Friday, December 25, 2015

Magi or Manger?: The Infancy Narratives of Jesus

           First of all, merry Christmas! I've posted this blog entry on Christmas day, but I'm guessing you're probably reading it sometime after the 25th. I don't blame you. Who has time to read a blog on Christmas. Nevertheless, chances are it is still Christmas according the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. The Christmas season has only just begun today, and it continues up to the celebration to the Baptism of our Lord (January 10th this year). So keep drinking that eggnog, and I repeat, merry Christmas!

            Given this current season, it's no surprise that today's post is going to be about the infancy narratives of Jesus. To begin, if you have a nativity set displayed in your home at this time, take a close look at it, or – if you don't want to leave your chair (and trust me, I know the feeling) – simply recall what it looks like in your mind. What do you see? A stable. Shepherds. An ox and/or donkey. Maybe some sheep. A man and a woman looking over an infant in a crib full of hay. Three men in fancy robes with treasures in their hands. Perhaps there is a star or angel on top.

            It's a beautiful image, and it's just about as recognizable in or outside of Christian culture as the cross is. Most of us know the story of Jesus' birth... or at least we think we do. We've heard it proclaimed a Mass or other religious services. We sing the Christmas carols that recount the story. We've seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and have heard Linus recite Luke 2:8-14. We know it from other movies or works of art. We have nativity sets in our homes or at least have seen them displayed elsewhere. In short, we have a pretty good sense of the story of Jesus' birth from pop culture. But when was the last time you actually read it straight from the Scriptures? Did you know that there are, in fact, two distinct infancy narratives in the Gospels, which can be found in Matthew 1:18-2:23 and in Luke 1-2. (I know, right? One baby story just isn't good enough for Jesus.) Only these two Gospels have any account of Jesus' infancy or childhood, and, not surprisingly, – especially given the differences we have already seen in Matthew and Luke's  genealogies – these two narratives agree on very few points.

            Perhaps you are already familiar with the differences, but to those for whom this is news, do not be afraid (did you see what I did there?). Like the genealogies, the infancy narratives were written from the perspective of faith, not with historical facts in mind. These passages in Scripture are a perfect introduction to a theme I hope to expound upon more as this blog continues in the future, and that is the difference between Truth (with a capital "T") and fact. When it comes to the infancy narratives – especially since there are two accounts which hardly agree on anything – there is very little that biblical scholars can point to with certainty as being historical. But this shouldn't concern us. As Daniel Harrington, a Catholic Jesuit priest, says in his commentary on Matthew, "The more important issue is determining what these stories meant to [the evangelist] and his community."[1] To add to that I would also say what the Scriptures are saying to us by extension of what it meant to the Gospel writers and their communities. Therein lies part of what I mean by Truth, for you see, the Scriptures are less concerned with what can be proven by the senses, which is typically how modern thinkers understand "truth." Instead, they are all about revealing who God is, what God's relationship to humanity is and vise versa, and what our relationships should be like with each other as fellow members of the human race. So as we take a look at the infancy narratives, ask yourself: What is this saying about God's relationship to humanity? What is this saying about who God, revealed in the person of Jesus, truly is? This will help us come to know better the Truth that God is communicating to us in these sacred texts.

            Like I said, the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke agree on very little. The two main things that they do agree upon are that Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary who was betrothed to Joseph and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. That's about it. All the stuff about shepherds and a manger belongs to one Gospel, and all the stuff about magi and fleeing to Egypt belongs to another. So if you've taken a look at your nativity set and have found both shepherds and wise men on display, you're combining two distinct stories. Don't worry; I'm not criticizing you if you do have it that way. I tend to put the wise men out a little later, but eventually they make their way right up next to the shepherd figurines. It's easy for us, though, to confuse the two narratives and try to mesh them together. Pop culture has been doing this for centuries. We like to stack up all the Gospels together like a quadruple-decker club sandwich because it's easier that way. However, although it may look tasty, somethings are going to fall out of a sandwich that big, and we'll fail to appreciate the subtle and unique deliciousness that each Gospel has to offer. As a Bible nerd, I try to keep the narratives separate, so for our purposes today let us take a look at some of the major elements in each of the distinct, individual narratives.

Matthew's infancy narrative.

