Archives for January 2016

Psalm 18:25–29; Genesis 30:25–31:21; Matthew 11:11–24

Psalm 18:25–29: Our poet emphasizes the nature of what we could call the deuteronomic or quid-pro-quo God. The formula is simple: Human behavior elicits a corresponding response from God. At a personal level, the poet observes “And the Lord requited me for my merit,/ for my cleanness of hands in His eyes.” (25) The formula is simple. God’s reward is a direct correlation to how we approach God—or ignore God’s rules: “With the faithful You deal faithfully,/ with a blameless man, act without blame.” (25).

There’s a strong correlation between human acts and God’s response to those acts to both good and bad behavior: “With the pure one, You deal purely,/ with the perverse man, deal in twists.” (27).  In short, our behavior matters to God. Or put another way, “What you sow, you will reap.”We may think this is an oversimplified picture of human behavior and of how God deals with that behavior, but at its core this psalm is about consequences. Every action—whether good or bad—will create its consequence—perhaps not right away, but actions and consequences are as immutable as Newton’s Third Law. It continues to amaze me how many people believe they can undertake risky actions without a thought to the consequences those actions will engender. Perhaps the consequences may not become apparent for many years, but they are certainly there eventually.

As in so many psalms we read here how God is always looking out for the poor and lonely, but he also has his eyes on those who think they can get away with things outside of God’s sight: “For it is you who rescues the lowly folk/ and haughty eyes You bring low.” (28) Bit the poet observes that our relationship with God is far greater than just being on our best behavior. God is our constant guide: “For You light up my lamp, O Lord,/ my God illuminates my darkness.” (29) As fallen human beings we all walk in the darkness of sin. God shines right through our tendency to sin right into our hearts. And of course we know how many years after this psalm was written exactly how God brought the Light into a darkened world.

Genesis 30:25–31:21: Jacob has had enough of working for his father in law and decides it’s time to leave Laban’s sheep, goat and cattle business and set up on his own. Laban realizes that Jacob has been instrumental in making him a rich man: “I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you,” and tells Jacob to name his wages. Jacob refuses the wages, but sets up a deal here he will get all the striped(?), black, and spotted (hereafter, SB&S) sheep, while Laban will retain the pure white ones. Laban thinks he can trick Jacob  by separating out the existing SB&S sheep and sending them off in another direction three days away with his sons.

But Jacob is more clever than his father-in-law and has his own trick up his sleeve. Using a weird method of having sheep breed in front of striped tree branches he manages to breed very strong and healthy SB&S sheep. [One more good reason why we should not consider the Bible to be a scientific text!] Over a period of time, Jacob ends up a strong flock, while Laban is left with the feebler flock. In the agrarian economy of the time, Jacob “grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys.” (30:43).

Laban’s sons figure out what Jacob has done and he is now persona non grata in Laban’s household even though it was Laban who tried to cheat Jacob. Jacob tells Rachel and Leah, “You know that I have served your father with all my strength; yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me.” (31:7-8) Jacob goes on to tell them that God has instructed him “leave this land at once and return to the land of your birth.” (31:13) Rachel and Leah observe that Laban has squandered their inheritance: “Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has been using up the money given for us.” (31:15).

So they conspire to escape Laban’s clutches: “Rachel stole her father’s household gods. And Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee.” (31:20) Jacob, his wives and children, and all his moveable four-footed wealth depart Haran and return to Canaan. Leaving, I presume, one very angry Laban.

The parallels of this story to Israel’s escape from Egypt some 400 years later are striking. It is the sojourner, Jacob, who creates the wealth of Laban, just as Egypt benefitted from Hebrew slave labor. And there is plotting and eventually escape. And Canaan is always the destination. Since we presume it is Jews in Babylonian captivity reading this story, they would have come away inspired by Jacob’s cleverness and his willingness to stand up to the man who was in essence his captor–and then to escape form him.

Matthew 11:11–24: As he continues to speak of John the Baptist and himself, he tells his listeners that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;” (11a) but adds that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (11b) He also points out that people have a habit of not really listening to any prophet. suggesting that the problem is them, not the prophet: “and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! (14, 15)

Not listening to what prophets have to say is a deeply ingrained human habit: ” It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;/ we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (16b, 17)

But then by not listening and then making judgements about the prophet is even more egregious. We are to quick to draw the worng conclusion. Jesus notes that the people didn’t like John because he was too ascetic: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’.” On the other hand, they make the same poor judgement about Jesus because he behaves oppositely. They see him as too much the party animal: “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (19).

In the hinge point of this reading, Jesus tells us that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” But we are too hasty; we do not take the time to wait and assess someone’s actions because it easier–and lazier–just to spout our opinions. Which of course is what Facebook was really invented for.

This failure to seriously observe Jesus’ actions of healing and ministering and then realize in wise reflection that he has brought the Kingdom of Heaven to earth is a source of enormous frustration for Jesus: “he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.” (20)  Jesus observes that had he performed those same deeds in the most evil cities any Jew could think of—Tyre and Sidon—they would have repented. But Chorzin, Bethsaida, and even Capernaum have ignored his message and failed to repent. And as far as Jesus is concerned in this moment of anger and frustration, “I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (24)

We do exactly the same thing as the Jews in Jesus’ day. We hear only what we want to hear and then we rush to judgement rather than observing, listening, reflecting, which are the paths to wisdom. And to repentance.

Psalm 18:16–24; Genesis 29:15–30:24; Matthew 11:1–10

Psalm 18:16–24: A flood follows the thunderstorm, but God’s arrival was no ordinary storm as “the channels of water were exposed,/ and the world’s foundations laid bare/ form the Lord’s roaring,/ from the blast of Your nostrils’ breath.” (16) This is not the quiet God we encounter in places like Psalm 23, but much more like the sturm und drang we read in Revelation.

But God’s dramatic entrance turns to the poet’s primary purpose: David’s rescue as he is apparently drowning in the flood. God’s astride the angel, swoops down and “He reached from on high and took me,/ pulled me out of the many waters.” (17) We realize this is a metaphorical flood because David is rescued from a hopeless situation: “He save me from my daunting enemy/ and from my foes who were stronger than I.” (18) Even though he was hopelessly out-numbered, “the Lord became my support.” (19a).

