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Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.

The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.

 



Sunday, January 19

Genesis 19: To the fine example of hospitality shown by
Abraham and Sarah in the previous chapter we now find opposed the terrible
example of hospitality shown by the residents of Sodom. Although their
failure in the matter of hospitality may not have been the worst of their
sins, it was sufficiently serious for Jesus to speak of it in the context of
the hospitality that He expected His own apostles to receive when they
entered a town (Matthew 10:11-15).
Throughout Holy Scripture, Sodom will be remembered as a very bad place
that got exactly what it deserved (Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19; Jeremiah
49:17-18; 50:40; Ezekiel 16:46-48,55-56; Matthew 11:23-24; Revelation 11:8).
There are striking similarities between Psalm 11 (10) and this chapter's
description of the overthrow of Sodom. Consider the psalm: "Snares will He
rain upon the sinners - fire, brimstone, and windstorm - these are their
portion to drink." And Genesis: "Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah
brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." Or, again, in the psalm:
"In the Lord have I trusted. How say to my soul, 'Fly to the mountains like
a sparrow'?" And the angels say to Lot in Genesis: "Escape for your life;
look not behind you, neither stay in the plain; escape to the mountain lest
you be consumed." To which Lot answers: "I cannot escape to the mountain,
lest some evil overtake me, and I die." And yet again in the psalm: "For the
Lord is just, and justice He loves. His face beholds what is upright." But
according to the Apostle Peter, this explains precisely what transpired in
the present chapter of Genesis, where God is "turning the cities of Sodom
and Gomorrah into ashes, condemning them to destruction, making them an
example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous
Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked; for that
righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to
day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds" (2 Peter 2:7f). And the psalm
once more: "The Lord is in His holy temple. The Lord! His throne is in
heaven. His glance regards the poor man; His eyes will examine the sons of
men. The Lord will test the just man and the unjust. The lover of evil hates
his own soul." And once again Peter, commenting on the present chapter of
Genesis: "For the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of trials, and to
reserve the unjust unto punishment on the day of judgment" (2:9).
Similarly, when Jesus would tell us of the final and catastrophic times,
it is to Sodom that He sends us: "Likewise as it was also in the days of
Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built;
but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from
heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be when the Son of Man is
revealed" (Luke 17:28-30). Indeed, "even so," for we ourselves yet abide in
the cities of the plain, "as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities round about
them in a similar manner to these" (Jude 7).

Monday, January 20

Genesis 20: This chapter sounds rather familiar to the
story in Genesis 12, where we also learned of the beauty of Sarah and the
disposition of men to look upon her with a measure of "coveting." In the
present instance, we may bear in mind, Sarah is almost ninety years old and
pregnant. This fact says a great deal either of Sarah's beauty or
Abimelech's preferences in women.
We already learned a great deal about Abraham's powers of persuasion when
he turned to God in prayer. This was hardly surprising, because the
Scriptures call him "the friend of God" (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8;
Daniel 3:35 [LXX]; Judith 8:22 [Vulgate]; James 2:23), and God, like the
rest of us in this respect, delights in doing favors for His friends. As
God's friend, Abraham was blessed with what the Bible calls parresia,
confidence or even boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), in his approach
to the Lord on matters of concern. Like the stalwart widow in the Gospel
parable on this subject (Luke 18:1-8), Abraham could be rather persistent,
perhaps a tad nagging, when he brought some point of concern to the
attention of the Almighty. Accustomed to that mercantile dickering ever
common in the Middle East, Abraham knew how to chaffer his way to a bargain,
and he incorporated this skill too into his prayer, as it were. We saw this
power of his intercessory prayer in Genesis 18:16-33.
Thus in the present chapter, even after God declared to Abimelech,
"Indeed, you are a dead man," He went on to promise that Abraham "will pray
for you and you shall live" (verses 3,7). And, indeed, "Abraham prayed to
God, and God healed Abimelech" (verse17).

