Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Self-Retiring Covenant

A quote from Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God's Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 249, mostly for the sake of the phrase which forms the title of this post.
Careful reading of the text of Deuteronomy reveals it to be, in a sense, a self-retiring covenant. Although life through the Deuteronomic covenant was a theoretical possibility (Deut 30:15-19), both God and Moses knew and declared that, in fact, death and exile would result (Deut 30:1). Then, there would be a new initiative on God's part: a regahering of the exiles and a supernatural "circumcision" of their hearts (30:4-6). This new initiative of God involving the cleaning of the heart is what Jeremiah identifies as the new covenant (Jer 31:31).
Commenting on Galatians, Hahn continues:
For Paul, those who commit themselves once again to follow the "book of law" are attempting to rehabilitate a covenant that has failed and was -in a sense- intended to fail and thus evoke a new initiative of mercy (the circumcision of the heart) from God, which Paul sees realized in Christ. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Bronze Serpent in Numbers 21

The following is an excerpt from David L. Stubbs, Numbers (SCM Theological Commentary; London: SCM Press, 2009; published in the USA by Brazos Press in the Brazos Theological Commentary series), pp. 166-169. [I  think the so-called "bronze serpent" was more likely a copper serpent but this is by the way.]

Many modern interpreters understand the bronze serpent to be a kind of healing idol or cultic symbol fashioned by Moses in the wilderness in response to attacks by snakes, probably drawing from Egyptian practices of “sympathetic magic” or else drawing upon association of the serpent with gods of healing.

Alternatively, given that the serpent was revered among many ancient Near Eastern peoples as “a potent symbol of life and death,” other interpreters reason that, at the command of God, israel coopted this symbol of life and death and used it as a symbol for YHWH or YHWH’s power, the God who holds both life and death in his hands.

In contrast to these modern interpretations, serpent imagery elsewhere in the Bible leads one to see the serpent as a symbol associated with evil and sin. Thus the sending of the serpents and the lifting up of the bronze serpent become revelations or symbols of Israel’s sin. This basic meaning opens up the episode in a  different way, ultimately showing that God’s healing occurs in conjunction with the people’s confession and repentance of their sinful ways...

Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, serpents appear in two other crucial passages, both of which give the serpent a more-than-physical sense. In the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh (Exod. 4:3; 7:9, 10, 15), the serpent likely symbolized Egypt and its gods. In that episode, the power of God triumphs over the power of the gods of Egypt. In our passage, then, perhaps snakes represented God’s punishment of Israel by a symbol of their object of desires – life back in Egypt under the rule of the snake, Pharaoh, and the gods of Egypt. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” is part of the people’s complaint. They seem to prefer life under the power of Egypt, the serpent rather than life under YHWH. There, their freedom, vocation, and worship of God were prevented, but at least their stomachs were filled.

The other key reference in the Pentateuch is to “the serpent [who] was more crafty than any other wild animal,” who tempts Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1,2,4,13,14). God’s judgment and punishment of Adam and Eve is a result of their failure to resist the temptation of the serpent. The punishment of Israel by God in Numbers might also reveal that they have succumbed to the poisonous lies of the deceiver, who tempts them to both doubt that God’s provision and ordering are really for their good (as seen in this passage) and creates envy in them for the power of God to morally order the world (as evidenced in the other rebellions.) … In sum, the serpents can be seen to be a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin...

The bronze serpent represents to the people all that the fiery serpents represent. In it they can see the sufferings of their journey. But in it they can also see the judgment of God about them. Like the raising of a battle standard, this action ironically represents who the people are truly following: the serpent, rather than God…It is a fitting symbol for all the rebellions of the people.

But the raised serpent is more than a sign of judgment. It is also a sign of God’s victory over the serpent. Like the head of an enemy placed on the tip of a spear and shown to the people, the serpent lifted up shows that God is more powerful than the serpent. God is able to cure the physical effects of the serpents’ poison. By offering to the people this symbol of victory over the serpent, it also becomes a symbol of God’s compassion and desire to heal them and do them good. It is a symbol that God did not send Moses to his people in Egypt to condemn them, but to save them and bring them to life…

The act of turning and looking at a symbol recognized as a symbol of their sin and God’s judgment on them amounts to a confession or acknowledgement of their sin. Furthermore, turning to this symbol of sin and judgment in order to live required faith in God, in God’s mercy and desire for their good…

The bronze serpent lifted up suggests that, for those bitten by the serpent in the wilderness, the way to the promised land is one of confession, repentance, faith, and recommitment to God’s difficult yet healing ways.

The Israelite king and worship

The following is from Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (transl. John McHugh; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961), pp. 113-114 (abbreviations for Bible books modified but spelling of names retained; formatting mine):

The fact remains that the king, sanctified by his anointing and adopted by Yahweh, is a sacred person and seems thereby to be empowered to perform religious functions.  One often hears of the royal priesthood in Israel.  We recall that the kings of Egypt, Assyria and Phoenicia were priests.  In the Bible, Melchisedech is both king of Salem and priest of El Elyon.  And it is precisely Psalm 110:4, which we have interpreted as an enthronement psalm, which says: ‘Thou art a priest forever in the order of Melchisedech.’

