Sunday, September 7
Joshua 22: After wandering in the Sinai and Negev deserts for most of a generation, the people of Israel had now arrived at a place called Shittim, just east of the Jordan River and only about ten miles from Jericho. Then came a new crisis.
It was a moral crisis, involving some Israelite men of slack discipline with certain Moabite women of relaxed virtue. Fornication was the problem, that term understood both literally and in the figurative sense of their falling prey to the idolatrous worship of the Moabite god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).
The seduction of these Israelites, moreover, was not a mere boy-meets-girl happenstance. It resulted, rather, from a deliberate machination on the part of the Moabites, plotting to weaken the military resolve and moral will of the Israelites. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the scheme had been concocted in the mind of the religious philosopher Balaam, who was at that time in the service of the Moabite king (cf. Revelation 2:14).
Seeing it happen, the young priest Phinehas discerned the peril of the hour, for an earlier experience had taught him the hazards of moral compromise. If he was sure of anything at all, Phinehas was certain that GodÕs punishment of sin was invariably decisive and might very well be swift.
Phinehas had been hardly more than a child when he saw the divine retribution visited on two of his priestly uncles, Nadab and Abihu, for a single offense in the service of God. Nor had those been insignificant men who were thus punished. On the contrary, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and his heirs in the priesthood, were men of stature and respect among the people. They had accompanied Moses, their very uncle, as he began his climb of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1), and had partly shared in his vision of the divine glory (24:9-10). Nonetheless, Nadab and Abihu had been instantly struck dead, devoured by a fire from the divine presence for just one moral lapse (Leviticus 10:1-3). The memory of that swift retribution had seared itself into the memory of young Phinehas. He knew by experience that IsraelÕs Lord was a morally serious God, not some feather of a deity to be brushed away at oneÕs convenience.
At the time of the Moabite crisis, then, PhinehasÕs reaction was utterly decisive and equally swift. Responding to the LordÕs decree to punish the offenders (Numbers 25:4-6), he resolutely took the matter in hand and thus put an end to the divine wrath already plaguing the people (25:7-15). For his part in averting the evil, Phinehas came to enjoy great respect in Israel. Not long afterwards, for instance, he was the priest chosen to accompany the army advancing against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). After the Conquest, Phinehas inherited land among the Ephraemites (cf. Joshua 24:33) and continued to be consulted by Israel, especially in times of crisis (cf. Judges 20:28). He would be remembered throughout the rest of biblical history, furthermore, as the very model of zeal in GodÕs service (cf. Psalms 105 :30; 1 Chronicles 9:20; Sirach 45:23).
If we knew only of PhinehasÕs decisive action at the time of the Moabite trouble, it might be easy to think of him solely as an energetic, resolute, executive sort of man, but this would be an incomplete perspective. Phinehas was also a thoughtful person, able to consider a delicate question in its fully nuanced complexities.
This latter trait of his character was revealed in the crisis later created by the construction of an altar to the east of the Jordan River by the Israelites who lived in that region (Joshua 22:10). Regarded as a rival altar outside of the strict confines of the Holy Land, this construction proved so provocative to the rest of Israel that there arose the real danger of civil war (22:12). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the decision was made to establish an eleven-member committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. Phinehas was the head of that committee (22:13-14).
Probing into the construction of that altar, PhinehasÕs committee concluded that it was not intended to be used as such, but would serve merely as a monument to remind all the Israelites of their solidarity in the worship of their one God. Civil war was thus averted, and Phinehas, once so swift unto bloodshed, was thus in large measure responsible for preventing it (22:21-34).
Monday, September 8
Acts 25:7-22: The substance of PaulÕs defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7). Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9). Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, PaulÕs explicit recognition of the stateÕs proper authority to use the death penalty, the "right of the sword" (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4. Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the stateÕs God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death. The response of Festus, taken with counsel, accedes to PaulÕs legal appeal to a higher court (25:12). After this decision there follows another scene, PaulÕs somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, will now appear before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).
Tuesday, September 9
Acts 25:23Ñ26:11: There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of LukeÕs account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of PaulÕs conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king. PaulÕs apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion. Legally Paul has nothing to lose, for his appeal to a higher court at Rome has already been granted. He will use the present circumstances as an opportunity, rather, to bear witness to the Gospel, which he treats as the fulfillment of the hope he had always cherished as a loyal Pharisee (verse 5; cf. 24:5; 28:22). That is to say, the hope of the resurrection (verse 8). At this point Paul begins to move from apologetics to evangelism.
Wednesday, September 10
Judges 1: The Book of Judges begins with the word "and," indicating that it forms a kind of continuation of the Book of Joshua. In the former book the various areas of the Promised Land were bequeathed by right to IsraelÕs sundry tribes. Now the time has come to conquer those territories, and this chapter briefly recounts the efforts of conquest made by Judah (verses 3-21), Joseph (verses 22-29), and the other tribes (verses 30-36). This narrative reflects the actual political situation that came to pass, namely, the dominance of Judah to the south and of Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh) to the north.
These efforts of conquest were determined by an "inquiry" made of the Lord (verse 1), evidently by following the procedure indicated in Numbers 27:18-21. Indeed, the final verse of that procedure forbade any sort of military action without the prior inquiryÕs having been taken.
Leading the way, Judah will be the first to "go up" (yaÔaleh Ñ verse 2), fulfilling the prophecy of Jacob to Judah in Genesis 49:9: "Judah is a lionÕs whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up (Ôalita)." Simeon goes with Judah (verse 3), following the pattern set already set in Joshua 19:1-9, which apportioned SimeonÕs lot with that of Judah. The latter tribe would eventually absorb the former, and this text reflects that later political condition.
The character known as Adoni Bezek (verses 4-7) had ruled over seventy other kings. This number, when referring to nations, symbolizes international power. Thus, we find seventy nations named in the BibleÕs first list of the nations (Genesis 10), and it was for this reason that Jesus, empowering His apostles for universal ministry to the whole world, numbered them at seventy (Luke 10). Hence, the defeat of Adoni Bezek, the ruler over seventy nations, is of a kind of international significance. Judah, in defeating Adoni Bezek, symbolically frees these seventy nations, a fact of great theological significance. The oppressor of these nations is slain at Jerusalem (verse 8), where God will, in due course, defeat by the power of the Cross those demonic forces of which Adoni Bezek is both an instrument and a foretype.
Thursday, September 11
Acts 26:24Ñ27:12: Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the resurrection, Paul turns to Agrippa for a more sympathetic hearing. However, when Paul, answering what seems to be something of a jest on the kingÕs part, invites him to become a Christian, the king becomes uncomfortable, and the hearing is abruptly ended. Festus, now confident that he can send Paul to Rome with precise instructions to the legal system there, hands him over to guards for the journey. This trip to Rome, which will fill the two final chapters of the book, is the point to which the literary tension of the Acts of the Apostles has been building. This is the journey that matches the Aeneid of Vergil, for Rome is the goal of both books. PaulÕs going to Rome is a matter of his destiny (cf. 19:21). Accordingly, LukeÕs inclusion of so many nautical details obliges the reader to slow down and savor the significance of the event. In this final voyage Paul will be accompanied by Aristarchus and Luke (verses 2-3), who had helped him bring the alms to Jerusalem over two years earlier (20:4,6), and who have been with him at Caesarea since that time (Colossians 4:10,14; Philemon 24). They board a ship whose home port is Adramyttium, just south of Troas, or Troy, from where Aeneas had set sail for Rome. LukeÕs inclusion of this detail is thus significant. Leaving Phoenicia, they cruise along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong head winds (verse 4), and then go north to Asia Minor. The ship is obviously returning to its home port. At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, they change to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy; it was perhaps a grain cargo ship, so many of which brought wheat to Rome at a fraction of the cost of transporting grain overland to Rome from elsewhere in Italy. Still fighting contrary winds, they make their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71). The "Fair Havens" they reach on the south coast of Crete is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes. In verse 9 Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe (November 11 to February 8 [Pliny] or March 10 [Josephus]). Phoenix, where they hope to winter, lies some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (verse 12).
Friday, September 12
Judges 3: The career of Ehud, IsraelÕs defender against Moab, comes to an end in Judges 3:30, with the note that "the land had rest for eighty years." The fourth chapter begins with the note, "When Ehud had died." The two verses would seem to provide an untarnished and seamless narrative transition.
They donÕt, however, because between them falls another verse, introducing yet another character, as though out of nowhere: "After [Ehud] was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred men of the Philistines with an ox goad; and he also delivered Israel." Just who was this Shamgar, of whom we are told so very little?
Well, the Bible places Shamgar, like Deborah and Barak, after Ehud, which would make him roughly a contemporary of those two. This impression is later confirmed by the mention of him in DeborahÕs canticle in Judges 5:6. In addition, we can fix Shamgar geographically, because the Sacred Text tells us that he fought against the Philistines, a fact which places him in the west of the Holy Land. Thus, while Deborah and Barak were occupied with IsraelÕs enemies to the east, Shamgar was dealing with those in the west.
