Friday, July 10

Numbers 11: Although it is tightly crafted as a coherent and complex narrative, this chapter is usefully broken into four parts: The first (verses 1-9) describes the people’s discontent as they wander in the desert. The object of the complaint, once again (cf. Exodus 16), is the food available in the desert. The second part (verses 10-23) tells of Moses’ complaint and the Lord’s response. The third part (verses 24-30) gives an account of the Spirit poured out on the appointed elders, and the fourth (verses 31-35) narrates how the Lord dealt with the people’s discontent in the beginning of the chapter.

Throughout this chapter, the reader senses—beyond the incidents themselves—that something more radical is amiss with the Israelites in the desert, as though the author were preparing him for worse developments yet to come. As soon as the people start out on their journey, a kind of rebellion sets in, the first of several, which will test the divine patience over the next forty years.

It would appear that some of the Israelites, having spent the previous eleven months encamped in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, were ready for a change of scenery when the time came to move. When, at the end of the previous chapter, they found themselves at Paran, a place arguably worse than where they had been before, these hopes were dashed. The ensuing “murmuring” that forced itself on the ears of both the Lord and Moses introduces the narrative in the present chapter.

This English word “murmur,” the mere pronunciation of which forces the mouth and throat to imitate the very sound of the thing, signifies a hopeless, powerless discontent that we correctly associate with the selfishness of childhood. It is an extension of a baby’s indistinct cry for the relief of its undefined needs, but in the present case it does contain one further element beyond the cry of the infant. It conveys a general note of blame. The murmurer is not only complaining; he is implicitly blaming somebody for his discontent. Worse still, the act of murmuring does not quite find its way to explicit words, much less clear ideas. As the sound itself indicates, there is something frustratingly inarticulate about murmuring. It is extremely difficult to get a “handle” on the thing.

Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (verse 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, will soon be felt by Israel. Only the prayer of Moses, once again acting as Israel’s intercessor, was able to spare the Chosen People (verses 2-3).

Whereas the people’s first complaint about food, in Exodus 16, brought them the blessing of the manna, in the present case the manna itself is the occasion for the murmuring! In other words, the people show themselves ungrateful for the divine (and miraculous!) provision. Hence, the present chapter will end badly for the Israelites.

The people’s complaint, which brings forth the two responses that hold our chapter together, had to do with their unvarying diet of manna, the miraculous food that had sustained them at every meal, everyday, for a full eleven months. Some of the folks hankered after a more varied fare (verse 5).

When the people complain to Moses, Moses complains to God (verses 11-15). His prayer is truly desperate: He would rather die than continue to carry the burden of 600,000 souls! Moses feels squeezed from all directions, because everything seems to depend of him. No matter what goes wrong, it immediately becomes his problem. Using an ironical metaphor he speaks of nursing the people, as though he were responsible for feeding 600,000 screaming infants.

There are two problems in this chapter: the people’s problem and Moses’ problem. The Lord will deal with Moses’ problem first, by instituting the ministry of the Judges (verses 16-17). These seventy are drawn from the recognized elders of Israel and will participate in the same Spirit that fills Moses.

This new ministry is not identical with the administrative service found in Exodus 18:25-26. It is true charismatic leadership, pertaining to spiritual matters. Bearing the people’s burdens with Moses, these men become the antecedents of those charismatic Judges who will appear in the book called by that name.

Once Moses’ problem is addressed, the Lord turns to the people’s problem (verses 18-23). They will eat fresh meat everyday for a whole month, until it starts come out of their noses (verses 19-20). They will begin to hate this diet! Moses can hardly believe his ears at this prediction (verses 21-22), but the Lord warns him, “You’ll see!” (verse 23)

The third section of this chapter (verses 24-30) descries the outpouring of the Spirit on the seventy appointed elders. The presence of the Spirit on these men is apparently discerned in their ecstatic behavior, designated here as “prophesying.” It is difficult to identify this behavior more accurately, nor does this matter form a concern for the author. It suffices to say that the Israelites were able to perceive in these men some quality that enabled them to speak for God. The qualifying phenomenon is described as temporary (verse 25), but the status of the chosen elders is permanent.

