Sunday, January 30
Genesis 30: This chapter describes two tests of wills: between Rachel and Leah, and between Laban and Jacob. In fact, this is an important chapter in the mounting tension and conflict of the Genesis story. We began with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Then came the conflict of Isaac’s household, between Esau and Jacob.
After the present chapter this conflict theme will continue in the accounts of Jacob’s family, eventually leading to Joseph’s being sold by his brothers into slavery. Among the patriarchs there seems to have been precious little domestic tranquility. If one is looking for something along the lines of “The Secret to a Happy Family Life,” Genesis is generally not much help.
At the end of Genesis 29 the competition between Leah and Rachel was going strongly to the favor of the former. She has four sons to Rachel’s none, as Genesis 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (verses 1-2), Rachel resorts to a tactic earlier employed by Sarah; this legal fiction is well attested in the extant literature of that time and period, specifically the Nuzi Tablets from excavations near the Tigris River. Rachel’s plan, which effectively gives Jacob a third wife, works to her advantage (verses 3-8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (verses 9-12).
Now Jacob has four wives and eight sons. Very quickly, however, the two sisters go beyond the niceties of the law. Leah resorts to a fertility drug (verses 13-21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (verses 22-24), whose story will dominate the final chapters of Genesis.
The relationship between Laban and Jacob has been something of a domestic business arrangement all along. For all legal and practical purposes, Jacob has become Laban’s son and heir. Meanwhile, however, everything still belongs to Laban.
When Jacob asks to have a little something for himself (verses 25-34), he appears to be requesting a mere pittance, because in the Middle East the sheep are normally white and the goats normally black. Speckled and spotted animals are the exception. Laban, however, takes steps to eliminate even that pittance (verses 35-36).
Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (verses 37-43). In putting three days distance between his own herds and those shepherded by Jacob, Laban intends to keep the speckled goats and the dark sheep away from him. This plan backfires, because it permits Jacob to have a three-days jump on Laban when it came time to leave!
Monday, January 31
Genesis 31: When Jacob wanted to leave in the previous chapter, it was his own idea. As we commence the present chapter, however, the initiative comes from God (verses 1-13). Jacob summons his wives away from the tents and the ears of inquisitive servants who might report the discussion back to Laban. His argument is twofold, both earthly and heavenly. In purely earthly terms, he is fed up with working for Laban. As regards the heavenly, Jacob has heard from the God who had revealed Himself earlier, the “God of Bethel,” El-Bethel. That God had earlier promised to bring him back home (28:15), and now He is fulfilling that promise (verses 3,13).
It turns out that Laban’s daughters are none too happy with their father’s treatment either. In his injustice to Jacob, Laban has also been unjust to his own flesh. He has treated them, not as daughters, but as outsiders. He not only sold them to Jacob; he has already used up the money he got for them! Leah and Rachel do not agree about much, but they do agree that it is time to start thinking of the welfare of their own children (verses 14-18). They flee (verses 19-21).
When Laban overtakes them (verses 22-32), his complaints seem natural enough: “I did not get to say goodbye. I did not get to kiss my grandchildren. I did not get a chance to throw a going-away party. How could you treat me like this after all these years?”
Moreover, somebody in Jacob’s party (and the reader already knows who) has, in addition, pilfered one of Laban’s household gods. This incident does say something about the introduction of idolatry into the family, a problem that will prove to be chronic in biblical history. Holy Scripture provides numerous instances of idolatry introduced into Israel by the wives of Israel’s kings (cf. 1 Kings 15:13, for instance).
To cover her tracks, Rachel resorts to a ruse (verses 33-37), about which two points may be made. First, the reader is expected to be amused that a god is being sat upon. Second, there seems to be no end of deception in this family!
