearer of grace and mercy but as the agent of God’s love[v] for the wounded child

Ruth’s words that, ‘where you go I’ll go, where you live I’ll live, your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I’ll die and there I’ll be buried.’

You asked for the Lord’s blessing in my departure, but may the Lord judge me if I depart

For neither life nor death, nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate Naomi

From the love of God shown in the Moabitess

To the house of bread, Naomi returns with Ruth as her only harvest

To the house of bread came two women, one known and one unknown

The known is Naomi, gone for a decade or more, returning as Mara[vi]

Departed sweet and returned bitter

The other is the Moabitess, the daughter of former oppressors, the alien, the outsider

She is the immigrant, the unprotected, the dangerous defiler, and yet she is Ruth

The outsider bears God’s grace in a way the insiders do not

At harvest time they return to a home long abandoned with empty fields.

Will there be bread in house of bread for the breadless?

Is there a place for the alien, the outcast, the widow, the poor and the weak?

Will the leftovers be enough to fill their emptiness or will they die forgotten?

Will their bodies be sold or taken for free in the reaping fields?

Or will new life begin in the harvest, will life return to the lifeless and bread to the breadless?

What will be gleaned in the barley harvest? Blessing or curse, life or death?

The fields are ripe in the house of bread and the harvest begins

The worthy man extends the blessing of the Lord’s covering[vii] and offers the shelter of his protection

For he has taken notice of the Moabitess working in the fields and knows of the grace she has shown

The outsider is made equal of the servants out in the fields and return home with a bushel of grain

Bread had returned to the breadless, life to the lifeless

Boaz has spoken to the heart[viii] of Ruth, and his words have returned hope to the bitter one

Bless the one who has covered us, who has not forgotten the dead

Bless the one who grants bread from the house of bread

Harvests come and harvests go in the house of bread, and then comes the celebration

The eating and drinking, the festival and feasting for once again the work is done

On the field of the threshing floor lies the worthy man, the fruit has been separated from the chaff

On the floor, covered[ix] lies the man who provided a covering for Ruth and Naomi

Work done, mercy extended, blessing shared…

Yet in the mystery of midnight what will happen to what lies on the threshing floor?

For in the mystery of midnight Ruth comes, perfumed and prepared

On the threshing floor at midnight the man finds himself uncovered and a woman lying at his feet

“I am Ruth, spread your covering over me” Once you wished the Lord’s covering on me, now be that covering

Can you accept the foreigner as one of your own, can your family be my family and your home my home

Your God is already God, may I go where you go, may I die where you die

In the mystery of midnight are the worthy man and the foreigner

Two agents of grace, two who covered others

Will the mystery of midnight on the threshing floor of the house of bread be fruitful?[x]

The worthy man and the kinsman and the elders at the gate must make settlement

Land must be redeemed, a family saved, life will begin anew

A sandal is passed, the deal is done

The worthy man and the foreigner are now one

God’s covering came, life begins anew

A child named Obed in Naomi’s lap grew

And from Obed, Jesse, and from Jesse , David the King

And a foreigner showed grace, a worthy man covered her and life began anew

In the house of bread begins a line of kings

And in ages to come over the house of bread the angels will sing.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

[i] This is taken from the book of Ruth, this is not a translation or paraphrase but I do stay fairly close to the story and try to capture some of it’s patterns

[ii] Ruth plays on the Hebrew word for bread which is lechem, Bethlehem is literally the house of bread

[iii] Naomi one of the meanings of Naomi is sweet one

[iv] Mahlon’s name is similar to one of the Hebrew words for disease while Chilion name is the Hebrew word ‘to perish’

[v] Another of the key words to Ruth is the Hebrew word ‘Hesed’ often translated kindness in Ruth, but most other places it refers to God’s actions of unmerited grace and mercy

[vi] Mara is the name she gives herself which means bitter, the opposite of her former self

[vii] Another of the keywords in Ruth, kanap which can mean wing, covering or garment and will be used playfully from this point on in the story

[viii] Another Hebraism which may mean speaking kindly to or may indicate sweet-talking

[ix] This is again Kanap, as the blessing of the Lord’s covering was  wished on rush, now this covering will become that covering

[x] This scene is pregnant with images that can go either in an innocent or non-innocent way, it is like a movie where the door is closed and what goes on is based largely on assumptions.