Sunday, January 23
Matthew 9:9-13: Since the call of Levi falls in exactly the same sequence in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as Matthew’s call in the Gospel of Matthew, we are surely correct in regarding these two men as identical.
It is significant that all three Synoptic Gospels treat the call of the tax collector (Levi/Matthew) as a centerpiece bracketed between two stories about sinners: the paralytic being forgiven his sins and Jesus having dinner with notorious sinners. Thus set between these two events, the call of the tax collector represents above all the evangelical summons to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
The dialogue connected with the meal at his house illustrates this meaning of the tax collector’s call. Jesus, criticized for his association with sinners on this occasion, explains that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). In thus addressing sin through the metaphor of sickness, the Lord strikes again the note recently sounded by His healing the paralytic as proof of His authority to forgive the man’s sins (2:5Ý12).
Furthermore, summoning sinners to repentance and salvation is not just one of the things Jesus happens to do. There is a sense in which this is the defining thing that Jesus does, the very reason He came into this world. This truth is affirmed at the meal at the tax collector’s house, where He proclaims, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Luke 5:32; cf. Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; ). Again, it is in the context of the call of yet another tax collector, Zacchaeus, that Jesus says, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
One of those “lost” was the Apostle Paul, who remembered himself to have been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man.” But then he recalled that the same Lord who received the friends of the tax collector also received him: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:13Ý15).
Christ can call sinners, only because He can really do something about their sins. And He can forgive their sins precisely because He has paid the price of those sins. Therefore, Jesus’ forgiveness of sins is theologically inseparable from His dying for sinners. Correct repentance, then, brings the sinner to the foot of the Cross.
In truth, this soteriological dimension of the call to repentance is implied in the Gospel stories under consideration. Both at the forgiveness of the paralytic and at the tax collector’s dinner, all three Synoptics speak of the hostile presence of Jesus’ enemies, the very men who will contrive to kill Him. They accuse Him of blasphemy on the first occasion (“This man blasphemes”—the very charge for which He will be condemned to death) and find fault with Him on the second (“Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”). In both cases Jesus confronts them on this matter of His relationship to sin and to sinners.
Monday, 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 in the Hebrew text of this book He is not even mentioned!
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.”
Tuesday, 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 households 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. When David was "chosen" by God to be king, his brothers were "rejected," but that does not mean that they were "rejected" in the sense of being damned. 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 direct 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.
Wednesday, January 26
Genesis 26: God’s choice is now furthered narrowed; the promises made to Abraham are now made to Isaac, as they had not been made to Ishmael (verses 1-5). On the other hand, Isaac is clearly a “transition patriarch,” between Abraham and Jacob. There are almost no stories about Isaac, except in relation to either his father or his sons. Whereas both Abraham and Jacob traveled in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, Isaac never leaves the Promised Land.
The story about Rebekah and Abimelech (verses 6-11) is strikingly similar to two earlier stories about Sarah, and the she-is-my-sister trick is something that Isaac evidently learned from his father. There are differences among the stories, nonetheless. In the present case, we observe that the wife is not actually removed to the other man’s house; Abimelech does not go quite so far on the present occasion. He has evidently become just a wee bit more cautious; this time it does not take a divine revelation for him to discover the truth. He simply watches the couple more closely, until one day he sees them engaged in amorous exchanges (we will not speculate) that reveal that they are husband and wife. Indeed, as it turns out, Abimelech himself never admits being interested in Rebekah; he simply explains that he feared that somebody else might be!
The “revelation” in this chapter happens differently from those in Genesis 12 and 20. In the former two stories, God manifested the truth by a supernatural intervention easily discerned. In the present story God’s revelation to Abimelech is subtler; indeed, God is not even mentioned in connection with it. That is to say, God’s intervention and deliverance need not be spectacular in order to be real. It is sufficient that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
In the controversy about the wells (verses 12-22), the word “Philistine” is an anachronism, because the real Philistines, to whom the regions about the Aegean Sea were native, would not arrive on the coast of Canaan for several centuries. The mention of them here is something on the order of saying that “Columbus discovered America.” While there may be some disagreement whether or not Columbus actually did so, no one disagrees that the name “America” was not in place when Columbus arrived. When Columbus discovered it, it was certainly not yet America. Similarly here, the “Philistines” are simply those who lived in the land that would later be inhabited by the Philistines.