Tuesday, January 21

Genesis 21: We come now to the long-awaited birth of
Isaac, concerning which the New Testament says, "By faith Sarah herself also
received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past
the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore, from
one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars in the sky
in multitude - innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore" (Hebrews
11:11-12). While the author of Hebrews praises the faith of Sarah in this
respect, the Apostle Paul tends rather to stress the faith of Abraham
(Romans 4:19-22). The circumcision of Isaac (verse 4), commanded in Genesis
17:9-14), would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.
In Genesis 16 we already learned that all was not well between Sarah and
Hagar after Ishmael was born. At that time, however, Hagar enjoyed the
advantage that she had borne a son, and Sarah had not. In the present
chapter that advantage is a thing of the past, and we are not surprised to
see that now Hagar and Ishmael are regarded as the mere slaves that they
were. Ishmael is accused of "scoffing" at the younger child Isaac, perhaps a
reference to the kinds of teasing that younger children have been known to
suffer from older children. Indeed, one may reasonably speculate that
Ishmael had heard disparaging remarks about Sarah and Isaac from his own
mother and was simply acting them out. At the very least, Sarah does not
want her son playing with a mere slave boy. So Hagar must go. Ishmael's true
situation is revealed in the fact that he is not even named; he is simply
"that slave girl's son" (verse 10). In Sarah's eyes he has become a
non-entity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael
is not Sarah's son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bore legal
significance, the older boy is still Abraham's son, and Abraham loves him.
Whatever Sarah's reasons for expelling Hagar and Ishmael, God had His own
reasons, and He permitted Sarah's plans to succeed in order for His own
reasons to succeed. This is true rather often; God permits evil to prevail
for the sake of a greater good that only He can see and plan for. Had Hagar
and Ishmael stayed on in Abraham's household, they would have remained
slaves. By their departure Ishmael was able to become the father of a great
people on the earth (verse 13), a great people with us to this day, the
great people of Arabia, for whom God manifested a special providential
interest in this text. We will meet this theme of divine providence
abundantly in the Joseph story toward the end of Genesis.
The biblical text tends to lose track of Hagar and Ishmael once they
arrive in the Negev Desert. The legends of the Arabs tell their own story of
how far the mother and child reached in their journey, namely, Mecca. The
spring in verses 14-19 the Arabs identify as the spring of Zamzam, found
near the Ka'ba at Mecca, which spring allowed human life to flourish in that
place. Thus, Ishmael is credited with the founding of Mecca, which is a
religious shrine vastly older than Islam. Thus, according to the Bible the
Arabs too are a great nation, close relatives of the Jews and regarded as
their rather bellicose cousins (Genesis 16:11-12). Indeed, much of the later
history of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin was dominated by
a single idea: How to restrain the bellicosity of the Arab.

Wednesday, January 22

Genesis 22: We come now to Abraham's greatest trial
of faith. Indeed, the reader is informed, right from the beginning of this
story, that Abraham is being tried (verse 1). In this respect there is a
great similarity here with the entire premise of the Book of Job, where the
reader, but not Job, is instructed that a trial is taking place. In the case
of Abraham, this notice to the reader is absolutely essential, because the
Jew and the Christian both know that the God of the Bible hates human
sacrifice. A trial of faith, on the other hand, is exactly what we should
expect from the God of the Bible (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7).
In the preceding chapter God had promised that Abraham's true posterity
would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12), but not Abraham is commanded to
offer up his "only son" as a holocaust (verse 2). His obedience is
immediate. Abraham, as we have seen, was not the least bit bashful about
speaking his mind to God. On the other hand, when he receives from God a
direct order, his obedience is invariably prompt and unquestioning (cf.
Genesis 12:1-4). It is the same here. The trial of faith always has to do
with obedience (cf. James 2:20-24).
The two of them, father and son, climb the mountain of sacrifice (verse
6). Since Melito of Sardis in the mid-second century, Isaac's carrying of
the wood has always signified to Christians the willingness of God's own Son
to take up the wood of the Cross and carry it to the place of sacrifice. In
the enigmatic conversation between the two climbers (verses 7-8), we observe
the rich mystery inherent in Abraham's reply that God Himself would provide
the victim for the sacrifice; truly He would! Isaac himself says nothing in
replay (verses 9-10). He is entirely silent. He is like a sheep led to the
slaughter that opens not his mouth. Although the concentration of the story
is directed at Abraham, we must not lose sight of Isaac, who prefigures the
mystery of our redemption. The substitute for Isaac, the ram caught by its
horns, prefigures the paschal lamb of the Mosaic Covenant, who would be
slaughtered in place of Israel's first born sons on the night of the Exodus.
We are dealing here in Genesis 22, then, with the Bible's earliest
configuration of the mystery of the substitutionary sacrifice, which is one
of the most important categories in the biblical theology of our redemption.
According to Hebrews 11:17-19, Abraham's willingness to offer Isaac
displayed his faith in the resurrection. In receiving his son back again,
moreover, he enacted a "parable" of the future. (By translating en parabole
as "in a figurative sense," the New King James Bible distorts the intent of
the text. Abraham did not receive Isaac back in a figurative sense, but in a
literal sense. The "parable" of the event indicates its prefigurative sense,
in which God Himself received back (alive!) His only Son whom He had handed
over in sacrifice for our salvation.

