Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 105 (Part 2)

Psalm 105, continued

For the Introduction to this Psalm, and its first two strophes (vv. 1-6, 7-11), see Part 1.

Strophe 3: Verses 12-15

Verse 12

“In their being men of (small) number,
just a few, and residing as aliens in her,”

The opening couplet picks up from the final couplet of the second strophe (v. 11), and is grammatically dependent on it. The feminine suffix H-* (“in her”) refers back to the land of Canaan (the noun Jr#a# being feminine). The Israelites—the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—were, at the time of their dwelling in the land of Canaan, few in number. Moreover, they had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, dwelling in the land as ‘resident aliens’, never taking up permanent residence, but moving regularly from region to region (Gen 12:10; 20:1, etc), and being economically dependent, to some degree, upon the established Canaanite city-states. The root rWG (I) is used to express this distinctive socio-cultural situation; both the verb and noun (rG@) are used regularly in the Patrarchic narratives (e.g., Gen 17:8; 23:4; Exod 6:4), and the terminology became part of the Israelite self-identity (Exod 22:20; Deut 10:19, etc).

Verse 13

“in their going about from nation to nation,
from (one) kingdom to (the) people following,”

This couplet continues the thought from verse 12 (cf. Gen 20:1). Referring to these Canaanite territories as “nations” and “kingdoms” reflects the socio-political dynamic of the small territorial kingdoms (city-states) that populated the region. Each city-state, despite their relatively small size, was technically ruled by a “king” (El#m#). The Amarna letters provide written evidence for the many small kingdoms in Canaan during the late bronze age (14th-13th century B.C.). Other surrounding territories were ruled by tribal confederacies and the like, and could be referred to as “peoples”, rather than “kingdoms”.

Verse 14

“He did not allow (any) human to oppress them,
and (even) gave rebuke (to) kings over them:”

Syntactically, this couplet continues the thought of vv. 12-13, and represents the main clause of the sentence. During all the migrations of the ancestral Israelites, YHWH protected the people—such protection being part of His covenant-bond with them, as a demonstration of his loyalty to the binding agreement; cf. the discussion on the second strophe (vv. 7-11) in Part 1.

The verb j^Wn, in the causative Hiphil stem, in this context, is almost impossible to translate. The verb fundamentally means “set down”, often with the connotation of resting (in one place). In the Hiphil stem, it means “make set(tle) down”, or “give rest/repose”, and thus could easily apply to the migrations of the Israelites (as ‘resident aliens’). However, here it applies to YHWH’s action toward the Canaanite, etc,  people (and their kings); the sense is not “make settle down”, but rather, something like “give leave, allow”. It is best understood in the context of YHWH “letting down” His protection over His people; this He did not do—He did not let it down so as to allow the settled peoples in the region to harass or oppress (vb qv^u*) the Israelites.

He even gave rebukes to the leaders (“kings”) when they might have done harm to Israel; the episodes involving the two king Abimelechs (Gen 20:3; 26:11) are foremost in mind; cf. also Gen 12:17.

There is a certain loose parallel between the pairings of kingdom/people (hk*l=m=m^/<u^) in v. 13 and human[s]/kings (<d*a*/<yk!l*m=) here.

Verse 15

“‘You must not touch my anointed (one)s,
and to my spokesmen you must do no evil!'”

This concluding couplet summarizes both the rebuke YHWH gives to the kings of Canaan, etc, and also the protection that He provides to the patriarchs and the ancestors of Israel. He refers to them as His “anointed ones”. This may allude to the tradition of the Israelite people as a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6), combining both offices (viz., king and priest) where a ceremonial anointing (with ritual or religious significance) typically applied.

In the second line, they are called by the noun ayb!n`. Though often rendered flatly as “prophet”, this noun is actually quite difficult to translate, so as to capture its true meaning. There are two possibilities as to the fundamental meaning (and derivation) of aybn: (1) one who speaks, that is, as a “spokesperson” for God; or (2) one who is called, viz., by God. The latter meaning would actually be more fitting to the context of the Patriarchs (Abraham, etc), as people called by God. Principally, however, the reference here is to Gen 20:6-7; in verse 7, Abraham is referred to as a ayb!n`, with the authority to communicate (i.e. speak) with YHWH, to offer prayer on behalf of Abimelech. I have translated <ya!yb!n+ above as “spokespersons”; this ‘prophetic’ role comes more clearly into view in the following strophes, dealing with Joseph and Moses/Aaron.

The verb uu^r*, in the Hiphil (causative) stem, means “cause evil” or “do (something) bad”; however, sometimes the connotation is more concrete, referring to causing (physical) harm or damage.

