Sunday, April 3
The Song of Solomon 8: There is considerable pastoral imagery in this book, ubiquitous references to the flocks and shepherding. There is also considerable attention given to the hearing of the voice of the Beloved. These images should put Christians in mind of the theme of the Good Shepherd in John 10, with particular attention to the recognition of the Shepherd’s voice.
Indeed, the Gospel according to John apparently borrows the imagery of the Song of Solomon to describe Mary Magdalene’s search for Christ on Easter morning, using the imagery of the garden. Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1Ý4), Mary Magdalene rises early while it is still dark (John 20:1) and goes out seeking him whom her soul loves. She searches for the one whom she calls "my Lord" (John 20:13) and, in an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden where he was buried (19:41).
Indeed, Mary Magdalene first takes Jesus to be the gardener (v. 15), which, as the new Adam, He most certainly is! Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know him. He speaks to her (v. 15), but even then she does not recognize his voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: "Mary" (v. 16). Only then does she know him as "Rabbouni," "my Teacher."
In this story Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: "the sheep hear his voice; he calls his own sheep by name . . . for they know his voice" (John 19:3f). Like Adam, and like the bride in Solomon’s Song, they seek God in the garden. This narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: ". . . the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an "in house" memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.
Monday, April 4
The Gospel According to John: This Devotional Guide follows the custom of ancient Christian lectionaries by assigning the Gospel according to John to the Easter season. Indeed, the opening verses of this gospel remain, even now, the major biblical reading for the feast of Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
A 2nd century Christian, Irenaeus of Lyons, in southern France, is our earliest witness to the custom of identifying each of the four gospel writers with one of the four "living creatures" in the Book of Revelation, an interpretive motif that was to have an immense influence in the history of icons, manuscript illumination, stain glass windows and other forms of Christian art. The identification of the four gospel writers with these symbols does vary somewhat in detail, but very consistently John is related to the image of the eagle. John's gospel aims at the heights. Mark begins with the preaching of John the Baptist; Matthew traces Jesus' lineage back to Abraham, and Luke traces it all the way back to Adam. It is John, however, who commences his gospel by recourse to eternity itself in speaking of the Word in the bosom of the Father. His has always been regarded as the loftiest, the most sublime of the four canonical gospels.
If one compares John's gospel with the others, one distinctive feature that will be noticed immediately is that while John records fewer events in the life of Jesus, he "makes more" of them. Compared with Matthew, Mark and Luke, he records a smaller number of healings, for instance, but those healings fit into larger blocks of related teaching. John has only one record of a healing of a blind man, contrasted with the several in the other gospels, but this account in John occupies the entire 9th chapter and is the setting for an entire narrate sequence and several sayings of Jesus.
Similarly, John has only one story of a multiplication of loaves, in contrast to Matthew and Mark who have two each, but John's account of this event is joined to a lengthy dialogue and discourse that fill his entire 6th chapter (which also happens to be the longest chapter in the New Testament).
John's Gospels breaks roughly into two large sections. The first of these is sometimes called his "book of signs," because it is structured around certain miracles that reveal his divine identity: the miracle at the wedding feast, the healings of the nobleman's son and the lame man, the multiplication of the loaves and the walking on water, the healing of the blind man, and the rasing of Lazarus. The inner meaning of these "signs" is discerned in their contextual narrative and dialogue.
The second part of John's gospel is the account of the Lord's death and resurrection. Here the structure is determined largely by the narrative sequence that marks the other gospels and was evidently all of one piece from the very beginning of the apostolic preaching. John's interpretive discourse here is found entirely in one lengthy section, chapters 13-17.
Tuesday, April 5
Genesis 38: Although this last section of Genesis centers on Joseph, the text does not lose sight of the bigger picture, the bigger picture here understood as the entire biblical message. In that bigger picture, Judah plays a more important role than Joseph. Ultimately the descendents of Joseph, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, pertain to the Ten Lost Tribes, whereas the tribe of Judah will provide the royal house of David and the Messiah (49:8-10; Matthew 2:6; Revelation 5:5). It is ultimately Judah will give the “Jews” their name.
