Acts 7:1-60

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After false witnesses presented their testimony, the high priest asked Stephen whether these things were so. (7:1; see the Notes section.) In response, Stephen addressed the members of the court as “men, brothers, and fathers.” After inviting them to “listen” to his words, he, when making his defense, drew on familiar history. By referring to them as “brothers,” he identified himself as a fellow Israelite. A significant number of the court would have been older men and, therefore, Stephen respectfully called them “fathers.” (7:2)

He started his defense by first focusing on their common ancestor Abraham. The “God of glory,” or the great and magnificent God whom they worshiped (Psalm 29:3), appeared to their forefather Abraham while he resided in Mesopotamia and before he took up residence in Haran. The Genesis account makes no mention of any revelation that Abraham received while living in the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Genesis 15:7 and Nehemiah 9:7, however, do indicate that YHWH brought Abram (Abraham) out of Ur of the Chaldeans. (7:2)

Stephen, in addition to the biblical record, possibly drew on a traditional account that may have been widely known. Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt (in On Abraham, XIV, 62, 67) linked Abraham’s leaving Chaldea (or Mesopotamia) to an “oracle” (or a divine revelation) he had received. Philo thereafter wrote, “Therefore giving no consideration to anything whatever, neither to the men of his tribe, nor to those of his borough, nor to his fellow disciples, nor to his companions, nor those of his blood as sprung from the same father or the same mother, nor to his country, nor to his ancient habits, nor to the customs in which he had been brought up, nor to his mode of life and his mates, every one of which things has a seductive and almost irresistible attraction and power, he departed as speedily as possible, yielding to a free and unrestrained impulse, and first of all he [left] the land of the Chaldaeans, a prosperous district, and one which was greatly flourishing at that period, and went into the land of Charran [Haran], and from that, after no very distant interval, he departed to another place [Canaan], which we will speak of hereafter.” Stephen may also have wanted to indicate that God dealt with Abraham outside the Promised Land and in locations where no temple served as a place for acceptably worshiping him. (7:2)

God’s directive to Abraham to leave the land of his residence and his relatives and then to go to a land that he would show him is worded much like the extant Septuagint reading of Genesis 12:1. Although the words recorded in Genesis relate to what God is represented as saying to Abram (Abraham) while he was residing in Haran, they may have been part of an earlier divine revelation to him in the city of Ur. (7:3)

Some support for this conclusion may be in the quotation itself. According to the Hebrew text and the extant Septuagint reading of Genesis 12:1, it was in Haran that Abram (Abraham) was also told to go out from the “house of [his] father.” When he left Ur of the Chaldeans, his father Terah and other members of the immediate family departed with him. Not until he left Haran did Abram (Abraham) leave behind his father’s house, for his brother Haran did not accompany him. (7:3)

When referring to God’s words to Abraham prior to the move to Haran, Stephen did not mention the part about Abram’s (Abraham’s) going out from his father’s house. Accordingly, the wording of Stephen’s quotation of what God said to Abraham in Mesopotamia does reflect the circumstances relating to the departure from Ur in Chaldea. (7:3)

The Genesis account attributes the departure from Ur to Terah. As the patriarchal head responsible for major decisions, Terah (not his son Abraham) may, according to the ancient mode of expression, be represented as initiating the move. (Genesis 11:31, 32)

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, is very definite in crediting Terah with the decision to leave Ur. In Antiquities (I, vi, 5), he wrote that Terah, “hating Chaldea on account of his mourning for Haran” (his son who died in Ur) moved with his surviving sons Abram (Abraham) and Nahor to Haran. At the time of the move, Abraham was married to Sarai (Sarah), and Nahor was married to Milcah. Josephus seems to have based his comments primarily on Genesis 11:27-32 and added his interpretation about the reason for Terah’s leaving Ur with his family.

In response to the divine directive, Abram (Abraham) departed from the “land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.” After his father Terah died, he left for the land that God had promised to show him. He departed with his wife Sarai (Sarah) and his nephew Lot, whose father Haran had died in Ur. As Stephen told the members of the Sanhedrin, God had Abram (Abraham) change his residence to “this land in which you are now living.” (7:4; see the Notes section.)

Nevertheless, God did not give him the direct ownership of any part of the land as a place of residence, not even as much as a “footbreadth.” While Abram (Abraham) did not as yet have a child, God promised to give the land to him and, after him, to his “seed” or offspring. The fulfillment of the divine promise was so sure that the land could be spoken of as being given to Abram (Abraham) and to his “seed” even though he and his immediate descendants did not come to possess any part of it as their own residential property. (7:5)

God revealed to Abram (Abraham) that none of his immediate descendants would come to possess the land. His “seed” or descendants would first come to be resident aliens in another land or country, where they would be enslaved. The people would be mistreated for 400 years. This revelation came to Abram (Abraham) at the time God concluded a covenant with him, assuring him that he would come to possess the land through his descendants who, after having lived as resident aliens in another country, would return to it “in the fourth generation.” (7:6; Genesis 15:7-16; see the Notes section.)

