Friends, I took a tumble off my bike a bit ago. It turns out that breaking the fall broke an arm. So ignoring the discomfort in typing is probably not prudent. I look forward to resuming these posts after a few weeks of healing.
One of the great gifts during my undergraduate years at U.C. Berkeley was the presence of Dr. Francis I. Andersen at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. His love of God was deeply infectious, his love of the Old Testament, equally so. His wit, patience, curiosity, laugh: all continue to be an inspiration. He entered into glory on May 12. “Let us pray with confidence to God, the Giver of life, that he will raise him to perfection in the company of the saints.”
Moses has persuaded the LORD not to destroy the people and start over with Moses, but there’s still the problem of the people “running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies).” Moses has to ask for volunteers to salvage the situation; the Levites step up; the seriousness of the situation is reflected in the death toll.
The bigger problem: with the treaty torn up (the tablets broken, v.19), do the LORD and the people have a future, and on what basis? When Moses returns to the LORD to plead for forgiveness, the divine response is two-fold: a command to lead the people to the Land accompanied by an “angel.” Not by the LORD? All the instructions regarding the tabernacle and the priesthood (chapters 25-31): are they all now moot? The plague of unspecified severity (v.34, omitted, oddly, by the Lectionary) seems almost an afterthought.
Looking back over the whole chapter, what advice would we have given Aaron, with Moses off stage for who knows how long and the people expressing real needs? Or we can flip the question. Followers’ expectations constrain their leaders. When do our expectations place our leaders in Aaron’s situation?
From Martin Wallace’s Pocket Celtic Prayers, not unrelated to today’s Exodus reading.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Attributed to St. Patrick (5th Century)
I rise up clothed in strength of Christ.
I shall not be imprisoned,
I shall not be harmed;
I shall not be downtrodden,
I shall not be left alone;
I shall not be tainted,
I shall not be overwhelmed.
I go clothed in Christ’s white garments;
I go freed to weave Christ’s patterns;
I go loved to serve Christ’s weak ones;
I go armed to rout out Christ’s foes.
Community of Aidan and Hilda
On Ash Wednesday—what a long time ago—we heard those words. Dust, so fragile that any too direct contact with G-d can unmake us, scatter us. So G-d in the first reading errs on the side of caution to insure that that doesn’t happen on the slopes of Sinai.
The surprise: G-d’s project to transform us into creatures who can without fear and with joy “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6). This takes some active participation on our part. (In passing, is Paul, who elsewhere (1 Corinthians 13:13) highlighted faith, hope, and love, making these the backbone of our participation in Colossians 1?) This takes a long series of surprising roles on G-d’s part: solicitous bouncer (first reading), sacrificial victim (second reading), bull in the china shop (with respect to our notions of ‘righteousness’; third reading).
Since we’re going to be reading Matthew for a good stretch, I wonder if the definition of ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosunē) is not at the heart of Jesus’ arguments with the religious leaders. The first story Matthew tells involves Joseph, whom Matthew describes as ‘righteous’ (dikaios), whose righteousness implies breaking his engagement with the now-pregnant Mary. An angel must intervene. Jesus (later): “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And, of course, our third reading, where Jesus’ notion of righteousness upends John’s—and our—assumptions about who should be baptizing whom. So watch for it.
Athanasius: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” From dust to divinity: how’s that for a road trip?
So here’s Moses, of whom Deuteronomy says “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (34:10), taking advice from a pagan priest. A little odd?
Propp (The Anchor Yale Bible) puts the scene in context, which augments the oddity: “As Jethro observes, Moses and Yahweh are dispensing judgement piecemeal, and Torah is ad hoc. A just and efficient administration requires a legitimate judiciary and a comprehensive law code. The former is established in Exodus 18; the code will occupy most of the remainder of the Pentateuch.” The story might make us wonder if both Moses and YHWH listen to Jethro!
Be that as it may, the story recognizes in a quite matter-of-fact way that human wisdom is important for the people of God. Childs (Old Testament Library): “the basic problem of relating the divine law as given in the Pentateuch with the knowledge of God as found in wisdom has already been posed within Ex. 18.”
Anglicanism has classically spoken of Scripture, reason, and tradition. Here’s Richard Hooker, writing at the end of the 16th Century: “What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience are due; the next whereunto, is what any man can necessarily conclude by force of Reason; after this, the voice of the church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgements whatsoever” (Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie V,8,2).
Sorting out how Scripture, reason, and tradition guide us can be challenging; acknowledging the role of all three is no small gift. And with Jethro’s witness to reason there is—witnessing to the challenge—Thomas More’s, as interpreted in Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons: “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”
Who are the contemporary Jethros to whom we should be listening?
