Bible Blog for Easter
(Isa 25:6-9; Ps 118:1-2; 14-24; 1 Cor 15:1-11 or Acts 10:23-34; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8)
Both OT lections anticipate a time when God will overcome death. The book of Isaiah looks forward to a God who will “swallow up death forever,” one who will “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isa 25:7-8). And in a song of thanksgiving also used on Palm Sunday, an individual who has been under attack and who was rescued sings, “I shall not die, but I shall live” (Ps 118:17). About this verse, James Mays writes, “The church has found in v. 17 the expression of the transformation worked by the resurrection in one’s fundamental stance in life.” (Psalms, 30). In a similar vein, Martin Luther thought “all the saints have sung this verse and will continue to sing it to the end.” Comparable convictions led the psalmist to rejoice in a refrain, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
The gospel lections offer the option of reading from either Mark or John. It is useful to read both, since they offer such different perspectives on the experiences of those who went to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Salome go to the tomb and discover that it is empty. In John, Mary Magdalene goes, finds that it is empty, runs to Peter and John, and tells them what she has seen.They, then, run to the tomb. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel (Mk 16:1-8), no one sees Jesus. Instead, the women are told that “he has been raised” and that they are to go to Galilee, where they will see him. They respond with feelings of terror, amazement, and fear. In John, the two disciples, after seeing the empty tomb, simply returned to their homes. In neither case does Jesus appear in the empty tomb scene.
The empty tomb evoked varied responses. Mary Magdalene thought that some group had taken Jesus’ body out of the tomb. Peter saw the tomb and then returned home. “The other disciple” (John) saw and believed.” John does not indicate what he believed, but Gail O’Day maintains that, for him, the tomb’s “emptiness bears witness that Jesus has conquered death.” (NIB IX, 841). John believes this even before he experiences directly the risen Christ. These diverse responses invite readers to contemplate how they might have responded when seeing the empty tomb.
The lection in John does not end with Mary’s initial response. Instead, the evangelist reports she encountered Jesus, but that, initially, “she did not know that it was Jesus.” (See a similar response by seven disciples [Lk 21:4]). Only when he speaks her name, does she recognize him. In Luke, two disciples who had not been able to recognize Jesus did so when he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them. Clearly, those who knew him perceived the risen Jesus only gradually. (Fully worked-out notions of the risen Jesus appear in the lections drawn from Acts and 1 Corinthians.)
Lenten Bible Blog, 6th Sunday of Lent (Palm Sunday)
(Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16)
Ps 118 stems from someone worshiping at the temple. The white spaces between many verses (e.g., between vv. 20 and 21 or between vv. 25 and 26) indicate that one or another element of the liturgy has been preserved in this psalm. For example, vv. 1-4 provide both liturgical instructions and a refrain. And there are references to movement into the temple, vv. 19-20 and 26-27.
The Hebrew word in 118:1, which is translated as “steadfast love,” can also be translated “covenant loyalty,” (e.g., Deut 7:9). Read this way, the psalm participates in Israel’s covenantal traditions, which have been a hallmark in lections during this Lenten season.
Christians have understood the psalm in creative ways. They construe “This is the day that the Lord has made” (v. 24) as a reference to Sunday, and even more to Easter. They view “the stone that the builders have rejected” (v. 22) as a reference to Jesus’ rejection (Mk 12:10). They claim that the statement “This is the Lord’s doing” (v, 23) refers to Jesus’ passion (Mk 12:11). A prayer for help, “Save us!” (v. 25), appears as “Hosanna!” in Mk 11:9. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v. 26) is cited in Mk 11:9 as a reference to Jesus. In sum, Psalm 118 became an important way for expressing early Christian understandings of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The alternate NT lections offer Marcan and Johannine accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. They pick up on the idea of “a festal procession with branches” in our Psalm (v. 27). And they build on Old Testament royal traditions. Noteworthy is Jesus riding on a colt, which likely refers to a procession in which a king rides on “a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9). This king is both “triumphant and victorious” and “humble,” qualities that early Christians attributed to Jesus. The procession also included spreading cloaks on the ground before a king, a practice attested in 2 Kgs 13. And the presence of leafy branches as a part of a victorious procession is present in 1 Macc 13:51. Moreover, the specific reference to palm branches, present only in John 12:13, is also part of such processions, so 2 Macc 10:7.
These royal allusions were made specific when the crowd that gathered around Jesus spoke about “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (Mk 11:10) and said about him, “the King of Israel” (John 12:13). It is no wonder that the Romans viewed this procession as an act of sedition. Strikingly, “the disciples did not understand these things.” (John 12:16). The crowd clearly thought that Jesus was the anticipated king, whereas the disciples did not yet know the full significance of what was about to happen.
