Old Testament Lectionary March 15th Mothering Sunday Exodus 2:1-10/1 Samuel 1:20-28

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

I’m assuming that most churches will want to celebrate Mothering Sunday this week, but when I looked up the OT lectionary passages I have to say that I couldn’t make up my mind between them, so I’m actually going to do a bit of both. Mothering Sunday is, of course, fraught with difficulties for so many reasons, but I believe that there is much here which can speak to all sorts and conditions of women.

One of the big debates of recent years, although I sense we’ve all got a bit bored with it now, is whether God is male or female, or, more specifically, whether we should use male or female language about him or her. I too am bored with this sterile debate, but what I can affirm is that God often exhibits traits which, in our particular stereotyped culture, we would tend to call female ones. I am in no doubt that God ‘mothers’ us. I want to suggest that both the mothers in today’s OT stories are in fact behaving in some very God-like ways, and by looking at these women we can learn much about what it is God’s job to do with regard to children, and how parents may reflect this. You will get it as we go on, honest!

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Jochebed, Moses’ mum, begins, obviously, by giving birth. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, does the same, although not until after a significant struggle and much prayer. Both of them reveal God as the life-giver, and affirm that when we create new life we are doing what God intended the human race to do, although the Bible also recognises, in several places, the heartache and grief of women who find it difficult or impossible to conceive. In a Jewish culture where this would have been a sign of being cursed by God the Scriptures take a different view, and give dignity and particular care to those agonising over childlessness.

Jochebed then has to protect her child, due to the particular circumstances in which they lived, in a hostile nation with a cruel and violent ruler. She is wise and resourceful in this protection, and reveals to us God as the giver of life but also as its sustainer and protector. She also has to provide for her baby, and does so by finding a caring surrogate mother who will even pay her to bring up her own child. Like God she is life-giver, protector, sustainer and provider.

This isn’t made explicit in the Exodus passage, but Hannah in 1 Samuel dedicates the life of her son to God. Many couples, even those with a very tenuous faith, feel the weight of responsibility on becoming parents and want in some way to ‘dedicate’ their child, through whatever ceremony the church offers them. And of course Christian parents who actually get it will want nothing more than to see their children continuing in the faith into which they were born, and eventually making the shift from family faith to personal faith and discipleship.

But perhaps the most difficult part comes, again from the Hannah story, when she has to let go. God gives us our children not as possessions to hang on to forever, but as gifts in trust. Our children are ours to bear, protect, nurture, care for, but also to dedicate to him for his service. The time times when they must make their own way in life, and a very difficult and painful parting this can be, particularly when the path they choose might not be that which we would have chosen for them, or when that parting involves them being suddenly snatched away from us. But just as they will always be in our hearts, so we, as God’s children, will always be in his caring, loving attention, even during those times when we choose to go our own way for a while.

God gives parenting, and particularly mothering, significance and dignity, because when we do it we are doing what he does. But his heart is also broken for the childless, the anxious, the lonely and, perhaps most painful of all, those bereaved of their children. Mothering Sunday is not just for nice happy nuclear families: all the joy and grief which come bundled together with children can be brought into our worship and intercession today.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Numbers

If you think you’ve kind of got the idea having read Leviticus, I should begin with Numbers around chapters 9 or 10, as the first section is really more of the same, with various laws and regulations, some censuses of the population (which is where the name of the book comes form), a long list of the offerings at the dedication of the tabernacle, and how to tell if your wife has been unfaithful. However there are a couple of important nuggets even in these uninspiring chapters: the lovely priestly blessing in 6:22-27, and the section on Nazarites at the beginning of the same chapter: this is going to become important later in the OT.

 

But the more exciting narrative section begins at 10:11 where the cloud over the tabernacle lifts, signalling that it is time for the Israelites to move on from the foot on Mt Sinai where they have presumably been since Exodus 19. What we have in these chapters is a miserable account of fallen human nature, with its fear, lack of vision, conservatism, backward-lookingness, and general moaning. It takes less than two years to get from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land, but when they get there and send in 12 spies they are too scared to go on in, and so comes one of the saddest verses of the whole Bible in 14:25 ‘Turn back tomorrow and set out towards … the Red Sea’. You’ve said so many times that you want to go back to Egypt, so off you go! The rest of the book is about those years of wandering, with various interactions with neighbouring peoples, and it ends with the people on the edge of the Promised Land, having been told by God that none of that faithless generation would make it in, including Moses who has led them on the journey.

