Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Friday, April 29, 2005

Truth and Consequence

Daily Readings
Proverbs 7 + Numbers 26 + Deuteronomy 19 + Romans 1

Quote of the Day
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:16, 17

Daily Text: Numbers 26:1-2, 52-56, 63-65
After the plague the LORD said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, 2"Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war."
52 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 53To these the land shall be apportioned for inheritance according to the number of names. 54To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its enrollment. 55But the land shall be apportioned by lot; according to the names of their ancestral tribes they shall inherit. 56Their inheritance shall be apportioned according to lot between the larger and the smaller.
63 These were those enrolled by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who enrolled the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho. 64Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had enrolled the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. 65For the LORD had said of them, "They shall die in the wilderness." Not one of them was left, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.

Truth and Consequence
Census taking seems to be a preparatory activity. Here it seems to be in preparation for the imminent invasion of the land. That preparation required two determinations. The first was whether or not the first generation had all died as God had decreed and in verse 64 this is attested, with the exceptions of Caleb and Joshua noted. The second determination is how the tribal apportionment for inheriting the new land is to be decided. The census provides for that by numbers in each tribe. There is the obvious comparison between the census in chapters 1-3 taken to organize the encampment around the tabernacle, and this one to essentially organize their more permanent placement in the land.

In addition, there are some interesting comments within the census records. One of these is that the sons of Korah did not die in his rebellion even though 16:31, 32 had suggested strongly that they had. A second is that the tribe of Simeon was diminished inordinately from 59,000 to 22,000 and Manasseh was increased from 32,000 to 52,000. Other tribes did not show surprising changes. A third fact of doubtful interest is that the tribe of Levi is the smallest. Its numbers do not seem so, at first blush, but 23,000, when you take into account that they alone were counting males a month old and older, rather than from 20 years and up, would be the smallest number in the census. Why this should be so is not apparent. Could their families have been smaller because they knew they were not to inherit any land? We are never told. Finally, the daughters of Zelophehad are mentioned in verse 33 prior to their coming front and center in chapter 27. Not mentioned is whether or not the women in the camp suffered the same as the men. Did all of the women who came out of Egypt die prior to entering the land? They were not included in either census, and nothing is said. There was a tradition that arose based on 26:65 that says literally, “For the Lord had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not a man among them was left, except….,’ that the women were not included under that rubric. This midrash declared that “The women were spared, for they had preserved the spirit of law and morality[185:1207].”

Census time for Israel was a time for accountability. One saw the results of supporting or rebelling. It is a matter of judgement, of revealing consequences. Such judgement is a reminder of our own mortality.

It’s Easy to Invent a Life
Emily Dickinson

It’s easy to invent a Life
God does it—every Day—
Creation—but the Gambol
Of His Authority—

It’s easy to efface it—
The thrifty Deity
Could scarce afford Eternity
To Spontaneity—

The Perished Patterns murmur—
but His Perturbless Plan
Proceed—inserting Here—a Sun—
There—leaving out a Man—

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Living Differently

Daily Readings
Proverbs 6 + Numbers 25 + Deuteronomy 18 + Galatians 6

Quote of the Day
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. Galatians 6:7,8

Daily Text: Numbers 25:1-3

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. 2These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord's anger was kindled against Israel.

Living Differently
Chapter 25 picks up where chapter 21 left off with the people settling across the Jordan river from Jericho. The so-called Book of Balaam is an interlude occurring while the people are in residence in this place called Shittim in Transjordan (across the Jordan from what we call the West Bank, today.) While there they involve themselves with Moabite (1-5) and Midianite (6-18) women. It may be that both Moabites and Midianites worshipped Baal on the summit of Peor. Remembering the vision of Balaam that the sons and daughters of Jacob are a people apart, this involvement attacks that vision, that is God’s vision for his people. And the attack comes from within, whether it was trickery or not on the part of the Midianites (25:16) the men of Israel had to consent. Their sin was sexual involvement with the foreign women and evidently worship at the Baal shrine including participation in the pagan feasts. A plague began to spread quickly throughout the camp. Whether it was a disease picked up by this behavior with temple prostitutes or one sent by God, it began to decimate the people.