The affliction or mistreatment the “seed” or descendants of Abraham would experience for 400 years apparently is not to be regarded as meaning in the land of Egypt itself or as applying to a period of 400 years of unceasing oppression. After Jacob’s family settled in Egypt, Joseph continued to live for about 70 years, and it was not until sometime after his death and a change in Egyptian rulership that the Israelites suffered oppression. (7:6; Genesis 41:46, 47, 53, 54; 45:6; 50:22; Exodus 1:8-11)

According to Galatians 3:17, 430 years passed from the time God confirmed the covenant promise to Abraham upon his entering the land of Canaan and the giving of the law covenant at Mount Sinai. This period of 430 years includes 215 years of residence in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4-6; 21:5; 25:26; 47:9) and 215 years of living in Egypt. In their reading of Exodus 12:40, the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch indicate that the 430 years were spent in Egypt and in Canaan. The Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, II, xv, 2) likewise referred to the Israelites as having left Egypt 430 years after Abraham came to Canaan and 215 years after Jacob settled in Egypt. Since the period of 400 years of affliction does not apply to an unbroken time of oppression, the mistreatment may be regarded as having had its start when Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Sarah’s Egyptian slave Hagar) mocked Isaac at the time of his being weaned. (7:6; Genesis 21:5-9; Galatians 4:28-30)

Drawing on the words in Genesis 15:14, Stephen continued, “‘And I will judge the nation to which they will be enslaved,’ God said, ‘and after these things they will depart and serve [form of latreúo] me in this place.’” According to the biblical record, the divine judgment included ten devastating plagues that came upon the Egyptians and the destruction of Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea. (Exodus 7:14-14:31) The Greek term latreúo denotes sacred service or worship, and the “place” may be understood to refer to the land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants. (7:7; see the Notes section.)

God gave the covenant of circumcision to Abraham. As a circumcised man, he became the father to Isaac and, in obedience to the covenant, circumcised him on the eighth day. Isaac became the father to Jacob, and Jacob became father to the “twelve patriarchs” or family heads from whom all the Israelites descended. Jacob’s twin brother Esau is not mentioned, for he did not figure as part of the “seed” of Abraham that came to inherit the Promised Land. (7:8; Genesis 17:9-24; 21:5; 25:26; 46:8-25)

The “patriarchs,” Joseph’s ten half brothers (the sons of Leah and of the two concubines Zilpah and Bilhah) “became jealous of Joseph.” They came to resent the special favor Jacob showed to this son by his favorite wife Rachel, and developed an even greater hatred toward him when he related dreams pointing to his attaining a prominent position over them. When, at his father’s request, Joseph went to look for his brothers to see how they and the flock of their father were faring, they saw their opportunity to rid themselves of the brother whom they hated. On the recommendation of Judah and in the absence of Reuben, they sold their brother to a passing caravan of traders. The traders took him to Egypt, and so, as Stephen said, the patriarchs “sold him into Egypt.” Still, although no longer in the land that had been divinely promised to Abraham, “God was with [Joseph].” While his brothers had rejected him, his God had not but continued to look after him. (7:9; Genesis 37:2-33)

In Egypt, God rescued Joseph “from all his afflictions.” As a slave in the household of Potiphar, the chief of Pharaoh’s guard, he proved himself to be diligent and trustworthy and, in time, was put in charge of the entire household. According to the account in Genesis, Joseph succeeded because YHWH was with him. Potiphar prospered due to Joseph and personally came to recognize that this was on account of Joseph’s God. Potiphar’s wife, however, became infatuated with Joseph and repeatedly tried to seduce him. When he refused her immoral advances and fled from her grasp, she falsely accused him of wanting to have sexual relations with her. Her accusations angered Potiphar, and he had Joseph jailed where Pharaoh’s prisoners were confined. According to Psalm 105:18, Joseph appears to have been submitted to harsh treatment, having his “feet” or ankles “hurt” or restrained with fetters and his “soul” (possibly here designating his neck) confined with iron bonds, which may refer to an iron collar. Even here God was with Joseph, leading to his gaining the favor of the chief jailer and being entrusted with responsibilities. Later, Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker were put in custody, and the chief jailer charged Joseph with attending to them. On a later occasion, Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams both men had, and this circumstance led to Joseph’s being brought to the attention of Pharaoh after the cupbearer had been restored to his position (just as Joseph’s interpretation of his dream had indicated). Later, Pharaoh had dream that no one could interpret for him. The cupbearer, who acknowledged his guilt in having forgotten all about Joseph, related to Pharaoh how he had correctly interpreted his dream and that of the chief baker. (7:10; Genesis 39:1-41:13)

Brought before Pharaoh, Joseph interpreted the dream as pointing to seven years of abundance followed by seven years of severe famine. Additionally, he made recommendations about how to deal with the future food shortage. By enabling Joseph to interpret the dream and to make wise recommendations, God “gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” Apparently recognizing that the interpretation of the dream made good sense, Pharaoh looked upon Joseph favorably and, on the basis of his recommendations, recognized him as the possessor of extraordinary wisdom. He then appointed him to the second highest position as a ruler in Egypt and over his “whole house” or household. (7:10; Genesis 41:14-44)

The famine affected all of Egypt and Canaan. Everyone whom the famine impacted experienced great distress. This included the patriarchs (Jacob and his sons), for they were unable to obtain essential foodstuffs. (7:11) After hearing that grain was available in Egypt, Jacob sent his sons (“our fathers” or ancestors) “first,” meaning the “first time,” “on their first trip,” or “on their first visit” to Egypt. Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him and he represented himself as a harsh man in a position of authority. To make sure that they would return and have his brother Benjamin accompany them, he had his half brother Simeon confined in prison. Possibly Joseph chose to imprison Simeon because of his having previously been the foremost one in his desire to kill him. (7:12; Genesis 37:18-20; 42:1-24)

The “second” time or on the second visit, Joseph, after having tested his brothers, made himself known to them and arranged for the entire household of his father to move to Egypt. (Genesis 43:16-45:15) Upon their arrival, Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. (7:13; Genesis 45:16)