But there is more. Shamgar is called the "son of Anath," a designation that appears not to be a patronymic, because Anath is not a masculine name. It is more likely a reference to ShamgarÕs birthplace, the Canaanite city of Beth-Anath, ("house of Anath"), which served under tribute to Israel since the time of Joshua (Judges 1:33). Consequently, Shamgar was likely not an Israelite by blood. He certainly belonged to the Chosen People by allegiance, however, and IsraelÕs enemies were his own.
Some biblical historians, realizing that "son of Anath" (ben-Anath) is a geographical and not a patronymic reference, propose emending the Hebrew text to "of Beth-Anath" (beth-Anath), which would require changing only a single letter. Even this is unnecessary, however, because we know of another "son of Anath" a century or so earlier, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II; he was a Syrian sea captain allied to Egypt. Thus, the name itself was not unique, and no emendation of the Hebrew text is required to make Beth-Anath ShamgarÕs city of origin.
This Canaanite city Anath and the Greek city Athens were both named after the same patronal goddess, a lady well known in all the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean, including Africa. The Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra indicate that she was a goddess of war for the peoples of the Middle East, and Shamgar showed himself worthy of that martial tradition.
However, this does not mean that Shamgar was a warrior. Indeed, he seems to have preferred farming, as indicated by the reference to his ox goad. It is entirely reasonable to picture Shamgar, when there were no pesky Philistines around to distract him, patiently pacing hour-by-hour behind the plow, steadily looking straight ahead and not looking back (Luke 9:62). Resting on the plowshare, meanwhile, lay the pointed end of a sturdy piece of lumber, roughly eight feet long and about two inches in diameter at the other end, which Shamgar, while he plowed, kept tucked under his arm. Should the draught animals slow down more than he thought proper, the plowman let the thicker end of the long pole drop down into his hand and gave them a modest thrust with its point. Over time the oxen learned that it was hard to kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5; 26:14).
Shamgar was a steady, patient fellow who loved to till the soil, a man so quiet that the Bible tells us not a single word he ever spoke. Also a pacific man, he did not even own a weapon. For all that, Shamgar was not someone safely messed with. He was particularly ill disposed toward the Philistines, those recent invaders from Crete, uncouth and troublesome fools who, neglecting their own fields, bothered and wearied honest plowmen during working hours. Shamgar expressed his annoyance, over the years, by employing his trusty ox goad to dispatch some six hundred of the rascals to the nether regions. Six hundred was a respectable figure, evidence of a conscientious citizen doing his part to preserve decency and advance the public order. It earned Shamgar his brief place in the Bible, where he appears as a kind of Semitic Cincinnatus, occasionally obliged to interrupt the simple joys of agriculture in order to deal with knaves and ne'er-do-wells.
Saturday, September 13
Judges 4: Early in the history of the chosen peopleÕs occupation of the promised land appears the matriarchal and prophetic Deborah, the only woman listed among the "Judges" that guided IsraelÕs various tribes during the two centuries or so between the Conquest and the rise of Saul. Most of what we know of Deborah comes from Judges 4-5, an historical account followed by a canticle showing signs of great antiquity. This material, prior to its incorporation into the literary sources of the Book of Judges, was probably preserved for long time in EphraimÕs narrative traditions at the shrine of Bethel, not far from which stood the palm tree under which Deborah was known to sit and deliver oracular guidance to the people. Although we are not explicitly told so, the reference to forty years of peace in Judges 5:31 has suggested to some readers that this was the length of DeborahÕs ministry.
The story of Deborah is chiefly preoccupied with two themes, soteriology and the moral life.
First, soteriology. The Deborah story is mainly an account of GodÕs deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies ("And the Lord routed Sisera" Ñ Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of GodÕs deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of GodÕs repeated deliverance of His people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.
With regard to the theme of the moral life, on the other hand, one readily admits that this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all! In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between Deborah and the timid Barak.
Thus, St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, DeborahÕs intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. He went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the LordÕs death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged apostles.
It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of GodÕs equal regard for men and women. Their comments in this respect are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself. Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f ("Go . . . Deploy . . . Take") are met by the poltroonish foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: "If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go." The very sounds of the Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah (lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak (Õim telki Ôimmi wahalakti, weÕim loÕ telki Ôimmi loÕelek).
This highly amusing contrast is further heightened by the fact that BarakÕs very name means "lightning bolt." The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, having a difficult time convincing this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again: Qum Ñ "Up!" (4:14) This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12.