Feeling vindicated by Laban’s failure to find the absconded god, Jacob then upbraids his father-in-law, laying it on pretty thick (verses 43-54). It is a masterpiece of self-justification, in which the speaker is manifestly enjoying himself. By ascribing all his success to God, Jacob also intends to make Laban pause for thought; does Laban really want to be tough on someone whom God favors? Laban, evidently chagrined at not finding the stolen god, is at some disadvantage; he is unable to answer Jacob. The two men make a covenant and call it a day (verses 41-54). Jacob heads for home.
Tuesday, February 1
Genesis 32: After taking leave of Laban, Jacob must think about how to approach Esau, for Esau represents the tricky aspect of Jacob’s homecoming (verse 4-7). Esau, meanwhile, has moved south to the land of Edom, a dry and inhospitable land that lucidly explains the words of God, “Esau have I hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage, for the jackals of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3).
If Jacob has been feeling threatened by Laban, he now feels even worse from the information that his older twin is coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. That last part is hardly the sort of detail calculated to allay anxiety. Indeed, a certain sense of anxiety may be exactly what Esau wants to inspire in Jacob. If so, the maneuver is successful.
Jacob does two things (verses 8-13). First, he prepares for the worst, taking certain practical steps with a view to at least a partial survival of his family. Second, he takes to prayer, certainly the most humble prayer he has made so far.
Ultimately, after all, this is a story of Jacob’s relationship to God. Up to this point, God is still Isaac’s God, the “God of my fathers” (verse 9). Jacob has not yet done what he promised at Bethel — take God as his own (28:21). God had also made certain promises to Jacob at Bethel, and Jacob now invokes those promises.
He continues his preparations for meeting the brother he has not seen in twenty years (verse 14-23). He sends delegations with gifts, which are intended to impress Esau. Jacob, after all, knows that Esau has four hundred men, but Esau does not know how many Jacob may have. Jacob’s gifts, including five hundred and eighty animals, verge on the flamboyant. Jacob approaches the fords of the Jabbock, at a place called Peniel, or “face of God” (verse 30). To prepare the reader for this place, verses 22-23 used the word “face” no fewer than five times. Jacob knows that Esau will soon be “in his face.” He must “face” Esau, which is why he is going directly toward him. Up to this point, Jacob has been a man of flight, flight from Canaan, flight from Haran, flight from Esau, flight from Laban. This all must change. Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.
Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else (verses 23-33). This encounter with God, which apparently Jacob has not anticipated, is far more significant than his encounter with Esau. A millennium later the prophet Hosea would meditate on this scene. This wrestling match is Jacob’s decisive encounter with God. Everything changes. First, his name is changed to Israel (verse 29), as Abram’s was changed to Abraham in a parallel encounter with God (17:3-5,15). Second, God is no longer simply “the God of my fathers.” He is now “the God of Israel” (verse 20). Third, Jacob will limp from this experience for the rest of his life (verses 26,32-33). No one wrestles with the living God and looks normal and well adjusted. There is a further irony here. Jacob began life by tripping his brother as the latter exited the womb. Now Jacob himself will be permanently tripped up by a limp.
Jacob has remained on the near side of the river all night long, not fording the Jabbock with the rest of his family. When he rises in the morning, he must limp across alone. Esau and his four hundred men are just coming into view.
Wednesday, February 2
Genesis 33: One is struck by Jacob’s great deference to his older brother, whom he had severely wronged a couple of decades earlier (verses 1-4). It was not necessary to conciliate Esau. Even without his primogeniture inheritance and the blessing of the firstborn, Esau had done very well for himself and appeared not to hold a grudge against his brother. Evidently the blessing that Isaac pronounced over Esau was very potent (27:39).
Esau meets the rest of the family (verses 4-7), and all manner of politeness is exchanged (verses 8-11). Stress is laid on the great wealth of each of the brothers, in terms that may remind the reader of Solomon later on (1 Kings 10:14-25).
