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Archive for the ‘Missio Dei in Ancient Lectionary’ Category

July 28, 2012 commemorates one of the saddest days in the biblical calendar. It is called Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av in the biblical calendar. This is the day, according to the Bible when the first Temple constructed by Solomon was destroyed by the invading Babylonian army (Jeremiah 52 and 2 Kings 25). According to Jewish tradition, this was also the day on which the reconstructed Temple was destroyed in AD 70, by the invading Roman army.

The prophets of the Bible pondered over the meaning of this very sad happening. “How can this happen?” This is the place where the presence of God dwelt. Indeed, when the people were saved from the slavery, at the hands of Pharaoh, they sang,

“Till your people Passover, O LORD,

Till your people Passover,

The people you have recreated

You bring them

You plant them on your own mountain

The place, O LORD

You have made your abode

The Sanctuary, O LORD

Your hands have established

The LORD will reign forever and ever.” (Exodus 15:16,17)

Yet, the prophets pondered that the people had desecrated the Temple- this very place that was the goal of the Exodus. They performed all the rituals in the Temple. But, their lives lived against the ethics of the LORD of the Temple. So the prophet Jeremiah shouted,

“Hear the word of the LORD

You people who enter these gates to worship the LORD

Thus says the LORD

The God of Israel

`Amend your ways

And your deeds

I will let you dwell in this place.

Do not trust in lying words

‘This is the Temple of the LORD

This is the Temple of the LORD

This is the Temple of the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7:1-4)

Sadly, the people trusted in the false hope that nothing will happen to them and the Temple, just because it was among them, and they religiously performed all the rituals.  They did not straighten their ethics, “to do justice with one another; to not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, the widow; to not shed innocent blood of the poor in the Temple” (Jeremiah 7:5-6). Therefore, sadly the prophet Jeremiah records, “In the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month . . . he (the general of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon) entered the house of the LORD, and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every lofty house he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12)

The ninth of Av is a sad, yet, profound reminder that hollow religiosity and rituals do not count with God. He wants people, today as then, to live by His ethics and not according to the ethics of present day society. He wants his people  “to do justice; to not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow; to not shed innocent blood of the poor. . .”

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This series of blogs follows the Torah recitation cycle of the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the recitation of the first five books of the New Testament- the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. My hypothesis is the these five books are the New Testament parallel to the Torah, and were recited by the early Jewish-Christian communities.

The four set of readings are Genesis 4, Ezekiel 28:11-26; Psalm 2, and Matt. 2

Genesis 4 describes a horrible act- the first murder.

The Torah recitation is a fascinating inner biblical interpretation of the Messianic prophecy found in Genesis 3:15. God said to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” The crucial question is what is the meaning of the “seed of the woman?” Genesis 4:1 gives the answer to this question. When the woman gave birth to the son, she exclaims, “Behold, I have produced a man- the LORD.” Most translations would add, “with the help of the LORD.” Yet, the text makes it clear that it seeks the worshipper to interpret the song in Genesis 3:15, as a prophecy of a Divine Seed of the woman.

The question that that text seeks to answer is which of the two sons of Adam and Eve is a prototype of the “Seed of the woman?” Genesis 4:1-2 gives two examples- one is Cain; the other is Abel. Abel is described as a “keeper of sheep,” while Cain is described as a “server of the ground.” In many senses it seems like Cain is doing the right thing. He is doing what human beings ought to do, according to Genesis 2:15. Yet, there is a greater principle, which Cain does not understand. The next verse goes on to explain this. “In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of some of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the Firstfruits of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,” (4:3-4). The problem was not with the kind of offering which Cain and Abel brought- i.e. agricultural offering versus animal offering.  Cain brought simply something that he just plucked from the ground and brought it to the Lord, whereas Abel took pains to bring the best of best- his Firstfruits. Throughout the Torah this is the demand God has of his people. He expects people to bring their best of best- their firstfruits, whether it be the firstfruits of the plant kingdom, or firstfruits of the animal kingdom. This is so, because, when God created, his creation was Firstfruits, Reshit, (Genesis 1:1)

The story does not end here. Cain is given opportunities to do the right thing. God tells him, “If you do tov, good, you will be accepted.” (4:7). Instead, Cain decides to do ra’a, evil. God lays the foundation in Genesis 1. Everything in the creation narrative is tov, good. This is the biblical word for right, holy, righteous, and all that is required for the good life. Cain, rebels against God and ends up killing his brother- the first murder in the Bible.

