Descendants of Abraham, Descendants of Covenant

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 254

The Humility of Abram

Then Abram fell on his face. Abraham adopts a classical position of worship; he prostrates himself. The prostration has at least a two-fold significance. First, to lay on the ground is to lower oneself. It is a symbolic gesture of humility and recognition that the other is greater. Abram knows the LORDis greater than himself. The LORD is a mysterious and powerful figure. He is, in fact, the king of Abram and Abram’s descendants. Any sense of entitlement or, at this point in the relationship, equality between the LORD Abram would be absurd. Second, a profound prostration places the face upon the ground. It is a recognition that one should not even look upon the greater party. To see God is to die, as the Hebrew Scriptures often repeat. The mystery of the LORD is not comprehensible by a human person and must not be approached in a human manner. Once Abram has adopted the appropriate external disposition before the LORD, God speaks.

A Gracious Covenant

[T]his is my covenant with you. Notice the LORD is asserting ownership over the covenant. He does not say, “This is our covenant,” as we might expect. Rather, the covenant and its offering belong entirely to the LORD. Commentators, by way of comparing this text to other scriptural texts and secular covenantal texts, often say that covenant is a reward meted out for good deads. Perhaps there is some element of this in the text. However, the LORD's decree separates itself from the concreteness of Abram’s actions or merit and makes the covenant, principally, a divine favor. The LORD has chosen Abram and has does so in his own freedom.

Abram Our Father

You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. At a historical and literal level, the promise of a multitude of nation refers to the biological descendants of Abram: the Ismaelites, Midianite, Edomites[1] and the Hebrew people. However, a spiritual and broader sense cannot be excluded. The statement by the LORD is too large to be pinned down to a few ancient peoples. The Hebrew word hāmôn has the connotation of a great army or a multitude.[2] It is too large an idea to be reduced to a few groups. A spiritual reading naturally arises from the promise. All those who look to Abram as their father are considered his offspring. The multitude of nations could even encompass the whole world if people would choose Abram as did the LORD.

A New Name

[Y]our name shall be Abraham. Not only will the blessing of the LORD increase the offspring of Abram, it will increase his name! As the patriarch and inheritor of a new covenant, the name Abram is no longer fitting. His old name, his old identity, cannot contain the promises of God. Abram is renamed, and in a sense transformed into, Abraham. Etymologically the change indicates little.[3]

Descendants of Abraham, Descendants of Covenant

The new covenant is everlasting. There is not an explicitly expressed condition on the covenant, i.e. the LORD will remain faithful even if the descendants do not. While this theme is taken up and nuanced by the Deuteronomist, in its origin it is unconditional. As discussed in my previous post, The Bronze Serpent and the Transformation of Evil, God’s will is not frustrated by human choice. The divine freedom is perfect and without diminishing or interfering in human freedom, is able to achieve its will. This fact is a great message of hope to those who consider themselves descendants of Abraham. There is no need to fear sin and evil because the covenant once made cannot be annulled. The descendants of Abraham will receive all that the LORD has promised them.

[1] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 124.
[2] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 250–251.
[3] E. A. Speiser, Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 1, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 124.

The Works of Your Father

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 253

Truth and Freedom

Jesus is supposedly speaking to the Jews who believe in him. However, this does not play out as expected. Jesus assures his followers they will know the truth, and the truth will give freedom. The freedom he references is not mere physical freedom, i.e., he is not promising to remove the Romans from Judea. Jesus promises spiritual and psychological freedom. Whoever follows Jesus will escape slavery to sin and base desires. Such a person will be lifted into the divine life and given God’s perspective of history. The follower of Jesus will not be subject to the powers of this world, just as Jesus was not subject to Pilate. Jesus retained his freedom even under threat, and eventual realization, of torture. He was always free to follow the good and live in the truth. Jesus did not have to fear; he only had to remain in the truth. This is what Jesus offers to his followers.

