Archives for June 2018

Psalm 78:1–8; Numbers 34; Luke 3:1–20

Originally published 6/18/2016. Revised and updated 6/19/2018.

Psalm 78:1–8: This long historical psalm opens with an introduction consisting of eight lengthy, almost run-on verses, whose primary aim is introducing Israel’s history to its newest generation in poetic form. First, we are to listen to our somewhat overwrought poet as he observes that this story has been told down through successive generations: :
Hearken, my people, to my teaching.
Lend Your ear to the sayings of my mouth
Let me open my mouth in a rhapsody,
let me voice the verses of old,
that we have heard and we have known,
and that our fathers recounted to us.
” (1-3)

He declares that now is the appropriate time for the next generation to learn and appreciate this common societal knowledge:
We shall not conceal from their sons,
to the last generation recounting
the praise of the Lord and His might
and His wonders that He did.
” (4)

This  is all about continuity and passing down cultural knowledge. But above all, it is to know who God is, and what he has done for Israel:
He charged our fathers to make known to their sons,
and place their trust in God
and forget not the acts of of God.
” (6, 7a)

And as always, it is also about obedience: “…and observe His commands.” (7b)

Our historian poet is perhaps thinking or wishing that perhaps this time the newest generation finally will get it right:
That they be not like their fathers,
a wayward, rebellious generation,
a generation that was not firm of heart,
and its spirit not faithful to God
.” (8)

These lines could have been written yesterday. We live in a culture where not only is God being forgotten, but our cultural history is fading into the mists as well as well-meaning progressive endeavor to redefine who we are and what we should become. Absent that shared knowledge and understanding, the religious and cultural cohesiveness of American society is unraveling quickly as we place individual rights and tastes on the highest pedestal, far above the common interest. As a result, we are reaping the whirlwind, just as Israel did.

Numbers 34: In this chapter chockablock with territorial boundary descriptions and naming of leadership, one comes to appreciate the sheer complexity of establishing a new nation.

First God, speaking as usual through Moses, lays out the exact boundaries of the entire nation from the wilderness of Zin to the Dead Sea on the east to the Great Sea (Mediterranean)  on the west across to Ziphron on the north…and so forth, culminating with “This shall be your land with its boundaries all around.” (12) Equally significant, God, speaking through Moses, makes it crystal clear: “This is the land that you shall inherit by lot.” ( 13)

Canaan proper is to be occupied by just 9 1/2 tribes because the Reubenites, Gasites and the half-tribe of Manasseh “have taken their inheritance beyond the Jordan at Jericho eastward, toward the sunrise.” (15). They are effectively no longer Israel—today this land is the infamous West Bank.

The geographic precision of this description of boundaries makes it clear that our authors knew exactly where Israel was and that its boundaries were God-ordained. And looking retrospectively, I suppose there was no little nostalgia here for all the land that had been lost because Israel did not follow God and by the time of the Babylonian invasion had lost it all.

Once the geographic boundaries are complete, Moses turns to the issue of leadership. Again, our authors make sure we understand that like the land, leadership is God-ordained: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” (16) There two leaders over all Israel. One for military and administrative leadership and the other providing theological leadership: “These are the names of the men who shall apportion the land to you for inheritance: the priest Eleazar and Joshua son of Nun.” (17) Then, a leader for each tribe is named:

  • Judah: Calab
  • Simeonites: Shemuel
  • Benjamin: Elidad
  • Danites: Bukki
  • Josephites/ MAnassites: Hanniel
  • Ephramites: Kemuel
  • Zebulonites: Eli-zaphan
  • Issacharites: Paltiel
  • Asherites: Ahihud
  • Naphtalites: Pedahel

We will meet many of these personalities later in the book of Joshua.

As always, I am struck by the precision with which God, through Moses, organizes a coherent society that will be at both militarily and theologically strong. God is indeed in the details here.

Luke 3:1–20: Here at the baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Luke once agains sets Jesus precisely in time and space by providing details his Gentile readers would know from their Roman history lessons: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler  of Abilene.” (1) He also introduces the two Jewish leaders, who will play a crucial role in Jesus’ story about three years later: “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” (2a)

Following the same sequence as the infancy stories, Luke introduces us first to John, to whom “the word of God came.” (2b). It’s interesting that it is the”word of God” and not the Holy Spirit. I think Luke is being careful to position John as a prophet, wanting to make sure no one confuses John for the Messiah. Consequently, the gospel writer gives us precise details about what John is doing: “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (3) Luke asserts that John is indeed the precursor to the Messiah as predicted in Isaiah, which he quotes extensively:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” (4)

John’s message is definitely the model of a real fire and brimstone sermon: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (7) Unlike the Matthew and Mark baptism accounts, there’s an exchange between John and his audience, which asks,“Teacher, what should we do?” (12) In reply, John lays out specific behaviors for the people in general [share your stuff with the poor]; tax collectors [collect only what’s due in taxes]; and soldiers [don’t extort and be satisfied with their wages].

Awed by John’s prophetic wisdom, “all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,” (15). John lays this theory to rest instantly, stating that “one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (18)

Above all, John is courageous and he boldly speaks to power. He hasn’t hesitated to rebuke Herod, the ruler of Galilee, “because of all the evil things that Herod had done” (19), who, Luke observes, “added to them all by shutting up John in prison.” (20)

I think Luke’s lengthy description of John and what he did and said is not only to provide deep background to his Gentile audience but to set up the theological framework for Jesus’ own ministry. I also suspect that in some ways, John was more widely known in the Gentile world than Jesus because of the grisly end he met at the hands of Salome. Luke wants to make sure we understand that John is understood not as a weird guy in the desert who met a bad end, but as a true prophet—a successor to Isaiah and Jeremiah—who said many of the same things Jesus will say. As I think we will see, it appears that Luke’s Jesus carried on the tradition of John, albeit it in a new and excitingly different manner.

Psalm 77:17–21; Numbers 33:10–56; Luke 2:41–52

Originally published 6/16/2016. Revised and updated 6/18/2018.

Psalm 77:17–21: Our poet now describes in cosmic terms how Israel escaped the Egyptians by crossing the sea. What’s creatively unique here is that he writes about the behavior of water itself as if it were a sentient creature well aware of God’s power:
The waters saw You, O God,
the waters saw You, they trembled,
the depths themselves shuddered.

This is quite an imaginative take on the rather matter-of-fact record in Exodus, “The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (Ex 14:21). Here, our poet greatly intensifies the drama surrounding the parting of the sea, which is accompanied by a dramatic thunderstorm and rain:
The clouds streamed water.
The skies sounded with thunder.
Your bolts, too, flew about.

The dramatic setting intensifies further as we hear the pursuing Egyptians in their chariots driving through the storm as
Your thunder’s sound under the wheel—lightning lit up the world.
The earth shuddered and shook.

But above all else is the simple fact that it was God himself who ordained this escape route for the fleeing Israelites:
In the sea was Your way,
and Your path in the mighty waters,

And when it was over and the Israelites had crossed over, “Your footsteps left no traces.” (20b) I take this phrase at two levels: One is that when the water returns to its normal flooded state, no trace of Israel’s footsteps remained; there are only drowned Egyptians. The other level here is that just as God mysteriously parted the waters in a tremendous storm, he departs in silence as the calm returns and nature regains its quiescent state. So, too, in our lives. Sometimes we are beset by incredible storms and it is God who brings calm.

The psalm concludes with a simple but profound remembrance of that earth-changing event so many centuries before our poet writes:
You led Your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron
. (21)

ow This couplet has deep symbolic meaning: Israel was God’s flock then just as we are nJesus’ sheep.

Numbers 33:10–56: During the 40-year wandering, our ever-scrupulous authors record no less than 36 campsites from Succoth (5) just after fleeing the Egyptians to Mount Hor, “on the edge of the land of Edom.” (37) As we noted before, this level of detail lends a great deal of credence to the historicity of Israel’s wanderings since a fictional story would probably limit the names to just a few places known to the author.

It is at Mount Hor where 123-year old Aaron dies, “in the fortieth year after the Israelites had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month.” (38) The authors record one other significant premonition of battles to come: “The Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the Israelites.” (40)

Having recorded these two important facts, the authors add an additional 8 locations to their campsite catalog. Finally, the Israelites end up “camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.” (49). At last they are in position to enter Canaan.

God now gives his stark and seemingly cruel instructions to Moses, “you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places.” (52) Once that task is complete, “You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” (53)

Then, in what becomes the fatal flaw that brings Israel’s eventual downfall, God tells Moses, “if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling.” (55) As we know, this is exactly Israel’s. Here there is the statement in God’s voice that makes it clear to me that our authors are writing after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians: “And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” (56) The threat being that destruction and being removed from the land that God promised is exactly what happened centuries later.

Luke 2:41–52:The story of the 12-year old Jesus confounding the elders in the temple with his insights and wisdom is recorded only here in Luke. Jesus elects to stay in Jerusalem after Passover ended, remaining for three days, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (46) Naturally, being the as yet-unrecognized son of God, “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (47). Even though he was wise beyond his years, it’s worth noting that Jesus still had to learn the Scripture, which would become the basis of his adult teaching.

However, Jesus neglected to seek permission from his parents to remain in the temple after Passover and he seems rather indifferent to the fact that his absence would eventually be noticed by them. When they do find him and express their angry concern, he responds, in my opinion, rather arrogantly, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (49) I wish Luke had recorded the parental response rather than simply telling us, “they did not understand what he said to them.” (50) Jesus at least agrees to return to Nazareth and thereafter, we presume, “was obedient to them.” (51a)

Once again, Luke informs us “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (51b) Clearly, Mary is figuring things out and Luke is reassuring us that Jesus’ 3-day absence notwithstanding, she loves him with increasing ardor and is beginning to understand the ways in the angel at her annunciation, Simeon, and Anna were right: Jesus is unique and great things lie ahead for him. As is usual in this gospel, Joseph remains silent. There’s no question that for Luke, it’s the women—Elizabeth, Anna, and especially Mary—who are the people reflecting about, and beginning to understand, who Jesus is.

Luke then covers all of Jesus’ adolescence with the intriguing phrase, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (52). What is “divine favor,” anyway? My footnotes tell me that the Greek word also means “stature,” which is a word that makes more sense to me. “Divine stature” would mean increasing wisdom in his Father’s eyes. Not to mention that he grew taller.

Luke has told us more about the young Jesus than any other gospel writer. I think he is being sensitive to his Gentile audience, who would be more curious about Jewish customs and relationships than Matthew’s Jewish community. Needless to say, anything about Jesus before his adult ministry began is irrelevant to Mark and even more so to John.  As a result this blank period in all of the gospels about Jesus’ youth, adolescence and early adulthood has been the subject of unceasing speculation and some fairly wild stories.

Psalm 77:11–16; Numbers 32:28–33:9; Luke 2:33–40

Originally published 6/15/2016. Revised and updated 6/16/2018.

Psalm 77:11–16: Our psalmist seems to acknowledge that God’s silence and apparent disappearance may be his own fault:
And I said, it is my failing,
that the High One’s right hand has changed
. (11)

[Alter tells us elsewhere that God’s “right hand is a symbol for “God’s favor.”]. The psalmist goes on to imply how that really can be? Can it perhaps be that God has failed instead? This question leads to reflection on God’s previous actions:
I call to mind the acts of Yah
when I recall Your wonders of old
.” (12)

After all, he reflects, I’ve followed God’s laws and example:
I recite all Your works,
Your acts I rehearse
.” (13)

Moreover, he knows that Israel’s God is far greater than all those small-g gods of the peoples that surround him as he asks rhetorically, Who is a great god like God?” (14b)

Of course the answer is that there is no other god because God is not only powerful but there is also God’s greatest act (besides creation, I suppose) the the Abrahamic covenant:
You are the God working wonders.
You made known among peoples Your strength.
You redeemed with Your arm Your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph.
” (15, 16)

These verses are a powerful example to us when we feel abandoned by God. We would do well to stop and reflect on who God is compared to all the other small-g gods such as wealth and power that surround us. For I believe it is in the act of reflecting on God and all he has done for us that we eventually discover that God has been at our side the entire time.

Numbers 32:28–33:9: Having accepted the Reubenite/Gadite offer that they will go to war with the rest of Israel if they are allowed to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, Gilead, Moses now addresses the entirety of Israel. He tells them that if the R/G’s cross over the Jordan armed and ready to fight, “and the land shall be subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession.” (32:30) On the other hand, Moses intones, if they cross over unarmed, then they’ll receive their original allocation of Canaanite land. The R/G’s quickly put that latter idea to rest, exclaiming, “We will cross over armed before the Lord into the land of Canaan, but the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us on this side of the Jordan.” (32:32)

So, accordingly, “Moses gave to them—to the Gadites and to the Reubenites and to the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph—the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites and the kingdom of King Og of Bashan, the land and its towns, with the territories of the surrounding towns.” (32:33). It looks like the Manesseh crowd joined up with the R/G’s here in wanting to stay on the east side.. Apparently the territory claimed by the R’Gs was already defeated since they simply go in and possess the towns. On the other hand, the Manasseh folks must capture their villages of Gilead, which they promptly do.