Strophe 4: Verses 16-22

Verse 16

“But (then) He called a hunger upon the land,
(and) every staff of bread He did break.”

The initial –w conjunction of this couplet begins a new unit, but also provides a contrast to the emphasis on YHWH’s protective care. At first, the hunger (i.e., famine) He calls upon the land would seem to contradict His covenant protection of the Israelite ancestors; however, this danger only establishes an opportunity for God to further work on His people’s behalf.

The expression “staff of bread” is a bit unusual. Dahood (III, p. 56) suggests that the proper meaning here is “stalk of grain”; this is certainly possible. More likely, however, is that the emphasis is on the lack of any available bread that can be eaten—even a thin stick of bread could not be found. The noun hF#m^ (“staff”) can also refer, figuratively, to a means of support. The supply of bread/food, necessary to support the life and health of the people, was “broken” (vb rb*v*). The reference, of course, is to the famine of the Joseph narratives (chaps. 41-42ff). This famine serves to bring the Israelites down into Egypt.

Verse 17

“He (had) sent (ahead) before them a man,
(for) as a slave he had been sold—Yôsep.”

The selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:28, 36; cf. chaps. 39-40) was providential; YHWH used the event to help His people through the famine, and to draw them down into Egypt.

The subject of the couplet is not specified until the final word; it is important that this poetic device (which Dahood, III, pp. 51, 56, called “explicitation”) be preserved in translation.

Verse 18

“They pressed his feet into the fetters,
(and) into (the) iron his neck came,”

Both concretely, and figuratively, this couplet describes Joseph’s enslavement. His feet were “pressed” (or “forced”, vb hn`u*) into fetters (lb#K#, a noun that occurs only here and in Ps 149:8), while his neck similarly went into an iron ring (or shackle, etc). The noun vp#n# is typically translated “soul”, but not infrequently it carries the more concrete meaning “throat”, i.e., “neck”.

Verse 19

“until (the) time of (the) coming of His word,
(when the) showing by YHWH refined him.”

This couplet, continuing the thought from v. 18, describes (somewhat awkwardly) the time/duration of Joseph’s slavery. It lasted until the “coming” (note the wordplay involving the same verb, aoB in v. 18b) of YHWH’s word. This “word” comes by way of dreams/visions (and their interpretation), and thus it is fair to understand here a bit of conceptual play between the roots rbd and rma. Both roots can denote “speak/say”, but rma can also mean “see” or “show” (cf. Gen 41:39). Here the noun rb*D* (line 1) is parallel with hr*m=a! (line 2). Through this process, Joseph was “refined” (vb [r^x*), metallurgical terminology that can carry the more figurative connotation of being tested (viz., by God) and proven worthy, pure, etc. The general reference is to the events of Gen 39-41.

Verse 20

“He sent a king, who then set him loose,
a ruler of peoples, who opened for him.”

As Dahood and Allen (and other commentators) note, YHWH is best understood as the subject of this couplet, with the king (i.e., Pharaoh) as the object. The prefixed w-conjunctions on the verbs can be rendered as a continuing result— “and then (he)…”; for poetic concision, I have translated this as “who (then)…”. This is a summary reference to the events of Gen 41.

Verse 21

“He set him as lord over his house,
and ruler among all his acquisition(s),”

The king (Pharaoh) is presumably the subject of this couplet, though it is possible to read it with YHWH as the implied (continuing) subject. The elevation of Joseph to the status of ruler (lit. one ruling) is narrated in Gen 41:39-45; the same participle (lv@m)) is used of Pharaoh in v. 20. Joseph is made a second ruler in Egypt, just below Pharaoh himself.

Verse 22

“to bind (together) his princes by his soul,
(that) he might make his elders wise.”

The ruling power/authority of Joseph also has a positive moral impact. His wisdom will have a unifying effect, “binding” together (vb rs^a*) the princes of Egypt “by/in his soul” —that is, in Joseph’s own person, according to his (righteous) inclinations. On the possibility of reading the verb rs^a* here as a form (or by-form) of rs^y` I (“instruct”), see Dahood, III, p. 58, and Allen, p. 52f. The couplet loosely reflects the ruling position and organizing activity of Joseph, fostered by his inspired wisdom and prudence, in Gen 41:37-49.

Strophe 5: Verses 23-28

Verse 23

“And (so) Yisrael came (down to) Egypt,
and Ya‘aqob resided in (the) land of Ham.”

The events surrounding Joseph served the larger purpose of bringing the descendants of Jacob (Israel) down into Egypt (Genesis 42ff). According to the genealogical tradition in Genesis 10 (v. 6), the Egyptians (“Egypt”) were descended from (or otherwise related to) Noah’s son Ham.

On the significance of the verb rWG, see the note on verse 12 above.

Verse 24

“And He made his people fruitful, exceedingly so,
and (so) made them strong(er) than their foes.”

This couplet effectively introduces the Exodus portion of the historical summary; the specific reference is to Exod 1:7ff. YHWH again is the implied subject; through His blessing and covenant protection, the Israelite people became numerous and strong, enough so that Pharaoh and the Egyptian government saw them as a threat (Exod 1:9).

I take “his people” as a reference to the people of Israel; however, it could, of course, also refer to Israel as the people of YHWH (“His people”), cf. verse 25 below.

Verse 25

“He turned over their heart to hate His people,
(and) to deal craftily with His servants.”

In this verse, “his people” certainly refers to Israel as the people of God (“His people”), as the parallel with “His servants” makes clear. The fear of the Egyptians toward the Israelites turns to “hate” and hostility, leading Pharaoh and his advisors to develop crafty plans for dealing with them (Exod 1:10ff).

Verse 26

“He sent (forth) Moshe His servant,
and Aharôn, on whom He had chosen.”

This couplet summarizes, in a general way, Exodus 2-4. The choice of Moses and Aaron, as chosen representatives (or <ya!yb!n+, ‘spokesmen’, cf. on v. 15 above) of God, again reflects YHWH’s care for His people, and His loyalty to the covenant made with their ancestors.

Verse 27

“They set (forth) among them words of His signs,
and (wondrous) portents in (the) land of Ham.”

Moses and Aaron announced to the people what YHWH had previously spoken (and demonstrated) to them; then they proceeded to display the supernatural portents to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The pairing of the plural nouns totoa (“signs”) and <yt!p=m (“portents”, of a wondrous or miraculous kind) is traditional. The couplet summarizes Exodus 4:29-31 (cf. vv. 1-17), 6:1, and chap. 7ff.

Verse 28

“He sent darkness, and (so) made it dark;
and they did not rebel (against) His word.”

Verse 28, when read in connection with vv. 29-36, is problematic, since it seems to set the plague of darkness (the ninth plague, Exod 10:21-29) ahead of all the others. Unless this is evidence of textual corruption—and the plague strophe (vv. 29-36) will be discussed in Part 3—the reference here needs to be explained in another way. A possible solution lies in reading this couplet as the conclusion of a strophe, which focuses primarily on the role of Moses and Aaron as faithful servants (and spokesmen/prophets) of YHWH. It is Moses and Aaron who, as in v. 27, are the plural subject in the second line (“they did not rebel…”). Their faithfulness is intentionally being contrasted with the rebelliousness of the people during the wilderness period. Moses and Aaron faithfully carried out their mission, presenting the words (and signs) given to them by YHWH.

(For a very different parsing and explanation of the Hebrew of the second line, see Dahood, III, p. 60.)

There could be two possible reasons for the allusion here to the plague of darkness. For one thing, its climactic position (as the penultimate plague) makes the mention of it here fitting for the climax of the strophe, anticipating the full scope of the plague-narration that follows. Secondly, there may be an allusion to the Creation account: as with the light (1:3), so with the darkness—YHWH speaks, and it is so. He “sends” the darkness by way of His word/command. Line 1 thus affirms the sureness and faithfulness of YHWH’s word—indicating and implying, once again, His loyalty to the covenant bond with His people (vv. 8-11). Moses and Aaron, as His servants, have similarly been faithful/loyal in carrying out His word.

The remainder of the Psalm will be analyzed in Part 3 of this study.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

April 28: Genesis 41:38

Genesis 41:38, etc

In the previous note, we saw how the spirit/breath (j^Wr) of God, more than simply giving life to human beings, is also the source for the wisdom and understanding within the person. This wisdom is available to all, as part of the way humankind was created (by God), though many people do not hear or listen to its voice. At the same time, certain people are uniquely or specially gifted with certain kinds of wisdom and ability. In the ancient world, such gifted individuals were seen as possessing a special divine presence or “spirit” (our term genius reflects its origins in the ancient concept of an indwelling deity). Israelite and Old Testament tradition followed this ancient way of thinking, ascribing the special talent and insight of certain individuals to the spirit of God (El-Yahweh).

