Sunday, May 9
Ezekiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiachin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago.
In spite of this circumstance, I believe that we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of JerusalemŐs fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585.
Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off thc coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied al over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape.
Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.)
EzekielŐs complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single questionŃ"How can we make money from this situation?" Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin. Moral questions are always "of what sort": right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a "quantitative" people, interested only in "how much?" In due course, said Ezekiel, they will pay for it, and the price, the "how much?" will be very dear. Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre.
This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.
Monday, May 10
Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is to told to "lament" as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, EzekielŐs imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the "world" itself, that "world" for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.
A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre, from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus, had drawn the wood for its shipwrights. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere had supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf as to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Fittingly, then, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean SeaŃ27:3), Put (Libya, in northern AfricaŃ27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.
Tuesday, May 11
Ezekiel 28: This chapter contains two oracles, one against Tyre, the other against the Phoenician city of Sidon.
In the first, no particular king of Tyre is indicated; the message is directed, rather, at that monarchy itself, as an embodiment of wealth and power in idolatrous rebellion against God. Idolatries of wealth invariably become idolatries of power, and in this respect it is significant that the king of Tyre is also indicted for cruelty. The king, in addition, represented the nation itself, given over to economic aggrandizement and the love of power.
As in individuals, so in nations, economic prosperity tends to breed pride, and Tyre, as we have seen, was very prosperous. Very self-satisfied, it was no longer subject to the Divine Authority that rightly holds sway over the nations, whose eternal law is written into the structure of the world as binding on all men, and before whose Throne the peoples of the earth will in due course be summoned for judgment.
Tyre, in short, thought of itself as a god, and in this respect it was a political form of manŐs initial rebellion in Eden. Satan had tempted Tyre as he tempted Eve, and Tyre, succumbing to the temptation, now thought himself a god. Fallen like Adam, Tyre must now be expelled from the rock garden of Eden. "Stones of fire" (28:13f), a most striking image, pictures the gold and precious stones of Genesis 2:11f as still being in their molten stage, still radiant with the heat that formed them. (Those stones will appear again in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation.)
The second oracle in this chapter, directed against the PhoeniciansŐ alternate capital of Sidon, is supplemented by a prose message of hope, renewal, and restoration for Israel. The editorial juxtaposition of these texts creates a literary irony that opposes TyreŐs expulsion from the garden of Eden with IsraelŐs restoration to its land to plant and care for its vines (verse 26). No longer will Israel be obliged to contend with the thorns and briars of AdamŐs fall (verse 24).
Wednesday, May 12
1 Samuel 2:1-11: Among the characters from Holy Scripture used as models of prayer in traditional Christian literature, few appear as often as Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Starting with Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome near the dawn of the third century, those who wished to be instructed in the ways of prayer have had recourse to HannahŐs example, as contained in the first two chapters of First Samuel.
It is worth observing that HannahŐs prayer serves a significant purpose in the literary structure of that book. Bearing in mind that the Books of Samuel were originally a single book, not two, we readily discern that both the opening and closing scenes of that book have to do with worship. Thus, Chapter 1 of First Samuel describes the regular pilgrimages that ElkanahŐs family made to the ancient shrine at Shiloh, while the last chapter of Second Samuel finishes with DavidŐs purchase of the site of the future temple at Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book, the Ark of the Covenant is in Shiloh, but the Ark has been moved to the new site as the book ends. Sacrifices are offered in each place, whether by the priest Eli or by David. In both places, likewise, there is a description of prayer. First Samuel starts with two prayers of Hannah, and Second Samuel closes with two prayers of David (24:10, 25).
Moreover, these prayers themselves are similar. HannahŐs petition, inspired by her great distress, takes the form of a vow; if the Lord should give her a son, she promises, she will dedicate him to the Lord. And at the end of the book, DavidŐs prayer, made in response to the plague that afflicts the people through his own sin, takes the form of resolve to dedicate a new temple to the Lord. DavidŐs resolve, implicit in 2 Samuel 24, is elaborated in 1 Chronicles 21 and Psalm 131 (132). Thus, the Book of Samuel begins and ends with similar prayers, in the context of sacrifice.