Being the priestly authors consumed by detail, they now turn to summarize the history of the 40-year wandering in what can only be called excruciating detail. As usual, they give credit to Moses to have written it down, and this actually makes historical sense. The history begins with the original Passover and we learn that there were high spirits among Israel upon leaving Egypt, “on the day after the passover the Israelites went out boldly in the sight of all the Egyptians,” (33:4), who of course were in deep mourning and burying their dead sons. We also learn that in addition to striking down the first-born, “The Lord executed judgments even against their gods.” (33:4b) What were those? Earthquakes, perhaps, that would have toppled monuments to small-g gods.

Interestingly, our authors skip over the sea-crossing story and simply start listing the places where they Israelites set up camp., beginning at Succoth and then to “Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness.” (33:6) And so forth. Occasionally, we read a detail about the places where they camped, e.g., “at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there.” (33:9)

For me, this particular catalog lends historical  authenticity to the Exodus/ desert-wandering story. One has to believe that our authors would not have gone to the trouble of making up this level of detail. The fact that they add, “Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the Lord” (33:2) suggests that there was some kind of written record of the desert wanderings. Was it from Moses, or do our authors simply ascribe the records to him? Of course, many today still believe that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch for which I suppose they use this verse as key evidence of his authorship. Nevertheless for me, Moses as author seems unlikely. However, we’ll never know. 

Luke 2:33–40: As Simeon concludes his prophetic benediction, “the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” (33) As Simeon blesses Mary (but not Joseph?) he includes a warning: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (34, 35) Luke of course is writing retrospectively and we are reading this gospel already knowing the outcome of the story. Therefore, we immediately understand what Simeon is referring to: the death (“falling”) and resurrection (“rising”) of their son, Jesus. Simeon’s prediction to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” is the first negative thing she has heard since the annunciation. Luke does not tell us if she replied, but based on what he’s already told us about her, I’m sure she pondered Simeon’s prophecy long and hard. We of course know this to be the unfathomable sorrow of witnessing her son’s crucifixion.

Luke continues to remind us that women play a crucially important role in the story of Jesus. Here, he records the response of 84-year old Anna, whose bona fides are that “she never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (37) She spies Mary holding Jesus and we presume by the same power of the Holy Spirit that animated Simeon, she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (38) Simeon and Anna are the prophetic means by which Luke connects Jesus to his coming as a Messiah, but also hints that this is not simply going to be a straightforward story about the coming Davidic Messiah in the way that Simeon and Anna might think. Something greater and perhaps darker is afoot.

Psalm 77:1–10; Numbers 31:48–32:27; Luke 2:21–32

Originally published 6/15/2016. Revised and updated 6/15/2018.

Psalm 77:1–10: This psalm resonates to the tenor of our times when the news is filled with stories of despair and rising suicide rates and social media overflows with political outrage. There is but One to whom we can turn in our sorrow and agony and we hear the desperation in the psalmist’s voice in his opening lines:
My voice to God—let me cry out.
My voice to God—and hearken to me.
in the day of my straits I sought the Master
. (2, 3a).

Up to now all the poet’s own efforts to stanch his sorrow have been unavailing:
My eye flows at night, it will not stop.
I refuse to be consoled
. (3b)

This is a sentiment that I think perfectly captures the current mood following school shootings and even election outcomes. But unlike so many today who simply cry, ‘Why?’ but have no answers, our psalmist knows exactly to whom to turn:
I call God to mind and I moan.
I speak and my spirit faints.

Nevertheless, in his crying out, God seems to be the root cause of his insomnia:
You held open my eyelids.
I throbbed and could not speak
. (5)

But lying awake in bed at night in the stillness when imagination can reflect too heavily on our cares and worries —and this is something I identify with increasingly—leads him (and me) to reflect on what seems to be the better days of the past:
I ponder the days of yore,
the years long gone
. (6)

This remembrance of a better past leads to further reflection as our psalmist wonders:
I call to mind my song in the night.
To my own heart I speak and my spirit inquires.

Will the Master forever abandon me,
and never again look with favor? (7, 8)

Which is exactly what we wonder when confronted with the evil humans are able to wreak on each other. Along with the psalmist, we ask why does God remain silent, thinking that he has abandoned the world:
Is His kindness gone for all time,
His word done for time without end?

Has God forgotten to sow grace,
has He closed off in wrath his compassion
? (10)

This is the great unanswerable question that every thoughtful human must ask. Why does evil abound? Why does God persist in remaining inscrutably silent?

Numbers 31:48–32:27: The conquest of the Midianites has resulted in a remarkable outcome as the army commanders report to Moses: “Your servants have counted the warriors who are under our command, and not one of us is missing.” (31:49). A battle without deaths on the Israeli side suggests the Midianites were weakly defended and had no chance against this ferocious assault. The victorious commanders come to Moses in gratitude and present “the Lord’s offering,what each of us found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” (31:50) Our accountant authors report that the gift of “the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds was sixteen thousand seven hundred fifty shekels.” (31:52)—a sizable sum indeed. As the authors note parenthetically, “The troops had all taken plunder for themselves.” (31:53) This also demonstrates the reality that leaders are held to a higher standard than the led—a concept that extends down to today’s military.

The Israelites are camped across the river from Jericho. With the Midian “dress rehearsal” successfully completed, the time is nearing for Israel to move into Canaan. But as always there are complications: “the Gadites and the Reubenites came and spoke to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation,” (32:2) and tell them that the land on the east side of the Jordan is perfect for raising cattle, and these tribes would prefer to remain there. Moses immediately sees this request as an attempt to avoid going to war against the Canaanites: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” (6) and worse, it will negatively impact morale, “Why will you discourage the hearts of the Israelites from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?” (7) Moses tells them that their fathers did the same thing when the spies went into the land and came back and “discouraged the hearts of the Israelites from going into the land that the Lord had given them,” (9) which resulted in the 40-year delay. Moses is not going to let the same thing happen again for the very good reason that he believes another cowardly incident will result in an “increase the Lord’s fierce anger against Israel!” (14) And worse, he threatens, “If you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people.” (15)

With this stark reality in front of them, the Reubenites and Gadites propose a compromise. They will “build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our little ones, but we will take up arms as a vanguard before the Israelites, until we have brought them to their place.” (16). They will also give up their previously allocated land rights in Canaan. Moses agrees on the condition that they may return only after Israel is victorious in Canaan. He gives them permission to “build towns for your little ones, and folds for your flocks; but do what you have promised.” (24) The Reubenites and Gadites agree.

