Psalm 55:1–8; Leviticus 18:6–19:11; Mark 6:14–29

Psalm 55:1–8: The opening words, “Hearken, O God, hear my prayer,/ and do not ignore my plea” tells us this is a psalm of supplication. The poet writing in David’s voice is rather presumptuously demanding of God, telling him, “Listen well to me and answer me.” (3a) However, his harsh almost disrespectful informality may be due to his feeling that he will faint dead away imminently: “In my complaint I sway and moan.” (3b).

The verses that follow are an extended catalog of his dire situation, which appears to be an looming defeat in battle. His situation is having a profoundly negative psychological impact on him, running the gamut “from the sound of the enemy” (4a) to “horror envelopes me.” (6b) In between are adjectives and verbs that paint a picture of imminent death, which certainly explains the desperate language of his prayer: “In my complaint sway and moan./ From the sound of the enemy,/ from the crushing force of the wicked/ when they bring mischief down upon me/ and in fury harass me.” (4). This oppression creates the deep fear that he is indeed near death: “my heart quails within me/ and death-terrors fall upon me,/ fear and trembling enter me/ and horror envelops me.” (5,6)

He briefly dreams of escape: And I would say, ‘Would I had wings like  dove./ I would fly off and find rest.“(7)—even if the possibility of escape meant he would be forced to live alone in the desert: “Look, I would wander far away,/ and lodge in the wilderness.” (8)

I have never experienced the horrors of battle, but there is a deep authenticity here that suggests it was written by someone who was. Above all, these verses communicate a desperation that impels the poet to turn to the only one who can rescue him: God.  And as he demonstrates we do not need to reverent or formal in prayer. In fact I think it is better that our prayer honestly reflects our feelings of the moment. Prayer is not liturgy; it is communication, no matter what the circumstance.

Leviticus 18:6–19:11: We encounter an astounding catalog of of the varieties of incest and forbidden sexual relations: “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness.” (18:6) I presume the phrase, “you shall not uncover her nakedness” is not only prohibition of viewing one’s kin naked, but also a euphemism for sexual relations. Every combination is anathema, but expressed in rather complex manner, as e.g., “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.” (7)

Our authors extend the prohibition to sisters (9), granddaughters (10), “your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister.” (11), aunts (13), uncles (14), daughter-in-law, and even “a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.” (18) Nor sexual relations while a woman “is in her menstrual uncleanness.” (19) nor with any “kinsman’s wife.” (20)

Then almost casually amidst the other prohibitions, the authors list the astounding prohibition against child sacrifice: “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God” (21) As well as the perversion of bestiality: “You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it.” (23)

And for our modern age, perhaps the most controversial prohibition of all: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (22) There is no getting around the clarity of this statement. The question arises of course, how is homoerotic love has become the exception to a long list of unacceptable sexual relationships that our society by and large still obeys? I do not know how to answer that.

What the authors do make clear, however, is that these practices are widespread among other tribes and nations: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves.” (24) This statement certainly greets me as an after-the-fact justification for the invasion and settling of Canaan by the Israelites.

The punishment for the persons who commit any of these acts is crystalline: “For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.” (29) As we have observed before, these prohibitions were essential elements in preserving the health and robustness of the Israelite race.

In chapter 19 the authors turn to other prohibitions as they explicate details of the decalogue. Parents are honored and sabbaths are kept. And the parts of sacrifices of well-being that have not be consumed by the third day are to be thrown away. Which certainly makes sense in an era without refrigeration.

Social welfare is also important: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Which tells me that every society has a profound duty to care for the poor (and yes, the aliens!) among us. Christians who complain about social welfare programs or believe illegal immigrants are to be shipped back across the border would do well to reflect on this chapter.

Mark 6:14–29: Of all the gospel writers—and surprisingly in this shortest gospel where terseness is always present—Mark gives us the greatest detail regarding the death of John the Baptist. What’s particularly interesting here is that Mark introduces the story of the death of John by noting that word about Jesus’ acts had reached Herod. As is human nature—and certainly still true in our era of 24/7 talking heads on cable “news” shows—all kinds of wild rumors about Jesus were in circulation: “Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” (14,15) Mark gives us tremendous insight into Herod’s insecurity and even fear: “But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (16)

Herod has good reason to be fearful for he knows the backstory about John that was probably not public at that time. Herod arrested John because “John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (18) Deep down, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” At the same time Herod knew that John represented something important: “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (20b)

But Herod’s daughter Herodius despised John. We know the story: Herod, in his unthinking stupidity offers his daughter anything she desires for her voluptuous dance performance, “even half my kingdom.” But on the advice of her equally evil mother, asks for the head of John on a platter, a request with which Herod, to maintain face, complies.

Mark is telling us clearly that even though Herod knew John was right, he had refused to accept the truth and he remained a coward. John was executed because the king lacked the courage to refuse a stupid offer and to stand up against his wife and daughter. Of course, it’s also a negative example and therefore a challenge to Mark’s readers and to us that standing up for what is holy and right, as well as for Jesus, requires courage, especially in the face of political or cultural disapproval. A situation becoming increasingly common in our own culture. It is far too easy to take the easy route and become Herods ourselves.



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