Author Archives: Neil

Psalm 76 The Fearfully Powerful Defender of Peace

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Psalm 76

<To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.>
1 In Judah God is known, his name is great in Israel.
2 His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion.
3 There he broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war. Selah
4 Glorious are you, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.
5 The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; none of the troops was able to lift a hand.
6 At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned.
7 But you indeed are awesome! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?
8 From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still
9 when God rose up to establish judgment, to save all the oppressed of the earth. Selah
10 Human wrath serves only to praise you, when you bind the last bit of your wrath around you.
11 Make vows to the LORD your God, and perform them; let all who are around him bring gifts to the one who is awesome,
12 who cuts off the spirit of princes, who inspires fear in the kings of the earth.

The image of God as an incredibly powerful Divine Warrior occurs frequently throughout the scriptures. The world of the ancient Middle East was a conflicted one with war being a frequent feature as rival kings or empires competed for power, land, and wealth. The spoils of war were for most of history a significant source of income for the powerful and an incredibly dangerous upheaval for those who victims of the warriors who pillaged. Psalm seventy-six’s essence is, “our God is more fearful than the instruments and warriors of war.” In a world that is unsafe, an awesome (fearful) deity who defends the people would be a source of confidence.

The psalm centers on Jerusalem as the place where God is known. Like Isaiah 2: 2-4 and Micah 4: 1-4 there is a focus on Zion being a place where war ends, and the nations come to learn the ways of the God of Jacob. The initial verse begins with a parallel between Judah and Israel, in Judah God is known and in Israel God’s name is great. Being known in Hebrew reflects intimacy, while the honoring of God’s name as great indicates the power of God. In characteristic fashion[1] the psalm brings together the desire of God to dwell among and be known by the people with the awesome power of God where God’s name is to be held in honor. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, pp. 609-610) The parallelism continues with the dual naming of Jerusalem (Salem and Zion) as the dwelling place of God. Salem is from the Hebrew shalom (peace, harmony with God). Zion refers to the hill on which the city is built (there are various theories on what its origin of the term, but the term has become synonymous with Jerusalem or the dwelling place of the people of God). The term for dwelling place has been used elsewhere for a lion’s den or lair and it is possible that the metaphor of God as a lion is introduced into the poetry here. (NIB IV:980) In language similar to Psalm 46, God shatters the instruments of war and perhaps war itself. The ‘flashing arrows’ are likely flaming arrows (the meaning of the first word is uncertain) and most translations indicate that the final thing shattered are the weapons of war, but the Hebrew simply states war. It is possible that the presence of the Divine Warrior shatters the personification of war itself. God stands glorious (literally shining forth) and more majestic than the mountains.[2] Now the strongest warriors have had the spoils of war taken from them and the troops are unable to stand as they sink into the sleep of death. Horse and rider lay stunned at the voice of God. The Divine Warrior who resides in Zion is a fearful foe.

The key word in verses seven through twelve is “feared” (NIB IV: 979).[3] When the Hebrew Bible speaks of the ‘awesomeness’ of God it reflects the fearful strength of this Divine Warrior who defends the people of God but also is never to be taken for granted by the people. This is why Proverbs states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). The God who dwells in Zion, who desires to dwell among the people of God is a God who the earth fears when that God utters judgment in anger. Yet, God’s judgment and anger is to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed of the earth. Kings and princes who attempt to seize power learn to fear God’s judgment, while for the weak this fearful one who brings an end to war is a source of powerful hope.

The chosen people were not to strive to become a military superpower that relied upon armed men and war horses to conquer the nations around them. The story of Israel is complex and their reliance upon the God of Israel does not prevent acts of seeking military conquest or attempting to build armies to defend themselves, conquer their neighbors, or to maintain control internally. The law and the prophets envision (in general) a people of peace defended and sheltered by a Divine Warrior whose dwells among the covenant people. This reliance was tested in a conflicted world. There would be kings in Judah and Israel who would raise up sizeable armies, yet in comparison the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, or Persia they would always be vulnerable militarily. Yet, I believe this psalm shares a hope with Isaiah for a time when nations learn the ways of the God of Jacob, no longer train for war, and return the implements of warfare to the tilling and harvesting of the land.

