January 20 – 27, 2023

Friday, January 20

Matthew 7.21-29: Matthew 7:22 closes the Sermon on the Mount with a reference to the day of judgment, which will also be the case in the fifth and last of the Lord’s great sermons in Matthew, the discourse on the Last Things (25:31-46). The reference to the building by a wise man puts the reader in mind of Solomon, remembered in Holy Scripture as both a wise man and a builder. It is the day of judgment which will reveal whether or not a man has wisely built on a strong foundation (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Hebrews 10.11-25: Whereas the Old Testament sacrifices were many, the New Testament sacrifice is unique: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” In the previous chapter we read that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28).

This word “once” (hapachs) is found in Hebrews 8 times, more than all the other New Testament books put together. This hapachs, “once,” is contrasted with pollakis, “many times” (9:25-26).

This “once” contrasted with “many” is related to the “seated” contrasted with “standing.” The “once” and “seated” indicate finality and fulfillment—the end of history—whereas the “standing” and “many” suggest an ongoing process.

Genesis 20: This chapter sounds rather familiar to the story in Genesis 12, where we also learned of the beauty of Sarah and the disposition of men to look upon her with a measure of “coveting.” In the present instance, we may bear in mind, Sarah is almost ninety years old and pregnant. This fact says either a great deal of Sarah’s beauty or Abimelech’s preferences in women.
We already learned a great deal about Abraham’s powers of persuasion when he turned to God in prayer. This was hardly surprising, because the Scriptures call him “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; Daniel 3:35 [LXX]; Judith 8:22 [Vulgate]; James 2:23), and God, like the rest of us in this respect, delights in doing favors for His friends. As God’s friend, Abraham was blessed with what the Bible calls parresia, confidence or even boldness (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16), in his approach to the Lord on matters of concern. Like the stalwart widow in the Gospel parable on this subject (Luke 18:1-8), Abraham could be rather persistent, perhaps a tad nagging, when he brought some point of concern to the attention of the Almighty. Accustomed to that mercantile dickering ever common in the Middle East, Abraham knew how to chaffer his way to a bargain, and he incorporated this skill too into his prayer, as it were. We saw this power of his intercessory prayer in Genesis 18:16-33.

Thus in the present chapter, even after God declared to Abimelech, “Indeed, you are a dead man,” He went on to promise that Abraham “will pray for you and you shall live” (verses 3,7). And, indeed, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech” (verse17).

Saturday, January 21

Genesis 21: We come now to the long-awaited birth of Isaac, concerning which the New Testament says, “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. Therefore, from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars in the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11-12). While the author of Hebrews praises the faith of Sarah in this respect, the Apostle Paul tends rather to stress the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:19-22). The circumcision of Isaac (verse 4), commanded in Genesis 17:9-14), would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.

In Genesis 16 we already learned that all was not well between Sarah and Hagar after Ishmael was born. At that time, however, Hagar enjoyed the advantage that she had borne a son, and Sarah had not. In the present chapter that advantage is a thing of the past, and we are not surprised to see that now Hagar and Ishmael are regarded as the mere slaves that they were. Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” at the younger child Isaac, perhaps a reference to the kinds of teasing that younger children have been known to suffer from older children. Indeed, one may reasonably speculate that Ishmael had heard disparaging remarks about Sarah and Isaac from his own mother and was simply acting them out. At the very least, Sarah does not want her son playing with a mere slave boy.

So Hagar must go. Ishmael’s true situation is revealed in the fact that he is not even named; he is simply “that slave girl’s son” (verse 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a non-entity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bore legal significance, the older boy is still Abraham’s son, and Abraham loves him.

Whatever Sarah’s reasons for expelling Hagar and Ishmael, God had His own reasons, and He permitted Sarah’s plans to succeed in order for His own reasons to succeed. This is true rather often; God permits evil to prevail for the sake of a greater good that only He can see and plan for. Had Hagar and Ishmael stayed on in Abraham’s household, they would have remained slaves. By their departure Ishmael was able to become the father of a great people on the earth (verse 13), a great people with us to this day, the great people of Arabia, for whom God manifested a special providential interest in this text. We will meet this theme of divine providence abundantly in the Joseph story toward the end of Genesis.

