Archives for April 2018

Psalm 44:10–17; Exodus 39:1–31; Matthew 27:57–66

Originally published 4/3/2016. Revised and updated 4/4/2018:

Psalm 44:10–17: While the previous section of this psalm concluded on a note of how faithful the psalmist and his peers have been to God, this section turns darkly accusatory toward God because it seems that God has not reciprocated that faithfulness. We encounter one of the longest passages of complaint against God in the Psalms. As the military language suggests, the psalmist probably writes just following a stinging military defeat of Israel. [Unfortunately, the psalm gives no hint as to what historical battle this might have been,] The psalmist does not hide his anger as he writes:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
    and did not sally forth in our ranks.
    You turned us back from the foe,
    and our enemies took their plunder. (10, 11)

Worse, God’s inaction has resulted in a greater catastrophe than just a defeat in battle turning the metaphor of God being the good shepherd of Israel on its head:
You made us like sheep to be eaten
and scattered us through the nations.
” (12)

The nation of Israel itself appears to have been destroyed and its population scattered to the four winds—which of course is eventually exactly what happened, be it the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Babylonian captivity, or Israel’s occupation first by Greeks then by Romans—all leading up to the destruction by Titus of the temple and most of Jerusalem in AD70.

But perhaps the bitterest complaint of all is how God failed to value—much less care for—his people:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price on them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us. (13, 14)

God’s failure regarding Israel is not just a national tragedy; it has grave personal consequences as the psalmist goes on to remind God—and us—of the shame he (and we presume others) is experiencing:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame covered my face,
from the sound of revilers and cursers,
from the enemy and the avenger.
” (16, 17)

Underneath our poet’s anger and shame is the deepest feeling of all: abandonment. The psalmist’s faith has brought him nothing but shame. Which is exactly what makes these verses so powerful. We often feel that same sense of abandonment in God’s silence and our belief that he has failed to act as we want him to. We ask, ‘Why, God?’ and ‘Where are You, God.’  That is why this psalm is so powerful and so relevant today.

This psalm gives us a model that we can be angry at God. We don’t have to employ false reverence and pretend to like God. We can shake our fists at him. At times like these I’m with the psalmist: that old saw that when we didn’t see God walking beside us because he was carrying us is is a myth. I believe there are times like these described here, when God turns away and does not speak. We are completely, utterly on our own without a hope in the world.

Exodus 39:1–31: The tabernacle is complete, as are its furnishings. Now it is time to fashion the priestly garments. We assume it is “Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, engraver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.” (38:23) who leads the project of making “the sacred vestments for Aaron; as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:1)

The description of these vestments, including “the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.” (2) pretty much follows the earlier description and demonstrates to me, anyway, that both sets of authors were actually looking at the same vestments, which had apparently survived down through Israel’s history—or subsequent replacement garments—to the Babylonian captivity when these authors were writing. The ephod contains the twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel and enough gold rings that suggest it must have weighed upwards of 40 or 50 pounds.

However, two things are missing in this description: that is the mysterious urim and thummin. This omission suggests that these two rocks [or whatever they were] did not come to play a large role in actual worship.

In addition to the breastplate and robe, the artisans “also made the tunics, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, and the turban of fine linen, and the headdresses of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twisted linen.” (27, 28). My suspicion based on no actual knowledge or facts is that these linen undergarments were the inspiration for the Mormon practice of wearing similar garments under their outer clothing.

Once again we are almost overwhelmed by the richness and magnificence of these descriptions. And again, we can only conclude that true worship of God demands the finest creations of human mind and hand [mens et manus—the MIT motto]. Which is one more reason why worship is serious business indeed.