Between Genesis 37 and 45, some twenty years elapse, and a significant number of those years are required by the events in Genesis 38. Hence, this chapter allows the reader to put Joseph out of his mind for a while. It is something of an interlude, permitting Joseph to become settled in Egypt. It is a “here and there” style of narrative, inserted to fill in a gap and convey the impression of the passage of time until the thread of the larger narrative is taken up again. (Other biblical examples of this technique must include the narrative between Mark 6: 7 and 30, contrasted with that of Luke 9:2 and 10).
The interest of this chapter, however, is less in Judah as a person than in Judah as the father of his tribe. In the larger picture this is a story about Judah’s descendents. Since it is the story of his lineage, it must start by getting him married (verses 1-5). This family too has its problems (verses 6-11).
Once again there is a deception by means of disguise, an unfortunate characteristic which, as we have seen, tends to run in the family (verses 12-19). We note that the Bible is not hard on Tamar here; she is simply trying to get what she has coming to her — namely, children. Judah, thinking he has managed to avoid Tamar all those years, now discovers an easy way to get rid of her for good (verses 24-26), but the young lady turns the tables on him. There is nothing Judah can do but acknowledge his paternity and get on with life.
This story is, in addition, one of the Bible’s great accounts of an underdog getting back at an oppressor. In this respect, Tamar’s story runs parallel with those of Esther and Judith. The irony of it continues into the New Testament, where Tamar enters the genealogy of the Savior (Matthew 1:5).
Wednesday, April 6
Psalm 12 (Greek and Latin 11): The idea is now common that the primary purpose of speech is communication, the sharing of ideas, impressions, and feelings with one another. Language is currently considered to be, first of all, social and therefore completely subject to social control. Human speech is widely interpreted as a matter of arbitrary and accepted fashion, subject to the same vagaries as any other fashion. Thus, the senses of words can be changed at will, different meanings being imposed by the same sorts of forces that determine whatever other tastes happen to be in vogue. Words become as alterable as hemlines and hats.
According to this view, words are necessarily taken to mean whatever the present living members of a society say that they mean, so that the study of language really becomes a branch of sociology. In fact, sociology textbooks themselves make this claim explicitly. Moreover, this notion of speech is so taken for granted nowadays as nearly to assume the rank of a self-evident principle. Nonetheless, it is deeply erroneous.
It is also egregiously dangerous to spiritual and mental health, for such a view of language dissolves the relationship of speech to the perception of truth, rendering man the lord of language without affirming the magisterial claims of truth over man. Declared independent of such claims, language submits to no tribunal higher than arbitrary social dictates. Human society, no matter how sinful and deceived, is named the final authority over speech, which is responsible only to those who use it, subject to no standards above the merely social. That is to say, in this view words must mean what people determine them to mean, especially such people as cultural engineers, political activists, feminist reformers, news commentators, talk-show hosts, and other professionals who make their living by fudging the truth.
This current notion of language was well formulated in the declaration of the proud and rebellious in Psalm 12, in a passage manifestly portending the mendacious times in which we live: “With our tongue we will prevail. Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?”
How different is the view of the Bible, where speech is not regarded, first and foremost, as a form of communication among human beings. In fact, Adam was already talking before ever Eve appeared. Human speech, that is to say, appears in Holy Scripture earlier than the creation of the second human being, for we find Adam already naming the animals prior to the arrival of the marvelous creature that God later formed from his rib.
At the beginning, before the Fall, Man was possessed of an accurate perception into reality. He was able to name the animals because he could perceive precisely what they were. His words expressed true insight, a ravishing gaze at glory, a contemplation of real forms, so that the very structure and composition of his mind took on the seal and assumed the formal stamp of truth. Human language then was a reflection of that divine light with which heaven and earth are full. The speech of unfallen man was but the voice of vision.
