Archives for January 2016

Psalm 13; Genesis 21; Matthew 7:24–8:4

Psalm 13: This classic psalm of supplication opens with the desperate plea to God, “How long, O Lord, will You forget me always?/ How long hide Your face from me?” (2) His emotional state is so tormented that it seems as if God has abandoned him forever. Worse, God may have forgotten him, which in that culture was even worse than death because to be forgotten meant the same thing as if one had never existed at all.

The impact of God’s seeming abandonment means the poet has nowhere to turn for succor: “How long shall I cast about for counsel,/ sorrow in my heart all day?” (3a) Worse, in the midst of feeling abandoned by God, he is surrounded by people out to get him: “How long will my enemy loom over me?” (3b)

He utters one last desperate cry for God to respond–“Regard, answer me, Lord, my God,”–before he closes his eyes forever: “Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death.” (4) And if that happens, his enemies’ triumph will be complete: “Lest my enemy say, ‘I’ve prevailed over him,’/ lest my foes exult when I stumble.'” (5) Implicit in this verse is the fact that if the poet dies without God’s return, God himself will have failed in his duty to save the righteous.

Just when things seem darkest and there is nothing more to say, the door of the poet’s heart cracks open, and he remembers that God is indeed faithful and will return: “But I in Your kindness do trust/ my heart exults in Your rescue.” (6a) And with that rescue comes worship: “Let me sing to the Lord,/ for He requited me.” (6b)

This dive into despair and abandonment followed by ascent to the realization that God is faithful is the same emotional roller coaster that any person of faith, who truly believes in God’s kindness, will experience. I suggest that if we do not at some point (or points) in our faith journey experience this emotional descent into feeling abandoned by God and then ascent into the realization that God has been there all the time, which the psalmist describes here, that person has not yet experienced what real faith entails.

Genesis 21: At last, in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age Isaac is born and quickly circumcised. The author reminds us of Sarah’s original laugh when she was told that she would have a son. Once again, she laughs, but rather than a snort of derisiveness, this is deep and affecting laughter that true joy can bring: ““God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (6). And she remains astounded at what God has wrought: “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (7)

But Isaac’s birth is not all sweetness and laughter. After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Hagar’s son, Ishmael, playing with him. Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and her son out of the household, which “was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son [Ishmael].” Once again God intervenes and soothes Abraham’s feelings, telling him that Ishmael will become the leader of “a great nation.”  Abraham equips Hagar with some food and water and sends her away.

The scene shifts to a desperately thirsty Hagar, who has cast Ishmael under some bushes as she cries, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” (16). She is in the same distraught state that today’s psalm describes. And as the psalmist observes, God answers, telling Hagar to “lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (18). She wakes up and spies a well, obtains water and “gave the boy a drink.” (19) Inasmuch as Ishmael is Abraham’s son, the authors do not want to cast a dark light on him and tell us that “God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.” (28) Hagar obtains a wife for Ishmael from Egypt and they all disappear forever from the pages of Genesis.

But what do we make of laughing Sarah? She is the instrument of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s departure? Frankly, she doesn’t come off as sympathetically as Abraham. She may have laughter, but for me she has a cruel streak as well.

Abimelech reappears and asks Abraham to “swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” (23) Which Abraham agrees to do.

Sometime later, Abraham complains that Abimelech’s servants had seized his well, and Abimelech makes good on his oath, returning it to Abraham. Abraham returns the favor by giving the king sheep and oxen.  The king returns to Philistia. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree and names the place Beer-sheba. Once again we see the important role that water plays in the history of Israel.

What are we to make of this covenant between Abimelech and Abraham? Between what will become Israel and what is already Philistia (a far older culture than Israel), which becomes Israel’s sworn enemies? Yet, the authors also tell is that “Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.” (34) Perhaps even more important is the point that the authors make about Abraham residing “as an alien.” If we assume this was written while Israel was in Babylonian exile, this is a reassuring encouragement. As Abraham dwelt as an alien, so too, Israel. Great things came from Abraham, so, too, will great things come from Israel in exile.

Matthew 7:24–8:4: Jesus concludes his sermon with the famous illustration of houses built on rock and sand. The point of the metaphor is clear: it’s not just hearing God’s word that matters, it’s about acting on them: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (7:26)

This is a real challenge for me since I’m good at reflection; less good at action. But Jesus leaves no room for waffling about the centrality of action as the very foundation on the rock of our lives. I think there’s a subtext here, as well. One suspects that Matthew’s Jewish audience was more inclined to theological disputation than to action, and the gospel writer is reminding them that they are required to act on what they’ve heard. As are we.

Action also sets the tone for the remainder of Matthew’s gospel where we see Jesus act again and again. The first miracle in Matthew is the healing of a leper, which to that culture was about as dramatic a miracle you can get. The leper kneels and states, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” (8:2) And Jesus replies, “I do choose. Be made clean.” The leper is healed. We can imagine the dramatic impact on the crowd as Jesus even touched the leper in the first place. One simply did not touch lepers. There are two miracles here: Jesus touching the leper and then the healing.

For me, this passage has a deep undertone of the choice that each of us makes. We can choose to be healed by Jesus–or choose not to. But it is Jesus, who always without fail says, I do choose!” and comes to us, touches us, and makes us clean through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 12; Genesis 19:30–20:18; Matthew 7:13–23

Psalm 12: The David psalm begins with a note of supplication but for a whole society, not just an individual:”Rescue, O Lord! For the faithful is gone,/ or vanished is trust from the sons of man” (1) [“Sons of man” in the Psalms usually refers to the entire human race.]  The next lines make it sound almost like prophecy as it castigates the culture at large: “Falsehood every man speaks to his fellow,/ smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” (3) As we have observed many times, speech is the crucial medium of communication in this mostly pre-literate age. One’s words was the instrument of trust–or of destruction. Here, it appears that the entire culture has become con men, attempting to dupe each other with “smooth talk.”

