Ash Wednesday is March 5th, the beginning of Lent and the start of a forty-day run up to the Easter season.
The practice of observing Lent dates back to the early fourth century, where the term tessarakoste (“forty days,” similar to pentekoste, “fifty days,” or Pentecost) is first mentioned in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). The term “lent” is an English word introduced during the Middle Ages to denote the forty days leading up to Easter. “Lent” originally meant “spring” (as in the German lenz and the Dutch lente), a period when the hours of daylight begin to lengthen.
Forty is a symbolic number of completion in the Bible: the flood lasts forty days and forty nights; Moses stays with God on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights; the Israelite spies spend forty days exploring the Promised Land; the Israelites themselves spend forty years in the wilderness after the Exodus; Elijah spends forty days and forty nights traveling to Mt. Horeb; both David and Solomon reign for forty years, and so on. The forty-day period of Lent reflects the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, prior to beginning his public ministry and the traditional forty hours he spent in the tomb, from 3:00 pm on Good Friday until 7:00 am on Easter morning.
In the Western Church Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, a total of forty-six days. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted among the forty days, for each Sunday in considered a “mini-Easter,” celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. That leaves exactly forty days of fasting during the Lenten season.
In the Bible, God only commands his people to fast one time each year, on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16); it is a complete twenty-four hour fast: no food, no water. Fasting later becomes one the three devotional pillars of Judaism: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Jesus speaks of these practices in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 1-18).
Fasting continues as a devotional practice in the early church, especially during periods of preparation for rites such as baptism and receiving the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
The three devotional pillars of Judaism—prayer, almsgiving and fasting—became dominant themes in the observance of Lent in the early church: prayer (discipline that focuses on God); almsgiving (discipline that focuses on others); and fasting (discipline that focuses on one’s self). All three serve as means to move into a closer and more intimate relationship with God.
The practice of observing Lent became universal in Christendom until the Reformation. Today the Roman Catholic Church, along with most Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Episcopalian churches continue to observe Lent with varying degrees of devotion, but many Protestant churches still do not.
For those who do observe Lent, it is not an oppressive time of prayer and penance, nor a time of silly abstinence (“giving up” desserts for Lent), but a time set aside to reflect on who Christ is, on what he has done for us, on preparing for the joy of his resurrection and on living a life “worthy of the calling” we have received (Ephesians 4: 1).
Fra Angelico. “Sermon on the Mount” (fresco), c. 1440-1450.
Monastery of San Marco (cell 32), Florence.
In my new series, The Bible–a verse-by-verse study through all of Scripture, we’re now working our way through the “Gospel according to Matthew.” Last week I posted on “The Lord’s Prayer,” a short segment within the “Sermon on the Mount.” This week I’d like to step back and look at the “Sermon on the Mount” itself, a superb example of Jesus’ expository teaching.
As we move ahead in Matthew we read that Jesus “went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” As the Gospel proceeds, we encounter several examples of Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing. In Matthew 5-7 we experience his teaching.
Matthew writes, “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying . . ..” And here the “Sermon on the Mount” begins. It is a carefully structured, four-part exposition of the Law. Part 1 (5:3-16) introduces the teaching with nine striking and memorable statements: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land . . .” and so on. Notice that each statement takes the form of “Blessed are X for they shall be Y,” and each statement offers a paradox: the poor in spirit will have the kingdom of heaven; those who mourn will be comforted; and the meek are the last people one would think will inherit the land. The sequence ends with a final paradox: “blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me.” The nine statements certainly capture the attention of Jesus’ audience! And then he follows up the “blessedness” with two statements of responsibility: 1) “you are the salt of the earth” and 2) “you are the light of the world.” With the blessedness spoken of in the previous nine statements comes responsibility to make people thirsty for God and to be an example to the world.
When we move to Part 2 (5:17-48), Jesus introduces six propositions that exceed the Law. He is very clear that he has not “come to abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill” them (5:17). In his first proposition Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not [murder]; and whoever [murders] will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (5:21-22). Again, we have a clearly defined form, “You have heard it said X, but I tell you Y.” And each proposition takes us inside a principle of the Law. The premeditated murder of another human being is not an isolated event; it is the final act in a sequence of events. Jesus tells us that when we feel such anger toward another person deal with it at that point. Left to grow, it will result in murder. Likewise with adultery: like murder, it is the final act in a sequence of events. No one wakes up in the morning and says: “I think I’ll commit adultery today!” Rather, adultery, like murder, begins subtly, by looking at someone lustfully, and then it proceeds inexorably, step-by-step to the final act. Jesus tells us to nip such feelings in the bud. Each of the six propositions that exceed the law operates in the same way, each using the same formulaic statement, “You have heard it said X, but I tell you Y.”
