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Wrestling with the Word, episode 106: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (March 20, 2011) March 15, 2011

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Second Sunday in Lent
Many stories tell about a journey. The Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic is about Gilgamesh’s long journey to attain immortality. Homer’s The Odyssey relates the trials and tribulations of Odysseus as he travels home from the Trojan battlefield. J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings dramatically relates the journey of Frodo and his friends toward Mount Doom where they will destroy the One Ring that can destroy Middle Earth. Even modern movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Trains, Planes, and Automobiles wind their amusing anecdotes around journeys. The Bible, too, has its stories of journeys to tell. Some of them are regular pilgrimages, as in our psalm for the day. Others are world-changing events like that of Abraham and Sara in our first lesson. And the gospel story about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is just out of this world! Strikingly, the journey of all of them is founded upon faith-inspired trust in God, and the destination is blessing, wholeness, and life.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 106: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A.

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Psalm 121
While the original purpose of this psalm is not certain, its beauty and comforting expressions give it a place of favor among devout people of all times. The first verses introduce the psalm as a dialogue. Verse 1 comes from the lips of a person about to begin a journey. The speaker looks to the mountains ahead, awesome to behold yet full of potential danger. An imminent journey across and through their heights causes the worshiper to ask about the source of “help” or “strength” on the way. Unlike the answer to a similar question regarding wisdom (Job 28:12, 20), the response here provides the traveler hope and promise: “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Whoever speaks that answer—either the worshiper or a priest—the following verses appear to flow from the lips of a priest. The journey itself is often assumed, therefore, to be the homeward trip from the temple in Jerusalem following a pilgrim’s required visit. It is also possible that the setting takes place outside the home of the pilgrims as they set out for the temple. In that case, the answer might come from a Levite. In any case, the Lord who will be the “help” will remain constantly alert to keep the traveler from harm (vss. 3-4). YHWH will protect and guard the pilgrim, even from the blistering sun and the mysterious moon (vss. 5-6). Even beyond the immediate journey, the Lord will maintain diligence on the worshiper’s behalf in every place and at all times.

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Genesis 12:1-4a (1-9)
God calls Abraham and Sarah to relinquish their worldly security (home and family connections) in order to journey to a new land of God’s promise and become a source of blessing to others in their midst and beyond.

Context
The call of Abraham recorded here occurs after the long pre-history of Genesis 3 through 11.  The final chapter of the pre-history tells of the Tower of Babel (vv. 1-9) and the subsequent judgment of God by which resulted in the diversity of languages and in the scattering of the people.

The pericope is assigned to the Yahwist (J). However, verses 4b-5 are clearly P.  The Yahwist addresses Israel in the time of David and Solomon (tenth century B.C.) in order to answer two questions:  (1) How did we get to be the great people we are? (2) What is our function? The priestly school (P) was at work for centuries, but its defining work and editorial hand were especially active in the sixth century B.C.

Key Words
V. 1:  lek-lekā  mē’artsekā … ’el-hā’ārets  ’ašer ’arekkā = “Go from your land … to the land which I will show you”:  The land where Abram resided was somewhere in Mesopotamia:  according to the last two verses of chap. 11 (which is P rather than J) Abram’s father left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan, but settled for a while in Haran.

V. 2.  wa’agaddelā šemekā = “so that I might make your name great”:  Note the contrast between this verse and the Yahwist’s story of the Tower of Babel where the people tried to make their own name great (11:4).

V. 3.  mebārekêkā ûmeqallelkā = “those who bless you and the one who curses you”:  While some mss. make both participles plural, the contrast between the many who will bless and the exceptional one who will curse is likely intentional.

V. 3.  wenibrekû bekā kōl mišpechôt hā’adāmâ = “and by you all the families of the land will consider themselves blessed (or be blessed”):  The niph‘al of the verb nibrecan be used as a simple passive or as a reflexive, thus the alternate translations; nibrekû mišpechôt hā’adāmâ occurs also at 28:14 as God’s promise to Jacob.  The clause appears elsewhere but in a wider context at Genesis at 18:18 (“nations of the earth”); 22:18 (“nations of the earth”); 26:4 (“nations of the earth”).  Note Gal. 3:8 where Paul cites this promise as “the gospel preached beforehand to Abraham.”  For examples of Abraham and his descendants serving as a source of blessing even when the formula does not appear, see 30:27 (Laban to Jacob), 30 (Jacob to Laban).

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Romans 4:1-5 [8], 13-17
The righteousness that comes from God was reckoned to Abraham on the basis of his faith, and the promise given to Abraham–that he and his descendants would inherit the world–is given to everyone through the righteousness of faith.

