Lectionary Commentaries for September 30, 2012
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Terence E. Fretheim

These verses stand near the beginning of part II of Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness, having just departed from Mt. Sinai (10:11-36:13; see Exodus 15:22-18:27 for part I).

The entire book of Numbers is set in a journey through the wilderness (‘In the wilderness’ is the Hebrew title for Numbers). When you are reading Numbers, think journey — journey through the wilderness of life.

This wilderness setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of God. The period of wandering is a necessary buffer between liberation and landedness for the sake of forming this identity. Such a process does not unfold easily for Israel or for God. The people have been taken out of Egypt, but it proves difficult to take Egypt out of the people. The familiar orderliness of Egypt seems preferable to the insecurities of life lived from one oasis to the next. 

The introductory note in 11:1-3 introduces a pattern in both form and content for several episodes that follow: murmuring; judgment; cry (of repentance); intercession; deliverance. God’s anger is provoked because of the people’s complaining and the fire of the LORD, perhaps lightning (see Exodus 9.23-24), consumes outlying areas of the camp.

The coherence of 11:4-35 is difficult to fathom, perhaps reflecting different traditions. Yet, good sense can be made of the awkwardness. These verses interweave concerns about food and Moses’ leadership. The lectionary text focuses on the leadership issues and, except for the introductory note in 11:4-6, eliminates the texts having to do with the provision of food in the wilderness (11:7-9, 17-23, 31-35; see 20.1-13). I will comment on the entire text.

In 11:4-15, the “rabble” (non-Israelites, Exodus 12.38), joined by the Israelites’ and their nostalgia for Egyptian food, despise God’s gifts of food (verses 6, 18) and deliverance (verse 20). Complaining has become a pattern of life. Nostalgically recalling the (mostly vegetable) diet typical for Egyptians, they cry out for fish. God’s gift of manna, which corresponds closely to a natural phenomenon in the Sinai Peninsula (see Exodus 16:14-21), was not thought to provide the strength they needed (though it was tasty and choice). This amounts to a request for the Exodus to be reversed.

In response to God’s anger (11:10) and in language typical of lament psalms, Moses complains that, given what the people have become, God has mistreated him. God has placed too heavy a leadership burden on him (see Exodus 18:18), and provided insufficient resources. Moses uses striking maternal imagery for God: God has conceived and birthed this people (see Deuteronomy 32.18; Isaiah 42:14; 66:13) and hence God should assume the responsibilities of a wet nurse and see to the people’s nourishment. Moses should not have to carry this burden alone, implying that God is negligent. Feeling caught in the middle, Moses asks for either relief or death.

A lively exchange between God and Moses follows. God replies to Moses’ complaint in two respects:  (1) God will share the spirit given to Moses with others, who will help to bear the burden (see verses 16-17, 24-30); (2) God will provide the meat for which the people have asked (see verses 18-23, 31-35). 

(1) As for burden-sharing (see verses 16-17; 24-30), Moses obeys God and gathers seventy elders around the tent (in the center of the camp). God shares Moses’ spirit (ruah; not quantitatively understood), which had its source in God, with the elders, and they prophesy.  Such a charisma was given to various leaders, both within and without Israel (24:2; 27:18; 1 Samuel 10:5-10), and it was transferable (see 2 Kings 2:9).

Unlike Moses, however, they prophesy only once, but may assume some ongoing burdens (see 16:25). Even two elders who remained in the camp (Eldad and Medad) receive a share of God’s spirit. Despite efforts by Joshua to stop them, Moses refuses any protection of his authority or restriction of the divine word to established channels (see 12:1-16). Indeed, Moses wishes that all God’s people could receive this charisma!

(2) As for food provision (see verses 18-23; 31-35), God declares that they will indeed get meat.  But it will be so much (a month’s worth!) that it will become loathsome. Moses responds by wondering how meat can be found for so many people (only soldiers are counted; see 1:46).   God responds with a rhetorical question (verse 23): in effect, God’s hand is not “too short” (see NRSV footnote; no general statement is made about divine power; see Isaiah 50:2; 59:1) to provide this amount of food. God will show that his word is good.

