Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Sunday before Lent – Exodus 34:29-35

There’s something about the presence of God which lights people up. Or does it? In fact the Hebrews word used here can have a very different translation, one which is in fact far more common in the OT. And for centuries this was the way in which this passage was translated by Christians – after his meeting with God, Moses had grown horns! It was only relatively recently that scholars have reverted to a more primitive translation, that of the Septuagint, which put the OT into Greek, and gone with glowing rather than horned. And, it must be said, the reaction of the people when they saw Moses, that of fear, seems far more appropriate if he had have grown antlers. But whichever way we want to translate this term, the fact is that the proximity of God was actually terrifying to the people. In fact so upset were they that out of kindness and consideration to the people he began to wear a face-covering (let those who have ears hear!).

This strange story highlights something which is highly significant throughout the Wilderness narrative (by the way, if you haven’t found my series of podcasts on this period of the OT, have a look on this blog, of search for revjohnleachblog on Spotify of iTunes, and you can hear more about the thrilling adventures of the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land). The whole story is a sad tale of the people’s moaning and grumbling contrasted with Moses’ faithfulness, and it is punctuated with various smitings from God as punishment for their ungrateful and miserable attitudes. The people quickly repent, or say they do, but then go on and do the same things in the next chapter. And God constantly gives them new chances and allows them to fail and blaspheme him again and again. The point of this, I think, is that God is both merciful and scary, a truth which many in the Christian church today seem to have forgotten. We have gone so overboard on a God of love, a God who forgives and is generally nice all the time, that we have forgotten that he is also a God of righteousness, who does get offended by the arrogance and hard-heartedness of the human race. Moses’ face, whether scarily shiny or scarily horned, is an icon of this double-edged sword of the character of God. But it is an icon which we have seen before. In Ex 19 and 20 the giving of the Law which will form the basis of the relationship between God and his people is accompanied by thunder and lightning, and regulations have to be put in place to protect the people from the awesome majesty of God. And as the story continues there are numerous occasions when the people’s attitudes or idolatry mean that they justly deserve punishment, whether by fire, by plague, earthquake, poisonous snakes, or whatever. They may not have learnt much about their behaviour, but they certainly knew that God could punish as well as bless.

Well, I hear you cry, that was before Jesus died on the cross and won our forgiveness. True, it was. But lurking behind this truth is a far more dangerous idea, first proposed by a guy called Marcion in the 2nd century, that the OT God was different from the Jesus of the NT. In the old days he was nasty, scary and at times vindictive, but now he is nice, because of Jesus. So what are Christians to make of the scary God of the OT? The first thing to say is that the unchangeable God does not suddenly become a very different person. It is easy to read selectively, only noticing the OT passages about God’s judgement and the NT ones about his love and mercy, but in fact both are present in both Testaments. The early preachers told the Jewish and pagan crowds that God commanded all people everywhere to repent; the author of Hebrews reminded his readers how dreadful a thing it was to fall into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire, and of course Jesus had far more to say about hell than he did about heaven. So we must never believe that God has somehow underwent conversion therapy around 30 AD and is a fundamentally different person.

So if God doesn’t change, maybe we do. In fact throughout the Bible God shows different sides of his character to different people. To those who are faithful to him, love him, and keep his covenant, he shows everlasting and unconditional love. But those who constantly rail against him, disobey him and in so doing forget to show his love and care to others get to see a very different side of him. This truth is even built into the 10 Commandments, which proclaim a God who punishes people to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him, but shows love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. It has always been the case that the same God treats different people differently, and it stands to reason that a God of righteousness, and God who is simply incapable of doing anything wrong, must have both love and judgement in his character.

That, then, puts a huge responsibility squarely on our shoulders. If God doesn’t change, then we must. We much change from those who reject him and hate him to those who love, submit to and honour him, in our lives as well as in our worship. And that, right there, is the message which we as his church are called to proclaim.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

2nd before Lent – Genesis 2:4b-9,15-25

We are familiar with the idea of ‘Creation Myths’ – stories which different cultures tell to explain how we all got here. What is less well known is that the Bible contains three different ones, two from Israel and one from Babylon. The last one is never endorsed, but it is often alluded to, in those passages which have God cutting some kind of a sea monster in half or crushing its head. This is like us telling the story of Pandora’s Box: we don’t believe for one minute in its literal truth, but we can see really clearly the point the story makes, that once evil is let out it’s impossible to shut it back in again. But the passage set for us today provides the oldest Israelite creation story. If you’ve been listening to my podcasts on the Wilderness Journey, you’ll be familiar with the idea of there being different sources behind our Bible, written at different times. The more familiar creation story, in Genesis 1, is thought to come from the Priestly source, and to date from after the exile, maybe the 5th century BC. But Gen 2 is older, probably from around 1000 BC, and the differences between the two stories shed light onto the cultures which told them.

