Friday, July 20
Numbers 25: After the previous three chapters about Balaam, and especially in view of the latter’s enthusiastic prophecies regarding Israel’s great expectations, we may have anticipated immediate success for the Chosen People.
Alas, however, a serious moral lapse is going to delay even further Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. More sadly this lapse seems to have befallen the younger people, the very ones who were to replace the generation that perished in the wilderness.
The incident in this chapter took place at Shittim, the Hebrew for “acacia groves,” a wooded area east of the Jordan. It was from there that Joshua would in due time send the spies to investigate the Holy Land (Joshua 2:1).
This moral lapse, following so suddenly on the oracles of Balaam and narrated immediately after his departure, is not related to Balaam in this text, but Balaam is certainly blamed for it a few chapters later: “Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (21:16). This moral depravity of Balaam is really the only context in which he is remembered in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:5; Revelation 2:14).
Israel’s failing in the present circumstance began as fornication with Moabite women and proceeded to idolatry with Moabite gods (verses 1-2). Indeed, in popular religion in this part of the world, the two were sometimes hard to keep separate.
The Lord’s reaction, to the surprise of no one who had been reflecting on recent events, was not favorable (Verse 3). Since the idol worship and sexual immorality of the Moabites were typical of the atmosphere into which Israel would soon be immersed, it was important that the problem be dealt with decisively. “Decisively,” in fact, is exactly the adverb we want here. Coming from the Latin de-cido, meaning “to cut off,” generally refers to the cutting off of discussion. Sometimes, nonetheless, cutting off discussion is more rapidly reached by cutting off the heads of those who continue the discussion. This was the approach adopted in the present instance (verses 4-5).
The pursuit of righteousness in this matter was exemplified by Phineas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron. He was certainly a decisive sort of priest, with a pronounced tendency to executive decisions (a word also derived from de-cido, meaning “to cut off” (verses 7-8). Phineas reacted in response the sinful activity of a particularly flagrant nature (verse 6), undertaken by a couple who evidently thought that, because their families were well placed and well connected, they were exempt from the common discipline, the universal moral law, and the authority of the priesthood. Phineas decided (from de-cido, meaning “to cut off”) to clarify the situation for them (verses 14-15).
This reasonable and highly commendable action of Phineas determined that Israel’s priestly succession would pass to and through his own sons (verses 10-13); 1 Chronicles 5:30-34); Psalms 106 :30; Sirach 45:23-26; 1 Maccabees 2:26,54).
Saturday, July 21
Numbers 26: The census at the beginning of this book was taken forty years earlier, the counting of a population that by now is truly gone (verses 64-65). An entire generation has died in the wilderness, replaced by its children, and these already have children, and doubtless grandchildren, of their own. Therefore, it is time for a new census before Israel moves again, this time across the Jordan into the Promised Land.
Indeed, the direct purpose of the present census is to determine the demographic figures necessary for the coming distribution of the Promised Land. It is no accident that the census in this chapter is followed by an outline of inheritance laws in the next chapter. Israel is exactly at the point when its existence will soon pass from migratory to sedentary, and it is the proper context for matching needs with resources. This census will indicate the needs.
The census complete, the distribution of the Promised Land is to be done by a double method of casting lots and maintaining equity in the distribution. Since there is great disproportion in the size of the inheriting tribes, this process is bound to be both complicated and difficult (verses 52-56).
Comparing the figures in this census with the earlier one in Numbers, we observe that some of the tribes have declined slightly, a thing not surprising in view of the extreme rigors of the desert. For instance, respecting the tribe of Reuben, one may compare the figure in verse 7 with Numbers 1:21. The tribe of Simeon, we note, has diminished by more than half (verse 14; 1:23), a circumstance that may explain why this tribe was eventually absorbed by Judah. Other tribes have declined as well: Zebulon (verse 27; 1:31), Ephraim (verse 37; 1:33), Naphtali (50:1:43).
Other tribes have actually grown. For instance, the tribe of Judah, eventually the royal tribe and of which we have already discerned an increasing prominence, has grown slightly (verse 22; 1:27), as have Dan (verse 43; 1:39), Issachar (verse 25; 1:29), and Asher (verse 47; 1:41). Even more pronounced is the growth of Benjamin (verse 41; 1:37). Manasseh has almost doubled in size (verse 34; 1:35), a fact that will explain why half of this tribe will settle on the east side of the Jordan.
Unlike the earlier census (1:49), this one does count the Levites, but care is still taken to keep their census separate from that of the other tribes (verse 62; cf. 1:47).
