Psalm 106:32–39; 1 Samuel 1:1–2:11; Luke 23:44–56

Originally published 9/12/2016. revised and updated 9/12/2018.

Psalm 106:32–39: A major theme of this psalm is the complaining and intransigence of the Israelites that is the root cause of the bad things that happened in the wilderness and in Canaan. Of course he’s right.

Thirsty, the poet tells us, “They caused fury over the waters of Meribah,” (32a). Frustrated beyond all reason, Moses strikes the rock, “and it went badly for Moses because of them.” (32b). ‘Badly,’ of course, is God telling Moses he will not enter the promised land. The poet lets Moses partially off the hook, explaining that it was the fault of the ever-whining mob:
for they rebelled against him,
and he pronounced rash things with his lips.
” (33)

The ‘rash things’ of course being his assertion that he rather than God would cause the water to come forth. This is a great reminder that Moses was just as human as the rest of us. And how often does frustration cause us to say rash things we quickly regret?

When Israel enters Canaan they do not follow God’s explicit instructions to annihilate its inhabitants:
They did not destroy the peoples
as the Lord had said to them.
 (34)

We know too well the logical consequence of this disobedience:
They mingled with the nations and learned their deed.
And they worshipped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
 (35, 36).

Our psalmist describes in detail the heathen practices that the Israelites adopted—gruesome details that I think were glossed over by the authors of Joshua and Judges:
And the sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons.
 (37)

To ensure that we fully comprehend the nature of this evil, our poet clarifies the grotesque rituals:
And they shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and their daughters
when the sacrificed to Canaan’s idols,
and the land was polluted with blood guilt.
 (38)

These are not mere lapses in judgement, rather it is the word we don’t use too much these days: an abomination to God as the poet reminds us:
And they were defiled through their deeds
and went whoring through their actions.
 (39)

We may think that our culture is superior to theirs—and in terms of protecting our living children it is. After all we don’t sacrifice our children to tin idols. But with the reality of abortion as convenience and now increasingly euthanasia, are we really morally superior to ancient Israel?

1 Samuel 1:1–2:11: The eponymous book opens with the story of the birth of Samuel. As has happened so often, the heroine of the story, Hannah, is barren even as her husband, Elkanah, “loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.”  (1:5) Hannah’s sister, Peninnah, lords it over her because she is barren. Elkanah attempts to comfort her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1:8) But Hannah is inconsolable.

Weeping bitterly, Hannah prays, and vows that if she can have a male child she will dedicate him to God’s work as a nazarite. In a detail I’d not noticed before, Hannah is moving her lips but not speaking as she prays. Talking aloud to God was de rigueur in that culture and the priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk. “But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled.” (1:15) and tells Eli she has “been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” (16) Eli reassures her that her prayer will be answered and goes away a happier woman. Hannah’s prayer is also a demonstration that God hears us even when we do not pray according to accepted convention.

In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” (20). When it’s time for the annual pilgrimage to offer sacrifices at Shiloh, she remains behind, telling Elkanah that “I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” (22). Her husband (who already has plenty of children) agrees with her plan since it will bring joy to his wife: “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.” (23) Elkanah’s words are of course prophetic.

Hannah brings Samuel to Eli and with no little joy exclaims, “Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” (28)

Hannah prays a psalm of joy and thanksgiving, which is basically a pre-echo of Mary’s Magnificat in Luke. For example, Hannah prays,
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.” (2:8)

And Mary prays,
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.” (Luke 1:52, 53)

Both women have been blessed by God with a son, and both women are grateful to God for answered prayer. Hannah and Elkanah return home and the reading closes with Samuel, who “remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli.” (2:11)

I think Luke has intentionally used Hannah’s thanksgiving prayer to remind us that Mary’s son Jesus will be used by God in powerful ways just as we will see that Samuel was used powerfully by God in Israel.

Luke 23:44–56: Luke records the dramatic details that surround Jesus’ death: “the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (45) Luke’s Jesus utters his last words, a public announcement about two of the three persons of the Trinity:“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (46)

In a detail recorded only here in Luke, and clearly for the encouragement of his Gentile community, we learn that “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (47) [And is also the basis of Lew Wallace’s famous book, and Richard Burton’s famous first movie, “The Robe”]

The spectacle over, the crowd departs, “but all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (49) Luke does not have to tell us what Jesus’ followers are feeling. This simple line is suffused with utter and total abandonment. Things had turned out so differently than the bright promise of just five days earlier. The must have been wondering how things could have gone so desperately wrong. And we wonder as they stood in silence if they recalled any of Jesus’ numerous warnings that something like this would happen.

Joseph of Arimathea, “a good and righteous man” (50) was a member of the council but “had not agreed to their plan and action.” (51a) What we rarely hear about this Joseph is that “he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” (51b) Was he still waiting expectantly now that Jesus was dead? His actions in asking Pilate for the body and laying “it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (53) suggest that he had resigned himself to the reality that the kingdom of God was a chimera, but that Jesus and his ministry at least deserved a dignified ending. Would that Luke had told us Joseph’s thought when he heard about the resurrection.

Luke provides the important detail that “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid.” (55) Had they not observed this, the crucial events of the Resurrection may have turned out quite differently since the location of the tomb would have remained unknown. As we well know, it is the women returning to the tomb to anoint the body who become the crucial first witnesses to the miracle of Resurrection.

 

Psalm 106:24–31; Ruth 4; Luke 23:32–43

Originally published 9/10/2016. revised and updated 9/11/2018.

Psalm 106:24–31: When we read this poem that condenses the 40-year wilderness trek into a few verses, the sense of just how far from God Israel had drifted becomes dramatically clear. Our poet tells us,
And they despised the land of desires,
they did not trust His word
. (24)

This is doubtless a reference to the report of the ten spies sent into Canaan and the eight who told Moses the land was occupied by fierce tribes and recommended against attacking them. Rather than enter into Canaan trusting God would aid them,
they muttered in their tents,
they did not heed the voice of the Lord.
 (25)

For this disobedience they were condemned to wander 40 years as God,
raised His hand against them,
to make them fall in the wilderness.
 (26).

We encounter a further catalog of sins that are all described in Numbers:
And they clung to Baal Peor
and ate sacrifices to the dead.
 (28)

This apostasy against God led to the punishment of the skin diseases that arrived in the camp:
And they provoked Him through their acts,
and the scourge broke out among them,
“(29)

Today, of course, we would write that off as mere coincidence, but for Israel there is always a quid pro quo for disobedience. The peope are healed only because  of one man’s courage to pray:
Phineas stood and prayed,
and the scourge was held back
. (30)

While the psalmist refers to Phineas’ prayers, it skips over the part where he killed the idol worshippers. In fact, Phineas and his descendants come out quite well in the psalmist’s rendition:
and it was counted for him as merit,
generation to generation forever.
 (31)

Does the godly of one man carry over from generation to generation? My own view is that each generation and each person in that generation is fully responsible for his or her own relationship with God.

