Literally and thematically Numbers is stuck in the desert.
If you are wanting to get on with the bible’s plot, skip a book (or 2). The short triumphant march to claim Canaan, the promised land, becomes a lifetime of walking in circles, because the people tell God they don’t want Canaan (and BTW we hate the stinkin’ food you provide us every day!) Their wish comes true, they indeed don’t get Canaan. However, God honours his promise and plan, and their children do.
The narrative flow of the book seems to keep getting stuck too. Its half story, half law book. Something happens, then you get a chapter of sacrifice law, something else happens, and you get rules about clothing tassles or festival times.
But its a powerful example of the life of the saved. It’s about life after slavery in Egypt (which ironically, can appear a lot more comfortable) and before the promised land, for us, heaven. Numbers is like any believer’s life on earth. Walking in circles!
And the massive israelite camp is set up as a circle, with all the different tribes fanning out from the priests at the centre, who surround the tabernacle, which houses the very presence of God. Our God, the author of life, love itself.
God’s part is to be constant against our inconstancy, loving us despite us losing it, to move to Plan B when our rebellious spirit and selfishness stuffs up Plan A.
Our part is to learn discipline – a life learning to curb our habits and put God at the centre of our life, as he was at the centre of their camp, before them and within them.
The law starts to have the same context Jesus would give it. They are already out of egypt, they are in a state of grace and God will keep his promise. They are working out (walking out?) the salvation they already have.
Plan A – a God-centric camp ready to quickly move to claim the promised land
1 600000 men ready to fight for the promised land
2 Camp organisation – God-centric wheel
3 At the centre: Levites, the chosen of the chosen, set aside for God’s work
4 Rituals for how the Levites move the tabernacle – so holy
5 Sexual and practical purity in the camp
6 How to be set aside for Holiness within holiness, the Nazarite vow
God’s people, god’s presence
7 Dedication of the Tabernacle – God’s presence with Moses extended to the people
8 Levites Tabernacle duties, a life in God’s presence
9 The first passover – we still celebrate it – levites represent the saved first born
10 A life of faith. They walk how god wants, when god want, he provides all
Plan B: Losin’ it and the consequences…
11 A tale of Moses and the people. Contentment vs rising discontent
12 Aaron and wife Miriam lead a rebellion against Moses. Humility vs ambition
13 Recon on the holy land, AKA, that moment when you suspect that if there is a God, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing
14 The people lose their faith in God. Only their children will see the promised land
Hard lessons while wandering
15 Reminder of sacrifice meanings, and tassles to wear to remind them of the law
16 A sink hole for the leaders of the rebellion, a plague for the rest
17 A sign of hope amidst the plague – but I get that the people just feel traumatised
18 Aaron gets a “tick off” and refresher course in his priestly duty
19 Death vs life. Purification rituals. God is life, they must choose him
20 The end of the wandering generation: they are where they were in ch13
Back to Plan A with a new generation (who are still pretty hopeless)
21 Now making progress, the people still grumble as God punishes and saves
22 Moab stands between them and Canaan. Moab enlists a holy man Balaam, but the real God gets to him first via a speaking donkey
23 Balaam is supposed to bless Moab’s plan to destroy Israel. He predicts disaster.
24 As the Moab king gets more and more angry, Balaam speaks “truth to power”
25 Meanwhile the Israelites are…. sleeping with Moab temple prostitutes! Noooo!
26 Second census the new force to take Canaan. God keeps his promise, despite us!
27 Moses commissions Joshua, forward ho to canaan, their inheritance… almost
Preparing to claim the land – realisation of God’s promise
28 Dealing with sin, its real, its painful… for them, many sacrifices
29 Israelites preserved their identity through lots of festivals and shared worship
30 Rules on the vows of women… patriarchal, but perhaps relatively progressive?
31 The destruction of Moab as God warned. Except the Israelites don’t, quite.
32 The first claim to the land doesn’t stop them all working together on the mission
33 Summary – where they’ve been and what they must do: purge the land.
34 Scoping the land, rules for who will get what. In which I feel guilt…
35 Arrangements for the priests in canaan… quite like christians today!
36 Protecting the promised land from being lost through marriage.
It’s like to say it came to a climactic end but I can’t… It’s a bit of business revisiting the quite liberal law that allows women to inherit land where a family only has daughters. It enters the land doesn’t thereby move out of Israel possession of they may non Israelites or even non clan.
It emphasises again the God given nature of the land and the relationship the nation has with God.
You can’t miss from this book: God chose them, God gave them the land. The did their darnedest to reject his promises, and a generation was wasted, but here they are.
This continues a list of living arrangements for the holy land. It’s a grace filled chapter.
The priests are the chosen of the chosen. They don’t have their own land but are spread out among the people in a way that anticipates modern theology of the priesthood of all believers.
It’s God’s way of influencing: the salt that gives flavour.
And refuge cities are dotted though the land where accidental killers, manslaughterers, may shelter from legalised vengence.
Commentator mentioned how God as refuge is a theme, and how much in common the idea of a refuge City has with Jesus.
God is just there nibbling away at people, being there as part of life, being salt in conversations and somewhere to go for refuge. It’s a good picture of how he wants us to live.
