Psalm 29; Genesis 50; Matthew 18:1–14

Psalm 29: This psalm sings to the power of almighty God. Alter notes that many have puzzled over its first line—”Grant to the Lord, O sons of God”—as to who these sons are. Apparently many scholars have suggested this psalm arises from an earlier Canaanite psalm and that the “sons of God” is “best thought of as a flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology—God’s royal entourage on high.”

Be that as it may, the thrust of the psalm is pure praise of God’s attributes, and especially his power over nature—which seems natural given that God is Creator. As we see so often in the Psalms, it is speech and voice that is the attribute of power—and no more so than here where “The God of glory thunders” (3) and “the Lord’s voice breaking cedars,/ the Lord shatters the Lebanon cedars.” (5) God’s voice is expressed in thunder and then as earthquake expressed with a remarkable simile of livestock prancing: “and He makes Lebanon dance like a calf,/ Sirion like a young wild ox.” (6).

Earthquake begets fire as “the Lord’s voice hews flames of fire” (7) and then still more earthquakes: “The Lord makes the wilderness shake,/ The Lord’s voice makes the Kadesh wilderness shake.” (8). God’s earthquake and thunder brings both birth and destruction: “The Lord’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does/ and lays bare the forests.” (9). All of this is laid out as evidence of God’s unfathomable glory and power, “and the Lord is enthroned as king for all time.” (10b)

In the final verse we come to the raison d’etre for this psalm: “May the Lord give strength to His people/ May the Lord bless His people with peace.” (11) It is God’s almighty power that gives us God-followers our own strength—and peace. The poem begins with repetition of the phrase,”Grant to the Lord,” but there is reciprocity here: this all-powerful God that can shake the earth; this God we worship has given us strength and peace in return.

Genesis 50: Joseph weeps as his father dies. This being Egypt, Jacob then benefits from the remarkable embalming skills of the Egyptians, which was certainly necessary in those pre-refrigeration days to carry Jacob’s body back to Canaan. The return to Canaan to bury Jacob is no small affair and “ With him [Joseph] went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household.” (7, 8) There are so many of them that “When the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” (11) But the crucial fact is that this is a final act of obedience to their father “his sons did for him as he had instructed them.” (12)—a message to every Jew of the respect due one’s father.

Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers have the very real concern that with their father now dead, Joseph will finally take his revenge on them for what they did so many years ago: ““What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” (15) Even now there’s some deceit on their [art as they tell Joseph, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’” (16, 17). If Jacob said that, it has not been mentioned in the story. I have the feeling Joseph figured that this bit about his father’s instruction may have been made up, but he gracefully chooses to ignore that possibility and takes the brothers’ statement at face value.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the brothers’ next statement, “Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” (17b) was sincere. Joseph certainly accepts it as such as another scene of brotherly emotion erupts: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept.” (18) One has to think that the authors insert this scene as a reminder of the brotherly love that once existed among the tribes of Israel. As we know too well from Israel’s history, enmity replaced fraternal love.

The brothers offer to become Joseph’s slaves, but he once again repeats the underlying theme of this long story: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (20) In some ways this is the overarching theme of the entire book of Genesis. No matter how far astray the many characters we’ve met may go—particularly the patriarchs—it is always part of God’s plan to bring good out of human fallenness. Joseph’s words to his brothers, “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (21) is a message to every Jew hearing this story: like Joseph, God will provide.

Finally, there is the key promise that while the family of Israel may be in Egypt for a while, there is the promise of eventual return to Canaan as Joseph, now on his deathbed, says, “God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” And on this note of eventual return, this book of beginnings ends with the death of Joseph.

Matthew 18:1–14: Jesus has just finished telling the disciple about his fate and three of them have had the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration, which they surely shared among their fellows. Now they seem to be getting visions of great personal glory to come and they ask Jesus, ““Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (1) To which Jesus calls a child and tells them that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (3). He tells them—and us—that humility, not religiosity, is the means to enter the Kingdom.

He then warns anyone who places ” a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (6). To be sure, it’s a warning to his disciples, but it is also a warning to us two millennia later. Be in the name of “good order” or over-interpreting theology, too many Christian churches have done exactly what Jesus warns about. Just as in Jesus’ day with the Jews, Christianity is too often about rules and restrictions rather than about grace. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be structure, but the human predilection to rules and bureaucracy has caused too many churches to become a millstone themselves.

Jesus’ warning is harsh: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away…if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away” (8,9) As usual though, Matthew’s juxtaposition of little children and millstones is exactly right: it is humility, not religiosity that is the key to following Jesus. Religiosity only results in millstones that impede the journey.

In the story of the lost sheep I think that there is a certain universalism here: it is God’s desire that 100% of humanity comes to him. For like the shepherd, he loves each human intensely. It is not in God’s nature to reject anyone. Rather it is our nature to reject him. And we—both as individuals and as community—that too often take perverse pleasure in causing others to stumble.

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