The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 86

Joshua 22-24, Psalm 72, John 6
What does the Eucharist mean and why is it important?

Joshua 22-24
Psalm 72
John 6
Key Verses

Joshua 22 – 24

The Book of Joshua is never dull. It may at times appear boring, but under the surface much is taking place. The eastern tribes now return to their territories. God has promised rest to Joshua and his kindred. Yahweh does a little remedial teaching and says,

Take good care to observe the commandment and instruction that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to keep his commands, and to host fast to him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Josh. 22:5)

All seemed well until they came to the region near the Jordan, where the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built a great altar by the Jordan River. When the Israelites heard that their fellow tribesmen had done this, they gathered at Shiloh and prepared to make war on their own people.

Instead of sending Joshua, the Israelites sent the priest Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron to address the situation. Phinehas was a Levitical priest. He took with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel to meet with the Reubenites, Gadites and half-tribe of Manasseh.

“What is this treachery that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away today from following the Lord, by building yourself an altar today in rebellion against the Lord,” they demanded of the three tribes. They recalled the “sin at Peor” from which they had not cleansed themselves, and for which “a plague came upon the congregation of the Lord…” (Josh. 22:17) The Israelites viewed the creation of a new altar as serious threat for which God could punish the entire assembly.

Their concern was that the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh were establishing a rival cultic site to Shiloh, which was the chief holy site. Phinehas’s involvement demonstrates the ritual significance of their concern. Fortunately the Gileadite tribes quickly noted that the altar was not built for sacrificial purposes, but rather to commemorate the covenant that the Israelites had made with Yahweh.

We did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, “What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you Reubenites and Gadites; you have no position in the Lord.” So your children might make our children cease to worship the Lord. Therefore we said, “Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us, that we do perform the service of the Lord in his presence with our burnt offerings, and sacrifices and offerings of well-being; so that your children may never say to our children in time to come, “you have no portion in the Lord.” (Josh. 22:24-27)

The altar’s size and prominence demonstrated the unity among the tribes, not a rival cultic setting. This is one of the best stories in the Bible as to where things could easily have gotten out of hand and led to violence and war, but through honest and direct confrontation and clear communication, reconciliation was achieved. Gigal, where the altar was erected, remained a rallying point among the tribes, while Shiloh and Jerusalem would become the two chief sacrificial and cultic sites for the Israelites.

Phinehas and his delegation of chiefs returned to the Israelites and reported what had occurred. All were pleased. The Gileadites in turn called the great altar “Witness,” for “it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.” (Josh. 22:34) Then Joshua, like Moses before him, offered his final exhortation to the Israelites, instructing them with the Deuteronomistic message woven throughout the Pentateuch,

Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left, so that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them, but hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day. (Josh. 23:6-7)

The message could not be clearer. The Israelites must always obey God’s law, and if they did all would be well with them. The challenge, however, is that no matter how well humans behave and obey, we are subject to life’s trials and tribulations. The Israelites experienced sieges, famines, earthquakes, war and destruction. Time and again, the prophets interpreted these as acts of divine punishment. Whether this was the case or not, remains a question for debate. Joshua warned the Israelites,

Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. For if you turn back and join the survivors of these nations left here among you, and intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you. (Josh. 23:11-13)

The prohibition not to intermarry was not always followed. In Judges we read a different account of the Conquest, which suggests a much slower, more complicated takeover of the Promised Land. Jewish tribes intermarried and slowly took control of cities and towns, often without violence.

Joshua then summoned the tribes to Shechem, the holy site, which was 35 miles north of Jerusalem in the hill country of Ephraim. The city dominated a pass and trade route between Mount Ebal, the mount of curses, and Mount Gerizim, the mount of blessings. Archeologists have found 24 strata of occupation at Shechem reaching from the Chalcolithic to the Hellenistic period. Since no evidence was found of destruction, the city may have come under Israelite control without a major conflict.

Joshua renewed the Covenant with the Israelites before God, like renewing one’s wedding vows. How good it would be if on each anniversary we renewed our wedding vows. Joshua said,

Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Josh. 24:14, 15b)

This last half verse is one of the most beautiful phrases in the Bible. A dear friend even gave us hand-towels with the words inscribed upon them, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” These are beautiful words for every parent, couple and individual to strive to live each day.