God brings peace and in contrast to the tumult of thunder, lightning, and flood David finds gentle peace as God “brought me out to a wide-open space,/ set me free, for His pleasure I was.” (20) This is what God can do for us if, like David, we let him. Our lives have become a hopeless tangle and we feel surrounded by evil and relentless forces that will crush us. But instead of feeling helplessly hemmed-in, God will bring us to a “wide-open space” that is the natural metaphor for freedom.

In the deuteronomic philosophy of the OT, David’s rescue comes because he has earned it by righteous living: “The Lord dealt with me by my merit,/ for my cleanness of hands He requited me.” (21) God deigns to rescue those like our poet because “I kept the ways of the Lord/ and did no evil before my God.” (22) To make sure we get the point, the poet repeats the idea: “And I was blameless before Him,/ and I kept myself from crime.” (24)

How grateful I am that we live under the terms of the New Covenant of grace and forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s not to say I don’t endeavor to “keep myself from crime,” but I know I will fail again and again. Yet, Jesus will swoop down and rescue and forgive me.

Genesis 29:15–30:24: Jacob has fallen deeply in love with Rachel, and her father, Laban, extracts a promise from Jacob to work for him in order to win her hand. Finally, after seven years, Laban makes good on the deal. But on the night the marriage is  consummated, Laban tricks Jacob, sending in older daughter Leah, instead. Clearly these things happened in the dark because “When morning came, it was Leah!” (29:25). Jacob is understandably angry at Laban, “Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban rather coyly explains that the older daughter has to be married off before the younger Rachael and extracts an agreement from Jacob that if he gets Rachel now, he is to work for yet another seven years. So deeply does Jacob love the younger daughter that he agrees to do this and loses no time: “Jacob went in to Rachel also.” (29:30)

In one of those grand ironies that abound in life, “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” (29:31) Laban bears Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Since a woman’s worth was defined by her ability to bear children, Rachel is deeply unhappy: “she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”  (30:1) Jacob responds angrily that it’s not his fault she was barren (and it wasn’t his fault since he’d already proved his virility through Leah). So Rachel offers Jacob her maid Bihlah, whom Jacob promptly impregnates. His son Dan and later, Napthali arrive.

In the meantime, Leah realizes she has become barren and offers her maid Zilpah, who bears Gad and Asher. There’s an odd transaction involving mandrakes and Jacob lies once again with Leah, who bears a fifth son, Issahar and a few months later, Zebulun. Oh, and a daughter as well: Dinah.

In a wonderful turn of phrase, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb.” (30:22) This child by Jacob is Joseph. But never quite satisfied, Rachel, in bearing Joseph, says, “May the Lord add to me another son!” (30:24). Of which more later.

This story is told in detail because the authors are outlining the ancestral roots of each tribe of Israel. But they are reminding every Israelite that while he or she has the same ancestral father they have one of four different ancestral mothers. Which would be a means of explaining some of the inter-tribal and battles later on in Israel’s history.

At first, multiple wives and concubines may seem very strange to our monogamous culture. But we have become increasingly serially monogamous where the same mother may bear children by multiple fathers. And the same passions of envy and disappointment around sex, virility and childbearing are still very much with us.

Matthew 11:1–10: Jesus was clearly not one of those teachers or professors who just expounds on a theory or seeks to communicate his vast knowledge and understanding and remain in the safety of his ivory tower. He goes on to, yes, practice what he preaches: “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.” (1) Which is an awfully difficult thing for Christians like me to emulate. I’d much rather remain in the safety of the community, expounding rather than going out among the poor and broken bringing not just Christ’s message of compassion but being compassionate myself.

By this time, Jesus’ fame and notoriety had spread to the followers of the better-known John the Baptist. His followers come to check out the competition and ask if he’s the “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (3). As usual, Jesus does not actually answer the question directly, but asks them to examine the evidence: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (4,5) And in his beautifully indirect way, he communicates that he is no competitor to John: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (6)

Obviously, this dialog took place rather publicly because Jesus rises to an eloquent defense of John—both his person and his rather tough message: ““What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?” (7,8) He reminds them of John’s role as prophet (“forthteller”) by again quoting Malachi: “‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,/ who will prepare your way before you.’” Once again and always, Jesus allows the people to draw their own conclusions about just who that may be. But we have to believe that the evidence of who Jesus is was not lost on the crowds any more than it was lost on John’s disciples.

But that’s how Jesus operates, isn’t it? He neither pushes his agenda nor makes pronouncements about who he is. He always wants us to look at the evidence and draw our own conclusions for ourselves. But he will demand that we do so honestly and without denial.


Psalm 18:7–15; Genesis 28:10–29:14; Matthew 10:26–42

This is the 500th post I have made to since February 2104.

Psalm 18:7–15: The poet continues in the voice of David, describing how he called God, who answered: “He heard from His palace my voice,/ and my outcry before Him came to His ears.” (8). God does not respond to David’s plea with a mere whisper, but with all the dramatic forces of nature. God’s response begins as a seismic event: “The earth heaved and shuddered,/ the mountains’ foundations were shaken.” (9). God becomes an erupting volcano that destroys David’s enemies as “smoke rose form His nostrils/ and fire from His mouth consumed,/ coals blazed up around Him.” (9) The very heavens [which was viewed as a flat plane somewhere above earth] move: “He tilted the heavens, came down,/ dense mist beneath His feet.” (10).

Then we have the awesome but somewhat unsettling image of God astride an angel coming down out of now-tilted heaven to wreak vengeance on David’s enemies: “He mounted a cherub and flew,/ and He soared on the wings of the wind.” (11) But in David’s telling, God is not yet ready to reveal himself to the enemy but rather in an image that evokes the primordial beginning of the Genesis 1 creation story, “He set darkness His hiding-place round Him,/ His abode water-massing, the clouds of the skies.” (12) The ominous tension builds and finally God speaks as only God can do, his voice resembling a violent thunderstorm: “The Lord thundered from on high.” (14a) And to complete the storm image, “He let loose His arrows, and scattered them,/ lightning bolts shot, and He panicked them.” (15)

So, David’s enemies appear to have been dispatched by natural forces. These verses are a reminder that long before our world of science and technology that explains everything, nature was seen as a primary agent through which God acted. Enemies are scattered by natural phenomena. But for the poet and people of his time, these natural events such as volcanic eruptions and fierce thunderstorms were a dramatic manifestation of God’s awesome power–and the fact that God was indeed very much involved in the affairs of men.

Genesis 28:10–29:14: As Jacob escapes the fury of the brother whom he has tricked and deceived, he stops to sleep for the night outdoors, using a stone as a pillow. He then has one of the more memorable dreams of the OT: “he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (28:12) This dream is the means by which God reminds Jacob of the Covenant: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,” (13, 14a). But then God makes an even greater promise than he made to Abraham: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (15) This of course is the same promise to which we cling today. Even when God seems far away, he has not abandoned us.

Not surprisingly, the dream has an enormous impact on Jacob, who shouts, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (17). Jacob takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar and pours oil on it, calling the place Bethel. And unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob makes a vow in return to God: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God,” (20, 21).

This seems to be the point at which Jacob, now some 40 years old, finally becomes an adult. He has made a commitment to God. Or is this just “mountaintop experience” enthusiasm?

Jacob journeys on and encounters shepherds and a large  flock of sheep. He asks the shepherds where they come from and they reply “We are from Haran.” Jacob asks if they know Laban. Indeed they do and point out Laban’s daughter–his cousin– Rachel, who is arriving with her father’s sheep. Jacob politely rolls away the stone covering the well so Rachel can feed her flock. Then, he rather dramatically [and I suspect indiscreetly] kisses Rachel as weeps and tells her he is her kinsman. Rachel runs to her father’s house with the good news. Jacob comes to LAban’s house and meets his uncle. Laban happily says,“Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (29:14) and invites him to stay.

At this point things look pretty promising and romantic. Jacob is now well aware of the Covenant from God and now he’s met the girl of his dreams. It all looks so pastoral and gentle and promising. But the story is not over yet.

Matthew 10:26–42: Matthew’s Jesus continues his private discourse with his disciples. His words are far less comforting than what he said to the crowds in the Sermon on the Mount. In preparing his disciples for their missionary journey, he tells them “have no fear of them [those who reject the Kingdom]; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” The disciples are to be brave and boldly proclaim the message of the Kingdom: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (27) Yes, it’s potentially dangerous work, but God will protect them.

Jesus tells them one of the great promises of faith: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (28). These words surely lept out to the readers/ listeners to Matthew’s gospel—people who were already in dangerous circumstances by virtue of their faith. Jesus’ words remind them—and us— that they are about God’s very serious business and will receive God’s protection. Which is a good thing, because Jesus did not come to be gentle and self-effacing: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (34)

The radical nature of Jesus’ message is going to severely test and upend human relationships, as he quotes from Micah’s prophecy: “For I have come to set a man against his father,/ and a daughter against her mother,…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (35, 36)

Our number one priority in life is not only to follow Jesus, but to take up the cross—the ultimate symbol of suffering and yes, death—and follow Jesus. This phrase, “take up your cross,” is also an ominous premonition of events to come. Matthew’s readers will surely recall Jesus’ warnings on that bleak Passover Friday.

The message the disciples—and we— are to bring to the world is far from the namby-pampy “feel good about yourself” treacle that so pervades parts of the church today. Jesus would not cotton to the likes of Norman Vincent Peal or Bob Schuller, and certainly not to today’s “feel good gospel” preacher d’jour, Joel Osteen. We have received a tough and challenging commission from Jesus, but it is better than anything else we could ever do.

Psalm 18:1–6; Genesis 27:30–28:9; Matthew 10:17–25

Psalm 18:1–6: Rather than the usual terse introduction such as “a psalm of David,” our psalmist gives us the precise setting in which this psalm was sung by David [or, as I suspect the case of most “David psalms,” written much later by another poet to appear it was sung by David].It’s also worth noting that this psalm is essentially the song of David recorded in 2 Samuel 22, which Alter suggests is the older one and the source for this psalm.

Here, in the first verse the poet tells us who, “for the lead player, for the Lord’s servant, for David;” when, “who spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day the Lord saved him;” and what happened, “from the grasp of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” (1)

This translation of the psalm opens with “I am impassioned of You, Lord, my strength,” which is even stronger than the NRSV’s rather reserved, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”  Alter tells us that the word for “impassioned” is used only here in the Bible. I much prefer “impassioned” because it connotes an ardor that is really stronger than mere “love.” It’s easy to talk about “loving God” in the same way we say, “I loved that movie.” But to say we are “impassioned” is to indicate our deepest commitment that makes love all the more real and profound.

The second verse of this psalm includes some of the most famous metaphors in all of Psalms:
“The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

A rock is also solid and trustworthy, unlikely to break apart. Rocks are things we hide under when we are in deepest danger. But God is not just a safe hiding place he is also an active rescuer. The metaphors switch to military images: shield, horn [as in the horn of battle to signal the troops to attack], and a fortress [“stronghold]. These all provide the same protection as God the Rock.

Verses 3 and 4 tell us that the purpose of this psalm David’s [and our] praise and thanksgiving for rescue: “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,/ so shall I be saved from my enemies.” David goes on to describe his dire straits with a metaphor of being bound and trapped with a rope or chains to the point of death: “The cords of death encompassed me;/…the snares of death confronted me.”

In this perilous state, David cries out–“In my distress I called upon the Lord”–and he knows that God heard: “From his temple he heard my voice,/ and my cry to him reached his ears.” (6) In the end, it is the assurance that undergirds David’s cries–and so too for us: if we have the faith of David we know we will be heard no matter our circumstances.

Genesis 27:30–28:9: Esau comes in from his hunting mission, prepares “savory food” and brings it to his father, who now realizes what happened and he “trembled violently.” (27:33) But a blessing is a one time thing. It cannot be retracted and given to its rightful recipient. Esau remembers what Jacob has now done twice to him: “he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” (36) Again, Esau pleads, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.” (38) Isaac says that cannot be done and gives Esau a rather enigmatic benediction, which is clearly not a blessing: “By your sword you shall live,/ and you shall serve your brother.” (40a) 

Furious, Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah finds this out and tells Jacob to “flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away.” Here, we see ever-optimistic Rebekah, who has played a key part in the deception, and rather self-centeredly tells herself, “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (45) Then, she goes into Isaac, who apparently is unaware of her role in the ruse. In one of the great non sequiturs in the Bible, she tells Isaac that she hopes Jacob will not marry one of the local Hittite women.

Apparently convinced by Rebekah that what’s done is done, Isaac blesses Jacob a second time and instructs his son, ““You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.” (28:1) Instead he is to marry a cousin: “take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother.” (28:2) Jacob leaves, apparently never again to see his father or mother.

In the meantime, Esau also marries in the family: a certain Mahalath, who is the “daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael” (8), which would make her his step-cousin.