This is the business end of numbers where God tells Moses what will be the borders of the promised land, and tribal representatives are appointed to go with Joshua, Moses’ replacement as leader, and the high priest to claim it and set the tribal boundaries.
Its sort of pragmatic and sort of weird. Moses converses with God. We’d possibly call him crazy today. They got to be a nation that didn’t have land – a slave nation within Egypt. Directed by God, they’ve arrived at this occupied, relatively random land, which they are to claim by driving out or killing everyone living there… complete annihilation of the existing culture and existence. I feel disloyal to God saying that, or should I say untrusting of his justice.
Its a formative moment in history – no land, no nation, no nation no messiah, no messiah no christianity. Love it or hate it, Christianity is the biggest religion, a third of the planet. Judasim not far behind. Its a big deal moment.
Speak to me, father.
Impressive list chapter documenting every stage of the generation long march that has got them to this point.
Then instructions and warnings for the future. Take the land cleanly, ie: don’t assimilate with or tolerate the people already there.
Taking stock. Being aware of Gods guidance and blessing. Staying focussed.
The land they have just conquered is great for livestock… Reuben and Gad are vast herdsmen tribes and they want it, not to go into the promised land over the jordan.
Moses does a deal where they can have it if they join the fight for Canaan, but if not they will be given land within Canaan. Either way, their lot is with the Israelites, fighting for Canaan.
He compared it to the weakness of the generation who lost their will to go to the promised land after the spies report. Its easy to see a lesson about settling for instant gratification and not pursuing God’s plan.
As you will see from my reading of Joshua, the promised land project for me, and for many I’m sure, keeps being tainted with sentiment for the occupants of the land… its not empty. So I have a mixed reaction to the chapter.
But certainly you have this sense that God’s people are bound up with each other, the mission of one group is the mission of all, and they must not be distracted by the dazzling opportunities along the way to obeying God’s will.
A few chapters ago God used a plague to bring judgement on the Israelites. But now God uses Israel to destroy the Midianites, maybe so that all the other nations along the path to canaan will know they are chosen and steer clear.
This sad story is a sequel to the scenes in 23-25 of the Moab King and Baalam the diviner/prophet who kept telling the King that God was with the Israelites and he should not try to fight them or it would be their doom.
The king seemed to have deliberately tried – with some success – to break down the Israelite’s religion with their own particular belief system that seemed to involve casual sex with attractive women.
Its hard to contemplate all those ancient lives. Human souls as precious as anyone. What sort of lives did they have those temple prostitutes?
Were there any among those destroyed who God loved? Balaam was killed. He was a prophet for hire, but he spoke glorious words about God. Surely there were others who knew at least moments of blessing we didn’t even hear about. That is between god and each person. But their time on earth was over, and the Israelites dealt the blow.
The habits of war was to take all the women children and treasure as spoils for the victors, which the Israelites did, not focussing on the fact that they were being instruments of god’s judgement, not a conquering army.
They weren’t victors, they were supposed to be more like a destructive force of nature: a plague, flood, earthquake or old age. Literally an act of God. They weren’t to profit from it.
So the rest of the chapter is an awkward and unsatisfactory compromise to return the spoils to God, including the humans, some of whom are even allowed to live a bit longer, in a way that is as fair as can be in the circumstances. Plan B, second best, God getting into the messiness of disobedience.
Numbers has got very like Leviticus at the moment. This is rules about a woman’s vow. Men may veto them – the father of a girl, and later the husband of a wife. The assumption seems to be that women will make rash promises.
It seems terribly sexist. But no doubt in other societies women’s word meant even less. The rules here are that a husband or dad is bound by the vow by passive assent… If they do nothing after they hear about it, it stands. So the vow of a woman becomes the vow of their protector man… not challenging their patricarchal society, but there is a small means by which women may have a voice in it.
I’d look it up but so tired this morning!
I know I don’t seem very interested in the text this morning, but I’m very aware of God’s presence in my life as I go back to work this morning. I have some clarity over some things I should do.
More rules about what gets sacrifices at feast sacrifices.
Festival of trumpets and tabernacles. Tabernacles goes on for days, and most of the chapter is devoted to the several animals each day..
Going back to work after a week of leave. Not too thrilled, but it’ll be ok.
A lotta lotta animal sacrifices.
This seems like a dry series of rules.
They do 2 lambs a day, morning and evening.
2 extra on Sabbath.
A feast each month/new moon.
More for Passover
More for harvest.
I read my favourite commentator. He didn’t get a lot of meat from it (no pun intended)
He said the sunrise and sunset sacrifices are a good reminder to us to acknowledge God each day.
He made the point that they added a goat for atonement to the harvest, which was largely a celebration of thankfulness. There is always a place for remembering that God forgives sin.
I was also struck by how tightly communal their life was. A national leaders meeting/feast each month. That’s a lot of communication.
I also found myself wondering about whether they would give too much to God. What if they run out of sheep to feed their families? We were they getting flour from for the grain offering? It must have been a very precious commodity. I found myself wondering whether the invisible God and often victimless sin actually was worth risking their food supply. The “faithless” generation, it seems, eventually got more faith than me…
What it says about God is grace is not cheap. Sin is real. Approximating/symbolising it’s cost for an ancient nation of herdsmen requires a lotta lotta animals.