Archives for August 2016

Psalm 91:9–16; Joshua 10:1–28; Luke 13:1–17

Psalm 91:9–16: Our psalmist continues his theme of God as protection and shelter: “For you—the Lord is your refuge,/ [in] the Most High you have made your abode.” (9) As Christians, we talk about the love of God, but it is usually in abstract terms. Here, the metaphor of God as a refuge or a house [abode] is a much more tangible relationship.

God is not only refuge, he is protection: “No harm will befall you,/ nor affliction draw near to your tent.” (10) Obviously, life has affliction and harm, but the poet’s intent here is that only in the arms of God will we find succor.

The question is, do we just talk about the love of God and when bad things happen to us? Why do we forget about God and try to solve the problem on our own? Or,if we are pursued by a disease or an addiction do we truly seek out God as a refuge rather than a mere philosophical construct?

Our psalmist goes on to describe the role of guardian angels in our lives: “For His messengers He charges for you/ to guard you on all your ways./ On their palms they lift you up/ lest your foot be bruised by a stone.” (11, 12) I happen to believe that not all guardian angels are supernatural beings. I’m sure each of us can recall a time when another person came alongside us and protected us from some dire consequence.

God’s messengers not only bring protection, they bring courage to take risks: “On lion and viper you tread,/ you trample young lion and serpent.” (13)

But there is one requirement: that we turn toward God, who speaks here: “For Me he desired and I freed him./ I raised him high, for he has known My name.“(14)  It is when we turn to God and desire to know his name that the reality of God’s presence becomes apparent. Even in the darkest times, there is always God’s promise to which we can cling: “He calls Me and I answer him,/ I am with him in his straits./ I deliver him and grant him honor.” (15)

So, with promises such as that why do we so rarely turn toward God and cry out for his rescue when we are in trouble? Or we fail to recognize the guardian angels in our lives?

Joshua 10:1–28: The five kings of the Amorites, including King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem, develop a strategy to attack Gibeon, assuming (correctly) that Israel will have to defend them. The Gibeonites hear of this and go to Joshua, pleading “Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites …are gathered against us.” (6) Joshua complies and on his way to battle, God speaks to him, “Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.” (8).

It’s one thing for God to speak encouragingly, but our authors make sure we understand that God was personally involved in the battle. First, God is given credit for creating panic and confusion among the Amorites. Next, “As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died.” (11). Finally, Joshua shouts toward heaven, Sun, stand still at Gibeon,/and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” (12). God promptly answers, causing the sun to apparently stand still in the sky.

My own take on these events—God-inspired panic, stones from heaven, and the sun standing still—is that God does not act against his own laws of physics. That the “rocks from heaven” was doubtless a natural event, probably a landslide in that rocky land. As for the sun standing still, we have all experienced different perceptions of the passage of time, so that it seems as if time speeds up or slows down. 

[There’s an intriguing reference to Joshua’s prayer for God to make the sun stand still: “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.” (13b) One wonders how many ancient books there were that are now irretrievably lost to us.]

During that long day when the sun seemed to stand still, Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, wipes out the Amorites. Only the five conspiring kings remain as they were captured and held in a cave. Joshua calls for the kings to be brought before him.

He calls his “chiefs of the warriors who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.”” (24). This symbolic act of victor over vanquished is carried out and Joshua, as an object lesson to his generals, gives all credit to God : “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight.” (25). Then Joshua himself kills the five kings and has them hung on five trees until sunset.

It’s impossible to read these passage without some revulsion. I’m sure that a battle like the one described here doubtless took place. But I have to believe also that the authors—in keeping with the fact that it is victors who write the histories—have retrospectively added all the narrative details about God’s intervention. After all, we all seem to have a natural inclination to believe God’s on our side and that our actions, especially in war, are therefore justified. This is certainly among the more creative historical accounts.

Luke 13:1–17: Jesus is many things, but he is assuredly no romantic. His hard-headed realism comes across in his bluntness. Asked about some executed Galileans, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (2) Answering his own question he assures his listeners that they are just as great sinners as those who were killed. He then refers to a current event—the collapse of the tower of Siloam where 18 perished—telling us that bad things such as natural  and manmade disasters happen. The real issue is the state of our souls. Have we repented before something bad happens to us?

To make his point about the state of our souls, he tells the parable of the fig tree, which has been barren for three years and the owner wishes to cut down, but the gardener begs to tend it one more year to see if it bears fruit. If not, it will be cut down.

At first read this parable seems to be a non-sequitur. But I think the symbolism is clear. The fig tree is Israel, whom God planted but is not bearing fruit in terms of truly repenting. The gardener is Jesus, who is busy tilling soil and adding fertilizer. The question is, will Israel repent? Since Luke is doubtless writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, we know the outcome of the story. Even though Jesus came and tended it, the tree of Israel was cut down.

