Monthly Archives: February 2008

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, Lesson 21

Genesis 18:1-15 – Hospitality to God originally broadcast Feb. 26, 2006


Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church.  My daughter saw an amusing button the other day. It said that “heck is for people who don’t believe in Gosh.” She’ll be 14 tomorrow.

 Setting of Gen. 18:

We are steadily making our way through Genesis, one of the most important and controversial books of the Bible. This week we are looking at a story that is a favorite with many people even though it has sometimes given problems to theologians. This story provides the theme for one of the most popular icons in the Greek Orthodox Church, and it is a story that preachers tend to enjoy. Genesis 18 builds on the story we had last week because it is a second account of the promise that Sarah will give birth to the child of promise, but it also anticipates the violent story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Genesis 18 is different form many of the other stories in Genesis because it has more of literary setting. It takes place on an ordinary day when Abraham was relaxing on a hot afternoon. Those of us who grew up without air conditioning in the South can relate to the need to relax during a hot summer afternoon. I’ve often pictured Abraham sitting in a rocking chair on the porch sipping iced tea in this story, kind of like Burl Ives in the old Lusianne Tea commercials. I figure Sarah was taking a nap in the tent the way my grandmother used to do each day at 3 p.m. Of course, the biblical scholars at Wake will tell you that I’m reading a lot into the text here, I think those familiar images do help us set the scene for this story. Abraham’s tent is in the shade of the oaks of his friend Mamre, and he is wisely keeping cool on a hot day.

  Mysterious Strangers:

I’ve also always pictured the air being warped by the heat, the way it does on hot days in dry lands. Abraham looks out and in the shimmering heat he suddenly sees three men standing near him. This motif of three mysterious visitors appears in the stories and legends of many cultures. It is what we call an archetypal image. In fact, it makes it way into some of our movies, although Americans tend to have just one mysterious stranger suddenly appear in town. At this point, Genesis 18 feels a bit like one of the old Twilight Zones that I still love to watch. There is no music, no miracles, no fire or whirlwind, but somehow we know that these three strangers are not ordinary men. Of course, we’ve got the advantage over Abraham in this story, since we are told at the beginning that it was the LORD who appeared to Abraham.

I’ve known many people who have wanted to meet the LORD in this life. To be honest, I’ve had that thought from time to time myself. What would it be like if God showed up at your house on a summer afternoon while you were relaxing? Would you know who it was? Would you expect shining white robes, a long beard, the sounds of angels in the background? The singer Joan Osborne asked, “what if God were one of us, just a stranger on the bus?” Some people were offended by Joan’s song, but she had good biblical precedent in Genesis 18. Unexpected, the LORD stopped by Abraham’s tent by the oaks of Mamre.

Commentators through the centuries have disagreed over whether Abraham recognized the LORD when he appeared that afternoon. They had spoken several times in the past, and last week we saw that the LORD appeared to Abraham. So maybe he recognized the LORD, but it seems to me that Abraham did not know the identity of his visitors. It appears that these three men were walking past the tent when Abraham saw them since he asked them to stop and “sit for a spell.” One thing is clear, the LORD in this story had feet. This is one reason theologians have not been inclined to take this story literally, but stories like this communicate important theological insights even if we might dismiss them as primitive and anthropomorphic.

There are three visitors in this story. Icons show the visitors with wings and halos like angels, but they are also often identified as the three persons of the Trinity. Early Christian theologians were very happy to have a story in the OT in which three divine persons speak with a single voice. It was seen as confirmation of the new doctrine of the Trinity, even if the three persons of the Godhead had feet and ate a goat. Until the resurrection of Jesus, the three strangers were identified as the LORD and two angels. The angels are important because in the next passage we learn that they are on their way to destroy Sodom. Angels may be beautiful, but they can also be deadly. We’ll save that story for another today. Today, we’ll focus on 18:1-15.

 READ Hospitality:

The first thing to notice about this story is the attention it gives to the preparations Abraham and Sarah make for these strangers who have appeared at their tent. There is water to wash their feet and the finest food available. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, Abraham promises the visitors a little bread, but then orders a feast for the men. One rule of hospitality is to pretend that it was no trouble at all. Of course, modern readers may notice that Abraham does little for his guests other than to tell the servants and Sarah what to do. That is something that many families are familiar with. Dad comes home with surprise visitors and tells Mom to fix a nice dinner. We can see a bit of wry humor in the statement that Abraham took the things ‘he had prepared’ and set them before his guests. Sarah and the servants, of course, might not have seen the humor in the situation.

 Hospitality as righteousness:

The key point, though, is that the story goes into such detail about the meal Abraham ordered for his visitors. Why all this detail? Is it merely to stretch out a good story? I think it was to press home the point that Abraham the sheik, Abraham the warrior, Abraham the chosen, knew how to show hospitality. He saw three strangers before his tent and he was generous and hospitable to them. This is not just a reflection of Middle Eastern custom; it is an example of righteous living for those who worship the God of Abraham. This is a scene in which Abraham displays his righteousness; that is, his intention to live right. And this is something that we have largely forgotten in our modern world.

Years ago I made one of my first journeys out of my native South. I went to a meeting in Bethlehem, Pa., and my boss left me on my own for dinner without warning. I had little money and no knowledge of the town, but I had just met a young man named Dave. He took me home with him and his father prepared a meal for us. It was baked sweet potatoes and peppermint tea, but for me it was the same as the fatted calf and milk and curds that Abraham served. I was shocked to learn that Dave’s father was one of the highest ranking officials in the Northern Province of the Moravian Church, Gordon Sommers. When I thanked him for welcoming a stranger at his table, he told me that hospitality is the most basic obligation of a Christian. I’ve never forgotten that lesson in my mind even though I sometimes forgot it in my living.

Hospitality means to make a stranger feel at home in your home. It means to welcome someone who may be at a loss in the world. It does not mean demanding that someone else change to fit into your world. Hospitality breaks down some of the many walls that divide us and isolate us. It is the most fundamental way of recognizing the humanity of the stranger. In the NT, Jesus identified himself with the stranger who is welcomed or rejected by us. The Epistles urge us to show hospitality to strangers because people have entertained angels unaware.

In other words, the NT authors saw this story of Abraham as a model for how Christians are to live in the world. Show hospitality and kindness and decency to all because you never know who might be an angel. Years after my friend Dave took me in on a winter’s evening in Bethlehem, he was biking alone through Portugal. He became violently ill, and a local family opened their home to him. They nursed him back to health because he was a stranger, because they knew he was vulnerable and alone. Perhaps they knew that Abraham had once shown hospitality to the LORD himself on a hot day.

Sarah Laughed:

The story continues with an interesting exchange between Sarah and the LORD. The LORD told Abraham that Sarah would have a son in due season when he returned. We have already heard this promise, but apparently Sarah did not know about the LORD’s plans. She was listening to the conversation and laughed to herself. “Shall I have pleasure with my old husband?” We don’t know why Sarah laughed. Perhaps she was ridiculing the idea and scoffed. Many commentators have been hard on Sarah for her lack of faith, but that seems unfair. Remember, Abraham laughed in the last chapter – and he even reminded God that he already had a son. Perhaps Sarah laughed for genuine delight at the prospect of a near-miraculous conception.

Most likely, Sarah simply laughed at the humor of the situation. An old woman who has given up all hope for children will be chasing after a little one? We tell jokes like this all the time, but they are not all appropriate for church. It is even possible that Sarah laughed for all three reasons. Doubt, joy, pleasure, hope, and amusement all rolled into one. All we know from the story is that Sarah laughed loud enough for the men to hear her. Sarah had that embarrassing experience of being overheard in laughter. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but this scene has often reminded me of “I Love Lucy,” with Sarah being Lucy listening in at the kitchen door. Abraham says, “Sarah, you got some splaining to do!”

 Does God Laugh?

I think we are supposed to share in the laughter in this tale. We even get a bit of divine humor woven in. The LORD asked Abraham rather than Sarah why his wife laughed. Again, this has bothered many commentators through the centuries. What God doesn’t know why Sarah laughed? God has to ask questions? And why ask Abraham instead of Sarah if you want to know the answer? Not only is this a bit of ancient comedy, it also reflects the patriarchal nature of ancient culture. But we should leave it there. It may be that God was really asking Abraham why he hadn’t told Sarah about the promise. “Why is Sarah laughing? Didn’t you tell her all this after my last visit? Didn’t you believe me?”

Abraham doesn’t get a chance to answer. Sarah boldly speaks up and denies everything. We still see this kind of ridiculous comedy played out in our day. Sarah has been caught doing something she is embarrassed about, and instead of acknowledging it, she tells a bald-faced lie. “I did not laugh!” But the LORD says, “did so.” As the kids say today, she was busted. Lies will never save us, only faith and righteousness. But there is comfort in the fact that the LORD didn’t change his plans just because Sarah lied to him. God keeps his promises to his daughters as well as to his sons. Sarah will bear a son who will be named for laughter.

 Is Anything too Wonderful for God:

God asks Abraham and Sarah a very important rhetorical question during this dialog. Is anything too wonderful for God? We know that it is a question in which the answer is obvious, but remember God has not done much for Abraham at this point. The answer to the question is still in doubt. It hinges on the birth of Isaac, the chosen heir. We know the answer because we have the rest of Scripture and the resurrection of Jesus to guide us, but Abraham and Sarah did not know for sure. Soon they would know. Soon they would bounce a baby on their knees. Soon they would know that overwhelming sense of wonder that comes with the creation of new life in this sad world of ours. Each birth is a wonder, but this one would be even more so.


We need to keep this rhetorical question in our hearts and minds. Is anything too wonderful for God? We need food and shelter in order to survive, but we need hope and wonder to live. We need to see that the world is more than suffering and pain; it is more than labor and hunger. Life is filled with the wonderment and delight and laughter of the creator who loves us and cares for us. Faith means allowing yourself to be surprised by God’s wonders, even on those days when you all you want to do is stay out of the heat. Righteousness means doing the right thing; being hospitable and decent to strangers; and following the proper customs. Faith and Righteousness together mean that one day the LORD may appear and make your world a little more wonderful than it would have been otherwise.

 IF Time, haggling with God:

Next week we will look at Genesis 19, one of the hardest chapters of the Bible. I’m afraid that next week’s lesson has a PG-13 rating, but it would be wrong to simply avoid it. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah begins in chapter 18, though. The laughter and wonderment die suddenly as the sun goes down in the West. I’ll let you read the rest of Genesis 18 on your own, and it does not need a lot of explanation. I hope that you will notice that Abraham haggles with God for the sake of his nephew Lot. He asks an important question relating to divine justice. Is it just to destroy an entire city for the wickedness of some? Should the righteous suffer with the unjust?

I Samuel 3

The Call of Samuel

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 24, 2008

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. Things are getting busy around the church and the divinity school these days. Tonight we’ve got Worship in Wait with Don Saliers and next week we’ll have our annual Trible Lectures in feminist theology. I heard on Friday that we do have enough people signed up for our Moravian Heritage Tour this summer, but there is still room for five or six if you are interested. I’m teaching a course on Moravian Theology this spring, and we are having quite a good time discussing Count Zinzendorf these days. I think the non-Moravians in the class may be getting the most out of our readings. Speaking of Moravians and education, next Sunday we will have a special treat here at Home Church. Chris Thomforde, the President of Moravian College and Theological Seminary will be here and will speak in Sunday School. The Adult Bible Class will be pre-recorded and you can listen to it on the radio, but all of the adult classes will meet in CE 101 to talk to Dr. Thomforde.

            Last week we ended our discussion with the judgment pronounced against the sons of Eli, which led to a vigorous discussion in class. Many people do not like the OT because God appears to be a god of judgment and wrath. That aspect of God comes through in several places in I Samuel, including this story of Eli and his sons, but that is not the entire story. We have seen that I Samuel opens with a picture of God as a God of grace who can produce life where people perceive nothing but barrenness. This week’s lesson takes place several years after chapter 2. Samuel has grown into a young man, and Eli the old priest is nearly blind.


Prophets and Priests              The story of Samuel’s call opens with a statement that the word of the Lord was seldom heard in those days and that visions were not common. People today often make the false assumption that in biblical days God was more immediately present and it was easier to believe in God. We read stories in the Bible and think that revelation was an ordinary occurrence, but we forget that the Bible covers hundreds of years of history. There were periods when God seemed silent and distant. Even when God made himself known, it was never to many people. Throughout the Old Testament, God spoke through a few individuals who were chosen as messengers. They were called prophets, which simply means a spokesman for God who could tell others the will of God.

            The religion of ancient Israel depended on these prophets, and they are responsible for the production of much of the Old Testament. This does not mean that the prophets wrote the books of the Bible with their names on them. As far as we can tell prophecy was spoken, not written, but there were people who recorded the words of the prophets. There is also evidence in the Bible that there were “schools of prophets” or small groups of disciples who gathered around a noted prophet. Some of these disciples of prophets became prophets themselves, like Elisha; others simply recorded the teachings and spread the word of the prophet. It is important to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament that the ancient Israelites did not have a Scripture to guide them. This is so obvious that we sometimes cannot see it, but Eli and Samuel did not have a Bible. They had laws, some of which went back to Moses, and they had stories and tradition, but they did not have a canon of Scripture. It was the prophets and priests who were creating the religion of Israel and the sacred writings.

            Priests had a different role in the religion of Israel, and it was rare for a prophet to also be a priest. The priest was an intermediary between God and humans who was in charge of cultic matters. Priests kept track of the calendar and made sure the holy days were properly celebrated. Priests were in charge of sacrifices and were the ones who removed a person’s guilt. Priests also kept track of many of the laws of Israel, and it seems likely that shrines, like Shiloh, had archives where the written laws were stored. In other words, priests had regularly duties, but prophets had to be free speak the truth, even when the truth was not welcome.

A Seldom Heard Word          In his book The Prophetic Imagination, the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann contrasted the creative and subversive message of the prophets to the oppression of the monarchs, but he ignored the fact that the kings of Israel employed prophets in the government to act as advisors, particularly in foreign affairs. Prophets were also religious teachers and reformers. In other words, prophets had a role in the social order even though they often criticized it. The books of the kingdoms (Samuel-Kings) show us that the prophets helped create the kingdom and played a role in royal politics. At times, though, the prophets revealed God’s judgment on the social order. The prophetic condemnation of Eli and his sons in I Samuel was symbolic of the prophetic judgment against corruption in religion and politics. Prophets were reformers who could be revolutionary.

            Unlike preachers today who have to give a message every Sunday morning, prophets gave the word of God only when called upon. People could consult with prophets and ask for a word from God, but they would not always receive an answer. When the storyteller says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, he is letting us know that religious life was in decline. There were few men or women with the gift of prophecy. Israel was in a doldrums, without visions to inspire the people or a word of God to help them adjust to new challenges. The storyteller is also letting us know why Samuel was so confused when he heard God calling to him. Samuel, like most prophets, was not expecting to be called.