Lenten Bible Blog, 5th Sunday of Lent
(Jer 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12 or 119:9-16; Heb 5:5-10; John 12:20-33)
The reading from Jeremiah includes yet another element in the covenant tradition: a new covenant (following the covenants involving Noah, Abraham, and, especially, the one made at Sinai). Instead of a covenant inscribed on stone tablets, it will be written on people’s hearts. What this means in concrete terms is less clear. On the one hand, humans will not need to teach each other what the torah means; they will “know me,” says the Lord. On the other hand, God will forgive their sin//iniquity, which suggests that even under this new covenant life will not be perfect. (For resonances of this text in early Christianity, see Lk 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6.)
Though Ps. 51 does not refer overtly to a covenant, it reflects the concerns of an individual who is deeply aware of his sins, acts violating ethical and religious norms of the Sinai covenant. The poet asks for forgiveness—and more: a clean heart//a new spirit. This request testifies to the difficulty the psalmist has experienced in living up to the expectations of the covenant. In contrast, the author of Ps. 119 holds out hope that she can hold God’s word in her heart and live in an appropriate way. These psalms reflect two different moods that the religious person can have--at one time, despondence over shortcomings and, at another time, optimism about living an ethical life.
Hebrew 5:5-10 reflects on Jesus as one who, through his life and death, was “made perfect.” As such, he can fulfill the role of the high priest in a new way. The high priest had been responsible for offering sacrifices for both himself and others (Lev 7:27). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was “a single sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:12). His sacrifice offers members of the Christian community the opportunity to share in that perfection (Heb 10:14). The author of Hebrews therefore claims that Jesus in the role of high priest, is “the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb 9:15).
Action in this Johannine scene is initiated by “some Greeks,” foreigners who had come to Jerusalem for Passover. Not only do they want to worship; they want to “see Jesus,” who, when he hears about their request, reflects about his death (v. 24), those who lose or keep their lives (v. 25), and the way of servanthood (v. 26). We do not know if the Greeks actually saw Jesus, but his three sayings offer a response to their quest. In the agricultural metaphor, they learn that Jesus death will lead to the fertility represented in the growth of the Christian community. In the second saying, they are told about the way to eternal life. And in the final statement, Jesus uses the language of movement—“following”—and place—“there”—to identify features of the servant life that will lead to being honored by God. Such is life in the new covenant.
Lenten Bible Blog, 4th Sunday of Lent
(Num 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Eph 2:1-10; John 3:14-21)
After the Israelites left Egypt, but before they entered the land of Canaan, they lived in the wilderness. It was a time fraught with difficulty. Throughout the books of Exodus and Numbers, the complained bitterly about their harsh existence. These complaints begin as early as Exodus 14:10-12 and continue up through this lection, in which they criticize not only Moses but also God. After the deity punishes them, he tells Moses to make a sculpted snake and to lift it up on a pole so that the people could see it and live, a kind of sympathetic magic.
The verses in Psalm 107 are the sort of song that those in Num. 21 might have sung after they have been “saved from their distress.” The psalm makes clear that God intervened because the people “cried to the Lord in their trouble.” The aforementioned stories in Exodus and Numbers often begin with the people complaining to Moses, but only later in the stories do they offer a lament about their plight and ask God for help. The distinction is important. The Psalter is filled with laments—the most frequent kind of Psalm--but not with complaints.
The apostle Paul reflects on a living death, “following the course of the world,” and avows that Christians have been “made alive” through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here, as was the case with the OT lections, God is one who provides life for those who have experienced death. God does this “out of the great love with which he loved us,” a motif that occurs in the Johannine text.
The lection in John refers explicitly to the scene in Numbers and views it as a foreshadowing of Jesus lifted up on a cross, one who can provide life to those who see and understand the importance of his death and resurrection. This reading from John also includes a verse (v. 16) that we sometimes see on placards at sporting events. Such usage presumes that it is a stand-alone text, and the fact that it is printed as a separate paragraph lends some credence to this approach. It’s most fundamental theological claim is this: God loved the world. Even the famous prologue to this gospel, does not make this claim. The lection uses several verbs to denote God’s concrete action: God gave his only son; God sent his son. And this verse offers the reason for such action: it is rooted in God’s providential love for all that has been created, including all people. The gospel writer uses the diction of ‘God giving’ on multiple occasions. It implies that God’s Son is a gift to the world. Not all gifts are accepted. John challenges his readers to accept or believe in this gift, which involves the granting of “eternal life.”
