Psalm 9:12–21; Genesis 14,15; Matthew 5:43–6:4

Psalm 9:12–21: The psalmist reminds us of God’s compassion: “He forgot not the cry of the lowly.” (13b) And presumably the poet counts himself among the lowly and afflicted as he asks for God’s personal intervention, “Grant me grace, O Lord,/ see my torment by my foes.” (14a). This is a torment so great that he is near death and only God can save him: “You who raise me from the gates of death.” (14b) He offers a justification for God’s rescue that we see frequently in Psalms: that if the poet is dead he cannot praise God. Therefore, God should save him, “So that I may tell all Your praise/ in the gates of the Daughter of Zion./ Let me exult in Your rescue.” (15) [Alter tells us that the phrase “Daughter of Zion” refers to Jerusalem.]

Presumably, we now read the words that the rescued poet would be saying or singing at the city gate: “The nations sank down in the trap that they made,/ in the snare that they made their foot was caught.” (16) Knowing what we do of the history of Israel, this description of self destruction through sin and idolatry is exactly what the prophets also describe at length. And like the prophets, he asserts that “The Lord is known for the justice He did.” (17)

Despite that threat of godly justice, “The wicked turn back to Sheol,/ All the nations forgetful of God.” (18) Which is a pretty good description of American society: we seem to be on the trail of consciously forgetting God as many declare faith to be a psychological crutch that the truly enlightened do not require. As for me, as I look around at the cultural and social mess surrounding us, I can only conclude that the God-deniers are in deep denial.

The psalm ends by returning to what I’ll call the Great Theme of the OT: God’s compassion and rescue of the lowly as he metes out judgement to those who forget the poor and weak. There is always hope no matter how desperate the circumstance: “For not forever will the poor man be forgotten,/ the hope of the lowly not lost forever.” (19) God’s rescue may be a long time in coming, but come it will. In the meantime, I’ll go with the psalmist on the last two verses: “Arise, O Lord, let not man flaunt his strength,/ let nations be judged in Your presence.” (20) And above all for God to remind the culture, “to let nations know they are mortal.” (21b)

Genesis 14,15: There’s a big battle among a bunch of kings with unpronounceable names down “in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea).” (14:3). The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah meet a grisly end by falling into tar pits, (just like the dinosaurs down at the LaBrea tar pits.”  Among the booty of the conquering kings is Lot. Word gets to Abram who uses his private army to rescue Lot: “he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (14:14). The sortie succeeds and Abram “brought back all the goods, and also brought back his nephew Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.” (14:16)  I presume this story is here to show Abram’s great humanity as well as a the progenitor of Israel’s military prowess that we see later in the conquering of Canaan.

Abram returns the conquering hero and “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.” (14:18), who blesses Abram, who returns the favor by giving Melchizedek one tenth of all he has. What’s so significant here is that while Abram has heard instructions and a promise from God, he is no priest of “God Most High.” This also tells us that God is not only the god of the Jews, but God of all humanity, and frankly, worship of this monotheistic God predates Israel itself.

This is the same Melchizedek who figures so prominently in the book of Hebrews, as its author demonstrates that Jesus Christ arises from the priestly line of Melchizedek and therefore is not subject to the rules imposed on Jewish priests, but is greater than it.

Finally we come to the Covenant between Abram and God. God comes to Abram and tells him, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (15:1) Clearly the “reward” is progeny since Abram already has great wealth as he points out to God that he has no heirs. God responds, “no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” (15:4) and we hear at last the famous words, ““Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (15:6) and at last, Abram “believed the Lord.”

A very weird sacrifice involving cutting animals in half and Abram having to chase away birds of prey seals the Covenant. Then, in evidence (to me anyway) that Genesis was not written until much later in Israel’s history, Abram has a dream which recapitulates Israel’s captivity in Egypt in great detail, including that it will last 400 years. Why would this dream be included? I think to prove that the captivity in Egypt was part of God’s plan, and for the Jews in exile in Babylon, this is a reminder that all that happens to them is part of God’s plan as well.

We then see the completion of the Covenant “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” (17) as God promises “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” (15:18) And we also learn that this same land is already occupied by “the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,  the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” So Abram’s heirs will have a lot of conquering to do, which of course is exactly what we see. This verse is at once troubling since it forecasts bloody battles in the conquering of Canaan, but to the writers of Genesis, since God has spoken this way, the decimation of all these people has been completely justified. 

Matthew 5:43–6:4: Jesus has reinterpreted the Law along revolutionary lines, and now he comes to the most revolutionary statement of all. He says, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (5:43) which is of course the overarching theme of the OT and what every person sitting in front of him knew to be true. And now he drops the ethical bomb: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (44, 45) Even at a 2000 year remove, this statement is truly about the hardest thing  Jesus ever said. Imagine its impact on the crowd. Unfortunately, Matthew doesn’t describe the reaction of people listening to Jesus, but it must have been polarizing. The Pharisees in the crowd must have thought he was bonkers at best, satanic at worst, for misinterpreting Scripture so egregiously. But I suspect the majority of poor and oppressed in the crowd welcomed a revolutionary in their midst, who would finally set things right by bringing justice.

What’s fascinating is Jesus’ explanatory logic chain: It comes down to extending the love that we already have for those we know in the context of obtaining a greater reward [Jesus is master of the carrot and the stick!]: “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (46). Loving one’s enemies is the logical extension of that preexisting love. And we have an outstanding example to follow: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:46)

Imitating our Father leads logically to Jesus’ next topic: excessive piety and religiosity, once again framed in the concept of a heavenly reward: ““Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (6:1) rather, our piety is inward-directed. Which makes sense: it’s about our relationship with God, not with other people. To put piety on public display is simply the sin of pride. We can imagine this statement may have been even more offensive to the Pharisees  in the crowd than even Jesus’ comments about loving one’s enemy.

Of course, religiosity continues on full display today, which is what allows people to justify their non-participation in a relationship in community by saying, “they’re all hypocrites.” Which of course we are.

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