In the next chapter there will be some discussion about female inheritance in families that produced no male heirs. For this reason, two cases are mentioned in the present chapter (verses 33,46).
Sunday, July 22
The Feast of Mary Magdalene: Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1–4), Mary Magdalene rises early while it is still dark
and goes out seeking Him whom her soul loves, the one whom she calls “my Lord” (John 20:11-18)In an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden of His burial (19:41). Indeed, she first takes Him to be the gardener, which, as the new Adam, He most certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know Him. He speaks to her, but even then she does not recognize His voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: “Mary.” Only then does she know Him as “Rabbouni,” “my Teacher.”
In this story, then, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name . . . , for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4). This narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, emphasis added). This is truly an “in-house” memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.
Numbers 27: This chapter is divided between two subjects, the ordinances governing inheritances in the Promised Land (verses 1-11) and the choice of a successor to replace Moses and lead God’s People to the west side of the Jordan (verses 12-23). Each section begins with a short story.
In the story introducing the first topic, five sisters, the only offspring of a man who had died a natural death in the wilderness, approach Moses and Eleazar to complain that, if the current laws, limiting the inheritance of real estate, were to obtain, their own father’s memory would be obliterated from Israel’s history (verses 3-4).
The resolution of this problem, by which these five women may obtain the inheritance of their dead father, was not prompted by an impulse to treat men and women equally in the inheritance laws. Had this been the case, their own treatment would not be regarded as an exception. On the contrary, the sole interest governing this decision was the preservation of the memory of these sisters’ father, not a concern for the women themselves. It would be widely off the mark, therefore, to interpret this account as some sort of early version of “women’s rights.”
The resolution of this individual case also provided the context for further legal determinations respecting the inheritance of property. In every instance considered here, the governing principle of inheritance was proximity in consanguinity (verses 8-11). The goal sought in this legislation was to maintain real estate attached to the family. That is to say, the major preoccupation in these rules was to guarantee that a family’s inheritance really meant something concrete. It meant solid, indestructible, landed property.
With regard to the five young ladies that brought the problem in the first place, we know from Joshua 17:3-6 that they really did inherit, in the name of their father, land west of the Jordan. At least two of these women left their names to cities in the Holy Land.
In this chapter’s second story the Lord tells Moses to climb the Abarim Mountains, in order to see the land that he will never enter. These heights, which Mount Nebo, rise on the western slopes of the plateau of Moab (verses 12-14).
In response Moses seeks from the Lord someone to succeed himself (verses 16-17). In implementing the Lord’s choice of Joshua, we may especially observe its reliance on the priesthood of Aaron’s family (verses 19,21,22). Like many successions in the bible, it is transmitted by the laying-on of hands (verses 18,23). Still, this succession is not hereditary but charismatic (verse 20).
Even the successor of Moses, Joshua did not receive the former’s full authority, much less his historical role. Strictly speaking, Moses was irreplaceable.
Monday, July 23
Numbers 28: Out of any logical sequence that we can recognize there follow two chapters of regulations on the sanctification of time: the day, the week, the month, the year.
The first rule has to do with the two daily offerings of yearling lambs, on the morning and the other at evening (verses 3-8; Exodus 29:38-42). These two daily sacrifices, the one to consecrate the passage of light into darkness, and the other to dedicate the passage of darkness into light, were Israel’s minimum requirement of daily sacrificial worship. These times of daily sacrifice became, for all Jews everywhere, special times of prayer each day, known as “the hours of prayer” (cf. Acts 3:1; 10:2-3,30). In this way each day was to be sanctified.
This discipline and custom, detached from the temple sacrifices, passed over into the Christian Church as daily Vespers in the evening and daily Matins (Orthros) in the morning. This discipline, handed down since the time of the Apostles have remained as the two daily Canonical Hours in traditional churches of both East and West. This discipline was also approved by the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, for example, provided for daily services in church (a full hour in length for each!), complete with two daily sermons on the Bible, while in England Thomas Cranmer provided the format and content of those services in The Book of Common Prayer.
After the two daily sacrifices, the Sacred Text turns next to the sanctification of the week through the observance of the Sabbath (verses 9-10). The details of the daily sacrifice are repeated for this weekly sacrifice, indicating that on the Sabbath the daily sacrifice was simply doubled.
Then comes the sanctification of the month, at the beginning of each new moon. This is time’s next larger unit, and the sacrifice is much larger and more elaborate (verses 11-15).
