Old Testament Lectionary March 8th Lent 3 Exodus 20:1-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

As we have looked at two previous covenants God made with his people, through Noah and then through Abraham, we come this week to a new and very different arrangement. We noted that the covenant with Noah required nothing from the human side: it was pure grace from God. Abraham had to do a bit more: walk blamelessly and get circumcised. But as we come to what might be described as a covenant through Moses, a whole lot more is required, as set out in what we commonly (but mistakenly) call ‘The Ten Commandments’.

It is true to say that this passage has formed the background to right behaviour in many societies: even if we’re not that good at keeping these ‘Laws’ we know that we ought to. Full of liars, thieves, adulterers etc as our society might be, we still know instinctively what is right and wrong, as even a most perfunctory watching of Gogglebox demonstrates. So what are we to make of this passage? If it isn’t about ‘Commandments’, what is it?

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The Hebrew refers simply to ten ‘Words’, which is significant in a language which isn’t short of terms for Laws or Commandments: read Psalm 119 if that’s in any doubt. I think it’s most helpful to think of these ‘words’ as ‘teachings’. In other words, if we want our society to go well, and if we want to live in ways which mean that we are walking blamelessly before God, then these are really good ways to behave. You can’t for example ‘command’ anyone to love anyone else, but to teach that love for God is a good thing makes perfect sense.

The fact that there are two tablets of stone is significant: it probably isn’t the case that they wouldn’t all fit on just one. It’s more likely to be the equivalent of copies in duplicate for each party in an agreement. But it is also true that the ‘words’ fall neatly into the first four which are about our relationship with God, and the rest which are about how we treat what Jesus was later to call ‘our neighbour’. Our society is, of course, much happier with the second category than the first, although Christians would want to acknowledge that without the first we struggle to stay motivated enough to manage the second.

So what are Christians to make of these words, particularly since we live not under law but under grace? Firstly, few would deny that a society based on the principles of respect for life, property and family would be a healthy one, our determination to destroy the latter notwithstanding. Paul noted in Galatians 5 that against good behaviour there is no law: live Christ-like lives and you will not come into conflict with the Jewish Law, even though you are no longer bound slavishly to it. Jesus, of course, upheld the Law, but made even more stringent demands on his disciples. It is interesting to note the seeds of Jesus’ teaching in the Ten Commandments themselves: the final one about coveting seems slightly unusual, not just because it is the one that every single one of us breaks regularly, but because in itself it doesn’t really appear to do much harm. So when Jesus tells us that anger can merely be the first step towards violence, lust towards adultery, and so on, we can see that covetousness is something which can lead us in directions it would be better if we did not start out down. Commandments they may not be, but these ‘Words’ are wise for us to heed, individually and as a society. And especially the first four.

Old Testament Lectionary March 1st Lent 2 Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

As we move to the second Sunday of Lent we have for our OT reading the second of God’s covenants, this time with Abraham. Last week we considered the covenant with Noah, but as time has moved on there are some significant developments here. We noted last week that the covenant with Noah was entirely one-sided: nothing was required of him. It seems that that is the case here too, but actually there are two conditions, and two responsibilities on Abraham’s part. He must walk before God faithfully and be blameless (v 1), and he is to undergo, and ensure the continuance of, circumcision (v11) (although this section has been cut off by the lectionary compliers. See what I did there?)

Faithfulness and blamelessness take us back to the description of Noah in Gen 6:9, and they are not so much moral terms as terms of relationship. It isn’t that Abraham is never to do anything wrong, or that will blow the relationship for good. It is more about continuing faithfully in a relationship which already exists; not going off the rails or losing the plot.

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Circumcision can be seen as equivalent to the rainbow in the Noah story. God puts a mark on the created world to remind him of the special relationship he has with its inhabitants now that the reality of human sin has been acknowledged. Now he puts a mark in human bodies as the ‘sign of the covenant’.  Like the rainbow this is to be an eternal sign, although of course Paul has to explain later that it is not physical circumcision which means anything under Christ, but the covenant relationship with Christ through the cross.

