January 28 – February 4

Friday, January 28

Genesis 28: 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 (vv. 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 chapter 15 and Isaac in chapter 26; indeed, God says to him (v. 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, and Jacob at Bethel.

Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the "power" (dynamisI) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, has been unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.

Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as "abandoned," "handed over," "forsaken" by God (verses 24,26,28).

The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also "known" (to gnostonI), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.

Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, they are aware, they will never have to render an account.

This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28).

Thus, homosexual behavior, which is "against nature" (para physin, contra naturam—verse 26), is the social and cultural progeny of an engendering idolatry. Other sexual sins, such as fornication, at least show deference to the structure of nature. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to do so, is deceptive in a radical sense: It is the very embodying of a lie.

Besides sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of other sins (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), the Apostle is immediately familiar with these sins.

We should bear in mind that Paul, in his assessment of the world of his time, is speaking of society as a whole, not every single individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved.

Saturday, January 29

Genesis 29: Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (vv. 13–30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle requires.

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 (vv. 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 chapter 27; now he is in turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a “false identity.” Jacob had pretended to be his older brother; now Leah pretends to be her younger sister. The biblical narrator is, of course, thoroughly enjoying the show!

Romans 2:1-11: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The Jew’s possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).

Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as "man," anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood is no guarantee of moral superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew too, says Paul, is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as "impenitent" (verse 5).

In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, the Apostle insists that the Lord "will render to each man according to his deeds" (literally "works," erga—verse 6; Psalms 62 [61]:13; Proverbs 24:12), and he goes on to speak of "the patience of good work" (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle, then, Paul closes the door to any antinomian interpretation of it.

Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) "glory and honor and incorruptibility" (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12).

The translation of the word aphtharsia as "immortality" (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of "the immortality of the soul").

Aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter itself, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. "Incorruptibility" is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54).

Sunday, January 30

Genesis 30: his 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 it 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.

Romans 2:12-29: Now, asks Paul, how is the circumcised Jew who disobeys the Law of Moses morally superior to the uncircumcised Gentile who observes the Natural Law written in his heart (verses 26-27)?

Throughout this diatribe the Apostle is continuing the very argument that the Old Testament prophets had directed to the Chosen People ever since Amos and Isaiah eight hundred years before—namely, that a strict adherence to the prescribed rituals is no adequate substitute for the moral renewal of the heart and a blameless life pleasing to God. Far from rejecting the Old Testament here, Paul is appealing to one of its clearest themes (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:9).

The true circumcision is internal. This is the "secret" (krypton) that the Lord sees (verse 16). It is the heart that must be circumcised (verses 29-30; Acts 7:51). The true moral renewal of man, then, is not the fruit of a greater and more intense moral effort. It comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the circumcised heart.

In his contrast of two circumcisions, Paul invokes the distinction between letter and Spirit that he had used a year earlier to describe the difference between the Old Testament dispensation and the Christian Gospel (2 Corinthians 3:6). The circumcision or pruning of the human heart places that heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose grace causes the human being to become a child of God (8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Gospel, then, is not simply a source of new moral information; it is the internal principle of a new mode of life.

Paul’s distinction between a Jew in the flesh and a Jew in the Spirit puts us in mind of Jesus’ insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount, that a believer’s existence is defined, not by his external observance of a religious code, but by his internal relationship to the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1,4,6,8,14,18). Indeed, the same expression "secret" (krypton) is used in both places (verses 16,29; Matthew 6:4,6).

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 (vv. 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 (vv. 3,13).

Romans 3:1-8: To say (as Paul has been saying) that both the Gentile and the Jew are called to repentance is not to deny the historical advantage of the Jews, because "to them were committed the oracles of God" (verse 2). Later in this same epistle (11:11-23) Paul will argue at greater length that God still keeps His eye on the Jews; they will still have their important role to play in the outcome of history. The Jews’ current displacement from their native root (which is Christ, we perhaps need to insist, and not real estate in the land of Palestine) is only temporary, "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (11:25).