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As a church leader, now working at Diocesan level, I find this an incredibly powerful book which could have been written yesterday. It is a study in unredeemed human nature and in the leadership of such people, and I have long admired Moses as my own model for leadership. I love his glorious political incorrectness: his calling from God was to get the people to the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go or not. Democracy doesn’t get a look in: if it did they’d have been back in Egyptian slavery in a trice. And yet we see also in Moses a heart of compassion, a mighty ministry of intercession, and some of the real emotional struggles of a leader working among people who just don’t get it. Shining out like two diamonds among the dust are Joshua and Caleb, who symbolise the small number of people one usually finds among the faithless crowd, who really are on message, can see God’s opportunities rather than human problems, but whose voices are so often drowned out by the crowd.

 

Numbers is a depressing book, and one which we would do well to look into as one might a mirror. It can show us our fears, intransigence and conservatism, our reluctance to enter into the new things which God may be trying to lead us to, and it can give us a glimpse of the agonies we sometimes put our leaders through. It can remind us also, though, of the mercy and patience of God, who does in the end get the people to the edge of the Land. They have severely delayed his purposes, and caused themselves great hardship in the meantime, but they have not ultimately thwarted them.

 

 

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Exodus

Last week we looked at Genesis and said that we should read it as an overture, a set of Just-So stories, and a scene-setter for the rest of the story. This week the story begins with the exit, or exodus, of the Israelite nation from their slavery in Egypt, but once again the story, as it moves on, introduces some themes which are going to become increasingly important.

A brief list of names follows, and we are going to find quite a few of those lists over the next just-over-a-year, since the story is, after all, the story of real people, whose part in the drama matters. We’re told that two things happen: the Israelites, guests in Egypt, multiply considerably, and that a new Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing, takes the throne, and decided that these immigrants were not as welcome as his predecessor had thought they were. So they were pressed into slavery, and for 400 or so years God apparently watched in silence as they were subject to increased oppression. But then Moses appears on the stage, miraculously saved from perinatal death, brought up in the Egyptian court, and called by a burning bush. He is the one who, after many years preparation, is to confront the king, and with the help of God’s powerful plagues, to lead the people to the edge of the Red (or Reed) Sea. There the sea miraculously opens, Israel escapes and their oppressors are drowned. This is the central point of God’s purposes of salvation for Israel, and much is made of the symbolism of passing through water into a new way of living in the New Testament as it talks about baptism. Again and again God is described as the one ‘who brought you up out of Egypt’: this saving act becomes the centrepiece and milestone of God’s redemptive love.

The next stopping point is Mount Sinai, where Moses receives from God the Law, or ‘Ten Commandments’, which remain formative in the ethics and law of most civilised countries to this day. ‘Commandments’ is really a mistranslation: the Hebrew literally speaks of Ten ‘Words’, and they are best understood as ‘teachings’: if you want life and society to run well, then live like this. But whilst Moses is up the mountain receiving these ‘Words’, the people below are demonstrating the natural human bent for rebellion, and we see something which we are going to see again and again: false worship leading to dissolute behaviour. The journey continues towards the Promised Land, but we are not going to see them arrive until next week, and even then with tragic consequences.

 

The other major theme of Exodus is worship, and the good ordering of it. Chapter after boring chapter discuss precise details of the furniture, fittings and clothing to be used in the worship of the tabernacle, a portable ‘temple’ which could accompany them on their journey and provide a focus for their worship. Since we have already seen the relationship between idolatry and immorality it seems important that we get worship right, and very little here is left to chance. The book ends with the glory of God covering the tabernacle in a cloud, symbolising his presence among his people, another motif to which we shall return.

 

To think about:

How do you react to up to 400 years of slavery and oppression before God ‘remembered’ his people (2:24)? Why do you think he works so much more slowly than we would prefer?