In the historical books, the king appears several times as the leader in acts of worship.

David sets up the first altar for Yahweh in Jerusalem (2 Sam 24:25); it is David, too, who conceives the project of building him a temple (2 Sam 7:2-3), and, according to 1 Chr 22—29, plans in detail how this is to be served. It is Solomon who actually builds the temple directly opposite his own palace, and who dedicates it (1 Kg 5—8). It is Jeroboam who founds the sanctuary in Bethe], recruits its clergy and arranges its calendar of feasts (1 Kg 12:26-33); hence it is a ‘royal sanctuary’ (Am 7:13). The chief priests are officials nominated and dismissed by the king (2 Sam 8:17; 20:25; 1 Kg 2:26-27; 4:2). Joas publishes ordinances concerning the Temple (2 Kg 12:5-9), and Josiah supervises their enforcement (2 Kg 22:3-7). The same Josias takes the initiative in the reform of worship and directs it in person (2 Kg 23). The priest Uriyyah carries out the modification introduced by Achaz in the sanctuary and its worship (2 Kg 16:10-18).

But the kings go even further: the historical texts show them personally performing priestly acts.

They offer sacrifices: e.g. Saul at Gilgal (1 Sam 13:9-10), David at Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:13, 17-18; 24:25), Solomon at Gibeon (1 Kg 3:4, 15), at Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple (1 Kg 8:5, 62-64), and then at the three great feasts of the year (1 Kg 9:25).Some of these texts can, of course, be taken in a factitive sense, that the king ‘had sacrifice offered’, but not all are capable of this meaning. And other texts in fact exclude it: in 2 Kg 16:12-15, Achaz goes up to the new altar he has had made, offers the first sacrifice, and then commands the priest to continue the liturgy there; in 1 Kg 12:33 it is said that Jeroboam ‘went up to the altar to offer sacrifice’ (cf. 13:1f). Again, David and Solomon bless the people in the sanctuary (2 Sam 6:18; 1 Kg 8:14), which is a rite reserved to the priests by Num 6:22-27 and 1 Chr 23:13. Solomon consecrates the middle of the court (1 Kg 8:64).David wears the loincloth which is the vestment of officiating priests (2 Sam 6:14). Neither the prophets nor the historical books before the exile make any protest against these intrusions by the king into liturgical worship. It is only after the end of the monarchy that they become a stumbling-block, and 2 Chron 26:16-20 says that Ozias was struck with leprosy because he had dared to burn incense at the altar, thus usurping a privilege of the sons of Aaron (2 Chr 26:18, cf. Num 17:5; 1 Chr 23:13).

All this evidence calls for a balanced solution. The part played by the king in the regulation and supervision of worship or the nomination of the clergy does not mean that he himself was a priest; it does not exceed the prerogatives which the head of State may have over the State religion.

It is quite another thing when he performs actions which are properly sacerdotal. But we must note that the instances where the king’s personal action is beyond question are all very special or exceptional: the transference of the Ark, the dedication of an altar or sanctuary, the great annual festivals. Ordinarily, the conduct of worship was left to the priest (2 Kg 16:15). Anointing did not confer on the king a priestly character, since, as we have seen [p. 105] priests were not anointed in the days of the monarchy; but it did make him a sacred person, with a special relationship to Yahweh, and in solemn circumstances he could act as a religious head of the people. But he was not a priest in the strict sense.

But, it may be objected, Ps 110 is a royal psalm, and it calls the king a ‘priest’. It has recently been suggested that this verse (Ps 110:4) was addressed, not to the king, but to the priest whom the newly enthroned king (vv. 1-3) was confirming in his functions, and these words were originally addressed to Sadoq, the psalm being composed in David’s reign. It is an interesting hypothesis, but without foundation. The text can be explained otherwise: it could mean that the king was a priest, but in the only way in which an Israelite king could be: that is, the way we have described. He was a priest in the same way as Melchisedech, who it was thought, had been king and priest in that same Jerusalem where the new king was being enthroned. It was the starting point of the Messianic interpretation to be given to the verse in Heb 5:6.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Feedings of the Thousands

Pastor Rich Lusk made the point in a recent sermon that Jesus’ miraculous feedings of 5000 and 4000 have everything to do with Jew-Gentile issues. Jesus feeds the 5000 in Jewish territory, and the numbers 5 and 12 are linked with Israel - the first the number of Israel’s military formation coming out of Egypt the second the number of tribes. Jesus feeds 4000 in Gentile territory, and the number 4 and the number 7 are global numbers, pointing to the peoples, nations, tribes, and tongues of the Gentiles.