Psalm 8; Genesis 11:10–12:9; Matthew 5:17–26

Originally posted 1/11/2016—revised and updated 1/10/2018

Psalm 8: The superscript of this beautiful psalm of celebration notes that it is to be accompanied on the gittith, which as Alter points out, “is another musical instrument that has eluded persuasive identification.” In any event, its opening line is now the first line of a familiar praise song: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth.” (2)

Our psalmist focuses on the splendor of God’s creation—essentially a poetic reflection on the creation story of Genesis 1. As usual, we begin overhead in heaven, only this time it’s the literal heaven of stars and infinite distances that we experience on a clear night far away form the light pollution that characterizes modern civilization:

Whose splendor was told over the heavens.

When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars You fixed firm.” (2b, 4)

But between these lines about the magnificence of creation, there’s a puzzling interjection:
From the mouth of babes and sucklings
You founded strength
on account of Your foes
to put an end to enemy and avenger. (3)

Alter suggests that “God draws strength from consciously aware humankind, made in His image, even from its weakest and youngest members, against the inhuman forces of chaos.” Perhaps. My take on this is that God’s creative power is expressed in every aspect of his creation, but especially form humans that are made in his image (imago deo), even tiny babies. As for the foes and avenger, it seems clear to me that it’s Satan and his cohort. Perhaps this verse was on John Milton’s mind when he wrote of the great battle between God and Satan in Paradise Lost.

In comparison to the enormity of space, humankind appears small and unworthy as our psalmist famously wonders why God even bothers with us:
What is man that You should note hum,
and the human creature that You pay him heed.” (5)

Yet, for some seemingly inexplicable reason, and even though most humans either ignore him or reject him altogether,  God has made humankind the apotheosis of his creation:
made him little less than the gods,
with glory and grandeur You crown him.” (6)

Our position in the hierarchy of creation is effectively in the middle: Less than God and slightly below the small-g gods (some translate this as ‘celestial beings,’). Nevertheless, we are greater than the remainder of all God’s creation:
You make him [humans] rule over the work of Your hands.
All things You set under his feet.” (7).

The psalmist then duly catalogs examples of living creatures over which humankind rules in what I take to be a hierarchical order, beginning with the domesticated animals on down to the fish in the oceans:
Sheep and oxen all together,
also the beasts of the field,
birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,
what moves on the paths of the seas.” (8,9)

That last line reminds us that God’s creation extends to places in God’s creation that we cannot visit (or visit only with great difficulty) and to the creatures at the very bottom of the ocean.

Of course, as human beings, we have taken this psalm to heart far too enthusiastically, using it as an ultimately inexcusable justification for exploitation of animal life, driving far too many creatures to extinction. Nevertheless, it would do us well to read this psalm frequently as it concludes with that ineffable note of awe by repeating its first line: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

Genesis 11:10–12:9: The Jewish penchant for genealogical record-keeping finds its expression once again in listing, almost in sing-song form, the descendants of Shem, which leads inexorably to Terah, “the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.” (11:26). Not surprisingly, this particular genealogy is more carefully crafted than those of Noah’s other sons because of course it’s the ancestral line that leads directly to the Jewish race.

[This chapter also became grist for the mathematical mill of the seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher, who used the genealogies in the OT and in Matthew to calculate that God created the earth on the morning of October 23, 4004 B.C.  This of course, has led to the “young earthers” believing that creation is only slightly more than 6000 years old, all geological evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.]

I’m sure the author’s purpose here was not so much to date the day of creation as to lay out the all important introduction of Israel’s national story that begins with Abram, which begins with a journey, that is itself a foreshadowing of the journeys of the Hebrews yet to come both out of Egypt and eventually out of Babylon, which was the time when Genesis was written.

God commissions Abram, telling him in the famous verse, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (12:1) At this point we don’t yet know the details of the Covenant–that comes later–but God’s word is sufficiently compelling to cause Abram to leave a very comfortable (and probably wealthy) life in Ur. As Christians, of course, this journey is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey from heaven to earth as John records it in John 1 and Paul in the famous hymn of Philippians 2.

Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot eventually end up in the “hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord.” (12:8)  If they had remained there, Israel’s history would have been quite different. But we then read that “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” (12:9) where they will find a couple of cities that will play a significant role in Abram’s and Lot’s future.

Matthew 5:17–26: Jesus says something that the Christian church seemed to have forgotten down through the ages: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (17) Too often we have assumed that Jesus supplanted the law and prophets rather than its fulfillment, thereby rendering not just the Law, but the entire Jewish race irrelevant–and worse, worthy of annihilation. Our images of a blond, long-haired Jesus in everything from pre-Renaissance art to Christian bookstore kitsch forget too easily that Jesus never saw himself as anything other than Jewish.

Paul picks up on Jesus’ self-characterization of being the fulfilment of the Law and prophets in the theology he develops, especially in Romans and Galatians. Of course for Matthew, Jesus’ statement that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (18) is his underlying theme of Jesus as being exactly that messianic fulfillment—a point Matthew makes continuously by citing Scripture that’s associated with every event in Jesus’ life that he records.

But as far as the Sermon on the Mount is concerned, Jesus is radically recasting the Law and Prophets into a new and frankly, more difficult ethos as he elevates anger and insult to the ethical equivalent of murder: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (22)

These are tough new rules, and given today’s cultural coarseness, one we would do well to remember. Notice, too, that Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t be angry, but that we should not express that anger violently against others.

Rather than anger, Jesus is telling us to seek reconciliation. Nor should we linger, pleasurably nursing our resentment when wronged by others. Instead, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” (23, 24) The same goes for those who accuse you: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” (25) In other words, the parties should settle instead of going to trial where things could turn out very badly for you.

Among his countless other gifts, it’s clear Jesus would have been an excellent lawyer–a skill we will see again at his own trial where he refuses to answer stupid questions.


Speak Your Mind