October 16 – October 23, 2020

Friday, October 16

Nehemiah 3: This chapter describes the organized building of the wall, a task that could only be undertaken while the opposing party was caught off-guard, uncertain of its authorization.

From the beginning of the Book of Ezra, we have seen numerous examples of the resistance of the native population of the Holy Land, those who had not gone into exile. That opposition expressed their resentment at being excluded from the inheritance of Israel, and now, in the Book of Nehemiah, we observe that their resentment has not abated. It is grown stronger, rather, over the ensuing decades. It will greatly increase with Nehemiah’s construction of the city walls. More than any other project, those walls symbolized their exclusion from Israel.

Nehemiah had already arranged for the building material in 2:8; by late summer they were ready to start. For a man accustomed to dealing with the administration of an empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Macedonia, the modest organization required for this work was hardly much of a challenge.

Sections of the wall were apportioned to various families, villages, and professions. Nehemiah’s distribution of the work was not only an efficient use of the labor force, it also subtly encouraged rivalry among the builders, each team endeavoring to surpass the efforts of the others. (Some commentators have also observed the curious similarities of this description to the wall construction of Themistocles in Thucydides, History 1:89. There should be nothing surprising in this similarity. There are only so many ways to build a wall.)

Five of the building groups were composed of families listed in Ezra 2, while several others were based on various localities in the region. Merchant groups (verse 32) and certain guilds were also represented, such as apothecaries and goldsmiths (verse 8). The entire organization bore no slight resemblance to an urban softball league, in which various merchants or other organizations sponsored the different teams. The various teams of builders appear to be listed counterclockwise around the city wall. The priestly team, not unexpectedly, consecrated the parts of their sections as they were finished.

Saturday, October 17

Galatians 4:21-31: It seems significant that the covenants of God with Abraham and David are each ushered into history by an account of a barren woman. Thus, Holy Scripture introduces the covenant with Abraham by telling of the barrenness of Sarah, and the narrative of the Davidic covenant is introduced by the story of barren Hannah. It is not surprising, then, that the account of barren Elizabeth should introduce the story of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is, after all, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

St. Paul, moreover, explicitly appeals to the story of barren Sarah in order to illustrate the Christian covenant. He writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic” (verses 22-24).

The Greek word translated by the NKJV as “symbolic” is allegoroumena, which literally means “things said in allegory.” This is our first instance of the work “allegory” in Christian thought, where it properly means the New Testament meaning of the Old Testament text. Indeed, this is why Paul brings up the subject of barren Sarah—her historical and symbolic relevance to the Christian covenant.

Paul’s insertion of this image into his exposition of the Christian covenant prompts us to reflect more in detail on what the story of ancient Sarah means to the Christian mind. Perhaps we may summarize these reflections under three headings: frustration, humor, and faith.

First, let us recall Sarah’s frustration. She wanted a son, and she was willing to do just about anything to get one. We all know the story of her attempt to use ancient Middle Eastern adoption laws to have her handmaid act as her surrogate. We recall how she urged Abraham to father a child with that servant, Hagar. We also remember that the arrangement did not work out very well.

This should not have been surprising. God alone gives life, and human life in particular is not just a matter of biology. Sarah stands in history as an excellent example of those who tried to take the place of God with respect to their offspring. In the case of Hagar, this was very much a “planned pregnancy.” Forgetting that children are a gift and a blessing from God, Sarah contrived to impose her own will on the order of nature in order to achieve what she wanted. “Planned parenthood” is a very bad way to start raising children, because it treats those children as the products of a human strategy instead as precious gifts from the creating hand of God.

She stands, then, as an early example of all attempts to produce human life by medical contrivances, to overcome human barrenness through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and all other mechanical attempts to produce a baby, to make a child as a merely human product, something other than a pure gift from God.

In Sarah’s case, the entire enterprise backfired, of course, and after the birth of Ishmael her life became more frustrated than ever. Eventually Hagar and her baby were driven out into the desert, where Ishmael became the father of the Arabs. That is to say, things did not turn out as the mother of the Jews had in mind. The God that brings good out of evil, however, had His own plans, and this consideration brings us to our second point.

Second, let us consider the humor of Sarah. We recall the famous scene where Abraham and his wife showed hospitality to the Three Strangers in Genesis 18. We remember well the promise that God made to them at that time: “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” Sarah, 89 years old at the time, was listening to this conversation behind the flap of the family’s tent, and when she heard the divine promise, says Holy Scripture, she laughed.

Really, what else could she do? The whole idea was so preposterous. I suspect that most of us, in such circumstances, might giggle a bit. The Lord, however, was very serious on the matter, so He inquired of Abraham, “”Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Sarah herself was rather embarrassed by the whole episode, and not a little frightened, so much so that she denied having laughed. The Lord, however, who knows all things, even a giggle behind a tent flap, answered her, “”No, but you did laugh!”

