Tag Archives: torah

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Jesus As Literature

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those overly-familiar gospel episodes that reward a fresh reading with open eyes. In terms of history and theology, this is one of the more difficult passages to analyze. Questions abound: who is meant to have witnessed and recorded this event? Is this a pale description of a spiritual or psychological experience, or a literal throwdown between Jesus and an embodied “devil”? Was this some kind of legal gauntlet that Jesus had to pass to prove himself the son of God, or just a dramatic manifestation of his anxiety and doubt?

Those are all fascinating questions, but they lend themselves largely to speculation. Approached as a work of literature, on the other hand, the text has much more to offer. This is a carefully and creatively composed piece of storytelling with many observable features which provide structure and impart meaning. All three of the synoptic gospels offer a version of this episode, while John’s gospel omits it. I’m going to focus on Matthew’s version and its appreciable literary form.

Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus Wanders in the Desert

The opening chapters of Matthew present the birth and early life of Jesus as a series of fulfillments and echoes of the story of Israel. Each episode is ordered and detailed to invoke elements and themes from Genesis and Exodus (and from Talmudic expansions on those stories): Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, flees to Egypt with his family. There are dreams and intrigue with kings and diviners, and Jesus passes dramatically through a body of water at his baptism. Then here, in chapter 4, he wanders the desert in an ordeal that lasts “forty days and forty nights,” and next he will go up on a mountain and talk about law.

So what is Matthew’s agenda in casting Jesus in a remake of Exodus? In a general sense, of course, he wants to establish Jesus a true Jew and Israel’s true Messiah. But the significance of the temptation story in particular is best understood if we pay attention to the details. The short text can be broken down into five units; an introduction, three temptations, and a conclusion. Each of the temptations includes a specific allusion to a text from Exodus and a rebuttal from Jesus that quotes Deuteronomy 6. Here’s the broad outline, with more details below:

  1. Introduction (Matthew 4:1-2): Jesus fasting in the desert
  2. Temptation 1 (Matthew 4:3-4): Stones into bread
    1. Reference: Exodus 16:3 (“bread”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:3
  3. Temptation 2 (Matthew 4:5-7): Throw yourself down
    1. Reference: Exodus 17:2,7 (“to the test”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:16
  4. Temptation 3 (Matthew 4:8-10): Bow down
    1. Reference: Exodus 32:8 (“bow down”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:13
  5. Conclusion (Matthew 4:11):  The devil left him

Like the Israelites those millennia ago, Jesus is “led” into the desert where he faces three specific temptations that his ancestors also faced there. But where they failed, grumbling and rebelling, Jesus is faithful and true. And his source of inspiration is Deuteronomy 6, the defining expression of Jewish identity and belief. He essentially defeats the devil with Judaism.

Now let’s consider the actual temptations in a little more detail:

Temptation 1: Magic Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)

The identity of Jesus’ adversary in Matthew’s text is rather slippery. He is first called “the devil,” but usually just “the tempter,” and eventually Jesus calls him “you satan!” Whoever or whatever he is, the tempter begins by challenging the “famished” Jesus to turn some stones into bread to nourish himself. Jesus answers with his first quote from Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to keep you alive, you actually live on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” (Deut 6:3)

This temptation involves the miraculous provision of dirty bread. For the Israelites (in Exodus 16 and following) God provided manna, and the temptation was to hoard or grumble or otherwise fail to appreciate the provision. For Jesus the circumstance is different but the temptation is the same. He is dared to exploit his privilege in order to instantly gratify himself rather than staying hungry and continuing to trust in divine providence.

Temptation 2: Go Jump Off a Cliff (Matthew 4:5-7)

Next the tempter takes Jesus up onto the temple mount and dares him to jump off, so that God might “command his angels” to come down and save him (a quote from Psalm 91). Jesus rebukes him with another Deuteronomic comeback: “You mustn’t put the Lord your God to the test!” (Deut 6:16)

This is another reference to Exodus, specifically Exodus 17 where the Israelites demand a miracle and Moses responds with a similar warning about putting God “to the test.” (Exo 17:2) But the Israelites intensify their protest and Moses capitulates in an incident with his staff and a rock that will see him banished from the promised land. The temptation here is not just ingratitude but a complete lack of faith manifested as a demand for religious signs and proofs, an exchange of reason and trust for insecurity and superstition. For Jesus the choice is between triumphant religious spectacle or quiet humanity, and he chooses the latter.

Temptation 3: Bow Down (Matthew 4:8-10)

Finally, Jesus’ devil takes him to a “very high mountain,” where they survey the “magnificent kingdoms of the world.” “I’ll give them all to you,” he says, “if you’ll bow down and worship me.” Jesus must have been listening to the audiobook of Deuteronomy on his phone that morning, because he is ready with one more quote: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!” (Deut 6:13) The devil leaves him.

