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The depth of the Spirit inspired Jewish character of the Gospels is often missed in our contemporary world. Today we will look at how Matthew thinks we are experts in Exodus “pattern” and have lots of Jewish tradition floating in our heads as he begins the story of the Messiah.
The existence of Luke shows us there was more than one way to tell the amazing story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Both Luke and Matthew, however, are stunningly Jewish in their writing though they tell the story quite differently.
Matthew’s Baby Moses “Pattern”
For Matthew, the history of Israel is recapitulated in Jesus. Jesus is Israel. Israel is the template for Jesus.
For example, it is difficult to know the story of baby Moses in any detail and miss how Matthew uses it as the pattern for the story of baby Jesus in chapter 2. Note these rather remarkable parallels Matthew fully expects us to see.
1) Matt 2.13-14: Herod desires to slay Jesus so Joseph takes Mary and baby Jesus away
Ex 2.15: Pharaoh desires to slay Moses, so Moses goes away
2) Matt 2.16: Herod commands all male boys of Bethlehem, 2 and under, murdered
Ex 1.22: Pharaoh commands all male Israelite boys to be murdered
3) Matt 2.19: Herod dies
Ex 2.23: Pharaoh dies
4) Matt 2.19-20: The Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, ‘go back for those seeking Jesus’s life are dead’
Ex 4.19: The Lord speaks to Moses, ‘go back for those seeking your life are dead’
5) Matt 2.21: Joseph took Jesus and Mary back to Israel
Ex 4.20: Moses took his wife and children and returned to Egypt
The Nativity of Moses
As significant as these are, Matthew is not done. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Moses and the Exodus in the biblical and Jewish tradition. Lots of traditions grew up about Moses, just like they do every notable person.
The writing known as The Antiquities of the Jews, written by the first century Jewish historian Josephus, retells the “nativity” of Moses. Josephus does not tell this as a tale, or legend, but seems to think it is actual history. The story, not something Josephus invented, reveals what Jews of the first century believed about the birth of Moses. If this does not sound familiar we may need to read Matthew more often.
1) Pharaoh learns that the Hebrews constitute an existential threat to his Egyptian Empire
2) This knowledge comes via a vision by a “sacred scribe.” The scribe had a vision that foretold the birth of an Israelite boy whose name would be remembered through all future generations.
3) When Pharaoh heard this news “fear and dread” come over the Egyptians. So Pharaoh decreed all male Israelite boys to be thrown into the Nile in response to the vision by the scribe.
4) Moses’s father, Amram (cf. Ex 6.20), prayed to the Lord when he learned of the decree. God appears to Amram in a dream and promises safety for the child who will grow to be a savior of the people. Part of God’s speech is worth quoting as it appears on Josephus:
“Know, therefore, that I shall provide for you all in common what is for your good, and particularly for thyself what shall make thee famous; for that child, out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be thine child and shall be concealed from those who desire to destroy him. When he is brought up in a surprising way, he shall deliver the Hebrew nation …” (Antiquities of the Jews 2. IX, 3, Whiston’s translation)
5) Thus Pharaoh’s plan to destroy the child are thwarted, ironically, by the Pharaoh who saves baby Moses from certain death from the “sacred scribe” who recognized the child.
6) At this point Josephus presents Moses’s genealogy just as Matthew does.
(For a detailed study of Moses and Jesus parallels in the birth narrative of Matthew see Raymond Brown’s, The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 112-119)
What are we to make of all of this?
First, is the Christian faith and the Gospel message regarding Jesus simply cannot be divorced from its Jewish soil. To do so does incredible violence to the message that the Holy Spirit gave.
Second, Matthew is making a claim. Every Jew knew the amazing story contained in Exodus. Jews knew the stories about Moses that Josephus bears witness. The Moses story is a story of divine power being exercised in pure grace on behalf of powerless slaves. The Exodus was “unique.” It was unparalleled before and since. But Matthew’s claim is that now the God who acted then, is acting in Exodus like fashion again. The Exodus did not end with the crossing of the Red Sea. Exodus ends with Immanuel … God living with the redeemed slaves through the Tabernacle (See Exodus 40.34-38). Matthew’s story of Jesus does not end either with the birth nor the death of Jesus. Matthew’s story is that now, in Jesus, God is living with us. Matthew states this at the beginning (1.23), the middle (18.20), and the end of his Gospel (28.20).
God does not merely save. God dwells with God’s people. From the beginning Matthew tells us that the Exodus acting God is doing it again and he is not merely saving but Immanuel has come. God is dwelling with his people, not in a tent, but in a person – Messiah.
Baby Moses and Baby Jesus are powerful messages of the redeeming and dwelling God. Jesus’s life and mission follow the pattern of salvation given in the Exodus. Matthew’s story of the nativity tells us Christmas not only has a long history with infants but goes way beyond their births … all the way to “God is with us.”
Maybe we should remember that even in the New Heavens and New Earth when all God’s People will sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb.
“I will continually sing hymns of thanksgiving” (Sirach 51.11)
This year, 2020, has been a long, challenging year, for a great many people. Not only disciples of Jesus but those who are not. Not only for those in the United States but those in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and literally around the globe. It is not the first pandemic that has ravaged humanity in history but COVID-19 is certainly the biggest in my lifetime. This has been a year where many of us have learned a great deal about ourselves and what we are willing to endure for the sake of loving the neighbors around us.
But even with the challenge of this year, as we enter into November, we have so much to be thankful, indeed grateful, for.
May I recommend a short reading to you. I want to urge you to read Psalm 103 and Psalm 111 tonight and even tomorrow. Read them out loud. Let the Spiritual words of the Psalm flow through your lips.
Thanksgiving bubbles to the surface of anyone who is genuinely grateful for what has been received. I hold it as a spiritual truth that the depth of Israel’s thanksgiving is living testimony to the profound depth of their experience of grace in the Hebrew Bible. The extent of our own thanksgiving likewise reveals the depth of our knowledge of grace. Thanksgiving is directly proportional to our knowledge of being graced.
Sometimes, we resist public (and even private) thanksgiving because it “demands” an “embarrassing awareness” that we are on the receiving end of gifts that are essential to life. These gifts we neither merit nor come close to earning. This is why the line between “thanksgiving” and “praise” is so often extremely fine. The more we know we exist by the grace of God, every second of the day, the more pervasive thanksgiving dominates our lives.
Psalm 103 (and 111) is pure thanksgiving to Yahweh, the God of Israel. The Psalm opens and closes with the imperative
“Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.” (103.1)
“Praise the LORD!
I will give thanks to the LORD
with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright,
in the congregation” (111.1)
Then Psalm 103 proceeds to present a series of “benefits” that deserve our thanksgiving. For our purposes I suggest there are four as we follow the length of the Psalm.
Thankful for … “Forgiveness” (v.3f)
Ours is a world of ungrace. Besides being a world of full of COVID, the year 2020 has reminded the entire world how ungracious humanity can be. Democrats and Republicans attack each other as if possessed by rabies. Spouses hold grudges near their heart for decades. Our world is withering away in a slow agonizing death of ungrace.