Ruth 4: Boaz sits down with his unnamed next-of-kin. He also arranges for “ten men of the elders of the city” (2) to sit as witnesses to what he is about to say. He tells his next-of-kin, that he has first right of refusal to acquire Naomi’s late husband’s land. Boaz tells him, “If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” (4).

One of the relatives announces, “I will redeem it.” (5) Cleverly, Boaz goes on to mention almost as an aside that the acquisition of the land includes acquiring Ruth the Moabite who is clearly damaged goods. This seems to scotch the deal when the relative says, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” (6) What goes unmentioned but is clearly understood here is that he probably believes that having a Moabite in the family is far beyond the socially acceptable pale.

Following the custom of Israel, the next-of-kin removes his sandal, hands it to Boaz and the transfer of rights to Boaz is affirmed in front of the ten witnesses. Doubtless much to the surprise of the men there, Boaz announces, “I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (10a). While he justifies his intention as acting in “the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place,” (10b) I think there’s little question that Boaz is also deeply in love with Ruth.

The townspeople and the elders bestow a wonderful benediction on Boaz that rings down through the centuries: “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem.” (12) Needless to say, that blessing comes true some fourteen generations later in the form of a baby born in Bethlehem to a certain Mary and Joseph.

Boaz and Ruth “come together” and in a pre-echo of a descendant’s birth fourteen generations down the line, “the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son.” (13) And of course that blessing has come true not only for Israel’s greatest warrior-king, David, but more importantly, for Jesus. Moreover, since Ruth was a Gentile, we know that Jesus’ blood by birth is both for Israel and for all the world.

And in perhaps the happiest ending of any book in the Bible, “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (16,17)

Naomi, who believed God had abandoned her, discovers that through the unstinting loyalty of a Gentile daughter-in-law, God has been there all the time. A valuable lesson for us as well.

Luke 23:32–43: We turn from the joy of Ruth and Boaz to the grimmest part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus hangs on the cross surrounded “with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” (33) The religious leaders believe they have been the victors as they “scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (35) Not only the Jews ridicule Jesus, but Luke gives the Gentiles equal time as “the soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (36, 37)

For me, the two criminals—one mocking and rejecting Jesus and the other stating “this man has done nothing wrong” (41)—are Luke’s symbolic stand-ins for the entire world. In the end, it comes down to a two-alternative forced choice: accept Jesus for who he says he is or reject him outright. Place Jesus first in one’s life or place ourselves front and center. There is no serious middle ground. As much as we Christians would like to accept Jesus but still remain in personal control of our lives, that alternative is unavailable. As Oswald Chambers says over and over, we must wholly abandon ourselves to Jesus Christ—or not.

 

Psalm 106:13–23; Ruth 2,3; Luke 23:13–31

Originally published 9/9/2016. revised and updated 9/10/2018.

Psalm 106:13–23: As it inevitably does, Israel, which sang God’s praises after crossing the sea, falls away from God as they trek through the wilderness:
Quickly they forgot His deeds,
they did not await His counsel
. (13)

Not awaiting God’s counsel appears to be a direct reference to when Moses struck the rock at Meribah. The catalog of disobedience continues. Recalling the complaints about too much manna, the Israelites,
felt a sharp craving in the wilderness,
they put God to the test in the waste land.
 (14)

God ferociously answers their prayers with the infamous quail”
He gave them what they had asked,
sent food down their throats
. (15)

For us, this is certainly a sharp reminder that when we go to God with prayer requests we need to be thoughtful about what we’re asking for and to think about the consequences should God answer our prayers.

Then the psalmist describes the infamous attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron as their leaders:
They were jealous of Moses in the camp,
of Aaron, the Lord’s holy one.
 (16)

The consequences of this disobedience were dire:
The earth opened and swallowed Dothan/
and covered Abriam’s band.
And fire burned through their band,
flame consumed the wicked.
” (18).

The catalog of disobedience comes to its climax at the foot of Sinai:
They made a calf at Horeb
and bowed to a molten image.
 (19)

In an arresting statement that compares idol worship to the fulfilling beauty of worshipping the living God, our poet beautifully summarizes the futility of worshipping a dead idol:
And they exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull.
 (20)

But perhaps the greatest sin of all is the same one Israel continued to commit through its history, and which is also our own central sin: Forgetting God and in our pride, putting ourselves above him:
They forgot the God their rescuer,
Who did great things in Egypt,
wonders in the land of Ham,
awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds. (21,22)

Our poet reminds us that only one man stood between hapless Israel and its destruction:
And He would have wiped them out
were it not for Moses His chosen one—
he stood in the breach before Him
to turn back His wrath from destruction.
 (23)

Of course for us, it is Jesus Christ who stands between God and our sins. He is the one who has spared us not only from God’s demand for justice, but saved us from ourselves.

Ruth 2,3: The beautiful story of Ruth continues. Desperately poor, Ruth supports Naomi and herself by gleaning leftovers in the field after the men have come through with their scythes. Boaz notices her and tells his workers to leave behind more grain for Ruth to pick up. He then invites her to lunch and then instructs his workers to poll out barley stalks they have picked, toss them on the ground and allow Ruth to collect them.

Ruth comes home to her mother with plenty of barley and tells her about Boaz. Naomi tells Ruth that Boaz is a kinsman. His act of kindness seems to erase Naomi’s bitterness toward God as she exclaims, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (2:20) Naomi instructs Ruth to remain close  to the women working Boaz’ fields, telling her, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” (2:22) Ruth obeys, and “stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.” (2:23)

Naomi obviously has plans for Ruth and tells her to go and lie down next to Boaz as he is relaxing after lunch. Then, in what I take to be a custom of the time (and which seems very forward even in our age of sexual freedom), Naomi tells Ruth, “When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” (3:4)

Boaz, sated with food and drink, lies down on the threshing floor, “in a contented mood.” (3:7) Ruth complies with Naomi’s instructions, and in one of the simultaneously romantic and funny verses in the Bible, “At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!” (3:8) Ruth introduces herself and Boaz commends her for her probity, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” (3:10)

Boaz invites her to remain until morning and offers to introduce her to a next-of-kin with the intent (I presume) of becoming her guardian, if not her husband. Boaz, who it appears is falling in love with Ruth, tells her, “If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you.” (3:13)

Boaz sends Ruth back home with six measures of barley in her cloak. Naomi advises Ruth to not rush things with Boaz, but to “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.” (3:18)

This serene love story is a testament to the virtues of loyalty and patience. And once again, it is women who are the key players in this story—leaving me once again to ponder again the attitude toward women in the evangelical world. Were it not for Ruth’s loyalty and willingness to serve, the history of Israel would have turned out quite differently.

The other equally imortant message here is that even those who feel they are inconsequential actually can have enormous impact on the community and even entire nations.