[1] For example, Genesis begins with two creation narratives, one where God creates by speaking (awesome power) and one where God dwells among creation in the Garden of Eden and talks with Adam (intimacy), these twin themes are frequently present in the Exodus narrative, the prophets, and psalms.

[2] Another challenging line for translators. The Hebrew tarep is often assumed to be a copying error since it means prey. If prey is intended here, God stands forth on the mountain of prey like a lion (see above) (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 609). Hebrew poetry often has individual words or phrases that are difficult to translate because they are rarely used words or ideas.

[3] Hebrew yare– this is rendered as both awesome and fear in the NRSV.

 

Psalm 75 God’s Answer to the Boastful and Arrogant

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 75

<To the leader: Do Not Destroy. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.>
1 We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks; your name is near. People tell of your wondrous deeds.
2 At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity.
3 When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady. Selah
4 I say to the boastful, “Do not boast,” and to the wicked, “Do not lift up your horn;
5 do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with insolent neck.”
6 For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up;
7 but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.
8 For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.
9 But I will rejoice forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.
10 All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.

This short psalm which points to trusting God in the presence of those who are boastful and wicked may, like the previous psalm, originate in the context of the destruction of Judah by Babylon. The first three psalms of book three of the psalter are likely placed together intentionally at the beginning of the psalms of Asaph. Although the psalm itself does not have many references that would specifically point to the destruction of Jerusalem or the exile in Babylon it shares common language with the prophets of that time, particularly Habakkuk. Yet, the psalm itself can be a source of strength for anyone who is waiting for God to lift up the weak and bring down the arrogant, silence the boastful, and judge the wicked.

The psalm likely takes place in the context of a worshipping community praising God in preparation for petitioning God with their concern. The initial verse is a challenge to translate and understand because of the phrase ‘your name is near.’[1] Yet, if this is initially spoken within the context of a worshipping assembly in the temple (your name’s dwelling place in the previous psalm) it is a community giving God thanks in the midst of the temple. The words of the assembly are interrupted by God’s voice beginning in the second verse where God declares that at the appointed time God will judge with equity. The divine oracle may extend through verse five or verse six, but these words from the God who holds the pillars and foundations of the earth in the midst of the chaos tells the wicked and boastful not to sound their own horn. Perhaps this is the boastful Babylonians who are gloating in their military might and national power, but in the presence of the God of Israel their insolence is an annoyance. The solution to the crisis of that time will not come from the east (Egypt) or the west (Babylon) or the wilderness. The lifting up of the oppressed and lowly will be accomplished by the God of Israel. Verse eight uses a common image in scripture for God’s judgment, a cup,[2] and like the prophets the psalm expresses God’s judgment on the wicked and arrogant as a hope for the righteous who are suffering in the turmoil of the world. The divine voice returns for the final verse where the power (horns) of the wicked are cut off and the righteous are lifted up.

For the psalms, and the bible as a whole, the righteous live in dependence on God while the foolish, arrogant, and wicked boast in their own power and accomplishments. Even in the midst of the chaos of the world around them where the wicked seem to be powerful the faithful still assemble to give thanks to God and to anticipate God’s action to set the world aright.  The people of God have always been a “community waiting and hoping for justice.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 327) God’s justice may not be seen in the moment, but the community lives in hope and seeks out the places where they can hear God’s voice speaking to them. They wait for the time when the boastful are silenced and the wicked are brought down so that all of humanity and all creation can live in shalom (peace).

[1] The Hebrew versions of this (MT) reads “and near your name, they recount.” The Greek (LXX) and Syriac ancient translations read “and we call on your name.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 602) I agree with the NRSV and NIV which follow the Hebrew as explained above.

[2] Isaiah 51: 17, Jeremiah 25: 15; 49: 12, Ezekiel 23: 32-34, Habakkuk 2: 15-16, Revelation14: 10; 16:19; 18:6

Digital Worship September 25, 2022

Both the contemporary online service and the sermon from this service are embedded at the bottom of the post.

16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2022

We are gathered in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy   Spirit.

Amen

God of all mercy and consolation, come to the aid of your people, turning us from our sin to live for you alone. Give us the power of you Holy Spirit that, attentive to your Word, we may confess our sins, receive your forgiveness, and grow into the fullness of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us confess our sins in the presence of God and of one another.