Meanwhile, in fact, only "some" of the Jews have failed (verse 3), only "some of the branches have been broken off" (11:17). In these assertions Paul seems to have in mind not only his contemporary situation but all of Jewish history. That is to say, the Old Testament itself testifies that there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews. Those very "oracles of God," which were committed to the Jews, also bear witness to the failure of some Jews to take God’s word seriously. No matter, says Paul, because God Himself is faithful, even to an unfaithful people (verses 3-4).

The divine fidelity also is recorded in the "oracles of God." This expression, ta logia tou Theou (Psalms 107 [106]:11; Numbers 24:4,16), includes the whole corpus of Sacred Scripture, not simply the prophetic utterances (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). The whole Old Testament testifies to God’s fidelity in the face of man’s infidelity (3:26; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Isaiah 55:11; Hosea 3:26).

In this these verses we learn, also, that the Apostle’s earlier teaching about justification by grace through faith (especially in Galatians, it would seem) was already being misinterpreted. His affirmation of the freedom of Christians from the precepts of the Mosaic Law were already being interpreted as a declaration of freedom from all law, all moral responsibility, all personal effort. Paul here bears witness to this distortion of his teaching by those who claimed him as their authority.

Tuesday, February 1

Genesis 32: Even before he faces Esau, Jacob must face Someone Else (vv. 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 will meditate on this scene.

This wrestling match is Jacob’s most decisive encounter with God. Everything changes.

First, his name is changed to Israel (v. 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” (v. 20).

Third, Jacob will limp from this experience, for the rest of his life (vv. 26, 32–33). No one wrestles with the living God and afterwards 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 Jabbok 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.

Romans 3:9-20: Even though God’s fidelity to the Jews, in spite of their infidelities to Him, does ironically manifest the privileged position of the Jews in salvation history, from a moral perspective this fact hardly warrants any boasting on the part of the Jews. Indeed, it shows them up rather badly. In short, Paul is arguing, "we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin" (verse 9).

This is, in truth, man’s concrete position under God—he is "under sin" (hyph’ hamartian). Such is Paul’s repeated contention in Romans (verse 23; 5:5:12). Let us note he uses the word "sin" here for the first time in this epistle.

In support of his thesis about man’s subjection to sin, Paul quotes (along with other sources) the Book of Psalms 14 (13):1-3; 53 (52):1-3. These two psalms both begin with the fool’s assertion that "there is no God." In citing these psalms, therefore, Paul is once again taking up, from chapter one, the denial of God by the "fools" (1:22), whose "foolish hearts were darkened" (1:21). The "fools" in these psalms, Paul is suggesting, are not simply Gentiles, because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (verse 23).

The totality, the completeness, of man’s sinful condition is indicated here by Paul’s scriptural references to the various body parts that contribute to the sin: throat, tongue, lips, mouth, feet, eyes (verses 13-5). Man is, in short, completely sinful, sinful in all his parts.

Wednesday, February 2

Genesis 33: 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 (vv. 4–7), and all manner of politeness is exchanged (vv. 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 travels with considerable wealth but with no adequate military escort. Jacob moves on, however, and settles down for some time at Succoth (vv. 12–17).

Haggai 2:1-9: This oracle was given on October 5, 520 B.C. (verse 1)

The twentieth day of the month Tishri was the fifth day of the week called the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:34), an autumnal harvest celebration (cf. Deuteronomy 16:13) that paralleled, in so many ways, our own Thanksgiving Day.

In the year 520 that festival was especially significant, because God’s people had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a replacement for the temple destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years earlier. As they rebuilt it, however, a very disappointing fact was becoming clear to the people—namely, that this new structure, when finally completed, was going to be pretty small, because the people had nowhere near the financial resources available to Solomon when he had constructed the first temple four centuries earlier. Like the men who were building it, this new temple would be poor (verse 3; cf. Ezra 3:12-13).

Nonetheless, said Haggai, this new house of God would be adorned, in due course, with silver and riches from around the world (verses 7-9).

A literal translation of verse 7 from the Hebrew ("I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of the nations will come in") makes perfect sense, meaning that Jews from all over the world, coming to the new temple on pilgrimage, would continue to adorn and expand it until "the glory of the latter house would outshine that of the former."

