Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Festival of Sukkoth, Tishri 15-23

Sukkoth is a Biblical pilgrimage festival celebrating the harvest and commemorates the period after the exodus from Egypt during which the Jews wandered in the wilderness. It is celebrated for nine days by Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside of Israel, and for eight days by Reform Jews and by Jews in Israel. In Judaism it is one of the three major holidays known as the Shalosh Regalim, which mark the three times during the year that the Jewish populace traveled to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Sukkoth is the final and most important holiday of the year. The importance of this festival is indicated by the statement, “This is to be a lasting ordinance.” The divine pronouncement, “I am the Lord your God,” concludes this section on the holidays of the seventh month. Sukkoth begins five days after Yom Kippur on the fifteenth of Tishri (September or October). It is a drastic change from one of the most solemn holidays in the Jewish year to one of the most joyous. The word Sukkoth means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that Jews are commanded to live in during this holiday, just as the Jews did in the wilderness.

This holiday has a dual significance: historical and agricultural (just as Passover and Pentecost) and commemorates not only the Israelite's forty-year sojourn in the wilderness but also the autumn harvest, both of which emphasize God's continuing care for the people (either through the gift of manna or the bounty of the earth). Thus, the festival is variously referred to as "Ingathering" (i.e., "harvesting," Exodus 23:16, 34:22) and "Booths." Although the festival is sometimes called "Tabernacles" because the same Hebrew word also describes the "Tent of Meeting," or Tabernacle, at which they worshiped before the Temple in Jerusalem was built, the festival has no links to the Tabernacle itself). The festival marks eight days of special celebration (Leviticus 23:39-43), rejoicing, feasting, and (in ancient times) elaborate sacrifices (Numbers 29:12-38).

Sukkoth is also an important festival and theme for Luke. I plan to develop this idea further.

Copyrighted 2006

Friday, May 26, 2006

Nehemiah 9 and Luke

The literature of the exilic and post-exilic period reflects a great interest in prayer. Consequently any attempt to understand the background of prayer in Luke-Acts must examine this body of literature. Nehemiah 9 contains one of the oldest penitential prayers in the Hebrew Bible. The corporate confession was delivered shortly after the festival of Sukkoth. This particular penitential prayer, known as “The Levites’ Prayer,” is remarkable in that the prayer becomes a retelling of Israel’s past as a history of sin. According to Newman, “The role of the historical retrospect when it is found in prayers offered by Israelites, whether in the Psalms or in the narratives, is to affirm a community’s self understanding in relation to God.”

The historical retelling depicts the people continuously responding to God in typical deuteronomic style: they are insolent and rebel and stiffen their necks. The accusation that the people killed the prophets and rejected their message of warning is another deuteronomic theme. The author has structured the prayer according to the sin-punishment-repentance-salvation cycle. Nehemiah 9 uses scriptural traditions from all parts of the Bible including the priestly source.

Thus Nehemiah 9 represents a phenomenon that Newman has identified as “‘scripturalized’ prayers, in which the past is remembered through the words of scriptural tradition.” The prayer portrays God’s direct participation in history. Furthermore, according to Duggan, “the prayer certifies that the history recounted in the narrative is, indeed, salvation history.” Finally, Newman states: “The prayer is characterized predominantly by two emphases: the greatness and transcendence of God and the failure of the Israelites to uphold the covenant and the resulting need for repentance.”

Copyrighted 2006

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Jesus, the Reformer

Saint Luke would agree with Dr. Jim West that the real Historical Jesus should be viewed as a reformer.

However, there are a few problems with this picture, which although accurate, clashes with the demands of the modern academic and religious establishments.

Luke wrote to most excellent Theophilus, the High Priest. The parables, stories and sayings Luke recorded were critical of the temple establishment. The Parables of the Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the Rich Man and the Wicked Tenants are best understood when Theophilus is viewed as the head of the temple establishment. It is, however, the material that Matthew and Mark add to their rewriting of Luke that truly reveals the Lucan Jesus as a reformer and not a condemner.

For instance, last March 20th, Chris Weimer discussed “The Sins of Jesus” based upon four passages in Matthew and concluded that the Jesus depicted in Matthew "Instead of merely reforming Judaism, he actually revolutionizes it - it becomes a new religion instead." Using the four parallel passages in Luke and/or based upon their absences from Luke, I would agree with Jim West that Jesus was a reformer.

