Psalm 7:12–19; Genesis 10:1–11:9; Matthew 5:1–16

Originally posted 1/9/2016—revised and updated 1/9/2018

Psalm 7:12–19: Our psalmist views humankind as bifurcated between the righteous and those who do evil as he observes that God “exacts justice for the righteous,” (12a) but also that God “utters doom each day” (12b) regarding the wicked.

Our poet employs a stark military image of God punishing the man who refuses to repent:
If a man repent not, He [God] sharpens His sword,
He pulls back His bow and aims it.
And for him [the wicked man], He readies the tools of death,
lets fly His arrows at the fleers.” (13, 14).

In short, the wicked will eventually pay for their crimes, even though God seems to be aiming but not necessarily releasing his arrows of punishment upon them. The key point here is that it the wicked who are responsible for their deeds, not God.

In one of the more ironic metaphors in the Psalms, our poet describes the gradual evolution of a man turning to wickedness as a perverse kind of pregnancy that goes through three stages:
Look, one spawns wrongdoing,
grows bug with mischief,
gives birth to lies.” (15)

Moreover, the wicked man cannot blame others for his condition; he has become wicked all on his own by virtue of the choices he has made:
A pit he delved, and dug it,
and he fell in the trap he made.” (16)

This is quite a different view than our own culture’s tendency to excuse crime and wrongdoing based on a theory that wicked acts are the result of exogenous circumstances—that the person who commits wrongdoing is some kind of victim. But as far as the psalmist is concerned, wicked deeds and words are the perpetrator’s responsibility and they eventually backfire::
His mischief comes down on his head,
on his skull his outrage descends.” (17).

Or as my father used to day, “The chickens always come home to roost.” Needless to say, our righteous psalmist is happy about God’s requirement for justice to eventually triumph:
I acclaim the Lord for His righteousness,
let me hymn the Lord’s name on high.” (18)

As should we. While it seems so often that injustice reigns, it would be insanely difficult to live in a world where there was no justice or righteousness at all.

Genesis 10:1–11:9: As we’ve observed before, without a belief in an afterlife, the only way one could be remembered is by one’s progeny, which is why Jews were so diligent about genealogy—right up to jesus’ own genealogy in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Inasmuch as the flood the story makes it clear there were only three sons of Noah (and their wives) survived, their respective descendants are listed. Here in Genesis we have the starkest example yet of how crucial the authors believed being able to trace one’s roots really was. Moreover, this particular genealogy traces not only individuals, but families and then entire nations.

One wonders if this list was solely compiled by the Jews writing Genesis, or if other nations of that time also recorded genealogies, especially ones dating back to the flood story, which as we’ve noted earlier had widespread currency beyond Israel. I suspect genealogies were important throughout most of civilization BCE—all following the basic structure we see here in Genesis: organized by families, families into tribes, and tribes into nations.

Along the way, some individuals Nimrod receive special attention: “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said,Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (10:9) Perhaps this is because “he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh.” (10:11), a civilization which figures prominently in Israel’s later story.

The same for Caanan, another big player, whose geography included “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (10:19). One’s eye does not skip over those famous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which will figure later in the book.

One comes to the end of chapter 10 with a clear sense that humankind is back from the almost dead—and back with a vengeance.

This of course leads to the Babel story which solves a particular problem. Inasmuch as the Noah story asserts everyone is descended from a single family, these descendants quite naturally all speak the same language. But by the time the authors wrote Genesis it was apparent that numerous languages abounded , requiring an explanation. They found the solution by writing about those folks who settled on the plain of Shinar and who started building a tower as an expression of their technological prowess as well as their pride: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)

In fact, God is a bit worried about their technical prowess: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (11:6) Which is certainly the direction our own culture has taken now that we possess the capability to create and modify life itself. We have created our own metaphorical towers of Babel.

The human pride and arrogance that distressed the antediluvian God is now again on full display. But God had promised not to wipe people out, so he resorts to Plan B: “let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7)

For the authors of Genesis, this a nice explanation that aligns their national story with reality on the ground. And we also benefit now by having the word “babble” passed down to us. In fact, what we witness every day in the print and electronic media reminds us that the echoes of Babel persist right to today.

Matthew 5:1–16: We arrive with Jesus on the hillside outside Capernaum. The crowd is already there, Jesus sits down and his disciples gather round as Jesus teaches the most famous list since the Decalogue. Just as the original Ten Commandments established the basis of Israel’s civilization, the Beatitudes form the ethical basis of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus will have much much to say throughout this gospel.

Perhaps their most radical aspect of Jesus’ list is that its ordinances do not begin with “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” but rather, the word “blessed.” This seems a clear indication of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians as Christians living by a new and even more radical regime: the marvelous consequences of the operation of the Holy Spirit living within us.

The law is no longer an externality handed down from God above on stone tablets. Rather, Jesus is describing a state of being that comes from within one’s being. Our behavior has been turned inside out. We are blessed because we are. Just as God observed the goings-on at Babel, Jesus, as God on earth, knows well that we humans are disinclined to obey rules. Whatever we are, the fruits of out thoughts and deeds must arise from within us, nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

As many have observed before me, Jesus turns the moral order upside down. The poor in spirit rather than the connected or the powerful will inherit the kingdom—a direct assault on the religious establishment. The pure in heart, the emotionally downtrodden are more blessed than the perfectionist practice of the Pharisee sees God. And so forth.

From our vantage point 2000 years later we do not fully appreciate just how radical the Beatitudes were. These first words out of Jesus’ mouth define—and immediately energize— the conflict between Jesus and established religious order.

It’s important to observe that Jesus is not advocating some sort of “secret society” religion. Instead, his followers—we ourselves included— are to be “the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (14) Jesus is not advocating only a life of inward awareness of who we are, but also a life of action and witness:  “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (16) To be sure, there is being, which are the qualities the Beatitudes set out as our foundation. But there is doing as well.

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