Luke 23:13–31: The Moravians do not linger over the cruelty of Jesus’ trial and his crucifixion as this passage moves rapidly from Pilate to Golgotha.

Pilate’s frustration at the Jews for bringing Jesus back to him is obvious and he again asserts Jesus’ innocence: “I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him.” (14) He observes that Herod did not bring an indictment as well, but as a sop to the crowd, he offers to “have him flogged and release him.” (15)

But the crowd will have none of it, and its mob hysteria grows as they shout, “Crucify, crucify him!” (21) Again, Pilate asserts Jesus’ innocence, but in one of the saddest verses in this gospel, “they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.” (23) Their voices prevailed and the mob wins. Just as they have down through history and do even today in our so-called “social media.”

Pilate thus goes down in history as the weak leader who wanted to prevent a riot and gave into the mob. Luke’s treatment of the Jews is even harsher as he makes it clear that it was the mob that triggered the crucifixion.

On the Via Dolorosa, Luke’s Jesus pronounces his final prophecy about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants: Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’” (28)

Writing from his knowledge of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Luke knows that all of Jesus’ words were fulfilled—and then some. The juxtaposition of this prophecy and the crucifixion seems to be the Luke’s way of implying that the destruction of Jerusalem was a direct consequence of the evil committed by the Jews in rejecting their Messiah. As far as Luke was concerned that would have been sufficient vengeance enough. But alas, what evil has been committed against the Jews by Christians ever since in putative vengeance for the betrayal of a single mob on a single day in history. One can only imagine Jesus’ despair at the tide of history.

Psalm 106:6–12; Ruth 1; Luke 23:1–12

Originally published 9/8/2016. revised and updated 9/8/2018.

Psalm 106:6–12: Confession of the sins of the psalmist’s entire generation follows the invocation of the first five verses:
We offended like our fathers, we wronged,
we did evil.
” (6)

These three words, ‘we did evil’ are powerful for their brevity. We can dress up our sins in pretty language and complex rationalization, but in the end every one of our sinful acts are rooted in this simple three-word phrase.

Recalling “our fathers,” the poet takes us back to the Exodus and the sins of the Israelite fathers, particularly the events of chapters 14 and 15 of the eponymous book:
Our fathers in Egypt
did not grasp Your wonders.
They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses
and rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds.
 (7)

Our poet doubtless has the famous complaint of the Israelites in mind when they said, “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11)

Despite their grumbling—and ours—God is merciful:
Yet He rescued them for His name’s sake,
to make known His might.
” (8)

I really like the concept of God’s mercy being a direct demonstration of God’s power. Hly have anihilated Israel and he could easihilate us. But instead, out of God’s might comes mercy.

The poet’s description of the crossing of the sea and the strong verb, “blasted,” reminds us of the power of God’s rescue:
He blasted the Sea of reeds, and dried it up,
and He led them through the deep as through wilderness
. (9)

The idea of the crossing of the sea being the first wilderness of many yet to come provides a fresh view of what that crossing must have felt like. A dry sea bottom is certainly a form of wilderness.

God is the rescuer: for the ancient Israelites, for the poet’s generation—and for us. There is no more dramatic and tangible description of God’s rescue than the Exodus story:
And He rescued them from the land of the hostile
and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy
. (10).

The Israelite foes were literally covered over, just as God covers our own sins, and as so many psalms plead, covers our enemies:
And the waters covered their foes,
not one of them remained.
” (11)

The response to rescue is worship:
And they trusted His words,
they sang His praise. (12)

This verse is certainly a reference to the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15.

Ruth 1: If the metaphor for Joshua and Judges is riding the swirling rapids of an angry river of grotesquery and evil, the book of Ruth is like arriving a calm pool of pellucid water. I think the editors of the Hebrew Bible placed Ruth here not only for historical chronology, but to provide us a break from the unrelenting drama and the grotesque evil that is the conclusion of Judges.

The story is simple. Elimelech of Bethlehem, who is married to Naomi, “went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.” (1) His two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving three widows: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth.

Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem but tells her daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, …[and] grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” (9). Naomi realizes that if they return to Judah, there is no way that a Hebrew man would marry a Moabite woman.

Naomi realizes that by returning to Judah she will live the destitute life of a widow but wants something better for the two younger women, believing their only hope is to marry again to Moabite men: “Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.” (12) Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and decides to return to Moab: “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.” (14)

Ruth is resolute in remaining with Naomi and in one of the most beautiful songs in the Bible, sings,
Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.” (16)

Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem only to be met by its incredulous inhabitants: “the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”” (19) Then Naomi sings, but her song is one of bitterness toward God:
  “I went away full,
    but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
    when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
 and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (21)

There is such beauty intertwined with pathos in this chapter that so wonderfully describes the human condition: loss and return; bitter tears and sublime singing; but above all, the possibility of a new life. Naomi’s and Ruth’s new life of course is a metaphor for the new life that we find in Jesus Christ.

Luke 23:1–12: Jesus is brought before Pilate and the Jews make the indictment as harsh as possible, and through exaggeration and lies they accuse Jesus of treachery and sedition: “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (2) Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews and Jesus replies with the same non-answer as he did in front of the temple officials: “You say so.” (3) Pilate promptly announces, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” (4). Desperate to get Jesus out of their hair once and for all, the leaders double down the indictment accusing Jesus of stirring up “the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” (5)

Pilate asks if Jesus is a Galilean, and uses this jurisdictional excuse to palm the Jesus problem off on Herod, who is in charge of Galileans. Herod’s quite excited to have Jesus come before him as “he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign.” (8) Herod is the apt symbol of a world that sees Jesus as some kind of phony magician, not as the Son of God.

Jesus stands mute before Herod while the scribes and priests “stood by, vehemently accusing him.” (10) Herod and his troops join in the mockery and clothe Jesus in “an elegant robe.” But having no basis of indictment because of Jesus’ refusal to answer, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate.

At this juncture I have to believe that the scribes and priests were becoming desperate since they doubtless had believed Pilate and Herod would cooperate readily in their plan. Luke also reveals his attitude toward the Jews, whom he describes in harsher terms as being vehement and mocking Jesus. Pilate, at this point anyway, is simply being an impartial actor. But the Jewish accusers are resolute and about to create a serious problem for Pilate.

As is frequently his wont, Luke inserts a little sidebar into the main events of the story: “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (12) Luke’s clear implication is that both Pilate and Herod bear responsibility for what is about to occur. But the author’s irony is not lost here that Jesus would be the catalyst of a friendship blossoming between the two men who were enablers of the most infamous event in history.

Psalm 106:1–5; Judges 20:32–21:25; Luke 22:63–71

Originally published 9/7/2016. revised and updated 9/7/2018.

