Search results for: gen 22

Special agents? Yes, but what’s with Abraham?

Signpost for Sunday 29 June 2014: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42

How many times have you read or heard “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10: 40)? I’ve heard it many times but it struck me this week that once again my twenty-first century ears might not be hearing what first century ears heard. So I looked it up. I discovered that in ancient Jewish custom, whenever a superior commissioned someone to act on his behalf, that person was regarded as if he was the same person as the superior who sent him. It meant, for example, that people thought of a king’s emissary as if he were the actual king.

This is called the concept of shaliah, or the Jewish law of agency and knowing that, it seems to me that Matt10:40 casts some light on the concept of who Jesus is and was. The author of Matthew knew all about shaliah, so did the disciples, so did every Jew around in AD 80-85. All of them are hearing more than Jesus commissioning his disciples, they are regarding Jesus as God because God has commissioned him. For them it’s not all about incarnation.

And then I saw that shaliah has a bearing on the story of Abraham too. Especially (Gen 19:13) when the angels tell Lot they are about to destroy Sodom. Angels who have been commissioned by YHWH so we know very well it is YHWH himself who is going to destroy Sodom. That’s certainly the way Abraham sees it in Gen 19:23 when he begins arguing with YHWH until it is agreed that Sodom won’t be destroyed if YHWH can find just ten righteous people in the city.

Hang on a minute. Is this Abraham the same man as the one in our reading this week? I only ask because when you hear YHWH’s words in Gen 22: 2, wouldn’t you expect Abraham to say something? But he doesn’t pipe up, doesn’t even squeak. I leave you to make of that what you will because all that came to my mind was this poetic version of the story, which I love:

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, “I’ve had a vision
And you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady’s mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
“just according to whose plan?”
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

For those who don’t recognize it, it’s The Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen



Don’t tell me the old, old story.

Signpost for Sunday 2nd July 2017: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42.

Three years ago I wrote a Signpost on these very same verses. I was perturbed then and all I could really do was recommend Leonard Cohen’s song The Story of Isaac to you.

This time round I remain perturbed, and I’m not the only one. John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas has this to say about Genesis 22: “Let me make something very clear from the outset of this piece: I deeply dislike and thoroughly distrust this morsel of the sacred text.”

It’s worth reading the rest of his thoughts especially as he now refuses to preach on this text ever again.

Fortunately, I don’t have to preach on anything but I do have to write this Signpost. Which is why I’m glad that I happen to be reading a book by Brian D. McLaren at the moment. The title hooked me straight away: ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.’ As a book that makes you think about things you may not have questioned, that many people just don’t question, I can thoroughly recommend it.

And what it has to do with the Abraham and Isaac story is that it suggests another way to look at the First and Second Testaments.

McLaren writes: ‘For most of us, I suspect, our concept of Christianity, follows a similar pattern to this: What is true of God is true of Jesus; Jesus is equal to God. Also, we would say that Jesus is the revelation of God to us, or that if we want to understand God, Jesus is the ‘human’ version of God.’

I think he’s right about that and it’s probably what I would have said before reading his book. But, he points out, there is another way of looking at things, one that McLaren suggests actually makes more sense of the notion of ‘New’ Testament and ‘Gospel’, and even the whole point of Jesus’ ministry on earth.

It’s not something new; the alternative concept of Christianity is in fact how Franciscans, the Celts and Quakers see things: First seek to understand or know Christ. Then apply this understanding to God. Enrich, challenge, adjust, affirm or correct all previous understandings of God in the light of Christ.

Personally, I’d never thought about Christianity in exactly those terms. And then I thought, if I take this approach, the story of Abraham and Isaac is less of a problem for me. Or to put it another way – this is not a story about the God I believe in, because Jesus shows me a different understanding of who God is.


It’s not that simple, and it’s not that easy.

Signpost for Sunday 6th July 2014: Gen 24:34-38,42-49, 58-67; Ps 45:10-17 or Song of Sol 2:8-13; Rom 7:15-25a; Matt 11:16-19,25-30

If you were to just read the Old Testament texts this week you’d be reading love stories, and they’re stories about the love between two people as much as the love of God. I was enjoying reading them that way when I noticed a couple of things that aren’t quite so straightforwardly storybook.

