Day 49: Numbers 31-33; The Beginning of the End…

While exact locations of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness are unknown, scholars have, with their scholarly minds, come up with some good assumptions and guesses as to the path Israel took in its 40+ years in the wilderness.  It may have looked a bit like the route on this map I found on La Vista Church of Christ‘s .website.

Israel's Wilderness Wanderings

 

However… I’m sure for the people of Israel, it probably felt a bit more like this (Credit to Principles of Life Ministries website):

Israel's Wilderness Wanderings Humor

 

In much the same way that the hearing of a genealogy would have connected the Hebrew hearer to that time, so too would the recount of the wanderings of Israel connect them to that story.  It is the connection that is important, as we talked about a couple weeks ago.  The people at all times desired connection to the center, connection to the Divine.  Remember that, in this connection, the Hebrew person find him or herself participating in the Story of God and His actions for Israel, but also connected with the blessings that come along with this story.

As we talked about on February 15, this story once again, primarily tells us something about God.  Remember with me, back to the time of Abraham, when God first promises the land of Canaan to Israel.  Remember that God says in Genesis 15 that the people would leave the land of Canaan, which God had promised them, but would come back after four generation because the sins of the Amorites was not complete.  This is a seemingly cryptic statement back then, but we see the beginning of its fulfillment here in Numbers 31 & 32.  Here begins the end of Israel’s wandering journey.  Here begins the end of the sin of the land of Canaan.  God punishes Midian by wiping them out, wholly and completely… or so it seems.   They do crop back up again later in the Bible.

It is interesting to read these passages in the Bible.  Tales of war, of genocide commanded by God are things that don’t often make sense to us.  The God we worship is a loving God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love as the Bible attests to.  Yet here, it seems, even God’s patience and forgiveness meets an end.  To be clear though, these were specific times and specific stories, ones that we find ourselves far removed from.  There have been people throughout the ages that have sighted these stories as the grounds for waging war on other countries, other people groups… even for racial and social prejudices leading to violence.  I can assure you, that is not the purpose of these stories.

We do serve and worship and God that is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  We also serve and worship a God that is Holy, righteous, and just.  In this story we see Israel being used as the tool of God’s righteous judgment, the outpouring of His wrath against sin.  While this may seem gruesome, it does show us how wholly opposed to sin God is.  It is not, however, an valid excuse for anything from the crusades to the Holocaust to any “holy war”, God’s Word never supports the slaughter of millions of people.  And, if you think that it isn’t fair that God is judging a people that didn’t know His laws, keep reading!  Later God uses other nations, sinful pagan nations that are appointed by God to exercise the same judgment on Israel who did know God’s laws and chose not to obey them.

But even there forgiveness is found… and the people return… which brings us to our story as well.  We all deserve the righteous judgment of God for our sins, yet once again we can read out of this the awesome grace of God in the sending of His Son that we would not bear this punishment, but are atoned for, redeemed, and can live now as a people free from sin and reconciled to God through Jesus to whom we have union by the work and power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen and Amen!



Day 48: Numbers 27-30; Succession, Offerings, and Vows

Today’s reading takes us out of the stories and narratives, and back into the laws that God gave to Israel.  While it seemed like these were all taken care of, Israel has been out and about for a while and perhaps missed a few things.  This isn’t to say that God forgot something, but more likely that the people didn’t know what to do.  Sometimes its easier to simply have everything laid out for you, even though something from Leviticus like “Love your neighbor as yourself” would seem to apply here in how we care for those left behind after the death of a Father.

This first law… what I would consider in the contemporary setting as “the Downton Abbey clause,” sets out the rules for succession of inheritance within a family.  Its a shame (or a blessing perhaps) that PBS didn’t know this rule from Numbers, lest the whole of the Downton Abbey show be lost to Old Testament Law.  The tradition of the land, and really of most cultures until the past 100 years, was that only the male population could… well, really do anything.  Women didn’t have money and traditionally couldn’t inherit anything from a deceased father.  In other cultures, this meant that if there was no male heir, the money would be passed off to some other male relative and the women of that family would either be cared for by the relative (if they had nice in-laws) or be forced to sell themselves as slaves or prostitute themselves or some other less desirable form of livelihood.  God’s people were to be set apart, and therefore God would not stand for His people to be selling themselves or selling each other.  Therefore, the law was decreed that the money would go to the daughters, or female relatives, or closest next of kin.  This does seem like a common sense rule doesn’t it?  I mean, its like making decisions for other people we think, “what should we do?  We cannot go against tradition.”  But when it happens to us we think “this stupid tradition doesn’t work for us.”  Any way you cut it, I think this is simply a practical living out of the law “love your neighbor (or family) as yourself.”

We see in this section too the anointing of Joshua to be the next leader of the people of Israel.  As God told Moses, he would not be entering the promised land due to his disobedience in striking the rock rather than speaking to it.  Yet God again is faithful in providing the people with a leader.  He does not leave them, as Moses said, like sheep without a shepherd.  This is, to my knowledge, the first time a shepherd metaphor shows up in the Bible.  It appears later again in many places, most notably being Psalm 23, and then later as Jesus picks up this metaphor again stating that He is the good shepherd.  Really, Moses is a foreshadowing of the type of Messianic figure to come, a savior for a nation in bondage.  Yet even he is imperfect, and eventually faces human mortality.  However, when the people of Israel think about how God is going to fulfill His promise to save Israel, Leaders like Moses and many to come are types of the coming Messiah, foreshadowing of the coming King whom we know as Jesus our Lord.



