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.

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