Psalm 9:1–11; Genesis 12:10–13:18; Matthew 5:27–42

Originally posted 1/12/2016—revised and updated 1/11/2018

Psalm 9:1–11: Alter informs us that “this psalm and the next one are a striking testimony to the scrambling in textual transmission that, unfortunately, a good many of the psalms have suffered.” Despite these obstacles, the psalmist’s sincere praise to God comes through clearly, including one of those lines that we hear all the time: “Let me rejoice and be glad in You.” (3a).

However, we rarely hear exactly what the psalmist is rejoicing about because what he’s asking God to do for him almost, it seems, as a quid pro quo for his praise really not very nice:
“...let me hymn Your name, Most High,
when my enemies turn back,
when they stumble and perish before You.” (3b, 4)

This is definitely one of those “we were victorious because God is on our side” psalms. Our psalmist’s rejoicing in God’s retributive justice persists for the next two verses:
For You upheld my justice, my right,
You sat on the throne of the righteous judge.
You rebuked the nations, destroyed the wicked,
their name You wiped out forever.” (5, 6)

In the same way that genealogies are the repository for preserving the memories of dead individuals, so too for entire nations. Thus the psalmist takes special pleasure in noting that
The enemy–ruins that are gone for all time,
and towns you smashed, their name is lost.” (7)

Having lost their names, it’s as if these places never existed. Which is just fone for our psalmist…

Unlike these forgotten people, towns, and nations, God’s justice is infinite in extent, which of course is theologically true:
But the Lord is forever enthroned,
makes His throne for justice unshaken.
He judges the world in righteousness,
lays down the law to the nations in truth.” (8,9)

For this psalmist it’s all about God’s righteousness and justice. Even though the Covenant was between God and Israel, God nevertheless executes justice throughout the world. Like the laws of physics that operate uniformly throughout the universe, God’s righteousness and God’s justice likewise operate uniformly for every human being. As we’ve seen thus far in Genesis—and will see through the entire Old Testament—righteousness, justice, and truth are God’s major qualities.

On a more personal note our psalmist observes that God is where true protection lies. And it is God’s resoluteness in seeing justice is done that creates one’s deep trust in God:
“...the Lord is a fortress for the downcast,
a forthree in times of distress.
And those who know Your name will trust You,
for You forsook not Your seekers, O Lord.” (10, 11)

The problem is that when we witness injustice and God’s seeming inaction that our trust is corroded.

Genesis 12:10–13:18: There’s a famine in Canaan so Abram travels with Sarai down to wealthy Egypt. Afraid that the Egyptians will kill him in order to take beautiful Sarai as some Egyptian’s wife, Abram instructs Sarai to say she’s her sister. As he suspected would happen, “the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.” (12:14). Word of Sarai’s beauty gets to Pharaoh and “the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” (12:15) Despite Abram’s misgivings, no harm comes to Sarai and “for [Sarai’s] sake [Pharaoh]  dealt well with Abram. (12:16). However, God is none too pleased with Abram’s deception and “the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” (12:17) Pharaoh is understandably upset and interrogates Abram, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” (12:20)

Why is this odd story here? It is an almost one-for-one foreshadowing of Israel’s history several generations later when there’s a famine, and Jacob’s entire family ends up in Egypt. As with Abram, things are good at first, but then Abram’s deception leads to the Pharaoh’s illness. parallel deception occurs hundreds of years later when Moses and his mother wind up in Pharaoh’s court.  Pharaoh’s sickness as a foreshadowing of the plagues that finally result in the the Pharaoh saying to Moses, “take your people and be gone.” As Abram is sent away from Egypt, so too the Jews. Here in Genesis we have a clear echo of Israel’s national story.

Abram, Sarai, and his nephew Lot end up in the Negeb, and then back to Bethel. Both Abram and Lot were quite wealthy–wealth being measured in heads of livestock and “Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together.” (13:6). There’s an amicable parting between Abram and Lot. Abram settles in Canaan and “Lot journeyed eastward” heading as we will find out shortly, to city life in Sodom. I don;t think it’s unreasonable to view this incident as a foreshadowing of God’s command to expel the native Canaanites from their land when the Jews arrive back in the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership.

Once Lot has left the scene, God comes to Abraham and makes the Grand Promise: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (13:16) The second half of the promise concerns land, specifically Canaan: “Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (13:17).  This promise is here in Genesis because it is Israel’s justification to conquer Canaan when they return from Egypt centuries later. Abram has a prior claim on Canaan from God centuries before Moses and the Israelites and thus it becomes the Long-Promised Land.

What subsequent history proves of course is that God keep his side of the promise. As for Israel itself—and all of us for that matter—we’re rather less reliable.

Matthew 5:27–42: Jesus continues to provide his radically unprecedented interpretation of the Law using his famous phrase, “You have heard that it was said/ But I say” construction. Nor does Jesus hesitate to take up the tough issues that vexed society then, just as they do today.

Jesus says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (28), which of course is exactly the statement that got Jimmy Carter into trouble in the 1970’s when he stated this passage and “enlightened society” came down around his head. Both Jimmy and Jesus are right of course. And as Bill Clinton so ably proved in 1998, we’d much rather have a president who commits adultery than one who tells us not to.

Perhaps the hardest one of all is Jesus’ redefinition of divorce: “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (31) The Catholic Church takes these words at face value, even now in the 21st century. And I have to say, we Protestants who have gone to all sorts of interpretive lengths to alter Jesus’ rather clear meaning here are frankly are not on Jesus’ side. The Catholic Church is right and we Americans—both Catholic and protestant—don’t like it one bit.

Yes, I know there are all sorts of highly justifiable reasons for divorce, but at least as I read it here, Jesus is saying bluntly, “OK, go ahead and divorce. Just remember you’re committing adultery.” Not something we like to hear from our ostensibly loving God and Jesus as our friend. But there it sits.

My particular favorite from this reading is what Jesus says about oaths. Don’t swear on heaven or your head. In fact don’t swear on anything at all since it’s definitely broadcasting that you’re looking for an escape hatch out of your oath. Just “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.‘” (37) Don’t elaborate or invent complicated scenarios that try to justify your actions—that just gets you in deeper. Above all, don’t lie. I know to well from personal experience that when I’ve tried to evade a question that requires a simple Yes or No answer I just get in deeper. I completely agree with Jesus when he says that elaborating, “it comes from the evil one.” If Jesus were using today’s jargon,  I’m pretty sure he’s say, “Don’t waffle.” Like everything else Jesus said, what he is requiring from us is never really that easy.

Finally, the question of retaliation where Jesus famously says, ” if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (39) The same hard advice for those tempted to sue others: “take your coat, give your cloak as well. and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (40, 41) Jesus’ demands are so contrary to our sinful human nature! If we actually followed Jesus on these issues the world would be a much happier place and thousands of lawyers would find themselves unemployed.

 

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