Gracious God, have mercy on us. In your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone. Uphold us by your Spirit so that we may live and serve you in newness of life, to the honor and glory of your holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life

Amen

Greeting:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Prayer of the Day

God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

 First Reading: Amos 6: 1a, 4-7

1aAlas for those who are at ease in Zion,
  and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,

4Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
  and lounge on their couches,
 and eat lambs from the flock,
  and calves from the stall;
5who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
  and like David improvise on instruments of music;
6who drink wine from bowls,
  and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
  but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
  and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Psalm: Psalm 146

 1Hallelujah!
  Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
  I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3Put not your trust in rulers,
  in mortals in whom there is no help.
4When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
  and in that day their thoughts perish. 
5Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help,
  whose hope is in the Lord their God;
6who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
  who keeps promises forever;
7who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.
  The Lord sets the captive free.
8The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
  the Lordloves the righteous.
9The Lord cares or the stranger;
  the Lord sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
10The Lord shall reign forever,
  your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!

 Second Reading: 1 Timothy 6: 6-19

6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.17As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Gospel: Luke 16: 19-31

[Jesus said:] 19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

Sermon: Pastor Neil White

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Assisting Minister

Let us pray:

Creating God, source of all life, we rejoice in the incredible creation that you have given us to watch over. As you continue to renew your creation day by day we ask that you grant both your people and leaders, global and local, a heart to care for the earth. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord God, ruler of all the earth, where nations and communities yearn for peace and justice we ask for your steadfast love and righteousness to guide those working for peace. Watch over those who dedicate their lives to the protection and service of others including: Ben, Brycen, Christian, Clayton, Daniel, Dillan, Ethan, Evan, Luke, Michael, Spencer, Sydney, Tyler B. and Tyler G. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Healing God look on your children with compassion and ease the suffering of those dealing with emotional or physical pain. Have your healing hand upon:  Aubrey, Avery, Betsy, Billie, Bob, Brenda, Brandon, Cohen, Dan, Dennis, Denver, Donna, Eliza, Gary, Gloria, Jamie, Jan, Jerry,  Kay, Laurie, Linda, Makayla, Maureen, Mike, Nolan, Roger, Sandy C., Sandy P., Tom and Wayne 

Lord, we pray for the ministries of the ELCA and the Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod, we also lift up in prayer today: First Sagrada Familia Lutheran Church, Garland, Abiding Grace Lutheran Church, Southlake and ELCA Conference of Bishops

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Leader: In trust and hope, we commend to you, O Lord, all for whom we pray. Amen.

Sharing of the Peace

Highlights

Offering Offering may be given in the offering plate or electronically through the Tithe.ly app. If you want to honor your electronic gift during the offering there are cards on the usher’s table for that purpose.

Words of Institution

Lord’s Prayer

 Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer

A: Let us pray. Lord Jesus, in this sacrament you strengthen us with the saving power of your death and resurrection. May these gifts of your body and blood create in us the fruits of your redemption and grace in our lives, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Blessing

DiscipleLife

L:    As God has claimed us as his own in Christ,

       we seek to follow Christ with these marks of DiscipleLife:

§Praying Daily

§Worshiping Weekly

§Studying the Bible

§Serving Others

§Building Spiritual Friendships

§Giving to God and our Neighbors in Need

§Engaging God’s Mission

Dismissal: “Go in peace, serve the Lord. Thanks be to God” Alleluia

Psalm 74 A Psalm When the World Collapses

Memorial to the Main Synagogue in Munich which was destroyed during Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938. Psalm 74:18 is used in the center of the monument.

Psalm 74

<A Maskil of Asaph.>
1 O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.
4 Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
9 We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?
12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O LORD, how the enemy scoffs, and an impious people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals; do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

This is one of several places in scripture where poets and prophets wrestle, together with the rest of the people of God, over the loss of the temple and the transport into exile. Some of these reflections engage with the deep hurt and anger at the loss of their home, like Psalm 137. Others, like Jeremiah or 2 Kings, point to the unfaithfulness of the people in their relationship with God as being responsible for the disaster. Psalm 74 also attempts to make sense of the destruction and violence that has been encountered and wonders how long it will be before God acts to restore the people and fulfill God’s portion of the covenant. In the aftermath of a defeat at the hands of an enemy which has destroyed both their military resistance and the symbols of their faith the psalmist calls upon God to act and restore the people and the house where God’s name dwells.

