Psalm 48; Leviticus 6:14–7:21; Mark 2:1–12

Originally published 4/11/2016 with additions from 4/11/2014. Revised and updated 4/11/2018:

Psalm 48: We celebrated the king in the previous psalms; this psalm celebrates God residing in Zion, aka Jerusalem:
Great is the Lord and highly praised,
in our God’s town, His holy mountain. 
(2)

Alter notes that he uses “town” rather than “city,” because compared to other great cities of the time, Jerusalem is a relative backwater.  There is indeed today a “Mount Zion” within the city walls of Jerusalem, and our poet sings its praises—not least because that is where God lives:
Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy,
Mount Zion, far end of Zaphon,
the great king’s city.
God in its bastions
is famed as a fortress. 
(3, 4)

It appears this psalm is celebrating a military victory over God’s enemies, who,
have seen and been so astounded,
were panicked, dismayed.
Shuddering seized them there,
pangs like a woman in labor.
 (6,7)

Even though Jerusalem lies some 35 miles from the Mediterranean coast, it appears a naval enemy was defeated by natural events [although Alter notes that scholars have been unable to link this psalm to a specific military event]:
With the east wind
You smashed the ships of Tarshish
. (8)

The key point here is that God has come to the aid of Zion’s inhabitants to prevail over their enemy:
As we heard, so we see
in the town of the Lord of armies, in the town of our God
.” (9)

The remainder of the psalm continues the celebration, which extends outward to Jerusalem’s suburbs:
Let Mount Zion rejoice,
let Judea’s townlets exult
because of Your judgements.
 (12)

We are encouraged to assess Jerusalem’s impregnability in an image that evokes the famous 7-day walk around Jericho:
Go around  Zion, encircle it.
Count its towers.
Set your mind to its ramparts, scale its bastions
to recount to the last generation
. (13, 14)

The beauty of the psalm is its physicality, for the walls of Jerusalem still stand and Mount Zion still lies within those walls.  It’s a tangible reminder of God’s ever-abiding presence on earth, as the glorious last verse reminds us:
For this is God, our God, forevermore.
He will lead us forever.
 (15)

Leviticus 6:14–7:21: A phrase we see repeated many times in this section of Leviticus is “This is the teaching…” followed by specific instructions of the type of offering to be made and precisely how it is to be made.  This is a reminder that there is much more to the Old Covenant than just the Decalogue.  It’s worth remembering that “Torah” means “teaching,” and nowhere is there more teaching, instruction, and regulations than in this book which has suspended the narrative altogether.  Perhaps this book is better titled, “Rules and Regulations of the Old Covenant.”

Instructions regarding various offerings which we have already read are repeated here, albeit more briefly. The point here seems to be that while the earlier descriptions were effectively the instruction manual, we have a more human connection here because these authors frame it as Moses giving instruction to Aaron and his sons.  The practical “human angle” is reinforced as we also read specific instructions about what parts of each offering may be eaten and which parts may not.

First, “the ritual of the grain offering: [which] The sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, in front of the altar.” (6:14) Happily, the sons get to eat what is left over. It is followed by “the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Lord on the day when he is anointed.” (6:20) But, “Every grain offering of a priest shall be wholly burned; it shall not be eaten.” (6:23)

Then, the more grisly sin offering, which the “priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting.” (6:26) More practical instruction follows: “when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place.” (6:27) Either an earthen or bronze vessel may be used for the washing process. The earthen vessel is disposed of but the bronze one is thoroughly cleaned for reuse.

There were many types of sacrifices, ranging from grain offerings to entire bulls.  And there were many types of sin to be atoned.  Chapter 7 opens with “the teaching of the guilt offering,” (7:1) which is carefully differentiated from “the offense offering like the sin offering, a single teaching do they have.” (7:7).  Which in turn is distinct from “this is the teaching of the communion sacrifice that is brought 12 forward to the LORD.” (7:11,12).  And, oh by the way, the communion sacrifice is about thanksgiving, not atonement. (7:15).

There’s also a nice example of recycling, “the priest who offers anyone’s burnt offering shall keep the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered.” (7:8) Although it’s not clear to me what the priest is supposed to do with burnt skin.

Finally, “the ritual of the sacrifice of the offering of well-being that one may offer to the Lord.” (7:11)  which is accompanied by cakes of leavened (yes, leavened) bread. Both the cakes and any flesh offered as thanksgiving “shall be eaten on the day it is offered; you shall not leave any of it until morning.” (7:15) But woe betide the priest or individual who eats leftovers: “If any of the flesh of your sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable,” (7:18). All of which makes good sense from the standpoint of avoiding food poisoning in the desert where refrigeration had not yet been invented.

In fact, the punishment for disobedience on this eating of food too late or while in an unclean state is quite harsh: “those who eat flesh from the Lord’s sacrifice of well-being while in a state of uncleanness shall be cut off from their kin.” (7:20) From our 21st century perspective, these instructions about sacrifice are not bizarre or arbitrary at all. Rather, they seem designed so that everyone involved practices good hygiene.

Mark 2:1–12: By the time Jesus returns home [presumably to Simon’s house] to Capernaum his fame has spread across Galilee and “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (2) But the friends of a paralytic man are not discouraged by Jesus’ apparent inaccessibility. They bring the paralytic up to the roof of the house, remove some roofing tiles and lower the paralytic man down right in front of Jesus. I’ve always loved this story about the men who removed the roof in order to lower their friend down on a pallet because they were not deterred by obstacles, took the initiative and obviously had serious engineering skills.

This famous healing would be all sweetness and light—a touching story of friendship— had Jesus simply told the man that he was healed. But Mark is not one to waste a teachable moment and he writes that Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (5).  This statement offends the scribes, who whisper among themselves that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy.However, Mark is careful to point out that the scribes did not speak up, doubtless grasping that the hoi polloi gathered around Jesus would not take kindly to those who criticized Jesus—especially a charge as serious as blasphemy.

Mark tells us that Jesus did not (or pretends not to) hear them, but rather he “perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves.” (8) Jesus poses the philosophical question to them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (9) and promptly tells the paralytic to get up and walk, which of course he does.

Mark’s point here is that while the miracles seem to trump the phrase, “your sins are forgiven,” it is the forgiveness of sins—not the miracles— that is Jesus’ true purpose on earth. Yes, the miracles are impressive, and “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”’ (12) Miracles may be dramatic, but God’s forgiveness is orders of magnitude more important. Moreover, Mark is telling us, while all of us may not experience a miraculous healing, we all will experience God’s forgiveness through Jesus.  Which is why I feel the church today needs to focus on increasing our awareness of our sinful nature and the reality of Jesus’ forgiveness far more than its more dramatic focus on physical healing.

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