Psalm 106:1–5: The introduction—or invocation—to this lengthy historical psalm opens with a call to worship:
Hallelujah!
Acclaim the Lord, for He is good,
for His kindness is forever.
 (1)

Even though we may concentrate our entire being on the act of worship, there is no way that as human creatures we can fully express all that God is and all he does for us:
Who can utter the Lord’s mighty acts,
can make heard all His praise
. (2)

Unlike many worship songs we hear today, these verses are exclusively about God and his all-surpassing greatness; there are no phrases about how this makes us feel better—reminding us that worship is always directed upward, not to ourselves.

The psalmist asserts that our happiness arises from our right actions in community:
Happy those who keep justice,
who do righteousness at all times.
 (3)

Of course this is ultimately an impossible mission and it is only through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us that we find true joy.

Our psalmist goes on to hint that God’s people—and himself—are in a dark, even perilous  situation, suggesting that this psalm was written while Israel was in exile:
Recall me, O Lord, when You favor Your people,
mark me for Your rescue.
 (4)

It appears that unlike the previous psalm, this one deals with Israel’s manifold sins as he writes pleadingly that God will once again take pleasure in the people whom he has chosen and with whom he has a covenant:
to see the good of Your chosen ones,
to rejoice in the joy of Your nation,
to revel with Your estate.
” (5)

One senses that a confession is coming…

Judges 20:32–21:25: Having experienced two days of victory, on the third day the “Benjaminites thought their victory was inevitable, “They are being routed before us, as previously.” (20:32) Ten thousand armed Israelites approach Gibeah but in their pride, “the Benjaminites did not realize that disaster was close upon them.” (34) More skirmishes result in the attack on Gibeah itself and the Israelites “in ambush” set fire to the city.

Realizing they have been defeated, the Benjamites flee toward the wilderness but are overtaken, resulting in the death of 18,000 Benjamite warriors, “all of them courageous fighters.” (44) Another 5,000 “were cut down on the main roads” (45) and then another 2,000 Benjamite warriors are slain. A mere 600 Benjamites escape and hide for months in the rock of Rimmon. But Gibeah and its inhabitants are destroyed. Justice of a sort finally comes to the Levite.

Prior to commencing this civil war, “the Israelites had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” (21:1) But they come to regret this vow and after offering a sacrifice of well-being, “the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day.” (21:6) Because of this vow, they realize the tribe of Benjamin will die out and they decide, “There must be heirs for the survivors of Benjamin, in order that a tribe may not be blotted out from Israel.” (20:17) It’s late in the game, but at least they come to their senses.

In a bizarre turn, they realize that one portion of a tribe, Jabesh-gilead, did not come to fight the Benjamites. Another vow had been taken earlier that any tribe that did not show up for the war against Benjamin would be put to the sword with the exception of its virgin women. So, a portion of the Israel’s army then puts Jabesh-gilead to the sword, killing everyone, and brings 400 virgins back to camp. They attempt to hand over the virgins to the 600 remaining Benjamite warriors, who in their wounded pride refuse the offer.

So, Israel comes up with an alternative plan that certainly seems egregious. They instruct the 600 Benjaminites to lie in wait outside a festival in Shiloh and to kidnap the dancing girls, which they proceed to do. A lame excuse has concocted by Israel: “Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.’” (22)

The story ends here as everyone returns home. Why is this story here and told in such detail? I think it’s to remind Israel of its past sins and the consequences of ignoring God, or worse, using God as an excuse for evil actions. The last verse in the reading says it all, IMO: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (21:25)

Doing what is right in our own eyes—just as society does today—leads to dire consequences as evil stacks up upon evil. Yes, what happened to the Levite in Gibeah was evil, but Israel’s response to commit genocide before realizing its implications is also evil. And the “solution” of kidnapping virgins from Shiloh to ensure the tribe of Benjamin doesn’t die out is certainly is not what would have happened had all the tribes, including Benjamin, been following God rather than the evil of their own hearts. There’s a serious lesson for us here.

Luke 22:63–71: Now in captivity, Jesus is subjected to mocking and humiliation for the remainder of the night as “the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?”” (63, 64)

Early Friday morning, Jesus is brought before the temple authorities who demand, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” (67) Jesus replies that if he told them they wouldn’t believe him anyway, but then goes on to assert, “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” (69) The authorities ask, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (69). Jesus turns their words back on them in his famous reply, “You say that I am.” (70) Thus, he has sealed his fate, as his interrogators exclaim,“What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!” (71).

Of course, as Luke makes clear, Jesus didn’t actually say “I am the Son of Man” at all. He simply made the theological point that the Son of Man would sit on the throne next to God, which is exactly what the Hebrew scriptures taught. Luke makes it crystal clear that Jesus’ interrogators had already concluded he was claiming to be the Son of Man by the mere action of bringing him up on the charge of blasphemy. In short, this was no interrogation to find the actual truth; it was the preordained conclusion of a kangaroo court.

Even today we see preordained conclusions all around us about what Jesus says or means—mostly from Christians. We’d much rather make our own judgmental conclusions about Jesus rather than actually listen to what he actually says.

Psalm 105:37–45; Judges 20:1–31; Luke 22:52–62

Originally published 9/6/2016. revised and updated 9/6/2018.

Psalm 105:37–45: Our psalmist points out that the Israelites successfully departed Egypt with substantial riches:
And He brought them out with silver and gold,
and none of His tribes did falter.
 (37)

Interestingly, rather than focus on Egypt’s second thoughts and subsequent pursuit of the Israelites and the incident of crossing the sea, the emphasis here is on the relief of the Egyptians felt at Israel’s departure and the end of the plagues—which is a point of view we don’t really hear in Exodus:
Egypt rejoiced when they went out,
for their fear had fallen upon them
. (38)

The scene shifts to the wilderness and events that occurred there. First, there is God’s protection and guidance via the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night:
He spread a cloud as a curtain
and a fire to light up the night.
 (39).

Manna is mentioned, along with the quail incident, as the poet makes sure to note that the people asked for the quail:
They asked, and He brought the quail,
and with bread from the heavens he sated them
. (40)

God also gave them more than ample water:
He opened the rock and water flowed.
It went forth in parched land as a stream.
(41).

God did all these deeds for Israel because, as the poet reminds his listeners, he kept his side of the Covenant:
For He recalled His holy word
with Abraham His servant
.” (42)

Our poet leaps from the departure from Egypt—And He brought His people out in joy (43)—right over the 40-year wandering in the desert—to the arrival, the victories and the spoils in Canaan, and the allocation of land:
And He gave them the lands of nations,
they took hold of the wealth of peoples.
” (44)

But as always, there is Israel’s covenantal obligation of obedience in return:
so that they should keep His statutes,
and his teachings the should observe.
 (45)

Above all else, all the sustenance and the victories, it is God’s relentless faithfulness that is the root cause for rejoicing—expressed as the single excalmation concludes the psalm: “Hallelujah!

The overall thrust of the psalm is for Israel to reflect on all that God has so wondrously done for them and the only obligation in return is obedience to the laws that God has set out. Which as we know too well was mostly observed in the breech. So too for us. While we may not identify with the historical events of Exodus, this psalm is a call for us to reflect on own exodus from our own Egypt: Jesus Christ has rescued us from ourselves. And as the psalmist concludes, that is a cause for Hallelujah!

