The voice of the Lord in the words of the prophets (the season of Pentecost in Year C)

Each year in the long season that stretches “after Pentecost”, the lectionary offers us selections from the prophetic literature of Hebrew Scripture, as companions to the Gospel readings from the orderly account of Luke. It is Luke’s narrative which most directly depicts Jesus speaking as God’s prophet (Luke 7:16; 24:19; Acts 2:30; 3:22).

Many of the prophets of Israel remind us that they speak forth “the voice of the Lord” (Isa 66:6; Jer 42:5–6; Dan 9:9–10; Mic 6:9; Hag 1:12; Zech 6:15). Jesus stands in this tradition, offering words of guidance, challenge, and judgement. He is the way by which, “in these last days, God … has spoken to us” (Heb 1:1–2).

This year, Sunday by Sunday, we are listening to “the voice of the Lord” mediated through a number of prophetic words. In the coming Sundays, the lectionary offers us stories of prophetic voices speaking to the people of the northern kingdom during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.

We begin with sections relating to Elijah and Elisha, two great prophets who figure prominently in the history-like narratives of 1—2 Kings (Pentecost 2–4). Elijah encounters God, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” in a cave, where he gains clarity about his task (1 Kings 19:9– 15). Elisha picks the mantle of Elijah after he is taken up (2 Kings 2:13) and demonstrates this as he heals Naaman (2 Kings 5:8–14).

Next, we turn to Amos (Pentecost 5 and 6). Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, humbly defers “I am no prophet” (Amos 7:14); nevertheless, he castigates those in Israel who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). His most famous prophetic word is the call for “justice and righteousness” (Amos 5:22).

Hosea (Pentecost 7 and 8) was also active in the northern kingdom. The fractured relationship between Israel and the Lord God is mirrored in the naming of his children: “God sows”, “not pitied”, “not my people” (1:2–9). Yet Hosea sings of the love of the Lord for Israel, who “led them with cords of human kindness”, and assures them that God will not abandon them (Hosea 11:1–11). Nevertheless, soon after his long period as prophet, that kingdom would fall.

Then follows is a brief foray (Pentecost 9 and 10) to hear the words of a major and significant prophet of the southern kingdom, Isaiah, who was active from 742 BCE onwards. Isaiah criticises the sinfulness of the people (Isa 1:10-20) and exhorts the people to “learn to do good, seek justice” (Isa 1:17). The vivid “love-song concerning a vineyard” culminates in a potent condemnation that the Lord “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry” (Isa 5:1–7). This cry is a consistent prophetic message.

Then follows a series of passages from the great prophet Jeremiah (Pentecost 11–18). Jeremiah had the misfortune of being called to prophesy just at the time when Israel was crumbling and would be overrun by the Babylonians and sent into exile (721 BCE). He was called to declare words from the Lord, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).

Jeremiah is famous for his series of laments about the fate of Jerusalem (“how lonely sits the city … how like a widow she has become”, Lam 1:1); we hear two excerpts from Lamentations at Pentecost 17. In these words, we are invited into the experience of deep lament through the poetic wails of this prophet, as he first envisages, and then experiences, the devastation of exile.

Yet Jeremiah comes to terms with life in a foreign land, amongst people of different customs, speaking a different language, eating different foods, worshipping different gods. He leaves behind the laments of not being in the land that God gave the people; instead, he encourages his fellow-exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jer 29:5–7), for the Lord “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29:11).

Nevertheless, Jeremiah also speaks a damning word over the people; God, he says, “is a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you” (Jer 18:11). How are we to hear and receive this striking word of the Lord? Yet the prophet “redeems” himself, perhaps, with the famous declaration about “the new covenant … I will write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:31–34)—a passage that a number of New Testament writers refer to in their portrayal of Jesus instigating a “new covenant”.

After Jeremiah, we visit famous words about “the time to come”, spoken by a number of prophets. Joel (Pentecost 20) describes the terrors of the coming time, yet promises that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Habakkuk (Pentecost 21) laments “destruction and violence”, yet declares “a vision for the appointed time—the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 1:3–4; 2:3–4).

Haggai (Pentecost 22), living in a time of drought, “spoke to the people with the Lord’s message: I am with you” (Hag 1:10–11, 13). And a much later voice, active well after the return from exile (collected at the end of the book of Isaiah), affirms that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Pentecost 23).

These voices sounded forth long ago; their message resonates still with us today. The call for justice and righteousness undergirds the entire narrative of the people of Israel, from the call attributed to Moses in Deut 16:20, “justice, and only justice, shall you follow”; through the words of Amos and Isaiah, into the declarations of Jeremiah and a number of the “minor prophets”.

In the later scriptures in the New Testament, we hear resonances from many of these selected passages in Hebrew Scripture. Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, stands in this tradition and speaks “the voice of the Lord”, so the call for justice and righteousness sits at the heart of who we are, as people of faith, heirs of this tradition, in the 21st century. As we read and hear these prophetic passages week after week, we are invited to reflect more deeply on how these ancient words, particular to their original time and place, can yet be for us the word of God to us, in our time, in our place.

See further at https:// johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

The Season of Creation in ‘With Love to the World’

For the past year, I have been editing a quarterly publication called With Love to the World. It provides short commentaries on the biblical passages offered in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by mainstream denominations of the Christian church around the world. There are four passages each week—one each from Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel.

Every year, during September, there is a focus in the church around the world on the theme of Creation. This year, I’ve expanded that to encompass the full 13 weeks of one issue of With Love to the World, which runs from Pentecost 11 (in mid August) through to Pentecost 23, just before the festival of the Reign of Christ brings the church year to an end in November.

To the four lectionary passages, I’ve added three passages from Hebrew Scripture which offer resources for considering our relationship with the creation, and how we might live responsibly within that creation. I’m really pleased with the quality of what I have received from the contributors for this issue.