The first is that maybe Isaac and Rebekah aren’t quite the young lovers I usually see in my mind’s eye. Because when you read on a bit you find Genesis 25:20 and that tells us that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah. A bit of an old bachelor then – which would have been pretty unusual in those days to say the least. It also makes Gen 24:37 seem less clear-cut. There’s Abraham making sure his son doesn’t get hitched to one of the local girls, who surely he must have been eyeing up for at least 20 years. Just makes me wonder about Isaac really.

But there’s something even more unusual in the story. Rebekah’s mother and brother try to delay her departure (Gen 22:55) while Abraham’s servant is insisting that they leave sooner. Then, guess what. They call in Rebekah and ask her what she wants to do (57-58). Pardon? Surely that’s unheard of in the fiercely patriarchal society of the time, let alone the male dominated context of biblical scripture. Bethuel and Milcah were very enlightened parents. Shame Rebekah and Isaac didn’t quite live happily ever after.

Speaking of happy endings, like many people I’m particularly fond of the last two verses of this week’s reading from Matthew (11:29-30). These comforting words appear nowhere else. So I was intrigued to find the very helpful John Petty saying this:

“Most of our translations over-spiritualize this passage, in my humble opinion. Jesus is specifically addressing those who are over-worked and carrying a heavy load. In first century Israel, that group consisted of poor people in a condition of political and religious oppression.”

But then he goes onto say that the yoke Jesus asks people to take up isn’t a literal device for carrying something. Apparently “Yoke” was a common metaphor for Torah and the Mosaic Law. So Jesus is offering those who follow him a new version of law.

This new way of doing things is literally doing things Jesus’s way – and Matthew’s audiences would indeed be followers of The Way. Jesus’s way involves meals eaten at an open table and extending fellowship to all. That’s the point of Matthew 11:19 perhaps.

Then my Bible, like many, translates Matthew 11:30 as “My yoke is easy.” I don’t read Greek but John Petty does and he says, “‘Easy’ is too superficial, given the richness and importance of the word in this context. The Greek word is xrestos—‘goodness, benevolence, pleasant, worthy, loving, kind,’ or, even better, ‘active benevolence in spite of ingratitude.’”

My own little epiphany this week was to wonder about the very last phrase, “and my burden is light.” As I say, I don’t read ancient Greek (or modern for that matter) but I wonder if those words could have another meaning other than how heavy the burden is. It struck me that Jesus is literally carrying the light, and it’s the light that helps us see things for what they really are.


A change of government.

Signpost for Sunday 29 October, 2017: Deut 34:1-12; Ps 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46.

Sometimes the Lectionary really does go hand in hand with real life. Three years ago almost to the day, Andrew wrote the Signpost for these same readings. At the time, he noted how the death and burial of Moses led to Joshua and his leadership. He also pointed out that the transition, the change of government, as it were, was very smooth. All of which he said was very interesting in the shadow of the 2014 New Zealand General Election.

Now, here we are in the shadow of another New Zealand General Election, and the transition, the change of government has been much more interesting than it was last time, and some would say far from very smooth.

So much so that it’s not the Deuteronomy verses that seem so appropriate this time, but it’s Matthew 22:34-46 which seem to echo our current circumstances.

Here’s Jesus at the end of a right old grilling by the Sadducees and now the Pharisees gang up on him. But Jesus handles himself brilliantly, turning the tables on them, and remaining quietly calm as he cleverly changes the conversation about the greatest commandment to a question about the superiority of the Messiah to David.

That question, “Whose son is the Messiah?” is the big one. If the Messiah was the son of David, then his job would be to restore the throne of David. Which is probably what lots of first century Jews were convinced it should be. Or as we say in New Zealand, same old, same old.

But as Jesus points out, if the Messiah is greater than David, as the scriptures indicate when David calls him “my lord” – then his job would be much more than to simply restore or prop up an old throne of David’s.

