“Stop Me If I Have Told You This Before”
How many times do we hear the same story in Scripture? A lot! We have not yet completed the first five books of the Old Testament, but we already have heard several retellings of the same events. Manna from heaven and water from the rock. Testing, grumbling, and rebellion in the wilderness. Victories over King Sihon and King Og. Why does the Bible keep repeating itself?
A couple of good reasons exist for this repetition. Though we read the Bible as a written text, its composition occurred over hundreds of years. The OT stories we are reading now originated as oral history, transmitted from generation to generation and written down only as Israel acquired the means and the leisure to do so. Part of keeping the story alive in oral transmission is making it memorable—sometimes even formulaic. When we read several different allusions to the same event, we may be seeing a sign of the oral prehistory of the text we are reading.
A simpler explanation may be to think of our readings as Israel’s “family lore.” Do you have treasured stories in your family that you tell each time you gather? Sometimes our family stories capture a quintessential characteristic of a beloved person, or recount a pivotal event in the family’s life, or explain how our people came to live where they did. Each time we gather, we tell these formative stories; in repeating them we both rehearse and impress upon ourselves our collective identity. Israel told and retold the story of its formative experiences as God’s people, and we have the opportunity to learn our “faith-family history" from our forebears.
Old Testament Readings: Numbers 26-36, Deuteronomy 1-5
Our readings in Numbers this week begin with another census. Whereas the first census (Numbers 1) occurred early in the wilderness trek, at Mount Sinai, the census in ch.26 happens towards the end of the travels, “in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” (26:3)—the border of the Promised Land. The first census counted “all who were able to go to war” (1:2, 3), presumably preparing for the armed conflict that is ahead. This later census enumerates the tribes and clans more for the purpose of allocating the land into which Israel enters. Indeed, these final chapters of Numbers look forward, anticipating the realities of the settled life in the land the Lord provides. In this way it serves as a foretaste of Deuteronomy, an entire book of instruction from the Lord about how to live as God’s chosen people.
This practical framework helps to explain the various topics within these chapters. We read (yet again!) a list of the different periodic worship offerings, so as to maintain the nation’s holiness before God (ch.28). We learn of God’s vengeance on Midian, reminding us of the dangerous seduction of idolatry (ch.31; cf. ch.25). The narrative spends a great deal of time on the allocation of the land: each tribe’s allotment described geographically (chh.32,34); the establishment of cities for the Levites and cities of refuge (ch.35); and the special rules of inheritance for women (chh. 27,36). And the book offers a retrospective on all the wilderness travels, recreating the itinerary for the historical record (ch.33). Though these chapters look back to the wilderness journey, the memories they capture bear value for Israel’s future, providing the story that later generations could consult for both sacred and practical reference.
An important theme in this section is the death of the old generation in the wilderness and the rise of the new generation that will enter to possess the Promised Land (26:63-65). Except for Caleb and Joshua, all the original pilgrims die without entering the new land—most pointedly, their leader Moses. The Lord explains that the peoples’ quarreling and testing implicates Moses, who “fail[ed] to uphold me as holy . . . before their eyes” (27:14; see Deuteronomy 3:26 for Moses’ version). By focusing on obedience to God’s will as the criterion for divine judgment, the story anticipates the concern of Deuteronomy and the later history to explain Israel’s success or failure as a function of its faithfulness to God’s covenant.
The Book of Deuteronomy is set entirely on the border of the Promised Land. Set as an extended farewell address by Moses, it offers Israel an authoritative set of instructions on their life as God’s people—a restatement of God’s Law from the one who received it. Paired with the original presentation of the Law in Exodus, Deuteronomy (Latin for “second law”) helps to frame the entire wilderness sojourn in a covenantal context, in terms of God’s expressed will (Torah/Law/instruction) and Israel’s obedience.