The food comes in the form of quails (see verses 31-35; Exodus 16:13; Psalm 78:26-31), carried into the camp on a wind (ruah) from the sea, the Gulf of Aqaba. The quails cover the ground for miles to a depth of two cubits (about three feet); the least gathered was ten homers (probably sixty bushels). Before they had finished eating, God’s anger was provoked and a plague (related to the food?) swept the camp.

The reader should beware of both ‘rationalization’ and supernaturalism in interpreting wilderness stories such as this. The provision of water and quails is not to be divorced from a recognition of nature’s God-given potential. God is not creating something out of nothing here; neither water nor quails materialize out of thin air; water courses through rock formations and quail fly through this part of the Sinai Peninsula. God works in and through the natural to provide for his people. Even in the wilderness God’s world is not without resources.

Israel’s time in the wilderness is finally shaped by God’s extraordinary patience and mercy, and the divine will to stay with Israel in this time of adolescence. No divine flick of the wrist is capable of straightening them out without compromising their freedom. If God wants a mature child, the possibility of defiance must be risked. But it soon becomes clear that the process of maturation will take longer than a single generation. 

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Amy G. Oden

If you haven’t ever read the book of Esther, read it now.

It’s not long, and you will need the whole story to preach this text. You will immediately notice that the book of Esther reads almost as a stand-alone text within the biblical canon.

It has no mention of Jerusalem, the law, prophets, the Promised Land or exile, or even God. It includes no formal prayers or miracles, though does depict fasting as a pious practice. Its only internal tie to the rest of the Hebrew Bible is that it involves the survival of the Jewish people, crucial enough to the larger canon.

Most of your audience is unlikely to know the whole story of Esther, her life as an orphan, the role of Mordecai, how she came to be Queen, who Haman is, or why he has orchestrated the destruction of the Jewish people. Without the backstory, or least some explanation of the key characters, these spliced together highlights of lectionary text don’t make sense. The lectionary selection relies on prior knowledge of the whole book. So one sermon strategy is to tell the whole story, which is exciting in its own right with the brave Esther saving her people from destruction.

The Rest of the Story

Taken as a whole, the book of Esther addresses several key themes through the story of her life as part of a religious minority living within the dominant Persian culture, and ultimately even in the heart of power, the Persian court at Susa. She, like the Hebrew people in exile, is an orphan as the book opens. She is taken in by her uncle Mordecai, an advisor at the royal court and, later, a hero who saves the king from an assassination plot.  Esther eventually finds herself as part of the king’s harem, hiding her Jewish identity in order to maneuver into the king’s favor with access to his ear. Her uncle’s nemesis, Haman, has convinced the king to decree that all Jews be killed, including special plans to hang Mordecai. Plenty of action in this book!

In all of these intrigues, Esther maintains her proximity to power in order to deliver her people from destruction, which she does. She reveals Haman’s treachery, in the process revealing her own Jewish identity to the king as well, and appeals for the safety of her people. The king grants her requests, reverses the decree to kill Jews and authorizes them to defend themselves.

As a Jewish woman at the Persian court in Susa navigating both cultures, she reflects the struggle of the Jewish people living in diaspora. She eventually takes a risky stand in order to deliver and preserve the Jewish people. By the end of the book, more reversals ensue, so that the powerful are brought low, while the servant is raised up. The plot of the evil Haman to destroy the Jews is overturned, and Haman himself is hanged.

The reversals go a step further. The outsider Jews are not only given a last-minute stay of execution, they are given license to massacre their enemies, so that “those who hated the Jews” are slaughtered in the thousands (9:5ff). The very day that had been decreed for Persians to attack Jews, is now decreed as the day for Jews to defend against these enemies (9:1). Jews win, Persians lose. These reversals offer theological reassurance to a religious minority in the post-exilic context that God is indeed still at work delivering his chosen ones.