We, all of us, crave to be forgiven. Yet we, all of us, have an extremely hard time forgiving. The Psalm tells us that Yahweh forgives. Forgiveness is not merely letting us off the hook. Rather forgiveness takes our broken lives and heals them from top to bottom. Grace makes us whole. We are set free by forgiveness and empowered to be a forgiver. So, we praise Yahweh,
“who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases …”
Thankful for … Renewal of Life (vv. 4-5)
An ungrateful life is hard. It sucks “life” right out of our heart. The world, and often the church, does everything it can to reduce us to mere existence rather than thriving. We become lifeless, almost like sectarian zombies. But God did not create us to merely exist but to have life to the full, as Jesus said (and Qoheleth shouts “Amen!”).
“who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with HESED [steadfast love, NRSV]
who satisfies you with good as long
as you live
so that your youth is renewed like
With Yahweh we receive renewal of life. We were in the “Pit,” living a death like existence. But we are “redeemed” out of that Pit and “renewed” like the wings of an eagle. Love and compassion are gifts of God that course through our veins making us feel new life. What a gift to be thankful for. Our lives are renewed. They are crowned with God’s HESED.
Thankful for … Love that is Gracious (v.8)
Israel is brought face to face with the “God Creed” in v.8 which came from Yahweh’s own voice in Ex 34.6.
“The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
abounding in HESED [steadfast love, NRSV]”
When God “revealed his ways” to Moses (v.7), he revealed the depth of his HESED (i.e. steadfast love). God’s ways are Hesed ways! Hesed ways are compassion, grace, slow to anger and extremely rich in love. Hesed ways are not dolling our punishment on the basis of what we deserve but on the basis of HESED. “He does not repay us according to our iniquities.” What if this was the basis of how human beings treated one another or Christians (at the very least) treated one another.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, for his infinite HESED.
Thankful for … Covenant (v. 18)
I am so thankful that I learned what a “covenant” actually is. For years, growing up, I imagined (because I was taught) that God’s covenant was a contract. My fingers almost get leprous even writing the word “contract” next to “covenant.”
Psalm 103 knows nothing of a contract but everything about a covenant. Covenant is relationship. A relationship between a husband and wife; a relationship between parents and children. I pity the wife (or husband) or the daughter (or son) who has a spouse or parent who views him or her in the framework of a contract.
“As a father has compassion for his children,
so Yahweh has compassion for those who fear him.”
“The HESED of Yahweh is
from everlasting to everlasting”
for those who are true to his covenant of love. Why is it that God does not give us up? It is not because we earn it, deserve it, have precision obedience. God keeps us for the same reason a Parent never gives up on a daughter/son, because of his covenant of love (cf. Deuteronomy 7.7-9)! Because he is our Father.
I am so thankful for the Covenant of Love.
That is why We Thank Him (vv. 19-22).
Forgiveness. Renewal of Life. Gracious Love. The unbreakable covenant of love. These are Yahweh’s “benefits!”
So, the Psalm declares that is why we “bless” the Lord. That is why we lift our hands in praise. That is why we raise the cup of thanksgiving (116.13). This is why we gather with other people and feast at his table. This is why we “give thanks to Yahweh with our whole heart, in the company of the upright” (111.1)
Thank you, God our Father.
Thank you, Christ the Son.
Thank you, Spirit of Life.
The context for the Book of Psalms is the public worship of God’s people, that is the people who use these prayer hymns are not primarily the person/people who composed them. In this way they are analogous to our hymnals. Every text presupposes corporate worship in the temple.
As we enter the literary sanctuary of the Psalms we join a cloud of witnesses already worshiping through these texts. In this arena we learn that both Scripture and prayer function as a means of grace. Among the throng before the throne we become conscious of at least two graces that come through worship.
First, we “look to the Lord,” we “seek the Lord,” that is we desire communion with God. We want to be with our God. Worship is not about laws or even precision obedience but fellowship, basking in the glorious Presence of the King. The hunger to be in the Presence of God is what makes us worship.
Second, as we have communion with the King we look for healing, for an experience of God’s merciful Hesed – God’s never ending Steadfast Love. It is in the Presence of our God that we find infinite steadfast love that takes our brokenness and bathes it in Hesed.
These two thoughts permeate the Psalms. To illustrate we will examine the short section of Psalms 26-30. In these five texts the hunger for genuine fellowship/communion with God and the resulting healing is expressed. Psalm 27.14 stands out pulling other lines together.
“Look to the LORD” (27.14)
That is the psalmist talking to the church/the assembly. Previously he/she confessed,
“O LORD, I seek your face!”
Here is the ultimate gift of worship is not the act or the ritual, rather it is communion with the living God. The transcendent One is the also the Welcoming One. So, God’s people call out,
“I love Your temple abode” (26.8)
“only one that I seek …
One thing I ask of the LORD,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (27.4)
There in the assembly, Yahweh comes to his Gathered People and shares God’s personal Presence with sinful beings in an act of astonishing grace. The Psalm describes this “showing up” of God in Psalm 29 as a massive thunderstorm. When God appears the earth itself responds with quaking and the trees are stripped bare. And the King of Glory is enthroned in the midst of the people (this is sort of what Isaiah witnessed in Isa 6).
“And all in His temple cry, ‘Glory!‘ (29.9)
God is not just powerful. God is not some celestial cop. God is not many of our imaginary idols. God’s people crave the Presence of God because God is glorious Beauty itself. That is why we “look to the Lord.” Jesus had used these Psalms in Temple worship his whole life, no wonder he said “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall SEE GOD” (Mt 5.8)
God’s glorious beautiful Presence does something to creation that is wounded by Sin. God’s Beauty brings merciful healing to those who seek the Lord. This desire for healing grace runs through our prayer texts.
Note this marvelous juxtaposition of statements,
“But as for me, I walk without blame;
have mercy on me!” (26.11)
How can this be? The psalmist is not claiming to have “arrived.” What is claimed is simply to be on God’s side … the side of the One who is merciful.
“Listen to my plea for mercy” (28.2)
“Do not count me among the wicked” (28.3)
“For he listens to my plea for mercy” (28.6)
“Hear, O LORD, and have mercy on me …
You turned my mourning into dancing” (30.11-12)
The psalmist, and God’s gathered people, are hardly sinless people. God’s people are not welcomed into the Lord’s Presence because they have anything like precision obedience. We are able to experience God’s Beauty because of love (hesed) alone.
We come to God because it is here, in God’s Presence, we find mercy for our shattered world and lives. There in God’s merciful Presence we
“focus” our “eyes on Your steadfast love” (26.2)
“Do not forsake me … O God my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me,
the LORD will take me in” (27.10)
Yahweh becomes a Father to orphans, to people whose world is vandalized by our own sin. There with the other scared people we find the gift of life, the gift of grace, the gift of mercy and we are healed in the Presence of the Lord.