At the request of Joseph, his father Jacob and all his relatives then in Canaan came to Egypt. Stephen is quoted as saying that the number of “souls” or persons was 75. (7:14; see the Notes section.) According to the Masoretic Text, the number was 70, which did not include the wives of Jacob’s sons. Of this number, 33 are identified as Leah’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There being only 32 names listed (besides the two sons of Judah [Er and Onan] who died in Canaan) possibly an unnamed daughter is included in the number 33. (Genesis 46:8-15) Zilpah, the maidservant of Leah and a concubine of Jacob, is listed as having had a total of 16 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. (Genesis 46:16-18) The offspring of Rachel’s son Joseph included Manasseh and Ephraim who were born in Egypt. Her much younger son Benjamin’s offspring numbered ten. According to the extant Septuagint text (unlike the Masoretic Text that lists the ten as “sons”), the ten are grouped as three sons, six grandsons, and one great-grandson. It would have been impossible for so many generations to have been born in Canaan to the youngest of Jacob’s sons. They are, however, represented as coming to Egypt because Benjamin arrived with all the other members of Jacob’s household. (46:19-22) Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine, is listed as having had a total of seven children and grandchildren. (Genesis 46:23-25)

The mention of a total of 66 in Genesis 46:26 appears to include only those who are actually named previously (32 [not including Onan and Er who died in Canaan and the one unnamed person] + 16 + 11 [Benjamin and his 10 offspring] + 7) but excludes Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh. With the inclusion of Jacob (or possibly an unnamed daughter), Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons, the household of Jacob would number 70. The figure 75 in the Septuagint may be based on the addition of others from Joseph’s family to the 66 members of Jacob’s household or the 70 members. The extant Septuagint text of Genesis 46:27, says that “nine souls” (not “two” as in the Hebrew text) were born to Joseph in Egypt. Adding these “nine souls” to 66 would make 75 members of the household. On the other hand, the extant Septuagint text of Genesis 46:20 includes the names of Machir, the son of Manasseh; Machir’s son Galaad (Gilead); Ephraim’s sons Southalaam and Taam, and Southalaam’s son Edem. When these three grandsons and two great-grandsons of Joseph are added to the 70, the number comes to 75 members for the household of Jacob.

After his move to Egypt, Jacob did not return to Canaan but died there, as did his sons (“our fathers” or forefathers). (7:15) Regarding their burial, Stephen is quoted as saying, “And they were removed to Shechem and were laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” The biblical record indicates that Joseph was buried at Shechem in the field that his father Jacob had bought from the “sons of Hamor.” (Joshua 24:32) It is possible that Stephen attributed the purchase to Abraham from the standpoint of his doing so through his grandson Jacob. There is, however, no reference to the burial of any of Joseph’s brothers at Shechem. Jacob was buried in the vicinity of Hebron in the cave in the field of Machpelah. Abraham had bought this field from Ephron as a burial place for Sarah, and it was there that Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were buried. According to Josephus (Antiquities, II, viii, 2), Joseph’s brothers were also taken to Hebron for burial. (7:16)

The preserved wording of Stephen’s defense has commonly been regarded as being in error. It is possible, however, that he spoke in an elliptical manner, which would not be uncommon when expressions are made from memory. The completed thought then would be that the transferal to Shechem applied to Joseph and that Jacob and his sons were laid in a tomb that “Abraham had bought for a sum of silver” and that Joseph was buried in the field that had been obtained “from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” (7:16)

The promise God made to Abraham was that, in the fourth generation, his descendants would return to the land of Canaan subsequent to their enslavement in a foreign land. (Genesis 15:13-16) As the time for the fulfillment of this promise drew near, the descendants of Abraham through his grandson Jacob had “increased and multiplied in Egypt,” the foreign land. (7:17) This proved to be so under favorable conditions until the time that a king who “did not know Joseph” ruled over Egypt. This ruler gave no thought to how the Egyptians had benefited during the time Joseph administered affairs and so had no regard for the people who were related to Joseph. (7:18; Exodus 1:8; see the Notes section.)

The new king initiated a campaign of genocide. He “dealt craftily” (katasophízomai) with the Israelites (“our race”) and forced them (“our fathers” or “our ancestors”) to “expose” their infants so that they would die. A form of the Greek word katasophízomai also appears in the Septuagint text of Exodus 1:10, which refers to the same development. This word may be understood to mean “to take advantage of” or “to resort to crafty exploitation.” The verb sophízo, the principal part of the compound katasophízomai can signify “to make wise” or “to devise in a clever or crafty manner.” According to Exodus 1:11, the crafty plan was to subject the Israelites to forced labor. Then, when the king’s order for the midwives to kill the Israelite male babies was not acted on, he ordered the Egyptians to cast the baby boys into the Nile, where they would drown. (Exodus 1:15-22) In this way, the Israelites were forced to expose their male babies to certain death. (7:19)