Why all this drama? It’s clear that the family has been torn apart by each parent playing a favorite–Rebekah to Jacob, Isaac to Esau–and bluntly, Rebekah’s desire to have everything her way. What’s fascinating is that these dysfunctional and broken relationships reveal the same qualities of human nature almost four millennia ago that we see exactly replicated around us today.

Matthew 10:17–25: Jesus continues his description and warning of the high cost of discipleship. One has the feeling that Matthew is editorializing to his listeners here, who themselves have probably endured some of the trials described here. Matthew’s Jesus says, “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them [the Jews] and the Gentiles.” (18) Which is interesting because earlier, Jesus has charged his disciples not to preach to Gentiles.

Jesus instructs his disciples [and us] on how to respond to these show trials: “do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” (19) Rather, we are to allow the “Spirit of your Father [to be] speaking through you.” (20) Being a Jesus follower will not just rip families apart, it will cause death, which I suspect Matthew is well aware has already happened among his followers. Jesus warns, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (21)

Where Jesus said earlier to “wipe the dust form your feet” and move on from those places that reject the Kingdom message, he is now driving home in the starkest terms possible: “you will be hated by all because of my name.” (22a) The clear lesson for us here is that true discipleship is all about endurance: “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (22b)

The question for us in the 21st century is, will we be willing to endure hardship and ridicule as Jesus-followers as American culture continues its inexorable slide away from the shared Judeo-Christian values that once held this country together into the abyss of sheer individualism and intolerance in the name of “tolerance?”

Psalm 17:8–15; Genesis 27:1–29; Matthew 10:1–16

Psalm 17:8–15: Having asserted his righteousness before God, our psalmist gets to the central purpose of his prayer, which is to be rescued from his enemies: “Make Your merices abound, O rescuer of those who shelter/ from foes at Your right hand.” (7) Just to make sure God gets his point, he devotes another verse to the necessity of God’s protection: “Guard me like the apple of the eye,/ in the shadow of Your wings conceal me/ from the wicked who have despoiled me,/ my deadly enemies drawn around me.” (8, 10).

Since this is a “David prayer,” we can visualize David surrounded by Saul’s army or perhaps when he has become king, surrounded by conspirators in his court. In any event, there is a real undercurrent of desperation here. But the poet is not so desperate that he avoids penning one of more memorable descriptions of enemies: “Their fat has covered their heart./ With their dewlaps they speak haughty words.” (10) This image of a fat-covered heart and fat-covered faces speaking brings the image of Charles Laughton or Sidney Greenstreet of Humphrey Bogart movie fame to mind. Or more recently, Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars. It is an arrogant and threatening indolence which David faces—suggesting that his enemies are court conspirators.

The poem’s aspect turns darker as it appears David faces a mortal threat” “My steps they hem in,/ their eyes they cast over the land.” (11) One individual in particular is after him and “He is like a lion longing for prey,/ like the king of beasts lying in wait.” (12) Realizing the enormity of this threat, David’s supplication shifts from seeking God’s protection to seeking God’s action in annihilating the enemy: “Rise, Lord, head him off, bring him down,/ save my life from the wicked with Your sword.” (13) After all, David argues, these are mere humans of little long term consequence to God: “from men, by Your hand, from men,/ from those fleeting of portion in life.” (14a) Once those enemies are taken care of, David can at last face God in peace: “As for me, in justice I behold Your face,/ I take my fill, wide awake, of Your image.” (15)

The question for us is, can we pray for the destruction of our enemies? Based on what Jesus has said, the answer is clearly ‘No.’ Having turned our desires upside down, we are to love these same enemies that the poet wishes destroyed. But we can still seek what David seeks in the last verse: To see God’s justice and wide awake, reflect on God’s face.

Genesis 27:1–29: We come at last to the infamous story of the purloined fatherly blessing. Isaac is old and almost blind. He asks his favorite son, Esau, to go hunt some game for a last dinner: “prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.” (4) Esau leaves to go hunting as the conspiracy commences.

Rebekah turns to her favorite son and tells him ““I heard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the Lord before I die.’” (6,7) So Jacob brings two fresh goats, which Rebekah prepares for ISaac’s dinner. Jacob is not sure this trick will work, fearing he will be cursed rather than blessed. Rebekah famously clothes Jacob in goat skin on his arms and neck. Jacob goes to his father with the savory meat.

But Isaac is suspicious. Dinner is arriving to early and the old man asks, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” (19) Jacob compounds the deception by lying, ““Because the Lord your God granted me success.” (20) Isaac feels the goat skin on Jacob’s arms but is still suspicious: “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (22) Nevertheless, the ruse works and Isaac asks, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” (26) and then pronounces the blessing which is probably one that was given to every eldest son in that culture:
   “Let peoples serve you,
       and nations bow down to you.
   Be lord over your brothers,
       and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
   Cursed be everyone who curses you,
       and blessed be everyone who blesses you.” (29)

In our egalitarian society it is difficult to imagine the sheer importance and power of the right of primogeniture combined with the power of the fatherly blessing that was essentially a last will and testament. There can be neither amendment nor revocation. The father has spoken.

But what does this story have to do with us? Why does deception lie at the heart of this story–and therefore at the heart of Jacob’s descendants, who become the nation of Israel. I believe the authors are telling us that deception has consequences. Some are good, such as the rise of Israel. Others are far less good. As we will find out, Jacob himself becomes the object of a deception by his own sons. God’s justice is definitely a two-edged sword–and deception becomes a running theme through the remainder of this book.

Matthew 10:1–16: By this time, the roster of Jesus’ inner-circle disciples is full and Matthew helpfully lists them all. For some like Thaddeus, this mention is their one claim to fame in the gospel. Another will be infamous: “and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” (4)

A brilliant leader, Jesus knows that spreading the word about the Kingdom of heaven requires human commitment and participation. He sends the twelve out on as independent agents to minister only to the Jews and to do exactly what he has been doing himself: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (7, 8a) This is not a paying job: “You received without payment; give without payment.” (8b) This mission is not a job; it is a calling.

One of the most important thing Jesus says here–and what we need to remind ourselves about over and over–is that our mission won’t be 100% successful. Many who hear will reject the opportunity. And we are not to waste time on hopeless causes: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (14) Of course, those who reject will get theirs in the end: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (15)

Finally, just because we are doing God’s work does not mean we leave our brains at the door of the church. Jesus knows there are many risks surrounding this mission and we cannot be foolhardy enthusiasts. People will always be trying to do Jesus’ messengers harm. Therefore Jesus gives perhaps the wisest advice in the gospels about how we are to go about his risky and often dangerous business: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (16)

We are to be merciful and kind on the outside, but also we must constantly be alert to danger. It would be good to see more Christians remember what Jesus said as they too often battle foolishly and unsuccessfully as innocent doves in the culture wars of our time when being wise as serpents in terms of strategy would lead to far more successful outcomes.