And that is the point surely. Jesus wasn’t at all interested in returning to some ancient status quo. No, it was well and truly time to move on. Time to abandon the laws that had come to favour some much more than others in society. Time to recognise that radical love for all, was the only way forward.

Verse 46 tells us that the Pharisees were gobsmacked by this. No doubt they hated Jesus’ every word and positive outlook.

So here we are three years after our last general election, and finally after nine long years we are not facing the same old, same old. We have a charismatic new Prime Minister with a relentlessly positive outlook. Many people here really do feel as if this is a new beginning for New Zealand. Let’s pray that every member of our new government will be guided by radical love for all.



Now is the hour.

Signpost for Sunday 7 August 2016: Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40.

I had a bit of trouble with this week’s gospel reading. It starts off all very reassuringly telling us not to be afraid, then after a couple of verses it’s warning us to be ready and waiting with our loins girded. It ends up telling us we’ll get a good hiding if we eat, drink and get more than merry. On top of all that, half way through Peter, who may well have been as confused as I was, asks, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” (verse 41). Although verse 42 begins, ‘The Lord answered’ I’m not sure he does at all, strictly speaking.

In the end, as usual, I looked at the things that struck me on first reading to see if could make any sense of why they had struck me at all.

There’s something interesting about the very first verse here, for a start: it states that God has already given us the kingdom.  Surely that means that the kingdom of God is something that is present right now. It’s not something that only kicks in after we die, or after global warming has done its worst.

Then the historical context around the giving of a gift. Whenever someone gave you a gift in the first century CE, it was not just polite, it was obligatory to give them a gift of similar value in the future.  Here’s the author of Luke seems to suggest there’s no gift you could possibly give God that literally comes anywhere near the generosity of his gift of the kingdom. Of course, God knows that, so instead “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” But what’s also interesting here is that Jesus’s injunction for his hearers to give alms doesn’t focus on the needs of the poor. There’s no talk of how much better off the poor will be with the alms we give them. Instead, we will be better off.

A final thought I discovered on reading an article by Maryann-McKibben-Dana the other day: There are two or three thousand verses on wealth and poverty in the Bible — as opposed to homosexuality, which is mentioned in just six verses of scripture  ( Ask yourself which subject the church is expanding so much of its time on in heated debate? It ain’t the issue of wealth inequality.


Rich man, poor man.

Signpost for Sunday 11 October 2015: Job 23:1-9,16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

We hear the words “rich young ruler” and without hesitation recall the story told to us in all the synoptic Gospels. Only Matthew tells us he was young, and only Luke that he was a ruler, but the composite phrase has stuck. Mark’s version brings out Mark’s typical urgent and immediate style – he ran to Jesus, knelt before him, and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. He really wanted to know, unlike the lawyer in Luke’s Good Samaritan story who posed a similar question with an ulterior motive. The rich man was a good man: he had always observed the commandments, but was keen to find out what was missing in his life. He wasn’t too pleased with Jesus’ answer and must have been mystified by it in a culture where wealth and position were seen as God’s reward for a righteous life.

21st century western culture is quite different, but Jesus’ apparently unreasonable answer still bothers us. “Sell all you have and give to the poor” has come up in our small study group. It elicited the not very in-depth response, “But what if everybody did that?” and led into waffle about the good things done by non-Christians. Sometimes our discussion doesn’t take us very far!

In facing up to the matter again this week, I have come across a reference to the Gospel of the Nazarenes, one of those early church writings that didn’t make it into the Canon, which gives a slightly different version of the story and helpfully expands Jesus’ reply to the rich man: “How can you say I have fulfilled the law and the prophets when it is written in the law: you shall love your neighbour as yourself, and lo, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are covered with filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?”

Jesus’ command according to the Gospels was to one man, a man whom he understood, and loved. The lesser command is an ongoing challenge for us all.


It’s not the miracles that are amazing.