            The word of God was rare in those days. Despite the fact that there will be tens of thousands sermons preached across America this morning, many people feel that we are living in a time when the word of God is rare. This is, in part, because the modern world is suspicious of people who heard voices in their heads and see things that aren’t there. By definition, what Samuel experienced in the temple would be considered abnormal today, and psychologists would be more interested in what he had to say than priests would be. We live in an odd time, I think. On the one hand, we are surrounded by publications that claim to be printing prophecies and which tell outlandish stories of supernatural events, but on the other hand we are skeptical of any claims that cannot be verified scientifically. Churches are divided between those who believe strongly that miracles, visions, and other prophetic signs are still possible and those churches that prefer to stick with interpreting the ancient Scripture without the need to relive it. In our day, the word of God is rare, but that may be because it is drowned out by so much religious blather and faux spirituality. Some of us may be like Samuel. God calls, but at first we cannot respond.

Samuel                        The story of Samuel’s calling is beautifully written and has lost none of its appeal through the centuries. There is an interesting interplay of blindness and illumination in the story. Not only are visions are rare in the land, Eli the priest has become physically blind. God’s revelation is going to come when it is least expected. The lamp is still burning in the temple because morning has not arrived. It is the gloaming just before dawn – that time when the night is coldest and the world is silent. These images give us the sense that the whole society has grown old and lost its energy, but we know that a new day is breaking.

            Samuel is not keeping a vigil like the mystics of old. He is sleeping in the temple before the ark of the LORD. According to ancient tradition, the great prophet and law-giver Moses used to receive the word of the LORD as he knelt before the ark. In modern times, the ark has been described as a radio or transmitter to talk to God. Readers of the Scripture know that the ark is a bridge between heaven and earth, but Samuel may not have known this. For him, those may have just been stories told by old men and women. It has been a long time since anyone had a word from God, and the keepers of sacred knowledge have become cynical and selfish. If you enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia, you may see the connection between this story in I Samuel and Prince Caspian. The word of God was rare and the people lacked a vision.

            Samuel, the Temple servant, was in a situation like many priests and ministers today. We interpret the Scripture, offer prayers to God, and handle sacred things, but we do not really expect to hear a new word from God or to receive a new vision. Our service in the Temple is routine and ordinary. We keep the calendar and the feast days, and we are there to help in times of crisis, but we can predict what will happen week after week in worship. This is not a criticism of the church and its ministers, but it is a statement of fact. We sleep before the ark of God, tending the light, but we are unprepared to be illuminated.

Samuel’s Call             Then Samuel hears the LORD call his name. He is shaken from his slumbers and jumps to his feet. He responds immediately saying “Here I am.” Young Samuel is obedient and eager to be of service, but he responded to the wrong person. Samuel naturally assumed that the words he heard were spoken out loud by flesh and blood, so he ran to his master, Eli. One of the things I love about the Old Testament is that you get stories like this that are so true to life. Samuel responded the way we would. He was not expecting to hear from God any more than we are. In the Old Testament even the great prophets almost missed their encounters with God; almost missed the message God wanted them to hear. Of course, we the stories of those who did miss their moment of revelation and encounter are not recorded in Scripture. Their names and stories are lost to us because they did not turn aside from their normal lives to enter into the presence of God. Perhaps the reason God’s word was not heard in Israel in those days was because no one was willing to listen.

            Samuel rushes to Eli’s room. I wonder if something similar happens to people today. Like Samuel we run in fear to the nearest authority figure assuming that they called us. We work hard to please our parents, or our teachers, or our pastors, or some other authority, never questioning whether this is what God wants us to do. We sacrifice our time and energy and families and morals to please our superiors, never asking if we are pursuing our true calling. 

Discernment               Samuel goes to Eli. Three times God calls to Samuel in the Temple, and three times Samuel runs to Eli instead of listening to God. We’ve seen that Eli has his flaws. His sons have turned out rotten, but he is not a bad man. He is wise enough as a priest to recognize that something unusual is happening, and he is good enough not to try to take advantage of the situation. He could have said, “I’m glad you are here Samuel. Clearly God wants you to work harder for me.” Most of us would be getting pretty tired of Samuel coming in and waking him up. If I were Eli, I would have told Samuel that he better not come back in – even if God was calling! We might be inclined to say to Samuel, “Listen, boy, if you keep hearing voices, we’re taking you to a shrink.” But Eli was a priest of the LORD of hosts. He was the closest thing to a psychiatrist that they had in ancient Israel. Eli knows that Samuel is not insane just because he heard someone call his name in the night. Eli correctly perceives that it is God who is waking Samuel up, but there is a way to find out for sure. Eli tells Samuel to stay in the Temple, in front of the sacred ark. If he hears the voice a fourth time, he should say “speak, for your servant is listening.” This will be the test to see if the voice is from God.

            Let’s linger just a moment over this scene of the confused Samuel standing by the old priest’s bed. The storyteller has made it clear that this is a book about the transition from the old to the new. The night is passing and dawn is bringing new light. The old is passing away and the new is emerging, but it is the old blind priest who correctly perceives what is happening. The old must help the young interpret the changes that they will bring about. Each generation is connected to the next even when the younger generation gives a prophetic message of change.

            There is something quite appealing in Samuel’s simple response to God. “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Perhaps this is why we don’t hear God speak today. We do not offer ourselves as servants. We think spiritual gifts make us special when in fact they place under an obligation. We forget that when God speaks, he wants us to something. We forget that if we want to hear God’s word, we need to listen; not just with our outer ears but with our hearts and lives. Perhaps we need to practice listening and being open rather than talking all the time.

Prophecy         God told Samuel that he was going to do something that would shock everyone in Israel. What God is planning will be exciting and controversial, and he is going to trust the future to a young priest lacking in experience. God tells Samuel that he is going to fulfill the judgment that has already been pronounced against the house of Eli. Because the sons of Eli had been contemptuous and contemptible in their public service, they are going to be eliminated. They would no longer have the opportunity to abuse worshipers and the women who worked in the temple. They would no longer bring shame to the house of the Lord or profane his sanctuary. They had been warned, but the sons of Eli had not changed their ways, and their guilt could not be atoned for through a sacrifice. God had already told this Eli, but now Samuel would be a witness to the prophecy.

            This prophecy provides an opportunity to discuss the nature of prophecy in the Bible. Many people think that the words of the prophets were directed to the distant future, thousands of years after the time when they were given. That is a modern notion. As far as we call, biblical prophecy tended to be about issues closer to home. Prophets did offer predictions about the future, but it was almost always about events on the horizon. In essence, prophets read the signs of their times and interpreted the will of God accordingly. The prophecy given to Samuel is a perfect example of this. It is a prophecy that will be fulfilled soon, and Samuel has to be ready to deal with the results.

Bad News       When Samuel got the disturbing news about Eli and his sons, he did the only reasonable thing. He lay back down, hoping it was all a bad dream. He wanted to avoid the bad news. Samuel is so much like us today. Often we know the truth about someone else’s life. We can read the signs and see that someone is heading into severe problems, but we don’t want to tell them. It is much easier to go back to bed and pull the covers up. It is much easier to stay in church, kneeling before the altar, than it is to confront a friend or family member with their problems. There is someone we know who is heading into addiction or alcoholism, but we remain silent. We see the harm caused by public officials and business leaders, but we don’t want to risk rejection by speaking out. We became quietly complicit in their self-destruction and abuse of others. God speaks a word of judgment to us, but we keep it quiet because it is more important for us to be liked that to be a prophet of God’s justice and mercy. Like Samuel, we try to ignore the word of God and go to sleep.

            But Eli insisted that Samuel tell him the truth, and Samuel took the risk to speak the truth to someone in power. We don’t know if Samuel’s words surprised him or merely confirmed his sense of doom. In any case, it is to Eli’s credit that he encouraged Samuel to be honest and forthright. We should all develop this kind of courage – the courage to let others tell us the truth, even if it is a painful truth. And Eli recognized the word of God when it was mediated through Samuel, and he did not blame the prophet for the message. May we learn to do the same.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 20

Genesis 17 – Circumcision and Covenant Introduction:

Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week and a happy Valentine’s Day. I am reasonably sure that St. Valentine himself would not be too happy with the way American advertisers urge us to remember the day of his death as a martyr, but it is nice that we do have a day in the calendar to honor love and friendship rather than war and conflict. 

 Abraham and Sarah:

This week we are looking at Genesis 17. In this section we finally get to call Abraham and Sarah by those names instead of Abram and Sarai. There are a couple of times in Scripture where people receive new names. In some tribal cultures, it is normal to be given a new name as your status in the tribe changes. Usually the new name is bestowed upon you by an authority who knows something about your inner qualities. If you read the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fennimore Cooper, for instance, Natty Bumpkin receives several names, the most famous of which is the Deerslayer. In our story for today, our ancestor in faith goes from being known as the exalted father to be being Father of Many Nations, or Abraham. We lose some of the tribal nature of the Genesis tales by not translating the names. Don’t you think it would make the liturgies more exotic to remember the Father of Many Nations rather than just saying Abraham?

Sarai’s change of name appears to be less significant than Abraham’s. Sarai is simply the older form of the name Sarah. Both names have the same root as the Hebrew word for prince, so Sarai and Sarah both mean princess. There is a possibility that the name Sarah was connected to the name Israel, which would link Sarah directly as the matriarch of Israel. This is intriguing and makes sense, but it is a bit of a linguistic stretch. The most likely reason for the name change is to conform to Abraham’s new status as the Father of Many Nations and to emphasize that Sarah will be the mother of the covenant.

 Priestly Account of the Covenant

Gen. 17 probably came from the priests of ancient Israel. Several times I’ve mentioned that Genesis was not written by a single author but was compiled by a brilliant scribe, perhaps Ezra himself, who used many different sources at this disposal. We are focusing on Genesis in its final form, but it is helpful from time to time to notice some of the original matters used in making Genesis. Our lesson for today, for example, was written in a whole different style than the passage we read last week. Even with the same translator, we can feel the difference in these verses. The style is very formal and assertive, and it makes a point of saying that Abraham fell down to worship God. Except for the opening verse, God is not called the LORD, and Gen. 17 shows a lot of interest in properly observing religious rituals. For these, and a few other reasons, scholars are reasonably sure that chapter 17 comes from the priests, while Ch. 16 was from the J source. We can’t prove this, but it does make sense of the notable change in style. It also helps explain why there is yet another story of the covenant. By placing this additional story of the covenant where he does, the author of Genesis emphasizes that this is a strengthening and focusing of the covenant on Sarah and her son.

 Read Gen. 17 El Shaddai:

In our lesson for today, God reconfirms the covenant with Abraham. Interestingly, God assumes the name El Shaddai, or God of the Mountain in this story. Some of you know the wonderful song by Amy Grant titled El Shaddai. Translators usually render El Shaddai as God Almighty, but that loses some of the significance of the name, just as we saw in the earlier story when God was called El Elyon. El Shaddai means God on High, referring to a specific mountain. Originally this story may been connected to the later story of Abraham offering his son on Mt. Moria or it may anticipate the later story of Moses on Mt. Sinai. Now it serves as a story of recommitment after the birth of Ishmael. God reminds Abraham of the promise he originally made. The covenant is for all time, a point often missed by Christian readers of Genesis.

 Abraham Laughs:

Ch. 17 clarifies that it will be the son of Sarah who is the bearer of the covenant with Abraham. We will return to this theme next week as we continue with chapter 18, but it is worth noting now. When Abraham was told that Sarah will conceive, he fell down on his face laughing – not in pleasure but in derision. Abraham doesn’t believe the word of God, but he is not rebuked for his lack of faith.

Perhaps God himself recognized the humor of the situation and planned on it. After all, it was God who named the boy Isaac – he who laughs. I, for one, place great hope in the fact that God has a sense of humor. Isaac should be the patron saint for all of us who love to laugh at the daily absurdities of life. Later in Genesis, Abraham will laugh for joy. Later all his doubts will be eased, but for the moment, he laughs as he contemplates Sarah getting pregnant. He laughs, but he does what God asks of him. That is what faith is all about.

First, though, Abraham puts forward his son Ishmael as the answer to the promise. God tells him that Ishmael will be blessed. Ishmael will be the father of twelve tribes. He will be great in the world, but it is Isaac who will be the father of the chosen. The story of faith will continue through Isaac and Jacob, but Ishmael is not forgotten. He is blessed.

 Sealing the Covenant:

In ch. 15 it was God who sealed the covenant with Abram. This time it is Abraham who must seal the covenant in his own blood. Every male in his household was to be circumcised, including Abraham himself. Keep in mind that he was 99 years old at the time. This was no small sacrifice to make on his part – especially since the tool used was probably a stone knife.

Can you imagine what Abraham thought when he heard that? Worse yet, think of the reaction of the folks back in the tents when Abraham comes back down from the mountain and says, “The God of the Mountain told me that I have to circumcise all the males.” After he explained the procedure, I’m sure there were some skeptical comments about Abraham’s sanity. “You’re going to do what to me?” And I’m pretty sure that Sarah laughed, although that’s not recorded in this story. The most important aspect of Gen. 17 is not the change of the names; it is the ritual of circumcision.


I realize that we are living in an age when people will discuss any subject on radio and when you cannot watch a basketball game without advertisements for embarrassing products, but I am a little embarrassed to discuss circumcision on the air. There is no way to avoid it, though, if we are going to talk about the Bible. It is a very important biblical topic, and it serves as a reminder that the Bible is less prudish than we are. Biblical faith is very concrete, very human, very real. At times it was very painful, too. It is also easily misunderstood. A student wrote in her history exam several years back that Magellan was the first man to circumcise the globe. And there have been many students through the years who thought that Abraham circumscribed his sons, which may be true, but is irrelevant.

As we shall see, circumcision plays a particularly important role in Judaism, but it is not distinctly Jewish. Many tribal societies in the world today observe this ritual. In fact, I was rather surprised to see a rite of circumcision performed on television on show depicting tribal life in South America. Islamic tradition asserts that Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised, and most Muslim men are circumcised. The age varies from country to country and tribe to tribe, though. And, as we know from recent controversy, some African tribes practice sometimes quite shocking versions of female circumcision, but that is quite different from circumcision in the Bible.

Despite claims to the contrary, circumcision is not really a matter of hygiene although it has been viewed that way in the past. There is little indication that lack of circumcision causes problems for men. Many ancient cultures practiced circumcision; others did not. We know that in the time of Genesis, the Egyptians and Babylonians practiced circumcision, but Israel’s neighbors, the Philistines did not. The Greeks were also opposed to circumcision, and under their influence the practice died out in much of the ancient Mediterranean world.


