Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 8)

Providentially (it would seem), and with the glaring reality that he has completely worn out his welcome with Laban staring him in the face, “The Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives.  I will be with you.’” (31:3)  This conforms with the word of the Lord that was heard in the twenty-eighth chapter when Jacob was at Bethel, where Jacob heard the Lord say to him, “I am with you!  I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land” (28:15a). 

As Jacob, at this point, is still going to be unsure as to Esau’s disposition towards him, he is in desperate need of the reassurance of these words.  Regardless, the deteriorating situation with Laban, along with the fact that Laban really did not want him there (as evidenced by his dismay at Jacob actually achieving what it was that was proposed in his wage agreement), apparently causes Jacob to come to his senses, re-orienting him towards his homeland and the house of his father. 

Accordingly, he sends a message to Rachel and Leah, asking them to come to him in the field where he was with his flocks and said to them “I can tell that your father’s attitude toward me has changed, but the God of my father has been with me” (31:5).  He presents his reasoning process behind the decision that he has taken to return to his father’s house, saying “You know that I’ve worked for your father as hard as I could, but your father has humiliated me” (31:6-7a), thus drawing out the honor and shame component that has been herein submitted as an underlying factor in the growing tension between Jacob and Laban, “and changed my wages ten times.  But God has not permitted him to do me any harm” (31:7b). 

Making this point, and underscoring his gathering of honor in spite of Laban’s desire to shame him, he adds “If he said, ‘The speckled animals will be your wage,’ then the entire flock gave birth to speckled offspring.  But if he said, ‘The streaked animals will be your wage,’ then the entire flock gave birth to streaked offspring.’” (31:8)  Reinforcing the fact that Jacob has accrued honor (and possessions), while Laban’s possessions (and honor) have been devoured, Jacob says “In this way God has snatched away your father’s livestock and given them to me” (31:9). 

Jacob piles further divine sanction upon his pending departure by speaking of a dream in which the angel of the Creator God (31:11) reportedly spoke to him and said “Observe that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have observed all that Laban has done to you.  I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the sacred stone and made a vow to me” (31:12-13a).  To this is appended the message of “Now leave this land immediately and return to your native land” (31:13b). 

Dutifully, his wives respond with “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house?  Hasn’t he treated us like foreigners?” (31:14b-15a)  This insistent query in regards to being treated like foreigners would certainly take an interesting connotation upon itself when heard by the people of Israel after the receiving of the law, as the Mosaic law provided detailed proscriptions for dealing with foreigners.  Prior to the receipt of the law, and though the circumstances are not entirely applicable (Jacob had grown rich at the hand of the one that treated him as a foreigner), one can imagine how the words of this story would have been heard by an oppressed Israel in Egypt.  In later years, when the tribes of Israel were scattered and exiled as strangers in strange lands, it is almost certain that the story of Jacob’s exile from home, along with these words on the lips of his wives, provided a hope for restoration to their promised land (as it also would have for Israel in Egypt). 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 7)

While the deal that he has struck with Jacob, together with his actions, take on the appearance of a desire on Laban’s behalf to keep Jacob working for him indefinitely, it could also be understood as an effort by Laban to cause Jacob to rebel and leave.  Understood from this angle, one could consider the possibility that Laban is striking a deal with Jacob that will theoretically enable him to fund the acquisition of his wives and children, while Laban takes steps to ensure that Jacob, while attempting to do so under the terms that he himself has proposed, will be unable to accomplish this goal.  It is conceivable that in Laban’s mind, this will cause Jacob to take an extreme action.  Jacob will either come to realize that his efforts will be encumbered in futility, and will take it upon himself to leave---leaving his wives and children behind.  Alternately, Jacob will attempt to leave, taking with him wives and children that still, financially, belong to Laban. 

If the first option is chosen, then Laban will have gained himself women and children (which will result in greater wealth and honor).  If the second option is chosen, then Laban will have a basis upon which to take Jacob’s wives and children by force, especially if it is understood that Jacob, by leaving with his wives and children while his debt is still unpaid, has presented a grave challenge to Laban’s honor---a challenge that would be begging to be met by force. 

Something like this can be seen in the thirty-first chapter of Genesis.  When Jacob does indeed leave, he is pursued by Laban.  When Laban questions Jacob about his abrupt departure, Jacob responds by saying “I left secretly because I was afraid!  I thought you might take your daughters away from me by force” (31:31).  Either way, with his actions it seems clear that Laban actually desires to rid himself of Jacob.  With Jacob’s sons coming of age, Jacob, in Laban’s eyes, has outlived his usefulness.  Jacob’s sons can now do the work that their father had performed, and do so on a more grand scale.  If Laban can successfully remove Jacob from the picture, and because it appears that they are still his property, then they can do that work for Laban, rather than for Jacob. 

Additionally and importantly, Jacob’s continued presence with Laban constitutes a threat to Laban’s authority and his honor.  If one understands that honor is a limited good, and that a rise in the honor possessed by one individual would automatically mean the diminishing of the honor that is possessed by another individual, then at least part of Laban’s motivations can be easily comprehended.  Jacob however, in spite of all of these machinations, is undeterred.  He does not acquiesce to the poor treatment and depart.  He effectively counters Laban’s plans.  Through careful breeding practices, Jacob accomplishes what it is that he set out to accomplish, becoming “extremely prosperous.  He owned large flocks, male and female servants, camels, and donkeys” (30:43). 

To make this point, chapter thirty-one opens with a report on the disposition of Laban’s sons towards Jacob.  There it is reported that “Jacob heard that Laban’s sons were complaining, ‘Jacob has taken everything that belonged to our father!  He has gotten rich at our father’s expense!” (31:1).  Bear in mind that the honor competition is also at play here.  Jacob’s obtaining of riches is owing to the fact that, in line with the interesting breeding practices that were employed by Jacob even after Laban had attempted to undermine he and Jacob’s arrangement, “the weaker animals ended up belonging to Laban and the stronger animals to Jacob” (30:42b).  Clearly, Laban was well aware what had happened.  Though he had attempted to force Jacob to depart, Jacob had gotten the upper hand.  Now, with the words that were on the lips of his sons, it is clear that Laban’s honor had been diminished.  Little wonder then, that “When Jacob saw Laban’s face, he could tell his attitude toward him had changed” (31:2). 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 6)

At this point, for better or for worse, Jacob is attached to Laban.  He has a large number of children (at least eleven sons and one daughter) and essentially four wives to support.  His fortunes are clearly intertwined with those of Laban.  However, he is restless.  He longs to return to his home.  “After Rachel had given birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, ‘Send me on my way so that I can go home to my own country.  Let me take my wives and my children whom I have acquired by working for you.  Then I’ll depart, because you know how hard I’ve worked for you.’” (Genesis 30:25-26) 

Though Laban’s response is one in which he seems to be imploring Jacob to stay, saying “If I have found favor in your sight, please stay her, for I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me on account of you… Just name your wages---I’ll pay you whatever you want” (30:27-28), this hardly seems necessary.  The fact that Jacob has requested that Laban allow him to leave and that Laban allow him to take his wives and children with him, is indicative of the nature of the relationship.  This probably has to do with his need to continue paying for his wives. 

Though Scripture provides the record of his seven years of service by which he acquired Leah, and then the seven years of service that he promised after also acquiring Rachel, there is no record of his service rendered for the acquisition of Bilhah and Zilpah.  These two women would be just as much the property of Laban as were his daughters before Jacob met the required bride-price.  Until Jacob had paid for them as well, he would be under obligation to Laban.  Until payment was completed, both these wives and the children birthed through them, would be the property of Laban.  So even though Laban seems to plead with Jacob, it does not appear that Laban has to engage in such behavior. 

It is clear that Jacob wants to return home.  However, as part of the previously mentioned plan, he has not been summoned by his mother, nor is there yet any indication in the text that his brother’s rage against him has subsided.  Though he wants to leave Laban, the circumstances conspire against him.  So rather than leaving with his wife and children so as to return to his father’s house, he takes Laban up on his offer, naming his wages. 

