7:1-8 Changes of worship and ritual in Abraham's life
At first sight Stephen's sermon in this chapter seems like a dull chronicle of Jewish history. The facts were as familiar to his judges as to any of us who know the Old Testament. But, as we will see, it is a brilliantly constructed response to the two charges laid against him. "We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us" (6:14).
Arguing from the lives of Abraham (7:2-8), the patriarchs (7:9-19), Moses (7:20-43), and the tabernacle and first temple (7:44-50), Stephen shows that the Messiah has intervened again and again both in the location of the place of their nation's worship and in the rituals. It should not therefore be surprising that the temple was about to be replaced (as it was in AD 70) by temples of the Holy Spirit in every nation. Nor should Jews object if the Messiah was now changing the Old Testament laws suited for the Exodus from Egypt with rules that would suit all nations.
Stephen's first point is that over 430 years before Moses (Galatians 3:17) God first appeared to Abraham when he was in Ur of the Chaldees. He moved to Haran which was 1000 kilometers far away to the north-west. Next God moved him south to Canaan, where he lived as an alien with no property.
The point was that Jews viewed themselves as children of Abraham (John 8:39), and Abraham's life was more than sufficient evidence that God claims the right to change our place and customs of worship as he chooses (6:14), which was the charge against Stephen).
7:1 The high priest, who functioned as prosecutor in the case, asked if Stephen had indeed said that "Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the Jerusalem temple as Jesus had prophesied) and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us" (6:14).
7:2-3 Stephen begins very respectfully by calling the Jewish leaders his brothers and fathers in the faith. He knew many of them personally and had been taught in their synagogues. He then goes right back to the call of Abraham (about 1800 BC) when he lived near present-day Basra in Iraq close to the junction of the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates (mesopotamia). Ur was a Sumerian city then in process of being taken over by Babylonians. God appeared personally to Abraham on several occasions (Genesis 12:7, 13:14, 15:1, 17:1, 18:1, 22, 33).
7:4 Haran (600 miles away in north-western Iraq) was a quiet sheep farming area where Abraham's father Terah settled. But the persistent call to move on was repeated, and now Abraham traveled another 500 miles south into Canaan (Genesis 12:4-5).
7:5 In the promised land (as his judges all knew), among the
Baal worshiping Canaanites, Abraham owned no property (except a burial
cave), and for worship he used a temporary altar of stones in each place
(Genesis12:8, 13:4, 13:18). He only went twice to Jerusalem to worship
there (with Melchizedec, Genesis 14:17-18, and alone with his son,
Genesis 22:2, 9).
7:6-7 Abraham was told his descendants would move south to Egypt, be enslaved, and then return to the promised land (Genesis 13:14-17, 15:13-16). Joseph was sold into Egypt, his family followed, and then they were cruelly treated (Exodus 1:8-14, 3:7). It was God who used wonders and signs to bring them out into freedom (Exodus 7:36). As slaves we have no record of any kind of public worship, and they were only able to begin worship using the movable tabernacle on their way back to the promised land..
7:8 Stephen also reminded the judges that Abraham was only given the sign of circumcision at the age of 99 (Genesis 17:24) long after he received the Jewish covenant promise to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:3). Within a few years circumcision would no longer be required for Gentiles coming into the church (15:1, 19-20), but it continued as a sign of their Abrahamic origin for both Arabs and Jews to this day.
7:9-16 Changes of worship and ritual for the patriarchs
Things were even less settled for Abraham's children Ishmael and Isaac, his grandson Jacob, and great grandson Joseph. These were called the patriarchs. First Ishmael was sent away to the east to found the great Arab people who to this day share the sign of circumcision with their Jewish cousins (16:10, 17:20, 21:10-13, 25:12-16, see Ishmael the Arab). The quarrel between the Arab and Jewish children of Abraham has continued 3900 years to the present day.
Isaac needed to have a wife from Abraham's Sumerian family in Haran (Genesis 24:3, 47, 60-61). Jacob took the inheritance from Esau, who traveled to the east and his Edomite descendants became part of the bene Ishmael Arab tribes of the western Arabian desert (27:4, 30, 36:1-43). In very strange circumstances Jacob also took four wives from Abraham's relatives in Haran (29:1, 29:20-25, 30:3, 9).