As far as we can tell, both historically and from anthropologists, there are several related reasons for circumcision. It is a form of ritual mutilation, much like tattoos, cutting, or other ways of permanently marking the skin. Often circumcision is a rite of passage into adulthood, and it appears that its purpose in most cases is to provide a male parallel for menstruation. The shedding of blood is important in the ritual. Circumcision is sometimes done in preparation for marriage, which we can see in a later story concerning Dinah. Israelite women were forbidden to marry an uncircumcised man. It is interesting that the literal meaning of the Hebrew word for ‘father-in-law’ is circumciser. At some point in the distant past, the father of the bride who had the honor of preparing the groom for the wedding. It was probably an effective way to make sure that a son-in-law tried treated his future father-in-law with respect.

 Circumcision and Covenant:

What makes circumcision in later Judaism so different from all these other uses of the procedure is that it was to be done when a child was eight days old. It was a permanent sign that a boy or man was an Israelite. In short, it had become a ritual of tribal or national identity. It is not surprising, then, to see that circumcision was connected with the naming of Abraham in Gen. 17. Nor is it surprising that it is the Priestly source that gives all of the details about when and whom to circumcise. Today circumcision is a household ritual performed either by a specially trained person, known as the mohel. The Brit Mihal, or rite of cutting, is a very sacred and festive moment in Judaism, and is followed by a feast celebrating the occasion. There have been many times in history, though, when Jews were punished severely and even killed for having their sons bear the mark of the covenant.

 A Broader Covenant:

It was not just Ishmael and Abraham who were to bear the mark of the covenant. It was for every male. Remember those 325 armed men that Abraham took into battle? Remember all of the shepherds and other servants? Those men became part of the covenant. I find this very intriguing, although it is easily overlooked. Most of these people were not related to Abraham. We know that some of them were Egyptians. Most likely, his household was very international, but they all bore the mark of the covenant. Throughout the OT, the nation of Israel included many non-Israelites. Some of them served high office. The exclusivity we associate with the covenant was largely a response to foreign domination after the Exile.


There is a very stern warning in this instruction on circumcision. Any male not circumcised will be cut off from the people. There is a clear pun in the Hebrew here, by the way. The sign of the covenant is required for the people of the covenant. It is the mark of identity. Without the mark; there is no identity. At the risk of making a too banal analogy, we can compare this commandment with the law that all children born as US citizens must have a Social Security number. Without that number, you are cut off from society. You cannot work legally, attend school, drive a car, and so forth. Likewise, according to Gen. 17, if a parent failed in this obligation of marking his or her son as an Israelite, the child would be cut off. He would be outside the covenant.

 Christianity and the Covenant:

This chapter does not have the importance in Christianity that it does for the people of the covenant. For centuries Christians taught that the circumcision of Jesus ended circumcision just as the sacrifice of Jesus ended sacrifice. This was hotly debated in early Christianity, but Paul argued persuasively that Gentiles, which meant the uncircumcised, could be included in the New Covenant that Jesus made through his blood. To accept circumcision, for Paul, was to accept the old covenant and all of its rules and prohibitions. Zinzendorf accepted this reasoning of Paul. Moravians did not circumcise their sons, but Jews who converted to the Moravian Church were encouraged to live according to the covenant to which their circumcision bound them.

So, what makes Genesis 17 revelation for Christians, or is it merely ancient history? That depends. I think it is helpful for Christians to understand the importance of this ritual and the covenant for our Jewish brothers and sisters. It is also helpful for us to fully appreciate the stories of the Old Testament, many of which center on the covenant. If we want to understand the Bible, we need a grounding in the themes of Gen. 17. But there is more. Christianity rejected circumcision as a ritual and requirement of faith very early, as we have seen, but the NT does use the meaning of circumcision repeatedly. The apostolic authors spoke of a circumcision of the heart rather than the flesh. Jesus contrasted a physical circumcision with a spiritual circumcision. The early church recognized that there was an important message about identity and morality in the ritual of circumcision.


To be a Christian is to belong to the invisible body of Christ that extends through all the ages and into eternity. To be Christian is to be a living representative of Christ in this world. To be a Christian is to be something different, to live under the special obligation of love for neighbors and enemies alike, to live for Christ rather than self. To be Christian is to be part of the new covenant that is opened for all races, nations, and tongues; to be part of a spiritual priesthood, a royal people.

The sign of that new covenant is baptism, the ritual of dying and rising with Christ to a new life lived in freedom and love. And just as Abraham circumcised the infants so they would grow up in the covenant and never doubt that they belonged, we baptize our children in the faith “for the promise is to us and to our children.” Just as ancient circumcision was a means to carry the covenant to all generations; we baptize each generation as witnesses to the love of Christ. Unlike the circumcision of Abraham, though, baptism is for girls as well as boys. In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female but all are one.

Genesis: Folklore of Faith, Lesson 18

Adult Bible ClassGen. 16 – Hagar, 2-12-06

Introduction  Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. There were tears and smiles in the Atwood home Tuesday night. Why my wife chose of her own free will to be a Duke fan, I’ll never understand. She loves me too much to gloat when Duke beats Carolina, but I know that she does so silently, even in her sleep.

 The Hagar and Sarah Cycle:

This week we are turning our attention to two women, Sarah and Hagar. We have discovered in our journey so far through Genesis that this is a book that is full of surprises. That is certainly the case with the stories about Sarah and Hagar. We know that Genesis was written for the descendents of Sarah and her son Isaac. The OT is the story of Israel, not Ishmael or Esau. We know that; therefore it is surprising that the story of Hagar was even included in the Bible.

We would expect that Hagar’s story would be lost in the sands of time like the stories of most women through the ages. Who is this slave that we should be mindful of her? Everything we know about people, tribes, and nations tells us that Hagar should not even be named in the Bible or remembered by the Israelites. Certainly there should have been no tale recorded in which Sarah the matriarch or Abraham the patriarch look bad, while an Egyptian slave is blessed by the LORD. But here is this story in all its surprising and at times troubling detail.

 Read Gen. 16 Surrogate Motherhood in Ancient Times:

This story strikes modern readers as very odd, but if we think about it, we can see that Sarai proposed a form of surrogate motherhood. She knew that she was past menopause and could not conceive. She also wanted to have a child. Many commentators assume that she knew about the covenant between the LORD and Abram, and wanted to help fulfill that promise. She does lay the blame for her barrenness directly at the feet of the LORD, though, and she says, basically, “we need to help the LORD do what he intends.”

So, Sarai takes the only option that appears open to her at the time. She offers her slave, Hagar to Abram with the understanding that any children born will be considered Sarai’s children. There is evidence that this was an accepted practice in the ancient Near East, and we still do this today. Now it involves complex medical procedures and reams of legal documents, but the end result is the same. The husband conceives a child that is born by another women, but his wife calls the child own. This is just what Sarai attempted.

 Moral Questions:

Now, Abram and Hagar had to do things the old fashioned way without the benefit of a laboratory, and this is what bothers us today. For us, the moral issue in this story is adultery or infidelity, but that wasn’t the issue in Genesis. Polygamy was an accepted practice in ancient days. In fact, it was a sign of wealth to have more than one wife. It would have been perfectly understandable had Abram married another woman when it was evident that Sarai was barren. Today we view polygamy as immoral, and most missionaries have forced converts to abandon their ‘extra’ wives.

We also have to come to grips with the fact that it was also an accepted practice for a slave owner to take advantage of female slaves. This is another part of the story that should offend us today. The patriarchs had slaves and treated them as slaves. This is one reason it is dangerous to preach too much on biblical family values, the way some talk radio celebrities do. I’m not sure that we want to recreate the family values in Genesis. It is worth noting, though, that apparently Abram had not asserted his so-called ‘rights’ over the female slaves. We have an image of Abram being unusually devoted to Sarai despite her barrenness, but we must not overlook the fact of bondage and enslavement in this story. Sarai and Abram did not even speak the name of the slave who was handed over to be the surrogate mother.

This story hinges on the fact that it was Sarai who took the initiative to move the covenant forward. She offered her slave Hagar to Abram as a wife not as a mistress or concubine. Those who wish to protect Abraham from the charge of polygamy miss the fact that Hagar was a wife, and those who wish to protect Abraham from the charge of adultery emphasize that she was a wife rather than a mistress. I’m not sure it matters. Either way, it is clear that Abraham had two women, which is not accepted practice today. What is unusual in this arrangement at the time is that Hagar remained bound to Sarai as well as to her husband. She was Sarai’s slave and Abram’s wife.

 The Egyptian:

We are told that Hagar was an Egyptian. Since she was African, this story was used by Americans and Europeans to justify the enslavement of other Africans in modern times. The Bible, we know, can be twisted for many purposes. But why tell us she was Egyptian? It may be that this was originally a bit of a joke. Everyone knew that the descendents of Abraham had been enslaved in Egypt, but here it is the patriarch who had an Egyptian slave. It is more likely, though, the story-teller was merely pointing out that Hagar was one of the slaves that Pharoah had given to Abram and Sarai back in chap. 12.

Since the Bible says so little about Hagar and Sarai, Jewish and Muslim commentators added to the story over the centuries. There are stories that Sarai herself chose Hagar as her servants from among all the beautiful slaves of the Pharaoh. Hagar was not only young and beautiful, she was intelligent and pious. According to these later accounts, Hagar worshiped the one God and lived a moral life, which impressed Sarai. When Sarai chose a wife for Abram, then, it was naturally that she would choose Hagar, who faithful companion.

After Islam swept into Egypt in the 7th century, the story of Hagar became an important way to include the Egyptians into the story of the prophets. She was seen as the forerunner of Egyptian Muslims who were worshiped the one God and were submissive to the will of God. Hagar was a Muslim because she submitted. Most importantly for Muslims, Hagar is the matriarch of the Arab peoples, the descendents of Ishmael.

 Two Wives for Father Abraham:

To return to our text for today, Abram agrees to Sarai’s plan. We can assume that he did so reluctantly and took no pleasure in the arrangement, but a good man is obedient to his wife (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Abram may have also thought that this was a way to fulfill the covenant with the LORD. The covenant did not specify who the mother of the nation would be. Many commentators are hard on Sarai and Abram for having a lack of faith here. Many people see this as a story of not trusting in God to perform a miracle, but that’s rather harsh. In the Bible, God rarely works through miracles. Usually it is a matter people working with God. Of course, the fact that this surrogate motherhood was immoral by modern standards adds to the condemnation of Sarai and Abram, but the Bible does not condemn Abram taking Hagar as a wife. We can assume that in this story, Abram and Sarai were acting with good intentions, even if their solution to the problem strikes us as unorthodox at best.

But it doesn’t go well. There are some problems in this affair. Hagar is not just Abram’s second wife, she is Sarai’s slave. Can you imagine what that must have been like? It’s bad enough to have to deal with a first wife, but to have to obey her as well. And for Sarai, it must have been hard to have your servant almost your equal. Not surprisingly, Sarai gets jealous when Hagar gets pregnant. The text says that Hagar treated her mistress with contempt. Certainly Sarai thought so. Apparently, Hagar smirked and Sarai got angry.

Why did she smirk? Because she knew that in this most crucial test of womanhood and matrimony in the ancient world, she was superior to Sarai. She knew that as mother of the heir, her status would go up. She knew that she had Abram’s attention, and she probably had no intention of giving her child over to Sarai. She was pregnant and Sarai was barren.

 Family Violence:

We can understand this type of interpersonal conflict. This is the real reason polygamy died out. It is just too stressful on everyone involved: jealousy, competition, anger and violence. Even without polygamy, this story in Genesis is so truth to real life that it shocks us today. Even with our different social norms and family values, we see that the core issues remain. Sarai was jealous, even though she got what she thought she wanted. Sarai was angry, particularly because she was the one who brought this about. So, Sarai decided to get rid of the symbol of her anger, frustration, and shattered hopes. She had to destroy Hagar, whom she may have once loved.

First Sarai turns her anger on Abram. It is his fault that Hagar was smirking and acting like she was first wife. It is his fault that he got the girl pregnant. Sarai demanded that as head of the household he do something about Hagar’s attitude, but Abram refused. Here we can sense some disapproval of Abram in the Bible. He was the brave warrior who defeated five kings. He was the man who outwitted Pharaoh. He was the wealthy and wise man who lived in peace with his neighbors. He was favored by the LORD. But he couldn’t settle an argument between two women. He couldn’t make Hagar and Sarai be nice to each other. Instead he told Sarai that Hagar was still her slave even though she was his wife. Like too many people in the world today, Abram abdicated his responsibilities and watched one person abuse another.

 Hagar Abused:

And Sarai did abuse Hagar. There is little doubt about that in the text. It is not glossed over. The Hebrew word used is that same word used later for how Pharaoh treated the Israelites in slavery. Abram let Sarai beat and humiliate the woman who was bearing his child. And this is what grips our hearts today. This is why this chapter of Genesis has become so important to oppressed people around the world, by abused people, by dark-skinned people. They identify with Hagar the Egyptian slave beaten by her mistress, not with Abram.

As Eugene Rivers III says in Bill Moyer’s Genesis: “See, the funny thing about this is that most poor people don’t need any of our liberal clichés about the unfairness of it all because they know that infinitely better than we do. So much of what salon intellectuals in the academy, where we go through a kind of hand-wringing routine about the injustice of life, really has no bearing out there in the streets. This is why the scriptures are so important for people.” (207). The Scriptures are important because they contain the unexpected message that God cares for more than just the chosen ones; the pious ones; the wealthy ones; the blessed. God cares for more than just Abram and Sarai. God cares for Hagar, the slave.

 Finding and Naming Hagar:

Here is the revelatory twist in this story: Sarai and Abram cannot name Hagar, but the Bible does. Sarai erases Hagar and drives her out into the wilderness, but the LORD searches for her. The LORD goes after Hagar and finds her near a spring in the desert. This goes beyond the parable of the prodigal son where the father looks into the horizon waiting for his son’s return. Here it is the LORD who seeks the one who has been forced to flee. There is no story like it in Scripture that I know of where God seeks out the refuge.

The angel of the LORD spoke to the Egyptian slave and names her: “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?” It is a question rich with meaning; a question filled with suffering and longing, hope and fear. It is a question the angel of the LORD may ask you or you may ask yourself: “Where have you come form and where are you going?” What is the purpose of your running? Are you running away or are you lost in the wilderness?


Then the angel said something we do not like because it has been used for centuries to increase domestic violence and abuse. The angel tells Hagar to submit to her mistress, just as preachers two centuries ago told slave women to submit to their masters; just as ministers today tell abused women to submit to their husbands. This may be what the biblical story-teller intended, but I’m not convinced. In any case, that is not a message that we need to give any longer.