The defeat of Jerusalem by Babylon and the destruction of the temple causes a crisis of identity for the people of Judah. The temple, more than just a building but a symbol of their faith, the Davidic king, promised to reign perpetually, and the land have all been taken away and those who have attempted to remain faithful to the covenant now have to reshape their identity without these central aspects of their life. Unlike in the prophets or in the narration of Israel’s history, there is no confession of guilt here. Perhaps the psalm comes from a place still too fresh for that type of reflection, or the psalmist may view that they and those around them have remained faithful. They do not question the justice of God’s action against the people of Judah, but they turn back to the covenant and God’s action to claim them as a people and ask for God’s restoration and forgiveness. The cause of their disaster is God’s anger and casting off of the people and their restoration can only be found in God’s turning back toward them.

The appeal is to God’s sovereignty. Although there is no confession of guilt and no declared acts of repentance the psalmist believes their enemy has gone too far. God’s anger should be kindled against them because they have burned the holy place, smashed, and vandalized the building, have placed their emblems and symbols in the places where only the name of God should dwell and have burned any place where the people could gather. The enemy’s triumph has caused not only the people of God to be scoffed, but God’s name to be dishonored. With no holy place or holy people to bear a message from God the people can only shout ‘how long’ and hope in the silence for a word from God to answer their question.

I believe that the enemies in this psalm are the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem in 598 BCE and the language in the second half of the psalms reflects a polemic against the religion of the Babylonians that we are familiar with through the Enuma Elish where Marduk kills the great multi-headed dragon Tiamat (Leviathan) and sea monsters (dragons). In contrast it is the LORD, the God of Israel, who triumphed over the chaotic forces of the sea in the creation and who subdued the great monsters that threatened creation. This God who created the day and night, sun and stars, springs, and streams, and fixed the boundaries of the earth can act on behalf of this conquered people. The God who formed a covenant with the people in the Exodus and overcame Egypt can now overcome Babylon. The God who hears the poor and the vulnerable can now hear their cry from their oppression and will deliver. But if none of these reasons are suspicious, the psalmist calls upon God to defend God’s name from the impious who scoff at God’s power. The enemy who conquered the people has arrayed themselves against God and the people wonder aloud how long they will wait before they see God’s response to the adversaries of this generation.

Psalm seventy-four ends without a resolution and those speaking it enter into the space of waiting for God’s answer. Even in the midst of crisis the faithful ones continue the conversation with God and call upon God to act. The Babylonian exile does not end the crises that will arise for the faithful people, and this psalm has been a resource in times where national or personal identity has been challenged among the faithful. The picture above is from a memorial for the main synagogue in Munich, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 and the center of the memorial uses Psalm 74:18 as the Jewish people would once again ask God, “how long” while an impious people in their actions destroyed the holy places of the people and in words and actions reviled the name of God.

Psalm 73 When Faith is Challenged

Love is Not a Victory March by Marie -Esther@deviantart.com

Psalm 73

<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1 Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
10 Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works.

Several church communities I am familiar with have adopted the popular, “God is good all the time and all the time God is good” saying. While I do not disagree with the assertion that God is good, an honest reflection on the life of faith may question the experience of God’s goodness. One of the gifts of the psalter is that it includes prayers that wrestle with the experience of God’s goodness in a world where the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous suffer. The righteous ones in the psalms ask questions of God, speak openly of the things that make them question their way of life as they, “keep looking for truth in the midst of an imperfect world.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 593)

What does it mean for God to be good to the upright and the pure of heart in a world where the wicked are at peace and the righteous suffer. The observation of a world where the immediate experience seems to contradict the promise of prosperity for those keep God’s covenant. In Hebrew the psalmist sees the shalom of the wicked (translated prosperity in the NRSV). Shalom indicates peace and prosperity. It is what is promised to the righteous but is now viewed by the psalmist as being received by the wicked. Their physical and emotional health is secure, they are well fed, they bear no consequences for their violent words and actions, their pride is viewed by others as a virtue. Their way of life seems to contradict the will of God and yet they seem to be rewarded in society for their self-centered actions. On a societal level this seems to have been the struggle of Israel, staying faithful to God when their neighbors seemed to prosper, and on an individual level the psalmist confesses that it nearly caused him to stray from the path and adopt the practices of these apparently successful wicked ones.

