Psalm 71:1–8; Numbers 18:25–19:22; Mark 14:66–72

This is my 600th post at this site, since my first post in February 2014…

Psalm 71:1–8: This psalm opens in supplication, albeit a great deal less fraught than the psalm that precedes it. One has the feeling of calm reflection, as our poet opens on “In You, O Lord, I shelter./ Let me never be shamed.” (1) At this point, his supplication is worshipfully abstract, although he is asking God to listen to him, “Through Your bounty save me and free me./ Incline Your ear to me and rescue me.” (2)

We have the sense that this psalmist is older, and has come to God as his rescue and shelter many times in the past. He is confident that God will again “Be for me a fortress-dwelling/ to come into always./ You ordained to rescue me,/ for You are my rock and my bastion.” (3b)

Having established that he is in close relationship with God, he comes to the supplication itself, although this, too, is relatively abstract: “My God, free me from the hand of the wicked,/ from the grip of the wicked and violent.” (4) Again, we sense his confidence that God will indeed protect him as he has done many times in the past: “For You are my hope, master,/ O Lord, my refuge since youth.” (5)

This reflection on his youth reminds him that he has been in a life-long relationship with God: “Upon You I relied from birth,/ From my mother’s womb You brought me out.” (6a) And as he remembers that life-long relationship with God he again can only express worshipful adoration: “To You is praise always.” (6b) In his old age he recalls, “An example I was to the many,/ and You are my sheltering strength.” (7) Notice how he switches from the past tense to the present tense. God was—and is— his (and our) sheltering strength through our entire lives. And this thought brings him to a full expression of worship: “May my mouth be filled with Your praise,/ all daylong Your glory.” (8)

What we take away from this psalm is that supplication to God is done within the framework of a close, long-lasting relationship with God. This is no foxhole prayer by someone in desperate straits nut who has no previous relationship with God seeking  for rescue. This is a prayer that arises within the context of worship—and worship is our expression of not only a long term relationship but based on previous experience, the assurance that God will hear—and act.

Numbers 18:25–19:22: God has given precise instructions that the Levites will receive the first-born (“first fruits”) offering from all the other tribes, but that they will not own any land. However, even though what they receive is essentially gift, there is still a requirement that the Levites in turn make an offering to God in gratitude for what they have received: “you shall set apart an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe.” (18:26) Moreover, as the Levites have received the best the other tribes have to offer, they are bound by the same obligation: “Out of all the gifts to you, you shall set apart every offering due to the Lord; the best of all of them is the part to be consecrated.” (18:29)

Nevertheless, the Levites have received these offerings as “your payment for your service in the tent of meeting. You shall incur no guilt by reason of it, when you have offered the best of it.” (31, 32) This is an early command from God that priests shall be paid for their work. Again, this seems to be a not-so-subtle hint by our priestly authors reminding the people that they have an obligation to support those who perform holy duties. And by extension, as Paul notes somewhere in his letters to the Corinthians, pastors and priests are to be paid as well. 

Chapter 19 opens with the odd ceremony of the unblemished red heifer. Rather than sacrificing it on the altar in the tabernacle, “ You shall give it to the priest Eleazar, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” (19:3) And it is burned completely, “its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned.” (19:5) This ritual renders the participants unclean and even though the “one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water; he shall remain unclean until evening.” (19:8) Likewise the person “who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.” (19:10) Our authors are silent on the question as to why is this ceremony performed. Nor is it clear if this ceremony was performed only this one time or if it becomes a “perpetual ritual.” There are no instructions about ritualizing it, so I’m guessing it was performed only this one time.  Perhaps it’s some sort of introduction to the detailed instructions about dealing with corpses that follow immediately.

The problem with dead bodies is that they become instantly unclean upon death. and “Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days.” (11) Purification is accomplished by water on the 3rd day and the 7th day. Woe to anyone who fails to do this: they “defile the tabernacle of the Lord; such persons shall be cut off from Israel.” (13)

There are rules for people who die in a tent—all the occupants become unclean. And there are rules for the person who comes upon a dead body in the field “and touches one who has been killed by a sword, or who has died naturally,or a human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” (19:18)

These elaborate instructions for cleansing must have a hygienic purpose since dead bodies in the desert heat begin to decompose quickly. But the purpose of the sacrifice of the red heifer remains a mystery to me.

Mark 14:66–72: With the exception of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion Peter’s denial is certainly the saddest story in Mark’s gospel. A servant girl “stared at [Peter] and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.‘”  (67) Peter denies it and “the cock crowed.” (68). Next, the same  annoying servant girl tries to expose Peter publicly as she “began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”” (69) This time Peter denies it not just to the girl but we assume also in front of the bystanders now gathered around him. A few minutes later, another bystander accuses Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” (70) I’m guessing that Peter was still wearing rough work clothes associated with what well-dressed Jerusalem sophisticates saw as that worn by country bumpkins from Galilee. This time Peter not only denies—“I do not know this man you are talking about.” (71)—but he curses as well, which must have confirmed the suspicions of his country bumkinness. And with the most famous cock crow in history, Peter remembers what Jesus said, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” (72)

How would I have reacted were I Peter? Would I have even remembered what Jesus said the night before? Or would I try to rationalize my actions, thinking that Jesus really didn’t understand how difficult it would be to be standing around that courtyard. Or would I just be in denial that I had really even denied Jesus, thinking that denial is a more arcane philosophical concept than merely saying I didn’t know the man. After all, I’d rationalize, I’m still his disciple and I’ll go back to following him as soon as he extricates himself from the present difficulty. Or perhaps I’d think, he is the Son of God after all. He can bring the angels down form heaven with a single word and set things aright again.

But Peter “broke down and wept.” There was no denial of denial, no philosophical rationalization, no justification. There was only the deepest possible remorse. And it is at this point, I believe, that despite all his bold assurances he’s given so many times before that Peter truly once and for all becomes Jesus’ disciple.

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