The outpouring of the Spirit was not limited to the men actually assembled at the Tabernacle. Two others, though designated to be included in that group, failed to appear in the assembly as appointed. It happened, however, that this failure made no difference to their participation in the Spirit (verse 26).

This extended participation in the Spirit young Joshua, the understudy of Moses (verse 28), who perhaps feared that things were rather getting out of hand—individuals were off somewhere else in the camp, engaged in ecstatic phenomena.

Throughout the Bible’s treatment of him, Joshua is invariably portrayed as a man of consummate devotion, earnestness, and zeal. It may be the case that some perceived lack of attention to proper “form” in the present context—the failure of Eldad and Medad to be where they were supposed to be—represented for Joshua a kind of structural failure, the sort of thing that suggests disorder and chaos. He expected the Spirit to be conferred in the proper contextual setting, not haphazardly, as it were, and outside of divinely established protocol. He was uncomfortable in a situation not governed by recognizable form.

We note that the Bible does not criticize Joshua for this concern, inasmuch as it represented a godly caution and proper respect for appointed structures.

Moses, however, took Joshua’s reaction as overly cautious in the present case. In the view of Moses, there simply could not be an excess in God’s gift of the Spirit (verse 29). He wished that all God’s people were so richly endowed. Christian theology regards this wish of Moses as fulfilled on Pentecost morning, when all those gathered in the upper room were filled with the Holy Spirit.

This response of Moses to the concern of Joshua should be understood as an insistence that no leader of God’s people must be jealous of those with whom the Lord deigns to share the Holy Spirit.

The fourth and closing part of this chapter (verses 31-35) describes the miraculous catch of quail, the Lord’s answer to the people’s complaint about their excessively bland diet.

Several points should be made about these five verses.

First, the recurrence of the word ruah, translated here as “wind.” When this chapter began, there were two problems, we recall: a problem about food and a problem about leadership. Now we see that the Lord has dealt with both problems the same way—namely, through the ruah. In the first case, the problem of leadership, the Lord sent the ruah on the seventy elders (verses 17,25,26,29). Now the ruah brings in the birds to satisfy the people’s craving (verse 31). Because we are obliged to translate the w
ord ruah very differently in the two places, it would be easy not to notice that the same word is used in each instance. Indeed, in both cases, the ruah is ascribed to “the Lord.”

This is the second time that the people have been fed in the desert from a large flock of quail (cf. Exodus 16:13).

This quail is apparently the coturnix vulgaris known to ornithology. This bird migrates from eastern Europe and western Asia to north Africa for the warmer climate, but against a southerly wind it quickly grows weary and is blown off-course to fall in the desert.

This phenomenon, known even today, was described by Aristotle. He observed that some birds “migrate in August, some in September. They are always fatter when they migrate from cold countries, as the quail [ortychs] is fatter in the autumn than in the spring . . . The quails, when the begin their flight, if the weather is fine and the wind from the north, go in pairs and have a successful flight. If the wind is from the south, it goes very hard with them, and their flight is slow, for this wind is very moist and heavy. . . . They fly badly, on account of their weight, for their body is large. They therefore make a noise as they fly, because it is laborious for them” (Aristotle, De Historia Animalium 8.14.4-5).

This is what we find here in Numbers. The very exhausted quails, who have flown south from Greece and Asia Minor, are described as flying at an altitude of only two cubits, between six and seven feet off the ground. They are easily caught in nets or even by hand.

A single person is said to catch 10 homers of them—about 38 bushels—in just two days. That is a lot of meat, enough to satisfy the Lord’s prediction that they would eat meat for a whole month.

The Israelites spread the carcasses of the birds on the sand, to be dried out by the sun. The birds were eaten raw, not cooked—a sort of quail jerky. Herodotus describes this practice in Egypt: “Quails and ducks and small birds are salted and eaten raw” (Herodotus 2.77).

As it happened, however, many Israelites became sick. The reference to a “plague” may indicate food poisoning. Whatever the cause, many of the people died, so that they named the place Kibroth Hattaavah, “graves of craving.” As is the case so often in the desert, the place has never been identified by archeologists.

