Psalm 83:10–13; Deuteronomy 19:1–20:9; Luke 8:16–25

Psalm 83:10–13: We come to one of those disturbing OT passages whose prayers to God ask him to reach down from heaven and destroy Israel’s enemies. It’s one thing to read a  prayer that simply asks for generalized “enemies” to be defeated, but it’s quite another to read the very specificity of this prayer, where the writer lists enemies God has apparently already destroyed on Israel’s behalf in past battles (most of which are recorded in the book of Judges): “Do unto them as to Midian, as to Sisera,/ as to Jabin at the brook of Kishon.” (10) In other words, the psalmist is saying, ‘God, you’ve been on our side, defeat our current enemies, which he’s already listed above.

The images of defeated enemies are dramatically stark: “They were destroyed at En-Dor,/ they turned into dung for the soil.” (11) Then, the names of still more as God is asked to repeat the defeats he’s handed to Israel’s historic enemies: “Deal with their nobles as with Oreb/ and as with Zeeb and Zebah and Zulmunna, all their princes...” (12) These had the effrontery to predict victory over Israel, which of course did not come to pass: “...who said ‘We shall take hold for ourselves/ all the meadows of God.‘” (13)

So, what do we do with passages like these? Jesus came and changed the rules: we are to love our enemies and I’m sure he would discourage us form praying to defeat our enemies, although both individuals and nations have done exactly that down through the ages. Nevertheless, I think it’s better to read this psalm as history than as theology. The terms of the New Covenant have changed everything.

Deuteronomy 19:1–20:9: As in the book of Numbers, we arrive at the discussion of cities of refuge and the rules by which those who have committed accidental murder (manslaughter) can seek sanctuary. Here, there are three cities designated as refuge in three regions of Israel. Their purpose is to provide refuge for someone who has killed another in an accident [“Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies” (19:5)] He [and presumably, she] can flee to one of the cities and be protected against vengeance by the victim’s family. When Israel captures more territory another three cities will be added to the refuge list.

One has to admire the practicality and psychological understanding of victim and avenger here: it’s to prevent an endless line of vengeance killings because “the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death.” (6) But if someone is guilty of intentional murder flees to one of these cities, there will be no respite, only extradition: “the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death.” (12)

Another scroll scrap stuck in here: the laws of property come next in the simple statement: “You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.“(14) —a rule we follow to this very day via maps down at the county hall of records.

As for witnesses to a crime, “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” (15) False witnesses will be dealt with by receiving the same punishment their lies had intended to mete out to the falsely accused. Punishment of the guilty is intended as deterrence, not as rehabilitation: “ The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.” (20)

Above all, there must be balance: the punishment must fit precisely to the crime as outlined in the famous words: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (21) Alas, down through history, these words have been taken out of context and used as false justification for much personal revenge and for warfare. As recently as the shootings in Dallas.

The rules of warfare are clear. First, don’t be afraid if the enemy has more troops and superior weapons because Israel marches under God’s protection: “you shall not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (20:1) But far more is involved here than in just blindly engaging in battle. Showing a deep understanding of human psychology, there is a requirement for a priest to come out and exhort the troops, telling them, “Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” (20:3,4)

These are great words are for each of us to remember when we are confronting a personal battle or challenge. We are never alone; God is with us.

Demonstrating even greater psychological understanding, the troops are asked before battle if the have built a new house, is engaged to be married, they are to go home first and take care of business. Perhaps most importantly, is the question, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened?” (20:8). If so they are to leave the field and “go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.” (20:9) Morale is everything and sapped morale because the soldier next to you is disheartened is a recipe for tactical disaster.

Luke 8:16–25: Jesus’ acts and sayings are coming fast and furious now. As is constantly demonstrated in 21st century America, especially among the political class, secrets do not remain hidden: “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” (17) And Jesus exhorts us to listen carefully: “Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.” (18). The key to this saying is “even what they seem to have will be taken away.” What we cling to as Christians is the Kingdom of God; not worldly things. Jesus is simply saying that the things of this world that supposedly provide security, especially wealth and power, are ephemeral. One cannot buy one’s security with such transitory things.

We are often disturbed by Jesus’ apparently cavalier attitude to his own family. When told they’re “standing outside, wanting to see you.” (20) He replies, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (21) In other words, for Jesus, Kingdom work trumps human family ties. I don’t think he’s rejecting his family outright, and the fact that Luke records this event as following immediately after his statement about “what they seem to have will be taken away” tells me that in a society where family was the highest priority, Kingdom work has an even greater priority. Hard to take, but in the end, it is not our family that saves us.

Luke’s next scene is Jesus asleep in the boat when the storm arises. Inasmuch as several of the disciples had been fisherman it must have been a rather severe storm since they are in fear for their lives. Jesus is none to happy to be awakened and asks rather sharply, “Where is your faith” after he calms the storm.

Of course there’s a larger meaning here: when the inevitable storms of life surround us, we should have sufficient  faith that Jesus will see us through. But I’m afraid I’m more like the disciples than Jesus: it’s a difficult task to maintain such a calm faith when we believe we are near death. The day I was diagnosed with cancer I feared only one thing: dying—just like the disciples. Yet, here I am 7 1/2 years later. Jesus and medical technology have calmed the storm. But I still have to ask, where was my faith on that day?

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