Judges 20:1–31: Despite its gruesomeness, the Levite’s act of sending 1/12th of his concubine’s body to each of the other tribes of Israel has the effect he intended—and then some: “The chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot-soldiers bearing arms.” (2) The first thing everyone wants are the details, which the Levite provides them: “The lords of Gibeah rose up against me, and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, and they raped my concubine until she died.” (5)

The Levite asks the leaders what they want to do and vengeance is on their minds. They “are going to repay Gibeah of Benjamin for all the disgrace that they have done in Israel.” (10) The first act is to send messengers “through all the tribe of Benjamin,” (12) asking that the Benjamites “hand over those scoundrels in Gibeah, so that we may put them to death, and purge the evil from Israel.” (13) But the Benjamites refuse, and put together an army of 26,000 in addition to the population of Gibeah. The authors add a side note: “Of all this force, there were seven hundred picked men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss.” (16)

The authors, obviously from Judah, make sure we know that the Israelites “inquired of God, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?” God replies, “Judah shall go up first.” (18)

The battle does not go well; the Benjaminites appear to have the upper hand in this civil war: 22,000 men of Judah are killed on the first day of battle. Discouraged, they pray and “the Lord said, “Go up against them.” (21) 18,000 Israelites died the second day. They return to camp where the Ark is and pray again. This time, God tells them,“Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” (28) Things seem to go much better. The Benjaminites are drawn away from Gibeah by a feint and Israel begins to inflict casualties.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s reading to learn the exciting outcome of this unfortunate battle.

What we learn here is that civil wars are as inevitable as those fought against an external enemy. While certainly not as horrific, there’s no question that we in the church continue to fight our own civil wars. And given the political polarization around us, the roots of civil conflict seem to be barely out of view.

Luke 22:52–62: As he is being arrested, Jesus asks the temple police why they have insulted him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” (52) Reminding them of their cowardice earlier in the week, Jesus points out, “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me.” (53a) Perhaps more significantly, Luke’s Jesus essentially says they are agents of Satan’s power: “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!” (53b) Again, we have a clue that Luke sees the trial and crucifixion as being much more than the work of disgruntled temple officials who feel threatened. There is a deeper, darker spiritual battle at work here.

One of the saddests passages in the gospels is Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus. At Peter’s third denial, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” (60) the cock crows. Then, in a mere seven words Luke limns one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in his gospel: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (60) At that moment Peter realizes what had happened. But this is much more than his memory. Jesus has looked at him and he realizes not only the enormity of his failure but the ultimate emptiness of his promises.

Peter’s denial is so powerful for us because in our hearts each of us knows that we would do exactly the same thing as he. How many empty promises have I made to Jesus only to fail to keep them? Jesus doesn’t have to say anything; he only has to look in my direction and the magnitude of my failure is amplified a thousandfold. Just as it was for Peter who “went out and wept bitterly.” (62)

Psalm 105:23–36; Judges 19; Luke 22:39–51

Originally published 9/5/2016. revised and updated 9/5/2018.

Psalm 105:23–36: Our psalmist recalls Israel’s time in Egypt:
And Israel came to Egypt,
Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham.
 (23)

[‘Jacob’ of course is the poet’s device to not repeat ‘Israel’ in the next line, since his listeners would understand that all Israel descended from that patriarch.] The ‘land of Ham’ is Egypt, where it was believed Noah’s son migrated following the flood. Israel’s fecundity soon outpaces Egypt’s:
And He [God] made his people very fruitful,
made the more numerous than their foes
. (24)

This population growth creates a deadly transformation among the Egyptians as they feel outnumbered and threatened:
He changed their heart to hate His people,
to lay plots against His servants.
 (25)

Here’s another proof that humanity has changed not a whit in 4000 years. Like the Egyptians, many Americans feel threatened by immigrants, especially those coming from the south. Some even complain that they come here and ‘multiply like rabbits.’ The other interesting aspect of this verse is that for the poet, it is ‘He,’ i.e., God who changes the hearts of the Egyptians from tolerance to intolerance. I’m no sure about that theologically; it seems to me that the human heart has plenty of its own capacity to become intolerant.

Moses and Aaron arrive on the scene, “whom He [God] had chosen.” (26) The plagues come, and it is through Moses and Aaron that God initiates them:
They set among them the words of His signs,
His portents in the land of Ham.
 (27)

Notice here that the poet describes the plagues as “words of His signs.” The plagues are not just random events, but are direct communication—words—from God. The psalmist goes on to list each plague: darkness, the bloody Nile, the frogs, lice, hail, locusts. These are not listed in the same order as they are in Exodus and the psalmist omits the plague of dead cattle and skin disease. Nevertheless, he makes his point quite clearly. The the final plague is the worst:
He struck down each firstborn in their land,
the first yield of their manhood.
 (36)

The phrase ‘first yield of their manhood’ is evocative of the idea of men planting seeds and reaping the harvest of “their manhood.” Women are nowhere to be seen and receive no credit for the birth of Egypt’s firstborn males.

Judges 19: For me, this is one of the darkest most disturbing chapters of Israel’s history. It includes oppression of women, homosexual sex, rape, murder, and a gruesome ending. The story opens with Levite (the same one we’ve encountered in the previous chapters perhaps?) who has a concubine. The “concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah.” (2). Our narrators describe him as her husband, who loves his concubine deeply. After four months heads to Bethlehem and “to speak tenderly to her and bring her back.” (3). The woman’s father is overjoyed to see the Levite and provides seemingly endless hospitality to him. But when the Levite attempts to leave with the woman, her father inveigles him to stay.

After a few more days, the Levite, the woman, and his servant depart. They come to Jerusalem and servants recommends they spend the night. But the Levite refuses, rather testily telling the servant, “We will not turn aside into a city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel.” (12) Rather than mingle with aliens, he’d rather go to Gilbeah, where the Benjaminites live.

They arrive in the city square, where the custom was for travelers to wait, hoping someone would show hospitality and invite them in for the night. Giving us a clue of the attitudes at Gibeah, no one invites them in until an old man comes in from the fields. In a hint that he knows something evil is afoot, the old man advises them, “do not spend the night in the square” (21) and brings them into his home.

Suddenly in a scene that seems to be ripped out of the pages of Genesis where Lot is staying in Sodom, “the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door.” (22a) They demand that the host send the Levite out into the street “so that we may have intercourse with him.” (22b) The host refuses but instead sends out his virgin daughter as well as the Levite’s concubine, whereuopn the men in the streetrape both and leave the concubine for dead at the doorstep.

