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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 21 - Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Alt - Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 21 - Proper 16 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


EXODUS 1:8-2:10		  The lectionary moves on from the Joseph saga, 
quickly spanning at least several generations during which the Israelites 
lived very productively in Egypt.  We must remember, however, that the 
Exodus narrative is the great Israelite epic, not recorded history.  
Archeological evidence of its occurrence has yet to be found.  The epic 
begins with a well-known tale of a new pharaoh enslaving the Israelites 
and attempting their genocide by ordering midwives to kill all the male 
newborns.  The ruse failed.  The daughter of Pharaoh found the child of a 
Levite hidden by his mother, gave him an Egyptian name, Moses, and 
returned him to his own mother for nursing.


PSALM 124		Escape from disaster through divine intervention 
resounds through Israelite mythology.  This psalm reiterates this theme 
using different metaphors from war, natural disasters and hunting to make 
the point.

 
ISAIAH 51:1-6		[Alternate]  The unknown prophet of Israel’s 
exile in Babylon reassures believers in Israel’s covenant that God will 
intervene to change their tragic circumstances because God has never 
deserted them.

 
PSALM 138		[Alternate]  In a spirit of universalism, the 
psalmist offers a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love in 
preserving him in troubled times because such intervention fulfils the 
divine purpose.

 
ROMANS 12:1-8 		Paul's theology, preaching and letter writing all 
had one goal: to bring his audience to an understanding of the faith in 
its Christian form and to commit themselves to a life of discipleship to 
Jesus Christ.  He proclaimed primarily, if not exclusively, an ethical 
gospel and theology.  Nowhere in all of the letters attributed to Paul 
does this come to the fore more explicitly than in this passage.  In many 
respects this form of exhortation has become a standard preaching method 
ever since.  A preacher sets forth the truth of the gospel, then exhorts 
the congregation in ways to carry it into daily living.  
 
 
MATTHEW 16:13-20	Many dogmatic and ecclesiastical issues surface 
in the analysis of this reading.  Not the least of these are the primacy 
of Peter and hence of the claim to the papacy by the bishop of Rome.  
Another is the nature of the authority ostensibly given by Christ to the 
apostles.  On the other hand, scholars have long debated whether the words 
attributed to Jesus are in fact a valid rendition of what he may have said 
on this occasion.  


A MORE COMMPLETE ANALYSIS

EXODUS 1:8 - 2:10   The lectionary moves on from the Joseph saga, quickly 
spanning at least several generations during which the Israelites lived 
very productively in Egypt.  It is difficult to know just how long this 
sojourn lasted, but probably not the 430 years stated in Ex. 12:40.  
Scholars have usually identified the "new king ...  who did not know 
Joseph" as Ramses II (1290-1224 BCE), the most powerful king of the 19th 
dynasty.  It could also have been his father, Seti I (1302-1290).  Ramses 
II was a prodigious builder, but no Egyptian records document either the 
oppression of the Israelites or an exodus of a large population during his 
long reign.  We must remember, however, that the Exodus narrative is the 
great Israelite epic, not recorded history.

Research has confirmed the details of brick-making in Egypt at this time.  
Sun-dried adobe bricks are still used for construction of peasant villages 
in that part of the modern world.  A mosque using this same type of 
construction has recently been built in Utah, USA.  The secrecy and deceit 
surrounding the birthing of male children (1:15-22) reads as religious 
data tracing the miraculous rescue of Moses to an act of God.  So also 
does the inclusion of Moses in the priestly tribe of Levi. (2:1)

One of the more puzzling aspects of the story is the Egyptian name given 
to Moses (it means "to be born") and his protection by a princess of the 
royal household.  A notable parallel has been drawn to the birth of Sargon 
I, who was rescued from the Euphrates and later became the founder of the 
early Semitic city-state of Akkad (ca. 2350 BCE).  Despite the existence 
of a series of other Egyptian generations in the Levitical genealogy in 
Ex. 6:16 (Phineas, Hophni and Merari and possibly also Aaron and Miriam) 
no additional evidence is available to connect Moses to the Egyptian court 
apart from the birth story.  Other attempts to link him to the putative 
monotheistic revolution of Akhenaton of the previous, 18th dynasty located 
at a new capital city, el-Amarna, have not been succesSful.  