            Obviously there is a lot that can be said about any part of Scripture, so this is by no means an exhaustive look at Mt 1:18-2:23. In fact, I'm going to try to keep it brief because it's Christmas, and you and I both have things to do. Am I right?
            One of the things you may notice in reading this passage is the uncanny similarity to another birth narrative in the Old Testament. A wicked king wants to destroy all the infant boys in the land, and one is rescued. Sound familiar? Yes, Matthew is paralleling Jesus' infancy to that of Moses'! In fact, this is not the only place in Matthew that he draws this connection. One of the reasons that Matthew places Jesus on a mountain when he delivers the so-called "Sermon on the Mount" is because Moses received the Law from God on a mountain. Jesus, in Matthew's Gospel, is a Moses figure, the new law-giver, the one who leads his people out of slavery. If you recall from last week's post, Matthew's Gospel is written to a very Jewish Christian audience, so these Old Testament parallels would not only have been easily recognized, but would have had a lot of significance to them. You'll also notice that Matthew makes a lot of other connections to passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, constantly quoting them even when it doesn't seem that necessary.

            Joseph, who plays the central role in Matthew's narrative rather than Mary (even though he doesn't say a word), is also paralleled with an Old Testament figure. In the genealogy he is said to be the son of a man named Jacob. Why? Think of another man named Joseph in the Old Testament who was the son of a Jacob. It is that very Joseph we find in Genesis, who likewise had dreams and eventually went down to the land of Egypt where he and his family experienced solace for a time. 
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           The attitude toward Egypt in Jewish thinking was a bit ambivalent – at times a place a refuge, and at other times the place of slavery from which Israel must be freed. Not surprisingly, then, the Holy Family finds refuge in Egypt, but Jesus, the Moses figure, is also brought out of there and into the land of Israel. It's significant that the Holy Family is portrayed as refugees and immigrants in the narrative, both for the Gospel's original hearers and for us today. Protection of the "stranger" is common theme in both the Old and New Testament, and as we seek to understand the Truth in Scripture, such repeated motifs most assuredly have something to say to us about how we should strive to live together  as a human family.
            But what of those magi, those wise men? Where are they paralleled in the Hebrew Scriptures? It's a less familiar story, but in the book of Numbers a foreign prophet, Balaam, is called upon by his king to curse the Israelites. Instead, however, he utters a blessing for them. The star that Matthew refers to may even be traced to the Balaam's prophecy: "A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel" (Num 24:17). Of course, another Old Testament reading associated with the magi comes from Isaiah 60, in which Israel is depicted as a light to the nations, and foreign kingdoms shall come and pay Israel homage – "Caravans of camels fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense" (Is 60:6). Not surprisingly, the Church pairs this reading from Isaiah with the passage about the magi on the feast of the Epiphany. Listen for this if you plan on going to Mass on January 3rd.
            It appears that Matthew had an agenda about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christian story of salvation. Recall, also, in Matthew's genealogy his inclusion of those foreign women. Since the evangelist strongly believed in the continuity of the Jewish faith with the Jesus event, he was flabbergasted that so many of the people of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. So at the end of his Gospel he turns his attention to the Gentiles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations..." (Mt 28:19). The magi from the east, representing the Gentile population, contrast with Herod and his court. These foreigners from the east (probably Persia, modern day Iran) come to pay the newborn king of the Jews homage, while Herod seeks the child's life.

Luke's infancy narrative (see chapters 1-2 of Luke)

            Luke is a masterful storyteller, and his narrative of Jesus' birth is very near and dear to our hearts. The bulk of our nativity sets and memories from nativity movies derive from his version. In Luke, Mary plays the central role, being the one to whom the angel announces Jesus' birth. Women in general often have a prominent role in Luke's Gospel. Both Mary and Elizabeth are key figures in the first two chapters, and in Lk  2:36-38 it is not only Simeon but also a prophetess named Anna who praises the child. The inclusion of women in Luke's Gospel is not so much an expression of 1st century feminism, but has to do more with Luke's theme of mercy to the poor and lowly. Unfortunately, women all throughout history and in most places around the world today have been among the most powerless. At the annunciation scene, Mary, as a young, unmarried and childless woman would have been one of the lowliest persons in society. She is not only the personification of God's poor, but she is also a voice that proclaims God's favor and love to the meek. When she visits her relative, Elizabeth, she announces in her resounding speech: "He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty" (Lk 1:51-53).
            The theme of poverty and lowliness permeates the entirety of Luke's infancy narrative. Jesus' birth scene may seem cute and darling to our modern sensibilities – the stuff of children's Christmas pageants. (No criticism of nativity plays intended. They're a good learning tool for kids.) But the fact of the matter is that Luke's portrayal of the savior's birth is far from cute or glamorous. The son of God is born into the world in a state of utter poverty. There was no room at the inn. He was wrapped in strips of cloths (presumably that is what the arcane term "swaddling clothes" means). And he was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Pet peeve, by the way: a stable is not the same thing as a manger. Animals live in stables and eat from mangers. I get all bent out of shape whenever I hear people say that Jesus was born in a manger. Think about it; that would be a an awkward situation. Luke doesn't actually say under what kind of shelter, if any, Jesus was born. The word "stable" does not appear at all in Luke's infancy narrative. We might presume he was born in a stable, but for all we know it could have been al fresco. The point is, the setting and environment of Jesus' birth in Luke's Gospel is a poor one indeed. It would likely be the equivalent of being born in a subway station today.
            And the imagery of poverty continues, for the shepherds in particular were among the lowest classes in that society at the time. I'm not entirely sure what a 1st century, Palestinian shepherd would have been like, but I'm certain he did not resemble a Precious Moments figurine. I'd imagine such shepherds would have been strong, unkempt men who could fend off attackers or wild beasts with brute force, and they probably reeked of sheep and manure (or insert another word that is alliterative to sheep). Yet Luke portrays these poor folk as being the first to receive the Good News.