Here is an allusion to the famous incident in Exodus 32 when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and within five minutes the people below are “bowing down” to worship a fertility idol in the form of a golden calf. For the Israelites, this was simply the temptation to return to the glamorous and expedient type of local religion to which they had been accustomed. For Jesus, the temptation is to embrace the glamorous and expedient type of power and glory afforded by the empires and kingdoms of the world. To this day, political and military power are the only way most humans can imagine anything resembling justice to be accomplished. But Jesus knows there is a better way.

The Big Picture: Jesus the Good Jewish Human

Most readers of the New Testament, missing the literary clues and references, have imagined that these trials were unique to Jesus and his heavenly vocation as savior and messiah. But Matthew’s point seems to be that these three temptations – instant gratification, superstition, and power politics – are all common. They are common to Israel and common to humankind. What makes Jesus extraordinary is his transcendent response to these universal temptations, grounded in humility, faith, and an ongoing trust in divine goodness. Matthew is inviting his Jewish readers to place their trust in Jesus, the true Israelite and the true human. He portrays Jesus as “one of us,” which ought to make his goodness all the more relevant and inspiring.


Break Your Bible: Numbers 25 and the Zeal of Phinehas

In this series of posts I want to use selected texts from the Bible to illuminate and challenge the way we read and interpret the whole collection. By saying “Break Your Bible” I’m not advocating that we reject, redact, or revise the contents of the biblical canon, but rather that we allow difficult components of the canon to stretch and complicate the things we think we know and believe about how it all fits together. This first post will focus on a story from the Hebrew Bible that defies simplistic interpretation, the second will examine a prophetic text that complicates our reading of the Torah, and last we’ll look at a Greek passage that raises similar issues in the New Testament.

The Myth of Phinehas

Numbers 25:6-13 is a brief account tucked away among the lengthy annals and genealogies of the Torah, but it resonates throughout the Bible. It’s a mythic story, which is a comment on its function, not its veracity. This is an interpretive re-telling of an ancient crisis. In the story, Israel is devastated by a mysterious plague that kills thousands, and a man named Phinehas takes matters into his own hands. When he discovers that an Israelite man has taken a wife from among the Midianites (their pagan enemies), Phinehas runs his spear through the couple, murdering them. The plague subsides, and God is so impressed with the “zeal” of Phinehas that he honors him, granting him an “everlasting priesthood.” The myth succinctly describes a problem (sinful marriage) and its solution (summary execution), leaving no question in the mind of the reader that this is the way the world works; our problems emanate from an angry God who can be appeased by acts of ritual violence.

The problems with this myth and its native interpretation are many and obvious, I hope. Most of us today, even Christians, do not believe in the theology that this story presents. In fact, those who do appeal to this kind of thinking usually end up making public apologies. We don’t believe that diseases and natural disasters are sent by God to punish us for our sins, and we don’t believe that assuaging God’s wrath is a matter of identifying and murdering the right sinners. We recognize that this type of “zeal” reflects an archaic and dangerous way of thinking about God and other people.

But It’s In the Bible!

At the same time, Christians who appeal to the Bible as a perfect and inspired authority must find a way to fit this story and others like it into the grand narrative of “what the Bible says.” That would probably go something like, “God hates sin, and this is how He dealt with it in ancient times.” And that might give way to, “But now we have Jesus, so God has dealt with sin in a better way!” This appeal to an “old covenant/new covenant” upgrade is a common way for Christians to interpret unsavory passages from the Hebrew Scriptures without having to judge them or disagree with them. This approach might have some merit when suggesting, for example, that the old system of animal sacrifice has been fulfilled and supplanted by the self-sacrifice of Jesus (an idea we will scrutinize in the next post). But it’s quite another to suggest that killing human infidels in God’s name used to be OK “back then.”

Attempts to gloss over a Bible story like this one are motivated by ignorance and/or fear. Either we haven’t bothered to look this kind of ugly “zeal” fully in the face, or we’re afraid to do so. If it doesn’t bother us, there is something deeply wrong. If it troubles us, we need to respond. The “zeal of Phinehas” makes an excellent test case for our ability to discern and address different traditions and voices in the Bible. It demands that we do what most Christians seem to fear the most, to make a personal judgment about something we read in the Bible.

The Zeal Tradition

The “zeal” modeled by Phinehas was idealized and lauded by later generations as reflected by a text like Psalm 106. The poem, reflecting on Numbers 25, says that Phinehas’ bloody deed was “counted to him as righteousness,” a strong statement echoing a famous reference to Abraham in Genesis 15:6. So bold and righteous was Phinehas that he is placed on a pedestal next to Abraham, the great father of the faith. Eventually “zeal” evolves into a code word for religious violence. “Zeal for the LORD” and “zeal for the Law” mean fierce allegiance to God and Torah, by the sword if necessary. By the time of Jesus an entire Jewish sect known as “Zealots” had dedicated themselves to liberating Judea by making war against Rome.

