INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
2 SAMUEL 11:26-12:13a. The confrontation between David and Nathan, the prophet, brings to the fore the magnitude of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, another man’s wife. The story is one of the most powerful in the whole sequence of hero-legends about Israel’s greatest king. The story makes the point, however, that even the greatest cannot misuse God-given authority and power for selfish ends.
PSALM 51:1-12. Because of the superscription many assume that this psalm refers directly to David’s sin, but that is highly unlikely. Psalm titles were added much later by scribes seeking to relate as many of them to David’s life on the mistaken assumption that he was author of the psalms. Nonetheless this one is a very beautiful prayer of repentance.
EXODUS 16:2-4, 9-15. (Alternate) After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt by crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites pressed on into the wilderness. When they complained to Moses that they would starve, further evidence of God’s guidance and providence was given in flocks of quails and a flaky substance they called manna (Hebrew for “what is it?”) in plentiful supply for their daily needs.
PSALM 78:23-29. (Alternate) The whole psalm celebrates God’s mighty acts on behalf of the Israelites during their migration toward the promised land. In this segment the psalmist recalls the instance of them being fed with manna and quail at a time of threatened famine.
EPHESIANS 4:1-16. This exhortation to live the Christian life in all its fullness emphasizes the gift of the Spirit to bring unity to the church and the power to equip all members for their common ministry. It presents a clear mandate for the mission of every congregation.
JOHN 6:24-35. This reading shows a special way in which John handled the miracle of feeding of the five thousand. For John, miracles had much more to them than seeing them happen and benefitting from them. This one led to a discourse by Jesus about being the bread of life. Many scholars believe that John used this discourse in place of the narrative of the Last Supper in the other three Gospels. The story also recalls the feeding of the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness.
The passage makes three significant points: The miracle was another of the signs identifying Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God. Somewhat ambiguously, however, it pointed beyond Jesus to God who is the source of all life. Finally, by placing particular emphasis on his statement, “I am the bread of life,” it identifies Jesus completely with God. This is a more spiritual and theological reflection than one finds in the other Gospels.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
2 SAMUEL 11:26-12:13a
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The confrontation between David and Nathan, the prophet, brings to the fore the magnitude of David’s sin with Bathsheba, then arranging for her husband’s death in battle to cover up what he had done. The story is one of the most powerful in the whole sequence of hero-legends about Israel’s greatest king. On the surface it makes the point, however, that even the greatest cannot misuse God-given authority and power for selfish ends.
There is some artificiality about the story, however, probably for dramatic effect. David should have seen through Nathan’s device without difficulty. As king he was also the chief judge of the nations, so the incident that Nathan related was a case that might have come before him. Whether it actually happened in David’s reign (circa 1000 BCE) or is a parable with a deeper purpose is moot. The situation was not uncommon when viewed in light of the social justice messages of Amos and Isaiah in the 8th century BCE . As a parable, it ranks with those of Jesus in the NT gospels for its power “to disturb the conscience and produce repentance.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, 2, 1102). That is its primary purpose in the David cycle as redacted by the Deuteronomists of the late 7th century BCE.
The intent of the redactor was not to denigrate or diminish David in the eyes of a later generation. Rather he intended it to show how David’s transgression fitted the overall tendency of Israel to depart from the covenant of Yahweh in much the same way as had Saul and all succeeding monarchs from the founding of the institution to its end in the Babylonian exile (596 BCE). In every instance, as in this case, a continuing moral and spiritual crisis beset the nation and led to its ultimate destruction. Although this is a serious crisis for David and the beginning of his decline, he is to be seen not so much as an individual, but as the representative of the nation. Thus the story has to be read from the perspective of the prophetic mandate to call Israel to repentance so that it may survive the crisis into which the sins of its whole populace were leading, as had the sins of their greatest king.
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Because of the superscription many assume that this psalm refers directly to David’s sin, but that is highly unlikely. Psalm titles were added much later by scribes seeking to relate as many of them to David’s life on the mistaken assumption that he was author of the psalms. Seventy-three psalms bear titles referring David in one way or another. Some of them related top specific incidents in his life, as does this one. The existence of these titles in the Greek version indicate that they date from pre-Christian times as Jewish traditions derived from the late compilation of the Psalter.
Nonetheless this one is a very beautiful prayer of repentance by an individual who is both deathly ill and very conscious of his personal transgressions. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that there are no attempts to blame anyone but himself for the fate that has befallen him. The whole psalm presents a personal confession as poignant as any in all of scripture.
The psalm begins with a plea for mercy and an expression of faith in Yahweh’s forgiveness. The double parallel of vs.1 emphasizes the way in which the psalmist has cast himself wholly on divine mercy. The phrase “blot out my transgressions” conveys an image of a record from which the sin be completely obliterated. The image of washing in vs. 2 recalls the liturgical ablutions of Leviticus 14:11-20 as an act of atonement. The Seer of Revelation (7:14) adapted the image to refer to the baptismal garments of lst century Christians. Similarly evangelical Christians envisage being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as a metaphor of their salvation and atonement through the death of Jesus Christ.
The confessor makes no effort to conceal his sin and deny his guilt. Vs. 4 readily acknowledges the justice of whatever penalty is laid to his charge. Various translations of vs. 5, however, have led many to assume that this is a statement of original sin. Rather than placing blame on his parents, it affirms of what Ecclesiasticus 15:11-15 described as an evil inclination resulting from the freedom of our human wills. We are not born sinful, but do sin because of self-motivated willfulness resulting in sinful choices. (Ecclesiasticus is also known as the apocryophal book of Sirach and dates from the 2nd century BCE.)
Vs. 6 posits Yahweh’s choice for humanity: freedom from sin expressed as “truth in the inward being.” (NSRV) The Hebrew text is difficult to translate. The New English Bible has a better translation: “Though thou hast hidden the truth in darkness, through this mystery thou dost teach me wisdom.” This brings forth a further petition for cleansing and a desire to rejoice in the resulting freedom of spirit (vss.7-9).
The final verses of this reading have a depth of spirituality and moral responsibility reminiscent of the great prophets of the exilic period, Jeremiah (31:33-34) and Ezekiel (37:26-27). It is not improbable that the psalmist either knew these scriptures or belonged to the same prophetic company from which those texts came. The psalmist draws upon a concept of spiritual regeneration through the activity of the Spirit close to that expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Romans 8.
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(Alternate) After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt by crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites pressed on into the wilderness. When they complained to Moses that they would starve, further evidence of God’s guidance and providence was given in flocks of quails and a flaky substance they called manna (Hebrew for “what is it?”) in plentiful supply for their daily needs.
In this ancient story we have an important part of the Passover and Exodus saga told from the point of view of the highly developed faith of later generations. Modern scholars know, as the priests or scribes who committed this story to writing may also have known, that the manna and quails on which the Israelites fed were natural phenomena to be found in the wilderness of Sinai. Recent investigations suggest that manna is produced not by secretion of sap from the tamarisk bush as previously thought, but by insects which ingest the sap and excrete a honeydew rich in sugars and pectin thus creating a scale on the branches of the shrub. Quail are still found migrating along their natural flight path through the Sinai wilderness to and from their nesting grounds in Europe and wintering grounds in Africa.
Natural explanations do not deny what the Israelites saw as miraculous. Not what fed them, but that they were fed by the providence of Yahweh remained the great blessing which generations praised as in the following psalm.
This faith remained strong even in Jesus’ time, as it still may be for our time. Jesus identified himself as “the true bread from heaven” come down to give life to the world. (John 6:30-35) So also now, faith in Jesus means faith in the providence of God, a tradition as old as Abraham and Moses. (Cf. Genesis 22:8) If Israel’s faith extended nearly two millennia into the past through an oral tradition recounting the saga of their ancestors trek though the wilderness, does it not also extend two millennia forward to our time and a place in history when the global economy is suffering such vast imbalances of riches and poverty? It has been estimated that there are at least one billion poverty-stricken people living in urban slums around the world. Each year their number is swelling by many millions more.
But what does that faith mean in an age when the technologically developed nations have the means of producing far more food than needed but have problems marketing their surplus at prices which pay the producers a fair return for the costs of production? What does it mean for the current controversies about government subsidies to agriculture, transportation and genetically altered foods? How do issues such as the migration of unemployed refugees from Asia, Africa, South and Central America fit into this paradigm of divine providence for the needs of God’s people? Are these not the struggles of our generation which must we must think through and share openly with the politically powerful who have responsibility for making decisions that will determine the fate of millions?
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(Alternate) This whole psalm celebrates God’s mighty acts on behalf of the Israelites despite their obstinate disbelief during their migration toward the Promised Land. In this segment the psalmist recalls the instance of them being fed with manna and quail at a time of threatened famine.
The recitation of such mighty acts as this psalm celebrates always described Yahweh’s goodness and loving kindness toward Israel. Throughout the psalmist defines a stark contrast in the Deuteronomic mould between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness. In all likelihood this psalm had a significant place in the liturgy of the Second Temple after the return from the Babylonian exile. The celebration of Passover would have been a suitable festival for this liturgical recitation of the nation’s religious history. However, due to several references to the Davidic dynasty still reigning, it may well date from before the exile when the tradition of the Exodus was taking shape.
This passage omits the concluding two verses (vss. 30-31) which state the basic issue repeated throughout the psalm: Yahweh’s anger at their unfaithfulness.
As noted above the phenomenon interpreted as an act of Yahweh had a very natural origin. Manna is the digestive by-product of an insect which appears as a whitish scale on the branches of the tamarisk tree. Quail still migrate through the Egyptian and Jordanian wilderness from their nesting grounds in Europe to their winter feeding grounds in Africa. But who does not interpret the most ordinary things around us, even a brilliant sunrise or sunset, as gifts of God’s infinite grace?
