OT Lectionary Oct 4th Trinity 18 Genesis 2:18-24

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

At the end of the first account of creation in 1:31 God surveys his creations and declares that it is all good. But here, for the first time, in 2:18, God sees something which is not good: the solitary life of the man. So begins the story of Eve, of marital relationships, and of family life, about which Jesus has much to say in the gospel reading for today.

This passage is, of course, something of a red rag to the bull of feminism, but the language is carefully used to avoid any kind of pecking order (in spite of what later exegesis has made of it). The Hebrew ‘ezer (help) is almost always used of help from God, and thus denotes help from a superior above, rather than the aid of a junior assistant. But this might go the other way, and exalt the woman above the man, so it is qualified by the word which the NIV unhelpfully translates as ‘suitable’ for him, but which actually has the meaning of being ‘alongside’ him. So mutuality is the name of the game.

The naming of the animals demonstrates this same kind of mutuality with all creation. Naming implies dominion, but also care and respect, rather than domination. Those of us who have kids name them, and however bizarrely some might go about this task, it is still done out of love and reverence. Names can be used cruelly, but this is not the intention of living parents.

Michelangelo. The Creation of Eve.

The divine surgery uses an unusual word for the anaesthetisation, almost always used of God’s action on humans, and often for a period of divine revelation. But the result is a companion for mutual enjoyment. It is interesting that in the first account of creation in Genesis 1, the man and the woman are commanded to be fruitful (1:28), but there is no such command here. The sexual union which they are to enjoy seems to be completely divorced from procreation, but rather seems to be just for fun and pleasure. The final verse emphasises this: their life together was literally ‘shameless’.

This is a passage which is often used in the battle over appropriate sexuality, and of course Jesus uses it, in today’s Gospel reading, to speak about the danger and harm of divorce. The repeated emphasis on ‘male and female’ has been used heavily by the anti-gay-marriage lobby, and it is difficult to see how it cannot be taken as normative about what ‘marriage’ is, as indeed it has been for millennia. Whatever one thinks about gay partnerships, it is surely difficult to call them ‘marriages’.

But to sidestep this controversy, the passage has been seen as a foundational one for understanding God’s purpose for married relationships. They are to be based on mutual love, care and respect, they are to be shamelessly intimate, and they are meant to bring lifelong joy and companionship. In the next chapter we are going to see how it can all go wrong, and we are still living with those consequences in many tragic marriages today, where one partner or the other attempts to dominate or harm the other. We ignore God’s purposes at our peril.

OT Lectionary June 21st Trinity 3 Job 38:1-11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

The gospel this week is Mark’s story of the stilling of the storm, and the Job passage could be seen as God’s beginning to still the storm which had so viciously rocked Job’s life. After 36 chapters of Job’s agonised philosophising God finally speaks, although his words are not yet the words of comfort for which Job had been hoping. God begins by asking a series of rhetorical questions designed to remind Job who he is and how he has the right and the power to do whatever he likes. God is Lord, not just of Job’s life but also of the created world. He allows storms to scare us, although not ultimately to defeat us.

The phrase ‘Gird up your loins like a man’ is used in the OT as a rough equivalent to ‘grow a pair’. Stop grizzling about your misfortune and get on with it. This seems a bit harsh, as does God’s deliberate reversal of the question and answer dialogue. In 23:5 Job demands some answers from a silent God: if only he knew where to find God ‘I would find out what he would answer me’. But now the roles have been reversed: Job is in the dock and God at the bar, and his questions all demand the answer ‘No’. No, I wasn’t there at the creation, and therefore, by implication, no, I don’t have the knowledge to question or the right to object to your purposes.

Again, a bit harsh, we may think. I have written elsewhere about the book of Job as a whole, and this isn’t the place to repeat it, but nevertheless there are some parallels with Mark’s story, and therefore some insights into the way God handles us. ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ cry the terrified disciples. Behind this, and behind Job’s agony, is the assumption that God’s job in life is to keep everything nice for us, to keep the waters calm so that we may glide along across the millpond of health, wealth and happiness without so much as a ripple to disturb us. Yet Jesus sleeps while the fishermen struggle; God is silent while Job mourns. Yet in both cases there is growth and learning, which wouldn’t have happened without the rocky waters. ‘Who is this?’ ask the disciples. ‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand’ concludes Job.