Religious zealotry was not some artifact of ancient life that fulfilled its purpose and became obsolete when Jesus arrived on the scene. It was, had always been, and continues to be a toxic and insidious element wherever religion is practiced. In the Bible, it’s not just relegated to the “Old Testament.” It pervades the entire library. The question is, are there other voices represented in the canon which offer an alternative vision of God and a counterpoint to the zeal of Phinehas? What an excellent question.

Jesus and Holy Violence

The same Bible that celebrates Phinehas also gives voice to Jesus, who was first and foremost a Jewish prophet and heir to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible (not a Christian critiquing them from the outside). Not only did Jesus’ message center around peace, nonviolence, and enemy love (Matt 5-7), he unequivocally refuted the theological assumptions at the heart of the Phinehas myth. Jesus rejected the idea that victims of violence and sickness were “sinners” who deserved their fate (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). He rebuked his followers when they suggested that God should smite those who reject his message (Luke 9:51-56). And he forbade Peter from defending him with a sword (Matt 26:52-56). In fact, his chief prophetic critique of his beloved Jerusalem was her addiction to retribution and violence (Luke 19:41-44).

Jesus does NOT say, “Well, I’m going to die on the cross so religious violence won’t be a necessary evil anymore!” No. His message is ethical as much as it is theological. Holy violence is wrong and it has always been wrong. God was never like that, and we must repent of having ever believed it was so.

The Zeal of Paul

The apostle Paul has a more direct confrontation with the “zeal” tradition. In fact, it’s part of his own story. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul lays out his credentials as a Jew and says the following: “…as to the law [I was] a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church…” (Philippians 3:5-6). Paul followed the zeal tradition vigorously, and it led him to orchestrate the violent persecution (in some cases the execution) of Christians. But Paul reports that he counts his old identity as “trash” since he became a follower of Jesus. Paul is converted from the way of violent zeal to the way of peace and “the surpassing worth of knowing King Jesus my Lord” (3:8).

Break Your Bible Open

This is not as simple as “Old Testament” versus “New Testament.” The Hebrew scriptures offer countless visions of the beauty of God and prophetic rejections of religious violence, while the bloody legacy of zeal continues beyond Jesus into the New Testament and even in our own day. There is no easy formula, we cannot avoid the hard work of interacting with each unique voice we encounter in the pages of scripture.

This exercise is meant to challenge and complicate the way we navigate the texts of the Bible. Why would we want to do that? Because it affords us the opportunity to wrestle with real and challenging questions instead of conducting a scavenger hunt of our own assumptions and predetermined beliefs. It puts us at risk of genuine shock, revulsion, illumination, and revelation. The familiar old approach, which presumes that the Bible is flat and univocal and must always agree with itself, leaves us deaf to the diverse claims, counterclaims, and arguments of the collected traditions. It dulls the edges of the Bible’s words so they cannot cut into our hearts.

The myth of zeal says that law keeping is more important than human lives. Jesus says that love for other humans is law keeping. This is what the Bible says. What next?


Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

This post is adapted from a sermon I gave at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church in Pearl River, NY on Sunday July 20, 2014. It’s part of a series on the Ten Commandments or the “Ten Words” (as they’re actually referred to in the text), a conscious attempt to rediscover them as words of life and freedom rather than statutes or requirements.

I’m just going to say it: Sabbath is weird for Christians. I mean, everybody likes a day off, but Sabbath raises all kinds of questions. Are Christians required to observe a Sabbath? How precisely should we do it? Does it matter which day it is? What constitutes “rest”? What constitutes “work”? How do I know when I’ve Sabbathed enough? And while we’re at it, does God actually get tuckered out and need a break? Is that a thing? And how does “take a nap” make it into the Top Ten commandments right along with “don’t murder” and “honor your father and mother”?

Thinking about Sabbath makes me tired.

Why is Sabbath so tricky for us? I think the problem is, as with so much biblical material, that we’re so far away from the mind and heart of the world that produced these ancient texts and we’re just filling in the blanks with our assumptions. We inherited this thing called “Sabbath,” but we don’t really know how it works. It’s a fun day off, but it’s also a commandment. Relaxation and ritual are two flavors that taste weird together, so we’ve embraced the one and ignored the other. We’re left with a “holy day” that means almost nothing to us. And we never talk about it.

Jesus To The Rescue!