Context
Having demonstrated that all people–Jews and Gentiles–are guilty before God (chapters 1-2), Paul demonstrated in chapter 3 that all are justified by grace as a gift.  Toward the end of chapter 3, he then raises the issue of works and contrasts them with faith.  Now using Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews himself, as his example, Paul drives home his point.

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John 3:1-17
In response to the confession of Nicodemus that Jesus comes from God, Jesus indicates that in order to participate in the kingdom of God and in the salvation he offers, one must be born anew.

Context
According to John, Jesus went up to Jerusalem three times during his life. This encounter with Nicodemus occurred during the first visit at the time of the Passover. Many people had already come to believe in Jesus because of the signs he performed, but Jesus, we are told, did not entrust himself to them … for he himself knew what was in people (2:24-25).

Key Words
V. 3.  ean mē tis gennēthē anōthen = “unless someone is born from above”:  The issue is not simply another birth but an existence based on heavenly origins. The statement is explained further by v. 13 where “the Son of man” is identified as the one who descended from heaven; see John 1:1-14.

V. 3.  tēn basileian tou theou = “the kingdom of God”:  After this initial reference to the kingdom, a synoptic emphasis, John usually talks about “life” rather than the kingdom. The question of kingdom and kingship will occur again in the trial by Pilate (19:36).

V. 5. “unless one of born of water and the Spirit … born of the flesh … born of the Spirit … born of the Spirit”:  As Jesus himself received the Holy Spirit (see John 1:33), proving that Jesus is the Son of God (1:34), so Jesus announces the means by which others can become born from above and see/enter the kingdom of God with him.

V. 14.  kai kathōs Mōysēs hypsōsen ton ophin en tē  erēmō, houtōs hypsōthēnai dei ton huion tou anthrōpou = “and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”:  The “lifting up” is an important expression in John’s Gospel. Here, by comparison to the visible raising of the bronze serpent, and at 8:28, the verb appears to refer to the crucifixion. At 12:32, 34 the word refers to the resurrection/ascension. Strikingly, the word dei = “must” is used here, as it is in the synoptic tradition, regarding the necessity of the suffering and resurrection of the Son of Man (see Mark 8:31). The result of looking at the uplifted serpent is “life” in Num. 21:9 and “salvation” at Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7.

V. 16. houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho theos ton kosmon, ōste ton huion ton monogenē edōken = “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”: The tense of the verb for “loved” signifies a once for all act. It thus points to the crucifixion rather than to a more general affection for the created world. Appropriating this message to one’s life results in “eternal life.”

V. 17. “For God sent the Son into the world (eis ton kosmon), not to condemn the world (ton kosmon), but that the world (ho kosmos) (Creation) might be saved (sōthē) through him”:  The work of God in Jesus is described here in the third person; at 12:47, Jesus speaks in the first person about his purpose in the same terms: not to condemn but to save the world. At 1 John 4:14 the author writes similarly: “the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (sōtēra tou kosmou). Recall that according to the angel’s words to Joseph, the name of the baby Mary will bear will be “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Luke’s narrative about the message of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds includes the title “a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Wrestling with the Word, episode 95: Lectionary 29 (21 Pentecost), Year C (October 17, 2010) October 5, 2010

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Lectionary 29 (Pentecost 21)

The title for this series of podcasts is “Wrestling with the Word.” Thanks to Google Alerts, I have learned that the expression occurs in many conversations regarding just about any issue in the world. In this series, however, the “word” is specifically God’s word. Here we wrestle with biblical texts as God speaks through inspired witnesses of biblical times about the intimate involvement of God in creation and in history. Those whose writings came down to us wrestled, as we do, to determine how God comforts us and accuses us as we live out our lives in God’s world. In the face of the challenges in their day, the biblical writers announced God’s identity and grace, God’s hiddenness and judgment, God’s will and action, God’s pleasure and displeasure. To accomplish their proclamation, they wrestled, as we do, with nothing and no one less than God. While we do not have the opportunity that Jacob had to wrestle with God at a river, God does invite us to a wrestling match. It happens in our prayers that enable us to trust in God and stand firm against all the odds.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 95: Lectionary 29 (21 Pentecost), Year C.

