Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Numbers is a tedious and frustrating account of a tedious and frustrating process. Israel proves to be every bit as intolerable as the Lord feared, and he spends forty years scuffling with them in the burning wilderness. But a shiny new generation finally emerges, and their wild zeal and brutality is far better than the pathetic vision of their parents.

Here are all the posts, with astricks by what I think were the better ones:
  1. The Ten Thousand Thousands (1-10)
  2. An Evil and Adulterous Generation (11,13-15)
  3. *Self-Made Men and the Kingdom of God (12,16-19)
  4. Confusion at Meribah (20-21)
  5. Like the Beasts that Perish (22-24)
  6. The Generation That Seeks Your Face (25-30)
  7. *In Defense of Genocide (31)
  8. The Plans I Have for You (32-36)

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Plans I Have for You (Numbers 32-36)

The book of Numbers ends with a series of logistical issues now that the people approach the Promised Land. Reuben and Gad want to settle outside the borders of the land, on the east side of the Jordan. Moses and the Lord agree to this, but only after they promise to go to war with their brothers and only return once the whole land is conquered.

It’s interesting on how God himself outlines the borders of the land in meticulous detail. Those two tribes are genuinely outside it – the bit across the Jordon does not become part the Promised Land by Israelites living there.

The people have finally arrived! Here they stand, right across the Jordan, ready to occupy the land. Having successfully hammered this whiny rabble of slaves into a dedicated fighting force, he gives them their marching orders:
When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places … But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.
The people must stay pure – they absolutely cannot assimilate with the locals. They’ve learned the hard way what a serious business having contact with God of creation. He himself is going to live with them – the glorious one who made the heavens will be their next-door neighbor. His anger is quickly kindled and burns like fire.

In his zoning rules, the Lord particularly warns them against murder: the sin of Cain against his own brother:
You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.
But an exception is made for the person who kills another accidentally. Though the clan of the dead man will always send out a vigilante to take the killer out, he may run to one of six Levite “cities of refuge.” There the burning anger of the avenger will be stayed, until the Levites have given the man a fair trial to determine whether it was murder or manslaughter.

It’s a symbol of the Levites role as mediators between Israel and God, isn’t it? The Lord, in his fury, would kill off the entire nation, but for the intercession of Levites like Moses. God, knowing all things (including himself), raises up men who will wrestle with him on behalf of his people.

And now, as the hoards of Israelite warriors stand ready to invade, Moses prepares for a final speech. To listen in, we move turn ahead to Deuteronomy.

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A Prayer for Bible Bloggers

I'm going to start praying this collect from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer before each post - it sounds like a wonderful prayer for Bible Bloggers everywhere:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

In Defense of Genocide (Numbers 31)

I was hoping to put off this topic until I got to Joshua, but unfortunately here it is in Numbers – perhaps the worst atrocity committed by Israel in the entire Bible. The Lord commands the people of Israel to attack Midian to avenge the idolatry they and Moab had seduced them into. The soldiers go to war, sacking the cities, killing the kings and every man (even Balaam, as it turns out), and taking their goods and wives and children back as spoils. This is all standard practice for the warfare of the day.

Then we come to this (reader discretion advised):
And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day.
This is, quite simply, horrible. There is no way I can contort my emotions to side with the Israelites on this one. I see the image of women and young boys suddenly realizing they are all going to die, soldiers approaching with swords in hand, doomed mothers screaming for mercy for their little ones, and tear-filled girls watching helplessly on as their soon-to-be masters and husbands spill the lifeblood of their mothers and brothers into the dirt. Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem can’t hold a candle to this.

This is one of those passages I just wish weren’t in the Bible. What can be said about this? How on Earth do those of us who love this book more than life, who draw such beauty, strength, wisdom, and goodness from these, the oracles of the living God, come to terms with such ruthless cruelty?

Let’s bring on the rationalizations, shall we?

1. The Lord told them to attack the Midianites, but the Bible never explicitly says He wanted them to kill the women and boys. This was to be Moses last act before his death – maybe he acted in opposition to God’s more merciful will.

I don’t think this gets us anywhere. So far, in the books of Exodus and Numbers, God has shown no hesitation to complain and correct quite loudly of anything he disapproves of. His silence strongly implies support of Moses’ policy.

2. In the ancient world, this would not have been seen as brutal so much as wasteful. The lives of slaves and conquered people were always forfeit. The killing of perfectly good spoils was a sign of their commitment to being faithful to God at great expense.