The very name of the place, however, indicates Israel’s interpretation of the event: They saw this plague as punishment for their own cravings and the murmuring with which they complained to God. God gave them, in fact, exactly what they asked for. It was yet another example of those “answered prayers,” as they were called by St. Teresa of Avila and Truman Capote: Prayers we should not have made, because they were made without regard to doing God’s will. Such are prayers made in selfishness and the impulse to use God for our own ends, without regard to His will. It is no blessing when God answers such prayers.

Saturday, July 11

Numbers 12: Besides being unbearable, murmuring is contagious. After a year or so in the desert, Israel’s psychological state was already becoming critical.

The problem for Moses this time is more domestic. His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, conceived a dislike for their African sister-in-law, Zipporah the Midianite (verse 1), and they vented their displeasure on Moses himself.

It is interesting to speculate on the source of the problem. For example, we know that Moses was very much under the counsel of Reul (or Hobab), his father-in-law and the father of Zipporah, and perhaps jealousies arose in that respect. Whatever the initial point of contention, however, it is clear that the grievance of Aaron and Miriam was directed at Moses himself.

Specifically the two began to wonder our loud whether they weren’t at least as important as Moses himself (verse 2). Aaron, after all, not Moses, was the high priest, and Miriam was a recognized prophetess (Exodus 20:15), so why should Moses have all the authority?

Moses, being a meek man (verse 3; Exodus 3:11; 4:10-13), was disposed to overlook the affront, but the Lord was not. For the pair of complainers He had a thing or two to say relative to the special position and authority of Moses as the chosen intimate of the divine counsels (verses 6-8).

Miriam, in addition, was struck with leprosy, which perhaps suggests that she had been the original instigator of the problem (verse 10). From this affliction she was delivered through the intercession of Moses (verses 13-15).

This entire scene—in which the Lord vindicates His righteous servant, putting to confusion those who unjustly blame him, and restoring the accusers themselves through the intercession of the righteous man—puts the reader in mind of the very similar story in the Book of Job.

Sunday, July 12

Numbers 13: Having advanced in the direction of the Promised Land, Israel is now ready to inspect that area and assess its prospects. Such reconnoitering is essentially a military exercise, to determine the strengths, assets, and positions of those forces that an invading army must face (verses 18-19). As in so many examples of martial reconnoitering, however, Israel’s spies returned with a great deal of information beyond that of purely military interest (verse 20). (One recalls that Alexander the Great took with him, on his vast expedition to the east, a large retinue of botanists, zoologists, cartologists, and other scientists, so that none of information acquired during the journey would be lost to posterity.)

This list of the twelve spies, one from each tribe (verses 4-15), calls them nasi’im, but the word as used here does not, as in earlier chapters, mean the ruling heads of the tribes. On the contrary, these are younger, more agile men with skills specific to their purpose.

These skills did not, alas, include godly wisdom in any great measure, and because of the unsound counsel given by this group, the list of their names is not exactly one of honor. The two exceptions are Joshua of Ephraim and Caleb of Judah.

Going out during the summer grape harvest (verse 20), the spies went over the desert of Zin, southwest of the Dead Sea. They traveled all the way north to the Beqa’ Valley in the region of Phoenicia (verse 21). Along that way, they came to Hebron, some twenty miles south of Jerusalem (verse 22). The author refers to the construction of this ancient city in the late 18th century BC.

Part of this espionage report consisted of the impressive grapes and other fruits representative of the land’s notable fertility (verses 23-27). This part of their report was very positive.

The spies’ assessment of the military situation, nonetheless, was downright dismal. They referred to the gigantic Anakim whom history had long associated with the place and who had created considerable problems even for Egypt at an earlier period (verse 28). They also listed other peoples who would resist invasion (verse 29), thoroughly discouraging the Israelites from attempting it (verses 31-33; Deuteronomy 2:11,20; 3:11 1 Samuel 17:11).

The obvious exaggerations about the physical size of the Canaanites undoubtedly came from the height of their walled cities, which the spies could only imagine as having been constructed by giants. Modern archeology has shown that some of these city walls were, in fact, up to fifty feet high and fifteen feet thick, posing obstacles that would be formidable to an untrained force inexperienced in siege works. (The presumption that high walls mean tall inhabitants was also made by the Greeks, referring to the walls of the Cyclops.)
The only bright spot was the minority report of Caleb (verse 30).

