Psalm 29; Genesis 50; Matthew 18:1–14

Originally posted 2/23/2016—revised and updated 2/22/2018

Psalm 29: This “David psalm” praises the power of almighty God—particularly the power of God’s voice. Alter notes that many have puzzled over its first line—”Grant to the Lord, O sons of God”—as to who these sons might be. Apparently many scholars have suggested this psalm arises from an earlier Canaanite psalm and that the “sons of God” is “best thought of as a flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology—God’s royal entourage on high.”

Be that as it may, the thrust of the psalm is pure praise of God’s attributes and especially his power over nature—which seems natural given that God is the Creator. As we see so often in the Psalms, it is speech and voice that is the defining quality  of power—and no more so than here where “The God of glory thunders” (3) and “the Lord’s voice breaking cedars,/ the Lord shatters the Lebanon cedars.” (5) God’s voice is expressed in thunder and then as earthquake expressed with a remarkable simile of livestock prancing:
and He makes Lebanon dance like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild ox. (6).

Earthquake begets fire as “the Lord’s voice hews flames of fire” (7) and then come still more earthquakes:
The Lord makes the wilderness shake,
The Lord’s voice makes the Kadesh wilderness shake. (8).

God’s earthquake and thunder brings both birth and destruction:
The Lord’s voice brings on the birth-pangs of does
and lays bare the forests. (9).

All of this is laid out as evidence of God’s unfathomable glory and power, “and the Lord is enthroned as king for all time.” (10b)

In its benediction we come to the raison d’etre for this psalm:
May the Lord give strength to His people
May the Lord bless His people with peace. (11)

It is God’s almighty power that gives us God-followers our own strength—and our peace. The poem begins with repetition of the phrase,”Grant to the Lord,” but there is reciprocity here: this all-powerful God that can shake the earth has given us strength and peace in return.

Genesis 50: Joseph weeps as his father dies. This being Egypt, Jacob then benefits from the remarkable embalming skills of the Egyptians, which was certainly necessary in those pre-refrigeration days to carry Jacob’s body back to Canaan. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that “the Egyptians wept for him seventy days,”—a sure indication of the political power Joseph possessed, but also we would hope of the affection the hoi polloi had for this remarkable family. And a stark contrast to the situation four centuries down the road.

The return to Canaan to bury Jacob is no small affair and “ With him [Joseph] went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household.” (7, 8) There are so many of them that “When the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” (11) But the crucial fact is that this is a final act of obedience to their father “his sons did for him as he had instructed them.” (12)—a message to every Jew of the respect due one’s father.

Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers have the very understandable concern that with their father now dead, Joseph will finally take his revenge on them for what they did so many years ago: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” (15) Even now there’s some deceit on their part as they tell Joseph, Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’” (16, 17). If Jacob said that, it was not been mentioned in the earlier dialog between Joseph and his father. I have the feeling Joseph figured that this bit about his father’s instruction may have been made up, but he gracefully chooses to ignore that possibility and takes the brothers’ statement at face value.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the brothers’ next statement, “Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” (17b) was sincere. Joseph certainly accepts it as such as another scene of brotherly emotion erupts: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept.” (18) One has to believe that the authors insert this scene as a reminder of the brotherly love that once existed among the tribes of Israel. As we know too well from Israel’s history, enmity and even civil war had long replaced fraternal love.

The brothers offer to become Joseph’s slaves, but Joseph once again repeats the underlying theme of this long story: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (20) For me, this is the overarching theme of the entire book of Genesis.

No matter how far astray the many personalities from Cain and Able to Noah to Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and his sons went astray—particularly the patriarchs—it is always part of God’s plan to bring good out of human fallenness. Joseph’s words to his brothers, “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (21) is a message to every Jew hearing this story: like Joseph, God will provide in times of trouble. And it is a message to us as well as we receive comfort from God who loves us and salvation from Jesus Christ.

Finally, there is the key promise that while the family of Israel may be in Egypt for a while, there is the promise of eventual return to Canaan as Joseph, now on his deathbed, says, “God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (24) And on this note of eventual return, this magnificent book of beginnings ends with the death of Joseph.

Matthew 18:1–14: Jesus has just finished telling the disciples about his eventual fate and three of them have had the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration, which they surely shared among their fellows. Now they seem to be getting visions of great personal glory to come and they ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (1) To which Jesus calls a child and tells them that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (3). He tells them—and us—that humility, not religiosity, is the means to enter the Kingdom.

He then warns anyone who places “a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (6). To be sure, it’s a warning to his disciples, but it is also a warning to us two millennia later. Be iit n the name of maintaining “good order” or over-interpreting theology, too many Christian churches have done exactly what Jesus warns about. Just as in Jesus’ day with the Jews, Christianity is too often about rules and restrictions rather than about grace. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be structure, but the human predilection to rules and bureaucracy has caused too many churches to become a millstone themselves.

Jesus’ warning is harsh: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away…if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away” (8,9) As usual though, Matthew’s juxtaposition of little children and millstones is exactly right: it is humility, not religiosity that is the key to following Jesus. Religiosity only results in millstones that impede the journey.

Jesus continues his theme of how to respect and treat children,“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” (10) and he goes on to tell the parable of the lost sheep. We are rmeinded by Jesus himself that children and young people are the future of the church—a reality that too  many churches have ignored and consequently have faded from the scene.

In this story of the lost sheep I think that there is a certain universalism here: it is God’s desire that 100% of humanity comes to him. For like the shepherd, he loves each human being intensely. It is not in God’s nature to reject anyone. Alas, it is in our nature to reject God. And it is we—both as individuals and as community—that too often take perverse pleasure in causing others to stumble and become lost.

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