Joshua 19-21, Psalm 71, John 5
God Works 24/7
Joshua 19 – 21
After each tribe had received their inheritance in the Promised Land, the Israelites gave an inheritance to Joshua son of Nun. “By the command of the Lord they gave him the town that he asked for, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim; he rebuilt the town, and settled in it.” (Josh. 19:50) This portion was apportioned to Joshua after all of the tribal territories had been apportioned. The word serah means “leftover,” and this indeed is what it was. The original name of the town might have been changed to this after it was apportioned to Joshua and his family
This political enclave belonged completely to Joshua and his family. It was located about 12 miles southwest of Shechem. Archeological excavations indicate the existence of a fairly large settlement that was built in the Iron I period.
Chapter 20 lists some cities designated for Israelites and for aliens residing among them who had unintentionally killed someone. By establishing these cities, a person who had killed someone by accident could flee to one of these cities in order to avoid being killed by blood vengeance by a family member or friend of the person who had been killed.
Since the primary function of the Levites was to serve as sacrificial priests in the Temple, the Levites were not given a portion of the Promised Land to farm. (see Num. 18:23-24) Instead, the Levites received 48 towns with their surrounding lands to pasture their flocks and herds. (see Lev. 25:32-34) The precedent of assigning towns to priestly control may stem from Egypt’s practice in Canaan as well as the Hittite practice, where some cities placed them in the hands of the priests, who oversaw them. These Levitical cities might have been centers for religious instruction and education and possibly even for the collection of sanctuary revenues.
Six of the 48 Levitical cities were set aside as refuges for persons who had unintentionally committed homicide. (see Deut. 4:41-43) The concept of cities of refuge offered an alternative to the asylum altars which are mentioned in Exodus 21:12-14. The priestly writers would have been very concerned about polluting the altar and the sanctuary when a lawbreaker was allowed to grab hold of the horns of the altar and not be arrested or punished. By extending the asylum zone to the entire city of refuge, lawbreakers would not disgrace and thereby pollute the altar.
The six cities served as places where cool heads might prevail and justice might occur as opposed to revenge killings by friend or kin of the person who had been killed. Unlike the laws of the Hittites and the Middle Assyrians, Jewish law did not allow for ransom to be paid to buy back the life of the murderer. Sacred cities or royal cities as they were sometimes called had deep precedent in the ancient Near East. The purpose of these cities was ultimately to protect and insure the judicial process and to remove the rights of revenge from the family and place it on the government. This was a major transition in the evolution of the judicial system.
Chapter 21 concludes with a paragraph that is similar to concluding statements in other ancient Near East conquest annals. We read,
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Josh. 21:43-45)
Universal summary statements such as this proclaiming total conquest and complete subjugation of a people were normative in the ancient Near East. These summary statements often attributed the success of the complete conquest to divine plan and the valiant efforts of gods who fought at the side of soldiers or planned and commanded the battle.
Ancient Near East steles, which are stones or wooden slabs that were often erected as a monument and sometimes used for funerary or commemorative purposes, often carried such summary statements as part of the conquest annals. We find use of them by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in the recording of his third campaign, which included the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C., in the Merneptah Stele, the Moabite Stone and the Armant Stele of Pharaoh Thutmose III (1468 B.C.) The latter notes a summary “of the deeds of valor and victory which this good god performed on every excellent occasion.”
The Latin word lorica literally means “body armor” or “breastplate.” In the Celtic Christian monastic tradition a lorica was a prayer recited for protection. The lorica functioned like a spiritual shield. It was often used by knights, who recited them before going into battle.
Notable loricas include Rob tum o bhoile, a Comdi cride, whose English translation provides the text for the hymn Be Thou My Vision and the Lorica of Laidcenn and most importantly the Lorica of Saint Patrick, which is simply known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It is sung at the ordination of every Episcopal priest. It begins with,
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.
The lyrics of the hymn include,
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
The most famous story about this lorica is called The Leap of the Deer. After St. Patrick lit a fire to mark the Easter Vigil on a hillside in Ireland known as Slane, the local high king sent his cavalry to extinguish the flame and kill whoever lit it. The custom was that no flame could be lit until the high king himself had lit a fire. As the cavalry approached to kill Patrick and his colleagues, Patrick prayed this lorica and an enormous herd of deer appeared and so startled the cavalry that they departed in fear for their lives.
