A couple of years ago, I attended a Bible study class on the Book of Ruth at a local synagogue. I was interested in learning more about Scripture from a Jewish perspective. One aspect of the class that fascinated me was that the rabbi leading the class focused the class’s attention on small details of the text on which I never would have thought to focus. For example, what was the significance of Elimelech and his family choosing to leave Bethlehem during its time of trial (Ruth 1:1–2)? Why did Naomi take the child Ruth gave birth to and, to all appearances, claim him as her own (Ruth 4:13–17)?
Since then, I have found that sometimes small details of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, will leap out at me and I will want to ponder their significance.
The Disaster at Siloam
This past Saturday, a detail in that day’s Gospel reading jumped out at me. Jesus speaks of “those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them” (Luke 13:4). Why did Jesus explicitly state that there were eighteen who died?
There was no Google then, no 24/7 cable news, not even a newspaper or a town crier. By the time reports spread around Palestine by word of mouth, it is doubtful anyone could know precisely how many died. And no such precise number is mentioned by the people telling Jesus about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Perhaps the number of Galileans was not known by those reporting it; likely, they did not care about a precise number.
But Jesus knew precisely how many died in the disaster at Siloam. The precise number mattered. And that Jesus knew the exact number startled the witnesses enough that they remembered the precise number Jesus named and passed on that detail to Luke. Why? Was it merely a sign of his divinity, or could there have been more significance than that?
Perhaps the passage demonstrates that although God allows tragedies to occur, those who perish in them are not forgotten by him. Even when he does not preserve their earthly lives, he remembers them.
(Nota bene: When I dug deeper into this while researching this blog post, I found out from notes in the New American Bible that only Luke mentions the disaster at Siloam, and that the disaster is not recorded anywhere in ancient literature except in the Gospel of Luke. Had Luke not recorded the incident, human memory of it would have been entirely lost to history. In my opinion, that strengthens the supposition that this is an important passage for responding to those who struggle with the nature of suffering and evil, and with God’s response to human tragedy.)
The Resurrection of the Three Thousand
In another class I attended that delved into Jewish interpretations of Scripture, the topic was Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates when God gave the Torah to Israel from Mount Sinai. Because the incident occurred fifty days after Passover, the holiday is also known as Pentecost. Christians continue to celebrate Pentecost to this day because it was on the Jewish feast of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in the upper room.
You may recall that when Moses came down off Mount Sinai into the camp of the Israelites, he did not find the people waiting for his return. Rather they had given up on him and on God and had created for themselves a new god, a golden calf. God was furious and wanted to wipe them all out, but Moses interceded for them. Nonetheless, Moses himself was enraged and exacted punishment on the people:
When Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men (Exod. 32:25–28).
At this point in the class, I have to admit that my mind was wandering a bit, but when I heard mention of “three thousand” my head snapped up. After class, I confirmed it. There was also mention of three thousand at another Pentecost:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:37–41).
Three thousand were killed at the first Pentecost; at the New Pentecost, occurring after the definitive Passover of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, three thousand were not just restored, but in a real sense were brought back to life (Rom. 6:4).
God Is In the Details
So, how do you train yourself to pick up on these details? Perhaps the easiest way is to follow along while the lector is reading at Mass. Focus not just on the main storyline but on the small points the sacred author includes. Ask yourself questions. Why did Jesus say what he said in just that way? Why is this precise detail mentioned? If the homily is engaging, save your questions to think about later, perhaps during post-Communion meditation. If you find yourself bored during the homily, then focus on your questions and think about them instead.
After some practice, sometimes you’ll be struck with thoughts about a Scripture passage while it is being read. One Holy Week I was listening to the betrayal of Christ and realized that Judas’s pre-arranged signal of Christ’s identity by a kiss of friendship indicated that he was not just a traitor but a coward (Matt. 26:47–50). (Else why did he not just point to Christ and say, “That’s the man. Seize him!”)
But, however you do it, get into the habit of mining the details of Scripture passages. In the Gospel of John, it says “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). And, as the Second Vatican Council declared in Dei Verbum:
By hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.