            Both Joseph and Mary are portrayed as poor yet obedient and faithful Jewish people. They journey to Bethlehem for the census, and there they are depicted as strangers who could not find shelter. Later, in accordance with the Mosaic law, they have Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth, and they go to the Temple for Mary's purification. Luke actually implies that it was for both Mary's and Joseph's purification, but according to the law only the woman who gave birth was required to be purified. You can't blame Luke for getting wrong this bit about Jewish custom though; he was a Gentile, and what do they know anyway? Nevertheless, I think he makes his point clear about the humble obedience of the couple. And furthermore, he is careful to note that they offered a pair of turtledoves for their sacrifice, which was the offering of a poor person who could not afford to offer up a lamb.

            Through the faithful examples of Mary and Joseph, Luke firmly roots Jesus in the Jewish tradition. Luke is demonstrating to his Gentile audience that Jesus and his family were good Jews. Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. And since Luke is writing to Gentiles, there may have been a concern among them that God's promises to the people of Israel had been revoked. Therefore, he wants to assure his audience that this was not the case, that the promises to the people of Israel have indeed been fulfilled, that they have not been found wanting, and therefore the Gentiles can trust that God's word to them is true. The canticles of Mary (Lk 1:46-55), Zechariah (1:68-79), and Simeon (2:29-32) all bear this theme of the fulfilled promise to the people of Israel. And the last of the three, Simeon's prayer when he encounters the infant Jesus in the Temple, explicitly brings together the fulfilled promise to Israel and the extension of blessing to the Gentiles: "...a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."

            So what are we to take from all this? Well, to borrow from Shrek, Sacred Scripture is like an onion. It has layers. Indeed, there are numerous layers of meaning that can be gleaned from these infancy narratives, and I have barely peeled back even just one of those thin, sheer layers.
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The layers of meaning are there for us to unfurl and meditate upon, and they are never exhausted. As we discern the Truth which God is communicating to us in these sacred texts, let us ask ourselves some of those questions I mentioned earlier: What this scripture saying about God's relationship to humanity? What is it saying about who God, revealed in the person of Jesus, truly is? And what is it saying about how we as a human race ought to live with one another? Perhaps this will help us sift deeper through the layered meanings of Scripture and allow it to touch our heart more personally.

            Just to remind you of a few themes discussed in these narratives to guide you in your meditations:

* Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Moses led his people out of slavery, spoke with God directly, and gave the Law from God to his people on Mt. Sinai.

*Jesus is adored by foreigners, but rejected by the powerful and those who should have known better.

* Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are portrayed in both Gospels as migrants or refugees and, especially in Luke, are among the poorest in society. In Luke, the savior, Messiah, and Lord is born in the lowliest of states.

* The Good News of salvation is first proclaimed to poor social outcasts.

* God fulfills his promises to his people in the person of Jesus Christ.

* I didn't mention this earlier, but it's worth emphasizing that the infant Jesus was laid in a feeding bin. I cannot say whether or Luke intended this (probably not), but I smell a Eucharistic metaphor. Think about it.

            Hopefully this gives you plenty to reflect upon during this joyous season of Christmas (Dec. 25 – Jan. 10). I don't know if I will have the opportunity to post a new blog for the next couple of weeks, but I think the infancy narratives have enough things in them to chew on for a good while – probably for a lifetime and then some, but there is a lot more in Scripture to ponder. Until next time, I pray you have a blessed Christmas and a happy New Year. And, as always, you may post questions or comments on this page, the Bible Codega Facebook page, or to my e-mail:

God's peace!

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of  Matthew, Sacra Pagina 1. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 47.

