July 24 – July 31, 2020

Friday, July 24

Mark 10:17-31: Jesus here tells the parable of camel and the eye of the needle in response to Peter’s bewilderment of what just transpired with the rich man. As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?

Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate.

On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has some affinity to a thread, whereas camel obviously does not. This explanation keeps Jesus for mixing metaphors. This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is rather clever, even ingenious, but it is also too late to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear in the first thousand years of Christian history!

What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 27). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.

This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.

Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 28) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.

Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).

Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 29-30). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.

Saturday, July 25

Second Samuel 23: This chapter opens with another poem of David introduced by a note in which the king is called, “the sweet psalmist of Israel.” In fact, the inscriptions in the Psalter ascribe more psalms to David than to any other person. This pattern of ascription is reflected in the New Testament (cf. Romans 4:6; 11:9; Hebrews 4:7).

Since David is described here as “the sweet psalmist,” It is ironical that this brief poem—a mere five lines—does not appear to be related, by either structure or theme, to Israel’s traditional psalms. In this respect it is quite different from the psalm in the previous chapter of Samuel.

The description of this poem as “the last words of David” means “David’s final composition”—not his literally last words. His truly last words are his charge to Solomon in First Kings 2.

Whereas the psalm in the previous chapter celebrated the faithful Lord’s deliverance of his anointed one, the present poem celebrates the faithfulness of the anointed one himself, a fidelity that brings divine blessing to the whole people. That is to say, it portrays an image of the ideal king, whose reign reflects the kingship of God.

David is declared to be at once the anointed one and the recipient of “the Spirit of the Lord”—a conjunction of images taken up later in the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / ?Because the Lord has anointed me” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

The psalm is a poem about the Davidic covenant, a central and dominant idea in the Book of Samuel. As Israel’s ruler, the king is likened to the sun (verse 4), of which Holy Scripture declares that God made “the greater light to rule the day” (Genesis 1:16). The king resembles the sun, not only in general, but more specifically the sun at sunrise; it is he that separates daylight from darkness. Here the sun imagery moves immediately to the theme of fertility, in which “the tender grass rises from the earth,?/ By clear shining after rain” (cf. Psalm 72 [71]:1-7).

Just as this sun and rain of the Davidic monarchy bring about the growth of the grass, so its infidelity is likened to the thorns that sprang up after the Fall (verse 6; cf. Genesis 3:18). Like Adam, who must fight against the weeds, the king is obliged to destroy the noxious plants of the kingdom (verse 7). Once again, we should remark that David is describing the ideal king more than himself!

The second part of this chapter (verses 8-39) is a list of warriors who distinguished themselves at various times during David’s long reign.

Sunday, July 26

Second Samuel 24: The story of the plague is placed near the end of the Book of Samuel, because it leads directly to the actual spot where the temple is to be constructed.

The account begins with David’s plan to take a census of the people. Given the two accounts of census taking in the Book of Numbers, David probably thinks precedence is on his side in this matter. As was the case in Numbers, David probably wants this census in order to take stock of his military strength. This impulse would also account for Joab’s role in the story.

Why did Joab, not exactly a paragon of moral probity in Holy Scripture, object to the census? We are not told; but a plausible conjecture observes that a census is politically risky. If David orders this census for purposes of military conscription, it may be that Joab is afraid of political backlash within Israel’s population. That is to say, if David is acting in a high-handed way, it may be the case that Israel will see him acting in a high-handed way . . . and resent it! As we saw in the matter of Absalom’s death, Joab is sometimes more perceptive than David in reading the pulse of the Israelites.

Like Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, David is visited with “plague,” maggefah (verses 21,25). Is the author suggesting that David, in ordering this census, is acting in a highhanded fashion like Pharaoh? Joab seems to think so. In any case, David’s conscience afflicts him as soon as the census is completed. He knows he has done wrong. He prays, and the Lord answers the prayer by sending him a prophetic word.

The Prophet Gad, in reprimanding David, offers him a choice among three punishments: seven years of famine, three months of foreign invasion, or three days of plague.

At the conclusion of the plague, David causes sacrifice to be offered at the very place where the plague ceases—the threshing floor of Araunah. The king’s negotiations to purchase the field from Araunah put the reader in mind of Abraham’s real estate arrangement with the Hittites for the cave of Machpelah in Genesis 23, but the similarities between the two texts appear to bear no theological or thematic significance.