Phineas, grandson of Aaron, following Moses directions to hold the leaders of those who prostrated themselves before Baal responsible, went into the tent of one Zimri who boldly took a Midianite chieftains daughter, Cozri, into his tent for copulation, and killed them both. Evidently, they were in the middle of the act for he ran them through their private parts with his spear. Such measures seem cruel and bizarre to us, but to the Lord, everything he had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt to be was at stake. In another time and place Paul [I Corinthians 5] insisted that one who lived in immorality be warned and then cast out of the church and his purpose was exactly the same as Moses’-- purity within the body set apart. Even that seems barbarous today, but the resulting body is one that expects and practices no purity, no vision of separation. Is there any act that could lead any 21st century congregation to discipline members? Probably not, but the Roman Catholic Church and others are beginning to hold their clergy to a biblical standard, double-standard though it is. Without the public and legal effort, however, these institutions would not have acted.

from Choruses of the Rock, II
T. S. Eliot

Of all that was done in the past, you eat the fruit,
either rotten or ripe.
And the Church must be forever building, and always
decaying, and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the Word of God,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he
stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and
ill that was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in
humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts
as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The church must be forever building, for it is forever
decaying within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that
while there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of
adversity they will decry it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Troubler of Israel or True Prophet?

Daily Readings
Proverbs 5 + Numbers 24 + Deuteronomy 17 + Galatians 5

Quote of the Day
And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say’? Numbers 24:12, 13

Daily Text: Numbers 24:14-17
14So now, I am going to my people; let me advise you what this people will do to your people in days to come."
15 So he uttered his oracle, saying: "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, 16the oracle of one who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered: 17I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near-- a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites.

Troubler of Israel or True Prophet?
In the second of his two oracles in this chapter, Balaam, after he is dismissed in contempt by Balak offers his summation of God’s intentions for Israel, Moab and the surrounding nations. Even though Balak has already told him that he will receive no payment for his oracles, he offers this last. He prophecies a future rise in power of Israel that will result in the destruction of Moab. This did occur in David's time. We have a picture in these four chapters of Numbers of a man of God, without reference to his life before this ‘day’ or his life after this ‘day.’ In no way did he betray the trust of the God to whom he prayed.

The besmirching of his character in later years may have more to do with a tradition that grew up unwilling to accept that the LORD had a prophet outside Israel than any real reference to Balaam himself. Yes, there are some contradictions within the text itself as noted in chapter 21, however, the texts as we have received them unequivocally show this seer’s faithfulness to God’s blessing of Israel. Following Gray in the International Critical Commentary on Numbers, the notion that God changed his curses into blessings simply cannot be supported by the text. [Cf. Deuteronomy. 23:5, Nehemiah 13:2, Joshua. 24:10] The earliest reference to Balaam may have been Micah 6:4, 5 where the author is suggesting that in the same way that God frustrated the designs of Egypt by the hand of Moses, so he frustrated the designs of Balak by the hand of Balaam. By the time Numbers and Deuteronomy were complete the editors had perpetrated the tradition that Balaam was a hired giver of curses. Not all followed this smear, but Christian references were so influenced by it that they did. The earliest charges of avarice are made in Philo, and in the New Testament, II Peter 2:15, Jude 11. Revelation 2:6, 14-15 charge him with being the originator of the sins of the Nicolaitans, the eating of food offered to idols and fornication. Evidently, such sin did occur as we see in Numbers 25, but there is no evidence that Balaam was behind it. Caird in The Revelation of St. John the Divine, p. 39 notes that “The Balaam saga had been developed into a cautionary tale in the Jewish midrash for two quite distinct purposes: his acceptance of Balak’s bribe… and his supposed responsibility for the episode at Baal-peor (Numbers 25:1,2 and 31:16).” Again, while it cannot be determined what actually happened, there is no textual evidence for perfidy on the part of Balaam, unless one accepts later glosses and comments as more authoritative than the original story. It seems more likely that Balak was the one solely responsible for the Baal-peor incident, since he was intent on troubling Israel. Not only that, Numbers 24:25 states that Balaam “got up and went back to his place” immediately after his fourth oracle and dismissal by Balak, and that place was in Mesopotamia!