There are further parallels between the canticle of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 and the canticle of David in 2 Samuel 22. Indeed, these canticles form an "inclusion" to the book. Thus, in DavidŐs canticle God is praised for having kept the promises contained in HannahŐs canticle. For example, while Hannah says of the Lord that "He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness" (1 Samuel 2:9), David will say of Him, "He makes my feet like the feet of deer" (2 Samuel 22:34) and "You enlarged my path under me; so my feet did not slip. I have pursued my enemies and destroyed them" (22:37ř38). Once again, too, there is the shared image of the shrine or temple. Whereas HannahŐs canticle is chanted at the house of the Lord in Shiloh, DavidŐs canticle says of the Lord, "He heard my voice from His temple" (22:7). This parallel is all the more striking inasmuch as the new temple has not yet been constructed.
Because the Davidic rise and reign form the substance of the Book of Samuel, these various parallels between the prayers of Hannah and David are hardly surprising. Indeed, Hannah ends her canticle with a promise and prophecy about David, saying of the Lord, "He will give strength to His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed" (1 Samuel 2:10). This theme is later taken up in DavidŐs own canticle, which declares that God is "my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge" (2 Samuel 22:3).
We may observe, in this respect, that HannahŐs canticle near the beginning of Samuel serves much the same purpose as MaryŐs Magnificat near the beginning of St. LukeŐs Gospel, both of them introducing themes about the putting down of the mighty and the raising up of the lowly. In fact, one wonders if there has ever been written a commentary on the Magnificat that did not mention its many lines and sentiments shared with the canticle of Hannah.
Furthermore, several older Christian writers, including Saints Basil, John Chrysostom, and Bede the Venerable, drew attention to the similarities between Hannah and the publican in Luke 18. Both of them pray quietly in the temple and with great humility, neither of them responding to the contempt with which they are treated by their two antagonists, Peninnah and the Pharisee. Both of them thus model the proper sentiments and attitudes of Christian prayer.
In summary, then, when Origen in the mid-third century described Hannah as "praying in the Holy Spirit," he certainly spoke for the whole Tradition.
Thursday, May 13
John 9:18-41: Whenever the Gospel of St. John says that Jesus "sees" someone, the verb denotes more than the bare act of vision. If John takes the care to remark that Jesus "sees," this is invariably a prelude to some transformation; some work of grace is at hand. Thus does Jesus "see" Nathaniel (John 1:47, 50), the paralytic at the pool (5:6), the weeping Mary of Bethany (11:33), and His two dear ones at the foot of the Cross (19:26).
Thus, too, does St. John introduce the story of the man born blind, for he says that Jesus, "passing by, saw a man blind from birth" (9:1). This is a most important detail. The blind man himself, after all, cannot see Jesus, so Jesus must first see him. This is a story about the primacy of grace, illustrating the truth that it is "not that we loved God, but that He loved us" (1 John 4:10). This story begins, then, with a man that Jesus saw, and it ends with that same man seeing Jesus: "You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you" (John 9:37).
As they behold the blind man, the LordŐs disciples are plagued by a theological problemŃnamely, whose fault is it that the man was born blind? They phrase this question in a curious and most interesting way: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (9:2). Jesus answers immediately, of course, that neither sinned, but that is not the last time this question will appear in the story. After his healing, both the man and his parents will be subpoenaed for interrogation by the LordŐs enemies, who have their own ideas about "who sinned." The latter will say of Jesus, "We know that this Man is a sinner" (9:24). Then, when he refuses to agree with them, the man himself is pronounced guilty: "You were completely born in sins" (9:34). They thus provide their own answer to the question first posed by the disciples.