I think what is happening here is that the angel tells Hagar she had choices. She did not need to die in the desert. She did not need to be erased and un-named by Sarai. She did not need to be a victim. She could return and assert her dignity by willingly submitting to Sarai. She could choose to give up the smirk without giving up her life and her future and her child. Her options were limited, but she had the power to choose.

 Promise and Blessing:

Before Hagar could answer or protest, the Angel spoke again. Her submission would not be pointless. It would not be for Sarai’s sake, but for Hagar’s. Hagar would become a matriarch herself. Her child was also a child of the promise given to Abram. He would also be the father of tribes. He would be “a wild ass of a man.” The NIV is more delicate and calls Ishmael a wild donkey, but I think the older translation captures better the original sense. You may know men like Ishmael, wild men living in tension with the world. Despite what many commentators persist in claiming, Ishmael was not cursed by God. But the prophecy states that he would have a hard life. He would have enemies and have to defend himself. He would struggle, but he would

prevail. This prophecy is really not much different from the life of Jacob, who will be renamed Israel, as we shall see. But there is more.

 Naming God:

Though Hagar is not honored in churches, she was the first woman after Eve to whom God spoke. She was one who survived injustice and hardship and who insured the survival of her son. She was called by name by the LORD, and more significantly, she named God in return. She called him El-Roi, the God of seeing because God had seen her distress, just as God would later see the suffering of the Israelites. Hagar named the spring where she met God, The Well of the Living One who Sees Me – Beer Lahi Roi, and she named her son Ishmael, God hears. God sees and God hears.

Chapter 16 is very rich, and there is much more that could be said, but perhaps it is best leave it here with Hagar and the God who sees and hears. We will see that life remains difficult for this Egyptian slave and her son, but they will endure with the help of God. In reading this story of domestic violence, I hope you will recognize that God in this story is on the side of the abused woman. It is not Sarai who sees God, but Hagar. It is not Sarai who names God, but Hagar. I hope you will also recognize in this story that God’s love extends beyond the racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries that we erect. He called an African slave by name and made her a matriarch. Next week we’ll continue with the Genesis 17. We’ll also get to discuss the ever popular topic of circumcision. So tune in next Sunday at 10:05.

I Samuel 2: Growing in Wisdom and Stature

I Samuel 2: Growing in Wisdom and Stature

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church,

originally broadcast on Feb. 17, 2008 

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love most dearly. We lost power during the high winds last Sunday evening. I had to listen to the Carolina game on the radio in the car. It was a thrilling game. We lost power again on Tuesday during the Carolina-Virginia game. Not sure what the message is in that. My daughter Sarah went to a Valentines dance on Friday night and looked lovely. Last night we were in Valdese for the annual Waldensian celebration.  The event celebrates the decree of religious freedom given to the Waldensians in Italy in 1848.

            For announcements this week, let me remind you again about the trip to the Moravian homeland this July. We’ve got folks from California and Pennsylvania joining us on the adventure. Also, there are two special events at Wake Forest this week. On Thursday, Doug Pagitt, author of the book A Christianity Worth Believing In, will speak in a coffeehouse style gathering in Wingate Hall at 7:30. On Sunday, Don Saliers, a noted author on church music and liturgy will be preaching in Worship in Wait Chapel. That will be at 7:00 p.m. Dr. Saliers may be most famous to some of you as the father of one of the Indigo Girls. These events are part of our Public Theology program at the Divinity School.

Leaving Children:      Last week we closed with Hannah’s song, which celebrates the fact that God can overturn even the most dismal situation. Our discussion after we went off the air focused on the difficulties of leaving a child in someone else’s care. The biblical story does not describe the emotions of Hannah and Samuel, but we can imagine that the boy shed many tears over the loss of his mother. At one time, it was customary for the children of Moravian missionaries to be raised in boarding schools in Europe and America instead of staying with their parents. This made it much easier to send people out into missions, and it allowed them to focus on their work, but it was very hard for parents and children alike. Many tears were shed for absent mothers and fathers. We can assume that the same was true of Samuel and Hannah. In our lesson for today, we gain some insight into the life of Samuel as a boy serving in the Temple of the LORD at Shiloh. But first, we are introduced to two other young men serving as priests in Shiloh, the sons of Eli.

Corrupt Priests           The storyteller minces no words in introducing the sons of Eli. They were “wicked men” or “scoundrels.” The Hebrew is quite strong in condemning these young men as “worthless.”  Their specific misdeeds might seem minor to us today, like a school bully taking a smaller kid’s lunch money. All they were doing was interfering with the sacrifices made at the Temple. Rather than waiting for people to make the sacrifice in the accustomed way and then taking their proper portion from the pot in which the meat was being stewed, these fellows demanded that they be allowed the first pick from the cuts of meat before the fat was even burned off. On the surface, this sounds like a petty dispute over how to cook a piece of meat. Should it be stewed, broiled, or fried? This sounds like the kind of argument you might have at a family reunion; not the kind of thing that leads to God’s wrath. Why is this so important?

            First of all, there is the issue of corruption and abuse of public office. The sons of Eli, like all the priests of Israel, had a specific role to play in the social order. They were there to intercede with God and to insure that the sacrifices were properly performed. They served both God and the tribe as living bridges between the sacred and secular realms. Eli’s sons were not fulfilling their responsibilities as priests of the LORD of hosts. They did not wait for the meat to be properly given to God. Rather than helping families worship and reverence God in the proper way, the priests were actively interfering with the devotions of ordinary believers. They were so greedy that they did not even wait for the food to be prepared.

            It seems so minor to us, but think of the importance of meat in a world before modern technology and animal husbandry. Think of the families that only ate meat once a year during the festival. Think of the sacrifice that each piece of meat represented to a family struggling to live through long winters. This was a sacrifice they were willing to make to please to God, but God’s own representatives on earth were greedy. They did not make the sacrifices they demanded of others.

            The author of I Samuel summarizes the situation quite nicely when he writes “this sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt.” This is a nice reminder that the offering we give each week in worship belongs to God, not to the priest or minister. I wonder how often we are guilty of treating the LORD’s offering with contempt by how we use it. In ancient Israel, the priests’ portion of the sacrifice was determined in advance; therefore the priest went hungry when the people went hungry. That hasn’t always been true, and today most pastors are paid a regular salary. It was hoped that a regular salary would reduce the temptation to corruption, but as we have seen in politics, that is rarely the case. Greed can be insatiable, and once a person has concluded that he or she is the center of the universe, they have no limitations on their actions.

Modern Corruption                In the Moravian Church, as in most Christian churches, clergy are those who have been ordained for a ministry of word and sacrament. The office of pastor, minister, or priest is grounded in the priesthood of ancient Israel. Though we do not sacrifice animals, we do have a sacred meal called Holy Communion. Though we do not give prophetic oracles, like Samuel did, modern priests and ministers are expected to preach the Word of God faithfully. Not only are the clergy set aside by the community of faith to perform the role of preaching the word and properly administering the sacraments, the clergy are expected to see that the ministry of preaching and administering the sacraments is carried out responsibly by the whole church. In so many ways, the role of modern ministers is similar to that of Eli and his sons, and those who cynically abuse their office through greed, laziness, contempt, or lust are no better than the sons of Eli. We cannot expect clergy to be perfect, but we can expect them to perform their duties faithfully and to be trustworthy. The same applies to all public officials.

            To make matters worse, the sons of Eli extorted the extra meat from those who were unwilling to go along with their corrupt ways. They threatened to harm those who resisted. I know it is difficult to picture priests threatening people this way, but there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the priests of Israel were pasty-faced momma’s boys. It is quite likely that Eli’s sons were strong young men who could physically intimidate others. They were even more threatening because they used their religious authority. Who wants to anger the servants of the LORD? It is a great sin to strike one of God’s chosen. Who could stand up to corrupt priests and call them to account when they were the supreme spiritual and moral authority.

            This is actually a reoccurring theme in the history of Christianity. Once the church became a powerful force in the world and gained control of great wealth, it was not uncommon for priests and bishops to abuse their offices. The Catholic Church was probably most at its most corrupt around the time of John Hus, when the pope himself used the threat of eternal damnation as a way to extort money from people. In his call for reform, Hus frequently used this story in I Samuel to compare the priests of his day with the sons of Eli. Hus’ followers tried to abolish corruption, but it remains an on-going struggle. You’ve heard televangelists tell people to donate money in order to avoid calamity or receive a blessing. Like the sons of Eli, there are people today who use religion to enrich themselves and misappropriate gifts given to God for their own gain. According to I Samuel, these people are scoundrels and worthless.

Samuel the Boy Priest           The second chapter of Samuel begins with this story of corrupt priests to highlight the importance and goodness of Samuel. Because of their contempt and greed, the sons of Eli were worthless in the eyes of God, but the boy Samuel “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” Young Samuel wore a linen robe, just like the priests, but his heart was pure. He did not participate in their corruption. We are told that Hannah and Elkanah were rewarded by God for their sacrifice of Samuel. The woman who had been barren and sunk in melancholy had three more sons and two daughters – just shy of the seven children mentioned in Hannah’s Song. We never learn their names or hear their stories, though. The great tales are about children who leave home and follow the calling of God out in the world. It is the boy they lent to God whose name is remembered.

            We learn in this chapter that Samuel’s mother and father stayed in contact with him. They continued to come each year to the shrine at Shiloh and celebrated the feast there. These annual events must have been like regular family-reunions for Samuel. His mother always brought him a new robe she had made because he would have outgrown the old one. We can picture her working all year turning flax into thread and weaving it into a robe, and then proudly putting it on her son at the start of the festival. The text says that Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD, which most likely means that he lived in the Temple itself. This concept of growing up in the presence of the LORD became very important for the old Moravians who believed that children should be raised knowing that they always belong to Christ. Ideally they would never need a dramatic change in life because they would grow up always in the presence of the LORD, like Samuel.

            After we went off the air last week, we talked a little about the fact that Eli’s wife probably helped raise Samuel even though she is not mentioned in the story. The story does not tell us what Samuel did at Shiloh, but it appears that he acted as Eli’s servant in the Temple. He would have done the cleaning and so forth. The old Moravians adopted this practice as well. They had boys called acolytes who were responsible for helping the minister at home and in setting up the sanctuary for worship.

            Samuel was not really a “boy priest.” He was a boy who dressed in a robe similar to a priest’s and assisted the priest at the shrine. There is one very odd and intriguing thing about Samuel serving at the Temple, which biblical commentators rarely discuss. Samuel was not of the tribe of Levi, which was the priestly tribe. Nor was he a descendent of Aaron, the first high priest. According to some statements in the Bible, Samuel should not have been allowed to do what he was doing, and yet he would become one of the most famous priests of Israel. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I do think it is significant that the text does not even deal with this issue.

Eli and Sons                As Eli grew old, his sons presided more at the shrine, and their corruption grew worse. They began having sex with the women who served at the Temple. It is not clear just who these women were, but they appear to have been consecrated to the service of the Lord, and it would have been sacrilege to sleep with them. They may have even been consecrated virgins or they may have served for a period of time at the shrine as an act of devotion. We do not know if they consented to sex, but there is no indication that they had seduced the priests, the way some medieval preachers claimed. Based on the earlier description of the sons of Eli, it sounds like the priests forced themselves on the women. This is a type of corruption that we can appreciate better than taking the best cuts of beef at the feast. This is the type of behavior that can get a modern preacher or president in trouble. This became a scandal in the land and was something Eli could no longer ignore.

            So, Eli confronts his sons as both a father and a priest of the LORD. The scandal affects him, too, because in a patriarchal society the father is responsible for the actions of his children even if they were adults. Eli tells his sons that their sin would be bad enough if they were like other men, but they had been set apart for the service of the LORD. Their job was to intervene with God on behalf of sinners. How could they be mediators with God when they were corrupt and sinful? How could they pray for others when they were guilty? Who was there to ask forgiveness of them? John Hus and the old Moravians used these arguments of Eli in their struggle to clean up corruption in the medieval Catholic Church. How could sinful priests serve Holy Communion to others?

            But as is too often the case, Eli’s complaints had no effect. He had abdicated his responsibility for too many years and ignored the corruption around him. One of the problems with corruption is that it undermines your will and even your desire to live differently. Those who have become cynical doubt the sincerity of others. Those who have contempt for the sacrifices of others are unlikely to moved by the tears of their father or the warnings of a prophet. Each act of extortion, every threatened violence, each violation of another person chips away at our own heart and soul until there is nothing left but the greed and hunger of an animal. Eli’s sons had become worthless because they had traded their souls for a bowl of stew and a few moments of pleasure. The text says that it was the LORD’s will to kill them, which is a harsh statement, but Eli’s sons were already too dead in their hearts and souls to live as men. They could no longer seek the love of God and so all they could experience was wrath.

Grew in Stature and Favor                It is at this grim point in the story that the storyteller inserted one of the most interesting sentences in Scripture. In contrast to the sons of Eli who were slipping deeper into the pit of despair and hopelessness, the boy Samuel continued “to grow in stature and favor with God and men.” If you’ve ever had any doubt as to whether the early Christians read the Old Testament, read opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Last week we mentioned that Hannah’s song was the model of Mary’s Song in Luke’s Gospel. This week we find that Luke described the boy Jesus who stayed behind in the Temple using words taken straight from I Samuel 2. Jesus, like Samuel, grew in stature and in favor with God and people.

            It is a beautiful and meaningful phrase that lets us know that Samuel and Jesus were both once boys who had to grow into men. It is a phrase that reminds us all that childhood is an important part of our physical, moral, and intellectual development. And this phrase reminds us that Samuel and Jesus found favor with other people, not just with God. They were not social misfits, malcontents, or miscreants rejecting the norms of society. They were grace-filled young men who would save the people in their own way. Here in I Samuel, this phrase is used especially to highlight the contrast between the sons of Eli who were rejected by God and the people, and Samuel who continued to grow in grace and favor.

Conclusion                  The second chapter of first Samuel ends with a grim prophecy. An unnamed “man of God” pronounces to Eli that God’s judgment is upon him and his family. The sins of his sons are such an abomination to the LORD that they will not be allowed to succeed their father as priests in Shiloh. A new line of priests will be established, but surprisingly they will not be the children of Samuel. This prophecy may have been used at one time as a bit of propaganda to support the priests in Jerusalem, but its main purpose at the beginning of this epic tale is to remind us that even priests and kings are subject to God’s justice.        

John 7:37-52 Streams of Water

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on March 11, 2007.