In contrast the ones who has kept their hearts clean and washed their hands in innocence have encountered suffering.   Whether their pain is physical or social, it causes them to question the efficacy of the way of life they have attempted to walk. They live in tension between their faithfulness to the circle of the faithful and their view of the peace and prosperity of the wicked. In the moment the world appears to be upside down with the wicked prospering and being commended while the righteous suffer and are excluded or taken advantage of. It is only by bringing this question to the community of faith and the place of worship that the psalmist is able to see beyond their perception of the moment.

The resolution of this psalm reminds me of the difference between climate and weather. Weather is the observation of the atmospheric conditions and their impact in a short window of time while climate looks at the compilation of individual weather observations to study the changes over time. The psalmist initially is observing the wicked within a short window of time but once they enter the sanctuary of God they see that this window of time is transitory. In the moment the wicked may experience shalom, but it is an evanescent experience that will vanish like a dream disappears upon waking. Indeed, the psalmist views the current prosperity of the wicked as an slippery slope that ultimately leads to their ruin. The psalmist confesses their own shortsightedness which caused them to question God’s goodness in the world and to consider the attractiveness of the ways of the wicked ones who lived well-fed and well-loved in their community.

The psalmist ends in a space of faith. The experience of the moment is transitory, but God is their rock that they can lean upon. God’s justice may not be experienced immediately, but the wicked will not find shalom forever, they will find that God can know and that their actions are seen. Yet, in pondering the prosperity of the wicked, the righteous one has found their treasure in being close to God. The process of questioning one’s experience has brought the poet closer to God. The prosperity of the wicked no longer seems as appealing since the psalmist desires nothing more than the presence of God. For the upright they come to know that God is good not in their experience of material prosperity but instead in God’s physical proximity.

The Book of Judges

Cracked pots, Picture taken by Enric from the Monestary of Sanahin, Armenia shared under creative commons 4.0

Transitioning into the Book of Judges

Judges 1 The Disposition of the People of Israel

Judges 2 The Pernicious Cycle of Disobedience

Judges 3 The First Three Judges

Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

Judges 5 The Song of Deborah and Barak

Judges 6 The Calling of Gideon

Judges 7 The Collapse of the Midianite Threat

Judges 8 The Conclusion of the Gideon Narrative

Judges 9 The Brief Bloody Reign of Abimelech

Judges 10 A Brief Respite and the Pernicious Cycle

Judges 11 Jephthah and a Corrupted View of God

Judges 12 Jephthah’s Ignoble End and Three Minor Judges

Judges 13 The Birth and Calling of Samson

Judges 14 Samson and the Marriage at Timnah

Judges 15 Samson’s Fiery Vengeance

Judges 16 Samson, Delilah and a Crashing End

Judges 17 The Idol of Micah

Judges 18 A World Where Might Makes Right

Judges 19 The Levite, the Concubine, and the Violence of Gibeah

Judges 20 War Between the Tribes of Israel

Judges 21 A Tragic Conclusion

Resources on the Book of Judges

Reflections After Walking Through the Book of Judges

 

Reflections After Walking Through the Book of Judges

Cracked pots, Picture taken by Enric from the Monestary of Sanahin, Armenia shared under creative commons 4.0

The scriptures that both Christians and our Jewish ancestors have inherited are a deeply varied collection of works that attempt to make sense of the encounter between the people of God, the world around them, and the God who has called them. The reality that our scriptures include this violent, colorful, and disturbing book with a tragic ending is pretty exceptional because many people would attempt to hide a book that paints the tribes of Israel in an unflattering light, that contains several texts of terror, that presents Israel’s loss of identity so completely and its Judges as such flawed characters. This was a difficult book to look deeply at, not due to technical issues but because of its dark portrayal of the lawless world of this time between Joshua and the first kings of Israel.

The stories that are compiled in the book of Judges are ancient and their world is alien to us. It is hard not to impose modern ideas about civilization onto these stories, but in both technology and worldview this takes us to a very primitive place. The law as we see it outlined in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy is absent and reading closely we see the patterns of worship often are indistinguishable from those of other communities like the Canaanites. I would agree with many modern scholars that the law probably reaches its final form much later than the events narrated in Judges, but I also am suspicious that there has been much lost from the time of Moses and Joshua where a common leader was able to unite the tribes. In a pre-literate society without a common set of leaders and where even the Levites fail to hand on the worship and the law of God we end up with a collection of tribes whose life and practices reflect the land of Canaan they live within.