However, the ancient Christian Latin translation of this verse (reflected, curiously, in the King James Version), reads, et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus, which means, "and He who is desired by the nations will come."

This translation is echoed, of course, in the final verse of the old Veni Emmanuel hymn adapted from the "O Antiphons" of Advent, "O Come, Desire of nations, bind / in one the hearts of all mankind." That is to say, the new temple of Haggai’s era was the very temple into which Jesus, the One desired by the nations, would enter. This reading is obviously appropriate on this fortieth day after Christmas, when the Messiah comes to the Temple for the first time.

Thursday, February 3

Genesis 34: Jacob’s daughter went gadding about (vv. 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 this young 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 know what they want. 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 stolen 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 gadabout, exemplifying the vice of curiosity, which Bernard called “the first step” on the inversed ladder of pride.

Romans 3:21-31: The tone of this epistle has been negative hitherto, emphasizing man’s weakness and fallen state, "but now" (verse 21) Paul introduces the Christian hope, rooted in God’s righteousness and fidelity manifested in Jesus Christ. The "now" here is chronological and not just rhetorical, because a new era has dawned in Christ, foretold by the Law and the Prophets.

This reference to the present tense has been called the "eschatological now" (also in verse 26; 5:9,11; 6:22; 7:6; 8:1,18; 11:5,30,31; 13:11; 16:26), the era of the Gospel, which replaces the dispensation of the Law.

These verses, then, express the very essence of the Gospel, salvation through faith in the God who redeems us in Christ. The "righteousness of God," which we just saw in Psalms 143 (142), is not a quality of condemnation, of outraged divine justice, but the source, rather, of divine deliverance from sin and corruption. Paul speaks of this four times in these few verses.

The pistis Iesou Christou (verses 22,26; Galatians 2:16,20) is literally the "faith of Jesus Christ." It is not simply an objective genitive, "faith in Jesus." This expression means, rather, "faith in all matters that concern Jesus Christ," faith in the entire dispensation of grace through Jesus Christ, including the faith that Jesus modeled for us in the course of accomplishing our redemption (cf. Hebrews 12:2). Just as there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in sin, so there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ. After all, we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (verse 23). This divine glory (doxsa) of which we fall short (that is, "miss out on"—hysterountai), is conveyed to us as we grow in grace (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6).

Although Paul uses the legal language of the Old Testament, it is inaccurate to interpret "freely justified by His grace" only in the sense of an outward, judicial, forensic pronouncement on God’s part. Such a view would render divine grace just as external to man’s heart as was the Law. This theory of a merely external righteousness effectively separates repentance from holiness, as though God would declare a man righteous without actually making him righteous, pronounce him to be just without causing him to be a "saint," and convert him but without giving him a new heart. God’s righteous act, His deed of justification, does not remain external to the one whom He justifies. It alters him from within.

In fact, a major difference between the Law and the Gospel consists in this very distinction between an external form and an internal transformation. God’s grace justifies by transforming from within; it actually produces something new. By this justifying grace we are made a "new creation" in Christ; we "become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

God has set forth Jesus Christ "as a propitiation by His blood" (verse 25). The Greek word translated here as "propitiation," and used as a description of Christ our Lord, is hilasterion, a word found in the New Testament only here and in Hebrews 9:5. It does not mean propitiation in the sense of placating an angry God. Indeed, both the Old and New Testaments carefully avoid speaking about God’s anger in connection with blood sacrifice. The requirement of blood sacrifice, without which there is no atonement for sin, is not related in Holy Scripture to the divine wrath.

Hilastrion designates, rather, the place of divine forgiveness, the locus of the atonement. It is the word used in the Septuagint to refer to the "mercy seat" where God meets man in the sprinkling of sacrificial blood (Leviticus 16:2,11-17). According to biblical thought, "the life is in the blood." Therefore, the pouring out of Jesus’ blood in His sacrifice on the Cross is the pouring out of His life in love for the Father and for each of us. By this pouring out of His life, Jesus cleanses away our sins. By His death He defeats sin, and by His resurrection He defeats death.

