I have recently blogged on the story set for the first Sunday, which is traditionally called The Temptation of Jesus. There (https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/) I argued that this story should better be called The Testing of Jesus, and it could best be understood as a time of testing Jesus with regard to his understanding of, and commitment to, the mission to which God was calling him, worked out through a pattern familiar from Jewish midrashic interpretation of scripture.
In this blog, I turn from the nature of the story to the actual content. What is it, that Jesus is being tested about? How do each of the elements of the story contribute to our understanding of what God was wanting, and planning, to do through the public activities of Jesus, in Galilee and then in Jerusalem?
The first observation about this story comes from the location, in all three versions that we have. In each case, it is the wilderness where these testing take place. How is this significant?
Central to the story of Israel, is the wilderness as the place of testing. The story of Moses and the Israelites is narrated in Exodus 13:17-19:2 and 40:34-38, through the book of Numbers (where it is mentioned 44 times), and in Deuteronomy 1-2.
This journey is recalled in the Psalms (68:7, 78:15-20, 40, 52, 95:8, 106:14-33, 136:16) as well as in various prophetic oracles (Isaiah 40:3-5, 41:17-20, 43:19-20, Jer 2:6, 31:2-3, Ezekiel 20:8b-21, Hosea 13:4-6, Amos 2:9-10, Wisdom of Solomon 11:1-4).
That’s a lot of references to the period in the wilderness!
It is clear, in each of these Hebrew Scripture texts, the wilderness is not a god-forsaken place, full of temptations, but it is the place where God encounters the people, tests them, nurtures them, and equips them for their future.
A second set of observations relate to the specific scripture texts that are cited in the course of this testing. They are the same in each extended version that we have. And each of the three testing moments, with the associated scripture texts that are cited, relate to key moments in the story of Israel in the wilderness during their forty years of wandering. (I am indebted to my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, for this insight.)
Understanding the significance of each testing comes when we look more closely at the passages to which Jesus refers, and explore the resonances and connections that those texts have with other biblical passages. Just as Israel (the child of God) is tested during their forty years in the wilderness, so Jesus (the son of God) revisits those testings in his forty days in the wilderness.
1. The first moment of testing relates to bread: “command these stones to become loaves of bread”. The story evoked is that concerning the gift of manna which was given to the people of Israel as they sojourned in the wilderness. It is told in Numbers and referred to quite directly in Deut 8:3—the verse which is part-quoted by Jesus in the testing narrative, people do not live by bread alone. Could the mission of Jesus be diverted into concerns about sustenance and immediate survival, rather than longer-term strategies?
2. The second moment of testing, on the top of a mountain, relates to worship, and the recognition of the special and supreme place of the Lord God. The offer, “all these [kingdoms] I will give you”, is met by another quotation, by Jesus, from the same book: it is the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve (Deut 6:13).
The story of the Golden Calf, told in detail in Exodus 32, sits behind this particular test. It is alluded to, perhaps not quite so directly this time, in Deut 6:14-15, the verses which come immediately after the verse quoted by Jesus.
The incident involving the Golden Calf was when Israel “went off the rails”, developing an idol for the focus of their worship, rather than being focussed on God alone. The testing faced by Jesus was for him to gain power and authority in his own right, at the expense of serving the greater call that God had placed on his life.
The words of the tester in this second testing evoke the belief that God is able to allocate power and authority. The words of the tester explicitly resound with the claim made twice about the supreme authority of the Lord God, as reported in Jeremiah:
“It was I who made the earth, human being and beast on the face of the earth, by my great power, with my outstretched arm; and I can give them to whomever I think fit” (Jer 27:5)
“Ah, my Lord GOD! You made the heavens and the earth with your great power and your outstretched arm; nothing is too difficult for you” (Jer 32:17).
Here, the tempter has taken on the persona of God in this test. Jesus forcefully denies this test: it is the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve.
3. The third and final test, placed on the pinnacle of the Temple, pits the possibility of testing God against the alternative of trusting absolutely in God. The tester’s challenge to Jesus, to “throw yourself down”, and the implication that God would save him (quoting Psalm 91) evokes the response from Jesus, quoting Deut 6:16, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
Test God … or Trust God? That was the age-old dilemma for Israel, noted at a number of points in the wilderness stories (for instance, Exod 17:2, Deut 6:16; Ps 106:14). It is one that Jesus himself encounters as the climax, in the Lukan version, of his wilderness testing.
The third Deuteronomy passage cited by Jesus, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Deut 6:16), comes immediately after the recital of The Ten Words which were given to Israel, through Moses, on Mount Sinai (Deut 5:1-21). As the scripture reports, Moses instructed the people to trust God by living in accordance with these words, for this was the way to life for them (Deut 5:27, 32-33).
So, to assist them in this enterprise, The Ten Words are then boiled down to One Great Commandment, love the Lord your God (Deut 6:5)—a commandment which Jesus himself quoted and highlighted in his debates with Jewish teachers (Luke 10:27). This prime commitment is what is alluded to by the citation that Jesus makes in his third testing. It is a test to see if he will divert from this singular focus.
This story of testing in the wilderness presents a communal challenge, and requires a communal commitment. The personal identity of Jesus, in the mission to which he is called, is found in the context of the communal identity of the people of Israel, who faced precisely these tests—and failed, in the accounts we have in Hebrew Scripture. The testings of Jesus are a reworking of those ancient testings; he is faced with the same tests—and passes them, in the accounts we have in Christian scriptures. That is the model we are offered through this story.