The book of Judges is part of a larger pattern within the scriptures including 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings which attempts to view history through a theological lens and make sense of the collapse of Israel and Judah. Many of the stories that make up Judges were probably well known and told for generations around campfires. They are stories that may point to a ‘heroic culture’ and ‘heroic individuals’ within a broader time of oppression. The narrator of Judges attempts to bring these stories in all their strangeness together into a common narrative which can point to a broader cultural disintegration among the tribes of Israel and prepare the people for the next stage in the history of the people, the time of kings. Samson, for example, struggles with his identity as a person set aside from birth for a particular calling and he does everything he can to deny this identity. Yet, Samson is reflective of Israel as a whole turning aside from their calling (in the narrator’s view) and the seemingly godforsaken world at the end of the book is reflective of Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the covenant.

I do think that the way our Jewish ancestors organized the Bible which includes Joshua through Kings as a part of the prophets (Nevi’im) rather than the writing (Ketuvim) is insightful to the purpose of this book. Instead of being a book of history which narrates the events, this is a theological telling of history to illustrate the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness for the people. The dark topics covered with the book are uncomfortable, but they have provoked some interesting and deep discussions both within the confines of these reflections and within my community. As distasteful as they may be, the texts of terror contained within the book demand a telling and my experience is that if we are unwilling to talk about them when others stumble upon them they will seek answers and not all those who talk about scripture among the broader church do it in a helpful manner.

I am glad to complete this journey. The book of Judges will probably never be one of my favorites, but I do feel like I have learned from this journey through the book. I have attempted to be sympathetic to the narrative and to as much as possible understand the stories in their context. I know my narration of this book is far less triumphal than some, and even the book of Hebrews (the one New Testament reference I’m aware of to the book) interprets it in a triumphal tone:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, and shut the mouth of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11: 32-34)

The book of Judges instead ends with the cry of abducted and traumatized women, the aftermath of tribes going to war with one another, and an Israel who looks more like Sodom than any vision of Zion. Just as dystopic literature can highlight the things that are wrong in our modern society, this theological exploration of this lawless and disunified time in Israel’s story helps to illuminate the dangers of the people losing their identity and conforming to the practices of the surrounding world. It may not be comfortable reading, but it can be enlightening.

Resources on the Book of Judges

This is a list of the major sources I used in this six-month excursion through the book of Judges. I picked each resource for a reason and below is a brief evaluation of each source. It is not a comprehensive evaluation of the literature on the book of Judges.

Hattin, Michael. Judges: The Peril of Possession. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2020.

When looking at books from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) I have tried to include a Jewish voice in the conversation, and I was introduced to the Maggid Studies in Tanakh when I was working on Jeremiah years ago. The Maggid Studies are a careful reading that are approachable without a background in Biblical Studies. Michael Hattin’s study of Judges has some keen insights from both his own readings and the Jewish history of interpretation into the reception of this unusual piece of scripture. The organization of the comments is more topical than textual and in combination with the other voices it was a valuable source.

Mobley, Gregory. The Empty Men: The Heroic Tradition of Ancient Israel. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

This is not a commentary but instead is a study into the stories of three individual judges (Ehud, Gideon, and Samson) from the perspective of ‘Heroic Culture’ and ‘Heroic Conventions.’ Looking more broadly at the literature of the ancient Middle East, Gregory Mobley attempts to provide a richer backdrop for hearing the narratives of the judges as hero stories. To me this is a useful resource to help place the book of Judges in a framework that is closer to its origins.

 

 

Olson, Dennis T. “The Book of Judges.” In New Interpreter’s Bible II: 721-888. 12 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

The NIB (New Interpreter’s Bible) is a solid resource as a resource for preaching and teaching that covers the entire bible and goes into some textual issues, but it primarily is focused on giving a fuller context to the story. Dennis Olson’s contribution on Judges is very readable and much shorter than some of the other stand-alone resources on the book. It is not designed to be a textual commentary but does a good job in highlighting the structural linkages throughout the book.