My own world has been ripped to shreds in the past. There is only one thing I seek, to gaze upon the Beauty of God and there find more than I can ask or dream of: communion with beauty itself and healing steadfast love. Two gifts of grace the Psalms offer to all who pray them.
James A. Harding was a legendary evangelist, debater, and co-founder of Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University) and founder of Potter Bible College. During his prime, Harding was one of the most influential men in the Churches of Christ.
What is not often remembered about Harding is that he was a prayer warrior. Harding cultivated prayer believing it to be the most powerful tool available for Christian living in this present age. Indeed for Harding prayer was the “secret” weapon or power that is granted to disciples of Christ and through prayer Christians literally co-author the future of the world with God.
Christian prayer is not so much a matter of technique as the expression of relationship binding God and humanity in communion. Prayer is a means of grace, for Harding, rooted in the faith that the Creator of the Universe was the Abba of the Christian. As our Abba, God is just as active and involved in the world today as in the days of the Patriarchs or the Apostles.
“I believe that God loves his faithful children with a very great love. I believe he is near to them, takes great pleasure in them, knows their needs perfectly, and that he can supply their wants at any time, any where, under any circumstances. Indeed, I believe he loves these faithful children so much he guards them with a perfect care.” (Harding-White Discussion, p. 3)
Prayer, for Harding, was not simply rooted in a belief that God exists. Real prayer is instead rooted in passionate faith in a certain kind of God, a God who is “the gentlest and most loving, the most just and most merciful of all fathers.”
Unfortunately, in Harding’s view, not all Christians believed in this gentle, gracious, and attentive Father. In fact many were trading the God of the Bible for more rational, scientific, and distant God of the present age. The God these folks believed in used to be active in the world: at one time long ago God created the world, at one time long ago God would alter the path of the world in response to the cry of a saint, at one time God would get his hands “dirty.” But that was long ago.
These modern Christians believed that God had replaced his hands on approach with a more distant, and reasonable, management style and governed only through the rule of law. Everything was done according to “laws” and even God was subject to these “laws.” These supposed laws were akin to mathematical and scientific laws. This perspective is known as the infection of deism. Harding described this prayer destroying phenomena.
“Now a few people seem to be under the impression that all divine interventions have ceased since the death of the Apostles, and that since then there have been no super mundane or super-human influences known on earth. They think God gave the word and stopped – a very low and very erroneous conception of the reign of Christ . . . God has not changed in the least from all eternity. He is the same yesterday, to-day and forever. He has always loved and blessed those who love him and serve him in trusting faith” (Prayer for the Sick, The Way, May 9, 1901, p.41).
Harding lamented the invasion of this modernism invading the church that banished God to a book (even if that book is the Bible!) or safely to the distant past.
“I feel sorry for those who are afflicted by these blighting, semi-infidel materialistic notions, that leave God, Christ, the Holy Spirit . . . wholly out of the Christian’s life — for those who think all spiritual beings left us when the Bible was finished, and who think we now have to fight the battle alone. Some of these people pray, but what they pray for is more than I can tell, unless it is for the ‘reflex influence.‘” (Atlanta-God’s Providence-The Holy Spirit, Christian Leader and the Way, June 19, 1906, p. 9).
What a radical statement by one of the “pillars” of the Churches of Christ. Harding would suggest that it is Satan who has actually convinced religionists that God had subjected the world to “law” and then withdrew.
For Harding the greatest threats facing the church was not the myriad of issues (though he had opinions on those) but the cold, hard, law bound idol that had replaced the intimately intertwined with the world Father of Jesus. Harding would wage a long battle against deistic views of God. Harding was constantly calling for faith, simple trusting faith, in the Father who is revealed in the biblical narrative. Prayer was a “means of grace” to bring us into communion with our loving Father and to share in the mission of God. The loving, caring, gentle, giving, Abba is the God we worship and pray to. He remains the God of 2 Kings 20.1-11 (a story also related two other times in the Hebrew Bible, 2 Chronicles 32.24-26 and Isaiah 38.1-8).
(You can read more on Harding and his amazing views on prayer in the book by John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding. )
Do We Dish It Out?
One of the most radical texts in the Bible is one we Christians seemingly do not really believe. This text is not in Paul though it is as radical as anything he ever wrote. The text has a two fold thrust and both tend to not be believed.
Believing, our author insists, something is not determined by whether we claim to believe it or have an intellectual idea of it. Believing something is determined by how we live it.
The text is actually in the Epistle of James, that little Epistle by our Lord’s brother. Most Protestants know it for one, half understood, text in chapter 2, that says something about faith and works and the like. But right smack in the middle of that very context is our revolutionary text. The first part of the text says,
“For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy …” (James 2.13)
Of course, James is channeling his big brother on this point. Jesus did say judgment without mercy will be directed towards those who do not “dish out mercy.”
“Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5.7)
“For if you forgive others their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6.14-15)
“For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7.2; see the Parable of the Wicked Servant, Mt 18.21-35).
Mercy and Judgment, Judgment and Mercy are intimately connected. Those who dish out judgment James – and Jesus – says will reap judgment.
Where is it?
From the way a lot of us live, it is clearly evident we do not believe this text. Christians are known for many things in our world, but a reputation for dishing out mercy is not one of them. But we do seem to have a reputation for dishing out judgment.
Are we merciful toward the divorced? A preacher friend of mine once said it is easier to commit murder, be thrown in jail, come out with a “testimony” and be received by the brotherhood than get a divorce! … was he wrong?
Are we merciful to gays? Based on what we see we have to confess that “merciful” is not the first word that comes to mind.
Are we merciful to the those “out there?” Are our sins safer sins than theirs?
Are we merciful to the homeless?
Are we merciful to Aliens?
Are we merciful to Muslims?
Are we merciful to those created in the image of God?
Are we merciful to each other?
Do we not routinely “tar and feather” one another? Do we not suddenly divorce the elders or the preacher or the family of God because some one did not jump when we demanded they do so? Would anyone reading most of our online conversations come away and say “Wow, what beautiful mercy can be found here?”
Perhaps we are like Commodus in the classic movie Gladiator. After destroying a human, but leaving a pulse, we get in their face and scream, “Am I not merciful!!!”
Triumph over Judgment
The first line in James’s inspired word, is a nuclear bomb. Mercy is not an idea. Mercy is not a notion. Mercy is not simply one more doctrine to assent to. Mercy is not reduced to hymnody.
Mercy is an action that we live. Mercy is done. Mercy is a weightier matter of the Torah of God. When we come to mercy we have reached the true depths of God’s torah. There is heaviness when it comes to mercy. On at least two occasions James’s brother scolded those who thought they had mastered the depth of God’s Word with the words
“Go learn what this means,
‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9.13)
“If you had known what this means,
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’
you would have not condemned the guiltless” (Mt 12.7)
The reason that mercy is the heaviness of the Torah, the reason that mercy is the weighty part of the Torah, is because the whole point of the Torah is mercy! Not condemnation. Hosea (6.6) understood this. Jesus understood this. James, as Jesus said to do, went and learned it. Thus he writes,
“Mercy TRIUMPHS over judgment.”
James makes this statement based on the character of God, not nature of humanity. Nothing in Paul is more radical than this. Over and over in the Hebrew Bible, the Creator God subverts the adage of “you reap what you sow!” Our self-inflicted death is not the end of the story. MERCY triumphs over judgment at every point in the Hebrew Bible. Each word merits prayerful meditation.
Perhaps, no one understood the existential need for mercy over of judgment more than James, the brother of Jesus. James grew up in the same home as Jesus. He rubbed shoulders with Jesus, ate with Jesus, played with Jesus … and he did not believe in Jesus.
The Gospel of John records explicitly that Jesus’s immediate family did not believe in him. His brothers, perhaps with a nod to the Joseph story in Genesis, even mock Jesus. The brothers mock Jesus, telling him he needed to be at the Festival of Booths so he could display his works, “for anyone who wants to be well known does not act in secret” (John 7.4). Then the Gospel writer declares forthrightly, “For even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7.5).
James needed mercy.
He received it!
We have received mercy. We have received everything. We practice mercy because we receive mercy.
James, it seems to me, is making a statement regarding how we treat one another. In the context we are all transgressors (2.8-12). How do we treat other transgressors? Does it reflect how God has treated us who are also transgressors? So James states,
“So speak and ACT as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2.12)
What law is that? Love your neighbor as yourself (James cites the Torah of God in Leviticus 19.18 referring to it in 2.8 and 1.25). If we speak and act according to this law then we will be merciful. We break the law of God when we fail to dish out mercy.
Do we believe James 2.13? If we did then how we often treat people, both Christians and non-Christians, would change drastically.
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment. Let’s start extravagantly dishing it out.
This post is an exercise in “thinking out loud” as we read the Bible. It is a reflection on Matthew 4.1-11.
The Gospel of Matthew proclaims to today’s Gentile church, “Ya’ll cannot have Jesus without the Hebrew Bible and Israel. Ya’ll cannot have the person of Yeshua without his DNA. In fact Jesus, according to Matthew, is Israel in a very real sense. We see this clearly as Jesus is tested in the wilderness.
In Jesus’s baptism there is a voice that says “this is my Son” (3.17). These are words that had been spoken to the “son of David” for centuries as each son of David was anointed as King (Ps 2.7). But the reader of Matthew already knows that Jesus is the son for just a few short verses away the narrator quoted scripture, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (2.15). This is a quotation from Hosea 11.1 which speaks of Israel coming out of Egypt. But Israel is God’s son, “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go that he may worship me” (Ex 4.22-23).
God’s son went through the water. God led the people with a pillar of fiery Presence into the wilderness. God fed the people the bread of angels. Moses ascended the mountain and fasted forty days and nights before receiving the torah to proclaim to Israel. And God’s son failed. Instead of worshiping “me” (Yahweh), Israel worshiped the Golden Calf.
This story is ingrained in Jews in Jesus’s day. The Torah was read through every three years. It is narrated in Exodus. It is preached in Deuteronomy 6-12. The Feast of Tabernacles takes Jews symbolically back to the wilderness and highlights Psalm readings that speak of listening to Yahweh, avoiding “strange gods,” and proclaims Yahweh will personally feed “us” the finest bread (Ps 81). The story forms a critical part of Psalm 78 which ends with the Davidic king faithfully leading God’s people. And it forms a critical part of the Wisdom of Solomon. Israel failed.
Israelites in Jesus’s day were very conscious of the fact that “we” (our ancestors and ourselves) have failed. When the reader of Matthew comes to chapter 4 and hears (and they would hear it rather than read it) what is happening it is like a deja vu moment: here we go again, will Israel fail? Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for testing. This recalls the Pillar of Fire, God’s visible presence. In Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach the Pillar that guides Israel is the dwelling and throne for God’s personified Wisdom (Wis 10.17; Sir 24.3-4).
Moses taught that Yahweh led Israel into the wilderness to “test” Israel’s hearts (Deut 8.2, 10). But as it turned out, Israel is the one who put God to the test. The test regards mere food.
“They tested God in their heart
by demanding food they craved.
They spoke against God saying,
‘Can God spread a TABLE
in the wilderness?”
(Ps 78.18; cf. Deut 6.16, my emphasis).
They did not believe God could, or would, feed them. The problem is hit on the head in Ps 78, “they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power” (78.22). It is no accident that the first testing by the devil is after forty days of fasting (like Moses) and focuses upon food. Jesus knew this story, just as every Jew did. He had been in the wilderness during Tabernacles before.
But the story is not really food beloved, not in Matthew not in Deuteronomy nor in the Psalms (78 or 81). The story is about trust, it is about faith and faithfulness. Will Jesus/Israel trust Yahweh. The very text Yeshua quotes to the devil, Deuteronomy 8.3 is about both food and trust. The bread of angels was given to human beings to teach them to trust God. Here are Moses’s words, the caps are the quoted part by Jesus.
“He [Yahweh] humbled you by letting you hunger [Jesus is famished], then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, in order to make you understand that ONE DOES NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE, BUT BY EVERY WORD THAT COMES FROM THE LORD.” (Deut 8.3)
As Psalm 78 puts it, God commanded the heavens to rain down manna and “humans ate the bread of angels” (78.25) or as Psalm 81 (read during the Feast of Tabernacles) “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (81.10). Will Jesus test God over whether he can put a table out in the wilderness? Or will he trust Yahweh to command and the angels will deliver food to him. Will he trust in God’s saving power? Will Yeshua be the full of faith Son that Israel never was?
The last test follows this Exodus story as well. Israel bowed and worshiped false gods in the Golden Calf. The devil promises what Psalm 2 promises, the inheritance of the nations. The “Son” is supposed to inherit the nations (Ps 2.7-9). Jesus can be King yet. Just “fall down and worship me” (4.9).
But Jesus, who has been living in the Story listens to Moses. He is the faithful son. Jesus’s retort is “worship the Lord and serve him only” quoting Deuteronomy 6.13.
God called his son, Israel, to worship him. Instead Israel made a calf and bowed before it. They did not trust in Yahweh. Jesus will do what Israel failed … he will worship and serve God only.
Jesus relives the Story of Israel in the wilderness. It is a familiar story for every Jew. Our ancestors failed to be the loyal trusting Son. But Yeshua, the Son of David, will trust, he will be faithful, he will worship. He will lead the people … as Psalm 78 closes with (78.70-72).
It is not without significance that Matthew ends his testing narrative with the strange to Gentiles words, “then the devil left him and suddenly the angels came and waited on him” (4.11). Jesus/Israel did not stumble in the wilderness and God did in fact spread a table in the wilderness and the angels “waited” on Jesus. They brought the bread just like God rained it down on the faithless Israelites to take care of his Son.
We too are invited to live in the Story each day and be faithful sons and daughters. Just some thoughts.
