Things All Too Familiar: Lent 3B

I felt a bit too much familiarity-bred contempt for the lessons this week -- it's kept me from digging too deeply into today's lectionary for most of the week. (Well, that and every other job I have conspiring together to keep me busy.) The gospel reading and the Torah portion are almost caricatures of themselves: the "cleansing of the Temple" in John and the "Ten Commandments" in Exodus. Plus we have Paul's declaration of the creativity of the cross outside all messianic and apologetic expectation. Which is cool, but I've done it before. But there has to be something here, underneath the familiar exteriors...

Exodus 20:1-17
We think of this as the Ten Commandments, but this passage stands at the opening of a much larger set of covenantal legislation, which we call the Covenant Code. We've had covenants for two weeks, and now we have a bit of regulation that stands as the monument to God's rescue of Israel: a just way of life.
And God spoke all these words, saying, "I, YHVH, am your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the servants' quarter. There shall be no other gods for you in my sight. You will not make stone or wood carvings of any semblance to what is in the sky above, on the land below, or in the sea below the land. You will not bow down to them and you shall not serve them, because I, YHVH, am your god, a jealous god who visits the guilt of fathers upon the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons for those who hate me, but works grace and favor for thousands of generations of those who love me and keep my commands.

Do not take up the name of YHVH your god for empty trifles, because YHVH will not acquit the one who takes up his name for empty trifles.

Remember to sanctify the day of rest; on six days you serve and do all your business, but the seventh day of rest belongs to YHVH your god. You will not do any of your business -- not you, your son, you daughter, your [`ebed] servant, your ['imah] servant, your herd animals, or the sojourner who takes hospitality within your doors. For on six days YHVH made the sky and the land, the sea and all that is in it, and reposed on the seventh; on account of this, YHVH blessed the day of rest and sanctified it.

Value your father and mother, that they may extend your days upon the earth that YHVH your god is giving to you.

Don't kill. Don't commit adultery. Don't steal. Do not respond to your neighbor with lying testimony. Do not desire your neighbor's household; do not desire your neighbor's wife, his [`ebed] servant, his ['imah] servant, his ruminant, his donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
We usually hear of God's "wisdom" here, but I want you to remember that sophistry and sophistication are about skill and good judgment. About being creative, clever, and crafty.
On the one hand, the logic of the cross is idiocy -- to those who are being destroyed. On the other, to those who are being rescued -- namely us -- it is God's power.

For it is written, “I will destroy the creativity of the creative, and displace the common sense of the sensible." Where is the creative one? The writer? The modern conversationalist? Has not God stupefied the world's creativity? Indeed, when by God's cleverness the world did not know God through all of its craft, God condescended to save those who trust -- wholly by means of the idiocy of the announcement.

When Judeans ask for signs, and Hellenes look for creativity, we announce the Christ, crucified. This is a scandal to Judeans, and idiocy to the nations -- but to those who are called, both Judeans and Hellenes, the Christ is God's power and God's creativity, because God's idiocy is cleverer than popular creativity, and God's weakness is stronger than popular strength.

John 2:13-22
I am reminded that for John, unlike the Synoptics, the destruction of the Temple in 70 is not an event, but an ongoing reality. I wonder to what extent the hopelessness of Hadrian's permanent garrison and the exclusion of Judean worship from the Temple mount affect his telling of the story.
The Judean festival of Pesach was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And he found the sellers of bulls and sheep and pigeons, and the cashiers, sitting in the Temple. And after making a lash of reeds, he kicked everyone out of the Temple, the sheep as well as the bulls, and he poured out the coins of the change-makers, and he flipped over their tables, and he said to the sellers of doves, "Remove these things from here -- do not make my Father's house a hall of merchandise." His disciples were reminded that it is written, "fervent love for your house will consume me."

Then the Judeans responded and said to him, "What omen can you show us, for doing this?" And Jesus responded and said to them, "Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it." Then the Judeans said, "Forty-six years this sanctuary has been built up, and you will erect it in three days?" But he said this about the sanctuary of his body. Then, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples were reminded that he said this, and they trusted in scripture and the saying that Jesus said.


  1. Contempt?!
    even familiarity-bred - I rankle at the term contempt used toward ANY Scripture
    What do you feel this week with John 3 in view?
    I do have to say I find your translation oz the Exodus 20 Ten Commandments intriguing. Still using "kill" rather than "murder"?

  2. Dad, are you telling me that you've never, lo these many years of preaching, stood face to face with a pericope and wondered what it had left in it to teach you? What about it you didn't already know? Had a sense that it wasn't as valuable because it had been mined out? Wanted to walk on and look for more interesting texts? That's contempt. And it's banal, and it happens all the time. Rankle all you like -- my version of a high view of scripture doesn't entail only saying nice things about it.
    Oh, I know, all the cool kids have switched to saying "murder" lately. I'm so not with the times. But seriously...

    Murder is a legal determination about an act of killing. And I don't think it maps neatly on the Hebrew.

    As to ratzach in Exod. 20, I do know that it isn't precisely the same as harag, the "utility infielder" of Hebrew killing verbs. And these aren't verbs of animal slaughtering; it's a different domain. So in any case we're talking about killing people.

    Num. 35:9-34 is illustrative of ratzach as a judgment that a killing must be avenged. Lots of ways of causing death, the root "death" word moth, and the killer in any case described with nakah, and liable for death. And there are rules for when a makeh can be given sanctuary from the redeemer, and when a makeh is a rotzeach, and the community must allow the redeemer to kill him. So that passage tells me that the verb indicates a killing that will not have its penalty reduced. A killing of another person, for which the blood-guilt is not mitigated.

    But I don't see any unique use of ratzach as a verb, right off, that differentiates it from the uses of harag, which we translate as "kill." Plenty of uses of harag are what we would call murder. But what I don't see is a word for "manslaughter," for example, as a crime with a lesser penalty. "Slaying," nakah, still merits death, even though the killer can be kept safe while inside the walls of the sanctuary city. The default perspective is that killing is killing, and death earns death. Some passages make judicial rulings for their own circumstances, like Numbers 35 above, to alleviate the rule of death. But killing is avenged by default. All ratzach does is enforce that. So yes, "don't kill." Or else you will die, and nobody shall save you.

  3. Put far more briefly: there is only killing -- and affirmative defenses.


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