The steps toward the murder are very crucial to understand. The first thing that happens is that Cain becomes angry. Then his “face” falls. He goes into a state of sustained depression. God says to him, “Why have you brought yourself into this state of sustained depression?” God tells Cain, “If you do not do what is tov, good, then sin is crouching at your door.” Cain could well have snapped out of this depression by looking toward God and taking on his countenance. Instead, he gave into the clutches of sin, and committed the horrible act of murder.

It is interesting to note that the “adamah, the ground” cried out because of the blood of Abel. Abel, in the prophets becomes the paradigm of all the prophets who were rejected by the people of Israel. (4 Macc. 18:11; Matt. 23:35)

It is also interesting to note that since Cain let his “face” be controlled by sin (4:6), he eventually has to flee from the “face of the LORD.”  He settles “east of Eden”- the same place to which Adam and Eve had to flee.

The Torah recitation ends with a prophetic anticipation. Abel is dead. However, another son is born to Adam and Eve. This is Seth. The text suggests that through this son the “seed of the woman” will come.

The Prophets worship text, Ezekiel 28:11-26 compares the King of Tyre to Cain. “Thus says the Lord GOD: You were the signet of perfection,full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering.” (28:12-13) The Garden of Eden is called the “mountain of the LORD.” (28:14). In prophetic thought, the Temple and Jerusalem was the Garden of Eden.  Cain, it seems clear, was symbolic of the generation of the people who were driven out of the “Garden of Eden,” the land of Israel. In the same way the people of Tyre were also driven out of the Garden of the LORD.  The Ezekiel text is an equal opportunity text- both the Jews and the non-Jews behaved like Cain.

The prophet goes on to declare, “Thus says the Lord GOD: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall settle on their own soil that I gave to my servant Jacob. They shall live in safety in it, and shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall live in safety, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God.” (28:25-26). This underlines the prophetic hope that people of Israel, just like Adam and Eve, will return back to the Garden of Eden, Jerusalem.

Yet, this will not be an easy process.

Psalm 2 reminds the worshipper that the people in high places- the kings will always plot against the “Lord and his Messiah.” They will always seek to kill him, just like Cain killed  Abel.

The Gospel passage, Matthew 2:13-23 is a stark reminder of the prophecy that the “seed of the serpent” is bent on destroying the “Seed of the Woman.” Therefore, “the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt. 2:13).

Joseph and Mary took the child, Yeshua to Egypt.

Jesus is portrayed here as the New Israel. Just as the people had to go out of the land to Egypt, so must Jesus go into Egypt. He must go into Exile, because the Cains of his own people, in the Garden of Eden were seeking to kill him. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, which refers to Israel. Yet, there is a contrast here. In Hosea 11:1, the people of Israel behave more like Cain. They forsake the LORD. They desecrate the Garden of Eden- Jerusalem. They go whoring after other gods and goddesses. Jesus, in contrast, is the faithful Abel.

The massacre of children in Bethlehem echoes what Pharaoh did in Egypt. In Exodus 1-2, just Moses, the savior, is saved. It is ironic though, that that massacre took place in Egypt. This massacre took place in the “Garden of the LORD.”

After the death of Herod the Great- the prototype of Cain, and Pharaoh, the angel of the LORD appears to Joseph and asks him to take the Messiah Child back to the Garden of the LORD.

He goes there, only to be killed on the cross 33 years after that.

The four songs urge the worshipper to ask the question, “Is your life like that of Cain, or is it like that of Abel?

 

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In the Ancient Jewish-Christian Lectionary, my thesis is, that the life of Jesus was sung /recited alongside the singing and recitation of the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms. In the second set of recitation, Genesis 2:4-3:24 was sung alongside Isaiah 51 and Psalm 2, in the ancient Jewish lectionary. In the early Jewish Christian community, the crescendo was the life of Jesus the Messiah. The recitation, therefore, culminated in Matthew 1:18-25.

Matthew 1:18-25, describes the birth of Jesus the Messiah.  They early Jewish-Christian worshippers recited from Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.” This was no ordinary human child. This was God.

They had already sung from the Torah, Genesis 2-3. The Torah text begins with the words, “These are the generations of . . .” This phrase, they knew, divided the book of Genesis into ten sections. The birth of Jesus was a culmination of the history, which began in Genesis.