Has all the formal and liturgical stuff about worship in Exodus, and the precise regulations for making robes etc been superseded in Jesus? Or can carefully ordered and symbolically rich worship speak to us about God as form us as Christians?

OT Lectionary 27th April Easter 2 Ex 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’

Let’s be honest: it does go against the grain a bit to celebrate death. We’re all jolly glad that the poor enslaved Israelites have managed to escape from that nasty Pharaoh, but was it really necessary to end the business with a mass drowning? In the past victories in battle were celebrated with great jubilation. But nowadays we’ve reached perhaps more enlightened times when we understand that warfare actually has no victors: the whole business is destructive too all concerned, and the slaughter of those whom we perceive to be our enemies, along no doubt with some ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders, is hardly something to make a song and dance about. So what are we to make of today’s OT, where we see the death of the Egyptians as a necessary concomitant of the liberation of Israel, and an outbreak of jubilant praise by Miriam and the girls.

 

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Indeed this is a problem for other parts of the OT. In 40 years’ time the Israelites are going to arrive finally at the Land promised to them by God, and they are going to be instructed to wipe out all the inhabitants unmercifully. The fact that they fail to do so, and are therefore nicer than God is, is going to get them into all kinds of trouble, according to the OT storytellers. So how do we cope with the destruction of enemies in the Scriptures, and what might it all mean for us today?

I think there are two approaches we might make to this problem, the individual and the spiritual. First of all it seems to be a natural law that whenever there are winners there are also losers. Egypt had so frequently and so deliberately hardened its corporate heart against God, who had given them so many opportunities to obey him, that they had forced themselves into a position where the only way for Israel to win her liberation was through their defeat. Pharaoh could at any point have compromised or even just given in, but he refused to do so, and the nation bore the consequences. (Of course the fate of individual soldiers who were ‘just obeying orders’ is of no interest to the OT writers who were untainted by enlightenment individualism and always thought ‘corporate’.) I think there’s something here about both the power of national leadership to affect the well-being (or otherwise) of the whole nation, and the responsibility of people to make sure they’re on the right side. Actions have consequences, and to align ourselves with evil means that we pay the piper sooner or later. Egypt paid that price, and after giving them so many chances to change their position of fixed opposition to him, God can hardly be blamed for punishing them. Indeed he reaches the point where we’re told he ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’, realising this is going nowhere so let’s just get it over with. The same is true of the genocide at the time of the conquest: the Bible’s take on this is that it wasn’t that Israel was holy, but that the Canaanite nations were so offensive to God and richly deserved their come-uppance (Deut 9:5). Where we place ourselves, the way we live, to whom we are aligned, matters. No excuses.

But secondly the choice of this reading during Easter suggests the link with cross and resurrection. Again there can be no victory without someone else’s defeat, and John’s gospel particularly makes the point that Christ’s death on the cross was also the crowning of a victorious king, with the powers of darkness defeated, until that final day when they will be destroyed. Evil isn’t just human: behind it are the spiritual forces of darkness in the spiritual realms, and on them God will have no mercy. So to celebrate our salvation through the cross is at the same time to celebrate the defeat of all that is evil, and of those who have given their lives to perpetuating it. So maybe we should get those tambourines out after all, as long as we remember to pray for those unwittingly caught up in the pursuit of evil: ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t understand what they’re doing’.

OT Lectionary April 20th Easter Sunday Exodus 14:10 – 31, 15:20-21

Just as the Passover has symbolised for Christians the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, so the crossing of the Red Sea has symbolised resurrection and deliverance. The links with water are important in Christian baptism, and as with Maundy Thursday and the Passover we have today a rich vein of symbolism as we celebrate today the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the grave.

The starting point of the story is the sheer hopelessness of the Israelites’ situation. With the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind, they quite literally have nowhere to go. There simply is no human solution to their problem: what is needed is nothing short of a miracle. But God is a God of miracles, and so just as it is needed, one is provided. The sea opens, and they are free. In fact they are a lot freer than they expect as those who would kill or recapture them are drowned in the very waters which have parted to allow them the road to freedom.

