Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12.
God’s awesome deeds create leaders, but titles and pomp are not for the Lord’s humble servants.
The Israelite Story – continued.
The original Israelite Story did not end with the death of Moses (last week’s Torah reading). The promise to Abraham was not yet fulfilled at Moses’ death. The story IS completed (at least in its first incarnation) in the book of Joshua.
Joshua relates how the Israelite tribes entered Canaan with awesome signs from God, defeated the coalitions of city-states that opposed them, and settled in their tribal lands, which are described in detail in the last half of the book. This was the “original” Israelite story because the purpose of the entire saga – from Abraham through exodus, Sinai, wilderness, and conquest – was to articulate and celebrate how Israel, by divine destiny, had come to possess this land. That was the Israelite story during the five hundred years that included the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (roughly 1100 to 550 BCE).
Only in its post-exilic version (completed around 450 BCE) did the Israelite story assume the shape of the present Torah (the Pentateuch). In this version, for the first time, the story ended with Moses’ final sermon in Deuteronomy. This gave the basic Israelite Story a new shape: The Pentateuch, ending with the death of Moses, did not include the conquest of the land! The story ended, not with a fulfillment in the land, but (in Deuteronomy) with the challenge of how to live WHEN the people pass over into the promised land.
Thus, all later ages that accepted the Mosaic Torah were oriented to the future. Revelation led them to the border of the promised land and told them how to live in preparation for the fulfillment. All else was living toward God’s future.
(For some later history of the Final Israelite Story – the Torah – see below, Special Note: The Torah in Later Developments.)
This Joshua passage presents the key moment in Israel’s crossing the Jordan River into the promised land. The story is told as a complement to the crossing of the Red Sea at the beginning of the wilderness period. As the waters of the Sea stood up like walls for the Israelites to pass (Exodus 14:22), so the waters of the River are cut off on the north, “rising up in a single heap,” to allow the Israelites to pass on dry ground. (The term “heap,” Heb. ned, is applied to these waters in Exodus 15:8 and Joshua 3:13 and 16.) The whole Israelite wilderness experience is bracketed by the supernatural crossings of the waters. (This correlation is also celebrated in Psalm 114.)
All of Joshua 1-6 is liturgical scripting. The speeches, which make up much of the action, are formal and solemn. The actions are stately and ritualistic—there is no scrambling in fear from the dammed up waters. Time references are careful and deliberate. “At the end of three days the officers went through the camp…” (verse 2, NRSV); “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (verse 5).
And most of all, the “ark of the covenant,” that sacred box of holy relics carried by the Levitical priests, dominates the scene. It is the ark that goes before the people and makes the waters of the river obey God. The ark is to be treated very cautiously. “Yet there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits [one thousand yards]; do not come any nearer to it” (verse 4).
All this liturgical action is the introduction to the divinely empowered conquest of the promised land. The awesome crossing of the River is a sign of this. “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites…” (verse 11). To assure that the event will live on in the memory of later generations, twelve men are selected in advance from the twelve tribes (verse 12). They will later take twelve stones from the bottom of the river and set them up at Gilgal as a memorial (Joshua 4:2-3, 20-24).
(For better or worse, the Revised Common Lectionary omits all the stories of the “Conquest” of Canaan, even the glorious parade that terminated Jericho. The current readings skip from the opening of the book of Joshua to its final chapter.)
To Abraham and Jacob God promised a land; through Moses God created a people; under Joshua (“Jesus” in Greek) God provided an entry into and conquest of the promised land.
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37.
The selection from the Psalms is a thanksgiving for deliverance from dangerous places, especially the wilderness!
“Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty …
[then God] led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town” (verses 4-7, NRSV).
Israel’s journey out of bondage and through wilderness trials was finally completed in an abundant and protected land.
“And there he lets the hungry live,
and they establish a town to live in” (verse 36).
I Thessalonians 2:9-13.