Gen. 2:15 is very central to the understanding of the purpose of human beings, “The LORD God took the human being and gave him rest, nuach” in the garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it.” The words, which are used here, are used in the rest of the Torah to express the act of worshipping/serving God and “keeping his commandments, his Torah.”  This is the dual purpose of human life- to worship and keep the word of God.

Genesis 2:18, puts into place the biblical purpose of the man and woman relationship.

In Genesis 2:18, God gives man an ezer. This word is usually translated as “helper or helpmate.” (NIV, KJV). However, in the rest of the Bible this word is used to describe God himself- He is our ezer (Exod. 18:4; Psalm 121: 1, 2; 124:8; 33:20; etc.).  The human being looked for ezer in the animal kingdom. But, this ezer was not found in the animal kingdom. This, very clearly, is a polemic against all the polytheistic religions, which worshipped animals in ancient near eastern societies.

The next section, in the Torah recitation, opens with the description the original state of the primeval humans- “they were both arum, naked, and they were not ashamed” (2:25).  This then, is followed by a statement regarding the serpent, “Now the serpent was more arum than any other wild animal” (3:1). The Hebrew word arum is a wisdom word. In the rest of the Bible it describes a wise person. (Prov. 14:18; 12:16; 22:3, etc.)  Right of the bat, the text makes it clear that this describes a tussle between two approaches to wisdom- God’s way and the serpent’s way. One way leads to “knowing God.” The other way leads to “knowing yourself as gods.” This is the way, which breaks “unity” with God, and between the human couple.

The interesting thing is that after they partook of the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree that was supposed make them divine, instead of becoming “gods” they became ashamed of their arum (Gen. 3:7), and want to hide from the presence of God. They were afraid of the “qol, voice” of God.

This is followed by a set of blame game between the man and the woman and the serpent. Then God responds.  A part of God’s response is the crucial messianic poem, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” The Serpent and the Seed of the Serpent was the highest image of the pantheon of gods and goddesses in ancient religions.  In this poem, the messianic Seed of the Woman strikes the head of the serpent. This is the place from which the evil arum flows, while the serpent would strike the “heel” of the Seed of the Woman.

The desecration of the “arum” also severely impacts the relationship between the man and the woman. Gender relationships were reversed after the Fall. It also impacted human relationship with creation.  The poem in this recitation was descriptive of the fallen state of creation in ancient religious civilizations.

Yet . . . the poem says that the Seed of the Woman will finally prevail.

After the Torah recitation, the ancient Jewish Christian worshipper would have sung from Isaiah 51, which reflected the society after the Fall. It also reflected the society in Babylon where the exiles were living. It reflected society in the first century A.D., as it reflects society today. The community during the time of Isaiah sang, “The LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” (Isaiah 51:3).

The messianic era, which the recitation looks forward to, is essentially a return back to the Garden of Eden.  The worshipper cries out, “So the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 51:11)

This Edenic atmosphere is a return back to the same sort of innocence, and knowledge of God, which is a pure knowledge. It is a return back to the Tree of Life; the Tree of Life is the Torah.

The singing of Psalms 1 and 2 is a fascinating reflection of the above two worship texts. Psalm one begins with the reflection the righteous person who hagah, meditates on the Torah of the LORD (Psalm 1:2). Psalm 2 begins with the description of the opposite of Psalm 1. The NRSV text reads, “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The word “plot” in Hebrew is the same word- “they hagah a vain thing.” This is the same as in Genesis 3. The word arum is neutral. The man and the woman were both arum, and they were not ashamed of it. Yet, the serpent was arum, and he caused the man and the woman to become ashamed. In this text as well, when the just person hagahs on the Torah, he does the right thing. While when the unjust kings hagah, they do the unjust thing. They conspire against the “Seed of the Woman.”  The “Seed of the woman” is told by God, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” The divine kings of the nations had become the “seed of the serpent.” Yet, the Good News was for these nations as well. The nations and the kings of the nations are told, “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way,” 2:11-12 (NKJV).  Other translations, instead of “Kiss the Son,” read, “Kiss his feet.” Interestingly, the Genesis recitation of the text reflects the time when the seed of the serpent will bruise the heel of the seed of the woman. This text reverses the trend. In this the seed of the serpent, are told that they ought to “kiss the feet of the Son.

The Gospel crescendo song, finally points to the Seed of the Woman- A Virgin conceives and bears a Son. He is God with us, Emmanuel.”  Of course, the Seed of the Serpent, in this case Herod the Great will try to bruise the heel of the Seed of the Woman.  Towards the end of the Matthew’s Gospel song, the Seed of the Woman is crucified. But, in the ultimate analysis, the Seed of the Woman prevailed. He rose from the dead. He is Risen.

