Psalm 78:40–55; Deuteronomy 2; Luke 4:22–30

Psalm 78:40–55: Our poet continues his reflection on Israel’s rebelliousness despite all the great things God has done and provided: “How much they rebelled against Him in the wilderness,/ caused Him pain in the waste land!” (40). We don’t often think about causing God pain when we turn away from him, but as the story of the Exodus demonstrates so forcefully, the God of Israel had fierce emotions, whether it’s burning anger underlying his frequent desire to annihilate the entire lot of them, or in this case that their turning away causes great hurt. Our God far more than an impassive supreme being.

To illustrate his point, our poet circles back around the Exodus story by recapitulating the plagues that God brought to Egypt, beginning with how “He turned their rivers to blood,/ their currents they could not drink.” (44). He then recounts the invasion of the frogs (45); the locusts (46); the hail (47);  the pestilence afflicting their animals. The psalmist captures God’s feelings beautifully with the various synonyms for anger: “He sent against them His smoldering fury,/ anger, indignation, and distress,/ a cohort of evil messengers.” (49)

As far as our poet is concerned, the plagues of Egypt are the direct outpouring of God’s anger: “He blazed a path for His fury,/ He could not keep them from death,/ and to the pestilence He gave their life.” (50) This anger culminates in the Passover, “And He struck down each firstborn in Egypt,/ first fruit of manhood in the tents of Ham.” (51)

Attention now turns to Israel, his metaphorical sheep: “He led His people forward like sheep,/ drove them like sheep in the wilderness.” (52) Notice that God both “leads” and “drives froward,” which is a pretty good description of how God works in our own lives. We want to be led by God, but sometimes when we resist doing something hard or unpleasant God “drives us forward.”

God leads and drives; he also guides: “And He guided them safely—they feared not,/ and their enemies the sea covered.” (53) God brings Israel to Sinai: “He brought them to His holy realm,/ the mount His right hand had acquired.” (54) Rescued Israel is safe—”He drove out the nations before them/ and set them down on a plot of estate,/ and made Israel’s tribes dwell in their tents.” (55) With the drama of the plagues, escaping the terror of the the final plague, and then the incredible rescue through the sea, we would think Israel would be eternally grateful to God. As we know too well, more trouble is brewing with this restive mob.

Deuteronomy 2: In parallel with the psalm, the writers of Deuteronomy, using the device of Moses speaking to Israel, also recapitulate Israel’s history in the wilderness. Moses focuses on Israel’s rebelliousness and lack of faith. In this chapter, we get an interesting review of the places through which Israel passed. We tend to think of the wilderness wanderings as being in empty space, devoid of other people. But this chapter makes it clear that Israel encountered many other tribes and nations during their sojourn.

Moses, speaking for God, had warned the Israelites not to engage in battle with the descendants of Esau, noting that God “will not give you even so much as a foot’s length of their land, since I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.” (5) In this case, Israel obeys.

Then, the Israelites are warned not to engage in battle with the Moabites, again because, it is not to be Israel’s land: “I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” (9)  The same instructions are given about the Ammonites, “do not harass them or engage them in battle, for I will not give the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot.” (19)

What’s fascinating here is that the battles of these other tribes also appear to be done under God’s willful guidance, as e.g., “Rephaim formerly inhabited it, …a strong and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim. But the Lord destroyed them from before the Ammonites so that they could dispossess them and settle in their place.” (20) While Israel may be God’s chosen people, it is apparnetly not the only nation whose history God has impacted.

After these successful encounters as Israel passes through without incident, Moses tells how he attempted to ask King Sihon of Heshbon permission to pass through, promising “will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left.” (27) But unlike the others, “King Sihon of Heshbon was not willing to let us pass through, for the Lord your God had hardened his spirit and made his heart defiant” (30). God tells Moses to engage Sihon and “the Lord our God gave him over to us; and we struck him down, along with his offspring and all his people…We left not a single survivor.” (33, 34)

In addition to giving an even more detailed history of the geography and encounters of the wilderness years, we learn that as far as the historians writing this letter were concerned, every event and every non-event as well has been directed by God. The question arises, does God guide our own lives and the events which impact us as clearly as he did Israel’s? Many Christians today speak of “God’s plan for my life.” But my own sense is that God does not create such detailed plans for us.

Luke 4:22–30: Jesus has finished reading Isaiah’s messianic prophecy and boldly announces to the congregation at Nazareth, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The immediate reaction is surprisingly calm, almost as if they didn’t actually hear what Jesus said, much less understand. Instead, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (22a) And, with no little incredulity, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (22b)

Jesus, apparently recognizing their incomprehension, tells them the next thing they’re about to ask is for him to do the miracles he’s famous for at Capernaum right here in his hometown. But he makes it clear,“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (24) His message being, “Forget it, people, even if I did them right here you’d still think of me only as Joseph’s son, not the Messiah.”

Then only here in Luke, Jesus tells the congregation that “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,” (25) when famine struck Israel. But that “Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” (26) And to drive his point home, another example: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (27)

The clear message here is that Jesus’ larger native hometown, Israel, will not listen to him, i.e., the Jews ultimately will reject him as their Messiah. But just as the Gentiles of old—the widow in Sidon and Nathan—were ministered to by Jewish prophets, so too, Jesus will minister the Gentiles of Luke’s time. This also suggests that Luke was written at a time when it was becoming clear that the Gentile Christians were becoming more numerous than the Jewish Christians.

Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ words did not sit well in Nazareth and “all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (28) as they literally chase Jesus out of town and “they might hurl him off the cliff.” (29) But Jesus ignores them and “went on his way.

I’m pretty sure that Luke’s Gentile readers and listeners felt that Jesus had specifically chosen them instead of the Jews. And that they would see everything Jesus subsequently does and say in the light of the rejection in Nazareth.

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