from Davideis, Book I
Abraham Cowley

So covetous Balaam with a fond intent
Of cursing the blessed Seed, to Moab went.
But as he went his fatal tongue to sell;
His Ass taught him to speak, God to speak well.
How comely are thy Tents, oh Israel!
(Thus he began) what conquests they foretell!
Less fair are orchards in their autumn pride,
Adorned with trees on some fair river’s side.
Less fair are valleys their green mantles spread!
Or mountains with tall cedars on their head!
‘Twas God himself (thy God who must not fear?)
Brought thee from bondage to be master here.
Slaughter shall wear out these; new weapons get;
And death in triumph on thy darts shall sit.
When Judah’s Lion starts up to this prey,
The beasts shall hang their ears, and creep away.
When he lies down, the woods shall silence keep,
And dreadful tygers tremble at his sleep.
They cursers, Jacob, shall twice cursed be;
And he shall bless himself that blesses Thee.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A People Living Apart

Daily Readings
Proverbs 4 + Numbers 22:41-23:30 + Deuteronomy 16 + Galatians 4

Quote of the Day
And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:6

Daily Text: Numbers 23:7-10
7Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying: "Balak has brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: 'Come, curse Jacob for me; Come, denounce Israel!' 8How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced? 9For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him; Here is a people living alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations! 10Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the dust-cloud of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!"

A People Living Apart
Balak has brought his seer from Mesopotamia, from a region of the Euphrates River, and this man is one who prays to the God of Israel, why or how we do not know. In his first oracle in this chapter he looks out over the people and speaks words related directly to Jacob or Israel seeing this people as ones that live apart from the family of nations. This in itself may be seen as the blessing or the curse of Jacob, and it may be added, the Christians.

They are different, they are to be different and Balaam’s vision continues to be embraced and despised by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even those who reject it are identified in some large measure by it. The Jews see themselves as do all other peoples as being different from the rest of humankind. There are two peoples in the world: Jews and Gentiles. God’s vision for the Jews was that they were chosen to represent him as priests to the rest of the nations, the Gentiles. To the extent that the Christian church voluntarily takes up the mantle of the Jewish people, that is true for Christians, as well. It is not a reasonable division of peoples. It is not a rational matter. Yet in some measure, most, if not all, humankind share it. Much of the historical difficulty in the Middle East issues from it. The holocaust is defined by it. Jews who wish to assimilate are cursed by it. Hebrews who are willing to don the mantle as are the Hasidim, the Orthodox, the Conservatives are marked by it. Among the holiness Christians, the Pentecostals, the Quakers and the Evangelicals—who define themselves as a people set apart from the world, who consciously attempt to “come out from among them,” meaning the world, are informed by Balaam’s vision. As noted above, so-called mainline Christians who consciously reject being any different than anyone else in the world live in semi-conscious reaction to Balaam’s vision. It is certainly true that ‘apartness’ creates a stigma that is difficult. In the Roman Catholic faith the late Pope John Paul II’s zeal for Christian behavior and his unreadiness to accept contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality and euthanasia as acceptable Christian practice marked his Romans as a people set apart.

What a vision! Richard Hays has a short description of the content of that vision, the story we have to live and tell. “The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted (astoundingly) to rescue a lost an broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus; the full scope of that rescue is not yet apparent, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news, the church. While awaiting the grand conclusion of the story, the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is called to reenact the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and thus to serve as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes for the world [293:193].”