Monday, July 13

Numbers 14: The theme of rebellion continues. Starting with the murmuring in chapter 11 and the defiance of Aaron and Miriam in chapter 12, rebellion now reaches a definitive high point in the present chapter, when the Israelites determine to be guided by the “majority report” of the spies in chapter 12. They vote not to enter the Holy Land!

We recall that Israel undertook their flight from Egypt, not for the purpose of wandering in the wilderness, but in order to migrate to the Land of Promise. In this refusal to enter the Promised Land, therefore, the Israelites were thwarting the intent of the Exodus itself.

Their big mistake, of course, was to vote on the matter. When the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, He gave no directives respecting a popular vote. The Exodus He did not intend to be an exercise in democratic government. The Lord cares no more for rule by majority vote than he does for any other expression of sinful disobedience.

The rebellion in the present chapter, therefore, is decisive. It marks Israel’s major and definitive apostasy. Israel’s entire current generation of adults, save on Joshua and Caleb (verses 6,24,30), will never see the Promised Land. They will all die and be interred in the desert. Indeed, only the intercession of Moses restrains the Lord from destroying all of them immediately and on the spot (verses 111-20).

The gravity of the offense here is linked to Israel’s experience of God’s power up till now. If, after so many “signs,” so many manifestations of His might and His mercy, Israel still remains unbelieving, then the offense is simply too much, and a chance for repentance is denied (verses 11,22-23,40-45; Hebrews 6:3-6).

Up to this point Israel has marched with a purpose. No more. From now on they will simply march, march, march—wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until death has blamed its proper and appointed toll (verses 29,35,38). It becomes literally a death march; they will walk themselves to death! This will require forty years, until the entire current generation has perished (verse 33).

The ten men responsible for the espionage “majority report” die immediately (verses 36-37).

Tuesday, July 14

Numbers 15: More legislation relative to sacrifice interrupts the narrative flow of Numbers once again. Since the rules in this chapter seem applicable only to those who will actually live in the Holy Land (verse 2), and since the previous chapter made it clear that none of the current generation will do so, this comment places an irony in the context of the material.

Perhaps the following consideration may explain and warrant this irony: After the stern condemnation at the end of the previous chapter, especially its declaration that none of the living adults would enter the Promise Land, there was some danger that the Promised Land would be forgotten altogether. Since no living adult would ever see it, why should they even think about it? At this point, however, the serene voice of God announces, “When you come into the land . . . which I will give you . . .” That is to say, the Promised Land still lies infallibly in your future.

Indeed, this sustained promise of the Land, a promise now applicable solely to Israel's next generation, must have instructed the Israelites to think more seriously about that rising generation. It would discourage them from indulging the “right now” aspect of their behavior and their expectations. The nature of the promise, that is to say, would have a “maturing” effect on their minds.
The laws given here contain material on animal sacrifice, grain sacrifice, and the libation of wine (verses 3-21). These regulations are complementary to the material in Leviticus 1-3.

This chapter clearly distinguishes between sins of ignorance and inadvertence, for which atonement is readily made (verses 22-29), and deliberate sins of malice (verses 30-31). This distinction is followed by an example that illustrates what is meant by a deliberate sin (verses 32-36).

The wearing of special tassels and ribbons on the clothing served to remind the Israelites of God's Law (verses 38-40; Matthew 9:20). It would seem that God's People always need tangible, visible reminders of their duty.

Wednesday, July 15

Numbers 16: Because of the several recent crises, including God's judgment that no adults then alive would enter the Promised Land, it is perhaps not surprising that there is ongoing ill will and dissent among the Israelites, the sorts of feelings spawned by despair.

The present chapter records two rebellions combined into a single narrative, a combination perhaps caused by their happening close together. (This is often the case in the history of rebellions.) Close attention to the text, however, permits the reader to distinguish between them.

The rebellion of Korah, a Levite (chiefly verses 1-11,16-24,27,35-43; Jude 11), was apparently directed against Aaron (verses 9-11) and involved the demand that the privileges of the priesthood be extended to all the sons of Levi. The rebellion of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram (1,12-15,25-34), appears to have been aimed more directly at the leadership of Moses.

