Archives for January 2018

Psalm 6; Genesis 7:11–8:22; Matthew 4:1–11

Originally posted 1/6/2016—edited and updated 1/6/2018

Psalm 6: This particular psalm of supplication begins with a pretty desperate plea:
Lord, do not chastise me in Your wrath,
Do not punish me in Your wrath” (2)

We learn why he’s pleading in the next verse:
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am wretched.
Heal me, for my limbs are stricken.” (3)

It appears he is suffering from some kind of disease and now “my life is hard stricken.” (4a) This is a reflection of the cultural assumption that illness was God’s punishment for some sin of which the sufferer was probably unaware. Not only punishment, but it seems to him that God has simply disappeared–and that absence sounds even more horrific than the disease itself as we read an even more desperate plea:
Come back, Lord, deliver my life,
rescue me for the sake of your kindness.” (5)

He then tries to use logic on God, suggesting that if he is allowed to die, he will be unable to worship:
For death holds no mention of You.
In Sheol who can acclaim you?” (6)

But then he breaks off that line of argument as we can almost hear him writhing in pain to the point of tears,. expressed with rather powerful dramatic effect:
I am weary in my sighing.
I take my bed swim every night,
with my tears I water my couch.” (7)

What up to now has been a strictly personal plea to God, our psalmist, speaking as David, turns toward accusing other people, as it appears his enemies are hounding him in his illness, or worse, they may be mocking him for his weakness:
Turn from me, all you wrongdoers,
for the Lord hears the sound of my weeping.” (9)

But as is always the case in a psalm of supplication, our psalmist realizes that God is indeed present and that God is listening. And his confidence and faith is strengthened in this realization as:
The Lord hears my plea,
the Lord will take my prayer.” (10)

And just to make sure his enemies receive their just desserts, he ends the psalm with a coda that wishes the same awful straits on his enemies as he is experiencing himself:
Let all my enemies be shamed and hard stricken,
let them turn back, be shamed in an instant.” (11)

In other words, “please catch the disease that I have and you’ll see just how bad this is.” Not exactly how Jesus told us to treat our enemies… Therefore it is probably better to read the second half of the psalm as an emotional outburst of pain and frustration rather than a theologically appropriate prayer to God.

Genesis 7:11–8:22: We encounter that Old Testament curiosity for the first time: a date whose details suggest the authors were intent on making it clear the event happened in actual history: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth.” (7:11) Substantial detail follows, especially in the naming Noah’s sons and telling us their wives, as well as Noah’s wife, accompanied by “every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature.” (7:14). Every creature remaining on earth dies and “Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.” (7:23).

Once again, there’s that sense that the authors want to create historic precision with specific time in a specific place: “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” (8:4)  And then again, after the dove doesn’t return, “In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth.” (8:13)

Personally, I very much doubt the actual historicity of this wonderful story. As others have noted, there are flood legends older than this one throughout the Middle East, but only the Noah story speaks of a monotheistic God. In short, Israel adapted this story as foundational to its national identity. By giving it a specific time and place, we see the uniquely Jewish view (for that time) of a linear rather than cyclical sense of time and history—and that Godis not some remote mythical figure, but intervenes in actual space and time.

As we see so often in the OT, the Noah story all about the righteous remnant that is left. I’m sure that the Jews in exile in Babylon, who listened to this story felt that they, too, had been on an ark, removed from their homeland, but with the promise of return. Noah provides a burnt sacrifice (from those 7 pairs of clean animals?) “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.” (8:21a) That sacrifice made in the open air of a renewed earth must have resonated with the exiled Jews who had seen their temple destroyed, but knew that God would indeed keep his promise to restore them to their land.

What’s odd, though, is the next statement: “for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (8:21b). Did it really take this long for God to realize that given free will, mankind would always drift toward the wrong thing? One thing is sure: not one aspect about the human heart has changed throughout history. Absent God our inclination will always be “evil from our youth.”

Matthew 4:1–11: As Noah was in a wilderness of water, Jesus is led “by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (1) Matthew makes it clear that there was only one reason for Jesus going to the wilderness. It’s not for reflection or meditation; it’s to be tested. One would imagine that after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was in a substantially weakened  state, so his ability to resist the wiles of Satan’s temptation is all the more impressive.