Then through equally astonishing set of circumstances Joseph was sold into Egypt, became the grand vizier under Pharaoh, the remainder of the patriarchal family moved there during a famine, and they soon found themselves enslaved. (Genesis 39 - 50). Throughout this long stay in Egypt the patriarchs retained and used the family burial vault in Hebron (23:17, 49:31, 50:13, 25). This burial place is also claimed by the Arabs as el-Khalil as a reminder of their Abrahamic origin from Abraham the friend of God, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23).
Stephen's speech is a very terse shorthand account of a long period of history, but the allusions would be fully understood by his hearers who knew the torah (5 books of Moses) off by heart.
7:16 Many commentators suggest that Stephen made a foolish error by locating the Cave of Machpelah that Abraham bought for his family burial place in the city of Shechem which was thirty miles north of Jerusalem. The location is certainly in present-day Hebron, which is nineteen miles south Jerusalem. It is very unlikely that Stephen could have been that ignorant. The Hebron that Stephen is referring to is the highest city west of the Jordan river. It is 1000 feet above Jerusalem and called "the hill country" (Genesis 14:12, 14). The Hebrew word shacam (shechem) meant the two shoulders of a person's back, and it was used for any mountain that was shaped in that way, so the name would have suited the area of the Cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:17-20, 25:9). What Stephen probably said was "Their bodies were brought back to the hill (shoulder) of Hebron, and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Ham in that place (the addition of the letter or to make Hamor would then be a scribal conflation from Genesis 33:18-19).
7:17-40 Changes of worship and ritual in the life of Moses
Moses was born from a slave mother, and saved from certain death by being eaten by the crocodiles of the river Nile (Exodus 1:22-2:3). He was then educated "in all the wisdom of the Egyptians " (7:22), and perhaps became the commander in chief of the Egyptian army. When he chose to identify himself as a Jew (Exodus 2:11-15) he had to flee from Pharaoh for forty years. He married the daughter of an Arab tribal priest and minded sheep in the area of Mount Horeb (Exodus 2:16, 21, 3:1). Stephen's hearers were familiar with the events of the Exodus and the establishment of the Passover ritual, but Stephen hardly mentioned these (see note on 7:35-36).
But again Stephen suggests that during the first eighty years of Moses' life no place of worship is mentioned, nor were there any of the rituals and rules that were later given for the period of the wilderness wanderings. The substance of the charge against him (6:13) was that the temple and rituals were going to be changed, but these were never a permanent part of the way God relates to his people.
7:17-19 Abraham had been told that his descendants would move to Egypt and be enslaved there, but they would come back four centuries later (probably counted from Abraham's descent into Egypt, Genesis 12:10, Genesis 15:13-16, Exodus 12:40). The multiplication of the people in Egypt and their enslavement and potential genocide preceded the birth of Moses (Exodus 1:8-22). Here again there is no record of places of worship or rules for ritual in the change in status from prosperity to enslavement.
7:20-22 Moses began his life in a basket in the river Nile, was taken into Pharaoh's palace, and given the very best education Egypt could offer (Exodus 2:1-10). It is possible that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis based on material he found in the royal library, but there is no hint that he attended any kind of Jewish worship before the age of forty..
7:23 -28 When Moses tried to intervene on behalf of his enslaved people, Stephen reminds his hearers that he was told "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?" (Exodus 2:11-15). Stephen used this to prepare the ground for his presentation of the Jewish rejection of their Messiah (7:35, 52).
7:29-34 Moses' two sons were born from an Arab (Midianite) mother who at first refused to let her sons be circumcized (Exodus 2:15-21, 4:24-26). Moses may have worshiped with his father in law who was a priest, but there is no record of any kind of Jewish worship or rituals till after the Exodus. When Moses saw a bush burning in the wilderness, as he was minding sheep, God met with him right there, and he was told to take off his sandals because the sand around it became temporarily sacred (Exodus 3:5-6). Which suggests that any place can be a place of worship, not just the temple in Jerusalem which was to be destroyed in their generation (see 7:48).