But our prophet/psalmist makes it clear that these lying smooth talkers will come to a bad end in a fairly dramatic fashion: “The Lord will cut off all smooth-talking lips,/ the tongue that speaks of big things.” (4) As usual, it is pride that leads to self-delusion of being in control of destiny as “those who said, ‘Let us make our tongue great,/ our own lips are with us–who is master to us?'” (5).

Speech–good and bad–occupies the center of this psalm and now it is God’s turn to speak. His answer comes quickly in with the interesting image of God arising out of the poor and those who have been duped and oppressed to wreak his vengeance on the high and mighty: “‘From the plunder of the poor, from the wretched men’s groans,/ now I will rise,’ says the Lord.” (6) Unlike the despicable speech of lying men, “The Lord’s sayings–pure sayings,/ [are] silver tried in a kiln…refined sevenfold.” (7)

As usual, the supplication concludes on a note of assurance that appears to refer back to David, “You, Lord, will guard him,/ will keep him from this age for all time.” (8). [Alter observes that the last line–“All around go the wicked,/ they have dug deep pits for the sons of men”– seems misplaced, as if it should go earlier in the psalm. I agree.]

Genesis 19:30–20:18: The editors writing Genesis want to make sure to include the reason for the seemingly eternal enmity between Israel and its neighbors, Moab and Ammon. Lot’s two daughters make their father drink, have sex with him, and become pregnant. The result is “the firstborn [daughter] bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger [daughter] also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.” (19: 37, 38) Israel’s undying hatred of these tribes is seemingly justified by the sin of incest. 

The story turns to yet another sojourn by Abraham and Sarah, now residing in Gehar. Even at 100 years of age, Sarah is apparently quite a sexually desirable woman and Abraham once again employs the ruse, “she is my sister,” to protect himself from being killed by King Abimelech of Gerar. That ruse has no effect as the king “took Sarah.”God shows up once agin in dream, this time to the king, and says, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” (20:3). But “Abimelech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent people?” (4)

Abimelech protests he is innocent and points out that Abraham told him that Sarah was his sister and “she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’” and “I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.” (5) God comes back in a subsequent dream and takes all credit for Abimelech’s restraint, saying, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (6) He also tells the king to give Sarah back to Abraham.

Nevertheless, Abimelech is understandably upset at the ruse, telling Abraham, ““What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom?” and tells Abraham off: “You have done things to me that ought not to be done.” (9). Understandably he asks Abraham, ““What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” (10) Abraham replies that “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (11). Which is an understandable reason

But then Abraham drops the bombshell–not just on Abimelech, but on all of us. Sarah is his step-sister: “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” (12) Abimelech relents and gives Abraham “sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him,” (14) plus 1000 pieces of silver. The king tells Sarah she is completely vindicated; Abraham prays to God, who restores fertility to the women of the kingdom: “God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.” (17)

So what gives with this story? No question that Abimelech was wrong in taking Sarah in the first place. But is the point here to tell us that Abraham are step-siblings? If so, why? If nothing else, it points out just how special this still childless couple was in the eyes of God. But if we assume these stories are being compiled during the Babylonian captivity, I think it’s also a warning to the captors of Israel. Taking and raping Israel’s women will cause the Babylonians to meet the same fate as the one Abimelech barely avoided.

Matthew 7:13–23: Jesus’ uncomfortable sermon continues. Jesus tells his followers that his followers are embarked on a difficult path. We presume he’s speaking directly to his disciples when he says, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (14) One big reason why the path is difficult hits on exactly the problem today’s psalm addresses: smooth talkers who mislead. Jesus gives the warning that we would do well to heed carefully today: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (15)

His advice to determine whether these prophets are true or false is to judge them by what they do, not what they say: “ You will know them by their fruits…In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” (16, 17) In the end it is deeds–what we do with the gospel–that really matters.

We need to remember Jesus’ warning as we contemplate the popularity of modern day televangelists and those who monger of the prosperity gospel. To use the word’s of today’s psalmist, they are full of “smooth talk” and produce piles of smooth-talking books that while appearing to be spiritual, but are all about building self-pride or obtaining goodies from God. These false preachers make millions, fly around in private jets and live in mansions. But worst of all, those who follow them are engaging in an empty, ultimately meaningless religion. Eeven though it appears they are practicing “true religion,” they have deceived themselves. As far as Jesus is concerned, self deception leads to a miserable fate: “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (22)

Matthew takes this theme of self deception up again later in his gospel when Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and those who fail to see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners. I suspect Matthew places such emphasis on the narrow gate, the fruit-bearing tree and the problem of self-deception for another reason. When he writes there are already plenty of false gospels floating around and he desperately wants his readers/ listeners not to be drawn into the trap.

Psalm 11; Genesis 19:1–29; Matthew 7:1–12

Psalm 11: This very personal psalm begins with the poet’s assertion of his trust in God: “In the Lord I sheltered” (1a) even as his fearful friends advise him to escape his enemies: “How could you say to me, ‘Off to the hills like a bird!” (1b) Yes,he acknowledges,  his enemies are out to get the righteous as a hunter aims at that bird in flight: “For, look, the wicked bend back their bow,/ they fix to the string their arrow/ to shoot from the gloom at the upright.” (2) The ‘gloom’ suggests the enemies prefer conspiracy rather than standing before and directly taking the poet on in the sunlight.

