Genesis 28.10-19a
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19a He called that place Bethel.
Genesis is the first book of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah also called the Pentateuch (“five books”) in Greek. Genesis covers the period from Creation to the deaths of Jacob and his 11th son, Joseph, in about 1650 BCE, if the accounts are historical.
The Book of Genesis (like the Torah as a whole) is an amalgam of religious traditions, some of which are dated to about 950 BCE and some of which were developed as late as 450 BCE. Since the late 19th Century, Biblical scholars have recognized four major “strands” or sources in the Torah called “J” (Yahwistic), “E” (Elohistic), “D” (Deuteronomic) and “P” (Priestly). These sources are identified (among other ways) by their different theological emphases, names for God, names for the holy mountain, and portrayals of God’s characteristics.
The first 11 Chapters of Genesis are called the “primeval history” which ends with the Tower of Babel story — an “etiology” (story of origins) relating to the scattering of humankind and the multiplicity of languages. The last chapter of the primeval history also traces Abram’s lineage back to Noah’s son, Shem (which means “name” in Hebrew and from which we get the word “Semites”).
In the intervening chapters since last week’s reading, after a famine, Isaac went to Abimelech, the King of the Philistines in Gerar, where he passed Rebekah off as his sister in order to save his own life (26:6) but the King found out and protected Rebekah. Isaac prospered in Gerar and then moved to Beer-sheba where God reiterated to him the promises made to Abraham (26:24). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary notes that the site of Gerar “cannot be identified with certainty but that it seems to be about midway between Beer-sheba and Gaza.”
Scholars agree that the reference to the Philistines is anachronistic in that the Philistines did not arrive in Canaan until about 1,200 BCE.
When Isaac was very old and nearly blind, Jacob (with Rebekah’s connivance) tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have gone to Jacob’s older twin brother, Esau (27:1-29). Esau begged Isaac for a blessing and received one that was inferior to the one given to Jacob (27:30-40).
Regarding the “blessing,” The NJBC says it is a “vitality that is passed on by the one who is departing from life to the one who is continuing in life. Because the blessing is concerned with vitality as a whole, the blessing cannot return or be subsequently altered.”
Esau threatened to kill Jacob, and Rebekah urged Jacob to go to her brother Laban in Haran, where Abraham came from (27:43). At Rebekah’s behest, Isaac also directed Jacob to go to Laban to find a suitable (i.e. non-Canaanite) wife. The NJBC notes that according to “J,” Isaac departed to avoid Esau’s wrath but according to “P” Jacob departed to find a suitable wife.
In today’s reading, Jacob was enroute to Haran and dreamt of a ladder (preferably translated as a “stairway”) with angels descending and ascending from heaven to earth. In Jacob’s dream, YHWH stood beside Jacob and reaffirmed (vv.13-14) the promise of extensive lands and many offspring that was made to Abraham in various forms in Genesis 12, 13 and 15. The Jewish Study Bible observes “Jacob will inherit the patriarchal promise, thus demonstrating that, however deceitfully it was gotten, Isaac’s blessing on him conforms to God’s will and that Jacob’s exile will be temporary.” (As the stories progress, however, it will be 20 years before Jacob returned to Canaan.)
The JSB also notes that a “stairway” was a “ramp of the sort with which Mesopotamian temple towers (ziggurats) were equipped and atop which the deity was thought to appear to communicate to his worshippers.”
When Jacob awoke, he said this was a holy place and the “house of God” (v.19). He named the place “Bethel” because in Hebrew, “Beth” means house (as in “Bethlehem” – house of bread), and “el” is the most ancient name for God. The suffix “el” appears in many names that have meanings “of God” such as Gabriel (God is my strength), Daniel (God is my judge) and the like. The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that naming this place “Bethel” anticipated the future of Bethel as one of the two royal sanctuaries of the Northern Kingdom.
Regarding the setting up of a pillar (v.18), The JSB observes: “The Tanakh frequently associated sacred pillars, an important element of ancient worship, especially in Canaan, with idolatry [citing examples]. Nevertheless, Moses sets up twelve of them at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exod. 24.4), and Joshua erects one in the temple at Shechem (Josh.24.26). [An important commentator in the Talmud] suggests that sacred pillars were prohibited only if they were erected to the honor of other gods. More likely is a midrash that sees in the practice a vestige of an early form of worship that was later proscribed altogether.”
Isaiah 44:6-8
6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
7 Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.
8 Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile had ended.
Today’s reading is part of Second Isaiah in which the prophet spoke for YHWH to the Judeans in Exile and reassured them that YHWH was “first and last” (v.6), unique (v.7) and the “rock” upon which they could rely (v.8). Because of YHWH’s power, the Judeans in Babylon were assured by Isaiah that they would return to Jerusalem.