Matthew 27:57–66: Even though the inner twelve disciples had abandoned Jesus, one disciple, who we assume has been following Jesus for some time but has never been mentioned until now, appears and asks for Jesus’ corpse: Joseph, the rich man from Arimathea. Joseph prepares the body and “wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.” (59, 60). And in a detail I’d never noticed before, it is Joseph who rolls the rock in front of the tomb. His crucial role complete, “he went away” and drops from Biblical history. Almost in passing Matthew notes, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (61) As far as our ospel writer is concerned, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are the only ones who have not abandoned Jesus after he dies. I believe these three are the stand-ins for the ordinary worshipper; we lay people. On the day following Good Friday we are all sitting in front of the tomb, lost in our thoughts and in our loss. But unlike those three faithful followers, we know how the story turns out.

Ever the masters of selective memory, the religious officials are well aware of Jesus’ prediction that he will rise again after three days. They hurry to Pilate and say, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (63) I presume they didn’t want to post their own temple guard at the tomb and appealed to Roman authority on the grounds that dealing with the threat from “this imposter” required official sanction. Pilate must have been frustrated at this request, thinking he had finally gotten the religious leaders off his back with the crucifixion of “this imposter.” Yet, he’s doubtless thinking, here they were again with some cockamamie story about preventing a resurrection. Not wanting to provide any pretext whatsoever for more rioting in Jerusalem he agrees to provide a Roman guard, and instructs the temple officials to “make [the tomb] as secure as you can.” As we will find out shortly, what is secure to humans is not secure for God, who always breaks through the rocks we erect to hide from his relentless pursuit.

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.


Psalm 44:1–9; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45–56

Originally published 4/2/2016. Revised and updated 4/3/2018:

Psalm 44:1–9: The first person plural pronouns that open the psalm indicate this is a “group supplication” that suggests the nation has suffered a defeat in battle. They are recalling how God assisted in past victories of Israel, probably the original conquering of Canaan:
God, with our own ears we have heard,
our fathers recounted to us
a deed that You did in their days,
in days of yore.

In fact they give God complete credit for that previous victory:
You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them [Israel].
You smashed peoples [Canaanites] and sent them away.

Our poet continues on the theme of how it is God who brings victory and the people and/or the army are only the means by which victory is accomplished:
For not by sword they took hold of the land,
and it was not their right arm that made them victorious
 but Your right hand and Your arm,
and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4)

In short, Canaan was conquered because God—as he had promised—was on Israel’s side.  The poet then moves on to point out how the present nation/army can conquer the present enemy of God would be on their side now if they but acknowledge God as their true leader:
You are my king, O God.
Ordain the victories of Jacob [Israel].

Then we encounter the uncomfortable implications of human war conflated with God:
Through You we gore our foes,
through Your name we trample those against us.

This verse makes it clear to me anyway that wishing God’s assistance in battle exposes a side of God that I’d rather not think about. Does God really help armies eviscerate their foes. It seems an outright contradiction to our mage of a loving God. But perhaps we need to be reminded that God possess many qualities. Or is this psalm just completely off base in asking God to gore one’s enemies? I think when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver exactly that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents. Our poet emphasizes that it is neither he nor his tools of war that accomplish victory, but God himself who receives the all the credit:
For not in my bow do I trust,
and my sword will not make me victorious. 

The deep faith of the psalmist—and we presume the entire army— is what ultimately will lead them to victory:
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time.

The lesson seems clear: We need to place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully trust  God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish our desire to control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 38: Bezalel’s skills continue to be on display as he builds the large (7.5 feet square, 4.5 feet high) altar of burnt offering also built of acacia wood. He builds not only the altar itself, but all its tools and accessories as well: “all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze.” (3) plus the grating—and moreover, it’s built for portability. But we should also give credit to the women who gave up their mirrors so he could fabricate “the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze.” (8)

Even though our authors persist in using the third person singular pronoun, “he,” indicating, I presume Bezalel, one has to assume that many talented hands were involved in the actual construction of the furnishings and the tabernacle itself. This is not dissimilar to today’s practice of giving the architect credit for the entire building as e.g. “Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.” even though its design and construction involved the labor of thousands of people.