Day 47: Numbers 24-26; Balaam's Blessing and the plains of Moab

I remember my first student Bible.  It had all the maps in the back.  Sometimes I think its nice to take a look at a map and get some perspective as to where these things are taking place.  This story takes place while the people of Israel are occupying an area on the plains of Moab.  What you can kind of see on this map, towards the bottom, is the kingdom of Edom, which Israel wanted to pass through.  The king of Edom said no, so Israel had to go down and around to get to where they were going.  They camped all over the Sinai Peninsula, which is modern day eastern Egypt.  What we read yesterday is that the people of Israel wanted to pass through the area that is labeled “The Kingdom of Moab” but the king there wouldn’t let them and tried to attack them.  But God was faithful and good and delivered that land into the hands of His people.  I found this picture on Wikipedia.

Kingdoms_around_Israel_830_map.svg

The main story of yesterday and today was that of Balaam.  This is another story that is likely to be familiar, once again from the Sunday School Flannel Graph board.  There are some extraordinary things that happen in this story, including a talking donkey and the appearance of an angel.  There are some things in here that don’t necessarily strike us as familiar though.  King Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel so that they won’t take over his land.  We probably say “so what” to this.  Curses, like blessings, held a very high standing.  Words, in the ancient cultures, especially the Hebrew culture, were very important.  It was words that were spoken that caused the world to be created.  Words were very powerful.  This isn’t something that necessarily resonates with us in an age where words are a dime a dozen.

But once again, God acts on behalf of Israel, this time through an outsider.  It is interesting that God would use an outsider to bless the people that He has already claimed for themselves.  I wonder what the people of Israel would have thought in hearing this story.  Perhaps this story is yet another display of God’s mighty power of the people and gods of other cultures and countries, in spite of their desires to do harm to God’s people.  In any case, it is clear that Balaam knows God and is obedient to Him and because of that, God doesn’t take his life but instead uses Him to bless the people of Israel, and curse the nations surrounding her (the exact opposite of what he was intended to do).

There are two other sections in our reading today as well.  Remember a couple days ago, we spoke of the imagery of Israel as the Bride of God, and her again we see the people whoring themselves out to other gods.  God’s wrath against the sin here is severe, 24,000 people die.  In this we see the God’s justice and the fulfillment of the stipulations that were talked about.  “If you turn from me, you will be cut off.” God says.  And so it is.  But we also see the fulfillment of God’s promise to those who follow Him as well in the promise given to Phinehas because of his devotion to God.

Finally, we come to another census.  While there may be some reasons why this is here that I am not aware of, I think one of the main points of it is that God has been true to His word to Moses.  All of the people that were present when Israel rebelled because of the report of the spies have died except for Joshua, Caleb, and Moses (for now).  Given their current location and the fulfillment of God’s word, it would seem that they are almost ready to enter into the promised land.



Day 46: Numbers 21-23: Wilderness wanderings

Today’s reading is divided up into two main stories.  The first chapter has a great deal to do with Israel’s wilderness wanderings.  The second, which will get combined with tomorrow’s reading, begins the famous story of Balak, Balaam, and the Donkey.  I think that today we will go with the wilderness wandering stories, and keep Balaam all to himself tomorrow.

In my Systematic Theology class today a statement was made about how we approach reading the Bible.  I have to say that I hadn’t really given my approach to reading the Bible much thought, but it is important, very important in fact, because of the judgments that we make and the things that we try to learn will all be based on where we are coming from.  We all have a context, and we all do theology based on that context.  When I say that we ALL do theology, I mean exactly that.  Anyone that participates in prayer, worship, reading the Bible, simply thinking about God is doing theology.  It’s part of our nature as Christians.

One of the things we do, quite by nature of the context of our culture, is to read into these scripture stories something about ourselves.  We are tempted to let our interpretation of Scripture be guided by our modern desire to make things about us.  The true, and often startling reality of the Bible, is that the main Character and primary actor is in fact not us… it is God.  The stories and narratives of the Bible are there not primarily for us to boil them down to some pithy moral teaching about us trying harder to live a good life, but to reveal to us the Glory of God, ultimately shown to us in Christ Jesus, in whom we are united by the Holy Spirit who is also working in and on our lives to make us more and more  into the image of Christ and revealing God to us through the revelation of the Words of Scripture.

So when we come to a group of stories like this, even if our first instinct is to derive some sort of moral life lesson from the text, what we should be asking ourselves is, what does this reveal about God?  Israel, again and again, complains about being in the wilderness.  The line “why didn’t we just stay in Egypt” or something akin to it is quite prevalent in the texts of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  We see doubt and disbelief in God.  Often times we see this in our own stories too don’t we?  We can relate to the people of Israel, struggling through our own wilderness experience in life.  While this is true, the problem with it is that it tends to lead us to the default thoughts of “well I shouldn’t complain or grumble against God or He’ll punish me like He did Israel.”

I’m not going to deny that we struggle… or that we have doubts… or that being discontent or complaining can be bad for us.  These things are all true, and true of us and in us as well.  But what we miss in this humanized interpretation of Scripture is the actions of the main Character, the chief Actor, the Primary mover… faithfulness, holiness, justice, etc.  This story is not as much about Israel’s unfaithfulness as it is about God’s complete faithfulness.  There are consequences and they are bad enough that the nation of Israel could be wiped out, yet God is faithful and forgiving, providing a way out for the people.  Despite their utter lack of trust, God comes forth as the one faithfully providing for the people He has chosen for Himself.