The lesson of this interesting passage is that compromise can lead to acceptable outcomes on both sides. A lesson that seems to have been forgotten in the current political climate.

Luke 2:21–32: Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary make the five-mile trek from Bethlehem and bring the infant “to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (22).  Ever aware of his Gentile audience, Luke explains the rule set out a thousand years before in the Torah, “it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’” (23) And being poor, Mary and Joseph offer the simple sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (24)

The centerpiece of Luke’s story is a “righteous and devout” man named Simeon, upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested.” (25). Rather than the angel who had visited Zechariah and Mary, it is the Holy Spirit who had revealed to him previously that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (26) And it the Holy Spirit that guides Simeon into the temple, “and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms.” (27, 28). [Notice how Luke explains that this action of taking another’s child is ‘customary under the law.]

Simeon sings the third song in Luke, the “Benedictus,” which summarizes makes it clear that God has sent Jesus to earth. And in perhaps the most important statement of all, that Jesus has come for every person on earth, including Luke’s community of Gentiles:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel. (28-32)

Simeon’s song also illuminates another reason why Luke has included the infancy story. Jesus did not suddenly materialize as a 30-year old rabbi as he does in Mark. Luke wants to make it clear that Jesus is God’s gift to us from the very beginning, and that Jesus is indeed the Messiah to the Jews—something John takes even a step further in the prologue to his eponymous gospel.

Psalm 76; Numbers 31:13–47; Luke 2:1–20

Originally published 6/14/2016. Revised and updated 6/14/2018.

Psalm 76: This psalm of thanksgiving appears to celebrate a victory over an unnamed enemy, and proclaims God’s mighty power. God appears to have worked what to the psalmist appears to be supernatural power, which enabled Israel to overcome its enemies:
There did He shatter the bow’s fiery shafts,
the shield and the sword and the battle.

The stout-hearted [enemies] were despoiled,
they fell into a trance,
and all the men of valor could not lift a hand
.  (4, 6)

Nor did God accomplish this feat quietly:
By Your roar, O God of Jacob,
chariot and horse were stunned
” (7)

The psalmist comes to his point, celebrating God’s awesome power by asking rhetorically, “who can stand before You, in the strength of Your wrath?” (8b)  God does more than just deliver military victory; as Creator he bestrides both heaven and earth:
From the heavens You made judgement heard,
the earth was afraid and fell silent,

At this point the theme of the psalm shifts from celebrating victory to God’s criteria for judgement, which is not just about military power, but about how those in power have treated those without power:
...when God rose up for judgement
to rescue all the lowly of the earth.

This theme of judging the mighty on behalf of the “lowly of the earth” pervades the Psalms. But as we look at history, battles are inevitably fought about power and might, not about saving the poor and powerless.

Nevertheless, as the psalmist tells us, God stands in judgement and it is the powerful whom he ultimately judges by their actions:
He plucks the life-breath of princes.
He is fearsome to the kings of the earth.

Those in power would do well to remember this verse: that they are subject to a still higher power. Alas, there are few in history who understood this. King David is the obvious exception for Israel.

Numbers 31:13–47: We come to one of those disturbing passages describing an quality of God we’d rather not think about. Fresh from their battle of conquering the Midianites, the troops return home with captives and booty. “Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp.” (13). Moses asks why the soldiers have allowed the women and children to live and insists, “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.” (17). His rationale is that it is these women who led the Israelites astray in the “affair of Peor.” (16). Nevertheless there is a quality of racial extermination that our 21st century sensibilities find repugnant. At least the virgins are allowed to live.

Everything about the battle—soldiers, captives, booty— is unclean and instructions for purification are issued.

This being the book of Numbers, our priestly accountant authors make sure that God tells Moses and ELeazar to conduct a thorough inventory. The numbers are impressive: 675,000 sheep; 72,000 oxen; 61,000 donkeys, and 31,000 virgins. I will not linger and reflect on the stench of that many animals…

The booty is divided equally between the warriors “who went out to battle” (27) and the rest of the Israelites. From the Israelite share a “tabernacle tax” of one out of fifty of all the animals is given over to the Levites.

What to make of this passage? We certainly understand that war is a cruel business and the victors not only get the spoils, but get to write the history. My own suspicion is that as the authors wrote they retrospectively gave the whole fairly sordid affair the imprimatur of being at God’s command. But in doing so, they have projected a very undesirable human quality on God.

On the other hand, we need to be careful not to project our Christian value system onto an event that occurred some 3000 years ago. And as Israel will learn to its ultimate sorrow, intermarriage with other tribes tends to lead to disastrous outcomes.

Luke 2:1–20: This is perhaps the most familiar bible passage in our culture. Luke is providing a Gentile context for the birth of a very Jewish baby by linking the event to Augustus and Quirinius. He provides a specific time of the event, a census ordered by Augustus. He gives us precise geographic locations: Nazareth and Bethlehem.

Unlike, Matthew, there’s no “no room at the inn” story. We learn only that Mary delivered her child in Bethlehem. The angels appear to the shepherds and we hear the most familiar angelic words of all—“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (10) Notice that Luke says, “all the people,” i.e., Gentiles as well as Jews.

As instructed, the shepherds rush to the manger. But they did not just remain there, stuck in a creche. Instead, “they made known what had been told them about this child;” (18) Words travels quickly and “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” (19) No doubt there was great excitement in the Jewish community that a Messiah had been born. Any knowledgeable Jew would know that this event was finally the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise.

Luke shifts his focus from the shepherds and their news, and brings us back to Mary, who once again, ponders all that has happened in her heart. Of every character so far in this gospel, it is Mary who is the reflective one. I think Luke is telling his community—and us— that not only is the Good News worth telling everyone about, but its true profundity requires deep reflection. We need to be Mary-like at the news of the incarnation.

So, why the infancy story, which neither Mark nor John saw fit to include? I think Luke wanted to convey in the most dramatic way possible that Jesus came to earth in real space and real time as a real human being. That Jesus did not just materialize in the clouds, but is an incontestable historic event, grounded in humility (the manger) and in humanity. Luke wants to make sure we resist over-spiritualizing the incarnation.

Psalm 75; Numbers 30:1–31:12; Luke 1:67–80

Originally published 6/12/2016. Revised and updated 6/13/2018.

Psalm 75: This thanksgiving psalm opens with worship and abruptly shifts in the second verse quickly to the psalmist speaking in God’s voice, proclaiming how he will bring justice at some time in the future:
We acclaim You, O God, we acclaim You
and Your name is near
When I seize the appointed time,
I myself shall judge rightly.