The biblical text tends to lose track of Hagar and Ishmael once they arrive in the Negev Desert. The legends of the Arabs tell their own story of how far the mother and child reached in their journey, namely, Mecca. The spring in verses 14-19 the Arabs identify as the spring of Zamzam, found near the Ka‘ba at Mecca, which spring allowed human life to flourish in that place. Thus, Ishmael is credited with the founding of Mecca, which is a religious shrine vastly older than Islam. Thus, according to the Bible the Arabs too are a great nation, close relatives of the Jews and regarded as their rather bellicose cousins (Genesis 16:11-12). Indeed, much of the later history of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin was dominated by a single idea: How to restrain the ancient and native bellicosity of Arabia.

Sunday, Genesis 22

Genesis 22: When the author of Chronicles wrote, “Now Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah” (2 Chronicles 3:1), he inserted the theology of Genesis squarely into his account of Israel’s sacrificial worship. In fact, this text in Chronicles is the only place in Holy Scripture where the site of the Temple is identified as Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed (Genesis 22:2). This is no incidental detail. By introducing this connection of the Temple to that distant event, not only does the Chronicler subtly indicate the new Temple’s continuity with the distant patriarchal period, he also provides his readers with a very rich theme of soteriology.

In fact, Genesis 22 is the Bible’s first instance of a “substitution” made in the matter of sacrifice. This ram caught in the bush becomes the substitute for Isaac, thus foreshadowing the paschal lamb of the Mosaic Covenant, which would be slaughtered on behalf of Israel’s firstborn sons on the night of the Exodus. In Genesis 22, then, we are dealing with the Bible’s earliest configuration of a category important in biblical soteriology. The paschal lambs, offered in Solomon’s Temple over the centuries, were all prefigured by that earlier event on Mount Moriah.

The Apostle Paul appealed to this category when he wrote that God “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Echoing this text from Romans, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote: “Abraham, according to his faith, adhered to the command of God’s Word, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only-begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up, for all his seed, His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption” (Against the Heresies 4.5.4).

If Isaac was a prefiguration of the paschal lambs sacrificed in the Old Testament temple, then he is certainly a prefiguration of the One of whom St. Paul wrote, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). This theme of Christ as the Paschal Lamb has been much developed in the thought and imagery of Holy Church, and this from earliest times. Thus, in the second century St. Justin Martyr wrote, “And the blood of the Passover, sprinkled on each man’s door-posts and lintel, delivered those who were saved in Egypt, when the first-born of the Egyptians were destroyed. For the Passover was Christ, who was afterwards sacrificed, as also Isaiah said, `He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.’ And it is written, that on the day of the Passover you seized Him, and that also during the Passover you crucified Him. And as the blood of the Passover saved those who were in Egypt, so also the blood of Christ will deliver from death those who have believed “ (Dialogue With Trypho 111). Such testimonies are ubiquitous in Christian literature.

Monday, January 23

Matthew 8.23-34: In this account of the stilling of the storm, the Lord again speaks of faith, which was also the point of the second miracle account, the story of the centurion (8:10,13). There is a striking contrast between the utter serenity of the Lord (asleep!) and the agitation of the disciples. The Lord imposes his own tranquility on the sea itself (8:26). Dominant in this narrative is a Christology of majesty, ending with the major query of the gospel itself: “Who is this?” (8:27) This is the very question that Peter, in the name of the Church, will answer in 16:16. The correct answering of this question is the affirmation of faith on which, as a foundation stone, is constructed (16:18).

he question asked in this story (“Who is this?”) is then answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, that that the external turbulence of the elements prepares for the internal turbulence of the soul. It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be (8:34).

Hebrews 1.30—12.2: In this text the faith of Rahab is contrasted with the unbelief of those other citizens of Jericho, who for seven days beheld the Ark of the Covenant circling their city and listened to the blast of the warning trumpets. They thus had ample opportunity to repent before it was too late, remarked St. John Chrysostom, more than twice as long as the citizens of Nineveh! (On Repentance 7.4.14)

Nonetheless, in the wider context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, it may be the case that the saving faith of Rahab is being contrasted with the unbelief of the Israelites themselves, those who failed to reach the Promised Land. Of those inexcusable unbelievers the author asks, “Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (3:17–19).

Following this line of interpretation, Chrysostom writes: “She accepted the spies and the One whom Israel denied in the desert; Rahab preached this One in the brothel.” And again: “What Israel heard—he who was surrounded by so many miracles and who was tutored by so many laws— he completely denied, whereas Rahab, who lived in a brothel, gives them instruction. For she says to the spies, ‘We learned all that your God did to the Egyptians’” (op. cit. 7.5.16).