We have observed previously that our authors are sticklers for detail and nowhere is that more evident than in the final inventory: “These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant, which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses.” (21) Which goes on to account for the overseers of the project: Aaron’s son Ithamar, as well as Bezalel and Oholiab. Then the materials list:

• “gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, “(24)
•  “silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels.” (25) which came from the head tax on everyone “from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men.” (27)
• “The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels.” (29)

So why all this detail, which we will encounter later in the OT when it comes to building Solomon’s temple? I believe the detail lends historical authenticity to the fact that the tabernacle was doubtless a physical—and therefore a historical—reality. It is also a vivid demonstration of the idea that “God is in the details”— a theme that Jesus took up when he spoke of the lilies in the field and God knowing the number of hairs on our head. This makes God much more real, a God who operates in real space and real time. Which has implications for us today: God is assuredly not the dreamy abstraction we would prefer him to be. God cannot be pushed aside. He is real and he is here.

Matthew 27:45–56: Matthew’s Jesus utters only one sentence the entire time he hangs on the cross and that only moments before he dies: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (46) This is the first line of Psalm 22, and yet another demonstration of how Matthew connects Jesus to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion is dark, but more importantly, he shows how the crucifixion of Jesus was an earth-shattering event which changed the course of history: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (51)

But then he writes what I believe to be the most mysterious sentence surrounding the events of Jesus’ death: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (52, 53) OK, but if this actually happened why do none of the other Gospel writers describe what has to be a mysteriously profound event? Or did Matthew just make this up as further demonstration of the profundity of what just happened: an event so enormous that not only was earth itself affected, but under the earth and in heaven as well? 

Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “(54)   And it is the realization of the Gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point about the crucifixion—and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Finally, in a passage that is often overlooked on Good Friday, Matthew tells us, “ Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.” (55) Notice the all-important phrase, they “had provided for him.” It is the women who have sustained Jesus’ physical needs throughout his ministry up to the point of his betrayal. And as we will learn, it is the women who will first learn the news of the Resurrection.  If we needed a clearer message of the important role of women in Jesus’ life and therefore their co-equal role in the life church, it is surely here. Alas, patriarchy has lived on too long in the church.

Psalm 43; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Originally published 4/1/2016 with excerpts from April 2, 2014. Revised and updated 4/2/2018:

Psalm 43: This psalm seems a direct follow-on to the conclusion of the preceding psalm, where the last lines express the poet’s “Hope in God” and “His rescuing presence.” [Alter suggests that Psalm 42 and 43 were one longer psalm which was broken into two by the editors fro some unknown reason.] Armed with that hope, the opening line of this psalm begins with a veritable shout appealing to God for justice on both a national dn individual level:
Grant me justice, O God.
take up my case against a faithless nation,
from a man of deceit and wrong free me.

I wonder how many times has this verse been uttered in desperation and hope down through the ages where a single brave individual stands against both a particular enemy as well as an entire society arrayed against him?

It’s clear that he feels abandoned by God as he is facing his enemies utterly alone and begging almost plaintively:
For You, O God, my stronghold,
why should You neglect me?

Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe? (2)

We see that not only is he facing an enemy but that he must be in exile far from Jerusalem as he asks God to come to this unfamiliar territory:
Send forth Your light and Your truth.
It is they that will guide me.
They will bring me to Your holy mountain
And to Your dwelling place.
” (3)

His prayer is not only that he makes it back to Jerusalem, but that he might once again come before God, who dwells in the temple (or tabernacle) there. And once there, he will bow down in worship:
And let me come to God’s altar,
to God, my keenest joy.
and let me acclaim You with the lyre,
O God, my God.

Like the journey itself, the psalm ascends from the depths of seeming abandonment directly into the presence of God, where almost ecstatic joy replaces gloom ending on the same theme as Psalm 42:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him
His rescuing presence and my God. (5)

In just these few verses, our psalmist has taken a spiritual journey from the depths of despair to worshipful joy atop the mountain.

And that is our journey too.  Not just once in our lives, but again and again.  Because movement is the very nature of prayer. Prayer is not idle contemplation; it is a journey, it is dynamic; its bias is to action.

