Sunday, February 16
Genesis 47: One discerns three stories in this chapter: (1) the movement of Jacob’s family into Egypt (verses 1-11); (2) Joseph’s career as an Egyptian official (verses 12-26); and (3) Jacob’s burial request (verses 27-31).
The first story has two scenes. First there is a scene involving Joseph’s meeting Pharaoh with some of his brothers (verses 1-5), and then a scene with Pharaoh and Jacob (verses 5-11). (Since the two scenes are somewhat repetitious, it was inevitable that the textual reconstructionists would find two "sources" behind them.) In the first scene, care has been taken to relate the settlement of the family in Goshen to the earlier accounts of their nomadic life. The Egyptians, as the Sacred Text reminds us, were not fond of shepherds, an attitude reflecting the frequent strife between sedentary and nomadic peoples (a strife that goes back to Cain and Able). The reference to Rameses in the second scene is anachronistic (like saying "Columbus discovering America," a country that did not even exist in the time of Columbus). The city did not acquire this name until the early thirteenth century before Christ, when Rameses II named it after himself. In verse 10 the verb "bless" should be preserved, as it is the best translation of the Hebrew barak. One recalls that "the lesser is blessed by the greater" (Hebrews 7:7). The patriarch really did bless the pharaoh; Jacob did not, as the New American Bible has it, simply "pay his respects" to Pharaoh. Barak is the same verb that will be used in the next chapter when Jacob blesses his grandsons.
In the second story (verses 12-26) we see Joseph alter the entire economic and political structure of Egypt, not only saving the people in the time of famine, but greatly strengthening the throne of Pharaoh. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that what Joseph produced was a kind of servile welfare state, in which the government owned everything and taxes were high (20%). The people even thanked him for it. (This detail is probably meant to be humorous. The writer is making fun of a people who, after being reduced to abject penury, are grateful for being taxed 20%. One also observes that Joseph, who has married into a clergy family, makes a clergy exemption in the tax code.) Eventually this economic and political situation would come back to haunt the Israelites, who would resent being slaves in a slave state. It would appear that Joseph himself created the servile conditions that would lead eventually to the Exodus.
In the third story (verses 27-31) Jacob, making it clear that Egypt is not the family’s real home, arranges to be buried in the Promised Land (cf. Hebrews 11:21). The exact meaning of the text, with respect to Jacob’s gesture, has been unclear almost from the beginning. Originally it may have meant only that he nodded assent on his pillow.
Monday, February 17
Genesis 48: Because of his special role in saving the family, Joseph receives something like the blessing of the firstborn — that is, a double portion; he become the father of two of Israel’s tribes. That meant that his descendents would settle twice the amount of the Promised Land as any of his brothers. Ephrem and Manasseh became, as it were, the sons of Israel himself (verses 1-7). When Jacob is introduced to the two boys (verses 8-11), his poor eyesight reminds us of aging Isaac, of whose blindness Jacob had taken advantage. The irony is striking. In that earlier case too the larger blessing had been given to the younger son. What Isaac had done by mistake, however, Jacob will do on purpose (verses 12-15). A Christian reader will take note of Jacob’s crossing of his hands in the act of blessing. It is noteworthy that at least one Christian reader of this text referred to this action as an act of "faith" (Hebrews 11:21, the only example of faith that this epistle ascribes to Jacob). In the blessing itself (verses 15-16), Jacob reaches back two generations in order to reach forward two generations.
Joseph, though he governs Egypt, is unable to govern his old father (verses 17-20). Jacob, let it be said, knew a thing or two about blessings: "I know, my son, I know." Jacob has been reversing everything since the day he was born, right after tripping up his old brother as the latter emerged from the womb (25:22-23). Right to the end of his life he continues to take the side of the younger man. It is a trait of his personality.
Tuesday, February 18
Genesis 49: It has long been noticed that some of the imagery of this chapter seems to be based on figures in the Babylonian zodiac. The number of Jacob’s sons, twelve, lent itself readily to the imagery of a zodiac. (This will also be true of the Bible’s last book, where the symbolisms of Jacob’s twelve sons will be combined with the symbolisms of the twelve apostles. Zodiacal imagery is found everywhere in the Book of Revelation.) That Babylonian zodiac, like all solar zodiacs, had twelve "signs," some of which were identical to the later Greek and Roman zodiacs. Indeed, in the present chapter we find the images of Aquarius (verse 4), Gemini (verse 5), Leo (verse 9), and Sagittarius (verse 23). Other Babylonian images in this chapter are not found in the later zodiacs, however, such as the ass, the serpent, the hind, the colt, and the wolf.
