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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Reading the Bible like a Church Father

Our church uses the Revised Common Lectionary. The readings for Lent can be found at this website here: (we are week four)

The first reading was short. I preached, sort of, the Prodigal Son but more on that tomorrow. Even so, I want to briefly share what I found in the first verse (Joshua 5:9)

Joshua 5:9-12The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

As people familiar with the first Christians know, they loved allegorical and spiritual reading of Scripture. In fact, some of the Scriptures are actually written to be read as such (e.g. Paul). In ancient culture, the literal surface meaning was not held in the same high regard as we do. It was believed that if God is the ultimate author, then a deeper spiritual meaning must be sought and found. (Have you ever read the Gospel of John?) While not a Patristics scholar, I have read some and tried to gain insight into their approach to the Bible. While I am not claiming any Church Father would think I understand them, it is my meager attempt to read deeper.

The actual context is Joshua, Moses' successor, who has led the people into the land of Promise. The "future is now" as they say and the people of God (Israelites) have finally settled into their land. The time of slavery has been undone and the shame is rolled away. [Remember, this is an honor-shame culture, different from our own western understanding of things. Shame is a powerful motivation for these people.] Seems pretty straightforward and simple, doesn't it? So what would a church Father see in addition?

First of all, the Father always look for Jesus. Texts found in the Ancient Covenant (Old Testament) are 'fully filled up' in Jesus, so one can safely assume that Jesus can be found there in a "Spiritual" (vs. Literal) reading. It is like those hidden codes we hear about. God is communicating more than what it appears. And God's communication is all about salvation and understanding.

Joshua is the Hebrew for the Aramaic Ye'shua. That is what our Lord was called. In Greek it is Jesus. The Hebrew name is a composite of Yahweh + Salvation, so the name means the Lord Saves. In the Fathers, every mention of Joshua is seen to be a clear allegorical/spiritual reference to the Lord Jesus. We understand His ministry through the historical figure from Israel's conquest (as Jesus is the New Joshua making the New Conquest). So, reading that name made me say, "O, keep an eye out for Jesus here!"
"Rolled away" is what tipped my interpretation in another direction. In the Gospels the stone in Jesus' tomb is rolled away. Rolled away, therefore, reminds us of the rock and the resurrection. And the disgrace is the crucifixion (He humbled Himself to become a man, and demeaned Himself to die like a criminal). In Jesus' culture to die on the cross was shame upon shame. Remember (Paul certainly does) that the Law says anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. So disgrace, or shame, or curse are all connected to the Cross. Egypt is the historical land of slavery. In much of the Tanak (Jewish Bible or OT) it is also a land to escape persecution (even in Matthew baby Jesus is taken there) or danger. So Egypt is double meaning: the land of slavery and the place of hiding. Jesus dies to take on our curse (sin and death). Jesus is sinless, but he "goes to Egypt" (He lives among us!) and lives in the human slavery to death (How can the author of life, the Creator die? He becomes a man and enters our shared 'slavery' in Egypt). The tomb is also the resting place of Jesus, hidden in the tomb/Egypt He awaits the proper time to come back (rise).

Today is of course that day for Joshua, but in the New Testament (Hebrews 3) there is a long reflection on Psalm 95 and the word today. Hebrews says we are living in "the today" (here and now in the post-resurrection, pre-Final Coming). So Today connotes Easter (as we live in the Easter Season until His return). Today is a word of address to the reader from God, a sacred reminder that time grows short to repent and believe.

So what did I see in the text (which no literal reading would provide)? Simply this, that when Joshua entered the Promised Land and enjoyed the fulfillment, that event pointed to an even greater day and even more important promise. It points to the day when the crucified Josuha/Jesus, having borne the shame of the cross and died as a slave (literally in Roman culture and figuratively as a human ensalved to death), now had the shame literally (rock rolled away) and figuratively (Risen He is no longer submissive to death) rolled away. So, it is, in a sense, a prophecy of Jesus' resurrection and a type of Christ. The mention of manna (a eucharistic type) connects it all the more to Passover/Last Supper/multiplication of loaves, in my mind, which only deepens the mystery and reveals more elegantly the glory.

So many of you may wonder what meds I am on to end up here, right? But perhaps those who lived closer to Jesus (in time and space) are aware of Divine revelation in ways we aren't. Maybe there is something there, when you look for Jesus in every book of the Bible. Maybe there is something there when you find Him in an unexpected place. Maybe the literal reading is not the point, maybe things are better deeper! (D-lay. this one is for you!)
Addendum About twelve hours after posting last night's blog, I was doing Morning Prayer (with its own lectionary readings) One of them was from Galatians 4, including verses 23-24 [All this is an allegory: the two women stand for two covenants.] Hagar, he says, is Mount Sinai while Sarah is Jerusalem. Further allegorizing as the two locations are also given symbolic meaning. I cannot help but say, "there YOU go again, Lord. Confirming through Scripture what I am learning and teaching.

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