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At this point in the letter, the mood changes from one of exultation in the blessings of salvation to exhortation about living the Christian life in all its fullness. The author places emphasis on the gift of the Spirit to bring unity to the church and the power to equip all members for their common ministry.
Memories of Paul’s troubles in Ephesus and in Corinth may well lie behind this passage. The early church did not have an easy transition from being a Jewish sectarian movement to a Gentile community of faith distinct from and yet continuous with its predecessor. Factionalism was its greatest problem. Dependence on the Spirit with the particular gifts of humility, patience and love had to be its primary resource for creating a sense of unity and motivating its evangelical mission. The symbol of this spiritual competence which all could share came from their common baptism, “the outward sign of inward, spiritual grace.”
Particular functions, divisions of labour and specific responsibilities in the evangelical mission may have been under development but had not yet become fixed when this letter was composed. Apostles and prophets are named together with evangelists, pastors and teachers without any recognizable difference in their functions within the community. The offices identified in vs. 11 cannot be regarded as literally applicable to any later period. Rather these are functions of service common to all members of the community. Every member had a responsibility “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” However, this should still be interpreted as a clear mandate for the mission of every member in every congregation today.
In his Church Order in the New Testament (SCM Press, 1961) Eduard Schweizer makes a strong point that in the Pauline epistles, notably Colossians and Ephesians, the church has the attributes of the kingdom of God. The image of the body serves to describe “not so much the Church’s state as its growth; this is true both for 4:12-16, where the head is both the source and the object of growth, and also for the image of the temple or God’s dwelling, where everything grows from Christ the cornerstone, and from the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets (2:20-22).”
Schweizer also notes that in ancient times, buildings such as temples were regarded as living organisms much like a living body in contrast to our modern view of buildings as manufactured infrastructure. This view finds expression clearly in the metaphor of maturity measured by the “full stature of Christ” (vs. 13) contrasted with the vacillations of immaturity (vs. 14) and the emphasis on love as the crucial element of nurture which “promotes the body’s growth” (vs. 16).
In Schweizer’s analysis, under the influence of the Spirit the church has become both a world wide unity and a cosmic reality. “Its mission is indeed of cosmic range.” As a result, the members of the church as well as the apostle function in a common ministry on a global and even cosmic scale, not merely as part of a particular local congregation. This passage thus forms the scriptural basis for the outreach ministry of every local congregation where, as individual members and as a gathered community, we must think globally and act locally.
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This reading shows a special way in which John handled the miracle of feeding of the five thousand. For John, miracles had much more to them than seeing unnatural events occur and benefiting personally from them. This one led to a discourse by Jesus about being the bread of life. Many scholars believe that John used this discourse in place of the narrative of the Last Supper in the other three Gospels. John completely omitted that pericope from his version of the Passion. This discourse is a homily on the meaning of the sacrament.
The passage makes three significant points: The miracle was another of the signs identifying Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God. In vs. 27, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, which by this time had acquired a christological connotation which it did not have in the Hebrew scriptures of Ezekiel and Daniel. He also bears the “seal” which the Father has set on him. The Greek verb spragizein used in this instance occurs also in 3:33. In both cases the verb refers to the well-known custom of stamping one’s personal signet on wax sealing a document, product or vessel to validate its ownership and authenticity in much the same way that modern silver is hallmarked. Ephesus, a noted commercial centre and the probable place from which the Fourth Gospel came, the custom would have been well known. Here it symbolized trustworthiness, i.e. Jesus is the one person who can give eternal, spiritual life because God has set his seal upon him.
Somewhat ambiguously, however, the passage points beyond Jesus to God who is the source of all life. The miracles Jesus performs are “the works of God” recalling the “mighty acts” of the Old Testament. Believing in Jesus, the Christ, is the only essential divine work because God alone is the source of all life and power including Jesus’ power to perform the miracle of feeding the multitude. The manna the Israelites ate in the desert came not from Moses but from God. Then John has Jesus’ interlocutors ask reverently for this “bread from heaven” which opens the way for Jesus to launch into his discourse, “I am the bread of life.”
Finally, by placing particular emphasis on this statement, John identifies Jesus completely with God. This is a more spiritual and theological reflection on the both the miracle and the person of Christ than one finds in the other Gospels. It comes close to defining the Trinitarian view of the person and work Christ. Writing from the viewpoint of a Jew in a thoroughly Hellenistic cultural milieu, John had not yet gone as far as his successors the Greek Fathers would go in defining the abstract Trinitarian hypostasis of Christ. He still maintains the Hebrew sense of spiritual life in the context of daily existence in the world where bread is eaten for physical sustenance.
Yet, it also looks beyond the materialistic element of a few loaves and fish to the divine, spiritual source of life itself. The purpose of eating the bread of life (i.e. believing in Jesus Christ) is to live spiritually in the world here and now while waiting for the eschaton yet to come. But that carries us beyond the immediate passage to the remainder of the discourse (vss.35-58).