We Are Already Free

The Jews respond to Jesus by claiming they are already free. As children of the LORD's they believe they already possess the freedom of which Jesus speaks. However, Jesus points out they have deluded themselves. They cling to the names Abraham, Moses, and LORD, but they do not submit themselves to the change in life those names demand. They continue to sin. Jesus pointedly asserts, whoever sins is a slave. Sin, as a deprivation of the good, takes away freedom. It damages the image of God within the human person. In no sense can this be considered freedom. Freedom demands the wholeness of the human person and the ability to live in truth and do good. The Jews, to whom Jesus spoke, did not understand freedom. Their interpretations and traditions blinded them to who Jesus was and the truth of his statements.

Works of Your Father

The argument between the Jews and Jesus continues will little progress. Again and again, the Jews claim to be children of Abraham, Moses, or the LORD. Jesus forcefully demonstrates they are wrong. The Jews have confused physical descent with authentic spiritual descent. The heart of Jesus’ claim is that he is the true messenger of God. God is not present in the fallen world in a comprehensible manner. The world, for the Gospel of John, is darkness. Whatever is of the world is too far removed from God to give access to him. The only way for the world to know God is for God to send a messenger. That is who Jesus claims to be. He is the one who has been in the presence of the Father, who has seen the Father face to face. Therefore he alone can reveal the Father. Abraham and Moses knew the world was dark and, they sought the emissary of God who could reveal the Father. To be a descendent of them would mean acting in imitation of them. They would have rejoiced to see Jesus and gain true knowledge of the Father. The Jews, however, reject Jesus and therefore reject the Father. Instead, they submit themselves to the father of this world, Satan. That is what Jesus means when he says, “You are doing the works of your father.” The Jews respond by referencing Jesus’ unusual birth and the absence of a human father. Jesus seemingly ignores the insult and lays out clearly his message: to love God is to love me because the Father sent me. Jesus never speaks from his own desires, but only says what the Father tells him. Jesus is the way. He is the only way because only he has seen the Father. Jesus’ words to the Jews are as relevant today as when he spoke them. The world has revealed its darkness evermore. To have light and truth is to listen to Jesus. There is no other option.

The Bronze Serpent – The Transformation of Evil

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 252

Weary and Agitated

The people wandering in the desert are weary and agitated. The Book of Numbers describes them as qāṣēr, which the NRSV translates to “impatient.” This word, however, means so much more. Literally, it is more often used to mean “to shorten or diminish.” A humorous, though apt, example is found in Isaiah 28:20, where the author speaks of a bed that is too short to stretch out in. This image, of a short bed, describes the situation of the Hebrew people. They have been wandering for a long time looking for rest. Much like sleeping in a cramped space, they can’t get comfortable. They try this way and that, moving around, and adjusting the blankets; nothing works. So they become agitated. They complain against God and Moses. Their complaint is relatable and deeply expressive of the human condition. Couldn’t we have died just as easily in the land of Egypt? At least we had food there. It is hard not to laugh and sympathize. However, it reveals a lack of faith and hope in divine providence. The LORD has recently released them from 400 years of slavery and misery. They miraculously escaped the clutches of Egypt with many signs and wonders, yet still, they doubt. This, as is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, does not sit well with the LORD.

Fiery Serpents

In response to the complaints of the Hebrews, the LORD sends a plague of poinsonus serpents, as the NRSV translates Numbers 21:6. Some translations choose fiery serpents, which is preferable. The NRSV, to its credit, notes the alternative in a footnote. Fiery is preferable because the Hebrew word is seraphim. It is the same word used to describe a class of the angels, the highest rank of angels according to varied traditions. The seraphim were thought of as beings of fire, see Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews for examples. Fire is the most rarefied of the four basic elements; it is the most like spirit. It is also a consuming and dynamic reality. A being of fire is a being of power and dynamism. It is like God in many ways. Therefore the serpahim which attack the Hebrews should be seen as spiritual, not natural, creatures. Hence preferring the translation fiery over poinsonus.

