Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (13 July 2014)



  • Genesis 25:19-34 and Psalm 119:105-112 [or Isaiah 55:10-13 and Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13]
  • Romans 8:1-11
  • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The twin sons of Isaac: Esau and Jacob

For those wishing to continue following the ancestral narratives, the following excerpt from Nahum Sarna’s comments in the New JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (1989:169-71) may provide some helpful material.

The second series of patriarchal narratives, that relating to Isaac, now begins. The data about him are exceedingly sparse. Much of what is preserved—his birth and circumcision, the Akedah, and his marriage—is integrated into the biography of Abraham, while other episodes belong to the large collection of traditions regarding Jacob. Nothing is recorded of the first twenty years of Isaac’s marriage. Only a few isolated events in his life are preserved in the literature, where he is eclipsed by the towering figure of his father Abraham and overshadowed by the dynamic, forceful personality of his son Jacob.

Yet Isaac is more than a mere transition between Abraham and Jacob, and the biblical account does contain unmistakable elements of individuality. Isaac’s name, uniquely bestowed by God, is not changed; his pastoral wanderings are restricted to a narrow range and largely center around Beer-sheba; unlike Abraham, he does not live at Hebron-Kiriat-arba but settles there only in his old age; he alone remains monogamous; he is the only patriarch to engage in agriculture and the only one never to leave the promised land; finally, the unique divine name pachad yitschak (31:42) suggests some episode, not recorded, in which this particular name would have been meaningful. References in Amos 7:9, 16 to “the shrines of Isaac” and to “the house of Isaac” as an epithet for Israel seem to indicate that a more extensive account of his life once existed.

The story of Isaac, interrupted by the genealogies of chapter 25, now resumes with the main emphasis on the birth of Esau and Jacob and the rivalry between them. These narratives present an ancient belief that the bitter hostility that marked the later relationships between the peoples of Israel and Edom had its origin in the prenatal experience of their founding fathers, who were twins.

The idea that Jacob/Israel and Esau/Edom were siblings finds expression in several biblical texts. Deuteronomy 23:8 says: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman.” Numbers 20:14 reports that in the course of the wilderness wanderings Moses sent a message to the king of Edom that opened with the phrase, “ Thus says your brother Israel.” The prophet Obadiah, in his indictment of Edom, also refers to “your brother Jacob” (v. 10), and Malachi (1:2) assumes it to be common knowledge that “Esau is Jacob’s brother.” This tradition is so extraordinary, given the long and bitter history of enmity between Israel and Edom, that it must reflect authentic historical experience. The two peoples must have shared memories of an early common ancestry, blood kinship, or treaty associations.

According to Genesis 36:6–8, the clan of Esau originally lived in Canaan but later settled in “the hill country of Seir.” The national territory of Edom lay east of the Jordan in the southernmost part of the country. It stretched from the Gulf of Elath northward for a distance of about 100 miles (170 km.) to Nachal Zered (Wadi Chasa’), which formed the natural boundary between Edom and Moab. It shared a common boundary with Judea along the rift of the Arabah, which extends from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Akaba.

It was this geographic reality that engendered the hostility between the two peoples. The western side of the Edomite homeland enjoyed a strategic and climatic advantage. Its steep precipices, rising to 5,000 feet (1,525 m.) above sea level, overlook the Arabah. Their westerly exposure assures the receipt of respectable amounts of precipitation, thereby sustaining agriculture and forests. The “king’s highway,” one of the main arteries of communication in the ancient world, traversed the country from north to south. This gave it control over the precious caravan trade from India and southern Arabia and connected it with Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Punon, an important copper mining and smelting site, was also situated within Edom.

On the western side of the rift lay the Arabah, arid and far from the Judean centers of population. This necessitated long lines of communication and the hauling of supplies over considerable distances and treacherous terrain. The copper deposits of the Arabah were unexploitable without a local supply of fuel. A strategic highway led through the region from the Gulf of Akaba across the Negeb to Beersheba, where it split into a network of roads joining the important towns of Judea and Northern Israel. Without control of the Arabah, the nomadic tribes that roamed the Negeb were a constant menace.

Both Edom and Israel had abundant incentive to encroach upon each other’s territory. It was easier for the Edomites to infiltrate westward into the Arabah than for the Judeans to penetrate Edom. The Edomites exploited their strategic advantage to the full, while the temptation to shorten communication lines, to have a supply source close by, and to have access to fuel for the copper mines as well as control over the lucrative spice trade proved irresistible to the Judean kings. It was David who defeated the Edomites, stationed permanent garrisons in their land, and made them vassals of his kingdom, as described in 2 Samuel 8:13f.

These observations do not foreclose the literary questions that attend the ancestral narratives of ancient Israel and Judah. As readers separated by more than two millennia from the cultural and historical details of everyday life in biblical Palestine, we find it helpful to be reminded of the physical, cultural and political realities that would have needed no explanation to the original audiences for whom this narrative was composed. But such information only gives us an approximate parity with those first hearers, and should not be mistaken for an explanation of the story’s significance.

The more important questions are not whether younger sons could displace elder brothers in ancient Middle Eastern societies, but how such a story would have been experienced by the struggling Judean community in the post-exilic period (5C BCE / 4C BCE). Whether the “historical David” was anything more than a local Judean chieftain, or whether he actually conquered the Edomites as described in 2 Samuel 8, is less significant to us as “people of the Book” than the question of why those who understood themselves as successors of the legendary David now saw advantage in telling the story of their ancestors (and thus themselves) in a way that simultaneously affirmed common origins and asserted a superior claim to the sacred blessing (covenant, land, progeny).

Gospel: Jesus and the Parables

This week’s Gospel brings us to a major collection of parables, and provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the significance of Jesus as a composer of parables. In Reimagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Polebridge, 2001), B. Brandon Scott suggests that the history of parable studies can be divided into two major stages.

First Stage

This stage is dominated by a number of important European scholars: Adolf Jülicher, C.H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias. Scott gives the following “report card” comments of the contributions of these pioneer studies into the parables of Jesus:

Adolf Jülicher (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu – 1910) attached the traditional method of interpreting the parables as allegories, but also showed that the parables themselves often fit rather poorly with their immediate literary context in the NT Gospels. The parables had a life prior to their incorporation into the Gospels, and the allegories that are sometimes found in their Gospel context do not represent the original interpretations of the parables.

Gain – Rejection of allegory
Loss – Parables are not dependent on their Gospel context

C.H. Dodd (The Parables of the Kingdom – 1935) built on the foundation laid by Jülicher but added the suggestion that the parables had a distinctive interest in eschatology. Dodd used the phrase, “realized eschatology,” to describe the parables’ interest in a kingdom which is already present for the hearers. As Scott notes, Dodd also crafted one of the most influential definitions of parable:

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.

Gain – Introduced the question of the parables; eschatology

Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus – 1947) adopted the insights of Form Criticism to develop a convincing account of the oral transmission process for the parables prior to their inclusion in the written gospels. He applied these “laws of transmission” to specific parables in order to reconstruct the original words of Jesus, even suggesting the Aramaic phrases that he believed lay behind the extant Greek version of the parables. Jeremias understood the original life situation (Sitz im Leben) of the parables to have been oral disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees, although scholars these days are more cautious about the presence of Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus’ life time. Interestingly, despite his conservative theological tendencies, Jeremias was a pioneer in using the Gospel of Thomas as an independent witness to the parable tradition.

Gain – Outlined the stages for a history of the parables from Jesus to the Gospels

Second Stage

The next stage of critical study of the parables reflects the contributions made by American scholars: Robert Funk, Dan Via, John Dominic Crossan and Brandon Scott.

Over a number of studies beginning in the 1960s, Robert W. Funk and Dan Via independently drew on the well-established models of literary studies familiar to students in English departments across North America. Both scholars studied the parable as an object in its own right (an “aesthetic object” for Dan Via, and a “metaphor” for Funk).

Dan Via (The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension – 1967) overcame the limitations of historical criticism by focusing on the parable as an autonomous text. What matters is the “internal meaning” of the parable, not the historical context or its possible original sense. The original audiences may not have fully understood the meaning of the parable, just as later generations find new layers of significance while finding older interpretations unconvincing. Like any aesthetic object, the parable can be appreciated but never fully understood.

Gain – The specific historical situation does not determine meaning, or the meaning of the parable cannot be reduced to a specific situation in the ministry of Jesus.

Robert W. Funk (Language, Hermeneutics and the Word of God – 1966 and Jesus as Precursor – 1975) contrasted the logic of discursive language and metaphorical language, and proposed a way of reading the parables that took seriously their character as metaphorical languages that creates (new) meaning by juxtaposing “two discrete and not entirely comparable entities.” In a sense this project built upon Dodd’s definition of parables as incongruous metaphors that provoke thought.

Gain – Parables function as a metaphorical structure or system
Loss – Attention must be paid to the very metaphorical nature of the words themselves.

