Psalm 78:9–16; Numbers 35:1–30; Luke 3:21–38

Psalm 78:9–16: Our psalmist now begins his lengthy recitation of Israel’s checkered history, opening with the rather stark description of the cowardice of the warriors in one of Israel’s tribes: “The Ephraimites, deft wielders of bows,/ turned tail on the day of battle,” (9). For the poet, there is a simple root cause: “they did not keep God’s pact,/ and His teaching refused to follow.” (10) Not only did their defeat arise because of being stubbornly faithless before God, but because “they forgot His acts/ and His wonders that He showed them.” (11)

The negative consequences of historical forgetfulness is one of the the thematic undercurrents throughout the Psalms. Recalling Israel’s storied history and its covenantal relationship with God becomes the overriding theme of the psalm at this point. Our poet begins in Egypt, starting with the plagues: “Before their fathers He did wonders,/ in the land of Egypt, in Zoan’s field.” (12) followed immediately by the miraculous crossing of the sea: “He split open the sea and let them pass through,/He made the water stand up like a heap.” (13). Then, how God led them through the wilderness: “And He led them with the cloud by day/ and all night long with the light of fire.” (14)

The poet’s description of the incident at Meribah has both literal and symbolic levels: “He split apart rocks in the wilderness/ and gave drink as from the great deep./ He brought forth streams from stone,/ and poured down water like rivers.” (15, 16) Literal water and then how God works miraculously overall: “He brought forth streams from stone.” This verse must have been on John’s mind when he records Jesus as saying, “I am the living water.”

The purpose of this psalm is to recall the history of how God once worked in Israel. It’s clear that the poet is working to overcome historical amnesia. Exactly the same amnesia that seems to afflict us here today.

Numbers 35:1–30: The Levites are the urban dwellers of Israel. Because of their priestly duties, they cannot farm and ranch the way the other tribes do. Accordingly, God, speaking as always through Moses, gives them six towns, 1000 cubits of close-in space for their cattle an d sheep and an additional and 2000 cubits of pasture land on all four sides of each town on which to graze their (sacrificial?) sheep and cattle.  48 towns in total are to be allocated.

Every other tribe contributes towns and surrounding land to the Levites. As usual, however, it is to be done fairly: “from the larger tribes you shall take many [towns], and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it obtains.” (8)

In a measure to prevent revenge and short-circuiting justice upon those who commit a crime, six of those towns are designated as “cities of refuge,” “so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there.” (11) The reason is not to allow criminals to circumvent justice, but “so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation.” (12) In every case, the process of justice must be observed. Otherwise, chaos ensues.

The cities of refuge discussion leads to the various definitions, circumstances, and punishments surrounding one person killing another, whether accidental of premeditated. The clear penalty for premeditated murder—”anyone who strikes another with an iron object, and death ensues” (16)— is simple and clear: death. Same goes for striking another wth a stone or a wooden club. These are the crimes that today we designate as 1st and 2nd degree murder.

What’s fascinating is that it is the avenger, a relative close to the victim, that carries out the sentence: “ The avenger of blood is the one who shall put the murderer to death; when they meet, the avenger of blood shall execute the sentence.” (19) This criminal justice system is simple and very personal.

Then, the cases of unintentional murder—what we today call manslaughter—involving “someone [who] pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues.” (22, 23a) The key point is, “they were not enemies, and no harm was intended,” (23b)

Even though the death was accidental, there still must be judgement, and “the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances.” (24) In this situation, the precipitator of the death is sent by the congregation “back to the original city of refuge,” where he was hiding prior to the trial. The “slayer shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.” (25) Once that happens, the slayer can return home without consequence. However, while the high priest is alive, if the slayer goes outside the bounds of the city of refuge, he is fair game to the avenger, who may kill the slayer without “bloodguilt.” 

There is one final and crucial point: “If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.” (30)

The key concept here—and I suppose revolutionary in its time—is that justice must occur and that a process has been defined. All these rules clearly form the basis of the laws we still enforce today, albeit with vastly more complex rules and legal machinery.

Luke 3:21–38: Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in an almost matter-of-fact way. What’s interesting here is that Jesus was baptized along with “all the people,“—almost as if he were just one of the crowd. There is no recorded conversation between John and Jesus. Rather, while Jesus was praying, Luke tells us that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” (22a) I think the dove gives a concreteness about the Holy Spirit to Luke’s Gentile audience, who grew up with gods represented in corporeal form. As the dove descends, “a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (22b)

The question hangs in the air: did Jesus alone hear the voice or did the crowd? If the voice was audible to others, I think Luke would have recorded the crowd’s reaction, or at least John’s. This leads me to believe the voice was heard by Jesus alone. In any event, it is the signal that Jesus’ public ministry is about to begin and that it has been sanctified by God himself.

Luke has one final detail to attend to. I’m sure his Gentile audience would really be wondering what this “Son of God” business was about. It would be extremely easy to spiritualize Jesus at this point, making him different from other men and best and non-human at worst. To make it completely clear that Jesus was fully human, Luke inserts the genealogy of Jesus here.

Matthew, writing to Jews, traces Jesus back to David, emphasizing Jesus’ claim to be the Davidic Messiah. Luke, on the other hand, writes out Jesus’ ancestry, ignoring David, tracing it not only back to Abraham but then back to Adam himself, who was also a small-s son of God. It’s another subtle reference that Jesus is the Son for all humans, not just Jews.

It’s also crucial, I think, that Luke traces Jesus back through the male side of his ancestors [Joseph finally gets some credit!] This makes it clear that Jesus was indeed the literal Son of God, although many other sons came between Adam and Jesus. Luke notes that “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli,…” (23) so that we don’t forget that Jesus is the direct descendant of God through Mary. But the genealogy makes Jesus’ bona fides equally clear to an audience (including me) that might still be struggling with the concept of the virgin birth.


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