In this way, the book of Esther serves to explain and authorize the festival of Purim, and also authorizes the use of violence, though regulated, by the Hebrew people against their enemies. Purim remembers and celebrates the deliverance of the Jews by Queen Esther. The lectionary portion tells us only that Jews are to celebrate “the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies” (9:22).

However, the omitted verses 1-19 from chapter 9 also describes the Jews’ violent retaliation against their enemies, including Esther’s request to the king that Jews be allowed an extra day of killing (9:13). Commentators note the brutality of this violence and the hard moral questions raised by the book. Chapter 9 is careful to note that this holy war is regulated by the limit of time (only two days of killing) and that the Jews took no plunder, either in Susa or the provinces. For further treatment of violence in Esther, read the 2009 commentary on Esther at workingpreacher.org by Brent Strawn.


For the Jews in diaspora the book of Esther has a lot to say, and I will note just a few take-aways here:

Living as a religious minority requires careful and sophisticated judgments about how and when to claim Jewish identity. The question of how to claim Jewish identity occupies much of the early story about Esther and Mordecai, with different judgments at different times about hiding and revealing one’s Jewishness in varying contexts.

Ultimately, deliverance comes through claiming Jewish identity. Esther takes a great risk in revealing her true Jewishness, though Mordecai points out that she is sure to die either way. Nevertheless, once revealed, the king responds favorably and the Jewish people are saved.

While the powerful (and often evil) appear in control, there is an unseen hand at work in all things, leading to great reversals. Though God is never explicitly cited, the book shows a greater power at work throughout.

God has not abandoned his people. No matter how bad things get for Jews under the hand of foreign powers, God is still God. This is a strong theme through post-exilic literature and so with Esther, too.

These take-aways are pretty useful, too, for Christians who struggle to claim their identity within a dominant culture that would have them be Americans first, or employees first, or consumers first, other identities that compete for the hearts of those who follow Jesus.


Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14

Rolf Jacobson

C.S. Lewis called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”1

The song employs beautiful imagery, playful poetry, and elegant prayer-petitions. For the pastor who opts to preach on the psalm this week, most of the challenge will be to get out of the way so that this gorgeous song can ring. (The same challenge is true for the cantor who arranges the psalm to be sung or chanted this week.)

The Psalm as a Whole: The Root Metaphor of Speech
The first task for the pastor or cantor will be to decide whether to use the whole psalm or just the assigned verses. Unfortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary assigns only the latter half of the psalm. The division of this psalm into two halves follows a now outdated interpretation of the psalm. In the middle of the last century, many interpreters viewed this psalm as comprised of two (or three) unrelated poems. This was the case for several reasons:

  • In the first section (verses 1-6), the focus is on creation, the genre is similar to a hymn, the poetry is flexibly fluid, and the generic name for God (El) is used.
  • In the second section (verses 7-10), the focus is on God’s Torah (translated in the NRSV and NIV as “law” but “instruction” would be better), the genre is similar to a wisdom psalm, the poetry becomes consistently formal, and the proper name of the LORD (YHWH) is used.
  • In the third section (verses 11-14), the focus shifts to the “servant” who speaks the psalm, the genre is similar to a prayer, the poetry becomes more informal, and the proper name for the LORD (YHWH) continues to be used.

The noted scholar A. Weiser went so far as to write, “Why these … dissimilar psalms were united in one single psalm cannot any longer be established with any degree of certainty.”2 The lectionary’s choice of only the second half of the psalm is informed by this older view.

But most current interpreters hold that the poem is a coherent whole. The root metaphor of the psalm is speech:

Part I (verses 1-6) Creation’s Speech — praise for God
Part II (verses 7-10) Torah’s Speech — instruction of humanity
Part III (verses 11-14) Servant’s Speech — prayer to God

Clint McCann has summed up the psalm’s message thusly: “Psalm 19 intends to teach.”3 The first part of the poem teaches that the heavens tell us that there is a God. The power of the creator can be known about through the paradoxical, unspoken speech of creation: “There is no speech, nor are there words; [the heavens’] voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (verses 3-4).