He really has no other options that to look to God for protection since it appears the basis of human justice has been corrupted: “The foundations destroyed,/ what can a righteous man do?” (3) The poet knows that “The Lord in His holy palace,/…His eyes behold,/ His look probes the sons of man.”  God knows every aspect of human affairs: “The Lord probes [both] the righteous and the wicked.” (5a) And being God, “the lover of havoc He utterly hates.” (5b)

In the end, the wicked will get what’s coming to them as the poet employs a clear allusion to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “He rains fiery coals on the wicked,/ sulphur and gale-winds their lot.” (6) The psalmist then reminds us that as the embodiment of righteousness, God will always take the side of the righteous man: “For righteous the Lord is,/ righteous acts He does love.” (7a) And it is the righteous who will return God’s downward gaze on humankind as the righteous look back up to God: “The upright behold His face.” (7b)

Genesis 19:1–29: We recall that God is going to check out Sodom and Gomorrah and see if there are any righteous people left there. Two angels arrive at Lot’s house, who invites them in for dinner. He asks them to spend the night with him, where it is obviously safer, but they demur, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” (2) But even while they’re still in Lot’s house eating dinner, a gang appears at Lot’s door demanding “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” (5) Of course ‘know’ in this context is not about getting acquainted.

Desperate to protect them, Lot even offers his two daughters to the crowd: “let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (8) rather than have them harm his guests. [This certainly gives us insight into the depressingly low value men of that day placed on women.]

The gang of men reject that offer, reminding Lot that he “came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” (9) The gang tries to force its way past the door, but the angelic guests strike the men blind so “they were unable to find the door.” (11)

The angels turn to Lot asking, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place.” (12, 13) But Lot’s sons-in-law don’t buy into the warning, thinking Lot was joking. Even Lot is hesitant [“he lingered’] to leave Sodom and the angels have to forcibly remove him, “so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city.” (16)

Lot is grateful but makes it clear he is a city-dweller and, unlike his uncle Abraham, he cannot live without the urban creature comforts and asks the angels to spare a little city, Zoar, so he can live there. The angels agree and famously warn everyone  not to look back. Also, we know that Lot’s wife disobeyed and became the famous pillar of salt.

If we assume that Genesis was compiled during the Babylonian captivity, I think the story of Lot is a warning to those Jews who too readily adapted to Babylonian culture and were on the verge of being assimilated by it. They had a choice: to stay and ultimately be destroyed (which I think is assimilation and losing their Jewish identity) or were they willing to go back to the rigors of life in a ruined Jerusalem and thereby remain faithful to God?

For me, this dramatic story is an allegory for each of us: Are we willing to reject the comforts and diversions of our culture’s “city life” and its many hedonistic pleasures for the austerity and struggles that a life with God will entail? Or will we longingly look back and think of how much we enjoyed that former life, but in the end become as worthless to Jesus as a mound of salt?

Matthew 7:1–12: Jesus’ entire ethical corpus is contained in his words of the Sermon on the Mount. Once Matthew has finished laying out Jesus’ new standards of thinking, behavior and relationships with each other, the community, and God, he will go on to demonstrate how Jesus executes these new standards in his actions–and how we should follow likewise. Jewish author that he is, he lays out this “New Torah” in detail first.

Until recently, the Sermon on the Mount has formed the core of Western Judeo-Christian civilization, and is the foundation of our legal system. Jesus cites truths that define human nature that have not changed since Genesis. We know them all:

  • On hypocrisy: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (5)
  • On separating the holy from the profane: “do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (6)
  • On persistence: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (7)
  • On the rewards of persistence: “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
  • On personal relationships: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (9)

All of these boil down to the simple golden rule that despite our behavior, we know to be true: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;” (12a)

But what strikes me here is that is far as Jesus is concerned, his words here on the mountain are simply the distillation of all that has come before him: “for this is the law and the prophets.” (12b) In short, Jesus has said nothing new or original that everyone in the crowd–including us–do not know already in our hearts to be true. But he has framed these ancient truths in a completely new way. And when civilizations and cultures ignore these rules or exempt themselves, pretending that in their new and advanced state that they are no longer relevant, the death of that empire is not far behind.

Psalm 10:12–18; Genesis 18; Matthew 6:19–34

Psalm 10:12–18: The psalmist appeals directly to God: “Rise, O Lord, raise Your hand,/ forget not the lowly.” (12)  In his heart I’m pretty sure the psalmist knows that God will indeed care for the lonely, but I think he’s asking a larger existential question: why are there the lonely in the first place? And accompanying that question, its polar opposite: “Why has the wicked despised God,/ has said in his heart, ‘You shall not seek out.'” (13).

This of course is an aspect of theodicy: why is there evil in the world when God is almighty and all-good? There is not satisfactory answer; we can only say that oppression of the poor and the pride of the wicked is the result of a fallen world.

The psalmist’s frustration at God for allowing this state of affairs is barely concealed as he points out that God is well aware of this situation: “For You have seen mischief/ and looked on vexation.” (14a) Yet, despite that frustration, our poet also knows that the poor have no one to turn to but God, and that God does indeed help the oppressed: “The wretched leaves his fate in Your hands./ It is You Who help the orphan.” (14b) I think the psalmist realizes how much more awful the fate of the poor would be were it not for God.  One is reminded of the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where the Jimmy Stewart character visits the slums of Potterville had he not been present.”