The Epistle reading refers to the “labor and toil” of the evangelists in Thessalonica while they were proclaiming the new good news to both Jews and non-Jews. The words “labor” and “toil” occur together in Paul’s writings three times, twice in the Thessalonian letters. In all cases he seems to refer to regular work for wages as well as the “labor” of advancing the gospel.
Here, “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (verse 9, NRSV).
Much the same is said in the second letter to these Thessalonians. “…[W]e were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with labor and toil [the words are reversed to correspond to the Greek] we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (II Thessalonians 3:7-8, NRSV slightly modified).
In a defense of his conduct as an apostle, written at a time of troubles with the Corinthian believers, Paul made a long list of his costs and troubles for the gospel: “…in labor and toil [NRSV reads “in toil and hardship,” but the Greek is the same as in I Thessalonians 2:9], through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (II Corinthians 11:27, NRSV, modified).
For Paul, the time of proclaiming the gospel and forming new assemblies of believers in the Greek cities was a time of hardship and trials corresponding to the wilderness time in the Israelite story.
The results of such labor and toil in Thessalonica are seen by Paul as the mighty deed of the Lord, the beginnings of fulfilling the promise to the nations.
The Gospel reading continues the escalation of hostility between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, which will lead to his death in Jerusalem.
The whole of Matthew 23 is an emphatic declaration that a state of war exists between Jesus and his followers on one side and the scribes and Pharisees on the other. Two world religions were in the making when Matthew’s Gospel was written, and this chapter especially is a major step in their separation. (The religion of Rabbinic Judaism that became dominant after 70 CE was significantly different from the religion of the Aaronite priest-state of 450 BCE to 70 CE, which was represented in Jesus’ time by the Sadducees.)
Matthew 23 is campaign literature. The tone and style of this chapter is accusation and condemnation. The purpose is not to be balanced and fair to the opponents’ views. It is to declare that the opponents are a danger to the world and to warn all prospective followers away from them.
As a matter of historical reality, the scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly had their share of insincere people-pleasers, but they were certainly not uniformly hypocritical, and probably none of them was unqualifiedly malicious. Certain fundamental differences in religious values and styles had emerged by the second generation of Jesus followers. Jesus was remembered as differing, sometimes sharply, from the Pharisees and scribes. As the conflict between the followers intensified, so did the memories of what Jesus had said in the heat of conflict. This chapter presents the Christian viewpoint in a struggle that got steadily more intense from 70 to 135 CE (end of the second Jewish revolt against Rome when Jews were banished from Judea).
The reading begins with what appears to be an approval of the opponents. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (verses 2-3, NRSV). This seems to approve the “teaching” of the scribes and Pharisees, which the rest of the chapter certainly denies. What does this initial approval of the scribes mean for the Jesus followers?
The key probably is the role of the scribes in providing the written scriptures. Sacred writings were not off-hand objects, as they are in our society. These scrolls (it took five of them to contain the torah of Moses and twenty to twenty-five to provide the whole scriptures in Hebrew) were expensive and produced by hand only by experts who could assure nearly correct copies of the ancient writings. Most people could not read and only listened to the scriptures being recited. The scribes provided all the scriptures for the communities.
Jesus certainly insisted that his followers listen to and accept the writings of Moses and the Prophets. Listen to the scribes read the torah of Moses! All starts from there, is Jesus’ meaning. Jesus may differ from the scribes in INTERPRETING the scriptures, but that you start by HEARING the scriptures read was a matter of complete agreement. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Concerning the negative examples for which the scribes and Pharisees are condemned in our passage, they fall into three types of activities.
