Day 78: 1 Samuel 4-7: The Ark of the Covenant

Today’s reading is all about two things: the importance of the Ark of the Covenant and, more importantly, God’s power over other gods.

Yesterday we read about the vision of Samuel, calling him to ministry, and also the promise of God to cut off Eli from the priesthood because of his sons, Hophni and Phinehas.  We see this word from the Lord come true in 1 Samuel 4 & 5.  True to form, God always keeps His promises.

But this is not really the main part of the narrative we have read today.  There is a lot of action that happens around the Ark of the Covenant.  Remember with me all the way back to the time that Israel was at Mount Sinai, when they first created the Tabernacle.  This is recorded in Exodus 25.  The Ark was created as the dwelling place of God, the “Mercy Seat” as it is often called.  The very presence of God sat enthroned on the Cherubim that were on top of the of Ark.  It was the most sacred item in the Tabernacle, so much so we read that those that even looked on it were punished by death.  Israel’s decision to bring the Ark out of the Tabernacle and into battle without the direction of God is a testimony to their depravity at this time.  They were not trusting in God, they were trusting in this golden box on some sticks.  One could say that they had become so used to worshiping idols that they made the symbol of the presence of God an idol.

The Ark of the Covenant

Interestingly, this is one of the reasons that the Church, especially the Western Church.  Icons are artistic pictures, representations of Saints, scenes, and things of the Church’s past.  If you ever visit church’s of Orthodox belief, you will notice many of these.  They are pieces of art that can be used in worship, or in daily life to help direct our attention to God.  This is the important point of both the Ark and icons in general, they are not themselves to be worshiped, but serve to point us, our minds and hearts, to the living God.  These were removed from many churches because of the fear that the icons themselves would be worshiped, a type of “graven image” which would be in direct violation of Commandment #2.  The following is a more modern version of an Icon of Samuel from salliesART.

Samuel Icon

Finally, the most important question that we ask about these Narratives is, as always, “where is God in this narrative?”  Sometimes this is more difficult to answer than others.  However, today it is very clear to see that God is present and powerful, even when His “throne” is in the hand of the enemy.  The people of Israel associated the present of God with the Ark of the Covenant.  So, when the Ark is taken, the people are shaken to their core because they believe that somehow the Philistines have taken God away from them (which is odd being that they are worshiping idols all over the place anyway).  But God is still at work, showing Himself to be more powerful that Dagon, or any of the other Philistine gods and the people as well.  And while the Ark may indeed be the physical seat of God’s presence on earth, it is clear that He is working in Israel and in Philistia all at the same time and he makes it clear to the leaders of Israel’s enemies where He and the Ark belongs.

What do we learn from this?  Well… don’t ever take the Ark of the Covenant into battle with you.  Or perhaps the presence of a Bible at official and unofficial functions doesn’t not guarantee the presence of God at that place?  Maybe we are being shown that it isn’t about having the right religious trinkets, shirts, books, etc. that connect us to God, but rather we need to be steeped in His Word, keeping it on our hearts every day to truly hear Him and be connected to Him?  I think that one thing that God is showing Israel here is that He is neither limited by our bad actions or disobedience, nor is He limited by any distance, space, or other god that might be present.  He again shows that He is more powerful than any other god, and even has control of “untamed” animals that bring the Ark home.  God is all powerful, all knowing, and always working His will in all situations, no matter how grave they might seem.



Day 54: Deuteronomy 8-11; Not Because of Righteousness…

Sometimes I read things in the Bible and laugh… the way things are said, the way that God explains something… just seems a bit funny.  I try to imagine myself being one of the original hearers of that message and what I would think.  Deuteronomy 8 starts with this:

“Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’  Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you.”

As I was reading it, I laughed.  Its like telling someone, “you’re going to do this job.  There is no pay and you have to deal with everyone’s complaints and its going to be awful… oh yeah, and God will be with you.”  I was thinking… maybe you could lead with that first part next time… it might make me a bit more willing to hear it!  Haha!

Yet, even in this apparent humor, there is something very important here, which really becomes the basis for the doctrine of salvation by grace (sola gratia) and the doctrine of election.  God says, “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness.”  One of the sins that Israel falls into later is living in the idea that the covenant is all about them because of who they are, but God is clearly saying here that it doesn’t have anything to do with them. God chose them, not the other way around.  God chooses us… not the other way around.  It doesn’t have anything to do with how good we are, were, or will be.  We are offered the gift of grace, to be united with Christ through His blood because of God’s great love for us!  Because He chose us.

Later in this reading we see something else that is abundantly important.  God tells the people of Israel to “circumcise your hearts.”  The sign of circumcision is something that God commanded the people to do as a sign of their participation in the covenant.  Like our infant baptism, this happens to babies without their say or any action from them… again, the idea of our inclusion not because of our own righteousness.  However, it isn’t the circumcision of the flesh that is important… it is the “circumcision of the heart” that means something.  As part of the covenant, the people are called to “be holy as God is holy.”  They are called to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and mind.  They are called to keep these things on their hearts, and to make them a part of our everyday lives.  It isn’t about the physical act, its about the spiritual transformation that takes place.

Finally, another rather important thing that comes up here.  As you were reading Deuteronomy 11 you probably noticed the repetition some things that you read from yesterday in Deuteronomy 6.  Repetition in the Bible always indicates something that is very important.  I talk about this in another blog post on my personal blog, Worship Discussions.  This section of Deuteronomy is spoken with the bookends of the words of the Shema, which we talked about yesterday.  These words are very important.  God is impressing upon the people of Israel the importance of placing His Words on their hearts; that these Words need to go with them and be with them, at the center of every aspect of their life.  It is repeated time and again at the beginnings of each paragraph:

“You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always…”

“You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today…”

“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul…”

“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes…”

And finally to end the chapter and this section of Deuteronomy:

“you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today.”



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 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 26: Exodus 31-34; The Golden Calf

Here we come to another story that is familiar.  I feel like the book of Exodus is filled with familiar stories interspersed with writings about the law, the tabernacle, and the like.  This story is a bit different that some that we have read in the past week or two, and yet still abundantly similar as well.  As is the norm when something happens to this wandering nation of Hebrews, they complain and grumble against Moses and God.  Different this time would be the actual making of a “god” to worship when they face uncertainty.  Unfortunately, this is only the beginning for God’s chosen people.

So Moses is up on the mountain meeting with God and receiving the Law.  In the mean time, the people are starting to wonder what happened to Moses.  Never mind the big smoking cloud, the fire, and the lightning on the mountain, it is clear that Moses has abandoned them.  So, they do that seems to be out of the ordinary for us, for anyone really… they make a god for themselves.  However, this really isn’t something new for this culture or the cultures around them.  We saw that Egypt pretty much had a god for everything, created and worshiped in hopes of a favorable turn for them.  We would say now days that these people didn’t understand the world around them and thus things they didn’t understand were deemed supernatural, for which a god figure was created.  So really, the Israelite people were just mimicking what they saw all around them.  Would this be something that is pertinent only to those people at that time?  I think not.

But perhaps someone would argue, “we don’t make golden calves for ourselves to worship.”  On one level that would seem to be true.  I haven’t visited many people in my life that have statues of golden calves in their houses or yards much less alters to worship them on.  We try to avoid those stores with the big golden buddhas on the shelves and stuff like that.  We simply don’t make gods for ourselves in our lives do we?

Well… I tend to think, at least in my own life, that I often worship at the alter of a few things other than God.  I make myself busy in an effort to do as much as I can because I don’t trust that God will take care of things.  Sometimes I worship at the alter of current events, paying more attention to TV, celebrities, or even weather reports than I do my Bible and devotional time.  I often worship at the alter of self, trading God time for me time claiming that I need my video game time to help me recharge rather than prayer or the Bible, or even worship.  Maybe we worship at the alter of money, working longer and harder, sacrificing our family time for the sake of a few more dollars.  Maybe there are other things that fit this category… I am forced to ask the question of myself, and maybe you will think about this too: “what is the golden calf in my life?”

Whatever it is that may be distracting us, the other parts of the story here are quite important as well.  Most of all, from what I see, is the picture of God that we get.  It raises some questions… and gives us some comfort.  The proclamation of God’s name, His very nature of Love, Grace, and Mercy, are all found when Moses hears the name of God as God passes by him.  (34:6) ““The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”  Our God is a forgiving God.  If He weren’t, we would all have been wiped out long ago.  No matter what the alter you find yourself worshiping at today, know that it is not too late.  Throw away your golden calf and come back to God for He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

One question that is raised here… and perhaps this isn’t a good place to leave off for the day (but perhaps will generate some discussion)… We also get a picture of God being angry with Israel, threatening to wipe the nation out and start over with Moses.  Ultimately this doesn’t actually happen because Moses pleads with God and God changes His mind.  Yet we are told that God is unchanging or “immutable.”  How do we reconcile these two things?  I’m curious to know your thoughts!



Day 24: Exodus 24-27; Covenant and Tabernacle

Well, after the laws of yesterday, we step into what is seemingly a construction plan that really has no pertinence to us at all.  I know that my temptation what I come to these passages is to skim briefly and not really pay attention to them.  Don’t give into this temptation… there are things we can learn even here!

First in this passage we see the covenant confirmed.  To date, if you look at all the times that the covenant is brought up in the Scriptures, there is really little asked of the people of Israel.  Phrases like “I will be your God and you will be my people” abound in covenant language.  This is still true, and is still the basis of the covenant.  Along with this, the idea of election is also true, the fact that Israel was a chosen people by the grace of God through no merit of their own.  Now however, there are a few more stipulations to the covenant.  The how of the “you will be my people” has been more defined.  And Israel’s overwhelming response is written in 24:7, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”  The sign of the covenant is seen here, once again as a foreshadow to something greater, with the blood sprinkled on the alter and on the people.  This becomes for the Hebrew people, the sign of the covenant, of forgiveness.  Blood, as a symbol, has an abundance of meanings which we will talk about in the future I’m sure.  One of the first and foremost of the meanings though, is the symbol of “death for life.”  The people of Israel are dying to their own desires so that they will thus live in God’s covenant.  More to come on this!

Moving along to the design of the tabernacle again I want to encourage you to read through this, boring as it may seem.  I’ve heard few sermons on sections in the Bible like this, and have really heard even less life application about them.  One of the popular themes in messages that I have heard about this particular passage is the notion that God is a God of particularities.  God doesn’t simply say “build me a nice tent to live in,” but rather sets out all of the designs for very specific dwelling place for His presence.

Structure of the Tabernacle

The particularities of the designs of the Tabernacle are not arbitrary either.  There is a very specific set of symbols and meanings that are communicated in the tabernacle’s design.  We see things like angels woven into the fabric.  Things are placed in very specific places for a very specific purpose.  The ark is placed in the very center of the tabernacle, in a perfectly square room, in complete darkness; the place that God dwells.  It is strangely reminiscent of the creation story in which God is dwelling in the darkness of pre-creation.  If one was walking out of the Holy of Holies, the first thing one would see would be the light of the candle.  Thinking of the creation story once again, this would bring up some memories of Day 1 of creation.  There are others here as well.  See if you can point them out!

A not so final note about the Tabernacle, as it is of great importance in the biblical story is the meaning of the word “tabernacle.”  Tabernacle actually means “to dwell” or “dwelling place.”  There are two things that I am reminded of here.  First, that God actually dwelt in this place in a special location.  While we know that God is omnipresent, everywhere all the time, He was here in a very special way and the Hebrews believed it.  To them, God was real.  Unlike some of our theologies and philosophies of today which start with humanity and work to explain God, their world was the opposite (and the way it should be), all things begin with God and it is from that starting point that we seek to understand the world.  Second, and I think this is very important as well… Read John 1 if you get a chance.  In the phrase “…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” uses the same Greek word that would have been used in Hebrew in the Old Testament for Tabernacle.  Jesus, the divine Word, second person of the Trinity tabernacled among us.  It is an interesting foreshadowing of the idea of God with us, fulfilled in Jesus and ultimately will be realized at the end of time when heaven comes down to earth and “the dwelling of God is with men.” (Revelation 21:3).