Chapters 1-3 review the history of Israel’s travels, starting at Mount Horeb (Deuteronomy’s name for Mount Sinai). Moses chooses events that illustrate the themes he wants to emphasize. Israel’s rebellion against God’s will results in its miserable defeat in battle (1:19-46). In contrast, Israel’s courageous obedience aligns it with God’s power to defeat King Sihon and King Og (2:26-3:11). In chapter 4, Moses exhorts the people to obey and to share God’s instruction (vv.1-14); to reject idolatry (vv.15-31; and to have no other god than the Lord (vv.32-40). These major emphases prepare the reader for Moses’ presentation of the Law, beginning with in chapter 5 with the Ten Commandments.
New Testament Readings: Luke 2-6
Our readings in Luke cover familiar territory this week. We begin with the majestic telling of the birth of Jesus Christ. Luke sets the action historically, during the reign of a particular Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). This detail provides historical specificity, but more importantly it invites us to see the birth of the Messiah, though unnoticed at the time, as a matter of world-shaking importance. Reading this story straight through, not just in small increments at Christmas, allows us to see the sweep of Luke’s account: Luke takes us from the pastures to the stable; from Jesus’ first visit to the Temple, for his dedication, to a later visit, in which he demonstrates a growing, inquisitive faith and a focus on his “Father’s business.” The awareness that Messiah is among us comes quietly and incrementally, mediated through the events of Jesus’ early life and childhood.
Chapters 3-6 describe the early movements of Jesus’ adult ministry. Here Luke follows the order provided by the earlier Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism by John, after which he undergoes a season of testing “in the wilderness” (3:1). The setting and its length of “forty days’” evokes the formative trek of the Israelites; Jesus’ fulfillment of his calling as messiah—his completion of the pilgrimage—will necessitate his reliance upon God and his shunning of every temptation to swerve from God’s will and take an easier path. The story concludes with Satan’s departing “until an opportune time” (4:13), a suggestion that this spiritual struggle plagued Jesus throughout his ministry.
Luke account of Jesus’ early ministry emphasizes his spiritual authority, which derives from God. The people recognize this authority (cf. 4:32), which draws increasing opposition from the local religious leaders. Jesus teaches in his home synagogue in Nazareth, but the congregation accuses him of blasphemy and nearly kills him (4:16-30). When Jesus calls his first disciples, he conveys his divine power in a miraculous catch of fish (5:1-11). But when Jesus eats at the home of his new disciple Levi, the scribes and Pharisees grumble about his eating with tax collectors and sinners (5:27-32). When Jesus uses this power to heal people or free them from demons, the scribes and the Pharisees focus upon his flaunting of the religious regulations (5:17-25; 5:33-39; 6:1-11). Luke wants us to feel the power of God’s Kingdom in Jesus’ words and actions, as well as to recognize the threat that ultimately will lead to Jesus’ execution.
Like the more familiar Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) offers a compelling vision of life in God’s rule. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes adds a series of “woes” to the statements of blessing, making clear the warning of the great reversal of which Mary sang earlier (1:46-55): the rich have already received their consolations, and the full shall become empty (6:24-25). Throughout his gospel Luke emphasizes God’s concern for the poor and the futility of human efforts to fulfill our lives apart from God’s will (cf. 6:46-49).
Psalms: 35, 36
Psalm 35 is a prayer to the Lord, asking for divine help in the fight against unnamed enemies. The imagery of warfare (vv.2-4) and hunt (vv.7-8) convey the urgent distress of the speaker, whose existence seems threatened. But further reading suggests that the danger may be more figurative: “malicious witnesses” (v.11) and “profane mockers” (v.16) whose “words of deceit” (v.20) are the actual weapons. Nonetheless, the speaker’s distress is real, and the feeling of helplessness an existential threat. The speaker asks the Lord to vindicate his faith by providing the help that will save him and by punishing those who have opposed him and, by extension, the Lord.
Psalm 36 also deals with the problem of the wicked enemy, but with a more general, less personal approach. Verses 1-4 portray the wicked, whose root problem is that “there is no fear of God before his eyes”; because of this, “[t]ransgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart” (v.1). Wickedness is primarily a condition of the soul (disbelief in God) that manifests itself in evil behavior, not the reverse. The psalm contrasts this wickedness with the countervailing power, “the steadfast love” of the Lord (vv.5,7,10). The abundant beauty and graciousness of this love, with its power to bless the righteous, overwhelm any threat offered by the evil ones.