This state of affairs does not prevent the psalmist from making a direct appeal to God to take action even to the point of doing away with evil altogether: “Break the arm of the wicked ,/ and seek out evil,/ let wickedness not be found.” (15) After all, “The Lord is king for all time.” (16)

As with all psalms of supplication, this one ends on a note of confidence that God hears the prayer, which brings the encouragement of God’s presence: “The desire of the poor you have heard, O Lord,/ You make their heart firm, Your ear listens.” (17) As we end with the verse that recapitulates the psalms theme with great clarity: “To do justice for the orphan and the wretched,/ and let none still oppress man in the land.” (18) In fact, this verse is a clear statement of the great theme that courses through the OT: God will have mercy on the poor and God’s justice will eventually come to punish the wicked. However, as Jesus points out, it is up to usas God’s agents on earth to bring that mercy and justice to the poor and downtrodden.

Genesis 18: Abraham recognizes that the three men are two angels and the Lord. He washes their feet and makes lunch for them, underscoring the hospitality that is due the stranger, as the Law will eventually make clear. But it strikes the strangers as odd that Abraham would bring them a meal, but his wife Sarah is nowhere to be seen. “They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”” (9). Clearly the message they intended to deliver was intended for Abraham and Sarah together. Abraham answers the question honestly: “There, in the tent.” (9) The chief angel makes his announcement: “your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (10). Sarah, who is years beyond menopause hears this news and cannot suppress her laughter, which we’ll assume is a sarcastic laughter of disbelief. God picks up on this and responds, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (14) Sarah, being human, denies her laugh “for she was afraid.” But God gets the last word, “He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (15).

I can sympathize with Sarah; she must have been quaking in her boots. It is human responses like these that underscore the authenticity of the story. And we see the caring and patient side of God. This reveals how the Jewish God is wildly different from the constantly battling and venial small-g gods who inhabit the other nations of the time.

The story of the destruction of Sodom includes dialog I’d never noticed before. Abraham accompanies his guests as the leave. Turning around a bend, Sodom comes into view and God asks rhetorically,“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (17, 18) Abraham probably has a suspicion of what God has in mind.

But God does not just stretch out his hand and destroy Sodom. Instead, he seeks evidence that Sodom is as evil as he has heard it is: “I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” 21). Again, a huge difference from the small-g gods of the time: God does not operate on whim, but true justice demands evidence first.

Abraham raises the very real problem that the righteous will be destroyed along with the wicked. The famous round of questions follows: Abraham asks, “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (24) God responds that “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (26) Abraham repeats the question, reducing the number each time, eventually reaching ten. And God makes it clear that he will relent even if there are only ten righteous souls.

The point seems clear: God will be merciful even to evil when righteousness is present, even if only in small amounts. God will always err on the side of justice and he cares immensely for the righteous.

Matthew 6:19–34: The Sermon on the Mount continues. [Perhaps it would be better called the “Sermon Series on the Mount.”]  Jesus gets it about human priorities when he says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (21) Our priorities always follow our hearts. Here in ZIP code 94598, where basic human needs are pretty much met, priorities appear to be in the acquisition of things and in status as demonstrated by the implied status of things such as houses and cars. Yet, inside every human heart the same insecurities exist, hence we worry about storing up stuff for the proverbial rainy day.

The reason is clear: we worry too much. Jesus tells us, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (25). Yet living a worry-free life–especially in this age of over-communication where we are aware of every trouble on the globe–is perhaps the most difficult task of all. We are surrounded by endless advertisements and articles about saving for retirement, but Jesus has the temerity to say, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” (31). There’s even a bit of racial sarcasm when Jesus observes, “For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things.” (32)

Really? Does this mean I can be profligate and not bother to save resources for later? I think Jesus’ final statement is where we must focus: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (33)  Again, it’s about priorities. If we are striving for the Kingdom, we will have the insight to allocate our resources in the proper place, including saving for retirement. But do I really put “striving for the Kingdom of God” in first place? The honest answer is ‘No, I do not.’ Hence I worry.

I think Jesus recognizes that no matter what he says about worry, we’re still going to do it. So, in what I consider to be one of the wisest pieces of advice in the entire Bible, he tells us that we should at least focus on the tangible present rather than the intangible future: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” This has been brought home to me dramatically with cancer. Enjoy today. Recurrence may happen tomorrow. But that will be tomorrow’s concern.

Psalm 10:1–11; Genesis 16,17; Matthew 6:5–18

Psalm 10:1–11: This psalm rings out for social justice as it describes the plotting of the wicked [and presumably wealthy] against the poor and oppressed: “In the wicked man’s pride he pursues the poor.” (2a) But that same plotting also leads inevitably to the wicked man’s downfall: “but is caught in the schemes he devised.” (2b)

The root cause of this wickedness appears to arise from rejecting God: “For the wicked did vaunt in his very lust,/ grasping for gain–cursed, blasphemed the Lord.” (3) And in a phrase all too familiar to our modern ears, the wicked man believes he can get away with it because, “‘There is no God’ is all his schemes.” (4)

The psalmist asserts that assumption is faulty because in assuming there is no God, the wicked man misses that God’s “judgements are high above him.” (4) Even if he thought that were so, the wicked man believes he is exempt from God’s judgment and  “said in his heart, ‘I will not stumble,/ for all time I will not come to harm.'” (6) Which is exactly the sin of pride we hear all around us today as people plan and plot, believing their plans to be foolproof.  Which is also why we enjoy watching the high and mighty brought low–especially in a perp walk.

As is always the case in that mostly pre-literate time, it is speech that is the instrument of deception: “His mouth is full of oaths,/ beneath his tongue are guile and deceit,/ mischief and misdeed.” (7) But perhaps worst of all is that he preys on the innocent and the poor: “He waits in ambush…/ from a covert he kills the blameless,/ for the wretched his eyes look out.” The psalmist compares the wicked to a dangerous beast: “He waits in covert like a lion in his lair,/ lies in wait to snatch up the poor.” (9) And as we see all too often today, the poor are ensnared: “The lowly bow down,/ and the wretched fall into his traps.” (10)

The persons who come readily to my mind in these verses are the con men who prey on the elderly, duping them into handing over their assets on a false promise because “beneath his tongue are guile and deceit.” As always, this psalm demonstrates clearly that human nature and its capability to do evil have not changed in one whit in 3000 years.