If you are looking for a way to focus your thinking on how to live in harmony with the whole creation, and deepen your discipleship practices of sustainability and environmental responsibility, through a daily reflection on a scripture passage—then this issue of With Love to the World will provide that.

The passages relating specifically to creation begin in the first week, Pentecost 11, with the priestly account of creation, a wonderfully crafted narrative shaped during and after the Exile in Babylon. The latter part of this account tells of the creation of all living creatures, culminating in the creation of humanity. This passage (Genesis 1) describes each category of living creature as a nephesh, a concept that signals the inherent interconnectedness of all creation.

Although this is a later (post-exilic) narrative, it is given prime position in the Pentateuch because it so wonderfully articulates so much of the fundamental worldview of the Israelites—a worldview which we have inherited, and which we continue to value. The insight that we are all interrelated and interdependent is central to contemporary understanding of ecosystems on the micro level and the cosmic scope of galaxies and universes alike. It is here in the opening narrative of scripture.

The book of Job contains an important section which makes it clear that the whole of creation was designed to function as a cohesive unity. Human beings have no special and distinctive place in that creation: God cares for all parts of creation equally and uniformly. Accordingly, we have a responsibility neither to claim a special place at “the top of the pyramid” nor to act in disregard of the consequence of our actions on others (Job 38–39).

A part of a wonderful psalm which praises God as creator and provider, Psalm 104, offers a reiteration of the perspective of Genesis 1, that all creatures are nephesh and are created by the inbreathing of God’s spirit (Ps 104:24–30). The Psalm restates in poetic form what the creation narrative that opens the pages of scripture has affirmed about the interconnected nature of all of God’s creation.

The story of Noah concludes with the account of God making a covenant “with every living creature (nephesh)” (Genesis 9), again underling the importance of the interconnected and interrelated creation. That is affirmed also in the first half of Psalm 19, which declares that the creation tells of “the glory of God” and undergirds the covenant with Israel (verses 7 onwards). This covenant is the fundamental agreement that undergirds every moment in the relationship between Israel and the Lord God throughout the centuries.

Three excerpts from the prophet Isaiah extend this theme. Isaiah 11 is usually read as a messianic prophecy during Advent; reading it in this context, with a focus on environmental matters, we can appreciate it as a vision of a fully cooperative creation. This vision, it would seem, undergirds the promise of returning to Zion in a creation which sings in harmony (Isaiah 35 and 40). Crossing the dry desert is enlivened by a lush watery hopefulness.

Then follows a sequence of passages from the Pentateuch. First, some of the Leviticus laws are read: the Jubilee, an important (of perhaps idealised) practice which provides opportunity for the land to recreate (Leviticus 25). We read this alongside one of the closing psalms of praise, in which all creation praises God (Psalm 148)—surely a chapter that provided inspiration for the famous hymn attributed to St Francis.

Next, two passages from Numbers 35 are offered. Here, faithfulness to the covenant establishes the need to respect the creation. The Levitical cities of refuge (Num 35:9–15) indicate the significance of places of sanctuary (oases, perhaps?), places to rest in the presence of God. The chapter ends with clear directions about how to treat the land as a whole (Num 35:33–34), which resonate with what we have learnt from the spirituality of the First Peoples of Australia. Then, the cries of Lamentations 1 and 5 provide further warnings about the dangers of straying from the covenant.

Deuteronomy 19–20 includes a series of laws that also indicate how care and respect are to be shown, even in trying circumstances: through the provision of cities of refuge (only three in this version) and through respect for the land whilst waging war. Then Deuteronomy 22 collates a number of miscellaneous laws, some of which relate directly to care for the land and its creatures, all of which are informed by the priestly view that everything has its own right and correct place in the scheme of things.

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, we find three complementary passages. Loving care for the people (portrayed as sheep) is undergirded by loving care for the land (Ezek 34). The valley of dry bones (Ezek 37) retells the creation story in a dramatic setting, as God breathes spirit into the people and places them “on [their] own soil”. Then, Ezekiel’s idiosyncratic vision of the restored temple emphasises the importance of its environmental context (Ezek 43)—a nice watery counterpoint to the arid dryness of the valley.

In a well-known section from the prophet Joel, God’s abundance grace is said to be evident in the fruitfulness of creation, culminating in a renewed gifting of spirit (Joel 2:23–32). I have expanded this passage by including the earlier account of the people returning to the Lord, keeping the covenant, offering the first fruits, and being blessed by God in an abundance of care of the land (Joel 2:12–22). As a dramatic counterpoint to this, the prophet Hosea reminds the people of their responsibilities to keep the covenant; when they show no faithfulness, “the land mourns” (Hosea 4:1–10). Hosea 4:3 alludes directly back to the covenant (Gen 9:9–10) and to the creation (Gen 1:20–27).

In Pentecost 21, the prophetic call for justice is emphasised in the lectionary readings provided. The lectionary reading highlights this call in Habakkuk’s call for justice (Hab 1:4) and righteousness (Hab 2:4). The same standard is found in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) while the psalmist praises God for God’s righteous judgements (Ps 119:137–144). So I have added alongside that the call for justice in the parable of Isaiah 5 (an agricultural parable) and the warning about God’s righteous judgement when that call is ignored (Isaiah 24).

This portrayal of righteous judgement continues into the next week, with the dramatic pictures of Isaiah 24:12–20, warning about a global catastrophe when the environment is abused (Isa 24:13). This picture appears also in the lectionary offering, Haggai 1:15–2:9 (see 2:7). The importance of righteousness is evident also in 2 Thessalonians 2. This week also includes Reformation Day (Romans 4) and All Saints Day (Luke 6); the latter particularly offers opportunities for ecotheological reflection.