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. This is the time of year that many of us wait for with eager anticipation, longing, and fear. The ACC championship will be played this afternoon and then the pairings for the Big Dance will be announced. Speaking as an ordained minister, I urge you all to reign in your enthusiasm and not harm those you love who happened to have made the wrong decision when choosing their college.  People around here do take college basketball seriously. I may have told you the story of the Carolina couple who had gone to every home game since before the time of Dean Smith. A few years ago, a younger couple bought tickets for the seats behind them. Over the years they became friends, but at the Duke game this year, the elderly woman was there alone. The younger couple asked about her husband and she shared the sad news that he had passed away. “Couldn’t one of the children have come to the game with you,” they asked. “Oh, no,” she said. “They’re all at the funeral.”

Recap John 7:                        Turning away from the world of sports and fun, let’s look at John chapter 7, which deals with the serious themes of the identity of Jesus and the opposition of the religious establishment to him. I think Gail O’Day’s comments about the focus of John’s gospel on the identity are helpful here: “The Fourth Evangelist’s singular focus on this question may strike contemporary interpreters as odd or even offensive, because contemporary Christians are preoccupied with a broader array of questions about the life of faith. The Fourth Evangelist, however, wrote out of the conviction that if one could not decide about that question, there were no grounds for engaging other questions.” (O’Day, 626)  In other words, John knew there was more to the Gospel than belief in Jesus as the Son of God, but that was the basis of the rest of the Gospel.

Kairos:            We had a really good discussion last week after we went off the air about the difference between kairos time and chronos time. In chapter 7 when Jesus says that his time has not yet come, the word is kairos. Chronos is the type of time that you see on your watch or a calendar. It is the normal, measurable passage of time that we can adjust for daylight savings. Kairos is time that is pregnant with meaning and significance. Kairos is that moment when you look at a person that you have known for years as a friend and suddenly realize that you are in love. Kairos time cannot be measured. It may be only a minute on a clock, but it may in fact be a lifetime. Mother Teresa had an experience of kairos time that led her to dedicate her life to the suffering in India. One moment was sufficient for a lifetime of devoted ministry. We will be returning to this idea of kairos as we approach Easter, but it is good to note that it the concept appears here in chapter 7.

Tabernacles:              Last week we discussed the significance of the fact that this story is set in the context of the feast of tabernacles. Remember, John assumes that his writers know all about the Jewish festivals and scriptures, so he does not explain them. Tabernacles or Succoth is an autumn festival that recalls the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness. In America, the wilderness conjures up images of raging rivers, towering trees, and thick brush, but in the Middle East, the wilderness is dry. You probably remember from Sunday School the story of how the Israelites were dying of thirst after fleeing Egypt, and Moses struck a rock with his staff and out poured a stream of water. This was a popular story of God’s providence and is often mentioned in the Psalms and the writings of the prophets. Many of these passages were read during the Feast of Tabernacles (Brown, 322) , and it is likely that when Jesus cried out in today’s lesson, it was part of a sermon that he was giving on Psalm 78. When he came to the part about Moses bringing forth the water of life in the midst of the wilderness, he cried out.

            One of the interesting things about the ancient festival of Tabernacles is that it was an occasion to pray for rain. Tradition held that rain during the week of the festival portended abundant water for the year. In America, rain is considered bad luck because it interferes with our recreational activities, such as raining on one’s parade. But in dry lands, rains are a precious gift of God. Rain equals life in a dry land. Thus, water was an important part of the Tabernacles festival. Each day, a priest filled a golden pitcher with water from the fountain of Gihon near the temple mount while the Levites sang “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3; Brown, 327).  

            By the time of Jesus, the festival was also associated with the day of God’s victory: the day of the Lord, as described in Zechariah 9-14. According to the prophet, the Messiah will come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey (9:9), and he opens a fountain that flows from the temple to all Judea, cleansing and healing the nation. These prophecies helped shaped messianic expectations and were read each year at the festival. Thus, the feast of Tabernacles was associated with the prophet-savior Moses and the Messiah. John assumes that we know this, or at least most of this. All he says is that on the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out. This would have been the seventh day, the day of completion. Jesus has been sitting in the Temple court preaching, and then as the festivities reach their triumphant climax, when messianic hopes are at their highest, he stands up and cries out. I’ll pick up the reading at verse 37.

Read 7:37-52 

Jesus’ Proclamation:             Jesus’ teaching here is very similar to that given to the Samaritan Woman about the living water, but the context is quite different. There he was speaking quietly to a single lost soul drawing water at the well in the middle of the day. Here he is proclaiming a bold messianic idea at the climax of one of the most important pilgrimage festivals of Judaism. John’s Gospel has been building up to this point. The miracles and the teachings have been growing more provocative, and the resistance to Jesus by the authorities has also been growing. He will not work a sign to entertain the crowds or to prove he is the Messiah; instead he cries out “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink.” The remainder of the Gospel will be about the choice of whether to come to Jesus or to kill him.

Questions:      It probably will not surprise you by now that there are some long-standing scholarly debates about this passage. The original Greek text did not have punctuation marks, and that has led to some radically different translations. Some ancient theologians read this verse as saying that the river of living water will flow from those who believe in Jesus. That is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. Others argue that the living waters flow out of Jesus for the benefit of those who believe. There are interesting theological implications of these different ways of reading the original Greek text, but it is probably best not to get too carried with an interpretation based upon a punctuation mark or two. In the context of John’s Gospel, it seems most likely that the living water is flowing out of Jesus, not out of the believer. However, John often uses ambiguous phrases in order to say two things at once. So, it is best not to be too dogmatic in our conclusions. I think it is more important to note that this is not just a spring; it is a river that flows. Again, we see theme of abundance in John’s Gospel.

Living Water:                        The water flows from Jesus, just as the water flowed from the Rock that Moses split (Ps. 76:16), but we aren’t told what the water is. Based on a scribal explanation inserted in the original text (v. 39), the water is the Spirit of God. In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Wisdom and Truth. In other words, this cry on the last day of the festival was like the cry of Wisdom in Proverbs 8: the Logos calls out to those who wish to learn the truth. In one way, there is nothing really shocking in Jesus’ statement here. He appears to be a rabbi who calls out to the crowds at the end of the festival to come to him and he will instruct them in the meaning of the Torah and wisdom. So why were the authorities upset?

Scripture Reference:             Before answering that question, we need to look at another major problem in interpreting this passage. It says that Jesus is quoting Scripture, but the verse quoted does not appear anywhere in the Hebrew or Greek versions of the Old Testament. John 7:38 is one of those verses that should keep fundamentalist preachers awake at night. The Bible is inerrant, they say; therefore there cannot be an error in John’s Gospel, but this quotation does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. So either John’s Gospel or the Old Testament is in error here. It is enough to make you run around in circles, isn’t it? The conservative Ryrie Study Bible says that the verse was “probably Is. 55:1,” but ignores the fact that it is not an exact quotation. There are several verses in the Old Testament that say similar things, such as Psalm 78:20 “When he struck the rock, water gushed out and streams flowed abundantly,” and Isaiah 58:11 “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” This is just further evidence that the Bible itself is the best argument against fundamentalism.

            There are two things to keep in mind when dealing with this curious statement about this statement about flowing water. First is that before the printing press, people quoted by memory, and such quotations tend to be shaped accordingly. Jesus would have been quoting from memory, and perhaps improving the quotation. Many of the famous quotations we use today have been changed to make them more pithy and useful. “Nice guys finish last” was originally “The Nice Guys are over there in seventh place.” It is possible that a similar process happened with this quotation from the Scripture. A second possibility is that this saying was indeed written, but it was written in the Aramaic version of the Scripture used in the synagogues in Galilee. This is a healthy reminder that Jesus used the interpretative translations of his day. A third option is that John was reminding us of his frequent admonition to focus on the spirit of the Scripture and not the literal words.

The Messiah?             So, why were the authorities upset? It wasn’t because Jesus misquoted Isaiah, it was because of his crying out in a festival that has messianic overtones. With the controversy already swirling around Jesus of Nazareth, this cry disturbed the people in the Temple. Some proclaimed that Jesus was the Prophet, who like Moses would lead the people out of oppression. Others shouted that he was the Messiah, the descendent of David who would vanquish the Gentiles and restore the Promised Land to the Chosen People. Jesus himself was almost forgotten as the people debated arcane messianic prophecies.

            In last week’s lesson, people said Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah because no one would know from whence the Messiah would come. Since they knew Jesus was from Nazareth, he couldn’t be the Messiah. Jesus told them that they didn’t know where he was really from. In this week’s lesson, some people raise the opposite objection. Everyone knows the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, the village where David lived. Incidentally, this is why Matthew and Luke say Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem even though he grew up in Nazareth. John does not seem familiar with the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

            Many scholars see these contradictory statements from the crowd as evidence that several different people wrote John’s gospel, but it is likely that John wanted readers to understand that no one really knew what to expect of the Messiah. The confusion and division among the pilgrims at the feast reflected the historical reality that there was confusion and division among the Jews as a whole. No one knew for sure what the Messiah would be like or even where to look for him, so it was not surprising that so many people did not recognize him in the form of a wandering peasant rabbi from Galilee. In John’s Gospel, it is Jesus himself who defines the mission of the Messiah, not the ancient prophecies.

The Failed Arrest:     Last week’s lesson ended with the Sanhedrin sending the Temple Guards to arrest and silence the wandering prophet. In our lesson for this week, they returned empty-handed to their masters. The reason they did not arrest Jesus was not because he was so well armed, or protected by a militia, or because he hid from them. They reported to the priests that they had never heard anyone speak like this before. This is one of those moments that seem so amazing, we doubt the veracity of it. We shouldn’t. We have seen such moments in our recent history. Think of the Eastern German police in Leipzig in 1989 who were sent to arrest protestors carrying candles. Some of them put down their guns and took up candles to join in the protest against a repressive regime. Think of the Russian troops sent to arrest Parliament in the 1990s who refused to obey their masters. The Temple Guards listened to Jesus’ words and began to believe in him. This is the power of truth; the power of words; the power of the Word made flesh. This was the living water that flowed from the Son of Man.

The Accursed Mob:              The priests and the Pharisees were very upset that the Temple Police failed to arrest this self-proclaimed prophet. They were the experts in biblical interpretation and the Law, and they rejected Jesus’ claim to be the source of living water. It was only the ignorant mob that believed in Jesus. Jesus Christ Superstar captures the Pharisee’s response in John quite well: “Tell this mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong. They are accursed. They should disperse.” They were accursed not because they believed in Jesus, but because they were too poor and ignorant to know the Law and follow it. The Pharisees called them the “people of the land.” Today we use words like redneck, hillbilly, homeboy, trailer trash, white trash, poor boy, wet backs, and worse terms to refer to those who have been left out of the centers of power. It is always considered politically correct to insult these people and dismiss them the way the Pharisees did. But these are the people who were thirsty enough to have faith in Jesus. These are the meek who inherit the earth and the humble who are exalted.

Nicodemus:                One member of the Sanhedrin stands up for Jesus against the power brokers. One person reminds the interpreters of the Law that the Law requires them to investigate and let Jesus speak for himself. If you have ever been in the situation of standing up for what is right in a group of your friends, peers, and colleagues, you know how hard this is. Who was the man who stood up for the rule of law when those in power just wanted to crush dissent? Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus late one night with questions. This is the evidence that Nicodemus had been born from above: he refused to cooperate tacitly with injustice. If you have been born from above or born again or simply love the Lord: Speak up for truth and justice. 

John 7: Conflict

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on March 4, 2007.

Introduction:             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in scenic Old Salem. Now that spring is in the air, you should plan a visit to Old Salem. I had the pleasure this week of spending time with Kevin Belmonte who wrote the biography of William Wilberforce that was the inspiration for the film Amazing Grace. Wilberforce was the person most responsible for ending the slave trade in the British Empire. He was motivated to intercede on behalf of the slaves because he took his Christian faith very seriously and had the courage to agitate for more than twenty years for this cause. Something as simple as the Golden Rule can change the world. Every justification for injustice and oppression crumbles under the weight of the question: “Is this what you would want others to do you?” The ability to see the world through the eyes of victims is one of the most important things that Christian spirituality teaches. During this Lenten season, we should focus less on giving up sweets and more on giving up those things that contribute to the suffering of others.

The Tomb of Jesus:  This might be the appropriate place to say a few words about the discovery of a tomb containing the bones of a man named Jesus that is the subject of a new Hollywood film. You’ve probably heard about this on the news. Several ossuaries, or bone boxes, inscribed with the names of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, James, Judas, and another woman named Miryam were found nearly 30 years ago in Jerusalem. The film claims that these must be the remains of Jesus of Nazareth, his parents, his brothers, and his wife and son. The reason this was not news when it was discovered nearly 30 years ago is that most archaeologists disagree.

     According to the statistician hired by the movie maker, there is a 1 in 600 chance that these names would appear together in a Palestinian tomb dating from the first century. That is really a high probability. Since archaeologists have found over 900 such tombs from the time of Jesus, it is not at all surprising that one of them would have ossuaries with this set of names. It would be like finding a family tomb from the 1950s in which the father and mother were John and Mary and the children were Susan and William and Robert. We also have to keep in mind that Jesus’ father Joseph was from Nazareth, not Jerusalem, and his tomb would have been there. Jesus was buried in Jerusalem only because he was crucified there. So, don’t get too worked up over a slick Hollywood movie trying to disprove the resurrection. Just take it as further proof that Jesus remains a controversial figure 2000 years after his death.

Controversy in John’s Gospel:         This leads us into our Scripture lesson for this week, which focuses on the controversy surrounding Jesus during his ministry. It is only in John’s Gospel that the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem attempt to arrest Jesus before Holy Week. In the other three gospels, Jesus spends only one week in Jerusalem. He enters on Palm Sunday with crowds cheering and he leaves on Friday under the weight of a cross. This is the chronology we are familiar with and which is part of our liturgical calendar, but in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes several trips to Jerusalem over the course of about 3 years.

     During one of those visits, the temple police were sent to arrest him, but failed to do so. Biblical scholars disagree over which is more historical, John’s version of multiple trips to Jerusalem with growing fear and hostility on the part of the authorities, or the Synoptic Gospel’s more dramatic version of a single triumphal entry followed quickly by his arrest and execution. (Brown, 309). I think John may be more reliable here, but the differences in the gospels may simply reflect a difference in perspective. The author of the Gospel of John may have focused more on Jerusalem because he was from Jerusalem. I will not be reading all of chapter 7 today. I’ll let you read most of it on your own. We’ll begin at the start of the chapter.

 Read 7:1-13 

Tabernacles:              The setting for this chapter is the Feast of Tabernacles, which is called Sukkot in Hebrew. This is an autumn festival in Judaism, and originally it was a time to celebrate the harvest and prepare for the winter, much like our Harvest Home festivals. Over the centuries it became a time to remember God’s protection of Israel during the wandering in the wilderness (O’Shay, 542). In the days of Jesus, Tabernacles was one of the three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews from the Diaspora would journey to the Holy City. One of the reasons for this change in focus was because many Jews had moved to cities throughout the Roman and Persian empires. Those Jews of the Diaspora were no longer connected to the rhythms of the agricultural season, and their rituals changed to reflect this. The same thing happened in America. Our Thanksgiving celebration has lost its connection to the harvest and has become a family dinner.