In First Century Judaea, according to the gospel authors, they had quite a different problem. Everyone talked about Sabbath. A lot. There was no shortage of opinions as to the meaning and mandate of Sabbath. By Jesus’ day, endless rules and clarifications and customs and traditions had been piled on top of the original Sabbath commandment, and debate raged concerning every possible detail and loophole. For his part as a teacher himself, Jesus’ contribution was not to layer on more opinions and restrictions and customs, but in fact to defy and reject them. Jesus didn’t reject Sabbath as an idea or institution, but he quite cavalierly stepped on the toes of the self-appointed watchdogs of proper Sabbathkeeping. He broke the many rules of Sabbath, and did so frequently and publicly.

When confronted with his transgression, Jesus gave his famous reply, “Sabbath was made for people, not people for Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Sabbath, says Jesus, is supposed to be a gift and blessing for humans, not a master to rule over them. Jesus gives us permission to go back to the drawing board and rediscover Sabbath as a “word of life” rather than a religious prison.

Unwrapping the Gift of Sabbath

So we have some homework to do. Here’s the original Sabbath “word” from Exodus Chapter 20:

8 Remember the sabbath day and keep it special.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of YHWH your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.
11 For in six days YHWH made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and made it special.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

I believe that, taken in proper context, this ancient “commandment” constitutes an invitation to us (after Israel) to become synchronized with God’s own time, a divine sort of rhythm, in which we discover a treasure trove of good gifts. I want to highlight three of them: IDENTITY, JUSTICE, and EQUALITY. Not words we typically associate with Sabbath, but hear me out:

1. The Gift of IDENTITY

Exodus is a story of salvation and identity. God plucks his people Israel out of the cauldron of oppression and slavery, and then restores her dignity by giving her a name and a new identity. We like the first part of the story, the rescue, because it’s easy to follow and makes a great movie. But then we get into all of those laws and feasts and commandments, and we lose the plot. Boring! Except, that’s the real heart of the whole story. That’s the life-giving stuff that turns wandering ex-slaves into a people and a nation. To the Israelites, Torah is not a prison of religious obligation, it’s the boundary that reveals the shape of a new kind of life.

And Sabbath is a primary feature and expression of that new life. The six-day work cycle and Sabbath observance are a way of integrating the Hebrews’ unique understanding of creation into their daily existence, and a way of setting them apart from their neighbors (and their oppressors – ancient Egypt observed an uninterrupted ten-day work cycle). Sabbath is a tangible, livable marker of their new identity as the people of the Creator, a countercultural statement of who they are.

2. The Gift of JUSTICE

This is an aspect of Sabbath that has rarely been explored by Christians, but one that is both transformative and crucial. In the creation poem, the song of Genesis 1, God pauses (“rests”) when the work of creation is complete, and sees that the work is “good.” Sabbath, then, is an occasion to look at our work and world and determine whether or not what we see is good. If it’s not good, it would stand to reason that it should be made good. Sabbath provides this opportunity on a regular basis, and without it we might forget to stop and self-assess.

This principle is greatly amplified in another Torah institution called Jubilee (see Leviticus 25). Jubilee is a sort of Sabbath year, a “rest” year after years of business as usual. It’s not a whole year of sleep (though that would be amazing), but a year when wrong things are to be set right: debts forgiven, slaves set free, and property restored. Human schemes are interrupted, and society re-synchronizes itself with God’s time, and justice is accomplished.

Biblical historians doubt whether a true Jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel, but the concept is incendiary and it illuminates Sabbath in a profound way. If Jubilee is the opportunity for justice at the national or societal level, then Sabbath provides the same opportunity in the neighborhood, the household, the relationship. It represents the hope that our plans and schemes might be interrupted, and things put right.

3. The Gift of EQUALITY

For the third gift we turn our attention to the list of those affected by the Sabbath ordinance:

10 …You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the alien who is within your settlements.

This is one of those bits which locate the Ten Commandments firmly in their historical setting. Not only does it describe the lifestyle of nomads who are becoming settled farmers, it reflects something of their (rather regressive) notions of social hierarchy. (Slavery is assumed, and note how livestock ranks higher than foreigners!). Once we get over the culture shock, however, we notice the extraordinary defining feature of this list: its egalitarian nature.

This gift of Sabbath, this gift of God’s own IDENTITY and God’s own JUSTICE, is not only for male heads of households. It’s not only for members of households. It’s not even only for those who call themselves the “people of God.” It’s not even only for humans! The gift of Sabbath is for absolutely everyone. The safety and opportunity of God’s own day of rest and restoration is not the exclusive property of any special group.


So Sabbath need not be a ritual or a burden. In fact it really is a gift, the gift of God’s own rhythm, a divine sense of time, a rest that is meant to bring freedom and justice and equality to every single corner of creation. Oh, and one more thing: Just as the “days” of creation are symbolic of the order and goodness of God’s work and need not be understood as literal 24-hour periods of time, so it is with Sabbath. Sabbath isn’t a magic day, it’s a state of mind. It’s a moment of self-awareness, of repentance, of empathy. It’s an invitation to live in harmony with the good creation of the good God.