There is a deeper blindness in the story, nonetheless, an unrepentance that is the real sin. Thus, at the very end of the account, Jesus gives a further response to the original query, "Who sinned?" To those hard of heart who condemned the man born blind, the Lord asserts, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ÔWe see.Ő Therefore, your sin remains" (9:41). This is the storyŐs final answer to its first question. Thus, the problem of "who sinned" is an interpretive key to the whole narrative.
There is another opposition in this story, a contrast between the purely speculative question of the disciples and the practical action of Jesus. Faced with this phenomenon of blindness, the disciples want to assign the proper blame for the situation, whereas Jesus wants to change it. They look to a human cause, He to a divine purpose ("that the works of God should be revealed in him"Ń9:3).
The enemies of Jesus in this story are also theorists. They know that Jesus "is not from God" (9:16), because His interpretation of the Law differs from theirs. By way of contrast, the man born blind begins with no theory. Indeed, he is a practical empiricist, who knows what he sees: "One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see" (9:25). For him, any theories about "who sinned" must commence with certain established facts, facts as plain as the mud that he washed from his eyes.
Commencing with these facts, the man will reason his ways to others, and one may observe a transformation in his regard for Jesus. It is ironic, moreover, that the interrogation of the LordŐs enemies becomes the impetus driving him to an ever more comprehensive recognition. Immediately after the healing, he speaks simply of "a Man called Jesus" (9:11). When pushed on the point, however, he finds himself forced to a new conclusion about Jesus: "He is a prophet" (9:17). As he argues with JesusŐ enemies, logic compels him to admit that Jesus comes from God (9:32). Finally, he recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God, and at his last appearance in this story the man born blind is prostrate before Him in adoration (9:35ř38).
This intricate narrative is an illustration of a theme introduced early in the Gospel of John. As He begins to heal the blind man, Jesus announces, "I am the light of the world" (9:5), a self-identification paraphrasing a line near the beginning of the Gospel: "That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world" (1:9). This man born blind, then, is the image of all to whom the true Light appears.
Friday, May 14
Ezekiel 31: The oracle in this chapter is dated June 21, 587 B.C. (verse 1). It is constructed of a lengthy and highly detailed poem describing Egypt as a large, imperial tree, dominating the landscape and offering shelter to all the nations (31:1-9). In his portrayal of this tree, Ezekiel once again resorts to the imagery of paradise (verses 8-9).
This poem is followed by a commentary in prose (31:10-18), prophesying the downfall of Egypt. The great height of the tree, reaching up into the clouds, symbolizes manŐs political and economic endeavor to attain heaven on earth by his own resources. To Ezekiel it is a symbol of arrogance, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The cedar, which in olden times was symbolic of great longevity, represents man quest for a utopian permanence, a quest common to political idolatry.
Throughout the entire chapter the reader will observe in particular the image of water, bearing mind EgyptŐs long-time reliance of the Nile River and a highly developed system of irrigation.
Saturday, May 15
Ezekiel 32: This chapter contains EzekielŐs final two oracles against Egypt. The first of these (though given later than the one that follows it), is dated on March 3, 585 (verse 1). Although it was delivered during the winter that followed the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, no reference is made to that event. Some of this imagery of this oracle recalls the plagues with which the Lord had long before struck the land of Egypt: the floods of blood and the great darkness (the first and ninth plagues). The great sin of Egypt declared in this oracle was pride.
The second (and earlier) of these two oracles was delivered on April 27, 586, prior to JerusalemŐs downfall. In his massive and details description of the nether world, Ezekiel sounds a theme from classical literature; the attentive reader can hardly fail to notice the similarities that this oracle has to the nether world descriptions in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. EzekielŐs description is similarly preoccupied with the thought of warfare and conquest. As Homer and Virgil portrayed the netherworld in the context of the fall of Troy, Ezekiel portrays it in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, it is in the netherworld, the realm of death, that the prophet finishes his oracles against those nations that rose up in rebellion against GodŐs authority over history. This second part of the Book of Ezekiel come to an end.