So why is the temptation story even in the gospels? The threefold temptation makes it clear that while Jesus is indeed God and could easily do any of the things the devil tempts him with, Matthew’s readers–including us– will understand that Jesus is firmly committed to being human, (his later miracles notwithstanding). This is  one of those places where we understand that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human.

As is his wont, Matthew uses scriptural quotations to serve as Jesus’ answer each of the three questions, once again demonstrating to his readers that Jesus is the messianic fulfillment of what the prophets had foretold. What’s interesting of course is that the devil also quotes Scripture at the second temptation:
He will command his angels concerning you,
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (6) 

That Satan knows scripture is  worth remembering when we hear various TV preachers using Scripture to advance their own personal agenda. I’m talking about you, Creflo Dollar, Ken Copeland, and your ilk.

Jesus resists the temptations and in Matthew’s assertion that Jesus has power over evil, he dismisses Satan with a theological wave of his hand:
Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

         ‘Worship the Lord your God,
            and serve only him.’” (10)

The verse that concludes the story, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (11) is crucial to make it clear that Jesus has nothing to do with the devil who has left him. Even though he will be accused of demonic powers during his ministry by his enemies, we know that Jesus’ encounter with Satan occurred just this one time and that the angels are his servants, making the separation even clearer. Matthew is telling us that whatever Jesus does going forward is of God and God alone.

 

 

Psalm 5; Genesis 6:1–7:10; Matthew 3

Originally posted 1/5/2016—edited and updated 1/5/2018

Psalm 5: This psalm of supplication begins with the usual formula:
Hearken to my speech, O Lord,
attend to my utterance.” (2)

Then   a little more directness, perhaps even a tinge of annoyance as the psalmist commands, “Listen well to my voice crying out, my king and my God,
for to you I pray.” (3).

And he believes God is listening, evoking an image of giving testimony in the courtroom before God the judge:
Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
    in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.” (4)

He reminds God that God does not tolerate being around wicked people:
For not a God desiring wickedness are You,
no evil will sojourn by You.” (5)

And then, right to the point, “You hate all the wrongdoers.” (6b).

However, God doesn’t just hate evildoers, he annihilates them:
You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” (7)

By contrast, perhaps to reassure himself, the psalmist reminds God of his faithfulness in worship:
As for me–through Your great kindness I enter Your house,
I bow to Your holy temple in the fear of You.” (8)

Now that he has firmly established that he is religious and faithful and on God’s side, our psalmist finally comes to the problem at hand. He is apparently being slandered by his foes. Since the psalmist is speaking in the voice of David, we can assume this has to do with court intrigue using the striking metaphor of a liar’s throat being an “open grave:”
For there is nothing right in their mouths,
within them–falsehood,
an open grave their throat, their tongue, smooth talking.” (10).

Our psalmist’s supplication is direct and to the point:
Condemn them, O God.
Let them fall by their counsels for their many sins.
Cast them off, for they have rebelled against You.” (11)

This psalm addresses one of the major themes of Psalms: the evil created by speech. In that preliterate society, words were even more freighted than they are now. A man’s character was revealed by how he spoke. Truth was the all-important social currency and deceit through words was seen as a sin against God, perhaps even blasphemy. We also see that human nature and its tendency to lie has not changed one whit in three millennia.

In praying for his enemies destruction, this psalm also raises the contradiction to what Jesus said: that we are to love our enemies. Thus, I think under the terms of the New Covenant, we should read this prayer for interest but definitely not as an example of how to pray in Jesus’ name.

Genesis 6:1–7:10: Things do not go according to God’s plan as the human race multiplies. There seems to have been regular intercourse between women and the “Sons of God,” whom I presume were angels and these couples bore super-human creatures, the Nephilim, who “were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” (6:4)

I take these long-lived “heroes” to be Jewish parallels to the mythic figures that populated the in stories of neighboring kingdoms such as Mesopotamia. In any event, God puts an end to this practice and our author observes that human lifespans are now limited to 120 years. But even without the sons of God around, humans are still fully capable of great evil and God declares, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (6:7). This certainly raises a question about God’s character. Does God, being God, really regret his actions?  In any event, God’s noble intentions for man to follow him and do good seems to have taken root in only one man: Noah.

