The Week of Lent III
Since we find ‘reading and meditating on the word of God’ among the disciplines of Lent, there can be no doubt that any aid to reflection on the Sunday readings will be of value at this time. It is perhaps ironic, then, that the season provides enough extra work that there seems to be no time to do prepare useful notes for this blog. It is not only the time needed to prepare a weekly Lenten Study for the parish that hinders the notes; there are two other factors.
First, I have decided to preach a series of sermons in Lent on the Gospel for the first Sunday, the Temptation. Secondly, I have another job which also takes the rest of the work week. So although I have eighteen pages of rough notes on this week’s reading, on this Saturday afternoon I have no time to digest them. Last week, I had no notes on file at all. So that’s why there was nothing last week and there is very little now. I apologize for this: just when you might be eager for comments on the readings, and willing to put up with mine, I have nothing for you.
Nonetheless, one point that struck me in reading over the propers might be both of interest and value.
In the Epistle, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13, St Paul is using the history of Israel’s time in the wilderness to warn the Christians of Corinth against overconfidence. Even those called by God can be condemned for infidelity. Baptism and partaking in the Lord’s Supper are not enough to guarantee salvation, any more than corresponding acts, the crossing of the Red Sea and the manna from heaven, sufficed for the ancient Hebrews. The story of the Exodus is full of examples of the Israelites who, though saved, fell into sin and were destroyed. St Paul says that these things ‘were written down for our instruction,’ meaning that the sacred writers did not relate ancient traditions just to inform us of facts. Neither does the Church want us to listen to them every three years in order to entertain us.
With this in mind, it is clearly important to refer to the events themselves as we read St Paul’s words. One case struck me.
In the NRSV 1 Cor 10.8 is rendered in English as ‘We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.’ The Greek is μηδὲ πορνεύωμεν, καθώς τινες αὐτῶν ἐπόρνευσαν; the lexicon says that πορνεύω means to prostitute oneself, in the intransitive to commit adultery, and metaphorically to practice idolatry. The older translations for the most part used ‘fornication’, although Coverdale has ‘commit whoredom’. The first thing that hits one is that this is a lot more specific than ‘indulge in sexual immorality’ (& far more than the RSV’s ‘indulge in immorality’; what, were they gambling or drinking to excess?). But the second and more important, thing is that the fornication was with foreigners.
St Paul does not say this, but he obviously expects his readers to know the reference, which is to Numbers 25.1-18, which the NRSV gives as ‘While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab’. As we read on we learn that the problem also included idolatry: the women of Moab ‘invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods and the people ate and bowed down to their gods’. This may also have involved sacrifices to the dead (see Psalm 106.28-31). So what is going on here is not only whoredom, but apostasy, the worship of strange gods.
Come back to the passage in First Corinthians. St Paul says that we must not commit fornication as some of them did. By referring to the event at Baal-Peor he seems to make apostasy part of his warning. There can be no doubt that this was a danger to the faithful of Corinth. I do not doubt in the slightest that St Paul taught his people to avoid immorality; this can be seen elsewhere in the letter (especially chapter 5 and Chapter 6.12-20) but I am not sure that the warning here is as general as that, or at least that it is his main concern in this warning.
So while I would not say that this verse is not a warning against sexual immorality, I would wonder whether it is right just to read it thus without considering that the main concern may have been idolatry and apostasy. But that is all I have time for this week.
Last week I did scribble a few textual comments on the Gospel reading, Luke 13,31-35. Two points in the NRSV translation of the Gospel passage need to be noted as example of where the translators seem unable to leave well enough alone. The beginning of Luke 13:32 is rendered, “He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me …” The words ‘for me’ are not in the Greek but a gloss and are hardly necessary for a correct understanding. Another addition is made at verse 34, which is rendered “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The words ‘the city’ are another gloss and one that seems to add nothing to our understanding of the text. The verse should read: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The image of a hen gathering her brood under her wings is widely loved, and justly. It would be hard to find a more tender image of the divine love.
It is interesting, however, that the original is simply ‘bird’ [Greek ornis; Latin avis]. The lexicon does not suggest that this was commonly used to mean a chicken; in Latin at least the usual word for hen is ‘gallina’. The earliest English versions are se fugel in Old English and brid (sic) in Wyclyf; Tyndale was the first to give the hen. He has been followed in this by most later Engish versions. Luther’s German version has eine Henne. One might note that the word ‘hen’, which originally meant a chicken, by the 14th century could also mean the female of any bird. (The earliest known version of a certain poplar joke is ‘Why did the hen cross the road?”)
I’m sure there are helpful notes at the RCL site and in the Catena Aurea at Catechetics Online http://www.catecheticsonline.com/CatenaAurea.php