The Levite finds “his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold” and commands her to get up. But she is either unconscious or dead, (the authors don’t tell us) so he loads the woman on the donkey and goes home. By the time she gets home, she is clearly dead. The Levite hacks her body into 12 pieces and arranges to have each piece sent as a gruesome message to the leaders of the other twelve tribes: “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.’” (30)

The irony of this ugly story is that the man probably would have been better off staying in Jerusalem full of foreigners than at Gibeah, where unspeakable evil abounded among the Israelites themselves. I suspect consequences of this heinous act of rape and murder will shortly ensue.

The even more disturbing thing to me is that women were seen as having no value other than as sexual objects. While some may interpret this story as an example the evils of homosexuality, for me, there is the far greater sin of treating women as mere property of little value. Even when the Levite sees his concubine lying at the doorstep he roughly tells her to “Get up.” We do not see a scintilla of love or concern for the woman whom the Levite apparently loved—but not enough to have told the host not to send her out into the street or to treat her tenderly.

While I know we should not judge the past based on the values of today’s there is something viscerally disturbing about the host sacrificing his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to rape and probably what he knew would be their death. This is a deep perversion of God’s created order—and anathema to civilized society.

Luke 22:39–51: Following the meal, Jesus and the disciples head out of the city to the Mount of Olives where Jesus tells them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (40)—a clear hint that the end he has been predicting for himself will come sooner rather than later.

Luke does not tell us that they were at Gethsemane, only that Jesus “withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed.” (41) Luke’s transcript of the prayer is brief: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (42) And he provides the detail not found in the other synoptics that “an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength” (43) and that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (44) This last detail says only that the sweat became like “drops of blood,” not the popular image that Jesus was literally sweating blood.

When Jesus is finished praying, he comes upon the disciples “and found them sleeping because of grief.” (45) This interesting detail suggests that the disciples had finally figured out that the party was over and there was a very real chance of losing their leader—or perhaps, less charitably, it was because they finally realized their dreams of power and glory were a mere chimera and they themselves might be in real danger. I think Jesus finally got through to them that he was not there to foment a political revolution but that instead his earthly ministry and activity was about to come to an abrupt end. Luke emphasizes this latter point when Jesus repeats the same thing he said earlier, “Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (46)

Judas and the temple police appear. Unlike other accounts, Judas does not kiss Jesus but Jesus calls him out first, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (48). Luke’s irony is on full display here. He then tells us that “those who were around him saw what was coming.” Finally! They understand what Jesus has been telling them as their denial is stripped away.

An unidentified disciple reaches for a sword and cuts off a slave’s ear. Making it clear that what is about to happen is not going to be a conventional rebellion, Jesus says, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.” (51) This is Jesus’ last public act of healing. In the end it is Luke’s clear message that it is Jesus’ compassion, not weaponry, that will be the engine of the revolution about to come.

Psalm 105:16–22; Judges 18; Luke 22:24–38

Originally published 9/3/2016. revised and updated 9/4/2018.

Psalm 105:16–22: Commencing his Israel history tour, our psalmist relates the story of Joseph starting with the God-created famine that sent Joseph’s brothers down to Egypt:
And He called forth famine over the land,
every staff of bread he broke.
 (16).

Then, the poet leaps back in time, only implying the evil act of his brothers as he focuses solely on Joseph:
He sent a man before them—
as a slave was Joseph sold.
 (17)

The psalmist leaves out the details of the story that landed Joseph in prison, instead focusing on his suffering:
They tortured his legs with shackles,
his neck was put in iron.
 (18)

Poetic necessity leaves out the details of how Joseph was freed, making it clear that Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and his ultimate freedom was strictly God working through Joseph :
until the time of his [Joseph’s] word had come,
the Lord’s utterance that purged him
. (19)

Ultimately, Joseph is freed by Pharaoh, who
made him master of his house
and ruler of all his possessions
. (21)

Joseph was so exalted that he Pharaoh set him over all others in the kingdom and power,
to admonish his princes as he desired
and to teach wisdom to his elders.
 (22)

As the psalmist tells it, the Joseph story is a foreshadowing of the Exodus story: from slavery to honor. Which is exactly what is to come to pass in the future. Of course, the ascent from slavery to honor, from imminent death to new life, is our story as well: we are freed from being imprisoned by our own will through the power of Jesus Christ.

Judges 18: As the authors keep reminding us, “In those days there was no king in Israel.” (1). Apparently in the complicated allotments of tribal territory, no land had been given to the tribe of Dan. However, it appears by context that the Philistines had pretty much taken over the territory originally given to Dan. So the danite leaders send “five valiant men…to spy out the land and to explore it.” (2) The unstated objective of course is to scout out new territory for the tribe.

Via a coincidence that we usually see only in the movies, the five men come to the house of Micah where “they recognized the voice of the young Levite,” and ask “What is your business here?” (3) The unnamed Levite replies that he’s employed by Micah as his priest. Apparently the Levite is still loyal to God rather  than the household idol made of silver since the visitors ask him to “Inquire of God that we may know whether the mission we are undertaking will succeed.” (6). The Levite assures them that God is watching over them and they proceed on their way.

So, is the elaborate Micah and the Levite story of the previous chapter merely a setup for this brief encounter? Or are the authors telling us that the Levite remained loyal to God even though the priest was hired into the household where other gods were worshipped? Assuming that the book of Judges was written during the Babylonian captivity, the larger meaning could be that even though they are in a pagan land, they can still remain loyal to—and obey—God.

The five men arrive at Laish where they observe people living “quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing on earth, and possessing wealth.” (7) Unlike Moses’ spies where all but two of whom who returned fearful of the Canaanites, these spies return to the Danite leaders and recommend that they “enter in and possess the land.” (9) So, 600 men set out and, yes, again arrive at the house of Micah.

The five spies enter the house and “took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim.” (18) They then talk the priest into coming with them by pointing out, “Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?” (19)

Micah realizes what’s happened, and overtakes the Danites, who ask him what his problem is(!) Micah replies why they’re taking his idols and his priest, but the danites warn him, “You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.” (25) Micah, knowing he is outnumbered, relents and returns home, now idoless and priestless.

The Danites go on to conquer the hapless folks at Laish, “to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city.” (27) who had “no deliverer, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with Aram.” (28) But rather than worshipping God who apparently allowed them to conquer these unsuspecting people, “the Danites set up the idol for themselves, [and employ] Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity.” (30) So, apparently the Levite was Moses’ grandson.

So, why are the authors relating this detailed story of a tribe that ends up killing a gentle folk and worshipping an idol? Is it a moral lesson? The Danites have been completely successful because of God, but they are also heretical. In some ways, the Danites are all of us: God provides a way to success but we take all the credit ourselves. Regardless of the story’s moral, it is nonetheless disturbing at best.