This primeval human language, the pure progeny of lustrous discernment, flowed forth already from the lips of Adam prior to the creation of Eve, who heard it for the first time when her husband, awaking from his mystic sleep, identified her and told her exactly who she was: “You are bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Human speech was already rooted in the vision of truth before it became the expression of human communication.
Moreover, the Fall itself, when it came, derived from that demonic disassociation of speech from truth that we call the Lie: “You will not surely die.” Eve’s acquiescence in that first lie was mankind’s original act of metaphysical rebellion. It had more to do with the garbling of Babel than with the garden of Eden. It was human language’s first declaration of independence: “Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?”
Just as truthful speech streams forth from vision, springing from the font of a pure heart, so lying is conceived in the duplicitous heart before it issues from the mouth. Says Psalm 12: “Each one has spoken follies to his neighbor, deceitful lips have spoken with divided heart.” The situation described here is so bad that one despairs of finding any truths left in human discourse: “Save me, O God, for the godly man has disappeared, because truths are diminished among the sons of men. . . . The wicked prowl on every side.”
In contrast to these varied, seemingly universal lies of men stand the reliable words of God: “The words of the Lord are pure words, smelted silver purged of dross, purified seven times.” In this very unveracious world we yet trust that, though heaven and earth pass away, His words will never pass away.
Thursday, April 7
1 Corinthians 6:1-11: There appear to be three things that ought to be mentioned in respect to this passage.
First, this is a text about life in the Church. According to this passage, fellow Christians do not take one another to court, for the same reason we do not take members of our own family to court. It is simply too shameful to do so.
For example, we recall the shock and dismay of Socrates when Euthypron tells him that he is bringing charges against his own father. This sort of thing just isn’t done. To bring a lawsuit against a member of one’s family is to bring violence against one’s own blood. It is indecent to do such a thing.
In fact, this is what is implied by the expression “consanguinity.” This word comes sanguis, from the Latin word for “blood.” “Consanguinity” literally means, “sharing the same blood.”
Paul uses the identical argument here, where he speaks of “a dispute between brothers:” “Brother goes to law against brother,” he says. “But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”
This entire passage has to do with what is expected of family members. The New Testament regularly uses the expression “brothers and sisters” to describe fellow Christians, because life in the Church is essentially family life. There is no such thing as a private relationship with Jesus Christ, and there is personal relationship to Jesus Christ except in the living context of the Christian Church.
In this context the word “consanguinity” assumes its proper theological significance, because we Christians most certainly do share the same Blood. The Apostle asks us, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion with the Blood of Christ?” We are related to one another by a higher consanguinity.
It is imperative to insist that our relationship with Christ the Lord absolutely depends on our relationship with the family of Christ, the Church that He founded and in the midst of which He lives. The Christian life is essentially, not incidentally, a community life.
Moreover, this is one of the basic themes of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The entire epistle was Paul’s response to bad situation in the Church at Corinth, a situation in which various factions in the congregation were squabbling among themselves.
Second, this is a text about how to live in faith. We are assured that the just man lives by faith, and we recall the times when this line from Habakkuk is quoted in the New Testament with respect to justification (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).
Faith, that is to say, is not simply the means by which we receive God’s justifying grace; it is also the mode by which we live in that grace. The just man lives by faith, the Sacred Text says.
In this respect it is useful to recall the original setting of this expression in the prophecy of Habakkuk: “And the Lord answered me: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” The word is to be written in large letters on a big tablet, writing large enough that someone running by does not even have to slow down to read it: The just man lives by faith.
The just man, that is to say, is a runner. He is going some place, and he is in a hurry to get there.
Faith is not a one-time or occasional thing. It is the necessary companion of a long and strenuous journey. Faith has to do with activity. We live in it.
This is why Paul insists that faith must deeply affect the manner of our life: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Such people will not inherit the kingdom of God, because they do not live by faith.