An arrangement is made wherein Jacob suggests that, while he continues to care for all of Laban’s flocks, that he have the opportunity to “walk among all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb, and the spotted or speckled goats,” saying “These animals will be my wages” (30:32).  Laban indicates that this arrangement is satisfactory to him, but on “that day Laban removed the male goats that were streaked or spotted, all the female goats that were speckled or spotted, and all the dark colored lambs… Then he separated them from Jacob by a three-day journey, while Jacob was taking care of the rest of Laban’s flocks” (32:35a,36). 

This could be understood to be quite underhanded and hardly in tune with the spirit of the agreement.  It certainly does not seem like the actions of one who has “learned by divination that the Lord has blessed” him because of Jacob’s presence and service.  Laban knows that if Jacob is able to gain his own flocks, that he will be able to complete the transaction for acquisition of his wives and children and depart.  So by these actions, at least on the surface, it would seem to become clear that Laban does not want Jacob to leave.  What is obvious is that this is an oppressive course of action that has been undertaken by Laban, and it is quite in line with what would have come to be expected from him, especially as one keeps in mind his substitution of one daughter for another after Jacob’s first seven years of service. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 5)

Moving forward in the story, it is said that even though Jacob had willingly taken her as a wife, that “Leah was unloved” (Genesis 29:31).  In direct response to this---at least, this is what the author seems intent on conveying---the Lord “enabled her to become pregnant while Rachel remained childless.  So Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son” (29:31-b-32a).  This son was named Reuben, which was a Hebrew word meaning “The Lord has looked with pity on my oppressed condition” (29:32c).  In turn, the name of each child that would be born to Jacob would also be a Hebrew word reflecting the circumstances of their birth or the mindset of the mother at the time of conception or birth.  Here, one notes with great interest that it is suggested that the wives of Jacob and not Jacob himself that give names to the sons born to them.  Surely this was an oddity in that age.  If so, this oddity would not be lost on the original hearers of the Genesis narrative, so nor should it be lost on those who read this narrative today. 

Though this study will not dwell on it, it is worth pondering that the Scriptural narrative preserves the tradition that the mothers took for themselves the honor of naming these children, especially considering the fact that these women were, for all practical purposes, the property of their husbands.  Taking in the wider scope of the whole of the record of Scripture, this record of naming is something akin to the unsuppressed and seemingly celebrated fact that in the Gospel narratives it was women that were first given the responsibility to announce the Resurrection of Jesus.  This was a curious thing indeed in a time in which a woman had no societal standing, were believed to be largely incapable of accurate reporting of factual matters, and in which even their testimony in civil or criminal judicial proceedings carried no weight whatsoever.

The text suggests that the sons of Jacob come forth in rapid-fire succession.  This appears to be a competition among the wives---an honor competition, to be sure.  After the birth of Reuben, Leah becomes pregnant again, giving birth to a boy that she names Simeon.  Another pregnancy results in a son that she named Levi.  With a fourth pregnancy, along comes Judah.  With a growing jealousy of her older sister while she herself remained childless, Rachel demands that Jacob also marry her servant named Bilhah, insisting that “she can bear children for me and I can have a family through her” (30:3b).  Subsequently, Bilhah gets pregnant and delivers a son, whom Rachel names Dan.  Bilhah experiences another pregnancy, delivering yet another son.  Rachel names him Naphtali. 

Not to be outdone in the ongoing intra-household honor competition, Leah provides her servant Zilpah to Jacob.  Zilpah becomes pregnant and provides a son that Leah names Gad.  With another pregnancy comes another son to whom Leah provides the name Asher.  Leah gets into the game again, giving birth to fifth and sixth sons of her own and naming them Issachar and Zebulun.  For good measure, Leah gives birth to a daughter named Dinah as well.  Finally, after all of these things, it is said that “God took note of Rachel.  He paid attention to her and enabled her to become pregnant” (30:22).  She would give birth to a son and name Him Joseph.       

Of course, though it is clear that Joseph does indeed come last of all, there is no need to presume that all of these children came in the precise chronological order in which they are presented in the text.  As was said, this appears to be a competition among wives for the almost singular honor that could be awarded to them---that of giving sons to their husbands.  Though Reuben obviously comes first, there is no reason to imagine that, according to the Scriptural record, there was not significant overlap in these ongoing developments.  Must one presume that Rachel waited until after Leah’s fourth child before she insisted that Jacob take Bilhah?  With her position and honor as favored wife at stake, this hardly seems likely.  Similarly, one needs not imagine that Leah waited for Bilhah to deliver two children to Jacob and Rachel before insisting that Jacob take Zilpah as a wife, that Leah’s fifth or sixth sons had to come after all the sons delivered by Bilhah and Zilphah, or that Dinah came last of all?  There is no reason to do so.  That said, what should be noticed is that this is a rather riotous series of events, and should be understood as such.                   

Friday, December 27, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 4)

Clearly, Abraham’s servant, recounting all that has been brought about for his master, makes an impressive sales pitch.  His offer will provide enrichment for Bethuel and his household.  The response, which is said to be provided by both Laban and Bethuel (24:50), is “This is the Lord’s doing.  Our wishes are of no concern.  Rebekah stands here before you.  Take her and go so that she may become the wife of your master’s son, just as the Lord has decided” (24:50b-51).  In what was the obviously hoped for response from Abraham’s servant, Laban and Bethuel watched as “he bowed down to the ground before the Lord.  Then he brought out gold, silver jewelry, and clothing and gave them to Rebekah.  He also gave valuable gifts to her brother and to her mother” (24:52b-53).  The “sale” is consummated.      

The whole of the narratival record of Laban asks to be taken into consideration when Laban rushes out to meet Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, son of his sister Rebekah, and son of the one to whom the extraordinarily wealthy Abraham has given “everything he owns.”  Presumably, with the family’s marital history (an important and weighty precedent in that day), Jacob’s arrival prompts Laban to feel as if more riches might very well be coming the way of his household, so he makes it a point to offer Jacob a grand welcome.  Perhaps another “sale” is coming his way?     

Laban’s expectations concerning Jacob, at least initially, are disappointed, as Jacob does not carry with him nor appear to represent the type of wealth that was to be found during Laban’s first encounter with the family from which Jacob sprang.  Jacob “stayed with him a month” (29:14b), and with no movement along the lines of what occurred with the servant of Abraham, Laban apparently decides to put Jacob to work.  Laban queries Jacob about his desired salary, with Jacob’s response being “I’ll serve you for seven years in exchange for your daughter Rachel” (29:18b), as he it is said that he had fallen in love with her.  Laban agrees to this arrangement, with his personal enrichment at the hands of Jacob now set to take place over a number of years, rather than all at once. 

Accordingly, Jacob puts in his seven years of labor for Rachel.  After the wedding feast, Laban swaps Leah (Rachel’s older sister) for Rachel.  Jacob discovers what Laban has done, questions him about his trickery, hears Laban’s reasoning for doing so, decides to keep Leah as a wife, strikes another deal with Laban that will enable him to obtain Rachel as his wife along with Leah, quickly takes Rachel as his second wife, and proceeds to work another seven years for Laban.   

Now, it is at this point in the telling of the story of Jacob that the Genesis narrative includes a report about the births and the circumstances surrounding the births of eleven of the twelve men that will together compose the tribes of Israel (though it is understood that Manasseh and Ephraim and the half tribes that go by those names, being the sons of Joseph, are actually the tribe of Joseph, and that Benjamin comes along later).  This, quite naturally, becomes a seminal story in the lives and minds of those that come to be called the covenant people of the Creator God, and for purposes of this study, serve as further examples of the rather fascinating life that is being led by Jacob after he has departed from his father’s house. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 3)

After Jacob’s dream, he moves on to “the land of the eastern people” (Genesis 29:1b).  There, at a well, he meets up with a woman named Rachel.  She is his cousin---the daughter of his uncle Laban.  In this, he has come into contact with the very family to whom he had set out to join himself, with this occurring according to his mother’s wishes, as the plan that Jacob’s mother had devised included Jacob living with her brother “for a little while until your brother’s rage subsides” (27:44). 

According to her, Jacob was to “Stay there until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you did to him” (27:45a).  Rebekah concluded her plan with “I’ll send someone to bring you back from there” (27:45b).  However, the final part of Rebekah’s plan never came to pass.  When Jacob finally does return, it is said that he does so because “The Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives.  I will be with  you” (31:3).