The Punishment is the Medicine

After punishing the Hebrews, God issues an unusual command to Moses: make a serpent and place it on a pole. This is shocking given the numerous aniconic statements of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrews should never create graven images and look to them for salvation. Yet, it is the LORD who commands it. The bronze serpent was surely a frightening and bizarre image. It likely would have taken the form of a fiery dragon. Merely looking upon this image brought healing. Why? Why would a bronze image of the creature which is inflicting suffering on the Hebrews be a source of healing? The answer to this question is the central theme of the scriptures. God is not bound by the evil of human choice. The misuse of human freedom does not frustrate the LORD's will. Rather, the God of Israel transforms evil into good. He repurposes or redirects the evil so that it gives rise to good. The Hebrews were punished because of their lack of faith, but the punishment gave them faith. In suffering under the terror of the seraphim the Hebrews were reminded of their need for the LORD. They were confronted by the inherent dependence they have upon him. Which is to say, through their sufferings, they return to the LORD. The bronze seraph is a physical embodiment of the spiritual reality. It is the sign that their punishment is true medicine. In the ancient world, medicine was expected to make one ill. It harmed so that healing could be brought about. In a sense, it took away all those elements which stood in the way of healing. The seraphim function similarly for the Hebrews. Their selfish desires, impatience, and weaknesses are burned away and their fidelity and dependence upon the LORD is revealed.

The Cross, the True Bronze Serpent

This scene from the Book of Numbers is picked up in John 3:14-15. Jesus has become the new bronze serpent. To gaze upon Jesus crucified is to have life. Even though the Gospel of John explicitly references the bronze serpent, the parallels are not on the surface. Humanity was not punished by God with crucifixion, so looking at a crucifix for healing makes no sense. There is a deeper image here. In the Garden of Eden, it was a snake, a seraph, who tempted Adam and Eve. According to many traditions and legends, Satan belongs to the order of seraphim. He is placed among the highest-ranking of the angels. It is by his free choice that humanity is tempted into the misery of sin and death. When Adam and Eve voluntarily submitted themselves to the serpent, they chose death for the cosmos. In the crucifixion of Jesus, this choice is transformed. Death, the punishment of humanity, becomes the means to salvation. God, in the humanity of Jesus, submits to death and so makes it into the passage into life. Jesus on the cross is the true and everlasting bronze serpent. To gaze upon Christ crucified is to take in the medicine of immortality. It is to behold the greatest work of God which makes Satan’s and humanity’s sin into salvation.

Let Us Pray

God of limitless power, our sins are not a barrier to your love. You can transform every evil into our good. Pour out on us your mercy, lift us up from the misery of sin and death, and let us behold your love, our medicine, in Jesus crucified. Per eundem dominum…

The Woman Caught in Adultery

Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 251

Pericope Adulterae

The gospel scene of the woman caught in adultery, sometimes referred to as the Pericope Adulterae(PA), is unusually controversial. The controversy isn’t so much about the content, but whether it belongs in the NT at all. The PA does not appear in the earliest and most realiable manuscripts of the NT. There is no real scholarly doubt that PA does not originally belong to the Gospel of John. Brown goes so far as to say “clearly…it [is] a latter insertion.” [1] Brown supports this claim by pointing out PA's abscence from early Greek texts, the Old Syriac, the Coptic, and quotations by early Greek writters. [2] However, today, it is typically accepted as canonical and printed in bibles with, perhaps, a footnote referencing its absence from many manuscripts.

Is It Apostolic?