Reuben does not fair too well in the blessing (verses 3-4), because of his sin (35:22). His tribe evaporated, as it were, rather early in Israel’s history, absorbed by the other tribes and by the Syrians. In the final list of the tribes it will appear second, after Judah (Revelation 7:5). Like Rueben, Simeon and Levi (verses 5-7) would cease to exist as political entities. Simeon would be absorbed by Judah, and Levi, as the priestly tribe, would be divided up among all the others as special class without specific tribal territory. Neither tribe will be show up in the roll call in Judges 5, and in the final blessing of Moses, in Deuteronomy 33, Simeon is not mentioned at all. In short, a certain cloud hangs over Jacob’s three oldest sons, which are displaced in seniority by the royal tribe, the family of Judah (verses 8-12).
Flavius Josephus tells us that Jacob lived seventeen years in Egypt (Antiquities 2.8.1). The biblical description of Jacob’s death (verses 28-33) is remarkable for its failure to mention death! Jacob simply goes "to his people" (el-‘ammiw). Jacob had become Israel, and Israel had become a people. Hence, it was deemed inappropriate to come right out and say that Jacob had died. Jacob was Israel, and Israel still lived.
Wednesday, February 19
Genesis 50: This chapter has three parts: (1) the burial of Jacob (verses 1-14), (2) Joseph and his brothers (verses 15-21), and (3) the death and burial of Joseph (verses 22-26).
Egyptian embalming was one of the great curiosities of the ancient world, a feature that made Egypt famous. Whereas modern techniques of embalming are designed to disguise the effects of death for only a short time, Egyptian mummification was an attempt to resist the effects of death as much as possible, an endeavor to defy permanently the decay and corruption of the body. Jacob’s embalming required forty days verses 1-6). By Egyptian standards, this was pretty short. Ancient Egyptian texts suggest something closer to seventy days, which is the number of mourning days indicated in verse 3. The large retinue of Jacob’s funeral cortege (verses 7-9) serves to stress his prestige and importance. The site of his burial (verses 10-14) ties this story back to the earlier accounts in the patriarchal narrative. This property had been "in the family" ever since Abraham purchased it in Genesis 23 as the family burial plot. Sarah, we recall, was the first to be buried there.
This later account of Joseph and his brothers (verses 15-21) continues a theme from Genesis 45. We contrast the magnanimity of Joseph with the petty, pitiful brothers, who were trying save their necks with a very thin fabrication. Josephus places this story up in the land of Canaan, immediately after Jacob’s burial. He says that the brothers were fearful of returning to Egypt with Joseph.
The reference to Joseph’s "brothers" at his burial (verses 22-26) should be interpreted simply to mean his relatives, which is the normal meaning of the word "brother" in Holy Scripture. Joseph was, after all, younger than most of his blood brothers. Stephen’s sermon seems to indicate that all of Jacob’s sons were buried at Schechem (Acts 7:16). In the rabbinical tradition, however, that site was Hebron (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.8.2).
Joseph probably did not seem so far away to the early Church Fathers as he does to us. His tomb at Shechem was yet known in the third century and venerated by the Samaritans who lived there, according to Origen, and Jerome tells us, more than two centuries later, that it was still being visited. That grave was the special possession of Shechem, the ancient tribal center of Manasseh and the scene of the covenantal renewal under Joshua: "And the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried at Shechem in a plot of ground that Jacob had purchased from the sons of Hamor for a hundred silver pieces" (Joshua 24:32). Doubtless it was at Shechem that Israel of old had chiefly narrated the epic charge of the dying Joseph to his relatives that his bones should be carried back at the time of the Exodus. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom regarded his words as a prophecy of the Exodus.
Moreover, because of the steps that he took to insure that his very bones would partake of that salvific event, the hurried actions of Passover night included the opening of Joseph’s grave: "And Moses took the bones of Joseph, because he had exacted an oath of the sons of Israel, saying: ‘God will certainly visit you, and you shall bring up my bones from here’" (Exodus 13:19). Those bones are not mentioned again until their burial at Shechem, but the attentive imagination is fascinated by the thought of their being borne from place to place over the next forty years, completing the entire journey through the desert, over the dry bed of the Jordan and into the Promised Land, a sustained thread linking the Patriarchs, the Exodus, Sinai and the Conquest. It was in such an ample sense that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews spoke of Joseph’s last words as expressive of faith (Hebrews 11:22).
Thursday, February 20
Psalm 136 (Greek and Latin 135): Psalm 136 pursues a three-fold theme: creation, deliverance, and the continued care of the redeemed. In this respect, the triple structure of our psalm is identical with that of the Nicene Creed: God made us, God saved us, God stays and provides for us all days unto the end. In the Creed, this structure is explicitly Trinitarian: "one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life."
This psalm insists, literally in every verse, that the root of all of God’s activity in this world, beginning even with the world’s creation, is mercy — hesed.. This mercy is eternal — le‘olam — "forever." Mercy is the cause and reason of all that God does. He does nothing, absolutely nothing, except as an expression of His mercy. His mercy stretches out to both extremes of infinity. "For His mercy endures forever" is the palimpsest that lies under each line of Holy Scripture. Everything else that can be said of God is but an aspect of His mercy. Mercy is the defining explanation of everything that God has revealed of Himself. Mercy is the explanation of every single thought that God has with respect to us. When we deal with God, everything is mercy; all we will ever discover of God will be the deepening levels of His great, abundant, overflowing, rich and endless mercy. "For His mercy endures forever" is the eternal song of the saints.
