If you look at the Revised Common Lectionary listing of Bible readings over a three year period you will notice that while in theory it covers the whole Bible in each cycle there are parts you may never hear preached. Thankfully one section in this category includes most of the book of Numbers which contain seemingly endless lists of genealogies. One of the most curious things is that even with the Psalms there are frequently parts of the Psalm which are not designated as a part of the reading. For example; two of the Sundays in June had small pieces removed from the Psalms in the RCL. On June 5 we read Psalm 68 but left out verses 11-31. On June 12 the reading was Psalm 104 and we left out verses 1 -24 and 35A.
If you read these Psalms responsively in your worship service, these skipped sections can lead to confusion for the congregation as well as the minister, unless you print them out. What could be so wrong with Psalm 68 verses 11-31 that would deem it unusable in worship. It is a part of the Bible, that is not denied, the planners of the lectionaries, though, presumably thought it best to skip them.
11 The Lord gives the command;
great is the company of those who bore the tidings:
12 ‘The kings of the armies, they flee, they flee!’
The women at home divide the spoil,
13 though they stay among the sheepfolds—
the wings of a dove covered with silver,
its pinions with green gold.
14 When the Almighty scattered kings there,
snow fell on Zalmon.
15 O mighty mountain, mountain of Bashan;
O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan!
16 Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain,
at the mount that God desired for his abode,
where the Lord will reside for ever?
17 With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand,
thousands upon thousands,
the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place.
18 You ascended the high mount,
leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from people,
even from those who rebel against the Lord God’s abiding there.
19 Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation.
20 Our God is a God of salvation,
and to God, the Lord, belongs escape from death.
21 But God will shatter the heads of his enemies,
the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.
22 The Lord said,
‘I will bring them back from Bashan,
I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
23 so that you may bathe your feet in blood,
so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe.’
24 Your solemn processions are seen, O God,
the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
25 the singers in front, the musicians last,
between them girls playing tambourines:
26 ‘Bless God in the great congregation,
the Lord, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!’
27 There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead,
the princes of Judah in a body,
the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.
28 Summon your might, O God;
show your strength, O God, as you have done for us before.
29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem
kings bear gifts to you.
30 Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds,
the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples.
Trample under foot those who lust after tribute;
scatter the peoples who delight in war.
31 Let bronze be brought from Egypt;
let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God.
I assume that in the case of the above verses there were a couple of concerns. In many of the verses God is portrayed in a very militaristic and vengeful light. God’s army is huge, will shatter the heads of the enemies, there is talk of feeding the enemy to the dogs and the victors bathing their feet in blood. Yuck! One of the things that is most disturbing about reading in the Old Testament comes from this sort of portrayal. This is not the loving God with whom we grew up in the mainline churches! The other thing I noticed was how much God’s desire of a mountain top abode, receiving of gifts etc. reminds me of what I have taught for years in my unit on Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations. This is not surprising exactly, but in early days it would have been very important to distance Christianity from pagan practices.
Would the reasons be the same for Psalm 104?
God the Creator and Provider
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
2 wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3 you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
5 You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15 and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labour until the evening.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
As you could see, Psalm 104:1-24 had none of the more disturbing elements to it at all. Paired in the lectionary as it is with the creation story from Genesis, I think we can be fairly certain that this shortening was done for time. The Genesis reading is long and covers all the same ground as in verses. Verse 35A however consigns sinners to be consumed (one assumes by fire) which seems contrary to the concept of Christian love.
I wonder if we do too much of this covering up, or brushing aside, the uncomfortable parts of the Bible. I certainly understand that one might not want your five-year-old repeating lines about feeding their enemies to the dogs, or bathing their feet in blood. My concern is that it is a little like issues of family violence. People didn’t ever talk about family violence. It was something to keep behind closed doors. Neighbors might be somewhat aware that things were happening, but would never think to ask or offer help. What ends up happening, in the case of the Bible, is that we educate Christians while side-stepping the issues, and then later when they come across these verses in their own study they are ill prepared to deal with them. I know I wasn’t prepared the first time I seriously sat down and read the Old Testament!
I’m not sure what a solution might be. Perhaps we need to be offering Bible studies on the unpalatable parts, but then, being so unpalatable, who would attend? I do feel, however that it is important to get the verses out of their plain paper bags, and into the open.