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Psalm 121
While the original purpose of this psalm is not certain, its beauty and comforting expressions give it a place of favor among devout people of all times. The first verses introduce the psalm as a dialogue. Verse 1 comes from the lips of a person about to begin a journey. The speaker looks to the mountains ahead, awesome to behold yet full of potential danger. An imminent journey across and through their heights causes the worshiper to ask about the source of “help” or “strength” on the way. Unlike the answer to a similar question regarding wisdom (Job 28:12, 20), the response here provides the traveler hope and promise: “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Whoever speaks that answer—either the worshiper or a priest—the following verses appear to flow from the lips of a priest. The journey itself is often assumed, therefore, to be the homeward trip from the temple in Jerusalem following a pilgrim’s required visit.) It is also possible that the setting takes place outside the home of the pilgrims as they set out for the temple. In that case, the answer might come from a Levite.) In any case, the Lord who will be the “help” will remain constantly alert to keep the traveler from harm (vss. 3-4). YHWH will protect and guard the pilgrim, even from the blistering sun and the mysterious moon (vss. 5-6). Even beyond the immediate journey, the Lord will maintain such diligence on the worshiper’s behalf in every place and at all times.

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Genesis 32:22-31
As Jacob returns home to meet his brother Esau, God wrestles with him and changes him to equip him for the reunion.

Context
Isaac and Rebekah gave birth to twins. The first to emerge was called Esau, but close behind, hanging on to his brother’s heel, was Jacob. Rivalry between the two ensued because Isaac favored Esau, and Rebekah loved Jacob. The story of Jacob eventually buying Esau’s birthright for a bowl of lentil soup is well known (Gen. 265:29-34). Also familiar is the report of Jacob’s disguise (with Mom’s assistance) to resemble his brother and their deception to have vision-challenged Isaac bless the second son instead of the first (Gen. 27). At this point Rebekah advised her younger son to leave town and live for a while with her brother Laban the Aramaean. On the way Jacob spent the night “at a certain place” where he received the vision of the mound on which the angels of God ascended and descended. There the Lord appeared to Jacob and promised to bring him “back to this land” (Gen. 28:10-17). Working for, and plotting against Laban, Jacob left years later with two of Laban’s daughters and a considerable amount of his wealth. Our story occurs the night before Jacob will meet his brother accompanied by 400 men.

The Story
As we have it, the story has developed through many layers of oral and written traditions. Perhaps at its most basic level, the story is a legend about contesting a nocturnal river demon before crossing the river. While that kind of tale is strange in the Bible, something similar appears in the story of Moses at Exodus 4:24-26 where “the Lord” met Moses on his journey “and sought to kill him.” There also the villain seems to have been a nocturnal demon who eventually became “the Lord.” Likewise, here in our story, no identity is given to “the man” who came to wrestle until just before daybreak “the man” announces to Jacob that he has spent the night striving with God (v. 28).

The Names and Places
Names: While in our usage, names basically identify us, in ancient societies names more closely resembled identity. People did not have names so much as they were their names. When confronted by beings possibly divine or angelic, people asked for the names. Moses offered the request subtly (Exod 3:13), while Manoah was more blunt (Judges 13:17). People could gain access to (perhaps even control) if they knew the divine being’s name.

Jabbok: The Jabbok River is a tributary that flows into the Jordan about 15 miles north of the Dead Sea. The Hebrew word for the river (yabbōq) sounds quite similar to the word for “wrestle” (’ābaq), and the word play is rather obvious as the reader moves from v. 23 to v. 25. Unfortunately, this verb for “wrestle” appears only in this passage.

Jacob: The stories included in the Jacob traditions offer several interpretations for the patriarch’s name. One tradition bases his name Ya‘aqōb on his grabbing his brother’s “heel” (‘āqēb) at their birth (Gen. 25:24-26; see also Hos. 12:4). Another connects his name to a verb for “cheat” (‘āqab) which he richly deserves, according to Esau, after cheating him twice. According to the pattern for naming in the Bible, the patriarch’s handle would likely have been something like Ya‘aqōb-El = “May God Protect.”

Israel: If the word sārâ = “strive, persevere” is indeed part of the name, Yisrā’ēl would probably mean “May God persevere” rather than “You have striven with God and prevailed.” But the tradition that the patriarch’s name developed from this story is attested in the 8th century B.C. prophet Hosea: “in his manhood he strove with God (sārâ ’et-’elōhîm); he strove (sārâ) against the angel and prevailed” (Hos. 12:3-4). Hosea considers Jacob’s striving with God as one more example of his wickedness. However, if the campfire stories of Genesis prevail, Jacob “the cheater” has now been changed to Israel, “the one who persevered against God/God’s angel.”