Friday, February 21
Psalm 102 (Greek and Latin 101): This psalm, assigned today for morning prayer, is the fifth of the traditional "seven penitential psalms."
It is structured on a contrast, pursued through two sequences. The first half of the first sequence is all about "I" — I am miserable, I am sad, my heart withers away like the grass in the heat, I lie awake at night, I feel like a mournful bird, I mingle my drink with tears, my days flee like the shadows of an evening, and so forth. Life being rough, a goodly number of our days are passed with such sentiments, so it is usually not difficult to pray this part of the psalm. Indeed, the first part of this psalm is a good preparation for the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we begin reading tomorrow. The sentiments in this part of the psalm closely parallel the predominant note of pessimism in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
The second half of the first sequence arrives with the expression "but You, O Lord." "You" is contrasted with "I." God is not like me; God is almighty and does what He wants and does not die. God is enthroned forever, and His name endures from generation to generation. God will arise and deliver His people. It is important to regard these hopes in a Christological perspective. The God being addressed here is Christ our Lord, as is clear from the quotation from this psalm in Hebrews 1:10-12.
The second and shorter contrasting sequence repeats the first. Once again, as at the beginning, there is the sense of our human frailty, our shortened days, our strength broken at mid-course. To this is contrasted the eternity of God; His years endure unto all generations. Thus, both sequences in this psalm form contrasts between the permanence of God and the transience of everything created. This penitential meditation is a perfect psalm to pray in preparation for Lent, which now looms on our horizon.
Saturday, February 22
The Wisdom Books: The traditional ascetical literature of the Church is fond of dividing the Christian life into three "stages," which are described as the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. Since at every stage of life the Christian needs purgation, illumination, and union with God, there is something slightly artificial about this division into three stages. Nonetheless, those three adjectives do indicate discernible differences in the life of a Christian who grows in divine grace.
At the beginning of the life of divine grace, the newly converted Christian must strive to break his ties with worldly ways, gain self-control with respect to his passions, stop indulging his secular appetites and curiosities, discontinue those associations likely to lead him back into sin, and endeavor to take up the Cross daily in order to follow Jesus in the activities of his life. These efforts deserve the name "purgative."
As he learns gradually to do this, the Christian becomes stronger in the Holy Spirit. He begins to discover the mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures. He starts to experience the blessings of prayer. He is given insights into the mysteries of the Kingdom. These experiences deserve the name "illuminative."
After many years of such effort, and relying entirely on the grace of God, the Christian at long last comes to know in his heart how good the Lord is. He intuitively senses the presence of the Holy Spirit in ways that greatly transcend any of his earlier experiences. He becomes united to the Lord ever more intensely and with ever greater joy. These experiences deserve the name "unitive."
The first stage is very painful, because it involves a complete shift of perspective, as the mind turns from the values of the world. There is often a great deal of sheer humiliation at this stage of the life in Christ. The soul tastes the bitterness of its accumulated bad habits. The Christian learns by deep experience that "all is vanity."
The second stage is perhaps less painful, but it is still full of struggle, effort, and the strenuous application of discipline. This is the stage in which the Christian acquires certain important "habits," acquired disciplines, without which there will be no growth in the Spirit.
Finally (even in the sense that the Christian will have grown old by this time!), the soul commences to taste more intimately the joy of the Lord. The believer arrives at that perfect love that casts out fear and begins to do, as though by custom and habit, all those things that are pleasing to God, running with joy the race set before him.
These three stages of the life in Christ, according to the ascetical tradition of the Christian Church, correspond to three of the Bible’s Wisdom books: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon. We will be reading all three of these books during this spring, Ecclesiastes in preparation for Lent, Proverbs during Lent, and the Song of Solomon (which the Jews read at Passover) at Easter.
In the first book, Ecclesiastes, we perceive the soul tasting the futility of all things apart from God. This bitter taste is essential to the life of the soul, because it drives the mind to trust only in God and resolutely to eschew the values and standards of the world. The world, in short, is hopeless; it is all vanity. This is the message of Ecclesiastes.
In the second book, Proverbs, the soul learns the disadvantages of laziness and apathy, the worth of discipline and hard work, the value of spiritual effort and self-control. This is the message of Proverbs.
In the third book, the Canticle of Solomon, the soul learns the joys of intimacy with God, the gladness of the Kingdom, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This is the mystical and deeper message of the Song of Solomon, interpreted in the light of the New Testament teaching that the union of husband and wife is an image of the union of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5).
Today we begin Ecclesiastes and learn a thing or two about "vanity."