Friday, July 31
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 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, August 1
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, August 2
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 might 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's 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, August 3
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 pastureland 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, August 4
Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of five 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 5
2 Peter 1:1-11: In the present reading Peter speaks of Jesus as “Savior,” a term more often used in the New Testament to refer to God the Father. Nonetheless, in these three chapters Peter uses the expression five times in reference to Jesus (1:1,11; 2:20; 3:2,18). In each case, except in 1:1, the use of “Savior” is joined with “Lord.” This is very rare in early Christian literature. Christians today are so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as “Lord and Savior” that they do not realize that, were it not for 2 Peter, this expression would probably never have become so standard a part of Christian vocabulary.
Verse 4 is the only place in the New Testament that describes Christians as “partakers of the divine nature” (theias koinonoi physeos), a very bold description of divine grace. However, an identical theology of grace is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament with a different vocabulary (e.g., 1 John 1:3; 3:2,9; John 15:4; 17:22-23; Romans 8:14-17, and so on).
One also observes that this sharing in the divine nature is manifest as a particular “knowledge” (epignosis and gnosis) of God in Christ (verses 3,5,6,8). This knowledge of God, which is the substance of our call (klesis), must be made “secure” (bebaia – verse 9) by the cultivation of virtue (verses 5-8) and the avoidance of sin (verse 9).
Verse 11 identifies eternal life as “the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” an idea rare in early Christian literature (cf. Ephesians 5:5), which more often refers to the “kingdom of God.” The expression here in 2 Peter forms the biblical basis for that line of the Nicene Creed that says of Jesus, “of whose kingdom there shall be no end.”
Thursday, August 6
The Transfiguration in Peter: In addition to the three Synoptic Gospels, the event of our Lord’s Transfiguration is also described in the Second Epistle of Peter (1:13-21. This latter tells the story with less detail but certainly with no less interest.
St. Peter’s second epistle was written shortly before his martyrdom, traditionally dated during the persecution that followed Nero’s fire at Rome in the summer of A.D. 64. After the blame for that fire was shifted onto the Christians of the city, the imperial police rounded up the Christians, along with their obvious leader, Peter, the chief of the apostles. He evidently wrote this letter while waiting to die.
Hence, Peter’s mind was much taken up with his impending execution. He wrote, “Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my exodus.”
Two words in this account seem especially pertinent to our theme. First, Peter refers to his impending death as his exodus. This is the very word Luke uses to speak of the conversation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah: “And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His exodus which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:30-31). These are the only two occasions in the New Testament where exodus is used with reference to death.
Second, Peter speaks of his death in terms of putting off his “tent.” Perhaps the associations attached to this metaphor provided the occasion for him immediately to speak of the Transfiguration; we recall from all three Synoptic Gospels that Peter had spoken enigmatically of “tents” on that occasion.
In any case, the Apostle immediately goes on to describe that event: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
There are several particulars to note about Peter’s description of the Transfiguration. First, the lack of detail is clearly to be explained by the Apostle’s presumption that the event was already well known to his readers. He was not obliged to elaborate on the details, beyond reminding his readers that he had been a witness to the event.
Second, his quality as a witness to the vision of glory and the Father’s voice established Peter’s authority to refute the “cunningly devised fables” that are the object of his concern throughout much of this epistle (2:1-22; 3:3,17).
Third, the Lord’s Transfiguration confirmed the hopes of the ancient prophets, who desired to see what the apostles saw. Thus Peter goes on to write, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morn
ing star rises in your hearts” (1:19). The fulfillment of biblical prophecy in Christ is a preoccupation of St. Peter (1 Peter 1:10; 2 Peter 3:2).
Fourth, the “cunningly devised fables,” concerning which Peter is so alarmed, have to do chiefly with the misinterpretation of prophecy. Thus, in this context of the Transfiguration he goes on to insist “that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2:20-21).
That is to say, for Peter the Transfiguration was weighted with an exegetical significance, the same emphasis we find in Luke’s account of the event. The glory of the Transfiguration casts a confirming radiation on biblical prophecy. The true meaning of the latter comes to light in the Transfiguration, where the apostles “have the prophetic word confirmed.” All other exegesis consists in “cunningly devised fables.” The glory of the transfigured Christ is the light of the Scriptures themselves, to which Christians “do well to attend.” This is their source of illumination “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The Bible’s ultimate fulfillment comes in history’s final revelation of the transfigured Lord, “the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16; cf. 2:28).
Friday, August 7
2 Peter 2:1-11: Like the apostle Paul taking leave of the Asian churches for the last time (Acts 20:29-30), part of Peter’s final legacy here consists in a warning against false teachers who will arise from within the congregation after his departure. These will carry on the deceptive work of the false prophets, begun in Old Testament times and frequently spoken of in Holy Writ (for example, Deuteronomy 13, Jeremiah 28).
Peter proceeds to provide biblical illustrations of this road to perdition. He cites, first of all, the fallen angels, those original tempters of our race (verse 4; Jude 6), and then goes on to speak of the destruction of sinners in the Deluge and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just as God spared Noah in the former instance, He spared Lot in the latter.
Peter’s picture of Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” is paralleled in his contemporary, Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1), and in Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians a generation later (7.6). Likewise, Peter’s very positive attitude toward Lot, which contrasts somewhat with the less flattering image in Genesis 19, reflects the picture of Lot in Wisdom 10:6 (“When the ungodly perished, [Wisdom] delivered the righteous man, who fled from the fire which fell down on the five cities”) and will likewise appear again in Clement of Rome (11.1).
The false teachers, by way of contrast, are said to introduce “heresies of damnation” (haireseis apoleias — verse 1), driven by fleshly lust (verses 2,10,13,14, 18) and rebellion (verses 1,10). Peter appreciates the moral “underground” of heresy. It is not simply false and unsound teaching, but a teaching prompted by lust and sustained by rebellion. If a person “loses the faith,” he has usually lost something else first, such as chastity, or patience, or sobriety. Heresy, that is to say, is normally a cover for some deeper vice. This is one of the reasons that the Bible takes such a dim view of false teachers.