For all that, there is nothing in the Sacred Text to suggest that the laughter of Sarah was a moral failing. She was reprimanded, not for laughing, but for denying that she had laughed. One suspects that her laughter was in some measure a sign of her humility. It probably indicated that she did not take herself too seriously. Perhaps it is the case that Sarah should have laughted more often than she did. If she had laughed at herself at earlier periods in her life, perhaps she would not have been so hard on Hagar and Ishmael. Perhaps she would have been less critical of Abraham himself.

Third, let us consider the faith of Sarah. If we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on this point, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. Fortunately, however, we have the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (11:11).

Indeed, the faith of Sarah illustrates something truly essential to the very nature of faith—it accomplishes what is humanly impossible. Sarah did not regard the prospects of bearing a child at age 90. On the contrary, “she judged Him faithful who had promised.” That is to say, she trusted the fidelity of God to do what He has promised to do.

Hagar’s childbearing was a physical thing, says Paul. It was “according to the flesh.” Sarah’s, on the other hand, was “according to promise.” Faith is always “according to promise.” It is beyond all human guarantees, because it is rooted in God’s fidelity to His word. He is a God that keeps His promises. Thus Paul concludes his argument in Galatians, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.” Like Sarah, we live in the expectation that God, in fidelity to His word, will always keep His promises.

Sunday, October 18

Nehemiah 5: This chapter, which is out of historical sequence, serves partly an apologetic purpose: Prior to narrating the attacks that his enemies were to make on his moral character, he inserts this incident (from a later time) in order to demonstrate his integrity and sense of justice. In this incident, the problem faced by Nehemiah was an internal one, the exploitation of the builders during this time of crisis. Profiteers were taking extreme advantage of the situation (verses 1-5).

Contrary to the radically selfish principles of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Objectivist philosophies, a healthy society cannot be founded solely on private enterprise and individual rights; government has appropriate functions, after all, beyond those of the common defense, domestic safety, and the safeguarding of private property. It is also a biblically warranted function of government to discourage greed, rapacity, and the taking of undue advantage. The evil we see in this chapter indicates that ancient Jerusalem had its own equivalents of Jeremy Bentham, Ludwig Von Mises, and Ayn Rand. Unbridled greed was producing once again the social order of Cain, as described in Genesis 4.

Nehemiah faced the crisis resultant from a completely selfish atmosphere, aggravated by the extra burden of the labor on the walls and a crop failure. Loan sharks, prohibited by the Mosaic Law from taking interest, were requiring exorbitant rights of usufruct and a disproportionate collateral, which, in the end, enslaved the children dispossessed by such abuses. All of this activity, unfortunately, was within the letter of the law, a form of “legal injustice.”

Nehemiah’s first reaction was visceral (verse 6), but he gave himself time to cool down and reflect (verse 7), pondering which path might be the most effective to take. Then, skipping steps one and two in the procedure listed in Matthew 18:15-17, he jumped immediately to step three in the procedure. Since the offense was public, the confrontation would have to be public (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Nehemiah summoned a general assembly, in which to face the offenders with a larger group of people rallied on his own side. He easily reduced the offenders to silence (verses 7-8), not by appealing to the letter of the law (for the letter of the law in this instance was not on his side), still less by invoking something so nebulous as “the rights of the poor” (because the poor usually have more needs than they have rights), but by the experience of brotherhood (“your brethren”).

Having reduced the offenders to silence, he proceeded to shame them into doing the decent thing (verses 9-11). He used his office, that is to say, not to maintain the letter of the law, but to establish justice. Clearly he regarded government as responsible for setting right certain economic wrongs born of an excessive and oppressive system of private enterprise that was able to stay legal while remaining unjust. In this respect, Nehemiah was clearly acting on impulses spawned of the great social prophets three centuries earlier: Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. Those powerless men decried economic injustice, but Nehemiah, himself in a powerful position, was able to do something about it. His efforts were successful (verses 12-13).

Nehemiah stayed on at Jerusalem until 433 (verse 14), informing us that he was not a half-bad governor (verses 15-19). The next chapter will jump back to the sequence expected at the end of the incident with which the present chapter began. Having demonstrated his integrity in the present chapter, he is now ready to speak of the calumnies of his enemies.

Monday, October 19

Luke 12:49-59: In this chapter of Luke, Jesus has begun speaking to His disciples as a group set apart and distinct from others who hear him. Indeed, he has addressed them as a group distinct from the crowds, calling them a “little flock” (verse 32), and he had begun by warning them against the “hypocrisy” of the Jewish leaders (verse 1). Now the Lord turns His attention to the “crowds” (verse 54).

The crisis soon to arise, warns Jesus, is not only for His disciples and Himself, but also for the Chosen People and their leaders (cf. Matthew 16:2-3). However, these latter, being hypocrites (verse 56), are unable to discern the signs of the times. Consequently, they fail “to interpret the present time,” the current kairos that is full of impending significance.

Using the one to explain the other, Jesus draws a distinction between space and time, nature and history. Those whom He addresses area able to interpret the meaning of space and nature, the western cloud and the south wind, but the imminent events of time and history are lost to them. A cloud arriving from the west come from over the Mediterranean Sea and brings rain (cf. 1 Kings 18:44), whereas a southerly wind, arising from the Negev Desert, carries with it the dry heat.