In this passage, and the chapters following, God takes job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, and shows him scenes he had never encountered in his comfortable life as a pillar of the urban community. He takes him where the wild things are, and shows him the uncontrollable and desolate corners of the universe, places, incidentally, devoid of any human habitation. This walk on the wild side challenges his former predictable lifestyle, and both shrinks him into perspective, yet also elevates him to the privileged position of having been taken on the tour at all. We are left with the question ‘Where would I rather be?’ settled, comfortable and completely unaware of the wildness of life, or on an adventure to see life in all its dangerous, unpredictable fullness.

This faces us up to a big question for the church. The older I get, the more likely I am to opt for comfort and safety. Last weekend my son climbed Helvellyn and walked Striding Edge. I did that once, when I was young, but last weekend I weeded the garden. I used to bung a tent in the back of the car and go off somewhere: now I book a hotel. Increasingly, as the church grows more elderly, we opt for comfort and safety. But a generation younger than us longs for adventure, danger, storms and the thrill of having overcome them. Will we let them lead the church into some of it, or will we go gentle into that good night?

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.

Arcoiris high contrasted and filtered.jpg

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?

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 8th 2 before Lent Proverbs 8:1, 22-31

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

Elsewhere I have written a brief introduction to biblical Wisdom Literature: today we celebrate with God in this hymn of praise to Wisdom, who is here personified as a woman who, in the verses which have been filleted out for us, calls to people to come and learn from her. Wisdom in the biblical sense is best thought of using the French term savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’, and Wisdom sets out the justice and purity of her words, and calls those who would hear her to acquire that which is more precious than silver, gold or rubies. To know the wise and prudent way to behave in any situation is worth more than anything else: kings rule with her help, and where there is justice it is because wisdom has been heeded.

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But then things get more interesting, as we come to the part of the chapter which our lectionary compilers have graciously allowed us to read. The picture changes and we see wisdom less as a woman but as a figure involved at the creation of the world. The very first thing God did was to create Wisdom, before oceans, mountains, fields or even the heavens. Once brought into being, Wisdom stands beside God and watches him creating everything else, delighting more and more in what is appearing at his words. The climax is the delight of wisdom in the human race. Wisdom is either a ‘master builder’ or a ‘little child’ depending on how you translate the Hebrew of v 30. If you go for ‘master builder’ you see wisdom as the one whose very skill was used in the foundation of all things; if you prefer ‘little child’ you get the sense of sheer fun and delight which comes through in this and the following verse. Therefore, our passage continues, seek wisdom and you will find life and favour from the Lord.

Some have seen here a picture of Christ, present at creation, but this doesn’t quite work, most obviously because he was of course ‘begotten, not created’. It may be rather that we have a personification of God’s delight in his work. It is worth noting that Wisdom is definitely a Tigger and not an Eeyore: hers is not the voice of a prophet condemning the foolishness of the human race, nor calling them to account because of their injustice and cruelty. She has no hint of an apocalyptic voice either: she does not cry out ‘How long, O Lord?’ and call for his sorting out of the problems of the world. She simply celebrates.

I reckon it is pretty easy to divide Christians into two camps: those who believe that the world is essentially good, and therefore needs celebrating, even though it might have a few nasty bits in it for now, and on the other side those who see the world as fundamentally fallen and in need of rescue from itself, even though there might be a few positives round the edges. Churches tend to be either world-affirming or world-hating and –fearing, and this fundamental view colours everything they do. Of course both are true, but we do come at it from one end or the other most of the time. So it is refreshing to read a poem which wholeheartedly celebrates the goodness and creativity of God. Maybe to focus on this, in spite of the world’s problems, is a refreshing tonic as we prepare to enter the austerity of Lent.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Genesis

Welcome to this new blog, which is designed to help us see the huge picture of the Bible, by encouraging us to read one book per week. As promised it certainly won’t be the last word in scholarship, but I hope it will help people to read their Bibles more and with greater understanding.


So … Genesis. The word means ‘beginnings’, and the Hebrew words with which it begins simply mean ‘In the beginning …’ It helpful to think of the book in three ways: as an overture, as a book of ‘Just So’ stories, and as a scene-setter. It contains the well-known stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and the Patriarchs, and Joseph with his amazing coat. Just like an overture for an opera of musical, the book introduces briefly some of the themes we’re going to hear played out more fully as the story unfolds. So we see God as creator, but also destroyer, we see the idea of covenant relationships, of calling, of journey and pilgrimage, of sacrifice and mercy, and of a purposeful working out of God’s plans for redemption. In the story of Abraham we see both the calling of the ‘chosen people’, but also the idea that the only reason God chose a nation was to be the purveyors of good things to the whole earth. Their calling was to be blessed but also to bless, a theme which I have explored before. Maybe you could trace some of these themes through the rest of the Bible and see how they are developed, just as a composer develops his original musical hints into full numbers.