Esau is concerned for Jacob’s safety as he traveled with considerable wealth but with no adequate military escort. Jacob moves on, however, and settles down for some time at Succoth (verses 12-17). He eventually goes to Shechem (the modern Nablus, a corruption of the Greek neapolis or “new city”). There he builds a shrine (verses 18-20).
This shrine is dedicated, not to “the God of Abraham” or “of Isaac,” but to El Elohe Israel, “God, the God of Israel.” This designation reflects Jacob’s experience at Peniel, where he wrestled with the Almighty and received a new name. The Bible’s next story will find Jacob still at Shechem.
So far we have found the patriarchs associated with most of the great cultic centers of the Holy Land, such as Hebron, Beersheba, Bethel, and Shechem.
Thursday, February 3
Genesis 34: The other inhabitants of Shechem are called Hivites in the Hebrew text, Hurrians or Horites in the Greek text. Non-Semites, they did not practice circumcision, and their introduction to the practice will be something less than felicitous.
Jacob’s daughter went a gadding about (verses 1-4) and came to the attention of a local young man who was evidently accustomed to getting what he wanted. His name was Shechem too. In spite of the New American Bible’s indication of violence (“he lay with her by force”), the Hebrew wai‘anneha is perhaps better translated as “he humbled her” or “he seduced her.” Subsequent events suggest that this was not an act of violence. As it turns out, in fact, Dinah is already living at the young man’s home.
We noted that Shechem was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Now he is about to be introduced to Dinah’s big brothers, who have some ideas of their own and also knew what they wanted. This will be Israel’s first recorded armed conflict. As in the case of the Greeks assembled before the walls of Troy, they will be fighting over a woman.
Down through the centuries this biblical story has been told chiefly for its moral message. For instance, in the twelfth century St. Bernard of Clairvaux used Dinah as an example of a gad-about, exemplifying the vice of curiosity, which Bernard called “the first step” on the inversed ladder of pride.
Jacob and Hamor, the fathers of the two young people, are remarkably patient, but not Dinah’s brothers (verses 5-7). As we shall see in the cases of Reuben and Judah in the next few chapters, Jacob’s sons are not all models of chastity, but they were genuinely concerned for their sister’s wellbeing and their family’s honor.
To describe what has happened Dinah, they employ the word nebelah or “folly,” which term rather often indicates a sexual offense. For instance, this word appears four times in Judges 19-20, where it refers to a woman’s being raped to death. It also refers to Amnon’s rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:12, to adultery in Jeremiah 29:23, and to the infidelity of an engaged girl in Deuteronomy 22:21. The word is perhaps better translated as “outrage.”
A meeting takes place, as though by accident (verses 8-12). Hamor and Shechem offer a deal. After all, Dinah is living at Shechem’s house. Why not simply legitimize the situation? Any solution but marriage would make things worse. Besides, the Shechemites reason, if they were all going to be neighbors anyway, why not a general miscegenation of the two peoples.
Here we touch upon an important point of theology, because the very concept of intermarriage might mean that the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would cease to be distinct; the very notion of a chosen people might be lost. Intermarriage with these Shechemites would have led to quite another result than that envisioned in the Bible (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Jacob’s sons make a reasonable proposal, but not sincerely (verses 13-17). They speak “with guile,” bemirmah. This is the identical expression we saw in 27:35 to describe what Jacob had done: “Your brother came bemirmah and stole away your blessing.” Guile seems to run in this family.
Shechem’s family, anyway, agree to submit to circumcision (verses 18-24). Do they realize that they would thereby be accepting the covenant in Genesis 17? Probably not, but the question is moot anyway. Circumcision is simply part of a deceitful plan in this instance.
The sin of Simeon and Levi (verses 25-29), in addition to its cruelty, has about it a touch of deep irreverence. God gave Abraham’s sons the rite of circumcision as the sign of a special covenant. That is to say, circumcision was God’s chosen sign for blessing. By their actions in this chapter, Simeon and Levi distort that sign, turning it into an occasion of violence against their enemies. They take something sacred and transformed it into the instrument of their own vengeance. Their action in this case points to the danger of using the blessings of God against our fellow man.