But of course we know that slaves and conquered people are bearers of the image of God – man is not to be used as a means to an end and disposed of when he outlives his usefulness or becomes a liability. Surely they knew at least this much, especially of children of Abraham?

3. The women of Midian had seduced the people of Israel to idolatry – the greatest sin in the Mosaic Law. They were being punished justly.

Well, we certainly don’t feel the same about idolatry today, but, even granted death as a just punishment, was every single woman in Median responsible? Far be it from the Lord to sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Shall not the judge of all the Earth do what is just? Balaam seemed at least as good as Lot…

4. The entire history of redemption is at stake. If the people of Israel just fade in with the locals, the project is lost. Nothing short of ruthless implacability will keep them from descending into the paganism of the rest of the world. God will be left with nothing but to destroy everything and start anew.

Is anything too hard for the Lord? He who brought Isaac to old Abraham and Sarah, who saved Egypt from famine, who conquered Pharaoh, who gave the people the law on Sinai, can he not preserve his chosen people without this cruelty?

5. We’ve seen the Israelites, we’ve seen their culture, we’ve seen their character. Would there be any possible way that they would interpret the order to not kill as anything but laxity on their idolatry? This is the growing pains of Israel as a nation, and it’s not pretty, but there’s no other way they will understand the gravity of idolatry. It is only by their cruelty that room can be made for mercy to flow. The Lord is a Jealous God, for the ultimate good of all.

I grudgingly accept some of this as far as it goes – I must not trivialize idolatry unless I truly am prepared to throw away the entire Bible. Even so, I cannot see the cruel slaughter of women and children as anything but evil. Nor should any of us.

I see no virtue in trying to unlearn the great lessons of our time: suspicion of idealistic and utilitarian rationalizations given to justify unspeakable atrocities. We condemn what was done in Auschwitz, Nanking, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, and Darfur with righteous indignation, on God’s authority. We must not lose this, especially in a time when we in the west face enemies who employ similar rhetoric.

This is part of the lesson of Job. God will not be pleased if, out of loyalty to scripture, we end up calling evil good. Will we speak falsely for God? Will we show partiality toward him? Our maxims are proverbs of ashes; our walls are defenses of clay.

So what do we take away from this? What can we gain from this passage? What should be our reaction to it? If Numbers 31 was the extent of the Bible, I would indeed throw the book away in disgust. But I cannot pick and choose what is in the Bible, and I cannot set it aside without throwing away what is the wellspring of my own understanding of justice and mercy.

The Bible has so much more to come. There is forgiveness a thousand times over to idolatrous Israel. There is mercy towards pagan Ninevah despite the anger of the prophet Jonah (to whom Numbers 31 may have been his favorite chapter of the Bible). And there is the embodiment of Israel’s God, Jesus himself, giving his own life so that none need perish, and that all people from every nation may have life, and have it in abundance. By God’s grace, I will grasp hold of this book until it blesses me.

Perhaps the lesson the ancients took from this passage was the perils of idolatry, and we of all people need to be reminded that we must not simply make for ourselves whatever gods suit our fancy. But we will have plenty of material for this lesson in future passages. So let’s pause instead and say a prayer for Midian:
Oh God, who hates nothing you have made, will you not spare the lives of those women and boys? Dear Lord, in your mercy, forgive them their sins. Forgive them for whatever role they played in misleading your people. For the sake of your son Jesus Christ, who forgave the idolatrous Romans even as they nailed him to the cross, raise them up in the last day, to share with your people the joy of your eternal kingdom.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

The Generation That Seeks Your Face (Numbers 25-30)

What happens next is so sudden that we may easily overlook the gravity of it. It’s the most serious offense Israel has committed since the Golden Calf – and is perhaps even worse than that. While the nation is camped on the outskirts of Moab, they begin “to whore after the daughters of Moab.” We read:
These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor.
I don’t know if the Bible is speaking only figuratively of the men taking Moabite concubines and being influenced to worship their god Baal, or whether they go off to enjoy genuine cult prostitution. Probably a good deal of both.

A plague from the Lord now threatens to wipe out the people. While Moses and the judges of Israel are deliberating what to do, an Israelite man walks by arm-in-arm with his new Midianite companion. It’s impeccable timing. Aaron’s grandson Phinehas jumps up, grabs his spear, and impales both unfortunate souls with one furious thrust.

The Lord is both shocked and delighted by this display of enthusiasm:
Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.
It’s hard for us to get too excited about such savage zeal, and rightly so. Our world is full of violent men who kill for the glory of God without a second thought. But, though Pinehas may legitimately bring to mind modern images of a Pakistani man murdering his sister for marrying a Hindu, we should try to remember where we are in the story.