The issue comes to a close with Pentecost 23, with two sections from the Lukan account of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (Luke 21), provided from the lectionary. This discourse links with the claim made in 2 Thessalonians 3 about the faithfulness of God, which undergirds all that is projected and provides hope for the future.

This also resonates with the closing visions of Trito-Isaiah, looking to the new creation (Isa 65) and the promise of new life, a vision which ends with an image of comfort (Isa 66). So we close this long sequence of passages with Job 12, which affirms that when we look carefully at the creation, we will see that “the hand of the Lord has done this, in his hand is the life of every living thing (nephesh)”—taking us right back to the early affirmations about God’s covenant with every nephesh, and God’s intentional creation of every nephesh within the interconnected environment in which we all live.

With Love to the World can be ordered as a printed resource for just $24 for a year’s subscription (see http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Ordering-and-paying-for-Website-7.vii_.2020.pdf) or it can be accessed on phones and iPads via an App, for a subscription of $24.49 per year (go to the App Store or Google Play).

The tongue of a teacher, to sustain the weary (Isaiah 50; Lent 6C)

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isa 50:4). So begins this Sunday’s Hebrew Scripture selection that is offered by the lectionary—yet another passage from the section of Isaiah which is set in the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. We have read other passages from this section of Isaiah on Lent 3 and Lent 5.

In considering those passages (Isa 43 and Isa 55), we noted that the experience of exile was experienced as a time of great difficulty for the people of Israel. The hope for a return to the land of Israel was strong and insistent throughout those years of exile. The imagery in the verses immediately before this passage (50:2–3) clearly convey this bitter sense. Hope is waning amongst the people. There is a need for strong leadership.

In this section of the text, the anonymous prophet speaks of an unnamed figure who will take on this function. He is known as the Servant (50:10).

In this song, the Servant specifically identifies himself as a Teacher, to encourage the weary and offer them hope (50:4). The Teacher is resolute, determined, fully committed. Yet he encounters opposition, resistance, aggression. He is called to stand up for what is right in the face of opposition (50:8) as well as to endure the negativity and abuse from those opponents (50:6). The call he has received is not an easy task. It requires resilience, being able to see the long view in the midst of immediate setbacks. The Servant, says the prophet, has “set my face like flint” (50:7).

The use of the term Servant at 50:10 (as well as at 42:1; 49:3, 5, 6; 52:13; 53:11) means that this passage is one of four songs known collectively as The Servant Songs (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). The identification of the Servant is contested. Do the songs refer to an individual? Or is the term intended to refer to the collective experience of Israel, as a nation? Certainly the hardships and oppression of life under various empires—Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian—would attest to this latter identification.

Another aspect which points to a collective understanding (the whole nation as the Servant of the Lord) is the occurrence of the imagery of light. Israel as “a light to the nations” (42:6; 49:6) reflects a national understanding, developing and extending the earlier sense that nations would come to Zion to worship God (Isa 2:2–4; Mic 4:1–4).

Both of these elements feed into the later Christian interpretation that these song provide a prefiguring of the person of Jesus, “the servant of the Lord” (Acts 3:13, 4:27). The way that Jesus was treated in his trials and on the cross resemble the mistreatment of the Servant—and worse. The insistent description of suffering in 52:13–53:12 particularly correlates with the sufferings of Jesus in his passion (Acts 8:32–33; 1 Peter 2:21–25).

And the universal extent of the “light to the nations” image is also deliberately applied to the way the message about Jesus spread across the world (Luke 2:29–32; Acts 13:47; 26:23). In Christian interpretation, the songs of the Servant are usually taken to provide a pointer to the fate of Jesus—dedicated to God, committed to his calling, speaking forth with passion, enduring opposition, being utterly humiliated and thoroughly abused, and dying an abject death. Yet the power of the figure of the Servant was such that—for Israel, and for followers of Jesus—the message and example of the Servant (be that Israel, or Jesus) lived on for centuries.

See also

A new thing, springing forth (Isaiah 43; Lent 5C)

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18–19).

These words are attributed to the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the southern kingdom of Judea eight centuries before Jesus, serving as a “court prophet” during times of abundance. Isaiah was active a time when the southern kingdom of Judah was flourishing. He became active in the last years of the reign of Uzziah, who, it was said, ruled as king for fifty-two years (788–736). He lived through the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz (16 years each), and died towards the end of the reign of Hezekiah, who himself enjoyed 29 years on the throne.

The year of Isaiah’s death is uncertain; he may well have been alive, still, when the Assyrian army of Sennacherib laid waste to the northern kingdom (722–721) and deported the northerners to clear the land. In such a context of stability, however, the promise that God would do “a new thing” sits somewhat uneasily in the situation we can reconstruct.

This is one reason why many scholars maintain that the section of the book of Isaiah where we find this passage (Isaiah 40–55) is set some centuries later, after the southern kingdom itself had been conquered by the Babylonians (587–586), and the people taken into exile in Babylon. This became the pivotal event in the history of Israel, the people as a whole—at least in terms of the stories that we have gathered in the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah focus on Jerusalem and Judah (2:1; 3:1; 5:3; 11:12-16; 22:5-8, 20-25; 26:1) and Assyria (7:10–25; 8:1–10; 10:5–12; 14:24–27); 19:23–25; 20:1–6; 30:29–33). The final section of the book (chs. 36—39) is clearly the describing events of the 720s which led to the Assyrian invasion and conquest of the northern kingdom, Israel.

By contrast, second section of the book of Isaiah has a primary concern for the power which had taken the people of Judah into exile—Babylon (43:14–21; 47:1–15; 48:14, 20–21). The prophet promises a return to Jerusalem (40:1–2), but it is identified as Zion (40:9; 41:27; 46:13; 49:14; 51:3, 11, 16; 52:1-2, 7-8).

There are many stories in Isa 1—39 relating to the personal life of the prophet, but no such personal connections in Isa 40—55. By contrast, a very direct historical reference, in a section referring to Cyrus, King of Persia (44:24–45:19), indicates a later setting. Cyrus ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 559 to 530 BCE and, after defeating the Babylonians in 539, issued a decree permitting the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland.

We have already reflected on one passage from this section of Isaiah (55:1–12, Lent 3), noting how it differs from the worldview and understanding of God from earlier periods in the life of Israel.

This passage thus comes from a time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. It was not a happy time for many of the people of Israel. (Psalm 137 is the classic expression of this; note especially the anger expressed in verses 8–9.) The people of Israel yearned to return home (Jer 29:10–14; 30:1–31:26). They looked back on the past with longing eyes. They remembered their years in the land which God had given to them. Now, they were living among Babylonians—foreigners, conquerors.

Soon, they would leave behind these memories, and grasp hold of the future that God has for them. God would “send to Babylon and break down all the bars” (43:14). God, the prophet declares, is doing a new thing! (43:19).

And yet, that “new thing” is informed by the past. The people once travelled out of slavery in Egypt, into freedom in Canaan, leaving behind the Egyptian “chariot and horse, army and warrior”, stuck in the waters of the sea that suddenly swamped them—“extinguished, quenched like a wick” (43:17; cf. Exod 14:26–31, 15:4–12, 19, 21). In the time of the prophet, “the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” as the people depart (43:14).

In like manner, now, the people will take the journey back home, pass through the desert, and return to their land. The one who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (43:16) during the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15), will now “make a way in the wilderness” (43:19) for the people to follow, leading them right back to the land from which they had been forcibly removed decades earlier (2 Kings 25:1–21; 2 Chron 35:15–21).

As they were sustained in that desert journey long ago, so God now will give “rivers in the desert” (43:19) which will provide “water in the wilderness … to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) as they travel on that way. That caled for shouts of praise to God! (43:21).

The Exodus imagery was potent for Israel; not only was the story developed over centuries to provide a story of origins for Israel, but it was also co-opted into the prophecies predicting the return to the land, providing those oracles with greater strength and rigour. (And, of course, the story continued on into the feast of Passover, the annual celebrations which continue amongst Jews right through until the present day.)

The Exodus imagery also undergirds the Christian story. Jesus, declared by John the Baptist to be the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), affirmed by Paul as the new Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), envisaged by the ageing prophet on Patmos to be the slaughtered lamb (Rev 5:6–14), is believed to enact a new Passover for his followers, according to the developing Christian tradition.

Just as the shedding of the blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites was their salvation (Exod 12:7, 13, 22–23), so the shedding of Christ’s blood is understood to effect salvation (Rom 5:8–10; 1 Pet 1:18–21). So the age-old imagery and symbolism is reworked by the early Christian writers, continuing the process seen in the words of the prophet speaking during the return from Exile (Isa 43:16–21).

See also

Gilgal: place of transition (Josh 5:9–12; Lent 4C)

The Hebrew Scripture offered for this coming Sunday passage (Joshua 5:9-12) occurs at the end of the period of Wilderness Wanderings that the Israelites experienced. It takes place at Gilgal, to the east of Jericho, just inside the land of Canaan, which has been the destination in view throughout those forty long years of their wilderness journey.

At Gilgal, things start to change. There, the manna and the quails that had consistently been provided throughout their Wilderness Journey (Exod 16; Num 11), now ceased. The people had to leave behind that aspect of their past. And many of us would know that changing habits after forty years is difficult, is it not?

At Gilgal, the place of transition, the Israelites are now in the land of the Canaanites. Their diet would change. The Israelites would start to eat from the produce of the land. They would enculturate with the people already living in the land. Over time, they would marry Canaanites. They would adopt new customs. Their language would change. They would become, not wanderers in the wilderness, but settlers in the towns and villages of the land. Changes would happen. A very significant transition would take place.

This all begins at the place called Gilgal. Gilgal is a Hebrew word meaning “circle”. It was adopted as the name for the place in this story where Israel marked their transition from fugitives fleeing the slavery of Egypt, to invaders conquering the land that they believed they had been given. At Gilgal, a gilgal (circle) of stones was set up (Josh 4:1–9). The circle in this place marked the moment of transition, as the people cross the Jordan into the land.

The Hebrew offers a neat word play: where the circle is (Gilgal), the Lord rolled away (gallowti) the reproach of Egypt. The reproach was the fact that Israelite boys were not circumcised during the wilderness wandering (5:5)—the covenant which was signalled by the mark of circumcision (Gen 17) had been forgotten (Josh 5:1–5). So, Joshua ordered that circumcisions should be carried out on the Israelite males at this place (5:3). Once they had adhered to the forgotten covenant, and reinstitute the overlooked sign of that covenant, the people were able to live in the land that had been promised (5:6–9).

The Passover meal that is shared at Gilgal (Josh 5:10–12) recalls the swift departure from Egypt (Exod 14). Entry into the land means that the wilderness provision of manna ceases; “the land flowing with milk and honey” (5:6) would provide abundant nourishment. So it is, that both Passover and Gilgal signal transition—the liminal space of crossing over into a new experience. Stepping into the river, and then out on the other side, would effect a transformation in the people of Israel.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/18/on-the-threshold-in-a-liminal-space/

On the Gospel passage for this Sunday

and, in relation to the Christian festival of Easter

See also

Listen carefully to me, eat what is good (Isa 55; Lent 3C)

We talk about Lent as a season when we prepare for the annual Easter celebrations. During this time of preparation, we are encouraged to pay attention to what is important in our faith. Through this season, as we pray, read scripture, and share with one another, we are able to grow in our faith, deepen in our understanding, and strengthen our discipleship.