And that is the reality that we find ourselves in, the greater story of our lives.  We may relate to the people of Israel in their sins, but we can also relate to them in our daily encounter with a God that is gracious and merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, who cares for us and faithfully provides for all our needs, sustaining us each and every day!



Day 45: Numbers 18-20; Moses' fumble

After a great deal more of seemingly the same stuff, lots of laws for priests and laws for cleansing, we get to a story that is probably very familiar to us.  I remember this story first from a Sunday School lesson.  Ah… flannel graph… what an invention!  As I remember the story, Moses got all angry at the people and struck the rock in anger, but water came out anyways because God is cool and all that.  But God punishes Moses for not listening by not letting him go into the promised land.  What was the moral of the story?  We need to make sure that we do things the way God tells us, or else we will get punished, even if God still makes things happen.

As I read this again, in light of all of the other things that we have read in the past month and a half, I don’t know that this story, or any Biblical Story, can really simply be reduced down to some pithy moral statement…  I’m sure that it applies, or at least make some sense… but I’m not in favor of limiting meaning, especially in Biblical narratives.

There is a lot more here about the faithfulness of God, if we read it in the context of everything else we have read, than about God’s punishment of Moses.  This story shows God to be faithful and loving, despite our failings.  One could thing, however, that as Moses disobeyed God, there has to be some sort of a consequence, because God is Holy and completely opposed to sin.  And there is, we see this in the punishment of Moses and Aaron.  But this story is not necessarily about the punishment as it is about a faithful God once again providing for a people that are continuously unfaithful to Him.

On a side note, the other story about the interaction between Israel and Edom is almost like a family update on what’s going on with the sons of Isaac.  Remember back to Genesis 25 and Genesis 27, the accounts of Jacob and Esau, and the things that happened.  Abraham tells Esau that he will live by the sword, and we learn that there will be contempt between Jacob and Esau for generations to come, much like that of the contempt between Isaac and Ishmael.  This story is very much playing out of this sibling rivalry, hundreds of years old.



Day 44: Numbers 15-17; Grumble, grumble, grumble…

So Israel has disobeyed… or rather not trusted God and have thus been sent back into the wilderness for 40 years.  Even so, God is still giving them laws, ways to live rightly and fulfill the covenant.  He even commands something as obscure as tassels on their garments.  These weren’t just nice decorations, but to serve as a reminder of who they are and the life they are to live.  The writer uses the words that we are “not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.”  This is really strong imagery that I think evokes the contrast between faithfulness to God and unfaithfulness being related to a prostitute.  This image is expanded throughout the Old and New Testament as the people of God are related to the Bride of God, and later the Bride of Christ.  The people of God are seen as the image of a young girl that God picked up out of the mud and cared for.  She repaid Him not with love but with unfaithfulness… yet the more beautiful image comes in that God continues to pursue her, forgiving her even in her disgusting state of uncleanly, unfaithfulness.  If you’re interested in this, Jeremiah 2-3 and especially Ezekiel 16 both take up this theme.

In any case, the tassels were meant to be a way of reminding the people of who they were as God’s people and how they were to live.  Below is a picture of a rather modern version of what something like this would look like.  I found this on a website called British-Israel.

Hebrew Tassels

In other news, it appears that the whole ordeal with the promised land we read about yesterday is not yet completely over.  Once again, the people of God, or at least some of them, take up the grumbling.  It seems that they are blaming Moses for their return to the wilderness while also trying to grab power from the Priests.  Clearly God doesn’t like this.  Again, I am reminded here of myself… when things don’t go right, how do I tend to react?  Our culture like to teach us that its never our fault, its always someone or something else’s fault.  I know I am guilty of this.  Again we see the imagery of atonement here.  Something is needed to stop the plague that is coming over the people for grumbling.  Aaron runs out into the people, between those that are dead and those that are still alive.  Again… this is interesting imagery of the atonement… one that foreshadows the atonement to come.  Christ, while we were still sinners, dead in our transgressions, runs out into the world and offers Himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Echoes of Ephesians 2 ring in my head.  For it is by grace that you have been saved.  Thanks be to God.



Day 43: Numbers 12-14; Opposition

I wonder if you were feeling the same thing that I was feeling as we read this story today.  I was thinking to myself, I know this story!  Finally something familiar!  And yet in many ways it seems quite unfair what happened to the Israelites.  They didn’t really know any better… they were just going on the majority of the reports received from the spies.  I mean, if someone misinformed us about something in our world today it would most likely be a reason for innocence if we were to do something wrong, right?  Well, apparently not.  I do seem to remember a saying from my youth, “Ignorance is no excuse for the Law.”

Sometimes I just have to wondering then, what it would take to convince this rabble of complainers we call Israel that God is all powerful, in control, and will take care of them.  To date, they have seen the wonders of God through the plagues that led to their freedom, walked through the middle of the sea on dry ground, got water from a rock, mana and quail to eat, seen God’s presence as they moved, on the mountain, and around the Tabernacle.  God has helped them to defeat attackers, and forgiven them more times than they’ll ever be able to count.  And yet, still they complain and worry about these people.  We hear that the land is great, but the cities are so fortified and the people are large.  One of the phrases used to describe these people in verses, is that they are the Nephilim, the sons of Anak.  This would have made sense for us, but for a reference we have to go all the way back to Genesis 6.  The word Nephilim means “giants” and, if we read Genesis 6 we see that they are the product of the union of “the sons of God” and women of the earth.  They produced “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”  One of these is apparently Anak and clearly is renowned.  Not much is known about what this really means.  Some scholars contend that they were angels or fallen angels.  In any case, the it was not good and led eventually to the flood.

But to put this in perspective.  Prior to the destruction of Egypt’s army in the Red Sea, the land of Canaan would have been easy pickings for the Egyptian military.  Egypt was far more advanced and far more powerful than any of the nations that lived in Canaan, and God defeated them without seemingly raising a finger.  So when God gets angry at them, it is fairly understandable.  “I’ve done all of this for you, and still you can’t trust me?  What’s it gonna take Israel?!?!?”

It’s easy for me to sit behind my computer screen and question the decisions of a fledgling nation though, making myself look good.  Yet, the reality is that I have been that person too… we all have.  There have been times in my life when God has called me to something, to conquer the proverbial Canaan if you will.  I’ve seen God work in my life, and in the lives of people around me.  I know that God is always with me and will take care of me through everything.  Even knowing that though, I found myself thinking that perhaps Egypt was better.  Maybe my life of slavery to sin, not following God’s will was better… even if it was slavery.  It took a while for me to come around.  I wandered for a while, until God said it was time for me to get back too it.  “You’ve wasted enough time Jon, time to go conquer Canaan.”

So here I am… 2 years into Seminary…  It’s certainly not easy, but I know God is with me!

Maybe there is something God is calling you to as well?



Day 42: Numbers 9-11; Complaining against God

There are two things in today’s reading that, when set up against each other, strike me as being quite ironic.  I often shake my head when reading passages such as these, and chuckle to myself, knowing all to well that I tend to be just like the Israelites.

The first this we read today is how, at the will and movement of God in the cloud, the people of Israel made camp or packed up and got ready to move.  For all we know this cloud/pillar of fire as been with the people since they went out of Egypt almost two years ago.  I think the only exception to this would have been the time that they were camped at Mount Sinai, when the presence of the Lord could be clearly seen and heard on top of the mountain.  All of that time, perhaps maybe 6 months, they were camped at the base of that mountain, offering things for the building of God’s dwelling place, and hearing the Word of the Lord spoken through Moses.  They even agreed that they would follow all the ways of the Lord as He had prescribed.

Fast forward to what we just read… the people have just celebrated the Passover, remembering all that God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt… and immediately they start to complain… about how much better it was in Egypt just because they got what they wanted… Meat.  God has been giving them mana every day, sustaining them as they were in the wilderness.  He has shown His power to them and even His forgiveness after the whole golden calf debacle.  Yet still they complain, so much so that God anger is kindled against them!  Foolish Israelites… we would never do such things now days.

Or would we?  I think about this story in relation to my own life and wonder if I would have been one of the complainers, or if I would have been one of the content people (if there were in fact any of them in the whole camp).  I’ve seen God do some amazing things in my life.  I’ve seen how He has guided me and have received His forgiveness a hundred times over… yet I wonder, “Do I too often complain about my place in life?”  I am certainly more well off than anyone in this nation of nomads.  Perhaps there is a lesson here in contentment, and in thankfulness.  It is interesting, the name that is given to the place where they eat meat and then God sends a plague: Kibroth-hattaavah.  This name means “graves of craving” or “graves of lust.”  Somewhat appropriate I think, but I wonder if there isn’t something in that name that would apply to us as well.  Do we get caught in the desire to always want more, to never be content?  While I wouldn’t want to slice any Bible reading down to a simple morality lesson… I do wonder what our cravings, our lusts, or discontentment is doing to us… giving us life?  or digging our grave?



Day 41: Numbers 7-8; Offerings and Cleansing

Here, the head of each of the tribes of Israel bring their offerings before the Lord.  As you have read, each offering was the same.  I’m not entirely sure if there is some sort of significance to that, but I would venture to point out that each willingly brought it.  The fact that it was all twelve tribes that brought it leads me to believe that one of the points here is that the offerings were representative of the whole of the people of Israel.  The number 12 is a number that represents all of God’s people.  12 tribes, 12 apostles… and later we’ll read in revelation the 24 elders around the throne worshiping God, which is representative of all of Israel and the whole Church.

Once again here we see a cleansing ceremony.  The Levites have been set apart, as we read yesterday and today, for service to God.  They are chosen by God in place of all of the first born that were to be consecrated to God.  For them to serve appropriately, they needed to be cleansed and purified in the eyes of the Lord.  This is not unlike what we often do in our worship services.  We understand that we are a forgiven people, yet we still sin and those things can (and often do) hinder us from worshiping and serving the Lord with all our hearts.  So we set apart a time of confession and assurance of our pardon, often at the beginning of the worship service, so that we are lay those things down knowing that God has already cleansed us.  We are reminded that we are not a people under condemnation for our sins, but rather we live as a redeemed people!

Sometimes I think that Christians can get a bad wrap.  We are seen as quick to judge and quick to condemn.  Many people also think that we just remind ourselves how bad we are, always sinful… never good.  I think that this couldn’t be further from the truth!  We don’t live in our sin, in our past… or at least we shouldn’t.  Like the Levites and the priests here, we have been cleansed in the blood of Jesus.  He remembers our sins no more!!  In our time of confession, we are not there to condemn ourselves or put others down, but rather to remember the redemption we have in Christ Jesus and the gift of grace that has been freely given to us!  Hallelujah!