Psalm 17:1–7; Genesis 26; Matthew 9:27–38

Psalm 17:1–7: Unlike many psalms of supplication where the poet seems to be shaking his fist at the heavens wondering where God is hiding, this “David prayer” is gentle and introspective, quietly asking, “Hear, O Lord, a just thing./ Listen well to my song. / Hearken to my guileless prayer.” (1) To me, a “guileless prayer” is one without an overt agenda, much more a quiet conversation with God.

The psalmist recognizes that God is the source of judgement–“From before You my judgement will come,/ Your eyes behold rightness.” (2). The poet knows that God comes to us and discerns our every thought even when we are asleep: “You have probed my heart, come upon me by night.” (3a) But that is OK because the psalmist knows he is innocent of wrongdoing: “You have tried me,/ and found no wrong in me. (3b). In fact, he has consciously worked to avoid wrongdoing by what he says to others (remember the central importance of speech as a means of wrongdoing in Psalms): “I barred my mouth to let nothing pass.” (3c)

His actions are equally pure: “As for human acts…/I have kept from the tracks of the brute.” (4) ‘Brute’ here would suggest other evil persons and perhaps in the David story, he is referring to Saul. Nevertheless, despite the psalmist’s pure speech and proper actions, he still prays for God’s guidance: “Set firm my steps on Your pathways,/ so my feet will not stumble.” (5) The lesson here for us is that we are aware that our proper actions do not arise from within us but come because we walk closely with God.

And when we walk next to God, we have assurance that he will answer when we call: “I called You, for You will answer me, God.” (6a) But regardless of our proximity to God it’s still important for us to ask him to “Incline Your ear, O hear my utterance.” (6b).

With this preamble that describes a right relationship with God, or psalmist begins to move to the issue at hand. The poet faces tangible danger and seeks not just God’s guidance but his protection as well: “Make Your mercies abound, O rescuer of those who shelter/ from foes at Your right hand.” (7). What’s interesting here is that the foes are at God’s right hand, not the poet’s. Are these hypocrites who falsely profess faith in God and pretend to stand next to God? They can certainly turn out to be deadly enemies.

Genesis 26: Isaac is an acorn that did not fall far from his father’s tree. There’s a famine, and Isaac is advised by God not to head to Egypt but to “reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” (3). And just like his father, he tells the people around him that his wife Rebekah is his sister, thinking, “or else the men of the place might kill me for the sake of Rebekah, because she is attractive in appearance.” (6) The ubiquitous Abimelech, already in this particular ruse, cuts immediately to the chase, and “warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.” (11)

Like his father, Isaac is a successful farmer and “he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy.” (13). The Philistines become envious and Abimelech asks Isaac to“Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.” (16) Isaac heads off to the valley of Gehar where a well digging program proves successful, “but the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” (20) Rather than dispute water rights, Isaac moves on and eventually finds water at Rehoboth, so named because at last, “the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (22)

The ever-popular (at least to the authors of this story) Abimelech reappears and Isaac understandably is none too cordial: “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” (27) Nonetheless, the Philistine king takes the diplomatic initiative, recognizing that “the Lord has been with you,” and therefore asks Isaac to swear an oath that “you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace.” (29) Isaac assents and throws a party for Abimelech. Even better, another well is dug right there and water is found.

Why all this business about wells and water? In that part of the world (as well as here in the west) water is a precious commodity that usually ends up being fought over. But also for us Christians, water also comes to mean life and prosperity because water is also the medium of baptism–representative of the saving grace that comes to us through Jesus. In the end, we cannot survive much less prosper without both physical and spiritual water.

But this chapter ends on a sour note of family discord. Esau marries not one, but two Hittite women and the three of them “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” (34) We can be sure that this short note is here to provide additional justification for the significant event yet to come as we recall that Esau has already sold his birthright.

Matthew 9:27–38: Jesus continues his healing program, this time of two blind men and a mute. Once again, healing comes through faith as Jesus asks,“Do you believe that I am able to do this?” and the two blind men answer, “Yes, Lord.” (29) They are healed and “Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.”” (30). But of course the healing has the opposite effect and “they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.” (31)>

What’s with Jesus ordering those who are healed not to spread the news? Obviously, he knew that despite his remonstrations, that’s exactly what these joyous healed people would do. Is he using reverse psychology in order to get the word about his miracles out into the wider public quickly? Living today as we do, surrounded by press releases and flackery it’s easy to think that’s what Jesus was doing. However, I think the real reason that Jesus is telling people not to tell, even though he knows they will tell is to establish himself as a very different kind of healer.  There were all kinds of mystics floating around in his day claiming to be the Messiah and even appearing to heal people. They wanted all the publicity they could get–not unlike today’s televangelists who perform “healing.” (Yes, I’m talking about you, Benny Hinn.) Jesus is not interested in publicity; he interested in changing lives.

Nevertheless, despite his best efforts to keep his healing power under wraps, word gets out. And when Jesus heals the mute man by casting out demons, word get to the Pharisees, who immediately conclude he is satanic: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” (34) Which, if one is highly religious as the Pharisees were, is not an entirely unreasonable conclusion.

Since we know how Jesus’ story turns out, (as do Matthew’s readers), we know that that fuse among the Pharisees and religiuous officials has been lit by Jesus’ acts of kindness.

Matthew pulls the camera back to give a wide angle view, telling us, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” (35) Matthew also tells us the state of the people among whom Jesus ministers: “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (36). Jesus is carrying out the ubiquitous mandate in the Scriptures he knew so well: that we are to care first for the poor and oppressed and for the widows and orphans.

But even Jesus is getting tired and asks the disciples to pray, asking “the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (38) And that is a clear challenge to each of us reading this? Will we pray for more laborers in the Kingdom? Will we go out and find these folks ourselves and help with the huge task of harvesting?