This final chapter, narrating David’s sacrifice on the threshing floor, ties the Book of Samuel back to its beginning, where sacrifice was offered at Shiloh, but the purchase of this property, on which Solomon will build the temple, also points the Book of Samuel toward the future, when the sacrifices of Israel will be offered in that very place.

Monday, July 27

1 Kings 1: The introduction of Abishag sets the stage for the later intrigue in which Adonijah will request that she be given to him as a wife. That request, which will seal the prince’s doom, is found in the next chapter.

Adonijah’s claim to the throne is legally plausible; His older brothers, Amnon and Absalom, are both dead, and perhaps Chileab (2 Samuel 3:3), so Adonijah can promote his case on the premise of primogeniture. The matter is murky, nonetheless, and the prince’s failure to invite Solomon to the gathering at El Rogel suggests that Adonijah knows, or, at least, seriously suspects that David had Solomon in mind as his successor.

What Adonijah does, however, is not only murky; it is also dangerous. Even though he has the support of the rest of his siblings, at least some of the army (led by Joab), the priest Abiathar, and other officials of the court, the success of this coup depends on a certain measure of secrecy. The royal garden at ‘Ein-Rogel (according to Josephus, Antiquities 7.14.4) is sufficiently secluded to avoid too much notice, until the deed is actually done.

Adonijah’s resolve to “exalt himself” illustrates the biblical principle that whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Indeed, in attempting to usurp what does not yet belong to him, the young man is something of an Adam-figure; the Fall of humanity’s original father, we remember, was likewise an attempt to seize an honor that was not yet his.

If we compare the names on Adonijah’s guest list (Joab the military figure and Abiathar the priest) with those of the uninvited (a general, a priest, and others), most notable among the latter is the Prophet Samuel. That is to say, Adonijah seems to have no prophetic support for his plan.

Indeed, what the young prince is doing here is simply an exercise of the will to power. He had no interest in knowing or doing God’s will. His effort is the first many examples of such arrogance throughout the period of the Israel’s kings.

Furthermore, Adonijah’s failure to seek prophetic counsel touches on theme of the book; namely, God’s continued guidance of His People through the oracles of the prophets. In the history of both the Southern and Northern kingdoms, we will find this to be a sustained motif.

Tuesday, July 28

Mark 11:12-19: In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”

Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, /And he will prepare the way before Me. /And the Lord, whom you seek, /Will suddenly come to His temple, /Even the Messenger of the covenant, /In whom you delight. /Behold, He is coming,’ /Says the Lord of hosts. /‘But who can endure the day of His coming? /And who can stand when He appears? /For He is like a refiner’s fire /And like launderers’ soap. /He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; /He will purify the sons of Levi, /And purge them as gold and silver, /That they may offer to the Lord /An offering in righteousness. /Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem /Will be pleasant to the Lord, /As in the days of old, /As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4). The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).

The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).

First Kings 2: This chapter begins with David’s exhortation to Solomon, which includes some unsettled “family business” with respect to Joab and Shimei. (The former’s recent complicity in Adonijah’s plot seems to have settled David’s mind on this point.)

David’s death in 961 B.C. is told with the briefest notice.

In the previous chapter, the reader learned that David’s most recent wife, Abishag, is still a virgin. Adonijah, who has evidently taken a shine to the young lady, wants to marry her. Foolishly, he asks Bathsheba to intervene with Solomon on his behalf.

Bathsheba spots her chance; she has no doubt about how Solomon will respond to this request that David’s young “widow” be given in marriage to David’s own son. So she makes the request on his behalf, and that is the end of poor Adonijah.

Bathsheba is now the Queen Mother, the Gebirah. The true place of the Queen Mother in Holy Scripture is amply illustrated by comparing two scenes, in which Bathsheba is pictured as entering the throne room to speak to the king. In the first of these she is described as coming into the presence of her husband, King David: “And Bathsheba bowed and did homage to the king” (1:16). In the second instance, she comes into the presence of Solomon, her son: “And the king rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand” (2:19). A simple comparison of these texts indicates clearly the deference and honor with which a Davidic king expects his mother to be treated. If the king bows down before her, how much more his subjects?

The chapter includes Solomon’s fulfillment of David’s instructions relative to Joab and Shimei. Since the former has recently joined an attempted coup in the realm, he is regarded as a continuing threat to Solomon’s throne. His life is forfeit immediately, notwithstanding his attempt to gain asylum in the sanctuary.

