This year during the season of Lent, the Gospel readings offer a series of narratives which describe encounters that Jesus had (largely from the Gospel according to John). We hear of Jesus in dialogue with the devil in the desert (Matt 4, Lent 1), a Pharisee in Jerusalem (John 3, Lent 2), and a woman by a well in Samaria (John 4, Lent 3).
We then learn of a blind man to whom Jesus brings the gift of sight (John 9, Lent 4) and a dead man whom Jesus brings back to life (John 11, Lent 5), before we come to the annual retelling of the familiar story of Jesus, riding a donkey, entering the city of Jerusalem, to the cheers of the crowd (Matt 21, Lent 6 or Palm Sunday).
These stories tell of people who mostly, as a result of their encounters with Jesus, have their faith in God strengthened—the Pharisee, Nicodemus, at John 7:50 and 19:39; the woman of Samaria at 4:29, 39; the healed blind man at 9:17, 33; Martha, the sister of Lazarus at 11:27, and presumably Lazarus, as 12:10–11 may indicate; and the joyful crowd, at Matt 21:9–11. I am posting blogs on each of these readings as they come, in sequence, throughout Lent.
Alongside these well-known readings from the New Testament, the lectionary offers another sequence of rich readings from Hebrew Scripture. Starting with the story of the first man and first woman (Gen 2-3, Lent 1), we read in turn of four key moments in the story of Israel. This sequence begins with God’s call to Abram (Gen 12, Lent 2), followed the gift of water given to the Israelites as Moses leads them in the wilderness (Exod 17, Lent 3), and the story of the anointing of David as king (1 Sam 16, Lent 4).
The next moment is set during the Exile in Babylon (Ezek 37, Lent 5), when Ezekiel speaks a prophecy which assures Israel of a hopeful future: “I will put my spirit within you … and I will place you on your own soil” (Ezek 37:14). This reading sits neatly with the account of the raising of Lazarus (John 11) which appears alongside it on Lent 5.
For the celebration of Palm Sunday on Lent 6, there is only one Hebrew Scripture reading—Psalm 118, the psalm which the crowd is singing as Jesus enters Jerusalem: “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:26; Matt 21:9). If, on the other hand, the Liturgy of the Passion is the focus of that Sunday, then the Hebrew Scripture passage is Isaiah 50:4–9a, the third of four songs attributed to The Servant, who declares that “the Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isa 50:4).
The sequence of key moments in the story of Israel offers a series of vignettes of faithful people from the last—our ancestors in the faith who stand as role models to encourage us, centuries later, in our own journey of faith. They are figures which are worth holding up for our reflection and consideration. These stories each have the function of an aetiology—that is, a mythic story which is told to explain the origins of something that is important in the time of the storyteller.
The online Oxford Classical Dictionary defines the term as follows: “Aetiology in religion and mythology refers to an explanation, normally in narrative form (hence ‘aetiological myth’), of a practice, epithet, monument, or similar.” Whilst telling of something that is presented as happening long back in the past, the focus is on present experiences and realities, for “such explanations elucidate something known in the contemporary world by reference to an event in the mythical past”.
The ancestral narratives of Israel (Gen 12–50), as well as the series of books known as “the historical narratives” (Exodus to 2 Kings, Ezra—Nehemiah) are all written at a time much later that the presumed events which they narrate. The final form of the books as we have them most likely date to the Exile or post-exilic times, although pre-existing sources would have been used for many of these stories. Those older stories are remembered, retold, and then written, because they speak into the present experiences of the writers.
[Evidence for this is found, for instances, in references throughout the two books of Kings to “the Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:19; 15:31; 16:5, 14, 20, 27; 22:39; 2 Kings 1:18; 10:34; 13:8, 12; 14:15, 28; 15:11, 15, 21, 26, 31), “the Books of Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:29; 15:7, 23; 22:45; 2 Kings 8:23; 12:19; 14:18; 15:6, 36; 16:19; 20:20; 21:17, 25; 23:28; 24:5), and “the Book of the Chronicles of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41). Many stories in other books may well be derived from oral tellings in past times.]
The sequence of Hebrew Scripture readings in Lent begins with an aetiology which attempts to explain the place of humanity within God’s good creation, as well as offering an explanation for the presence of evil in the world (Gen 2:15–17; 3:1–7, Lent 1A). We need to read such a narrative with critical care; it is not an historical narrative, but it is a myth in the best sense of that word, a story told with creativity to explain aspects of contemporary life (for the writer) which may well hold good for later generations—but which need to be read with awareness of emerging insights in human knowledge over time.
Second in this sequence is the account of the calling of Abram, who journeys into a new future (Gen 12:1–4a, Lent 2A). We need to read beyond the point where the lectionary ends this passage; that selection indicates that Abram took Lot with him, but the narrative actually continues, indicating that Abram travelled with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, “and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan” (Gen 12:5).
The lectionary is, sadly, blatantly sexist at this point: it includes the names of the two leading males, but omits noting that they travelled with their spouses, and indeed the reference to the presence of many others with them in their journey. We need to read this ancient aetiology with a contemporary critical awareness. Certainly, the faith of Abram and Sarai and their extended family is a key message conveyed by this passage.
The story explains four important aspects of life and faith for the people of ancient Israel and on into contemporary Judaism: the land is given to this people, the people (of Israel) will become “a great nation”, the name (of Abram) will be blessed, and the descendants of Abram, “all the families of the earth”, will likewise be blessed. These four points—land, people, name, descendants—loom large throughout the history of Israel. Indeed, they maintain their potency into the present age—and need to be read and understood with political and cultural sensitivity today.
After Abram and Sarai comes Moses and the people he is leading in the wilderness (Exod 17, Lent 3A). The long saga of the Exodus, the wanderings in the wilderness, the giving of the Law, and the understandings of the details of that Law, receives attention throughout four of the five books of the Torah (Exodus to Deuteronomy).
This particular incident in that long saga focusses on the providential care that the Lord God gives to the people of Israel during those “forty years in the wilderness”. The giving of water in the wilderness at Massah and Meribah (Exod 17) sits alongside the giving of manna and quails in the wilderness of Sin (Exod 16; Num 11). The model to emulate here is the faithful Moses, holding fast to the promise given to him by the Lord God, in the face of the complaining of the people (Exod 16:3, 6–7; 17:2–3, 7; Num 11:1–6; 14:27).
Next in the sequence of faithful people is David, chosen and anointed as king (1 Sam 16, Lent 4A). The passage offered by the lectionary tells of how David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, was chosen by the prophet Samuel for the role of King, even while Saul was occupying that position. David will feature as a key player in the stories about the ensuing years, as “the house of David” is established and Jerusalem is developed as his capital city; and of course his place as the nominal author of the book of Psalms also ensures his leading role on Jewish tradition.
Next in order is the best-known prophecy of Ezekiel, the priest called to be prophet (Ezek 1:3). Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.
Ezekiel had declared that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29). This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle (Ezek 37:1–14, Lent 5A). What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10).
The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; for Ezekiel, however, it is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling).
The sequence ends, of course, with the example of Jesus, riding steadfastly towards the city of Jerusalem (Matt 21:1–11, Lent 6A). That is the city where Jesus knows, and has already revealed, the fate in store for him: “see, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (Matt 20:18–19).
Why did Jesus continue into the city, knowing this in advance? That’s a fascinating question, worthy of later consideration. For the moment, in this series of passages, we simply note his determined faithfulness and commitment to the task to which he had been called. He is the final figure of faithful commitment in the series that the lectionary takes us through during the season of Lent.