Compare Pinehas and Baal with Aaron and the Golden Calf. Aaron capitulates to their idolatry, while the young Pinehas makes a firm example for all the people to see. Here we get a sense that this new generation has at least something beyond the weak, whiney and fickle character of their parents.

Jacob saw long ago that Levi had a violent streak in him, and cursed him and Simeon for it. But we’ve seen time and time again that God is seeking a people that is audacious, reckless, tenacious, and passionate in their pursuit of his promises. As long as there’s virtue in the wood itself, he’ll smooth out the rough edges in time.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Like the Beasts that Perish (Numbers 22-24)

Israel inches ever closer to Canaan. Though they successfully maneuver around Edom, several petty border kingdoms send armies to attack Israel. This only results in their own forces being utterly vanquished, and their cities sacked and occupied.

Here we get a rare glimpse of the other side. The story picks up with Balak, the king of Moab, panicking at this vast hoard camping at his doorstep. The Moabites are distant relatives of the Israelitesdescendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. They might actually be expected to welcome their cousins home from slavery in Egypt. Instead, however, they plot with the Midianites (also children of Abraham) on how they might destroy this ravaging multitude.

Balak enlists the services of Balaam the diviner, himself a worshipper of the god of Abraham. On route to meet Balak, Balaam’s path is blocked by the fearsome angel of the Lord (invisible to Balaam). His donkey sees him, and veers off the path. Balaam beats the poor thing, and then the donkey all of a sudden gains the ability to talk. It’s a funny conversation, with Balaam more concerned about his animal’s disobedience than the fact that he is actually talking to a donkey. Perhaps diviners are used to such things (though presumably they should also be able to detect the presence of an angel from their own god).

Anyway, it’s now the angel’s turn to yell at Balaam. He’s dumber than a donkey – blind to the purposes and agents of the god he purports to serve. A troubled Balaam repents, agreeing to deliver the oracles of God to Balak truthfully, with eyes wide open.

As Balaam chants his messages to a furious and terrified Balak, we are again invited to reflect on how far little Jacob has come.
God brings them out of Egypt
and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.

Behold, a people!
As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain.

He shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
and shall break their bones in pieces
and pierce them through with his arrows.

Blessed are those who bless you,
and cursed are those who curse you.
The time for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham has arrived! He intends to give this people a land to call their own, where Abraham himself was only a sojourner. As we have seen so far, the Lord’s purposes do not fail. The question to the bordering kingdoms is whether they
will bless Israel and share in his blessings, or curse him and be themselves cursed. Unfortunately for Moab and Midian, they’ve chosen the way of Esau – the way of Cain.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Confusion at Meribah (Numbers 20-21)

We’ve come to a dismal series of short passages, which raise more questions than answers. At Meribah, the people find themselves without water again, and complain to Moses. He and Aaron ask the Lord what to do, and he responds:
Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.
So Moses and Aaron follow orders:
And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
If this is all that was said, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. The passage reads much like the one in Exodus – it’s apparently the same place and might as well be the same event. Except for God’s reaction:
Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.
Soon afterwards the elderly Aaron dies, and the priesthood passes to his son Eleazar. The Lord wouldn't let him live long enough to see the promised land, “because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah.” It’s tragic that Moses and Aaron don’t get to see the fruit of all their labor. Perhaps it is a needed warning for the people that even great men like them are liable to fall from grace if they aren’t careful.

But the maddening thing is that, despite all this gravity, I’m having the hardest time discerning what exactly they did wrong! Was it hitting the rock instead of speaking to it? Was it their angry tone? Was it their use of the word “we” and not “your God”? We are left to speculate.

Anyway, for whatever reason, it seems that here Moses strove with God and lost. Immediately afterwards, the people of Israel come upon the kingdom of Edom (ruled by the descendants of Esau.) They request safe passage but are denied. Edom sends out an army to block their way and force them to take another route. Esau does not lift his brother’s face.

On their way around Edom, the people grumble again. This time the Lord sends poisonous snakes after them and they scream for mercy. The Lord then tells Moses to hammer together a bronze snake and mount it on a pole. Those who’ve been bitten need only look at it and live.

Now, if I hadn’t been told ahead of time that this was God’s direct command, I would have thought this idolatry. Looking to a metal statue of a snake to miraculously heal you from snake bites? Sounds like worshipping an evil snake-goddess to try to curb her wrath. What’s the difference between a bronze snake and a gold calf?

Perhaps part of the difference lies in the snake being the symbol of their suffering. The way to escape affliction is not to look away from it, but to stare it in the face. The cursed serpent, doomed to crawl on his belly, is now lifted up for all the people to look on and have life. Here, however cloudy, we see at least a hint of hopeful things to come: a shocking and hideous form that nevertheless heals even the most stubborn rebels and brings them into the inheritance promised to the faithful.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Self-Made Men and the Kingdom of God (Numbers 12, 16-19)

Miriam and Aaron are appalled by Moses’ marriage to a foreign woman, and slander him publically. God has worked through them after all – why should he be so revered anyway? Moses is too shy to speak up, so the Lord himself comes to the defense of his chosen leader:
Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
Moses intercedes for his brother and sister, and they are forgiven. But their resentment is a forecast of storms to come.

A Levite named Korah leads a group of 250 chieftains of Israel in a public revolt against Moses and Aaron. Who exactly do they think they are – Moses holding total executive power and Aaron and his family having exclusive rights to the priesthood? Korah is a man after our own modern hearts - half Thomas Jefferson and half Martin Luther:
You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?
Korah isn’t totally off base here. After all, the Lord did promise that Israel would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But his ambition has blinded him to the nature of holiness. When everyone is holy, in the sense that Korah uses the word, then no one is.

This is not the way of the God of Abraham. He desires for his entire creation to be cared for, so he creates man to reflect his likeness and guide his creatures. He wants to bless all the nations, and so he calls a specific nation, Israel, to be his platform for engagement. Yes the people are holy, and yes they are to be a nation of priests
– but the kingdom of God is no democracy. Their own tents are sanctified by the Tabernacle itself – the shrouding presence of the living God in their midst. The people can be priests before the nations because they themselves have Moses interceding for them and Aaron and his sons making atonement for their sins.

The ground rips open and Korah and his supporters plunge screaming into the abyss. God knows the man he wants to lead this people. He chose Moses when he was only an infant floating in that little basket long ago. Yet another miracle is performed – Aaron’s staff buds with almonds – to remind the people that the Lord still wants these same men he wanted when he turned the staff into a snake as a proof to Pharaoh.

Moses never particularly wanted this calling. It only weighs heavier on him as the years go by. But lead and intercede he must, or there is no hope at all for Israel. God would consume them in a minute if he were not there to mediate. Indeed, the Lord seems to have known this all along – which is why he picked a man with the spunk to argue with him. God’s chosen servant is humble and meek, holding the people on his heart, and bringing rest for their souls.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

An Evil and Adulterous Generation (Numbers 11, 13-15)

The people grumble…again. They’ve hardly left Sinai, and they are longing for their carefree days in Egypt, where apparently they would lie around in the sun beside the Nile all day, feasting on sizzling meat. God is understandably offended at their absurd ingratitude, and prepares to rain down destruction. We now know the drill – Moses will once again calm God down and talk him out of wiping them out.

Only Moses has had enough. He’s sick of constantly having to mediate between God’s high standards and the people’s incessent whining:
Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?
All of a sudden the roles are reversed, and it is the Lord who provides help for Moses so that he can bear the burden of interceding for the people. Putting up with these folks is a greater task than god or man alone can handle – it requires a tag-team effort!

Soon this too is stretched to the limit. The multitude prepares for the grand invasion of the promised land, and twelve spies are sent out to scope out the territory. They bring back an rich selection of ripe fruit – at least as alluring to their manna-saturated palettes as the memories of Egyptian cuisine. Unfortunately, the only stronger motivation for God’s people than physical craving (which he has consistently satisfied) is fear of their enemies (whom he has consistently defeated). The mob prepares to kill Moses and head back to Egypt.

It’s been ten times now – as many rebellions as there are commandments. There are no more excuses. The people can no longer plead ignorance – they are like a man breaking the Sabbath “with a high hand”. God prepares to annihilate them. As a last resort, Moses makes a desperate appeal to the Lord’s own reputation:
Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. … Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’
The Lord must concede the point. He can not simply kill off the Israelites in a blind rage, as much as he would like to. There is too much invested in them; there's too much at stake. For better or worse, God has inextricably associated himself and his redemptive project with these people, and their destruction means his failure.

So the Lord tempers his wrath somewhat – on the day that they rebel they do not surely die. He agrees to bring the children under twenty years old into the land, but only after the current generation has completely died off. They are cursed to wander the wilderness 40 years, ‘till they return to the dust of the ground. The few who attempt otherwise fall to the flaming swords of the land’s guardians.

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