Asserting his position as Creator, God notes that creation would have not have occurred without his intervention:
Earth and its dwellers would melt,
had I not set fast its pillars.

Which from a law of physics point of view is absolutely true. Were the earth not in its stable orbit at 93,000,000 miles from the sun, it would have indeed be so warm or so cold that humankind could not exist.

Still speaking in God’s voice, our psalmist then turns to a warning to the wicked:
I said to the revelers, Do not revel,
and to the wicked, Lift not your horn.

God emphasizes his instruction by repeating it:
Lift not your horn on high.
You would speak arrogance against the Rock
. (6)

I assume these horns would be the the rams horn trumpets familiar to every Jew. But in the OT, there is a second meaning of horn as a symbol of power. In short, those who raise their horns in this context are attempting to assert a greater power than God himself. Which sounds pretty much like our present culture as much as ancient Israel.

God reminds these pretenders to power and judgement that it is,
God [who] is the judge,
it is He Who brings down and lifts up.

Presaging Jesus’ own words in his Olivet discourse and in imagery such as we find in Daniel and Revelation, God is holding a symbolic cup of judgement “with foaming wine full for decanting,” (9a) as he reminds the wicked that they will receive their due comeuppance at the end of history:
He will pour form it,
yes, its dregs they will drain,
all the earth’s wicked will drink
. (9b)

The point of view then shifts back to the psalmist who proclaims,
[I] shall tell it forever,
let me hymn to the God of Jacob
” (10)

He gives God the final word. As usual it’s the destruction of the wicked and the lifting up of the just:
And all the horns of the wicked I shall cut off.
The horns of the just will be lifted!

Once again we have a psalm that promises God’s justice in the end, and even in God’s own voice. But like the psalmist, we too often have to wait for that justice and wonder if it will ever come. We pray that horns of the just will be lifted in times of national sorrow, and that justice will ultimately prevail. But I think the greater lesson for us is that in a nation that has abandoned God true justice can never prevail.

Numbers 30:1–31:12: This chapter gives us a picture of the social standing of women as over against men. As for men, “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (30:2)

However, when a woman may make a vow or promise it can be countermanded by her husband, or in the case of a daughter still living at home, by her father. A woman’s vow stands only when “her father hears of her vow or her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her.” (30:4) But if the father (or husband) disapproves, the vow is canceled “and the Lord will forgive her, because her father had expressed to her his disapproval.” (30:5)

One suspects that in the case of the daughter, these vows are around the issue of marriage, which the woman was not allowed to enter into with the permission of her father. A vestigial remainder of this ordinance exists even today when prospective grooms ask the woman’s father to marry; the clear implication is that the woman cannot make this decision on her own.

Once she is married, the husband has the same right to countermand what the woman has promised. There’s a note of condescension here because it apparently only women who make “any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself.” (30:6) But what’s also important here is that it is incumbent upon the father or husband to speak up when they hear of it. They cannot give remain silent, appear to assent, and then come back some time later and nullify the woman’s vow. He must speak up when he hears the vow, otherwise, “he has validated them, because he said nothing to her at the time that he heard of them.” (30:14)

We may squirm uncomfortably about this, but I suspect that this rule actually brought a great deal of justice to women who would make a promise, and then possibly months later have their father or husband revoke the vow. I’m sure that compared to other societies of the time where women were mere chattel, these rules brought substantial dignity to Israelite women. It’s also a reminder to us that women have and will continue to play a prominent role in Israel’s history.

As we’ve observed elsewhere, the structure Numbers is a brilliant interweaving of rules and ordinances with narrative action. And now we shift to serious action just before Moses’ death: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” (31:1)

The instructions are to send a thousand men from each tribe, so an army of 12,000 goes up against the Midianites, accompanied by “Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for sounding the alarm in his hand.” (31:6) I presume Phineas’s presence signifies this is a God-ordained battle. In any event, the Israelites are triumphant, having killed every Midianite male. Israel takes “the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty.” (31:9) and then burn down all the Midianite towns, returning to the Israeli “camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” (31:12)

This is a disturbing incident on many fronts, since it appears to be a cold-hearted aggression without any Midianite provocation. And yet it is God-ordained. I think we can best view it as a dress rehearsal for battles to come, but that does not make this event     any less disturbing.

Luke 1:67–80: Luke devotes about as much space to John the Baptist’s birth as he does to Jesus’. Unlike the almost silent Joseph, now that Zechariah has been freed of his muteness, he cannot stop talking. And we encounter a second song in Luke’s first chapter, the canticle of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus. It’s a benediction that first recalls God’s promise of sending a messiah,
    Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
     He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David, (68, 69)

Then, after praising God for remembering Israel, Zechariah describes John’s future role in Israel:
   And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
   to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins. (76, 77)

Which of course is exactly what John did. What’s crucial to note here is that Zechariah asserts that John’s role will be prophetic and preparatory: “you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” John is the foreshadowing of someone even greater to come, the Messiah himself, who ultimately will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (79)

As we’ve noted before, I think Luke devotes all this space to John and especially here in Zechariah’s song to make it clear to his Gentile audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. Unlike Matthew, whose audience was familiar with Scripture, Luke does not quote prophecy from scripture since it would have been unknown to his community. But in Zechariah’s song, we have a gorgeous summation of prophetic scripture that points very clearly to Jesus, to whose birth he will finally turn now that Luke has laid all the messianic groundwork.

Psalm 74:18–23; Numbers 29:7–40; Luke 1:57–66

Originally published 6/11/2016. Revised and updated 6/12/2018.

Psalm 74:18–23: Our poet’s frustration at God’s apparent unwillingness to join the cause and conquer Judah’s enemies takes a deeper turn as he implores God to recall the blasphemous evil of enemies that are not only Judah’s but also God’s. In a striking of a prowling beast attacking a bird, our poet reminds God that the people who God loves may be decimated forever:
Remember this: the enemy insulted,
a base people reviled  Your name.

Do not yield to the beast the life of Your dove,
the band of Your lowly forget not forever.
” (18, 19)

This brings him to the central issue of the covenant between God and Israel (now only Judah) and for God to hear the cries of the oppressed:
Look to the pact,
for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage.

God has always been on the side of the poor and lowly, and we can hear the desperation in our poet’s voice as he asks God to remember and act on behalf of those who are weak, but who worship him:
Let not the poor man turn back disgraced.
Let the lowly and needy praise Your name
. (21)

The psalmist moves to a bold conclusion that effectively puts God on trial in the courtroom and playing the role of attorney, asks God to recall the past and then act in the present:
Arise, God, O plead Your cause.
Remember the insult to You by the base all day long.