Friday, February 4
The Epistle to the Ephesians: The epistle that we begin today seems to have been written during the two years (probably autumn 58 to autumn 60) that Paul the apostle spent in prison at Caesarea (cf. Acts 24:27). Likely written within days of the epistles to Philemon and to the Colossians, this letter appears to have been sent originally to the Christian church at Laodicea, another of the churches of Asia Minor. Indeed, this identification was made by Marcion in the 2nd century, and in the earliest manuscript copies of this epistle (a 2nd century papyrus and both of the early 4th century parchments) the reference to Ephesus in Ephesians 1:1 is missing.
From the Book of Revelation (1:11 - 3:22) it is clear that the various churches of Asia Minor were accustomed to sharing letters they received from the apostles, so it should not surprise us to find it in this instance as well. Addressed originally to the church at Laodicea, then, this epistle made its rounds to the other Asian churches, beginning at Colossae (cf. Colossians 4:16). Since the largest of these churches was at Ephesus, the latter would soon possess the largest number of copies. It was natural, then, that our epistle came gradually to be called the Epistle to the Ephesians, the name that first appears in the manuscripts of the 5th century.
In the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, written during Paul’s two year imprisonment at Caesarea, there now appears an important theological concept not found his earlier epistles: the truth that Christ is the “head” of his body, the Church. As early as the spring of 55, to be sure, Paul had repeatedly referred to the Church as the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16f.;12:12-27), a theme that he took up again a couple of years later in the Epistle to the Romans 12:1-5. He continues this same theme in the letters to the Colossians (3:15) and Ephesians (2:16;4:4,12;5:30).
There is a difference now, however. For the first time, Paul calls Christ the “head” of his body which is the church (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22f.;5:23). He goes on to spell out what this means, showing that Christ is “the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God gives it to grow” (Colossians 2:19). Then, in a famous passage, he describes this growth as one of mutual love: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow unto him who is the head, that is, Christ. For in him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each member does it work” (Ephesians 4:15f.).
We modern people are thoroughly familiar with the idea that the head is the governing part of the whole body, and it is normal for us to assume that our thinking takes place in our heads. For that reason it may be difficult for us to appreciate how revolutionary that idea must have seemed back when Paul the apostle wrote it in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. It appears that Greek medicine had only recently arrived at such a concept, because we do not find it in the medical literature of earlier periods (Aristotle, for example). Indeed, it seems that the New Testament contains our first literary references to that medical insight.
Just where did Paul find this idea? The New Testament gives us a very big hint on this point. During much of those two years that he spent in prison at Caesarea, Paul was being visited and looked after by a physician, Luke, later the author of a gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles.
Keeping in mind that Luke wrote the latter book, it is not too difficult keeping tabs on his whereabouts, just by noticing where he uses "we" and "us" in the narrative. Having been left by Paul at Philippi several years earlier (compare Acts 16:17 with 17:1), Luke joins him once again at that same city, in the spring of 58, for the last trip to Jerusalem (20:6). He evidently becomes separated from Paul briefly during the strife in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 21-23, but he soon arrives at Caesarea where Paul is under guard (Acts 23:31-35;24:26f.). We are certain on this point, because Luke is mentioned as being present when Paul wrote to Philemon (24) and the Colossians (4:14). In fact, Luke “the beloved physician” will stay with Paul his trip to Rome (Acts 27:1) and through his two more years of house arrest in that city (II Timothy 4:11; cf. Acts 28:30).
It was evidently in prison, during long talks with his friend, physician and fellow-missionary Luke, then, that Paul became familiar with the recently discovered importance of the head as the organ of thought and as the governing organism of the body. It thus became clear to him that, if the church be called the body of Christ, as he had already been teaching for several years, then the true head of this body is Christ the Lord. It is by Christ, gloriously reigning at God’s right hand in heaven, that the Church on earth is directed, governed and coordinated. It is likewise from the “mind of Christ” that all truly Christian thinking proceeds. Because He is Lord, Jesus is head, the source of thought.