During this time, it could be possible that we grow in understanding of God. The Hebrew Scripture passage for this coming Sunday invites us to consider exactly that process of growth. Isaiah 55:1-13 offers insights into this process of development.

Early in the times of Israel, the relationship God was understood in very material, tangible ways. God brought the rain and the sunshine that enabled the crops to grow—a key focus for an agricultural people living off the land. Eliphaz, the friend of Job, advised him that God “gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields” (Job 5:10).

The psalmist affirms this traditional understanding, affirming that “rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad” (Ps 68:9), and rejoicing, “sing to the Lord with thanksgiving … he covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills” (Ps 147:7–8). In like manner, this passage from Isaiah declares that, “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth” (Isa 55:10).

Jesus repeats this ancient agricultural belief about God: “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). It still held good for the largely agricultural society of his day. At that time, as for centuries past, there had been a clear understanding that God was intimately related to the land of Israel.

“I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy”, God is reported as saying (Lev 11:45). The holy God chose a holy people, who are then led into a holy place, the land of Canaan. In a story told about “once when Joshua was by Jericho”, Joshua encountered “a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand” who reveals himself as “a commander of the army of the Lord” (Josh 5:13–15).

The story indicates that God said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh 5:13–15). From this story, this verse, Israel becomes known, even to today, as The Holy Land. Holy God, holy people, holy land, all intimately linked with one another.

And in that holy land, King Solomon built “the most holy place” (1 Kings 7:50), and “the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim” (1 Kings 8:6). The holy land had the most holy place at its heart.

Being sent into exile in Babylon after this period of consolidation and growth in their “holy land” was a shock to the people. Life in exile was quite different from life in the land. “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”, the psalmist laments (Ps 137:4).

Life in Jerusalem was still what they yearned for, in exile (Ps 137:5–6); indeed, the intense anguish (and unhealthy hatred) expressed in the final verse of this psalm is striking: “happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9). It was not a happy time, at least for some.

However, it is not surprising that, after a period in exile, ideas about God were changing. The Israelites in exile in Babylon had maintained faith in God, even though they were no longer living off the land where God had placed them. The Exile had severed their connection with the land, and thus a loss of connection with God was feared. Surely God would not abandon them?

Indeed, the people developed an understanding that God had not abandoned them as they left the holy land; God had, in fact, travelled with them into Exile, and back into the land on their return. The passage from Isaiah 55 demonstrates this. Although it is in a book under the name of an 8th century prophet, is in a later section of that book, most likely put together with the earlier sections some time after the return from Exile in the 6th century. It reflects the changes in circumstances and understandings of the people who lived through those challenging circumstances, over a number of decades in Exile, before they returned to the land.

The covenant which they had entered into long ago (see last week’s passage, Gen 15), was still in force and to be honoured: “listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (Isa 55:3). Even in their exile, “the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, he has glorified you” (Isa 55:5).

As a result, how they understood God had changed. God was not tied to the land of Israel—and particularly, not to the Temple in Jerusalem. God had become “mobile” once again, just as he had been in the period of the wilderness wanderings, the Judges, and the early years of the monarchy, when the Ark was the place where God was to be found (and the Ark was, of course, quite logically travelling with the people during those decades).

Their belief developed to incorporate an understanding that God was not intimately bound to the land. People from Israel continued to live on in the lands of exile, even after they were able to return to their “holy land”. They had married, planted vineyards, established roots in those dispersed communities (Jer 29:4–7). God remained faithful to the covenant, but God’s ways were not the ways of tradition and convention. God was understood to be a dynamic entity, changing and developing as the situation required.

The people were invited into a different form of relationship with God, nourished by a different type of bread, which the post-exile prophet identifies in this oracle. From the Exile experience, it was the sense of God’s word that had become primary for the people: “listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (55:2).

And in being nourished by this new form of food, God’s word, the people will discover new things about God: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord; my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts [are higher] than your thoughts” (55:8–9). A new way of understanding God, and God’s ways, was opening up before the people.

Understandings of God develop and change—as then, in post-exilic Israel, so too, now, in the post-modern contemporary world. May this be our experience, this Lent, as we dig deep into the resources of scripture and tradition in this special time.

See also

Cutting the covenant (Gen 15; Lent 2C)

The saga of Israel begins with stories about the ancestors held in highest regard as the mother and father of the nation: Sarai and Abram. The command that they heard is set out at the beginning of their story: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). The saga of this couple will reach fulfilment, many chapters and many centuries later, when their descendants enter the land and settle in Canaan (Joshua 1–6).

For the moment, Abram set off, with his extended family: “his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran” (12:5). Haran was a strategic city in the upper reaches of the area we know as the Fertile Crescent, far from the land of Canaan (over 12,000km). The call was to travel that distance, to Canaan.

That call, to enter the journey and remain persistent along the way, is a call that we do well to recall each Lent, as we navigate the journey of this season, calling us towards the climactic story of the Christian faith, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

For support and sustenance along the way, Abram and Sarai were called into covenant relationship with God. The formalising of the covenant is reported later in this chapter, at 15:18, with a promise that the descendants of Abram and Sarah will indeed have the land that is specified. That, I would argue, resonates also with the Lenten journey; these current weeks of preparation for Easter beckon us to re-commit to our covenant, the one that we ourselves have with God. So these later verses are included in our reading for this Sunday.

(The question about the people already living in the land—those specifically identified in 15:19–21, merits separate consideration. The invasion of Canaan and conquering of these people by the people of Israel raises difficult questions.)

Abram and Sarah had left their homeland with some assured promises from God; they would be parents of a great nation, blessed by God, remembered as having a great name, and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them (12:1–3). Those promises were intended to hold Sarai and Abram to the journey, despite all that they might encounter. The end result would make the travails along the way bearable.