There is a powerful symmetry between the opening question of this psalm—”Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?“—and the last verse which pleads with him:
Forget not the voice of Your foes,
the din of those against You perpetually rising.

In the same way that God seems to have abandoned his people “forever,” the “din of those against You” goes on perpetually. God’s prolonged silence only seems to amplify the noise and din of his foes—seemingly forever.

Which is how it seems some days in our culture as we hear the voices (and read and view the media) of those who would prefer to see all discussion, even mention of God erased forever from the public square. We ask the same question as the psalmist: Are you listening, God, and will You act? As I think we have figured out by now, God will act only through the voices and efforts of those who believe God is who he says he is.

Numbers 29:7–40: More offerings.  The Day of Atonement, occurring each year on “the tenth day of this seventh month” is the holiest and most solemn of all—which today is called Yom Kippur. There is a burnt offering of “one young bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old. They shall be without blemish.” (8) plus grain offerings. This is in addition to the usual sin offering and “the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and their drink offerings.” (10)

Just five days after the Day of Atonement, a seven day party—the Festival of Booths (or Tabernacles)—commences. There is a specific animal and grain offering for each of the seven days. As usual these are in addition to the “regular” sin offering. During this period, the altar had to be a even more of a bloody abattoir than usual with all this seemingly perpetual sacrificing going on. The priests certainly earned their pay!

The Festival of Booths is one of the great anachronisms of Numbers, since it is basically a festival that celebrates Israel’s time in the wilderness where everyone who lives in a house, basically camps out for a week. The question of course is why would Israel celebrate being in the desert while still in the desert? Well, they probably didn’t.

Rather, I believe these lengthy instructions covering all the various festivals and celebrations have finally been set in writing by our priestly authors after many years of oral tradition. The authors are careful to note that “Moses told the Israelites everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (40) to emphasize the authority of the Mosaic imprimatur.

Luke 1:57–66: Of the four gospels only Luke records the birth of John the Baptist. Because Elizabeth’s barren shame has now been cancelled there is much communal rejoicing at the birth of a male son: “Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” (58) Then comes time for the bris, when a Jewish son is given his name. An unidentified group, “they,” [presumably the priests at the synagogue] plan to follow Jewish custom and “to name him Zechariah after his father.” (59) Elizabeth attempts to intervene, exclaiming, “No; he is to be called John.” (60) But since she’s just the mother, she does not have the final say. That right belongs to the father, the still-mute Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet “and wrote, “His name is John.”” (63). At this, his 9-month muteness ceases and “his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” (64) The neighbors freak out, but it certainly makes Zechariah and Elizabeth celebrities “throughout the entire hill country of Judea.” (65)

This auspicious introduction to the world caused everyone to wonder, “What then will this child become?” Just to make sure we get the point, Luke interjects here, observing, “For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” (66)

So why all this attention to the details of John’s birth? There is little question that he became a celebrity preacher throughout Judea, but so what? I think there are two reasons:

First, John’s birth is a presaging of an even more significant birth to come. Whatever odd events may have surrounded John’s birth, it was a completely natural event. Zechariah was John’s natural father. Luke seems to be saying that if a natural birth like this one can raise such questions and uproar wait until the next birth I’m about to tell you about. In short, it’s a brilliant editorial move to make it clear that while John went on to fame, his natural birth is subservient to Jesus’ far more remarkable supernatural birth.

Second, I think that the community that Luke is writing to, although probably Gentile, may have heard more about John’s celebrity than Jesus. Luke is providing the John-admirers in the crowd ample historical detail that rounds out the picture of John as someone also chosen by God to play a unique role in Jesus’ life. This will ensure that there will be no doubts when the mantle is passed by John to Jesus. Which is why I think Luke reminds us that the role John is going to play is God-ordained because “the hand of the Lord was with him.


Psalm 74:10–17; Numbers 28:1–29:6; Luke 1:46–56

Originally published 6/10/2016. Revised and updated 6/11/2018.

Psalm 74:10–17: In his frustration that God has seemed to ignore the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, our poet asks rhetorically, perhaps even with a bit of sarcasm,
Until when, O God, will the foe insult,
the enemy revile Your name forever?

He goes on in seeming puzzlement as to why God has not already acted against the destroyers,
Why do You draw back Your hand,
and You right hand hold in Your bosom?
” (11)

Yet, his faith in God remains strong as he recollects and catalogs God’s great rescuing acts of old:
Yet God is my king of old,
worker of rescues of the earth.

He remembers that it was God who conquered the powerful mythical creatures of Canaanite legend:
You shattered the sea-God with Your strength,
You smashed the monsters’ heads on the waters.

In fact, God defeated these creatures so thoroughly, that he was able to carve them up and give them as (metaphorical?) food to people living far from the sea:
You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,
You gave him as food to the desert-folk.

[Notice that ‘heads’ is plural. Apparently the Leviathan had many heads.]

Not only did God conquer the creatures in the great battle for control over the sea, the water theme continues as our psalmist observes that God also can do whatever he likes in natural creation:
You split open a channel for spring and brook,
You dried up the surging torrents,

This last line sounds like a reference to flash flooding in the desert.

Our poet is working backwards through the creation story, trying to remind God of all the great creative acts he once performed, including circadian reality and the seasons of the year:
Your is the day, also Yours the night.
It was You who founded the light and the sun.
It was You Who laid down the boundaries of earth,
summer and winter, You fashioned them.
 (16, 17)

The question hangs in the air. Having reminded God of his powerful acts in the past, will this appeal result in a change of circumstance for the now destroyed Jerusalem? Will God act? Certainly a question heavy on our minds in today’s world, as well.

Numbers 28:1–29:6:  The overall strategy of the authors of this book seems to be to interlace narrative with rules concerning worship. This reading focuses on the details of the various classes of offering at the tabernacle.

General offerings: one lamb in the morning; one at night plus “an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil” (28: 5) Plus a drink offering.

Sabbath offerings: basically a doubling of the general offering.

Monthly offerings: “At the beginnings of your months you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord: two young bulls, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish;” (11)plus a specific recipe for a grain offering.

Passover offerings: Celebrated once a year, it requires a substantial investment since it’s ordained to occur each day for seven days: “two young bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old; see that they are without blemish.” (19) plus a variety of grain offerings. The main injunction here is that unleavened bread is eaten and there is no work for seven days.