Shimei, who does not represent an immediate threat, is treated more leniently, until he provokes Solomon further. Then he is executed, as well.

Wednesday, July 29

Acts 18:1-11: Acts 18:1-11: When he arrives in Corinth, coming from Athens, Paul is supremely depressed (1 Corinthians 2:3), perhaps from his relative failure at Athens, and probably also because he has not yet heard back from the delegation from Macedonia. It is now near or at the beginning of the year 50, and Paul will remain in Corinth until the summer of 51.

The congregation that he founds at Corinth will be among the most contentious Christian churches of antiquity. There will be so many problems within that congregation that Paul himself will be obliged to write them at least four epistles, of which two are preserved in the New Testament (or three, if 2 Corinthians is a composite of two epistles). In addition, before the end of the century the church at Corinth will receive yet another letter from Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, reprimanding them yet again for the same sorts of dissension, rebellion, and contentiousness that had so grieved Paul at the earlier period. A modern scholar, K. Stendhal, remarked about the church at Corinth that it “had almost all the problems that churches have had through the ages, except the chief problem of our churches today: it was never boring.” Under the guidance of divine providence, of course, those Corinthian troubles have worked unto our own spiritual profit, for without them we would not have some of the most important pages of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13, for instance).

First Kings 3: Certain unpleasant executions out of the way, Solomon turns his mind to governing.

First mentioned is his marriage to an Egyptian princess (verses 1-2), which forestalls any problems from that part of the world. The wedding is expensive; to supply the bride’s dowry, her father—something of a cheapskate, it appears—destroys a Philistine city (cf. 9:16).

Next comes the account of Solomon’s prayer and mystic dream at Gibeon (verses 3-15), a city and shrine (cf. First Chronicles 16:39) six miles northwest of Jerusalem. (Josephus speaks of two such dreams of Solomon [Antiquities 8.4.6].) Egyptologists mention similar stories of dream-revelations made to various pharaohs, and Holy Scripture gives other examples (Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, et alii). Especially pertinent are the dreams of the pharaoh in the Joseph story and of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel; these, like Solomon’s, are “royal dreams.”

The wisdom sought by Solomon is, literally translated, “a hearing heart to judge.” That is to say, it is a practical wisdom, which makes prudent decisions in governing and deciding both policies and cases. A first example of the latter is the famous episode of the two women and the one living baby in verses 16-28.

Solomon’s wisdom, the answer to his prayer, causes him to stand at the beginning of Israel’s Wisdom Literature. He is credited with the earliest collection of Wisdom sayings that came to fullness in the Book of Proverbs.

Prayer is the first step in the attainment of Wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). In the scene at Gibeon, Solomon may be regarded as the living embodiment of the quest described in the Book of Proverbs:

Yes, if you cry out for discernment, / ?And lift up your voice for understanding, / If you seek her as silver,? / And search for her as for hidden treasures; / Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,? / And find the knowledge of God. / For the Lord gives wisdom;? / From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:3-6).

Thursday, July 30

1 Kings 4: In this chapter the reader discerns a variety of “voices” in the description of Solomon’s reign. There is a voice of satisfaction, for example, in the description of the king’s wisdom in verses 29-34. There is also, however, a hint of dissatisfaction in the voice in several other verses that speak of the imposition of compelled labor and services on the people (cf. also 5:13-18).

There are two major differences between the political apparatus of the reigns of David and Solomon. First, that of Solomon is more complex; there are new offices, which reflect the more extensive commercial and geopolitical activities of a new order.

Second, the government of Solomon’s reign is more centralized. Whereas David had relied on the traditional tribal arrangement, Solomon imposes geographical divisions less reliant on tribal borders, and over the sundry territories established by these divisions he appoints royal representatives answerable to the central government at Jerusalem. Thus, the largely amphictyonic kingdom governed by David is replaced by a highly unified political system. That is to say, Solomon replaces a political tradition with a political theory.

Thus, taxes in support of the monarch—and the monarch’s growing interest in public works—are no longer collected from the tribes; they are paid to tax collectors who operate outside of tribal authority and control. Extensive levies of goods and services—forced labor!—are directly laid on the population by district governors appointed from Jerusalem. The function of these governors is largely fiscal.

