Psalm 83:14–19; Deuteronomy 20:10–21:23; Luke 8:26–39

Originally posted 7/11/2016. Revised and updated 7/11/2018

Psalm 83:14–19: Having described Israel’s enemies in some detail, our poet now turns to God and wishes for their destruction:
O God, make then like the thistledown,
like straw before the wind.
 (14)

This is not the gentle wind of the Holy Spirit, but a metaphor of God as a hurricane-force gale. We cannot interpret these verses as anything other than the poet’s desire for God to wreak utter decimation upon these enemies with wind and fire:
As fire burns down forests
and as flame ignites the mountains,

so shall You pursue them with Your storm
and with Your tempest dismay them
. (15, 16)

But then in interesting twist. The psalmist does not merely wish for their destruction, he wants them to also comprehend that Israel’s God is a God over all humankind, not just Israel. That their punishment will be so immense that they will even turn to God himself in their final hours:
Fill their faces with infamy
that they may seek Your name, O Lord.
 (17)

Notice that here the poet uses Israel’s actual name for God, YHWH, (which is always rendered as “O Lord” in the psalms).

The psalmist wishes that in their very late realization, these enemies come to understand how much disgrace they have brought upon themselves—just moments before they die:
May they be shamed and dismayed forever,
may they be disgraced and may they perish.
 (18).

But also in their final moments, that they come to know God by his name and his consummate power:
And may they know that You, Your name is the Lord.
You alone are most high over all the earth.
 (19)

While we may find the poet’s wish for the destruction of Israel’s enemies to be repugnant, there is the greater theological lesson here: that God is indeed God of all creation, not just Israel. And that he is not just some anonymous force, but God has a name that is above all other names over the entirety of creation.

Deuteronomy 20:10–21:23: The catalog of the law God has given to Israel continues relentlessly. There are rules for warfare, most of them unpleasant: “when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil.” (20:13) But interestingly, when there is a lengthy siege, the Israel army is forbidden from cutting down fruit-bearing trees for the simple reason, that “Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (19) On the other hand, Moses says, feel free to cut down non fruit-bering trees for building siege works. The reason for this prohibition seems clear: fruit-bearing trees are a potent symbol of God’s creative act and we are not to destroy creation. Of course they are also an important source of food! This passage also certainly gives us insight into why Jesus cursed the barren fig tree.

Should a dead body be found but “it is not known who struck the person down” (21:1), there’s a CSI-like investigation of determining which town the body is closest to. Then the elders of that town are required to bring heifer that has never been yoked to the wadi and break its neck(!) There, “the priests, …shall come forward, …. and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled.” (21:5) At that point, “All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi” (21:6) and declare, Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” (21:7,8) And now we know where the saying, “washing our hands of it,” came from…

Our authors then take up the very real issue of soldiers wishing to marry beautiful women who are captured from the enemy with God’s approval [“and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, ” (10)]. After a month in which the woman, whose head has been shaved, is allowed to mourn her parents, the man is free to have sex with her—but as as husband and wife. But then, “if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money.” (14) While this is certainly heartless, it also prevents men from assembling harems of captive women.

The culture of that time, including Israel, allowed men to have multiple wives. A hypothetical is posed: “If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked.” (15) Even though he may not like the wife who bore him a son first, that son still receives the inheritance. Rationality must trump emotion or disorder would reign.

Perhaps the most disturbing law is the one regrading rebellious sons. If parental discipline fails, the son may be brought to the elders and judgement rendered. If he is considered to be an irreformable case, “Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (21a). As our authors observe, this probably only has to be done once: “So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” (21b) We therefore assume that the children of Israel were, on balance, well behaved.

Luke 8:26–39: Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene Demoniac is perhaps the most famous healing in Luke’s gospel because it affected many people, not just the man who was healed. The unnamed man is severely possessed: “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” (27) And when Jesus encounters him it is the demons, not the man who speak. Their collective name is Legion and they begin speaking in the plural At this point the man is simply a helpless vessel of evil. As we have seen earlier, the demons recognize Jesus for who he is, the son of God and they are well aware that Jesus has power over the demonic underworld: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” (28). WHat’s fascinating here is that the demons know who Jesus is before any human being does. It turns out the man is.

Again, there is the fear of Jesus: “They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” (31) Which we will take as hell or its suburbs. “The demons spot the swineherd and “the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these.” (32). In one of the more remarkable events of this Gospel, Jesus does not merely cast out these demons; he gives them permission. Which the demons happily obey. The possessed pigs run off the cliff and drown in the Sea of Galilee.

Luke is making sure we understand the extent of Jesus power. On the way over to Gerasene, he demonstrated his power over nature by calming the storm; now we witness the demonstration of Jesus’ power over the principalities and powers.

Meanwhile the pig herders, who’ve just lost their substantial investment, tell everyone what has happened. The people come out to Jesus and “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (35a). But their reaction was not joy at seeing their neighbor healed. Rather, “they were afraid.” (35b) This is a pretty natural human reaction to a pretty unnatural event.

Like the Gerasenes, we are uncomfortable in the presence of true power—especially power we cannot comprehend rationally. That’s why we prefer to think the age of miracles has passed. In a world that believes only in natural, explainable events, things we cannot explain we prefer to ignore. Shakespeare deals with this in Act 1 of Hamlet. Horatio, who in the play represents rational man, denies the presence of the ghost, but Hamlet replies, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet’s words remain just as true to day and this story in Luke is a stark reminder that not everything is visible to us.

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