 

Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Even though this only covers the stories of Jephthah’s daughter and the Levite’s concubine this is a must-read resource for thinking about the book of Judges. Phyliss Trible is a phenomenal reader of texts and her ability to rhetorically craft a sentence for impact is powerful. She brings both the tools of feminist criticism and literary criticism together and her careful exegesis of the Hebrew of these two stories (and the additional two stories that make up the volume from Genesis and 2 Samuel) is stunning.

 

Webb, Barry G. The Book of Judges. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2012.

Barry Webb’s mammoth commentary on Judges is a part of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) which is a rich historical and textual resource.  This was probably the resource I used the most but at over five hundred pages it is probably more than most people want to read on the book of Judges. For those who are interested in diving deeply into the Hebrew translation this is a great text, and it also does a great job at identifying parallels in the text of Judges but also throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

Judges 21 A Tragic Conclusion

Benjaminites take the virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Dore 1865

Judges 21

Now the Israelites had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” 2 And the people came to Bethel, and sat there until evening before God, and they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. 3 They said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, why has it come to pass that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?” 4 On the next day, the people got up early, and built an altar there, and offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. 5 Then the Israelites said, “Which of all the tribes of Israel did not come up in the assembly to the LORD?” For a solemn oath had been taken concerning whoever did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah, saying, “That one shall be put to death.” 6 But the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. 7 What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by the LORD that we will not give them any of our daughters as wives?”

8 Then they said, “Is there anyone from the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah?” It turned out that no one from Jabesh-gilead had come to the camp, to the assembly. 9 For when the roll was called among the people, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there. 10 So the congregation sent twelve thousand soldiers there and commanded them, “Go, put the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead to the sword, including the women and the little ones. 11 This is what you shall do; every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” 12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man and brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

13 Then the whole congregation sent word to the Benjaminites who were at the rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. 14 Benjamin returned at that time; and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-gilead; but they did not suffice for them. 15 The people had compassion on Benjamin because the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel. 16 So the elders of the congregation said, “What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since there are no women left in Benjamin?” 17 And they said, “There must be heirs for the survivors of Benjamin, in order that a tribe may not be blotted out from Israel. 18 Yet we cannot give any of our daughters to them as wives.” For the Israelites had sworn, “Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to Benjamin.” 19 So they said, “Look, the yearly festival of the LORD is taking place at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 20 And they instructed the Benjaminites, saying, “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, 21 and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. 22 Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.'” 23 The Benjaminites did so; they took wives for each of them from the dancers whom they abducted. Then they went and returned to their territory, and rebuilt the towns, and lived in them. 24 So the Israelites departed from there at that time by tribes and families, and they went out from there to their own territories. 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

An ugly ending to the tragic narration of the period of Israel’s history between the time of Joshua and the time of Samuel, Saul, and David. Once again a rashly spoken oath leads to violence against women but now instead of a single daughter losing her life an entire town is destroyed and at least six hundred women between Jabesh-gilead and the festival at Shiloh are pirated away from their homes and are viewed as a human peace offering for the tribe of Benjamin. The LORD remains silent to the accusation of the Israelites that God has caused this problem. God may have delivered Benjamin into their hand, but it is the Israelite men who went beyond Gibeah and destroyed the rest of the tribe’s homes and families.

Once again at Mizpah a tragic vow is spoken. Jephthah was appointed as a judge at Mizpah, and it is there he spoke his vow which resulted in his daughter’s sacrifice. Now it is the gathered tribes who have made the oath which cut Benjamin off from the other tribes and now in the aftermath of the war the remnant of Benjamin is six hundred fighting men with no prospect of a future beyond their generation. Benjamin still remains outside of Israel, and like the Canaanites the people are not to intermarry with them. Yet, in the aftermath this is a cause for mourning among the tribes. Yet, there is another tragic oath that is made at Mizpah which provides a part of the dark solution that the leaders of the tribes accept.

The second oath was to punish any group that did not join in the crusade against the Benjaminites. As Michael Hattin indicates there are similarities with this narrative and the war against Midian in Number 31: 1-20. (Hattin, 2020, p. 202) In both cases 12,000 Israelite combatants were sent and only the women who are young enough not to have slept with a man are spared the slaughter, but now the same treatment is used against a group of Israelites. The four hundred young and traumatized women are presented as a peace offering for the Benjaminites and as a way to bring the remnant of Benjamin back into the congregation of Israel. Yet, when there are still too few women the solution proposed by the leaders is to encourage the kidnapping of women participating in a festival to the LORD. A narrative that begins with the abuse, rape, and brutal dismemberment of one woman now has led us through the elimination of the women and children of one tribe and ends with the abduction and traumatization of at least six hundred additional women. “The Israelites seem unaware that kidnapping and rape violated basic covenant obligations more severely than any vow.” (NIB II: 886)

The book of Judges narrates a loss of covenantal identity for the people of Israel. The worship of the LORD has taken on the characteristics of the worship of the Canaanite deities. The tribes and families were never unified but they have now devolved into warring groups among themselves. At the beginning of the book women were named and were granted respect, at the end they are captives carried away, concubines raped and dismembered, the innocent casualties of a war spun out of control, nameless and voiceless. While I can appreciate the desire for inclusive language in the final verse of Judges, in the days where there was no king in Israel it is men (and in the Hebrew it is men) that do what is right in their own eyes. It is a dystopian portrayal of a time where rash vows are made and where the reestablishment of Benjamin as a tribe is to be done by the surviving virgins of Jabesh-gilead and the kidnapped dancers of the festival at Shiloh. Women are viewed as child bearers and a commodity to be traded for peace and their trauma and desires are immaterial to the narration of this final tragic story.

As Barry Webb highlights, at the end of the book of Judges the land of Canaan has not become the land of Israel. (Webb, 2012, p. 511) On the one hand the desperate events indicate the need for a different type of leadership to bring the individual tribes together and to create a different environment than the hellish one portrayed here. The Levites, the tribal and familial networks, and the judges have not enabled Israel to remain faithful to its covenant identity. Ironically the first king, King Saul, will be a Benjaminite from Gibeah and his first battle will be freeing Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite oppressors (1 Samuel 10-11).

Although the book of Judges ends on a tragic note to modern eyes, it is not the end of the story nor is it the only story. The short story of Ruth comes from the time of the Judges, and it is a story that illustrates some of what Israel was intended to be and it makes possible the later story of David. 1 Samuel follows the event of the Judges, and while the tribes will continue to struggle throughout the time of the kings to remain faithful, God does not allow this tragic ending to the be last word of the people of Israel. Despite the lack of faithfulness among the people God continues to provide an opportunity for the people to grow into their identity.

Review of Light in August by William Faulkner

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 49: Light in August by William Faulkner

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

Light in August deploys a combination of poetic and banal language to tell an ugly story with a series of characters who for their own reasons are unable to exist within the confines of their society. There is something that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor in the way Faulkner uses beautiful language combined with the simple speech of the characters in his stories that is authentic to their education and station. There are many times where the language and the assumptions of the American South in the 1930s, when the novel is written and set, are jarring to the ears of a modern hearer, but the novel is historically situated in a time where the views on race, sex, religion, and society are very different from our current era. At times I could fall into Faulkner’s poetic use of prose, and he is truly gifted as a wielder of the English language, but each of the characters is unlovable in their own ways. Whether it is the indomitable Lena who refuses to give up her search for Lucas Burch/Joe Brown who is the father to the child she carries, Joe Christmas whose birth and life seems to be overshadowed by a questionable birth and lineage and a grandfather who views his divine calling as bringing about the destruction of his grandson, or Gail Hightower the disgraced minister who lives in the shadow of his grandfather who died in the Civil War.

Light in August is a work of art but like all art its reception is subjective. The world of the 1930s American South at times seems like an alien world for its strangeness and prejudices. There are times where the work seems dystopian and none of the characters, except perhaps Byron Burch, attempt to be heroic. For me the prose is gifted but the story is plodding and the characters seem to fit into a deterministic pattern based upon their inherited flaws. I can appreciate it as a classic but it was hard to hear the speech of the 1930s South, especially towards Black Americans, and not cringe at the way the derogatory terms for Black Americans continued to echo in my head even after putting the book aside. Perhaps it, like Flannery O’Connor’s work, present an uncomfortable mirror to the world of my grandparents whose prejudices echo in both spoken and unspoken ways in our own.