Saturday, February 5
Psalm 75 (Greek and Latin 74): The structure of Psalm 74 (Hebrew 75) is unique in the Book of Psalms. While its opening and closing verses are expressions of praise, the entire central section is spoken by God Himself.
God is praised for His “marvelous deeds” (thavmasia, mirabilia), an expression normally referring to His works of redemption. In Holy Scripture, God’s redemptive deeds are the basis of man’s praise.
Now, if our redemption is the foundation of our prayer, there is some reason for supposing that our prayer may be improved by a better understanding of what is meant by redemption. Alas, the latter is a widely misunderstood theological category.
To begin with, much of later Christian thinking about redemption has tended to rely rather heavily on metaphors drawn from the world of commerce. Indeed, the Latin root of the word “redemption” (re-emi) means “to buy back,” a notion certainly familiar to those obliged, on occasion, to make use of the services of pawnbrokers. Moreover, the New Testament most certainly speaks of redemption in terms of a “price” that was paid (cf. 1st Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; Ephesians 1:4).
Some Christians, however, understanding these metaphors rather literally, began to make more specific inquiries with respect to them, particularly asking: “To whom was the price paid?” in the third century Origen suggested that the price was paid to the devil, while much of the West preferred to think of the “price” of redemption as being paid to God the Father on behalf of fallen humanity. One finds this interpretation in the Western liturgy, for instance, in the Paschal Exultet, and after the Great Schism it became the foundation for the theory of atonement devised by St. Anselm of Canterbury. According to his idea, our reconciliation to the Father involved some sort of legal transaction whereby Christ paid to Him the full price of our sins, so that we now stand before God debt-free.
There are (at least) four things wrong with this theory of redemption. First, it disregards the metaphorical quality of biblical language about redemption. It takes the imagery of commerce too literally, not respecting the specific ways in which the Bible uses such metaphors. For example, Scripture repeatedly says that God “redeemed” Israel out of Egypt. God did this, nonetheless, not by paying Pharaoh a legal price, but by slamming him upside the head with a series of plagues and then a tricky ruse at the Red Sea.
Second, understanding the commercial metaphor too literally, Anselm’s theory goes on to ask (and then answer) inappropriate questions that the Bible never considers. For example, since “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10), none of us doubts, surely, that the price of our sins was paid by Jesus.
But why assume that this “price” is to be understood in a legal and commercial sense? When I was a boy very many Americans were “paying the price” for my liberty by dying in combat in World War II. Everyone knew what this meant, and no one thought to ask “to whom” the price was being paid. To ask such a question would have betrayed a misunderstanding of the metaphor.
There are any number of similar uses of this imagery, as when we say that tough exercise and a rigid diet are the “price to be paid” for staying healthy or being a good athlete, or that intense study is the price of a successful education. Similarly, to ask “to whom” Jesus paid the price of our redemption is an inappropriate question, giving rise to theories quite foreign to Holy Scripture. It is sufficient to say, as the Holy Scriptures say, that Jesus “bought” us, “redeemed” us, with His blood. This was the price that was paid for our redemption. To ask, however, to to whom the price was paid is to pose an inappropriate question and a question never addressed in the Bible.
Third, Anselm’s theory of redemption leaves insufficient room for the biblical assertion that the Father Himself reconciled and redeemed us in Christ: “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2nd Corinthians 5:18f).
Fourth, Anselm’s theory reduces the work of redemption solely to the Cross, whereas Holy Scripture includes the resurrection and glorification of the Lord among the deeds of redemption (cf. Romans 4:25; Hebrews 9:11f). All of these things are included among the “marvelous deeds” of which Psalm 74 speaks. They are the basis of our continued praise of God.