Joshua renewed the Covenant with the Israelites as Shechem and erected a large stone, and set it under and oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to the Israelites, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” (Josh. 24:27) Clearly, this stone serves as the “witness stone” in Gigal to remind the people of the Covenant that binds them together and with Yahweh.

Joshua was then buried on his property at Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim. The bones of Joseph, which had been brought from Egypt, were buried in Shechem in the portion of land that Jacob had bought from the children of Hamor. Aaron’s son Eleazar died and was buried in Gibeah, the town that his son Phinehas had been given in Ephraim. Whereas previous ancestors of Israel had to be buried in land purchased from neighbors, this land was now their own land through the Conquest.

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Psalm 72

It is common among ancient Near East literature to portray the king as a lawgiver and protector of the poor and marginalized and weak. (Prov. 29:14, Ps. 35:10) The Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant states that the king’s duty is to “father the orphan.” Likewise the prologue of the Code of Hammurabi notes that the gods gave Hammurabi of Babylon the task of promoting “the welfare of the people” and “causing justice to prevail in the land” so that “they strong might not oppress the weak.”

The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved Babylonian code of ancient Mesopotamia or Iraq dating back to 1772 B.C. It is one of the oldest lengthy deciphered writings in the world. The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code. Partial copies of it exist on a human-sized stone or stele and on various clay tablets. The Code consists of 282 laws, with scaled punishments such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” or the lex talionis which the Israelites appropriated in the Torah.

Psalm 72 offers a profound focus on social justice and caring for the poor and needy. We read,

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice. (Ps. 72:1-2)
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor. (Ps. 72:4)

In ancient Mesopotamia kingship was believed to be a gift from the gods. The Code of Hammurabi states that the king has been proclaimed “the shepherd” by the god Enlil, and that his is the king’s task to “cause justice to prevail in the land.” The Psalmist prays for the king, requesting,

May [the king] have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Ps. 72:8)
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles rend him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. (Ps. 72:10)

The Psalmist implies that God has granted the king universal rule “from sea to sea.” Similar Akkadian texts feature a king boasting that all of humanity submitted to him from “Upper Sea to the Lower Sea.” Tarshish represented all points to the west. Sheba was associated with southern Arabia or Yemen and the Sabaean kingdom while Seba is still disputed, but may refer to Ethiopia. The power of this psalm, however, lies in its message of hope for those who are most vulnerable.

For [the king] delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight. (Ps. 72:12-14)

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John 6

From time to time I encounter a Christian who simply cannot comprehend or appreciate the Eucharist. “I like worship, preaching and reading the Bible, but the Eucharist does not mean that much to me,” he or she will say. For most Episcopalians and Anglicans, however, receiving the Eucharist is the pinnacle of worship. Our greatest Anglican theologian Richard Hooker spoke the “doctrine of the real presence.”

This doctrine holds that we are never closer to God than in the moment when we extend the hands of a believer and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus into our being. We are transformed. The focus for Anglicans is not on the transformation or “transubstantiation” (Roman Catholic belief) of the wine and bread on the altar, but rather what occurs in the heart of a true believer who receives the sacrament. The Anglican focus is on our transformation as we receive the sacrament as opposed to the focus being on the elements of bread and wine being transformed by the priest on the altar.

If you struggle to comprehend the meaning of the Eucharist, look no further than chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus begins by feeding the five thousand. Afterwards, he feared that those who are following him “were about to come and take him by force to make him king,” (John 6:15) so he withdrew.

Throughout this chapter Jesus instructed his disciples to shift their focus from resources that perish to that which endures forever. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27)

A major theme throughout John’s Gospel is the focus on “believing” in Jesus. Faith is a verb. Pistis is the Greek word for “belief” and pistio is the word for “to believe.” Jesus focused more on “believing” than “belief.” Hence, Christianity is more a verb, than a noun. The Christian life is a striving forward towards a goal, rather than a settled, stagnant state. One of the biggest challenges for mainline Christians is living their faith as an active verb as opposed to a complacent noun. Jesus said, “This is the work of God that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)

Jesus then speaks Eucharistically. He said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” These words are incorporated into a much beloved Episcopal hymn I am the Bread of Life. These words remind us that Jesus is in the Eucharist. We are what we eat. If we eat good food, we shall be healthy. If we eat junk food, our bodies will experience ill health. Whenever we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus, we fortify ourselves for the Christian journey. Christ dwells within us and enlivens our being like a body on spiritual steroids.