However, Abram expresses some doubt that the promises made by God would come to pass (15:2-3). God’s response is to provide further reassurance; the multitude of stars in the sky is testimony to that (15:5). Abraham’s resulting affirmation of faith leads to the famous phrase, so central to Paul’s later argument about righteousness: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6; see Rom 4:3, 9, 22). In a way, this story sets the foundations for later Christian faith, as we see the grace of God at work in relating to Abraham.

The ceremony that follows adheres to the traditional cultic practices of the time. A collection of sacrificial victims, two animals and two birds, are offered and slaughtered, and the animals are cut in two (15:9–11). (The phrase, “to make a covenant” in Hebrew, can literally be rendered as ”to cut a covenant”.) Such practices signal the seriousness of the moment and send the message that each party will keep their word on pain of death.

Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah later alludes to this specific provision, when he warns recalcitrant Israelites that “those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts” (Jer 34:18, referring to Gen 15:10). The prophet continues, “their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth” (Jer 34:20, an allusion to Gen 15:11).

This ancient cultic sacrificial practice of cutting animals does not reflect modern practices and is, in fact, distasteful to contemporary sensitivities. That might prod current readers to dismiss this passage as archaic, irrelevant, obsolete. That would be a shame. It remains relevant to us in a striking way.

Abram and Sarai reveal both trust in the promises they have been given, but also articulate some uncertainty about whether God would continue to be faithful to those promises. How human this is! In this regard, they reflect the somewhat ambivalent way that each of us relate to the promises of God: living out our trust and hope in the midst of the challenges, changes, and obstacles along the way, yet still holding back, somewhat dubious, about the ultimate reality this all.

It’s a perfect vignette for Lent, for the period when we reconsider how God had been at work in our midst, when we reconsider our commitment to the covenant we have made with God, and how live out that covenant in the realities of discipleship. It reminds us of the call to full-blooded, whole-scale, all-of-life commitment to the covenant that we have with God through Jesus.

See also

Belonging, first and foremost: the message of “the alien” (Deut 26; Lent 1C)

There is much debate amongst Christian thinkers, these days, about what comes first as we invite people to be a part of the church. Do we say, “this is what we believe, expressing our fundamental understanding of life; do you want to sign up to show you have the same beliefs?” Or do we say, “this is how we behave, guided by our fundamental ethical principles; would you like to act the same way and join us?” Or perhaps the invitation is simply, “come along, join in with us, see what we believe, what we are on about, and soon you’ll feel like you belong”?

Is it believe first? Or behave? Or simply, belong? The tendency to put a creed at the forefront of our invitations—to show that we are a people who believe, first and foremost—is widespread and deeply ingrained. Whether it be affirming The Apostles Creed in baptism, or saying The Believer’s Prayer at conversion, or working out a new Mission Statement for the Congregation, giving priority to belief is a very familiar pattern for us. We tend to think that, whatever formula we are repeating, that is exactly what declares and confirms our identity as people of faith.

So it’s no surprise that when we read Deuteronomy 26 (the Hebrew Scripture passage in next Sunday’s lectionary), we gravitate to the middle part of the passage, and lay claim to what looks to be an early affirmation of faith that sets out the identity of the people of Israel: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous” (Deut 26:5). This affirmation seems to go right back to the start, affirming what sets the people of Israel apart as a distinctive entity.

This way of reading this passage gained influence from the analysis of Gerhard von Rad, a German scholar of the 20th century. Von Rad claimed that the credal statement in verses 5 following was most likely a formula much older than the era when the book of Deuteronomy was written. And the origins of this creed, he claims, most likely lay in ancient cultic remembrances of the origins of the people. The wandering Aramean (Jacob, grandson of Abraham of Aramn) and the time in Egypt (leading up to Moses) reflect those times of origin.

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But the whole of this “creed” is not actually a “statement of faith”. It is more a narrative that tells a story. Such was the way of the ancient world; central beliefs were not articulated in crisp propositional statements (for this is the way of the post-Enlightenment western world); rather, a story was told, in the course of which key events pointed to central affirmations for the people. The ancients were story-tellers, more concerned to tell the story than state the faith. This is the story of the people; it is their saga.

God is important in the story that is told, nevertheless. God is the one who “heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression … who brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (26:7–8). The rescue of the people by their powerful God is central to the story. This, of course, if the story of the Exodus, which stands at the heart of Israelite identity and later Jewish identity. It is the central story of the people of Israel.

More than this, God is the one who “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9). The land of Israel is the second aspect of ancient Israelite life that is central and fundamental; and so it continues to be, in the 20th and 21st centuries, in which the land of Israel has been one of the most contested pieces of land in the world.

The story is told, however, for a purpose. Not just to remember—although remembering is important, for it recurs as a regular refrain in the book of Deuteronomy (7:18: 8:2, 18: 9:7, 27; 11:2; 15:15; 16:12; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 32:7). The story is told, also, to inculcate the ethos, the values, the very identity of the people. And central to that ethos, taking prime place amongst the things that were seen to be important to affirm about who the people of Israel were, is this: giving back to God the first fruits produced by the land.

“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me”, are the words that the people are to say, each time a harvest is produced. “You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God”, the instruction declares (26:10). Gratitude is to the fore; gifting back the beginnings of “the fruit of the ground” to the God who gave the people the land to grow this fruit.

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Of course, there is a dark story submerged, for the most part, underneath that celebratory action. The land was “given” by God over the resistance of the people who were already IN the land, producing fruit, settled and content with their lot in life. The battles recounted in the book of Joshua—most likely not actual historical events, but reflecting a reality of submission to the Hebrews who took control of the land—reflect this dark story.