Today is Easter, known as “pascha” to most non-English speaking Christians around the world. We joined Christians around the world and throughout history in remembering the culmination of God’s “passover plot” to liberate enslaved creation from sin and death seen supremely in the Jubilee ministry, the crucifixion and resurrection in the flesh of a Jew named Joshua/Jesus.
This is the single defining moment since the dawn of creation. Creation’s redemption began this day through the dawn of God’s renewed creation in Christ’s resurrection. In fact we remember gratefully this every Lord’s Day.
But there is controversy surrounding the resurrection of Jesus on every page of the NT. The controversy began in the Garden itself.
Have you noticed that in the Gospels, all four, this singular event rests upon the testimony of a group of rather oppressed people: women.
The Gospel of Luke goes out of its way, literally, to stress this rather stark fact. And it is an embarrassing fact at that. But it is one the writers refuse to hide.
Several years ago biblical scholar Russ Dudrey published an article called “What the Writers Could Have Done Better.” He documents how controversial it was among non-believers (and even some believers!) that Christian claims rested upon the testimony of … women.
What the writers could have done better, in the ancient world, was obscure, hide, or just omit references to women much less that they are the ones who knew which tomb was Jesus’s in the first place, that they are the ones who went to the tomb on that fateful day, that they are the ones who received angelic visitation, that they are the ones who preached to the apostles themselves. Yes the first preachers of the Gospel of the Resurrected Messiah are … women. As in the Psalm, it is a “great company of women” who at “the Lord’s command” preach the “gospel” (Ps 68.11).
Pagan critics, like Celsus, mercilessly castigated Christianity as absurd religion of ignorant women. Women were inferior. Women were not allowed to even testify in their own defense. So when Luke speaks of the women, he does so purposefully. And it was not even necessary as a look at Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 15 makes crystal clear. It was not only the cross that was foolishness to the Greeks, it was women!
But Luke (again all the Gospels bear witness) stresses the women, to the point that he appears to be smacking us with a bat to get our attention. He does this throughout his Gospel.
But I begin with the cross in chapter 23 and go to the resurrection in chapter 24. Note these texts. By this time the Twelve male disciples of Jesus had already fled and abandoned the Lord.
“A great number of the people followed him, and among them were THE WOMEN …” (23.27)
“those who knew him, including THE WOMEN who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance and watched these things” (23.49)
“THE WOMEN who had come with him from Galilee followed, THEY [the women] saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then THEY [the women] returned, and prepared spices and ointments.” (23.55-56)
“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, THE WOMEN, … they [women] found the stone rolled away … but when they [women] went in, they [women] did not find the body.” (24.1-3)
“THE WOMEN were terrified [angel speaks to the women]” (24.5).
“When they [women] returned from the tomb, they [the women] told these things to the Eleven, and to the others.” (24.8)
Luke then goes out of his way to name the women.
“It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the OTHER WOMEN who told these things to the apostles. But these words seemed to them [male disciples] like an idle tale and they [the apostles] did not believe them” (24.9-11)
“Moreover some WOMEN of our group astounded us” (24.22)
“Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as THE WOMEN had said” (24.24).
In the space of chapter, Luke stresses “the women” nearly a dozen times. Why?
Because through the Jubilee ministry and resurrection of Jesus the curse has been removed. Men, not God, declared women to be inferior, unfit, unreliable, less than rational … and Luke comes along and says the Gospel message itself rests upon the faithfulness of women and testimony of women.
The same women that embraced the scandal of following Jesus camping around Galilee (8.1-3 contains the same names as 24.19) are the ones who were faithful to the bitter end.
Peter ran away, but Mary Magdalene did not.
John did not go to the tomb but Joanna did.
Matthew did not talk to the angels and find the empty tomb but a whole troop of faithful women did.
Paul was nowhere to be found.
It was the WOMEN who preached, who announced, the resurrection, to the apostles themselves. All four Gospels testify to this, but Luke is the one who rubs our noses in it.
And while the pagans scoffed, because women supposedly could not be entrusted with such earth shattering authority and news, the writers tell us that Christian faith itself rests upon the Easter morning experience of WOMEN from Galilee.
The end of the Gospel of Luke bears witness to Luke’s inspired understanding of the Hebrew Bible … women, old ones and young ones, will become prophets in the new world along with men. Men and women are equal in the grace saturated new creation.
One page away, in Luke’s book, we read this amazing quotation whose emphasis is actually on every page of the Gospel.
“I will pour out my Spirit upon ALL flesh,
and your sons and your DAUGHTERS
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves,
BOTH MEN AND WOMEN,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit
and THEY shall prophesy”
This is why Luke goes out of his way to stress “the women” because even two thousand years later some men still hold the same cursed view of women that dominates so much of human relationships.
But Jesus in his resurrection brought a redeemed world into existence and the church is supposed to be the redeemed world on display before the fallen world.
Welcome to God’s Brave New World.
Regardless of claims to the contrary no one merely reads the Bible. The Bible is interpreted, by everyone. When Christians say that women do not have wear veils; we do not have to greet each other with a kiss; we do not have to lift up hands in prayer; women are not saved by having babies; we do not baptize for the dead; that we are not eager to prophesy and we do forbid tongues; we are not obligated to keep the Sabbath; etc we are interpreting Scripture.
The question will never be if we will interpret the Bible. Rather the question will always be will our interpretation be a good one or a bad one.
Good Christian hermeneutics will always begin as a response to the God of all grace who has done great things. Good Christian interpretation, discipleship of communing with the Word, will be rooted in the soul that is humbly seeking to reflect God’s glorious image back into the created world around us. Good Christian biblical interpretation will begin in prayer and will be understood as “an act of worship.”
Thus interpretation that does not begin in prayer and worship that results in the Spirit flowing redemptively through us to a vandalized world, then we have a right to question if such is good Christian interpretation of Scripture. Good hermeneutical discipleship is also known by its fruit.
Prayer, worship and reflecting God’s image back into creation, these are the beginning points and the ends/goals of interpretation. I have found the following big picture ideas helpful as a framework for good Christian interpretation of Scripture in God honoring ways.
First. The Bible is inspired of God’s Holy Spirit through the words of human beings in specific historical circumstances. Thus it is literally the word of God and the word of humans. Just as the Living Word, Jesus, is both divine and completely human so too is the written word. Thus the text was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and not Spanish, English or Southern. God’s word addressed them in that situation and may not be God’s directive for all time and all places. We see examples of this within the biblical narrative itself.
Second. Because of the historical nature of revelation we must pay close attention to the historical occasion of the text. Why was this text said or written in the first place? We assess the meaning of words in their historical and literary context if we respect God’s word. I cover this point usually by saying there are two rules for reading the Bible, “Context and Context.”
Third. The Bible is not simply a hodge podge of propositions or syllogisms. The Bible is not a jigsaw puzzle that is poured into a box to be assembled by ourselves. The Bible, rather, tells a Story that each historically conditioned text contributes in some fashion. The Gist of that Story is this: The Triune God created the universe as an act of love so that created life can have communion/fellowship with him. Creation Rebelled and vandalized that good creation erecting a barrier between Creator and Creation. And the Triune God is working within creation to redeem, restore and even glorify his creation. This is the “grand narrative.”
Fourth. That Grand Narrative, story line, is the skeleton on which the various individual and historically conditioned, texts “hang.” Genesis 1-2 and Rev 21-22 are the bookends to the macrostructure of the canon of Scripture. This narrative is broken into Six stages or “Acts” as some call them. They are:
1) God Establishes his Kingdom in Creation (Gen 1-2)
2) Shalom vandalized in the Kingdom – Rebellion (Gen 3-11)
3) Triune God chose Israel by grace alone to bring creation back into communion with him. Israel was to be leaven in the rebellious world. Redemption is initiated. (Gen 12-Malachi)
4) The Triune God sends the King thru Israel. Thru his work in his physical body, rebellious creation becomes obedient to the will of God and is redeemed through the death, burial and resurrection of the King (Matt – John)
5) God’s renewed creation is placed in the world through the church. Here the values of the King, the values of God, are lived out and performed on Earth as they are in heaven. These are the people of the Resurrection. They are not of the old fallen order rather they are in the world to be the seasoning of redemption to, demonstrate what “Heaven” is supposed to be like. The Fall is turned on its head in the church (Acts – Rev 19)
6) The Return of the King. Redemption is consummated and the evil and corruption that has marred God’s creation intent is fully recognized as defeated and cast out by the resurrection of the body of Jesus. Vandalism is replaced with beautification and glorification (Rev 21-22)
This basic outline can reap rich rewards. Remembering the Grand Narrative of the Bible helps us to see the actual goal of the Bible. The Narrative points us to the “point.” It is eschatological. When we know the goal that shapes our present not just from one command or example but in light of the entire Narrative that is lurching forward by the power of the Holy Spirit toward the redemptive goal of God. We want to live our lives both individually and corporately sharing in God’s own mission.
Remembering this basic outline in light of prayer and worship and seeking to reflect God’s true image into the world can go a long way towards sound good Christian biblical interpretation. The story enables us to see how a given text is attempting to bring about the restoration of God’s good created order and is a step to its glorification in the End. Those bookends also remind us that individual texts are often conditioned on the events that called them forth.
In the End, good hermeneutical discipleship calls us to love with ever deeper love.
“But the goal of this command/instruction is LOVE, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from the these and have turned to meaningless talk. These want to be teachers of the Bible, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Timothy 1.5-7)
Now and Then
Two thousand years of Christian history separates today’s disciples from those we read of in the Acts of the Apostles. That distance has created some major conceptual changes that sometimes make it harder to hear the writings of the apostles.
For today’s Christians our first thought of Scripture will be Matthew, Luke, Acts, perhaps Romans and Ephesians. In fact it is not uncommon to find believers who carry only a New Testament. Many will think of a list of 66 books.
This, however, is significantly different than disciples in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, or Rome in AD 45 thought and experienced. When Jesus debates Scripture, when Peter teaches Scripture or Paul mentions Scripture … it is Genesis through Malachi. When Paul says “all scripture is inspired,” or tells Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture,” he means not Matthew to Revelation but Genesis to Malachi. The “New Testament” was not the Bible of the “New Testament” church. The biblical context of the NT writers is what is called the “Old Testament” today.
It is interesting that the New Testament never designates itself as the “New Testament.” The New Testament never designates the faith described therein as “Christianity.” And the New Testament is fully aware that there is already a “Bible” and defers to its authority.
Actually in the first century, and fourteen more after, no individual owned a “Bible.” What Mary, Jesus, Junia, Peter, Paul, Pricilla had was a story engrained in their heart. The story was inculcated through the calendar and its worship festivals and scripture was shared in the context of those festivals. This calendar and its festivals told the story of the Exodus. It is out of that biblical story that the New Testament writers talk about Jesus, talk about resurrection, talk about redemption and salvation, talk about the people of God. This is the biblical context of the New Testament itself and we often miss significant emphases because we fail to hear and see how the already existing Bible of Israel shapes the warp and hoof of the NT.
Christopher J. H. Wright, a respected biblical scholar, once noted that “the New Testament is the world’s first Old Testament theology.” That is worth ruminating upon.
The Exodus Motif in the Hebrew Bible and Calendar
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Exodus story in Israel’s life and faith. We could say that the Exodus is the foundation of the Bible itself. The Exodus was the amazing act of Yahweh the Savior who delivers, redeems and saves a group of powerless, and despised, nobodies. The Exodus is the paradigm of what salvation by grace really looks like.
God’s paradigmatic moment is celebrated by Moses and Miriam (as an ancient Ike & Tina) in Exodus 15:
“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously …
The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him …
The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea …
You blew with your ruah and the sea covered them …
Who is like you, O LORD …
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed …
(Exodus 15.1-13, NRSV).
Several themes emerge from Moses’ and Miriam’s song. First it is emphatic that Yahweh alone did the work, salvation belongs to him and it was not because Israel deserved it. Second it is interesting how the Exodus story uses terms borrowed from the creation story itself: divine action and spreading the waters with the activity of God’s Spirit (ruah), etc. Salvation is like a new creation.
* Yahweh brings out
* Yahweh delivers
* Yahweh redeems
* Yahweh brings up
“My father was wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our Fathers … So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O LORD have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5b-10)
The story, pattern, of this Exodus is deeply ingrained in the Bible. Israel “rehearsed” this drama each year through worship. And no Israelite believed the Exodus was simply what happened back then to “them” rather they placed themselves within the Story and believed it happened to “us.” This confession of the Exodus patterned life is seen as Israel celebrated their “thanksgiving(s)” … The festivals of Israel are not legalism but dynamic proclaimers of God’s steadfast love and grace. There were four primary festivals, one weekly and three pilgrim.
Sabbath – Celebrates creation and redemption from Egypt
Passover – Celebrates God’s defeat of the cosmic powers to redeem Israel
Weeks/Pentecost – Celebrates that God took Israel from the water to the mountain as well as giving the harvest
Tabernacles – Celebrates the loving care of Yahweh for the people in the wilderness where Israel learns they survive not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Jesus, like all pious Jews, was deeply immersed into this worship rhythm of life (cf. John 2.13, 23; 5.1f; 7-8; 11.55f).
The Exodus “motif” as narrated in the Hebrew Bible has basic markers that shape the texture of the New Testament. These include
* The cosmic battle
* The crossing of the water
* The wilderness
* The coming to the mountain
* The dwelling Presence of God
* The coming to the promised land/new creation
Exodus patterned Israel’s life (or was supposed to) and is fused into “the rest of the Story” by the biblical authors. Here are just a few examples:
* Entrance into the Promised Land is cast with Exodus imagery. Joshua 3-4 reverberates with the drama of the Red Sea
* Building the temple is dated from the Exodus (1 Kgs 6.1)
* Moral crises following Solomon’s tyranny is patterned after the sojourn in and following Egypt (1 Kgs 11-12)
* Psalms of praise celebrate the Exodus (i.e. Pss 66, 68, 105)
* Psalms of lament appeal to the Exodus for fresh deliverance (i.e. Pss 74, 77, 80)
* In Hosea, Amos & Micah (to name only three) paint Israel’s adultery with images taken from Egypt or from the wanderings in Sinai while casting Yahweh as the faithful liberating lover who would redeem Israel.
