Numbers 18

So starting afresh after major rebellions and terrible plague. Good addresses Aaron, who with his wife had contributed to sing Moses’ leadership, rejecting the discontent of the people.

The levites are the temple serving tribe, and the priests are Aaron’s family, a subset within the levites tribe.  The responsibility for their behaviour, levites and priests all falls on Aaron.

They in turn are responsible for the sacrifices which cleanse the whole nation, and save them from death. 

God is reminding Aaron of his role. The priests are to tithe the tithes, give a tenth of the offerings they receive to God, sins they are also their wages for their service at the tabernacle.

Aaron has been a weak link and God is reminding him he is the centre and pillar of the whole system. 

I’ve increased my responsibility at church, and the first week after, I slept in and didn’t even go!  I’m glad mine isn’t as big or as life and death as Aaron’s. But it is impressing itself upon me, the seriousness of it. Mustn’t let them down.

Numbers 3

About the levites. The different clans get different holy duties. The priest tribe is a substitute for the firstborn, which are to be given to God. 

They haven’t been counted so far, in the army counts, as they do not fight. 

They count the males in the levites tribe, 22000, and the number of first born Israelite males in the rest of the tribes: 22273. So they pay the substitute price set out in Leviticus for 273 first born males.  

This keeps a debt owed to God for sparing the first born males at Passover when the Egyptian children died. By each family supporting the levites for God’s service and paying for the extra 273, notionally every firstborn has been dedicated to God.

Leviticus 7

I think we may have reached the end of the offerings. I started to think I was going batty, because it seemed to be saying the same thing over and over, but it’s actually outlined six different offerings: burnt, grain, sin, guilt, fellowship, and ordination. 

Burnt is where the whole thing is burned up, nothing left to eat. Chillingly it is the origin of the word “holocaust”. 

Sin is for Israel’s corporate sin, 

guilt for specific individual crimes, 

grain is non meat, and was a gift, a freewill offering to God (if you were well off… It was also an option for other purposes of you were poor) 

fellowship is for celebrating good things that happen, to acknowledge that God provides, 

ordination is dedication of new priests.

All have different rules about the animal, the nature of the royal etc. 

I was struck by the metaphor of cleaning. There is a lot of ritual cleansing and rules about unclean things contaminating the clean. It actually has a reasondable amount of practical science behind it, but it is a powerful metaphor for god’s holiness, one that is hard to reconcile with how loved and close to God Christians are promised to be.

Strange that the no blood thing carries on as kosher rules for Jewish people, though the sacrificial system has passed on. 

1 Samuel 11

Saul passes his first great test, Israel not so much.

Some bad hombres annex a group of Israelites and as part of a humiliating “peace” deal threaten to take out the right eye of every male. The Israelites beg 7 days to see if anyone will help. 

Saul galvanises his personal outrage into national leadership and rescues them and the territory, defeating the ammonites. Israel has a born leader.

Sometimes what we want, our deepest desires, and god’s will and plan overlap. Israel want to be winners, to keep all their land, to unify and be strong. God promised the land, said they are a single nation, a chosen people. That’s a fair degree of overlap.

But the gaps show in their reaction, such as wanting to put to death anyone who questioned making Saul king. Saul himself intervenes and reminds them that the victory is not his but the lord’s. 

However the subtlety is already being lost in the joy of victory. The king, the victory, are tangible. The people never seem able to completely connect, in a sacrificial way, with God.

Good for God, good for me. It’s a seductive notion. But “win win” is not the third great commandment. 

It’s easy to criticise in obvious examples like prosperity doctrine, which teaches that earthly wealth is evidence of god’s blessing. But the comfort of my existence is surely riddled with it. 

How much am I willing to put on the line for God?

Esther 4

Esther’s path to hero.

Her first reaction to her distress at hearing her cousin Mordecai is in sackcloth is to send him some nice clothes. Nice try, he sends them back.

She sends a slave and finds out what’s really going on, and Mordecai sends back a copy of the edict and everything, including telling her the price Haman was willing to pay to destroy the Jews.

Her response to that is to say that she would quite likely get killed for trying to do anything. The protocol is that she waits for the king to call for her. If she initiates face time, he may refuse to offer the gold sceptre, meaning he isn’t interested, and she is put to death.  It’s been a month since he called her, her influence may be on the wane.

The narrative has deftly painted the background for her fears because we know she only got the her position because Queen Vashti got proud and was deposed.

Nice try. He sends a message via her servant. She shouldn’t think that her rank will protect her alone from the wave of anti semitism. He has faith that deliverance for the Jews will come despite her, and she will regret being silent as much as speaking out. And maybe that is why she’s there in the first place? He believes this is her god given moment. Esther has to choose who she will trust, god or king. Who is really in charge here?

It’s the old bible one two three. Peter denied Jesus three times. Gideon and Moses needed three proofs before they had the courage to act, on the third day Jesus rose.

Esther send back instructions: she, her servants and the Jewish people outside the palace will have a three day simultaneous fast. Then she will break the law and go to the king, and perish if she will.

I think her need to fast and take time to summon up courage, and her need to feel the people were behind her shows how extremely hard she found it to do this, to face death in this way.

She has accepted that this is her god given moment, and she is utterly terrified of it. Of course Jesus wept when his came, too.

The conclusion of this chapter makes me shiver, and tear up. When you do something you find literally impossible, your worst nightmare, how profound is that heroism.

 

 

Esther 3

Things take a dark turn. Haman enters the story, a high ranking trusted but ruthless official, close to the king. He demands Mordecai bow to him but he won’t, presumably because of the second commandment: there is only one God. Daniel was the same.