During the time this genocidal program existed, Moses was born. This baby “was beautiful to God,” which could mean that the exceptional attractiveness of the infant pointed forward to God’s future use of him as the instrument for delivering his people. For three months, his mother Jochebed nursed him in the home of his father Amram, keeping him concealed. (7:20; Exodus 2:2; 6:20) When he could no longer be hidden and had to be exposed, Jochebed, according to the Exodus account, waterproofed a papyrus basket, laid her baby boy in it, placed the basket among the reeds growing on the bank of the Nile, and apparently arranged for her daughter to observe from a distance what would happen to the baby. It was then that Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come down to the Nile to bathe, saw the basket and had one of her maids bring it to her. (Exodus 2:2-6) The words “the daughter of Pharaoh took him up” could refer to this. Other possible meanings are that she adopted him or that she saved him. His sister’s approaching Pharaoh’s daughter with the idea of getting a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for her made it possible for him to be nursed by his own mother. (Exodus 2:7-9) At what age he was turned over to Pharaoh’s daughter is not revealed in the biblical record. Stephen is quoted as saying that Pharaoh’s daughter “reared him as her son,” which would not have been until after he had been weaned. She called him Moses, which name, based on the etymology recorded in Exodus 2:10, recalled that she had drawn him out of the water. (7:21) As the adopted son of the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses came to be educated in “all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” His being described as “powerful in his words and works” may indicate that what he said reflected real insight and that his accomplishments in Egypt were impressive. (7:22)

The comments of the Jewish philosopher Philo provide some insight regarding what was believed in the first century CE regarding the kind of instruction Moses received. “His mother, who was also his nurse, came to bring him back to the princess who had given him to her, inasmuch as he no longer required to be fed on milk, and as he was now a fine and noble child to look upon. And when the king’s daughter saw that he was more perfect than could have been expected at his age, and when from his appearance she conceived greater good will than ever towards him, she adopted him as her son … The child being now thought worthy of a royal education and a royal attendance, was not, like a mere child, long delighted with toys and objects of laughter and amusement, even though those who had undertaken the care of him allowed him holidays and times for relaxation, and never behaved in any stern or morose way to him; but he himself exhibited a modest and dignified deportment in all his words and gestures, attending diligently to every lesson of every kind which could tend to the improvement of his mind. And immediately he had all kinds of masters, one after another, some coming of their own accord from the neighboring countries and the different districts of Egypt, and some being even procured from Greece by the temptation of large presents. But in a short time he surpassed all their knowledge, anticipating all their lessons by the excellent natural endowments of his own genius; so that everything in his case appeared to be a recollecting rather than a learning, while he himself also, without any teacher, comprehended by his instinctive genius many difficult subjects; for great abilities cut out for themselves many new roads to knowledge. And just as vigorous and healthy bodies which are active and quick in motion in all their parts, release their trainers from much care, giving them little or no trouble and anxiety, and as trees which are of a good sort, and which have a natural good growth, give no trouble to their cultivators, but grow finely and improve of themselves, so in the same manner the well-disposed soul, going forward to meet the lessons which are imparted to it, is improved in reality by itself rather than by its teachers, and taking hold of some beginning or principle of knowledge, bounds, as the proverb has it, like a horse over the plain. Accordingly he speedily learned arithmetic, and geometry, and the whole science of rhythm and harmony and meter, and the whole of music, by means of the use of musical instruments, and by lectures on the different arts, and by explanations of each topic; and lessons on these subjects were given him by Egyptian philosophers, who also taught him the philosophy which is contained in symbols, which they exhibit in those sacred characters of hieroglyphics, as they are called, and also that philosophy which is conversant about that respect which they pay to animals which they invest with the honors due to God. And all the other branches of the encyclical education he learned from Greeks; and the philosophers from the adjacent countries taught him Assyrian literature and the knowledge of the heavenly bodies so much studied by the Chaldaeans. And this knowledge he derived also from the Egyptians, who study mathematics above all things, and he learned with great accuracy the state of that art among both the Chaldaeans and Egyptians, making himself acquainted with the points in which they agree with and differ from each other — making himself master of all their disputes without encouraging any disputatious disposition in himself — but seeking the plain truth, since his mind was unable to admit any falsehood, as those are accustomed to do who contend violently for one particular side of a question; and who advocate any doctrine which is set before them, whatever it may be, not inquiring whether it deserves to be supported, but acting in the same manner as those lawyers who defend a cause for pay, and are wholly indifferent to the justice of their cause.” (On the Life of Moses, I, v, 18-24)

When 40 years had passed (“were fulfilled”) since his birth, Moses determined “in his heart” (mentally or by inward reflection) to see what was happening among “his brothers, the sons of Israel.” Although he had been primarily reared in the royal surroundings of Egypt, he did not forget his ties to his fellow Israelites. (7:23) At the time of this visit, he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster submitting an Israelite to violent abuse, and came to the defense of the victim. According to Exodus 2:12, Moses, after looking around to see that no one was in sight, killed the Egyptian who had been beating the Israelite and then hid the dead body in the sand. (7:24)

In view of his having taken action for his people, Moses thought that they would “understand that, through his hand, God was granting them deliverance, but they did not understand [this].” (7:25) The next day their failure to recognize a divinely chosen deliverer became apparent. When he saw two Israelites fighting with each other, he tried to effect a reconciliation so that they would be at peace. “Men, you are brothers,” he said. “Why do you wrong each other?” (7:26)

The man responsible for wronging “his neighbor” (his fellow Israelite brother) responded dismissively, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me like you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” The wording of the angry response is the same as that in the Septuagint at Exodus 2:14. (7:27, 28)

Upon hearing this retort, Moses perceived that his killing of the Egyptian had become known. It was this development that led him to flee from Egypt. Exodus 2:15 provides the additional detail that the report about the slaying of the Egyptian reached Pharaoh, who then determined to kill Moses, prompting him to make his escape. (7:29; see the Notes section.)