This dark story does not figure in the “received tradition” and “authorised affirmation” that we read in Deut 26. Nor do we find this in the affirmation of Deut 6:20–24, which begins “we were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out …”. Mention of the Exodus jumps straight across to life in the land—no mention of the conquest that (in other biblical texts) is reported in detail.

This conquest is part, by contrast, of the larger recitation of Josh 24:2–13, “I brought you out of Egypt … and I handed the Amorites over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you … and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you … I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” At least this version of the affirmation is honest about the cost to the earlier inhabitants, and the benefits enjoyed with relative ease by the invading Hebrews.

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Yet the affirmation of Deut 26 highlights the central importance of gratitude for the gift of the land; and not only that, for it especially indicates the importance of making this celebration inclusive: “you, together with the Levites and the aliens [or, sojourners] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11). So the instructions for the annual festival of the first fruits provide.

The inclusion of the aliens in this annual festival reflected a gracious openness to others in the developing people of Israel. These texts differ from the xenophobic antagonism of earlier texts, recounting the conquest of Israel. They reflect a later understanding of the identity of the people, as they were collated during and after the Exile, centuries after the formation of Israel. People designated as aliens (non-Israelites), sojourners in the land, were welcome to bring offerings to the Lord (Lev 22:18), to adhere to Israelite food prescriptions (Lev 17:12), to keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:8–11; 23:12), to have gleaning rights (Lev 23:22), and to join in the annual process of atonement (Lev 16:29–31; Num 15:29).

The foundational Passover narrative indicates that aliens, or sojourners, were able to join (under certain conditions) in the Passover celebrations (Exod 12:47–49); a second narrative (Num 9:14) is much less restrictive. Aliens were to be subject to the same laws regarding murder (Lev 24:17–22), able to have right of access to cities of refuge (Num 35:13–15), and indeed to enter into the covenant at the annual covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 29:10–13; see also 31:10–13). The voice of the alien even sounds appreciation for the Law: “I live as an alien in the land; do not hide your commandments from me” (Ps 119:19).

Because Israelites were once “an alien residing in the land” of Egypt, the people were instructed, “you shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin; you shall not abhor any of the Egyptians” (Deut 23:7); by the third generation, the children of aliens “may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:8).

This meant that “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34; a similar affirmation is made at Num 15:14–16).

The principle of equality is clear: “you shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deut 24:17; see also Jer 7:5–7; 23:5–7; Zech 7:9–10; Mal 3:5). The alien, or sojourner, deserves the same measure of justice as all residents of Israel.

Accordingly, amongst the curses at the end of Deuteronomy, we read, “cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, ‘Amen!'” (Deut 27:19). The curse outlines the negative consequences from not adhering to the positive principle of welcoming and including those sojourning for a time innIsrael, the “alien”. That is integral to the celebrations each year, when the harvest produces its fruit from the land.

Gratitude. Belonging. Celebration. Inclusion. All of this is embedded in the story; and all of this comes before believing, repeating doctrinal claims, affirming credal statements. We are a people of welcome, including, belonging. This much is embedded in the ancient Hebrew tradition. This much should be living, still, in Christianity today.

See also

Gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2; Ash Wednesday)

The Hebrew Scripture passage set by the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, is part of an extended announcement by the prophet Joel (1:13–2:17), calling the people of Israel to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13), “sanctify a fast” (1:14), “blow the trumpet” (2:1) in order to “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). He exhorts the people to offer a prayer to “spare your people, O Lord” (2:17).

The prophet makes this call in the midst of describing “the Day of the Lord” that is coming—“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1–2). He evokes the traditional imagery of repentance—sackcloth and lament, weeping and mourning, prayer and fasting—as the appropriate responses to that Day, even as he utilises the traditional imagery of the doom that awaits on that Day.

The prophets warned of the Day of the Lord; it will be “darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18), it will come “like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6), as “a day of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:14). Joel joins his voice with this parade of doom: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1–2).

Yet the response desired is not meek acceptance, but rather to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12). “Return to the Lord, your God”, Joel advises, highlighting the central purpose of the role of the prophet, to recall the people from their waywardness and lead them to recommit to the covenant with God, which lies at the heart of the identity of the people of Israel. That’s probably the reason that this passage from centuries before the time of Jesus (let alone our time) is set for Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.

The tradition about Lent is that it is a time for “giving up”, for restraint and abstention and ascetic practices. However, Lent is also a time for returning; for re-connecting with God, for turning back to depend on God, for returning to the heart of faith. And this passage helps to remind us of that purpose.

The passage also provides a further thought which undergirds the call to “return to the Lord”, and that is what it says about the fundamental nature of God. Joel repeats a mantra that must have been important to the people of ancient Israel; an affirmation about the nature of God, the one who, in the midst of the turmoil of the Day of the Lord, stands firm as the one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

For, although the Lord is credited as the one who demonstrates his wrath on the Day of the Lord, this divine figure is also one who is willing to step back from the threat of judgement and destruction, who is willing to give a new opportunity to a repentant person, and reach out to them in grace. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?”, the prophet asks. And so, he advocates that the people leave “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13–14). The process requires maintaining a tangible sign of the intention to return to God: an offering, in ancient Israel, a marking of ashes, on Ash Wednesday, for Christians.

The mantra that Joel offers about God is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

The same affirmation about God is made in the story of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34:6). This citation, however, does maintain the ominous threat that this same Lord is yet “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”, so the picture is fuller and more realistic here.

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), after the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship 9f the Lord in the Temple, exhorting the people, “do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you” (2 Chron 30:8).

It was a time to “return to the Lord”, and Hezekiah encouraged the people, especially encouraging northerners who had suffered under the Assyrians to return, saying “your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chron 30:8–9). That same mantra appears.

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, and then returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, confessing that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:16).

Ezra continued in praise of God: “you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a fry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in still another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this aged, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom we turn on this Ash Wednesday, seeking to return to our foundational commitment.