Signpost for Sunday 6 September, 2015: Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps 125; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

In his June 28 Signpost Andrew wrote, “How we understand today’s Gospel depends largely on how we regard miracle.” That thought could well have a bearing on this week’s Gospel too.

That’s why, whether you think that miracles are literally true or not, don’t focus on these two miracles as miracles, but instead look at the point of the miracles, because the miracles here are not the point at all.

It’s not the miraculous healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter that Mark wants us to take real notice of, it’s the fact that she is a Syrophoenician – gentile, and a woman.

It comes as an astonishing about turn when Jesus agrees with the woman and grants her request. Even more so when we notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about the woman’s faith being the reason for the demon to leave her daughter. Instead, it is the justice of her argument alone that Jesus singles out (verse 29).

The author of Mark clearly wants us to think about why Jesus loses the argument, and why on earth he loses it to a foreigner and a woman. The clue, I think, is in last week’s reading from the same gospel. Mark is again emphasising to his first century readers that both Jews and gentiles must be included as followers of ‘the way’.

There’s a clue in last week’s reading about the point of the second miracle, too. Those first century readers – or listeners – to Mark’s gospel would have spotted it straight away. While we might wonder about the veracity of a miraculous healing of a deaf and dumb man, the ancients would have been much more astonished that Jesus poked his fingers into the man’s ears, spat (into his own hands?) and then touched the man’s tongue. As far as they are concerned, Jesus has just made himself ritually ‘unclean’; saliva was seen as a contaminant and by doing this Jesus is being seen to dramatically refute of the Jewish purity laws. But look back at Mark 7:15, and I think it’s likely that Mark is making another point for the benefit of the new gentile Christ-followers: ritual cleanliness just is not important to followers of the way.

Of course, he cleverly nullifies Jesus’ ritual uncleanness by echoing Isaiah 35: 5-6, “…the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped…and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.” Not to mention the fact that the author of Mark wants his readers and listeners to believe that Jesus is the Messianic figure spoken of by Isaiah.


Iron Age wisdom.

Signpost for Sunday 23 August, 2015 Twenty-first Ordinary Sunday: 1 Kgs 8:
22-30, 41-43; Ps 84; Eph 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Do you know when the Iron Age began?

It happened to different peoples at different times. It may be that the People of the Sea came from a Mediterranean island that had suffered from a violent earthquake. They brought their iron weapons to what we now call the Gaza Strip. They pushed out some tribes of Israel and these went further inland, even across Jordan to the edges of the desert. They only had bronze weapons, and stones.

The social upheaval was tremendous. The different tribes in what is now Israel/Palestine had begun to learn how to live together. They had formed the beginning of two loose federations. Now they decided that they needed unity, and the chose a King. Of course, the conservatives, like Samuel, thought that choosing a human king was a betrayal of God, the only true King. And when the king did bad things, like consulting witches, or trying to raise the spirits of the dead, they decided that they had the wrong king, so they decided to replace him with a local hero. It took a while to replace the first king’s son with the new man, but after seven years, it was done, and he reigned for another thirty-three years, and finished pushing back the invaders. The tribal unity was still a little fragile, so the king chose a conquered territory for his capital.

But the second king’s son had visions of power and glory. He built a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant. He made lots of alliances with neighbouring kings. He spent lavishly on the wives he collected as a result of those treaties. A lot of that spending depended on higher taxes and on forced labour. So it is not surprising that when he died the kingdom fell back into two parts.

The surprise was that it did not fracture into a dozen or more different tribes again as it had been three or four generations before. Now the conservatives no longer looked back to the good old days when the tribes were semi-independent, but to the good old days when there was a king and stability. God was still the God who brought the tribes out of Egyptian slavery and made them into one people. But now God was also the God of the Great King in whose image a future king would arise to re-unity the tribes.

The Philistines brought their civilised and Iron Age skills to invade Palestine. The tribes of Israel and Judah united under Saul, whose men, including David, pushed back the Philistines. Samuel chose Saul, then later chose David. It took David seven years to re-unite the tribes after the death of Saul; and Solomon was the one who spent up large on the Temple and the many wives.