Thursday, January 23

Genesis 23: We come now to the death and burial of
Sarah. In a rather gentlemanly fashion, Holy Scripture is generally
reluctant to give women's ages (Luke 2:36-37 being an exception), but here
we are told that Sarah was 127 years old when she died (thus making Isaac 37
years old at the time). This is the first death mentioned in the family
since Abraham began his travels.
At Sarah's death Abraham appears a broken man, as it were. In spite of
his gift of haggling over prices, as we have seen, he here allows a local
chieftain to charge him an excessive price for Sarah's burial place. He
would not dishonor Sarah's memory by displaying a mercenary spirit in the
transaction. There are two things especially to be noted about this purchase
of the plot.
First, this is the first instance in which the Hebrews legally own a
piece of land, as distinct from simply herding their livestock on it. The
purchase of that burial cave at Hebron, then, gave the Israelites an initial
claim on the Promised Land, as it were. In a later period this same land
will be the land of the giants, the sons of Arba, of whom the Israelites
would stand in great terror (Numbers 13:22,33). These are the very giants
who would be defeated, in due course, by the tribe of Judah, which would
claim Hebron for its own possession (Judges 1:9-10).
Second, this purchase of the burial plot introduces the biblical theme of
the graveyard and the biblical mandate that the dead must be buried (not
cremated, like the Hindus and other pagans who do not believe in the final
resurrection and the transformation of the physical order). This prescribed
custom of burial, followed likewise in the case of the One who was laid to
rest in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, found its theological
foundation in the biblical belief in the resurrection of the dead. After
Sarah, Abraham would be buried there, along with his son, his grandson, and
their wives; all of them rest there still, awaiting the return of the One
who, for a short spell, occupied the grave of the Arimathean.

Friday, January 24

Genesis 24: The doctrine of divine providence is
asserted in the biblical thesis that "all things work together for good to
those who love God" (Romans 8:28). This "working together" of historical
events under divine governance for particular and inter-related purposes is
a mystery, of course, but a mystery in two senses.
First, divine providence is a mystery in the sense that it is humanly
inscrutable, exceeding even the furthest reaches of our thought, and is
known only by faith. That is to say, it pertains to divine revelation. It is
not the general, natural pronoia of the Stoics and Middle Platonists, but a
special providence revealed by God's particular interventions in the
structure of history. For this reason Holy Scripture never attempts to
explain it. Although the Bible affirms divine providence, it teaches no
theory of the matter.
Second, divine providence is also a mystery in the sense that we are
initiated into it. It is rendered accessible, that is, to our revelatory
experience of it, the discernment of which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It
is particular an d personal, sensed through the coherent structure of
events. For this reason Holy Scripture not only affirms divine providence,
but also portrays the mystery of it through narratives about events.
The Old Testament's story of Joseph is perhaps the most elaborate example of
such a narrative. We do not discern how, in the Joseph story, "all things
work together for good to those who love God," but the narrative enables us
to perceive it intuitively, buried deep in the events of Joseph's life and
conferring coherence on that life. At the end of the story we are able to
say, with Joseph, "So it was not you who sent me here, but God" (Genesis
45:8).
In some cases, we can sense God's providential purpose in a biblical story
by the insinuated dynamics of the story itself, without our attention being
drawn to it by any explicit statement. Examples of this are found in the
Book of Ruth and, with far greater subtlety, the Book of Esther. In the
latter story, in fact, God's intrusive activity in the events is so subtle
that He is not even mentioned!
In other instances the Bible conveys the providential nature of a story by
the direct insertion of it through the voice of the narrator. Through such
an insertion, the story takes on an entirely different flavor, being
transfigured, so to speak, from secular to sacred. For instance, the tale of
David's escape from Saul at Hachilah (1 Samuel 26) is transformed into an
account of divine providence by the plain statement that "they were all
asleep, because a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen on them" (26:12).
Similarly the biblical narrator says, in the context of Absalom's revolt,
that "the Lord had proposed to defeat the good advice of Ahitophel to the
intent that the Lord might bring disaster on Absalom" (2 Samuel 17:14).
Another literary method of conveying God's providential purpose in a
biblical story is to place the affirmation of it in the mouth of one of the
characters. As we have seen, this is the method followed in the Joseph
story, in the scene where he reveals himself to his brothers (Genesis
45:5-7; 50:15-20).
Another and very fetching example of this literary device is found in the
present chapter of Genesis, which describes the journey of Abraham's servant
to Mesopotamia in order to find a suitable bride for Isaac (namely,
Rebekah). In this exquisitely crafted account of God's historical
intervention in response to prayer, two features should especially be noted.
First, the story is told twice, initially by the narrator (verses 1-26) and
then a second time by a character within in the narrative, namely the
servant (verses 34-48). This deliberate doubling of the story, which obliges
the reader to think about its implications a second time, also serves the
purpose of placing the theme of divine providence more completely within the
fabric of the tale. In the first telling, the reader is struck by how
quickly the servant's prayer is heard - "And it happened, before he had
finished speaking" (verse15). This promptness of God's response is
emphasized in the second telling - "before I had finished speaking in my
heart" (verse 45). God is encountered in the servant's experience of the
event that comes crashing in, as it were, on his prayer.
Second, the doubling of the narrative is not artificial. It is essential,
rather, to the motive of Rebekah and her family in their decision that she
should accompany the servant back to Abraham's home and become the wife of
Isaac. That is to say, the characters themselves are made aware that God has
spoken through the narrated events. They perceive God's providence: "The
thing (dabar) comes from the Lord; we cannot speak (dabber) to you good or
bad. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be your
master's son's wife, as the Lord has spoken (dibber)" (verses 50-51). The
event itself, the "thing," was a "word" from God, a dabar. That is to say,
given the servant's testimony, it was clear that all things had worked
together "for good to those who love God."

