Psalm 7:11–18; Genesis 10:1–11:9; Matthew 5:1–16

Psalm 7:11–18: The psalmist’s world is pretty black and white as he observes that God “exacts justice for the righteous,” (12a) but also “El [ed note: another word for God per Robert Alter] utters doom each day” (12b) on the wicked. Our poet uses a stark military image of God punishing the man who refuses to repent: “If a man repent not, He [God] sharpens His sword,/ He pulls back His bow and aims it./ And for him [the wicked man], He readies the tools of death,/ lets fly His arrows at the fleers.” (13, 14). In short, the wicked will eventually pay for their crimes, even though God seems to be aiming but not releasing his arrows upon them.

In one of the more ironic metaphors in the PSalms, our poet describes the gradual growth of a man turning to wickedness as a perverse type of pregnancy that goes through three stages: “Look, one spawns wrongdoing,/ grows bug with mischief,/ gives birth to lies.” (15) And the wicked man cannot blame others for his condition; he has done it all on his own: “A pit he delved, and dug it,/ and he fell in the trap he made.” And wickedness eventually backfires: “His mischief comes down on his head,/ on his skull his outrage descends.” (17). Or as my father used to day, “The chickens always come home to roost.”

Needless to say, our righteous psalmist is happy about God’s requirement for justice: “I acclaim the Lord for His righteousness,/ let me hymn the Lord’s name on high.” (18) As should we. While it seems so often that injustice reigns, it would be insanely difficult to live in a world where there was no justice or righteousness at all.

Genesis 10:1–11:9: As we’ve observed before, without a belief in an afterlife, the only way one could be remembered is by one’s progeny, which is why Jews were pretty obsessed with genealogy.Since the story makes it clear there were only three sons of Noah, their respective descendants are listed, the authors felt it necessary to record this unique genealogy that traces not only individuals, but families and then entire nations.

One wonders if this list was solely compiled by the Jews writing Genesis, or if other nations of that time also recorded genealogies, especially ones dating back to the flood story, which as we’ve noted had widespread currency beyond Israel. I suspect they did since most of civilization BCE was organized by families, families into tribes, and tribes into nations.

Along the way, some individuals Nimrod receive special attention: “ He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” (10:9) Perhaps this is because “he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh.” (10:11), a civilization which figures prominently in Israel’s later story.

The same for Caanan, another big player, whose geographic territory is included: “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (10:19). One’s eye does not skip over those famous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which will figure later in the book.

One comes to the end of chapter 10 with a clear sense that humankind is back–and back with a vengeance.

This of course leads to the Babel story which solves a particular problem: Since the Noah myth asserts everyone has descended from a single family, they quite naturally all speak the same language. But by the time the authors wrote Genesis it was apparent that numerous languages abounded and an explanation was required. They found the solution by writing about those folks who settled on the plain of Shinar who start building  tower as an expression of the technological prowess. In fact, God is a bit worried about their skill: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (11:6)

The old human pride and arrogance that distressed the antediluvian God is now once again on full display. God had promised not to wipe people out, so he resorts to Plan B: “let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7)

And for the authors of Genesis, a nice explanation that aligns their national story with reality on the ground. And we also benefit now by having the word “babble” passed down to us. In fact, we could see what occurs every day in the print and electronic media reminds us that the echoes of Babel persist right to today.

Matthew 5:1–16: We arrive with Jesus on the hillside outside Capernaum. The crowd is already there, Jesus sits down and his disciples gather round as Jesus teaches the most famous list since the Decalogue. Just as the original Ten Commandments established the basis of Israel’s civilization, the Beatitudes form the ethical basis of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus will have much to say.

But perhaps their most radical aspect is that they no longer begin with “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” but rather, the word “blessed.” This seems a clear indication of what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians that we live by a new and even more radical regime, the marvelous consequence of the operation of the Holy Spirit within us. The law is no longer an externality handed down from God above. Rather Jesus is describing a state of being that comes from within. Our behavior has been turned inside out. We are blessed because we are. Jesus, as God on earth, has figured out once again that we humans are disinclined to obey rules. Whatever we are, our fruits must come from within, nurtured by the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, as many have observed, Jesus turns the moral order upside down. The poor in spirit arher than the connected or the powerful  inherit the kingdom. The pure in heart, the emotionally downtrodden rather than the perfectionist practice of the Pharisee sees God. And so forth.

From our vantage point 2000 years later we do not fully appreciate just how radical the Beatitudes are. These first words out of Jesus’ mouth set the conflict between Jesus and established religious order into motion immediately.

Nor is Jesus advocating some sort of “secret society” religion. Instead, we “are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (14) Jesus is not advocating just a life of inward contemplation, but a life of action “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” To be sure, there is being, which is what the Beatitudes describe. But there is doing as well.

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