Stephen is quoted as summing up what happened in the life of Moses during the subsequent years. “And he came to be a resident alien in the land of Midian, where he fathered two sons.” (7:29) Midian appears to have been located east of the Gulf of ’Aqaba in the northwestern part of Arabia. Here Moses began to live in the household of Jethro (Reuel), “the priest of Midian,” whose flock he tended for about 40 years. During this time, he married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah and had two sons by her, Gershom and Eliezer. (Exodus 2:15-22; 3:1; 18:1-6)

After some 40 years since his flight from Egypt had passed (“had been fulfilled”), Moses received a divine revelation. An “angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai” (Horeb), while he was shepherding Jethro’s flock. The angelic manifestation was “in a flame of fire of a bush.” (7:30) Although continuing to burn, the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)

Seeing this phenomenon, Moses was struck with amazement at the sight and approached the burning bush to take a closer look. Then he heard the “voice of the Lord.” In the Hebrew text of Exodus 3:2, the angel is identified as the “angel of YHWH,” his special messenger, or his personal representative. As one who spoke in God’s name, the angel is thereafter referred to as “YHWH” (“Lord,” LXX). (7:31)

Moses heard a voice that identified the source of the extraordinary phenomenon. “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (7:32, Exodus 3:6) The reference to the “fathers,” forefathers, or ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have served to remind Moses of God’s promise to give them the land of Canaan.

Moses started to tremble and did not dare to look more. According to Exodus 3:6 in the Septuagint, he “turned his face away,” for his reverential regard did not permit him “to look down before God.” (7:32)

The “Lord” (YHWH), speaking through his representative angel, told him to take off his sandals, for the place where he stood was “holy ground.” It was not a shrine or a temple that had sanctified the ground, but it was the manifestation of the divine at the burning bush that had made the location holy. (7:33; Exodus 3:5)

Moses heard the words, “Looking, I saw the mistreatment of my people in Egypt, and I heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them. And come now, I will send you to Egypt.” The angel did the speaking, and God had not literally come down from heaven, but he did so by turning his attention to his people and responding to the abuse they were enduring and their cries for relief. To effect their rescue from suffering, he chose Moses as his instrument to deliver them from bondage in Egypt. (7:34)

A fellow Israelite (and, hence, the Israelites in a representative way) had disowned Moses with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge?” It was this very Moses whom God, through the angel (“by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush”), sent back to Egypt as “both ruler and deliverer.” The judges God later raised up for the Israelites during periods of oppression in the land of Canaan functioned as saviors or deliverers. (Judges 2:16) Moses did function among the Israelites as the divinely appointed ruler and judge or deliverer, serving in the very positions that the Israelite’s retort denied that he would be granted. (7:35) By stressing the significant role of Moses, Stephen established that he had been falsely charged with speaking “blasphemous words against Moses.” (6:11)

After performing “portents and signs” in Egypt, Moses led the Israelites out of the land. Before his return to Egypt, Moses had been divinely empowered to perform a number of signs to prove to the Israelites that YHWH had indeed sent him. Upon being thrown down, his rod would become a snake and, when picked up by the tail, would become a rod again. After putting his hand in the upper fold of his garment and then taking it out, it would appear like that of a leper, white like snow. When again placing his hand in the upper fold of his garment and taking it out, it would be returned to its normal state. The third sign involved taking water from the Nile and pouring it on the ground, at which time it would become blood. (Exodus 4:2-9, 29-31; 7:8-12) The ten plagues that came upon the land of Egypt also were “portents and signs” that occurred through the agency of Moses, for they were announced beforehand through him in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites. (Exodus 7:14-11:10) At the Red Sea, the “portents and signs” that the Israelites witnessed involved their deliverance and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian host. With the rod in his hand, Moses reached out over the sea and it parted, making it possible for the Israelites to cross and thus to escape from the pursuing Egyptian host. Then, when all the Israelites were safe on the other side and the Egyptians had entered the miraculously opened passage, Moses, evidently while grasping his rod, stretched out his hand over sea. The sea flowed back into the breach, drowning all the Egyptians. (Exodus 14:16, 21-29) During the some 40 years of their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites saw other “portents and signs” taking place through the agency of Moses. For example, they twice received a miraculous supply of abundant water from a rock. (7:36; Exodus 17:5-7; Numbers 20:5-12)

“This is the Moses,” Stephen continued, “who said to the sons of Israel, ‘A prophet like me God will raise up for you from among your brothers.’” The words about a prophet like Moses are found in Deuteronomy 18:15. While the word order in the Septuagint differs, the thought is the same. The prophet whom God would raise up would be one of Israelite descent and, therefore, one of their own “brothers.” He would be like Moses, having a unique relationship with God and making known God’s message to the people. (7:37)

Stephen made it explicitly clear that he recognized Moses’ divinely granted position and had not spoken blasphemously against him. “This is the one [Moses] who was in the congregation [of Israel] in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers [ancestors].” From the angel, Moses received “living words” to give to the Israelites. As part of the congregation or community of Israel, Moses was with the ancestors of those whom Stephen addressed, but only Moses was with the angel. Whereas the Israelites did hear the voice at Mount Sinai, Moses alone is the one who received the totality of the commands from YHWH through his representative angel. These “words,” declarations, ordinances, or pronouncements, Moses then conveyed to the people. In being designated as “living words,” they may be understood to be divine pronouncements that, when obeyed, would lead to life or contribute to a lengthening of life. (7:38)

It was not Stephen who had disregarded Moses. It was the “fathers” or ancestors of those before whom Stephen made his defense. Their ancestors did not want to obey Moses, “but they pushed him aside and, in their hearts, turned back to Egypt.” (7:39) They repeatedly complained against him, expressing that they were worse off than they had been before they departed from there. (Exodus 16:3; 17:3; Numbers 11:4-6, 10) Upon hearing terrifying reports from ten of the spies that had been sent into the land of Canaan, they even considered choosing a leader to take them back to Egypt. (Numbers 13:27-14:4)