In this story, we observe that Isaac has inherited the peace-loving, non-assertive disposition of his father. When there is trouble, he defuses it by meekness. And in his case too, the “meek shall inherit the earth.”
The account of Isaac’s vision (verses 23-25) links his name to the ancient shrine of Beersheba, much as Abraham’s name was associated with Hebron, and Jacob’s will be to Schechem and Bethel. The account itself is similar to that in Genesis 17.
The next story about Abimelech (verses 26-33) is similar to a narrative about Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:22-32, but there is no controversy about wells. Isaac is no longer living close to Abimelech.
We recall from Genesis 24 that Isaac was not to marry any of the local talent, the idolatrous Hittite girls who lived in the neighborhood. A wife was procured for him, rather, “from the old country.” This wife, Rebekah, sharing the family’s dislike of these local girls, is understandably less than thrilled by Esau’s marrying them (verses 34-35). She will determine that Jacob, her own favorite son, will be spared such a fate (cf. 27:46). The two final verses of this chapter prepare us for the story in Genesis 28.
Thursday, January 27
Genesis 27: Though his appearance in history was a bit too early to warrant the term, I suppose, “modern man” seems an apt expression for the biblical character Esau. At least we can call him modern in one large and defining sense: Esau, for the sole purpose of gratifying an immediate impulse, thoughtlessly betrayed an inherited treasure. The New Testament, in its only complaint against him, describes Esau as a “profane person . . . who for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:26).
First, Esau’s underlying weakness was a lack of elementary self-control. As a rugged outdoorsman (Genesis 25:27), perhaps he thought of himself as a man of tough discipline. Clearly, however, the very opposite was true. Esau was unable to control his appetite even long enough for a meal to be prepared for him. Like a nursing infant, he insisted on being fed “right now,” as though he would otherwise perish: “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” (25:32) Undisciplined Esau, that is to say, gave up his inheritance for a slight but instant gratification, and this is the first and radical reason why I call him a modern man.
Esau was also modern in a second way, in that he had no real sense of the relative worth of things. Because he had cheaply sold something material, he assumed that he could just as cheaply purchase something spiritual. Embracing the principle that man lives by bread alone, he nonetheless fancied that a higher benediction was still available to him, pretty much at the same price. Having lost his birthright for a bowl of soup, he planned to gain his blessing with a plate of venison.
There is a third display of Esau’s modernity: He was slow to learn that the future is very much tied to the past. Some blessings—and among them the very best—are inseparable from birthrights, so that the reckless squandering of the one renders unlikely the acquisition of the other. Those, therefore, who contemn the past, have little chance for a future. Poor Esau! The New Testament describes his plight: “For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” (Hebrews 12:17).
There is a fourth sense in which Esau appears as a modern man—the willful assertion of his individuality at the expense of his personhood. Persons, after all, are defined by their relationships to others, especially others in the past. Indeed, persons receive their very names from those who arrived in this world before them. There is no personhood without community and tradition, because persons are created when someone else, someone older, tells us who we are. Persons, thus, are necessarily formed within the context of an eldership; a person is someone who stands under the authority of what Ken Myers has called “a community of binding address,” in which those who go before have authority on those who come after. Personhood requires a living tradition and a committed acquiescence in the authority of elders.
An individual is something quite different. His relations to others do not define him. He is, on the contrary, very much self-defined. He is someone “distinct from” others. The Bible required but few words to tell the trait of the individualist: “Thus, Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34). An individual is a “self-made man.” He does not derive his identity as a free and generous bequest from the past; he acquires it by his independence and self-determination in the present.
In these various ways of describing him as modern, I have in mind chiefly Esau’s deliberate alienation from what could and should have been his own, and what he could and should have been able to bequeath to his posterity. His sin consisted in separating himself from the transmission of an intergenerational inheritance.
The character of Esau goes far to illustrate the phenomenon of “post-cultural man,” a term coined by Christopher Clausen to describe the deeply isolated individual deprived of the wealth and wisdom of a living heritage. Emancipated from answering to the authority of the past, this post-cultural man is necessarily deprived of a fully human community in the present. He belongs only to the “now,” reduced to a spiritually meager, less-than-human cohabitation in what Robert Bellah calls a “life-style enclave.” Poor Esau, coming from nowhere, now lives nowhere and has nowhere to go.
