Numbers 6

The origin of the Nazarite vow. This is a way of setting apart a person as a holy man. Samson was a Nazarite. By then he was a demonstration of how corrupt the promise had become.

The themes are similar to the clean and holy notions of Leviticus: no contact with the dead, not cutting hair, etc. This was like a voluntary extra giving of a life to God bring the notion that the first born was God’s. 

I imagine if a birth was difficult or a child nearly died of an illness, a parent might pray “deliver him God and I’ll devote him to you”. 

It could only be a male.

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 27

Redeeming vows.  This whole chapter deals with vows made to God.

So if I got cancer and prayed to God “heal me, and I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to serving you”, and then I was healed, but I didn’t want to actually quit my job and go into full time christian ministry, I could make a prescribed payment to the temple for the value of my life and the vow would be regarded as kept in God’s eyes.

The value calculation is functionally discriminatory, though its pragmatically reflecting a societal fact: the elderly and women have lower economic value to an agrarian society than a fit young male, so are worth less. There is also the gracious provision for financial hardship that runs through all of Leviticus.

This was pretty useful because in ancient Israel, the priesthood was not open to anyone not in the Levite tribe, and people often made vows.

Ditto if you ended up needing an animal that was dedicated to sacrifice, you paid the value of it plus 20% to the temple, and you kept the animal but were right with God.

Ditto promises of land, houses, etc.

They make it quite clear you can’t redeem what is God’s anyway: he owns the harvest tithes and the firstborn livestock. This is totally about voluntary additional tithes

These vows were very common in their culture – we are far more circumspect in my culture, though the passion and emotion these vows demonstrate in their relationship with God is confronting to my own relative coolness. And, we do often do we hear “over my dead body”! and similar things.  I don’t know how many hats I am now due to eat.  Its so accepted that our vows are meaningless they have just become just colourful figures of speech.

Its using economic sanctions to teach the people to be careful with their speech. Don’t promise bigger than you can deliver. Words matter.

Its also a nice element of practical non-perfectionism to end the book on.  Its been all about God’s absolute inflexible standards.  Here, there is a recognition of the ups and downs of passion and regret that humans experience.  The old testament even often talks about God’s vows this way, like people can have him reconsider after he has burned with anger. Noah and Jonah bargain with God over his vows.  Prayer is like this.

Its setting the stage for the big redemption of course. There is a way out.  A debt owed to God can’t just be forgotten, but it can be paid for by another.

Exodus 16

Mana and quail. The lord provides. Manna, slightly sweet honey flakes, every morning for breakfast, quail, take away chicken, for dinner. For 40 years. With a cloud to guide them by day and fire by night.

I believe it. The phrase “the lord provides” just instantly filled me with comfort. And I’ve been going over 50 years. 

It’s poignant though, after a week with three deaths in it. I’ve been feeling spiritually numb. I’ll go to my uncles funeral today, it will be a great Christian celebration of a long Christian life, the least complex, in a way, of the deaths.

Thinking a lot about my family, all my children seem damaged and in pain. 

It’s a promise, a comfort, but also something of a plea. The lord provides.

Genesis 48

Death of Jacob/Israel. 

I must do a new tag to identify the theme of the “blessed second”. Jacob tricked dying Isaac into blessing himself, the younger, as the older. Now he deliberately and knowingly repeats the scene as he dies with two of Jacob’s sons, giving the blessing of his right hand to the younger, ephraim, not the first born.

God shows his strength by exalting the lesser. Jacob, who had this habit of being in struggling, furious agreement with God, tricked his way into seizing the blessing of the second for himself. The wrong means, when he should have had faith. But the end was a godly insight.

He shares with Joseph the promise God made him if return to Canaan. He can see now, as he reviews his life before death, god’s hand everywhere. Promises kept and promises to come. 

Yesterday I wanted to reclaim god’s plans for me. I can strengthen that by remembering what he’s done for me already.

Genesis 46

The Israelites all come. It’s a list chapter. Heartfelt moment when Joseph hugs his father. 

God speaks to Jacob/Israel and promises good when they get to Egypt, and to bring them back.

It starts with a plan to keep them separate, which seems like a diplomatic win win for both peoples. The Israelites will be shepherds in goshen. It is a verdant bit of rural land near the nile Delta, it will mean geographic and cultural separation. 

They will be nomadic shepherds, something very unattractive to the urbanised Egyptians, self supporting, so no economic or social threat.

Should work out, shouldn’t it?

Anyway, sometimes it is god’s will to go to Egypt.

Genesis 40

Joseph interprets other people’s dreams. It sets up his release from jail next chapter.

Again he is a truth teller, as he was with his own dreams. He accurately tells the cup bearer he will be freed and forgiven and; no fear or favour, tells the baker he will die.

These dreams are messages from God. It’s a mercy that these are other people’s dreams. It didn’t play so well when he told his brothers “I had a dream I was more important than all of you!” But these are real to the people who had them, troubling, and they want to know what they mean.

