Thursday, 9 June 2016

Hebrews in its context/1: Forty years of penance in the wilderness

The next section of Hebrews (Hebrews 3:7-4:16) is essentially an exposition of Psalm 94.

This psalm is quoted in the Benedictine Rule, said each day in both the traditional forms of the Roman and Benedictine Offices at Matins, perhaps specifically because of its use here.  And St Thomas provides an extended commentary on it.  Accordingly, I want to linger over it a bit.

But this is one of those sections of Hebrews that really requires a quick refresher on the Old Testament context, so before we go on, a little interlude to allow you to read through Numbers 13&14, and then the full text of Psalm 94 which is a poetic version of the key points (and moral) of the story.

Numbers 13&14:

13:1 - It was after leaving Haseroth that the people encamped in the desert of Pharan; and here the Lord spoke to Moses,  bidding him send out men of mark, one from each tribe, to survey Israel’s promised inheritance, the land of Chanaan...18 And these were the directions Moses gave them for their survey of Chanaan: Make your way in by the south, and when you reach the hill country look well at the land about you. Are its inhabitants strong or weak, many in number or few? Is the land itself prosperous or starved, has it walled cities or unwalled, fertile soil or barren, is it well wooded or bare? Take heart for your enterprise, and bring back with you some sample of what the land yields. (It was the season, then, at which early grapes are already fit to eat.) So they surveyed the land...

26 Forty days had passed before they returned from their survey, after traversing the whole country, to find Moses and Aaron and all the people of Israel still in the desert of Pharan, by Cades. To these and to the whole multitude they made their report, and shewed them what fruit the land yielded.

And this was the story they told: When we reached the land where our errand lay, we found it indeed a land all milk and honey, as this fruit will prove to you; but it is a powerful race that dwells in it, with strong walled cities; such were the sons of Enac, whom we saw there. The south is occupied by Amelec, the mountain parts by Hethites, Jebusites and Amorrhites; by the sea, and round the Jordan river, the Chanaanites are in possession. And now, to still the rising outcry against Moses, Caleb spurred the people on to invade the land and conquer it; It is ready to fall into your hands, he said. But his companions told them, We cannot attack such a people as this; they are too strong for us. And they gave the Israelites an ill account of what they had seen in Chanaan; This country we surveyed, they told them, has too many inhabitants already. Tall of frame are the men we viewed there; nay, some we saw, the race of Enac, of monstrous size as if they were sprung from giants; we looked no bigger than locusts beside them.

14:1 - So, that night, the whole multitude of the Israelites fell to weeping, and were loud in their complaints against Moses and Aaron:  Better that we had died in Egypt, better we should meet our end in this waste desert, than march at the Lord’s bidding into such a land as that, where we shall fall at the sword’s point, and our wives and children be led off as captives! Were it not better to go back to Egypt? A leader, they said to one another, let us set up a leader who will take us back to Egypt! Moses and Aaron, on hearing it, cast themselves down to earth before the whole assembly of Israel; meanwhile Josue the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephone, who had taken their part in surveying the country, tore their garments in dissent.  Nay, men of Israel, they cried, it was a land of great plenty we passed through. The Lord, of his mercy, will find a way in for us, and it will be ours, a land that is all milk and honey! Would you defy the Lord’s will, daunted by the Chanaanites? Why, they are bread for our eating; they may not hope to defend themselves. The Lord is on our side; never be afraid of them! At this, all the people cried out, and were for stoning them.

But suddenly, over the tabernacle, the glory of the Lord’s presence made itself known to the whole of Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, Am I to be always slighted by this people of mine? Will they never learn to trust in me, for all the marvellous deeds of mine they have witnessed?  Enough; I will smite them with pestilence, and make an end of them; I will find a people greater and sturdier than this to march under thy leadership.

Good news, Lord, said Moses, for the Egyptians, from whose power thou didst once rescue thy people; good news, too, for the inhabitants of this land. They know how thou dwellest among thy people, letting thyself be seen face to face, sheltering us with cloud, going before us in a pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night. Are they to be told that thou hast annihilated, at a blow, all this host of thine? Ah, they will say, he could find no means to grant his people their promised home, so he was fain to destroy them in the wilderness!  Nay, Lord, vindicate thy power; hast thou not said, The Lord is slow to take vengeance, rich in kindness, pardoning the guilt of the wrong-doer? Though indeed thou holdest no man innocent, and wilt have the son make amends for the father’s guilt, to the third and fourth generation. Forgive, I implore thee, this people of thine, as thou art ever abundantly merciful, as thou hast ever shewn favour to us while we made our way from Egypt to this spot.

Then the Lord said, At thy request, I forgive. But as I am the living Lord, whose glory must spread wide as earth,  these men who have been witnesses of my greatness, of all the marvellous deeds I did, in Egypt and in the desert, yet must needs challenge my power half a score of times, and disobey my will, these shall never see the land I promised to their fathers; it shall never be enjoyed by those who slighted me. My servant Caleb was of another mind; he took my part, and I will allow him to enter the land which he surveyed, and leave his race an inheritance there. The sons of Amalec and Chanaan may rest secure in their mountain glens; to-morrow you must move camp, and go back to the desert by the Red Sea.