Third, none of these things are possible without the Holy Spirit, whom we receive at the time of our Baptism: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
The washing here clearly refers to the mystery of Baptism, in which we are initiated into the newness of life that Paul calls “sanctification” and “justification.” “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified,” he tells the Corinthians.
We can do nothing without the Holy Spirit. To be convinced of this, we need look no further than the upper room at Jerusalem, where the earliest Christians were gathered behind locked doors for fear of their enemies. Yet, once the Holy Spirit came down upon them in power, they were completely altered men and women. Weakness was replaced by strength, and sadness by joy. Instead of fear, there was boldness. In place of doubt, there was certainty. When these new Christians came pouring down from that upper room into the streets of Jerusalem, people hardly knew them.
What is our first responsibility to the indwelling Holy Spirit? Not to grieve Him. Not deliberately to place in His way what we know to be unfriendly to His presence.
If we do not grieve the Spirit, if we struggle to avoid things that we know to be displeasing to Him, the Holy Spirit will gradually take charge of our lives, and we will come to know the joy of those who are led by His guidance. This striving is the work of years. The goal of the Christian moral life, however, is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and of this goal we should never lose sight.
Friday, April 8
Genesis 41: We now come to the third discussion of dreams in the Joseph story. Pharaoh has a dream. Indeed, it becomes something of a nightmare, causing Pharaoh to wake up, which is perhaps why he can recall the dream so vividly (verses 1-4). Going back to sleep, he has another dream (verses 5-7). It is interesting that Herodotus (2.136) provides us with a story that parallels the present instance. It concerns the dream of an Ethiopian pharaoh named Shabaka, of the 25th Dynasty (725-667). Egyptian literature itself is full of such dreams. In antiquity dreams were regarded as among the ways that gods revealed practical truths to kings and other leaders. We find another instance of it in the case of Solomon (1 Kings 3; 2 Chronicles 1).
Pharaoh’s two dreams have left him very upset, and at last the cup bearer remembers Joseph (verses 8-13). After all, kings could become very upset if no one could be found to interpret their dreams (cf. Daniel 2:1-6). Evidently the cup bearer sensed danger, since Pharaoh’s dream had not yet an interpreter. The fear serves to jog his memory; he recalls how he himself had gotten out of jail two years earlier. At this point he apparently does not even recall Joseph’s name (verse 12).
Joseph is summoned (verses 14-16). We note that this is the third reference to Joseph’s clothing.
Joseph has no doubt that this dream comes from God. God speaks to man in dreams (compare Job 33:15-18; Numbers 12:6). Pharaoh, then, tells his dreams (verses 17-24). We observe that these dreams are not predictions; they are a diagnosis and a warning. Thus, Joseph is able, not only to interpret the dreams, but to instruct Pharaoh what to do about them. His wisdom, in other words, is not just speculative, but practical (verses 25-32).
These dreams have to do with the Nile River, the annual flooding of which is essential to Egyptian agriculture. The Nile’s failure to flood over a seven years period would be catastrophic indeed. In fact, there is a stone inscription found near the first cataract of the Nile, on the island of Siheil, which indicates that a seven years’ drought was not unthinkable.
Joseph does not even pause (verses 33-36). He immediately supplies the practical remedy for the problem, not even waiting for Pharaoh to question him. One has the impression that he has already worked out the details in his mind, while he gave Pharaoh the interpretation. There is no time to be lost (verse 32). The work will require centralized control. This is no work for a committee, and there is no time for a discussion. The only efficient course will require a strong, swift, executive hand (verse 33).
We have already seen Joseph as a take-charge kind of fellow, managing Potiphar’s estate as soon as he arrived, put in direction of the jail as soon as he became a prisoner, and so forth. Pharaoh knows that he has before him the right man for the job (verses 37-43), recognizing that this wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit (verses 38-39).