When Jacob approaches Laban’s house, he is greeted enthusiastically.  It is reported that Laban “rushed out to meet him.  He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house,” where “Jacob told Laban how he was related to him” (29:13b).  This greeting by Laban was preceded by the fact that “When Jacob explained to Rachel that he was a relative of her father and the son of Rebekah, she ran and told her father” (29:12).  With this information, coupled with previous information in the narrative that is on offer about Laban, neither the reader or the hearer are left to wonder at the welcome that is offered to  Jacob. 

Yes, this is not the first time that Laban is encountered in the Genesis narrative.  He is present when the servant of Abraham was sent out to find a wife for Isaac.  In that story, the servant came to the house of Bethuel, Abraham’s kin.  The first person that he met, not unlike would be the case in Jacob’s story, was the woman (Rebekah) that would become the bride to one of the patriarch’s of the Creator God’s covenant people.  Indeed, there one hears Abraham’s servant exclaim that “The Lord has led me to the house of my master’s relatives!” (24:27b) 

Continuing there in that Abraham-related story, one learns that when “The young woman ran and told her mother’s household all about these things” (24:28), the author also points out the fact that “Rebekah had a brother named Laban” (24:29a), and that “Laban rushed out to meet the man at the spring” (24:29b).  It is said that he was motivated to such action “When he saw the bracelets on his sister’s wrists and the nose ring” (24:30a).  It would seem that Laban has a penchant for “rushing.”  Here, the rushing is appears to be connected to the fact that the bracelets and the nose ring were composed of a significant amount of gold (24:22).  One can simply not imagine Laban, in a time in which women were treated as little more than chattel property to be used in the pursuit of honor and wealth and children, thinking that accepting this stranger (connected to a relative) into their home could possibly be a bad thing. 

Upon settling in, Abraham’s servant, presenting the reason why he is there and building his case as to why it would be worthwhile to effectively sell Rebekah to him so that she could become the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac, informs Bethuel, Laban, and the remainder of the household that he is “the servant of Abraham” (24:34).  He adds that “The Lord has richly blessed my master and he has become very wealthy.  The Lord has give him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys.  My master’s wife Sarah bore a son to him when she was old, and my master has given him everything he owns” (24:35-36).  

Compassionate Brother (part 2)

In the thirteenth chapter of Genesis, after instructing Abram to “Look from the place where you stand to the north, south, east, and west” (13:14b), the Creator God is said to have informed Abram that “I will give all the land that you see to you and your descendants forever.  And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone is able to count the dust of the earth, then your descendants also can be counted” (13:15-16).  In chapter fifteen, Abram is told to “Gaze into the sky and count the stars---if you are able to count them… So will your descendants be” (15:5b).  In chapter eighteen, allusion is made to the previously offered covenant, and it is said that “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using his name” (18:18). 

Finally, in the twenty-second chapter, the Creator God reiterates His covenantal promise to Abraham in the wake of the willingness to sacrifice his son (in light of the promises related to his son and therefore demonstrating what would appear to be Abraham’s hope in a resurrection), saying “I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.  Your descendants will take possession of the strongholds of their enemies.  Because you have obeyed Me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants” (22:17-18).

So in the course of this study, why make mention of the tower of Babel?  Why rehearse the compilation of statements related to the Abrahamic covenant?  Well, apart from the obvious connection between the words of the story about the tower that would reach to the heavens (followed by the introduction of Abram and the Creator God’s covenant) and the Jacobin stairway “with its top reaching to the heavens,” what can be found immediately following this vision of the stairway (or ladder as it is sometimes translated), while bearing in mind that Genesis is presented in a narratival format, is really quite interesting. 

In the eleventh chapter, the reader finds that “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had started building” (11:5), and that the story ends by reporting that “the Lord scattered them from there across the face of the entire earth… and from there the Lord scattered them across the face of the entire earth” (11:8a,9b).  Twice, for emphasis, the story reports that the very thing against which the tower was meant to guard against is what took place.  

The contrast could not be more stark, as with Jacob’s stairway the story reports that “the Lord stood at its top.  He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac” (28:13).  Echoing the breadth of the Abrahamic covenant, the Lord goes on to say “I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south.  All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants” (28:14).  Whereas the builders of the tower that was intended to reach into the heaven were scattered, the Creator God, speaking from the top of the stairway that did indeed reach into heaven, informs Jacob that “I am with you!  I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!” (28:15)       

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 1)

…Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, hugged his neck, and kissed him. Then they both wept. – Genesis 33:4  (NET)

Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, were estranged brothers.  Owing to the events recorded in the twenty-seventh chapter of Genesis, in which Jacob (at his mother’s insistence) presented himself before his father, in place of his brother, in order to receive his father’s blessing, Jacob greatly feared Esau.  There, Esau can be heard to exclaim “He has tripped me up two times!  He took away my birthright,” referring to Esau’s “selling” of his birthright to Jacob as recorded in chapter twenty-five, “and now, look, he has taken away my blessing!” (27:36b) 

The record insists that “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing his father had given to his brother.  Esau said privately, ‘The time of mourning for my father is near; then I will kill my brother Jacob!” (27:41)  Clearly, hostility ran high.  For this reason, having effectively taken everything from his father that was supposed to fall to his brother---or at least all that was truly important (the birthright and the blessing), Jacob left the house of his father and mother, with instructions to do so until his “brother’s rage subsides” (27:44b). 

Of course the story is well known.  To escape his brother’s wrath, Jacob went to live with his uncle, a man by the name of Laban.  Before, during, and after arriving there, Jacob’s story is vivid and entertaining.  Needless to say, he lives quite the interesting life.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has a dream of a “stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens” (28:12b).  Undoubtedly, the alert reader (or hearer) will hear in this an echo of the story of the tower of Babel, as recorded in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. 

There, following the great flood (which would almost certainly need to be understood to have served as a motivating factor in their plans), it is said that “The whole earth had a common language and a common vocabulary” (11:1).  Thus, with this unifying factor in play, they said “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves.  Otherwise we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth” (11:4).  Though there shall be a return to it in the course of this study, for now it is necessary to skip past the well-known result of this desire, to find that after a short digression into the genealogy of Shem (11:10-26), the narrative introduces Abram and records the first pronouncement (in a series of pronouncements) that would come to be referred to as the Abrahamic covenant. 

As these words that mark the beginning of the people of the Creator God on earth (the covenant people of Israel and the church), providing information as to the Creator God’s desires and purposes for His people (the divine image-bearers), one does well to hear them often.  The Lord speaks to Abram and says “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you.  Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:1-3).  As the story progresses, more will be appended to this declaration. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Table In Philippi (part 2 of 2)

Having said that, it is interesting to see how early Christians put all of this familiar language and imagery to use.  Certainly it would have been said of the Caesar that “the gods exalted him and have given him the name above every name, and that at the name of Caesar every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Caesar is Lord.”  Unlike Caesar, however, it was said of Jesus that His Lordship over all (including Caesar) came about through a process that the rulers of the world would not have supposed. 

Whereas Caesar positioned himself as the son of god (divi filius) and laid claim to his rule according to this proclamation, Jesus is said to have “existed in the form of God” but “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.”  Whereas Caesar exalted himself and enslaved others to extend and enrich the empire of the one referred to as the son of god, to bring about the kingdom of the Creator God, Jesus countered the Caesar “by taking on the form of a slave.”  Whereas Caesar and his sycophantic worshipers lauded him as being a man among men and therefore endowed by the gods with the right to rule because of the superiority of his very nature, the true Emperor, that being Jesus, came “looking like other men” and “sharing in human nature.”  The dichotomy that is being drawn is stark indeed. 

Caesar, of course, inflicted his power (the pax Romana) upon the peoples of the world by the looming threat of death at the end of a sword, whereas Jesus became “obedient to the point of death.”  The Roman cross and its accursed death was the emblem of power of Caesar and of his right to unchallenged rule.  All those that presumed to challenge his divinely appointed and sanctioned rule would meet their horrible ends upon that emblem. 