7:35-36 Stephen points out that Moses who had been rejected forty years before was the one God later sent to do wonders and signs of the Exodus and be their leader and liberator to the border of the promised land. It is significant that Stephen made no reference to the Passover which figures so prominently in the Exodus story. This was perhaps because the Passover was a Jewish ritual which would not be terminated when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in AD 70. For the past 1900 years Jewish families have continued to celebrate the Passover Seder supper, not in a temple or synagoue but in their own homes.
7:37 He then quoted Moses' words, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people" (Deuteronomy 18:15). This is often quoted as a prophecy of the future Messiah (3:22), but it also refers to the long line of prophets who were sent by God, and rejected again and again (as in 7:52, as Moses had warned in Deuteronomy 18:18-22).
7:38-41 The members of the Sanhedrin all knew that the rejections had begun with Moses himself immediately after the Exodus (Exodus 17:2-3) and then at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-6) and again and again in the wilderness wanderings (Numbers 11:1-6, 12:1-9, 14:1-4, 16:1-3, 20:1-8).
7:41-53 Changes in the tabernacle and temple worship and their rituals
7:42-43 It seems that after leaving Mount Sinai the sacrifices appointed by Moses were not offered. Instead the people fell back into idol worship (Amos 5:25-27 where the names of the gods are as recorded in the LXX Greek version, see notes on 6:1-6).
7:44-45 After the miraculous events of the Exodus Moses had ordered the arrangements for the worship of the congregation. These included the making of the mobile tent (tabernacle, as described in detail in Exodus 26:1-27:21) which continued with them, without being used properly (7:42-43). The sacred ark itself was taken away by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:10-5:1). The ark was later retrieved and placed in the holy holies in the temple of Solomon (2 Samuel 6:3, 15, 1 Kings 6:19).
7:46-47 It was king David who made the preparations (2 Samuel 7:1-3, 1 Chronicles 22:1-6), and his son Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:1-10).
7:48-50 But as the prophet pointed out, God cannot be confined in a building, however magnificent (Isaiah 66:1-2). Stephen did not need to remind his judges that the temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians and the people taken off into exile for seventy years. Many of his hearers must have heard Jesus say the second temple was also going to be destroyed because it failed to serve its purpose (Matthew 21:13, 24:1-2).
7:51-80 The conclusion of Stephen's defense and his martyrdom
7:51-52 At this point Stephen seems to have remembered and echoed Jesus words to the Pharisees. "I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues, and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth . . . I tell you all this will come upon this generation" (Matthew 23:34-36). He then accuses his judges of continuing in the footsteps of those who rejected God's prophets and eventually betrayed and killed their own Messiah.
7:53 Stephen claims that the law of Moses was given on Mount Sinai through, or with the help of angels (as Paul says in Galatians 3:19). But by continually rejecting this law, his judges had no right to use the law to condemn him.
7:54-56 This enraged his judges, and any semblance of a judicial trial came to an end. Knowing that his fate was sealed, Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit (as Peter was in 4:8), and he announced to the whole sanhedrin that he was looking right into heaven and he could see Jesus the Messiah standing at the Father's right hand. Luke records (probably from Saul's eye-witness account) that the ascended Jesus was standing (as opposed to sitting as in Hebrews 1:3 & 10:12) to honor the death of the first Christian martyr.
7:57-58 Instead of a proper conclusion to the trial, a sentence being pronounced, and the accused being taken away for execution (only permitted by Roman law, as in John 18:31), the assembly rushed forward to drag Stephen outside the city for a lynching. There had to be a rabbi present to approve and witness a stoning (see 8:1), and for this occasion Saul of Tarsus stood watching (some think Stephen may have been his friend). He was minding the outer garments the judges had taken off to free them to collect rocks and throw them at the prisoner.
7:59-60 As the accusers were collecting the rocks to throw at him, Stephen stood in prayer to commit himself to his Lord exactly as Jesus had committed himself to the Father (Luke 23:46). Then as the first stone was thrown (instead of trying to protect himself) he knelt and prayed a prayer for their forgiveness as Jesus had prayed when he was crucified (Luke 23:34. This verse is omitted by some copyists who did not want the Jews forgiven for the crucifixion).