Archives for June 2018

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.

Psalm 77:1–10; Numbers 31:48–32:27; Luke 2:21–32

Originally published 6/15/2016. Revised and updated 6/15/2018.

Psalm 77:1–10: This psalm resonates to the tenor of our times when the news is filled with stories of despair and rising suicide rates and social media overflows with political outrage. There is but One to whom we can turn in our sorrow and agony and we hear the desperation in the psalmist’s voice in his opening lines:
My voice to God—let me cry out.
My voice to God—and hearken to me.
in the day of my straits I sought the Master
. (2, 3a).

Up to now all the poet’s own efforts to stanch his sorrow have been unavailing:
My eye flows at night, it will not stop.
I refuse to be consoled
. (3b)

This is a sentiment that I think perfectly captures the current mood following school shootings and even election outcomes. But unlike so many today who simply cry, ‘Why?’ but have no answers, our psalmist knows exactly to whom to turn:
I call God to mind and I moan.
I speak and my spirit faints.

Nevertheless, in his crying out, God seems to be the root cause of his insomnia:
You held open my eyelids.
I throbbed and could not speak
. (5)

But lying awake in bed at night in the stillness when imagination can reflect too heavily on our cares and worries —and this is something I identify with increasingly—leads him (and me) to reflect on what seems to be the better days of the past:
I ponder the days of yore,
the years long gone
. (6)

This remembrance of a better past leads to further reflection as our psalmist wonders:
I call to mind my song in the night.
To my own heart I speak and my spirit inquires.

Will the Master forever abandon me,
and never again look with favor? (7, 8)

Which is exactly what we wonder when confronted with the evil humans are able to wreak on each other. Along with the psalmist, we ask why does God remain silent, thinking that he has abandoned the world:
Is His kindness gone for all time,
His word done for time without end?

Has God forgotten to sow grace,
has He closed off in wrath his compassion
? (10)

This is the great unanswerable question that every thoughtful human must ask. Why does evil abound? Why does God persist in remaining inscrutably silent?

Numbers 31:48–32:27: The conquest of the Midianites has resulted in a remarkable outcome as the army commanders report to Moses: “Your servants have counted the warriors who are under our command, and not one of us is missing.” (31:49). A battle without deaths on the Israeli side suggests the Midianites were weakly defended and had no chance against this ferocious assault. The victorious commanders come to Moses in gratitude and present “the Lord’s offering,what each of us found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” (31:50) Our accountant authors report that the gift of “the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds was sixteen thousand seven hundred fifty shekels.” (31:52)—a sizable sum indeed. As the authors note parenthetically, “The troops had all taken plunder for themselves.” (31:53) This also demonstrates the reality that leaders are held to a higher standard than the led—a concept that extends down to today’s military.

The Israelites are camped across the river from Jericho. With the Midian “dress rehearsal” successfully completed, the time is nearing for Israel to move into Canaan. But as always there are complications: “the Gadites and the Reubenites came and spoke to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation,” (32:2) and tell them that the land on the east side of the Jordan is perfect for raising cattle, and these tribes would prefer to remain there. Moses immediately sees this request as an attempt to avoid going to war against the Canaanites: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” (6) and worse, it will negatively impact morale, “Why will you discourage the hearts of the Israelites from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?” (7) Moses tells them that their fathers did the same thing when the spies went into the land and came back and “discouraged the hearts of the Israelites from going into the land that the Lord had given them,” (9) which resulted in the 40-year delay. Moses is not going to let the same thing happen again for the very good reason that he believes another cowardly incident will result in an “increase the Lord’s fierce anger against Israel!” (14) And worse, he threatens, “If you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people.” (15)

With this stark reality in front of them, the Reubenites and Gadites propose a compromise. They will “build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our little ones, but we will take up arms as a vanguard before the Israelites, until we have brought them to their place.” (16). They will also give up their previously allocated land rights in Canaan. Moses agrees on the condition that they may return only after Israel is victorious in Canaan. He gives them permission to “build towns for your little ones, and folds for your flocks; but do what you have promised.” (24) The Reubenites and Gadites agree.

The lesson of this interesting passage is that compromise can lead to acceptable outcomes on both sides. A lesson that seems to have been forgotten in the current political climate.

Luke 2:21–32: Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary make the five-mile trek from Bethlehem and bring the infant “to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (22).  Ever aware of his Gentile audience, Luke explains the rule set out a thousand years before in the Torah, “it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’” (23) And being poor, Mary and Joseph offer the simple sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (24)

The centerpiece of Luke’s story is a “righteous and devout” man named Simeon, upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested.” (25). Rather than the angel who had visited Zechariah and Mary, it is the Holy Spirit who had revealed to him previously that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (26) And it the Holy Spirit that guides Simeon into the temple, “and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms.” (27, 28). [Notice how Luke explains that this action of taking another’s child is ‘customary under the law.]

Simeon sings the third song in Luke, the “Benedictus,” which summarizes makes it clear that God has sent Jesus to earth. And in perhaps the most important statement of all, that Jesus has come for every person on earth, including Luke’s community of Gentiles:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel. (28-32)

Simeon’s song also illuminates another reason why Luke has included the infancy story. Jesus did not suddenly materialize as a 30-year old rabbi as he does in Mark. Luke wants to make it clear that Jesus is God’s gift to us from the very beginning, and that Jesus is indeed the Messiah to the Jews—something John takes even a step further in the prologue to his eponymous gospel.

Psalm 76; Numbers 31:13–47; Luke 2:1–20

Originally published 6/14/2016. Revised and updated 6/14/2018.

Psalm 76: This psalm of thanksgiving appears to celebrate a victory over an unnamed enemy, and proclaims God’s mighty power. God appears to have worked what to the psalmist appears to be supernatural power, which enabled Israel to overcome its enemies:
There did He shatter the bow’s fiery shafts,
the shield and the sword and the battle.