So naturally, as the hymn continues the contrast, Jesus, as the anti-Caesar, went to “death on a cross,” with His Resurrection proving that the great powers of the world (Rome, Caesar, death) had no power over Him or over any member of the kingdom of the Creator God.  Whereas the cross was meant to shame and humiliate, it became Jesus’ path to honor and exaltation (as the Philippian passage clearly demonstrates the kingdom ideal of the first becoming last and the last becoming first).  This, of course, was contrary to all thinking in that day. 

The fact that the early church so freely employed the language of death by crucifixion, within a world that had a robust understanding of the explicit implications of such a death (you’re not a king), and within a Jewish world that saw such a thing as evidence of their God’s highest cursing, gives tremendous weight to the firm belief in the fact of Jesus’ physical Resurrection into a world that was materially changed by that very fact.  The Resurrection stands as the only explanation for the language about Jesus that is here employed.  It remains to be concluded that if there was the smallest doubt that Jesus did not physically raise from the dead, then the church would certainly not give triumphant voice to the fact of His crucifixion at the hands of Rome.    

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Table In Philippi (part 1 of 2)

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose.  Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself.  Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interest of others as well. – Philippians 2:1-4  (NET)

If one was to be at a meal table with the church in Philippi, and comes to that table well aware that Paul’s words are conjuring up a meal-table-based context for his use of what comes next in the Philippian letter, then Paul’s incorporation of what has long been considered to be an early Christian hymn gathers to itself an important dimension. 

The Christian meal table provides an amazing and enlightening context for the hearing of “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.  He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross!  As a result God exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will blow---in heaven and on earth and under the earth---and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (2:5-11). 

Yes, a glorious and familiar passage no doubt, seemingly given new life when considered in relation to that which came to represent the vision of the messianic banquet (the Lord’s Supper/communion).  Having just heard these words, the honorific tone should be noted, but at the same time, the subversive nature of the language cannot be dismissed.  The Gospel (Jesus is Lord of all) is the thrust of the statement, and this world-power-challenging proclamation was at the heart of the messiah-based renewed kingdom of the Creator God movement that would come to be called Christianity.  

As the growth of the Christian movement (kristianos) is borne in mind, as it took its place alongside the movement of the Caesar cult (kaisarianos) in the Roman world, it is possible to hear the second portion of this song of praise as an aping of the language of the Caesar cult (as Paul does in his usage of “from faith to faith” in Romans 1:17).  At the same time, it is not only the second half of the song that apes the cultic language, so too does the first half.  The elevation of Caesar above his defeated or soon-to-be-defeated opponents would be a natural outgrowth of his apotheosis (deification/becoming a god).  Yes, not only is Caesar exalted above all as divine, but Caesar’s enemies, who may think of themselves as gods in their own right, are actually slaves.  They are ordinary men.  They will die at Caesar’s hands.    

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 11 of 11)

Naturally, having heard what was said by Jesus in the fourteenth chapter and the parable that followed, this mention of the burning desire for places of honor at banquets will not be lost on Luke’s hearers.  They, as should any educated and culturally aware observer, make the connections.  The final nail is driven into their figurative coffins as Jesus informs His hearers (and Luke’s hearers), that these experts in the law, “devour widows’ property” (20:47). 

They devour widows’ property?  This is unconscionable!  How do they do this?  Is there evidence of this?  Absolutely there is evidence, and Jesus immediately points His hearers to the evidence as He “looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box.  He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all offered out of their wealth.  But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.’” (21:1-4) 

For too long this has been looked upon as Jesus offering a commendation to this widow, as she was willing to sacrifice all that she had for the Temple as a sacrifice to the Creator God.  However, in light of all that has led up to it, and in the wake of Jesus’ symbolic judgment against the Temple, it demands to be understood as a rebuke to the Jerusalem Temple, its system, and all associated with it.  Indeed, when understood correctly, it should be concluded that Jesus sees the offering of this widow as a tragedy, as her property was completely devoured by a corrupt system (they devour widows’ property) full of robbers, which He had already condemned.  This becomes especially clear when one rightly incorporates the idea that Jesus is the true Temple. 

This Temple, already “adorned with beautiful stones and offerings” (21:5b), and its functionaries (essentially the powers-that-be of the day) should have been lavishing care upon this poor widow, exercising justice and mercy, rather than taking that which she could not afford to give.  This would have been the proper attitude of those that were supposed to be representing the faithful and gracious God of Israel.  However, with the portrait of the experts in the law that has been painted, there is nobody, reading or hearing, that is surprised at what has just happened, and that this poor widow has had her property devoured. 

It is little wonder then that the remaining mentions of the experts in the law to be found in Luke take the form that they do.  Along with the Temple, Jesus has condemned them, so it is no surprise to hear that “The chief priests and the experts in the law were trying to find some way to execute Jesus” (22:2a), that they played a role in an unjust and illegal trial in which “the council of the elders of the people gathered together, both the chief priests and the experts in the law” (22:66), and that “The chief priests and the experts in the law were… vehemently accusing Him” (23:10).  The point, which had begun to be made in the fifth chapter when Jesus takes up the role of the Temple by forgiving sins, adding healing to that role, with this immediately questioned by the experts in the law (their first mention), is that Jesus is the true Temple.  It would seem that Luke wants all to know that Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel’s God, is the place where the Creator God resides.        

Friday, December 20, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 10)

For good measure, before reaching a seminal usage of the phrase, Luke once again makes a point to call attention to what he insists is the nefarious desire of the experts in the law, as in the nineteenth verse of chapter twenty, after Jesus has delivered yet another parable that is deemed to be yet another scathing rebuke of these antagonistic characters, Luke reports: “Then the experts in the law and the chief priests wanted to arrest Him that very hour, because they realized He had told this parable against them” (20:19a).  After this, Luke presents the story of Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to Caesar (20:20-26).  This is followed by a strange bit of questioning from the Sadducees in regards to marriage and the resurrection (20:27-40). 

It can be here noted, with great interest, that the Sadducees now make their lone appearance in Luke’s Gospel.  This occurs after the Pharisees have dropped out of view.  Looking to Acts, where Luke reports that some members of the Pharisees have joined with the Christian community, there one finds conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the twenty-third chapter (in relation to Paul’s trial), in which the Pharisees (believers in the resurrection of the dead) are pitted against the Sadducees (“who contend that there is no resurrection” (20:27) – repeated in Acts 23:8).  In addition to the fact that Luke, in the second portion of his narrative, cannot simply have the Sadducees appearing out of nowhere but needs to have them in conflict with Jesus, the previous excursus and possible conclusion in regards to the situation with the Pharisees and their disappearance from Luke’s narrative may also serve to explain Luke’s cursory mention of the Sadducees.

Moving along then, Jesus then goes into a dissertation, with this followed by a question, about the Messiah being both King David’s son and Lord (20:41-44).  This is followed by Jesus’ warning to “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a).  This comes on the heels of what looked like it could have been a paradigm shift in Luke’s presentation of the experts in the law.  After Jesus had answered the questioning of the Sadducees, flatly rebuking their resurrection-denying position in the process, Luke reports that “some of the experts in the law answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well!’” (20:39).  Luke also reports that “they did not dare any longer to ask Him anything” (20:40), though this could easily apply equally to both the Sadducees and the experts in the law. 

Those who comprise the initial and ongoing audience of this story, who are presumably at least somewhat familiar with the Jesus traditions, already know what is soon to happen.  Indeed, those that may be unfamiliar with Jesus, who are hearing or reading this presentation for the first time, owing to the heightening sense of conflict that is sparked by Jesus’ actions in the Temple (the tremendous importance of which would be readily recognized by any denizen of the first century---or any century in almost any place for that matter), will more than realize that this story is building to a grand finale. 

Throughout the story, lines of demarcation are being drawn.  By this point, it is quite clear as to who it is that is going to ultimately be playing the role of villain in this story.  Any reasonable person knows that the experts in the law have been positioned as the chief villains, and it merely remains to be seen how Luke’s telling of the Jesus story will play out.  The potential paradigm shift comes with this report about the words of the experts in the law.  It provides something of a ray of hope for them.  This, along with the fact that the Pharisees are no longer the consistent companions of the experts in the law, with their role having been almost completely taken up by the chief priests, might cause one to think that the experts in the law are going to change their position concerning Jesus.  Accordingly, perhaps Jesus will change His position concerning them. 