Festival of weeks offering: This is the first fruits offering, involving (no surprise) sacrificial animals and more grain. This is a one-day holiday where “you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations.” (26)

Festival of trumpets offering: This occurs annually on the first day of the seventh month, and not surprisingly, “It is a day for you to blow the trumpets,” (29:1) in addition to the required animal and grain sacrifices

I come away here is yet another reminder that there is nothing random or arbitrary about God. Since these rules have been written as being directly communicated by God, there is no allowance for deviation. God demands obedience to the norms, yet they are also days of freedom from work and times for festivals and I assume, general partying. As in many places in the bible, we see that freedom and ordinances are beautifully intertwined. Unfortunately our own society seems far more intent on individual freedoms than on following the rules that are societal glue. Individualism, “do what you feel like,” seems to carry the day more and more.

Luke 1:46–56: What more can be said about the most beautiful song in the NT? I confess that it requires a substantial willingness to suspend my disbelief that a teen-aged girl spontaneously composed this magnificent poem with its unforgettable opening verse and I am more inclined to give Like, inspired by the Holy Spirit, authorial credit:
      “My soul magnifies the Lord,
       and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
       for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (47, 48)

Luke has Mary sing a lyrical version of one of the crucial themes he will be communicating in this gospel. A central theme is that this is the God who is above all concerned with the widows and orphans, the poor and the prisoners. The wicked haughty will meet their deserved end because God has finally answered the psalmist’s plea.
   “He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
      He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.” (51-53)

Reading this poem today, it strikes me that this is Luke’s expression of what the Kingdom of God will be like. The world will be turned upside down as the rich and powerful are conquered and the order of the world is replaced by the Kingdom of God where the poor will prosper, the orphans will find comfort, the sick will healed, and the prisoners will be freed. These are the people upon whom God’s mercy will be showered.

Tradition holds that Luke was a doctor and that the side of Jesus we will see in this gospel is how Jesus heals the broken in spirit and body. Unlike Matthew, Luke doesn’t need to list the Beatitudes as concepts. Instead, they will be illustrated in Jesus’ acts.

Finally, Mary’s Magnificat is also a reminder that God is behind everything that is about to occur in this story. This is Luke’s gorgeous statement that God has indeed remembered Israel, and will bring a Messiah “according to the promise he made to our ancestors,/ to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (55) The question of course is will Israel accept its messiah? Will we?

Psalm 74:1–9; Numbers 26:57–27:23; Luke 1:39–45

Originally published 6/9/2016. Revised and updated 6/10/2018.

Psalm 74:1–9: The opening line of this psalm is startling, almost verging on blasphemy: Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?” (1a) I think we should take this as frustrated anger rather than  a theological statement. Whatever has happened, it seems to our poet that God has been in hiding for a very long time. He shakes his fist at God, chastising him for punishing rather that leading Israel: “Your wrath smolders against the flock You should tend.” (1b)

He elaborates on this theme of God’s former leadership of Israel, hearkening all the way back to the Exodus through to Jerusalem, asking God to
Remember Your cohort You took up of old,
You redeemed the tribe of Your estate
Mount Zion where You dwelled
.” (2)

This psalm must have been composed sometime after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem by the Babylonians because now everything lies in ruins as our poet continues to chastise God:
Lift up Your feet to the eternal ruins,
all that the enemy laid waste in the sanctuary
. (3)

A stark review of the destruction visited on Jerusalem and the temple follows :
Your foes roared out of Your meeting-place,
they set up their signs as signs.

I’m not certain whether these signs are physical or metaphorical, but it seems the enemy has certainly desecrated God’s “meeting-place.” And they’ve done so with malicious violence:
They hacked away as one brings down from above
in a tangle of trees with axes.
And its carvings altogether
with hatchet and pike they pounded. 

The enemy’s rampage ends only as
They set fire to Your sanctuary,
they profaned on the ground Your name’s dwelling place
. (7)

This last line suggests they may have destroyed the Ark of the Covenant itself.  Not only Jerusalem has been destroyed, but also all of what was left of Judah:
They burned down all God’s meeting places in the land. (8)

In a thinly-veiled reference to Israel’s unwillingness to listen to its own prophets, the psalmist writes with deep regret:
Our own signs we did not see.
There is no longer a prophet, nor any among us who knows until when.

Between shaking his fist at God and his deep regret at having ignored the signs that God had sent via the prophets, we can view deep into the depths of a tortured soul.  What would be the awful event that would cause me to shake my fist at God and accuse him of abandoning me? Whatever it may be, like Judah and Jerusalem we are not listening to the prophets.

Numbers 26:57–27:23: The count of Levite heads brings up the rear of the census, as the authors remind us the Levites are exempt form military duty and they will not inherit land: “The number of those enrolled was twenty-three thousand, every male one month old and upward; for they were not enrolled among the Israelites because there was no allotment given to them among the Israelites.” (26:62)

We finally learn the reason for the census. It’s to make sure that the previous generation—the original subjects of the Moses/Aaron census, which apparently happened some 40 years ago—is not part of the current count: “Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had enrolled the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai.” (26:64) Of the original cohort, there is is only “Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (65). And unsurprisingly, Moses himself. [We presume Eleazar was born after the 40-year curse.]

The daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses. Their father has borne only daughters and they ask “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” (4) In one of his more merciful pronouncements, God tells Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.”  (27:7) Moreover, this becomes law as the rules of inheritance are revamped to include the exceptions where sons are not among the heirs.

It’s fascinating to reflect on how God strikes at the rules of primogeniture that bedeviled the entire Middle East (and still do in many places). He’s already done this with Abraham, whose older son Ishmael would have the inheritance, but it goes to Isaac instead. And then Jacob, taking the right of his older brother and deceiving his father without apparent consequence. Finally, Joseph, Jacob’s twelfth son becomes the one literally passing the inheritance back to his older brothers.

We come to the transition of Israel’s leadership. God brings Moses to an unnamed mountain in the Abarim range and shows him  “the land that I have given to the Israelites.” (27:12) And then God announces that Moses will not actually go into the land “because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarreled with me.” (27:14)

Moses seems to accept his fate with equanimity and asks God to appoint a new leader. To make sure that we understand and accept Joshua’s bona fides, our authors make it clear that it was God who chose the new leader, as God instructs Moses, Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and commission him in their sight.” (18, 19) And “Moses did as the Lord commanded him.” (22).  Joshua is now Israel’s leader.

I’m pretty sure this peaceful transition of power was the exception to the general rule in that place at this time as would-be leaders plotted against kings and chiefs. But I confess to really being annoyed with God, who seems so petty. Moses’ leadership for these 40+ years has been unstinting, and he managed to save his people numerous times from God’s wrath, which frankly always seems a little adolescent to me. Personally, I think Moses should have gone into Canaan as leader emeritus. But it is God who makes the rules here…

Luke 1:39–45: Luke seems to imply that almost immediately after the visitation form Gabriel, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (39, 40) Mary obviously wants to test the evidence Gabriel told her about—and email or even written letters were not an option for communication.