Such was the Lord’s message to Moses and Aaron:  Will this thankless multitude never cease complaining; must I hear nothing but lament from the sons of Israel?  Tell them this, As I am living God, the Lord says, the very words you have used in my hearing shall come true; your bones shall be left to lie in this desert. Of all you that were registered above the age of twenty years, you that have made complaint against me,  not a man shall enter the land in which I swore to make a home for you, except Caleb the son of Jephone and Josue the son of Nun.  These shall make their way in instead, these children of yours that were to be a prey, you thought, to the enemy; they shall have sight, instead, of the land their fathers belittled.  In the desert your bones shall lie; and until the desert has swallowed them up, these sons of yours shall wander to and fro in it for forty years, doing penance for your unfaithfulness.  For forty days you surveyed the land, and for each day you shall have a year of penance for your sins, and feel my vengeance. See if I do not make good the threats I have uttered against a thankless and rebellious people, leaving them to faint and die in the desert.

As for the men Moses had sent to survey the country, who returned to embitter the multitude against him by the ill report they brought with them, they died of plague, there in the Lord’s presence; of all that went on that errand, only Josue the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephone were left alive.

Meanwhile the people of Israel, upon hearing all this from Moses, were full of remorse; and at dawn of day they were all up on the mountain heights, crying, We confess our fault; now we are ready to attack the land which the Lord has promised us.  What, said Moses, Would you go beyond the Lord’s word? You will gain nothing by it. The Lord is not on your side; do not march to the attack, or you will be overthrown by your enemies. The Lord will not take part with men who have refused him obedience; you will be met by Amalecite and Chanaanite, and their swords will lay you low. Yet, in their blind confidence, they marched on into the hill country, though the ark of God, and Moses with it, remained there in the camp.  And the men who dwelt in the hill country, Amalecites and Chanaanites, fell on them from above, setting upon them and cutting them down till they had pursued them all the way to Horma.

Psalm 94

Here is the full psalm by way of context (note that the vetus Latin version is used in the Office).

Psalter (Vetus latina)
Laus cantici ipsi David.

Praise of a canticle for David himself.
1 Venite, exsultemus Domino; jubilemus Deo salutari nostro;
1. Veníte, exsultémus Dómino, jubilémus Deo, salutári nostro:
Come let us praise the Lord with joy: let us joyfully sing to God our saviour.
2 præoccupemus faciem ejus in confessione, et in psalmis jubilemus ei
præoccupémus fáciem ejus in confessióne, et in psalmis jubilémus ei.
2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; and make a joyful noise to him with psalms.
3 quoniam Deus magnus Dominus, et rex magnus super omnes deos.
2. Quóniam Deus magnus Dóminus, et Rex magnus super omnes deos
3 For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
4 Quia in manu ejus sunt omnes fines terræ, et altitudines montium ipsius sunt;
: quóniam non repéllet Dóminus plebem suam : quia in manu ejus sunt omnes fines terræ, et altitúdines móntium ipse cónspicit.
4 For in his hand are all the ends of the earth: and the heights of the mountains are his.

5 quoniam ipsius est mare, et ipse fecit illud, et siccam manus ejus formaverunt
3. Quóniam ipsíus est mare, et ipse fecit illud, et áridam fundavérunt manus ejus
5 For the sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land.
6  Venite, adoremus, et procidamus, et ploremus ante Dominum qui fecit nos:
Veníte, adorémus, et procidámus ante Deum : plorémus coram Dómino, qui fecit nos,
6 Come let us adore and fall down: and weep before the Lord that made us.
7  quia ipse est Dominus Deus noster, et nos populus pascuæ ejus, et oves manus ejus.
quia ipse est Dóminus Deus noster ; nos autem pópulus ejus, et oves páscuæ ejus.
7 For he is the Lord our God: and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
8 Hodie si vocem ejus audieritis, nolite obdurare corda vestra
4. Hódie, si vocem ejus audiéritis, nolíte obduráre corda vestra,
8 Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts:
9 sicut in irritatione, secundum diem tentationis in deserto, ubi tentaverunt me patres vestri : probaverunt me, et viderunt opera mea.
sicut in exacerbatióne, secúndum diem tentatiónis in desérto : ubi tentavérunt me patres vestri, probavérunt et vidérunt ópera mea.
9 As in the provocation, according to the day of temptation in the wilderness: where your fathers tempted me, they proved me, and saw my works.
10 Quadraginta annis offensus fui generationi illi, et dixi : Semper hi errant corde.
5. Quadragínta annis próximus fui generatióni huic, et dixi : Semper hi errant corde ;
10 Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart.
11 Et isti non cognoverunt vias meas : ut juravi in ira mea : Si introibunt in requiem meam.

ipsi vero non cognovérunt vias meas : quibus jurávi in ira mea : Si introíbunt in réquiem meam.
11 And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest.

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