Of course this is not to be.  After a glimmer of hope appears for them, that light is quickly extinguished as Jesus warns the people away from them.  This should not be unexpected.  Not only have they been well-positioned as the villains of Luke’s narrative, as one can easily imagine boos and hisses from the crowd whenever they make their appearance on the stage of the story, but after all of the potential villainy that has been seen and heard, Jesus adds that “They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets” (20:46).  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 9)

It has already been noted that Jesus was “proclaiming the Gospel” (20:1) in the Temple courts, thus provoking the challenge as to His rightful authority to do and say what He was doing and saying.  What was the Gospel? 

The recipient of Luke’s narrative, as well as those that would be the primary audience for his record of the life and ministry of Jesus, would have already understood that the Gospel message was that Jesus is the Lord of all (in a world where the regularly pronounced and well understood gospel message was that Caesar is lord of all).  Backing up into the nineteenth chapter to find support for the idea that this was part of Jesus’ Gospel pronouncement (as He was now openly challenging the Temple authorities, and doing so in a way that would provoke a response by the civil authorities as well), one reads about Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, in which it was pronounced “with a loud voice” (19:37), “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (19:38) 

To that, Luke adds that “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’  He answered, ‘I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!’” (19:39-40)  Here, Jesus allows Himself to be voiced as the king.  By His own words (using rather obvious hyperbole about the ability of stones to make a point---perhaps an ironic point about the stones of the Temple itself, which Jesus will soon say will be “thrown down”?---stones are a recurring theme here in the latter part of Luke), Jesus indicates that this pronouncement of His Gospel will never cease.    

Quite interestingly, though the Pharisees (along with the experts in the law) have composed one half of the chief antagonists to this point in Luke’s telling, they drop out of sight after this statement.  From this point on, the antagonists are only going to be the chief priests and the experts in the law, with an appearance by the Sadducees coming later in the twentieth chapter.  What is it that accounts for this turn of events?  How is it that the Pharisees, according to Luke’s presentation, have no hand in the events of the twentieth through twenty-fourth chapters of Luke? 

While the Gospels of Matthew and John have the Pharisees involved, at some level, in Jesus’ arrest and execution and the plot to counter the story of the Resurrection, Luke does not.  Neither, for that matter, does Mark.  Though one cannot know precisely why the Pharisees drop out of Mark at a point that is roughly equivalent to the time that they drop out of Luke (apart from the fact that Luke is said to rely heavily on Mark in the construction of his narrative), one can confidently surmise as to the reason why the Pharisees, who have been the constant companion of the experts in the law, drop out of Luke precisely as the events that will lead to Jesus arrest and crucifixion begin to unfold. 

It is possible that this has to do with a number of Pharisees, following the Resurrection and in the formative years of the church, being won to the claims of the Gospel and joining the growing community of adherents to the covenant rooted in the confession of Jesus as Lord of all.  As it relates to Luke’s work, evidence of this can be seen in the book of Acts.  In the fifteenth chapter of Acts, it is reported that the Pharisees have a role in the church community, as Luke there records that “some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.’” (15:5).  Though the opinion that would be rendered by the church council would come to weigh against that opinion, it does demonstrate that some Pharisees had joined the Jesus movement.  This may serve to explain why Luke withdraws the Pharisees from his narrative at the point of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 8)

The next instance of the use of this key phrase is found in the nineteenth chapter of Luke.  In the forty-seventh verse, Luke writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts,” and that “The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him.”  This will be followed up at the beginning of the twentieth chapter with “as Jesus was teaching the people in the Temple courts and proclaiming the Gospel, the chief priests and the experts in the law with the elders came up and said to Him, ‘Tell us, By what authority are you doing these things?  Or who is it who gave you this authority?’” (20:1-2) 

Predictably, maintaining the rabbinic challenge motif that Luke seems to have carefully sought to build through his narrative, and yielding no ground in the perpetual contest of honor and shame, Jesus answers the questions with a question of His own, related to John the Baptist (it seems that Luke intends to demonstrate the explicit connection between Jesus’ ministry and that of John), eventually eliciting an embarrassing and honor-sacrificing “we don’t know” from His interrogators. 

Before the mentions of the experts in the law that close out and open the nineteenth and twentieth chapters respectively, it is reported that “Jesus entered the Temple courts and began to drive out those who were selling things there, saying to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be a house of prayer,” but you have turned it into a den of robbers!’” (19:45-46)  Thus, with this stirring reminder of the words of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah (which would not have been lost on those who witnessed the incident or those who would hear about the incident from Luke and others), Jesus, with the full weight of His increasingly messianic life-path providing support, enacts a symbolic judgment against the Temple (as did Jeremiah). 

The people who hear these words of Jesus will know and potentially call to mind that Jeremiah went on to announce, presumably on behalf of Israel’s God, “I will destroy this Temple which I have claimed as My own, this Temple that you are trusting to protect you.  I will destroy this place that I gave to you and your ancestors” (Jeremiah 7:14).  Coming from the one that has been successfully challenging and meeting any and all challenges from the representatives of the Temple and of the Temple tradition at every turn, these are weighty words in deed. 

Those listening to Luke’s presentation, who are also aware, as would be the modern reader, of the way that the story proceeds, know that this is going to provoke a response by the very ones whose authority and legitimacy is being challenged.  Concordantly then, any mentions of the experts in the law, going forward, will carry with it this symbolic judgment of the Temple.  After reporting that Jesus has said these things, Luke writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts” (19:47a).  This would only be natural, in that if He has pronounced judgment on the Temple, and if He does indeed believe Himself to be the new Temple (the place at which the Creator God dwells/the place of the coming together of heaven as the realm of the Creator God and earth as the realm of the those created and put in place as the image of the Creator God), then Jesus is quite naturally going to locate Himself at the place where the legitimate Temple is to be found. 

Now it is much easier to understand why it is that “The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him” (19:47b).  Luke is explicitly linking Jesus’ pronouncement as king (by the enthralled masses) and His judgment against the Temple with the desire for His assassination by those that represented the Temple’s power structure.  This most definitely feeds into the negative portrait of the experts in the law, which will also serve to heavily inform a statement that is soon to come, and which will be sure to draw the desired response from his hearers.    

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 7)

In line with the criticism of Jesus’ table fellowship that can be seen in the fifth and fifteenth chapters of Luke, this criticism can also be found taking place in the seventh chapter.  There Luke reports that “the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30a).  Immediately thereafter, Jesus launches into a monologue that will conclude with Jesus reciting a regular accusation against Him (which also points out the inseparable connection of His own ministry and that of John the Baptist), saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine,” and thus John makes no overt references, by his actions, to the messianic feast (which should ideally accompany a messianic pronouncement that the kingdom of the Creator God is at hand), “and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” through which He messianic-ly proclaims the kingdom through engaging in regular feasting, “and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)   

Returning them to the fifteenth chapter, one can reconsider the regular complaint against Jesus, bearing in mind that the hearers of Luke’s compilation of the life of Jesus have now heard this complaint on several occasions.  As they would now have come to expect, Jesus once again ignores the complaint, which is a veiled accusation by His critics that He cannot possibly be the messiah, and instead launches into a series of parables (the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the compassionate father---sometimes referred to as the parable of the prodigal son, though this gets the focus of the parable wrong).  By doing this (ignoring the complaint and the accusation), Jesus maintains and builds upon his now well-asserted role of rabbinic superiority over His challengers, which has been demonstrated, by Luke’s telling (again, reflecting the stories about Jesus, post-Resurrection, that would have been circulating in a self-correcting oral tradition), through their repeated inability to respond to Him. 

In this honor and shame culture, Jesus has been repeatedly shaming His challengers, accruing honor to Himself while taking honor from them (which ends up being problematic for Him in the long run).  This would have been well understood by one and all, whether they be firsthand observers or hearing the story told in the early days of the church.  With this in mind, Luke’s hearers and readers (throughout history), can fully understand the hostility that is rising against Jesus.  Not only is He de-valuing the institution that they support and from which they receive their support (the Temple), but He is also bringing them into disrepute, diminishing them in the eyes of the populace and severing them from any semblance of power and God-ordained authority. 

Though He has been gaining honor for Himself through the process of shaming His opponents via the rabbinic challenges (whether He is the challenger or the challenged), He will ultimately divest Himself of all of that honor by going to the most shameful place, which would be the cross.  Thereby, He is able to consistently live out His insistence (as heard in the fourteenth chapter) that one should take the lowest place, so as to receive true exaltation.    

Monday, December 16, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 6)

In light of all that has been said and done in the moments leading up to this statement on the lips of these people (Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them---sinners broadly defined as those that stand outside the group of covenant members), one cannot help but imagine that those hearing the telling of this Gospel would find themselves laughing.  It is almost as if this statement demands to be read as a punch-line, in which the Pharisees and the experts in the law are presented as unfortunate dupes.  Indeed, it almost seems as if Luke wants his audience to reach the conclusion that there is a group that is not quite getting it, even though Jesus is attempting to make things as obvious as He possibly can. 

This most definitely serves to de-legitimate the role of these men.  Not only could they not answer Jesus’ simple questions, but now, even though Jesus has made things as simple as possible---offering a parable about a banquet, a directive about banquets, and then another parable about a banquet, Luke demonstrates that the point has been completely missed by these men, as they go right back to what was presented as one of their earliest accusatory attempts at discrediting Jesus. 

If can be recalled that, in the fifth chapter, Luke employs his second use of the phrase “experts in the law” (5:30), which accompanied their complaint that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners (5:30).  That, of course, was at a banquet given for Jesus (5:29).  When one is carefully attuned to the fact that this is an ongoing narrative, and that there is a certain structure and flow to Luke’s presentation (which makes sense in light of the fact that it is a dramatic presentation designed to be consumed in a single sitting), it would probably not be a mistake to surmise that Luke’s words of the fifteenth chapter are intended to cause a recall of scene of chapter five. 

Considering this then, it should be noted that the fourteenth chapter began with a mention of experts in the law and Pharisees (Temple representatives), moved on to a question posed by Jesus, and concludes (in terms of the chapter divisions) with a healing.  The movement of the fourteenth chapter actually concludes with the fifteenth chapter’s opening complaint that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  In chapter five, Jesus forgives sins (a Temple function), the audience learns about hostile thoughts and questioning on the part of the experts in the law and the Pharisees (a question), and then comes a healing by Jesus.  From there, Luke moves to the complaint about with whom Jesus is eating.  Within a culture that is accustomed to listening to stories, holding ideas together over extended tellings, and processing information accordingly, this bracketing structure would not be lost on Luke’s audience.        

This complaint about Jesus’ table companions comes to be voiced on a regular basis.  It is a relatively prominent feature of the Gospel portraits of Jesus.  Considering the importance of the meal table in that day and time, this fact should go a long, long way towards informing an observer about a major thrust of Jesus’ ministry (table fellowship), along with informing that same observer about a major focal point of the early church and the oral traditions about Jesus (table fellowship), with these given considerable weight by His crucifixion and Resurrection, as those oral traditions are eventually codified as the Gospels.  In consideration of this, it is important to not overlook an instance of the use of “experts in the law” leading up to its use in the twentieth chapter, which could lead to overlooking a usage that will serve to provide enlightenment as the way in which Luke is pushing his hearers to react and respond to such usage. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 5)

So in the fourteenth chapter, when Jesus makes reference to a meal table that will be at least partially occupied by experts in the law and Pharisees, and Luke writes about the way in which Jesus was noticing how some guests chose their places of honor, and then Jesus is heard speaking about humility and exaltation, those that hear this do so with ears that have also just heard Jesus make reference to a messianic banquet, wherein Jesus has used words about the last becoming first (exaltation) and the first becoming last (humility).  These two things cannot be disconnected.  Furthermore, because the fourteenth chapter begins with Jesus challenging the experts in the law and the Pharisees, and because there is no change of setting until the seventeenth chapter, there is every reason to believe that all that follows from that initial, unresponded to challenge is at least tacitly directed to those same groups. 

After making His previous point, within a setting that has been informed by a messianic banquet reference, a challenge to the experts in the law and the Pharisees, and a rather instructive parable, Jesus goes on to offer instructions in regards about engagement in table fellowship “to the man who had invited him” (14:12a), saying “when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13).  Jesus then offers up a parable of a banquet (doing so while at a banquet) in which the man who made invitations ends up inviting “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (14:21b).  The man in the parable even takes it one step further, as he sends his representatives “out to the highways and country roads” to “urge people to come in” (14:23b). 

This not only amplifies the words of the thirteenth chapter while also reinforcing the personal instruction that had been on offer by Jesus to the one who invited Him, but the punctuation of the parable, in which the subject of the parable exclaims “For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet” (14:24), also dramatically illustrates the last to first, first to last, exaltation to humility, and humility to exaltation motif that frames this section of Luke.  In addition, it brings an interesting clarity to what had also been heard in the thirteenth chapter, which was a statement about those left out of the messianic banquet, in which they say “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets” (13:26), to which the Creator God (presumably) replies “I don’t know where you come from!  Go away from me, all you evildoers!” (13:27) 

The ongoing and escalating conflict between Jesus and the experts in the law and the Pharisees, along with Jesus overt challenge to them just a few verses later, function to make it quite clear who it is that is the point of reference in such statements.  The previously mentioned delicious irony is to be found in the fifteenth chapter, because after Jesus, who is living, working, and speaking in such a way that indicates that He is indeed the Messiah (while Luke’s audience has already heard the confession of Jesus as Messiah), makes His points about the people that were participating in meals.  While remembering that the setting has not changed and that Jesus appears to still be at the same meal mentioned in the first verse of the fourteenth chapter, the “Pharisees and the experts in the law” complained that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them (15:2). 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 4)

Luke opens his fifteenth chapter with “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Him.  But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (15:1-2)  According to Luke’s narrative structure, this actually occurs “at the house of a leader of the Pharisees” (14:1b).  Obviously, the complaint of the fifteenth chapter is prefaced by the activities of the fourteenth chapter, and those hearing Luke’s presentation are going to rather enjoy the delicious irony of it all. 

There in the fourteenth chapter, as Luke continues with his building of the tension between Jesus and the experts in the law and their associates (which, if Jesus is being critical of them and of the Temple that they represent, is eventually going to come to a head) it is said that Jesus was being watched closely (14:1c).  Based on all that has come before, Luke’s hearers, knowing what they already know about Jesus through the narrative and through the oral tradition (just as any reader approaches Luke in the midst of a body of knowledge about Jesus, albeit informed by the New Testament and their own traditions), should expect Jesus to present an open challenge.  After all, with the pronouncements of woe that came before, everyone is well aware that there is hostility.  Luke does not let his audience down, as he reports that “Jesus asked the experts in religious law and the Pharisees” (14:3a) a question. 

An answer was not forthcoming, and in fact, Luke writes that “they remained silent” (14:4a).  If it is the case that Jesus’ is challenging the legitimacy of the Temple and those that support its claims while also deriving their personal support from that same structure, then this inability to proffer an answer is an apt demonstration of the ineffectiveness of these people in their duty to represent the Creator God.  Whether they simply did not desire to engage in another rabbinic challenge, or whether they refused to offer an answer because the question was posed to them by Jesus (rather than from them to Him), with a response serving the purpose of validating the standing of the questioner (they were seeking to de-legitimize Jesus), by posing another question that is actually an answer to His first question, Jesus makes them look foolish with what appears to be a rather obvious and simple answer to a simple question. 

As Jesus offers his question-as-answer that is related to the first question, the sense of the ultimate ineffectiveness and illegitimacy of the experts in the law and Pharisees seems to grow, as Luke informs his audience that “they could not reply to this” (14:6).  From there, without a change of scene from the house of the Pharisee at which Jesus had gone to dine (14:1), “Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor” (14:7a)---a very important consideration in a meal-table-oriented-and-demonstrating honor and shame culture. 