I should note here that I do not believe there was a historical Noah, just as I believe there was no historical Adam and Eve. Rather, I see these first chapters are the grand national myth of Israel’s origins. As we read further, we will see how Israel’s God is quite different than the small-g gods that populated the national stories elsewhere in the Middle East at the time Genesis was written. For example, there are flood stories in the myths of many other civilizations, and I believe we need to read Noah’s story as a metaphor for how God rescues us through faith.

God speaks to Noah and he obeys by building the ark and engaging in his great zoological enterprise. What I had not noticed before is that in chapter 6, God resolves to destroy living thing: “people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air,” (6:7). But now God apparently relents and decides that since there is one honest man, he will spare the animals and focus his destructive powers on wicked humans.

We see the Jewish spin on this story is that God commands Noah to take seven pairs of clean animals, i.e, the animals that were worthy of sacrifice in the Temple, while only one pair of unclean animals was allowed on board.

The week that Noah was on board the ark and it doesn’t start raining must have been an extraordinary test of his faith. I can certainly hear his family complaining about his stupidity and willingness to follow this unfaithful God. But one week later, flood comes.

Righteousness is preserved while wickedness is destroyed. The ark is certainly a metaphor for the remnant of Judah and Israel that God kept rescuing in the latter days of the kingdom before the Babylonian captivity. And of course for us Christians, it’s a metaphor for our salvation through baptism. Water keeps showing up as a central element of our faith.

Matthew 3: Once settled in Nazareth, Jesus and his family disappear from the scene. Matthew’s second act opens with John the Baptist and as his wont, our gospel writer provides a proof text, this time from Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’” (2)

Here, Matthew also sets up the central conflict of his gospel between Jesus’ radical words and the religious establishment as John “saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (7)

We hear the famous apocalyptic words that John hurls at the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (10)  Unfortunately, Matthew does not give us a clue as to how the official responded to John’s accusation.

John tells the crowd that the one to come “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (11). With these words, Matthew has laid out the arc of his story, and the adult Jesus enters the stage of the story. At first John resists baptising Jesus as Matthew informs us that John knows exactly who Jesus is: the long-promised Messiah as he says humbly, ““I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (14)

Jesus responds calmly, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” (15) reminding John that the Messiah will arise out of righteousness, not out of power. (A hint of things to come!) John relents and baptizes Jesus. The dove descends and the voice from heaven intones, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (17) Right here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we have a confluence of the Trinity: the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God himself speaking from heaven. Even this early in the game, Matthew is making sure that we see–and attempt to comprehend– the simultaneous the divinity and the humanity of Jesus.

Psalm 4; Genesis 5; Matthew 2:13–23

Originally posted 1/4/2016—edited and updated 1/4/2018

Psalm 4: We know this is a psalm of supplication straight away: “When I call out, answer me, my righteous God.” (2a). And to make sure God “gets” this, the psalmist reminds God of past answers: “In the straits, You set me free.” And now in my desperate situation, “Have mercy upon me and hear my prayer.” (2b)

A psalm of supplication always comes from one who knows and trusts God already, and there is always a contrast with those who lack this faith: “Sons of man,…You love vain things and seek out lies.” (3). But the faithful know that they are different and special: “But know that the Lord set apart His faithful.” (4a) And in this psalm, there is the confident assurance that God will listen: “The Lord will hear when I call to Him.” (4b)

The thrust of the psalm then shifts from personal supplication to giving advice to others. If they are in rough straits, they should find a quiet place and “Speak [to God] in your hearts on your beds, and be still.” (5). The part about remaining still is perhaps the hardest—at least for me. How often do I pray to God for help and then promptly head off and try to solve the problem myself?

In fact, the psalmist suggests, we shoul pray and then perform religious (or righteous) acts with faithful confidence: “Offer righteous sacrifices/ and trust in the Lord.” (6) We should have confidence even in the face of cynicism by others that God will remain resolutely silent: “Many say, ‘Who will show us good things?‘” (7) But our trust allows us to respond confidently: “You [God] put joy in my heart.” (8) It is in this assurance of God’s succor we are rescued from the anxieties of the day and restored in sleep:
In peace, all whole, let me lie down and sleep,
For You, Lord, alone, do set me down safely.
” (9)

Would that I can have this ongoing daily assurance that comes from trusting God. This psalm reminds us that we find inner peace and escape from anxiety by trusting not only that God will hear us, but that he will answer and that his answer will bring us peace, even in the face of the cynical doubts of those who reject even the idea of God, much less that God is listening and will act.