The righteousness of man, received in faith, comes from the righteousness of God manifested in the expiatory mystery of the Cross. Through the death of Jesus, God both manifests Himself as righteous and makes believers righteous "by the faith of Christ" (verse 26).

Paul uses the metaphor of the Law to speak of "the law of faith" (verse 27), which is identical with "the law of the Spirit" (8:2) and "the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Man may not boast, therefore, for only God can justify him (verse 28).

Although in Christ there is an "end of the Law" (10:4), there is also a sense in which Christ establishes the Law (verse 31). The next chapter will be devoted to this theme.

Friday, February 4

Genesis 35: Bethel had been the scene of an earlier “stage” in Jacob’s religious growth. His return there (vv. 13–15) indicates that that earlier stage must now be incorporated into the larger picture. Jacob goes back to rethink and to rededicate that earlier event. In a sense, he is no longer the same man who first went to Bethel. Yet, that earlier event was an essential component of what Jacob has now become.

Romans 4:1-12: When St. Paul asserted, at the end of the previous chapter, that by the proclamation of the Gospel "we establish the Law," it is clear that he understood the latter term in the sense of the whole content of the Torah, including the narratives that it contains. He apparently intended even the entire Old Testament under this heading. That is to say, the proclamation of the Gospel provides the proper basis for that entire body of divinely inspired literature that the Christian Church has received from the Jews. The Gospel is the key to the Law; it provides the correct understanding of that literature.

In the present chapter the apostle illustrates and demonstrates that the principle of justification through faith lies at the heart of the Old Testament. He goes to this Gospel principle as illustrated in the lives of Abraham and David.

In the case of David, who had violated at least two articles of the Decalogue, justification came from the forgiveness of his sins. David had not observed the Law, but God had forgiven his lawless deeds and not imputed his sins unto him (verses 7-8).

In this non-imputation of sin, the verb employed is logizesthai, which Paul uses with respect to both David and Abraham. Such imputation is not some sort of legal fiction. This verb, in its normal and literal meaning, comes from the practice of accounting, bookkeeping, and the maintenance of ledgers. In the Greek Bible it is used metaphorically in the sense of a recorded account of man’s moral conduct, as though God and the angels were "keeping tabs" on him (Deuteronomy 24:13; Psalms 106 [105]:31; Daniel 7:10; Revelation 20:12). This figurative use of the verb in a theological sense seems to be an extension of its figurative use in a legal and forensic sense, such as in court records and similar official archives (cf. Esther 6:1-3).

Thus, when David writes that a forgiven man’s sins are not “imputed” to him, the meaning is that those sins are no longer kept on the ledger, so to speak. They have been erased or "whitened over." Our sins are removed from the divine calculation, as it were. Our sins are "covered" (verse 7), not in the sense that they still remain in the soul, but in the sense that God has put them out of His mind. They are over and done with. He remembers them no more. The blood of the Lamb has washed them away, and a man never again needs to remember things that God has forgotten.

In addition to David, Paul writes of Abraham, "our forefather according to the flesh," which means "our biological ancestor" (verse 1; Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8). Abraham lived in a period long before the Sinai Covenant and the Mosaic Law. Yet, he was justified in God’s sight, not by his observance of the Law, but through his faith in God’s word, a faith manifest in his obedience to God’s call (verses 2-5).

When the Sacred Text asserts that Abraham’s faith was "accounted [elogisthe] to him for righteousness" (verse 3), it means that God was never in Abraham’s debt. God did not owe Abraham anything. The initiative of salvation in the story of Abraham was entirely God’s. God sought out Abraham, not the other way around. Abraham’s task was to believe, to trust, to obey. In faith he left his justification in God’s hands.

The biblical assertion of Abraham’s righteousness in Genesis 15 not only preceded the giving of the Mosaic Law in the Book of Exodus, it also preceded Abraham’s circumcision in Genesis 17. Indeed, Abraham received the circumcision as a "sign" (semeion) and "seal" (sphragis) of the righteousness he already had through faith. He is the father, therefore, not only of the circumcised Jew but also of the uncircumcised Gentile (verses 9-12).