Genesis 16,17: The story of Sarai and Hagar is a story of how we should not rush God and resort to our own plans. Sarai gives Abram permission to have sex with her slave, Hagar. Abram happily complies and Hagar becomes pregnant by him. When Hagar discovers “saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” (16:4) Sarai blames Abram for her slave girl’s arrogance, and shouts at Abram, “May the Lord judge between you and me!” (5) Abram cooly replies, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” (6) And Sarai punishes her slave, Hagar, who runs away.

The story takes a strange twist when an angel comes to Hagar and remonstrates, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” (9) But then in a manner oddly parallel to what happens many centuries later, the angel promises “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” (10) and in a poem strikingly similar to the Annunciation to Mary, the angel says, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;/ you shall call him Ishmael.” (11) But unlike Jesus, the angel warns, “He shall be a wild ass of a man,/ with his hand against everyone,/ and everyone’s hand against him;/ and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” (12)

God is definitely not silent and at the age of 99, God comes (presumably in the form of an angel) to Abram and reiterates the Covenant, renaming Abram and Sarai in the process. But the most astounding promise he makes to the old man with the new name, Abraham, is “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” (17:2). Abraham responds by falling on his face and worshipping as God describes the Covenant that creates the identity of the Jewish race to this day: “ I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (7)

The sign of the Covenant is cicumscision: “ Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old,” (12). WHat I’d not noticed before is that every male in the household, including slaves is to be circumcised.

Abraham is clearly buying into the Covenant, assuming that Ishmael will be the heir. But then God , always with a surprise up his sleeve, renames Sarai to Sarah and tells the couple that she will bear a son, whom they are to name Isaac, with whom “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” (19)

Ishmael will do just fine as well. God promises, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” (17:20), which as we observed above is the other semitic race, the Arabs. And if we accept that Ishmael is the ancestor to the Arabs just as Sarai’s son, Isaac is the ancestor of the Jews, that last line the angel says to Hagar–“he shall live at odds with all his kin.”– echoes eerily down to the present day.

The authors of Genesis are very clear about circumcision, observing that Abraham was circumcised along with Ishmael at the age of 13, and all the males of the household including slaves. My only response here is, “Ouch.”

Matthew 6:5–18: Jesus provides direction on the matter of prayer. He makes it clear that prayer is a private conversation with God and not to “be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” (5) Rather, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (6).

Moreover, prayer is not an opportunity for empty speechifying: “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (7) It’s interesting that he refers to the Gentiles, presumably praying to their many small-g gods, since Matthew is informing us that Jesus has observed Gentiles in prayer–not something I’d thought of before. But it’s a reminder that Israel of the time was also full of occupying Roman soldiers and presumable many other Gentiles. And also, as Paul and the author of Hebrews will make clear, that Jesus’ is here for everyone regardless of our ethnicity.

Jesus then tells us how to pray in what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer, which is the great common ground of worship in every Christian church. What’s interesting here is that Jesus emphasizes the importance of forgiveness, pointing out the reward of forgiveness: “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (14) Likewise, the consequences of withholding forgiveness: “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (15). I think this emphasis reminds us that forgiveness is the primary duty of the Christian in community. As we observe those around us, public figures, and especially ourselves, forgiveness is always in short supply. Hence, Jesus’ admonition. And why we so admire those Christians in South Carolina in 2015, who forgave the gunman that shot and killed nine people in their community–and thereby averted the riots that have so disfigured other places where vengeance is the order of the day.

In general, Jesus views a relationship with God as anything but a public display of religiosity. In addition to those who pray loudly in public using empty words, Jesus disdains those who put on a public show of fasting. We even see a note of wry humor when he says, “do not look dismal, like the hypocrites.” (16a) God is not interested in our looks, and when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward,” (16b) we can hear his dripping irony as he makes it clear that this empty “reward” is being identified as a hypocrite. One more proof of just how impossible it is to fool Jesus, who looks at our hearts–not our faces or empty words.

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.

Psalm 9:1–10; Genesis 12:10–13:18; Matthew 5:27–42

Psalm 9:1–10: Alter informs us that “this psalm and the next one are a striking testimony to the scrambling in textual transmission that, unfortunately, a good many of the psalms have suffered.” Nevertheless, the tone of praise to God comes through clearly, along with one of those lines that we hear all the time: “Let me rejoice and be glad in You.” (3a).

However, we rarely hear exactly what the psalmist is rejoicing about because it’s really not very nice: “…let me hymn Your name, Most High,/ when my enemies turn back,/ when they stumble and perish before You.” (3b, 4) This rejoicing in God’s justice which included victory for the psalmist’s side and the a vanquished enemy persists for the next several verses: “You rebuked the nations,/destroyed the wicked,/ their name You wiped out forever.” (6)

In the same way that genealogies are the repository for preserving the memories of dead individuals, so too entire nations. Thus the psalmist takes special pleasure in noting that “The enemy–ruins that are gone for all time,/ and towns you smashed, their name is lost.” (7) Having lost their names, it’s as if these places never existed.

Unlike these forgotten people, towns, and nations, God’s justice is infinite in extent: “the Lord is forever enthroned,/ makes His throne for justice unshaken./ He judges the world in righteousness,/ lays down the law to the nations in truth.” (8,9) For this psalmist it’s all about God’s righteousness and justice. Which as we’ve seen thus far in Genesis–and will see through the entire OT–is God’s major quality. For Israel, God’s love always seems to come in at second place.