There are a number of such references in the Old Testament Scriptures, beginning with the Pentateuch. Regardless of when the final form of the books were actually composed, there is no reason to doubt that these references reflect genuine historical tradition and the most ancient way of thinking (i.e. going back to the time of the Patriarchs).

Genesis 41:38

In response to Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, and the prospect of an impending famine-crisis, the decision was made to appoint a special overseer to manage the crisis (vv. 33ff). It was to be a man discerning (/obn`, i.e. possessing discernment) and wise (<k*j*). The Pharaoh realized that there was no one better qualified than Joseph, as he declares in verse 38:

“Can there be found (anyone) like this man [i.e. Joseph], wh(o has the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] in him?”

Joseph’s ability to know the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream was proof of his wisdom/discernment (v. 39). The main point here, however, is that such wisdom is an indication of God’s spirit at work in Joseph, much as Elihu declared that the wisdom/understanding available to human beings has its source in the spirit/breath of God (Job 32:8, cf. the previous note).

I have translated <yh!ýa$ above in accordance with the basic usage in Scripture. However, it is worth pointing out here that it is a plural form, which, as a substantive, would literally mean something like “mighty (one)s”, more or less equivalent to the simpler plural <yl!a@. There has always been some difficulty explaining the use of this plural in a monotheistic setting, to refer to the one God (El-Yahweh). In my view, the best explanation is that the word serves as an intensive plural—i.e., “mightiest (one)”—and so I typically translate in these notes and articles (as opposed to blandly rendering it as “God”). Yet, if we accept the authenticity of tradition recorded here, it is possible that the Egyptian Pharaoh would have had a true plural in mind (i.e. Mighty Ones, “gods”). The parallel in Dan 5:14, where Belshazzar makes a similar statement regarding Daniel (in Aramaic), would tend to confirm this: “I have heard about you that (the) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mighty Ones [/yh!l*a$, i.e. “gods”] (is) in you”.

For more on the meaning and significance of the related titles la@ (‘El) and <yh!ýa$ (‘Elohim), cf. my earlier articles indicated by the links here.

Exodus 31:3; 35:31

Such special wisdom and knowledge can be demonstrated in other ways, and these no less reflect the working of God’s j^Wr. It can apply to persons with considerable gifts and talents in areas of art and science, for example. We see this expressed in the case of Bezalel, a craftsman and artisan, who was appointed (along with at least one other man) to design the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and its furnishings (Exodus 31:1ff). The divine source of this ability is clearly stated in verse 3:

“And I have filled him (with the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest—with wisdom, and with discernment, and with knowledge, and with all (the) work [hK*al*m=] (he is to do)”

The common word hK*al*m= is a bit difficult to translate in English. It means something like “business”, i.e. the work a person is expected to do. Sometimes the word connotes the skill or ability required to perform such duties. The first three terms—wisdom, discernment, knowledge—show one side of this ability, while hK*al*m= signifies the working out of it in practice, in the actual business of his craft. Interestingly, it is YHWH who is speaking, and yet the expression “spirit of the Mightiest [i.e. of God]” is still used (rather that “my Spirit”), indicating how fundamental it was to the idea involved.

This same declaration regarding Bezalel is repeated, this time by Moses, in 35:31:

“And He [i.e. YHWH] (has) filled him (with the) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest…”

In using the word inspiration, we tend to think strictly in terms of the composition of the Scriptures, or in the related sense of inspired prophecy (within the context of Scripture). However, these passages we have examined thus far demonstrate that the concept of divine inspiration cannot—and should not—be limited in this way. In the next daily note, we will turn to the idea of the “prophet” —that is, the ayb!n`, one who serves a position of leadership, a spokesperson for God in relation to His people.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Lk 4:16-30)

In the previous note I looked at the tradition of Jesus’ visit to his hometown (Nazareth) in Mark 6:1-6a. Matthew’s version (13:53-58) differs only slightly from that of Mark. Luke’s account, as I have already mentioned, has a number of details unique to his version, though it almost certainly is describing the same (historical) event and tradition. These differences I will be discussing today. Before proceeding, it is worth pointing out that neither Mark nor Matthew actually mentioned the name of the town, simply referring to it as Jesus’ patri/$ (patrís), “father(‘s) land”, i.e. the territory of his home town. We may assume that the Gospel writers both understood it to be Nazareth, based on earlier data they recorded (Mk 1:9; Matt 2:13; 4:13), but, in all likelihood, the original tradition as passed down did not include the name of the town. Luke specifically refers to it by name (4:16), and he has good reasons for doing so, as we shall see.