Next the Sacred Text turns to the sacrifices associated with special feast days, through which the year itself is sanctified through the observance of the annual calendar. The first chief feasts in this cycle are Passover and Unleavened Bread (verses 16-25) and Pentecost (verses 26-31).
In this chapter, then, we observe the original outline of the daily, weekly, and annual services of worship that the Christian calendar inherited from Judaism. We observe that the component which the Christian Church did not take over was the special observance of services for each month. Was this a reluctance born of Colossians 2:16?
The solar month, after all, is the most artificial division of time, while the lunar month, being more closely tied to biological cycles, is the most open to nature worship, especially the fertility cults. We observe this, for instance, in the ancient statuary of the Ephesian Diana with her twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar month.
Tuesday, July 24
Numbers 29: This chapter, continuing the theme of the sanctification of time, moves from spring to autumn.
In Israel’s ancient calendar, as reflected in this and the previous chapter, we observe a concentration of focus on the spring and the autumn, the two “transitional” seasons, moving from cold to warm and from warm to cold, from darkness to light and from light to darkness. These seasons, then, serve as the annual representations of each day’s morning and evening. The sundry feasts associated with these seasons become a kind of Matins and Vespers of the year.
The autumnal “seventh month” (Tishri) is the exact correspondent to our own word “September” (from the Latin septem, meaning “seven.”) In fact, Tishri overlaps September and October.
Clearly this designation “seventh month” reflects a period when Israel began its yearly cycle in the spring (Leviticus 23). (This is equally true, of course, with our Latin September.) Such an arrangement has not obtained for a long time. At least since the period of the New Testament the Jewish calendar has begun in the autumn with Rosh Hashanah. (In the liturgical calendar of Eastern Orthodox Christians the first day of the year is still September 1, called The Crown of the Year.)
Because this beginning of autumn falls on the first day of the seventh month (verse 1), its prescriptions specify that the appointed sacrifices are done in addition to the regular sacrifices designated for each month (verse 6).
The autumnal season goes on to include Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (verses 7-11), which always falls on the tenth day of Tishri (cf. Acts 27:9 — If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year A.D. 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5.) Requiring an extra day of rest, this feast has a Sabbath quality.
Finally comes the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (verses 12-40), which lasts an entire week and requires more detailed instructions. This feast, always occurring in the seventh month, also has about it a kind of Sabbath character, in the sense that it involves a time of rest (verses 12,35).
During the course of the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles, there is a gradual diminishing of the number of bullocks sacrificed on each day. There are thirteen on the first day (verse 13), twelve on the second day (verse 17), eleven on the third day (verse 20), and so on (verses 23,26,29,32), finishing with only one bullock on the eighth day (verse 36). That is to say, this feast has about it a quality of “winding down,” as it were.
The Sacred Text specifies that these “set feasts” (verse 39) do not exhaust the potential for Israel’s piety as represented in the appointed sacrifices. There could and should be further “freewill offering” as the fervor of the people would dictate.
Nor does this list of the feast days preclude the addition of others at later times, such as Purim during the Persian era and Hanukah during the Greek period.
Wednesday, July 25
Numbers 30: from the “freewill offerings” mentioned in the previous chapter (29:39) there is a reasonable transition to the vows treated in the present one.
The subject of vows would hardly require much legislation except for those occasions when a vow is impossible, unadvisable, or even harmful to keep. The present chapter considers such cases.
The major principle about vows is enunciated at once: Vows are morally binding (verse 1). More particularly, they are binding on a man, a male person (’ish) who is free to observe it. A woman, however, who is normally under male authority, represents a different set of cases.
The first case is the unmarried woman who is still under paternal authority. She is bound by such vows as her father permits (verses 3-4). Otherwise not (verse 5).
Similarly, a married woman, living under the authority of a husband, must observe such vows as he approves (verses 6-7). Otherwise not (verse 8).
In the case of a widow or divorced woman, who are under no male authority, their vows are treated exactly like those of a man (verse 9), unless the husband had formerly determined otherwise (verses 10-15).
The general line of reasoning in this chapter is clear. Of their very nature, vows involve supererogation—they are added on—to the existing and presupposed order of things. Vows are to be observed, therefore, except in those cases where they man threaten the stability of that order. This line of reasoning has always guided the Church’s own discipline of vows.