Apropos of none of the readings, today we remember Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Facing afresh our own mortality, here’s her “Easter Monday:”
Out in the rain a world is growing green,
On half the trees quick buds are seen
Where glued-up buds have been.
Out in the rain God’s Acre stretches green,
Its harvest quick tho’ still unseen:
For there the Life hath been.
If Christ hath died His brethren well may die,
Sing in the gate of death, lay by
This life without a sigh:
For Christ hath died and good it is to die;
To sleep when so He lays us by,
Then wake without a sigh.
Yea, Christ hath died, yea, Christ is risen again:
Wherefore both life and death grow plain
To us who wax and wane;
For Christ Who rose shall die no more again:
Amen: till He makes all things plain
Let us wax on and wane.
Third Sunday of Easter
This chapter of Exodus, a sleeper, with much to wonder about. We met its virtual protagonist, Jethro, after young Moses’ flight from Egypt; he does not appear elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Today’s text together with the battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:8-16) form a sort of diptych, sharply contrasting non-Israelite responses to YHWH’s deliverance (for detail, Robert Alter’s notes in his translation). The Evangelists do something similar in the birth/infancy and passion narratives, juxtaposing different responses to Jesus (Raymond Brown). Perhaps Exodus 17:8-18:12 needs to be read together for the full effect.
We may find the author’s treatment of Zipporah and the sons quite jarring (How did Moses receive them? What did they make of all this?). The author—necessarily—chooses which stories to tell, which not to tell.
The end of v.11 is obscure in Hebrew and receives varied translations: “when they dealt arrogantly with them” (NRSV); “by the result of their very schemes against the people” (NJPS). The NRSV might encourage us to reflect on arrogance/presumption as something to be avoided (cf. Nehemiah 9: 10, 16, 29); the NJPS (new Jewish Publication Society) perhaps recalls Targum Onkelos’ interpretation: “the Egyptians plotted to destroy the Hebrews by drowning and they themselves were then drowned” (Alter’s summary).
“And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God” (v.12).The local is “at the mountain of God” (v.5); this may be the fulfillment of the divine promise given at Moses’ call (Exodus 3:12). Eating “in the presence of God” sounds like the language Deuteronomy uses to describe various sacrifices in (unnamed) Jerusalem (Deut. 12:7, 18; 14:23, 26; 15:20; 16:7), perhaps an example of Deuteronomy coalescing Horeb (Sinai) and Jerusalem. Is it a sort of victory banquet?
Jethro does not become a Jew. But from his own perspective he freely acknowledges and celebrates YHWH’s action in his world. Is this also part of “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” involves (Genesis 12:3b)?
From today’s readings: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
So on this Earth Day here’s St. Basil the Great’s Prayer of Compassion
O God, enlarge within us the sense of
fellowship with all living things,
our brothers the animals to whom thou
gavest the earth as their home in
common with us.
We remember with shame that in the past
we have exercised the high dominion
of man with ruthless cruelty
so that the voice of the earth,
which should have gone up to thee
in song, has been a groan of travail.
May we realize that they live not for
us alone but for themselves and for
thee, and that they love
the sweetness of live.
“For in him [Jesus] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.”
We are approaching the Great Vigil, which is also an extended celebration of Paul’s ringing affirmation. From the story of the deliverance at the Sea (Exodus) to the vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel): Jesus God’s “Yes” to God’s promises. Someone we might desire to spend time with, which desire is the motor for the Daily Office.
Spending time with Jesus: not always smooth sailing, as the reading from Mark reminds us. Here a short detour may help. David Zarefsky does the course “Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning” for the Teaching Company. Arguing (properly done) “is a process, analogous to the scientific method, for determining what one believes is true about matters that are uncertain and contingent.” And arguing “is fundamentally a cooperative enterprise” in which the participants “risk being shown to be wrong” (from the course summaries).
The religious leaders are unwilling to risk, unwilling to acknowledge anything that does not support their position (e.g., the source of John’s baptism). So the argument goes nowhere, even with Jesus, in whom “every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” I wonder if those leaders prided themselves on that culture’s equivalent of transparency.
Transparency. We want it in our leaders. Transparency when acknowledging the truth is damaging? We demand it of our opponents, are tempted to give it a pass with our allies. And with ourselves?
“For in him [Jesus] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” But apparently being God’s “Yes” doesn’t mean being willing to play games. What am I willing to risk when I approach this Jesus?