The reign of David, around 1000 BC, marked the golden age for Israel. Things were going really well for the nation, with a (largely) godly king, great prosperity, peace from enemies, and a great expansion of the empire. ‘We’ve made it!’ seemed to be the watchword of a nation who had only 300 years ago been slaves in Egypt. So the story begins with man, and the rest of creation is there to serve him. Plants for beauty and food, animals for companionship, even the woman, are created for the benefit of the man. The Genesis 1 account comes from a later time when the nation have again been exiled into slavery, but have now returned to their own land sadder but wiser. Humans are now not the starting point, but the last word, taking their place among the rest of the created order with much more humility than they have in Genesis 2.

The original story in Genesis 2, though, tells us some important truths about ourselves. In his care for the human race God provides all that we need, including some things which are less obvious to us. The chapter reads a bit like the famous ‘hierarchy of needs’, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s attempt to chart what we need to flourish and in what order. So in v.5-9 God provides the basic essentials of food and water, without which life is simply impossible. It is interesting, though, that he also provides beauty, something which he also deems essential for a good life. We seldom recognise that one, particularly if we live in an inner-city concrete tenement somewhere. Then, in v.15, God provides work and purpose. Even as a recently retired person, I still need purpose in my life, which is partly why I keep churning out blogs and podcasts every week! Talk to unemployed people, and they will tell you how empty and unfulfilled their lives are, particularly if they don’t find purpose elsewhere, for example through volunteering. Note as well that work is meant to be a delight, with good things growing from it, and not the production-line drudgery which is the lot of so many.

Then comes another need which we have but seldom recognise: limits. V.16-17 set some limits beyond which it is forbidden to go. Freedom is never freedom if it is without limits, and it is vital for human flourishing that there are some places we do not go to. It is a tragic paradox that while humans were meant to control and care for nature, so many have become controlled by it, addicted to plants like tobacco, grapes and hops, poppies and cannabis. Rather than ruling over the plant kingdom, so many are ruled by it. Genesis 3 is going to tell the sad story of the choice to step beyond those limits, a choice which affects all of us every day.

Then God provides harmony and companionship. The idea is for the humans to live in good relationship with the rest of creation. I’ve never been a pet person, but I do know how important animals are to many people, and what well-being they can bring. But God’s final gift is perhaps the greatest, as he provides companionship which goes way beyond your pet moggy: he provides love. The man recognises that with another human being, complementary to him, there is a relationship which no animal is capable of providing, a union of mind, spirit and body.

As I have written this blog I have become aware of people I know who for a variety of reasons are not currently in receipt of these precious gifts. Some are hungry; some lead ugly lives; many are purposeless; many more are lonely or at enmity with others. Maybe this passage reminds us to give thanks more fulsomely for what we have received from God, and to pray and work for those who have received so much less.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

3rd before Lent – Jeremiah 17:5-10

This passage is not an easy one on which to comment without a much wider survey of other OT writings. So let’s begin with what the passage actually says, and then move on to see what else the OT has to say on the subject.

At its heart, it is a passage about wholehearted trust in the Lord. Judah, threatened by the approaching Babylonian armies and reports of their cruelty and greed for conquest, are tempted to form an alliance with Egypt, a joining of forces which they believe might help them avoid capture. Before our passage the prophet is telling them the real issue: it isn’t lack of military strength which will be their downfall, but rather lack of true worship of the true God, which elsewhere is said to lead in turn to injustice towards their fellow Jews. Therefore, v.5, any attempt to trust in other human beings is doomed if that means turning away from God. They ought to have been on their knees crying to God for mercy, but instead they were running off to another nation, a nation who, incidentally, God had thoroughly punished in the past when he set Israel free from them.

Then follows a picture reminiscent of Psalm 1 where those who do trust in the Lord will be fruitful because they are rooted near water and nourishment, as opposed to those planted in the salty wastes of the desert. Those represented by the tree by the river need never fear nor worry, and will always remain fruitful.

That’s what the passage teaches, but is that true? You don’t need me to tell you that life just isn’t that simple, and in fact a whole OT genre, the Wisdom Literature, is there to tell Jeremiah as it were to hang on a minute, it just isn’t like that. The book of Job particularly addresses the problem of a man who does indeed trust in the Lord and is completely innocent in the ways he loves God and others, yet finds himself in the most terrible suffering. His three ‘comforter’ friends try to persuade him that the point of view represented by Jeremiah here is actually how it is, but neither he nor God will have any of it. And of course even without Job’s help we know instinctively that sometimes good people suffer and bad people prosper. We see it all around us every day. Unlike biblical plagues, Covid is no respecter of moral uprightness or true worship. We also know that human alliances, while they may not save us, are important in the 21st century world, and to try to pretend that we can live without them can lead to disastrous isolation (other views on Brexit are available!). So what are we to make of Jeremiah’s black and white assumptions? I’d like to make three points from the passage, apart, of course, from the point that we really do need to read the Bible in the light of the rest of the Bible, and not take passages we like, or don’t like, out of their wider contexts.

