Psalm 80:1–7; Deuteronomy 7; Luke 6:1–11

Originally published 6/29/2016. Revised and updated 6/29/2018

Psalm 80:1–7: This supplication psalm comes from the northern kingdom of Israel. Alter suggests that it may have been written at the time Israel (i.e. the northern kingdom) was under threat by Assyria, which eventually conquered it. (All the tribes mentioned were in the northern kingdom.):
Shepherd of Israel, hearken,
He who drives Joseph like sheep,
enthroned on the cherubim, shine forth.
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh
rouse Your might
and come to the rescue for us.
” (2, 3)

Our psalmist continues his pleading:
O God, bring us back,
and light up Your face that we might be rescued.
 (4)

This certainly underscores the idea that God has been absent from their lives for some time. As we know, the northern kingdom had long ago abandoned God in favor of small-g gods and idols. The psalmist wonders how long God will be angry at their apostasy:
Lord, God of armies,
how long will You smolder against Your people’s prayer?
 (5)

Nevertheless, our poet pretty much blames God for their woes:
You fed them bread of tears
and made them drink triple measure of tears.
You have put us in strife with our neighbors,
and our enemies mock us.
(6,7)

Really? God did all those things? Or did the people of Israel themselves have something to do with their present plight?. This psalm reflects a psychological truth that is true today. When we’re in trouble we tend not to examine how our own decisions and actions may have contributed to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Rather we blame others, or as the case here, blame God himself.

But as these verses demonstrate, that does not prevent us from praying to God for rescue:
God of armies, bring us back,
and light up Your face that we may be rescued
. (8) I

n the end, if we’re honest and realize that things are pretty hopeless, we really have no other choice than to finally turn to God. Even when we think God has abandoned us.

Deuteronomy 7: Moses now turns to the immediate task at hand: Conquering Canaan, specifically, “the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you.” (1)  And he gives the command that is so difficult for our modern ears to hear. “when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” (3). He warns the people not to intermarry because that is the fastest way to “turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.” (4)

Moses points out that “the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” (6) This is the core of the Covenant. The people have not chosen God; God chose them. Accordingly, God will keep his side of the promise, but the people must keep theirs: “Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.” (11).

Obedience to God means “the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors” (12) and God will bring them enormous blessings. God will “love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” (13) But this blessing comes at a high price: “You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity; you shall not serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.” (16) It always comes back to worshipping the small-g gods that justifies their worshippers’ destruction.

It’s this simple quid pro quo that bothers me because it appears that God’s love—never mind his blessings—is conditional. It is also what convinces me that this book is being written retrospectively long after Moses; that the people have indeed disobeyed God and he has punished them with defeat and exile. The authors are writing almost nostalgically of what could have been had the people truly destroyed all the inhabitants of Canaan.

In any event, Moses turns to his final pep talk to encourage the Israelites to undertake the task ahead of them: “do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. ” (18) and then again, “Have no dread of them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God.” (21) He tells them that God will participate in their efforts: “the Lord your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed.” (23) And the people must destroy everything—even the gold and silver that encrusts the heathen gods.

What do we make of this disturbing chapter? There’s a growing consensus among scholars that none of these events actually happened. Nevertheless, Scripture as written is still clear: God commanded utter destruction of entire peoples because they worshipped other gods. We can only realize that one of God’s qualities that makes him God is his inscrutability. We can also be thankful that through Jesus we encounter a God who loves us and has no wish to destroy us.

Luke 6:1–11: Luke continues to intertwine theology and healing. Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field on the Sabbath, and “his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.”  (1) The ever-vigilant Pharisees see this and ask peevishly, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (2) Jesus responds that David entered the house of God, took bread of the Presence and not only ate it but gave some to his companions. Before the Pharisees could answer, Jesus adds  the highly provocative statement, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (5) which I’m sure was heard by the Pharisees as bordering on, of not outright, blasphemy.

Luke continues this theme of Jesus being lord of the Sabbath by his healing a man with a “withered hand.” The scribes and Pharisees lying in wait, “watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.” (7) Well aware of what they were thinking, Jesus asks the man to stand, turns to the leaders, and poses the question at the center of the debate, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (9). Then, in one of those wonderful Lukan details, Jesus looks “around at all of them” (10) in what I can only take to be a stare that says, “stop me if you dare!” and he promptly heals the man.

The underlying theme here is that religiosity becomes rule-bound. In those rules the relationship with God becomes lost and above all, the love of God is papered over with man-made encrustations. We see this all around us in organized religion today: from the insistence on the inerrancy of scripture to the rules that keep women out of pulpits in churches. Yes, rules are needed for good order and goodness knows, the Torah is the ultimate rule book. But what Jesus shows us is that human needs and healing trump the rules. But it renders the rule makers deeply unhappy: “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (11)

 

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