Psalm 8; Genesis 11:10–12:9; Matthew 5:17–26

Psalm 8: This beautiful psalm of celebration is to be accompanied on the gittith, which as Alter points out, “is another musical instrument that has eluded persuasive identification.” And the opening line is now the first line of a familiar parise song: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth.” (2)

The psalmist focuses on the splendor of creation, essentially a poetic reflection on the creation story of Genesis 1. As usual, we begin above, in heaven, only this is the literal heaven we experience on a clear night: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,/ the moon and the stars You fixed firm.” (4) In comparison to the enormity of space, humankind seems small and unworthy as the psalmist wonders why God bothers with us: “What is man that You should note hum,/ and the human creature that You pay him heed.” (5) Yet, for some reason God has “made him little less than the gods,/ with glory and grandeur You crown him.” (6) And we may as well enjoy our status.

Our position in the hierarchy is effectively in the middle: Less than God and just below the small-g gods (some translate this as ‘celestial beings,’) but greater the remainder of all God’s creation: “You make him [humans] rule over the work of Your hands./ All things You set under his feet.” (7). The psalmist then lists living creatures in what I take to be a hierarchical order, beginning with the domesticated animals on down to whatever is in the oceans: “Sheep and oxen all together,/ also the beasts of the field,/ birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,” and finally creatures at the very bottom of the ocean, or perhaps we could extend to snakes and insects: “what moves on the paths of the seas.” (8,9) Interestingly, he cites only living creatures, not vegetation.

Of course, as humankind, we have taken this psalm to heart far too enthusiastically, and used it as inexcusable justification for exploitation of animal life, driving far too many creatures to extinction. But it would do us well to read this psalm frequently as it wraps up with the last line the same as the first: “How majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

Genesis 11:10–12:9: The Jewish penchant for genealogical record-keeping finds its expression once again in listing, almost in sing-song form, the descendants of Shem, which leads inexorably to Terah, “the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran..” (11:26). Not surprisingly, this particular genealogy is more carefully crafted than those of Noah’s other sons because of course it’s the line that leads directly to the Jewish race.

[And also became grist for the mathematical mill of the seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher, who used the genealogies in the OT and in Matthew to calculate that God created the earth on the morning of October 23, 4004 B.C.  This of course, has led to the “young earthers” believing that creation is only slightly more than 6000 years old, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.]

The author’s purpose here is not so much to date creation as to lay out the all important introduction of Israel’s national story that begins with Abram, which begins with a journey, that becomes a a foreshadowing of the journeys of the Hebrews yet to come both out of Egypt and eventually out of Babylon.

God speaks to Abram and tells him in the famous verse, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (12:1) At this point we don’t know the details of the Covenant–that comes later–but God’s word is sufficiently compelling to cause Abram to leave a very comfortable existence in Ur. As Christians, of course, this journey is not is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey from heaven to earth as John records it in John 1 and Paul in Philippians 2.

Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot and end up in the “hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord.” (12:8)  If they had stayed there, Israel’s history would have been quite different. But we then read that “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” (12:9) where there are a couple of cities in the Negeb that will play a substantial role in Abram’s and Lot’s future.

Matthew 5:17–26: Jesus says something that the Christian church seemed to have forgotten down through the ages: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (17) Too often we assumed that Jesus trumped the law and prophets, thereby rendering not just the Law, but the entire Jewish race irrelevant–and worse, worthy of annihilation. Our images of a blond, long-haired Jesus in everything from pre-Renaissance art to Christian bookstore kitsch forget too easily that Jesus never saw himself as anything other than Jewish.

Paul picks up on Jesus’ self-characterization of being the fulfilment of the Law and prophets in the theology he develops, especially in Romans and Galatians. For Matthew, of course, Jesus’ statement that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (18) is his underlying theme of Jesus as being exactly that messianic fulfillment–a point Matthew seems to be able to make in every event in Jesus’ life.

But as far as the Sermon on the Mount is concerned, Jesus is radically recasting the Law and Prophets into a new and frankly, more difficult ethos as he elevates anger and insult to the ethical equivalent of murder: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (22)

These are tough new rules, and given today’s cultural coarseness, one we would do well to remember. Notice, too, that Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t be angry, but that we should not express that anger violently against others.

Instead of anger, Jesus is telling us to seek reconciliation. And don’t linger, nursing your anger. Instead, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.” The same goes for those who accuse you: ” Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” In other words, settle, don’t go to trial since things could turn out very badly for you. Among his countless other gifts, it’s clear Jesus would have been an excellent lawyer–a skill we see again at his own trial where he refuses to answer stupid questions.


Speak Your Mind