Day 40: Numbers 5-6; Significance of Blessings

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

There are several other parts of this particular reading that are significant.  Many of them have to do with the continuing theme of clean and unclean; Holy and common.  In reality, much of what we are reading in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy have to do with this theme.  God has chosen this people, elected them to be His own, and is not describing for them how they should live as people set apart for God.  They need to be free of uncleanliness… and follow certain ways of living.  For those that chose to be set apart from the people that are set apart, there is an entirely different set of rules.  The Nazirite Vow is something that is most notably found in the story of Sampson, which we will cover sometime in the next month or so.

One of the more important parts of this particular reading today, and probably one of the most well known also, is that of the blessing given to Moses for Aaron and the priests to use to bless the people.  I would like to clarify some words in this, bringing in the full range of meaning for them from the Hebrew language and culture:

Bless (יְבָרֶכְךָ֥): To Bless, to Kneel.  The idea of the blessing is not simply a nice word to send you away with or a polite goodbye.  To bless someone is something akin to the transfer of power.  Sending someone away, like at the end of a worship service, is actually to impart the name of (and therefore power of) that one on to them.  In some aspects, it would be like literally writing the name of the one giving the blessing on the forehead of the one being blessed.  As Christians, we believe that the words of blessing, though spoke by the pastor, are actually God’s words empowering us and sending us out in His name.

Keep (וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ): to keep, guard, observe, give heed, protect.  The idea here can be seen in the greater meanings listed.  It the idea is the protection of God.  We not only go out in the power and name of God, we also go out in God’s eternal protection as well.

Shine (יָאֵ֨ר): to be or become light, shine, to be illuminated.  There are several ideas for this particular word.  One would be the idea of us being illuminated by God, shining forth His light in the world to which we go.  The other would be that God illumines our path and brightens our way as we go.  In any case, this is all about the light of God acting on us.

Gracious (וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ): to be gracious, show favor, pity, be shown consideration.  The idea of grace is much more well rounded than I think ours is in modern Christianity.  We’ve made grace to simply be about “me and Jesus” and how God just washes away our sins.  While this is true in every respect, grace has so much more to do with God’s favor toward us, unmerited by our own actions, but having everything to do with the nature of God as being “Gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  (Exodus 34; Nehemiah 9; Psalm 86, 103, 145; Joel 2; Jonah 2, 4).

“lift up his countenance” (יִשָּׂ֨א): to lift, bear up, carry, take, support, sustain, endure, forgive.  The word countenance actually has to do with the turning of ones face or facial expression towards another.  This is why we sometimes say “The Lord turn His face towards you.”  But as you can see, it is much more than that even.  This particular phrase is about (amongst other things) God’s eternal faithfulness towards us and the fact that He goes with us, supporting and sustaining us, even carrying us.  There is beautiful imagery here that is caught up in the “Footprints” poem.

Give (וְיָשֵׂ֥ם): to put, place, set, appoint, make, direct, lay hands on.  Words like this often get us caught in our contemporary context.  The word “give” brings up images of birthdays, Christmas, and offering plates.  Yet the meaning is so much greater.  God goes with us, as we saw with the last word, appointing and directing us.  This idea, in many ways, represents the idea of touch.  While unfortunately the idea of touching another has been much corrupted in our culture (sexual imagery, inappropriate actions, etc.), what is being conveyed here is the most appropriate, loving, gentle embrace… the wrapping of Gods arms around us as He appoints for us…

Peace (שָׁלֽוֹם): completeness, soundness, welfare, peace, tranquility, quiet, safety, soundness, contentment, friendship.  Again, a word that brings with it connotations.  Yet this isn’t just worldly peace, the cessation of war, or end of violence, this is indeed the ushering in of the true Kingdom of God in which all things are brought to their fully reconciled and redeemed state.  In many ways this is a return to Eden (though I don’t really like that phrase)… when all of creation will again be made right.  The Lion will lay down with the Lamb.  Swords will be beaten into plow shares.  Brother will lay down against brother.  And all will worship together before the Lord.

Amen.  Maranatha!  (Come Lord Jesus)



Day 39: Numbers 3-4; Duties and Tasks

I think I can be quite honest in saying today that I don’t honestly remember reading these chapters in the Bible ever.  I think that they were some of the chapters that got glazed over in my 90 day journey through the Bible a few years ago.  It would seem that there is not a great deal of interest in all that these chapters have to offer.  I have to admit too, that I am at a loss for what to write about.  That being said, when things like this happen, I turn to some good friends of mine… the Church Fathers, Calvin, and other theological writers for wisdom and guidance.

People tend to cringe when they here names like “Basil” or “John Calvin” or “Chrysostom” or “Athanasius” but let me assure you that these folks, even as they have been dead for many hundreds, or even thousands of years, are actually wonderful conversational partners when it comes to particularly unfamiliar, or perhaps confusing parts of the Bible.  They may not always be the easiest to read, but they were faithful in writing down those things that they learns and what was revealed to them through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Much like the Levites, and all the related groups within that clan, these Theologians were faithful to the duties and tasks to which they were called.  Our faith, how and what we believe, have been largely shaped by the works of these and many others throughout the ages.  While nothing that they write stands on the same level as the Bible, there is a reason why Augustine’s Confessions is the #2 all time best selling book (second only to the Bible of course).

Turning to a somewhat familiar name in the history of Church writings, John Calvin would point out to us that the whole of the book of Numbers stands in harmony with the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.  What we are reading here is a continuation of the laws that were passed down and the explanation of how the people were to live.  The Tabernacle was place Holy unto the Lord and all that was within it was considered Holy.  Therefore the people of Israel could not just walk into it.  Indeed, the duties of the Levites were to guard the Tabernacle on all sides, to shield the people from it as a way of protecting the Tabernacle from defilement, but also as a way of protecting the people from inadvertently getting themselves killed by wandering too close.