Thursday, July 26
Numbers 31: Except for a recent skirmish with the Amorites a few chapters ago, the armies of Israel have not been involved in much fighting for a long time. The recent oracles of Balaam, however, indicated that Israel is now a significant military power, and we know that its armies will soon cross the Jordan to conquer Canaan. Hence, it is time to review some of the rules for warfare, specifically as they pertain to prisoners and spoils. Such is the burden of the present chapter, in which, once again, a prompting narrative precedes the rules.
Moses, before his death, must oversee Israel’s vengeance on the Midianites (verse 2). This task, which involves only a fraction of Israel’s forces (verses 3-6), is explained by Numbers 25:18, where we learned of a collusion between Moab and Midian in the moral seduction of young Israelites. That collusion also explains why Balaam is one of the casualties of the present conflict (verse 8).
Israel’s force of twelve thousand is accompanied by Phineas, the warlike priest who is charged with blowing the trumpet (verse 6).
The reported execution of every Midianite male (verse 7) should be understood with something less than mathematical exactness, since we know that the Midianites in the next generation will be stronger than ever (cf. Judges 6).
This successful exercise in warfare brought certain practical problems attendant on military victory, chiefly what to do with the surviving captives and their possessions (verses 9-12). Moses is upset that ANY enemies survived the battle (verse 14). After all, were not these the very women who had corrupted Israel’s youth just a few chapters back (verse 16)? In the end he permits only the virgins to be spared, in order to become wives for the Israelites (verse 18).
The ensuing slaughter of the women and little boys rightly offends our moral sense. If it did not, we would be in sorry shape. It also cautions us, however, against elevating our moral sense in an absolute way that would challenge the holiness of God. This incident of the Moabites and Midianites was an attack on the holiness of God, and therefore it involved something more than a merely human offense. Although we correctly disapprove of killing women and children in the context of war, and more especially when the war is already over, this correct moral disapprobation is not the last word. In the execution of the Midianites we touch on the holiness of God. The holiness of God so transcends the moral sense of man that its activity, as exemplified here, may strike man’s moral sense in offensive ways. God is holier than even the most moral of moral men. This is all to say that man’s morality is one thing, and a very good thing, but the holiness of God is infinitely more.
All killing of human beings, even when blood is justly shed in combat, is defiling and requires cleansing (verses 19-20). This does not mean that the shedding of blood in these circumstances is morally wrong. On the contrary, shedding blood in a just war is morally right. Still, it falls infinitely short of the purity necessary for entering into God’s presence in worship. This is the reason that a purification process is necessary.
Following this narrative comes the rules for the disposition of persons and booty captured in war (verses 22-40). A percentage of these spoils were dedicated to divine service, very much like the fruits of labor (verses 41-54).
This chapter’s final section displays the same concern for numerical exactness and tabulation that we have elsewhere seen in this book appropriately called Numbers.
Friday, July 27
Numbers 32: Life is soon to change for the Chosen People. They have never been sedentary, not even in Egypt, where they lived as semi-nomadic shepherds. How, however, they are to become farmers, the very type of people most tied to the land.
The differences between these two ways of life (exemplified as far back as Cain and Abel) are not reducible simply to their sources of their livelihood. The differences extend, rather, to the entire social structure, particularly government and systems of loyalty.
Not all the Israelites are equally keen on making this transition to agriculture and vine-growing, especially those tribes that have been most successful in raising herds These included, especially, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, which now announce their preference to remain in the good grazing land east of the Jordan (verses 1-5).
Moses’ immediate objection to this suggestion concerns Israel’s diminished military strength, if its forces were to be reduced by two tribes. He likens the request of these two tribes to the earlier incident when the twelve spies brought back a discouraging word from their inspection of the Holy Land. Indeed, this discouragement is the point of the comparison (verses 6-15; compare Judges 5:16-17).
The tribes of Gad and Reuben, by way of response, declare their intention, after securing their own families on land east of the Jordan, to remain with the invading force until all the Promised Land is conquered (verses 16-19).
Moses agrees to this arrangement (verses 20-24), and the two tribes repeatedly pledge their cooperation (verses 25-27,31-32). Moses announces the compromise to the rest of Israel’s leadership (verses 28-30).
Half the tribe of Manasseh, whose recent significant growth we have already had occasion to observe, is added to these two tribes inheriting land east of the Jordan (verse 33), and the chapter ends with a list of new Israelite villages and strongholds in that territory (verses 34-42).
The tribes that settled in the land of Gilead will be subject to unusually difficult pressures in the centuries to follow, as various peoples east of the Jordan, but especially Syria, will look upon that rich grazing land with a covetous eye.