But perhaps even more significant in this passage is the changing of three names. Abram becomes Abraham, which means that he is no longer merely an ‘exalted father’ but is now the ‘father of many’, and Sarai (the argumentative one) becomes Sarah (the princess, the mother of kings). These names stick: who ever thinks of them as Abram and Sarai today? The change is permanent, in line with their new covenantal relationship with God. But it is not just the human figures in this story who get new names. God himself is named for the first time here as El Shaddai, a name which bristles with translational difficulties, and which may mean God of the mountains, God the destroyer, God of breasts (ie fertility – quite probable in this context) but almost certainly doesn’t mean God Almighty.

So what? I hear you cry. I think the key verses, and the key character here, are v 15-17 and Sarah. Thirteen years earlier, in response to God’s promise that Abram would have a son and heir, he had slept with Sarai’s servant who produced Ishmael. Almost certainly they had assumed that because of Sarai’s infertility Ishmael was the fulfilment of God’s promise. But here El Shaddai specifically names and renames Sarai, and spells it out to Abraham that he will give him a son by her. Amazing though that seems, the story speaks of a God for whom nothing is impossible, and of humans who happily settle for less than a downright miracle. Thirteen years is a long wait, indeed it is twenty five years since the promise of a son was first made. But God is faithful, and to hold on to his promises, and to remain faithful and blameless before him, will eventually bring its rewards. And to be renamed by God is a deeply symbolic reminder of our remaking in Christ. One of my favourite songs is loosely based on words from Isaiah 62:

I will change your name

You shall no longer be called

Wounded, outcast,  lonely or afraid

I will change your name

Your new name shall be

Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one

Faithfulness, friend of God

One who seeks my face

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 22nd Lent 1 Gen 9:8-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of the things you often hear is that after the events of 9/11 ‘the world will never be the same again’. Sometimes cataclysmic events do leave the world a different place, and the Flood narrative tells of such an event. This event, however, has even more far-reaching consequences: it leaves God different.

There is a really difficult text in the lead-up to the Flood story: in Gen 6:6-7 God ‘regrets’ that he has made the world in the first place. I leave the philosophers to argue over whether an all-knowing God can regret anything, but the point here is that the world has lost its innocence, and God must as it were renegotiate his relationship with it. The paradise of Eden has been well and truly lost, and as an act of mercy God decides to put an end to the violence and pain once and for all, whilst in even greater mercy he saves a remnant of his creation with which to start again. Paradise having been lost, though, it is never going to be regained. Human sin has become an indisputable part of earthly life, and so God has to make some new rules about the way in which he is going to cope with it. This is described as him ‘establishing a covenant’ not just with human beings but with every living creature. This is unusual in that here a ’covenant’ is not an deal made by two parties agreeing the terms: it is purely God’s initiative and God’s rules. It sounds much more like a promise than a treaty. He promises that never again will total destruction be the solution to the problem of sin, and in token of this he will use the rainbow to remind himself of this policy.

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When seen like this, the new deal tells us some radically surprising things about the nature of God. The first chapters of Genesis show us an all-powerful divine being at whose words creation springs into existence, an immutable unchangeable God for whose pleasure were all created. But now, almost as though he were sadder and wiser, we see his as someone who is moved, who has regrets, who shows mercy rather than legalistic judgement, who makes new promises, and above all who guarantees an ongoing relationship with a less-than-perfect world, but who might need a visual aid to remind him of all this. This really is radical stuff! There is a sense in which we might describe this almost as though God were becoming more human.

This is a highly radical and dangerous thought, but it might also be a helpful one. It isn’t of course, that the events of the Flood changed the nature of God, but it did change the way in which humans thought of him and relate to him. In the church we can get so used to all the ‘omni-‘ stuff we believe about God that it is easy to slip into the belief that the Father is the rather scary and inflexible member of the Trinity, so we need Jesus, the nicer one who really understands real life, so plead our cause for us, or, in some circles, the even nicer, even more human Mary. That God the Father understands the mess which is our world yet remains committed to it gives the lie to this kind of heretical but all too common thought. This passage is one which brings God closer to us. It doesn’t compromise his sense of justice, but it certainly sets it alongside his mercy.

Secondly, this text, calls us in a different direction, to a respect and care for creation. God insists that his covenant is with all living creatures: how can we treat the world with any less respect that our Father does?