Any group is marked by how effective it is in achieving its mission. It is so common that it is a truism that almost always the Christian groups that accomplish this are defined by a traditionalist vision, one that sets them apart.

From The Hollow Men
T. S. Eliot

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Tale of the Jenny

Daily Readings
Proverbs 3 + Numbers 22:2-40 + Deuteronomy15 + Galatians 3

Quote of the Day
Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisioned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Galatians 3:21,22

Daily Text: Numbers 22:22-35
22 God's anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23The donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. 24Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam's foot against the wall; so he struck it again. 26Then the angel of the LORD went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" 29Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!" 30But the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?" And he said, "No." 31Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32The angel of the LORD said to him, "Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. 33The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live." 34Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home." 35The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, "Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak." So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

The Tale of the Jenny
The confusion in this story of Balaam is rife. There must be a rational explanation. Balaam responds to Balak’s request to curse the Israelite people by praying to the Israelite god, YHWH.! Throughout, this Mesopotamian seer prays to the God of Israel. Why? Knowing that YHWH has blessed Israel and asked by Balak to curse, why does Balaam pray to YHWH? My own sense is that he was a God-fearer and always prayed to YHWH. But that is not the view of the rest of scripture, or most contemporary commentators.

Concensus, what there is of it, is that there were two differing stories of Balaam and they have been combined in Numbers 22-24. The first is that Balak cursed or wanted to curse the Israelites in response to Balak’s request and the second that he wanted follow God’s instructions. In our story, Balaam at first follows God’s command and refuses to go with the kings emissaries. In the tale of the Jenny it appears that he has been given permission by God to go to Balak and then his donkey refuses and ultimately an angel from God, an angry God, now, is observed blocking their way. This is a humorous, mocking story, rollicking even and perhaps one of the favorites in scripture for many. Talking animals are rare in Holy Writ. Only the serpent in Genesis speaks, except for Balaam’s ass. And Balaam is angry enough to kill the beast because he has been made a fool of. Is it possible that the permission for Balaam to go with the emissaries was a scribal error? We will never know. What we do know is that from Balaam’s own words in Numbers 23:19, God does not lie or change God’s mind!

Both Jewish and Christian theologians have together ‘cursed’ Balaam as a traitor to the God of whom he inquired. It is entirely possible that there was a concurrent oral tradition that saw Balaam in another light and so informed the text. In Numbers 31:8 Balaam is listed as being killed in the assault on Moab and in 31:16 his treachery is listed. In the overall picture of things Balaam’s ass served for Balaam the same role that Balaam served for Balak in the overriding matter of Israel versus Moab. What is meant? The issue here is God’s blessing of Israel and the curse on Moab. Balaam is called to reverse that and he fails to do so. In fact, he makes a fool of Barak for trying and Moab is defeated anyway. The jenny refuses Balaam’s wishes and speaks to him of his unfairness, makes a fool of him and reveals his foolishness in the presence of the adversarial angel sent from God. All of this is done to highlight what is happening as God brings his own people in to possess the land. The Balaam story and the Tale of the Jenny are two illustrative components of this larger tale.

On Balaam’s Ass
Francis Quarles

The ass, that for her slowness, was forbid
To be employed in God’s service, did
Perform good service now, in being slow:
The ass received stripes, but would not go:
She balked the way, and Balaam could not guide her:
The ass had far more wisdom than the rider:
The message being bad, the ass was loth
To be the bearer: ‘Twas a happy sloth;
‘Twas well for Balaam: had his ass but tried
Another step, Balaam had surely died:
Poor ass! And was thy faithful service paid
With oft-repeated strokes? Hadst thou obeyed,
Thy Lord had bought thy travel, with his blood:
Such is man’s payment, often bad for good:
The ass begins to question with his master,
Argues the case, pleads why he went no faster:
Nay, shows him mysteries, far beyond his reach;
Sure, God wants prophets, when dull asses preach:
The ass perceives the angel, and falls down;
When Balaam sees him not; or sees, unknown:
Nor is ‘t a wonder: for God’s spirit did pass
From blindfold Balaam, into Balaam’s ass.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Point of Entry