Throughout the centuries, the cursing of the fig tree has been interpreted by scholars as evidence that Jesus condemned the sacrificial system because the story encircles the cleansing of the temple. The fig tree that the Marcan Jesus cursed in the morning is discovered withered the day after Jesus had cleaned out the temple. From the placement of the stories and the well known symbolic meaning of fig trees, the commentators conclude that the fig tree represents the animal sacrificial system. In a number of fig tree passages examined by W.R. Telford, "the reason given for God's wrathful visitation particularly concerns cultic aberration on the part of Israel, her running after false gods, or her condemnation for a corrupt temple cultus and sacrificial system (e.g. Jer. 5:17:19; 8:12-23; Hos. 2:11-13; 9:10-17 and Am. 4:4-13)."

In Mark, according to Waetjen, Jesus is closing down the temple as "he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple." The Marcan Jesus "makes the seemingly senseless act of cursing the fig tree intelligible." Waetjen further states: "The cursing of the fig tree symbolizes the condemnation of the temple institution which, as the central systemic structure of Judaism, has been regulating the religious, political, economic and social life of the Jewish people." Mark has changed the Lucan narrative so that the theological emphasis of the cleansing of the temple is no longer a mere act of reformation but one of judgment.

No group in Judaism challenged the validity of the animal sacrificial system. Although there is isolated criticism of the sacrificial system in the writings of the prophets, a proper analysis of the passages suggests that Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah had questioned the sincerity of the worship of the people rather than condemned the practice. This is likewise the view of the Lucan Jesus.

Thus it is significant that the withered fig tree account is conspicuous by its absence from Luke. Finally, and most importantly, consistent with no withered fig tree, Luke has no theology of the cross. A Jewish reformer did not announce a new theology to replace the animal sacrificial system.

Let the reformation begin.

Copyrighted 2006

Monday, May 22, 2006

Exile and repentance

The exile led to restoration and redemption. What role did repentance play and how did the people in exile seek repentance?

In the seventh petition of his dedication of the Temple prayer, King Solomon said:

“If they sin against thee--for there is no man who does not sin--and thou art angry with them, and dost give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; yet if they lay it to heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent, and make supplication to thee in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned, and have acted perversely and wickedly'; if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to thee toward their land, which thou gavest to their fathers, the city which thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for thy name; then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place their prayer and their supplication, and maintain their cause and forgive thy people who have sinned against thee, and all their transgressions which they have committed against thee; and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are thy people, and thy heritage, which thou didst bring out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace).”

Whether or not you conclude that the dedication prayer of King Solomon, which included the word “captive” four times, was written during the exile, or the words of the 7th petition were added by a redactor, it is apparent that the exile or prophetic threat thereof, encouraged new thinking about how YHWH could be implored to help his people.

Moses Maimonides, the great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, wrote that animal sacrifice dates back to the most ancient times, having been a common form of worship from the earliest days of man's need for religious expression and experience. The animal sacrificial services that were conducted, first in the tabernacle in the wilderness, and at Shiloh, and then at the Temple in Jerusalem, were part of the expressions of the human desire to come as close as possible to God. The Torah prescribes animal sacrifice to be conducted in the Temple as an integral part of the observance on many occasions, for both the individual and the community. No group in Judaism challenged the validity of the animal sacrificial system. Although there is isolated criticism of the sacrificial system in the writings of the prophets, a proper analysis of the passages suggests that Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah had questioned the sincerity of the worship of the people rather than condemned the practice.

It has been suggested that prayers, as service of the heart, replaced the animal sacrificial system that disappeared with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. However we know from I & II Maccabees, that prayers, contemporaneous with the prayers of Qumran although written in Greek, were part of the religious life long before the destruction of the Temple and date to the Exile or earlier. Since the final redaction of the psalms has been dated as late as 200-180 BCE, the prayers of the psalms need to be reviewed along with I & II Maccabees and Qumran prayers in considering the origins of prayer and the related concept of repentance.

It is of crucial importance to be aware that by no means did the sacrifices serve as an end in themselves. For example, the sin offering, which was a minority of all the offerings brought in the Temple, was powerless to atone for sin unless it was accompanied by true repentance. At what point in time did the idea develop that sacrifices without repentance had no efficacy? Ben Sirach denied that the offerings of the wicked are efficacious or that a multitude of such offerings will atone for a wicked person who does not correct his behavior.

