Bible Reading Week 6 (Feb 6th – 13th 2022)

 

Week 1Week 2Week 3; Week 4; Week 5

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.

Old Testament (Genesis 37-43)

1. Genesis 38-39 (see 39:9 and : to what extent are we meant to draw a contrast between Tamar and Potiphar’s wife and Joseph and Judah?

At first glance, there are notable parallels and discontinuities between these two sets of characters and stories: both concern stories of sexual lust with the two dominant characters, Judah and Potiphar, acting improperly towards those in a weaker position (Tamar and Joseph). Joseph resists sexual temptation, while Judah acts impetuously and with ravenous lust, allowing his sexual appetites to dominate him. Potiphar tempts Joseph to do “a wicked thing against God”. Joseph resists. Tamar craftily gets pregnant by her father-in-law who then concedes that “she is more righteous than I”, given his failure to follow through on his promise to offer his youngest son to Tamar.

While these parallels might hold, in fact, as Wenham argues (WBC 363-4), the purpose of chapter 38 lies at a deeper level: it serves to raise a number of significant themes that have run throughout Genesis, as well as to lay the roots for character change that blossoms later in the narrative. Without these, later developments such as Judah’s change of heart and behaviour in the story (44:18-34), would seem out of place and not to follow from what we have read before.

One key theme running through Genesis as a leitmotif and which this story emphasises is that of injustice being righted. As Wenham explains:

this story shows that injustice will be righted and that the perpetrator will admit his errors. As Judah confesses here, ‘she is in the right, not I ‘ (38:26), so all Joseph’s brothers will one day acknowledge their sin against him. ‘Truly we are guilt because of our brother, for we his distress, when he implored us and we did not listen’ (42:21).

The Tamar story also continues the theme of the trumph of the younger child over the elder: Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, Ephraim over Manasseh. The youngest son of Judah, Shelah, is the only one to survive, as his two older brothers die (one for “wickedness” and the other for failing to consummate his marriage to his brother’s wife, Tamar). The chapter ends with Peres arriving first, despite Zerah’s hand coming out of the womb first. In a few chapters time, we will see Joseph’s triumph over his brothers come to its completion, and this chapter foreshadows that development.

And finally, the theme of childbirth is central to this episode. Tamar seeks to fulfil the creation mandate—echoed in the promises of the covenant to Abraham to make him the father of many nations—of being fruitful and multiplying. Yet her succession of husbands fail to honour this desire. As a result, the line of Judah is at risk of dying out.Tamar is perhaps held up as a heroine who seeks to fulfil the mandate to be fruitful, all the more remarkable given that she is a Canaanite. Her means of doing so are interesting, to say the least. It seems that the Levitical penalty on incestuous relations didn’t hold at this point and in any case, the illegal nature of Tamar’s actions is somewhat tempered by her treatment at the hands of her father-in-law. Moreover, the lack of legal redress for a widow at the time left Tamar in a pretty impossible situation for her to continue her family line and acquire the future provision that children would offer to their parents.

Wenham argues that we miss these themes because we read this story as the Joseph story, when in fact the Joseph portion is part of the larger Jacob narrative, running from chapters 25-50. Thus, we should not be surprised that the story not only involves Joseph, but other members of Israel’s family, including Judah and Tamar.

New Testament (John 19:38-21; Matthew 1-3)

2. John 20:31: what can we conclude about the purpose of John’s gospel from this verse?
(my translation) but these are written so that you may continue to believe that the Messiah is Jesus, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. 
(SBLG) ταῦτα δὲ γέγραπται ἵνα πιστεύητε ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ χριστὸς ὁυἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἵνα πιστεύοντες ζωὴν ἔχητε ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι αὐτοῦ. 

Is John’s purpose mission or discipleship. Is he encouraging his readers to come to believe in Jesus—for the first time, as converts—or encouraging those who are already Christians to continue to believe in him. Our manuscripts have different readings here with πιστεύητε (present subjunctive: “continue to believe”) and πιστεύσητε (inceptive aorist subjunctive: “may come to believe”) having equally strong support in the early manuscripts. It does seem that John is interested in both processes—strengthening the faith of Christians (i.e. ensuring that they continue to believe) as well as persuading others to come to initial faith. See 11:15 and 6:29 which emphasise both coming to believe and continuing to believe.

On balance, though, it would seem that John is more interested in strengthening the faith of those who are already Christians. There is so much material in John that seeks to address Christian communities, and the farewell discourse—John 14-17—is a particular example of this. Jesus’s disciples are those who are called, for instance, to love one another. Of course, in doing this, the disciple of Jesus become a witness to those who have not yet “come to believe”, though this is secondary. There is still an interest in persuading those outside the faith but this flows from love within the Christian community. Jesus’s command to love one another is given with an eye to watching world: “by this, they will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”. We could say that John prioritises discipleship, the practice of following Jesus, but he is not disinterested in mission. Discipleship leads to mission.

This primary focus on the fledgling Christian community makes sense in light of the content of this belief or trust: namely, that “the Messiah/Christ is Jesus”. The definite article sits with Messiah here and so this translation is probably slightly more accurate than the more commonly found “Jesus is the Messiah”. Reading this verse in this way (“that you might that the Messiah is Jesus”) brings home the fiery intra-Jewish debate both at the time of John’s writing (ca. 80-90 CE) as well as in Jesus’s own time.

How much we can say about the specifics of this situation is doubtful. John as narrator, and Jesus in John’s Gospel, both have some harsh things to say about “the Jews”. Some take this phrase to mean “the Judeans” or “the Jerusalem elite”. There are also references to being thrown out of the synagogue—see John 9:22, 12:42 and 16:2. And while there is definite tension between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, at the same time, John is at pains to show that Jesus fulfils Israel’s story—”salvation is of the Jews”, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman (4:22). And the harsh language in John 8—”you are children of the devil”—is uttered within the context of Jesus being accused of having a demon. We need to read this in its historical context and in light of other Jewish texts where such language is used (“the sons of Belial/r” language in the Dead Sea scrolls or in Jubilees 15:33-34 for instance, are some examples). And we need to read this statement in its literary context. Again, it reflects the fieriness of a sibling rivalry rather than distanced and cool condemnation of Judaism by Jesus from a distance. John writes to assert that the Messiah is Jesus. Jesus’s status as Messiah is good news for Jew, as well as Gentile. It reflects the reality of the early Jewish Jesus movement making claims about Jesus—that he is Messiah and Son of God (a term that appears 12 times in John)—and facing the consequences from other rival Jewish groups.

Finally, we have the phrase “life in his name” What is meant by this? At one level, it refers to the life that is in Jesus, hearkening back to the opening chapter of John–“in him was life, and that life was the light of all men”. But there is again an interesting reference to the name again here (see last week’s question on John 17 for more on this, as well as here). “Life in his name” doesn’t simply mean “life in Jesus”, with “name” becoming a cipher for Jesus. The name is the divine name which Jesus fully shares in. Again, the consequences of this claim were massive for Jewish followers of Jesus, involving a re-thinking–though not a repudiation–of Jewish monotheism.

Discipleship Reflection: On Doughnuts and Discipleship

John’s Gospel prioritises discipleship—the life of the community of followers of Jesus—but also maintains that discipleship is the gateway to mission. There is no false choice offered here.

It is useful to consider this question within the context of developments within our church communities. And it has particular relevance as the synod of the Church of England currently discusses this very question*. There is a current growth of “missional communities” within the Church of England. These communities emphasise mission and with a centripetal force they focus on the communities they live in, seeking to serve their neighbours and share the good news with them.

This is a good development. It is also one that has its pitfalls. There is a risk that an overemphasis on mission, to the exclusion of the growth of Christians individually and communally, can lead to a hollowed out faith. The question that we face here is, what are Christians inviting others in to? What is the substance of mission? (There is a good discussion of this issue of mission and discipleship in this episode of Godpod; see also on the relationship between discipleship, mission and the issue of social action, Growing Good by Hannah Rich).