Genesis 12:10–13:18: There’s a famine in Canaan and Abram travels with Sarai down to wealthy Egypt. Afraid that the Egyptians will kill him in order to take beautiful Sarai as some Egyptian’s wife, Abram instructs Sarai to say she’s her sister. Nevertheless, Pharaoh “was taken into Pharaoh’s house And for her sake he dealt well with Abram. (12:16). However, all the male intentions here were suspect and Pharaoh gets sick and generally upset, asking Abram, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” (12:20)

Why is this odd story here? It is an almost one-for-one foreshadowing of Israel’s history several generations later when there’s a famine, and Jacob’s entire family ends up in Egypt. As with Abram, things are good at first, but then Abram’s deception leads to the Pharaoh getting sick. Another deception happens hundreds of years later when Moses and his mother wind up in Pharaoh’s court. I’ll take Pharaoh’s sickness as a parallel to the plagues that finally result in the same end. As Abram is sent away from Egypt, so too the Jews. Here in Genesis we have a clear echo of Israel’s national story.

Abram, Sarai, and his nephew Lot end up in the Negeb, and then back to Bethel. However, both Abram and Lot were wealthy–wealth being measured in heads of livestock and “Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together.” (13:6). There’s an amicable parting between Abram and Lot. Abram settles in Canaan and “Lot journeyed eastward” heading as we will find out shortly, to city life in Sodom.

Once Lot has left the scene, God comes to Abraham and makes the Grand Promise: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (13:16),. The second half of the promise concerns land, specifically Canaan: “Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (13:17).  This promise is here because it is Israel’s justification to take over the Canaan when they return from Egypt centuries later. Abram has prior claim on Canaan from God and thus it becomes the Promised Land.

What subsequent history proves of course is that God keep his side of the promise. As for Israel–and all of us for that matter–we’re somewhat less reliable.

Matthew 5:27–42: Jesus continues to provide his radical–and I presume unprecedented–interpretation of the Law using the famous phrase, “You have heard that it was said/ But I say” construction. And Jesus does not hesitate to take up the tough issues that vexed society then, just as it does today.

Jesus says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (28), which of course is exactly the statement that got Jimmy Carter into trouble in the 1970’s when he stated this passage and “enlightened society” came down around his head. Both Jimmy and Jesus are right of course. And as Bill Clinton so ably proved in 1998, we’d much rather have a president who commits adultery than one who tells us not to.

Perhaps the hardest one of all is Jesus’ redefinition of divorce: “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (31) The Catholic Church takes these words at face value, even now in the 21st century. And I have to say, we Protestants who have gone to all sorts of interpretive lengths to alter Jesus’ rather clear meaning in the end frankly are not on the side of what Jesus is saying so clearly here. The Catholic CHurch is right and we Americans don’t like it one bit.

Yes, I know there are all sorts of highly justifiable reasons for divorce, but at least as I read it here, Jesus is saying bluntly, “OK, go ahead and divorce. Just remember you’re committing adultery.” Not something we like to hear from our ostensibly loving God and Jesus as our friend. But there it sits.

My particular favorite is what Jesus says about oaths. Don’t swear on heaven or your head. In fact don’t swear on anything at all since it’s definitely broadcasting that you’re looking for an escape hatch out of your oath. Just “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.'” (37) Don’t elaborate and don’t invent complicated scenarios and don’t lie. When I’ve tried to evade an Yes or No answer I just get in deeper. I completely agree with Jesus when he says that elaborating, “it comes from the evil one.” If Jesus were using today’s jargon,  I’m pretty sure he’s say, “Don’t waffle.” Like everything else Jesus said, it’s never really that easy.

 

Psalm 8; Genesis 11:10–12:9; Matthew 5:17–26

Psalm 8: This beautiful psalm of celebration is to be accompanied on the gittith, which as Alter points out, “is another musical instrument that has eluded persuasive identification.” And the opening line is now the first line of a familiar parise song: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth.” (2)

The psalmist focuses on the splendor of creation, essentially a poetic reflection on the creation story of Genesis 1. As usual, we begin above, in heaven, only this is the literal heaven we experience on a clear night: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,/ the moon and the stars You fixed firm.” (4) In comparison to the enormity of space, humankind seems small and unworthy as the psalmist wonders why God bothers with us: “What is man that You should note hum,/ and the human creature that You pay him heed.” (5) Yet, for some reason God has “made him little less than the gods,/ with glory and grandeur You crown him.” (6) And we may as well enjoy our status.

Our position in the hierarchy is effectively in the middle: Less than God and just below the small-g gods (some translate this as ‘celestial beings,’) but greater the remainder of all God’s creation: “You make him [humans] rule over the work of Your hands./ All things You set under his feet.” (7). The psalmist then lists living creatures in what I take to be a hierarchical order, beginning with the domesticated animals on down to whatever is in the oceans: “Sheep and oxen all together,/ also the beasts of the field,/ birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,” and finally creatures at the very bottom of the ocean, or perhaps we could extend to snakes and insects: “what moves on the paths of the seas.” (8,9) Interestingly, he cites only living creatures, not vegetation.

Of course, as humankind, we have taken this psalm to heart far too enthusiastically, and used it as inexcusable justification for exploitation of animal life, driving far too many creatures to extinction. But it would do us well to read this psalm frequently as it wraps up with the last line the same as the first: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

Genesis 11:10–12:9: The Jewish penchant for genealogical record-keeping finds its expression once again in listing, almost in sing-song form, the descendants of Shem, which leads inexorably to Terah, “the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran..” (11:26). Not surprisingly, this particular genealogy is more carefully crafted than those of Noah’s other sons because of course it’s the line that leads directly to the Jewish race.