Daily Readings
Proverbs 2 + Numbers 21 + Deuteronomy 14 + Galatians 2

Quote of the Day
For the one who turned toward it (bronze serpent on a pole) was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all. The Wisdom of Solomon 16:7

Daily Text: Numbers 21:4-9, 14-20
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." 6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. 14“On this very matter was it stated in the Chronicle of the Wars of YHWH: At Waheb in Suphah, and at the wadis; [At] the Arnon 15and the cataract of the wadis. Where it bends to the settlement of Ar, and leans toward the boundary of Moab. 16From that point to Beer, the very spring where YHWH had instructed Moses: Assemble the people and I will provide them with water. 17It was then that Israel sang this song: “Surge, oh well!”—they sang to it. 18Oh well that the commanders delved, that the knights of the fighting force dug; Along with magistrate[s], bearing their scepters. 18b-19From the desert to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahliel, and from Nahliel to Bamoth. 20And from Bamoth to the valley located in the open country of Moab, to the peak of the summit overlooking the wasteland. [Translation of 14-20 from Levine, 410:81]

Point of Entry
Entering the Promised Land begins with this chapter. But early in this process the people set out to march East and North around the country of Edom and the way is difficult, so difficult the people begin to complain against both God and Moses about the lack of water and the detestable food. One can sense their anger and their rejection of their lot. God is so angry in return that he sends poisonous serpents among them. This view of God is far from the one most hold, that of a Deist being who perhaps set the universe in motion, but leaves it alone thereafter! This YHWH responds to his people and anger is as appropriate as love and patience. But he does provide Moses with a cure for those bitten—a bronze serpent suspended on a pole. When the bitten person looks on the serpent, healing occurs.

Critics want to make of this story an etiological explanation for the action of King Hezekiah in II Kings 18:4. However, Jews and Christians for centuries have responded without concerning themselves with when the story was written. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, 16, responds to the story and offers the theological point that it is God who does the healing, not the image. John’s Gospel (3:14-15) makes the reference a Gospel image. Like God’s discipline at many times, the serpents bring the people to their senses and they repent of their sin and recapture their vision of a future as the people of God.

One other element in this chapter is that of the Book of the Wars of YHWH. From it is quoted at least one and perhaps three pieces of ancient poetry, poetry obviously older than the Torah itself. The first two, beginning in verse 14, are beautifully translated by Levine as found above. His translation allows this ancient poetry to describe the movements of the Israelites on their march from the Zered Gorge to the point where they might cross the Arnon into Moab.

The third poem is a triumphal taunt song most likely sung by the Hebrews after they conquered Heshbon, the city of the Amorite king, Sihon. These poems and the book, read ‘scroll’, they are written in, give evidence of very early written and undoubtedly oral traditions behind the Torah. Our God has provided for us so much in these texts. For his people a cure, and water in the wilderness, for us a record that allows us to look between the seams of time at traces of our Redeemer’s grace.

God is Not Dumb
James Russell Lowell

God is not dumb, that he should speak no more;
If thou hast wanderings in the wilderness
And findest not Sinai, ‘tis thy soul is poor;
There towers the mountain of the Voice no less,
Which whoso seeks shall find; but he who bends,
Intent on manna still and mortal ends,
Sees it not, neither hears its thundered lore.

Slowly the Bible of the race is writ,
And not on paper leaves nor leaves of stone;
Each age, each kindred, adds a verse to it,
Texts of despair or hope, of joy or moan.
While swings the sea, while mists the mountains shroud,
While thunder’s surges burst on cliffs of cloud,
Still at the prophets’ feet the nations sit.