The stout-hearted [enemies] were despoiled,
they fell into a trance,
and all the men of valor could not lift a hand
.  (4, 6)

Nor did God accomplish this feat quietly:
By Your roar, O God of Jacob,
chariot and horse were stunned
” (7)

The psalmist comes to his point, celebrating God’s awesome power by asking rhetorically, “who can stand before You, in the strength of Your wrath?” (8b)  God does more than just deliver military victory; as Creator he bestrides both heaven and earth:
From the heavens You made judgement heard,
the earth was afraid and fell silent,

At this point the theme of the psalm shifts from celebrating victory to God’s criteria for judgement, which is not just about military power, but about how those in power have treated those without power:
...when God rose up for judgement
to rescue all the lowly of the earth.

This theme of judging the mighty on behalf of the “lowly of the earth” pervades the Psalms. But as we look at history, battles are inevitably fought about power and might, not about saving the poor and powerless.

Nevertheless, as the psalmist tells us, God stands in judgement and it is the powerful whom he ultimately judges by their actions:
He plucks the life-breath of princes.
He is fearsome to the kings of the earth.

Those in power would do well to remember this verse: that they are subject to a still higher power. Alas, there are few in history who understood this. King David is the obvious exception for Israel.

Numbers 31:13–47: We come to one of those disturbing passages describing an quality of God we’d rather not think about. Fresh from their battle of conquering the Midianites, the troops return home with captives and booty. “Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp.” (13). Moses asks why the soldiers have allowed the women and children to live and insists, “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.” (17). His rationale is that it is these women who led the Israelites astray in the “affair of Peor.” (16). Nevertheless there is a quality of racial extermination that our 21st century sensibilities find repugnant. At least the virgins are allowed to live.

Everything about the battle—soldiers, captives, booty— is unclean and instructions for purification are issued.

This being the book of Numbers, our priestly accountant authors make sure that God tells Moses and ELeazar to conduct a thorough inventory. The numbers are impressive: 675,000 sheep; 72,000 oxen; 61,000 donkeys, and 31,000 virgins. I will not linger and reflect on the stench of that many animals…

The booty is divided equally between the warriors “who went out to battle” (27) and the rest of the Israelites. From the Israelite share a “tabernacle tax” of one out of fifty of all the animals is given over to the Levites.

What to make of this passage? We certainly understand that war is a cruel business and the victors not only get the spoils, but get to write the history. My own suspicion is that as the authors wrote they retrospectively gave the whole fairly sordid affair the imprimatur of being at God’s command. But in doing so, they have projected a very undesirable human quality on God.

On the other hand, we need to be careful not to project our Christian value system onto an event that occurred some 3000 years ago. And as Israel will learn to its ultimate sorrow, intermarriage with other tribes tends to lead to disastrous outcomes.

Luke 2:1–20: This is perhaps the most familiar bible passage in our culture. Luke is providing a Gentile context for the birth of a very Jewish baby by linking the event to Augustus and Quirinius. He provides a specific time of the event, a census ordered by Augustus. He gives us precise geographic locations: Nazareth and Bethlehem.

Unlike, Matthew, there’s no “no room at the inn” story. We learn only that Mary delivered her child in Bethlehem. The angels appear to the shepherds and we hear the most familiar angelic words of all—“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (10) Notice that Luke says, “all the people,” i.e., Gentiles as well as Jews.

As instructed, the shepherds rush to the manger. But they did not just remain there, stuck in a creche. Instead, “they made known what had been told them about this child;” (18) Words travels quickly and “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” (19) No doubt there was great excitement in the Jewish community that a Messiah had been born. Any knowledgeable Jew would know that this event was finally the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise.

Luke shifts his focus from the shepherds and their news, and brings us back to Mary, who once again, ponders all that has happened in her heart. Of every character so far in this gospel, it is Mary who is the reflective one. I think Luke is telling his community—and us— that not only is the Good News worth telling everyone about, but its true profundity requires deep reflection. We need to be Mary-like at the news of the incarnation.

So, why the infancy story, which neither Mark nor John saw fit to include? I think Luke wanted to convey in the most dramatic way possible that Jesus came to earth in real space and real time as a real human being. That Jesus did not just materialize in the clouds, but is an incontestable historic event, grounded in humility (the manger) and in humanity. Luke wants to make sure we resist over-spiritualizing the incarnation.

Psalm 75; Numbers 30:1–31:12; Luke 1:67–80

Originally published 6/12/2016. Revised and updated 6/13/2018.

Psalm 75: This thanksgiving psalm opens with worship and abruptly shifts in the second verse quickly to the psalmist speaking in God’s voice, proclaiming how he will bring justice at some time in the future:
We acclaim You, O God, we acclaim You
and Your name is near
When I seize the appointed time,
I myself shall judge rightly.

Asserting his position as Creator, God notes that creation would have not have occurred without his intervention:
Earth and its dwellers would melt,
had I not set fast its pillars.

Which from a law of physics point of view is absolutely true. Were the earth not in its stable orbit at 93,000,000 miles from the sun, it would have indeed be so warm or so cold that humankind could not exist.

Still speaking in God’s voice, our psalmist then turns to a warning to the wicked:
I said to the revelers, Do not revel,
and to the wicked, Lift not your horn.

God emphasizes his instruction by repeating it:
Lift not your horn on high.
You would speak arrogance against the Rock
. (6)

I assume these horns would be the the rams horn trumpets familiar to every Jew. But in the OT, there is a second meaning of horn as a symbol of power. In short, those who raise their horns in this context are attempting to assert a greater power than God himself. Which sounds pretty much like our present culture as much as ancient Israel.

God reminds these pretenders to power and judgement that it is,
God [who] is the judge,
it is He Who brings down and lifts up.

Presaging Jesus’ own words in his Olivet discourse and in imagery such as we find in Daniel and Revelation, God is holding a symbolic cup of judgement “with foaming wine full for decanting,” (9a) as he reminds the wicked that they will receive their due comeuppance at the end of history:
He will pour form it,
yes, its dregs they will drain,
all the earth’s wicked will drink
. (9b)

The point of view then shifts back to the psalmist who proclaims,
[I] shall tell it forever,
let me hymn to the God of Jacob
” (10)

He gives God the final word. As usual it’s the destruction of the wicked and the lifting up of the just:
And all the horns of the wicked I shall cut off.
The horns of the just will be lifted!