Luke 4:16-30

(See also my earlier study on this passage)

Let us first note the elements and details which are unique to Luke’s version of the episode, and which he most likely has added to the core Synoptic narrative. We may take these to be (authentic) historical traditions, and, if so, they would be considered part of the so-called “L” material (traditions found only in Luke). The significant additions are as follows:

    • A different narrative introduction (v. 16)
    • The detail of Jesus standing up to read a passage from the Prophets (v. 17)
    • The quotation of Isaiah 61:1, with Jesus’ explanation (vv. 18-21)
    • The proverb cited by Jesus in v. 23
    • The Scriptural examples involving the Prophets Elijah and Elisha (vv. 25-27)
    • The violent reaction by the people, with intent to do harm to Jesus (vv. 28-29f)

The core Synoptic tradition, as found in Mk 6:1-6a (cf. the previous note), can still be glimpsed by combining together vv. 14-15 (with 16), 22, 24, and (very loosely) 28, 30. Beyond the added details listed above, consider how the author has (apparently) modified the core tradition:

    • The details emphasized in verse 16 (cp. Mk 6:1-2a par):
      (a) The name of the town (Nazareth)
      (b) That it was the place where Jesus was nourished (i.e. raised, brought up)
      (c) That he was used to attending local Synagogues on the Sabbath (and teaching there)
    • A different formulation of the people’s reaction—that is, the summary of their words/thoughts (v. 22 / Mk 6:2-3 par)
    • A different version of Jesus’ saying (v. 24 / Mk 6:4)
    • The episode apparently ends with a rather different (more violent) result to Jesus’ visit (vv. 28-30)

Each of these will be examined briefly, going verse by verse.

Verse 16—The Lukan details mentioned above all relate to the distinctive purpose of the episode within the context of the Gospel narrative. Two major literary and thematic elements are clearly at work:

    • The reference to Nazareth as the place where Jesus was brought up (as a child) points back to the Infancy Narrative of chapters 1-2, especially 2:40-52, which share certain motifs and language with 4:16ff. I have discussed these in an earlier note on this passage.
    • This episode illustrates the summary of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry in verses 14-15—in particular, that of his teaching in the synagogues. The Synoptic tradition introduces the ministry of Jesus with a different episode (cf. Mark 1:21-28 par [this follows in Lk 4:31-37]). Note the way that both the initial Markan and Lukan episodes illustrate the two aspects of Jesus’ ministry:
      (1) Teaching/preaching (with a synagogue setting)—Mk 1:21-22, 27; Lk 4:14-16, 22
      (2) Working miracles—Mk 1:23-27; Lk 4:14a, 23-27

Verses 17-21—The quotation of Isaiah 61:1 is a tradition unique to Luke’s account. In verse 21, Jesus states that this prophecy has been fulfilled at the moment of his reading it. In other words, Jesus identifies himself with the Anointed herald/prophet figure of Isa 61:1ff, just as he does elsewhere, in the traditional “Q” material (Lk 7:22 / Matt 11:5). Luke’s inclusion of this reference probably offers the best explanation for his location of the Nazareth episode, set at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This can be explained on three levels:

    • A connection with the Baptism scene, with the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (3:22). This is to be understood as the moment when the Spirit came upon him and he was anointed by God (Isa 61:1 / 4:18).
    • A connection with the preceding Temptation scene (4:1-13) which is framed by important references to the presence/activity of the Spirit (vv. 1, 14). In other words, this also shows how Jesus has been ‘anointed’ by the Spirit of God.
    • Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah), which serves as a principal theme of the Lukan account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (4:19:20). However, in this period he is not identified as the royal Messiah from the line of David, but as the Anointed herald/prophet of Isaiah 61. Matthew (4:12-17) introduces Jesus’ Galilean ministry with a different Messianic prophecy (Isa 9:1-2), one more in keeping with the Davidic figure-type.

Verse 22—Here it is worth comparing Luke’s account of the crowds reaction with that of Mark. Consider first the initial description of their reaction:

“and many hearing (him) were laid out (flat) [i.e. amazed], saying ‘From where (did) these things (come) to this (man), and what (is) th(is) wisdom…’?” (Mk 6:2)

“and all witnessed (about) him and wondered upon [i.e. at] the words of favor traveling out of his mouth” (Lk 4:22a)