* Isaiah 40-66 takes the pattern of Exodus as the source for new hope for Israel.
The Exodus Pattern is burned deep within the Bible. Our quick “survey” helps us to see that the Exodus is more than a mere literary motif but that it was the paradigm Israel used to understand her past, her present, and her future.
The New Testament
The writers of the New Testament documents drank in this rhythm from the day they were born. The NT also has deeply ingrained within it this Exodus motif.
The Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, tells the story of the Messiah as if the Exodus was the template for Jesus’s life. The beginning of Jesus’ Story has fingerprints of the Exodus narrative all over it. In both there is an evil ruler. In both the children suffer. In both there is a “flight.” In both there is an “exodus” for “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Mt 2.15). In both there is a passage through water. In both there is a wandering in the wilderness for a time of testing. In both there is a journey to a mountain and the glory of God revealed. In both, at the moment of deliverance a meal is celebrated. Even the healing ministry of Jesus is related to his role as Isaiah’s servant in concert with the new Exodus (Mt 8.17; 11.5; 12.18; Isa 35.5-6; 53.4; 61.1-2). The work of God in Jesus upon the cross is cast in new Exodus like language. The Exodus Pattern is deeply ingrained in Matthew but he is not alone.
The apostle Paul places the church of God at Corinth squarely in the Exodus story. First Corinthians 10 continues Paul’s argument about meat from chapter 8. Paul suggests in chapter 8 that Corinthians need to be sensitive to one another regarding meat sacrificed to an idol. If one buys meat in the market, eat it. But in chapter ten, Paul is very much a Pharisee expressing concern where such meat is eaten. He explicitly plants the Corinthians in the Wilderness with Israel. “Our forefathers” drank the same “Spiritual” food and drink but they dared to test the Lord by eating at the table of an idol. Paul quotes Exodus 32.6 where “our ancestors” sat down before the Golden Calf. Just as Israel had gone through the Exodus, went into the wilderness and ate with God; so Paul brings the Corinthians through the Exodus, into the wilderness and to the table of God (1 Cor 10.1-17). If we eat with God then we cannot sit at a table with an idol.
This article could easily become a book. Indeed, there are whole books on the exodus structure of the New Testament. But our aim has been to introduce the motif and call attention to how early disciples would hear the New Testament writing out of a preexisting biblical context, namely the Exodus story. Hardly a page of the New Testament passes without the shadow of the “Bible” and its grand story falling upon it. What we have done with Matthew and First Corinthians can be done with John, Luke-Acts, Romans, Galatians, First Peter, even Revelation. If we familiarize ourselves with what the first century believers already knew and brought with them when they heard Mary, Anna, Paul, Peter, or Phoebe we will take one more step to coming within understanding distance of the Scriptures we all love and cherish as the word of God.
The biblical context of the early Way and the writers of the New Testament shapes the meaning of the faith they had and the documents they wrote. We would do well to learn the contours of that biblical story to better understand what we say we believe.
The Exodus is the Jewish story that unites the whole Bible into a unified whole. It is the story of love and grace and divine Presence. We celebrate it at the Table with Jesus.
The hitching of the story of the Exodus with the New Testament raises a familiar Stone-Campbell question rephrased,
“Does the New Testament operate separate and apart from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible?”
Bryan D. Estelle, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif (IVP, 2018).
My “Natural” but Unnatural Assumption
For a good portion of my life I read Genesis 1 through my own Alabama eyes. The text was given to prove the theory of evolution wrong. I never once stopped to ask what the text could possibly mean to an Israelite in 800 BC that had never heard of Darwin. In this article I will focus on one verse, Genesis 1.14, that shows how I (maybe no one else) missed what was written on the page because of my own unchecked assumptions.
When I read Genesis 1.14 (and memorized the chapter) I simply assumed that the “seasons” (KJV/NIV) where winter, spring, summer and fall. That is the cycle of the year where we plant, harvest, leaves fall and possibly get snow. The same kind of seasons that James Taylor spoke of when he says we got a friend. It was natural to me to think in terms of winter, spring, summer and fall, after all those were the only “seasons” that I knew anything about.
I leaped over the vast distance between Israel and me. It never even occurred to me to ask, much less investigate, what seasons meant to an Israelite. I was a textbook example of simply assuming that my world and Israel’s world were the same. I was guilty of a huge error, that of anachronism. I read the Bible out of its context. My error contributed to my failure to hear Genesis 1 as it was intended.
One day I was reading the Bible in a different version than I used at the time. Genesis 1.14 read differently.
“Then God commanded, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the night from the day and to show the time from the day, year and religious festivals” (Genesis 1.14, GNB)
What!? Religious festivals, not “seasons.” Suddenly this text was cast in a whole new light. According to Moses, the lights were given to determine the worship calendar of Israel.
I ignored the context of Israel, the context of Scripture. For those that believe biblical authority is real, and not simply a slogan, this error is anathema.
My rather “natural” assumption, shared by many in my Stone-Campbell heritage, that “seasons” was merely winter, spring, summer and fall, was anything but “natural.” In fact it is quite unnatural because I brazenly ignored the vast historical distance between Genesis, ancient Israel and myself.
The biblical world was seemingly identical to my own world, except perhaps for cars and electricity but nothing that made me “see” the entire world differently. It never once occurred to me that my ignorance was quite vast. Israel’s “seasons” certainly were part of a calendar. But Israel’s calendar was very different from the one we Americans use daily and simply impose without question upon the biblical text.
Israel’s calendar is a lunar calendar and our modern one is solar. Israel’s calendar was religious where as ours is not. I had no idea that Israel’s calendar and seasons might not be exactly the same as the calendar I use daily (which I never investigated) and its seasons were just like mine.
Israel’s calendar had “seasons” of course, but they are not what we call winter, spring, summer and fall. Israel does not have the four seasons as most Americans think of as seasons. Rather the seasons are times, festivals, that celebrate the work of Yahweh as Creator and Redeemer. Israel’s calendar is much closer to what is known as the “church” calendar in our world. But being raised in a rabidly anti-liturgical tradition, like the Stone-Campbell Movement, I likewise had only the foggiest idea of what that was.
Understanding Distance: Genesis 1.14, Calendars and Worship
Fifteen years ago I was working on my understanding of creation, new creation and Genesis 1.14 smacked me with my hubris. A number of facts came to light that I had no clue about. When I came to understand that the Genesis one was not written with Charles Darwin in mind, I was able to to ask “what did this mean to an Israelite in 1200 BC, 1000 BC, 700 BC, AD 1?” The contemporary, instinctive, apologetic against evolution was not even on their radar screen. What did the text say to them? Several things, noticed and commented upon for centuries by rabbis, church fathers and others, became visible to me as well.
