Thursday, January 12, 2006

Third (and Mini) Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 1:43-51

I've written here many times about my professor and mentor, Bruce Schein. In his book, Following the Way: The Setting of John's Gospel, he has this to say about John 1:43-51:
On the fifth day [after Jesus' baptism], as this small group starts out for Galilee, possibly having completed a business trip to Jerusalem, another citizen of Bethsaida, Philip, is called to follow Jesus. His name reflects well the influences at work in Bethsaida. Philip was also the name of the father of Alexander the Great who brought Hellenic paganism to the east in the first place. This bearer of a pagan name immediately goes to one who has a more suitable name for a follower of the true God, Nathanael, Gift of God. Nathanael's hometown, Cana, is part of the former northern tribal alliance, Israel, located in the largest of the northern tribes, Naphtali. The pride of one who lives beside the richest valley in the hills of the lower Galilee, the Asochis Plain, is felt in his sarcastic response to Philip. He wonders whether any good can come out of that tiny, half-forgotten village of Nazareth which is tucked up in the hills of the former tribe of Zebulun, a tribe evidently so weak that it could not take its rightful place [Genesis 49:13] in Phoenicia by the Great Sea [the Mediterranean Sea]. Jesus greets this skeptic quite appropriately, for truly he is an Israelite and straightforward at that. How does Jesus know him? He claims to have seen Nathanael under a fig tree before Philip called him. How fitting is his resting place, for the fig tree is a sign of hope. Only the fig and the grape have leaves broad enough to offer the weary cool shade during the beating heat of the day [Micah 4:4]. It is under the fig tree that one will sit at peace with his neighbors in the days of the new paradise [Zechariah 3:10]. Jesus' words kindle Nathanael's hopes and suddenly he sees before him the Bringer of that new creation. Here is the King of Israel!
Pastor Schein could be, by some lights, a bit fanciful in his interpretations of Scripture. (Although not so nearly as much as some of his fellow scholars sometimes seemed to think.) But given the connection I believe I now see between Nathanael and the Old Testament figure, Jacob (which I explain here), I find what he writes next interesting. (By the way, in saying that the party was walking as Jesus spoke the words in v. 51 to Nathanael and certainly, asserting that Jesus pointed to Bethel where Jacob received the vision of angels ascending and descending a ramp to heaven, Schein was engaging in what one might call either harmless speculation. Or perhaps sanctified speculation.):
His acclamation [that of Nathanael in v. 49] is not unequivocally accepted. As the newly-formed band of disciples leaves Bethany of Peraea and moves north toward the Galilee along the east side of the valley, Jesus directs their gaze across the Jordan River to the way leading up to Bethel. He points to the high ridge where Jacob-Israel [Jacob was given the name, Israel, by God] dreamed of heaven and earth united [Genesis 28:10-17]. In that vision, so the text may be understood, it is not the ladder to which the pronoun refers as that upon which the angels ascended and descended. Rather it is Jacob himself. Both ladder and Jacob are expressed by the pronoun he in the Hebrew text of Genesis. It is possible to understand Jacob as the connecting link between heaven and earth as the angels ascend and descend upon him. Jesus informs Nathanael that he will see more than a King of Israel. He will view the angels ascending and descending upon Him Who is the link between heaven and earth!

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