John Dominic Crossan (The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story – 1975 and In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus – 1973) explored and expanded the creative insights of Dan Via and Robert Funk, consolidated their gains, and made this new approach to the parables accessible to a wide audience. Crossan understands the parables as promoting what he calls “permanent eschatology” as the “permanent presence of God” confronts, challenges and shatters the complacency of human individuals and systems. Where Jeremias had sought to recover the very words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus, Crossan argues that what was remembered in the oral parable tradition was not the words themselves but the structure (ipsissima structura), the form, and the pattern of the parables.

Gain – We are dealing not with the very words of Jesus but with the structure (the memory and performance) of the parables.

Bernard Brandon Scott (Hear Then the Parable – 1989) was the first person since Jülicher to deal with all of the parables in a single study. Scott took seriously the different dimensions of orality and literacy in the parable tradition, and drew on reader-response criticism to develop a comprehensive literary strategy for interpreting (hearing) the parables. He asks not so much what Jesus intended by the particular parable, but what effect the parable might have on its audiences. Scott also drew on insights from the social sciences to develop what he calls the “repertoire” of a text — those social conventions and assumptions that the teller and audience hold in common.

William Herzog (Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed – 1994) also draws on social science studies to make sense of the parables, but has rejected the embrace of literary criticism by Via, Funk and Crossan. For Herzog, the parables encode first century structures of oppression and, as Scott says, “Herzog often produces illuminating readings of the parables, making sense of details that have often left one confused.”

Gain – Literary methods and social science method are both necessary to interpret the parables.

The tradition of critical study of the parables was to play a significant part in the work undertaken by the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The seminar was jointly chaired by Robert Funk and Dominic Crossan, and many of their graduate students (including Brandon Scott) were included among the Fellows. Crossan’s compilation, Sayings Parallels: A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition (Fortress, 1986) provided the basic text for the Seminar as it went about its work, and a careful analysis of the sayings attributed to Jesus was the primary focus for the first phase of the Seminar. The results of that phase were reported in the bestseller The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Macmillan, 1993).

This creative new work on parables allowed the Jesus Seminar to break new ground with its inquiry into historical Jesus research. By giving primacy to the sayings of Jesus rather than the deeds of Jesus, the Seminar believes that historical Jesus research reaches back to an earlier stage of the tradition as well as drawing closer to the heart of the Jesus tradition.What Jesus himself may have said has a certain spiritual cache that no third party report of events involving him can ever have. In addition, with each performance of the parables their spiritual power may be experienced afresh.

The actions of Jesus are another matter. Particular events happen just once. The reports of them are always second hand. They are especially susceptible to legendary development, and they seem to be used in the tradition for theological purposes rather than as simple accounts of specific events. As Lane McGaughy (“Why Start with the Sayings,” p. 20) notes:

The best one can hope to recover with respect to deeds are the earliest reports of bystanders about what they thought they saw, whereas the authentic sayings indicate what Jesus himself thought or intended …

McGaughy cites with approval the couplet coined by (Jesus Seminar Fellow) Julian Hills: “sayings are repeated, deeds are reported.”

Jesus Database

  • 034 The Sower – (1) GThom. 9; (2) Mark 4:3-8 = Matt 13:3b-8 = Luke 8:5-8a; (3) 1 Clem. 24:5.
  • 009 Who Has Ears – (1a) GThom. 8:2; (1b) GThom. 21:5; (1c) GThom. 24:2; (1d) GThom. 63:2; (1e) GThom. 65:2; (1f) GThom. 96:2; (2a) Mark 4:9 = Matt 13:9 = Luke 8:8b; (2b) Mark 4:23 =Matt 13:43b; (3) Matt 11:15; (4) Luke 14:35b; (5) Rev 2:7,11,17, 29; 3:6,13,22; 13:9.
  • 092 Knowing the Mystery – 1) GThom. 62:1; (2a) Secret Mark f2r10;(2b) Mark 4:10-12 = Matt 13:10-11,13-15 = Luke 8:9-10.
  • 040 Have and Receive – (1) GThom. 41; (2) 2Q: Luke 19:(25-)26 = Matt 25:29; (3) Mark 4:25 = Matt 13:12 = Luke 8:18b.
  • 014 Eye Ear Mind – (1a) 1 Cor 2:9a; (1b) 1 Clem. 34:8; (2) GThom. 17; (3) 2Q: Luke 10:23-24 = Matt 13:16-17; (4) Dial. Sav. 57a [140:1-4].

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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