2) Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them, and remind them of the
sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their
wickedness and believe in you, Lord!
COMMENTARY: Much of this is simply a
matter of allowing people to harm themselves, so as to learn the consequences
of their actions. And yes, this chapter
does start with 2, because the translators thought that its first verse belonged elsewhere.
3) For truly, the ancient inhabitants of your holy land,
COMMENTARY: That would be the
4) whom you hated for deeds most odious—
works of sorcery and impious
COMMENTARY: “Sorcery” includes several
1) Herbal abuse—that is, poisoning
people, fatally or partially, for one’s own ends. The latter case would include confusing
people as to what is real by drugging them with psychoactives, or giving them
what gives temporary advantage only to harm them later, such as
stimulant-drugging, or inducing sleep so that you can exploit them—everything
that the sorceress, Medea, did at various times in her myth. This was why the Hippocratic oath says, “First,
do no harm.” What distinguished a doctor
from a sorcerer was that even though he knew how to mess people up with herbs,
he refused to use them for that purpose.
2) Psychic abuse, compelling the living
and the dead, interfering with God’s gift of free will. As the Witch of Endor reluctantly did at
swordpoint for Saul, summoning up the unwilling spirit of the Prophet Samuel.
3) Using the power of demons, either
being lured into thinking that they could control the demons and harness their
power (when in fact they were being tricked into becoming increasingly arrogant
and cruel) or forcing someone else to suffer possession so as to use a demon’s
power through her (as in the case of the possessed slave forced to be a
fortuneteller, whom St. Paul delivered.)
“Impious sacrifices” we will get to below.
It wasn’t that the Canaanites were naively worshiping someone else, for
unlike the Jewish people they had no covenant with the God of Abraham. It’s how they went about it that God found so
5) These merciless murderers of children,
devourers of human flesh,
and initiates engaged in a blood
6) and parents who took with their own hands defenseless
You willed to destroy by the hands
of our ancestors,
COMMENTARY: For a long time historians
wanted to believe that the immolations of infants was a slander aimed at the
Canaanites and Phoenicians by their enemies, till they found archaeological
evidence that this did indeed took place, and that a “children’s graveyard” was
in fact specifically for the remains of sacrificial victims.
Human beings have a strange habit of imagining God to be harsher than he is, to
demand extremes that go beyond what any sane mind would define as a “loving
god.” People sacrificed their children
because that was what they valued most in all the world. This practice, for a time, spread from the
Canaanites to the Israelites, but the prophet Jeremiah heard God cry out, “I
never asked this of them!”
7) that the land that is dearest of all to you
might receive a worthy colony of
COMMENTARY: I wonder if “colony” is the
right translation, here? The Israelites
returned to a land that they had left during a famine. They didn’t colonize it, they retook it. There was no homeland elsewhere for them to
extend with conquest.
If so, it is a harmful mistranslation, for too many Christians have used this
as a pretext for subjugating indigenous people elsewhere in the word. Conversion by conquest, in turn, always has a
flaw deep in its foundation that undermines the conquered until they can
acknowledge and heal the wound.
If the word doesn’t mean an outpost of conquest, the way “colony” does, then
the context would be that the returning original inhabitants of the land best
knew how to worship the deity of that land.
The idea of a God being universal had only begun to emerge, and at the
point of this writing was only being applied by Greeks and Romans, in a way
that menaced Judaism.
8) But even these you spared, since they were but mortals
and sent wasps as forerunners of
that they might exterminate them
COMMENTARY: Exodus and Deuteronomy make
reference to God sending hornets to throw Canaanite armies into panic ahead of
the Israelite forces. Some speculate
that these were literal hornets, and some that these were various misfortunes
colloquially referred to as hornets—lots and lots of miserable little stings
that individually wouldn’t count for much but collectively could greatly weaken
them. In either event, those who fled
the hornets, or didn’t show up because of myriad problems, would have escaped
being slain on the battlefield.
9) Not that you were without power to have the wicked
vanquished in battle by the righteous,
or wiped out at once by terrible
beasts or by one decisive word;
COMMENTARY: God’s mercy isn’t weakness.
10But condemning them by degrees, you gave them space
You were not unaware that their
origins were wicked
and their malice ingrained,
And that their dispositions would
COMMENTARY: This seems contradictory to
me—giving space for repentance and yet believing repentance impossible? Or is it?
My disposition will never change, in that I have a fierce and vengeful
temper. But I have repented those times
when I allowed my initial vengeful impulse (or worse, long-term malicious plotting)
to become action, and for many years now have schooled myself to practice mercy
instead, sometimes as a grueling sacrifice.
I wrestle with desires for vengeance all the time, but I do so
consciously, and deliberately choose alternatives to harming others.
11) for they were a people accursed from the beginning.
Neither out of fear for anyone
did you grant release from their
COMMENTARY: No accursing, even from the
beginning, can resist the power of God’s mercy.
