Psalm 54; Leviticus 16:26–18:5; Mark 6:7–13

Originally published 4/23/2016. Revised and updated 4/24/2018.

Psalm 54: This psalm’s superscription, “when the Ziphites came to Saul, ‘Is not David hiding our among us?‘”  (2) refers to the incident in I Samuel 23 where David, fleeing from Saul, is betrayed by the Ziphites, in whose territory he is hiding. The context here suggests the psalm’s author is writing in David’s voice as he pleads to God after just hearing that Saul now knows where he is hiding.

It’s a pretty standard prayer of supplication although its first two verses seem somehow reversed. The prayer opens with a pleading cry followed by what seems like a more traditional opening:
God, thorough Your name rescue me,
and through Your might take up my cause
God, O hear my prayer,
hearken to my mouth’s utterances.
” (3, 4)

Perhaps the poet is underscoring David’s out-of-breath desperation, where the urgency of the supplication trumps taking the time to create a formal prayer structure. Which is good to know. I think many of us hesitate to pray because we feel our words will not be elegant enough or the structure of our prayer occurs in exactly the right order that we believe somehow God demands. This psalm suggests that God really does not care about all that.

The core of David’s prayer comes next: The strangers would be the Ziphites and the oppressor is Saul. As usual, there is a theological observation about their sinful state and the implication that therefore they have committed this grievous wrong against David:
For strangers have risen against me,
and oppressors have sought my life.

They did not set God before them.” (5)

Confidence that God will answer returns as David asserts,
Look, God is about to help me,
my Master—among those who support me.
” (6)

In short, God is on David’s side. And with that assurance, David hurls an imprecation, presumably against Saul and his men:
Let Him pay back evil to my assailants..
Demolish then through Your truth! “

This raises the interesting idea that rather than David’s actions, it is God’s truth and the refusal of his enemies to accept that truth that results in their ultimate defeat. That’s good advice for those who battle in the culture wars: the ultimate assurance that God’s truth will triumph in the ned—even though we wish he would act a little faster.

Leviticus 16:26–18:5: The instructions regarding the Day of Atonement conclude with the disposition of the bull for the sin offering and unsurprisingly, the command that the “one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward may come into the camp.” (16:28) More significantly, I think, the precise day for the Day of Atonement is set “forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves,  and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (16:29). Then, the authors summarize the purpose of this most holy of days: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord.” (16:30) Notice that this day is a gift from God—”for you”—not something God requires because he’s just being arbitrarily complicated.

Of course this day continues to be celebrated as Rosh Hashanah these several millennia later.

Chapter 17 emphasizes two critically important rules. The first is that sacrifices can be made in one place and one place only: at “the entrance of the tent of meeting.” (17:4) The consequences of disobedience are severe. If a sacrifice is made to God in any other location, no matter how sincerely, that person or persons “shall be cut off from the people,” (17:8)  i.e. banished from the community. I think this rule is in place to  delineate Israel clearly from the surrounding idolatrous tribes, who would create a “high place” in various locations and sacrifice right then and there. God demands order, not randomness. It also underscores the monotheism of Israel. God is present in only one place. And here, it is the tent of meeting. Once in Canaan, however, the Israelites set up all kinds of high places for sacrifice as they follow the pagan rites of their neighbors.

The other cause for being banished from the community, whether “anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them” (17:10) is the consumption of blood. The reason is straightforward: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (17:11) Blood is life and that life has but one purpose: atonement for sins before God. The idea of blood as atonement of course finds its fulfillment for us in the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood on the ross. For it is in the blood that we are “washed white as snow.” In short, blood, whether animal or human, is sacred because it is the means by which God gives and sustains the lives of every creature. [Today, only the Germans and their predilection for blood sausage seem to ignore this rule.]

Chapter 18 opens with a brief intermezzo, reminding us that in the midst of all these rules, we must remember that Israel’s God is wholly unique among all the other small-g gods that surround them: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (18:2, 3) And Israel’s responsibility for enjoying this unique covenantal relationship is simply that “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.” (18:5) A simple rule but as we will see, obeyed only in the breach.

Mark 6:7–13: Following the fairly disastrous encounter at Nazareth, Jesus turns to the mission at hand, and as far is Mark is concerned, the real reason Jesus has called these particular disciples: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (7) Notice that while Jesus has given them authority over the “unclean spirits,” presumably the ability to cast out demons, he has not given them healing powers. At this point Jesus has reserved this power to himself.

What remains somewhat puzzling to me is that Jesus basically creates an order of mendicant missionaries (a practice continued by some orders of Catholic monks): He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. (8) This would presumably make their jobs harder, but I think Jesus is proving the point that working in the Kingdom does not require wealth or even bringing supplies. God will provide all that is needed.

Jesus’ next words need to be remembered again and again: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (11) Mark has placed this statement immediately following Jesus’ own lack of success in Nazareth as a reminder that not everyone will respond to the Good News—even to Jesus himself. And if it appears that if the Holy Spirit is not working in a person or place we are to move. I think many overly-sincere folks tend to badger their “targets” to the point of annoyance and then to outright rejection. For example, I’m suspicious of people who try to “convert” atheists.  It is enough to simply state what Jesus has done for us and then to live that example because actions always speak louder than words. Badgering someone by telling them they’re wrong-headed only leads to antipathy. Speak gently and let the Holy Spirit do its work. We should not be looking to put notches on our spiritual holsters.

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