File:The Creation - Bible Historiale (c.1411), vol.1, f.3 - BL Royal MS 19 D III.jpg

But the other purpose of Genesis is to answer some questions which will later arise. The technical term for this is ‘aetiology’ – a ‘just-so’ story which you can imagine parents telling their children to explain something which they observe as they go through life. Another technical term here is ‘myth’, which doesn’t strictly mean ‘not actually true’, but rather that it explains something. So the stories of creation are there to explain how we all got here, and to argue whether Adam and Eve were literal historical characters is to miss the point entirely, and is about as useful as arguing about whether Pandora’s box was made of wood or metal. ‘Why is that pretty coloured thing up in the sky?’ is another question we can imagine children asking, and the story of Noah and the flood answer that question. Similarly questions such as ‘Why are we living where we’re living?’ can be answered by the story of the call of Abraham to go to ‘a land which I will give you’.


Thirdly, though, the book acts as a scene-setter for the drama to come. THE pivotal event in Israel’s history is the Exodus from Egypt, which we will come to next week, but before God can get his people out of Egypt he has to get them in there, so the long story of Joseph is there to explain how it came to be that those who had been promised God’s favour and a land of their own are working as slaves far from home under cruel foreign domination. To be continued …

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac.

To think about:


  • Why are there two different stories of creation? What is each meant to teach us?
  • What can the story of Abraham’s call (Gen 12) say to the church today?
  • What can you learn about the ministry of Jesus from reading Genesis?


OT Lectionary Feb 23 Lent -2 Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

Well, what do we make of this, particularly in the age of Dawkins et al? This chapter-and-a-bit sets out the traditional account of creation, or at least one of them, and it has been the interpretation of this passage which has caused so much argument in the church and so much ridicule outside it. How do we deal with it?

The easy answer is to read the passage not as one telling us how creation happened, which is the view of fundamentalists, both atheist and Christian, but as why it happened. In fact this passage is deeply theological, and more than just a day-by-day account of the creation.

But there is a less noddy way of approaching the creation narratives. In fact they tell us less about how it happened than about the people who told the story. Most cultures have some kind of a creation story, and in fact there are three of them mentioned in the Bible, and a fourth which has come to popularity since. The first is the Babylonian story, about a battle between Marduk, the God, and Tiamat, the sea monster. Tiamat ended up in two pieces, and Marduk made the heavens and the earth, one from each half. This story was told by a warlike people whose gods were always fighting each other, which is presumably why they enjoyed a good bundle so much. This story is alluded to many times in the OT, without them actually believing a word of it, rather as we might use the story of Pandora’s box to make a point without actually saying that we believe it happened.

File:Earth from Space.jpg

Then there is the story in Gen 2, which almost certainly dates from around the time of King David, and which was told by a nation at the top of their game. So the human race were at the peak, with the rest of creation under their domination. It was us who came first, and for whom the rest of creation was given to provide a backdrop. It was us who gave names to the animals, and who are to care for the land.

So to the Genesis 1 story, which probably dates from a much later period, probably during or just after the Babylonian exile. The people now are sadder and wiser. They have a bigger sense of God and a smaller sense of themselves, so they are part afterthought and part crown of creation. But there is also some anti-Babylonian polemic: the word for ‘deep’ in v 2 is the same root as ‘Tiamat’, and like Marduk God separates it to make earth and heaven. ‘It wasn’t your Marduk who cut the sea monster in half’ the Israelites are saying. ‘It was our capital-G God! And by the way, all those stars you worship – he made them too, and the trees and plants: everything, in fact’. This story comes from a people who know their place, but have also learnt God’s place too – supreme over everything.

Understand this and you get a new insight into the fourth creation story: evolution by natural selection. Whether or not it’s true (and personally I have serious doubts, but that’s another blog) it tells us a tremendous amount about the culture which created it: a culture which believes in science as the ultimate answer to every question, an enlightenment worldview where everything is slowly evolving towards perfection, and where information is power. We have unlearnt the lessons of the exile about the supremacy of God, and so we tell a story which doesn’t need him. The question is less about whether the stories are ‘true’ or not,  but about whether the people who told them are right.