The JSB interprets these verses: “The LORD is clearly unique since only the LORD predicted so far in advance events that in fact came to be. Cf.43.9-15.”
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary understands the phrase “Lord of hosts” (v.6) to mean “Yahweh has domain over the sun, moon and stars. In the present setting, however, Yahweh is discrediting the heavenly hosts, worshipped by the Babylonians, and thereby claiming for himself a cosmic sweep of power.”
Romans 8:12-25 
12 Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last, and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) (about 10 years before the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written) to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among many messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The “backstory” is that in 49 CE, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome, including Jewish Jesus Followers. The next Emperor was Nero who reigned from 54 to 68 CE. Nero reversed his predecessor’s decree and allowed Jews to return to Rome. This return caused tensions within the Jesus Follower Community in which Gentiles had become prominent.
Paul died in 63 or 64 CE. Accordingly, the Temple in Jerusalem (which was destroyed in 70) was in full operation all during Paul’s life. As a Jew who was also a Jesus Follower, Paul saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism and continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ. The term “Christian” had not been invented in his lifetime.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament observes that portions of the Letter to the Romans are written as a diatribe, a rhetorical technique using questions and answers and changes in voice to represent different points of view. The use of this technique makes it difficult to distinguish whether we are encountering Paul’s views directly or those of others as presented by Paul.
Today’s reading continues Paul’s extended discussion of sin, the flesh, and the Spirit in Chapter 8. For Paul, “the flesh” is our human tendency towards self-centeredness and self-interest. “Sin” is our personal egoism that leads to “death” (both spiritual and physical). Life in the Spirit of God (or the Spirit of Christ Jesus) leads to wholeness and life. Although Paul does not generally equate the “body” with “flesh,” The NAOB says that “deeds of the body” (v.13) was being used interchangeably with the flesh in this instance. The NJBC, on the other hand, understands this phrase to be “the accomplishments of the body” which can be dominated by “flesh” and need to be put aside to “live” in the Spirit.
Paul emphasized that as children of God (v.14), we are in a new relationship with God as heirs of God and joint heirs with the Christ through the power of the Spirit (v.13). The NJBC notes that Paul used the word “huiothesia” (translated as “adoption”) from “current Hellenistic legal language and applied it to Christians … to denote that the baptized Christian has been taken into the family of God and has a status in it — not that of a slave (who belonged indeed to the ancient household) but of a son.”
If we suffer with him (v.17), we will be glorified with him. This suffering can take many forms, including rejection by those who embrace the values of the world/the flesh. The suffering is seen as transitional.
Paul also had a sense of “now, but not yet” in terms of the glory to be revealed (vv.19-23), and that God’s purposes for us are greater than the present time indicated (v.25), a theme that Paul explored more fully in Chapters 9-11. Paul’s apocalyptic view was that the present age was evil (“the bondage of decay,” v.21) and that “creation itself will be set free” (v.21). The NJBC understands it as follows: “Paul would be saying that God, though he cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin, still gave it a hope of sharing in human redemption or liberation …. Paul is actually the first biblical writer to introduce the note of ‘hope.’”
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
24 Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”
The Gospel of Matthew highlights Jesus’ origins and identity. Written around 85 CE by an anonymous author, the Gospel began Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham and depicted Jesus as a teacher of the Law like Moses. More than any other Gospel, Matthew quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures (using the Greek Septuagint translation) to illustrate that Jesus was the Messiah.
Because it was written after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Gospel reflected the controversies between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees for control of Judaism going forward. Accordingly, the Gospel contains many harsh sayings about the Pharisees. The Gospel is aimed primarily at the late First Century Jewish Jesus Follower community.
The Gospel relied heavily on the Gospel of Mark and included all but 60 verses from Mark. Like Luke, Matthew also used a “Sayings Source” (called “Q” by scholars) which are stories and sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and John. There are also a substantial number of stories that are unique to Matthew: the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception was revealed to Joseph in a dream (rather than by an angel to Mary as in Luke); the Visit of the Magi; the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod; the Flight to Egypt; the Laborers in the Vineyard; and the earthquake on Easter Morning, among others.
Today’s reading is one of the parables in this chapter, and one of the few that has an allegorical explanation supplied by the evangelist. It is a parable that is unique to Matthew. The Son of Man (v.37) is a Messianic and eschatological figure derived from Daniel 7:13-14 (“one like a human being”) who comes at the end of times as we know them – the “harvest” is the “end of the age” (v.39). The phrase “the righteous will shine like the sun” (v.43) is a variation of Daniel 12:3 (“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the sky.”)
More than any other gospel, Matthew speaks of “judgment” and used the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” five times in the Gospel – 8:12, 13:42, 22:11, 24:51 and 25:30. Luke used the phrase in 13:28.  The phrase “gnashing of teeth” as a sign of anger also appears in Psalm 112:10 and in Acts 7:54.