In addition to changing Jacob’s name to Israel, however, the story serves to identify the two names as one and the same. While the name Jacob usually refers to the patriarch, the name is used also, especially in poetic literature, for the nation Israel. Likewise, while Israel is usually the name of the nation, the name also occurs sometimes for the patriarch. With that flexibility of terminology, it is not always apparent in a given passage whether either name describes the patriarch or the nation. A narrative or poetic reference to the patriarch Jacob might be an allusion to or description of the nation’s experience.

Peniel: The name of the town appears as Penuel in a non-complimentary story at Judges 8:8-9 17. Our story explains the name Penî’ēl on the basis of Jacob’s words: “I have seen God face to face …” (v. 30).

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2 Timothy 3:14—4:5
In times of persecution and stress, the author exhorts his reader (Timothy) to stand firm in the faith he learned from his childhood (from his mother and grandmother) and to regard the written scriptures (the Old Testament) as the source of faith for salvation in Christ Jesus.

Context
Whether the author of the epistle was Paul or, more likely, an anonymous disciple in the second century, the inspired scriptures mentioned in 3:15-16 can only have been what we call the Old Testament. The New Testament, as we know and call it, did not yet exist. The writings of Judaism, however, were the Bible of Jesus and the early church and were considered “inspired” on the basis of various criteria toward the end of the first century A.D. They served even early Christians to provide the equipment “for every good work” and to encourage them “to be persistent whether the time if favorable or unfavorable” (4:2).

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Luke 18:1-8
Encouraging his disciples to pray constantly and not lose heart, Jesus assured them of God’s response to their petitions by telling the parable about the widow who hounded a judge until he vindicated her in a court case.

Context
Still on the fateful journey toward Jerusalem (beginning at 9:51), Jesus has been preparing his disciples and his adversaries for what would happen. Through his teaching and by engaging  in dialogue over their questions, Jesus used many parables in this section of Luke’s Gospel. In the previous chapter, he dealt with the disciples request for an increase of faith, healed the 10 lepers, and responded to the Pharisees’ question about the timing of the kingdom of God. Now he addresses disciples on the faith-driven life.

Key Words
V. 1. pros to dein pantote proseuchesthai autous = “concerning the necessity of praying always”: One of the major emphases in Luke’s Gospel is prayer. Jesus sought temporary solitude “on the mountain” in order to pray (6:12) and at “the Mount of Olives” he prayed that God’s will be done (22:41). At the request of the disciples Jesus taught them to pray (11:1-5) the prayer that included “Your kingdom come” (cf. 17:20-37). He instructed his disciples to pray for strength when the times of tribulation came (21:36) and commanded them to pray that they not enter into temptation (21:40).

V. 2. kritēs tis … ton theon phoboumenos kai anthrōpon mē entrepomenos = “a certain judge … who neither feared God or had any concern for people”: The lack of fear of God and concern for people reveals the judge as the exact opposite of the two great commandments (Luke 10:27). This description of the man might be the reason why Jesus refers to him in v. 6 as ho kritēs tēs adikias = “the judge of unrighteousness.” Recall that in Luke 16:1-9 the master commended “the dishonest steward” (ho oikonomos tēs adikias) for his prudence.

V. 3. chēra = “a widow”: Throughout the OT, widows, along with orphans and sojourners, are specifically named as the most vulnerable and who by God’s command are protected by laws. YHWH actually “executes justice” for those people (Deut. 10:18; see Ps. 68:5) and forbids lawmakers from perverting justice due to them (Deut. 24:17). God summons the people of Israel to advocate in courts of law for the widow and condemns them for failing to do so (Isa. 1:17, 23). Elsewhere in Luke Jesus condemns the scribes for robbing widows of their houses (20:47) and uses another widow as an example for disciples (21:1-4). The failure of the judge in our case to delay executing justice for the widow (Deut. 24:17) would qualify him for the title “judge of unrighteousness” (v. 6).

V. 7. ho de theos ou mē poiēsē tēn ekdikēsin tōn elektōn autou tōn boōntōn autō hēmeras kai nyktos = “And will not God perform vindication of the elect who cry out to him day and night?”: The comparison between the “judge of unrighteousness” and “God the righteous judge” is interesting. Jesus’ point is simply: If an unrighteous judge who cares nothing about God or people can vindicate the widow because of her incessant pleading, how much more will the God of righteousness respond to a petitioner’s persistent cries for help! After all, YHWH consistently proves to be one who hears the laments (cries for help) from the oppressed; see Exod. 3:7; Isa. 41:17). Because of that reputation, YHWH graciously invited the laments of the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and all oppressed and afflicted person. Here Jesus repeats the invitation through the teaching of this parable.

V. 8. “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth”: The faith described in this passage is the trust and confidence that God will respond to prayer.