Joseph again changes clothes (verse 42) and starts a new life (verses 44-46), with new responsibilities (verse 47-49). His plans are successful (verses 53-57).
Joseph becomes the father of two Israelite tribes (verses 50-52). According to Origen and other interpreters, he is now about thirty years old.
Saturday, April 8
Genesis 42: The predicted famine also hits the land of Canaan, at which point the Joseph story is tied back to its earlier period (verses 1-5). We learn right away that Jacob, having lost Joseph, has become excessively protective of his youngest son Benjamin. This detail is inserted early in the narrative sequence, because it will become an important component in the development of the story.
These next few chapters will be sustained by a tension between Egypt and Canaan, between Joseph and Jacob, with Joseph trying to get Benjamin down into Egypt, while Jacob endeavors to keep him in Canaan.
When the other brothers come into Egypt (verses 6-7), Joseph starts his game, which begins by some fun at their expense. As we have seen, this kind of thing runs in the family. Abraham had deceived Pharaoh by claiming to be Sarah’s brother. Isaac had deceived Abimelech by pretending to be Rebecca’s brother. Jacob deceived Isaac by pretending to be Esau. Leah pretended to be Rachel, thereby deceiving Jacob. The Bible obviously revels in this sort of thing. Indeed, our eternal salvation itself will involve a massive act of deception, in which the Wisdom of God deceives Satan (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).
Without knowing who he is, the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph (verses 8-17), who recognizes in their act the fulfillment of dreams he had shared with them two decades earlier. Even while deceiving his brothers, Joseph manages to catch up on the news back home. He learns that Jacob and Benjamin are still alive. He plays his big card when they mention Benjamin; on the pretense of checking our their story, he insists that Benjamin be brought down to Egypt. He then throws them all into jail for three days to think about it.
What Joseph is trying to learn is whether or not his brothers have really changed. Are they still the same villains who tried to get rid of him years before, or have they altered in their minds and hearts. He puts the pressure on them. He must find out. He finally shows them a bit of mercy (verses 18-26).
In these encounters of Joseph with his brothers, there are two things to bear in mind:
First, Joseph understands everything they are saying among themselves, but the brothers, imagining that they are dealing with an Egyptian, do not know this. From their conversations with them, Joseph ascertains that they are still trying to deal with their ancient sin.
Joseph is joking with them and apparently having some fun at it. At the same time, however, he is hard hit by his own feelings as he sees what is happening to his brothers. Overcome with emotion, he must retire from the scene in order to weep.
Second, unlike his brothers, Joseph is aware how long the famine will last! He knows, therefore, that they will be back eventually. In order to guarantee it, he seizes Simeon, the second oldest. Joseph has just learned that the oldest, Reuben, had tried to save him at the time of his abduction; Reuben is spared.
Joseph puts a new twist on the game (verses 27-28). His return of their money may seem like generosity on his part, but his brothers are terrified by it. It may appear, they fear, that they have run off without paying for their food, and this governor of Egypt is obviously no man to mess with. How could they ever explain how they had neglected to pay?
We observe that Joseph does everything he can to keep his brothers off-balance. Within three chapters he will reduce them to quivering bundles of insecurity. Whatever arrogance or unrepentance or hardness of heart is still in them will be completely gone before Joseph is finished.
When the nine brothers arrive home (verses 29-34), the whole story is told again, as a sort of “instant replay.” This allows the reader to savor the irony of their situation. They finish their account by breaking the really distressing news that Benjamin must accompany them on the next trip. This is too much for old Jacob (verses 35-38), and now everybody is off-balance. Very protective of Benjamin, Jacob almost seems resigned to the loss of Simeon.
At this point, Reuben loses his mind, as it were, offering up Jacob’s two grandsons! Joseph has certainly succeeded in throwing the whole family into a spin. Meanwhile, no matter what Jacob says, Joseph is quite certain that the brothers will be back. After all, he knows just how long the famine will last, and they don’t. He holds all the big cards in this game.