I think it is important in looking back on the wisdom of others to have a more contemporary voice in the mix as well.  Dr. David Stubbs is a professor at Western Theological Seminary, where I am attending, and he has written a commentary on the book of Numbers as part of a whole series called the “Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.”  Dr. Stubbs makes two points that are very important here.  The First is the duties of the priests.  He groups them into four headings: to serve, to protect boundaries, to mediate across those boundaries, and to represent.  The service part seems fairly self explanatory as they are charged with the care for and transport of all things related to the Tabernacle.  We spoke of protection in Calvin’s points in the last paragraph as well.  The third part, the mediation across the boundaries takes the protection of the Tabernacle suggests that it is the job of the priests to “extend the holy into the common and help the common to move toward the holy.”  The final category is that of representation before God.  This happened in ways of representation, but also as substitution.  What is important, Dr. Stubbs points out, is that in this duty of representation and substitution, “the priests do not undercut the calling of all the people to be a priestly kingdom, but represent it.  And as the priest is to the people, so Israel is (ideally) to the nations.”

Another major theme here that Dr. Stubbs writes about is the “redemption of the Firstborn.”  Remember that in Exodus 22, after the Passover and the giving of the Ten Commandments, “God claims for himself the firstborn of humans and animals, as well as first fruits of crops.”  These are gifts that would be understood to be the best gives, the most precious gifts.  For them, this would have been one of the signs of faithfully serving the Lord.  While the nations of the world often did things like this in the form of sacrifice, sometimes even human sacrifice, God does not delight in death, nor does he need animals sacrificed to him, but rather desires and delights in “our obedient and faithful dedication as well as the acknowledgement of His claim over all aspects of our lives and possessions.”

But here in Numbers, God states that the Levites will themselves be given in place of the first born of the nation. This is again a foreshadowing… the substitution of someone or something for something else.  The firstborn were still dedicated… we see this happen time and again in Scripture… but often were not given up after this point.  We see this ultimately in the substitution of Christ, who fulfills the role of priest in His life and ultimately the sole sacrifice for the true redemption of the world in His death.  However, once again we remember that the call on our lives, to live as the covenant people of God, does not change.  We too are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” as Peter writes.  We no longer have to guard the boundaries between God and humanity as that barrier was torn open at Christ’s death.  We do, however, still traverse that boundary, mediating and representing God to all that we meet.  And we may not offer our firstborn or the first fruits anymore, but we will give back, and we are still called live for God in the words of Romans 12, “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  In Jesus’ death we are all consecrated for service to the Lord, not in death, but in the New Life we have in Christ Jesus our Lord.

**Citation for quotes:  Stubbs, David L.  Numbers (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2009), 43-50.



Day 38: Numbers 1-2; The Census

Welcome to Numbers!  This particular reading isn’t a very inviting text to bring us into a new book… but I think that it brushes over a few topics that we’ve talked about already and gives us an opportunity to look back and remember where we’ve been.

First of all, the numbers (no pun intended):  We see again God’s marvelous provision for the people.  As we talked about at the time of the Exodus, only 70 people came down to Egypt, and now their numbers are listed at over 600,000 people!!  It’s actually probably more than that, but they didn’t include the Levites because of their work with the Tabernacle.  God has been with them all along, growing them into a nation, just as He promised.  Also, I think it is important to note that this is just the Men… there were likely as many women and, if you think about the normal nuclear family we like to think of in America, at least 2 kids per couple.  So… doing the math: 600,000 x 4 = 2.4 million people.  “As many as the sand on the seashore” and “more numerous than the stars in the sky.”  We know now days that there are a lot more than 2.4 million stars in the heavens, but remember, seeing it from their worldview… God has kept His promise!

The other thing that we read about today is the way that the Israelites set up camp.  This is very reminicent of something we talked about in the middle of Leviticus.  One very important part of Hebrew culture and life is their connection to the Divine.  God was their center and so they always wanted to be close to the center.  Upon the construction of the Tabernacle, they had a physical Center… the place that God dwelt.  For them, the Tabernacle was the point on which the whole universe turned, the link between God and humanity… the place that Heaven and earth touched.  So, you can see, as you read through Numbers 2 that the way they camped reflected this.  They camped around the Tabernacle, with their doors always facing it.  The picture below is, I think, a good depiction of how it might have looked.  Notice the Tabernacle in the middle, and all the lights of the tents coming out their front openings which are facing toward the dwelling place of God.  Credit for this photo goes to The Razzberry Press.

Tabernacle Encampment



Day 37: Leviticus 26-27; The Covenant – Rewards, Punishment, and Us

And so we come to the end of the book of Leviticus.  Israel is still at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving their instructions from the Lord.  This picture, vaguely similar to an image of the Mountain of Doom in Mordor, is somewhat reminiscent of the description of God’s presence on the Mountain in Exodus while the people were encamped around it.  (Credit to this picture goes to: BJPA.org.

sinai

In many ways this is a difficult book to read through for people in a contemporary context.  Yet for the nation of Israel this was very much a part of their spiritual life, which as I have mentioned really means their entire life.  We have talked a lot about the Covenant in relation to the nation of Israel.  I think it is important for us to know more about what this means for them and maybe for us as well.