But it turns out that it is Elizabeth who seems to benefit most from Mary’s visit: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,” (41) who causes her to exclaim to Mary in the famous words of the Rosary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (42) But what’s really fascinating here is that in that very brief moment, the Holy Spirit has informed Elizabeth pretty completely about Mary’s child, as she seems to immediately ask Mary, “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (43)

As we will see so often in Luke, there’s a deeper, second meaning here. Luke is telling us that just as the Holy Spirit informed Elizabeth about Jesus’ identity, so too, the Holy Spirit informs us—Luke’s listeners and readers—about the identity of Jesus. With Elizabeth, we can feel joy and exclaim with her, “why has this happened to me?” Our response is identical to that of the as-yet-unborn John: “as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (44) Joy is our response to the grace we experience when Jesus comes into our lives, just as he came in to Elizabeth’s. And as we shall see shortly, in an even more profound way, into Mary’s response as well.

Psalm 73:21–28; Numbers 26:25–56; Luke 1:26–38

Originally published 6/8/2016. Revised and updated 6/8/2018.

Psalm 73:21–28: We encounter a confession that applies to everyone of us who say we walk with God but then proceed to ignore him when we become resentful of other, seemingly more successful people:
When my heart was embittered,
      and my conscience stabbed with pain,
      I was a dolt and knew nothing,
      like cattle I was with You.” (21, 22)

Wow. How often I am a dolt about God’s faithfulness. I encountered a phrase recently that pretty much perfectly describes my faith: “Winter Christian,” which was defined as one whose faith includes doubt and pain. I cannot be one of those ever-smiling Christians that sees the world through the proverbial God-colored glasses, saying everything as peachy wonderful because they know Jesus. My relationship with God s far more like Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, and the psalmist beautifully captures the realization that the doubt lives within us.

Out of the psalmist’s embittered heart comes a profound insight about God’s faithfulness and guidance in our quotidian lives:
Yet I was always with You,
You grasped my right hand.
You guided me with Your counsel,
and toward glory You took me.
” (23, 24)

It is this relationship with God—and for us Christians, with Jesus—that towers over all else for there is no one else in whom we can trust—least of all the values and mores of the seemingly successful:
Whom else do I have in the heavens,
and beside You whom would I want on earth?

We come to the hinge point of the psalm in what I think is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in the Psalms:
Though my flesh and my heart waste away,
God is my heart’s rock and my portion forever.
” (26)

The metaphor that strikes  home—”my heart’s rock“—boldly states that God os the foundational center of our very being. And it is this foundation whereby our poet can conclude his psalm that began as bitterness and envy. Now he—and we—live and breathe in the sure knowledge that God is close, if only we stop and notice—and let God speak to us:
But I—God’s closeness is good to me,
     I make the Master the Lord my shelter,
     to recount all Your works. (28)

Numbers 26:25–56: The census continues in all its glory. It’s interesting that every tribe is counted in the names of its ancestors, e.g., “The descendants of Manasseh: of Machir, the clan of the Machirites; and Machir was the father of Gilead; of Gilead, the clan of the Gileadites.” (29) This underscores the importance of ancestry in Israel. Inasmuch as they did not believe in an afterlife, it is being ensconced in the recollections and memory of one’s descendants that is the crucial connection across time. The essential duty of men and womenwas procreation—a reflection of God’s good creative act.

That is also why there was such shame attached to women such as Elizabeth, who could not bear children. There being no understanding that men could be as equally culpable in preventing conception, all blame was laid squarely at the woman’s feet.

But there’s no question that in general, Israel was blessed with fecundity. We come to the end of the list and our accountant authors summarize the count of males over the age of 20: “This was the number of the Israelites enrolled: six hundred and one thousand seven hundred thirty.” (51)

Ever the planner, God lays out the rules for how the land of Canaan will be divided. First,”the land shall be apportioned for inheritance according to the number of names.” (53) In other words, “To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its enrollment.” (54).

However, just because a particular tribe is big doesn’t mean it will get the best land, Rather, “the land shall be apportioned by lot.” (55a) And just to make sure everyone gets the point, God repeats himself: “Their inheritance shall be apportioned according to lot between the larger and the smaller.” (56) As usual, our authors make sure that their version of God is focused on precision and yes, fairness.

Luke 1:26–38: Gabriel is one busy angel here in Luke’s opening chapter. Luke makes it clear that Gabriel was not acting on his own, but “was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,” (26) The gospel writer quickly identifies the main human actors, “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (27) However, Joseph now disappears from the story until the next chapter.

In this visitation, Gabriel must have appeared in human form because he seems to show up at Mary’s door and simply says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (28) There is no terror on Mary’s part, only puzzlement at what “favored one” must have meant. Luke tells us early on that Mary is a thoughtful, reflective person: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (29) I’m pretty sure most people would not do much pondering at this strange greeting but instantly ask what Gabriel meant. But Mary thinks instead of speaks.

Gabriel speaks first, telling Mary not to be afraid and then repeats his message: “you have found favor with God.” (30) And with that brief introduction he delivers what had to be the strangest news ever communicated to a mortal: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (31) Luke uses this opportunity to introduce Jesus to his readers—and us—even before he’s been conceived in Mary’s womb as Gabriel lists Jesus’ qualities and bona fides, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (32, 33) I think these are crucial sentences because it reminds us that while Mary is the means by which Jesus becomes man, the real story Luke is telling is going to be about Jesus. He is also telling us that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and that God, via Gabriel, has pronounced him to be so. There can be no greater authenticity than that.

Meanwhile, Mary continues to ponder and when she finally speaks, she asks the very practical question about how this going to happen given her virginity. Gabriel explains the details and in what I think is a fairly intimidating metaphor for the sexual act as the angel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (35a). The outcome of this 100% human/100% Godly union will be unprecedented in all history: “therefore the child to be born  will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (35b) And here, once again, Luke further establishes Jesus’ bona fides before he’s even born in what must have seemed to be the outrageous claim, “He will be called the son of God.” Of course the entire theme of Luke’s gospel is to demonstrate exactly that.

Gabriel provides a modicum of proof that what he’s saying will actually happen by explaining that Mary’s “relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” And concludes with the famous assertion, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (37)

To be sure, nothing is impossible with God, but I think the most astounding statement of all in this entire episode of the Annunciation comes from Mary’s lips,“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (38) Compared to Zechariah’s reaction to the news he would be a father, Mary’s accepting equanimity is an incredible contrast. As Mark did in his eponymous gospel, the juxtaposition of these two stories is not coincidental but makes the important point that how we respond to God’s call makes all the difference in the world.