Friday, December 18, 2015

All in the Family: The Genealogies of Jesus

           So I'm going to take a break from giving a tour of the Bible Library for a bit. So far, we've covered most of the Hebrew Scriptures, which – and I'm sure Jesus won't mind me saying this – I find more interesting than the New Testament anyway. I was going to write about the compilation and canonization of the Bible this week, but I discovered that I needed some more time to research that topic in order to do it justice. Instead, since we are drawing ever nearer to that joyous season of Christmas, I decided to write about the genealogies of Jesus. What!? That (seemingly) boring list of names at the beginning of Matthew and Luke? Aw yisss, that's right... because even though I can't pronounce half of those names, the lists are, in fact, rather significant and interesting pieces of work.

            If you watch much television, I'm sure you've come across commercials for genealogy websites like or There's even a program on TLC called "Who Do You Think You Are?" in which celebrities explore their ancestral past and learn fascinating secrets about their forebears. It is pretty natural for us to want to know where we come from. I can't count the number of times I've been in conversations about family backgrounds. Just yesterday, in fact, someone in the friary was playing German Christmas music, and much to my delight I could exclaim, "That's my people!" Knowing our origins tends to give us a sense of rootedness, belonging, and may even tell us a little about ourselves – or at least give an us an excuse for our idiosyncrasies. I, for one, like to attribute my anxiety about tardiness to my German side and my frugality to my Scottish side.

            Genealogies throughout Scripture function in a somewhat similar fashion. It wasn't so much that they were accurate lists of a biblical figure's ancestors or progeny – because I don't think that any of them actually were historically accurate  – but that they made a symbolic claim about origins and, especially in Genesis, underscored the interconnectedness of the human family.

            Now I must admit, looking at the genealogies in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke opens up a big ol' can of worms. But this is one of the reasons that I wanted to write about the them today anyway. They're a good introduction to the subtle (and oftentimes not so subtle) differences among the evangelists' perspectives and theological emphases. If you haven't noticed, there are four different Gospel accounts, and each one is unique. There would be little reason to have all four in the Bible if they all told the same story in the exact same way.
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            If you have some time right now, peruse through the two genealogies of Jesus: Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 (click the links to find them on You don't have to read them too closely; just get a sense of each one.
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            Great! So if you had a chance to take a look at them, you may have noticed some obvious differences. Matthew's goes from Abraham and works his way down to Jesus. Luke's, on the other hand, starts with Jesus and goes all the way back to Adam. And if that isn't enough, the two lists hardly agree on the names of Jesus' ancestors. They can't even agree on the father of Joseph! What the frankincense is going on? Just remember what I had said earlier; genealogies weren't created to point out historical facts about someone's ancestry. Their purpose was to make a theological – or otherwise symbolic – point about the person to whom they refer.

            This all has to do with differences in the evangelists' communities and theological point of view. Matthew was writing to a Jewish-Christian audience. His Gospel is the most "Jewish" of the four and is constantly making parallels to the Hebrew Scriptures. Since his audience was made up of Jewish followers of Christ, they had to defend the legitimacy of their belief in Christ against fellow Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. Thus, Matthew's Gospel is emphatic; in both verse 16 and 17 he calls Jesus the Messiah. And in the very first line of Matthew's whole Gospel he asserts that Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham. The latter roots Jesus in the Jewish heritage, for Abraham is the father of the people of Israel and the father of the promise (Gen 12:1-3). Matthew's Gospel is adamant that Jesus was a good Jewish man; he was born a Jew and died a Jew.

            Matthew's emphasis on Jesus being the son of David legitimizes Jesus' royal lineage, for it was a requirement that the Messiah be part of the Davidic line. In fact, Matthew's Gospel uses the phrase "son of David" 10 times, whereas Mark and Luke use it only three times each, and John doesn't use it at all. Interestingly enough, Matthew seems to go out of his way to craft his genealogy into three periods of 14 generations each. One theory is that the number 14 is the value of David's name. In Hebrew, his name is דוד, and the letter dalet, ד, is the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter waw (or vav), ו, is the sixth, thus 4+6+4 = 14. This little numerical word trick is known as gematria, and use of it is made in the Book of Revelation (as in the number 666 equaling Emperor Nero's name). Some have proposed that Matthew's crafting of Jesus' genealogy into three sets of 14 is another way that the evangelist draws a connection between King David and Jesus, almost as if to say that Jesus is the "David-est" or the "most David of persons," and therefore the Messiah par excellence.

            Incredible, right? Yeah, other biblical scholars think so too – that it's too incredible. In his commentary on Matthew, Daniel J. Harrington concludes that this is probably not what is going here with the number 14, and instead suggests that the significance of the number 14 in this case has to do with it being a multiple of the perfect number seven.[1] That's a far more boring explanation, but it may likely be the more accurate one. In his commentary, M. Eugene Boring notes that "dividing history into periods of fourteen appears elsewhere in Jewish tradition," but he doesn't dismiss the connection between 14 and David's name either.[2] Whatever the reasoning behind the number 14, it is clear that Matthew took pains to make sure that that was the number of generations, for he even leaves some names out in the process.