The idea is roughly the same, but with a different emphasis. In Mark, the people recognize the two aspects of Jesus’ ministry—the wisdom (of his teaching) and his powerful deeds (miracles). In Luke’s account, it seems that they are responding to his gifts as a speaker, fulfilling a traditional religious role—that of reading the Scripture and offering a (pleasant) word of exhortation. It would seem that, while they may have recognized the Messianic significance of Isa 61:1ff, they certainly did not understand the implication of Jesus’ declaration in v. 21—that he was the Anointed One of the prophecy. Mark’s version may contain something of this idea as well, in the statement that the people of Nazareth were “tripped up” (the vb. skandali/zw) by Jesus (v. 3, cf. Lk 7:23 par)

The second part of the people’s reaction is even more significant. In Mark (6:3) the people find it hard to explain Jesus’ words and deeds, since they know all of his family—his mother, brothers, and sisters—as ‘ordinary’ people in the area. Luke has simplified this statement greatly, highlighting just one family member of Jesus:

“Is this not the son of Yoseph {Joseph}?”

This is reasonably close to the words in Matt 13:55: “Is this not the son of the craftsman [i.e. carpenter]?”, as well as being virtually identical to those in Jn 6:42. However, for Luke the reference to Joseph (as Jesus’ human father) has special importance, as can be seen clearly from two earlier passages:

    • The episode of the child Jesus in the Temple, in which Joseph as Jesus’ (human/legal) father is contrasted with God as his (true) Father (2:48-49)
    • The genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38), which begins “the son, as it was thought, of Joseph…” (v. 23), and ends “…the (son) of God” (v. 38). The implication, again, is that God is Jesus’ true Father (1:32, 35; 3:22b).

With these allusions in mind, it becomes apparent what the author is emphasizing here in this scene. The people of Nazareth are still thinking of Jesus as the ordinary, human/legal son of Joseph, and do not at all recognize him as the Anointed One and Son of God.

Verses 23-24—In Luke’s version, the Synoptic saying is preceded by an additional proverb (in v. 23). It functions as a provocative challenge to the townspeople. At this point, Luke does not mention the people taking offense at Jesus (cp. Mark 6:3); rather, Jesus seems to be taking the initiative in provoking them. The proverb brings to light the miracles performed by Jesus and plays upon the Synoptic tradition in Mk 6:5 par—that he was unable to perform many miracles in his home town (because of the people’s lack of faith). The proverb itself is relatively common, with parallels known from the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern world. However, in Luke, joined as it is with the saying of v. 24, it effectively creates a dual contrasting statement (physician/prophet). This, in fact, is how the saying has been preserved in at least one line of tradition, as recorded in the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1 and the Gospel of Thomas (§31)—i.e. “a prophet is not… and a physician does not…”. The Lukan form of the saying in v. 24 also differs from the version in Mark/Matthew:

“A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land and among his relatives and in his (own) house” (Mk 6:4)

“Not one foreteller [i.e. prophet] is accepted in his father(‘s) land” (Lk 4:24)

Most likely, Luke’s version represents an abridgment and/or simplification of the Synoptic tradition. Again, it serves a distinct purpose in the Lukan context—it makes more direct the identification of Jesus as a prophet.

Verses 25-27—The prophetic association becomes even clearer with the references to Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 5:1-19) and the miracles they worked. Jesus effectively is identifying himself with a prophet like Elijah/Elisha, a connection which appears a number of times in the Gospel tradition. For more on this, see parts 2 and 3 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Verses 28-30—Luke, quite in contrast with the narrative in Mark/Matthew, records an openly hostile, violent reaction to Jesus, provoked, it would seem, by Jesus’ own words in vv. 23-27. There is nothing quite like this in the core synoptic narrative, which ends rather uneventfully, with a laconic statement that Jesus was unable to perform many miracles in his home town, and that he marveled at the people’s lack of faith (Mk 6:5-6a). This is the only point at which the Lukan account really does not fit the Synoptic outline of the episode in Mark/Matthew. It does, however, fulfill two important themes within the narrative context of Luke’s Gospel:

    • It prefigures the opposition/violence that Jesus, as the Anointed One and Son of God, would face from the people, and serves as a parallel to the close of the Galilean period, and the Passion references which follow (9:21-22, 31, 43b-45, 51).
    • It also looks back to the Infancy Narrative, and the oracle by Simeon in 2:34-35, illustrating the opposition predicted by him most vividly.

Quite possibly, the original (historical) tradition contained more of this element of opposition to Jesus, but that it was not preserved in the Synoptic account of Mark/Matthew, retained (if at all) only in the statement at the end of Mk 6:3. If so, then Luke has developed and enhanced this aspect of the tradition.