Some people are understandably disturbed by this state of affairs. Texts which do not authentically belong to the apostolic age should not be in the scriptures. Addressing this concern is not trivial. First, it is not clear whether the text is ancient or not. While there is no definitive manuscript evidence, there is a possible reference to the text by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis. According to Eusebius, Papias has related another account about a woman accused of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel According to the Hebrews contains. [3] This is problematic for three reasons. First, while Papais belongs to the first or second century, Eusebius belongs to the third and fourth centuries. There is, at minimum, a 100-year separation between the authors. Second, Papias is not known to be the most sober-minded of early Christian writers. He recounts unusual stories, and little is known about him. Finally, the Gospel According to the Hebrews is a lost work. There are many references to works under that title scattered throughout early Christian writers, but it is not certain whether they all refer to the same text. Even if they do, there is no reason to believe this gospel has survived. Papias refers to a similar scene again in fragment 23, but that provides no more evidence of the authenticity of the contemporary text. The best evidence for an ancient provenance of PA is the third century Didascalia Apostolorum which clearly references a text similar to the contemporary one. [4] Therefore, the pericope is old, surely belonging at least to the second century. Whether or not it is considered apostolic depends upon how one evaluates the evidence of Papias.

Is it Canonical?

Having failed to resolve the question of age, the question of canonicity remains. It depends on what is meant by “canon.” Armin Baum provides a respectable summary of various positions on the question of canon and the PA. [5] As Baum states, the question of canon for Catholic theologians is resolved. Jerome’s Vulgate includes the PA, St. Augustine approves of it, and the Council of Trent affirms it as scripture. For Protestant theologians, and perhaps Orthodox, the question remains open. Baum analyzes possible approaches that will not be considered here. One note of caution, however. Baum gravely underestimates the challenge of arriving at orthodoxy without a fixed canon. He rightly points out that the early Church seems to achieve consensus without a fixed canon, but this is a gross oversimplification. The early Church was rife with infighting, political intrigue, and even violence. The orthodox faction was not even in the majority at all points in history. The Marcionite churches held enormous influence and, in many areas, were the majority for centuries. The same is true of the Arian churches. That the orthodox position ultimately attained majority status and most other groups failed should be attributed to the intervention of God and not scholarly resolving of differences. Nonetheless, Baum’s article should be read and carefully considered.

Interpretting the Woman Caught in Adultery

Since, from a Catholic perspective, the question of canonicity is resolved, the issues of interpretation must be addressed. Gail O’Day’s feminist reading of the PA is amazing. It is insightful, liberating, and makes sense of an otherwise difficult text. O’Day in her article “A Study in Misreading,” [6] while addressing many issues and possibilities, presents two which deserve close inspection.

An Ironic Misreading

Many, notably St. Augustine, see in the PA a confrontation between sin and adultery. Jesus brings mercy to a wretched woman caught in adultery, who certainly deserves no mercy. This reading fixates on the sins of the woman, just as do the Pharisees. It objectifies the already nameless woman and makes her a mere warning for others. That is, such a reading takes the Pharisees at their word and adopts their thoughts. Given the treatment of the Pharisees in the NT, and particularly the gospels, this cannot be the meaning of the text. Jesus never objectifies; he liberates and gives life, especially in the Gospel of John.

A Tiny Detail

O’Day, rather than focus on the woman, shifts her focus to Jesus. Specifically, she hones in on his position in the scene. Twice Jesus bends down, stands up, and speaks. The first time is the with Pharisees after they demand of him an answer. Rather than respond, Jesus bends down and writes in the dirt. His silence is a refusal to submit to the Pharisees; it is taking control of the situation. Then Jesus stands up and addresses them. He repeats these actions with the silent woman. That is, Jesus treats both the Pharisees and the woman as equals. He shows no favor or preference to either. Neither is allowed to dominate and control the situation. Jesus speaks to both from a respectful position of standing. He gives both a choice to embrace his offer or reject it. Thus, the PA is not about sin; it is about the radical equality of the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls all people to himself; he excludes no one. This message has never been a favorite of the Church, at any point in history, but it is essential to the good news.

Let Us Pray

Loving God, you created us in your own image to live as a single human family united in you. Let us see your face in all people we encounter and know with certainty they are our equals. Per dominum…

[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 335.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 741.
[4] Brown, 335.
[5] Baum, Armin D. “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority? An Interconfessional Approach.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24, no. 2 (2014): 163–78. JSTOR link
[6] O’Day, Gail R. “John 7:53–8:11: A Study in Misreading.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992).