But the second part of the psalm teaches us who God is and what God wills. The Lord’s Torah — we would call it Scripture — is a word that we can actually understand and gives us words to follow.

The Assigned Verses: “The Torah of the Lord is Perfect”
As already mentioned, the poetry and focus of the psalm change beginning with verse 7, which is the first verse in the psalm’s second section. The focus shifts to the “Torah of the Lord.” The poetry becomes rigidly regular. Each of the lines in verses 7-9 is constructed identically: noun + YHWH + adjective + participle + noun.4

Each phrase begins with a synonym for the Torah of the Lord — Torah, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances — are a reference to the word of God revealed in the Scriptures. Torah is not here “law” in the legal sense, but as “instruction” in a more holistic sense. This section of the poem celebrates what God has done and continues to do through the Scriptures. God revives the soul, makes wise the simple, enlightens the eye, endures forever, and is altogether righteous.

Stop a moment. Pause briefly and linger on the promise here.

The Bible is such a part of Western society that we often fail to appreciate the means of grace that Scripture is. The psalm offers poetic testimony that invites both church and synagogue to realize the miracle that we hold in our hands. And it does this by offering promises about what the Word does (revive the soul, make wise the simple, enlighten the eye, and so on).

Even the laws of the Bible are to be treasured as gracious gifts from God. Aren’t you glad that God has told you how to live? The psalmist is! And the psalmist is overjoyed to be part of the people that God has blessed with the laws and promises of Scripture. As Deuteronomy puts it, “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (4:7-8)

The poem then offers two (literally) golden metaphors for the Word. It is more desirable than refined gold. It is sweeter than the golden honey of the honeycomb. (Warning: At the children’s sermon, you probably should not have the kids go all Winnie-the-Pooh and dip their hands into the “hunny” pot as an illustration of this psalm. But it would be funny … unless you are my pastor.)

A Prayer for Forgiveness
Lest some Christian reader be tempted to the crypto-Marcionite conclusion that Psalm 19 teaches some sort of “works righteousness,” the poem closes with a prayer for forgiveness.

Yes, the Torah of the Lord is perfect. Yes, its laws are a gracious gift from the very God who created us — they show us how to live and they offer pictures of what it means to love the neighbor.

As the psalmist knows, “in keeping them there is great reward” (verse 11b). Reward here doesn’t mean that God miraculously rewards those who keep God’s law. Rather, reward here means that good things come in the very earthly keeping of the laws — don’t steal and you stay out of prison, don’t kill and you won’t be executed, and so on.

But, as the psalmist also knows that perfect obedience is beyond human capacity. The psalmist knows that no one “can detect their [own] errors.” Therefore the psalmist prays, “Clear me from hidden faults” (verse 12).

A Final Word
The psalm ends with a prayer that many preachers use for the start of their sermon: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The use of this prayer in connection with preaching begs us to wonder if even our proclamation of God’s word needs God’s forgiving, gracious blessing.

Are there “errors” in our sermons? I am sure that there are in my sermons — and not just grammatical mistakes. Surely from time to time (and perhaps every time) my proclamation of the gospel includes heresy.

Are there “hidden faults” in our preaching? Absolutely — especially my own. Not just slips of the tongue. Surely from time to time (and perhaps every time) my explanation of the law includes immoral or unethical conclusions.

But this, too, God — our Rock and our Redeemer — has redeemed.

Thank and praise God.


1 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1986), 63.
2 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 197.
3 McCann, “Psalms,” 751.
4 The pattern is broken slightly in the last part of verse 9, which brings the section to a fitting climax.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:13-20

Micah D. Kiel

Though I am now Roman Catholic, I grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical home.

My father is an ordained minister. I can remember when I was young, on a couple of occasions, my dad would get a call at an odd hour. He would go the cupboard, take a bottle of olive oil, and meet the elders of the church to anoint someone who was gravely ill. Having been raised in a rather non-sacramental environment (communion once a month; adult, believer’s baptism), this “sacramental” approach to someone struck ill seemed very strange to me.