A great deal of contemporary Theology has centered around God being a relational God.  We’ve even gone so far as to create a relational hermeneutic (way of interpreting) for the Triune nature of God.  There is a lot of talk about “the social Trinity” and how we relate to each other based on this idea.  While these ideas have merit, we really need to work towards being faithful in how God has chosen to reveal Himself through Scripture in relationship with people, and that is via a Covenantal relationship.  We saw the beginning so of this with Abraham, the vision of the smoking fire-pot, and through Isaac, Jacob, and again through Moses.  All of these have been times when God has either “established a covenant, “remembered the covenant,” or been faithful to said covenant.

The idea of the Covenant is structured around a relationship that would have been well known in the times of the Old Testament.  It is called a Suzerain/Vassal Covenant and has a very specific construct, one that, when understood, makes God’s actions in this relationship abundantly more beautiful and full of grace!!  A Suzerain/Vassal Covenant was generally made between nations or groups of people during this time.  It would always be between someone of greater power and those of lesser power.  It generally looked like this:

Suzerian/Vassal Covenant Structure

Now, if we were to look back over the last three books that we’ve read, we could see each of these things laid out, almost in progression:

1.  Prologue:  I am the Lord.  Later, I am that God of your Father(s)… you shall be My people.  This is the Covenant relationship between God and His people.

2. Stipulations: We see statements like Be holy as I am Holy.  Other statements like: You will be set a part or a kingdom of priests.  This particular section is most notably located in the second half of Exodus and generally all of Leviticus.  It will be repeated again throughout the Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament).

3. Act of Commitment or Witness: This is first seen in the vision of the smoking firepot.  It is also seen later in the Passover Meal, and the continual sacrifices offered to God.  Generally speaking, this act of commitment or witness has some relationship to the spilling of blood as part of the oath.  We see this later in its fullness around the Table of our Lord and the “Blood of the covenant.”

4. Sanctions:  Leviticus 26 is the most notable example of this; the text that we just read today.  If the people are faithful, God will bless them.  If the people are not faithful… well… there’s a whole lot of hurt to come.  Notice though, a point that I want to articulate very well… God uses words like “discipline” and “listen to me.”  There are some pretty intense punishments that are to come if the people of Israel don’t obey this covenant.  We often associate this with the wrath of God… and that wouldn’t be entirely far from the truth.  However, the primary language here is not that of a vindictive smiting from God as much as it is God’s attempt to get their attention, to teach them a lesson that they may turn back to Him.

God’s hatred of sin has as much to do with God’s nature, His Holiness and Perfection, as it does with God’s desire for us to live in ways that are best for us.  God abhors those things that are not good for us, the poor decisions that we make that serve only to inflict harm unto ourselves.  These things that God is telling us not to do are things that, in all reality will hurt us.  That is not God’s plan for our lives.  Though He is readily willing and able to use our bad decisions to teach us things and help us grow, He also desires for us to make the right decisions that are honoring to Himself and good for us as well.

So what’s the big deal with the covenant then?  Why do we care?  Well, for one thing, this is the way that God has chosen to relate with us.  This hasn’t changed at all.  Jesus’ address in the last supper wasn’t “here drink this and the covenant is done.”  He says, “this cup is the New Covenant in My Blood.”  This extends the covenant, enhances it… but never does it do away with the Covenant.  For the Hebrews, we know that they were (spoiler alert) unfaithful to the Covenant.  However, what we don’t see is God abandoning them to their idolatry and apostasy.  What we do see is a God that is faithfully, and often painfully upholding both ends of the covenant, reminding them time and again what it means to be His people.  We see a God that is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as the Psalmist writes.  Yes the people are punished… yes they even go into exile… but they are never forgotten and are always cared for, even when their are scattered… separated from their “center.”  God does not abandon the people and remains faithful to them, showing them grace upon grace.  This is the nature of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel, and also with us.  Through Jesus, we are made a part of this covenant, something we celebrate in baptism.  This picks up on our doctrine of election, the idea that we have been chosen by God through no merit of our own.  Through baptism we are included into Christ, through the Blood of the covenant, made a part of God’s people to whom He is eternally loving and faithful.

This idea of the Covenant, and the four movements in it is not something that only pertains to that time either.  The Church, in its tradition and worship have picked up on this and modeled our worship services after it as well.  We can see this best depicted here, in an expanded version of the earlier table.

Covenant and Worship

In worship we Gather together, God greets us and we respond in praise.  Often times this is (or rather should be) a time in which we can also reflect on where we are in our relationship with God.  Corporate worship, and times of individual worship/devotions are times when we encounter God.  In doing so we are reminded of our own sinfulness.  Whether by the Word of God or the moving of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we are convicted of those things which we have done against God (and others) and are moved to repentance.  HOWEVER… we DO NOT remain in this stage of guilt but are reminded again and again of our forgiveness, the redemption that we receive through the Blood of Jesus Christ.  Remember friends, we live on the other side of the resurrection… the other side of the Cross… Our sins are atoned for (which is why we do not offer sacrifices).

From here we move into a time of the Word (stipulations section) in which God speaks to us.  This isn’t simply a time that is relegated to the teaching of moralistic living, but has to do with the proclamation of God, glorifying Him through the reading and teaching of the Word, and being transformed by it as well.  We enter then into a time of response to the Word… here we see written “Table.”  The cerimonial meal is one of the main ways in which we respond to God’s Word, by coming to the Table and eating… communally saying “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.”  There are other reasons for this as well which we will discuss at another time… this is one relation though.

Finally we are sent out with a blessing.  This is a time of more than just some nice words to end the service.  We believe it to be an empowering time when we are charged to go into the world and live out what we have heard.  We are (or should be) sent out in the one name of God: “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” knowing that our God is not confined to the walls of our worship space, but that God goes with us empowering us each and every day, faithfully walking with us as He has always done, as we live our lives for Him.



Day 36: Leviticus 24-25; Bread, Candles, and the Sabbath

The bread of the presence and the candles that were placed in the “Holy Place,” that is the inner (but not most inner) portion of the Tabernacle were of the utmost importance, as we read here today.  These particular pieces of furniture are made of pure gold.  Remember that almost everything else was made of gold coated acacia wood?  But not these, these were pure, solid gold.  We again see another symbolic set of numbers… the lampstand has 7 lamps, while there are 12 loaves of bread set out on the table at all times.  We talked about the significance of the number 7, and I think that the significance of the number 12 is fairly self explanatory   12 tribes of Israel… and later the 12 disciples/apostles.  These are set before the Lord at all times.  I’m not entirely sure what it all means, and I would love some feedback or suggestions on this.  The only thing that I am drawn to here is the imagery of the 12 tribes of Israel always being in the presence of God, symbolized by the lampstand and the fire that was always lit above it.

Here we see a depiction of what the lampstand might have looked like.  This comes from a page called Art in the Old Testament.  There are several other pieces there that are worth taking a look at.

golden lampstand

In the rest of this section, apart from the story of the Blasphemer being put to death, we read a great deal about rest.  Sabbath and rest are topics that come up often in the Bible and are very important to God and to the people of Israel.  We don’t often look at these things as being very applicable anymore.  I remember some kids on my street growing up that wouldn’t even be able to play outside on Sunday (which I always thought was a bit weird), but that’s a very rare occurrence in homes now days.  We live in a fast paced world that is moving 24/7.  While I don’t know if it is appropriate to say that busyness is a tool of the devil, I do believe that it can be used against us.  Every scientific study that has ever looked into this particular topic has concluded that periodic rest is good for a person.  In fact, people that don’t rest or ever stop tend to be more unhealthy.  The Sabbath is a good and necessary thing for us.  It is also an act of trust.  Too often I think we fear not doing anything… we feel like we need to work stronger and harder to get things done so that we can support ourselves and take care of ourselves.  This too is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can lead to some bad things.  God points out in his description of the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee (which, if you do that math every 50 years you get 2 years in a row off) that He will provide for the people of Israel during that time.  He says that the harvest in the years before would be so plentiful that they would still be using that bounty by the next time they harvested.  Well that’s all well and good, and easy to say… its much much harder to actually put that into action.  Do you make sure you take a Sabbath once a week?  It doesn’t have to be on Sundays… but it absolutely should be sometime!  It make be a step of faith for you… but it certainly is a necessary one.



Day 35: Leviticus 21-23; Priests, Offerings, and Festivals… oh my?

Today’s reading contains much of the same in regards to levitical law.  Not that I would want to downplay any particular part of the Bible, because I certainly am not wanting to do that… but I feel like we’ve hit home the Levitical Law, Holiness Code thing in these past couple of days.  The rules for priests continue in this line of thought, perhaps a bit more accentuated being that these particular people are the Priests of the “priests.”  They were the mediators between Israel, the kingdom of priests, and God.  Israel was called to be Holy… the priests were required to be, lest they defile and profane God’s dwelling place and wind up dead.

Today I would like to draw our attention to the later portion of our reading, to the feasts and festivals that are held by the Hebrew people.  You might be thinking “why care about these outdated festivals?”  You would be right in thinking so.  As Christians we really don’t celebrate any of these festivals anymore.  Often times, we struggle just to keep the Sabbath.  What is the point of looking at these things then?  Well, they are, in many ways, the basis for which the Church has crafted the Christian Church year as well.  Some might know this as the “Liturgical Calendar.”  Some might not even know that it exists… or at least you don’t think that you do.  But we celebrate things on it every year… like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

There is, however, so much more to the church calendar; a tradition that has been relatively down away with in many of the mainline denominations of the Christian church, much to our loss.  Celebrating the main events like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost seem important, but their meaning tends to get lost in the shuffle of preparation when there is no foundation for them.  The Liturgical calendar is just that… a foundation…  The image below is a general idea of what the church calendar looks like each year.  Picture it in a circle with “Christ the King Sunday” being the last Sunday of the year, and the first Sunday of Advent being the “Christian New Year.”  This Calendar comes from the website: One Eternal Day.

Church Year Calendar

So what’s the point?  One of the main reasons why the Church calendar has fallen into disuse is a lack of understanding about it (another being it’s over use to the point of making it more important that the important things).  What is the point of the festivals that the Hebrew’s celebrated?  They serve as a reminder, a way of guiding our focus and attention, pointing towards the greater story that we celebrate.  Every year the Hebrews walked through their own story of how God graciously and powerfully provided for them.  Leviticus 23:41-43 points this out:

“Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

All of the other festivals do the same thing… remind them of where they came from and connect their story to the greater story of God, like we spoke about on January 31 with the people always seeking a connection to their Center… to the Divine.  It would have been very easy for them to forget where they came from once they entered into Canaan and settled down, and it can be very easy for us to forget where we’ve come from in the busyness of preparing for Christmas or Easter holidays.  Yet we find ourselves in a greater story… God’s story!  Each year, following the weeks and months (all of which have their purpose and tell part of the story) of the Liturgical Calendar we can be reminded of the life of Jesus, His work on Earth, and the many other very important events that are part of God’s grand story of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.  We are part of something bigger than ourselves.  We are not isolated in our lives, alone trying to follow after God… the Church Calendar reminds of us this and of the things that God has done for us and for the world!!