59 In order to gather together scattered humanity God calls Abram from his country, his kindred and his father's house,16 and makes him Abraham, that is, "the father of a multitude of nations". "In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed."17
The appearance of Abraham in the Catechism introduces a wide range of topics related to the Bible itself, for the initial appearance of Abram in Genesis 11:27 marks the end of what scholars generally call the “prehistory” of mankind, that rich array of mythic, anthropologic, and philosophical narrative. Early Genesis sets the table, so to speak, for what we moderns would call narrative history. The story of Abram-become-Abraham is one of the critical turning points in the Hebrew Scripture, serving a variety of purposes related to Israel’s identity and legitimacy.
Genesis 11:27 marks the beginning of what we modern westerners might call narrative history. I was tempted to write “hard history” but this would not take into account the variances in the ways that different ages and cultures record history. Actually, the focus on precise times and dates became a staple of recorded history only in the nineteenth century with the German master Leopold von Ranke. The Greek historians before Christ, such as Thucydides and Herodotus, wrote full accounts of lengthy speeches of kings and generals, something that would be obviously impossible without modern recording devices. What these early chroniclers attempted to do was capture the meaning, spirit, or intent of the speaker, and this tradition of the historical method has endured pretty much until the electronic age. Both testaments of the Bible were written in this style except for books with specific style—the philosophy of Job, the satire of Jonah, the psalms, etc.
But succumbing to our contemporary desire to know the precise data, when did “hard Biblical history” begin? I just asked Cortana (the poor man’s Siri) “when was Abraham born?” She crisply replied—in a nanosecond—1813 BC. Actually, she is not too far off, just a bit too confident. The truth is, we don’t know precisely when the primitive Israelite tribe came to self-understanding as a unified people chosen by a single divinity in a world of polytheists. But 1800 BC has been the benchmark or shorthand for biblical scholars, give or take a century or two. As one might expect, it is easier to date more recent events in Israel’s history—where there is reasonably good sourcing and documentation—and work backwards employing information from the text and secular sources. The dating of Moses and the Exodus, for example, has some measure of accuracy because the Egyptians kept records of their pharaohs.
The Catechism, of course, situates para. 59 in its “stages of revelation” segment, so the ultimate question is: what was communicated or revealed by God in 1813 BC, or thereabouts? Here is where the early Genesis chapters are helpful in penetrating this new revelation. In treating of Genesis over the past several weeks, I have come to a better understanding of two themes. The first is God’s tendency to deal with individuals—Adam, Cain, Noah. The second is man’s tendency to scatter. There are three scatterings: the first occurs with Adam’s descendants; the second with the descendants of Noah after the flood; and the third with the confusion of tongues after the debacle at the Tower of Babel.
Para. 59 introduces a reversal of these tendencies. God will now reveal his truth to a people, a chosen people, rather than through individuals. Abraham, and subsequently Isaac and Jacob, will be the fathers of a people who will receive God’s Word again and again, most notably in a covenant of saving Law. Future revelation will take the form of prophets calling his people back to the pure desert experience of the original covenant. It is worth noting that Jesus himself declared that he had coming to bring the Law and the Prophets to their completion, not their displacement or destruction.
The Law which will come to the descendants of Abraham, who are described as numerous as the sands on the seashore, will gather the scattered and provide identity. The Ten Commandments, a solemn summary and introduction to the entire Law, is social in nature, a reversal from the solitary nature of man prior to Genesis 11:27. Commandments four through ten are instructions for survival, forbidding the killing of free Israelite males, the disruption of fertility, and the thefts and dishonesties that undermine a family, a tribe, and even a great nation.
Para. 59 is footnoted by Genesis 12:1 (note 16), and the specificity of nationhood is not as clear as it will become to future generations. Abraham is described in the early going as the “father of many nations.” The continuity of the Genesis text, though, indicates that Israel would be God’s nation. This is one reason why Abraham hesitated to kill his son Isaac, believing that the killing of his only true son would mark the end of his blood line and thus the future of God’s newly called nation. [It may help to recall that prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham had fathered another son, Ishmael, who was expelled, along with his servant-mother. God has mercy on both mother and son, innocent victims in this errant surrogate parent arrangement, and promises to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. In this sense, Abraham is father to at least two nations.]
Did God’s new revelation intend for Israel to conquer the earth? The answer is no; the very last line of para. 59 states that through Abraham and his blood line all the nations of the earth would find blessings. On the Feast of the Epiphany each year (January 6 or thereabouts) St. Matthew’s account of the wise men coming to adore the young Jesus is paired with Isaiah 60: 1-6, an apocalyptic or future oriented account of all the world’s nations streaming to Zion in the final times to find the light of God streaming from the nation of Israel. In other words, Israel’s holiness in worship and observance of the Law—manifesting the presence of God—would draw people of good will from all the corners of the earth.
The act of God’s Revelation outlined in para. 59 has been inherited by Christians, to the degree that Vatican II’s teaching on the Church describes the Catholic union as the light to all the nations in the New Dispensation. The universal holiness of the Church is its primary reason for being, to draw all to the life of God in Christ.
I'm in the process of preparing for a presentation tomorrow at a diocesan event, so there will be no lengthy post today at the Cafe. "Sacramental Saturday's" post should be up tomorrow according to plan. And no, my speaking topic tomorrow is not about "grief."
Very strong bands from Hurricane Hermine passed over our town here in Central Florida last night and this morning. About 9 PM Thursday night both of our phone alarms went off simultaneously for tornado warnings—take cover immediately! So Margaret and I debated which room was safest—she wanted carpet. By the time we sorted that out, the tornadic cloud was long gone.