And again the writer asserts that God’s mercy is not based on
weakness. Just as earlier she asserted
that God’s sparing people doesn’t mean He cannot punish, so now she asserts
that nobody can pressure God into refraining—God forgives because it pleases
God to forgive, and for no other reason.
12For who can say to you, “What have you done?”
or who can oppose your decree?
Or when peoples perish, who can
challenge you, their maker;
or who can come into your presence
to vindicate the unrighteous?
COMMENTARY: I heard the other day some
rather legalistic types talking about how if you pray one thousand prayers you
will get whatever you ask for, but this kind of theology frightens me, and
though they were devout (and seemingly rather proud of it, though I am fully
capable of having misjudged them) and considered themselves unswervingly
doctrinal, Catholic doctrine doesn’t teach that at all! This was one of those myths that crop up and
get passed on by undereducated teachers.
That isn’t prayer, that’s sorcery—the idea that one can force God to do one’s
bidding, psychically abuse Him, by correctly performing a ritual. Yet God alone chooses how to answer our
prayers, be they many or few. The fact
that He does answer our prayers so graciously is up to Him, not us. When we get what we asked for, it is not our
place to say “I made that happen,” but to thank Him for deciding to make it
What is the “vain and repetitious” prayer that Jesus warned us about? It isn’t repetition itself, but vanity in the
repetitions, the self-congratulatory quality of it, quantifying one’s faith by
prayers said. One can pray, for
instance, the rosary, without vanity.
When one does it correctly, simultaneously meditating on a mystery of
Jesus’s story while repeating certain words verbally or mentally, that
repeating occupies and arrests the superficial and self-conscious part of the
brain that handles words, freeing the rest of the mind to dive into the mystery
and come closer to God—there’s some solid neurology behind this, discovered
long after the crafting of the rosary.
But when one does this or any prayer with a vain consciousness, as in “look
at how many prayers I’m saying!” thinking of that rather than of God, it’s the
vanity that paralyzes the soul’s journey to God instead.
Anyway, the upshot is, God does what God wants to do when, where and how God
wants to do it, and we’re kidding ourselves to think that we can boss Him
around. We can ask, and like any parent
He’s pleased to give, but we don’t compel Him.
13) For neither is there any god besides you who have the
care of all,
that you need show you have not
COMMENTARY: Monotheism means that God
has no equal and answers to no one. God
doesn’t owe any explanations.
I’ll admit that I have sometimes asked for an explanation now and then anyway,
not because I felt entitled to one, but trusting that I was loved enough to
press my luck. Sometimes I’ve gotten
them, too, although they occasionally take years to unfold. Other times I’m told to just trust that God
knows what He’s doing even if I don’t.
The thing is, my faith doesn’t depend on getting explanations. I just like to have them when I can.
14) Nor can any king or prince confront you on behalf of
those you have punished.
COMMENTARY: No human authority matches
that of God. Some leaders today would
find that hard to stomach, but it is no less true.
15) But as you are righteous, you govern all things
you regard it as unworthy of your
to punish one who has incurred no
COMMENTARY: God behaves justly solely
because God is just. The one limit on
God’s power is the limit that He imposes on Himself: to never use His power for
what is unworthy of it.
16) For your might is the source of righteousness;
your mastery over all things makes
you lenient to all.
COMMENTARY: Even for God, the ultimate
mastery is self-mastery. He could so
easily harm us; He takes pride in benefiting us instead. Only the weaker creatures feel the desire to
inflict suffering just to prove to themselves that they can get away with
it. Bullies deceive themselves into
thinking that such insecurity proves strength.
17) For you show your might when the perfection of your
power is disbelieved;
and in those who know you, you
COMMENTARY: God is harshest on those who
should know better, or who take His mercy for granted.
18) But though you are master of might, you judge with
and with much lenience you govern
for power, whenever you will, attends
COMMENTARY: Knowing that He could treat
us harshly, God doesn’t. This is crucial
to understanding Jewish law, as put forth by Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Aviya Kushner (author of “The Grammar of God”)
was astonished, in a study of the Bible led by a Christian, to learn that
Christians regarded the Old Testament as rigid and merciless. Having grown up with Scriptural debate in the
original language a feature of daily life, she knew that the death penalties
assigned to various offenses were maximum penalties, not mandatory ones, and
almost never enforced, even in ancient times.