Saturday, January 25

Genesis 25: Abraham, having spent most of his life
childless, seems to have overdone it a bit toward the end. He married a
woman named Keturah, who bore him quite a family (verses 1-6). This brief
account sits somewhat outside of the central core of the biblical narrative,
almost as an afterthought. Although it may have taken place prior to the
marriage of Isaac in the previous chapter, the story is told at the very
end, just before Abraham's death. Its insertion into the Bible manifests a
concern to show that the Israelites were related by blood to other peoples
who lived in the region, particularly the Midianites and Kedemites
("Easterners"), nomadic tribes of the Arabian and Syrian deserts. At the
same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later
family separate from Isaac (verse 6), who alone was the heir of the divine
promises.
At Abraham's death, he is buried in the same plot that he purchased
earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury
their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two
household had been maintained (verses 7-11). The scene of Abraham's burial,
uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in
our own day.
Now that Abraham has died, the Bible's interest will go to the history of
Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author had tidied
up Ishmael and his own progeny (verses 12-18). Here we observe that twelve
tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes
that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian
tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture, in Exodus and Chronicles
for example.
The latter part of this chapter concerns Isaac's own sons, twins who
begin to fight even in Rebekah's womb (verses 22-23). These men were already
rivals, and, according to Romans 9:10-13, God had already chosen one of them
in preference over the other. Just as God chose Isaac in preference to
Ishmael, He chose Jacob in preference to Esau. "Choice" in this context does
not pertain to eternal salvation, but to the role that Jacob was destined to
play in the history of salvation. God's "rejection" of Esau means only that
he was not chosen to play that role; in the same sense, God will "reject"
the older brothers in favor of David (1 Samuel 16:5-12). There is nothing in
the Sacred Text, either in Genesis, Malachi 1:1-5, or Romans, even faintly
to suggest that Esau was predestined to hell. No more than the brothers of
David was Esau "rejected" in the sense of being damned to hell. (Moreover,
"predestination" in Holy Scripture is always an aspect of divine grace; we
are "predestined" only in Christ. Holy Scripture knows no other meaning of
the word. Thus, to speculate about a "predestination to hell" is to
speculate without biblical support and at variance with a biblical concept.)
The important point is that Jacob was chosen for this role in the history of
salvation, not because of any merits of his own, but solely by the grace of
God.
Jacob is obviously the shrewder of the two men (verses 29-34). Indeed,
Esau comes off as a bit of a spiritual klutz, forfeiting his birthright for
a single meal. He should serve as a warning to Christians themselves, who
may be tempted to squander their own birthright in favor of some immediate
satisfaction (cf. Hebrews 12:14-17). The attaining of a birthright requires
patience and endurance; it is something to be valued and waited for. In this
respect, we learn something of the superior patience of Jacob, which will
become even clearer in his dealings with Laban later on.




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