Wednesday: Nahum 1:1-14; Psalm 49; Revelation 12:1-6; Luke 11:37-52
The book of Nahum is a biblical scholar’s quandary: there are questions about who wrote it, when, where and why? Because it identified two historical events: the fall of the Egyptian city of Thebes to the Assyrians in 663 BCE and the fall of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in 612 BCE, it is assumed to have been preached by the prophet in Judah soon thereafter and later written down. An initial reading can be troubling as it seems such an overt exultation and celebration of vengeance. It is a book or oracles against other nations, primarily Assyria, and includes woes against them. In Hebrew, it is a masterpiece of poetry. The first oracle is an acrostic, using nine of the first eleven letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and begins by warning that the Lord is a jealous and avenging God, raging against his enemies. Though slow to anger, the Lord is great in power and by no means will clear the guilty. Then the Lord is described with vivid imagery that we are accustomed to hearing in creation psalms: a whirlwind and storm. The Lord rebukes the sea—sets its limits—and dries up rivers. Mountains quake, hills melt and the earth heaves at God’s presence. Who can stand before God’s indignation, who can endure the heat of his anger that is poured out like fire? Then suddenly, in the midst of this, there comes an affirmation of God’s goodness. The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble, protecting those who take refuge in him, even in the midst of a raging flood. But he will also make a full end of his adversaries and pursue his enemies into darkness. The adversary is then addressed, and it is Nineveh: why do you plot against the Lord? God will make an end to his enemies; no adversary will rise up a second time. The Lord speaks, and it is difficult to know exactly who he is addressing, Judah or Nineveh. Some translations have made a choice and name Judah as the one who will be “afflicted no more,” while Nineveh will no longer have descendants to bear its name. Other translations think it best to leave the ambiguity in the text, since neither Nineveh or Judah are mentioned at this point in the Hebrew text. In fact, it may be an individual leading the oppression, such as the Assyrian king. However, it could as easily be a Judean naysayer who insists that the Lord will never act on behalf of Judah.
This wisdom psalm is addressed to all the inhabitants of the earth—both high and low, rich and poor—and warns against placing trust in one’s wealth or boasting in the abundance of one’s riches. Why fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of your persecutors surrounds you—those who trust in their wealth and trust in their riches? There is no ransom one can pay for one’s life; death comes to everyone: the rich and the poor, the wise and the fool die together and leave their wealth to others. Mortals may be pompous, but like all animals, we perish, whether foolhardy or pleased with ourselves. Like sheep appointed for Sheol, death is our shepherd. In the midst of all of this doom and gloom there is a surprising, even startling word—God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Here is one of the unusual places in the Hebrew Scriptures that witness to the belief that communion with God does not end at death (see also Psalm 73:24). And now the psalm turns to comforting those who see others gaining riches while they do not. Do not be afraid; they will die and carry nothing away. Though they count themselves happy—for those who do well for themselves are praised in this world—when they die, they will never again see light. Again, we are reminded that in spite of our pomp, we are like animals that perish.
A great sign appears in the heaven and we are given a six verse synopsis of what is taking place in heaven before the final judgment. This takes us behind the scenes to give us a vision of the struggle taking place throughout the cosmos, of which the church is only a part. A pregnant woman appears, clothed with the sun, the moon at her feet and a crown of twelve stars. She is crying out in birth pangs. This is the mother of the messianic community. The image reminds us of Paul writing that the whole creation is in the pangs of birth—sometimes called “messianic woes,” awaiting our adoption as the children of God (Romans 8:22). Then another portent appears with her: a great red dragon, with seven heads (the seven hills of Rome) and ten horns (great power), and seven diadems on its heads (seven rulers). The dragon’s tail sweeps down a third of the stars, as it chases after the woman and then stands before her as she is about to give birth to her child, waiting to devour it as soon as it is born. It is the messianic child who is born to rule all the nations. But the child is snatched away and taken up to God and placed upon a throne. The woman flees into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God where she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days—roughly equivalent to the 42 months—the time the nations will trample down the outer court of God’s temple. The portent speaks of the struggles of the messianic community until the full time of its suffering is complete, until the judgment begins on the world’s rulers and their league with the powers of evil, which has already been determined.
A Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him. Jesus accepts the invitation and a clash of two very different views on the religious live emerges from it. The Pharisee is amazed to see that Jesus does not wash first before eating—the Pharisees were very strict about such rituals and actions of outward purification. Jesus knows what the Pharisee is thinking and says, “You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, while inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” Then, in some of the strongest language yet, he calls them “Fools!” It is an epitaph that is reserved in the Bible for those who resist the ways of God. Do they not know that the one who made the outside made the inside as well? Verse 41 is a significant challenge, but seems to mean true cleanliness emerges from the inside out and not the other way around. Woe to them, they tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds—the seasonings of meals, not their substance—while ignoring the justice and love of God. (The purpose of the tithe was to support not only the Levites, but also the poor of the Land: the aliens, orphans and widows.) The woes continue as Jesus challenges them on their love for seats of honor in the synagogue, and their desire to be treated with the highest of respect in the marketplaces. Woe to them: they are like unmarked graves that people do not recognize and so walk over—they have so effectively worked to hide their hypocrisy that most people do not recognize it. But he does. One of them, a lawyer objects: “Teacher, when you say such things you are insulting us too.” That turns Jesus’ woes on the lawyers as well, for they load people with burdens hard to bear and do not lift a finger to ease them. They build tombs for the prophets whom their ancestors killed, and thereby witness to their own approval of that killing—“They killed them, you build their tombs.” They have killed all the prophets and apostles sent to them by God right from the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel—the first to be murdered, to the death of the prophet Zechariah who was stoned between the altar and the sanctuary (2 Chronicles 24:20-22). Theirs is the generation that will be charged with killing the prophets. Woe to them; they have not only take away the key to knowledge they themselves have not entered it and have hindered other from entering it as well. Is it any wonder that after this explosive encounter these religious leaders set out to do away with Jesus? This is no story-book Jesus who is meek and mild. From this point forward, he will be a violent odds with the religious authorities.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.