So who was the wise man in all of this?


Jesus didn’t have karma, he had compassion.

Signpost for Sunday 19 July 2015: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

The gospel reading is rather a strange one. It is as if a complete lesson has been omitted from
Peter’s teaching to new Christians. What the prescribed passages do make clear is the irresistible
attractiveness of Jesus. The disciples, having returned from their mission, were intent on telling
Jesus what they had said and done but, surrounded by people, they were unable to find any peace.
So Jesus went away with them in a boat to find some solitude. They failed in that quest, because
they were followed. So Jesus, responding compassionately, taught the people. After some
remarkable events the disciples were sent away to Bethsaida, but were blown off course and arrived
in Genessaret. (More remarkable events on the way.) Again, Jesus responded with compassion,
treating all equally.

I wonder how this compassion is demonstrated in the lives of those who claim to be living the life
recreated through Christ.

One way this appears is described in the epistle. Here the apostle writes to the church in Ephesus
emphasising that all believers in Christ are one; all are members of the same commonwealth. The
word translated as commonwealth is used in only two places in the New Testament: the other is in
Acts 22:28, where it is translated as citizenship, a much-desired status within the Roman empire. It
plainly carried with it both rights and responsibilities. In the epistle the rights conferred included
reconciliation to God, access to God the Father, and reconciliation between those who were
previously hostile. The responsibilities include the expression of the reconciliation in the unity of
the whole structure, joined together and growing as a holy temple in the Lord – a dwelling place for


Making sense of it all.

Signpost for Sunday May 24 2015: Acts 2:1-21 or Ezek 37:1-14; Ps 104:24-34,35b;Rom 8:22-27; or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

So much relates back to the Passover. Even the Feast we call Pentecost relates back to the Passover. Pentecost is fifty days after the Passover. And the number fifty itself is related to the Passover. It is a week of weeks – seven times seven days, plus one. In the Law, as interpreted after the return from the Exile, the liberation from Egypt that came with the first Passover was to be handed on even to the slaves within Israel. Every fifty years all slaves were to be freed. That is the original meaning of the word, “Jubilee”. So the fifty comes in various places, such as Lent.

However, the special feast that came fifty days after the Passover was the Spring Harvest Festival of the First Fruits. God comes first, so the first fruits belong to God. We do our Harvest Festival differently (when we remember to do it at all) and offer the best from the most abundant part of the harvest, or perhaps towards the end. Are we more cautious? But the offering is the most important part.

So Pentecost is a harvest. But the details are obscure and confusing. John seems to say that the Spirit was given on the evening of the first day of the week after the Crucifixion. Luke has a different chronology.

Then again, some accounts of the coming of the Spirit seem to be talking about glossalalia – speaking in sounds that seem to be words, but which do not always make sense to those present, a common experience in many religions. For Luke/Acts it becomes something quite different. By the Spirit the disciples speak in their broad northern Galilean-accented Aramaic and the crowd hear them in their own tongues – instant translation facilities we might term it today.

The picture that I have in my mind of the early Church is of earnest students of the word. By the word I mean the scriptures that we call the Old Testament. By early I do not mean the years immediately after the crucifixion, but those times when things were beginning to be written down. There is a gap here because the first generation mostly believed that the times were so short that there was no point in writing things down. Then Paul and others began writing letters; and experience of being scattered throughout the Roman world meant that some gathered up sayings of Jesus and other little lists. And being driven out of Jerusalem by the Roman invasion and destruction was the last straw.

So they looked back on what they could remember, and they also looked back on the scriptures; and they interpreted their memory of events to fit their understanding of the sacred writings, sometimes regarding them as predictions about their own times.

For them the later portions of Isaiah were there in order to make sense of the Cross. Ezekiel’s skeletons were there to show how the dead church after the shock of Jesus’ death could come alive and spread to the whole Roman world.

Pentecost celebrates the way the Church burst into life out of despair, and the way that the indwelling Spirit gives the gift or first fruits of the Spirit to the believers and transforms them.