3rd Sunday in Lent
Exod 20:1-17; Ps 19; 1 Cor 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
The Ten “Words” (Exod 43:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4)) are often known as the Ten Commandments. (Religious traditions enumerate them differently.) The Words have a complicated early history: they are given (20:1), written (24:4), recited (24:7), shattered (32:19), and rewritten (34:27-28). The Ten Words are constitutive of the covenant between God and the people. (This third or Sinai covenant follows the earlier covenants between God and Noah and between God and Abraham.) There are two versions of the Ten Words: Exod 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21. These Ten covenantal Words involve two fundamental relationships: between God and humanity--the initial four “words”—and between humans--the final six “words.” These words are not exhaustive; they reflect essential religious and ethical norms. They serve as the basis for the people of God’s communal life.
When the Psalmist declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” but then says, “Their voice is not heard,” one wonders what sort of “telling” is taking place, especially since ‘their words go to the end of the world.” This mystery is compounded when the poet refers to her own words, “let the words of my mouth be acceptable.” The words attested in this psalm are both pervasive and quiet.
The first two lections explore significant words: God’s words, the heavens’ words, and human words. In this regard, it is important to recognize that virtually all of the words in the Psalms are human words, not God’s, and yet they have become the Word of God.
Paul, too, reflects about words, foolish and wise ones. But there is a problem; God’s wisdom, “Christ crucified,” is a stumbling block (literally, a scandal) for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles. Nonetheless, Paul maintains that Christ is the (true) wisdom and the power of God. Wise words are, in Paul’s view, unconventional words that challenge prior conceptions of what is true.
The scene of the temple’s cleansing includes a shift in the meaning of words: “in the temple” and “my Father’s house” to the “the temple of his body.” The first two phrases clearly refer to an architectural structure, the Second Temple. Verses 14-16, a long sentence in Greek, underscore Jesus’ intense and focused movement through the physical temple. When asked about the significance of what he was doing, Jesus speaks of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, a clear allusion to his death and resurrection. That is why the gospel writer weighs in and says directly to the reader: “He was speaking about the temple of his body.” As Gail O’Day (NIB IX, 544) has shown, the Gospel of John claims that the locus of God’s activity has changed: from the physical temple to the body and person of Jesus Christ. John is less interested in thinking about reforms at the temple than he is in claiming that Jesus has become more important than the temple.
2nd Sunday of Lent
(Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:23-31; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38)
God and Abraham are the parties to the second major covenant in the OT. Just as the covenant between God and Noah had a sign, the rainbow, here circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. Unlike the first covenant, however, the scope of the covenantal relationship has narrowed from all life and the earth to the life of Abraham and his progeny. He will become “the ancestor of many nations.” And although the covenant with Noah made no demands on Noah, here Abraham is charged to “walk with me [God] and be trustworthy.” (“To walk before/with God” is a metaphor for living a just and righteous life.)
Psalm 22: 27-28 affirms the importance of the nations. The poet highlights the reciprocal relationship between God and people. Whereas “Every family among all the nations will worship you [God],” “the Lord rules all nations.” God has chosen a particular lineage for a new covenantal relationship but, at the same time, God honors the importance of all people. Another writer puts it this way, “In you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
Paul emphasizes the importance of Abraham as one who showed that “righteousness comes from faith” (Rom 4:13). His faith in God’s promise to him and Sarah was “credited to him as righteousness.” In that way, he was, to use the language of Gen 17, trustworthy and walking with God.
The lection in Mark seems unrelated to the texts involving Abraham, the nations, and the life of faith. Perhaps the key connection may be discerned when one observes that the word, “life,” appears four times in Mark 8:35-37. God had given new life to Abraham and Sarah in the form of their son Isaac. The gospel writer insists that new or real life is something that one can gain only after losing an earlier life and gaining a new one by becoming a follower of Jesus. Anyone who reads these verses confronts the two questions. The answer to the first one (v. 36) is probably “Nothing.” The answer to the second one ‘What will you give in exchange for your life?’ (v. 37) is less clear. How would you answer this question?
Earlier verses in the Marcan reading provide the basis for that new life: Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death, and rising. And it is to this plan that Peter objects—he doesn’t think it makes sense for the Son of Man to undergo such a fate. Jesus responds by telling Peter that he is speaking from a human perspective whereas Jesus is living out of a divine vantage point. To think about “human things” will lead to the losing or forfeiting of one’s life whereas to think about “divine things” will allow a person to find a full life as a follower of Jesus.
Before God began to create, there was water. Later, that same primordial water returns in the form of a destructive flood. After Noah, his family, and the animals survive the flood, God announces the creation of a covenant with that family, their descendants, and all animal life. God promises to all such life and even the earth that there will never be another flood designed to destroy all life and the earth. (Later apocalyptic writers will imagine a cataclysm fire.)
Just as there is a “sign” of the covenant made between God and Abraham—circumcision (Gen 17:11)—so too the covenant with Noah involves a sign, “my bow in the clouds.” This bow is almost certainly a rainbow, which Ezekiel knows as “the bow in a cloud on a rainy day” (Ezek 1:28)—a different sort of water. The word “bow” is regularly used in the Old Testament to refer to a military implement (e.g., Zech 9:10). Remarkably, the writer in Genesis has imagined the pacification of this weapon: from battle bow into rainbow. God has turned the strung bow into a diaphanous and multi-hued arc in the sky. God has turned away from destruction to peace. God the destroyer has become God the preserver. Such is the purport of this first biblical covenant.
As one moves to the New Testament lections, water remains important. These verses in Mark 1 recount the baptism of Jesus, an act now celebrated in the Christian sacrament of baptism. Mark’s account is striking when compared with those of Matthew and Luke. The latter gospels speak of the heaven(s) opening. Mark, in contrast, reports that “he (Jesus) saw the heavens torn apart.” The baptismal scene is no ordinary moment. The sky is ripped open, recalling the moment hoped for in the book of Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (Isa 64:1). That time of cosmic disruption has now taken place with the baptism of Jesus. The power of the baptismal waters has triggered this response in the heavens.
The writer of 1 Peter reflects on the power of this baptismal water and relates it to the time of the flood. He writes that “eight persons [Noah and his family] were rescued through water.” The waters of the flood here become, in this Christian reflection on the flood story, a means of which salvation takes place. The author then moves to the practice of baptism, which he deems to have been “prefigured” by the salvation of those who survived the flood: “Baptism is like that. It saves you now.” Just as Noah was “rescued through water” (CEB), Christians are saved by means of baptismal waters. The primordial waters, which had once been a tool of destruction, have become a means of grace.
Readings for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17/Isa 58:1-12;
2 Cor 5:20b-6:10;
With the exception of the reading from 2 Corinthians, the lections for Ash Wednesday in 2021 draw on the world of religious practices from both ancient Israel and the Greco-Roman world. They refer to the rituals of fasting, sacrifice, praying, almsgiving, mourning (tearing one’s clothes, wearing sackcloth, and sitting on ashes), and purification. Though it is difficult to generalize about such a wide variety of rituals, they are practices that, for the most part, could stand apart from the calendar-based rituals such as the Sabbath or feasts such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah. (To be sure, both prayers and sacrifice were part of practices on the Sabbath and fasting took place on the Day of Atonement.) One lamented when suffering from an illness, the death of a family member, or a terrible life experience. One fasted at times of national distress or catastrophe. One sought purification at moments when an individual had become ritually unclean. One could give money at any time to someone who was in need. There is therefore, a certain flexibility in such practice (though not so much for rites of sacrifice and purification, for which there were written rules).
The poems preserved in the books of Isaiah, Joel, and Psalms attest to striking creativity in thinking about these rituals. Isa 58:6-7, “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice….to share your bread with the hungry…?” challenges those in the community to stop fasting while they are oppressing their fellow Israelites, (v. 3). When the Psalmist (51: 16-17) claims that God has no delight in sacrifice and affirms that “The sacrifice that is acceptable to God is a broken spirit//a broken and contrite heart…,” he is provoking deep reflection about the human heart and a plea for God to “create in me a clean heart.” When Joel (2:13) calls the people to return to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning,” he also tells them to “tear your hearts and not your clothing.” These writers are encouraging others in the community to think expansively about these rituals.
The gospel reading, written in prose, represents less of a rethinking about the rituals of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting than it does about a concern for the way they are practiced. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6), the Matthean Jesus affirms the practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, “whenever you…” (vv. 2, 5, 16). But he wants to make sure that those who enact them receive their “reward,” which comes from their Father, not from those in the community who might be watching them. These acts should be done quietly, without calling attention to the practitioner. God, who “sees in secret” (4, 6, 18) will then reward the worshiper, presumably in the form of “treasures in heaven” (v. 20).
David Petersen is Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Emory University. While at Emory, he was also Academic Dean at the Candler School of Theology, where he received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award.