I need to be a truth teller. He had dreams, I have god’s word. Joseph would have had good reason to doubt that truth telling was a good policy. It landed him in jail in a foreign country. 

Even when his prediction came true, the cup bearer forgot him. He languishes in jail another 2 years, which must have seemed very long and would have tempted most people to doubt the life of faith had rewards.

I must speak the truth, particularly “in season” which I take as like other people’s dreams: speaking about people’s own issues when they are ready to hear. Stay faithful. 

I have an acquaintance who is dying. I am fearful of speaking the truth to her. Also I have things I want to say to my children. 

Genesis 38

Genesis! Like a classic TV series, they keep wrong footing you on plot. 

On the basis of the last chapter you think it’s going to be Joseph’s story, he is the child of destiny, betrayed and left to rot in Egypt.

But that moment of high suspense is left on hold to tell the side story of Judah, the brother who had the idea to sell him into slavery.

It’s like a sensationalist soap opera, lurching between lurid, corrupt characters. Like Dynasty or Dallas, but with glimpses of the divine.

Judah continues to cover himself in no glory. Not a godly man at all. He marries a Canaanite woman, and falls into the local sexually promiscuous religion.   

The background to the subsequent events is the strange polygamous family marriage rules of that world. In well off families, women’s male children were their financial security, and they could keep marrying sons until they got one.

So when Judah’s eldest son died his widow Tamar became a wife of the second son. But he practised withdrawal contraception to rob her of the possibility of conception, presumably to favour the inheritance of another wife’s child. This was ethically a cruel and grievous crime against Tamar.

Judah promised her the third son, once he got old enough to marry, but then appeared to forget the promise when the time came, leaving her a vulnerable childless widow, double betrayed.

She took the extraordinary step of posing as a temple prostitute and got pregnant to Judah. When the baby started to show he threatened to burn her for adultery until she proved he was the father.

Judah broke down and said “she is more righteous than I” as well he should, having had revealed: his callous disregard of his promise to her, how far from his religion he had strayed, and his eggregious double standards. The punishment of burning for adultery was unusually severe even for those days… It’s rather like he welcomed an excuse to dispose of her. And he knew he was no better, frequenting prostitutes. 

She has twins. The one actually fully born second stuck a hand out of her first, and a Scarlett ribbon was tied to it to indicate which had broken out first. 

What is it about scarlet threads and the line of Christ? It brings to mind, thousands of years before the event, the blood shed for mankind. A Scarlett thread also features in the story of Rahab in Jericho, a later feisty female link in the great chain that would lead to the Messiah. 

Yes, Tamar is in the messiah’s line giving a blessed grace to the domestic disaster zone that is nasty Judah’s nasty house. It was by faith, presumably, that she posed as a prostitute!

Genesis!

Genesis 35

Jacob, so far, must be among the least worthy a patriarch in the Bible. He sneaky, cheating, a lousy leader and disobedient to God. 

He’s learned to work hard and become wealthy. He’s had exultant experiences of God. He remains better at pragmatism than spirituality.

Now, finally getting to bethel where God told him to go in the first place, he receives god’s covenant. The promise that he will be the head of the great nation of Israel. He’s called Israel again here.

He’s showing some dedication to God in return, getting everyone to destroy their foreign gods.

The Bible has this anti perfectionism. Only God is perfect, it reminds us again and again. I think of it as the spanner in the works. Here, out of nowhere after god is done speaking his promises, it mentions that his son Reuben slept with the concubine bilal, who was his step mother. 

Rachel has the last of the 12 sons for whom the 12 tribes are named, Benjamin. She died in childbirth.

After bethel, where Jacob/Israel received the blessing, he goes and is with essau when their father Isaac dies. 

Two funerals and a covenant. It feels like it’s time to move on. Will Israel be the person Jacob was not?

And I praise God for his abundant grace, daily.

1 Samuel 9 & 10

Finding a king, Prophet as fortune teller. 

It’s a common refrain when preachers tell you about biblical prophets. They aren’t like fortune tellers. They tell the truth about the nature of God. But here Samuel is also a pretty standard fortune teller, too.

So he knows the future with some precision, and knows Saul will be chosen king. Some observations:

  • God’s “least shall be first” principle is in operation, to a degree. Saul is from Benjamin, the least tribe and he’s from the least clan in it. As he encounters Samuel and events unfold as Samuel predicted, he is filled with the spirit, which lets him see himself as king.
  • Saul physically looks like a king. He’s handsome and tall. God really is giving the people what they wanted.
  • They meet in a town where Samuel has gone to do sacrifices. I was interested that in the days before the temple, the priest traveled around.
  • Saul meets Samuel because he’s looking for some lost donkeys. It looks very star wars in my head. The lost donkeys keep returning, soon everyone’s saying to Saul “stop worrying about the donkeys”. 
  • He’s shy. When eventually he’s chosen by lot at a big national council, he can’t be found because he’s hiding in the supplies

So we are to know that god’s hand is all over it. He didn’t abandon them to their sub-optimal king plan. It’s second best, but god’s still in it. He even organises someone to find the donkeys.

He’s the god who loves despite…