Genesis 5: This chapter of genealogy from Adam to Noah reflects the crucial importance of ancestors to the writers of Genesis. We have observed elsewhere that Jews did not believe in an afterlife, and it is only through their progeny that elders would be remembered. There is also a mathematical precision in listing the age of each forebear that reinforces the memory and importance of each person in the line— not to mention that people appeared to live far longer in the antediluvian world. There is nothing like a genealogy to preserve that crucial memory.

In a certain way, knowing one’s forebears defines us in a way that we tend to ignore willfully in modern culture: that our personality and even physical being is the result of hundreds of generations before we appeared on earth. We prefer to see ourselves as autonomous beings, wholly in control of our destiny, independent of any persons or influences that came before us.

This deepening awareness of one’s ancestors is growing now that with the mapping of the human genome and DNA testing. I think our current generation is becoming increasingly  cognizant of our roots and strengthening our appreciation of our parents, grandparents, and their forebears—and that they had a significant role in the persons we’ve become. We should appreciate this at least as much as the writers of Genesis who so carefully preserved these lists of their forebears. Even so, we still persist in this sense that our roots have no effect on who we are and what we do–and what we believe. But the reality is we are in many ways captive to our ancestry and are really much less independent than we like to believe.

This chapter (and others like it in the OT) is also surely Matthew’s model for listing the genealogy of Jesus.

Some have argued that if Adam and Eve were the first people how could they have populated the earth? One suggestion that’s been put forth by theologian Peter Enns is that Adam is not the first human, but for the writers of Genesis, Adam is the root of Jewish race, rather than the root of all mankind, what Enns calls, “Proto-Isreal.”  This is an interesting idea that would help clear up some of the confusion that surrounds these early chapters of Genesis—and especially the temptation to believe—as many still do—that the this genealogy in Genesis determines that the earth to be only some 6000 years old

Matthew 2:13–23: This is the part of the Infancy Narrative–the Christmas story–that is told only in Matthew and that we tend to ignore. Joseph takes the Holy Family to Egypt to ensure Jesus is not killed as a result of Herod’s wrath. As Matthew does again and again, he cites specifically how a particular action or circumstance fulfills Scripture. He cites Hosea with regard to the escape to Egypt by stating, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (15)  And in Herod’s cruel act, he quotes Jeremiah, “Rachel weeping for her children;/she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (18b)

Once Herod is dead, Joseph has yet another dream of an angel telling him it is safe to return. The angel says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” (20).

In the Escape to Egypt, this family reenacts the central story of the Jewish race. As in the final night in Egypt, the Passover, the life of Joseph’s eldest son, Jesus is spared. And in returning to Israel from Egypt, the Holy Family reenacts the long journey of Israel from Egypt back into the promised land. I think Matthew’s intention is to demonstrate this parallel to Israel’s national story, which would not be lost on his Jewish listeners/ readers, as yet another proof that further substantiates Matthew’s assertion of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

However, the family does not return to Judea, but heads to Nazareth in Galilee, which is the area where Jesus conducted the majority of his ministry. Here, Luke and Matthew diverge in their accounts. The clear implication here is that Mary and Joseph lived in or near Bethlehem to begin with when Jesus was born. Matthew records no perilous journey and no manger–only the visit of the wise men about two years after Jesus’ birth.

For Luke, Mary and Joseph start out as refugees trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem. But for Matthew, it is only now, some years later, that they’ve become refugees, immigrating to a land and a town they’d never lived in. Of course, for Matthew this fact is simply more proof of Jesus’ bona fides as the true Messiah: “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.’” (23)

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.

Psalm 2; Genesis 2:4–25; Matthew 1:18–25

Psalm 2: This second psalm establishes a second major theme we see in in this book: a threat to Israel, its political leadership and military might, and the fact that despite many trials and setbacks, victory will ultimately occur because God is on Israel’s side. The poem opens with an existential threat:
“Why are the nations aroused,
and the peoples murmur vain things?
Kings of the earth take their stand,
and princes conspire together.” (1,2a)

Worse, these enemies conspire “against the Lord and against His anointed.” (2b). The “anointed” one being Israel’s king.

