Day 50: Numbers 34-36; Plans for the Land!

Well, we made it!  For all intents and purposes, the 40 year journey of Israel in the wilderness has come to the end.  The final preparations are being made for the entrance into the land of Canaan so that the people of Israel can take possession of what God has given to them.  Yes, we do have another book to go before we get to the exploits of Joshua and the conquest Canaan, but really the book of Deuteronomy is considered to be a summary of the past 40 years mixed in with Moses’ farewell address before he dies.  More on this tomorrow.

In the mean time, God is communicating to Moses what the “inheritance” of the 12 tribes is going to be.  Almost like making a plan for an outing with the kids, if you know what you’re doing going into it, there won’t be any arguing when you get there… ideally.  I’ve noticed that it never seems to work as well as hope it will.

Here too, God is setting up for His people a judicial system that helps to protect the innocent.  He commands Moses to set up “cities of refuge” which are places which people can flee to for refuge if some accident happens.  Hebrew law was as such that if you killed someone, you yourself would be killed… unless you didn’t intend to kill a person and some sort of unintended tragedy happens.  Let say you were chopping some wood and the head of the ax came loose and flew at a person and killed him.  Well, by Hebrew law, that person’s life could be avenged through the killing of the perpetrator (in this case, you).  However, because it was an accident, you could flee to the city of refuge where the “avenger of blood” cannot kill you until you have been judged “before the congregation,” Israel’s version of a jury of your peers.

Once again, this is God working to set up a people that are set apart.  Pagan cultures did not often respect a person’s right to due process of law… or the idea of innocent until proven guilty.  In this way, like all the others, God wants His people to be set apart, respecting the innocent rather than killing at will.  Remember, the people of Israel are meant to be a Holy people and a nation of Priests.  I think this is a beautiful image of how they can be mediators, showing the world that there is another way besides revenge.  What is very interesting about this is that these cities were open to “the stranger and for the sojourner among them” as well.  Even the people of the nations of the world could flee to these cities and find refuge.  What awesome grace and mercy!

Below you can see a map of how the nation of Israel was to be divided up from a website called Visual Unit.  This website is a phenomenal resource for Old Testament information!

Plan for the Promised Land

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.


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!