Once again we have a psalm that promises God’s justice in the end, and even in God’s own voice. But like the psalmist, we too often have to wait for that justice and wonder if it will ever come. We pray that horns of the just will be lifted in times of national sorrow, and that justice will ultimately prevail. But I think the greater lesson for us is that in a nation that has abandoned God true justice can never prevail.

Numbers 30:1–31:12: This chapter gives us a picture of the social standing of women as over against men. As for men, “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (30:2)

However, when a woman may make a vow or promise it can be countermanded by her husband, or in the case of a daughter still living at home, by her father. A woman’s vow stands only when “her father hears of her vow or her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her.” (30:4) But if the father (or husband) disapproves, the vow is canceled “and the Lord will forgive her, because her father had expressed to her his disapproval.” (30:5)

One suspects that in the case of the daughter, these vows are around the issue of marriage, which the woman was not allowed to enter into with the permission of her father. A vestigial remainder of this ordinance exists even today when prospective grooms ask the woman’s father to marry; the clear implication is that the woman cannot make this decision on her own.

Once she is married, the husband has the same right to countermand what the woman has promised. There’s a note of condescension here because it apparently only women who make “any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself.” (30:6) But what’s also important here is that it is incumbent upon the father or husband to speak up when they hear of it. They cannot give remain silent, appear to assent, and then come back some time later and nullify the woman’s vow. He must speak up when he hears the vow, otherwise, “he has validated them, because he said nothing to her at the time that he heard of them.” (30:14)

We may squirm uncomfortably about this, but I suspect that this rule actually brought a great deal of justice to women who would make a promise, and then possibly months later have their father or husband revoke the vow. I’m sure that compared to other societies of the time where women were mere chattel, these rules brought substantial dignity to Israelite women. It’s also a reminder to us that women have and will continue to play a prominent role in Israel’s history.

As we’ve observed elsewhere, the structure Numbers is a brilliant interweaving of rules and ordinances with narrative action. And now we shift to serious action just before Moses’ death: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” (31:1)

The instructions are to send a thousand men from each tribe, so an army of 12,000 goes up against the Midianites, accompanied by “Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, with the vessels of the sanctuary and the trumpets for sounding the alarm in his hand.” (31:6) I presume Phineas’s presence signifies this is a God-ordained battle. In any event, the Israelites are triumphant, having killed every Midianite male. Israel takes “the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty.” (31:9) and then burn down all the Midianite towns, returning to the Israeli “camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” (31:12)

This is a disturbing incident on many fronts, since it appears to be a cold-hearted aggression without any Midianite provocation. And yet it is God-ordained. I think we can best view it as a dress rehearsal for battles to come, but that does not make this event     any less disturbing.

Luke 1:67–80: Luke devotes about as much space to John the Baptist’s birth as he does to Jesus’. Unlike the almost silent Joseph, now that Zechariah has been freed of his muteness, he cannot stop talking. And we encounter a second song in Luke’s first chapter, the canticle of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus. It’s a benediction that first recalls God’s promise of sending a messiah,
    Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
     He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David, (68, 69)

Then, after praising God for remembering Israel, Zechariah describes John’s future role in Israel:
   And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
   to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins. (76, 77)

Which of course is exactly what John did. What’s crucial to note here is that Zechariah asserts that John’s role will be prophetic and preparatory: “you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” John is the foreshadowing of someone even greater to come, the Messiah himself, who ultimately will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (79)

As we’ve noted before, I think Luke devotes all this space to John and especially here in Zechariah’s song to make it clear to his Gentile audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. Unlike Matthew, whose audience was familiar with Scripture, Luke does not quote prophecy from scripture since it would have been unknown to his community. But in Zechariah’s song, we have a gorgeous summation of prophetic scripture that points very clearly to Jesus, to whose birth he will finally turn now that Luke has laid all the messianic groundwork.

Psalm 74:18–23; Numbers 29:7–40; Luke 1:57–66

Originally published 6/11/2016. Revised and updated 6/12/2018.

Psalm 74:18–23: Our poet’s frustration at God’s apparent unwillingness to join the cause and conquer Judah’s enemies takes a deeper turn as he implores God to recall the blasphemous evil of enemies that are not only Judah’s but also God’s. In a striking of a prowling beast attacking a bird, our poet reminds God that the people who God loves may be decimated forever:
Remember this: the enemy insulted,
a base people reviled  Your name.

Do not yield to the beast the life of Your dove,
the band of Your lowly forget not forever.
” (18, 19)

This brings him to the central issue of the covenant between God and Israel (now only Judah) and for God to hear the cries of the oppressed:
Look to the pact,
for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage.

God has always been on the side of the poor and lowly, and we can hear the desperation in our poet’s voice as he asks God to remember and act on behalf of those who are weak, but who worship him:
Let not the poor man turn back disgraced.
Let the lowly and needy praise Your name
. (21)

The psalmist moves to a bold conclusion that effectively puts God on trial in the courtroom and playing the role of attorney, asks God to recall the past and then act in the present:
Arise, God, O plead Your cause.
Remember the insult to You by the base all day long.

There is a powerful symmetry between the opening question of this psalm—”Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?“—and the last verse which pleads with him:
Forget not the voice of Your foes,
the din of those against You perpetually rising.

In the same way that God seems to have abandoned his people “forever,” the “din of those against You” goes on perpetually. God’s prolonged silence only seems to amplify the noise and din of his foes—seemingly forever.

Which is how it seems some days in our culture as we hear the voices (and read and view the media) of those who would prefer to see all discussion, even mention of God erased forever from the public square. We ask the same question as the psalmist: Are you listening, God, and will You act? As I think we have figured out by now, God will act only through the voices and efforts of those who believe God is who he says he is.

Numbers 29:7–40: More offerings.  The Day of Atonement, occurring each year on “the tenth day of this seventh month” is the holiest and most solemn of all—which today is called Yom Kippur. There is a burnt offering of “one young bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old. They shall be without blemish.” (8) plus grain offerings. This is in addition to the usual sin offering and “the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and their drink offerings.” (10)

Just five days after the Day of Atonement, a seven day party—the Festival of Booths (or Tabernacles)—commences. There is a specific animal and grain offering for each of the seven days. As usual these are in addition to the “regular” sin offering. During this period, the altar had to be a even more of a bloody abattoir than usual with all this seemingly perpetual sacrificing going on. The priests certainly earned their pay!

