Psalm 3; Genesis 3,4; Matthew 2:1–12

Originally posted 1/3/2016—edited and updated 1/3/2018

Psalm 3: Although the psalmist asserts this is a “David psalm, when he fled from Absalom his son,” [This event occurred when Absalom attempted to usurp the throne (2 Samuel 16)] Alter suggests that these ascriptions have no historical authority and that the psalm generally refers to any person in trouble. However, I prefer to go with tradition and even though David doubtless did not write the psalm, it is helpful to have it connected to a real person and event because it makes the psalm all the more emotionally deep and perosnally impactful to think that we will experience trials that will make us feel the same way David did.

This is a psalm that can be uttered by any person who finds himself in trouble and pauses to remember that he is not alone after all but is protected by God. This assurance is expressed in the wonderful metaphor:
And You, Lord, are a shield for me,
my glory, Who lifts up my head.” (4).

The image of God lifting up the head of a broken man on his knees, his head bowed not in prayer but in despair is powerful. Unlike many other psalms of supplication, where God seems to be absent, here the psalmist exudes assurance that God is nearby, listening, and will answer:
With my voice I cry out to the Lord,
and He answers me from His holy mountain.” (5)

Even though his situation is desperate and he is surrounded by the enemy, David’s trust in God brings so much peace in this time of enormous distress that David is able to lie down and sleep so that when
I awake, [I realize that] the Lord has sustained me.
I fear not from myriads of troops

that round about set against me.” (7).

David is fully assured that God will “strike all my foes on the cheek.” (8a) because “Rescue is the Lord’s.” (9a)

The question for me of course is will I have the same faith and trust in God to deal with some situation where I am desperate trouble. Will I rely on God because “Rescue is the Lord’s?” David was able to pray and then lie down and go to sleep, rising in the morning knowing he is protected by God. Could I go to sleep knowing God is my shield, or would I try to control the situation myself and attempt to resolve the trouble on my own? I know myself well enough that control tends to be my first instinct rather than following David’s example.

Genesis 3,4: Following the wonderful story of creation of man and woman, it does not take long for paradise to be lost. What strikes me in the temptation story is that the serpent does not lie but tells the absolute truth. Eating the fruit of the tree does not kill them as God had warned, but it provides exactly what the serpent says it will: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (3:4) This desire to be like God and control our own destiny was innate at creation because I think we were created imago deo, in the image of God and thus possessed free will. In short, the potential for sin was built into our very being. Otherwise, there would have been no temptation and the desire before eating the fruit to “make one wise,” (3:6).

Notice that Adam is not off in some other part of the garden, but is standing right next to the woman and that “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (3:6) The man succumbed to exactly the same temptation as the woman. I think we have blamed Eve far too harshly. She may have taken the initiative to eat the fruit, but Adam, who knew the same thing as Eve about the tree, ate readily. Men and women truly are equal partners in the capacity to sin.

Immediately following the sin of succumbing to temptation comes the sin of trying to shift the blame. Again, both are equal partners as the man attempts to shift the blame to the woman, who in turn attempts to shift the blame to the serpent.  Every human has this built-in ability to blame the other person [“she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate“] or blame the whole thing on an outside circumstance [“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”] (3:12, 13)

Thus it continues down to today. The core of our innate sinfulness is to ignore God, succumb to temptation, and then try to shift blame. The manifest motivations of human nature express themselves immediately; they are built in. Watch any three-year old child who has done something wrong do exactly what the man and woman did.

One of the great mysteries to me in the story of Cain and Abel is why God preferred the blood sacrifice to Cain’s offering of “the fruit of the ground.” (4:3)  Although we certainly see the preeminence of blood sacrifice later in Genesis and among the Israelites soon enough. I believe this story is not history, but one of the foundational myths of the national origin of Israel. It is stating that from the outset God prefers animal sacrifice to the passivity of laying fruit down at the altar. Moreover, God does not have to explain his preference; it simply is what it is.

Cain murders Abel . Like his parents, he makes excuses when confronted by God: “He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9) His punishment  for fratricide is to become “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (4:14) but marked by God, he cannot not be killed. Like Cain, Israel has wandered. From Egypt to Canaan and then wandered from God leading to exile. Israel is doomed to wander and like Cain, the wandering, including into exile in Babylon when this book was probably compiled, is never extinguished.

Civilization arrives as Cain builds a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. In short, the great conflict between the urban and agrarian comes early in human history. Cain is the father of Enoch who is the great grandfather of Lemech whose sons explain the origin of the essential elements of ancient civilization: Jabal, the “the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock.” (4:20) is also “the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” (4:21) Tubal-cain, “who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.” (4:22) Thus the beginnings of the iron and bronze ages.

We tend to think of ancient civilization as being nomadic and agrarian, but cities have also always been part of our history. As we shall see, cities are both glorious and corrupt: expressing the very essence of humankind who built them.

A little discussed passage is at the end of this chapter: “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” (4:25) Seth’s has a son Enosh. Our authors note, “At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.” (4:26) I guess we can look to Adm and Eve’s grandson as the progenitor of the monotheistic religion that eventually became Judaism and then Christianity.

Matthew 2:1–12: Man has been looking up to the heavens for direction, wisdom, and omens since the dawn of civilization. The wise men follow the star, which some theorize was a comet, to Jerusalem, to seek out this new king. They are informed by the court prophets that they really need to go to Bethlehem, just five miles away.

Herod asks them to tell him when they find the child, although we also know Herod has darker lans than the three kings. The star leads them there and then stops “over the place where the child was.” (9b) [And it’s a house, not a stable, indicating the wise men arrived some time after the actual birth of Jesus.] What I hadn’t noticed before is that “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (10). They are joyous because they know they have reached their destination and know they have found what they are looking for. They are overjoyed even before they lay eyes on Jesus. The star that stopped is their source of joy.

This is Matthew’s clear sign to his readers and listeners that we are all like the wandering wise men seeking a new king. The star is not only real but it is also a metaphor for entire thrust and drive of history—and it stops in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection is the earth-shattering event that has altered history and taken it in a completely new and unexpected direction. From our perspective some 2000 years later, there is no question that the Incarnation has truly been the hinge of history. Would civilization even have survived without the interruption of the birth of Jesus?

No wonder the wise men brought their treasures and paid homage to the little child. They became the first worshippers at Jesus’ feet. They understood that the world had indeed changed for good—in both senses of the word.

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