This was the hope and joy of the early Jewish-Christian worshippers.

This is our hope and joy, even today!

 

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I am beginning a new series of blogs, which reflect on the Missio Dei, the Mission of God in the Bible, through the eyes of an ancient Jewish-Christian lectionary of the Bible. I am following an ancient triennial cycle of the reading of the Bible. It would be good to note that this was not merely a reading through the Bible. It was a “singing” of the Bible. It began with the singing through the Torah, with ancient musical notations, which are lost to modern translations of the Bible. This was followed by singing a portion of the Prophets; followed by singing a Psalm. Finally, the ancient worshipper would sing a section from the life of Jesus the Messiah. Each of these readings, we will note, flow into each other, and enabled the ancient worshipper to grasp the Missio Dei, the Mission of God in the Bible.

The first song in the ancient lectionary began in the first month of the biblical year- the month of Nisan. This is the month of the Passover and the First fruits (Leviticus 23). This is the month of Good Friday and Resurrection. It begins with Genesis 1, the creation narrative. It flows into a song from Isaiah 65:11-25. Then it flows into the singing of Psalm 1. And finally, the ancient worshipper of the Jewish-Christian community ends with the singing of life Jesus the Messiah, beginning with Matthew 1.

Psalm 1 sets the tone for the understanding of the whole Bible. It talks about a person who is ashre, i.e. a person who knows the realm of complete satisfaction in life. This person is quite unlike the person who is described in Genesis 3. He does not walk in “the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the mockers.” The Ashre person, in contrast to these, delights on the Torah of the LORD. He “haggahs, or meditates” on the Torah of the LORD day and night.  Psalm 2 contrasts this person with leaders of the world, who “haggah, or plot” in vain against the LORD and against the Messiah.

Both Psalms 1 and 2 set a choice before humanity. Either human beings live by the Torah and the Messiah, or they are against the Torah and the Messiah. If human beings live by the Torah and Messiah, they will experience the Ashre Life, the Good Life. If human beings choose to go against the Torah and Messiah, they will experience a life of separation from God.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 sets the original place for this ashre human being.  In the creation narrative the worshipper finds a constant repetition of the phrase “God saw that it was tov, good.” There is no wickedness; there is no mocking; there is no sin in this world. The same Lord who “knows the way of the righteous,” also knows the original state of the human being and creation.

The creation narrative shows that the human being is given the task of being a wise “ruler” (Genesis 1:28). Instead, sadly through history one finds that human beings decide to become like the “wicked” rulers of Psalm 2. The story of the Bible is a sad narrative of this kind of a choice made by humanity.

Thankfully, the story does not end with this sad description of history. Isaiah 65:17-25, the Prophets text, sends the worshipper into the future. It enables him/her to look into the future to see a “new heaven and a new earth.”  A time when there will indeed be harmony among human beings; between human beings and creation; and among the creatures of creation. Until then, of course, there will be disharmony.

The task of those who seek to follow the Messiah is to “meditate on the Torah, day and night” This will enable them to look to the past, i.e. Genesis 1, and look toward the future, i.e. Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65, when there will be a “New Heaven and a New Earth.”

Matthew 1 gives the worshipper the core source of the hope found in all three Old Testament texts: Genesis 1, Psalm 1, and Isaiah 65. The hope is introduced in the person of “Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. He is human. Yet, he is also divine, born of the Virgin Mary by the Spirit of God. He is the Davidic King, the Messiah.  The worshipper notes that this is the same “Spirit of God” which hovered over the face of the deep, in Genesis 1, and caused the creation to come into being. This same Spirit now, in Matt. 1, is responsible for the birthing of the divine Messiah. The singing of the song creates exhilarating joy, in the realization the through this Messiah child there will be new creation- just like the creation of Genesis 1.

The worshipper also observes that Matthew 1 highlights five women- Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, and Mary. Four of these are Gentile women. Each of these encounters the horrors of human treatment of women and the trafficking of women. This was not how God created human beings- men and women. Both were created in the image of God. Both were pure, holy, and equal. Yet, something horrible happened in the history of humanity, which caused the creation of God to be decreated and desecrated. The story of the Gospel seeks to reverse this horror.  The ancient singing-reading cycle of the Bible takes the modern worshipper through this journey of God’s healing, through the person of the Messiah Jesus.

I invite you to follow this journey.

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