            As for Luke, he is writing to a Gentile audience, so asserting Jesus' Jewishness or his Davidic patrimony, while still important, are not on the top of his priorities. Luke's Gospel still grounds Jesus in the patriarchal lineage – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – but his genealogy goes all the way back to Adam, a common ancestor to all. The theme of universality is typical of Luke's Gospel. In his commentary on Luke, L.T. Johnson notes that "the significance of Jesus is not only for the 'children of Abraham,' but for all the descendants of Adam, all the nations of the earth."[3] Furthermore, Luke's genealogy is situated directly after the narrative of Jesus' baptism, in which the voice from heaven pronounces of Jesus "You are my beloved Son..." This theme is repeated in verse 38 of Luke's genealogy, for we hear Jesus' lineage going all the way back to Adam who is "the son of God."

            This is about all I'll say on Luke's genealogy, because Matthew's is far more interesting. If you've taken a look at Matthew's genealogy, you may have also noticed that he names four women other than Mary in his list. Each of these women is a fascinating character. The first is Tamar. I won't go into her whole story, but you can read it for yourself in Genesis 38. Trust me; it's a good read. Lots of drama, just like a soap opera. What I will say of her is that she broke a sexual taboo in having intercourse with her father-in-law, Judah.  But she is declared righteous in the end, for Judah failed in his duty to give her a son that would give her children in her deceased husband's name. I'm telling you; it's a juicy story, that Genesis 38.

            The next woman, Rahab, is a foreigner – a Canaanite from Jericho who is said to be a "harlot." Yet this woman is also righteous, for she rescued the Israelite spies and thus aided the success of the their campaign against Jericho. Perhaps she was a Benedict Arnold for her own people, but for the Israelites she was a saint. You can read her story in chapter 2 of Joshua.

            And then we have Ruth. For a people who hated the nation of Moab so much, it's impressive that they would have a whole book dedicated to a Moabite woman. Not only that, but this woman is an ancestress of King David... the King David! Her story is one of a widowed foreigner who is faithful to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi (an Israelite woman), and marries Boaz. By doing so he saves Naomi and Ruth from their poverty, since he is a close kinsmen of Naomi's deceased husband. It can be difficult to grasp what all is going on in the narrative, for the cultural context is very remote to modern-day readers. I will say, however, that chapter 3 is resplendent with Hebrew double entendre, and it is unclear whether the interaction between Ruth and Boaz is completely innocent or implying something else. Phrases like "uncover a place at his feet," "Spread the corner of your cloak over me," or even the fact that the couple encountered each other at the "threshing floor" (a place associated with prostitution) all can carry some sexual connotations. That being said, Ruth is the third righteous woman in the list, the second foreigner, and she may or may not have a bit of a sexual taboo associated with her too.

            Lastly, we have Bathsheba, but the evangelist doesn't even use her name in the genealogy. Instead, he refers to her as "the wife of Uriah," almost as if to emphasize the adulterous relationship that King David had with her. The story of David and Bathsheba can be found in 2 Samuel 11. Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite, which, even if she was originally an Israelite, thus made her a foreigner. David covets her and has relations with her even though he knows she is married. Personally, I do not find Bathsheba very culpable in the whole affair, but there is no indication of her willingness or lack thereof in the narrative. The real schmuck in the story is David, who, upon learning that Bathsheba is pregnant tries to cover up his scandal. When he finds that he can't, he arranges for Bathsheba's husband to die in battle. David eventually marries Bathsheba, and she becomes the mother of Solomon, another well-admired, though not entirely virtuous, king of Israel. Bathsheba thus shares in the characteristics noted in the women discussed so far: somewhat of a foreigner, associated with questionable sexual behavior, but nevertheless honorable – in her case by being the queen mother of King Solomon. As for David, he, like so many other heroes and patriarchs of the Hebrew Scriptures that are included in Jesus' genealogy, is both righteous and flawed.

            So why does Matthew's Gospel go to such lengths to include these women in Jesus' genealogy? Scholars offer several reasons. According to Daniel J. Harrington, "in their own distinctive ways they prepare for and foreshadow the irregular birth of Jesus that will be described in Matt 1:18-25."[4] Luke and Matthew both agree in their infancy narratives that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus. Matthew's audience may very well have received a lot of taunts for believing in the strange circumstances of Jesus' birth – What kind of Messiah is born to a woman who became pregnant before marriage? But the inclusion of these women seems to answer back: Look at the ways God works through people, even the most unlikely. As for Matthew's defense of the virgin birth, both he and Luke treat that in more detail in their infancy narratives.

