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.
Saturday, July 28
Numbers 33: As Israel’s long journey draws nigh to its end, the inspired author of this book thinks it an opportune time to recount the stages, since Egypt, that the Chosen People have traveled (verse 1). This list is based on Moses own “log” of the trip, but the Lord Himself directed this recording of it (verse 2).
For us readers, nonetheless, identifying each of these places is a far from certain exercise. When the desert is called a “trackless waste,” full consideration should be given to that description. Deserts and their shifting sands are notoriously deficient in stable landmarks, and this record antedates by far the art of calculating one’s precise geographical position by reference to the stars. In addition, archeology has not been able, in every instance, to identify the place names listed in this chapter. If it did, we could confidently map out the entire period of Israel’s desert wandering.
An illustration of our difficulty is immediately provided by the name “Sukkoth” (verses 456-6), which means tents or booths. It may be the case that this place received its name for no other reason than the fact that Israel pitched its tents there.
The place names in the list in verses 5-15 correspond very closely to the account in Exodus 12:37—19:2. Dophkah (12-13), a name not included in Exodus, seems to be what is now called Serabit el Khadem, a site of turquoise mining in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. One suspects that Alush, also missing from Exodus, gave its name to Wadi el‘esh, just south of Dophkah.
Kadesh, which Israel reaches by verse 36, is not desert at all. It is a lush valley with abundant spring water. The major spring was Ain el-Qudeirat, twelve miles from which is Ain Qudeis, which still preserves the name Kadesh.
Sunday, July 29
Numbers 34: The present chapter may be read as a contrast with the chapter we have just finished, and this contrast pertains to both time and place. Having looked backwards in the previous chapter, the inspired writer now turns his attention to the future, and as the former chapter took the measure of the desert, the present chapter will measure the Promised Land.
The large territory considered in the first half of this chapter (verses 2-15) was not all conquered during Joshua’s period of conquest. Not until the monarchy in the tenth century before Christ did Israel occupy such a large area. When in this chapter, three centuries earlier, its distribution was being considered, the thought may have seemed fantastic.
Nonetheless, the territory outlined here really does correspond very closely to the “Canaan” over which earlier Egyptian pharaohs had exercised dominion until the close of the fourteenth century before Christ. In this sense it would have seemed normal to Moses and his contemporaries to think of Canaan (verse 2) in these same dimensions.
Having come up from the south, Moses first considered Canaan’s southern border. Under Israel’s occupation this southern border will be the land of Edom (verse 3)—that is, a line running westward from the border of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean (cf. Joshua 15”3-4; Ezekiel 47:19). The Wadi el-Arish (“river of Egypt”—verse verse 5) serves as a kind of natural division of the Negev from the Sinai Peninsula.
The “sea” (verse 5) and “great sea” (verse 6) are references to the Mediterranean, Israel natural western border.
On the north a line running eastward from the Mediterranean, somewhat north of Byblos, to the desert beyond Damascus, will border Israel. Zedad is northeast of Mount Hermon (verse 7-9).
Respecting the eastern border of Canaan, its northeastern corner will be Benaias (a later name, derived from the Greek god, Pan), the major source of the Jordan River. Then the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea will roughly form the natural eastern border (verses 11-12).
We note that these boundaries completely exclude the land recently claimed by Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. These latter tribes, therefore, are not considered in the division of the land just circumscribed (verse 13-15)
The chapter ends by listing the names of the men charged with the division of the Holy Land (verse 16-29).
Monday, July 30
Numbers 35: Part of the disposition of the Promised Land, a theme now continued from the previous chapter, is the arrangement for regional “cities of refuge.” These were special place of sanctuary for those whose lives were endangered by families seeking blood vengeance.
Since these assigned cities of refuge were all priestly cities, however, the chapter begins with the disposition of the priestly cities (cf. also Leviticus 25:32-34; Joshua 21:1-40). The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe was to inherit forty-eight cities, including the six cities of refuge, dispersed throughout the whole Promised Land (verses 6-7). Attached to this inheritance is pasture land in the vicinity of the priestly cities (verses 2-5).
Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to the cities of refuge themselves (verses 10-34). Because they were priestly cities, these cities of refuge had shrines and altars that would serve as precincts of sanctuary (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:51).
Three were assigned to Canaan, three to Transjordania (verse 14).
These assigned cities served two discrete purposes: first, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the “city of refuge” was to place rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge.
While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that may be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tired (verse 12). If granted further asylum that that trial, the accused person was safe until the death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason.
Thus, these cities of refuge, beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, are also possessed of a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind’s control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often invoked to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Revelation 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions.
Time is on the other side, that of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Proverbs 16:32; James 1:19).
Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession. Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time,” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason’s most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment. The true city of refuge, then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.
Tuesday, July 31
Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1-11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (verse 3). That is to say, what is needed is a further clarification of the earlier ruling, and Moses perceives the need for this clarification (verse 5).
The solution to the difficulty is a prohibition against these heiresses, if they do claim their inheritance, marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (verse 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition—namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (verse 8).
