Saturday, January 5, 2019

Jan 6, 2019 - Epiphany Sunday

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [584]
Lectionary readings for Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019.

Isaiah 60:1-6;  Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14;  Ephesians 3:1-12;  Matthew 2:1-12. 

Epiphany is about a brilliant light coming into the world for all the nations. 

Christmas, especially as presented by Luke, celebrates the humble and poor in God’s salvation for Israel.  
Epiphany, on the other hand, glorifies the royalty of God’s servant, whose righteousness and power shine like a beacon light for all the nations.  
Isaiah 60:1-6.  
Epiphany is about light shining, and the great Isaiah passage of Epiphany summons Zion to shine with the reflected light from God’s “dawning” upon her.  (The verb and noun “dawn” appear three times in 60:1-3, translated in NRSV as “risen” and “will arise” as well as “dawn.”)  This light is to shine in a darkness, deep darkness that enshrouds the peoples of the world, the nations (“gentiles”).  
This is a breathtaking view, a vast panorama exceeding a Disney World laser-light spectacular.  Here is the scene:  all the world is a vast black space when a piercing light cuts through from the east and illumines a glorious city on an elevated summit (see Isaiah 2:2).  The city on the hill shines for all the distant lands that have only that brilliant glow to guide them as they move to redistribute the wealth of all the world according to new priorities, now manifest as the righteousness and peace of the Lord of all creation.  The great light that shines on Zion attracts all the wealth and glory from among the nations, and as they bring the wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city now restored to her glory.  
Among the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense.  Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” from the nations.  
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.  
The Psalm selection also focuses on the tribute and enrichment from the nations, but now the emphasis is on God’s rule through an anointed king instead of the glory of God’s city.  The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people.  (Early Christians probably chanted it on behalf of their newly risen and enthroned King.  See allusions to Psalm 72 in Matt. 2:11 and Luke 1:48 and 68.)  Its superscription says the psalm is “for Solomon,” that is, for “the Son of David.”  
In the prayer the king is seen as the source of blessing for the whole natural realm, producing “prosperity” (shalom) for the people and rain and showers for the earth (verses 3 and 6).  
More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people (verses 2 and 7).  The tribute prayed for from the kings of Tarshish and Sheba is deserved because “he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (verse 12).  He redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight” (verse 14).  
This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will attract the devotion of the nations and cause them to stream to God’s city with gifts and new orientations of their power and wealth!  
Ephesians 3:1-12.  
The Epistle selection is an instance of a passage too rich to be exhausted in a lectionary reading.  The thread that is relevant to Epiphany, however, is “the mystery of Christ” – a mystery that concerns the Nations (“Gentiles” in both Hebrew and Greek means “nations”).  
The “mystery” is that the true congregation (church) of God’s people is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations.  It is these nations who are here told about the mystery:  “…[T]hat is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (verse 6).  Through the gospel that Paul proclaims, these nations are being brought in from the distant lands to share in the blessings that God’s King has brought to those who turn (repent) and reorient their lives toward the rule of God. 
The conclusion of this line of thought is that it is revealed to the heavenly powers themselves that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (verse 10).  
The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church of Jesus Christ is a revelation to the heavenly beings themselves!  
Matthew 2:1-12.  
The exalted language and imagery of the message about the nations used in the previous readings is left behind by the Gospel reading for Epiphany, the visit of the Magi.  Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely.  We do not even hear about these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king?  Here there is no fanfare or spectacular laser light show; only some ambassador types trying to get local directions in order to make an appearance in a very modest court.  Where the prophets and the psalmists exulted in pyrotechnic language to refer to worldly realities that were in fact rather modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated.  
The coming of these men from the east causes a great stir in the royal court in Jerusalem.  We hear how King Herod has his experts consult the Israelite scriptures predicting the birth of a great king.  This present king, dedicated to the ways of this world, is guided by fear rather than faith (verse 3).  He uses the scriptures and the good intentions of the genuine seekers to plot a violent attack on the promised one, rather than being guided in the giving of royal gifts and reverence for the coming reign of God.  
The narrative presents without special emphasis that the visitors from the east are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, come to find the secret king whose coming changes the whole world.  Here tribute from the nations is presented in an utterly unassuming way.  The modesty and the secrecy of the real identity and destined work of God’s saving King are preserved.  Only those with special wisdom (knowing the “mystery”) are aware of the cosmic import of what has happened and know how to conduct themselves accordingly.  
Their welfare and their secret are preserved by God, in spite of Herod’s plots, and these sages “left for their own country by another road” (verse 12). 

The light which Epiphany is about had come into the world, and only a few knew it. 