Luke 22:24–38: Despite Jesus’ many statements that the Kingdom of God is not about political power, the disciples apparently still believe that Jesus will establish a traditional earthly kingdom. “A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (24) Rather than chastising them for their obdurate stupidity, Jesus uses their argument as a teachable moment to speak about the qualities of servant leadership—something he’s already hinted at when he said “the first shall be last.” Jesus speaks ironically of himself, saying “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (26) In other words, a true leader must first be a servant. He points out that although he is the greatest among them, “I am among you as one who serves.” (27)

Notice that Jesus is kind when he could of been harsh. Rather than chastising them, he tells them, You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom.” (28, 29) and that eventually, “you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (30)

Jesus directs his words to Peter, who has sworn undying fealty to Jesus, and makes the famous prediction, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” (34) Unfortunately, Luke does not indicate what happened next. Did Peter protest again or was he silent? I think that for the first time in the years he’s been with Jesus he was struck dumb.

Jesus implies that the status quo is about to change drastically. When before he sent them out “without a purse, bag, or sandals” they did not lack for anything. However, now a battle will begin and the disciples must be prepared to fight: “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” (36)

In a very clear statement that he is not rising to political power, Jesus states that will soon be treated like a criminal by quoting Isaiah, “this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” (37) The disciples are seemingly ready to fight, when they “said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (38) Two swords are insufficient to win an earthly battle, but as Jesus points out, for the Kingdom of God, two swords are ample—as we will shortly see.

Psalm 105:8–15; Judges 16,17; Luke 22:14–23

Originally published 9/2/2016. revised and updated 9/3/2018.

Psalm 105:8–15: At this point our poet launches into one of the most detailed histories of Israel that we find in the Psalms. Just as God recounts exactly what has happened across the ages, the psalmist will provide the same service for his listeners:
He recalls His pact forever—
the word He ordained for a thousand generations—
 (8)

The ‘pact’ of course is the covenant between Israel and God, who
sealed with Abraham,
and His vow to Isaac,
and He set  it for Jacob as a statute,
for Israel as an eternal pact.
 (9, 10)

The psalmist then proceeds to tell us exactly what God’s promise was:
“To you will I give the land of Canaan
as the plot of your estate,
” (11).

Interestingly, God does not mention Israel’s side of the Covenant, which is to worship only God and obey his commands.

Our poet reaches back in time to “when they [Abraham’s descendants] were a handful of men,” (12a) and implies their state was precarious because they were “but a few, sojourners there.” (12b). This beautiful verse nicely parallels what’s written in Peter’s epistle about Christians being only aliens and sojourners in the world.

The early history of this small band—probably Jacob’s pre-Egyptian-captivity family—is implied in the next verse, emphasizing the idea of being wandering aliens among well-rooted tribes:
And they went about from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people
. (13)

In these early days, God was their protector:
He allowed no man to oppress them
and warned kings on their account
. (14)

Who are these kings? One of them was doubtless Pharaoh, who was punished with “great plagues” because he took Sarai “into his house” and doubtless has his way with her when Abraham went to Egypt because of famine in Canaan (Genesis 12).

Our poet emphasizes this aspect of God warning other kings and tribes as God himself speaks:
Touch not My anointed ones,
and to my prophets do no harm.
” (15)

Which, when we think about it, is exactly what God did from the time of Abraham through Joseph. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this statement applies equally to Israel in captivity in Babylon, which is probably around the time this psalm was written. However, the ugly irony here is that it was  not foreign kings who killed Israel’s prophets, it was Israel itself.

Judges 16,17: The story of Samson and Delilah involves sex, lies, betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and an exciting climax, so it’s no wonder Hollywood has been exploiting this passionate story for so long—although never well, IMHO.

After Samson demonstrates his bona fides at Gaza by pulling up the city gates and carrying them to the top of a hill, “he fell in love with a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.” (16:4) The Philistines are anxious to know the source of Samson’s strength, so that “we may overpower him, so that we may bind him in order to subdue him” (5). Delilah agrees for the price of 1100 pieces of silver. [Interesting how the money involved in Biblical betrayals seems to be ‘pieces of silver.’]

Samson seems to know her game and he lies to her, saying, “If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that are not dried out, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else.” (7) That doesn’t work and an angry Delilah asks again. This time, Samson tells her to bind him with new rope.  Delilah shouts “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!…but he snapped the ropes off his arms like a thread.” (12) Delilah’s third effort involving, but not actually cutting, his hair fails as well.

But Delilah is nothing if not relentless and she nags Samson to the point where he finally reveals his secret. We know the rest of the story: Samson is captured, blinded, made into a slave, grinding at the prison mill as his hair grows back. Brought into as entertainment at a party attended by 3000 people, Samson “called to the Lord and said, “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” (28) Which he famously does.

So why is this obviously unhistorical story in the book? Because it’s a ripping good yarn. But as an explication of the theology of betrayal and revenge it’s pretty marginal. For me, the main lesson of Samson is that even at our weakest, God is the source of our strength if we have abandoned all other pretences and come to him in the humility of the blinded Samson.

There must be something symbolic about 1100 pieces of silver because we encounter the same amount again in the story of a certain Micah [obviously not the prophet of the eponymous OT book], who has come into possession of the same 1100 pieces taken from Delilah earlier and which she had cursed. Perhaps the unnamed mother is the widowed Delilah. The son returns the silver to his mother, who promptly uses 200 of the metal to have an idol “of cast metal” for her. The son “had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest.” (17:5) Our authors drily note, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (17:6)

A young Levite from Bethlehem(!) is in the neighborhood. Wandering from city to city looking for work, he agrees to take on the priest job when Micah promises him “ten pieces of silver a year, a set of clothes, and your living.” (10) The Levite agrees and the story ends as Micah utters some really bad theology, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest.” (13)

Why is this story of a Jew making an idol and then hiring a Levite as the idol’s priest in here? I think the authors wanted to provide a close-up view of just how easy it was for the Jews to slip away from worshipping God to worshipping an idol. And even though the Levites were the designated priesthood, they slipped into disobedience just as adroitly as anyone else.

Luke 22:14–23: Luke’s description of the last supper opens with Jesus’ rather mysterious words,I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (15, 16) Unlike John’s gospel where four chapters of dialog, deep theology, and the High Priestly Prayer at this same meal, Luke provides us only this fraught and enigmatic statement. 

Rather than dialog, Jesus speaks the famous words that have been repeated down through the ages whenever the Eucharist occurs: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (19, 20)

It is the drama of betrayal that Luke brings front and center when immediately following the words of institution, Jesus says, “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.” (21) Luke makes sure that we know that Jesus knows what fate awaits him: “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined,” (22a). But then, “woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (22b). This is the curse on Judas that has echoed down through the ages. Luke is telling us that even though we know that Satan “entered” Judas, the betrayer is still responsible for his actions. We cannot justify our actions by blaming Satan.

While other gospels show Judas stalking out of the room, Luke’s disciples are bewildered, asking, “which one of them it could be who would do this.” (23) Judas has certainly kept his actions in the conspiracy well hidden.

 

Psalm 105:1–7; Judges 14,15; Luke 22:1–13

Originally published 9/1/2016. revised and updated 9/1/2018.

Psalm 105:1–7: This psalm, which reviews Israel’s long history and its relationship with God, asks us to rejoice in what God has done for Israel down through the centuries:
Acclaim the Lord, call out His name,
make His deeds known among the peoples. 
(1)

The primary theme here in the introduction is one of rejoicing and worship as the congregation actively participates aloud in celebrating God’s glorious beneficence toward Israel:
Sing to Him, hymn to Him,
speak of all His wonders
. (2)

And it’s not just reverent singing, but loud singing as if we are at a party:
Revel in His holy name.
Let the heart of the Lord’s seekers rejoice.
 (3)

I particularly like the felicitous phrase, “let the heart of the Lord’s seekers rejoice.” Our relationship with God is not to be passive, but we constantly seek (and find) God; it is an active quest on our part.

This idea of active engagement with God continues in the next verse:
Inquire of the Lord and His strength,
seek His presence always.
” (4)

It’s not that God isn’t always present with us, but by seeking we become increasingly conscious of his presence, which further deepens our relationship with him.

Our psalmist then moves on to the main theme of the psalm, Israel’s national history and its deep relationship with God:
Recall the wonders that He did,
His portents and the judgements He issued.
 (5)

Notice that the psalmist’s audience is called to remember both the positive joys and the negative judgements of God. Something we would also do well to remember. God has never promised us a life of smooth sailing.

The target audience of the psalm is Israel itself, which God has chosen out of all the tribes on earth as our poet reminds Israel—and us— that whether a chosen nation or not, all are subject to God’s justice.:
O seed of Abraham His servant,
sons of Jacob, His chosen ones.

He is the Lord our God—
through all the earth, His judgements.
 (6, 7)

I appreciate that this psalm is not just unbridled enthusiasm for God, but a reminder that God also judges individuals—and entire nations, even chosen ones—by their deeds. A reminder by which our own country could mightily benefit.

Judges 14,15: Now grown, Samson asks his father to obtain a particular Philistine wife for him, whom he has seen. The father understandably objects to Samson marrying outside the tribe, but our omniscient authors observe,  “His father and mother did not know that this was from the Lord; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines.” (14:4) The ‘he’ in this case is God, but I’m not sure why God requires a pretext to do anything.

On the way to Philistia Samson tears apart an attacking lion”as one might tear apart a kid.” (6) Our authors make the crucial point that “the spirit of the Lord rushed on him,” accounting for his strength. On the next trip to Philistia Samson passes by the carcass of the lion, now (rather improbably) a bee’s nest. Samson scoops up honey, eats it and gives some to his parents, who are still in the dark about their son’s strength.

Samson marries and at the wedding feast with thirty of his friends makes a wager: “Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can explain it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.” (14:12) Not surprisingly, the answer to the riddle, Out of the eater came something to eat./Out of the strong came something sweet.” (14:14) eludes Samson’s erstwhile friends.

As a clear demonstration of the Philistine’s rapacity, the friends, who cannot figure out the riddle, approach Samson’s new wife, demanding the answer and threatening to burn down the house if she refuses. The unnamed (again!) wife nags Samson for the answer, using all her feminine wiles and she eventually wheedles it out of him. The men provide the riddle’s answer and Samson justly accuses them, “If you had not plowed with my heifer,/ you would not have found out my riddle.” (18) [We can let Samson’s metaphorical reference to his wife as a ‘heifer’ pass without further comment.]

Again, the author’s point out that “the spirit of the Lord rushed on him” and he kills thirty men, takes their spoils and tosses them in the faces of the thirty men and “in hot anger he went back to his father’s house.” (14:19) The erstwhile wife “was given to his companion, who had been his best man.” (20)

So, what’s the point of this story? It’s certainly an object lesson of the risks and consequences of an Israelite marrying a Philistine woman. The authors also make to clear that Samson’s strength occurs only when “the spirit of the Lord” comes on him.” We also learn that Samson is highly emotional and not a little devious.

His anger eventually cools and Samson returns to visit his wife. But his father-in-law informs him “I was sure that you had rejected her; so I gave her to your companion.” (15) He offers the wife’s younger and prettier sister to Samson, who refuses. Samson vows revenge which he accomplishes via the bizarre tale (pun intended) of capturing 300 foxes and putting a torch “tail to tail” and “and burned up the shocks and the standing grain, as well as the vineyards and olive groves.” (15:5)

As is still the nature of the tribal Middle East today, vengeance is the order of the day. The Philistines take vengeance on this act and cremate Samson’s wife and father-in-law. Samson in turn vows revenge, and “He struck them down hip and thigh with great slaughter,” (15:8) and goes into hiding.

The Philistines come up to Judah demanding that the Jews hand over Samson, who are understandably upset at Samson’s acts against the people who rule over them. Samson agrees to be bound and handed over to the Philistines. Once again, “the spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands.” (15:14) Samson grabs a donkey’s jawbone and slays 1000 Philistines by hand.

Samson is thirsty following this exertion and speaks rather imperiously to God, “You have granted this great victory by the hand of your servant. Am I now to die of thirst, and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” (15:18) God complies by producing water from a rock a la Moses in the wilderness. Samson drinks, is refreshed, and “he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.” (20)

Personally, I’m convinced that while there may have been a historical Samson who judged Israel for 20 years, his exploits are a highly creative myth—honey in a lion’s carcass? 300 foxes tails tied together with torches? A donkey’s jawbone as a weapon? These elements make for an colorful story with a clear moral about power given to a man by the spirit of God. But history? I doubt it.

Luke 22:1–13: Luke turns our attention away from Jesus’ words to the active plot to kill him off. However, there’s a difficulty: Jesus is wildly popular so the religious authorities can’t just arrest him in broad daylight without creating a riot.

Demonstrating that darker, more malevolent spiritual forces than mere human priests and Pharisees were at work here, Luke states, “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot,” (3) who “conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them.” (4) Delighted, they “agreed to give him money.” (5) interestingly, Luke does not say how much money that was. Judas’ task is simple: find a way to have Jesus arrested out of public view. I wonder: does Luke’s observation let Judas off the hook, implying that he was effectively demon-possessed and no longer in control of his decisions? Personally, I don’t think so. A betrayal is still a betrayal and regardless of the motivation, Judas must take responsibility.

While all the plotting and conniving was going on, Jesus “sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.” (8) In an echo of the donkey affair when Jesus entered Jerusalem earlier in the week, Jesus seem to know exactly who needs to be contacted and what needs to be said in order to find a place for the Passover meal. Peter and John are to follow a man carrying a jar of water [Unusual I presume because water-carrying was usually woman’s work,] to his house and tell its owner, “‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ (11) Jesus knows exactly what the man will say and tells his disciples that “He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.” (12)

So why does Luke include these details about how the house and room is to be found? I think it’s to make it clear that no detail about anyone’s life eludes Jesus. As God, he simply knows, and Luke records these seemingly insignificant details to demonstrate that while Jesus was 100% human he was also simultaneously 100% God.