The example Stephen mentioned as indicating that the Israelites had pushed Moses aside and turned back in their “hearts” or inner selves to Egypt involved their relationship to YHWH. It was not just a matter of recalling the food they were able to eat in Egypt and yearning for what they then considered to have been a more comfortable life than the one of wandering in a barren wilderness. When Moses was away for a prolonged period, receiving the divine commands that he would impart to them, they approached Aaron with the request that he make “gods” for them to go ahead of them. Their reasoning was that they did not know what had happened to Moses who had led them out of the land of Egypt. So his not being in their midst at the time made them want to adopt an Egyptian practice. They asked Aaron to make a representation of “gods” as a replacement for Moses (the visible representative of YHWH) who had ascended Mount Sinai to communicate with the only true God (YHWH) through his representative angel. (7:40; see the Notes section.)

The Exodus account indicates that Aaron yielded to the pressure they exerted on him to comply with their request. (Exodus 32:21-24) Although the fashioning of the golden calf is attributed to Aaron in Exodus 32:2-4, it occurred at the instigation of the people. So, as Stephen expressed matters, “they made a calf in those days,” sacrificed to it, and found enjoyment in the “works of their hands” (the idol). Their enjoyment consisted of eating, drinking, and reveling before the image. (7:41; Exodus 32:6)

The words “God turned” could mean that he turned away from the Israelites. His “handing them over to serve the army of heaven” signifies his abandoning them to their self-chosen course of idolatry, rendering worship to the visible stars and other celestial bodies. In making this point, Stephen referred to what was written in the “book of the prophets.” The passage he quoted was from the words of Amos, one of the twelve prophets that had come to be regarded as constituting one book. The quotation from Amos 5:25-27 is nearly identical to that of the reading of the Septuagint. “Not to me did you present victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel, [did you?] But you took up the tent of Moloch and the star of the [‘your,’ according to another manuscript reading] god Raiphan [Remphan, Romphan, Rompha, or Repha, according to other manuscripts], representations [literally, ‘types’] that you made to do obeisance to them. And I will exile you beyond Babylon.” (7:42, 43; see the Notes section.)

The Hebrew text of Amos 5:26 is commonly rendered “Sakkuth, your king.” In the Septuagint and the quotation in Acts, the corresponding words are, “tent of Moloch.” One can readily account for the difference. The Hebrew word for “tent” or “booth” is sukkáh, and the Septuagint translator appears to have understood this to be the significance of the Hebrew word in the text that served as the basis for the translation. In Hebrew, the consonants of the name “Moloch” are those for the word “king,” but one cannot be certain to which deity this designation was applied. When the rendering is “tent of Moloch,” this may be understood to refer to a portable tent or shrine in which an image of “Moloch” had been placed. As a proper name, “Sakkuth” would designate a deity that was regarded as a king. (7:43)

In Amos 5:26 of the Hebrew text, the name “Kaiwan” appears to be the designation for the Akkadian kaimanu (or kaiwanu), the planet Saturn that was venerated as a deity. The Egyptian (Coptic) designation for the planet Saturn as a deity is Repa, also called Seb. So it may be that the different Greek designations Raiphan, Remphan, Romphan, Rompha, and Repha may be transliterated variants of Repa (Saturn). (7:43)

The words of the prophet Amos indicated that the Israelites were not devoted to YHWH during the time they wandered in the wilderness. In their inward disposition, they continued to be idolaters, and their involvement with calf worship shortly after their deliverance from Egyptian enslavement proved this. In the subsequent centuries, idolatry proved to be a snare to the Israelites, and their failure to be exclusively devoted to YHWH culminated in their being taken into exile. Their deportation is attributed to God, for he allowed it to happen in expression of his judgment against the unfaithful people. According to the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, the deportation is referred to as being “beyond Damascus.” In the case of the ten-tribe kingdom, the Assyrians did take the inhabitants as exiles beyond that city. Nevertheless, Stephen’s mention of Babylon did fit developments in connection with the Babylonian campaign against Judah and Jerusalem. Many were then taken into Babylonian exile. (7:43; see the Notes section.)

In the wilderness, the “fathers” or ancestors of the Israelites had “the tent of the testimony.” The ark of the covenant, located in the Most Holy of this “tent” or tabernacle, was also called the “ark of the testimony.” (Exodus 25:22) This ark represented God’s presence, and so the reference to the tabernacle as the “tent of testimony” could mean that it served as a testimony or witness that God was present in the midst of the Israelites. Another possible significance for the designation “tent of the testimony” would be that it was there that the “testimony” (the two tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments) was kept. The tablets served as a testimony respecting the commands the Israelites were obligated to observe, and this testimony would be a witness against them if they failed to live up to these commands. (Exodus 25:21; 31:18; 40:20) Their “fathers” or ancestors had this tent in the wilderness, it having been made according to the pattern (literally, “type”) that Moses saw while on Mount Sinai. (7:44; Exodus 25:8, 9, 40)

When, under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites (the “fathers” or ancestors of those to whom Stephen directed his defense) entered the land of Canaan, they brought the tent with them. The land was then in possession of the nations whom God enabled the people (literally, “our fathers”) to drive out. (Joshua 3:10) As for the tent, no major change occurred until the time of David. This thought is expressed somewhat elliptically in the concluding phrase, “until the days of David.” (7:45)