The Festival of Booths is one of the great anachronisms of Numbers, since it is basically a festival that celebrates Israel’s time in the wilderness where everyone who lives in a house, basically camps out for a week. The question of course is why would Israel celebrate being in the desert while still in the desert? Well, they probably didn’t.

Rather, I believe these lengthy instructions covering all the various festivals and celebrations have finally been set in writing by our priestly authors after many years of oral tradition. The authors are careful to note that “Moses told the Israelites everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (40) to emphasize the authority of the Mosaic imprimatur.

Luke 1:57–66: Of the four gospels only Luke records the birth of John the Baptist. Because Elizabeth’s barren shame has now been cancelled there is much communal rejoicing at the birth of a male son: “Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” (58) Then comes time for the bris, when a Jewish son is given his name. An unidentified group, “they,” [presumably the priests at the synagogue] plan to follow Jewish custom and “to name him Zechariah after his father.” (59) Elizabeth attempts to intervene, exclaiming, “No; he is to be called John.” (60) But since she’s just the mother, she does not have the final say. That right belongs to the father, the still-mute Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet “and wrote, “His name is John.”” (63). At this, his 9-month muteness ceases and “his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” (64) The neighbors freak out, but it certainly makes Zechariah and Elizabeth celebrities “throughout the entire hill country of Judea.” (65)

This auspicious introduction to the world caused everyone to wonder, “What then will this child become?” Just to make sure we get the point, Luke interjects here, observing, “For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” (66)

So why all this attention to the details of John’s birth? There is little question that he became a celebrity preacher throughout Judea, but so what? I think there are two reasons:

First, John’s birth is a presaging of an even more significant birth to come. Whatever odd events may have surrounded John’s birth, it was a completely natural event. Zechariah was John’s natural father. Luke seems to be saying that if a natural birth like this one can raise such questions and uproar wait until the next birth I’m about to tell you about. In short, it’s a brilliant editorial move to make it clear that while John went on to fame, his natural birth is subservient to Jesus’ far more remarkable supernatural birth.

Second, I think that the community that Luke is writing to, although probably Gentile, may have heard more about John’s celebrity than Jesus. Luke is providing the John-admirers in the crowd ample historical detail that rounds out the picture of John as someone also chosen by God to play a unique role in Jesus’ life. This will ensure that there will be no doubts when the mantle is passed by John to Jesus. Which is why I think Luke reminds us that the role John is going to play is God-ordained because “the hand of the Lord was with him.


Psalm 74:10–17; Numbers 28:1–29:6; Luke 1:46–56

Originally published 6/10/2016. Revised and updated 6/11/2018.

Psalm 74:10–17: In his frustration that God has seemed to ignore the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, our poet asks rhetorically, perhaps even with a bit of sarcasm,
Until when, O God, will the foe insult,
the enemy revile Your name forever?

He goes on in seeming puzzlement as to why God has not already acted against the destroyers,
Why do You draw back Your hand,
and You right hand hold in Your bosom?
” (11)

Yet, his faith in God remains strong as he recollects and catalogs God’s great rescuing acts of old:
Yet God is my king of old,
worker of rescues of the earth.

He remembers that it was God who conquered the powerful mythical creatures of Canaanite legend:
You shattered the sea-God with Your strength,
You smashed the monsters’ heads on the waters.

In fact, God defeated these creatures so thoroughly, that he was able to carve them up and give them as (metaphorical?) food to people living far from the sea:
You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,
You gave him as food to the desert-folk.

[Notice that ‘heads’ is plural. Apparently the Leviathan had many heads.]

Not only did God conquer the creatures in the great battle for control over the sea, the water theme continues as our psalmist observes that God also can do whatever he likes in natural creation:
You split open a channel for spring and brook,
You dried up the surging torrents,

This last line sounds like a reference to flash flooding in the desert.

Our poet is working backwards through the creation story, trying to remind God of all the great creative acts he once performed, including circadian reality and the seasons of the year:
Your is the day, also Yours the night.
It was You who founded the light and the sun.
It was You Who laid down the boundaries of earth,
summer and winter, You fashioned them.
 (16, 17)

The question hangs in the air. Having reminded God of his powerful acts in the past, will this appeal result in a change of circumstance for the now destroyed Jerusalem? Will God act? Certainly a question heavy on our minds in today’s world, as well.

Numbers 28:1–29:6:  The overall strategy of the authors of this book seems to be to interlace narrative with rules concerning worship. This reading focuses on the details of the various classes of offering at the tabernacle.

General offerings: one lamb in the morning; one at night plus “an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil” (28: 5) Plus a drink offering.

Sabbath offerings: basically a doubling of the general offering.

Monthly offerings: “At the beginnings of your months you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord: two young bulls, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish;” (11)plus a specific recipe for a grain offering.

Passover offerings: Celebrated once a year, it requires a substantial investment since it’s ordained to occur each day for seven days: “two young bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old; see that they are without blemish.” (19) plus a variety of grain offerings. The main injunction here is that unleavened bread is eaten and there is no work for seven days.

Festival of weeks offering: This is the first fruits offering, involving (no surprise) sacrificial animals and more grain. This is a one-day holiday where “you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations.” (26)

Festival of trumpets offering: This occurs annually on the first day of the seventh month, and not surprisingly, “It is a day for you to blow the trumpets,” (29:1) in addition to the required animal and grain sacrifices

I come away here is yet another reminder that there is nothing random or arbitrary about God. Since these rules have been written as being directly communicated by God, there is no allowance for deviation. God demands obedience to the norms, yet they are also days of freedom from work and times for festivals and I assume, general partying. As in many places in the bible, we see that freedom and ordinances are beautifully intertwined. Unfortunately our own society seems far more intent on individual freedoms than on following the rules that are societal glue. Individualism, “do what you feel like,” seems to carry the day more and more.

