We finish Genesis this week and come to the dramatic denouement of the Joseph novella and the Jacob story. Joseph tests his brothers to the limit. Witnessing Judah’s remorse and willingness to sacrifice himself for Benjamin, Joseph is unable to contain himself any longer and reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph is then reunited with his father who issues blessings of various sorts on his sons.
Turning to the New Testament, Matthew takes us through the temptation/testing (apt with Lent a few weeks away) and the Sermon on the Mount. Re-reading Matthew 5-7, I was struck afresh by how Jesus’s teaching is a radical reinterpretation of the law, but never its repudiation. This important chunk of text is one that I hope to return to in subsequent readings and it raised lots of questions I hope to address in the future (see the full list below).
This week’s questions pertain to the purpose of the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50) and the nature of the blessing in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12).
As the Jacob narrative comes close to its end, our readings in Genesis take us part way through the Joseph story. One of the most gripping novellas in all of the Hebrew Bible, it is filled with pathos, jealousy, brotherly rivalry, murderous plots, intrigue, political power and unlikely twists. The favouritism of Isaac towards Esau, of Rebekah towards Jacob, and of Jacob towards Rachel now bears fruit in the mutual hatred between Rachel’s son Joseph, Jacob’s favourite, and Joseph’s brothers.
In the New Testament readings, John’s Gospel reaches its climax in the resurrection and Jesus’s appearance to the disciples, including his moving encounter with Mary Magdalene and Thomas. In a single chapter, Jesus is acclaimed as “rabboni” (my teacher) by Mary, “my Lord and my God” by Thomas, and as “messiah and Son of God” by the narrator who finally gives away his purpose in writing his gospel (20:31, see below Q2). We also begin Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus is declared as Messiah three times in three verses (1:16-18) and as the one who will save his people from their sins. There is a greater darkness to Matthew’s infancy narrative than Luke’s, I think, where the only shadow comes in the form of Simeon’s words to Mary: “a sword will pierce your own side too”. In Matthew’s account, we have a blink-and-you’d-miss-it reference to the grim and gory tale of Bathsheba and Uriah, Tamar’s crafty impregnation by her father in law (see Genesis 38), another potential scandal with Joseph’s betrothed Mary found to be pregnant, the massacre of the innocents and Herod searching desperately for Joseph and his family to murder their young child.
There are all sorts of fascinating connections between the readings from Matthew and those from Genesis in recent weeks: Jacobs beget Josephs; dreaming Josephs dwell in Egypt; the Tamar of Genesis 38 makes a seemingly unlikely appearance in the genealogy of Messiah; Jesus’s birth takes place in Bethlehem, the least of the town of the tribe of Judah. At Jesus’s baptism, God names him his beloved Son (ἀγαπητός), in an echo of Genesis 22. In a way that the ram Abraham sacrificed in Isaac’s place points to, this beloved Son will save his people from their sins by dying in their place (Mt 20:28). And, perhaps most poignantly of all, just as we are told constantly that “God was with Joseph”, now we learn that this same God has mysteriously entered human history and become Immanuel, “God with us” in Jesus (1:23; cf. Mt 28:20).
Our questions this week concern how we should read Genesis 38-39 (the stories of Tamar and Judah, and Potiphar’s wife and Joseph) and the purpose of John’s gospel, as stated in chapter 20 verse 31.
There is a strong note of family relations running through this week’s readings. We read of brotherly reconciliation (Gen 33), family tragedy (the death of Rachel, Gen 35:19) and the rise of Israel/Jacob and his descendants (36:6-8) as well as hints of family division which will carry into the Joseph story (34:30-31; 35:22 where Reuben sleeps with Jacob’s concubine, and a note of literary suspense when we read …”and Jacob heard of it”).
The family theme continues in the New Testament readings, as Simeon announces to Mary, the mother of Jesus, that a “sword will pierce your own side too” as she and Joseph fulfil the requirements of the Law (that family tension will continue when the teenage Jesus leaves his family for the Temple). And in John 17, Jesus addresses his Father and ours, in the High Priestly Prayer. As a new father, I was struck by Jesus’s use of the experience of childbirth as an analogy for the disciples’ initial grief at Jesus’ near-departure which will be eclipsed by the joy of their eventual reunion: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21).
The two questions below deal with the promise made to Jacob and how these compares with those made to Abraham and Isaac, and a question about the divine name in John 17.
This week’s OT readings feature Isaac, to whom God renews the covenant (Gen 26:4-6) and to whom Rebekah is given in marriage. We are also introduced to Jacob, the deceiver, who steals his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, meets God at Bethel (Gen 28), flees from his brother and family and lives with his deceitful uncle, Laban, for whom he works for fourteen years in exchange for the promise of marrying his daughters.
In the New Testament readings, we have the dramatic conversion (or calling, as I argue here) of Saul (later named Paul) on the Road to Damascus. Reading the narrative this year, I was primed by Richard Bauckham’s work on the divine name to notice the significance of the Name of Jesus in Acts 9:1-22. Christians call on the Name, and Paul is to proclaim the name and suffer for the name. Paul’s life hinges on the realisation that the one God of Israel, who reveals himself as I will be who I will be (Ex 3), has shared this Name with his Son, Jesus (see also John 13:19 from this week). The two questions below concern the issue of Abraham’s works (a question that came up last week) and Jesus’s relationship to judgment in John’s gospel. A major theme comes through in the questions and the final reflection: that trust and love are both closely related to, and evidenced by, action and obedience. A full list of questions, as always, appears at the end.
As genres, science fiction and fantasy have often gained the reputation of being a bit morally black and white. In short, fantasy would offer us the choice between the realm of good and the realm of evil. Like oil and water, never the twain shall meet. In perhaps the most famous example of science fiction, George Lucas’s Star Wars, the starkness of this divide is rendered in visually unmistakeable terms—on the side of evil, Sith menacingly wield their red lightsabres, and on the good, Jedis heroically bear bright swords radiating the more positive hues of green and blue.
Recent fantasy has sought to blur the ethical lines and render stories that are more morally complex. In his immensely popular epic, Game of Thrones (or Tales of Ice, Wind and Fire), George R. R. Martin famously kills of good and noble protagonists while allowing evil tyrants to live on. Martin is somehow able to make the most hideous protagonists worthy of our sympathy.
Martin was not the first to try his hand at building a more sophisticated moral universe. If we look a bit further back, we can locate an even more realistic, and even more hopeful, depiction of good and evil. It is in the trilogy that effectively gave birth to modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that the power of evil and the human capacity for wrong—what the Christian tradition calls sin—arguably finds its most convincing depiction within the genre.
For Epiphany, I’m reading Richard Bauckham’s new-ish book, Who is God? Key Moments of Biblical Revelation. Chapter 2 offers an intriguing discussion of the divine name (YHWH or LORD) in the Burning Bush episode (Exodus 3) and then through the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Bauckham makes a number of important points on the Exodus passage as well as Jesus’s modes of reference to the divine name and, finally, the application by NT authors of a substitute for the divine name (LORD, or kyrios in the Greek) to Jesus!
About this time last year I was part of a group that read Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction. The following passage came back to me as I was thinking about the reasons why I read the news and how I consume it.
1. Genesis 17:1-23: What is the significance of the covenant of circumcision? Does it not constitute works righteousness and if not, why not? And why circumcision as a sign of the covenant?
Since that’s not one question but three, let’s take each in turn.
Genesis 17 refers to the giving (Hebrew: ntn) or confirming of the covenant. This covenant ratification follows on from the covenant inauguration (or “cutting of the covenant”) in Genesis 15. The cutting of the covenant, with its strange ceremony with fire and divided animals stresses the chronological priority of God’s action which takes priority and pre-eminence over man’s. Genesis 17 majors on man’s response which ratifies and confirms the covenant already made by God’s divine initiative.
With a promised end to restrictions in the UK at the end of the month, I’m hoping that this post will serve as my final Covid diary. Indeed, it now seems time to call time on almost two years of life-altering, state-mandated restraints. For all its raging transmissibility, the Omicron has thankfully resulted in very low numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.
What continues to rage, however, are the fiery cultural divisions in society. There seems to be a perverse, inverse relationship between the level of threat of the virus and how mad and maddening we behave towards it and one another. Why is this? In large part, this is because the corona pandemic constitutes a moral crisis as well as a public health one. To be sure, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that the last two years has simply been about health. At root, the last two years have laid bare deep and troubling metaphysical assumptions about risk, purity, death.
We’ve seen these cultural and moral assumptions play out in two recent events: first, the revelations of PM Boris Johnson’s attendance at mass party events in May 2020 and second, the deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia. Both events raise two distinct questions which I will explore in what follows:
First, the question of legality and fairness: were the rules created applied consistently and fairly (including, in the case of the first event, by those who created them!)?
And second, and more deeply, the question of morality and reasonableness: are the rules themselves worth following?
For week 1, see here. For the lectionary I am using, see here.
Old Testament (Genesis 10-16)
1. Genesis 11:1-9: What’s the main point of the Babel story?
At face value, the central thrust of the Babel narrative is that human hubris—symbolised in progressive attempts to build towards the heavens—leads to divine judgment, specifically taking the form of scattering the peoples and confusing their languages.
Set against the literary and historical context of Genesis, though, the meaning becomes a bit clearer. There is anti-Babylonian streak to the story which I hadn’t noticed before but which makes sense in light of the near eastern parallels against which Genesis 1-11 is written. With this narrative there is no specific parallel but rather the use of motifs related to Babylonian religion—for instance, Babel literally means “gate of the god” . As Wenham writes (ECB, 37): “The ridiculing of Babylonian pretensions is even more apparent in the tower of Babel story. Far from its vaunted tower touching heaven and the name Babel (Babylon) meaning “gate of the god”, the Lord had to come down from heaven to see the skyscraper—so far short of his dwelling did it reach; and its name means ‘confusion’ or ‘folly’”. The Hebrew roots for the word “confuse” (“let us confuse”) and “folly” are almost the same.