Psalm 16:7–11; Genesis 25; Matthew 9:14–26

Psalm 16:7–11: The psalmist’s joy at his relationship with God permeates the second half of this psalm. Not just because God is inherently good, but that he relies on God for direction, especially in times of distress: “I shall bless the Lord Who gave me counsel/ through the nights that my conscience would lash me.” (7) This consuel happens because God is his first priority: “I set the Lord always before me,/ on my right hand, that  I not stumble.” (8)

The effect of this close relationship is not only emotionally positive but it even course through him physically, as well: “So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy,/ my whole body abides secure.” (9) God preserves him and never leaves him: “For you will not forsake my life to Sheol,/ You won’t let Your faithful one see the Pit.” (10) Rather, God is our faithful guide through our entire life: “Make me know the path of life” (11a) And the consequence is joy no matter what happens: “Joys overflow in Your presence/ delights in Your right hand forever.”

Even though its theme of God’s protection and guidance is similar, in many ways I find this psalm even more encouraging than Psalm 23 because it radiates such untrammeled joy.

Genesis 25: Well, they never taught this to us in Sunday School. The ever-virile Abraham remarries a certain Keturah, and he promptly sires six children. But Isaac remains his favorite and “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.” (5) Even though he is generous to the sons of his concubines (!) the patriarch “sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.” (6)

With amusing understatement, the authors note that the 175-year old Abraham “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” (8) Ishmael returns from wherever he was and together with Isaac, they buried their father in the now-famous cave of Machpelah. In case we  might have forgotten, the editors remind us: “ in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites.” (10) The editors also observe, “after the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.” (11) 

Ishmael makes his final appearance, dying at age 137, and I suspect because Abraham is his father, his progeny is listed. What I had not realized is that Ishmael became the father of “twelve princes according to their tribes,” which settle “in the direction of Assyria.” (18) There’s something about twelve tribes arising from Abraham, although it is Isaac’s son Jacob who bears 12 sons.

We see a replay of the difficulties that Abraham and Sarah encountered in bearing children as we learn that Isaac was 40 when he married but Rebekah remained barren. “ Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived”  (21) when Isaac was 60. We see hints of sibling conflict even while her sons are in the womb. Greatly distressed at this difficult pregnancy, she prays and God informs her:

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the elder shall serve the younger.” (23)

Hairy Esau emerges from Rebekah’s womb first giving him the right of primogeniture; Jacob follows a minute later, clutching Esau’s heel. Each twin becomes the favorite of a parent. Esau is Isaac’s favorite; Jacob is Rebekah’s. We see hints right there of a dysfunctional relationship not just between the brothers, but between husband and wife.

After Rebekah bears the twins Esau and Jacob, we see hints of a dysfunctional relationship between Isaac and her. Isaac loves Esau “because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (28)

But perhaps the strangest part of this story is that Esau saw no value in his birthright and sells to to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of “red stuff” (30) Jacob forces Esau to swear to sell his birthright and “gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way.” (34) It’s clear in this exchange the brothers have no particular regard for each other. But as we will see, Jacob is cunning.

Was Esau merely stupid? Or is there something deeper at work here? For the Jews in Babylonian captivity reading this story it was surely a stark reminder that their heritage was important and they would be wise not to “sell their birthright” as God’s chosen people and assimilate into the local culture. A birthright is in fact the marker of that lineage, which continues distinctively to the present day.

Matthew 9:14–26: John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and pose the question,“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (14) There is judgement behind the question but Jesus observes that fasting will come after the bridegroom (him) leaves the party.

He then gives the soliloquy about patching old clothing and putting new wine in old skins–and the problems arising thereby. Clearly, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is somebody completely unprecedented. The old rules do not apply where Jesus is concerned. [Paul certainly extends this to be able to include Gentiles in the church without them having to resort to the “old rule” of circumcision.]

We have the “colliding healings” as Jesus heads to the synagogue leader’s house to heal his daughter and the hemorrhaging woman sneaks up behind him and touches his coat. The woman is healed because she had faith she would be healed. I think Matthew’s point here is that miracles occur when we are motivated enough to believe in them. [Although there are plenty of times when even those of great faith are not healed.]

He arrives at the synagogue leader’s house to find the mourners already mourning. He sends them away although they doubt him and laugh derisively. Jesus then heals the girl.

For me, it’s the juxtaposition of the woman of great faith who is healed with the doubting mourners that demonstrates the issue of faith versus doubt. The mourners were very sure of the evidence that the girl was dead. They are the opposite of faith: skeptics for whom no miracle will ever occur. Alas, the world today is awash in skeptics–and they miss the miracles even when they occur.


Psalm 16:1–7; Genesis 24:26–66; Matthew 9:1–13

Psalm 16:1–7: This psalm seems to be a confession of faith by a person newly converted from a pagan religion. He opens with his bold statement about his relationship with God: “I said to the Lord,/ ‘My master You are./ My good is only through You.” (2) The key point here is that true righteousness comes only through a relationship with God; it is not self-generated.

Although idolatry was once the poet’s practice, this small-g gods (here called “the holy ones”) must find others who will worship them: “As to the holy ones in the land/ and the mighty who were all my desire,/ let their sorrows abound–/ another did they betroth.” (3,4) It’s somewhat amusing to think about a wooden or carved stone idol having feelings and that their ostensible sorrows would “abound.”  But such is the depth of belief by people in their idols of choice. But as for the idol he has rejected, it must find someone else to cling to (which is how I read “betroth.”)

Again, the poet restates his trust in God: “The Lord is my portion and lot,/ it is You who sustain my fate.” (5). We see a glimpse of a father-son relationship between God and poet when he tells us, “An inheritance fell to me with delight,/ my estate, too, is lovely to me.” (6) And how wonderful is our our estate–our life situation–as well when we pause and think of all God has done and is doing for us.

Genesis 24:26–66: Rebekah’s big brother, Laban, sees Rebekah decked out in the jewelry that Abraham’s still unnamed servant gave her and invites him in for dinner. Dinner is placed before the servant, but “he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” (33). laban invites him to speak and the servant tells the story that Abraham insists that his son;ts wife come from the father’s native land–hence his errand. He recounts how Rebekah’s appearance exactly followed the script that the angel had given–down to Rebekah’s reply, “‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’” (46)

Laban and Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, agree to the deal because they, too, know God: ““The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” (50, 51)

So, Abraham’s servant is overjoyed and deposits all the dowry with Laban and Bethuel. BUt there’s a hiccup: Laban and Rebekah’s mother ask to “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” (55) The servant demurs, saying, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful.” (56) No doubt very wise lest anyone change his or her mind.