Luke 1:46–56: What more can be said about the most beautiful song in the NT? I confess that it requires a substantial willingness to suspend my disbelief that a teen-aged girl spontaneously composed this magnificent poem with its unforgettable opening verse and I am more inclined to give Like, inspired by the Holy Spirit, authorial credit:
      “My soul magnifies the Lord,
       and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
       for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (47, 48)

Luke has Mary sing a lyrical version of one of the crucial themes he will be communicating in this gospel. A central theme is that this is the God who is above all concerned with the widows and orphans, the poor and the prisoners. The wicked haughty will meet their deserved end because God has finally answered the psalmist’s plea.
   “He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
      He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.” (51-53)

Reading this poem today, it strikes me that this is Luke’s expression of what the Kingdom of God will be like. The world will be turned upside down as the rich and powerful are conquered and the order of the world is replaced by the Kingdom of God where the poor will prosper, the orphans will find comfort, the sick will healed, and the prisoners will be freed. These are the people upon whom God’s mercy will be showered.

Tradition holds that Luke was a doctor and that the side of Jesus we will see in this gospel is how Jesus heals the broken in spirit and body. Unlike Matthew, Luke doesn’t need to list the Beatitudes as concepts. Instead, they will be illustrated in Jesus’ acts.

Finally, Mary’s Magnificat is also a reminder that God is behind everything that is about to occur in this story. This is Luke’s gorgeous statement that God has indeed remembered Israel, and will bring a Messiah “according to the promise he made to our ancestors,/ to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (55) The question of course is will Israel accept its messiah? Will we?

Psalm 74:1–9; Numbers 26:57–27:23; Luke 1:39–45

Originally published 6/9/2016. Revised and updated 6/10/2018.

Psalm 74:1–9: The opening line of this psalm is startling, almost verging on blasphemy: Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?” (1a) I think we should take this as frustrated anger rather than  a theological statement. Whatever has happened, it seems to our poet that God has been in hiding for a very long time. He shakes his fist at God, chastising him for punishing rather that leading Israel: “Your wrath smolders against the flock You should tend.” (1b)

He elaborates on this theme of God’s former leadership of Israel, hearkening all the way back to the Exodus through to Jerusalem, asking God to
Remember Your cohort You took up of old,
You redeemed the tribe of Your estate
Mount Zion where You dwelled
.” (2)

This psalm must have been composed sometime after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem by the Babylonians because now everything lies in ruins as our poet continues to chastise God:
Lift up Your feet to the eternal ruins,
all that the enemy laid waste in the sanctuary
. (3)

A stark review of the destruction visited on Jerusalem and the temple follows :
Your foes roared out of Your meeting-place,
they set up their signs as signs.

I’m not certain whether these signs are physical or metaphorical, but it seems the enemy has certainly desecrated God’s “meeting-place.” And they’ve done so with malicious violence:
They hacked away as one brings down from above
in a tangle of trees with axes.
And its carvings altogether
with hatchet and pike they pounded. 

The enemy’s rampage ends only as
They set fire to Your sanctuary,
they profaned on the ground Your name’s dwelling place
. (7)

This last line suggests they may have destroyed the Ark of the Covenant itself.  Not only Jerusalem has been destroyed, but also all of what was left of Judah:
They burned down all God’s meeting places in the land. (8)

In a thinly-veiled reference to Israel’s unwillingness to listen to its own prophets, the psalmist writes with deep regret:
Our own signs we did not see.
There is no longer a prophet, nor any among us who knows until when.

Between shaking his fist at God and his deep regret at having ignored the signs that God had sent via the prophets, we can view deep into the depths of a tortured soul.  What would be the awful event that would cause me to shake my fist at God and accuse him of abandoning me? Whatever it may be, like Judah and Jerusalem we are not listening to the prophets.

Numbers 26:57–27:23: The count of Levite heads brings up the rear of the census, as the authors remind us the Levites are exempt form military duty and they will not inherit land: “The number of those enrolled was twenty-three thousand, every male one month old and upward; for they were not enrolled among the Israelites because there was no allotment given to them among the Israelites.” (26:62)

We finally learn the reason for the census. It’s to make sure that the previous generation—the original subjects of the Moses/Aaron census, which apparently happened some 40 years ago—is not part of the current count: “Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had enrolled the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai.” (26:64) Of the original cohort, there is is only “Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (65). And unsurprisingly, Moses himself. [We presume Eleazar was born after the 40-year curse.]

The daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses. Their father has borne only daughters and they ask “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” (4) In one of his more merciful pronouncements, God tells Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.”  (27:7) Moreover, this becomes law as the rules of inheritance are revamped to include the exceptions where sons are not among the heirs.

It’s fascinating to reflect on how God strikes at the rules of primogeniture that bedeviled the entire Middle East (and still do in many places). He’s already done this with Abraham, whose older son Ishmael would have the inheritance, but it goes to Isaac instead. And then Jacob, taking the right of his older brother and deceiving his father without apparent consequence. Finally, Joseph, Jacob’s twelfth son becomes the one literally passing the inheritance back to his older brothers.

We come to the transition of Israel’s leadership. God brings Moses to an unnamed mountain in the Abarim range and shows him  “the land that I have given to the Israelites.” (27:12) And then God announces that Moses will not actually go into the land “because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin when the congregation quarreled with me.” (27:14)

Moses seems to accept his fate with equanimity and asks God to appoint a new leader. To make sure that we understand and accept Joshua’s bona fides, our authors make it clear that it was God who chose the new leader, as God instructs Moses, Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and commission him in their sight.” (18, 19) And “Moses did as the Lord commanded him.” (22).  Joshua is now Israel’s leader.

I’m pretty sure this peaceful transition of power was the exception to the general rule in that place at this time as would-be leaders plotted against kings and chiefs. But I confess to really being annoyed with God, who seems so petty. Moses’ leadership for these 40+ years has been unstinting, and he managed to save his people numerous times from God’s wrath, which frankly always seems a little adolescent to me. Personally, I think Moses should have gone into Canaan as leader emeritus. But it is God who makes the rules here…

Luke 1:39–45: Luke seems to imply that almost immediately after the visitation form Gabriel, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (39, 40) Mary obviously wants to test the evidence Gabriel told her about—and email or even written letters were not an option for communication.