[And also became grist for the mathematical mill of the seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher, who used the genealogies in the OT and in Matthew to calculate that God created the earth on the morning of October 23, 4004 B.C.  This of course, has led to the “young earthers” believing that creation is only slightly more than 6000 years old, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.]

The author’s purpose here is not so much to date creation as to lay out the all important introduction of Israel’s national story that begins with Abram, which begins with a journey, that becomes a a foreshadowing of the journeys of the Hebrews yet to come both out of Egypt and eventually out of Babylon.

God speaks to Abram and tells him in the famous verse, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (12:1) At this point we don’t know the details of the Covenant–that comes later–but God’s word is sufficiently compelling to cause Abram to leave a very comfortable existence in Ur. As Christians, of course, this journey is not is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey from heaven to earth as John records it in John 1 and Paul in Philippians 2.

Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot and end up in the “hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord.” (12:8)  If they had stayed there, Israel’s history would have been quite different. But we then read that “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” (12:9) where there are a couple of cities in the Negeb that will play a substantial role in Abram’s and Lot’s future.

Matthew 5:17–26: Jesus says something that the Christian church seemed to have forgotten down through the ages: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (17) Too often we assumed that Jesus trumped the law and prophets, thereby rendering not just the Law, but the entire Jewish race irrelevant–and worse, worthy of annihilation. Our images of a blond, long-haired Jesus in everything from pre-Renaissance art to Christian bookstore kitsch forget too easily that Jesus never saw himself as anything other than Jewish.

Paul picks up on Jesus’ self-characterization of being the fulfilment of the Law and prophets in the theology he develops, especially in Romans and Galatians. For Matthew, of course, Jesus’ statement that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (18) is his underlying theme of Jesus as being exactly that messianic fulfillment–a point Matthew seems to be able to make in every event in Jesus’ life.

But as far as the Sermon on the Mount is concerned, Jesus is radically recasting the Law and Prophets into a new and frankly, more difficult ethos as he elevates anger and insult to the ethical equivalent of murder: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (22)

These are tough new rules, and given today’s cultural coarseness, one we would do well to remember. Notice, too, that Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t be angry, but that we should not express that anger violently against others.

Instead of anger, Jesus is telling us to seek reconciliation. And don’t linger, nursing your anger. Instead, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” The same goes for those who accuse you: ” Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” In other words, settle, don’t go to trial since things could turn out very badly for you. Among his countless other gifts, it’s clear Jesus would have been an excellent lawyer–a skill we see again at his own trial where he refuses to answer stupid questions.

 

Psalm 7:11–18; Genesis 10:1–11:9; Matthew 5:1–16

Psalm 7:11–18: The psalmist’s world is pretty black and white as he observes that God “exacts justice for the righteous,” (12a) but also “El [ed note: another word for God per Robert Alter] utters doom each day” (12b) on the wicked. Our poet uses a stark military image of God punishing the man who refuses to repent: “If a man repent not, He [God] sharpens His sword,/ He pulls back His bow and aims it./ And for him [the wicked man], He readies the tools of death,/ lets fly His arrows at the fleers.” (13, 14). In short, the wicked will eventually pay for their crimes, even though God seems to be aiming but not releasing his arrows upon them.

In one of the more ironic metaphors in the PSalms, our poet describes the gradual growth of a man turning to wickedness as a perverse type of pregnancy that goes through three stages: “Look, one spawns wrongdoing,/ grows bug with mischief,/ gives birth to lies.” (15) And the wicked man cannot blame others for his condition; he has done it all on his own: “A pit he delved, and dug it,/ and he fell in the trap he made.” And wickedness eventually backfires: “His mischief comes down on his head,/ on his skull his outrage descends.” (17). Or as my father used to day, “The chickens always come home to roost.”

Needless to say, our righteous psalmist is happy about God’s requirement for justice: “I acclaim the Lord for His righteousness,/ let me hymn the Lord’s name on high.” (18) As should we. While it seems so often that injustice reigns, it would be insanely difficult to live in a world where there was no justice or righteousness at all.

Genesis 10:1–11:9: As we’ve observed before, without a belief in an afterlife, the only way one could be remembered is by one’s progeny, which is why Jews were pretty obsessed with genealogy.Since the story makes it clear there were only three sons of Noah, their respective descendants are listed, the authors felt it necessary to record this unique genealogy that traces not only individuals, but families and then entire nations.

One wonders if this list was solely compiled by the Jews writing Genesis, or if other nations of that time also recorded genealogies, especially ones dating back to the flood story, which as we’ve noted had widespread currency beyond Israel. I suspect they did since most of civilization BCE was organized by families, families into tribes, and tribes into nations.

Along the way, some individuals Nimrod receive special attention: “ He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (10:9) Perhaps this is because “he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh.” (10:11), a civilization which figures prominently in Israel’s later story.

The same for Caanan, another big player, whose geographic territory is included: “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (10:19). One’s eye does not skip over those famous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which will figure later in the book.

One comes to the end of chapter 10 with a clear sense that humankind is back–and back with a vengeance.

This of course leads to the Babel story which solves a particular problem: Since the Noah myth asserts everyone has descended from a single family, they quite naturally all speak the same language. But by the time the authors wrote Genesis it was apparent that numerous languages abounded and an explanation was required. They found the solution by writing about those folks who settled on the plain of Shinar who start building  tower as an expression of the technological prowess. In fact, God is a bit worried about their skill: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (11:6)

The old human pride and arrogance that distressed the antediluvian God is now once again on full display. God had promised not to wipe people out, so he resorts to Plan B: “let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7)

And for the authors of Genesis, a nice explanation that aligns their national story with reality on the ground. And we also benefit now by having the word “babble” passed down to us. In fact, we could see what occurs every day in the print and electronic media reminds us that the echoes of Babel persist right to today.

