Psalm 106:32–39; Jeremiah 44; Hebrews 1:1–9

Originally published 9/12/2015. Revised and updated 9/12/2019.

Psalm 106:32–39: If someone were looking for the screenplay version of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, this psalm would serve well. It hits all the highlights and “lowlights” of their wandering years. The psalmist sums up both the people’s complaints and Moses’ anger at Meribah in two powerful verses:
And they caused fury over the waters of Meribah,
and it went badly for Moses because of them,
for they rebelled against him,
and he pronounced rash things with his lips. (33, 34)

In just these few words we see how Moses lost his right to enter Canaan because the goading of the crowd made him so angry that it caused him to say things he would regret the rest of his life. But words once spoken cannot really be undone. This is a powerful warning to all of us, when in times of stress we become angry—and anger too often leads to regretful acts. Social media is another place where, as many are finding out, angry words can lead to bad consequences.

Our psalmist skips right over Israel’s entry into and conquest of Canaan—Joshua is nowhere to be found in this psalm—and leaps forward in time to their Great Mistake in not obeying God’s orders in conquering the land:
They did not destroy the peoples
as the Lord had said to them. (34)

Instead, “they mingled with the nations and learned their deeds.” (35)

The worst consequence of this assimilation was of course adopting the pagan religions of Canaan:
And they worshipped their idols,
which became a snare to them. (36).

From our modern perspective we cannot really comprehend why God would order the destruction of the tribes living in Canaan. But alas, assimilation ultimately becomes downfall for the Jews.

We can be more sympathetic with God’s order to destroy the pagans at the next verses, which describe bluntly and gruesomely the reasons behind God’s rationale:
And they sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons.
And they shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and their daughters
when they sacrificed to Canaan’s idols,

and the land was polluted with blood-guilt.
And they were defiled through their deeds
and went whoring through their actions.  (37-39)

While our society is nowhere near this kind of child sacrifice—although abortion could certainly be seen as not too distant— these verses are a deep challenge to churches that aim to attract members by being “hip” or tuned in to the prevailing culture as like Israel, it assimilates its mores.  At best these churches lose their distinctiveness; at worst they become irrelevant and ultimately a blot on the Gospel. Say what you will about the Catholic Church, it has maintained its distinctive and yes, separateness, from the culture, far better than mainline Protestantism (yes, I’m including Lutherans). The result of following societal mores too closely is, frankly, to fade into the cultural woodwork.

Jeremiah 44:  Speaking of cultural assimilation, the remnant that fled to Egypt is busy disobeying the rule to maintain their distinctiveness as God’s people in a foreign culture as Jeremiah, speaking in God’s voice, warns the Egyptian immigrants, “Why do you provoke me to anger with the works of your hands, making offerings to other gods in the land of Egypt where you have come to settle?” (8) The prophet laments the cultural loss of memory, “Have you forgotten the [consequences of the] crimes of your ancestors, of the kings of Judah, of their wives, your own crimes and those of your wives, which they committed in the land of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” (9) Worse, he continues, “They have shown no contrition or fear to this day, nor have they walked in my law and my statutes that I set before you and before your ancestors.” (10) Jeremiah goes on to tell the crowd that God will “punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence.” (13)

But when the people hear this warning, they respond negatively to Jeremiah’s prophetic words, As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you. Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her,” (16, 17)  They justify their position by asserting that they are being fed only by sacrificing to the Egyptian queen of heaven. They have decided it was not God who provided for them, but their own libations made of in front of this false God that have brought them success. Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgement on their arrogance: “I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good; all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left.” (27)

We are as stubborn and misguided as these people. We are convinced that our success arises from our own actions by making offerings and pouring out libations at the altar of the American culture of wealth and celebrity. When in reality our blessings have come from God, who, like these hapless immigrants, we ignore at our peril.

 Hebrews 1:1–9:  In the New Testament canon, Paul gets most of the credit for forming the theology of Jesus Christ. The epistles of Peter, James and John play minor but important roles. In my view it is the anonymous Jewish author of Hebrews that establishes perhaps the most rigorous foundation of Christ’s preeminence as the Son of God, linking Jesus again and again to God by constant use of the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament).

It is here in the very first verses that our author establishes that God is speaking to mankind in a very new way: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” (1,2). God has abandoned his old way of speaking through prophets like Jeremiah and now speaks through the person of Jesus Christ. What Jesus said, God has said. What Jesus taught, God has taught. And like the opening verses of John’s gospel and the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2, Jesus was present at creation.

The next verse must be one of the key passages for the Council of Nicea when it states in the Creed, “of one being with the Father.” Our author asserts, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (3a). More than the human personification of God, Jesus also “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (3b) So, Jesus replaces the now-obsolete sacrificial system. The author will expand on all these themes in the chapters that follow. 

By citing Scripture our author establishes the fact of Jesus’ superiority to the angels. This is important in building the connection between Jesus and God because up to this point angels were viewed as superior to mere humans. But now, angels are merely “his servants flames of fire.” (7) while “of the Son, [God] says,
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
      therefore God, your God, has anointed you
       with the oil of gladness beyond your companions [the angels].” (9)

And this is just the opening of this often mysterious but powerful book that comes at the theology of Jesus Christ quite differently than Paul and thus broadens the theological foundation on which all Christianity rests.

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