We now believe that this passage was committed to written form around the time of the Babylonian Captivity (6th century BC) when Israel had been defeated, the temple had been destroyed, and many of her people had been sent into exile. One of the great challenges facing the Hebrew people would have involved their doubts – under these very difficult circumstances – about the power of the Hebrew God, Yahweh. In addition, they would have encountered the competing gods or idols of the people who held them captive while in exile. Seen in this light, what function might this particular passage have played in restoring or sustaining their ancient faith?
- Since this passage is combined for lectionary purposes in the Epiphany season with the verses in the Gospel of Mark about the baptism of Jesus, what theological connection do you think can be made between the two?
- What does the passage tell us about what preceded creation? Was there a time before there was created space? What was non-existence like? Does the passage imply that God was in control even at that point (prior to creation itself)?
- What does the image of the “spirit” (in Hebrew, ruach or “wind” / “air” / “breath”) of God hovering over the face of the waters tell us about the Creator and Creation?
- What is the role of light in this passage? Does light continue to have a special place in later scripture? How?
- How does God use naming as part of the creative process? How might this be important?
- Is there order implied in the way the passage is laid out? Is there a pattern? What would these elements tell us?
- Does this account suggest that there was a struggle involved or that the creative process took place peacefully and without great effort on God’s part? In either case, what does this tell us?
- Why does the passage indicate that God viewed creation as good? Why would this be important in the development of Judeo-Christian theology?
Many experts believe that this psalm may originally have been based on a Canaanite song to the god Baal, the storm god who brings thunderstorms, which make the ground fertile. How does the psalmist use this original theme for a new purpose here? How does Yahweh compare with Baal?
Alternatively, the psalm may have been composed as a reflection on the power of nature as seen in a thunderstorm and then applied to worship as a way of celebrating Yahweh’s power and might. Is (are) either (or both) of these theories helpful in understanding the psalm on a level beyond the literal?
Again, what connection – if any – do you see among the appointed lessons in Genesis, Mark (see above question) and Psalms for this Sunday?
- Which words are repeated with the greatest frequency in this psalm? What does this tell us?
- God is being described here in beautiful language, but what are we (listeners/hearers/readers) being asked to do in response?
- Are there fertility images here that would cause scholars to propose the above theories on the origin of this psalm?
- Why does the psalm appear to place so much emphasis on the power and strength of Yahweh? Is it conceivable that Yahweh was being challenged in some way so that a response might have involved a defense of the Hebrew God? Explain.
It is clear that this passage was included because it references baptism on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. In a sense, it gives us a fuller understanding of the sacrament than what we might get from the gospel accounts alone. Theologically, we move from a baptism of repentance (John’s version) to a baptism in which the Holy Spirit is conferred on the believer or follower of Jesus. Here, re-baptism is invoked as a way of demonstrating the difference between the two views.
In this passage, those who were re-baptized spoke in tongues. However, this need not imply that all baptized Christians must have the gift of tongues or prophecy. In other passages in the New Testament we are reminded that there are many kinds of gifts and that when we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism that spirit can be manifested in a variety of ways. Do specific passages come to mind?
Finally, it is interesting that this passage seems to suggest the need for preparation in advance of baptism. This can help us understand the early church’s later emphasis on catechetical programs to instruct those preparing for the rite.
The first Sunday after Epiphany is the season when the church recalls the “manifestation” (from the Greek epiphaneia) of Jesus to the world.
We are not told why Jesus is baptized by John, but we do learn that the followers of the Baptizer came to him “confessing their sins;” his is a baptism of repentance for forgiveness. John says that he baptizes with water, while the one to follow will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
It is interesting, however, that only Jesus seems to be aware of the dove descending upon him at the moment he comes up out of the water, and only he seems to hear God say, “You are my Son; with you I am well pleased” – in contrast with the way this scene is depicted in the other Gospel accounts.
- On your own, you may wish to research the larger question: why the secrecy in this Gospel?
- Why do you think Mark begins his Gospel account with a message from God acknowledging his Son at his baptism while the only person to do so at the scene of the crucifixion (the end) is the Roman centurion – not only a Gentile, but an executioner representing the occupying power in Palestine?
- Compare this passage with several in the Old Testament which seem to have served as inspiration for Mark’s account: Psalm 2: 7; II Samuel 7: 12-14; Isaiah 11: 2; and from today’s other lesson, Genesis 1: 1-5. How do these passages relate to Mark’s account?
- Does the water of baptism recall the role of water at other points in the story of Israel in the Old Testament? Explain.
- Does baptism relate symbolically to the later story of Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection?