OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 2 – Exodus 14.10–31; 15.20–21

What a wonderfully complex story for Low Sunday – maybe the Lectionary compilers assumed hardly anyone would be there to hear it anyway. It’s clearly a story of conflict, but actually there is so much going on here, and in fact there are several conflicts all weaving in and out of one another.

1)         Israel vs Pharaoh This is the most obvious level at which the fighting happens: the nation has been enslaved for generations, and treated with increasing brutality. In return Egypt has been harmed – there is always collateral damage when powerful leaders try to get things their own way, and God appears to have acted decisively on behalf of Israel. That is, until they are stuck by the sea, providing too much of a temptation for the defeated Pharaoh. But this stuckness leads to the second conflict

2)         Israel vs God As the people see the approaching chariots (a vast army, with 600 of ‘the best chariots’ plus all the rest), they must have felt that defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. They had finally escaped, but now here they were, backed not into a corner but into the sea. Their immediate reaction, which they revert to time and time again during the wilderness period, is to want to go back to Egypt, on the ‘Devil you know’ basis. But Moses, who has not yet at this stage heard enough of this grizzling to make him suicidal, simply encourages them to watch and see what God will do. Whether this was a statement born of a prophetic insight or blind faith is not made clear, but God does act, in a way which illustrates the third conflict

3)         Creation vs Chaos The story here, and the specific language with which it is told, cannot help but take us back to the creation narrative in Gen 1. Based on an old Babylonian myth, in which the god Marduk cuts the sea monster Tiamat into two pieces and makes the heavens and the earth from the halves, so God in Genesis divides the chaotic waters to make heaven and earth. Now he repeats the action, dividing the waters of the sea to create a new, emancipated nation. This story isn’t just about some escaped refugees: it’s about the eternal struggle between God’s creation, which is meant to provide the environment in which all life can flourish and be fruitful, and the forces of chaos which crush and mangle others, make the environment hostile, and bring ugliness and desolation. Pharaoh has clearly chosen the path of chaos in his treatment of the Israelites, so this is God fighting back on their behalf, striking a blow against all that is destructive in an attempt to free the people  into new life. But this action inevitably involves a fourth conflict,

4)         Love vs Justice When you heard or read this story, I’m betting there was a bit of you which felt uncomfortable joining in with Miriam’s songs of joy, and not just because of the tambourine. The destruction of God’s enemies in the OT has provided a great deal of controversy throughout the history of the Church, beginning with Marcion, a 2nd century heretic who taught that the cruel God of the OT was completely different from the nice Jesus of the New, a view which, although roundly condemned by the Church at the time, is alive and well – I heard a sermon saying exactly this only a few weeks ago. If you heard my talks on John 3:16 (here) you’ll have heard me challenge the idea of the ‘unconditional love’ of God, and suggest that a far more biblical picture is that God is a God of righteousness, who is incapable of doing anything wrong or unfair, and not a God of love who is incapable of doing anything nasty. And this debate isn’t just about the OT – the common idea that God would never condemn anyone eternally comes from exactly the same idea. There is a lovely Rabbinic tradition which says that when a couple of angels wanted to sing a song of praise in celebration of God’s victory, he forbade them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” Our prayer is that mercy will triumph over judgement, but when a people give themselves over so fully to evil, chaos and oppression that might not be possible, even if it brings tears to God’s eyes.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter Sunday – Isaiah 25:6-9

There are many different pictures of eternal bliss, not just in different faith, but even within the biblical tradition, whether it’s eternity with 72 virgins, merging like a drop into the cosmic ocean, or an everlasting Vineyard song-slot. If you haven’t already heard it, you can get a glimpse of my vision of heaven here. But another one which really appeals is the one set out in this passage – an all-you-can-eat buffet at which, miraculously, you won’t put on any weight.

The passage is part of a larger unit known as the Isaianic Apocalypse (Isaiah 24-27), which speaks into Israel’s desperate situation by proclaiming a vision of the future beyond their present sufferings, which, of course, would have included food shortages, as they were ravaged by one conquering empire after another. It’s natural to think of a better life in the form of a banquet. It’s ab great picture, particularly when we realise that food is not just about eating: it’s for being together, celebrating, marking special occasions, and even for mourning. I took my first funeral for over two years last week, and it was really strange not to be able to go on somewhere for a wake afterwards. We too live in a time when we have been conquered, not by a Babylonian army but by a tiny virus, and many in our country are going hungry, while all of us long for the kind of human togetherness we have been denied for over a year now. That’s our OT passage as we celebrated Easter Day, so what can it say to us today? As is so often the case, we can get at the meaning of a passage so much better when we look at it in its wider context.

First of all, the cross speaks into turbulent times. Verses 2-5 describe the devastation going on all around in a time of conflict, poor people needing a refuge, homeless people needing shelter, uproar and ruthlessness, and that’s just in the UK! God knows what is going on, and the cross of Jesus speaks into our situation, not around it. This passage is unashamedly about pie in the sky when you die, and I don’t have a problem with that. Reward is constantly used in the Bible as a motivator to good living (that’s a whole nother blog, but think about it: from the Beatitudes to Revelation, promises of reward are constantly held out to those who have lived faithfully.) The real point of application of this passages for Easter Day lies in v.8: God will swallow up death for ever. That happened at the empty tomb, it’s our reward too, with Jesus as firstfruits of those who have died.

Secondly, the cross tries to be inclusive. In the actual verses of our passage, the word ‘all’ is used five times: all peoples, all nations, all faces, all the earth. This is not just a narrow, nationalistic vision for Israel, but rather a welcome to the banquet for all who want and need to be there. The cross welcomes all who will stand under its shadow, all who want to partake of the richness of the spread.

But then there’s suddenly a jarring note, edited out, of course, by our lectionary compilers. Verses 10-12 show us that not everybody did want to come to the feast: the nation of Moab is singled out as one which Israel came to hate strongly after the Exile. They had consistently been hostile towards Israel, and their doom is declared in Is 15. How do we hold this in tension with the ‘all’s of v.6-9? Is God’s love not as unconditional as our verses suggest?

The cross, and the empty tomb, demand a verdict, and nowhere does the Bible pretend that there will not be those who decide the wrong way, and bear the consequences. Jesus told stories of people who had been invited to banquets but who chose not to turn up. This Sunday, of all the year, asks us what we believe, and this passage sets out the alternatives: banqueting hall, or muckheap?