            So yes, the genealogies can seem boring, and yes, their historical authenticity is rather dubious. We can't even get the two genealogies of Jesus to agree! Don't try it either; it's a futile and unnecessary mission. Nevertheless, to loosely quote my biblical hermeneutics professor, Fr. Stephen Sherwood, the Bible, "is about formation, not information." So we must ask ourselves how are the Scriptures forming me?

            One of the things I think we can take from these genealogies, especially Matthew's, is that Jesus enters into the messiness of humanity. Just look at the people in his family tree! They're not bad people by any means, but Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, and many others all had their issues. Even the women mentioned above, although certainly righteous in their own respects, each had a bit of a shadow side. But we cannot pretend that this isn't exactly what humanity is. We all have our faults, our brokenness, our shadow sides, and Jesus enters fully into that. The Jesuit, Fr. James Keenan, defines mercy as "the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,"[5] and this is precisely what Jesus does and one of the things to which Matthew's genealogy points.

            Another message we can reflect upon in the genealogies is that of inclusion. Matthew may have been bent on asserting Jesus' Jewishness, but three of the four women which he lists were outsiders. Just the fact that Matthew includes women at all breaks somewhat from the traditional genealogy schema. Luke doesn't even include women, even though he talks about women more in his Gospel than the other three! Although Matthew is writing to a very Jewish Christian audience, he seems to be declaring that "the messianic story is inclusive, extending to women and men of all nations."[6]

            Oftentimes the ones on the outside – the forgotten, excluded, or despised – are the ones who need to be shown mercy the most, to have someone enter into their pain or problems and include them into that mystery of salvation. I think the theme of mercy, given the chaos and messiness into which Jesus enters, is a perfect point of reflection as we soon enter into the Christmas Season. Not only that, but let us also consider how God uses ordinary and flawed people to be part of a bigger story of salvation history. God is calling each of us to help build up that messianic kingdom – a kingdom of peace, and justice, and mercy. What role do you think you play in that mission? Do you believe that those whom society has cast aside are part of this mission too? How can we reach out in mercy, and what can we learn from those whom others hate, dismiss, disdain, and cast aside?

            My scriptural recommendations for this week as you reflect on these things are simply the genealogies in Matthew and Luke  and, if you get a chance, to also read one or more of the accounts of the four women named in Matthew's genealogy: Genesis 38; Joshua 2; Ruth; and 2 Samuel 11. As always, I welcome comments and questions. You can post something on the Bible Codega page on Facebook if you prefer, or you can also e-mail me at

Until next time, Advent blessings!

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of  Matthew, Sacra Pagina 1. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 30.
[2] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in vol. VIII of The New Interpreter's Bible,  ed. by Leander E. Keck. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 129.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of  Luke, Sacra Pagina 3. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 72.
[4] Harrington. 32.
[5] James Keenan & Daniel J. Harrington, "Paul and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology," (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 126.
[6] Boring, 132.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Bible Library: The Prophets

           Do you know people who have an uncanny ability to speak the truth? And even if you don't like what they say or the way they say it, you probably know deep down that they're right. Maybe a family member, friend, or co-worker fits this bill. As far as friars go, I have come to know some of these kinds folks within the Franciscan community. Most of the friars and I have a lot of respect and admiration for our brothers' voices, but they do have a propensity for saying things that are unsettling, and it's not because their words are untrue. Rather, just the opposite – it's because we know that the truth of which they speak has not always been lived up to. These kinds of people – friars or otherwise – challenge the status quo, and they can make others feel uncomfortable. This is what comes to mind when I think of a prophet both in our own day and in biblical times.

            I can think of a few prophets of recent history: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Malala Yousafzai, and many others. (Click their names to learn more about them on the all-knowing Wikipedia).* Prophets like these challenged the expectations and ambitions of the powerful in their times, and each of them suffered some kind of persecution – some of them paying with their lives. I'm sure you can think of a few others from history. Maybe you personally know some people that might be considered prophetic. Let's hope that they do not suffer any ill fate; I must admit, though, persecution in some form or other kind of comes with the territory.