Nonetheless, a realistic assessment of the story of Moses point to many 
Egyptian influences.  The Egyptian empire in Asia extending as far as 
northern Syria was lost due to a Hittite invasion from Anatolia (modern 
Turkey) which took place during the reign of Akhenaton (1369-53 BCE).  
Egyptian records show that an incursion of western Semitic tribes known as 
the Hapiru (or Habiru) into the region of southern Syria, Phoenicia and 
Palestine took place during this same period.  Some scholars have 
hypothesized that these people were among the tribes who subsequently 
formed the Israelite confederacy.  

The Moses tradition came down chiefly through the E-document, using 
folklore as its source.  As it stands now it was greatly influenced by the 
editor(s) of the P-document with post-exilic priestly additions made 
throughout.  Scholars now concede that "the underlying bare facts are not 
longer recoverable."  Rather it is "history transfigured by faith" in the 
form of a cultic document in celebration of the Passover.  (G.  Henton 
Davies "Exodus" in *The Twentieth Century Bible Commentary, Revised 
Edition*, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955.)


PSALM 124   Psalms 120-134 had a special place in the liturgies of the 
Second Temple during the Persian and Hellenistic periods of Israel's 
history (ca. 538-165 BCE).  Scholars designate this collection of fifteen 
psalms "the Songs of Ascents," a title they also bore in the Hebrew 
scriptures.  They appear to have existed as a separate collection before 
the Psalter was assembled in its present form.  They may have been used by 
pilgrims approaching the temple at one or other of the great festivals.  
It is also known that the minor priests who assisted in ritual observances 
and guarded the temple gates, Levites as they were called, did not reside 
in Jerusalem at all times, but were divided in "courses" which came up to 
the city to perform their customary duties for a limited time.  (See also 
1 Chron. 28:21; 2 Chron. 8:14; Neh. 12:47; 13:30).  It is possible that 
groups of Levitical singers used them or even composed them for their 
regularly scheduled return to Jerusalem.  

This psalm refers to some unknown historical event when Israel was 
delivered from enemy attack.  That deliverance received a wholly religious 
interpretation, as might be expected in a religiously oriented society.  
The Lord was "on their side" as vss. 1-2 boldly assert.  The threat had 
been real, like that of a raging torrent still so common in the wadis of 
the Judean wilderness after a heavy rain (vss.3-5).  The deliverance had 
been like an animal escaping from the very teeth of a predator (vs. 6), or 
a bird escaping from a fowler's snare (vs. 7).  This latter form of 
hunting was an important source of food, especially among the peasant 
people who lived on the edge of deprivation or starvation.  For game to 
escape in this manner often meant the difference between eating and 
hunger.  Such homely scenes from village life found similar use as 
parables and metaphors in Jesus' teaching.

Faith does not see the events of history in a simple, factual context.  
Believers like the psalmist saw them through the eyes of faith and with 
the mind of one who knew God intimately.  Thus the psalm could begin with 
marvel and surprise, and end with praise to God who had created a new 
situation in which faith could respond.  The songs of Israel viewed 
history as the arena in which God performed God's mighty acts of 
salvation.


ROMANS 12:1-8   Paul's theology, preaching and letter writing all had one 
goal: to bring his audience to an understanding of the faith in its 
Christian form and to commit themselves to a life of discipleship to Jesus 
Christ.  He proclaimed primarily, if not exclusively, an ethical gospel 
and theology.  Nowhere in all the Pauline corpus that this come to the 
fore more explicitly than in this passage.  Scholars define the type of 
teaching in this segment, a form common to all his letters, as 
*paraenesis* or exhortation.  In many respects it has become a standard 
homiletic method ever since: one sets forth the truth of the gospel, then 
one exhorts the congregation in ways to carry into daily living.  

Paul has the example of Christ in mind as he begins his exhortation.  "The 
living sacrifice" he envisioned (vs. 1) was the death and resurrection of 
Jesus, now spiritually evident in the lives of the Roman community.  As 
Professor Gerald Cragg has stated so exquisitely concerning the 
resurrection imagery of this sentence: "The new life (in Christ) is the 
life which has been sacrificed - offered to God.  We cease to live to or 
for ourselves; we are under obligation to serve God in all we are and do.  
The truest sacrifice therefore is to love according to God's will....  The 
freedom of the dedicated life is the secret of self-fulfillment; barren 
self-discipline is its denial." (*The Interpreter's Bible*, vol. 9, 581.)
 
Without question this requires a transformation from what we may naturally 
desire and what God desires of us.  So Paul's second sentence declares 
(vs. 2) This discernment of the "good... acceptable... and perfect" will 
of God does not come easily, as every experienced Christian surely knows.  
A fortuitous choice of a title for a committee charged with assisting a 
person who has experience a call to ministry to discover whether this was 
in fact a genuine call of God is "the discernment committee."  The 
committee is made up primarily of lay members of the same congregation as 
the candidate in order that the whole material, moral and spiritual 
environment out of which the candidate comes will be recognized as the 
arena in which the call of God occurs.

However prodigious his mental capacities, Paul never avoided from his 
basic conviction that the grace of God had activated his own conversion 
and continued to inspire directly his every declaration of what the saving 
gospel meant.  Nor was he afraid of engaging his considerable intellectual 
abilities in his preaching and teaching, and encouraging others to do the 
same (vs. 3).  His frequent referral to the Hebrew scriptures he had 
learned so well under Rabbi Gamaliel provide ample evidence of this.  As a 
Hellenistic Jew of the Diaspora, faith and intellect were the touchstones 
of his ministry.  He was also willing to learn from others (cf. Gal.  
1:18-19) as well as defend his own insights and experience in intense 
discussion with other apostles (cf. Acts 15).  

Out of this combination of faith and knowledge grew Paul's unique image of 
the universal Christian fellowship as the Body of Christ.  Each person 
contributed his or her own special gifts to the whole as one of the many 
diverse members of the body (vss. 4-8; cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-17).  The imagery 
of our hymnody, homiletics, theology, polity and praxis of the church 
would be sadly impoverished if Paul's inspired mind had not brought forth 
this profound metaphor.


MATTHEW 16:13-20   Many dogmatic and ecclesiastical issues surface in the 
analysis of this reading.  Not the least of these are the primacy of Peter 
and hence of the claim to the papacy by the bishop of Rome.  Another is 
the nature of the authority ostensibly given by Christ to the apostles.  
On the other hand, scholars have long debated whether the words attributed 
to Jesus are in fact a valid rendition of what he may have said on this 
occasion.

A curious anomaly arises as soon as we realize the location of this 
incident.  Caesarea Philippi lies in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, some 
2000 feet above sea level.  This location has three significant religious, 
geographical and political aspects: It is an ancient holy place honouring 
the pagan pastoral god Pan.  It was of one of three sources of the Jordan 
River which fed its waters about 25 turbulent miles southward into the Sea 
(actually lake) of Galilee some 700 feet below sea level.  Herod Philip, a 
contemporary of Jesus as the tetrarch (a petty king) of Trachonitis and 
other provinces east of the Jordan, built his summer residence here after 
his father’s death in 4 BCE.  Jesus would have been well aware of all 
this.  Did he lead his disciples to this site because he wanted them to 
recognize him in a setting totally different from the familiar shores of 
the Sea of Galilee? Did he want them to see him as the Messiah of the 
whole world, not just of the Jews?

The response of the disciples to his penetrating questions casts the 
importance of the event into sharp relief.  At first they linked him with 
Israel’s prophetic history.  Undoubtedly the general populace saw him as 
one of the prophets, as did they.  The tradition held that Elijah would 
return to announce the coming of the Messiah.  John the Baptist fitted 
that role and had suffered death by execution at the order of Herod 
Antipas, half-brother of Philip.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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