Psalm 70; Numbers 18:1–24; Mark 14:53–65

 Originally published 5/29/2016. Revised and updated 5/30/2018

Psalm 70: This short but powerful David psalm of supplication communicates real urgency, creating the feeling as if it were uttered while on the run:
God, to save me,
Lord, to my help, hasten!

Wasting no time in lengthy introductions our out-of-breath psalmist gets right to the issue at hand, asking God to cause his enemies to suffer as he has suffered:
May those who seek my life be shamed and reviled.
May they fall back and be disgraced,
who desire my harm.

We have ask frequently in light of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies about the “appropriateness” of the psalmist to ask for bad things to happen to one’s those who try to do us harm. Again, I suggest that these psalms serve a vital psychological purpose in speaking our darkest desires and secrets—and God is the one to whom we can safely speak with out fear of retribution.

The psalmist continues in the same vein with an arresting metaphor of reversal—that those who oppress will themselves turn back to God:
Let them turn back on the heels of their shame,
who say, ‘Hurrah, Hurrah!'”

And rather than saying ‘Hurrah,’ and be happy at the plight of the oppressed, those who trust in God will
…seek You
[and] exult and rejoice,
and may always say ‘God is great!’ 

Once again, speech is paramount. Will we wish evil on our enemies, saying ‘Hurrah’ at their failure? Or will we ask God that they recognize the error of their ways, repent and join the righteous, exulting and rejoicing, knowing that God is indeed protecting us? That no matter how fallen we may be the hope of repentance applies to every person.

Our poet concludes with the same sense of urgency that opened the psalm, recognizing that all of us need God’s help urgently:
As for me, I am lowly and needy.
God, O hasten to me!
…Lord do not delay.
 (6, 7)

The question for me is, do I recognize that I too am lowly and needy and cannot accomplish anything without God’s help. And that I need to turn on the heels of my shame and embrace God’s—and Jesus’—love.

Numbers 18:1–24: Our priestly authors describe the final steps in straightening out who has priestly responsibility and who does not. Interestingly, here God is speaking directly to Aaron rather than his usual pipeline, Moses. God’s command could not be clearer to Aaron: “You and your sons and your ancestral house with you shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, while you and your sons alone shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.” (1)  Notice how God differentiates between the sanctuary [the tabernacle, and later, the temple] and the priesthood itself.

Now that the issue of Aaron and his sons and successors is cleared up, God commissions the entire tribe of Levi to “serve you while you and your sons with you are in front of the tent of the covenant.” (2) Before now, I have not really noticed the distinction between the priesthood, which is the descendants of Aaron, and the Levites, who “shall perform duties for you and for the whole tent.” (3) God makes it clear that “It is I who now take your brother Levites from among the Israelites; they are now yours as a gift, dedicated to the Lord, to perform the service of the tent of meeting.” (6) Since this command is from God, this is non-negotiable.

But wait! There’s more. God announces to Aaron that all of the offerings and sacrifices made in the tabernacle “shall be yours from the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs that they render to me as a most holy thing, whether grain offering, sin offering, or guilt offering, shall belong to you and your sons.” (9)

We can really read between the lines here as the priestly authors of this book make it clear that the privileges they enjoy were ordained by God himself, “I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due, whatever is set aside from the gifts of all the elevation offerings of the Israelites; everyone who is clean in your house may eat them.” (11) In fact, it’s even better than that, as “all the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you.” (12)

Moreover, the priests have first claim on all first-born creatures—human and animal—are theirs and theirs alone. Unclean animals may be redeemed to their original owners by paying 5 shekels. But “the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy.” (17) They are sacrificed on the altar with the flesh of the animal going to the priests. I believe our authors assert all this in order to ensure that their Aaronic descendants retain their priestly offices in Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity

Nevertheless, there’s a quid pro quo here. Priests and Levites may not own land: “You shall have no allotment in their land, nor shall you have any share among them.” (20)

Now that this has been straightened out following the Korah and Co. disaster, “From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die.” (22) In short, the priests stand in for everyone else. No one can approach the tabernacle, much less God if they are not a Aaronic priest. And it is not until Jesus abrogates the terms of this old covenant between God and Israel that anyone can approach God without going through a priest. But as the author of Hebrews points out, Jesus, being of the order of Melchizedek, outranks and neutralizes the Aaronic priesthood, so that all of us may approach God through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.

Mark 14:53–65: Jesus comes before the Sanhedrin: “the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled.” (53) Peter, lurking in the background, eavesdrops and becomes the mechanism by which we know what happened at this kangaroo court. [This is also one of the primary reasons why the gospel of Mark is traditionally thought to be the testimony of Peter.]  The priests call several witnesses, but they all give either false or contradictory testimony. There is no “smoking gun” on which they can convict Jesus.

Finally in frustration, the high priest asks Jesus to testify, demanding, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” (60) Jesus remains silent until the high priest asks the all-important question that is the central theme of this gospel: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (61). And at this, Jesus finally speaks the simple two-word answer, “I am.” And then he goes on to prophesy,
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

This quote from Daniel 7 is clearly the frosting on the blasphemy cake as Jesus asserts his co-equality with God.

The high priest rips his clothes and shouts, “You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” (64). The others agree enthusiastically and “condemned him as deserving death.” (64) Notice the phrase, “deserving death.” This is because the priests lacked the authority to impose capital punishment. As we will see, this requires the Romans. But in their intense hatred and probably frustration that they could not kill Jesus on the spot, “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!”” (65) But as always, the priestly authorities keep their hands clean as it is the temple police who begin to beat Jesus.

Mark’s clear message is that the Jews have rejected their messiah. There’s no question that by the time this gospel was written down, there was widespread belief that it was the Jews who were responsible for Jesus death. This exchange in the Sanhedrin is the proof, although more proof is to follow. Alas, this proof resulted in Christendom’s excuse to oppress or kill the Jews right down until the 20th century.

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