Psalm 61; Numbers 2; Mark 9:38–50

Originally published 5/9/2016. Revised and updated 5/9/2018

Psalm 61: At first read this appears to be be a straightforward psalm of supplication:
Hear, God, my song,
listen close to my prayer
” (2)

But I see it as a psalm of joyful assurance. Our psalmist knows God hears him—there’s no doubting or disappointment here:
From the end of the earth I call You.
When my heart faints, You lead me to a a rock high above me.
 (3)

The source of this assurance comes from his realization that God has been there for him in the past as he recalls with faint military imagery,
For You have been a shelter to me,
a tower of strength in the face of the foe.
 (4).

God has protected him not only in battle but in every confrontation with enemies of every type. This is a crucial lesson for us. Foes are not just other people; in my case it is a disease in my own body that has endured disease. Yet, I know with absolute assurance that God is at my side and that I can dwell with God as David did, under the shelter of an impregnable rock.

Our psalmist finds such rest in God so wonderful that he would prefer to remain in God’s shelter forever:
Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,
let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding place.
 (5)

Alter informs us that in this context , “tent’ refers to the Temple at Jerusalem and I presume “Your wings’ hiding place refers to the Ark of the Covenant, topped by its two winged cherubim.

But as we all must do, our psalmist knows this reflection must be followed by a return to the real world, but with the serene knowledge that God has heard him—and us:
You, God, have heard my vows,
You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name
. (6)

Following something of a non sequitur  to “add to the days of the King” (7) and that the king “ever abide in the presence of God,” (8) our poet concludes, as almost every psalm of supplication does, on a note of worship:
So let me hymn Your name forever
as I pay my vows day after day.
 (9)

And so, too, for us. Worship is always the joyful conclusion to every trial that we endure.

Numbers 2: Whoever wrote Numbers seems to have recognized that in the previous books of Exodus and Leviticus, Aaron has received relative short shrift in terms of hearing God. Now, “the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron,” (1). However, the topic at hand  is hardly theological or priestly instructions. Instead it is extremely detailed instructions about which side of the tabernacle, which lies at the geographic center of the Israelite assembly, each of the twelve tribes—here called “ancestral houses”— shall reside: East, south, west, north, together with the designated leader and population count for each house. This would have been a good place for the authors to state the facts in tabular form, so I am providing it instead.

Compass      Tribe        Leader    Number
East              Judah       Nahshon  74,600
East             Issachar    Nethanel  54,400
East             Zebulon     Eliab         57,400
TOTAL  East                                  186,400
South            Reuben     Elizur          46,500
South            Simeon      Shelumiel  59,300
South            Gad            Eliasaph    45,650
TOTAL  South                                    151,450
West              Ephraim   Elihama     40,500
West              Manasseh  Gamaliel   32,200
West              Benjamin   Abidan      35,400
TOTAL  West                                    108,100
North             Dan             Ahiezer     62,700
North             Asher          Pagiel       41,500
North             Napthali     Ahira       53,400
TOTAL  North                                    157,600

The all-important tribe of Levi “shall set out in the center of the camps” (17). But no leader or body count is included. I presume that’s because the Levites are priests, not warriors.

The military necessity of the census becomes crystalline at the end of the chapter. Both the census and the precise arrangement of clans around the tabernacle have brought order out of chaos: “The Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses: They camped by regiments, and they set out the same way, everyone by clans, according to ancestral houses.” (34)

At our far remove from these events we may wonder why the naming and counting? The reason for the names has to be tribal memory. Since Israel did not believe in an afterlife, ancestral roots were at the very core of each person’s identity. So, here at least the tribal leader is memorialized. The precision of the population numbers certainly lends an authentic historicity to this book, whose authors want to make sure that the beginning of Israel was a very real event in space and time. These details help accomplish that.

But I still wonder: inasmuch as we believe the Pentateuch was committed to writing some centuries after these event, how were these numbers, which certainly sound authentic, preserved. It seems to me that there would have to be more than oral history at work here? Something more permanent would be required Perhaps these numbers were inscribed on a scroll or a stone at the time this census occurred.

Mark 9:38–50: Even though many of Jesus’ sayings are inscrutable, one cannot fairly accuse him of complete ambiguity. He inhabits a very black and white world, whose reality is captured in his response to the disciples’ complaint that some unauthorized person was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. To preserve the sanctity of their inner circle and they assumed, Jesus’ reputation, the disciples report that “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (38) But Jesus retorts that by naming the name of Jesus, even a negatively motivated person or even one who is mocking Jesus will eventually come around: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” (39)

I think this is a basic psychologically reality, which we see acted out negatively in our time by hostages who come over to the hostage-takers side via the so-called “Stockholm syndrome.” But we also often see or hear of former disbelievers coming around to understanding, accepting and loving Jesus. Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was at work in this man whom the disciples had castigated.

Jesus cannot make his point any clearer than this: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (4). I think this statement also tells us a lot about the community to which Mark is writing. There is definitely dissension in the ranks and some (I suspect Jewish Christians) feel others are behaving improperly, using Jesus’ name in places they shouldn’t and performing deeds that call their theological purity into question. Of course we do this all the time in church when it comes to judging “proper behavior” and how Jesus’ name and power is used. Which means that I need to be more tolerant of people like Joel Osteen, who to my mind treads awfully close to heresy. But that’s hard to do.

Mark then presents us with a selection of Jesus sayings that emphasize the stark black and white commitment at the heart of calling oneself a Jesus follower: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (43) This shocking statement is followed by similar sayings regarding feet and eyes. What strikes me here is that Jesus is not putting “marketing spin” on the benefits of being a Jesus follower and entering the Kingdom of God. It is hard and yes, dangerous work. This is no question of making one’s life “better,” rather it is stark two alternative forced choice: enter the Kingdom and work or enjoy hell, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (48)

There is also a warning of persecution to come, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” (49) and Jesus’ soliloquy ends with a plea that surely Mark wanted desperately to deliver to his community: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (50).  In other words, stop fighting among yourselves and be prepared to fight together against the forces of darkness. Words we in the church would do well to heed today in our increasingly post-Christian culture.

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