Probably not at the top of your Labor Day list of things to do is planning for the next liturgical year, which begins this coming Thanksgiving Weekend, November 26-27, along with the Notre Dame-USC annual clash. For those of you in catechetical ministry, your “trade papers” will be reminding you shortly. Here at the blog, to the accompaniment of the aroma of pumpkin spiced coffee, we will be marking the beginning of Liturgical Cycle A (the First Sunday of Advent) with the opening of a year-long treatment of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
In advance of that, I am contemplating which text to use for the Tuesday posts at the Café, as well as recommendations for those of you engaging in personal study of what was called “the Church’s Gospel” for many centuries. This morning I did a lot of footwork for you, figuratively speaking, but that’s what I do. Hold your applause till the end.
I searched all of the reputable publishers of biblical scholarship that I know of, and discovered a few I was unaware of. I also discovered an interesting page that deserves bookmarking, Best Commentaries: Matthew. On the preceding link, there are about 100 “commentaries” rated by the editor, though in fairness he does designate some of them as devotionals, others as parts of larger anthologies, etc. This site did take me out of my comfort zone and put me on to some new possibilities.
My search did reveal some curiosities. The massive Catholic University Press has not put forward any single volume studies of Matthew, though it has published commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels together (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). My usual dependable Catholic publishers—Paulist, Liturgical/Collegeville, Michael Glazer—had several, and I was pleased to see that the independent Eerdmans, the publisher of the St. Luke commentary by Joel Green, has another excellent work available on St. Matthew, which I will return to in a moment.
At some point any Catholic book shopper is bound to come across the Zondervan Empire of products, which includes a number of Biblical books. I have seen Zondervan outlets in shopping malls, and my general impression has been that this corporation serves the evangelical Protestant population with a wide variety of teaching products. From its own website, Zondervan defines its publishing mission: “As a broker of ideas, the Zondervan Academic publishing program seeks to reflect the breadth and diversity—both theological and global—within evangelical scholarship while maintaining our commitment to the heart of orthodox Christianity.” In perusing the product line, I came across a family Christianity learning program based upon—are you ready for this—Duck Dynasty. Woe to those who doubt me. The website seems to have pulled the Duck Dynasty Family Bibles, though. Too bad; think of the fun when you bring that text under your arm to parish bible study.
I took notice of an intriguing commentary on St. Matthew by Barbara Reid, OP, a scholar at the Chicago Theological Union. Sister Reid’s recent publications on biblical studies have addressed the texts from a feminist perspective. This method of biblical analysis is hotly disputed, and my reading of feminist theology is not extensive enough to say if this method is critical analysis or contemporary commentary. Both, of course, have their place in the Church. It is certainly a question worthy of study, but I probably would not recommend this text as a first introduction to Matthew.
So, it is time to cut to the chase here. My criteria for recommendations include intellectual challenge, peer-reviewed scholarship, a worthy bibliography, size, and long term benefits, i.e., that the work has the capacity to serve you as a working resource down the road. Size is an issue: a commentary on Matthew of 150 pages will miss the depth of a larger work. Our St. Luke commentary this year ran to about 800 pages. I recommend hard-cover if you can get it; a used edition is not a bad purchase unless someone has littered it with notes. With Amazon, used book sellers are rated for the accuracy of their descriptions of the book for sale. One more thing: a commentary must contain the actual text of the Gospel, not just citations numbers. Some books do not include the Gospel texts themselves in order to save production costs (i.e., the copyright fees.)
There are two works I would recommend. The first is Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew by Father Daniel Harrington. I am very familiar with this work and I reviewed it on its Amazon site on November 1, 2008. (You can compare my writing of some years ago to the blog entries today and decide if I am getting better or worse.) It is not quite as intellectually intense as my next offering below, in part because the author is a prolific writer who cranks out a lot of books, but it reads well and covers all the bases. As of this writing, a used hardcover text can be had for about $16 in the Amazon booksellers’ network.
However, my choice for the Café come November is R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew (2007). This is another volume from the Eerdmans’ series, New International Commentary on the New Testament. This is the same series that gave us Joel Green’s commentary on St. Luke that I have used with much profit this year. The denominational emphasis is Evangelical, though as is often the case, first-tier biblical scholars are remarkably ecumenical. Green, for example, references a number of the best Catholic scholars into his work. I have not yet read France’s work, but if it is of the same caliber as Green’s, I will be very pleased.
This work continues to sell quite well by Amazon’s numbers; it rates as the 110,000th highest seller, a real accomplishment for a book that is neither cheap nor short. (Amazon markets at least ten million books.) If you visit the book’s site, there will be some sticker shock. The asking price through Prime is $52 hardcover, with used copies beginning at $37. The 1200 pages might frighten some souls, too, but a fair percentage of that number is bibliography and footnotes. Remember, too, that you are purchasing a reference text for your work as well as an educational source for yourself, and if you are a paid employee or contractor, the cost is tax deductible.
This brings me to one more point: should you purchase a book like France’s for electronic reading on, say, Kindle? I am of two minds. This summer I continue to read Reformations. (See welcome page.) It is about 1000 pages, and I will admit that reading on the porch or in bed is certainly a lot easier than lugging around this hardcover, so I did buy it on Kindle and am very happy with it. However, I could see that I would be using this book a great deal, for the Café and elsewhere, so I did buy the hardcover, too, for ease in retrieving data and quotes. Keep in mind that you may have a long career in church work and want a good working home library, or you may wish to donate a work down the road, and purchasing a hardcover when available for future distribution may best serve your purposes. But do what suits your needs and your checking account.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything