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.
 (20)

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.
 (22)

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.
 (23)

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.

 

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