            Not all of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures endured such trials, nor are properly considered social activists like some of the men and women I listed above. Prophets were a common phenomenon in the ancient Near East across cultures and religious traditions. Most of the prophets mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures were professionals. They earned their living by being prophets and were closely associated with either the king, the Temple or both. In the books of Samuel and Kings we even hear about prophets like Samuel, Nathan, and Elisha appointing a new king. Prophets were often called upon by kings for consultation. Some prophets even had something like a community of disciples gathered around them, and some, like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, also functioned as priests.[1] Of course, not every prophet was a professional. Amos, for example, was a herdsman and a "dresser of sycamores," yet he nevertheless received the call to prophesy in Israel.** The prophetic call is a common characteristic we find among the prophets mentioned in the Scriptures, and oftentimes they are resistant to it – most notably Jonah, who took to the high seas to try to dodge his prophetic vocation.

            When we think about the term "prophecy" today, we may think that it has something to do with seeing the distant future. But the prophets usually were not thinking that far ahead. Prophets, plain and simple, were spokespersons for God, and, for the most part (Joel and Zechariah are exceptions), they were concerned with the present and near future. According to Victor Matthews in his book, The Hebrew Prophets and their Social World, "their role was to challenge the establishment and the social order, to remind the leadership and the people of their obligation to the covenant with Yahweh, and to warn the people of the punishment that would surely ensue if they violated this covenantal agreement."[2] So it is not surprising that prophetic literature does not often give us the warm-and-fuzzies. Their messages typically called people out. This is why I relate today's prophetic voices which challenge the status quo to those prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

            Let us now take a brief look at the prophetic books of the Bible. The Christian canon of scripture has 17 or 18 prophetic books listed from Isaiah to Malachi. However, three of these books are not considered part of the prophetic works (Nevi'im) in the Jewish canon of Scripture. The book of Lamentations, discussed in the post on wisdom and poetical books, was thought to be written by Jeremiah (though most scholars would agree that it was not), and so it follows his book in the Christian canon. However, Lamentations is included in the Writings (Kethuvim) in the Jewish Tanakh, which is a more fitting place for it. The book of Daniel is not actually prophetic literature; rather, it's an apocalyptic text. Therefore, it too is among the Writings in the Tanakh. And finally, Baruch is a deuterocanonical book and is not in either the Protestant or Jewish canons.

            This leaves us with 15 actual prophetic books: The major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – called major prophets because their books are much longer in comparison to the others – and the twelve minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of these twelve books are extremely short. Obadiah, for example, is a only 21 verses.

            If you recall from a previous post about the historical series of events in the Old Testament, the kingdom of Israel was divided into the northern kingdom (Israel/Samaria) and the southern kingdom (Judah) throughout most of its history. Remember also that the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The Assyrians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah in 701 BCE, and decimated many of the cities within it. The capital city of Jerusalem, however, managed to survive (see Isaiah 1:6-9). It's survival was viewed as miraculous, but well over a century later the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Neo-Babylonians with the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. It's important to keep these events in mind, because they provide some historical context to the concerns of most of the prophets.

            There are two major questions to ask yourself when approaching the prophets: When were they writing (before, during, or after the Babylonian exile)? And to whom were they writing?

The Assyrian Period, roughly 810 BCE – 625 BCE (late 9th through late mid-7th century)
and Beginning of Neo-Babylonian Period, roughly 625 BCE  

Pre-exilic Prophet
Date (BCE)
mid-8th century
late mid-8th cent.
1st Isaiah (1-39)
latter 8th cent. - early 7th cent.
latter 8th cent.
latter 7th cent.
late 7th cent.
late 7th cent.?
late 7th  – early 6th cent. (witnessed fall of Jerusalem)

The Neo-Babylonian Period
and Beginning of Persian Period, (Persians capture Babylon in 539 BCE)

Exilic Prophet
Date (BCE)
Exiled Judahites
c. 597-571
6th cent. After fall of Jerusalem
2nd  Isaiah (40-55)
Exiled Judahites
late mid-6th cent. At the end of the Exile

The Persian Period

Post-exilic Prophets
Date (BCE)
Zechariah (1-8)
late 6th cent.
3rd Isaiah (56-66)
late 6th,  possible early 5th cent.
"Isaiah Apocalypse" (24-27)
5th cent.?
Zechariah (9-14)
5th cent.? (difficult to date)
5th or 4th cent. (difficult to date)
mid-5th cent.

            I hope these charts help. Just remember that when dealing with BCE (Before the Common Era) time is counted backwards. Something that happened in the 8th century BCE, therefore, took place in the 700s BCE. Also, you may have noticed that Jonah is not on this chart. I left him off the list because, although he is not among those books that I dismissed as not being part of prophetic literature, he probably wasn't a historical prophet.