Haman decides to destroy all the Jews.  The king seems to accept his advice that they are a danger, and gives him his signet ring which enables Haman to issue a kill edict in the Kings name. The King must have connived at that, because he said “do with the people as you will” as he handed the ring over.

An interesting detail is that Haman was willing to pay the King for the destruction of the Jews. The king refuses the money… I dunt know if that is to his credit or not!

The chapter ends with a bitterly poignant picture, the king and Haman having a drink together but the city “bewildered”. Perhaps in sympathy, also partly perhaps they thought “there but for the grace of (an uncaring…) God go we”?

There is a moment as you read, me at least, where you blame Mordecai. You think, OK, don’t acknowledge Haman, get yourself killed, but your stubbornness has signed a death warrant for all your countrymen.

If course Haman is a nasty piece of work, vindictive, proud and arbitrarily cruel, but why not just bow to him and be done with it?

Where does one draw the line and blindly obey God, even though it will most likely provoke unjust violence not only toward yourself but collateral damage for other believers?

There is also the monstrous unfairness of it, Mordecai to be killed for not honoring the Kings representative, the King whose life he just saved in an act of abundant loyalty. Perhaps he should have let the plot to kill the king go through!

The place where you draw the line is where you sell God short. Where you betray him by acting like he means less to you than he really does. Without that, the Jews are not the Jews, and we believers today are ineffective.

And one does act for all. Mordecai had to do what he did.

Zechariah 13

More “on that day” prophesies about the day of the Lord.
… there will be a fountain that purifies the nation (reminds me of the Cowper hymn “there is a fountain filled with blood”)
… the name of the idols will be cut off and forgotten
… false prophets will be rejected, they will be ashamed of their lying and deceit.

It’s quite sweet, because it paints a picture of the false prophets being thrown out and even pierced by their family if they reappear, but not killed. Eventually they admit that they were only ever really a farmer, and they identify the wounds on their chests as having been given by their friends.

But things get more serious in the poem that follows, where God speaks of a winnowing, how only a third of the nation will be saved, two thirds severed and scattered by the sword of the Lord.  And even for those saved it will be a hard path of being refined and purified through fire.

I always have a survivor guilt reaction to those passages, Jesus picks up the refining imagery too, as does Hebrews in the New Testament. I feel like I haven’t been through the fire, and I feel ashamed of my chronic sin, forgiven with so little effort on my part.  Still, the guys who just have scars to show for being false prophets got a pretty good deal too.

 

 

Ezra 10

A disturbing and vivid chapter. The people respond to Ezra’s mourning over sin, culminating in a dramatic meeting in the rain where they promise to put away their foreign wives and the children by them. The rain seems to worry them more than the fate of the women and children involved. They appoint leaders by tribe to investigate and enforce the rules.

Israelites don’t have to leave their wives, but it’s a line in the sand: if not they forfeit property in Jerusalem and are expelled. It a “choose you this day who you will serve” moment that affects a lot of other people.

Then follows a sad list of all those who had inter married.

I understand Jerusalem is a symbolic city and they are preserving a culture too, but you worry at the fate of the women and children left with no husband or father. There is no mention of any provision for them.

I suppose sin is serious and it’s real. In the age of grace we intertwine sinful lives with being seen pure by God and it’s hard to remember that the evil matters.

I don’t think the harshness was lost on them. The people came up with the plan, Ezra did not impose it. What he did was pray, just that, with great pain and sadness.

They knew the rule of Moses to stay separate from the polytheistic culture of the promised land, or Jehovah would soon be a meaningless trinket in a long list of household gods. They also knew the condemnation malachai had for divorce, who called it treachery that made god weep and refuse offerings. In the ancient world divorce could be a social and economic catastrophe for women, who had few other options.

That’s why everyone was so upset. They had got into a situation where whatever they did was immoral and had to choose one path or the other.  It applied to about 100 out of 30000 or so. It reminds me of corporate restructures, to keep the whole viable they are harsh to a few.

I recall from earlier, in Genesis for instance, god treated the slaves and mistresses of Moses’dumb attempts to fulfill the covenant by fornication with great grace, we followed their story and saw that they and their children prospered and were all part of the plan. We’re not told what happened here, and often in life we don’t know how faithfulness to God plan works out, but that is the god I believe in. He is love.

May I have faith to trust and obey God. He knows how many hairs are on every head, and how many grains of sand there are. I can’t plan the big picture better than he can, but I can follow the path he has set.

 

Luke 14

If you have ears…. Jesus needs people to really listen. We often say “I won’t hear of it” making hearing a metaphorical act, and this is what hearing means here.

A Pharisee, obviously one of those who actually admired Jesus invited him to lunch. Jesus’ stories are all about letting go honour and status. Jesus does staged teaching… He upps the ante. First he discusses the sabbath… Healing is more important this is almost presented as a lawyers exception, though is there an almost sarcastic element to it.. Well duh?. Then seating seating arrangements, which is done as a practical, almost wisdom literature thing… If you sit  at a place lower than your status, you’ll look good when you are moved up.

Then the banquet story is told sort of twice… Once as a divine payment sort of deal.. Be generous to the needy rather than the influential and you will get a heavenly reward. Then a variation of the story which is a real time bomb story, ultimately a devastating attack on allowing “first world problems” fill your time on earth, and not coming to the banquet of the kingdom of God.

Then the scene changes to preaching to a crowd, but the theme continues, as Jesus ratchets it up dramatically saying that you must be prepared to hate wives, parents, children, and your own life to follow him.

You can’t be a half dedicated follower of Jesus, you have to count your cost. If you start the project of being a follower you have to be able to finish it, as when you start a building project, or as a King only goes to war if he knows he’s has a strong enough army to stand a chance of winning.