First, the word for lights is unusual. The text does not say “stars.” Moses could easily have said “stars” and we expect “stars” but the text does not say, “stars” but “lights.” And not just any “lights.” In other places where this word occurs in Scripture, it is in the description of the Lamp Stand or Menorah in the Tabernacle. But the Tabernacle/Temple was something that I had paid almost no attention to at all, I had less appreciation for its significance in Scripture than I did for the word “seasons” in Genesis 1.14.
The Tabernacle/Temple, in the Hebrew Bible, is the place where heaven and earth meet. It is the dwelling space of God within creation. It is a miniature cosmos. The Tabernacle/Temple is a map, if you will, of the whole realm of God.
The “lights” on the Menorah are the only illumination in the inside the sanctuary. The lamps on each point of the Menorah look like stars or better planets against the velvet black sky. The night sky reminds us of being inside of the Tabernacle. It seems this term is deliberately chosen in Genesis 1. The word lights reminds us of the sacred furniture within God’s Space in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25.37; 27.20). The lights in the sky remind us of worship and the Tabernacle is a miniature cosmos.
Second, this is why the second word, “seasons” is also not the word in the Hebrew Bible that is used for winter, spring, summer and fall. It is the “appointed times.” In all the other uses in the Bible, it refers not to summer/winter but to Passover, Tabernacles, First Fruits, etc. It refers to festivals! For example the exact phrase from Genesis 1.14 occurs in the following locations in the Hebrew Bible:
“And they shall stand every morning thanking and praising the LORD … and whenever burnt offerings are offered to the LORD on sabbaths, new moons, and APPOINTED FESTIVALS, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD” (1 Chronicles 23.31)
“The contribution of the king from his own possessions was for the burnt offerings; the burnt offerings of morning and evening, and the burnt offering for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the APPOINTED FESTIVALS, as it was written in the law of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 31.3; see also Zechariah 8.19; Neh 10.33; Ps 10.19; etc, etc)
The “seasons” of Genesis 1.14 is translated “appointed times/festivals” more properly and is so in other texts. But what are these “seasons” on the calendar that an Israelite in Hezekiah’s day would think of? They are outlined in several texts, the most convenient for our purposes is Leviticus 23 which uses the very language of Genesis 1.14.
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the APPOINTED FESTIVALS [or seasons] of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my APPOINTED FESTIVALS …” (23.1-2).
The seasons are Sabbaths and Passover/Unleavened Bread (23.1-8), First Fruits (23.9-14), Pentecost/Weeks (23.15-22), Trumpets (23.23-25), Atonement (23.26-32), Booths/Tabernacles (23.33-43).
When Moses had finished teaching Israel the “seasons” on the calendar the text reads, “Thus Moses declared to the people of the Israel the APPOINTED FESTIVALS of the LORD” (Leviticus 23.44)
Genesis 1 does not speak to us primarily of the seasons associated with weather of the solar calendar. Genesis 1 speaks of the seasons of worship, the festivals of the Lord. The new Moon marked the time of great celebration and worship to Yahweh. The Moon and the lights told Israel when it was the season of Passover, the the season of Booths and the like.
It would seem that the worship of God begins on the first page of the Bible.
Did Ancient Jews Understand Genesis 1.14 as Festivals?
The Septuagint translation of Genesis also translates Genesis 1.14 as referring to the Israelite calendar. Sirach 43.7, numerous references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jubilees, and Philo interpret Genesis 1.14 as referring to the Israelite worship calendar. Since many do not have access to these ancients sources I will cite them.
From Ben Sira we read,
“It is the moon that marks the changing of the seasons,
governing the times, their everlasting sign.
From the moon comes the sign for the festal days,
a light that wanes when it completes its course.
The new moon, as its name suggests,
how marvelous it is in this change,
a beacon to the the hosts on high,
shining in the vault of the heavens”
From Jubilees 2, a passage that is an interpretation of Genesis 1 itself,
“And on the fourth day he made the sun and the moon and the stars. And he set them in the firmament of heaven so that they might give light upon the whole earth and rule over the day and the night and separate light and darkness. And the LORD set the sun as a great sign upon the earth for days, sabbaths, months, feast days, years, sabbaths of years, jubilees, and for all of the (appointed) times of the years — and it separates the light from the darkness — and so that everything which sprouts and grows upon the earth might surely prosper. These three kinds he made on the fourth day” (Jubilees 2.8-10)
Many other passages can be cited from Second Temple Judaism, as well as the rabbis following the Second Temple period, that clearly indicates that Genesis 1.14 was understood in reference to the worship calendar of Israel.
Conclusion: Genesis 1.14 calls us to “Seasons/Festivals” of Worship
Roger Beckwith, who has studied Israel’s calendars in detail for many years writes in his Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian: Biblical, Intertestamental and Patristic Studies, on Genesis 1.14,
“when the lunar calendar appears in the Old Testament, it is often precisely in priestly, or cultic, contexts that it does so. Thus, it is hard to believe that Gen. 1:14-16 and Ps. 104:19 are referring simply to secular ‘seasons.‘”
Gordon Wenham concurs with our conclusions in his Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis 1-15,
“‘What is clear is the importance attached to the heavenly bodies’ role in determining the seasons, in particular in fixing the days of cultic celebration. This is their chief function’.”
Our brief exercise with Genesis 1 has shown us how unspoken assumptions can blind us to what is rather explicit in the text itself. Our experience of public worship conditions us to see certain things. For those raised on an allergy to Catholicism we have “naturally” hidden from our eyes anything that looks like “liturgy.” In fact our experience has subverted the text itself and we come away with something that no one for thousands of years actually did.
But Genesis 1 reminds us that the seasons, the festivals, the rhythm of worship is woven into the fabric of creation itself by its Creator. Creation calls humanity to worship the Creator, a frequent theme in Scripture beginning right here.
The lights make us think of the Tabernacle and the “seasons” make us think of the pilgrimages to the Tabernacle … that is the festivals of Yahweh, appointed times of worship and great joy, great fellowship with both humans and deity.
This is why numerous modern translations have abandoned the rendering of “seasons.” And seasons is a fine translation as long as we read it as an Israelite. The seasons are Passover, Tabernacles and First Fruits! Those are the seasons on Israel’s calendar.
So translations for a hundred years (thousands if we include the LXX and other ancient renderings) have had festivals or religious festivals in Genesis 1.14. These include Moffat, TEV, GNB, NEB, REB, etc, but never knew.
From the first page of the Bible we are called to a different conception of time itself. The lights remind us to mark off God’s Time.
And I am reminded of the danger of ignoring the historical setting of Scripture. When I did I missed a fundamental point the Holy Spirit makes on the very first page of the Bible.
Genesis 1.14 is talking about time … festival time. The four “seasons” that this North American Bible belt disciple grew up with, were something that never even occurred to an Israelite.
For Further Reading
David J. Randolph, “Festivals in Genesis 1:14,” Tyndale Bulletin 54.2 (2003): 23-40