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.

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