First Sunday of Lent
Mark David Walsh
March 6, 2019
What is most striking about this week’s gospel, is the presence of three texts from Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:13, 6:16 & 10:20), the final book of the Torah, which Jesus quotes in response to the three challenges, or tests, from his diabolic interlocutor. Given the limited space available, I will explore only the first and the third.
In the first test (4:3-4), the devil challenges Jesus to turn a stone into a loaf of bread (4:3). Jesus responds to this challenge by quoting part of Deut 8:3, “one does not live by bread alone.” A Jewish audience, familiar with the text from Deuteronomy, might see the entirety of 8:3 as well as its immediate context in the book as providing further insight into Jesus’ response. Just as Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Lk 4:1), so too are the Israelites “led” by Yhwh (Deut 8:2). Just as the devil “tested” Jesus (Lk 4:2), so too does Yhwh “test” the Israelites (Deut 8:2). Might Luke 4:1-3, therefore, be a midrashic exposition of the Israelites’ wilderness experience as a whole? The inclusion of Deut 26:4-10 in today’s liturgy suggests this connection to us. These forty years in the wilderness, as they are presented in the Shared Scriptures, are a period of formation, prior to the entry into the land of promise. Might this pericope, which begins in the wilderness also be seen as a formative experience for Jesus in preparation for his return to Galilee and the commencement of his ministry?
In the third test (Luke 4:9-12), we see a new development in the dialogue between Jesus and the devil: the devil quotes scripture (Ps 90:11-12 LXX, which is also the psalm used in today’s liturgy). These verses promise divine protection, presumably against the threats enumerated in the earlier verses of the psalm. This protection, in the form of angels, also echoes the Israelites’ time in the wilderness, where Yhwh promised to send an angel guard the people on their way to the place that had been prepared for them (Ex 23:20). The relevance of this test to the diabolical dialogue presented by Luke is further elucidated through a reading of the psalm as it appears in The Targum of Psalms. It contains several additions to the MT (Ps 91), which bring to life a world of demonic opposition and danger in which demons go about in the night (v. 5) and bring destruction at noon (v. 6). Further, Yhwh promises that demons shall not come near the tent (v. 10) of the one who seeks protection in the house of Yhwh’s Shekinah (v. 9), which is in fact the temple (Stec, 175). Jesus places his trust in the divine protection promised in Psalm 91 and exhibited in certain strands of the wilderness tradition (cf. Deut 2:7, 8:14-16; Neh 9:21). Jesus, who will again reveal his familiarity with the Torah, knows that Yhwh will protect him and is therefore able to reply, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12; cf. Deut 6:16, 10:20).
An audience familiar with the story of the people of Israel as recounted in the Shared Scriptures (OT) would have no doubt heard the many allusions in Luke’s narrative. Likewise, Jewish followers of Jesus would have recognized the significance of his use of Torah in this pericope. Further, an audience familiar with Midrash and the Targums would have perceived further possibilities for understanding Luke’s depiction of this temptation narrative. The richness and depth that these lenses provide a contemporary reader highlights the value not only of a historical critical reading of the text, but also the importance of reading the New Testament in the light of Jewish tradition.
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