For further reflections on Hebrew Scripture passages offered by the lectionary during Lent, see

See also

New outcomes, never imagined at the start (Ruth 3–4; Pentecost 24B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 7 November 2021

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We rejoin Ruth and Naomi in chapter 3, where Naomi takes the initiative to securethe future for herself and Ruth, a future that centres around Boaz as a potential husband for Ruth. Naomi issues detailed instructions to Ruth in regard to staging an encounter with Boaz at the threshing floor, a place with a poor reputation in Hebrew scritpure, where Boaz is working late.

Ruth is instructed to bathe, put onher best clothes, and apply perfume, all which signifies romantic intent. Despite the risk, Ruth dutifully obeys, informing Boaz when she accosts him on the threshing floor that she is “Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” ‘Spread your cloak’ is a Hebrew euhphenism for sexual intercourse, and Ruth is not only signifying her availability for marriage but her desire that Boaz carry out his duty as next of kin according to the Levirite law.

This law required the next of kin of a deceased husband to father a child for the deadman so that his lineage could continue. Boaz takes the hint, and tells Ruth that though there is a nearer next of kin, he will sort this out tomorrow with that closer family member.

In chapter 2 we noted a number of contrasts: male and female, foreigner and Israelite rich and poor, etc. In this chapter we also find contrasts. Boaz and Ruth had met during the day, in a public place, where the social custom for such encounters were maintained. Here they meet in private under the cover of darkness, and unrestrained by custom, their interaction is quite different. We are now in the private domain of women, signified by the night. Boaz’s prominence, riches and public profile are not as important here. It is both a time of danger and a time of potential promise and blessing.

Despite Ruth’s bold initiative, she and Naomi still live in a world that does not value its widowed women, and their fate rests in the hands of a man with wealth and status. Boaz needs now to fulfill his part of the plan in the public, male sphere of lifein chapter 4.

We now return to daylight and the male) domain. The focus shifts from Ruth to Boaz, and from the private to public sphere. Boaz is here to wait for the nearer next of kin, or goel. It is Boaz’s interests that dictate how the exchange between the two men will go, and we can tell this because the Hebrew passage here begins and ends with Boaz’s name. Further, despite the bible translation of ‘friend’, the other goel is called peloni almoni, Hebrew rhyming slang that basically means “old what’s his name”, or “Mr such and such”. Again we see the sense of humour of the author of this book at work.

Boaz is shown to have authority in this society as “Mr what’s his name” and the ten elders do what he tells them to. None of the men he addresses challenges his authority or his right to order them around.

In the ancient Hebrew world, decisions about law, property and finances were made at the town gates, where the men and elders would gather to discuss aspects of law and to enact judgment.

Boaz constructs an elaborate legal argument around an alleged piece of land we haven’t heard of before that Naomi apparently wants to sell. Her nearest kinsman has first right of refusal under Hebrew law. This begs the question: why did Naomi need Ruth to glean if she had land to redeem? Is Boaz resorting to an imaginery piece of land to cover his real aim – which is to acquire Ruth as a wife? It would certainly give him the legal cover he needs for such a proceeding – for even in this rather enlightened book, for someone of Boaz’s social standing to enter into marriage with a Moabite, a foreigner, would be risky if no legal duty is involved.

So while Boaz is apparently concerned with the noble duty of redeeming his kinswoman Naomi’s land, he can just slip in that Ruth is part of the deal as well. Mr “what’s his name” decide that the risk of redeeming the alleged land is too great to him, as if Ruth were to have a child that child could legally claim the land in the future, even if he had paid for it now. So he refuses, and Boaz is free to marry Ruth.

The outcome of this chapter presents a very different family picture from that in the first chapter. Life has replaced death, abundance has replaced famine, fullness of life and fertility has replaced emptiness and barrenness. Amidst the rejoicing of the community, God finally appears as an active character, causing Ruth to conceive a son to Boaz.

Despite this intervention of God, the story is not about divine manipulation or a system where God directly rewards and punishes. The important thing in this story is the role of human action and intervention. God’s grace is bestowed only when such action is taken by the people concerned, and when it concerns all people.

Ruth’s story ultimately has a happy ending because the community decide to accept and welcome her despite being a foreigner.

The book of Ruth challenges us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community. Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife.

It is clear that true community in our world is broken. Gleaning has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor. If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to transform the brokeness into a society where all are equally valued.

The little genealogy at the end probably strikes the modern reader as a rather oddaddition, but it has a special function. If further proof is needed by the reader of Ruth that God favours the inclusion of the foreigner, this is it. The gift of children was regarded as a sure sign that God’s blessing was resting upon a person. Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, the most famous of Israel’s kings in the biblical record. The genealogy shows that by accepting the foreigner, Israel goes on to beextraordinarily blessed.

Many generations later, some people in Israel became followers of the one whom they believed had been chosen by God to be the Messiah. They claimed that this man from Nazareth was a descendant of the great King David; this claim would be crucial to establishing his credentials amongst his Jewish contemporaries. And since the man from Nazareth was descended from David, he was also descended from Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner. Without this story of the refugee and the foreigner, who married across ethnic boundaries and became part of a new family, there would be no David – and thus, no Jesus.

From the simple act of welcoming and giving hospitality to the stranger and foreigner, and building a new life with new relationships and new hopes, new outcomes and consequences can happen that were never imagined at the outset.

 

 

Lead us, O God, 
in the way of Christ, the servant,
who opened his arms to the poor and the foreigner.

Lead us, O God, in the way of welcoming the stranger
caring for the neglected, feeding the hungry,
housing the homeless, and challenging the powerful,

Lead us, O God, 
in the foolish way of the Gospel,
which turns the world upside down to bring salvation to all.

Amen.