These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (verses 10-13).
The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22-36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai.
Wednesday, August 1
The Book of Joshua: Joshua – Introduction
In our Christian Bibles, the Book of Joshua is the first of the “historical books” that follow the Pentateuch. Indeed, it is the hinge that links the Pentateuch to the rest of Holy Scripture. It is not surprising that Joshua, coming immediately after the Pentateuch, continues to speak the language of the Pentateuch and invoke its major theological themes. That is to say, there is a definite continuity between the Pentateuch and Joshua.
For all that, in the divisions of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Joshua is the first of what are called “the former prophets,” the other books in this section being Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This designation indicates that these historical books are read first, because they provide the necessary context for reading the next section of the Canon, namely, the “latter prophets.” The “latter prophets” include, of course, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. Thus, what we think of as the Bible’s prophetic books are rendered inseparable from the context of its historical books. The biblical prophets are not allowed to become mere philosophers.
It is worth calling attention to the parallel case with the Torah, the Humash, the “Five Fifths of the Law.” The literary structure of the Pentateuch places the giving of God’s Law within an elaborate and detailed historical context. What God said to Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai is inseparable from the historical circumstances in which He said it. The stories in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers provide the particulars of that context. Thus, Torah is never reduced to a universal theory. That is to say, it is pertinent to all of history precisely because it first touches a particular part of history. The text is ever contextualized by time and place.
In varying degrees this same principle is characteristic of all the biblical prophets. Most of the prophetic books of Holy Scripture tell us when the prophet spoke. Thus, we learn that Isaiah was called “in the year that King Uzziah died” (742 B.C.) and that his long ministry lasted through “the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezechiah, kings of Judah.” Similarly, at the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah, we are informed that he prophesied “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.” Ezekiel, likewise, tells us that he received his inaugural vision “in the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity.” Haggai begins his message “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month” (1:1). Two months later, Zechariah commences his prophecy “in the eighth month of the second year of King Darius (1:1). Over and over again, the Bible’s prophetic books, whether explicitly or by implication, set the oracles of God into specified historical contexts, contexts that indicate how we are to interpret and understand them. To repeat, biblical prophecy is not universal except by being particular; it does not become timeless except by being timely.
For this reason the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible begin with history, and the first of these histories is the Book of Joshua. Joshua is not just history, however; it is prophetic history. It is history interpreted through a prophetic perspective. This is especially obvious in the sermonic style sometimes employed (5:4-7; 21:43-45; 24:1-15). For this reason the words of Joshua are called “the words of the Lord” (3:9). This is the book that introduces all the prophets.
Coming immediately after the Pentateuch, on the other hand, Joshua manifests a strong continuity with these writings of Moses. Indeed, the Book of Joshua, which continues Israel’s history after Moses, has sometimes been compared to the Acts of the Apostles, which immediately follows the four Gospels and continues the history contained in the Gospels.
On the other hand, some modern historians, impressed by the continuity from the Pentateuch to Judges, have speculated that at some early period of its transmission the Book of Joshua was joined to the Pentateuch as a single work. It was, that is to say, the last part of a “Hexateuch.” This attractive suggestion has even served as the instrument to reconstruct the history of Old Testament theology.
This is a dubious hypothesis, nonetheless, for three reasons.
First, the thematic similarities between the Pentateuch and Joshua are open to a other, equally plausible explanations.
Second, this hypothesis of a Hexateuch rests on a prior textual hypothesis—namely, the “documentary hypothesis” of the Pentateuch. According to this latter theory, the Pentateuch was constructed from several roughly independent strands of written tradition spliced together by a fairly late editor, either exilic or post-exilic. It is alleged that these strands came from various times and different regions in Israelite history, whether northern and pre-monarchical, or southern and post-monarchical, or associated with the reforms of Josiah, or preserved in the priestly families. It is not surprising that those who believe that these alleged sources can be discerned in the Pentateuch should also believe they can be discerned in Joshua.
This “documentary hypothesis,” however, is seriously problematic. Even though one admits readily that there are different narrative and legal traditions represented in the Pentateuch, the presence of discreet written sources, all from different traditions, is far from obvious. Detection of a continuation of these same alleged sources in Joshua is no less shaky.
Moreover, the preservation of the Pentateuch as the sole biblical canon of the Samaritans is a strong argument for an early dating of the Pentateuch. As is clear in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Samaritans, whose presence in the Holy Land goes back to the eighth century, did not enjoy good relations with the Jews that returned from the Babylonian Captivity in the late sixth century. It is difficult to see how they would have possessed the Pentateuch as canonical Scripture unless it had been available to them prior to that time. In short, a late date for the completion of the Pentateuch seems very unlikely.
Third, the hypothesis of an early Hexateuch is convincingly contradicted by this same consideration. If there had been a Hexateuch at some earlier period, the canonical Scriptures of the Samaritans would not have been the Pentateuch.