(1) The scribes and Pharisees lay “heavy burdens” on the shoulders of others without offering any relief. These burdens consist of the refinements upon the written commandments which the Pharisees elaborated in their oral law (claimed to be derived from Moses also). The references later in the chapter to tithes, oaths, clean and unclean dishes, etc., (verses 23-26) were criticisms of detailed rules for correct religious practice as advocated by the Pharisees. In time, such details made up the contents of the Mishnah and other collections of Rabbinic halakoth (laws). (The Mishnah is a six-part code of religious practice, longer than the Old Testament, fixed in writing around 200 CE. The Mishnah is to Judaism approximately what the New Testament is to Christianity. Both embody traditions by which the ancient Israelite writings—Tanak, Old Testament—are applied to new religious orientations.) Such detailed developments of the oral law are the “heavy burdens,” which are to be contrasted with Jesus’ “light” burden (Matthew 11:30).
(2) The Pharisees practice conspicuous consumption in their religion, according to Matthew’s Jesus. They wear conspicuous religious objects (phylacteries), make their garments religiously elaborate, strive to get the most prominent seatings at services and public events, and they exchange loud and boisterous greetings with their brothers in public places. Such conduct is self-condemned, as Jesus views it.
(3) And the scribes and Pharisees have a big thing about titles. They especially love to be called “Rabbi.” This literally means “my great one,” but was becoming a title for a well-educated and publicly esteemed religious teacher. A Pharisee could become a rabbi only after many years of being a disciple of another prominent teacher and acquiring a reputation as a judge of difficult religious questions. (It should be noted, however, that this was a merit status only; there were no birth or class requirements for becoming a rabbi.)
Jesus condemns this love of the title, and goes into detail in telling his disciples to avoid all titles. (How long was that command heeded by the developing church?) Don’t call each other rabbi, don’t call each other “father,” don’t call each other “instructor” (Greek kathegetes, equivalent to “doctor” in the academic sense). You are all equal—“for you have one teacher, and you are all students”; “you have [only] one instructor, the Messiah” (verses 8 and 10).
On this business of hypocrisy and public recognition, the passage closes with familiar wisdom. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted [in the final judgment]” (verse 12).
Though quite unfair to the alleged opponents, Christians were shaping their own identity by holding up negative examples of the scribes and Pharisees—examples intended to lead them and their followers to walk humbly before God and their fellow believers.
Special Note: The Torah in Later Developments.
Though at one time “the scroll of the torah” was a single document capable of being read in a relatively short time (II Kings 22:8-13, “the book of the law” in NRSV), by Ezra’s time the Torah had become a vast composition filling five large scrolls – thus the “penta-teuch,” five-scroll work – “five-fifths of the torah,” in later Rabbinic jargon. This large work was “THE Torah,” the supreme revelation of God’s choosing Israel and the commandments that Israel was to obey.
Sanction for the AaroniteTempleState. This Torah, more or less as we have it, was brought to Jerusalem by the priest-scribe Ezra from Babylon around 450 BCE (Ezra 7:1-6, 11-14). Functionally, the Torah was a constitutional document, giving the Aaronite priesthood a complete monopoly on priestly privileges at the Yahweh sanctuary. In the Torah that sanctuary is called “The Tabernacle” (Exodus 25-31, 35-40; Leviticus 1-16; Numbers 1-10), which in Jerusalem, of course, was the temple of Yahweh. That temple had been rebuilt after the exile but was newly enhanced as the center of a fortified city around 450 by the Persian governor Nehemiah. (Nehemiah was a Judean of the diaspora who had risen in favor in the Persian court during the reign of Artaxerxes I [465-424 BCE]. He received his appointment as governor of Yehud [Judah] as a personal favor from that king.)
Ezra (backed by or building on Nehemiah’s work) bound the Judeans to observe this Torah (Nehemiah 10:28-39 describes the commitment). Non-observant groups were excluded from citizenship in the new temple city-state created by Nehemiah. The later prosperity of this temple-state is reflected in the Chronicler’s account of the temple establishment of David (I Chronicles 6, 16, and 22-29).
(Ellis Rivkin wrote a brilliant essay on the historical importance of the Torah as the divine sanction of the Aaronite priesthood at Jerusalem, “The Revolution of the Aaronides: The Creation of the Pentateuch,” The Shaping of Jewish History, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, pp. 21-41; also in The Unity Principle, Berman House, Inc., 2003, pp. 23-48.)
Torah Piety. In the course of the Persian and early Greek periods (450-175 BCE), the written Torah inspired a creative and very devoted movement of song and poetry about the Torah. The most famous expression of this movement has to be Psalm 1. “Blessed is the person... whose delight is in the torah of Yahweh, and on the torah such a person meditates day and night” (Verses 1-2, RSV modified). The greatest monument to the ingenuity and persistence of this movement is Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it. Psalm 19 is a profound linking of the older psalm traditions (about the heavens and the sun) with the newer Torah piety.
Scholars usually assign these psalms to the wisdom literature, and there are no signs of close association of this Torah piety with priestly – or even prophetic – concerns. Torah piety undoubtedly flourished where alternatives to sacrificial worship were developing. One recited texts about sacrifice instead of bringing a lamb to a priest to be slaughtered. Eventually, such piety would flourish in the synagogues rather than in the temple.
Torah-Only Groups. The Torah became so authoritative for some groups that no other writings were accepted as on the same divine level. This was true of the Samaritans (who, like the Judeans, called themselves “Israelites”). The Samaritans had the same Torah as the Judeans, though they applied the command for a single place of sacrifice to their sanctuary at Mount Gerizim instead of to the Jerusalem temple. The Samaritans did not accept the prophetic books (histories and prophets) because they were all oriented to Jerusalem. When the Maccabean priest-kings of Judah became powerful enough, they destroyed the Samaritan temple at Gerizim (128 BCE, Josephus).
Also accepting the Torah as the only inspired writings were the Sadducees, the religious-political party of the Greek period representing the priestly powers in Jerusalem. (The name comes from the Zadokites, the priestly line of the Aaronite establishment.) The Sadducees represented the status quo and as such wanted no change, which prophetic texts were likely to precipitate. They wanted no kings – themselves being the local agents of whatever imperial power prevailed at the time. The Sadducees rejected the new inventions of the Pharisees: the resurrection of the righteous and an oral torah (a separate line of Mosaic law passed on only by word of mouth).
The Two-fold Torah – Pharisees. The Pharisees accepted the prophets as well as the Torah. However, for them too what really mattered was the Torah – only they needed the Torah applied to everyday life, not just to the temple establishment. But experience soon made it clear that all sorts of detailed questions are not answered by the written Torah; judgments of best practice had to be made – for example, in defining “work” in keeping the Sabbath law. Over time, a large mass of judgments were passed from one expert to another in deciding actual cases for the people, or for the practice of their own brotherhoods.
Thus, over centuries a vast oral law grew up, which one disciple learned over several years from listening to masters before him. This oral law was eventually organized by law topics, not as narratives or personal stories. Around 200 CE, a master (Rabbi) of the time organized the collections of his predecessors into the Mishnah, the Oral Law in written form!
The Christians shared with the Pharisees a belief in the resurrection (denied by the Sadducees), though they, like Jesus before them, did not accept the Oral Torah taught by the Pharisees. Rather, Christians supplemented the Torah and Prophets with proclamations and narratives about the coming of a Messiah, who had been foretold in those prophetic books not recognized by Sadducees and Samaritans.
However, this Messiah had brought new revelations about a Reign of God that had begun in his work, and the old Torah was reinterpreted in light of this new reality of God’s Reign. By the second generation of the Jesus movement, the Torah was beginning to be replaced by a new torah given by Jesus (Matthew 5:21-48). The former Pharisee Saul (Paul) found that the Torah was only a preparation for God’s new revelation, the gospel, and after him a growing number of non-Jewish believers in Jesus were exempted from keeping most of the ceremonial commandments of the Torah, like circumcision and Sabbath observance. (The Ten Commandments, however, remained part of “the law of Christ.”)
Most of the devotees of the Old Torah, written and oral, would not follow this new revelation into its non-Jewish wave of the future.