Psalm 66:1–7; Numbers 7:1–35; Mark 11:12–26

Originally published 5/16/2016. Revised and updated 5/16/2018

Psalm 66:1–7: This joyful psalm of thanksgiving opens with the imperative, “Shout out to God, all the earth,” (1) reminding us that we are not required always to be all prim and proper before God. If I really stopped for moment and reflected on what miracles God has brought to my own life I should stand outside and shout with the psalmist and begin singing, ”
Hymn His name’s glory.
Make His praise glory.
” (2)

And after singing his praises, my worship would continue :
Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your deeds.
Before Your great strength Your enemies quail.’
” (3)

But this psalm reminds us that worship exists in nature as well and our psalmist invites us to see the evidence of God’s power for ourselves:
All the earth bows down to You,
and they hymn to You, hymn Your name.
Come and see the acts of God,
awesome in works over humankind.
 (4, 5)

In other words, no matter how mighty and wonderful we think the accomplishments of human beings may be—and they are awesome indeed—God’s works are orders of magnitude greater. We may be able to create exciting new technologies and seeming medical miracles, but it is God and God alone who can rescue a human soul.

Our poet recalls both the crossing of Israel out of Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan River forty years later as Israel finally enters Canaan. This is another occasion for worship:
He turned the sea to dry land,
the torrent they crossed on foot.
There we rejoiced in him.
” (6)

With the psalmist we acknowledge that it is God who rules over all the affairs not just of Israel, but of all humankind:
He rules in His might forever.” (7a)

More importantly, God is far more than a benevolent uncle who makes nice things happen. God is aware of all that we do, and before undertaking a sinful act we would do well to remember that simple fact:
His eyes probe the nations.
Let the wayward not rise up.
” (7b)

Numbers 7:1–35: As usual, the authors of Numbers feel obligated to cover ground that the authors of Leviticus have already trod. Here, we again read that the tabernacle has been completed and is ready for dedication by “the leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings.” (2) The offerings that the leaders bring with them are indeed impressive: “six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the leaders, and for each one an ox; they presented them before the tabernacle.” (3)

Using their usual editorial device, “the Lord said to Moses” (4), the authors demonstrate that the offerings have a very useful purpose, starting with the wagons and oxen themselves, which are handed over to the Levites. “Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites,” (7) who are tasked with dealing with the tent canvas of the tabernacle, and the other “four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites,” (8) who are tasked with moving the bulky structural elements—tentpoles, etc.—of the tabernacle. On the other hand, the Kohathites received neither oxen nor wagon since in the relentless logic of our authors, “they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.” (9)

Now we encounter what Alter calls an “epic inventory,” a listing of the items that each tribe brought as an offering.  But each offering, described in loving detail, is exactly the same–denoting the equality of each tribe.  And the identical inventory is repeated for each tribe, resulting in twelve verbatim lists occupying this chapter.  But that’s not redundancy by any means: years later, when each tribe looked back  at its history, they could see in writing what their forebears had done.

This is also one of those passages where you realize that actual history is described.  A fairy tale would not deal with such mundane but necessary issues as cartage of the Tabernacle.

Each tribe is given a day of sacrifice worship at the tabernacle. Once again, as our authors always prefer, it is a very orderly affair. The offerings are noteworthy in their value, being mostly silver plates and bowls, in addition to the usual animals required for sacrifices. (Of course this being the book of Numbers, we are given the exact value of each gold and silver dish and plate in shekels.)

  • The one who presented his offering the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah (12)
  • On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, presented an offering; (18)
  • On the third day Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the Zebulunites: (24)
  • On the fourth day Elizur son of Shedeur, the leader of the Reubenites: (30)

I have a feeling that tomorrow’s reading will describe the offerings of the remaining eight tribes..

Again we ask, why this detailed inventory of what each leader brought? I think that again, the authors know that God is in the details and that as the psalmist above has told us, His eyes probe the nations. In their long descriptions, the authors of Numbers keep reminding us again and again that no detail is too small for God.

Mark 11:12–26: Jesus appears to wake up in a grumpy mood. He heads from his overnight lodgings in Bethan back toward Jerusalem. Thinking he’ll have figs for breakfast, he “he came to [the fig tree, but] he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Mark subtly reminds us that Jesus was no farmer and he angrily curses the fig tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” (14).

Bearing in mind that Jesus is both hungry and angry, Mark tells us, “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (15) Reading this action in context, I feel we have a pretty good glimpse of the 100% human Jesus. His hunger and anger is genuine.

I think that for Jesus, the commerce at the Temple was just as pointless as the fruitless fig tree–a perversion, if you will, of its original function.  The Temple has but one purpose: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (17)  But instead it has become a “den of robbers.” 

The priests and scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (18) In a smart tactical move to remain elusive to those who would try to capture him at night in Jerusalem after the crowds have gone home, Jesus and disciples head back to Bethany for the night.

They pass the now withered fig tree, as Peter exclaims,“Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (21) Jesus uses this as a teachable moment about the quality of faith: “believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (23) And even more powerfully, is Jesus’ promise, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (24) Personally, I’m distressed by this saying. Can we really will the laws of physics to be broken? And if we can’t, is it really because of our inadequate faith? Obviously, no other human will have Jesus’ faith because no other human 100% divine. At the risk of being heretical, for me there has to be some hyperbole here. Yes, our faith needs to be strong enough to move mountains, but I’m going to take that statement as metaphorical rather than literal.

The more important Jesus saying is,“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (25) Here, the clear message is that we cannot really be in prayer if we are holding grudges or resentments against another person.

We also learn that absent prayer in our lives, or more specifically, faith that our prayers will be answered, we are not much different than a dead fig tree or a moneychanger in the Temple courtyard: pretty useless.  But if we have faith in praying then we too will bear great fruit. Especially when we pray to forgive others. 

 

 

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