This text in James has loomed large in discussions (or worse) between Catholics and Protestants for centuries. It does provide the main basis for the Roman Catholic understanding of the anointing of the sick (extreme unction) as a sacrament. Most Roman Catholic scholars would readily admit, however, that a sacrament per se is not fully revealed in this text in James. It does, however, launch a trajectory that finds a fuller expression revealed in later church tradition. 

The issues about a sacrament set aside, this text in James is very indicative of the emphasis of the document as a whole. James stands out somewhat in the New Testament in its radical emphasis on personal responsibility in the ethical realm. Its contrast with Paul is long documented, as is Martin Luther’s general contempt for it. It is important to note its continuity, however, with certain segments of Israel’s scriptures, especially the legacy of Deuteronomy as embodied in some of Israel’s later wisdom literature (Sirach and Wisdom in particular).

James 5:17-18 emphasizes these connections — using Elijah as an example of a righteous person whose actions were rewarded by God. In this case, Elijah’s prayer is deemed effective in the specific results it procured. Thus, this text, although it contrasts theologically with some documents in the New Testament that may be deemed more central, its perspective is not without precedent. 

Whether titled a sacrament or not, the understanding of healing in this text does typify a belief that finds widespread adherence throughout the New Testament. Olive oil was widely used for healing in the ancient world and texts such as Leviticus 14 discusses the use of oil in the treatment of leprosy. The synoptic tradition also evinces healing as part of the mission of those whom Jesus sends out (Mark 6:13).

There are many connections between James in general and oral sayings of Jesus and his teaching (especially showing similarities to Matthew). Thus, the anointing of the sick is seen as among those things its author thinks he has inherited from Jesus himself. The healing is done explicitly “in the name of the Lord.”  In verse 15 there is an implicit connection between sickness and sin. The assumption would seem to be that the cause of the sickness might be connected to sin. This also is inherited from Israel’s scriptures.

For example, in the book of Job, Job’s friends imply and then outright assert that Job’s misfortune, the lack of soundness in his own flesh, is a result of some sin Job has in his life. Though it seems unpalatable to modern sensibilities, it is not surprising to see here the idea that the anointing of the sick and the forgiveness of sin are explicitly connected. 

In our modern context and understanding of health and healthcare, it would seem we have lost much of the New Testament’s emphasis on charismatic healing (for sure, some charismatic denominations today would still claim to practice this emphasis). Raymond Brown formulates this question provocatively: “Most Christians do not think they have been given a special charisma for healing.

What responsibility have they toward continuing the early Christian emphasis on healing or care of the sick, especially in a culture that more and more entrusts healing to the medical profession and health organizations?”1 This is not to recommend a flight from modernity to superstitious healing tactics. There is, however, a radical theological belief in God’s power latent in the discussion of healing in the book of James that ought not be immediately passed over. 

If we try to move past the specifics of the healing, there are some deeper principles evident in this text that also can help make it theologically rich even if we find some distaste for its specifics. 

The text in James 5:13-20 has a very community-based theological disposition. While parts of James, and certainly the Wisdom tradition it inherits, can be focused on the individual, much of the discussion throughout the text of James is oriented around a community.

Chapter two’s warning about partiality is focused on examples from members of the community. The words about faith and works are dotted with examples about how others are to be treated. The plight of the sick, then, is not that they simply pray by themselves and have an individual faith. The community is to gather; this seems to be a central dynamic of the understanding of the healing.

Verses 19 and 20 also demonstrate this principle. Here the focus is on saving another from sin, but we’ve already seen how this is understood in connection with sickness. The same point comes through regardless, that members of the community bear a mutual responsibility for each other. 

This is not easy to do today. We retreat into our homes. Our porches are on the back of our houses in our private backyards. Certainly, those who are well bear a responsibility to help those who are not. But, those who are struggling or are ill would seem to bear the reverse responsibility: that they share their struggles — health related or otherwise — with those who are available. It is often harder to ask for or receive help than it is to give it. What this text in James indicates is that this is an essential aspect of the Christian community — that we be involved in each other’s lives, helping each other in our physical and spiritual journeys. 

1Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 746.