Psalm 76; Numbers 31:13–47; Luke 2:1–20

Psalm 76: This psalm of thanksgiving appears to celebrate a victory over an unnamed enemy, and proclaims God’s mighty power: “There did He shatter the bow’s fiery shafts,/ the shield and the sword and the battle.” (4) God seems to have worked what to the psalmist appears to be supernatural power, which enabled Israel to overcome its enemies: “The stout-hearted [enemies] were despoiled,/ they fell into a trance,/ and all the men of valor could not lift a hand.” (6) Nor did God accomplish this quietly: “By Your roar, O God of Jacob,/ chariot and horse were stunned.” (7) All in all, the psalmist asks, “who can stand before You, in the strength of Your wrath?” (8b)

God does not just bring military victory, but he bestrides both heaven and earth: “From the heavens You made judgement heard,/ the earth was afraid and fell silent,” (9). Then, the theme of the psalm shifts from celebrating victory to God’s criteria for judgement, which is not just about military power, but about how those in power have treated those without power: “...when God rose up for judgement/ to rescue all the lowly of the earth.” (10). This theme of judging the mighty on behalf of the “lowly of the earth” pervades the Psalms. But as we look at history, battles are inevitably fought about power and might, not about saving the poor and powerless.

Nevertheless as the psalmist tells us, God stands in judgement and it is the powerful whom he ultimately judges by their actions: “He plucks the life-breath of princes./ He is fearsome to the kings of the earth.” (13) Those in power would do well to remember this verse: that they are subject to a still higher power. Alas, there are few in history who understood this. King David is the obvious exception for Israel.

Numbers 31:13–47: We come to one of those disturbing passages describing an quality of God we’d rather not think about. Fresh from their battle of conquering the Midianites, the troops return home with captives and booty. “Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp.” (13). Moses asks why the soldiers have allowed the women and children to live and insists, “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.” (17). His rationale is that it is these women who led the Israelites astray in the “affair of Peor.” (16). Nevertheless there is a quality of racial extermination that our 21st century sensibilities find repugnant. At least the virgins are allowed to live.

Everything about the battle—soldiers, captives, booty— is unclean and instructions for purification are issued.

This being the book of Numbers, our priestly accountant authors make sure that God tells Moses and ELeazar to conduct a thorough inventory. The numbers are impressive: 675,000 sheep; 72,000 oxen; 61,000 donkeys, and 31,000 virgins. I will not linger and reflect on the stench of that many animals…

The booty is divided equally between the warriors “who went out to battle” (27) and the rest of the Israelites. From the Israelite share a “tabernacle tax” of one out of fifty of all the animals is given over to the Levites.

What to make of this passage? We certainly understand that war is a cruel business and the victors not only get the spoils, but get to write the history. My own suspicion is that as the authors wrote they retrospectively gave the whole fairly sordid affair the imprimatur of being at God’s command. But in doing so, they have projected a very undesirable human quality on God.

On the other hand, we need to be careful not to project our Christian value system onto an event that occurred some 3000 years ago. And as Israel will learn to its ultimate sorrow, intermarriage with other tribes tends to lead to disastrous outcomes.

Luke 2:1–20: This is perhaps the most familiar bible passage in our culture. Luke is providing a Gentile context for the birth of a very Jewish baby by linking the event to Augustus and Quirinius. He provides a specific time of the event, a census ordered by Augustus. He gives us precise geographic locations: Nazareth and Bethlehem.

Unlike, Matthew, there’s no “no room at the inn” story. We learn only that Mary delivered her child in Bethlehem. The angels appear to the shepherds and we hear the most familiar angelic words of all—“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (10) Notice that Luke says, “all the people,” i.e., Gentiles as well as Jews.

As instructed, the shepherds rush to the manger. But they did not just remain there, stuck in a creche. Instead, “they made known what had been told them about this child;” (18) Words travels quickly and “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” (19) No doubt there was great excitement in the Jewish community that a Messiah had been born. Any knowledgeable Jew would know that this event was finally the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise.

Luke shifts his focus from the shepherds and their news, and brings us back to Mary, who once again, ponders all that has happened in her heart. Of every character so far in this gospel, it is Mary who is the reflective one. I think Luke is telling his community—and us— that not only is the Good News worth telling everyone about, but its true profundity requires deep reflection. We need to be Mary-like at the news of the incarnation.

So, why the infancy story, which neither Mark nor John saw fit to include? I think Luke wanted to convey in the most dramatic way possible that Jesus came to earth in real space and real time as a real human being. That Jesus did not just materialize in the clouds, but is an incontestable historic event, grounded in humility (the manger) and in humanity. Luke wants to make sure we resist over-spiritualizing the incarnation.

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