Psalm 78:56–64; Deuteronomy 3; Luke 4:31–44

Originally published 6/24/2016. Revised and updated 6/25/2018

Psalm 78:56–64: Our psalmist now turns to the behavior of the Israelites after their arrival in Canaan. Despite God arranging Israel’s miraculous escape from Egypt, and continually meeting their needs, and eventually bringing them to the promised land, the people remained (in te memorable phrase) stiff-necked:
Yet they tried God the most High and rebelled,
and His precepts they did not keep.

Their primary sin was breaking the first commandment and worshipping other small-g gods. Our poet holds nothing back in describing the effect of their sins on God:
They vexed Him with their high places,
incensed Him with their idols
. (58)

Once again we read of God’s angry response to this blasphemy which was to desert them:
God heard and was angry,
wholly rejected Israel.
He abandoned the sanctuary of Shiloh,
the tent where He dwelled among men.
 (59, 60)

Shiloh is where the Ark rested after entering Canaan but before the temple was built by Solomon.

From the poet’s point of view writing centuries after the event, it appears clear that God not only abandoned Israel because of its treachery, but he even went over to the other side:
He gave over His people to the sword,
against His estate He was enraged.

At this point our poet recounts the numerous rebellious incidents we read pre- and post-Canaan. Not only is God wreaking punishment on those who have sinned but its effects spread to innocent bystanders, including the horrific sight of priests being killed, possibly a reference to one of the numerous battles with the Philistines:
His young men the fire consumed
and His virgins no wedding song knew.

His priests fell to the sword,
and His widows did not keen.
 (64) [‘Keen’ here means ‘being aware of.’]

Can things get any worse for Israel as the poet continues in this bleak history? These verses certainly bring home the impact of what it would be like not only to be abandoned by God but to become God’s enemy. Of course the question remains, is God still this angry, vengeance-seeking almost adolescent supreme being? Or has God revealed himself in other, kinder ways since these events occurred in history? One hopes for the latter.

Deuteronomy 3: Writing as usual in the voice of Moses, our authors give a detailed account of the battle with Bashan and the death of King Og. These events took place on the east side of the Jordan River and Moses observes that the territory they conquered has been allocated to the two and one half tribes that elected not to enter Canaan: “As for the land that we took possession of at that time, I gave to the Reubenites and Gadites the territory north of Aroer,. …as well as half the hill country of Gilead with its towns, and I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh the rest of Gilead and all of Bashan, Og’s kingdom.” (12, 13)

We also read of the deal that was worked out between Moses and the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh in exchange for letting them settle outside Canaan: “all your troops shall cross over [the Jordan] armed as the vanguard of your Israelite kin.” (18).  In this account the authors write as if it was Moses’ idea, while the account of the same events in Numbers makes it clear it was the idea of the tribal leaders.

Continuing to speak retrospectively in the first person, Moses recounts how “I charged Joshua as well at that time, saying: “Your own eyes have seen everything that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so the Lord will do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross. Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.” (21, 22)

Once again we encounter the idea that God is literally on Israel’s side—not just conceptually, but actively engaging with them to ensure the enemy is defeated. That God will fight with them is his central promise to Israel. The defeat of Og on the east side of the Jordon is a preview of coming attractions once the rest of Israel crosses over into Canaan.

Along with Joshua, I think I’d feel pretty encouraged too, knowing that God was not only on my side, but was actively fighting for us. That’s something I really haven’t thought about before: that God is fighting on my side in my own battles, as he surely has done in my experience with cancer.

Finally, Moses arrives to his greatest wish as he requests God’s permission to finally enter the promised land: “Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.” (25) But permission has been denied by God. Moses essentially blames Israel for this: “But the Lord was angry with me on your account and would not heed me.” (26). Frankly, he’s right and one can hardly blame Moses for his frustrated anger. Denied permission to enter Canaan, Moses must settle by God to simply viewing the land form atop Mount Pisgah.

Frankly, I think for all that Moses has done as the intermediary between stubborn Israel and a frequently angry God, this is unfair punishment. But as we know too well, life is unfair. And God knows this, too. Does God intervene in ways that contribute to our sense of unfairness? I’d like to think he doesn’t —just as he doesn’t plan out the details of our lives. As Moses learned too well, we decide, we act, and then we enjoy the consequences.

Luke 4:31–44: Jesus, having barely escaped the enraged Nazareth crowd, is back at Capernaum, “teaching them on the sabbath.” (31) And as at Nazareth, “They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.” (32).

The first miracle recorded by Luke is Jesus casting out a demon. I’m not sure this is actually a miracle, because as we read elsewhere in the gospels, the demons know full well who Jesus is, as this one does—”I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (34)— and they know that he has authority over them. As such, they are compelled to obey when Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (35) This further amazes the crowd, which exclaims, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” (36).

A medical miracle follows almost immediately when Jesus comes to “Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever.” (38). Having just witnessed the exorcism, those around Jesus wonder if he can heal her. In exactly the same manner as he cast out the demon, “he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.” (39) I’ve not noticed before that Jesus seems to address and “rebuke” the fever, rather than speaking to the woman herself. This makes sense since I’m sure that many of that time saw illness in the same light as demon possession—something which has taken over the entire person, which is exactly what fevers do.

More healing and exorcisms now follow hot and heavy. “Demons also came out of many, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” (41) Jesus rebukes them, quite understandably telling them to be quiet, lest he be seen by the crowds as somehow connected to their evil rather than to God’s good.

Excitement about this charismatic healer blossoms quickly from here. Jesus attempts to escape to a “quiet place,” but he is invariably found. The population of Capernaum wants him to stay right there so they can keep him as their own. But Jesus insists, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (43) This is Jesus’ example to us. Too often, we’d rather stay in our mountaintop experiences and bask in the joy of Jesus, but our duty as Jesus-followers is greater. As Matthew’s gospel tells us, we are to go into all the world, following Jesus’ example, and proclaim the Good News. Luke’s clear message is that Jesus couldn’t find a “quiet place” to relax. And neither should we.

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