John 6:42

Finally, it is worth noting, that, although the Gospel of John does not have anything corresponding to the Nazareth episode of the Synoptics, it does include at least one similar tradition—Jn 6:42, forming part of the great Bread of Life discourse in 6:22-59. As in the Synoptic episode under discussion, verse 42 reflects the people’s reaction to statements by Jesus regarding his identity. In Luke 4:16-30, he identifies himself with the Anointed (Messianic) herald/prophet of Isaiah 61:1ff (v. 21), and, by implication, as also being the Son of God (vv. 22ff, cf. above). In the discourse of John 6:22-59, Jesus draws upon different Scriptures—the Exodus traditions, especially that of the manna (as “bread from heaven”)—and identifies himself as the true Bread that comes down from heaven. This is expressed in verse 42 by one of the famous “I Am” declarations in John—”I am the bread th(at is) coming down [lit. stepping down] out of Heaven” (cf. also vv. 32-33, 35, 38, 48, 50-51, 58). In the Johannine context, this certainly refers to Jesus as the eternal (pre-existent) Son of God who has come (down) into the world to bring Life to those who would believe. Here Jesus’ sonship (in relation to God the Father) is understood at a much deeper level than in the Gospel of Luke. However, the basic contrast expressed is the same. The people recognize Jesus only at the ordinary, human level, and are troubled/offended by his words:

Is this not Yeshua, the son of Yoseph, of whom we have seen [i.e. known] his father and (his) mother? (So) now how (can) he say that ‘I have stepped down out of heaven?'”

The italicized portion is quite similar to the words of the people of Nazareth in Mark 6:3 par; indeed, the first phrase—”is this not…the son of Joseph?”—is virtually identical with Luke 4:22b. And, to be sure, John expresses the same aspect of opposition and misunderstanding among the people as Luke does. They view Jesus merely as the son of Joseph, when, in fact, his true identity is as the (eternal) Son of God the Father (Jn 6:27, 32, 37, 40, 44, 46, 57, etc).

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 1:21

Matthew 1:21

Having examined the Lukan Infancy narrative in considerable in the articles of this series so far, here on Christmas day I will now turn to the narrative in Matthew. Following the genealogy of Jesus (through Joseph), in Matt 1:1-17, the Infancy narrative proper begins with verse 18 (“Jesus’ coming to be [born] was [i.e. happened] this [way]”) . By comparison with Luke’s account, that in Matthew has a much simpler structure. In place of the inter-cutting John and Jesus narrative, with their rich language and imagery drawn from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, we have a more concise sequence of short dramatic episodes with a single narrative arc. Each episode is inspired by the Old Testament, drawing upon the Scriptures in two ways:

  • The Matthean scene is patterned after one or more passages, by which it acts out and fulfills Scripture dramatically in the narrative
  • Specific verses are quoted, by the author, using a citation formula found throughout the Gospel, stating that the episode (or elements of it) are a fulfillment of prophecy

We can see both of these aspects at work in the first episode in 1:18-25. The relatively simple structure of Matthew’s narrative can be seen by the following outline:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 18-19)—establishes the character of Joseph (parallel to Zechariah/Elizabeth in Luke)
  • The Angelic appearance and announcement (vv. 20-21)
  • Scripture–Fulfillment of Prophecy (vv. 22-23)
  • Narrative conclusion/summary (vv. 24-25)—the character of Joseph in his response to the message

In verse 19, Joseph is described as “just, right(eous)” (di/kaio$), the same adjective applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1:6. There is a definite similarity in the portrait painted by both authors. In this context, di/kaio$ should be understood in traditional religious terms—relating to observance of the commands and regulations of the Torah, such as we see depicted by Luke (1:6ff, 59; 2:21-24, 39, 41ff). Here in Matthew, Joseph’s righteousness is illustrated in his observance of the regulations involving marital infidelity (v. 19, cf. Deut 24:1-4). He sought to be merciful to Mary in his observance of the Law, and to divorce her ‘quietly’ with as little attention as possible (cp. Num 5:11-31; Deut 22:20-21). Quite understandably, he was thinking heavily upon the matter (note the verb e)nqume/omai, meaning to be in deep/passionate thought, etc, about something), and this sets the scene for the Angel’s appearance:

“…see!—(the) Messenger of the Lord shone forth to him according to [i.e. through] a dream, saying: ‘Yoseph, son of Dawid, you should not be afraid to take alongside (of you) Maryam your wife [lit. woman]—for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit!'” (v. 20)

This Angelic (birth) announcement is similar to those in Luke—to Zechariah and to Mary (Lk 1:8-23, 26-38)—and follows a basic pattern from episodes in the Old Testament (cf. the earlier note on 1:26ff, and Brown, Birth, pp. 155-9). Formally, the wording in 1:20-21 is closest to Lk 1:13, and to Gen 17:19 in the Old Testament. The distinct detail here in Matthew—that the Messenger of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream—may well be an allusion to the Joseph narratives in Genesis.