But it turns out that it is Elizabeth who seems to benefit most from Mary’s visit: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,” (41) who causes her to exclaim to Mary in the famous words of the Rosary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (42) But what’s really fascinating here is that in that very brief moment, the Holy Spirit has informed Elizabeth pretty completely about Mary’s child, as she seems to immediately ask Mary, “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (43)

As we will see so often in Luke, there’s a deeper, second meaning here. Luke is telling us that just as the Holy Spirit informed Elizabeth about Jesus’ identity, so too, the Holy Spirit informs us—Luke’s listeners and readers—about the identity of Jesus. With Elizabeth, we can feel joy and exclaim with her, “why has this happened to me?” Our response is identical to that of the as-yet-unborn John: “as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (44) Joy is our response to the grace we experience when Jesus comes into our lives, just as he came in to Elizabeth’s. And as we shall see shortly, in an even more profound way, into Mary’s response as well.

Psalm 73:21–28; Numbers 26:25–56; Luke 1:26–38

Originally published 6/8/2016. Revised and updated 6/8/2018.

Psalm 73:21–28: We encounter a confession that applies to everyone of us who say we walk with God but then proceed to ignore him when we become resentful of other, seemingly more successful people:
When my heart was embittered,
      and my conscience stabbed with pain,
      I was a dolt and knew nothing,
      like cattle I was with You.” (21, 22)

Wow. How often I am a dolt about God’s faithfulness. I encountered a phrase recently that pretty much perfectly describes my faith: “Winter Christian,” which was defined as one whose faith includes doubt and pain. I cannot be one of those ever-smiling Christians that sees the world through the proverbial God-colored glasses, saying everything as peachy wonderful because they know Jesus. My relationship with God s far more like Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, and the psalmist beautifully captures the realization that the doubt lives within us.

Out of the psalmist’s embittered heart comes a profound insight about God’s faithfulness and guidance in our quotidian lives:
Yet I was always with You,
You grasped my right hand.
You guided me with Your counsel,
and toward glory You took me.
” (23, 24)

It is this relationship with God—and for us Christians, with Jesus—that towers over all else for there is no one else in whom we can trust—least of all the values and mores of the seemingly successful:
Whom else do I have in the heavens,
and beside You whom would I want on earth?

We come to the hinge point of the psalm in what I think is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in the Psalms:
Though my flesh and my heart waste away,
God is my heart’s rock and my portion forever.
” (26)

The metaphor that strikes  home—”my heart’s rock“—boldly states that God os the foundational center of our very being. And it is this foundation whereby our poet can conclude his psalm that began as bitterness and envy. Now he—and we—live and breathe in the sure knowledge that God is close, if only we stop and notice—and let God speak to us:
But I—God’s closeness is good to me,
     I make the Master the Lord my shelter,
     to recount all Your works. (28)

Numbers 26:25–56: The census continues in all its glory. It’s interesting that every tribe is counted in the names of its ancestors, e.g., “The descendants of Manasseh: of Machir, the clan of the Machirites; and Machir was the father of Gilead; of Gilead, the clan of the Gileadites.” (29) This underscores the importance of ancestry in Israel. Inasmuch as they did not believe in an afterlife, it is being ensconced in the recollections and memory of one’s descendants that is the crucial connection across time. The essential duty of men and womenwas procreation—a reflection of God’s good creative act.

That is also why there was such shame attached to women such as Elizabeth, who could not bear children. There being no understanding that men could be as equally culpable in preventing conception, all blame was laid squarely at the woman’s feet.

But there’s no question that in general, Israel was blessed with fecundity. We come to the end of the list and our accountant authors summarize the count of males over the age of 20: “This was the number of the Israelites enrolled: six hundred and one thousand seven hundred thirty.” (51)

Ever the planner, God lays out the rules for how the land of Canaan will be divided. First,”the land shall be apportioned for inheritance according to the number of names.” (53) In other words, “To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its enrollment.” (54).

However, just because a particular tribe is big doesn’t mean it will get the best land, Rather, “the land shall be apportioned by lot.” (55a) And just to make sure everyone gets the point, God repeats himself: “Their inheritance shall be apportioned according to lot between the larger and the smaller.” (56) As usual, our authors make sure that their version of God is focused on precision and yes, fairness.

Luke 1:26–38: Gabriel is one busy angel here in Luke’s opening chapter. Luke makes it clear that Gabriel was not acting on his own, but “was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,” (26) The gospel writer quickly identifies the main human actors, “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (27) However, Joseph now disappears from the story until the next chapter.

In this visitation, Gabriel must have appeared in human form because he seems to show up at Mary’s door and simply says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (28) There is no terror on Mary’s part, only puzzlement at what “favored one” must have meant. Luke tells us early on that Mary is a thoughtful, reflective person: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (29) I’m pretty sure most people would not do much pondering at this strange greeting but instantly ask what Gabriel meant. But Mary thinks instead of speaks.

Gabriel speaks first, telling Mary not to be afraid and then repeats his message: “you have found favor with God.” (30) And with that brief introduction he delivers what had to be the strangest news ever communicated to a mortal: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (31) Luke uses this opportunity to introduce Jesus to his readers—and us—even before he’s been conceived in Mary’s womb as Gabriel lists Jesus’ qualities and bona fides, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (32, 33) I think these are crucial sentences because it reminds us that while Mary is the means by which Jesus becomes man, the real story Luke is telling is going to be about Jesus. He is also telling us that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and that God, via Gabriel, has pronounced him to be so. There can be no greater authenticity than that.

Meanwhile, Mary continues to ponder and when she finally speaks, she asks the very practical question about how this going to happen given her virginity. Gabriel explains the details and in what I think is a fairly intimidating metaphor for the sexual act as the angel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (35a). The outcome of this 100% human/100% Godly union will be unprecedented in all history: “therefore the child to be born  will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (35b) And here, once again, Luke further establishes Jesus’ bona fides before he’s even born in what must have seemed to be the outrageous claim, “He will be called the son of God.” Of course the entire theme of Luke’s gospel is to demonstrate exactly that.

Gabriel provides a modicum of proof that what he’s saying will actually happen by explaining that Mary’s “relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” And concludes with the famous assertion, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (37)

To be sure, nothing is impossible with God, but I think the most astounding statement of all in this entire episode of the Annunciation comes from Mary’s lips,“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (38) Compared to Zechariah’s reaction to the news he would be a father, Mary’s accepting equanimity is an incredible contrast. As Mark did in his eponymous gospel, the juxtaposition of these two stories is not coincidental but makes the important point that how we respond to God’s call makes all the difference in the world.