 

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One of my more memorable sermons, about Mars Bars and Lifebelts, asks the question ‘How do you understand your salvation?’ Many Christians see their relationship with God as a bit like if I were to give them a Mars Bar. Most of them would be really grateful to me (apart from once when I chose a member of the congregation who was allergic to chocolate, but that was just an unfortunate pick on my part). But if instead of my giving them a Mars I had given them a lifebelt just as they were drowning, they would be more than merely grateful: they would quite literally own me their life. Jesus doesn’t just come along to make our quite nice days even better with a little gift called ‘salvation’: he quite literally provides a miraculous rescue for those who without him would remain dead in their sins. What we need to save us is nothing short of a miracle: the rising of Jesus from death, when we had nothing in ourselves to save ourselves, is that miracle.

Exodus 14 also encourages us to hope for a miracle when all looks hopeless. The famous words in verse 13 ring down the ages to all who face impossible situations: ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you’. Our instinct is so often to rush around trying to sort out our own problems: God is the God both of the 11th hour and of those who can hold onto their trust in him with quiet faith.

Another motif is the glorification of God through this mighty miracle. ‘The Egyptians will know that I am God’ says the Lord to Moses, although in the event they won’t know it for very long before the sea gets them. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates him, and his Father, before the world which has hounded and condemned him. It is in the nature of judgement that there will be those who realise the truth too late: Revelation 1:7 talks about the mourning of those who had pierced Jesus but them seen him gloriously vindicated as he comes in glory. The celebrations of this greatest day of the Christian year also have a bittersweet flavour as we are reminded of the urgency of the task of telling others about Christ’s victory.

OT Lectionary Mar 23rd Lent 3 Exodus 17:1-7

There is one important motif which comes throughout the story of the trek from Egypt to the Promised Land: that of the Israelites’ ‘grumbling’. Today’s passage is the third example: they have already moaned at Moses in chapter 15 because of the nasty-tasting water, and in 16 because they were missing the exotic meats of Egypt. In Numbers 11, my favourite example, laughable because of its sheer stupidity, they are missing the Egyptian melons, leeks, garlic and cucumbers. Come on! Who has ever wailed over a lack of cucumber? If only I could go back to making bricks in the mud and getting whipped for my troubles, as long as I just had some melons! But for now the problem is less silly and in fact potentially quite serious. There’s no water at all, not even the bitter sort, and once again the people turn on their leader.

The resulting story is one of the people’s ungratefulness, Moses’ prayerfulness and God’s faithfulness, and as such forms a good template for anyone in leadership in the church, whether of a small group, a congregation or a diocese. It is not a coincidence that leaders in the Bible are often likened to shepherds: it can often feel as though the people have the intelligence of a piece of mutton combined with the viciousness of an angry ram (and, incidentally, the memory of a goldfish). Later on in Numbers 11 we’re going to hear even more deeply Moses’ anguish at having to lead this particular flock, but there is one thing which each of these stories has in common. Moses, almost as though he had already heard Joseph Scriven’s hymn, takes it to the Lord in prayer. In fact whenever there’s a crisis of any kind, Moses’ immediate and instinctive response is to go back to the God who had landed him with this thankless task in the first place. There’s a challenge for us: I tend to get angry, discouraged, depressed and despairing in approximately that order. Moses prays, and in every case God does something as a result of that prayer, and the crisis is averted.

 

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I never cease to be challenged by Moses’ leadership. He was commissioned by God to get the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go there or not. I love his determination, but like most church leaders I have also felt often his sense of hopelessness, of his calling having become a burden to him. Many leaders have had ‘Gethsemane’ moments when we have had to re-surrender ourselves to the will of the God who called us in the first place, and some have even had ‘Jonah’ moments when we felt as though death was a preferable alternative to Christian ministry. I note too that Moses takes not just the situation but also his anger and despair about the situation to God. He doesn’t feel the need to be polite, but he is painfully real.

The big question for me has to do with whether or not God would have sorted things out anyway without Moses’ intercession. I don’t know, but I do wonder how many miracles I’ve missed out on because I have not shared Moses’ instinctive prayer life. When I have only become angry and frustrated but have not thought to cry out to God about it; when I have decided I can sort this out by myself, it might just be that I have denied God the opportunity to work a saving miracle.

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.

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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.