Stephen did not include any reference to the time the ark of the covenant ceased to be in the tabernacle, focusing only on the “tent” as God’s representative place of dwelling from the time the Israelites entered Canaan until David’s reign. When David brought the ark of the covenant to Zion, where it was then placed in a different tent, this came to be the place where God was representatively present with his people. (2 Samuel 6:17; 7:1, 2)

“David found favor before God,” for he remained devoted to him. In view of his residence in a palace, David did not consider it fitting for the ark to be kept in a tent but expressed the desire to build a more permanent structure. By telling the prophet Nathan about his desire, he appears to have wanted to know God’s view respecting it. Seemingly from the standpoint of an implied inquiry, Stephen represented David as asking about finding a “dwelling place for the house of Jacob” or, according to another manuscript reading, a “dwelling place for the God of Jacob.” If “for the house of Jacob” is the original reading, the thought could be that the temple would be a place for the people, “the house of Jacob,” to worship God. (Acts 7:46; 2 Samuel 7:1-13) On account of having shed much blood in warfare, David was not permitted to build a temple, but he did undertake preparations for the work. His son Solomon, whose reign was not characterized by repeated wars with surrounding nations, did build the temple. (7:47; 1 Chronicles 28:2, 3; see the Notes section.)

Unlike the tabernacle that was divinely commanded to be constructed, the plan for building a temple originated with David. (1 Chronicles 17:4-6) Stephen may have wanted to imply that the tabernacle, though built at divine direction according to the model Moses was shown, did not function permanently as God’s representative place of dwelling and so also the then-existing temple could not be expected to remain as a permanent fixture in the arrangement for worshiping God.

With a quotation from verses 1 and 2 of Isaiah 66 (LXX), Stephen made it clear that a hand-made edifice, or a temple of human construction, was not the divine habitation, indicting thereby that worshiping God acceptably did not depend on the existence of a temple. “‘Heaven [is] my throne, but the [‘and the,’ according to another manuscript reading] earth [is] a stool for my feet. What [kind] of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord [YHWH, Hebrew text]. ‘Or what [is] the place for my rest? Has not my hand made all these things?’” (Acts 7:48, 49) As the Creator of everything, God did not need a temple, and no temple of human construction could possibly serve as a residence for him. His dwelling place is in heaven. (Acts 7:49, 50)

Up to this point, Stephen had established from the history of the ancestors of the Israelites that they had repeatedly rejected the very ones whom God had chosen for his purpose (Joseph and Moses). He dealt with Abraham, Joseph, and Moses without there being any temple dedicated to him, and he himself does not reside in any edifice of human construction. Those who heard the defense were familiar with the facts that Stephen presented, but he used them in a manner that forced them to look at themselves in the light of Israelite history. In disposition, they were no different than their ancestors.

In the book of Exodus (33:3, 5, LXX), YHWH is represented as identifying the Israelites as a “stiff-necked” people. Moses is quoted in Exodus (34:9) and Deuteronomy (9:6, 13) as using the same expression. Another description of the Israelites relates to their having an “uncircumcised heart” or being “uncircumcised in heart.” (Leviticus 26:41; Jeremiah 9:26) When making his application from past history, Stephen is quoted as using the same expressions, “Stiff-necked [men] and uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you repeatedly resist the holy spirit, just like your fathers [ancestors] you [act].” They had proved themselves to be “stiff-necked” or stubborn, refusing to accept the unmistakable evidence that Jesus had been sent forth by God. As persons who remained inwardly unresponsive to Jesus Christ and refused to act on his words, they were like persons who were uncircumcised in hearts and ears, having an obstruction that did not allow them to respond appropriately. God’s spirit had operated on the ancient prophets, and the miracles Jesus performed demonstrated that the same spirit operated on him. The Israelite ancestors and those whom Stephen addressed opposed the spirit, refusing to respond in faith and obedience. (7:51)

Stephen continued, “Which of the prophets did your fathers [ancestors] not persecute? And they killed those who foretold about the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” (7:52) “You received the law by the directives [plural form of diatagé] of angels but have not observed [it].” (7:53)

Among the prophets who are specifically spoken of as having suffered intense persecution were Elijah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah the son of Jehoiada. (1 Kings 19:10, 14; Jeremiah 15:15-18; 2 Chronicles 24:20-21) Summing up what the prophets faced, 2 Chronicles 36:16 indicates that they were the objects of mockery and scoffing and that God’s words conveyed through them were despised. According to Nehemiah 9:26, the Israelites killed the prophets who exposed their wrongs and who admonished them to repent and return to God. Isaiah was prominent among the prophets who foretold the coming of the “righteous one,” the promised Messiah. (Isaiah 11:1-5; 52:13-53:12) An apocryphal work, thought to date from the second century CE (“Ascension of Isaiah,” 1:9; 5:2, 14), says that King Manasseh had Isaiah sawn asunder with a wooden saw. (7:52)

Those who heard Stephen’s words had not kept the law, for the law commanded them to heed the prophet who would be like Moses. Jesus Christ proved to be this prophet, but they had refused to listen to him. With reference to their having received the law, the Greek phrase eis diatagás angélon is used. The word diatagé has been defined as meaning “disposition,” “command,” “direction,” “directive,” “order,” “ordinance,” and “decree.” In this context, the Greek phrase may mean “by God’s directives to angels.” (7:53) The thought has been variously translated. “In spite of being given the Law through angels, you have not kept it.” (NJB) “You are the men who have received the Law of God miraculously, by the hand of angels.” (J. B. Phillips) “You received the law of Moses, which God gave through his angels.” (NCV)

Upon hearing Stephen’s pointed comments that identified them as being like their ancestors, they felt as though they had been stabbed in their inmost selves (literally, “sawn through to their hearts”) and, hence, stirred up to intense rage. In their fury, they gnashed or ground their teeth at him. (7:54)

He, “full of holy spirit,” looked up to heaven and appears to have been granted a vision of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at God’s right hand. (7:55) This prompted him to describe what he saw, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In being at God’s right hand, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, is identified as in a position of honor and of the greatest intimacy with and favor from God. Possibly “standing,” instead of “sitting,” at God’s right hand, may indicate that Jesus is prepared to act for those who are devoted to him. (7:56; see the Notes section.)

