Scripture debate and disputation in the wilderness
My earlier contention was that the story we are offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent (Matt 4:1–1), should be read as a story of testing, not tempting.
Which leads to the question, what is it, that Jesus is being tested about? How does this story contribute to our understanding of what God was wanting, and planning, to do through the public activities of Jesus, in Galilee and then in Jerusalem?
The devil, as “the tester”, utilised scripture as the basis for the trial that Jesus is undertaking. And this, it must be said, is thoroughly predictable—given that we are dealing with a text from the first century of the common era, emerging out of the context of faithful Judaism, telling the story of a faithful Jewish man, Jesus, and his earliest circle of followers, all Jewish men and women. They all express the piety and faith of the Judaism of the time, for that was their religion and their culture.
Scripture sits at the heart of Jewish life and faith. Young Jewish boys, like Jesus, were taught to read the Hebrew text of scripture, and to memorise it. They were grounded in Torah, the books of the Law, which set out the way of life, the way of faithful living, that they were to follow. They needed to know this, to have it deep within their hearts. That would have been the upbringing experienced by Jesus.
As they grew older, these Jewish boys were taught the next stage, the midrashim, the teachings which provided explanation and application of the laws and stories embedded in Torah. There were two types of midrashim. The first was haggadah, which was telling stories; the Jewish teachers, the Pharisees, who became acknowledged over time as the rabbis, were excellent at telling stories, and Jesus learnt well from their examples.
The second was halakah, which was discussion and debate about how best to interpret and apply the laws found in Torah. It is this latter form of teaching that we encounter, in the story of the forty days in the wilderness. The back and forth between the person on trial—Jesus—and the person charged with testing and probing his case—the accuser—is couched entirely in terms of sacred scripture. Each time an accusation is put before Jesus, the accuser quotes a passage of scripture. And each time the person on trial—Jesus—responds, another text from sacred scripture is quoted.
Think about that for a minute: both the accuser and the accused are citing scripture, arguing on the basis of what is found in the tradition and heritage and sacred story of the people of Israel. They are both engaged in this task, to get to the heart of the matter; to penetrate to the essence of the issue, through exploration of scripture and its relevance to Jesus and his mission.
This is typical Jewish midrashic argumentation. This is the way that, throughout the centuries, Jews have sought to encounter the truths of scripture—through discussion and debate, by one person posing a proposition and then another person arguing back in counter-proposition, through the adding of additional scripture passages into the argument, in a process of refining, sharpening, and clarifying the intent of the initial scripture text.
This was par for the course for ancient Jews. This is still the way that faithful Jews engage with scripture. My years as a member of the Uniting Church Dialogue with the Jewish Community immersed me into precisely this culture on a regular basis. It was quite an experience! To us polite, constrained Westerners, it seems like an unruly mess. To Jews, schooled in this process since their early years, it is natural, and results in deep and profound understandings of scripture.
The specific scripture texts that are cited in the course of this testing are significant. They are the same in each extended version that we have (Matt 4, and Luke 4), albeit cited in a different order. And each of the three testing moments, with the associated scripture texts that are cited, relate to key moments in the story of Israel in the wilderness during their forty years of wandering. (I am indebted to my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, for this insight.)
Understanding the significance of each testing comes when we look more closely at the passages to which Jesus refers, and explore the resonances and connections that those texts have with other biblical passages. Just as Israel (the child of God) is tested during their forty years in the wilderness, so Jesus (the son of God) revisits those testings in his forty days in the wilderness.
The first moment of testing relates to bread: “command these stones to become loaves of bread”. The story evoked is that concerning the gift of manna which was given to the people of Israel as they sojourned in the wilderness. It is told in Numbers and referred to quite directly in Deut 8:3, the verse which is part-quoted by Jesus in the testing narrative, people do not live by bread alone. Could the mission of Jesus be diverted into concerns about sustenance and immediate survival, rather than longer-term strategies?
The second moment of testing, on the top of a mountain, relates to worship, and the recognition of the special and supreme place of the Lord God. The offer, “all these [kingdoms] I will give you”, is met by another quotation, by Jesus, from the same book: it is the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve (Deut 6:13).
The story of the Golden Calf, told in detail in Exodus 32, sits behind this particular test. It is alluded to, perhaps not quite so directly this time, in Deut 6:14-15, the verses which come immediately after the verse quoted by Jesus. The incident involving the Golden Calf was when Israel “went off the rails”, developing an idol for the focus of their worship, rather than being focussed on God alone. The testing faced by Jesus was for him to gain power and authority in his own right, at the expense of serving the greater call that God had placed on his life.
The words of the tester in this second testing evoke the belief that God is able to allocate power and authority. The words of the tester explicitly resound with the claim made twice about the supreme authority of the Lord God, as reported in Jeremiah: “It was I who made the earth, human being and beast on the face of the earth, by my great power, with my outstretched arm; and I can give them to whomever I think fit” (Jer 27:5); and “Ah, my Lord God! You made the heavens and the earth with your great power and your outstretched arm; nothing is too difficult for you” (Jer 32:17).
The tempter has taken on the persona of God in this test. Jesus forcefully denies this test: it is the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve.
The third and final test, placed on the pinnacle of the Temple, pits the possibility of testing God against the alternative of trusting absolutely in God. The tester’s challenge to Jesus, to “throw yourself down”, and the implication that God would save him (quoting Psalm 91) evokes the response from Jesus, quoting Deut 6:16, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
Test God … or Trust God? That was the age-old dilemma for Israel, noted at a number of points in the wilderness stories (for instance, Exod 17:2; Deut 6:16; Ps 106:14). It is one that Jesus himself encounters as the climax, in the Lukan version, of his wilderness testing.
The third Deuteronomy passage cited by Jesus, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Deut 6:16), comes immediately after the recital of The Ten Words which were given to Israel, through Moses, on Mount Sinai (Deut 5:1–21). As the scripture reports, Moses instructed the people to trust God by living in accordance with these words, for this was the way to life for them (Deut 5:27, 32–33).
So, to assist them in this enterprise, The Ten Words are then boiled down to One Great Commandment, love the Lord your God (Deut 6:5). This was a commandment which Jesus himself quoted and highlighted in debates with Jewish teachers (Mark 12:28–30; Matt 22:34–37; Luke 10:27). Indeed, in Matthew’s version of such a debate, Jesus identified this Word as “the greatest and first commandment” (Matt 22:38) on which “all the law and the prophets hang” (Matt 22:40).
This prime commitment, to God first and foremost, is what is alluded to by the citation that Jesus makes in his third testing. It is a test to see if he will divert from this singular focus.
This story of testing in the wilderness presents a communal challenge, and requires a communal commitment. The personal identity of Jesus, in the mission to which he is called, is found in the context of the communal identity of the people of Israel, who faced precisely these tests—and failed, in the accounts we have in Hebrew Scripture. The testings of Jesus are a reworking of those ancient testings; he is faced with the same tests—and passes them, in the accounts we have in Christian scriptures. That is the model we are offered through this story.
John Squires is the Editor of With Love to the World. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith. Read the original post here.
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