Friday, January 28
Genesis 28: As we saw in the previous chapter, Rebekah does not want Jacob simply to flee from the possible vengeance of Esau. She correctly wants Jacob to be sent away by his father.
There are several things to be said about Isaac’s sending Jacob away (verses 1-5). First, there is a sense of historical continuity. Isaac is aware that he is handing on a legacy that he himself received. The current family crisis is not treated simply as a matter of the present; it is subsumed into a larger historical picture.
Second, there is the prayer and promise of fertility. The effects of this prayer (twelve sons and a daughter!) show how powerful a man of prayer Isaac really was (cf. also 25:21).
Third, Jacob continues the tradition of being a “stranger” (verse 4), like his grandfather and father. This theme will be picked up in the New Testament: “By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tends with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9).
Esau, having twice failed to please his parents by his choice of wives, decides this time to choose a bride from within the family (verses 6-9). Alas, he marries into the discredited side of the family! One sometimes has the impression that Esau’s brow was branded with the word “Loser.”
The religious experience of Jacob at Bethel is divided into two parts: his vision, in which God speaks (verses 10-15), and his thoughtful reaction within the dream (verses 16-22). This division of religious experience into the visionary and the deliberative is found in other places of Holy Scripture, such as the case of Peter in Acts 10:9-17 and several places in Ezekiel. Jacob’s is a night-vision, like that of Abraham in Genesis 15 and Isaac in Genesis 26; indeed, God says to him (verse 15) much the same things that He said to Abraham (15:17-18) and to Isaac (26:24-25).
Thus, all three of the patriarchs have visions in the night, and all three establish shrines: Abraham at Hebron, Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel. Bethel (“house of God”) is the place where earth and heaven are joined, as though by an umbilical cord (verse 12). When Jacob rises in the morning, he consecrates the place, somewhat terrified that he had picked, as his place to sleep, the very spot where heaven and earth are joined; he was nearly run over by all the angelic traffic, as it were.
Bethel is a type and prefigurement, of course, of the real house of God, where heaven and earth are joined, Jesus Christ our Lord (John 1:43-51). Christians since the second century have regarded Jacob’s ladder as the ladder of Christ. For this reason, Jacob poured oil (chrisma) on the stone, making it a “Christian stone” (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 86).
Saturday, January 29
Genesis 29: At about noon (verse 7) Jacob arrives at the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already assembled with their flocks (verse 2). They are waiting for other shepherds to arrive, so that there will be enough man-power to remove the very heavy stone that covers the mouth of the well (verses 3,8). It says a great deal of Jacob’s physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job (verse 10). (And we recall that he was the weaker of the twins borne by Rebekah!)
Just as Jacob begins to inquire about Laban, his mother’s brother, his interlocutors point out to him that Laban’s daughter, Rachel, is approaching. Thus, like Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24, Jacob is promptly blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny (verses 6,9-12). Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob tells the whole story, “all that happened,” to Laban (verse 13).
Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (verses 13-30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle required. For Laban, however, Jacob’s preference in the matter posed a bit of a problem. While there would be no difficulty finding a husband for Rachel, Laban was less certain about Leah’s prospects. During those seven years, no one had sought the hand of Leah. (The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that Leah was afraid that, if Jacob married her younger sister, she herself would have to marry the older brother Esau, and she wanted nothing of that!) Laban determined, therefore, to look out for the fortunes of his elder daughter.
Accordingly Laban pulls a rather mean trick, a trick rendered possible because the bride was veiled (verses 21-25). It is not hard to figure out the wily Laban, who does not shrink from taking advantage when he can. He studies situations carefully, spots weaknesses in his associates, and consistently uses people. There is a special irony in the account, as well. Jacob deceived his father in Genesis 27; now he is in turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a “false identity.”
Laban then makes the “magnanimous gesture” of offering Jacob both daughters as wives (verse 27), which procures the wives’ father, of course, another seven years of service from Jacob. (This sororite marriage will later be forbidden in the Mosaic Law; cf. Leviticus 18:18). Laban has clearly thought this whole plan out ahead of time.
This procedure is Laban’s way of keeping his property in the family. He has now procured this apparently dumb nephew, an energetic worker that will do whatever is required of him. This dumb nephew will be married to both of his daughters. All of their children will be Laban’s; all the property will be his; everything will be his (Genesis 31:43). From this point on, the story becomes a rivalry of wits between Jacob and Laban. Jacob will prove more than a match for him.