Part 3 (6:1-7:6) addresses six concrete actions to implement the Law, the first three focusing on the three pillars of devotional Judaism: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Each takes the common expression of an action and presents it paradoxically: 1) do not give to the needy with great show, but give anonymously; 2) do not pray to be seen, but pray privately; and 3) do not fast publicly, but fast in secret. Acquiring wealth, worrying and judging function in the same way.
Finally, Jesus offers a dramatic 3-part “call to action,” capped by the astonishment of the crowd (7: 1-29).
The symmetry of Jesus’ teaching adds to its impact and to his audience’s ability to remember it: Part 1 begins with nine statements; Part 2 continues with six propositions that exceed the law; Part 3 offers six concrete actions to implement the law; and Part 4 closes with a 3-part call to action—9, 6, 6, 3.
Such a carefully structured teaching is not accidental: it reflects a master teacher at work, as well as a master narrator carefully crafting his story.
“Deësis Mosaic,” depicting Christ Pantrocrator (c.1261),
South Gallery, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.
Photography by Ana Maria Vargas
I’m teaching the “Gospel according to Matthew” in my new series The Bible, a 7-year, verse-by-verse study, Genesis through Revelation. The last four lessons have been on the “Sermon on the Mount,” a superb example of Jesus’ expository teaching (Matthew 5-7). You can check it out at my web site: Logos Bible Study.
The Sermon on the Mount is a simply structured, brilliant work of a master teacher. It is built in four parts: 1) a memorable introduction, 2) six propositions that exceed the Law, 3) six concrete actions that implement the Law; and 4) a call to action. Part three—six concrete actions that implement the Law—begins with Jesus discussing the three pillars of devotional Judaism: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
Discussing prayer, Jesus says:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
(Matthew 6: 1-8)
This is the context for the Lord’s Prayer that follows. In Judaism prayer was—and is—a fundamentally communal expression, not a private one. Jesus is not condemning such prayer; rather he is condemning prayer when it becomes an exaggerated form of pious ostentation. People who pray like this, he says in a tone of scathing sarcasm, are “hypocrites,” and they “have received their reward in full.”
Instead, he says, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” And then he gives us a model for such prayer: “This, then, is how you should pray”—
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
Forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors,
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
Notice that Jesus says this is “how you should pray,” not this is “what you should pray.” In fact, Jesus condemns those who pray, “babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Indeed, the constant repetition of the Lord’s Prayer in public and private worship has eroded its originality and urgency almost to the point of vanishing. Perhaps a closer, in-depth look at the Lord’s Prayer may allow us to hear it anew and experience something of the stunning affect it had on its first audience.
As with all Jesus’ statements in the Sermon of the Mount, he says nothing new in the Lord’s Prayer; rather, he takes what everyone knows and has heard repeatedly, and he casts it in a new light, snapping it into focus and displaying its dazzling colors and textures. First, look at the Prayer’s structure. It is short, consisting of only 56 words in the Greek, a sharp contrast to the prayers of those who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6: 7). Second, the prayer has two parts: 1) the first 23 words focus on God; and 2) the final 33 words focus on our needs. The basic 2-part structure suggests that prayer should focus first on God, then on us.
Part 1 begins: “Our Father in heaven.” When Jesus says, “Our Father,” his listeners would immediately recall other names for God in the Hebrew Scriptures: YHWH (pronounced Yahweh or Jehovah, 6,823 times), Elohim (2,570 times), Adonai (300 times), El (250 times), El Shaddai (48 times), as well as other relationships such as king, lord, husband, bridegroom, and so on. In biblical times a person’s name does far more than denote the individual: one’s name embodies the very nature, substance and essence of a person—who he is, in the most profound sense. When Jesus says, “Our Father,” the term resonates with other names and relationships with God, enfolding them into the most personal and intimate of all relationships, especially in a patriarchal, biblical culture: Father.
“In heaven” elevates this personal and intimate relationship to a transcendent plain. In the Greek, “in heaven” is en tois ouranois, “heaven” being a dative, masculine, plural noun; it is correctly translated “in the heavens.” Scripture speaks of at least three heavens: 1) “the birds of heaven,” referring to the atmosphere surrounding the earth; 2) “wonders in the heaven,” speaking of the stellar spaces, and 3) “the third heaven,” which is beyond the stellar spaces, the very dwelling place of God. The simple phrase “in the heavens” suggests both transcendence and immanence: God is beyond our comprehension; he is in the air we breathe; he is within the smallest detail; he is beyond the infinite; he saturates all that is.
Having opened with “Our Father in heaven,” Jesus’ prayer continues by invoking the traditional Jewish Kaddish, hallowing the name of God: “Hallowed be your name” (“May his great name be exalted and sanctified in the world, which he made according to his will . . .”). Given the extreme importance of God’s name, honoring that name is the very essence of piety and a right relationship with God. Interestingly, “hallowed be” is grammatically a third person imperative verb in the passive voice, so it does not indicate who is doing the hallowing. We may rightfully, then, read the command, not as referring solely to us, but to all of creation reflected “in the heavens.”
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” continues drawing on the Kaddish, so well known to Jesus’ audience: “. . . may his kingdom rule, his redemption spring forth, may he bring his Anointed One and save his people, in your lifetime, in your days, in the lifetime of all the house of Israel, quickly and soon. And you shall say, Amen.” This portion of the Lord’s Prayer anticipates both the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom in the present age (“Kingdom of Heaven,” in Matthew’s usage) and the consummation to come in the end times (“Kingdom of God”). Traditionally, both the Messianic Kingdom and the final consummation are divine gifts to be prayed for, not things to be achieved by human effort. Admittedly, there have always been those who felt otherwise, from the Zealots of Jesus’ day to those who believe today that the Church is to transform the world into the Kingdom of God through justice and social action.
As Jesus goes on to say in the Sermon on the Mount, “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 33), so we move into the second half of the Lord’s Prayer, shifting our attention from God to our own needs. “Give us this day our daily bread” moves us from God’s transcendence and immanence to daily life in the here and now: our basic need to eat.
God cares about the larger picture of his will being done “on earth as it is in heaven,” but he also cares about our mundane needs. Requesting our “daily bread” recalls God providing daily manna to his people in the wilderness, granting nourishment and sustenance during their forty-year transit from Egypt to the Promised Land. It also recalls Proverbs 30: 8-9—“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” Asking for our “daily bread” rather than our long-term security teaches us to trust God from day to day, rather than ourselves, knowing that God will provide what we need, as we need it. It is a fundamental lesson in trust, a lesson we may rightly apply to our emotional and spiritual needs, as well.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” moves us to a second level of need in our day-to-day lives. In Matthew the Greek word translated “debts” is opheilemata, a term typically referring to a financial obligation, but it may also refer to any obligation, as in Romans 13: 8, where Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” In Luke 11: 2-4, the parallel rendering of the Lord’s Prayer, Luke writes: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Here, the word is harmartias, “sins” or “trespasses.” Jesus would have spoken the Sermon on the Mount in his native Aramaic language, and the Aramaic word for “sin” and “debt” is the same, perhaps accounting for the difference between Matthew and Luke.
In any case, the focus is on forgiveness, not on what is forgiven. And the first half of the statement (“forgive us our debts”) pales in comparison to the second half (“as we also have forgiven our debtors”). As God has forgiven our sins or debts against him, so are we obligated to forgive other’s sins or debts against us; indeed, God forgiving us is contingent upon our forgiving others. This is a stunning lesson reinforced by Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18: 21-35, where the king forgives his servant’s huge debt, but the servant refuses to forgive a small debt owed to himself. The king then confronts the servant and says: “You wicked servant . . . I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” To which Jesus comments: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” concludes the Lord’s Prayer. The Greek word translated “temptation” is peirasmos, a word with a wide range of mean, including temptation, testing, trial and experiment. Will God actually lead us into temptation and sin? No. James writes: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1: 13-14). In the context of the Lord’s Prayer we should read peirasmos not as God leading us into temptation, but rather God permitting us to be led into temptation by our own evil desires. Or worse yet, by God delivering us into the hands of the Evil One for him to test us, as God did with Job and with David when David took the census (1 Chronicles 21: 1-30). Whether one should read the Greek word ponerou as generally “evil” or specifically the “Evil One” is open to debate, for grammatically ponerou can be either masculine (the “Evil One”) or neuter (“evil”). Scholars and translators evenly divide between the two. Ultimately, though, as John Calvin concluded, it doesn’t much matter, for the Evil One is the very embodiment of evil itself, and the result is the same.
Although the Lord’s Prayer ends on this note in both Matthew and Luke, traditional Jewish prayer ends with a doxology, and early on the Lord’s Prayer acquired one: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” The doxology echoes David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29: 11—“Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.” Although the doxology does not occur in the earliest Alexandrian manuscripts of Matthew, it does enter some of the later Byzantine manuscripts, after first appearing in the late 1st century/early 2nd century the Didiche 8: 2. Today, Eastern Orthodox Christians and most Protestants include the doxology as part of the Lord’s Prayer, while the 1970 revision of the Roman Catholic Mass attaches it more as an epilogue to the Lord’s Prayer, with the priest interjecting between the main body of the prayer and the doxology: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” The congregation then responds with the doxology, drawing the prayer to a close.
The Lord’s Prayer is a model of elegant simplicity, masterful in its teaching and memorable in its rendering. Unfortunately, we have heard it repeated so many times in public and private worship that we rarely listen to it. As Jesus warned, we are “ever hearing but never understanding . . . ever seeing but never perceiving” (Matthew 13: 14). Perhaps this exercise of probing beneath the surface of the Lord’s Prayer and lingering over its lines will snap the Lord’s Prayer back into focus, bringing its colors, tones and textures into bold relief.
Join me for my NEW verse-by-verse study through the entire Bible, Genesis-Revelation. I’m recording live on Tuesday evenings at Our Mother of Confidence in San Diego, and the lessons are available each week on my web site by Friday mornings. I’ve finished Genesis, and now we’re working our way through Matthew.
Check it out at logosbiblestudy.com.
Chapel of the Beatitudes, Galilee, Israel
Photography by Ana Vargas
During August 4-17, I set sail with 30 Logos students on a Mediterranean cruise, “At Sea with St. Paul.”
It was a FABULOUS tour aboard Oceania’s beautiful 5-star Riviera, visiting Athens, Crete, Israel, Cypress, Rhodes, Ephesus and Istanbul. Educational. Spiritual. FUN. All with world-class cuisine and delightful companions!
For most, our three days in Israel were the highlight. It was my 53rd visit to Israel, and I never tire of going, walking in the “footsteps of Jesus.” I especially love Galilee and our visit to the Mount of Beatitudes.
I had the opportunity—once again—to teach the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-16) on location.
Check out the video!
Michelangelo Buonarroti, God in “Creation of the Stars and Planets,” fresco,
Sistine Chapel, Vatican, 1511.
For many readers the book of Joshua presents a challenge. From our childhood through this Sunday’s homily, we are accustomed to hearing that “God is love,” so it is jarring when we read in Joshua: “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall [of Jericho] collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys . . .. Then they burned the whole city and everything in it . . .” (Joshua 6:20-24). And so the pattern continues throughout the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, with God encouraging—indeed, commanding—slaughter.
I must say that many people are profoundly disturbed by this, and many ask: “How do we square the God we meet in Joshua with our understanding of ‘God is love’ in the New Testament?”
When we first meet God in Genesis 1: 1 he is called Elohim in Hebrew, a plural noun of majesty. In Genesis, God forms man out of “the dust of the earth,” and he interacts with him, walking with him in the “cool of the garden.” Genesis 1 & 2 portray the relationship between God and man as intimate and tender. Once sin enters the world in Genesis 3, however, God seems to distance himself from such intimate contact with humanity, preferring to stand afar and send messengers (i.e., angels: Hebrew, melech; Greek, angelus) as go-betweens. Later, as the plan of salvation unfolds, God takes on a seemingly different character as he commands the Israelites in Joshua to “totally destroy” the people who inhabit the Promised Land, and he is quick to punish with instant death any disobedience on the part of the Israelites if they fail to carry out his orders.
As our story progresses, God brings a fearful judgment on Judah for its disobedience by using Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as his instrument of punishment. In a fearful siege, the Babylonians raze Jerusalem, kill thousands of people and carry the survivors into captivity. Jeremiah, who witnesses the siege from within the walls of Jerusalem, cries out: “Look, O Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? . . . You have slain them in the day of your anger” (Lamentations 2:20, 21).
As we study through the entire Bible verse-by-verse, we do not enjoy the option of reading only those stories we like or only those that make us feel good. Nor can we indulge in oversimplification and say that we have a “God of wrath” in the Old Testament, but a “God of love” in the New. Such thinking is not only sentimental, but it is incorrect. God tells us plainly in Malachi 3: 6, toward the end of the Old Testament: “I the Lord do not change.” According to God himself, we meet the same God in Joshua and the Babylonian Captivity as we meet at the foot of the cross and the empty tomb.