I have heard some Christian leaders refer to the question of discipleship and mission as the problem of the doughnut**. A community that only commits to mission is like a ring doughnut, which moves outwards with a centripetal force. The risk is that the injunction to be constantly sharing one’s faith could be that there is nothing of substance to share. The community can be hollow and the offering might end up being shallow. On the other hand, a community that prioritises discipleship without mission, is perhaps like a donut that is full of substance. But because it shares none of that jammy goodness, the community, or in this case the doughnut, becomes stale and loses its purpose. To mix metaphors, because it moves with a rapid centrifugal force, that community’s inward focus can at times be self-destructive if it does not move outwards.

But against both of these, the community that prioritises discipleship for the purpose of mission potentially avoids both the pitfall of hollowness and the pitfall of staleness. It is, in the language of God’s promise to Abraham, blessed to be a blessing. Discipleship is of course an end in itself—and good discipleship, good liturgy and worship are in themselves a witness. Discipleship is at its best when it serves mission. You can’t really have true mission without discipleship and true discipleship is itself missional.

No doubt there will be communities that prioritise discipleship, and others that prioritise mission, and that can be a matter of pragmatism and resources. The more difficult task perhaps is to combine both elements, placing the greater emphasis on discipleship—the challenge of growing through loving those who are difficult to love and letting ourselves, in all our difficulty be loved—while not neglecting the fact that this love is for the purpose of the nations and the watching world.

*There is potentially an irony here since the way we as the Church of England hold this conversion around mission and discipleship is itself part of what it means to be disciples who disagree before a watching world.

**There is also of course the question of what mission in fact looks like. For my part, I think that it involves the eucharist but it is also a lot more than this. Celebrating the eucharist in community on a Sunday, when done well, is both growing the lives of disciples and also a missional witness to those who might visit the church, or who might, for whatever reason, struggle to commit to the Christian faith. But there must also be an outward push among those who believe in Jesus. This was true from the beginning but is even more true now with church attendance as low as it is.

List of Questions

  1. Genesis 37:28: where do the Midianites emerge from given the brothers see Ishmaelites?
  2. Genesis 37:29: where was Reuben? Does Reuben know what happened to Joseph? 
  3. Genesis 38:24: was prostitution a capital punishment in ancient Israel?
  4. Genesis 41:8: did this part of the Joseph story inspire the Daniel story?
  5. Genesis 41:38: what would Pharaoh have meant by the spirit of God/the gods?
  6. Genesis 41:45: there’s no connection to Potiphar right?
  7. Genesis 42:23: had Joseph forgotten Hebrew?
  8. Genesis 43:23: is the steward saying that the silver got there miraculously? This is a ruse right?
  9. John 20:11-12: why are angels at the tomb? what does this signify?
  10. John 20:16: what is it about the way Jesus says Mary’s name that makes her realise it is Jesus?
  11. John 20:17: how is God also “my God” for Jesus?
  12. John 20:22-23: what is the connection between the Spirit and forgiveness here?
  13. John 20:27: what does this verse say about doubt?
  14. John 21:2: where is Andrew?
  15. John 21:15: What are the “these” in Jesus’s question, “do you love me more than these”?
  16. Matthew 1:17: How is this genealogy meant to be read with regards to history?
  17. Matthew 1:21: “You will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins). What does this phrase, “save from sins” mean and what is sin in GMatthew? 
  18. Matthew 1:23: how was this verse, Isaiah 7:14, read in contemporaneous Jewish lit?
  19. Matthew 1:25: why didn’t Joseph consummate the marriage?
  20. Matthew 2:5-6: was Bethlehem commonly thought to be the birthplace of Messiah? 
  21. Matthew 2:15: what does this verse in Hosea mean in context?
  22. Matthew 2:22: some think that they went to Nazareth as this was Mary’s home town—is this true?
  23. Matthew 2:23: where in the prophets is someone like the Messiah called a Nazarene?
  24. Matthew 3:2: what is the kingdom of heaven? What does it mean to repent and what is this connection with baptism? 
  25. Matthew 3:11: what does it mean to be baptised by the holy spirit and fire? 
  26. Matthew 3:15: why does Jesus’s baptism (or why at least does Jesus want to) fulfil all righteousness? 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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