Psalm 73:13–20; Numbers 26:1–24; Luke 1:5–25

Originally published 6/7/2016. Revised and updated 6/7/2018.

Psalm 73:13–20: Our psalmist despairingly observes the success of the wicked as he complains that having led a pure and God-centered life seems to have come to naught. A clean and sober life has yielded nothing but suffering:
But in vain have I kept my heart pure
and in innocence washed my palms
For I was afflicted all day long,
and my chastisement, each new morning.
 (13, 14)

Like so many who try to walk the narrow path of morality, he feels constrained, even trapped:
If I said, Let me talk like them.
Look, Your sons’ band I would have betrayed
. (15)

On the other hand, to attempt to become like the wicked and follow their practices leads only to inner moral torture:
When I thought to know these things,
it was a torment in my eyes.

But then, as he reflects on God’s larger plan he begins to realize that although they seem successful now, the wicked will indeed come to a bad end:
Till I came to the sanctuaries of God,
[I] understood what would be their end.

He realizes that the smug satisfaction of the wealthy and wicked is in reality the smooth path to destruction:
Yes, You set them on slippery ground,
brought them down to destruction
[The wicked will] come to ruin in a moment,
swept away, taken in terrors!

Our poet’s turn from despair to revelation is complete when he realizes that God will see it that justice triumphs in the end:
[It is] Like a dream upon waking, O Master,
upon rising You despised their image.
” (20)

Of course I still wonder if what our poet comes to understand—that the wicked will eventually pay for their sins—is really true all the time. We certainly see the some wicked people eventually met their comeuppance, but to me it seems like others just come out smelling like a rose. On the other hand, we cannot see inside them to really know their thoughts and fears. One thinks of the successful fashion designer, Kate Spade, who committed suicide last week. Outward appearances of success and wealth notwithstanding, she must certainly have been a tormented soul.

Numbers 26:1–24: Several plagues, battles, and sundry other life-threatening events have occurred since the last census of Israel, so God speaks both to Moses and Eleazar (who has taken Aaron’s place as high priest), “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.” (2) The purpose of this census is immediately apparent because enough years have passed that a new generation has come to the crucial age range: “from twenty years old and upward:” Needless to say, it’s crucial to understand Israel’s military strength before it heads into the numerous battles that await it.

The list begins with the tribe of Reuben, including, “The descendants of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah.” (9)  Even more remarkably, “the sons of Korah did not die” (11). Really? I was sure that following the failed coup d’etat, the earth had swallowed Korah’s entire family, which presumably would have included Korah’s sons. But here they are.

Our author/ accountants tell us that “the clans of the Reubenites; the number of those enrolled was 43,730.” (7) The count continues inexorably:
The descendants of Simeon by their clans” (12):  22,200
 The children of Gad by their clans” (15): 40,500
The sons of Judah:” (19): 76,500
The descendants of Issachar by their clans:” (25): 64,300.

Despite the plagues and battles, there is still a startlingly large number of Israelite men. We could estimate wives and children would easily triple the count. One suspects more census-taking awaits us in the reading tomorrow.

Luke 1:5–25: Unlike Mark, whose eponymous gospel opens with adult Jesus meeting adult John the Baptist, Luke begins his story by winding the clock back to before John’s birth with the heartwarming, even humorous, story of John’s father and mother, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Abraham and Sarah, they were old but had no children. [My view is that Luke is positioning them as parallels to Abraham and Sarah.]

In the first of many angelic visitations that Luke relates, Gabriel shows up and Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12) The first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (13a), which seem to be the opening words of every angelic visitation. This is a good reminder that cute Christmas decorations notwithstanding, angels must have been big and intimidating creatures, clearly not of this world. The angel loses no time telling Zecharaiah that “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (13b).  Gabriel then lays down some very specific rules regarding the son, whom is is to name John. This John will be an ascetic, but “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” (16)

Reminding us of Sarah, who laughed at the news she would have a son, Zechariah famously doubts Gabriel with the usual very rational point that ““How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (18). The angel Gabriel is less than pleased to hear this, curtly stating his bona fides: “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (19) Zechariah pays the price for his doubt: “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (20) Lesson: when there’s an angelic visitation, it’s wise to take them at their word. As we shall see, Mary reception of the angel Gabriel stands in stark contrast to Zechariah’s angelic visitation.

A humorous scene follows where the speechless Zechariah uses hand motions to convince the others in the temple that “he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.” (22) Speech was always of the greatest importance in that paperless world, and it’s fun to reflect on exactly what motions Zechariah had to use to convince people he’s been visited by an angel. We should try that sometime when we’re playing charades…

Elizabeth, on the other hand, is no doubter. In sharp contrast to her husband, she gives thanks that she will no longer be an object of shame in her culture: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (25) Luke is certainly making it clear to his readers in this introductory story that acceptance of the gospel story he is about to relate is far superior to skepticism. In fact as far as Luke is concerned, skeptics should just remain mute.

Psalm 73:1–12; Numbers 24,25; Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4

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

Psalm 73:1–12: These verses are a detailed description of the qualities and even the physical characteristics of the wicked. The opening verses express the psalmist’s relief at his close call of having nearly become one of the wicked himself:
As for me, my feet had almost strayed,
my steps nearly tumbled.

The reason he almost fell in with them is simple—and completely consonant with that most human inclination to envy others—especially those who seem to be effortlessly cruising through life with ample resources:
For I envied the revelers,
I saw the wicked’s well-being.

Since human nature has not changed a whit since this psalm was written, he describes a 21st century affliction to a tee: we are obsessed with wealth and who has what. Why else would the media relentlessly publish lists of the wealthiest people in America in an unending variety of permutations? So too, our cultural obsession with celebrity. Their lives appear glamorous and worry-free compared to ours.