Solomon makes a slight effort to disguise this new political format by maintaining a division of the kingdom into twelve regions. Since this was the traditional number of Israel’s tribes, the king hopes, perhaps. no one will notice the new arrangement! Any careful observer, however, may observe that the new territorial precincts do not coincide with the traditional tribal boundaries. In addition, it is instructive to observe that two of these governors are sons-in-law to the king (verses 11 and 15).

In his imposition of forced labor on the population, particularly with respect to his extensive building projects, Solomon resembles no one so much as the pharaoh encountered by Moses in the Book of Exodus. And the reader recalls Samuel’s prophecy that such an imposition would be the lot of Israel if ever they established a monarchy.

Because of the feeble political systems at either end of the Fertile Crescent (Egypt and Babylon), Solomon enjoyed the freedom to extend his influence, largely through commerce, eastward toward the Euphrates and southward through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. His father, David, had subdued all the kingdoms in the region that might otherwise have challenged Solomon’s hegemony over much of the Fertile Crescent.

Friday, July 31

1 Kings 5: We come now to several chapters descriptive of the Solomonic prosperity of Israel in the mid-tenth century. David, Solomon’s father, taking advantage of the decline of Babylon at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and the geopolitical vacuum created by the lackluster Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt at its western end, had carved out a small empire for himself, subduing the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Syrians, and making mercantile arrangements with the seagoing Phoenicians to the north.

To all of this fortune Solomon falls heir when David dies in 961. It is possible that in all of history Solomon has no equal in his ability to read both maps and ledgers. His father having incorporated the Edomites to the south, Solomon controls the port and Gulf of Aqaba (Elath) and the Red Sea. This extensive waterway affords access to ports along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the east of Africa, and, through the Indian Ocean, a thousand other places. To the north Israel is bordered by the Phoenicians, whose shipping merchants are delivering and picking up cargo at ports all around the Mediterranean basin.

Looking at this picture, Solomon decides to go into business, serving as the middleman between the Phoenician markets in the Mediterranean and the sundry mercantile opportunities around the Red Sea. It proves to be a time of booming material affluence.

Besides the favorable geopolitical situation, several other recent developments aid the prosperity attendant on Solomon’s reign: First is the beginning of the Iron Age in that part of the world, with its greatly improved axes, hoes, scythes, plowshares, and other tools and farming implements, leading to less labor and increased productivity.

Second is the greater use of calcium oxide to seal cisterns and wells allowing for improved water conservation and, in turn, greatly increasing agricultural yields.

Third is the adoption of a common alphabet in the eastern Mediterranean world, permitting more efficient bookkeeping, uniform bills of lading, invoices, and other forms of written communication essential to commerce.

Fourth is the greater use of the camel. This animal, already important in the economy of the Fertile Crescent, serves as Solomon’s chief vehicle of commerce along the overland trade routes extending north-south between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Phoenician ports of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon’s reign is, therefore, a period of enormous prosperity, in describing which the Bible speaks repeatedly of gold.

Besides being a time of economic prosperity, however, Solomon’s reign is also a period of several attendant social changes that will prove significant, though not invariably beneficent, as time goes on. First, the prosperity itself, especially the agricultural productivity, enhances the people’s diet, lengthening the average life expectancy, lowering the age of puberty and menarche, and thus increasing the population.

Second, the need for labor in the commercial sector draws many farmers from the land to enjoy the less onerous life of merchants, caravan drivers, and so forth.

This means fewer and larger farms, now rendered more productive by better tools and a greater water supply. At the same time, with fewer farms, fewer people are now able to control the food market—and prices. These higher prices, along with the lower wages inevitably prompted by the swelling of the urban labor force, become subjects on which the prophets of the coming centuries will venture a remark or two, consistently negative.

Fourth, the centralization of commerce under Solomon’s political control leads to higher taxes and a breakdown of local tribal loyalties that have served, up to this point, to provide traditional stability to the people.

Fifth, and related to the higher taxes, among the northern tribes there will be a growing discontent with the south, especially the royal and priestly establishment at Jerusalem. The better farmland and the bulk of the nation’s wealth are found in the north; yet the king and his capital are in the south, at Jerusalem.

Finally, Solomon’s economic and political ties with Phoenicia eventually lead to the deep religious and moral infidelities symbolically associated with the most famous of these Phoenicians, a lady named Jezebel.