Biblical Words 
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 scroll ("book") of Joshua.
The scroll of Joshua relates how the Israelite
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
Only in its post-exilic version
(completed around 450
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 – what was yet to come. 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
This Joshua passage presents the
key moment in
The story is told as a complement
to the crossing of the
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
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.
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 Judeans and non-Judeans. 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,
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 of the translation are reversed here
to correspond to the Greek] we worked night and day, so that we might not
burden any of you” (II Thessalonians 3:7-8,
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 [
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 Judean leaders, which will lead to his death in
The whole of
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.)
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
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,
This seems to approve the “teaching” of the scribes and Pharisees, which the rest of the chapter often denies. What does this initial approval of the scribes mean for the Jesus followers?
We should bear in mind that the
Pharisees were the first major religious movement to believe in the resurrection
– to teach that there is life after death, when the judgment of God comes. Jesus and his followers shared this belief. See especially Luke 12:4-5 = Matthew
On the Pharisees, see the powerful
essay by Ellis Rivkin, “The Pharisaic Revolution: A Decisive Mutation,” in The Shaping of
Jewish History, Scribners, 1971, pp. 42-83 – reprinted in The Unity
Principle, Berman House, 2003, pp. 49-99.
In our passage, the key is probably the role of the scribes in providing the written scriptures.
Sacred writings were not off-hand objects, as they are in our society. It took five large scrolls to contain the torah of Moses, and twenty to twenty-five such scrolls to provide the whole scriptures in Hebrew. “The scriptures” were not a “book”; they were a whole cabinet of scrolls, each in its cubby hole. And they were expensive, 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 recite 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
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 this 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
(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.
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 (about
450 BCE) 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
Sanction for the Aaronite (Zadokite)
This Torah, more or less as we
have it, was brought to
Functionally, the Torah was a
constitutional document, giving the Aaronite priesthood a complete monopoly
on priestly privileges at the Yahweh sanctuary.
(The Torah is about “Aaron,” the ancestor of the only legitimate priesthood. Zadok was Aaron’s descendant after the time
of Solomon, and in the post-Exilic period.)
In the Torah that sanctuary is called “The Tabernacle” (Exodus 25-31,
35-40; Leviticus 1-16; Numbers 1-10), which in
That temple had been rebuilt after
the exile (516 BCE) 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
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). The Torah now was the divine sanction for that increasingly renowned pilgrimage center in late-Persian and Greek times.
(Ellis Rivkin wrote a
brilliant essay on the historical importance of the Torah as the divine
sanction of the Aaronite priesthood at
In the course of the Persian and
early Greek periods (450-175
- 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).
- Psalm 19 is a profound linking of the older psalm traditions (about the heavens and the sun) with the newer Torah piety. The center of this psalm is an eight-line liturgy praising the glory and delight of the torah in rich approbation.
- The greatest monument to the ingenuity and persistence of this movement is Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it (22 times 8). This is an alphabetic acrostic in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is given eight lines of praise and prayer of the Torah. Each eight-line stanza employs a set of synonyms for “torah” constantly repeated throughout the psalm.
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.
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
Also accepting the Torah as the
only inspired writings were the Sadducees,
the religious-political party of the Greek period representing the priestly
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, angels from
heaven, and an oral torah (a separate line of Mosaic law passed on only by word
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!
All later Judaism is based on this Oral/Written Torah.
The followers of Jesus 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. The Messiah 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
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-Judean 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-Judean wave of the future.