Such things the people know from long experience; they are familiar with how to read nature. They seem far less familiar with history, however, or they would apply to its current period the same level of discernment that enables them to interpret the signs of imminent weather.

Nehemiah 6: The local opposition to Nehemiah’s building project next took a new and unbelievably clumsy tack, which he resisted with high disdain (verses 1-4). Failing this, his opponents then sent a letter with an implicit threat of denunciation (verses 5-7), but Nehemiah remained unimpressed (verse 8).

The story found here in verses 10-13 is not necessarily part of the chronological sequence but may have been put here because of its affinity to the two preceding stories.

Even before Shemaiah was in the employ of his opponents, Nehemiah smelled something wrong. He sensed that he was being invited to take a step he would regret. We observe him here, nonetheless, maintaining his composure under pressure, controlling his emotions, especially the emotion of fear, so as not to obscure his assessment of the situation (verse 14).

The wall, begun in the late summer, was finished fifty-two days later, in mid-October (verse 15). About six months had passed since Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and less than a year since his friends had come with sad news to Babylon. Once again, Sanballat and his friends learned of the wall’s completion only by rumor (verse 16).

Tuesday, October 20

Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (verses 6-72). For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2. The difference between that earlier list and the present list is one of purpose and context. The list in Ezra 2 established the continuity with Israel’s past, especially with a view to validating the claims of the returning exiles with respect to their possession of the Holy Land. In the present chapter, however, the list is set in the context of Jerusalem’s new enclosure. It is the census of a city, not a mere list of returning exiles. It is a municipal instrument, which will serve as a format for taxation and civic service. It is a document of the community’s restoration and renewal. Consequently, it is included between the completion of the walls (verses 1-3) and the ceremony of renewal (chapters 8—10).

The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah.

All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions which, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25). Surely, however, those emotions did much to drive his highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11).

Trained as an executive and diplomat, Nehemiah’s rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his fears, they were under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19; 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39).

Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan.

In the next chapter attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous period.

Wednesday, October 21

Galatians 6:11-18: As our point of focus, as we consider hiss last lines to the Galatians, can be Paul’s affirmation, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything, but a new creation.”

The Greek expressions translated as “new creation” is kaine ktisis. The noun ktisis is ambivalent, in the sense that it can bear two meanings. It can mean the act of creation, or it can mean the product of that act. Interpreters of Holy Scripture debate which of these two meanings is intended in the present text.

I suggest we understand the word here in both of its meanings. When Paul designates here what counts for something, the “new creation” means both God’s act and the thing created by that act.

There is not the slightest ambiguity in the text. It is perfectly clear. What counts for something in the eyes of Saint Paul is God’s new creative act of making a new creature. In short St. Paul’s expression, “new creation,” means exactly the same thing as St. John’s expression, “new birth.” To be re-created means the same thing as to be re-born.

Both expressions signify that in Christ we start all over. To start all over means we do not live like the rest of men, and we do not think like the rest of men. And this is the foundational message of the Epistle to the Galatians.

Let us recall the reason Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. Several years after he had evangelized the people in the region of Galatia, Paul learned that some Christian Jews arrived there, causing spiritual harm by teaching the Galatians thinks quite at odds with what Paul had taught them. Specifically, these late arrivals were instructing Paul Gentile Christians on the necessity of circumcision.

Paul, when he learned of this was shocked. The question had already been dealt with and disposed of. When he met with the other Apostles at Jerusalem, they had determined that circumcision was not necessary. The sign of the new covenant was not circumcision but baptism, through which believers received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

According to Paul, the basic contrast is between walking in the flesh and walking in the Spirit. The distinguishing feature of life according to the Gospel is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul Gentile converts had received that Holy Spirit without being circumcised.

Thursday, October 22

Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long “narrative prayer” similar to several psalms that recount Israel’s formative history (e.g., Psalms 78 [77], 105 [104], 106 [105]). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses, which immediately preceded Israel’s entrance into Canaan. From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the themes from the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated.

The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nation’s re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that — a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from.

From Israel’s earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together by history. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers! They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer, as we see in so many of the Psalms devoted to that theme.

Indeed, there is considerable irony in the idea that the fathers are to teach their children in order that they children do not become like the fathers: “For He established a testimony in Jacob, ?And appointed a law in Israel,? Which He commanded our fathers,? That they should make them known to their children; That the generation to come might know them,? The children who would be born,? That they may arise and declare them to their children, That they may set their hope in God,? And not forget the works of God,? But keep His commandments; And may not be like their fathers (Psalm 78:5-8).

Friday, October 23

Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals—to be, in fact, a people very different from every other. These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), observance of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book.

Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be–namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. God’s distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That adjective had to be a reality, and not just a word.

This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God.

This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, Israel’s spiritual walls had been badly penetrated—by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances. These last were sometimes sealed by marriages joining the people’s leadership to the very worst qualities represented in the other nations.

The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of Israel’s recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive, building walls, establishing clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.