Matthew 5:1–16: We arrive with Jesus on the hillside outside Capernaum. The crowd is already there, Jesus sits down and his disciples gather round as Jesus teaches the most famous list since the Decalogue. Just as the original Ten Commandments established the basis of Israel’s civilization, the Beatitudes form the ethical basis of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus will have much to say.

But perhaps their most radical aspect is that they no longer begin with “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” but rather, the word “blessed.” This seems a clear indication of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians that we live by a new and even more radical regime, the marvelous consequence of the operation of the Holy Spirit within us. The law is no longer an externality handed down from God above. Rather Jesus is describing a state of being that comes from within. Our behavior has been turned inside out. We are blessed because we are. Jesus, as God on earth, has figured out once again that we humans are disinclined to obey rules. Whatever we are, our fruits must come from within, nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, as many have observed, Jesus turns the moral order upside down. The poor in spirit arher than the connected or the powerful  inherit the kingdom. The pure in heart, the emotionally downtrodden rather than the perfectionist practice of the Pharisee sees God. And so forth.

From our vantage point 2000 years later we do not fully appreciate just how radical the Beatitudes are. These first words out of Jesus’ mouth set the conflict between Jesus and established religious order into motion immediately.

Nor is Jesus advocating some sort of “secret society” religion. Instead, we “are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (14) Jesus is not advocating just a life of inward contemplation, but a life of action “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” To be sure, there is being, which is what the Beatitudes describe. But there is doing as well.

Psalm 7:1–9; Genesis 9; Matthew 4:12–25

Psalm 7:1–10: The ostensible motivation for this psalm of supplication is a certain Cush the Benjaminite, who is mentioned only here in the BIble. Given the psalm’s somewhat military flavor, we presume the psalmist is writing about the period of conflict between David and Saul. Perhaps Cush was Saul’s ally.

Whoever he was, he was doubtless part of the army pursuing David after his break with Saul. David’s straits appear desperate: “Rescue me from all my pursuers and save me./ Lest like a lion they tear up my life/ …with no one to save me (2,3)

David asserts his innocence by daring God to let him be conquered if he has done anything wrong, “Lord, my God, if I have done this,…/If I paid back my ally with evil,/ if I oppressed my foes without reason–/ may the enemy pursue and overtake me.” (4-6a). And to intensify his protest of innocence, he’s willing to die for it: “…and trample to earth my life/ and make my glory dwell in the dust.” (6b)

Having established his willingness to die if he has wronged Cush, (we presume), he turns to God and basically demands divine justice (and possibly retribution): “Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,/ Loom high against the wrath of my enemies.” (7) What’s intriguing here is that by virtue of his righteousness, David believes God owes him justice: “Grant me justice, Lord, as befits my righteousness/ and as befits my innocence that is in me.”(9) Does this mean that we can pray to God and demand justice when we’ve been wronged? Needless to say, these sorts of prayers are made every day, but once again I think Jesus changed the rules about these kinds of prayers.

That said, our psalmist observes one very true thing about God to bear in mind whenever we pray: “He searches hearts and conscience,/ God is righteous.” (10) We may be able to deceive others and even deceive ourselves, but there is no lying to God.

Genesis 9: Now that Noah and his family have landed once again on dry earth, God establishes some basic rules. It is impossible to read this chapter without seeing it as the basis of God’s more elaborate Covenant established with Moses many centuries later. In some ways, it seems it is Noah’s rescue forecasts the rescue of Israel from Egypt and eventually from Babylon that establishes Israel as God’s most-favored nation.

The rules set by God are clear. First, God sets mankind at the top of the food chain: “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” (2) The only prohibition is eating blood.

God uses the rainbow as a sign of this covenant, which seems so much more pleasant than the bloody sacrifices that will follow in the Temple. One wonders why God needs to be reminded of his promise, but then again, God seems to realize he erred in flooding the earth: “I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (16) But we must note that this covenant is  between God and the natural world, of which humankind is but a part.  …A covenant which humankind has pretty well trashed by its depredations against nature down through the centuries.

As a further demonstration that the Noah story is a major part of Israel’s national story. Noah gets drunk (we can hardly blame him for all he has gone through.) “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father,” (22), goes and tells his brothers who cover their naked father without looking. But Ham, having inadvertently seen his father’s nakedness rates only a curse: “Cursed be Canaan;/ lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” Which of course provides a nice justification for what follows when Israel reenters Canaan with Joshua.

Hadn’t realized that at 950 years, Noah almost outlives Methuselah…

Matthew 4:12–25: Jesus leaves Nazareth and begins his ministry at Capernaum by the sea of Galilee. Matthew skips right over the nasty business at the Nazareth synagogue where the membership tries to throw Jesus off a cliff for his apparent heresy. As is always the case with our gospel writer, Jesus every move has a connection to Scripture and hiso exception:  appearance in Capernaum, land of Zebulun and the tribe of Naphtali is no exception: “on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness/ have seen a great light.” (15, 16)

What I had not noticed before is that Jesus starts out by preaching exactly the same message as his mentor, John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (17)

Jesus, however, is certainly a more appealing character than his second cousin and his charisma is so strong is that all he has to do is say to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (19) and they abandon their careers for the uncertainty of becoming disciples of a young preacher. Of course that was a world-changing decision for them–and for us.

It takes little time for Jesus’ fame to spread, and certainly healing the sick was a great attraction. But what’s different than John, is that Jesus’ fame spreads way beyond Israel and the Jews: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (25) And of course that’s exactly who Jesus came for: all humankind, not just the Jews.