Psalm 91:9–16; Joshua 10:1–28; Luke 13:1–17

Originally published 8/2/2016; Revised and updated 8/2/2018

Psalm 91:9–16: Our psalmist continues with his theme of God as protection and shelter:
For you—the Lord is your refuge,
[in] the Most High you have made your abode
. (9)

As Christians, we talk about the love of God, but it is usually in pretty abstract terms. Here, the metaphor of God as a refuge or a house [abode] suggests a much more tangible relationship. After all, without our houses to live in we would be exposed to all sorts of discomforts and dangers.

God is not only refuge, he is protection:
No harm will befall you,
nor affliction draw near to your tent
. (10)

Obviously, life is full of affliction and harm, but I think the poet’s intent here is that only in the arms of God will we find succor.

The question is, do we just talk about the love of God and when bad things happen to us? Why do we forget about God and try to solve the problem on our own? Or, if we are pursued by a disease or an addiction, do we truly seek out God as a refuge rather than a mere philosophical construct?

Our psalmist goes on to describe the role of guardian angels in our lives:
For His messengers He charges for you
to guard you on all your ways.
On their palms they lift you up
lest your foot be bruised by a stone
. (11, 12)

I happen to believe that not all guardian angels are supernatural beings. I’m sure each of us can recall a time when another person came alongside us and protected us from some dire consequence. God’s messengers not only bring protection, they bring the courage to take risks:
On lion and viper you tread,
you trample young lion and serpent
. (13)

But to enjoy this protection there is one big requirement: that we turn toward God, whose voice we now hear:
For Me he desired and I freed him.
I raised him high, for he has known My name. 
(14)

It is when we turn to God and desire to know his name that the reality of God’s presence becomes apparent. Even in the darkest times, there is always God’s promise of response to which we can cling:
He calls Me and I answer him,
I am with him in his straits.
I deliver him and grant him honor.
 (15)

So, with promises such as that why do we so rarely turn toward God and cry out for his rescue when we are in trouble? Or why we fail to recognize the guardian angels in our lives? It all boils down to our pride that causes us to think that by exercising our own feeble control we can do a better job than God or the angels he sends to protect us.

Joshua 10:1–28: The five kings of the Amorites, including King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem, develop a strategy to attack Gibeon, assuming (correctly) that Israel will have to defend them. The Gibeonites hear of this and go to Joshua, pleading “Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites …are gathered against us.” (6) Joshua complies and on his way to battle, God reassures to him, “Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.” (8).

It’s one thing for God to speak encouragingly, but our authors make sure that we understand how God was personally involved in this battle. First, God is given credit for creating panic and confusion among the Amorites. Next, “As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died.” (11). Finally, Joshua shouts toward heaven, Sun, stand still at Gibeon,/and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” (12). God promptly answers, causing the sun to apparently stand still in the sky.

My own take on these events—God-inspired panic, stones from heaven, and the sun standing still—is that God never acts against his own laws of physics. That the “rocks from heaven” was doubtless a natural event, probably a landslide in that rocky land. As for the sun standing still, we have all experienced different perceptions of the passage of time, so that it seems as if time speeds up or slows down. 

[There’s an intriguing reference to Joshua’s prayer for God to make the sun stand still: “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.” (13b) One wonders how many ancient books there were that are now irretrievably lost to us.]

During that long day when the sun seemed to stand still, Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, wipes out the Amorites. Only the five conspiring kings remain as they were captured and held in a cave. Joshua calls for the kings to be brought before him.

He calls his “chiefs of the warriors who had gone with him, “Come near, put your feet on the necks of these kings.”” (24). This symbolic act of victory over vanquished is carried out and Joshua, as an object lesson to his generals, gives all credit to God : “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous; for thus the Lord will do to all the enemies against whom you fight.” (25). Then Joshua himself kills the five kings and has them hung on five trees until sunset.

It’s impossible to read these passage without revulsion. I’m sure that a battle like the one described here doubtless took place. But I have to believe also that the authors—in keeping with the reality that it is victors who write the histories—have retrospectively added all the narrative details about God’s intervention. After all, we all seem to have a natural inclination to believe God’s on our side and that our actions—especially in war—are therefore justified. In any event, this is certainly among the more creative historical accounts brought to us by these authors.

Luke 13:1–17: Jesus is many things, but he is assuredly no romantic. His hard-headed realism comes across in his bluntness. Asked about some executed Galileans, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (2) Answering his own question he assures his listeners that they are just as great sinners as those who were killed. He then refers to another current event—the collapse of the tower of Siloam where 18 perished—telling us that bad things such as natural  and manmade disasters happen. The real issue is the state of our souls. Have we repented before something bad happens to us?

To make his point about the state of our souls, he tells the parable of the fig tree, which has been barren for three years and the owner wishes to cut down, but the gardener begs to tend it one more year to see if it bears fruit. If not, he agrees to cut it down after the fourth year.

At first read this parable seems to be a non-sequitur. But I think the symbolism is clear. The fig tree is Israel, whom God planted but is certainly not bearing fruit in terms of truly repenting for its sins. The gardener is Jesus, who symbolically is busy tilling soil and adding fertilizer. The question is, will Israel repent? Since Luke is doubtless writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, we know the outcome of the story. Even though Jesus came and tended it, the tree of Israel was cut down.

As is Luke’s habit, he turns from hard truths to healing. This time it’s the crippled woman, who has been been bent over for 18 years (another 18 in this passage!). Jesus heals her and is promptly taken to task by the Pharisees who object to healings occurring on the Sabbath. Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, much to the delight of the crowd.

For me, the issue is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that this incident illustrates just how clearly the Pharisees and leaders were focused on the forms of religiosity rather than on the needs of suffering human beings. Of course we are all Pharisees today when we focus on forms of worship or rules such as excluding gay people from church. As I’ve observed many times, human nature is pretty immutable, which is why these passages still resonate so strongly for me.

 

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