The faith of Rahab was not an idle or lazy faith, says the Epistle of St. James: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:25–26).

Both of these perspectives were preserved by St. Clement of Rome, who said, “Rahab the harlot was saved because of her faith and hospitality” (Clement 12.1).

Perhaps because she was the first “Gentile convert” incorporated into God’s people, Rahab has always had a special place in Christian affection and esteem. Chrysostom imagines God saying of Rahab: “Yes, I had inside their city, to teach them repentance, that wonderful Rahab, whom I saved through repentance. She was taken from the same dough, but she was not of the same mind, for she neither shared in their sin nor resembled them in their unbelief” (op. cit. 7.4.14).

Tuesday, January 24

Matthew 8.23-34: In the account of the stilling of the storm, the Lord again speaks of faith, which was also the point of the second miracle account, the story of the centurion (8:10,13). There is a striking contrast between the utter serenity of the Lord (asleep!) and the agitation of the disciples. The Lord imposes his own tranquility on the sea itself (8:26). Dominant in this narrative is a Christology of majesty, ending with the major query of the gospel itself: “Who is this?” (8:27) This is the very question that Peter, in the name of the Church, will answer in 16:16. The correct answering of this question is the affirmation of faith on which, as a foundation stone, is constructed (16:18).

The question is now answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, that that the external turbulence of the elements prepares for the internal turbulence of the soul. It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be (8:34).

Genesis 24: The doctrine of divine providence is asserted in the biblical thesis that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This “working together” of historical events under divine governance for particular and inter-related purposes is a mystery, of course, but a mystery in two senses.

First, divine providence is a mystery in the sense that it is humanly inscrutable, exceeding even the furthest reaches of our thought, and is known only by faith. That is to say, it pertains to divine revelation. It is not the general, natural pronoia of the Stoics and Middle Platonists, but a special providence revealed by God’s particular interventions in the structure of history. For this reason Holy Scripture never attempts to explain it. Although the Bible affirms divine providence, it teaches no theory of the matter.

Second, divine providence is also a mystery in the sense that we are initiated into it. It is rendered accessible, that is, to our revelatory experience of it, the discernment of which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is particular and personal, sensed through the coherent structure of events. For this reason Holy Scripture not only affirms divine providence, but also portrays the mystery of it through narratives about events.

Wednesday, January 25

Matthew 9.1-8: Matthew, once again omitting the colorful detail about the removal of the roof, has simplified a story for purposes of concentrating the attention on the person-to-person encounter between Jesus and the paralytic. Matthew’s version is further distinguished by the reference to Lord’s sharing of His exsousia, or authority (specifically the authority to forgive sins), with “men” (8:8); that is, the Church. Indeed, the Church’s authority to forgive sins is very much spelled out later in Matthew 18:18, just as the entire ministry and mission of the Church is rooted in Christ’s reception of “all authority in heaven and on earth” (28: 18f).

Hebrews 12.3-17: This text contains the New Testament’s only criticism of Esau, who is described here as a “profane person . . . who for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:16).

Esau is introduced in Hebrews, I believe, because he represents the danger that the author most fears—namely, apostasy, or the abandonment of the inheritance of the saints. Esau was a man who forsook his inheritance and, as Hebrews insists, was unable to get it back: “For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance [metanoia], though he sought it diligently with tears.”

This inability of Esau to repent follows the thought of our author in chapter 6, where he says that for those Christians who apostatize “it is impossible . . . to renew them again to repentance [metanoia].” These are the only two chapters in which Hebrews uses the word metanoia, in both cases to insist on the difficulty of repenting after apostasy.

In fact, Esau’s inability to repent is one of the more notable features about the man. Esau had no real sense of the relative worth of things. He could not repent, because he did not truly grasp the value of what he had abandoned. Because he had cheaply sold something material, he assumed that he could just as cheaply purchase something spiritual. Embracing the principle that man lives by bread alone, he nonetheless fancied that a higher benediction was still available to him, pretty much at the same price. Having lost his birthright for a bowl of soup, he planned to gain his blessing with a plate of venison.

Esau is described as bebelos, translated traditionally as “profane” (KJV) or “irreligious”(RSV). He never developed the habit of reflecting on the moral nature of what he was doing. Esau, as we see in the instance of the bowl of soup, thought only of the present moment. Obeying the impulse of the moment, he neglected both the past and the future.