In response, He tells a parable (14:7b).  Without recounting the parable, it can be noted that it is summarized by Jesus saying “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11).  Crucially, Luke’s hearers would have heard this parable and its summation within the echo of Jesus having spoken of another meal table, as He has previously been reported to have said that “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God” (13:29).  This is the messianic banquet that, without going into too much detail, indicates that the rule of Israel’s God on earth, through His Messiah, has begun.  To that statement is tagged: “But indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:30). 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 3)

Though other messianic figures in Israel desired to bring and had brought about confrontations with Rome in the mold of the revered Maccabean heroes, this was not Jesus’ intention.  Luke’s record demonstrates that Jesus did not want His disciples getting ahead of themselves or getting the wrong idea, thus explaining his reporting that Jesus, after the confession that they believed Him to be the Messiah (the Christ of God) “forcefully commanded them not to tell this to anyone” (9:21).  Rather than press concerns over Rome and the rule of the land, Jesus’ response to Peter, in which He spoke of the need to suffer and die at the hands of the Temple authorities (though Rome would be instrumental in His execution), continues to frame Jesus’ issues with the “experts in the law” (and the nearly always attendant Pharisees) in terms related to the Temple and its activities. 

If Jesus thinks of Himself as a replacement for the Temple, which He could reasonably be considered to do if He saw Himself as the Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God acting within history and therefore being Himself the place of the Creator God’s dwelling rather than the Temple itself continuing to be seen in this way), then this ongoing narrative of conflict with those that represented the Temple makes a great deal of sense.  As Luke writes a narrative that will be useful for the people of the covenant God that largely saw themselves as a new Temple, a portion of Luke’s purposes, as it is remembered that the Gospels were historically rooted theological tractates, comes squarely into focus.

Advancing to the eleventh chapter (while remembering that there were not chapter and verse divisions in the original text and that the narrative was most likely designed to be read aloud in an oral performance in a single sitting), this study comes to the fifty-second verse and Jesus saying “Woe to you experts in religious law!  You have taken away the key of knowledge!  You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52).  Obviously, this is yet another statement that cannot be taken as anything less than highly critical.  This is followed by Luke’s report that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54).  This artfully builds on the tension that Luke has woven into his narrative. 

When considering that tension, recall that Luke began with reports of a voiceless questioning of Jesus’ legitimacy by the experts in the law, moved the story to an open complaint about Jesus’ activities on behalf of this group, proceeded on to a desire to be able to accuse Jesus that would grow into a mindless rage against Him, and now has reached a fevered pitch of bitter opposition that is part of a larger plot to bring Him down.  There is a rising hostility here, and it is not related to some issues of the preaching of grace versus an outmoded legalism, but rather to issues surrounding the Temple, its function, and its functionaries (forgiveness of sins being chief among these).  Indeed, one is able to see as much in this particular passage.

This section began with the report that “One of the experts in religious law answered Him” (11:45a) in regards to accusations that Jesus has just made against the Pharisees, as he appeared to be concerned that Jesus’ insults against the Pharisees were insults against them as well.  Not backing down in the least, but rather creating an even more tense situation, Jesus responds with “Woe to you experts in religious law as well!  You load people down with burdens difficult to bear; yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!  Woe to you!  You built the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed” (11:46-47). 

This dissertation by Jesus culminates in what was seen in verse fifty-two.  Without getting into an effort to exegete precisely what is implied by Jesus accusations attached to His repeated pronouncements of “woe” against the experts in religious law, what is being said prior to the final offering of “woe” in the fifty-second verse, crystallizes the locus of Jesus’ problems with the experts in the law and the Pharisees.  Jesus makes reference to the Temple as He mentions Zechariah, “who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary” (11:51b).  The reference to the Temple is unmistakable. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 2)

Shortly thereafter, the experts in the law are again encountered, as Luke reports that “the Pharisees and their experts in the law complained to His disciples, saying ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (5:30)  On the heels of Jesus presenting Himself as a viable alternative, and indeed even a replacement for the Temple as He also presents Himself as a messiah-figure with all of the expectations that come with such a presentation, this criticism of actions in relation to Jesus’ table fellowship is offered. 

The statement that follows Jesus’ response, which was “John’s disciples frequently fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours continue to eat and drink” (5:33), is also critical of Jesus’ meal practice and His influence, and is a part of the preliminary efforts to discredit this man who seems to be gaining a problematic standing amongst the people (in the eyes of their leaders).  This, at least, is what Luke appears to be making an effort to portray. 

Moving on to the sixth chapter, the seventh verse states that “The experts in the law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely to see if He would heal on the Sabbath, so that they could find a reason to accuse Him.”  In the twenty-first verse of the fifth chapter, Luke reports what the experts in the law, along with the Pharisees, were thinking.  In the thirtieth and thirty-third verses, voice is given to their thoughts, and Luke records what are essentially rabbinic challenges through which the experts in the law and the Pharisees seek to gain the upper hand on Jesus in what is going to be an ongoing activity of thrust and parry throughout the course of Luke’s Gospel, between Jesus and those who challenged Him. 

Now, with these words from early in the sixth chapter, Luke has moved his hearers from an implied understanding of a desire to discredit Jesus through the common and well-understood means of rabbinic challenge (part of the ongoing honor competition), to an open effort to find a basis for accusation against Him.  This is amplified by Luke’s report that, following Jesus’ response challenge to them and His subsequent healing on the Sabbath, and what appears to be Jesus’ victory in the eyes of the people in this particular challenge (based on the response that Luke records), that “they were filled with mindless rage and began debating with one another what they would do to Jesus” (6:11).  

The ninth chapter sees the next use of the phrase.  This time, it is on the lips of Jesus, as He is heard saying “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22).  This comes on the heels of Jesus proffering two questions to His disciples, which were “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18b) and “who do you say that I am?” (9:20a), along with Peter’s response of “The Christ of God” (9:20b). 

Peter’s response is better translated as “the Messiah of God,” which, based upon the myriad of beliefs concerning what it is that the messiah would do, included (based on the way that previous messianic claimants had gone about their business) the throwing off of Rome’s yoke.  Peter’s confession is a highly charged political statement.  Owing to that, widespread and public voicing of the claim could lead to an open and premature conflict with the governing Roman authorities.

Experts In The Law (part 1)

They devour widows property, and as a show make long prayers… - Luke 20:47a  (NET)

In the forty-fifth verse of chapter twenty of his Gospel, Luke informs his audience that Jesus was speaking specifically to His disciples, but that “all the people were listening.”  As these two groups of people were listening to Jesus, they heard Him say “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a).  This phrase, “experts in the law,” is an oft-recurring phrase in all of the Gospel accounts.  At this point in Luke’s narrative, this phrase has already been used a number of times, thus creating an expectation on the part of those that are hearing this Gospel record read aloud (most likely in a performance fashion) in a single sitting. 

The first time this phrase is heard is in the fifth chapter.  There, Jesus has healed a paralyzed man, while also informing him that his sins were forgiven (5:20).  Without going in to all of the nuances of what was connoted by talk of the forgiveness of sins in first century Jewish thought, Jesus’ statement prompts a response on the parts of the “experts in the law and the Pharisees” (5:21a), as they “began to think to themselves, ‘Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (5:21b) 

To that thought must be added the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem, with its attendant priesthood, was understood to be the place of the Creator God’s mediation of the forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, Luke is communicating through his record of Jesus’ words and actions (with this record coming post-crucifixion and Resurrection) , that Jesus is seemingly offering implicit information about His own mission and the way that He perceives Himself. 

As a presumed forgiver of sins, Jesus is blatantly (and purposely) usurping the role of the Temple and the priests (Luke’s record indicates that Jesus will have much to say about the Temple and its leaders), while becoming a threat to the livelihood of those who managed the Temple.  This usurpation is also a commentary on the legitimacy and need for the Temple.  Thus, the reaction of the experts in the law and the Pharisees cannot be disconnected from this commentary on the Temple, which these two groups, in many ways, served and legitimated.  By calling the Temple itself into question through His actions and His mediation of forgiveness, Jesus is calling into question the roles of the experts in the law and the Pharisees as well.  This creates a charged situation and introduces a new dynamic into the culture. 