Jesus Wept

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Lectionary 34

A Surprising Scene

Jesus wept. Much ink has been spilled over these words and the preceding few verses of the Gospel of John. John 11:33-35 presents a surprising scene. It seems that Jesus is showing emotion and even weeping. This is shocking because it contrasts with the typical Johannine portrayal. For the author of John’s Gospel, Jesus is more divine than human. Jesus stands apart from humanity as the light of the world. Some have described Jesus as being “radioactive.” Noone gets near him and he almost floats off the ground. While this is surely an exaggeration, it is an apt analogy. John’s Gospel has the highest Christology and the deepest reverence for the divinity of Christ of all the gospels. That is why this scene of such deep human emotion catches us off guard. The light of the world, the Logos should not be moved at the sight of human misery. He should lift up and repair all that is fallen and broken. By the conclusion of the Lazarus story, he does repair what is broken, but why this interruption of a Johannine theme? Why does Jesus suddenly appear so human, so fragile?

Why Anger?

In order to understand why Jesus wept, we must first consider John 11:33. This verse employs the Greek verb embrimasthai. Ordinarily, this word means “to become angry.” Embrimasthai is stern and emotional anger, not mere annoyance. It expresses itself in outward display[1]. The same word is used in Mark 14:5, Mark 1:43, Matthew 9:30, and the LXX of Daniel 11:30. Used in this context, it is a baffling choice. There is no apparent reason for Jesus to be angry. His friend has died and people are mourning. Scholars have taken two general approaches to resolve this issue. One group finds an object of the anger, the other group nuances the word and reinterprets it.

Object of Anger

Haenchen, citing others, and Brown point to two possibilities in the former group. The first suggestion is that Jesus is angry at the faithlessness of the Jews and Mary of Bethany.[2] He has already performed many signs and taught his followers. Still, they do not believe, despite what they may say. Jesus’ anger is thus frustration that people’s hearts are so hardened against his message. The second option is that Jesus is angry to see death and suffering in the world because it is an expression of the dominion of Satan.[3] Jesus came into the world to liberate it, to be a light in the darkness and his work continues to be frustrated. Thus he is angry that Satan still controls not only the world but the hearts and minds of the people. While Brown provides the most interesting suggestion, none of the interpretations are wholly satisfying.


The other possibility, nuancing the word, provides a more compelling reading. Moloney notes there is likely an underlying Aramaicism not totally captured by the Greek word. This, combined with the moved in the spirit, which internalizes the otherwise externally focussed word, gives rise to the idea of being “disturbed.”[4] Thus Jesus is not angry, he is deeply impacted by the scene. Like any other human, Jesus groans within himself at the sight of so much suffering.

Jesus Wept

The above analysis is essential to understand this most widely recognized of phrases Jesus wept. For one brief moment, the author of John’s Gospel lets go of his project to display the glory and transcendence of Jesus. He allows Jesus’ humanity to shine forth fully. In allowing this small display of humanity, the author increases not only our understanding of Jesus, but also proclaims the depth of his love. Jesus is not the incarnation of an uncaring and absent God. Jesus is the compassion of God. By means of his humanity, Jesus elevates the human experience into the divine life and transforms it. Weeping is no longer a sign of the loss of hope, but an expression of love which brings life out of death. According to St. Ephrem, [h]is tears were like the rain, and Lazarus like a grain of wheat, and the tomb like the earth.[5] The tears of Jesus are the waters of life bringing Lazarus out of the tomb.

Let Us Pray

Eternal God, in the humanity of your only son you have shown us compassion. You have lifted us up into your divine and unending life. May we always be united to you, so that our sufferings may be transformed and life may spring from death. Per dominum…

[1]Moloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 4, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 340.
[2]Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, and Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 66.
[3]Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 426.
[4]Moloney, 341.
[5]Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11–21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 21.