Special Note on “Gentiles”  [Epiphany Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008.]
In Christian tradition, the season of Epiphany includes the reading of many Biblical texts that refer to “the nations,” often rendered in English translations as “the Gentiles.”  I have problems with this translation, and choose to discuss it here.  
Let’s begin the discussion provocatively:  There are no such things as “Gentiles” – unless you are speaking Latin.  “Gentiles” is mostly used to translate the Hebrew haggōyīm and the Greek ta ethnē.  Both of these terms mean “(the) nations,” and they should be so translated in all but a few marginal cases.  We get “Gentiles” because that is the Latin word for “(the) nations,” and English translators early on took over the Latin term instead of translating it. 
We have gotten rid of “Gentiles” in modern dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew (Brown-Driver-Briggs and Koehler-Baumgartner under gōy), but it still appears in dictionaries of New Testament Greek (Thayer, Abbott-Smith, Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich under ethnos), not to mention the dictionaries devoted to theological terminology of the New Testament (Cremer, Kittel-Friedrich-Bromiley, and The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [ed. Colin Brown]). 
The presumed justification for “Gentiles” is that Jewish usage in the post-Exilic and New Testament periods used “the nations” to refer to everybody else besides Jews, especially for religious purposes.  Thus, gōyīm became a pejorative term meaning the unbelievers, “heathen” (often used by the King James translators) and “pagans.”  This is a correct statement about Jewish usage, but for Hebrew speakers, what was heard in this reference was “(the) nations,” not some third term between Jews and nations called “Gentiles.” 
There are acres of writings that could be brought to the table here, but let me cite only one height of absurdity to which clinging to “Gentiles” can come.  “…[T]here is generally a marked dissolution of the concepts of nation and people in Jewish piety, so that references are to the Gentiles rather than to the nations” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II [Eerdmans, 1964; original German 1935, two years into the Nazi era], p. 368.  Emphasis is mine.  I have not checked the German here; the “Gentiles” may have been helped along by the translator.).  References are to “the Gentiles” rather than to “the nations”!  This is, of course, an oxymoron.  The Gentiles are the nations – in any ancient language, at least. 
As a discipline of thought, I have systematically avoided the term “Gentiles” for at least the last decade.  In Biblical texts it can always be translated “(the) nations,” or “the people of the nations” when the reference is to population rather than political units.  (Note, we are dealing with nouns.  When translations imply that “Gentile” is an adjective, the transformation has been wrought in the receiving language.)  When we read modern writers, however, these equivalents often do not work.  When “nations” will not work in modern writings, you have to substitute what has become the modern meaning of “Gentiles” and translate it “non-Jewish.”  You do not need that translation for Biblical texts, however. 
Why bother?  Avoiding “Gentiles” is important only if you are trying to retain the overtones and nuances of “the nations” in the books of Isaiah, Psalms, and other post-Exilic writings and carry them over to New Testament texts, especially those used in Advent and Epiphany. 
There is one discussion of “the nations” in a theological dictionary that does not fall into absurdities about “Gentiles.”  (I know of this one; there may be others as well.)  This is A.R. Hulst’s discussion in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (ed. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westerman, tr. Mark E. Biddle; Hendrickson, 1997), Vol. 2, esp. pp. 916-918.  In his discussion, Hulst uses the Hebrew term gōyīm rather than either “Gentiles” or “nations.” 
Hulst, along with many others, observed that in the Deuteronomistic era of Israelite religion a definite theory of “the nations” was developed and embodied in the Deuteronomistic writings (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Kings, and Jeremiah).  In this theory, the land of Israel had been taken from the “the nations” who previously resided there.  Those older nations had not served Yahweh, and instead practiced “abominations.”  Many enclaves of those nations had survived the conquest period and remained as “snares” to lure Israelites to their (forbidden) religious practices – especially by marrying their daughters and sons to Israelites.  The Deuteronomistic and prophetic writings warn loudly and repeatedly against yielding to these deadly enticements of “the nations”!  It is worth repeating that this was strictly a theory; it was not what really happened in early Israelite history. 
However, for the “Yahweh-only” religious movement (that from the time of Elijah on created the essentials of what became the Jewish scriptures), this theory became the religious reality by which faithful (and often elite) Israelites lived. 
Which meant that, if faithful, they lived in separation from “the nations.”  Hulst writes: 
Now Israel’s separation is deeply rooted in the OT…  Deut[eronomy] never mentions that Israel may have the assignment of bringing salvation, to call the gōyīm, near and far, to faith in the one and universal God.  One sees the gōyīm as potential seducers, thus an impending danger.  The gōyīm could at most admire Israel (Deut 4:6); preferably they should be satisfied with their own religion and not burden Israel. 
As is well-known, however, another trend is also visible in the OT in other passages, those which are aware that Yahweh chose his people so that it could be a means for him to proclaim salvation to the peoples of the earth and thus to bring the whole world to a recognition of God’s majesty.  Beginning with the basic promise in Gen 12 and continuing through later statements in Exod 19, this line leads to Isa 60 [Epiphany text].  But here too a feeling of religious superiority easily arises.  One must go through the depths to be rid of this feeling and to come to a correct view of Israel’s task of bringing blessing in relation to the salvation of the gōyīm.  Exile and diaspora can be valued positively in this regard.  The servant of Yahweh is the light of the gōyīm (Isa 49:6), of all humanity:  suffering for the well-being of the world comes into view.  (TLOT, vol. 2, pp. 917-918.) 
This long-term and redemptive view of the nations – which includes the view that the nations at first make war on Zion and its Lord, but then are attracted to Zion as the source of blessing – is presented especially in the book of Isaiah and in the psalms that celebrate the Reign of Yahweh and of Yahweh’s Anointed.  Historically, this was the ancient vision of the Zion tradition before it became enmeshed with the Deuteronomic compromises of the time of Josiah (and probably of Hezekiah before him).  In the exilic and post-exilic periods this vision of the nations is expressed by those voices that speak most clearly of Zion’s shame and restored glory through Yahweh’s judgment and salvation.  These are the texts that most clearly defined for early Jesus followers the meaning of “the nations” as a part of their Advent and Epiphany messages. 

And the overtones and nuances of this redemptive view of the nations tend to get lost when the poor “nations” show up in our English texts as “the Gentiles.”  

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