But the powers of earth are no match for God:
“He who dwells in the heavens will laugh,
the Master derides them.”
God “will speak to them in His wrath,”  (4,5)

…and announces that the king of Israel has been chosen by God himself:
And I — I appointed My king
on Zion, My holy mountain.” (6).

Now the king speaks,
He [God] said to me: ‘You are my son.
I myself did beget you.’” (7)

At first glance this appears to be a clear Christological reference to God sending his Son to earth. And it may be. However, Alter points out that it was common throughout the Middle East to believe that all kings were in essence the son of a god [e.g. Egypt], or in this case, the God. The king, continuing to tell the people what God said, announces,
Ask of me, and I shall give nations as your estate,
…You will smash them with a rod of iron,
like a potter’s jar you will dash them.” (8a, 9)

And then one final statement–almost a taunt:
And now, O kings, pay mind,
be chastened, you rulers of the earth.” (10)

When we consider that Israel, even at its mightiest under David and Solomon, was really quite a small kingdom compared to others around them such as Egypt, this psalm almost seems to veer into braggadocio. But such was Israel’s faith in its singular God that it was assured God would bring victory. And as we know, belief is a strong motivator. There’s little question that soldiers standing before the king and hearing this speech would head to battle charged up and motivated to slay the enemy and to win.

This may not be the most sophisticated description of who God is, but there’s no question that God did indeed bring many victories that in the eyes of other larger nations were improbable. And I suggest that even today, Israel, a country the size of Massachusetts connotes–and delivers–power and influence beyond its size.

Genesis 2:4–25: This second creation story couldn’t be more different than the first. The author of this second account seems far less interested in grand cosmology and more in the agricultural aspects of nature: In the day that the Lord  God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up.” (4,5) We shouldn’t be surprised that in the parched Mideast the author views water as the key to creation: “a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground.” (6). Once there is land and water, God puts these elements to good use, creating man ahead of all other living creatures, “man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (7). To underscore the agrarian nature of this story, man is planted in the most perfect of natural places: Eden, which is the source of the rivers–more water!

Man’s purpose in this garden is not just to stroll and enjoy it, but to work the land, which of course is how civilization began: “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (15). The warning not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge comprises God’s first words to his new creation. What’s fascinating here is that only after man is created does God turn to other creative activities, forming “every animal of the field and every bird of the air.” (19). Man’s position as God’s preeminent living creation is demonstrated in his dominion over nature by God’s action in bringing animals and birds to the man and asks the man to name them.

God creates woman out of the man’s rib “and brought her to the man.,” who responds with the first poem in the Bible and he names her, “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh;/this one shall be called Woman,/  for out of Man this one was taken.” (23) What’s fascinating is that God could have created the female sex ex nihilo, but instead uses a piece of man’s anatomy. I think the author is reminding us that man and woman are meant to be in close relationship with each other—and that each sex balances the other in the natural order of things. 

We then encounter what I take to be an editorial comment by the author, who observes, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (24) Which of course is the initiation of the sexual act. But it is sex and a relationship that does not know shame: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” Perhaps it is the absence of shame that best defines the Edenic existence before the fall.

Matthew 1:18–25: Matthew’s nativity story is a lot different than Luke’s. No Annunciation, no Elizabeth, no Magnificat, no journey to Bethlehem, no manger, no shepherds. Just the dry facts as Matthew speaks more of Joseph than Mary. We learn about the virgin birth via Joseph’s dream.

Matthew is writing to a patriarchal Jewish audience and it is the male line that matters. This audience also knows its scripture and we encounter the first of many OT quotes that the gospel writer uses to prove his case that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He quotes the famous passage from Isaiah: “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,/ and they shall name him Emmanuel,” (23) This weaving of OT scripture and reportage of the facts about Jesus’ life is Matthew’s method of making the case to his Jewish listeners that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

We also learn that Joseph is obedient, “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.” (24). And to make sure his audience understands that Jesus is no ordinary child conceived in the ordinary way, Matthew informs us that Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (25).

For Matthew, beyond the details of Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit and Joseph obeying God, Matthew’s interest is not so much in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth itself, but in the weighty events that follow.