Rebekah returns to Canaan with the servant and her maids. Seeing Isaac, she quickly dismounts her camel and asks, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” (65a). The rservant replies, “It is my master,.” Rebekah, “took her veil and covered herself.” (66).  The major key violin music swells and the scene fades to black.

Without doubt, this is one of the most detailed and romantic stories in the OT. It’s also one of the few where we hear the woman speak so much. One wonders why.

Rebekah of course becomes the mother of Jacob and Esau, and later plays a major role in the deception of old Isaac in bestowing his blessing on Jacob rather than the elder brother. I think it’s important for us to know that Rebekah truly loved Isaac and came to love Jacob. Inasmuch as Rebekah plays a major role in israel’s national story, I’m sure that this romantic interlude amidst all the sturm und drang made the story all the more appealing in the telling. And every Jewish woman could look to Rebekah as the romantic bride that they would be pleased to emulate.

Matthew 9:1–13: Jesus returns to Capernaum where Jesus pronounces that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven and heals him. This of course reflects the Jewish view that illness was the result of sin–either the individual’s own sin or those of his family. Matthew is informing his mainly Jewish audience that Jesus’ main role is to forgive sins, with healing as the happy side effect.

That this is Matthew’s intent is underscored when he reports that scribes observing this think–but do not say aloud–“This man is blaspheming.” (3). Being Messiah Jesus of course perceives their thoughts and says, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” (5) And for the first time we hear Jesus identify himself as the Son of Man–one of the terms used in Hebrew Scriptures for the promised Messiah.

Matthew notes that the crowds “were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (8) In other words, Jesus was 100% human, which of course is what we believe, too.

It’s at this point that Matthew, the tax collecting author of this eponymous gospel comes on the scene. Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”  (9) Jesus, being a party animal, eats in celebration, apparently at Matthew’s house with his new disciple’s friends. The hyper-religious Pharisees disapprove and Matthew sets out one of his major themes in Jesus’ reply: ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (12) His point to The Pharisees: You guys are fine, but there are others who need caring for.

Then, being Matthew, whose Jesus is constantly referring to the Scriptures, quotes Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”–a passage surely known by the Pharisees, but I’m sure they never heard it in this context before. Once again, we have Jesus shining a completely new light on Scripture. Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I’m sure the Pharisees were left speechless for there is simply no rebuttal. Jesus made it clear that in supping with “sinners” he was acting out exactly what Hosea meant when he said that famous line. 


Psalm 15; Genesis 23:1–24:25; Matthew 8:23–34

Psalm 15: This short psalm is a relief from the reflections on evil that its predecessors have focused on. Instead, it limns the qualities of the righteous in the answer to the rhetorical question, “Lord, who will sojourn in Your tent,/ who will dwell on Your holy mountain,” (1). Which of course is a reference to those who are qualified to worship at the temple in Jerusalem.

There are no metaphors in this psalm, just the all-important yet simple list of the moral attributes of the righteous person.  “He who walks blameless/ and does justice/ and speaks truth in his heart.” (2) The phrase, “speaks truth in his heart” informs us that the first requirement is that we are honest with ourselves neither deluding ourselves nor being in denial. (And we all know how challenging that is!)

As always, what we say and do to others is the crucial expression of the honesty already in our heart, here stated as negatives: “Who slanders not with his tongue/ nor does evil to his fellow man/ nor  bears reproach for his kin.” (3) The righteous man is capable of clear judgement and sees wrongdoing for what it is: “The debased in his eyes is repugnant/ but to Lord-fearers he accords honor. (4a)

The righteous man keeps his promises: “When he vows to his fellow man,/ he does not revoke it.” (4b). And finally and perhaps most difficult for many, “His money he does not give at interest.” This seems to be a clear injunction against usury, but we cannot avoid the implication that money we lend to our relatives and friends is interest-free. Finally, “no bribe for the innocent he takes,” (5a) i.e., he is not bribed to testify in court against a person he knows to be innocent.

The simple conclusion: “He who does these/ will never stumble.” (5b) Of course, for all of us performing well and consistently is far  easier said than done. But it’s nice to have this handy list.

Genesis 23:1–24:25: Sarah, aged 127 years, dies before her husband, and “Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (23:2). The patriarch has been living among the Hittites as a resident alien, but now it is necessary to bury Sarah there and he does not own any land. The Hittites deeply respect Abraham and tell him to “Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.” (23:6). But Abraham politely declines because has his mind set on the cave of Machpelah, which is owned by a certain Ephron. Abraham is willing to pay full price, but Ephron offers it to him free.  But Abraham insists on paying the 400 shekels even though it’s a mere pittance to Ephron. And he does so publicly “in the hearing of the Hittites” (16) as his witnesses. This was no secret transaction. And “Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.” (23:19, 20)

So why is it so important to Abraham to buy this land and so important to the editors to consume an entire chapter telling this story? I think it is because it justifies Israel’s claim on the land of Canaan as their own. After all, Abraham had bought and paid for it. In other words, then the Israelites eventually return to Canaan they are morally and legally justified in seizing it from its inhabitants, who are in effect dwelling illegally on property bought and paid for by Israel’s patriarch.

One of the qualities we can assert about Abraham is his desire for complete control. It’s time for Isaac to marry and Abraham is determined to make sure his son does not marry a Canaanite. He calls his servant to return to bring back a wife for Isaac from his native land. The servant notes this will be difficult and it might be better “to take your son back to the land from which you came.” (24:5) Abraham rejects that because “the Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’” (7) Once again, the editors are making it clear to all that Canaan is the new land of the Patriarch’s offspring.

After sealing the vow with the odd and somewhat repulsive gesture of the servant putting his hand under Abraham’s thigh, the servant departs. He arrives in Nahor, understandably puzzled about how he is going to find a wife for Isaac, and prays, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.” (14:12) and creates a scenario of asking for a drink of water and the girl who replies, “‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” (24:14)

Lo, and behold, Rebekah does exactly that. Even better, the “girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known.” (16) The servant (who really should at least have been named because of all the great work he’s done here) is convinced that Rebekah is the woman for Isaac. He pulls out a gold nose ring and two large gold bracelets and asks to see her father. Rebekah kindly offers him a place for the night.

So, why all this detail about finding Isaac’s wife? Because as we will see, she will become the mother of the Israelites. This is an extremely important detail in their national story and as we see in another virgin who comes many centuries later, the purity and virtue of motherhood is exceedingly important.