Our poet goes on to describe the specifics of our attraction to the wealthy in the detail that almost caused him to stumble:
For they are free of the fetters of death,
    and their body is healthy.
    Of the torment of man they have no part,
     and they know not human afflictions.” (4,5)

They appear to be above it all: paragons of “evolved humans” free of the ugliness, sickness, and desperation of daily life experienced by the hoi polloi.

But then, as he moves his poetic camera in for a close-up, we see that what looks attractive from afar is actually quite corrupt:
This haughtiness is their necklace,
outrage, their garment bedecks them.

This is a perfect description of know-it-alls (politicians, especially) who see themselves as morally superior and in a perfect description of a current president, full of the outrage that permeates everything in our culture from Facebook feeds to political stump speeches. Then, the picture turns even uglier in a memorable description of corruption affecting the physical body as the psalmist describes their true character perfectly:
Fat bulges around their eyes,
imaginings spill from the heart.
They mock and speak with malice,
from on high they speak out oppression
. (7, 8)

Then, even more strikingly, their corruption becomes consumption of the world’s resources:
They put their mouth up to the heavens
and their tongue goes over the earth
. (9)

The tragedy then, just as it is today with politicians, celebrities and especially men n powerful positions, is that the people are eager to hear—and believe—what they say:
Thus the people turn back to them,
and they lap up their words
. (10)

Is there a more perfect description of the crowds surrounding celebrities, politicians, and captains of industry?

In our material culture that rejects faith and believes the answers are found strictly within science and technology, those who claim there is no God see themselves as the masters of the universe: And they say,’ How could God know,
and is there knowledge with the most high?
” (11)

Alas, our poet sighs,
such are the wicked,
the ever complacent ones pile up wealth
. (12)

And thus, as we reflect on the infamous 1%, it is still is. But what will Jesus have to say to them on the day of judgement? He certainly gives us a clue in Matthew’s account of sheep and goats.

Numbers 24,25: Almost unbelievably, Balaam has retained his commission from King Balak to speak what God tells him to say. This time, our authors tell us, Balaam, “did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness.” (24:2) And what he sees as he looks out over the tents of Israel and speaks is the realization that Israel, as God’s chosen people, will indeed conquer neighboring tribes and nations:
    “God who brings him out of Egypt,
        is like the horns of a wild ox for him;
     he shall devour the nations that are his foes
         and break their bones.
         He shall strike with his arrows.” (24:8)

King Balak is beside himself at this point: “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them these three times.” (24:10) and tells Balaam to go home. But before he does, Balaam offers one last oracle that predicts the imminent demise not only of Balak’s kingdom, but of of all of Israel’s potential enemies:
“First among the nations was Amalek,
but its end is to perish forever.” (20) 

Balaam, having proniuced the words of God can only shake his head as he concludes, “Alas, who shall live when God does this?” (24:23) And with those final words of impending destruction, “Balaam got up and went back to his place, and Balak also went his way.” (24:25)

What are we to make of the story of Balaam? I think it’s an amazingly creative means for our authors to use an independent outside source like Balaam to validate Israel being led by God to conquer nations. Balaam was not an Israelite, but he clearly followed God and stood firm in his commitment to speak only what God told him to say. In this, he is the first prophet. That Balaam speaks what God says also tells us that God works though others than just the Jews. The groundwork is laid right here for the Good News to be spread among the Gentiles more than a thousand years after Balaam’s four oracles.

Meanwhile down at the Israelite campground: “the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.” (25:2) Worse than that, “These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” (25:2) God is mightily displeased and commands Moses to kill all those “who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” (25:5) Not surprisingly plague commences

There is a particularly ugly scene where Phineas, Aaron’s grandson, seeing an Israelite with a Midianite woman impales the two with a spear. Aaron is impressed by this action which stopped the plague among Israel, but not before 24,000 people die. Aaron blesses Phineas, “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.” (25:13)

What strikes me as odd here is that both the man and the woman are named, apparently because they are from leading families. The Israelite is “Zimri son of Salu” and the Midianite woman is, “Cozbi daughter of Zur, who was the head of a clan, an ancestral house in Midian.” (25:15) God promptly commands Moses to ““Harass the Midianites, and defeat them.” (25:17)

This is one of those places where we have a difficult time believing that God—this same God of love—commands all this bloodshed. To be blunt, I’m inclined to treat these stories as mythical.

Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4: Mark’s shorter ending features a terse Great Commission—”Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” (16:8b)— while the longer ending of the gospel restates it in more familiar terms, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (16:15)  But then in this version, Jesus goes on to add uncomfortable elaboration, beginning with a black and white statement, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. ” (16)

Things get weirder when Jesus elaborates, “these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (17, 18). These two verses have led, IMO, to all kinds of abuses such as snake-handling in churches to test who’s saved and who isn’t, as well as the rite of exorcism in the Catholic Church.  Happily, I’ve not heard of a church that encourages drinking poison, but who’s to say it hasn’t been tried. Of course the victims aren’t around to testify…

Frankly, I think the longer ending is a later add-on by an author or group dissatisfied with Mark’s original ending. I am very wary of drawing substantial theological conclusions from it.

In their ever-mysterious division of the readings, the Moravians carry us right into the beautiful opening introduction to the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps they want us to savor the juxtaposition between the rather disorderly conclusion of Mark’s gospel with the pristine opening verse of Luke’s: “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” (1:1) It appears Luke has been reading (or hearing) some other gospels or eyewitness accounts: “just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (2).

This motivates Luke to pick up his pen, “ I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,” (3) Luke’s purpose in writing is of course beneficial not only to Theophilus, but to all of us: “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (4) And here we have a hint that perhaps these other gospels or stories may be somewhat suspect. (Such as the longer ending of Mark!) I think in this introduction Luke is aware of the various and often fantastic Gnostic gospels that began to be written and circulated around the same time he sat down to write Luke and Acts. Here was a man who wanted to set the record straight…

So, who is Theophilus? It’s a Greek name [“God-lover”] so we know this Gospel is written to a Gentile. We know from an autobiographical note in Acts that Luke is a Gentile, so this is a gospel written for Gentiles by a Gentile. Of course there are those who argue that Theophilus was not an actual person, but a literary construct, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. We are about to to embark on a telling of the Jesus story that in many ways is the most accessible of the gospels because Luke gives us details we don’t read elsewhere.