Hence, Esau was slow to learn that the future is very much tied to the past. Some blessings—and among them the very best—are inseparable from birthrights, so that the reckless squandering of the one renders unlikely the acquisition of the other. Those, therefore, who contemn the past, have little chance for a future. Esau stepped outside of salvation history, and he had only himself to blame.

Thursday, January 26

Matthew 9:9-13: By comparing this story with the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, we learn that Matthew’s other name was Levi. Much like the previous story of the paralytic, this account of the call of Matthew’s call combines the theme of forgiveness with healing, for Jesus is here portrayed as a physician (9:12). As so often, Matthew’s version of this story includes a reference to the fulfillment of prophecy, in this case the prophet Hosea (cf also Matthew 2:15). Matthew was fond of this verse of Hosea about the Lord’s preference of mercy over sacrifice, and he will quote it again in 12:7.

Genesis 26: The story about Rebekah and Abimelech (verses 6-11) is strikingly similar to two earlier stories about Sarah, and the she-is-my-sister trick is something that Isaac evidently learned from his father. There are differences among the stories, nonetheless. In the present case, we observe that the wife is not actually removed to the other man’s house; Abimelech does not go quite so far on the present occasion. He has evidently become just a wee bit more cautious; this time it does not take a divine revelation for him to discover the truth. He simply watches the couple more closely, until one day he sees them engaged in amorous exchanges (we will not speculate) that reveal that they are husband and wife. Indeed, as it turns out, Abimelech himself never admits being interested in Rebekah; he simply explains that he feared that somebody else might be!

The “revelation” in this chapter happens differently from those in Genesis 12 and 20. In the former two stories, God manifested the truth by a supernatural intervention easily discerned. In the present story God’s revelation to Abimelech is more subtle; indeed, God is not even mentioned in connection with it. That is to say, God’s intervention and deliverance need not be spectacular in order to be real. It is sufficient that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

In the controversy about the wells (verses 12-22), the word “Philistine” is an anachronism, because the real Philistines, to whom the regions about the Aegean Sea were native, would not arrive on the coast of Canaan for several centuries. The mention of them here is something on the order of saying that “Columbus discovered America.” While there may be some disagreement whether or not Columbus actually did so, no one disagrees that the name “America” was not in place when Columbus arrived. Similarly here, the “Philistines” are simply those who lived in the land that would later be inhabited by the Philistines.

In this story, we observe that Isaac has inherited the peace-loving, non-assertive disposition of his father. When there is trouble, he defuses it by meekness. And in his case too, the “meek shall inherit the earth.”

The account of Isaac’s vision (verses 23-25) links his name to the ancient shrine of Beershebah, much as Abraham’s name was associated with Hebron, and Jacob’s will be to Schechem and Bethel. The account itself is similar to that in Genesis 17.

The next story about Abimelech (verses 26-33) is similar to a narrative about Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:22-32, but there is no controversy about wells. Isaac is no longer living close to Abimelech.

Friday, January 27

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew. In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays.

Genesis 27: The shrewdness of Rebekah (verses 1-13) was a family trait, which we have already seen in Jacob’s snatching of Esau’s birthright. Very shortly we will find Jacob matching wits with Rebekah’s brother, Laban. If we are disposed to judge Rebekah’s favoritism too harshly, it will be useful to bear in mind that the Lord had already given her a special insight into the matter: “Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples will be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). Rebekah knew which son was which, so she knew which son would do the serving and which would be served. If such was God’s plan, Rebekah saw no harm in moving things in the right direction, as it were. Moved by a mixture of both faith and anxiety, Rebekah decides to take the fulfillment of prophecy into her own hands. (We recall that Sarah also did that, when she gave Hagar to Abraham as a second wife.)

Christians have long been bothered by Rebekah’s and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Their discomfort is understandable, but we should bear in mind that Holy Scripture is simply telling us what happened. The cunning of the mother and the mendacity of the son are not being held up for our emulation. Ultimately this is a story about what God does, not man. This is “mystery, not mendacity,” said St. Augustine.

There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah had received that revelation of God’s plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it. Thus, his physical blindness becomes a symbol of his inability to see what is going on, according to God’s plan. His favoring of Esau over Jacob already puts him outside of God’s will; that is to say, his preference between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God’s will, therefore, he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God’s will is a sure step toward deception. On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is acting blindly.