The identification of Jesus as God’s highly honored and favored one so infuriated those who heard it that they screamed at the top of their voice and covered their ears to block out the loud noise. Apparently perceiving Stephen’s words as blasphemous, they, as a group, rushed at him and then dragged him outside the city, where they began hurling stones at him. (7:57, 58)

The action was that of an enraged mob. Among those who seized Stephen likely were the false witnesses and also others who had argued with him. To what extent individual members of the Sanhedrin got directly involved in the violent action is not revealed in the account. It does not seem likely that every member of the Sanhedrin would have reacted with blind rage. (7:58)

The witnesses who cast stones at Stephen had laid their outer garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (a man who would later become the apostle to the nations and would suffer much in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ). (7:58)

In vision, Stephen had seen his Lord, the one whom he knew to be the “resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) Therefore, as stones continued to be cast at him and he realized that he would die, he made his petition, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” It was a petition rooted in faith, for the Lord Jesus Christ would be the one who would raise him from the dead, restoring his spirit to him. (7:59)

Jesus Christ considers what is done to his followers as being done to him. (Matthew 25:40, 45) So Stephen, in a spirit of love and forgiveness, cried out to him with a loud voice, “Lord, do not set this sin against them.” Before making this request, he had fallen to his knees, apparently in an attitude of prayer. His appeal having been made for those who were stoning him not to have the sin of murder held against them, Stephen “fell asleep” in death. (7:60)

Notes:

In verse 1, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) and a number of other manuscripts, add “to Stephen” after the words, “But the high priest said.”

It is probable that Saul (Paul) who, at the time, sided with those who opposed the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ heard Stephen’s defense. (7:58-60) His personal familiarity with Israelite history would have made it comparatively easy for him to recall the points that Stephen made, especially since they were presented chronologically. There is no valid basis for the conjecture that the writer of Acts constructed the defense. The presence of Saul on the occasion of Stephen’s death and his later close association with Luke provide strong circumstantial evidence for an underlying firsthand source, one that is representative of the originally spoken words.

According to verse 4, Abram’s (Abraham’s) leaving Haran occurred after his father Terah died. This raises a question in connection with the particulars in the Genesis account. Terah died at the age of 205, and Abram entered Canaan at the age of 75. (Genesis 11:32; 12:4) Genesis 11:26 says that Terah lived 70 years and fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Abram’s being mentioned first could suggest that he was the firstborn son. In that case, Terah would still have been alive decades after Abram took up residence in Canaan. This is evidently how the first-century Jewish historian Josephus understood the reference in Genesis, for he wrote that Terah fathered Abram “in his seventieth year.” (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) It may be noted, however, that the Genesis account provides no specifics about when the three sons of Terah were born. Of Terah’s sons, Abram was the most prominent. This could explain why he, although being born when his father was much older, is mentioned first. Considering that Haran had died before Abram was 75 years old, he may have been the oldest son.

Verse 6 is not a direct quotation from Genesis 15:13 but paraphrases the recorded divine revelation to Abram (Abraham).

Verse 7 basically corresponds to the Septuagint reading of Genesis 15:14, but the words about serving God in “this place” are not included there. This allows for the possibility that “this place” could designate either Jerusalem or the temple site.

The number 75 (in verse 14) has the support of the extant Septuagint text. The difference in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint appear to be based on a different way of counting the members of Jacob’s household. One cannot determine the exact size of the household that actually came into Egypt at the invitation of Joseph. None of the wives of Jacob’s sons are included. Only one daughter of Jacob (Dinah) is named (Genesis 46:15), and it is inconceivable that the only daughter among all of Jacob’s sons was Serah (Genesis 46:17), who is listed as the sister of Asher’s sons. Moreover, not all of those mentioned among the seventy were born in Canaan, as especially evident in the case of Benjamin’s offspring. Therefore, the different count (70 or 75) is immaterial. Neither figure represents the actual number of individuals who accompanied Jacob in the move to Egypt.

The wording of verse 18 is nearly identical to the reading of the Septuagint in Exodus 1:8.

Verse 29 focuses on the development that caused Moses to flee from Egypt. In this condensed presentation of history with which the audience was familiar, the additional factor about Pharaoh’s reaction did not have to be included.

The quotation concerning what the Israelites said to Aaron (verse 40) basically is the same as the Septuagint rendering of Exodus 32:1 and 32:23.

In verse 42, the twelve prophets making up the “book of the prophets” are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. From early times, all these books were included in one scroll.

Verse 43, in Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), says “into parts of Babylon” (not “beyond Babylon”).

If verse 46 refers to the “house of Jacob,” then verse 47 may be understood to mean that Solomon built a house “for it,” that is, for the “house” or the people of Israel. The reading “dwelling place of the God of Jacob” would mean that Solomon built a house “for him,” that is, for YHWH.

In verse 56, a few manuscripts say “Son of God” (not “Son of Man,” with the Messianic identification that is found in Daniel 7:13, 14).