The scene here (involving Joseph) is very much parallel to the Annuciation to Mary in Luke. The Angel’s words in v. 20b are similar to those in Lk 1:35—as a response/sign to confirm the miraculous message:

“for the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to\ gennhqe/n] in her is out of the holy Spirit

Compare with Luke 1:35 (for more detail, cf. the earlier note):

“the holy Spirit will come upon you…the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to\ gennw/menon] will be called Holy”

Thus we have comparable statements by the Angel of the Lord to Joseph and Mary, respectively. The birth announcement proper occurs in verse 21; there are three elements to the declaration, each of which has a different subject:

  • birth—”she {Mary} will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son”
  • name—”you {Joseph} shall call his name Yeshua”
  • explanation of the name—”he {Jesus} will save his people…”

In contrast to the Lukan narrative, in which the names Yohanan (John) and Yeshua (Jesus) are explained indirectly in the announcement scenes, or through the language and imagery of the hymns, etc, here in Matthew, the significance of the name is stated explicitly by the Angel. In the Introduction to this series, I discussed the importance of names in the Ancient Near East, and how they were understood, especially when utilizing divine names and titles. Many ancient names were phrase- or sentence-names which incorporate a hypocoristic (shortened) form of a divine name. Most commonly in ancient Israel, these involved the names °E~l (cf. the article) and Yahweh (article). The name given by the Angel here is a Yaweh (Yah) name—Hebrew/Aramaic Y¢šûa± (u^Wvy@), a shortened form of Y§hôšûa± (u^Wvohy+), best known in connection with the early Israelite commander and successor to Moses (i.e. Joshua). This name is best translated as the divine name Y¹h(û) and an imperative of the verb šw± (uwv), “(seek, cry for) help”, and would mean something like “Yah(weh) give help!” The context of the cry of a mother during childbirth may be intended (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 347), and, indeed, salvation was often described in terms of the suffering of the human condition as like the pains of a woman in labor. Deliverance and new life comes at the end of a short time of intense pain and trouble.

The explanation by the Angel involves a play on words—the name Y¢šûa± sounds like the word y§šû±¹h (hu*Wvy+), derived from a different root yš± (uvy), “save, deliver, (make) free”, and thus essentially meaning “salvation”. The theme of salvation was prominent in the hymns of the Lukan narrative (1:46-47ff, 68-69ff) and Jesus was called by the title “Savior” (swth/r) in 2:11 (cf. 1:47). Here, however, the association is made more explicit and precise, tied to Jesus’ very name—and, thus, according to the ancient sense of names, to his essential character and identity, i.e. as one who saves:

“…and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21)

A similar (popular) interpretation of the name Yeshua (Jesus/Joshua) is known from the time of the New Testament, in Philo, On the Change of Names §121. Note also the important declaration in Acts 4:12: “there is not salvation in any other (name); for indeed there is no different name under heaven, given among men, in which it is necessary (for) us to be saved”. For early Christians, salvation and protection—including healing from disease and infirmity—were connected closely with the name Jesus/Yeshua. And this is another way of saying that salvation is found and experienced through the person of Jesus, rather than simply by a magical recitation of his name. As in Luke 1:77 (cf. verse 69), here salvation is understood in terms of deliverance/release from sin (and the power of sin). The plural “sins” refers to individual personal misdeeds and failings, but from the standpoint of the people (“his people”) taken collectively. In the Matthean narrative at this point, “people” still refers exclusively, or primarily, to the people of Israel (Israelites and Jews), while in Luke the author is already extending the word to include others (believers) from among the nations. The presence of the Magoi in Matthew 2 may represent a similar widening of God’s revelation into the Gentile world; this is not certain, though it is likely, if one accepts an allusion to Psalm 72:10-11; Isa 60:6 in the passage.

In the annunciation scenes from Matthew and Luke, the command to give the name Yeshua to the child is directed at Joseph and Mary, respectively. While this naturally would fit either or both of the parents, here in Matthew there is special significance to Joseph as the one giving the name. It establishes his legal paternity, thus making Jesus legitimately a “son of David” (v. 20; cf. Lk 1:27; 2:4). The importance of this association is confirmed by the preceding genealogy (vv. 1-17). The Davidic aspect of Jesus’ identity will be discussed further in the upcoming note on Matt 2:2, 4.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28 (1981).