As is Luke’s habit, he turns from hard truths to healing. This time it’s the crippled woman, who has been been bent over for 18 years (another 18 in this passage!). Jesus heals her and is promptly taken to task by the Pharisees who object to healings occurring on the Sabbath. Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, much to the delight of the crowd.

For me, the issue is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that this incident illustrates just how clearly the Pharisees and leaders were focused on the forms of religiosity rather than on the needs of suffering human beings. Of course we are all Pharisees today when we focus on forms of worship or rules such as excluding gay people from church. As I’ve observed many times, human nature is pretty immutable, which is why these passages still resonate so strongly.

 

Psalm 91:1–8; Joshua 8:30–9:27; Luke 12:49–59

Psalm 91:1–8: This magnificent psalm, which celebrates God’s all-encompassing protection, includes one of the most famous lines in the entire Psalms:
I say of the Lord, ‘My refuge and bastion,
            my God in whom I trust.’” (2)

The idea of God as trustworthy protector must have been a radical concept in an era when surrounding cultures worshipped and sacrificed even their children in their futile attempts to propitiate terrorizing small-g gods.

Our poet’s God is everything small-g gods are not: shelter, protection, truth. Metaphorically like an eagle, God “With His pinion He shelters you,/ and beneath His wings you take refuge.” (4a) At the center of this protection lies God’s reality: “A shield and a buckler, His truth.” (4b)

Our poet is not content to merely say that God is his protector and leave it at that. Instead, he goes on to provide examples of this protection using marvelous contrasts that demonstrate the enormous extent and quality of God’s shelter and how it eliminates fear.  First, protection from enemies, real and imagined: “You shall not fear from the terror of the night/ nor from the arrow that flies by day,” (5). And protection from disease: “from the plague that stalks in darkness/ nor from the scourge that rages at noon.” (6)

Even when surrounded by disaster, God, who is now speaking, remains our faithful protector in the famous line: “Though a thousand fall at your side/ and ten thousand at your right hand/ you it will not reach.” (7)

And, unlike so many psalms of supplication that bemoan the apparent success of the wicked, here is God’s promise that the wicked will not prevail in the end: “You but look with your eyes,/ and the wicked’s requital you see.” (8) In other words, they will get what’s coming to them.

These verses have brought encouragement to all who suffer down through the age, Simply reciting the words of these opening verses is a both a reminder that God loves us and a healing balm to our fearful souls.

Joshua 8:30–9:27: Joshua is not only the political and military leader of Israel, he s its spiritual leader as well, having taken up the responsibilities that once belonged to Moses. Having conquered two cities—Jericho and Ai—Israel enjoys a brief respite as Joshua fulfills God’s command to Moses inscribe the Law on “the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written.” (9:32). Were these simply the Decalogue or the seemingly endless details of the law that consume most of the book of Deuteronomy? I prefer to think it was simply the Decalogue. Otherwise it would be an awful lot of carving!

This task of renewing the Covenant is performed in front of all “Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” (33a) As commanded to Moses, half of the population stood “in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal.” (33b)

Joshua reads “all the words of the law, blessings and curses,” (34) which this time I take to be the entirety of Deuteronomy because our authors make sure to inform us that “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel.“(35) This would amount to a several hour sermon, through which the people stood. No comfy pews for them…

Most of the tribes inhabiting Canaan become allies and “gathered together with one accord to fight Joshua and Israel.” (9:2) With the exception of the Gibeonites, who try a cunning ruse. They dress in worn-out clothes and sandals and come to Joshua, saying, “We have come from a far country; so now make a treaty with us.” (9:6) They bamboozle the leaders, including Joshua. The leaders “did not ask direction from the Lord.” (14)  and fall for the ruse. Israel concludes a treaty with them only to find out they live in the neighborhood, just a three-day journey away.

However, there’s not much Israel can do since “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we must not touch them.” (19) So they let them live and “became hewers of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, as the leaders had decided concerning them.” (21)

Thus is the first thread that will lead to the unraveling of God’s command to destroy all of Canaan’s inhabitants. Done in by a clever trick. But I’m relieved to know that an oath sworn to God trumps military action and killing people. And our sympathies tend to go with the Gibeonites, who deserve some credit for their cleverness.

Luke 12:49–59: Jesus gives a fire and brimstone sermon:  I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (49) Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (51). And yes, that is exactly what happens in the early church—as Paul so vividly describes in letter after letter—and it’s certianly the case today. I’m also sure that Jesus’ words resonated within Luke’s community as well.

Christianity is far from being a “religion of peace.”  But even as it divides families,

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (53)

Just as it has divided communities and nations throughout history.

Nevertheless, Jesus excoriates his audience for not “getting it” about the real impact of his message and his presence on earth: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (56) And that is true today, even though many Christians think it’s all about interpreting current events as indicators of end times. It has always been “end times.” Ever since Jesus was here.

Finally, Jesus advises against litigation, when we should “saves money: judge for yourselves what is right.” If nothing else, avoiding litigation  saves money: “I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (59)

There is nothing gentle about Jesus and his impact on history.