Psalm 68:19–27; Numbers 12:1–13:16; Mark 13:14–27

Psalm 68:19–27: Our psalmist realizes that God holds the key to life and death, and that when we are in peril, only he can save us: “God is to us a rescuing God./ The Lord Master possesses the ways out from death.” (21)

This is all well and good, but then we encounter some of the most disturbing images in the Psalms: “Yes, God will smash His enemies heads,/ the hairy pate of those who walk about in their guilt.” (22) This is a well known theme that the enemies of Israel will be defeated, but then the poet seems to pile on in imagery as we read, “That your foot may wade in blood,/ the tongues of your dogs lick the enemies.” (24) Who is “your” and “you?” It is certainly not God, so it must be the collective Israel, who will be triumphant over its enemies in bloody battle. The psalmist tells us nothing of God’s response to these assertions; God seems to remain silent throughout all of this.

The scene shifts quickly from the gore of the battle to a triumphal victory parade that appears to have God at its head and is apparently witnessed by Israel’s enemies. These enemies must surely be the “they” in “They saw Your processions, O God,/ my God’s processions, my king in holiness.” (25) as the scene somehow transmogrifies from military victory parade to a procession that is worshipping God. Our psalmist, being a musician and poet, reminds us that “The singers came first and then the musicians/ in the midst of young women beating their drums.” (26) Women beating their drums in a victory procession? Wow. There is an image that sticks in my mind. Victory has become worship and the singers “In choruses bless God,/ the Lord, from the fountain of Israel.” (27) Our poet doesn’t tell us what the “fountain of Israel” is, but it must have been known to those who heard this psalm.

These verses are disturbing to me. Does God countenance smashing our enemies heads? We know that Jesus certainly did not. In his poetic enthusiasm has our psalmist made assumptions about God and God’s character that are simply not true? I think that is where I come down on this disturbing stanza.

Numbers 12:1–13:16: We have complained frequently about the authors of Numbers being dry accountants, But as these chapters demonstrate, they are capable of writing excellent drama as well. First of all, we learn that Moses has married a non-Isrealite woman, a Cushite. This fact and the fact that God seems to speak only through Moses inflames Aaron’s and Miriam’s jealousy as they rather petulantly ask, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (12:2). Our authors are quick to point out that this accusation is unwarranted as “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (12:3). God calls a meeting in front of the tabernacle of the three and tells them (in verse, no less) that Moses is his man and the only human with whom he speaks directly. In fact, Moses “is entrusted with all my house./With him I speak face to face— clearly, not in riddles;/ and he beholds the form of the Lord.” (12:8) On short, God is simply saying that he speaks only through Moses. It may seem unfair, but there it is…

God stomps away angrily and “Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous.” (12:10) Realizing their folly, Aaron begs Moses, “do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed.” (12: 11) Moses, knowing better than Aaron that it is not he who heals, but God who heals, importunes God, “O God, please heal her.” (12:13) God responds that had she disrespected her own father by spitting in his face, “would she not bear her shame for seven days?” (12:14) So, God commands that the leprous Miriam be shut out of the camp for seven days. Which given what God might have done in his anger, is pretty light punishment indeed.

But what really bothers me here is that Aaron, equally guilty as Miriam escapes punishment altogether. Was it because he was the chief priest? Or because he was Moses’ brother and Miriam simply his sister? Or because Israel was a patriarchy? Probably all those things. And we need to be careful to read this story by removing our own cultural filters. It seems that for the magnitude of their sin, the lesson we take from this story is that by and large, God showed great mercy toward them.

Today’s reading includes the beginning of the story of the twelve spies to be sent into Canaan, one form each tribe, and “every one a leader among them.” (13:2) All twelve are named and as we shall see, that with the exception of “Caleb son of Jephunneh” from the tribe of Judah, all those leaders will go down in infamy.

Mark 13:14–27: Jesus continues his grim Olivet discourse by calling on apocalyptic language that hearkens back to Daniel, as he seems to be describing something that could be near term or may even not have happened yet: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” (14) We tend to think of the “desolating sacrilege” as the episode where Antiochus Epiphanes installed a pig in the Holy of Holies at the time of the Maccabees. But Jesus is clearly forecasting an event (or events) yet to come. Perhaps it is again the destruction of the temple in CE70. Or perhaps its a warning to all of us of the chaos that will come at the end of history.

Whatever this awful event is, we cannot escape it— be we on the rooftop of our house, out in the field or a nursing mother. Clearly no one is exempt from “those days [when] there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” (19). Only those working in the Kingdom will be saved: “but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.” (20).

Jesus then describes his own dramatic Parousia, when “the stars will be falling from heaven,/and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (25)  At that time the elect “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (26)

So, who are the ‘elect?’ Calvinists believe this is the group of Christians predestined to believe in Christ. But I’m less sure. Mark’s Jesus speaks in apocalyptic language that does not yield easily to a single interpretation. All I can do is go with the Creed. I believe in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” And with Jesus’ command, “But be alert; I have already told you everything.” (23) And I must leave it at that. 

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