Psalm 105:23–36; Jeremiah 34:8–35:19; Titus 1:1–9

Psalm 105:23–36: This section of this historical psalm recounts the slavery in Egypt and eight of the ten plagues. The Israelites have become “more numerous than their foes.” (24) And once again it is God’s actions that drive events. First, it is not just Pharaoh that comes to despise the rapidly multiplying slaves, but all Egyptians: “He changed their heart to hate His people,/ to lay plots against His servants.” (25). Moses and Aaron are introduced into the picture: “He sent Moses his servant,/ Aaron, whom he had chosen.” (26)  Once again, it’s God who is in charge of events.  I’m also intrigued that in this verse, anyway, Aaron shares equal billing with Moses.  Is this a nod by the psalmist to the Temple priesthood?

Moses and Aaron are God’s instruments of warning to the Egyptians: “The set among them the words of His signs,/ His portents in the land of Ham.” (27)  The plagues to come are not just natural disasters, but God speaking (“word of His signs”) and above all, a warning, (Portents).  Like the rest of this psalm, it’s all about God speaking (here through Moses and Aaron) and acting.

The following verses describe eight plagues–and in a different order than the Exodus story. When one thinks about it, the order really doesn’t matter all that much. With one exception: the psalmist places darkness as the first portent: “He [God] set darkness, and it grew dark,/ yet they did not keep their word.” (28) Darkness is not just a natural occurrence here, but a weapon in God’s arsenal which God deploys: “He set darkness.”  And of course, darkness is a potent symbol of the absence of God in the hearts of the Egyptians.  The psalmist seems to be saying that the Egyptians deserved what they got because their hearts were dark.

The remaining plagues are also God’s direct work: “He turned their waters to blood/ and made their fist die.” (29) “He spoke and the swarm did come” (31) Notice again, the power of words and speech.  And the action verbs: “He turned” (32); “He struck” (32); “He struck” (33); “He spoke” (34). Until we come to the final horrific act, and the poet leaves no doubt about the cause: “And He struck down each firstborn in their land, the first yield of all their manhood.” (36). The final phrase, “first yield of their manhood” intensifies the tragedy that each family must have felt.

Jeremiah 34:8–35:19: King Zedikiah “made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them—that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery.” (34:8,9) And the people do so, but have second thoughts and “brought them again into subjection as slaves.” (34:11) Jeremiah reminds the people that the Law requires slaves who’ve worked for six years to be set free on the seventh year. And there will be hell to pay for this transgression, “You have not obeyed me by granting a release to your neighbors and friends; I am going to grant a release to you, says the Lord—a release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (34:17)

One has to wonder how the Southern aristocracy, all of them Bible-believing Christians, justified slavery in light of this passage. I  suppose they said the business about freeing the slaves after six years was part of Jewish law and then, citing Paul (probably from Romans), observed that they were no longer bound by the terms of law. Or they believed that the slaves were not wholly human (remember the “three-fifths rule” in the Constitution). But this is to misunderstand God’s intentions and above all his demand for justice.

But then again, today, each of us is guilty of interpreting God’s requirement for justice in ways that benefit us to the detriment of others. The power of denial and purposely not seeing the injustice right in front of us is strong indeed.

Titus 1:1–9: Like the two pastoral epistles before it, Titus opens with the clear assertion that Paul is the author. (Of course, placing the authorship ahead of the salutation was how all letters were written in those days.) The first paragraph also provides a kerygmatic summary that emphasizes Paul’s bona fides: “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began—in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior,” (2,3) 

I expect that Calvin, and now the Reformed Church, liked the phrase, “faith of God’s elect.” There’s also a faint echo of John 1 and Paul’s insistence in Philippians that God’s promise predates history. But here it’s not about Jesus Christ who predates history, but our promise of eternal life from “before the ages began.”  I suppose that the juxtaposition of “elect” and a promise that predates history could well lead to developing the doctrine of predestination. But I’m leaving it at that.

Titus is the bishop of Crete and the instructions for the bishop’s duty and character begin apace. “For a bishop as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.” (7).  Looking back at Papal history, one feels that the Borgia popes did not reflect on this verse…

But the list describes the true qualities of effective leadership–both inside and outside the church.  I’m also struck by the emphasis on the bishop’s teaching and preaching duties: “ He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.” These are verses that every call committee or group considering appointments of a bishop (or pastor) must truly take to heart.

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