Now, just in case His words and actions of healing and forgiveness were not quite explicit enough, and just in case the challenge that He was offering to the Temple (which would have been well understood by Luke’s Jewish hearers) was not overt enough, Jesus adds “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (5:24a).  So not only is Jesus acting in a messianic fashion, stoking hopes of rebellion and revolution and the overthrow of Rome that will bring an end to the occupation of Israel and thus making Himself a target for the empire, Jesus is making Himself a target for the Temple regime as well. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ahab, Jezebel & A Vineyard (part 2 of 2)

So what happens with this plan that has been set in motion by Jezebel?  As directed, “The men of the city, the leaders and the nobles who lived there, followed the written orders Jezebel had sent them” (1 Kings 21:11), unaware of the source of the orders, and believing that they had come from the king.  With this belief in mind as the story is read, one can surmise that it is doubtful that the original communication that was presumed to have come from Ahab used the term “villains” (at least, not in the way that some tend to think of villains---in reality, they were the unwitting dupes of an oppressor). 

Ultimately, the men who carried out these orders would have believed that they were simply acting in accordance with the demands of justice.  As far as they knew, and regardless of his honor standing in the community, one would suppose that there would be little reason for them to think otherwise, Naboth had actually done that of which he was accused.  Accordingly, they would be predisposed to believe that he was indeed deserving of the rightful judgment that they knew would take place.  Jezebel took advantage of this situation.  So “They observed a time of fasting and put Naboth in front of the people.  The two villains arrived and sat opposite him.  Then the villains testified against Naboth right before the people” (21:12-13a), as this would have been a gathering of the entire community, “saying ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’” (21:13b) 

Just as the community leaders were not necessarily complicit in this act of injustice, neither were those who testified against Naboth.  Again, as far as they knew, this information and directive came from the king himself.  Predictably, “they dragged him outside the city and stoned him to death” (21:13c). 

It would seem that this horrible achievement of Naboth’s death was predicated on honor and the meal table.  The two “villains” that were set opposite Naboth would be seated to his right and left, in what would likely have been the positions of greatest honor at a meal or any community gathering.  These persons that were seated immediately to the right and to the left of the chief seat could also have been presumed to be possessive of even greater honor than the one seated in the host position, and these two men would not have been unknown to the community.  If there were unknown, or known to be men of lesser honor, their testimony would not have been acted upon so seriously. 

Accordingly then, when these two men, who were undoubtedly well-respected men of the community and not simple villains whose words would carry no weight with the community, offered these words of testimony about Naboth, their testimony would have been presumed to be truthful and would have carried a tremendous amount of weight.  Thus the resulting fate of Naboth.  

Clearly then, when the opportunity is taken to move past a merely superficial reading of the story of Ahab, Jezebel, Naboth, and the vineyard, one can conclude that the story is less about Jezebel (who is undoubtedly cast as a villain) and Ahab, and much more about the abuse of power, corruption, and injustice that so often accompanies unnecessary acquisitiveness (desire to continually acquire things).  It is not primarily (or even necessarily) a story about a rebellious wife usurping her husband’s authority and lording over him, or the story of a weak man and husband, as it is so often portrayed.  It is a story of oppression and murder that is brought about by a perverted use of the very provisions of justice that were put in place by the Creator God so as to enable His image-bearers to reflect His glory.

Ahab, Jezebel & A Vineyard (part 1)

In the twenty-first chapter of the first book of the Kings, the story of Ahab and Naboth is encountered.  A quick summary of the story has Ahab, the king of Israel, desirous of obtaining a vineyard that belongs to a man by the name of Naboth.  Ahab offers to purchase the vineyard or to trade a more valuable piece of land to Naboth in exchange for his vineyard that was said to adjoin the palace grounds.  This would appear to be an offer of a legitimate and appropriate transaction between two parties.

However, Naboth politely declines the offer, saying “The Lord forbid that I should sell you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3b).  As Ahab had his heart set on acquiring the vineyard, it is said that this rejection made him both “bitter and angry” (21:4).  It is at this point that Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, enters the story.  Jezebel noticed her husband’s downcast demeanor, and naturally inquired as to its source.  Ahab informed Jezebel about the situation with Naboth and his vineyard, with this apparently spurring Jezebel to take matters into her own hands to obtain the vineyard. 

It is reported that Jezebel “wrote out orders, signed Ahab’s name to them, and sealed them with his seal.  She then sent the orders to the leaders and to the nobles who lived in Naboth’s city.  This is what she wrote: ‘Observe a time of fasting and seat Naboth in front of the people.  Also seat two villains opposite him and have them testify, “You cursed God and the king.”  Then take him out and stone him to death.’” (21:8-10) 

It is not at all difficult to see what is at work here, what is left out, and what is implied.  This is a shrewd albeit vicious plan that has been hatched by Jezebel, and it is rooted in a knowledge of public sensibilities that would appear to be heavily dependent on ancient near eastern meal culture and its associated customs.  It begins with the declaration of a time of fasting, which is generally associated in Scripture with penitence on behalf of an individual or a people, though that is not the case here.  Consequently, Jezebel corrupts the practice.  Naturally, a time of fasting would be concluded by a time of feasting, and Jezebel (with it taken to be from Ahab’s hand) has given an order related to Naboth’s city. 

Though Naboth owns a vineyard adjacent to the king’s abode, this does not necessarily mean that he lived on this piece of land, but that he either worked the land himself or hired laborers to work it for him.  Owing to this, it can be presumed that Naboth is probably a relatively wealthy individual, who is likely to have possessed some measure of honor within the community that would operate on the basis of honor and shame. 

Accordingly, when considering the location of his vineyard (adjacent to the palace grounds), it would not come as a surprise to anyone in the community that Naboth is being chosen out for a special honor by the king, who is going to be hosting a community feast in honor of Naboth.  Consequently, it would be quite likely that, at this feast, Naboth would occupy the seat of honor (however that would have worked out in that time and place) at the feast that followed the fast. 

Together with this, there is also this mention of seating two “villains” opposite Naboth at this feast.  Naturally, these men will not be known to the community as villains, but rather, since this story is a decided polemic against Jezebel that seems to seek to at least partially exculpate Ahab from blame in this manner, the men are going to play the villain in the story, right along with Jezebel. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Water Into Wine (part 8 of 8)

To assist in further explaining the head steward’s words and actions towards the bridegroom, one must bear in mind that as far as he is concerned, it is in fact the bridegroom that has provided this new wine.  This is truly the only reasonable assessment at hand.  If this is so, then for some reason the bridegroom has gone behind the back of the head steward and colluded against him in this area, in what could be easily understood to be an attempt to make him look bad before the community. 

Also, the head steward would be completely justified in thinking that, for some reason, the bridegroom was making an overt attempt to dishonor his honored guests by purposely not providing them with the best wine.  The head steward, apparently, is not only not willing to let this blame be put on him, thereby letting the scheming bridegroom off the hook, he is also not willing to go along with the dishonoring that he sees taking place. 

Finally, and though things should probably not be pushed too far in this area, it should be noted that the wine was produced in the “six stone water jars… for Jewish ceremonial washing” (John 2:6b).  For reasons of purity, ceremonial washing was of crucial importance.  These ceremonial washings may have been limited to the hands, but one can also bear in mind the incident recorded in the seventh chapter of Luke, in which Jesus, while a woman is washing His feet with her hair, mentions to Simon that He had not had his feet washed when He entered Simon’s house. 

So it is within the realm of possibility that these jars had been the jars employed in the washing of the guests hands and feet as they arrived for the wedding feast.  If this is so, then the servants of the house would have been employed in this process, as they assisted the attendees in the process of washing, and perhaps were even completely responsible for doing the washing of the feet themselves.  It is these servants then, who are part of the group of people will be drinking the best wine, which now flows from out of their jars of service. 

With this, those at the party and those learning about the party afterwards through either the social network or via the text, are able to witness the first becoming last (ironically because they refuse to drink the better wine being served at the end of the meal), while the last become first (as those who had been relegated, due to the prevailing social structure, to the end of the meal now drink the finest wine).  As this thought is entertained, it is quite useful to hear the author say “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a), with the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  “In this way He revealed His glory” (2:11b) and the advent of the kingdom of the Creator God.