So, what are we to make of this God who seems at once loving and angry, patient and petulant, tender and wrathful?
As we read through the linear narrative of Scripture, we find twenty-one separate comparisons describing God, each one indicating some aspect of his character. Here’s the list: God is—
1. “A consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)
2. “God” (Deuteronomy 7:9)
3. “Gracious and compassionate” (2 Chronicles 30:9)
4. “Mighty” (Job 36:5)
5. “Exalted in power” (Job 36:22)
6. “A righteous judge” (Psalm 7:11)
7. “My Rock” (Psalm 18:2)
8. “King of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7)
9. “Our refuge” (Psalm 62:8)
10. “The strength of my heart” (Psalm 73:24)
11. “A sun and a shield” (Psalm 84:11)
12. “Greatly feared; he is awesome” (Psalm 89:7)
13. “Holy” (Psalm 94:9)
14. “My salvation” (Isaiah 12:2)
15. “Righteous” (Daniel 9:14)
16. “Truthful” (John 3:33)
17. “Faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
18. “Just” (2 Thessalonians 1:6)
19. “Living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12)
20. “Light” (1 John 1:5)
21. “Love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16)
To view God solely as “love”—his final attribute in Scripture—is to diminish radically the infinite nature of who he is. It is to turn God into a caricature of our own fancy or wishful thinking.
All people are complex creatures, and entering into an intimate relationship with another person reveals his or her complexities. So it is with God. As we come to know God in Scripture, we begin to understand the complex nature of a just, holy and righteous God who sees us clearly in all of our grotesque sinfulness, yet who sacrifices his Son that we may live. Such a God is far more than “love,” even in the highest sense of the term: he is a God of infinite holiness, of profound justice and of fathomless depths.
A very good UCLA colleague of years past, Dr. Jack Miles, published a brilliant book titled, God, a Biography (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995), in which he writes “about the life of the Lord God as—and only as—the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.” Jack does not attempt to analyze God as an object of religious belief, nor does he attempt to view God as an extra-literary reality. His perspective is purely that of a literary critic. Yet, his insights into the nature and character of God are dazzling.
In 1996 Jack’s book won a Pulitzer Prize and it has since been translated into fifteen languages. It is well worth reading for any Bible student seriously grappling with the character of God.
Biagio d’Antonio, “The Story of Joseph” (c. 1472), tempera on wood.
The Friedsam Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I’ve been studying and teaching the Bible for over thirty years, both on the UCLA faculty and with Logos Bible Study. I’ve taught through the Bible, verse-by-verse, dozens of times. And every time I do, I find something new. That’s the joy of great literature in general and of the Bible in particular.
Recently, one of our Logos students asked a question about Genesis 37, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt. I had just taught this story in class. Here are the verses in question:
Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”
Genesis 37: 26-29
The quote is from the NIV translation, which indicates his “brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him.” And this is how I’ve always taught the story.
But a quick look at the Hebrew calls this reading into question. In 37: 26 Judah suggests to his brothers that they spare Joseph’s life and sell him to the Ishmaelites, but then we read in 37: 28–
Then there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty [pieces] of silver; and they brought Joseph into Egypt.
Notice that the Hebrew is far more ambiguous than most translations suggest. Since “they” is grammatically a masculine plural in the Hebrew, it can point to either Joseph’s brothers or to the Midianites.
I had always thought that the Ishmaelites and the Midianites were interchangeable, the result of two textual traditions merging in the text or to both groups being closely related as sons of Abraham (Genesis 25: 2). If that is the case, then the brothers sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites/Midianites, Reuben not being present when they do, and surprised when he finds out what his brothers had done.
But if the Ishmaelites and the Midianites are two different groups of people, the Midianites discover Joseph in the cistern and sell him to the Ishmaelites, who then take him to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar. If this is the case, then the brothers know nothing about it until Reuben discovers that Joseph is missing.
The Hebrew grammar allows for either reading.
If we accept the latter reading, then the implications ripple throughout the rest of the story, manifesting themselves in how we understand the brothers’ guilt regarding Joseph’s disappearance, why they cover it up as they do, Joseph’s reaction to his brothers when he first meets them, the brothers’ reaction when they recognize Joseph, and Joseph’s struggle to forgive his brothers in the end.
In the traditional first reading, the brothers’ motives are malignant; in the second reading we witness a prank gone awry.
Such ambiguity abounds throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, greatly enriching the text and opening a variety of interpretative possibilities. This is a signature of world-class literature, and it is one feature that makes the Bible so intriguing and such a joy to read.