     It remains customary for Jews to build temporary shelters, called Tabernacles or Booths, during the Sukkot festival as a reminder of the time when Israel dwelled in tents in the wilderness. For eight days, family meals and prayers are held in the tabernacles. It is important that these shelters are temporary. They are taken down and destroyed at the end of the festival. This is a reminder of the temporary nature of all things in world. We should not grow so attached to our material possessions that we cannot leave them behind. In many ways, Sukkot is a way to train people to be ready to go into exile at any time, trusting that God will provide. Moravians, who have a long history of exile, can resonate with this idea.

     Scholars have raised serious questions about the organization of chapters 4-7, but I think it makes sense that the narrative progresses from the Feast of Passover to the Feast of Tabernacles, which recalls the years in the wilderness following the Exodus. There is a close connection between the Gospel of John and the Jewish liturgical calendar. The liturgical year provides the chronology for the teachings in the Gospel, and the author assumed that the listener would know the stories from the books of Moses that provide the backdrop for the festival and the actions and teachings of Jesus. The evangelist utilized the oral traditions about Jesus very subtly as he wove them into this liturgical tapestry.

Temptation:   For instance, in the other three gospels Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan immediately after his baptism. This story is so familiar that most of us did not even notice that it does not appear in John’s Gospel at all. Jesus does not engage in a debate with Satan in this Gospel. Instead, John provides a story about the Feast of Tabernacles, the festival that focuses on Israel’s testing in the wilderness. The Synoptic Gospels place Jesus in the desert for 40 days and nights, recalling the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness. John’s Gospel gives the more plausible story that Jesus went to Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles and engaged in a spiritual contest with flesh and blood people.

     It seems plausible that chapters 6 and 7 are John’s version of the temptations Jesus faced. We saw a couple of weeks ago that the people asked Jesus to use his power to make bread. In the other gospels, the devil tempts Jesus to make bread out of stones. Previously we saw that the people intended to make Jesus a king, but in the other gospels it was Satan who tempted Jesus with that offer. And in our lesson for today, Jesus’ own brothers insist that he go to the Holy City and display his divine status by doing miracles during the festival. That certainly seems to parallel Satan telling Jesus to throw himself from the Temple to prove who he was. It is easy to picture Jesus’ brothers insisting that he proclaim his divinity to the crowds with a dramatic act of sacred power, but Jesus refuses to do their will. He will only do the will of the Father in heaven. In short, it is possible that the famous three temptations in the wilderness are found here in chapters 6 and 7. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus faces the hostility of unclean spirits and Satan himself, but in John’s gospel his opponents were humans.

Faith:              Our lesson for today is a reminder that many people saw Jesus, heard Jesus, and even touched Jesus without becoming followers of him. In John’s gospel, faith is a matter of seeing with spiritual eyes. No miracle could prove the divinity of Jesus, not even the resurrection, because we can always doubt the evidence of our senses and the reports of others. No miracle can convince us to dedicate our lives to Jesus and dwell in the love of God. The historical fact remains that many people who saw Jesus did not follow him, and most who have believed in him through the centuries never saw a miracle.

     There is bit of divine deception in chapter 7 that has bothered many commentators. In verse 8, Jesus tells his brothers that he is not going to Jerusalem, but once they had left Galilee, he “too went up” to Jerusalem secretly. We should not make too much of this change of plans and use it as a justification for the types of lies that are all too common in business, law, and government today. The focus on this passage is not on Jesus’ white lie; it is on the fact that Jesus chose to make his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in quiet. As if to emphasize the point that faith comes quietly and that God works in his own time to perform his wonders, Jesus went to the festival alone and in secret. He was wise to do so because the crowds were looking for him, hoping that he would perform a miracle for their entertainment. The people were debating whether he was a good man or a deceiver. By the way, the question the people asked is the same one that we face today. Do we believe that Jesus is good or that he was a deceiver? We have no miracles to guide us; only the Scripture, our own hearts, and the mystery of faith.

Controversy over Healing:   One of the reasons that many scholars think that this part of John’s Gospel has been rearranged is that verses 19-24 refer to Jesus healing on the Sabbath even though the healing story was in chapter 5. That shouldn’t bother us much. It is certainly possible that Jesus did another healing during this festival and the same controversy arose. We know that John carefully chose the seven signs that he narrated and did not repeat miracle stories. It is also possible that people raised the issue again once Jesus began to teach publicly in the Temple. We know that people like to stir up controversies from the past. Just think of how much the Vietnam War continues to play a role in political campaigns in America. It is also possible that John took this argument from the earlier story and placed in chapter 7 to highlight the theme of controversy over Jesus. 

     The controversy was two fold. One was the fact that Jesus asserted that it was right to heal on the Sabbath regardless of what the religious rules were. The other was the fact that Jesus was not educated as a rabbi but still presumed to teach. Many commentators through the centuries have misunderstood verse 15: “How does this man have such learning when he has never been taught” as an indication that Jesus was illiterate. There have been many sermons on the topic of Jesus quoting the Old Testament without being able to read and write. This idea has been a source of encouragement for great preachers like Sojourner Truth, and it has been used by many lesser preachers as an excuse not to go to school and study. We should distinguish between being uneducated and being willfully ignorant.

     The truth is that this verse is not about Jesus’ education. It is quite likely that he could read the Scriptures, perhaps in Aramaic translation, and that he pondered them deeply for years before he began preaching. We know that he read from the scrolls in the Synagogue and was sought out by those wanting to know the meaning of the Torah. His opponents were not questioning his basic education; they were pointing out that he did not have a proper academic pedigree. Even to this day, rabbis can identify their place in the line of succession of teachers of the law. Jesus’ opponents were asking who the rabbi was who trained this wandering preacher in ragged clothes who dared to teach in the Temple during one of the great festivals of the year. On what authority was Jesus teaching? And the only answer that Jesus would give is that his authority came from God. He was preaching, teaching, and healing for the glory of God, not to draw attention to himself. In other words, Jesus himself was a sign of the kingdom of God.

Read: 7:25-36           

Is this the Christ?      When Jesus engaged in public dispute with the Jewish authorities, their hostility increased. When the seekers of truth challenge oppressive authority, debate moves quickly toward violence. The same thing happened to John Hus, of course. If Hus had simply accepted the authority of the archbishop and humbly submitted to the Council of Constance, his life would have been spared. Those who cannot silence an opponent through reason often decide to kill the one opposing them. Keep in mind that at this point in John’s Gospel, the only illegal thing that Jesus has done is to heal someone on the Sabbath. But Jesus posed a threat to governing council, the Sanhedrin, because their right to rule Judea was based on their knowledge of the law. The fact that Jesus had the courage to publicly defend himself during one of the great pilgrimage festivals was crime enough for the authorities.

     The crowds perceived the growing hostility of those with power toward this Galilean healer and preacher. They also recognized Jesus’ courage and defiance. They began to ask if this wandering preacher from Nazareth was really the Messiah. Worse, they began to ask if the authorities knew he was the Messiah and that was why they wanted to silence him. The crowd understood that those who are at the top of the economic and political ladder do not want the kingdom of God to come. Those in power tend to resist those who call for justice.

     Quickly the dispute moved from healing on the Sabbath to an arcane theological debate. There was a popular belief in Judaism that the Messiah is on earth but is hiding until the proper hour. It is a bit like the Arthur legend. The Messiah will appear suddenly –without a pedigree or hometown. So, during the debate over the true identity of Jesus, some pointed out that everyone knew where Jesus was from. He was Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus the Christ. He cannot be the chosen one, they said – we know who his mother is and who his brothers are. But Jesus told the people that they only thought they knew where he was from. Sure, he was from Nazareth, but really he was sent by God. The sign of his identity was that he was doing the work of God. He was a Sojourner for Truth; a prophet of justice; a healer who would overturn the tables of spiritual oppression.


Silencing the Messiah:           That was not the answer the priests wanted to hear, so they sent the Temple police to arrest this rabble rouser and put an end to this disturbance. That is what we would do in their place. We would call out the guards to say: Take your criticisms outside and leave the people to their prayers. Take your protest signs down the road where they won’t bother anyone. Take your kingdom of God and lock it up for Sunday morning prayers. Take your Messiah and put him in stained glass on the windows of your church, but don’t let him heal this world. Don’t let him bring attention to the fact that people are dying in America and Africa who could be saved. Don’t let him challenge our complacency and complicity. Arrest him.


Conclusion:    Our lesson for today ends with Jesus’ cryptic remarks that people will search for him but will not find him. On one level this simply means that there is no ossuary with his bones in it, but there is more to this statement than that. The apostles would indeed take the message of Jesus to the Jews of the Diaspora and to the Greeks. Because of apostles and evangelists, a billion people alive today claim to believe in Jesus as the Christ, but do we really know him and believe him? Perhaps you and I are among those who search and do not find him. Next week we will continue with the drama of chapter 7.          

I Samuel, Lesson 2

I Samuel 1:21-2:11 – The Song of Hannah

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 10, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church broadcast live from the chapel of Home Church in Old Salem. We are now in the season of Lent, which is a time of self-examination and fasting in preparation for Easter. On Wednesday, millions of Christians gathered in worship and had ashes placed on their foreheads as a sign of penitence. The ashes are typically made from the palm fronds used the previous year on Palm Sunday, and they represent our mortality and our sin. Wearing ashes, though, is far less important than genuine repentance and change of life. Too often, Lent becomes a meaningless ritual of giving up a favorite food rather than a being period of self-examination and purification. If giving up chocolate or coffee during Lent helps free you from the shackles of selfishness, then give them up. But if such a token sacrifice makes you act like the Creature from the Black Lagoon rather than like Christ, then try a different Lenten discipline. Instead, try giving up yelling at your children or talking about yourself all the time. During this Lenten season as we journey with Jesus to Calvary, perhaps we could all take a vow to offer ourselves in sacrificial love to those who need love the most.

Shiloh              Last week we ended with the birth and naming of Samuel, and we had a very good discussion after we went off the air. We talked about the significance of the shrine of Shiloh where Elkanah and his family worshiped. Shiloh was in the land of Ephraim near a tributary of the Jordan River, a long way from their home in Ramah, which was in the territory of Benjamin. Much of the action in I Samuel takes place in Benjamin and Ephraim, two of the tribes associated with the matriarch Rachel. We saw last week that Hannah’s story is similar to Rachel’s in Genesis, and this would have had a special relevance for the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim.

Shiloh was once an important city for the Israelites. Joshua made it his place of residence during the conquest of Palestine, and the Book of Joshua says that it was the site of an assembly of the tribes when the conquered land was divided. During the period of the Judges, there appears to have been an annual gathering of tribal leaders at Shiloh, and the city figures in a number of tales in the Book of Judges. The original town of Shiloh was uncovered by Danish archaeologists in the 1920s. They discovered evidence that Israelites had lived in Shiloh in the 12th century BCE, during the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, which fits well with the chronology in I Samuel. There is evidence that the city was destroyed by the Philistines around 1050 BCE, but it recovered. It flourished for centuries but was completely destroyed about 600 BCE and was not rebuilt until Roman days. At the time of the writing of I Samuel, then, Shiloh was a ruin.

Unfortunately the archaeologists did not find the shrine at Shiloh, but it does appear that before the Israelites arrived there had been a Canaanite fertility cult at Shiloh. This could explain why the references to Shiloh in the Book of Judges focus on sex. For instance, the tribe of Benjamin seized wives from among the dancers at a yearly festival at Shiloh (Judges 21:19), and in another story hundreds of virgins were taken to Shiloh. The connection of Shiloh with fertility might explain why Elkanah and Hannah went there year after year, but the author of I Samuel makes it clear that it was not ancient fertility rites that made it possible for Hannah to conceive; it was the power of God.

The Ark          Shiloh remained one of the major shrines of Israel until the Temple was built in Jerusalem. According to I Samuel, the ark of the covenant was housed at Shiloh. Basically the ark was shaped like a portable throne on which the LORD God could sit as ruler and judge the people. Last week I mentioned that God was worshiped in Shiloh as the LORD of Hosts, and there are references to the ark being used in battle by the Israelites during the days of Moses. Thus, there was a connection between Shiloh and warfare, which may date from the days of Joshua. Someone suggested after class last week that this may explain why so many churches were named Shiloh in the South after the Civil War.

More important for understanding I Samuel is the fact that the ark was a physical connection to covenant of Moses made at Sinai. The pieces of the original Ten Commandments were placed in the ark so that the covenant could travel with the Israelites in their wanderings. Thus the ark remained a physical reminder of the Exodus when God raised up a prophet to rescue the people from oppression and established a law. When the first audience heard the story of Hannah going up to Shiloh to pray for a child, they probably recognized the connection between her story and that of the Exodus. Right from the beginning, we should expect that her child, like Moses, will be chosen by God as one to deliver his people from oppression. Like Moses, he will be a prophet and judge of Israel. With that in mind, I’ll continue reading I Samuel 1, beginning at verse 21.

Read   I Samuel 1:21-end.
Dedication of Samuel After Samuel was born, Elkanah made his yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh to sacrifice to the LORD, but Hannah did not go. She remained behind with her infant son, promising that she would take him to the shrine after he was weaned. It is interesting that the text mentions that Elkanah was going to the shrine to pay his vow not Hannah’s vow. According to biblical law (Numbers 30), the husband had to confirm a vow for his wife. Wives were not bound by vows that their husbands did not agree to. That would be particularly true for a vow that involved a man’s son. It is helpful to recognize that Elkanah participated in the sacrifice of his wife and agreed to it. It is curious that Elkanah tells Hannah that he hopes that the LORD will make good his word. Other ancient texts read “your word,” which may make more sense. Elkanah is telling Hannah that she needs to do what she promised.

Hannah does not fulfill her vow immediately. She prudently waits until Samuel is off the breast and can live without her. She tells her husband that she will bring Samuel before the presence of the LORD when he is ready. This is a concept that is a little hard for modern people to understand, but ancient peoples believed that the gods lived in their temples and shrines. This was true of every ancient Near Eastern religion that we know of. In most religions, the god was represented in his or her shrine by a statue, often in a holy of holies. The Israelites were different since they did not have statues of the LORD, but they also believed that their God was present primarily in his temples and shrines. The shrine at Shiloh would have been particularly filled with the presence of the LORD since the ark was there. So, Hannah was speaking literally when she said she would bring Samuel into the presence of the LORD at Shiloh.  