Psalm 71 functions as a lorica or prayer for lifelong protection and help. We read,
In you, O Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress. (Ps. 71:1-3)
The psalm balances the need to protection now with the need for lifelong protection.
O God, do not be far from me;
O my God, make haste to help me!
Let my accusers be put to shame and consumed;
let those who seek to hurt me
be covered with scorn and disgrace. (Ps. 71:12-13)
This implies some immediate need, but later the Psalmist seeks lifelong protection.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might
to all generations to come. (Ps. 71:18)
There is even a statement of gratitude that includes repaying one’s debt for God’s protection.
All day long my tongue will talk of your righteous help,
For those who tried to do me harm
have been put to shame, and disgraced. (Ps. 71:24)
Jesus gets into difficulty with the Jewish leaders early on in John’s Gospel. After making a whip of cords and driving out the sacrificial animals and overturning the tables of the money changes in the Temple in chapter 2, Jesus now heals on the Sabbath day. The miracle takes place by one of the entrances to Jerusalem called “The Sheep’s Gate.” Nearby was a pool of water, which had five porticoes. Invalids would gather by the pool. Legend has it that when the water was troubled and small ripples appeared it was because an angel had entered the pool. Whichever invalid entered the water first would be healed.
There was an invalid man who had spent 38 years at the pool. Jesus could tell that the man had been lying there for a long time. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6) This question may be asked of each one of us today. Do we want to be healed and made well or are we happy with our present condition. There is something about being afflicted that brings its own reward. Those who are afflicted often receive special attention, feel pitied or enjoy lamenting about their plight.
When asked whether he wanted to be healed, the invalid responded that each time he tried to enter the water, someone entered the water before him and was cured. We get the sense that this man had given up on being healed. He was willing to stay in the community of invalids but had lost all hope of being healed. He probably no longer moved when the water stirred, assuming that after years of trying, there was no purpose in thinking that he could be the first to enter the healing waters.
Jesus merely said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” A miracle is said to be something that occurs naturally over a long period of time and is compressed into a very short timeframe. Water naturally becomes wine through a slow process of growing grapes, harvesting them and letting them ferment, but to transform water into wine instantaneously is a miracle. Likewise, healing often occurs over time, but to get up and simply walk away suddenly after being ill for years was truly a miracle.
The Jews were deeply upset because this miracle took place on the Sabbath, as did six other miracles that Jesus performed. Jesus performed more miracles on the Sabbath than on any other day of the week. When the Jews heard of the miracle, they were indignant not only because Jesus performed a miracle on the Sabbath, but also because he commanded the invalid to take up his mat and carry it on the Sabbath. Carrying a mat was considered work, and work was forbidden on the Sabbath.
Jesus replied, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” (John 5:18) God clearly does not take off a day from watching over us. God works 24/7. While God commands us to honor the Sabbath and have a day where we rest from work, God does not rest. God never stops protecting, comforting, healing and transforming us – even on the Sabbath. God works always in order to care for us.
Belief in Jesus and in what he says is crucial for the Fourth Gospel. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) This begs the question as to whether those who do not believe in Jesus can be saved. Using John as a basis for their theology, many theologians over the centuries will deny that this is possible, unless a person has never heard the Gospel message. Therefore, they cannot be said to be culpable for hearing its message and failing to believe it.
During Jesus’s time, several different ideas about life after death were prevalent. The Sadducees denied that there was any life after death, but the Pharisees believed that there was some form of afterlife. One prevalent conception was similar to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, where the dead merely roamed through endless fields in the afterlife. An even more prevalent concept was that of Sheol, an area under the earth where the dead moved about in a shadowy netherworld and could not tell one another apart. Another concept was that of a great banquet hall, where those who died were reunited at death with those who had died before them.
Yet another concept was the idea that the dead remain in their tombs until the Messiah comes. At this point the dead would awaken from their tombs and walk the earth. Jesus alludes to this concept, when he said, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” (John 5:28-29)
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
Do you pray a lorica or prayer of protection for your family and loved ones? Do you believe that God endeavors to protect us? What do you believe about the afterlife? Do you believe that it is necessary to believe in Jesus in order to be saved and experience eternal life? If it is not necessary to believe in Jesus, why did God send Jesus to us and why did Jesus die upon the cross?
Heavenly Father, as we begin this new day, watch over us as we seek to do your will, to be your eyes and ears, hands and feet in the world today. Take our unbelief and transform it into a deep, strong and contagious belief in you that we and others might experience eternal life in you. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania