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.
 (4)

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. 
(5,6).

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.
 (9)

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.

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