Jesus underlines his Eucharistic theology saying, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” (John 6:47-48) The latter verse is part of Jesus’s famous “I am” statements made throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the way, the life and the truth.” We recall that in Exodus, when Moses asked God to reveal his name to him at the burning bush, God replied, “I am who I am.” (Ex. 3:14) This text remains mysterious and reminds us that God’s true identity cannot be known by humankind. We are finite creatures, and our minds that cannot encapsulate the knowledge of our creator within the limited constraints of reason, logic, science, biology, physics and laws of nature.

Is the Eucharist optional? Is it just a liturgical meal for some Christians and not for others? Jesus told his disciples clearly, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) He reinforces this by noting, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:53-57)

We can see why the early Christians were accused of being cannibals by Romans who wanted to dismiss their religion and deny that Jesus was the Messiah. Caesar was God, and there could be no other god, according to the Romans. Jesus, however, connects the Eucharist to salvation. Unless a person receives the Eucharist, he or she will not inherit eternal life. Does this mean that there is no salvation for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.? This is always and should be a principal Christian concern.

Two things in this chapter help us respond to this vital question. First, Jesus stresses the wide and comprehensive mandate that God has set for him. Jesus said,

Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day. (John 6:37-40)

I believe Christians must resist quickly saying, “All Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists and agnostics and others will go to heaven. The Bible does not suggest this. This does not mean that that shall not happen, but we do not have a lot of scriptural backing to make such a statement. In my own pastoral experience, I have learned that it is best to speak of God’s expansive love in the face of a tragedy and of Jesus’s narrow way when speaking to someone openly questioning the spiritual journey.

In other words, when I have been asked to baptize a baby that had already died before I reached the hospital, I would never suggest or state to the parents that their son or daughter is not going to heaven merely before a priest was not on hand to baptize it or that the children emerged dead from the uterus. Such a statement cannot be proven to be consistent with all that we read in the Bible and would be utterly destructive and of no pastoral help to the parents whatsoever. Likewise, I would not claim that a Christian whose spouse practices another religion will not see him or her in the world to come. But I could not promise that the Bible supports this belief either. Cases can be made for and against it.

If a person were wondering whether or not to follow Jesus or wondering whether Christianity was just one among many religious choices as if Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism were all the same, I would be quick to point out that this is completely false. All religions are not the same. Hindus believe in over 800 gods. This is a completely different from Judaism, Islam and Christianity, which are monotheistic religions, which believe in one God. Christians alone hold the belief in eternal life with Jesus. To remove this belief from our faith is to water down what we believe and mislead others into thinking, “I can pretty much do whatever I please and not believe in God or practice any faith, because I am going to heaven anyway.” Such a belief is something that the Gospel of John does not support.

These issues are challenging. Indeed, we read that “many of [Jesus’s] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” He asked his disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67) Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

One evening after graduating from college, I walked down a street in a neighborhood next to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia with my old mentor and friend Tom Flynn, a wonderful Roman Catholic priest and brilliant philosopher. I shared my doubts and struggles with my faith and hardships that I had recently experienced in life. He asked me if I was beginning to lose my faith. Then he told me this story about how many left Jesus’s side when the going became theologically difficult, but Peter and the disciples remained. Where are we to go? If we wish to find eternal life, there is but one person to go and but one person to follow. His name is Jesus, which means, “God saves.”

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Key Verses

Take good care to observe the commandment and instruction that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to keep his commands, and to host fast to him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Josh. 22:5)

… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Josh. 24:15b)

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)

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Does God select or bless leaders as divine agents for service? Are our leaders meant to care the poor, needy, weak and marginalized? What do you believe about the Eucharist? What must we do to be saved and receive eternal life? Are there any requirements or expectations that God places upon us? Why did Jesus institute the Last Supper and ask us to continue this practice regularly until he returns?

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Almighty God, you took on human form in Jesus and dwelt among us in flesh and blood. Before departing from this life, Jesus offered himself as a living sacrifice and connected that which he was about to accomplish on the cross with the Eucharistic sacrifice that he established in the Last Supper. Help us to be open to the mystery of what occurs in this sacred meal so that Christ’s Body and Blood might sanctify, heal, strengthen and restore us to wholeness and holiness of life. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania