In my almost daily reading in the book of Numbers, I encountered, in random order, fearful spies, some wandering Jews, poisonous snakes, a talking donkey, Israelite grumbling, a disobedient rock-hitter, some Midianite temptresses, a zealous priest, and the first of many victories as these Hebrews head for the Promised Land.
In the weeks leading up to this one, we've seen the Israelites in the desert, spending a year receiving God's law and learning about worship that pleases God and building the tabernacle. It occurred to me at this reading that God needed that year to work on removing the vestiges of the Egyptian religion and without the influences of the kingdoms they would encounter as they neared Canaan. I suppose a year in the desert is the closest thing to a religious vacuum that can be found, a time and place to establish pure worship of the true God.
So with that year behind them, they set out for the land of the Promise. Remember that promise, imaginary reader? The promise God made to an old man with a hearty faith during our first week of reading? Well, after wandering and lies and favoritism and slavery and grumbling, our flawed heroes, the descendants of that faithful old man, the nation conceived through a miracle, are finally getting close. They just need to send a few spies into the land to check things out before God leads the charge. But 83% of those spies will come back without even a drop of the faith of Abraham, with fear of the land and its inhabitants so strong that not even the memory of God's mighty hand of deliverance in Egypt can reassure them of victory in Canaan. Some days I just want to shake those stubborn, fearful, wayward Hebrews. Then I want to have a baby boy so I can name him Caleb. I'm just sayin'.
So instead of listening to the reassurance of Caleb, Joshua, Moses, and most importantly, the God of all creation, the Israelites do what they seem to do best, romanticize their enslavement and grumble against the One who sustains them. And God has one of his enough's enough moments and sends them to wander for forty years in the desert before they can enter this Land of Promise.
That forty years of wandering doesn't get too much coverage, just the highlights (or perhaps low points) of grumbling and disobedience. The narrative does include a story in chapter 20 that always depresses me. Spoiler alert: there's grumbling involved. This time the lack of water in their desert wanderings have reminded them of their glory days in Egypt, and the people cry out against Moses and Aaron, who prostrate themselves to seek the Lord's favor. They are instructed to take the staff from the tabernacle with them and speak to a rock. Moses did something similar in Exodus 17 (at the same place, best I can tell), but that earlier time God told him to strike the rock rather than just talk to it. So when Moses strikes the rock twice, water does come out, but this act of disobedience displeases God to the point that neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter the Canaan as a result of it. It always seems harsh to me, probably because my sympathies are so strongly with Moses versus these grumbling tribes of Israel that I'm all set to cut him some slack. I think it's probably really satisfying and necessary to take out a little frustration on a rock--it's better than hitting the people, right? But just like with Nadab and Abihu, obedience and holiness and righteousness are tied up together. And they matter to God. A heart that seeks God must put aside impatience and frustration and seek obedience or fall subject to God's judgment. And there's my lesson, though I still feel sorry for Moses (and Aaron).
Speaking of Aaron, also in chapter 20 we read that Aaron is gathered to his people, and his son Eleazar takes his place as high priest. I bet being the big brother of Moses was challenging. As a youngest child, I don't have any experience in going through life dealing with a special, over-achieving, superior younger sibling, but you could ask Michelle or Shane or Joshua. They've had loads of experience with that. But Aaron spends forty plus years alongside Moses, speaking for him in Egypt, serving as high priest and setting the example for that office for his descendants, listening to the grumblers and dissenters, and leading those stubborn people. He does all of that while taking orders from his little brother and without the face-to-face contact with God that must have been an encouragement and motivation to Moses. He doesn't do it perfectly, and at least a couple of times, I tend to come down on him hard for his slip-ups. But he's a pretty decent guy, even so.
I would get disowned by faithful reader, frequent commenter, and cousin Mac if I didn't devote some attention to the story of Balaam and the talking donkey. Of all the miraculous occurrences in the Bible, this is the one that often gives Mac the most pause. And you know, it does smack of the ridiculous, the cartoonish, whereas most of the Biblical signs and wonders fall on the side of powerful or terrible or majestic. Perhaps it's just the influence of our culture that makes this seem silly to a modern reader. Because I'll admit the donkey might talk with Eddie Murphy's voice when the scene plays out in my head. I hope Mac will leave a comment here to do his Balaam's donkey rant. It's been a few years since I've heard it, and I may be missing out on some of the subtleties here.
The Message to class. I started coming to church armed with The Message a few years ago, and I take every possible opportunity to read aloud from it in class. It's become something I'm a bit famous (infamous?) for in our singles group, but usually I think there's some valuable perspective to be gained from the paraphrase. Anyway, Jimmy wanted to cover some NT references to points in our reading this week, and I was happy to oblige him. One of the passages I read was 1 Corinthians 10, the first thirteen verses. And in The Message, I found that Paul (and Eugene Peterson) had already said everything I've been trying to say about the Hebrews and old law for the past six weeks. The whole passage flashed for me like neon, but the last few verses were the best. Here's Eugene's take on verses 11 & 12:
These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don't repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don't be so naive and self-confident. You're not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it's useless. Cultivate God-confidence.
I needed to hear that. Maybe now that I have--and shared it here--I can quit harping on the same theme every week in these project 4:4 posts.