When I contemplate what a material, God-denying life must be like, I realize how flat that journey would be.  Having rejected God, I would be trapped in emptiness, and there would be no reason other than self-motivation to ascend.  But self-actualization (to be Maslovian about it) is always insufficient.  Because in the end, we find nothing but ourselves at the mountaintop.  No wonder the therapeutic industry is so vast.

Exodus 37: This chapter is a continuation of the details around constructing the Tabernacle and focuses on the details that go into its furnishings. Above all: the Ark of the Covenant. Then the table for the Bread of the Presence, the lampstand, and the Altar of Incense. All of these objects appear to have been crafted by Bezalel, although I suspect that like Michelangelo, he oversaw other workers in his studio.

As with the tabernacle itself, these descriptions are much more compact than the descriptions we’ve encountered in earlier chapters. These authors also continue to emphasize the connection between the objects and their builder as we read the opening words of virtually every sentence: “He made.” There’s no question that our scribes want to reassure us that these items are not “magic,” or somehow just appeared out of nothing. Rather they have been crafted assiduously by human hands. Unlike other religions of the time, none of these items pretends to be an image of God—an idol. They exist exclusively as the means to allow priests to come before the living God in proper and highly defined modes of worship.

That there is no idolatry here is emphasized by the Ark of the Covenant. It is not an object to represent God; rather it is a place where God’s presence can dwell giving Israel a direct and tangible connection to God.

Israel’s God is immanent. And despite the words of today’s psalm, God is not far away. It is this immanence that, for me anyway, explains why the construction of these objects is described in such almost excruciating detail. The authors want to make sure we understand that only the best materials were used by the finest and most skilled craftsmen. God deserves the absolute best we can offer him. Which frankly, I fail to do. Too often we are satisfied giving God only what we have left over.

Our authors conclude] with a detailed accounting of capital expenditures, ” All the gold that was fashioned for the task in every task of the sanctuary, the elevation-offering gold was twenty-nine talents…And the silver reckoned from the community was a hundred talents…” (24, 25)  We also learn that both a freewill offering and a tax are the income sources.  The tax is also a way of taking a census.

So, once again: precision, exactitude, accounting.  When Jesus talks about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, he is speaking out of this longstanding precision–another proof that there is nothing random about God or His creation.  This exactitude of course underlays all biology in our genes and DNA, as well as physics, as you can discover in any book about quantum physics at one end of magnitude and astrophysics at the other end.  More proof for me, anyway, that God is hardly an abstract spirit, but a builder and Creator–and he expects the same attention to detail from us.

Matthew 27:32-44: Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion is terse but vividly communicates the darkness and evil of the act. We meet Simon of Cyrene, and “they compelled this man to carry his cross.” (32) I’m sure Matthew inserts this detail to remind us that it was not just the Jews and Romans who are the means of Jesus’ execution. It is all of us.

Matthew omits many of the gruesome details of the act of crucifixion itself that we find in other gospels, simply stating that when offered a drink of wine and gall, Jesus refuses. Something we never see in visual depictions, but Jesus is doubtless stripped naked—the final humiliation— suggested by the fact that “they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots.” (35). Matthew emphasizes how Jesus has become the object of mockery and scorn with the visible sign on which “they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’” (37).

This theme of mockery is amplified further as Matthew writes, “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”” (39, 40)  Unlike the description in Luke, the “bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.” (44) There is no last minute repentance on the part of one of the thieves, nor reassuring words from Jesus that the thief will be joining him in Paradise. There is only darkness, scorn, and mockery. In fact, up to this point, Matthew’s Jesus has not uttered a word.

Once again, I think all of us who read these words must confront Matthew’s clearly implied challenge. We can either believe Jesus is who he said who he is or we are reduced to mockery. There can no middle ground. The sign above his head is either true or it is an object of derision. Matthew is telling us in his dark words here that when we come to the cross we are forced to choose to believe or to mock.