Heat and drought

In fact, Jeremiah isn’t actually saying that trouble won’t come to those who put their trust in God. In v.8 the well-watered tree won’t be shielded from heat or drought, but it will ultimately not be harmed by them, because of where its roots are. Faith does not give protection from suffering and automatic prosperity, but it does provide resources for when the chips are down.

Heart and mind

Some scholars think that v.9-10 were not originally part of this oracle, because they seem to be the musings of the prophet rather than his address to the people. But the point they make is valid: whatever we feel or think is highly unreliable, and at the end of the day only God knows the true state of our hearts, and will deal with us rightly and appropriately. Our job is to trust, to believe, to have faith, which Jeremiah exhorts the people to do throughout this passage, and not to worry about the outcomes or what we feel about them.

Us and them

Finally, note the couplet in v.5, ‘those who trust in mortals … whose hearts turn away from the Lord’. It isn’t always the case that trusting in other humans will turn us from God: I didn’t find that in the case of the maxfax surgeon in whose hands I lay anaesthetised for 18 hours. Some humans are trustworthy. But it is worth considering what human relationships actually have the effect of turning our hearts away from God. The classic example is young Christians with non-Christian girl- or boyfriends, but there are many others. Does our relationship with our bank manager or financial adviser, for example, turn us to or from God? Are our relationships at work or with friends those which draw us closer to God, or take us further from him? It is worth considering if we are being pulled apart, like that pair of Levi’s, or if there are any relationships which are pulling us away, and asking the Lord to show us the truth in spite of our deceitful hearts.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

4th before Lent – Isaiah 6:1-13

There are two things about which I believe today’s OT reading speaks to us. They’re unrelated, so this week you get two reflections for the price of one, which, considering you don’t pay, is exceptional value. I want us to think about calling and confession.


By no stretch of the imagination would I self-identify as a scholar of St Paul, but it’s in the nature of theological course teaching that sometimes you just have to suck it up, mug it up and get on with it. So I found myself recently giving a couple of lectures on the theology of mission in the writings of Paul. I was asking the question: To what degree were Paul’s influences important in his proclamation of the gospel? The OT Scriptures? (Yes, quite a lot). Greek philosophy (Not very much). Current Roman thinking? (Hardly at all). What he learnt from the existing Christian Church? (Yes, loads). But what really took the biscuit was his experience of conversion (around 100%). When he met Jesus on the Damascus Road his whole world was turned upside down, including the way he viewed the Scriptures and Greek and Roman thought. But, most significantly, when he came to Christ he was immediately sent out by Christ. His conversion constituted his call, as it did for Jesus’ first disciples in today’s Gospel reading. This is in stark contrast to much of the expectation in the Church today. We’re anxious to get people over the line, as it were, into the Kingdom, and then at some subsequent stage, when they have grown and matured, we begin to think about what it is that God might be calling them to do. Seldom do we expect, in my experience, that the moment of surrender to Christ will also be the moment of discovery of his call to us.

It might be anachronistic to see Isaiah 6 as a conversion experience, but, like St Paul, Isaiah knew from the moment he encountered the living God in all his powerful majesty that this God was calling him to a ministry which would go with him to the grave, and his joyful response was those famous words ‘Here I am – send me.’ So this passage makes me ask questions about our practice of evangelism, and to what degree we call people not just to come to Jesus but also to go for him, and how we help them to discern what that calling might be, sooner rather than later.


Having suggested some improvement to the ways in which we go about our evangelism in the Church, I want so suggest also that Isaiah has something to teach us about confession. I don’t know about you, but I am used to the liturgical prayer of confession in church being introduced with a few seconds of quiet for us to recollect all the sins we have committed since last Sunday so that we can mention them to God by way of the set prayer. Helpful thought that may be, I seldom have heard anything like Isaiah’s acknowledgement that he has sinned personally, but that he belongs to a community which is also sinful. Now of course Isaiah hadn’t had the dubious benefits of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual over and above the corporate, but Isaiah’s acknowledgement of the sins of his people stands in stark contrast to our usual understanding that the penitential section of our worship is about me personally getting right with God. In fact this corporate repentance is a major strand in parts of the OT. Ezra 9 and 10 provide a classic example: the nation has been convicted about its disobedience over the matter of interracial marriage, and Ezra leads the people in a long prayer of confession, during which he consistently uses ‘I’ and ‘we’ language, rather they ‘they’. Then, in the following chapter, the culprits are named and shamed, and to save you reading through all the interesting Hebrew names in v.18-43, I’ll tell you now that Ezra’s name does not appear there. He is innocent of this particular sin, and yet he is content to confess it as though he were guilty. It’s almost as though he feels guilty by association, even though technically he is innocent, because he is a part of the collective community which is sinful.

Many people today would tell you that they feel ashamed to be British in the current climate, yet rarely do we find ourselves confessing the national sins which are ripping our nation apart. When my individual loss of temper or failure to read my Bible notes last Thursday feel more worthy of confession that corruption and blatant lying in high places, I believe we need to hear Isaiah’s voice again, and follow his example in confessing not just his own sins, but the sins of the people to whom he belongs.