In the altered circumstances of the Exile, the earlier texts were reworked and reinterpreted so that they would comply more closely with the prevailing conditions. Many of the individual complaint psalms were reread at a later stage from a national point of view. Exilic and post-exilic theology can also be seen in the national emphases in Lamentations, the nomistic theology of the Deuteronomistic history and the servant songs of Deutero-Isaiah.

The period also experienced a debate on the question of faithful life in the land, with Ezra and Nehemiah offering an exclusionary, ethnocentric vision, God’s mercy to Nineveh in the book of Jonah providing a more open vision, the Maccabees’ dream of sovereignty free of foreign influence standing in contrast to a growing Diaspora which suggested that Israel might not need territory to be a people.

Theology changed to meet new circumstances.

Copyrighted 2006

Monday, May 15, 2006

Prayers, Marriage and Borders

I have been thinking about penitential prayers. Prayers were an important matter for Luke. It so happens that one of the first recognized penitential prayer reported in the Hebrew Bible was uttered when Ezra confessed the sins of the people of Israel. They sinned by intermarriage. The problems with feeding of the widows and the appointment of the seven to wait on tables may also have been related to intermarriage.

Yesterday, the Israeli Supreme Court, in a ruling elevating security concerns above marriage, held that Palestinians can not live in Israel with their Israeli spouses. The court upheld the law that was enacted after a Palestinian, who had acquired Israeli citizenship, killed himself and 14 other people in a suicide bombing of a Haifa restaurant in 2002.

Today, the President of the United States announced his plans to place 5,000 National Guard troops along the border with Mexico in support of Border Patrol efforts to keep out illegal immigrants. In other news, the President announced his support of a constitutional amendment defining marriage. His wife suggested the proposed constitutional amendment should not be a Republican campaign issue.

Sometimes I think that the events of the Middle East influence American domestic policy decisions. I try to stay focused on the writings of Luke but sometimes my thoughts are distracted. This week however the distractions will be welcomed. My daughter graduates on Thursday from Temple University in Asian Studies and Japanese. The extended family will party all weekend starting on Thursday.

Copyrighted 2006

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Exilic Theology

Sometimes I can point to the seed of my thought. Today one of the readings is the story of Philip and the man from Ethiopia. It is introduced with the background statement that after Stephen was martyred, Philip and the rest were scattered but they continued to preach. Does Luke intend “they were scattered abroad” to be an ironic allusion to the exile?

Regardless of whether you think that Luke has made an allusion to the exile, it is apparent that exile, or the threat thereof, was an important thought process in many key biblical verses. In fact, exilic theology may be the origin of our understanding of repentance and penitential prayer.

Copyrighted 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Covenant in Luke-Acts

It is interesting that the usage of the word "covenant" [diatheke] has apparently declined in the NT era. One need note that Josephus does not use the word "covenant" in his writings and has in fact rewritten the covenant concept out of his sacred scriptures to accomplish his objectives. For Josephus, if there is no [old] covenant, there can be no new covenant.

The usage of [diatheke] in the NT is 32/33 and in Luke-Acts 3/4 [one questionable usage]. Since Luke-Acts represents 25% of the NT, one would expect a higher number of occurrences of the word in Luke-Acts on a proportionate basis.

However, looking more closely at Luke's writings, the concept of a covenant community is rather strong and in fact Luke does defend the rite of circumcision. Three examples should illustrate this point.

Luke has added “For a long while” to note the antiquity of God's covenant with Moses. This Lucan addition makes no sense if the Lucan Jesus has rejected and terminated a long standing relationship with God's people. This is consistent with the findings of Richardson that Luke has not identified Christianity with Israel in explicit terms as did Justin Martyr. Rather, as explained by Jervell, Luke has redefined the people of Israel, as did Paul, to include “those of faith” among whom are now numbered Gentiles, in God's blessing of Abraham. This is also consistent with the teaching of Isaiah and Sirach that the promise to Abraham is interpreted to include the redemption of the Gentiles. The Lucan version of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants represents the original teaching of Jesus, a parable in which Jesus does not condemn the Temple and the animal sacrificial system nor does God reject his people. As a result of the restoration, Gentiles receive a share in the salvation in accordance with the promise of God and thus become associated with Israel as equal members of the covenant community.

The story of the 'Good Thief' is another example of a story unique to Luke that had one meaning to the High Priest and another meaning for us. The prophets repeatedly told the people 'repent and be saved.' The prophets taught that it was never too late to turn from your evil ways. The Good Thief did repent on the cross and the Lucan Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The High Priest believed that repentance was the key to salvation and therefore would have appreciated this story. It was the ultimate last minute act of repentance. The behavior of the Good Thief was consistent with Jewish belief that even someone who had gone astray could return to the fold of the covenant by repenting. Both the Prodigal Son and the Good Thief had repented.

A number of scholars have quoted from anthropologist Feeley-Harnik's seminal study on food and teaching in the OT and NT. Neyrey synthesizes Feeley-Harnik's observations into his analysis of Luke 22:14-38:

“These statements rest on the basic principle: as God gives food to the covenant people, so God gives Torah-instruction to them. Bread/food are a clear and unmistakable symbol of Torah-instruction ... Food and instruction are interchangeable symbols, replicating each other. In other words, a meal is a perfect setting for teaching, as Wisdom in the Old Testament or symposia in Greek literature indicate.”

Luke does have a concept of covenant community.

Copyrighted 2006

Friday, May 05, 2006

Prayers of Penitence

Biblical scholars have recognized that the prayers found in Ezra 9:6-15, Neh. 1:5-11, 9:6-37 and Daniel 9:4-19 constitute a distinct genre of prayers of penitence. The distinctiveness has been stated in three primary areas. Only these prayers contain the phrase translated as “to make confession.” Only these contain a structure moving from ascription to confession and finally to petition. Finally these four prayers are penitential in character and can be linked to the penitential program advanced in Solomon’s Temple dedication prayer.

Copyrighted 2006

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Temple as a House of Prayer

The prayer delivered by King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple is most unusual for several reasons. It is a prayer about the Temple as the preeminent place of prayer. Yet in the religious life of Israel, the Temple functions primarily as a place of sacrifice.

At the beginning of the prayer, the Temple is the place of residence for God but later in the prayer there is repeated stress on the Temple not as a place for God’s dwelling but as a place for the “Name” of God. The prayer and what von Rad calls the advocation of a “Name theology” serves as a means of securing access to God even when the Temple can no longer function as a place of worship. Not once during the lengthy prayer does King Solomon mention sacrifice.

The most important aspect of Solomon’s dedication prayer is that it establishes a place and a meaningful role for the people as participants in the religious life of Israel. In seven separate petitions, Solomon prays that God “in heaven” will hear the prayers and supplications of the people directed towards the Temple. The Temple as house of prayer becomes the focal point of the people’s relationship with God. The prayer, according to Werline, “presents the notion that the people could enact Deuteronomy’s demand for repentance through penitential prayer.”

The moment of the incense offering, at least as far as the evening is concerned, was considered the optimal moment for private prayer and there is evidence that crowds gathered in the Temple to pray at this auspicious moment. We see such evidence of the participation of the people in the Gospel of Luke when Zechariah entered the Temple to burn incense. In verse 10, we read that the people were praying outside the Temple at the hour of incense.

Copyrighted 2006

Monday, May 01, 2006

May Day

My Appalachian Trial calendar says May 1st is a holiday in the UK. It is actually a holy day for the American establishment. Law Day was established as a response to the annual parade Stalin and Lenin held on this day in Moscow to proclaim its pending victory over capitalism. Seventy five years later, without any war, the walls collapsed and communism was history.

Today however a group of self-proclaimed Americans, most of whom are not citizens, have used this day as one of protest. They proclaim, as they boycott the workplace, schools and shopping, that the doors have been closed to them and that walls are being built across our southern borders as if the latest immigrants are our enemies. The dream they seek is so precious that they are willing to risk death to reach paradise. If the truth be told, we need the passion, energy and money of undocumented workers to sustain the American Dream. They pay taxes, including social security taxes, but these social security payments may never benefit them. No wonder the IRS is unwilling to share this data with other government agencies. They are the rising tide which will lift all of us.

I have been thinking and writing about penitential prayer but I am unable to write the right prayer for what many hope will be an auspicious occasion. “Lord, hear our prayer” will have to do.

Copyrighted 2006