Matthew 8:23–34: Jesus is catching some shut-eye won Peter’s boat when the famous storm comes up. The others are terrified and cry for help: “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus, after telling them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (26) promptly quells the storm to the amazement of his disciples. We assume this is the same storm that appears in Luke but here there is no walking on water.

This power is on display again when Jesus heals the two demoniacs and sends the demons into the pigs, which famously jump off the cliff. The swineherders are non too pleased and run back and tell the townspeople about what happened. The townspeople “begged him to leave their neighborhood.” (34)

By juxtaposing these two events, Matthew is demonstrating that this Jesus fellow was much more than a miracle-healing itinerant rabbi. He has power over the earth (the storm) and the principalities and power under the earth (the demons). It important that this evidence comes early in the story to underscore just how great this Messiah is and gives us the larger framework for events yet to come in this gospel.

Psalm 14; Genesis 22; Matthew 8:5–22

Psalm 14: This is not a psalm of supplication but a philosophical soliloquy on the moral depravity of the society in which the psalmist finds himself. Once again, we have a prophetic (as in “forthtelling”) psalm that could have been written by Jeremiah or Ezekiel, who reflected on the same issues.

The psalmist opens with a dark observation about the people around him: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is not God.'” (1a) Not only have they rejected God, but this rejection has led to moral depravity: “They corrupt,/ they make loathsome their acts.” (1b) In fact, and even worse than in Noah’s time where God at least found one good man, here the psalmist finds no one morally worthy: “There is none who does good.” (1c)

These corrupt people may think there is no God, but as in Noah’s time, God is in heaven observing human affairs, looking for one good man: “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning,/ someone seeking out God.” (2) But as the psalmist has already observed, it’s a fruitless search, “All turn astray,/ altogether befouled. / There is none who does good. /There is not even one.” (3)

The psalmist again asks, this time more incredulously, how these people can miss God’s presence: “Do they not know,/ all wrongdoers?” (4a) These evil ones are like locusts, “Devourers of my people devoured them like bread./ They did not call the Lord.” (4b) Despite all this evil, “God is with the righteous band.” (5a) And once again, we encounter the theme of how the powerful exploit the poor, but God is watching: “In your plot against the poor you are shamed,/ for the Lord is in his shelter.” (6) The evil ones will at last receive their just desserts..

And with the knowledge that God is watching all this evil, the psalmist prays for God’s intervention: “Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue/ when the Lord restores His people’s condition.” (7a) And at that wonderful time, “May Jacob exult/ May Israel rejoice.” (7b)

This psalm is proof that we can cry out in despair about the reality that we are surrounded by God-rejecting evil. But as we cry, we also know in our hearts that God is indeed still here. And although the present may look dark and hopeless, there is a future where God will finally bring justice.

Genesis 22: The authors of the famous story of Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac begin by telling us God’s motivation for this bizarre story: “God tested Abraham.” (1) Alas, as with so many stories in the Bible we only hear one side of the conversation. Would that we could have heard what Abraham said in reply to God’s command. Would it have been something like, “You’ve got to be kidding, God. After all the trouble it took to get Isaac in the first place?” Or, perhaps, “Isaac was a gift from you and now you’re asking me to give that gift back to you in the most cruel way possible.” We know that child sacrifice was common in other cultures of Abraham’s time, so it may have come across to Abraham as a cruel but all-to-familiar request. He may have concluded with some justification that this God was just like the other small-g gods in the region that were capricious and cruel.

Or did Abraham recognize from the first that God would not force him to actually carry through on this cruel plan and provide some means of escape? That’s my preferred scenario: Abraham ascended the mountain in the assurance that God would provide a means of escape.

Things go pretty far as Abraham builds an altar and somehow overcomes his son, (who is about 100 years younger than he, in order to tie him down). We have to imagine that Isaac was either drugged into unconsciousness, or simply played along to amuse his obviously insane father. Abraham draws the knife and the angel intervenes at the last moment: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (12) The ram stuck in the thicket magically appears and Isaac is spared.

The angel tells Abraham (and I presume, Isaac as well) that he has passed the test and that God says, “ I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (17)

Why this story? Whether it’s historical fact or not really doesn’t matter. I think the authors put it there to remind the Jews in captivity that while they are undergoing a severe test of their faith in Babylon, God is indeed faithful and will save them at the last moment just as he saved Isaac. When things seem darkest and most hopeless a sacrificial ram will appear in the bushes.

For us Christians, of course, this story is a metaphor for God sending his son, Jesus, to us. But unlike Abraham and Isaac, who escaped the dreadful act of a sacrificial death, Jesus did indeed become the final sacrifice on our behalf.

The chapter concludes with, yes, another genealogy, which must be there to provide narrative relief after the high drama that precedes it. Perhaps we’ll find out more in the next chapter.

Matthew 8:5–22: Although Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, he wishes to make it abundantly clear that Jesus came for everyone, both Jew and Gentile. He makes his point with the healing of the centurion’s servant, who “is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” (6) Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s house: “I will come and cure him.” But the centurion demurs and says, “only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” (8). We then hear a wonderful speech about delegation, which means trusting the job will get done without having to be physically present: “I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” (9)

Jesus is impressed: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith”(10) and he heals the servant from afar. But the most important thing Jesus says is that Gentiles will be included in the kingdom heaven along with the faithful Jews. And in what I think is a clear prophecy that Jesus will ultimately be rejected by the Jews, Matthew’s Jesus says, “while the heirs of the kingdom [the Jews] will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (12) I suspect that the community to whom Matthew was writing was hot to reject Gentile followers of Jesus and this is why the healing of the centurion’s servant is recorded as Jesus’ second miracle.

If the healing of the leper was the symbol of Jesus including the unclean, this story is that of Jesus including the Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, allowing us to know that Peter was married. One wonders if his wife accompanied her disciple husband on the three years of peregrination to come. Matthew has gone quite while without citing the Hebrew Scriptures, but at last he informs us, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Although it is John who speaks of Jesus being the Word, there is little question that Matthew’s Jesus is “Fulfiller of God’s Word.”

Matthew displays Jesus’ harsher, more demanding side with two would-be disciples. The scribe stands for those who are enthusiastic about following jesus, but are not ready to drop everything else, including abandoning their present lifestyle. Jesus makes it clear that anyone who follows him will not be leading neither a comfortable lifestyle nor staying in hotels: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (20) And he is demanding first priority. Even burying dead fathers is unimportant compared to the work afoot.

Of course, in reading this passage, I realize I am both the scribe who doesn’t want to camp by the side of the road and the man with higher priorities than following Jesus.