When we studied the books
of Maccabees we saw the historic forces that drove a period of legalism which
Jesus justly rebuked. Earlier and later
generations would not have dragged a woman caught in adultery before him and
asked if she should be stoned. The
prophet Joel, for instance had an adulterous wife and never divorced her, let
alone gave her over to be executed, but in learning how to repair his marriage
he learned also how God wanted the rift between Him and His people repaired. But as I said, human beings have this
tendency to drift towards seeing God as an almighty monster instead of who He
I have observed a sequence of errors that leads to this fanaticism. It goes like this. “I am miserable. I must have offended God.” (Error #1: not all misery is a
punishment. More often there’s something
to be learned, a strength to gain.) “I
will be stricter in my practices to appease God.” (Error #2:
God is more often offended by major cruelties than minor
omissions.) “Now I feel even more
miserable. I will invent new, stricter
rules and abide by them.” (Error #3:
Adam and Eve’s second mistake. They had
no need to feel shame at being naked in the presence of each other, as husband
and wife, but when you lose touch with God’s guidance you start inventing
nonsensical rules of your own.) “Now I feel
extremely miserable! I must do the last
things possible and go into extreme sacrifices to appease God.” (Error #4: God wants mercy more than
sacrifice.) “I feel so miserable I want
to die! Since I am doing everything
possible and am nearly dead of my penances, I must be suffering collective punishment
for the sins of my neighbors—I need to impose my rules on them, too! Only when they, too, live as I do will I have
any hope of happiness.” (Error #5:
conversion by force, as mentioned before, is no conversion at all, and anything
based on this builds on a cracked foundation.)
At no point does the fanatic dare to admit that she herself is the
author of her own suffering, and in fact she drives herself away from the True
God and towards a deformed idol of her own making.
19) You taught your people, by these deeds,
that those who are righteous must
And you gave your children reason to
that you would allow them to repent
for their sins.
COMMENTARY: Since God shows us mercy,
who are we to deny it to others?
20) For these were enemies of your servants, doomed to
yet, while you punished them with
such solicitude and indulgence,
granting time and opportunity to
21) With what exactitude you judged your children,
to whose ancestors you gave the
sworn covenants of goodly promises!
22) Therefore to give us a lesson you punish our enemies
with measured deliberation
so that we may think earnestly of
your goodness when we judge,
and, when being judged, we may
look for mercy.
COMMENTARY: By judging leniently those
who didn’t know any better, and strictly those who knew better but used their
knowledge to be judgmental of others, God teaches us that in order to receive
mercy we have to give it.
23) Hence those unrighteous who lived a life of folly,
you tormented through their own
COMMENTARY: As I’ve said before, God’s
favorite method of justice is to give us enough rope to hang ourselves. Often as not He doesn’t do the punishing
Himself, but lets us reap the consequences of our bad choices, in the hope that
we will learn from them. For He doesn’t
want us to suffer what we inflict on ourselves, and wouldn’t impose it on us,
in fact he tries to persuade us to treat ourselves better than that. Yet if we insist on pursuing folly He lets us
drink it to the dregs, so that we can see for ourselves why He forbids such
24) For they went far astray in the paths of error,
taking for gods the worthless and
disgusting among beasts,
being deceived like senseless
COMMENTARY: “They” here being the
ancient Egyptians. The scarab, for
instance, is an iridescent dung beetle.
An unsupervised infant might see a dung beetle, think it pretty, pick it
up, and promptly put it in her mouth, germs and all. God expects us to think a little deeper than
To be fair to the Egyptians, as one of the most ancient civilizations, they
faced one of the steepest learning curves of all just in figuring how to do “civilized”. Unsanitary deities, bread ground by putting
sand in it (causing agonizing dental problems) poisonous cosmetics and incestuous
dynasties were just a few of the many things that they had to learn were bad
ideas by trying them out. They had no
precedents to go by. So, in groping for
who or what to worship, they tried out dung beetles, poisonous asps, jackals,
and all kinds of strange choices. Mind
you, all of these creatures have their own dignity as part of God’s creation,
but setting them up as masters was not only foolish but no doubt confusing and
annoying to the animals in question.
Keep in mind that
practically every animal in the Egyptian pantheon were unclean to Jews, with the
exception of Hathor the Cow.
Unsurprisingly, then, the one animal-worship they brought out of Egypt
manifested later as the Golden Calf. God
was not amused.
25) Therefore as though upon unreasoning children,
you sent your judgment on them as a
COMMENTARY: The first plagues Biblically
thrown against the Egyptians (to induce them to free the Israelites from
bondage) consisted of things like toads and gnats and such. These were mild punishments, slaps on the
wrists to get their attention.
26) But they who took no heed of a punishment which was
but child’s play
were to experience a condemnation
worthy of God.
27) For by the things through which they suffered
being tortured by the very things
they deemed gods,
They saw and recognized the true God
whom formerly they had refused to know;
with this, their final
condemnation came upon them.
Pharaoh kept realizing that he
should let the Israelites go, only to harden his heart all over again, each
time with more understanding of just how wrong he was. And so the penalties worsened, until finally
they became so devastating that he couldn’t deny the strength of his opposition
any longer. Even then he sought to
renege on his promise at the last minute—and lost a sizeable chunk of his army
as a result.
The lesson for us? We can be excused
much for honest ignorance, but willful ignorance—the decision to not know what
we don’t want to admit—is abominable.
When we fight even ourselves to justify the unjustifiable we’re just
digging ourselves in deeper.