            The time to present him was when he was officially weaned and could live apart from his mother. It remains customary in the Middle East to throw a major party when a child is officially weaned. The celebration marks the transition from infancy to childhood, and it is a recognition of the fact that the child has lived past the most vulnerable years. Until modern times, most humans died in infancy. Thus, this feast marks the point when a child becomes a human being in his or her own right rather than being an extension of the mother. The celebration for the birth of Samuel was a major feast for the family, and it included the sacrifice of a three-year old bull.

Sacrifice          In many ways, it would have resembled Mardi Gras more than Lent since there was much eating of meat and drinking of wine, but Hannah gave up something more precious than anything we give up for Lent. She spoke formally to the priest, reminding him that she was the one who had prayed for a son years before, and that she was grateful to God. Then she let him know that she was fulfilling her vow by presenting her child to the LORD. Her words of dedication are important for people of faith today. She acknowledges that God had answered her prayer by giving her a child, but in response, she returns the child to God. As we discussed last week, Hannah recognized better than us that the gifts given by God are not meant for our selfish use. We are asked to give back what we are given, preferably in a way that benefits everyone. The most important part of the dedication is told very simply. “She left him there for the LORD.” If we did not know the rest of the story, we might think this was narrating a child sacrifice, and in a sense it was. Hannah was offering her first-born son to God, much as Abraham had done, but this sacrifice was life-giving.

Caution           There is a problem, though, with taking this story of Hannah and Samuel too far, though. After we went off the air last week we discussed the fact that many mothers and fathers have dedicated their children to God as priests or ministers even though the children themselves may not feel called to the ordained ministry. We need to remember that if we truly dedicate our children to God, then we need to let God decide how to use them rather than forcing our children to live out our dreams for them. Hannah dedicated Samuel to God, but God in turn will call Samuel to be a prophet. We cannot force others to fulfill our vows or our vocation.

            Incidentally, some pastors today use this story of Shiloh to justify the practice of dedicating infants in church instead of baptizing them. This is a recent innovation that has been very controversial in some denominations. It stems from the desire to have both believers’ baptism and a ritual of inclusion of infants in the community of faith. Whatever the merits of such a practice we have to recognize that it bears little resemblance to what Hannah and Elkanah did at Shiloh. Few pastors would want people dedicating their children by leaving them to the pastor to raise! What is missing from the story are the emotions involved as a mother leaves her child behind. The Bible does not tell us about the tears of the boy as his parents made the long journey across the hills. We can only speculate on how this affected him later in life.

Read I Samuel 2:1-11 

Hannah’s Song           Chapter 2 of I Samuel opens with a long hymn, which is generally called the Song of Hannah. It was not uncommon in ancient Israel to sing a psalm in the Temple when a vow was fulfilled or petitions were raised. The Book of Psalms is a collection of hymns that worshipers could use, but in most cases it was probably the priests or the Temple singers who lifted their voices in praise or supplication. This is not that different from our practices today where we rely on a hymn like Blessed Assurance to express what we are thinking and feeling.

It appears that Hannah’s song was such a psalm. Many scholars today are convinced that this song in I Samuel was inserted into the story of Samuel’s birth much later than the writing of the original story. One indication that this did not originate with Hannah is that it says that God will give strength to the king even though Hannah had never heard of a king in Israel. That line is looking ahead to the story that follows. It also does not seem like something a woman in her situation would have made up on the spot. Though it mentions a barren woman who has had seven children, it does not deal directly with Hannah’s vow or her dedicating her child to the LORD. Instead, the song talks about the victory of the singer, or rather God’s victory on behalf of the singer. We don’t normally use the language of victory in discussing childbirth, but Hannah may have felt that way.

Theology         Either this song was written by the editor to express what Hannah should have said, or he used a psalm that had already been written. This is a common practice in writing, and it should not shock us. In the Moravian Church, we often insert hymns in Scripture readings to illuminate the reading. It makes perfect sense that the author of I Samuel took an old psalm that refers to a barren woman having children and inserting it in the story at the moment when Hannah sang to the LORD. The psalm emphasizes that God is at work in history, and that he saves his people. In many ways, this song provides an interpretation for the entire history of the kingdoms that follows rather than simply a response to Samuel’s birth.

Throughout the Books of the Kingdoms there will be reversals of fortune as God enters into the complex affairs of government. The arrogant and proud suffer reversals of fortune in the books of Samuel, and a giant will fall before a shepherd. God will bring victory to David in his struggles against both the Philistines and Saul, but David will also be humbled by God when he sins. Hannah’s Song it is all about God’s ability to reverse situations. If you watched the Super Bowl last Sunday, you can imagine Eli Manning or Plaxico Burroughs singing a psalm that says that the mighty are brought down while the weak gain strength.

In Hannah’s song, the hungry are fed and those who were once full have to earn their bread. The barren have children, but those with many children are forlorn. Even a shepherd may become king, but a king may lose his throne. Someone sitting in ashes and despair may become a prince with many children. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Book of Job was inspired by this vision of a reversal of fortune brought about by God. This is a song of victory, but it is a reminder that all outcomes are ultimately in God’s hand. God is the author of life and death. It is God who opens the womb and God who takes away breath. There may be the barest indication of a view of the resurrection in this psalm in verse 6 when it says that God can raise the dead from the grave. The basic meaning of the psalm, though, is that nothing in human experience is beyond the power of the God of Israel, and we should be thankful to God for all good things.

            The final verses of the psalm keep this from being fatalistic. There is a sense of divine justice in the reversal of fortune. The faithful will be saved and the wicked will be cut off. That in a nutshell is the theology that informs the writing of the history of the monarchy. When Israel was faithful and called upon God, the nation was lifted up, but when the kings were false and cruel, the nation was handed over to enemies. It is the LORD God who judges. The last line of Hannah’s song looks to the future. Not only does the song say that God will give strength to the king, it says that he will exalt the power of God’s anointed.

Messiah          The Hebrew word for anointed is Messiah, and it was used for the kings of Israel because they were anointed with oil at their coronation. During the Babylonian Exile, the word Messiah referred to the one God would anoint to save the people from oppression. It is not entirely clear if Hannah’s Song refers to the king or to the hoped-for deliverer. Like many of the royal psalms and prophecies, this verse gained new meaning as the people in exile looked for a messiah to save them. Hannah’s Song has a particular resonance for Christians since it was the model for the more famous Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. The Magnificat, as it is commonly called, repeats many of the themes of Hannah’s Song, especially the idea of a reversal of fortune. For Luke, the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus, was the ultimate fulfillment of the aspirations expressed in Hannah’s Song. The one who would bring justice to the earth and exalt the poor was born to a poor woman in a stable in Bethlehem.

John 6: 15-50: Manna

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on February 18, 2007.

Introduction:     Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I heard from several younger people this week who have discovered this broadcast and are listening in. So here is a shout out to them!  If you want to see Comenius’ birthplace and learn more about John Hus and the founding of the Moravian Church, join us on a tour of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria this summer. Call Aladdin Travel for details.

     Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which begins our season of Lent. We have special services each Wednesday evening until Holy Week. The Moravian women’s fellowships in Winston-Salem also sponsor Days of Prayer, with special preachers, at noon on Wednesdays until Holy Week. Ash Wednesday is a day in the calendar when we focus on the fact that we are mortal and sinful. Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is the party that people held before entering into the season of penitence, prayer, and fasting. The Moravians in Reading make special doughnuts for the day and I know some Episcopalians that consume lots of pancakes that day. Whatever your plans for Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, I hope that your Lenten observance will include time for prayer, study of Scripture, personal reflection, and a renewed focus on living as Jesus has called us to live. Today we move into Lent with a discussion of the bread from heaven.

Walking on Water:   Since I ran out of time last week, let me begin with some observations about the second miracle in chapter 6: Jesus walking on the water. Last week we noted that this story and the feeding of the multitude seem to have been firmly linked long before the gospels themselves were written. It is somewhat surprising that John kept the link between these stories since the discourse that follows the miracles focused entirely on the feeding miracle with no mention of the walking on water.

    The differences between John’s account of this event and the way it is told in the other gospels are striking. The synoptic gospels add a lot of dramatic detail that magnifies the supernatural aspect of the story. There is a great storm at sea that Jesus walks through and then calms with a word. The disciples feared he was a ghost until he spoke to them. There is an eerie quality to the synoptic account that is missing in John. John’s version is very simple and easily overlooked. It simply says that the sea was rough and the disciples had some difficulty rowing. Though they were about half way across the lake, it is not clear how far from the left or right shore. In other words,it appears that Jesus did not walk halfway across the lake the way he did in the other gospels.

     The Greek here is actually ambiguous over whether they saw Jesus walking on the shore by the lake or walking on the lake itself.  Strangely, the story does not even say that Jesus got in the boat with them: just that the disciples wanted to bring him into the boat. He tells them not to be afraid, and in no time at all they have reached the shore. John’s version reads almost like a dream or a vision. Some scholars think that the simplicity and lack of special effects means that John’s account is closer to the original than the other gospels. The other gospels focus on the miracle, but John focuses on Jesus.

      This scene is similar to the revelations of God in his glory in the Old Testament. Jesus says to the disciples, Ego eimi, “I am. Do not be afraid.” This is often translated, “It is I,” but that may obscure the most important part of this passage. God speaks to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets as “I am” and tells them not to be afraid. Here the disciples were terrified, as all mortals are when they see God. Jesus claims the divine name and tells them not to be afraid. The connection between the feeding miracle and the walking on the water now becomes clear. Psalm 77, which was read at Passover, speaks of God walking through the water with unseen footprints. Jesus would not let humans make him a king to fight against men like Herod, but he does reveal himself to his followers as the Son of the God who saves. The whole story of Passover and the entire Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus.

Preaching:      The remainder of chapter 6 is a collection of sayings by and about Jesus put in the form of a dialog with the crowd and with the disciples. I’m not going to read verses 22-24 which deal with the crowd seeking Jesus out, but I want you to know that there are many more variations in the ancient manuscripts for these lines than most of the Gospel of John. Raymond Brown notes dryly that “the textual variants in these verses suggest a very complicated history” (Brown, 258). It appears that ancient scribes were just as confused as modern readers about the identity of the people to whom Jesus was talking. Was it the same people who had eaten the loaves and fish or a new crowd in Capernaum?

     There is a note at the end of chapter 6 that may shed light on the actual setting for some of the sayings in this passage. Verse 59 says that “he said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.” This agrees with statements in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus taught in the synagogues and that the original center of his activity in Galilee was Capernaum. One curious fact about the synoptic gospels is that they give almost no examples of what Jesus preached in the synagogues. We can presume that he taught the way other rabbis taught. He read the lessons assigned for that day out of the Law and the Prophets and gave an interpretation of the lesson. Since the Talmud records the cycle of readings for the liturgical year in Judaism, we have a pretty good idea of what might have been read in the synagogue around the time of Passover: Gen. 2 -3, Exodus 11-16, and Numbers 6-14 (Brown, 279). These scriptures provide the background for the teachings in John chapter 6 about the bread of heaven.

 Read 6:25-34

First Dialog on the Bread of Heaven:          The discourses in chapter 6 follow a pattern that we have already become familiar with in John’s gospel. Once again, the dialog begins with a question that Jesus does not answer. The people ask him when he arrived, which seems to be a straight forward question to which the answer would be “early this morning.” Instead Jesus tells them that they are looking for him for all the wrong reasons. They were looking for him because they wanted more free bread. They had missed the point of the miracle, which was a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They were not seeking Jesus; they were seeking bread, so why ask when he arrived?  Then Jesus urges them to work for food that does not spoil.

     This sounds like a sermon based on the story of the manna in the wilderness. The manna spoiled quickly and needed to be renewed each day. The Son of Man, the heavenly figure who would usher in the kingdom of God, was the one who could provide food that would endure. This was the kind of sermon the people had probably heard before during Passover. By the time of Jesus, bread was already being used by rabbis as a metaphor for the Torah or the Scriptures. The Law of God was the bread of life that endured.

The Work of God:    Even the crowd’s response to Jesus’ statement is like a rhetorical question that a preacher might ask. What must we do to perform the works of God? This is one of the basic questions of Judaism through the millennia. What does the Lord require of us, the prophets had asked? Over the centuries, the rabbis collected their answers to this question in the Talmud, but the Talmud was written long after the New Testament. In the first century, the question of what God requires was an open question that rabbis like Jesus debated. This basic question was asked of Jesus in the other three gospels by a rich young ruler who longed to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to do all of the works of the Law and then sell his possessions and give the poor.

     Jesus’ answer in John 6 appears quite different. “The work of God is to believe in the one God has sent.” The difference between John’s answer and that of the Synoptic gospels marks one of the sources of theological debate and church division in Christianity. John focuses on belief and the synoptic gospels works; just as Paul focuses on faith rather than works. The similarity between the Paul and John here may reflect their similar contexts. Both were Jews who were deeply involved in the synagogue until they began to believe in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God. Both were writing to people who had been forced to leave the synagogue because of their beliefs. And both believed that the death and resurrection of Jesus had transformed God’s relationship to the world so completely that Samaritans and Gentiles could be gathered into the household of God. For Paul and John, belief in Jesus had transformed their life and orientation toward the entire world.

     So it is not surprising that their writings would focus on belief. Despite what some Protestant theologians and preachers have said through the centuries, neither Paul nor John denies the importance of doing good works or basic ethics. Works themselves are transformed by faith in Jesus. Here in chapter 6 we read that belief or faith is a work of God. It is a work that God does in us and something that we do ourselves. We have already seen in John’s gospel that individuals must decide whether to believe in Jesus and follow him. For John, this is a type of work. Remember that belief for John is an intellectual agreement with a doctrine; it is being born from above. It is placing one’s entire life in Christ and living with Christ. To believe in the one whom God sent is to be born from above and to view the world from a different perspective. Keep in mind that this teaching was given at Passover. John understood that the Israelites had to believe in Moses whom God sent before they could follow him out of Egypt into freedom. The great deeds in history and the great deeds in our lives begin with belief.

Manna:       The crowd asks Jesus for a sign so that they might believe in him. This is one of the confusing aspects of this chapter indicate that it was probably stitched together from several accounts. Jesus had already given the requested sign; he gave the people bread in the wilderness. The crowd even quotes the book of Exodus about manna, but Jesus tells them that they have misunderstood. Like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, they focused on the physical rather than the spiritual. Like a good preacher, Jesus took the traditional Old Testament reading and reinterpreted it for the crowd. Modern researchers have shown that what Jesus is doing here was typical of Jewish preaching. He expands on the original text and applies it to the contemporary setting. It was not Moses who gave the manna; it was God the Father. This was not just an historical event. Jesus changes the tense of the verb so that the gift of the bread is on-going. God gives the bread of life.

