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.

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