In short, the Book of Joshua does not form a whole with the Pentateuch. From the very beginning, it pertained to another part of Holy Scripture, “the former propets.”
Thursday, August 2
Psalm 74: The God of Psalm 74 is the world’s Creator, and His act of creation implies the imposition of limits: “You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth.” To create a knowable world is to pattern it according to intelligible forms, and limit is essential to the very notion of form (limit being “this” and not “that”). To say that God has “fixed all the boundaries, the determined limits, of the earth” is to say that God has already attached meaning to the structure of the world. Truth is already in the world, awaiting man’s discovery. The world already speaks the mind of God; man’s task is to listen to what it says.
This psalm testifies to the God who structures the world and divides it from the chaotic and random: “In Your might You hold the sea; You have crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters. Crushing the dragon’s head, You have fed him to the people of Ethiopia. You opened the springs and torrents, and You dried up the waters of Etham. The day is Yours, and Yours is the night; You prepared both the sun and the moon. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth.”
Psalm 74 also testifies, nonetheless, that the sinful human mind is disposed to rebel against the formal, noetic structure that God has given to the world. Indeed, this intellectual rebellion seems often to prevail on the earth: “Why do You utterly abandon us, O God? . . . Raise Your hands against all that the enemy has done in Your holy place, against their undying pride. . . . How long, O God, will the enemy taunt us? Will the adversary defy Your name forever? . . . Remember that the enemy blasphemes the Lord, and a foolish people defies Your name.”
We modern men live late in an age of intellectual rebellion, when darkened, unrepentant hearts stand defiant before the plain speech that the Creator has placed in the very structure of the world. Such is the strife of which we pray in Psalm 74.
Friday, August 3
Psalm 69: Because Friday was the day “when the Bridegroom is taken away,” Chirstian piety has always tended to be more than normally attentive to the Lord’s sufferings and death on this day of the week. This is the reason why, when we come to Psalm 69 in our cyclical reading of the Psalms, it is almost always read on a Friday rather than some other day of the week. This is a psalm about the Lord’s suffering and death: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come even unto my soul. . . . I have come to the depths of the sea, and the flood has submerged me,” prays the Man of sorrows who described His approaching Passion as the baptism with which He must be baptized (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; Rom. 6:3).
This same Sufferer goes on to pray: “Zeal for Your house has consumed me,” a verse explicitly cited in the New Testament with respect to the Lord’s purging of the temple (John 2:17). In the context this consuming of the Lord was a reference to His coming Passion; He went on to say to those who were plotting to kill Him: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In saying this, the evangelist noted, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (vv. 19, 21).
The very next line of Psalm 69 says: “The reproaches of those who reproached You have fallen on me,” a verse later cited in Romans as bearing on the sufferings of the Lord. The apostle’s lapidary and understated comment was that “even Christ did not please Himself” (15:3). In this passage St. Paul could obviously presume a common Christian understanding of Psalm 68, even in a congregation that he had not yet visited.
Still later in our psalm stands the line: “Let their dwelling be deserted, and let no one live in their tabernacles.” Even prior to the Pentecostal outpouring, the Church knew this verse for a reference to Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:20), that dark and tragic figure who guided the enemies of Jesus and betrayed his Lord with a kiss.
Psalm 69 is the prayer of Him “who, in the days of His flesh . . . offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The Christian Church has ever been persuaded that Psalm 69 expresses the sentiments of that soul “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In Psalm 69 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of His Passion: “Deliver me from those that hate me, and from the depths of the waters. Let not the flood of water submerge me, nor the depth swallow me down, nor the mouth of the pit close over me.”
This is the Christ who in dereliction sought in vain the human companionship of His closest friends during the vigil prior to His arrest: “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour?” (Matt. 26:40). Psalm 69 speaks of this disappointment as well: “My heart waited for contempt and misery; I hoped for someone to share my sorrow, but there was no one; someone to console me, but I found none.”
According to all four Gospels, the dying Christ was offered some sort of bitter beverage, oxsos, a sour wine or vinegar, as He hung on the Cross. This is the very word used at the end of the following verse of Psalm 69: “And for my food they laid out gall, and for my drink they gave me vinegar.”
But there is another dimension to the Passion of the Lord—the resolve of His victory. Even as He was being arrested, His enemies were unable to stand upright in His presence (cf. John 18:6). This was the Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). No man takes the Lord’s life from Him, for He has power to lay it down and to take it up again (cf. John 10:18). This is the Christ whom death could not hold, who descended a very conqueror into hell to loose the bonds of them that sat in darkness, and who “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19).
This sense of Christ’s victory also dominates the final lines of Psalm 69: “I am poor and distressed, but the salvation of Your face, O God, has upheld me. I will praise the name of God with song; and I will magnify Him with praise.”
The victory of Christ is the foundation of the Church, those described when our psalm says, “Let the poor see and rejoice. Seek God, and your soul will live. . . . For the Lord will save Zion, and the cities of Judah will be built, and they shall dwell there and hold it by inheritance, and the seed of His servants will possess it.”