            I highly recommend reading the book of Jonah though. Nay, I strongly urge you to. It is a short and, interestingly enough, rather humorous, book with layers of poignant messages. Jonah is asked by God to preach doom against the Assyrians in their capital city, Nineveh. After fleeing from the call and spending three days in the belly of a great fish, Jonah finally does. But the Ninevites repent and are spared, and this just pisses Jonah off so much that he sits and pouts about it. The book ends with God asking Jonah a thought-provoking question: "And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?" In this Year of Mercy, it may be worthwhile to read this book and reflect on God's mercy upon even those we dislike or consider our enemies. If God is merciful, shouldn't we strive to be as well?

            As with all of the previous posts about the different parts of the Old Testament, there is so much more that can be said about the Hebrew prophets. Each of the prophets is unique and has a character all his own. Jeremiah, for example, is a rather depressed figure – not surprising given the circumstances of Judah being under pressure by the Neo-Babylonians. Few people wanted to listen to his message that challenged the prevailing ideology of the day. They thought that Jerusalem would never fall, despite their infidelity to the covenant... well, it did, and Jeremiah called it.

            Among the others there is Ezekiel, who sounds like he's tripping on acid. Winged creatures with four faces each. A wheel within a wheel with eyes on the rim. And that's just chapter one! There's Hosea, who is charged by God to marry a promiscuous woman as a sign of Israel's infidelity to YHWH. Amos, who has strong words against those who are comfortable and oppress the poor. Or Haggai, who is concerned with the need to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile. And in 2nd Isaiah (ch. 40-55) we hear a hopeful message about God's preeminence of history and an interpretation of the return from the exile as a new exodus. 2nd  Isaiah is also punctuated by the beautiful and haunting "Servant Songs" that are hear in liturgy during Holy Week: "Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity" (53:4-5a).

            These are just to name a few. It would be too arduous of a task to do justice to all the themes of the prophets or to describe all the characteristics of prophetic literature. I hope this gives you a taste, however, of what the prophets were about. As Matthews has said, their role was to challenge, to call their people back into right relationship with God and to loyalty to the covenant. And, as you can see from the tables, their messages often reflected the impending doom of destruction by either the Assyrians or Neo-Babylonians. Sometimes they grappled with and interpreted the experience of exile in light of their relationship with God. At times their messages were hopeful like parts of  Isaiah, but very often the prophets called people to task, as our prophetic voices in today's world do.

                Along with the book of Jonah I have a few other suggested readings this week. The first is actually two short readings from Amos (2:6-16 & 6:1-7). These are difficult passages to read in both senses of the word. In these texts Amos is calling Israel back to faithfulness to YHWH and to the covenant, of which care for the poor and needy was an essential part. He warns them of the impending attacks of the Assyrians if they don't change their ways. In these readings, listen to what God is saying to you. How is God's Word challenging you today, calling you beyond complacency, or to repentance? Remember, the prophets often disturbed the comfortable, and sometimes we need to be shaken up a bit too.

            My second suggestion is a description of Jeremiah's internal struggle (Jeremiah 20:7-18). He is compelled to prophesy Judah's defeat, and no one, or very few at least, want to hear his message, yet he cannot resist uttering the Word of God, despite the persecution he endures. Consider the prophets of today. What happens when they challenge preconceived notions and ideologies? Has there been a time in your life when you felt rejected by peers, friends, or family for speaking the truth? Has there been a time when you mocked someone else for speaking a truth you didn't like or didn't want to hear? Has God's word deep within you ever been difficult to bear, painful even? Notice, however, Jeremiah's trust in God: "But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion." Remember, that we are not alone in our sufferings.

            In this season of Advent as we prepare for the joyous Christmas season, it may also be worthwhile to meditate on some of the readings from Isaiah who features prominently in liturgy at this time of year. Isaiah 11-12, I think, is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Sacred Scripture.**** Isaiah 40:1-11; 61:1-3; and 66:7-16 are also great for meditation. Don't worry if you don't understand the context. For these readings, simply savor the poetry, and let God's word touch your heart as you prepare for the Christmas season.

Peace and all good!

* For the record, I realize that Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of information, but I think it gives you a pretty good gist of what a person or event is about.

** I found this on a delightful blog called Bible Saints by a woman named Theresa Doyle-Nelson: "The job of the dresser was to puncture the fruit days before it was to be gathered to help with the ripening process." So there you go. That's what a sycamore dresser does. Thanks Theresa!

*** I didn't find any charts or tables on Google Images that reflected what I thought was a good representation of when the prophets were active. The tables I created aren't perfect, but I based the information in them on what I had read in Michael D. Coogan's book, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. In any case, there is always a lot of debate about when a prophet was active or how much editing was done on the work and when.

**** I just like to point out that in Isaiah 11 it is a wolf that is paired with the lamb, not the lion that is so often depicted in art.

[1] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 300-301.
[2] Victor H. Matthews, The Hebrew Prophets and their Social World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 19.