I Am the Bread:        They appear to be sincere when they ask him to give them this bread of life, but they do not like it when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus repeats his promise given to the woman of Samaria: that those who come to him will never be hungry and never thirst. This is one of those statements that even modern fundamentalists do not take literally since those who believe in Jesus still may go hungry and die of thirst. We need to remember John’s warning not to focus on the literal meaning like the crowd. This hunger and thirst does not refer to the needs of this earthly body; it is referring to a deeper craving, to the inner needs that drive us. Those who come to Jesus are freed from anxiety and the gnawing sense of incompleteness that keeps most of us miserable in the midst of prosperity. Since Genesus 2 and 3 were part of the lectionary for Passover season, it is quite likely that Jesus was intentionally comparing the bread of life that God gives through him to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The bread of life overcomes the punishment for sin. This salvation goes beyond the Exodus from slavery in Egypt; it overcomes the slavery of sin and death.

From Heaven:            We do not know for sure which of these words in chapter 6 spoken by Jesus in a synagogue in Capernaum and which were preached by the Beloved Disciple to his followers about the meaning of resurrection. John is the only gospel in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks of having come from heaven to do the will of the Father. Such statements appear in the gospels written by Gnostics who did not believe that Christ was a human. Before we dismiss Jesus’ statement here in John, though, we should note that this idea that Jesus came from heaven to do the will of God is consistent with the oldest writings in the New Testament, the letters of Paul. Paul also speaks of Jesus descending and ascending to the Father. Rather than trying to decide for certain what Jesus taught before the resurrection and what the Holy Spirit taught afterward, it is important that we grasp the meaning of this little sermon. God the Father promises that those who place their faith in Jesus will have eternal life through him. Death will not have the final answer because we have been given the bread of life.

Grumbling:             This sounds like good news, but John reports that the people began to grumble, just like the Israelites of old grumbled against Moses after eating the manna. Through the centuries and in our time, Christians have had difficulty accepting the teachings of Jesus as the source of life. We keep turning the good news of salvation and the bread of life into the bad news of judgment and anger. Or we are embarrassed to believe that a Palestinian peasant could have been the conduit of God’s grace for the world.

     The crowd’s complaint against Jesus is a familiar one. He could not be the bread of life sent from heaven because he was born to a poor family in Nazareth. The people knew his mother and father. He is the son of Joseph not the son of God! This is the scandal of the Incarnation. As Judas sings in Jesus Christ Superstar, “He is just a man.” The Gnostics in early Christianity dealt with this scandal by denying that Jesus had been born of a woman and died as a man. He simply came from heaven. The Jews and Romans dealt with the scandal by denying the divine mission of Jesus. He was just another Jew killed by the Romans. But the New Testamenr embraces the paradox of the son of Joseph being the son of God. The gospel of John focuses on the shocking idea that a simple carpenter could have been the one sent by God as the bread of life.

     Jesus does not offer proofs of his identity to the crowd. He does not walk across the water for their entertainment. Instead, he tells them that they will not be able to believe without a change of perspective. Some of them saw the miracle of the feeding and still missed the sign. They must be taught by God and hear the teaching of the Father. Then Jesus returns to the theme of his sermon. It is not clear whether this repetition is John’s way of pressing the point home that the bread of life is eternal or if this is a different version of the original sermon. It doesn’t really matter. The feeding of the multitude and the two sermons in chapter 6 tell the same story in different ways. It is the story of the Exodus retold to include the whole world.


Communion:            Next week we will continue with this theme of the bread of life, but verses 52-58 move from the manna in the wilderness to the bread of Holy Communion. I hope you will tune in next week as we continue to feed on the good things that have been prepared for us. I also hope you will join us for our service on Ash Wednesday.   

John 6:1-24

Loaves, Fishes, and Walking on Water

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, Originally aired on February 11, 2007.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. In teaching young people through the years, I’ve learned to make sure that they learn that Lent is spelled with an “e” rather than an “i.” I’ve wondered about students who thought the church observes a season of Lint. Another mistake that high school students sometimes make is thinking about our passage for today is that it is about loafers and fishers rather than loaves and fishes. It’s an easy mistake since some of the disciples were fishers and some were probably loafers, too.

Chapter 6 overview:              The 6th chapter of John is very long, so it might be helpful to give a little overview. There are two miracle stories in this chapter: the feeding of the multitude and Jesus walking on the water. Following the two miracles are discourses of Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples. The crowds turn hostile as he talks. Chapter 6 repeats some of the themes as the miracle at Cana and the discourse with the Samaritan woman. Those stories dealt with wine and water; this one deals with bread.

 Read: John 6:1-14 

Synoptics:       When we began our study of John, I emphasized that John is quite different from the other three canonical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic because they look at the story of Jesus in a similar way. Matthew and Luke tell the story of the feeding of the multitude and Jesus walking on the water much like Mark does. There are some interesting differences in details that we do not have time to discuss this morning. Matthew and Mark include a different version of the same event in which Jesus was said to have fed 4000 people. What is surprising is that John’s Gospel, which was not based on Mark, has these same two stories linked. Jesus feeds a multitude with just a few loaves and fishes, and then he walks out to the disciples who are in a boat. There are enough differences to be confident that John’s account is not based on that in the other gospels, and may in fact be closer to the original. So, in the New Testament itself we have six versions of the original story in which Jesus feeds the multitude. The only events in the life of Jesus that have such documentary evidence are those related to his execution. When we have a similar story in multiple sources that are independent, historians are more apt to say that such an event took place. We can confidently say that these stories themselves are older than the four written gospels and that this feeding story had a great impact on the participants and the church.

Historicity:     Miracles are remarkably hard to verify for many reasons, one of which is that people have often made up miracle stories or simply came to wrong conclusions about the cause of an event. In the 19th century, many Protestant scholars tried to come up with reasonable explanations for the miracles reported in Scripture. Some did so in order to defend the historical reliability of the Bible. Others did so for the exact opposite reason. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, literally cut all miracles out of the New Testament because he thought the church had invented stories to increase the power of priests and preachers. During this period of skepticism, many scholars proposed that the two stories we are discussing this morning actually had natural causes.

For instance, some said that Jesus appeared to be walking on the water because he knew where the sandbar was that led out into the sea. The trouble with that explanation, of course, is that you would expect Jesus to get in the boat and say “Wow, I’m glad I knew where that sandbar was.” You’d also expect experienced sailors to know where the sandbar was, too. The explanation often given for the feeding of the multitude is that when Jesus started sharing the limited food he and the disciples had, people in the crowd were moved by the generosity and began sharing their food, too. It is interesting that the accounts of the feeding do not specifically rule out that explanation. Remember, in John, the signs point to things and not important in themselves.

I bring all of this up this morning to let you know that there have been debates over these two stories for over 200 years. There have been a lot of good Christians who decided that these miracles are exaggerated accounts of important events. Others have been just as convinced that these stories recount miracles unlike any others and that these stories point to the unique status of Jesus as divine. As the bumper sticker quips, “The next time you think you are the Son of God, try walking on water.”

I think we should avoid being too extreme in our judgments and seek to understand these stories in the context of John’s Gospel. Debates over historicity cannot be resolved since we cannot repeat the events with Jesus working under controlled conditions. I do not think that doubts about the historical accuracy of these accounts should undermine your faith or keep you from following Jesus as Lord. Nor does belief in miracles make you a Christian if that belief is the same for you as believing in UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster. Let’s turn away from the debate over the supernatural and focus on the meaning of these stories. What do they teach us about Jesus and about faith?

Parable:          There are seven wonderful works that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John that John calls “signs.” As in the account in the other gospels, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee followed by a large crowd, but John adds the geographical detail that the sea was also named for Tiberius. He reports that the crowd was following Jesus because he had been healing the sick. This makes more sense in the other gospels where there are many accounts of healings leading up to this, but this is a reminder that John knew of more miracles than he narrated. Jesus went up on the hill and sat with his disciples, which was the proper thing for a teacher to do with his students. Up to this point, the story in John sounds very much like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. We are being prepared for a teaching. Like many prophets, Jesus used symbolic actions to teach people when words were insufficient. This story is a parable in action.

Passover:        Only John indicates that the Passover was near, which is curious because Jesus just celebrated Passover in chapter 4. Many scholars have used this as evidence that John’s gospel had been rearranged in recopying, and that this chapter originally came before chapter 5 or was even chapter 4. That makes some of the chronology and geography work out, but it creates other problems. It is, of course, perfectly plausible that this event simply took place six months later than the events in chapter 5. It is just as plausible that John simply put his gospel together in a way that made thematic sense without worrying about chronology, as we have already noted.

I think that the most likely reason for mentioning the Passover festival was to cue the listener or reader that what follows is a Passover sermon by Jesus. The story of Passover is the story of the liberation of the Israelites from the oppression of the Pharaoh. Part of the festival includes eating unleavened bread as a reminder of their flight. After the Exodus the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, and when they were in danger of starving, God sent manna. There are a number of parallels between John 6 and the story of the manna in Numbers 11.

Barley:            There are some interesting details that are unique to John’s account. For instance, it names Philip and Andrew as the disciples who play the most important role. Both were honored in the churches of Asia Minor, which is where John’s Gospel was probably written. The strangest detail is that the boy had five barley loaves and two dried fish. The word used for the fish here is not the famous ichthys, which is used in the other gospels. By the 2nd century ichthys was a code word for Jesus and even today you find fish on the bumpers of cars driven by some Christians. John’s word was opsarion, which was the word for preserved fish, just what you would expect a boy to have for his lunch. This is one of the indications that John’s account is probably the closest to the original story. The barley bread is interesting because that would have been the bread used in the spring, particularly by poor people. This rings true historically, but this may also reflect Old Testament parallels. In II Kings (4:42), the prophet Elisha feeds a crowd of people with 20 barley loaves. Thus, feeding with barley loaves could have been seen as a sign that Jesus was a prophet.

Eucharist:       In the other gospels, the feeding of the crowd is clearly influenced by the ritual of Holy Communion or the Eucharist. In fact, some of the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke may reflect the different liturgies their churches used for communion. In those gospels, Jesus acts like a priest who takes bread, looks into heaven, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it the disciples to distribute to the crowd. But Jesus does not do this in John. He is reclining on the grass when the crowd comes to him. He does takes bread and offer thanks – the word is Eucharist in Greek – but this looks like a typical thing for a Jewish man to do before any meal. The blessing may well have been: “Blessed are you, O Lord, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” The specific rituals of Holy Communion are missing in John.

It is interesting that Jesus served the people himself in John. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the mediator between humans and God, but there is no need for a mediator between us and Jesus. Some of you know that Moravian pastors go into the congregation to serve communion rather than having the people come forward or sending the bread and cup from person to person. Given the importance of John’s Gospel to Zinzendorf, I would not be surprised if this image of Jesus serving the people influenced the Moravian practice.

Messiah:        It is also only in John’s Gospel that Jesus instructs the disciples to gather the fragments so that nothing may perish. One of the themes of John’s Gospel and letters is the importance of bringing the community of faith together so that none may be lost. Twelve baskets were filled with the fragments alone, which may well be a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel that will be gathered when the messiah comes. This connection to the messianic kingdom is not overt, but in the story the people proclaim that Jesus was the prophet who was to come. This could be a reference to Elijah rather than the messiah, but the basic point is clear. The crowd correctly perceived the identity of Jesus as the promised prophet, but still missed the point.

Jesus fled from those he had just fed so that they would not attempt to make him a king. Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist because he feared that the prophet would lead a popular rebellion. Jesus knew that he would suffer the same fate if the crowd proclaimed him the true king of Galilee. John’s Gospel reports that he fled from the crowd and ran up the mountain to get away from them. This may be another sign of the antiquity of this text because the church later would never say Jesus ran away and hid. In the synoptic account, he simply goes off by himself to pray. This story may have been intended to reflect the story of the prophet Elijah who ran to Mt. Sinai and hid from Jezebel. Whatever the purpose behind verse 15, it does explain why Jesus was not in the boat with the disciples. Were they also fleeing the crowds, which is why they embarked late in the day?

Walking on Water:    This brings us to the second miracle, that of Jesus walking on the water. It is somewhat surprising that John kept the link between the stories since the discourse that follows is tied closely to the feeding miracle. Most likely, this indicates that the stories were firmly linked in the oral tradition before John wrote his gospel. The differences between John’s account and the other gospels are so striking that some have doubted whether this was the same event. The synoptic gospels add a lot of dramatic detail that magnifies the supernatural aspect of the story. There is a great storm at sea that Jesus walks through and then calms with a word. The disciples feared he was a ghost until he spoke to them.

John’s says that the sea was rough but there was no storm. Though they were about half way across the lake, it is not clear how far from the shore. The Greek is actually ambiguous over whether they saw Jesus walking on the shore by the lake or walking on the lake itself. He tells them not to be afraid, and in no time at all they have reached the shore. Strangely, the story does not even say that Jesus got in the boat with them. When we read this story, we tend to supply the details from the other accounts, which can confuse things. The other gospels focus on the miracle, but John focuses on Jesus.

Jesus says to the disciples, Ego eimi, “I am. Do not be afraid.” This is often translated, “It is I,” but that may obscure the most important part of this passage. John uses this phrase in key discourses of Jesus that we will discuss this in detail later. Note that this scene of Jesus reads like a revelation of God in his glory in the Old Testament. God speaks to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets as “I am” and tells them not to be afraid. Here the disciples were terrified, as all mortals are when they see God. Jesus claims the divine name and tells them not to be afraid. Now the connection between the feeding miracle and the walking on the water becomes more clear. Psalm 77, which was read at Passover, speaks of God walking through the water with unseen footprints. Jesus would not let humans make him a king to fight against men like Herod, but he does reveal himself to his followers as the Son of God who saves.

Lovefeast:      In conclusion, let’s take another look at the tableau painted by John. It is a beautiful scene. A crowd of people sits on a mountain slope in front of Jesus. Andrew presents a boy who has some food. Jesus takes the gift, says a prayer of thanksgiving for the food and the generosity of the boy. Then he moves through the crowd distributing the food. There is nothing dramatic here; no special effects. Something similar to this happened in Bohemia in 1419. Thousands of people had gathered on a hill to await the coming kingdom of God. For three days the crowd lived together as one community and no one was hungry because rich shared with poor. They called this a love feast, like the love feasts of the early church. They recognized that they were imitating the actions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee, and they renamed the hill Mt. Tabor. Was there a miracle in Bohemia similar to the miracle that Christ performed by the Sea of Galilee? Anytime those who have plenty share freely with those who have none, it is a sign and a wonder. In our day, the rock star Bono saw the suffering in Africa and dedicated his life to their cause. He went on a hopeless mission to talk to Senator Jessie Helms about debt relief. He spoke about Jesus and Africa. Jessie Helms changed his mind gave debt relief to the poor. Was there a miracle in Washington, DC? Certainly there was a sign and wonder.