Both of these rebellions were spawned of a democratic, leveling impulse, impatient of hierarchical authority derived directly from God. This is clearest in the remarks of Korah, who appealed explicitly to “the priesthood of all believers” (Exodus 19:6) as a political principle to deny the ranking authority of the Aaronic priesthood: “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?"

To Korah and the rebellious Levites Moses proposes a trial by ordeal, as it were (verses 5-7,16-18), which proved a disaster for the rebels (verse 35). Indeed, the censers used by these rebellious Levites were beaten into a bonze memorial, to warn whoever in the future might be tempted to pursue their example (verses 36-43).
Such a warning was needed, even if it has not always been heeded. The Christian Church has often been afflicted with such democratizing rebellions against priestly authority. A rather early example occurred in the church at Corinth toward the end of the first century, when the local congregation arose and attempted to depose the ministers that the Apostles had set over them. The congregation was addressed by Clement, the third bishop of Rome, in a letter that the early Christians were careful to preserve. It reads, in part: “Surely it is well for a man to confess his sins rather than harden his heart as the hearts of those who were hardened who rebelled against Moses the servant of God. Their condemnation was made plain. For they went down to Hell alive, and death was their shepherd” (Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 51.3-4).

However it may have been related to the rebellion of Korah, the insurrection of the Reubenites seems to have been of a somewhat different complexion. Dathan and Abiram appreciated the gravity of their plight. They fully realized that they were already doomed, in fact, to perish in the wilderness. In spite of Moses' earlier pledge to take them all to the Promised Land, it was now clear that they would all die in the desert (verses 12-14). Their rebellion, on the other hand, far from removing their doom, only rendered it immediate (verses 23-34). In this sense, there was something suicidal about it.

This chapter is the only place in Holy Scripture where a sacrifice is said to assuage the “wrath of the Lord.” Indeed, this is the kind of language that the Bible tends strictly to avoid. It often speaks of God's wrath, and it frequently prescribes the offering of sacrifice, but the Bible uses great restraint to keep the two things separate, lest it ever be thought that the offering of sacrifice has something to do with appeasing the anger of God. This is, most emphatically, NOT a biblical idea. It is very significant, therefore, that in the present text, what propitiates the anger of God is not the shedding of sacrificial blood, but an offering of incense, which is a symbol of prayer (verses 44-50). That is to say, prayer is persuasive, as we saw in the case of Moses on Mount Sinai, persuading the Lord not to destroy Israel in the incident of the Golden Calf.

Thursday, July 16

Numbers 17: This short chapter covers the aftermath of the recent twofold revolt. The purpose of the ordeal and miracle of the twelve rods was to determine, in as clear a way as possible, exactly where the authority in Israel was to be recognized. In short there was to be No More Murmuring (verses 5,10)!

The Hebrew word for rod in this chapter is matteh, which in fact means both “staff” and “tribe.” On the rod of Aaron was to be inscribed the name of Aaron himself (verse 3). Aaron's is, of course, had the advantage of experience, if the expression is allowed. That is to say, we readers already know the sorts of things that Aaron's rod can do, such as turn into a snake and eat up the other rods (Exodus 7:9-15). We are not surprised by the outcome of the ordeal. The other rods in this story never stood a chance.

The overnight blossoming of an almond tress was not uncommon, and in fact Jeremiah (1:12) would later take it as symbolic of the swiftness of the divine judgment. The miracle in this chapter, of course, is that we are not talking about an almond tree, but a dead piece of wood. Anyway, the miracle produced in the Israelites a sudden change of attitude (verses 12-13).

At least at some periods of Israel's history, Aaron's rod was preserved inside of the Ark of the Covenant itself (Hebrews 9:4). As it does in the present chapter, and as the bronze plates do in the previous chapter, the rod would remind future generations of Israelites of the limits of God's tolerance about challenges to the authority of the altar and those who served thereat.

Now that the primacy of Aaron's household has been established so clearly, the next chapter will contain more rules for the Aaronic priesthood.

Friday, July 17

Numbers 18: God does not often address Aaron directly. Only here (verses 1,20) and Leviticus 10:8.

The instructions given in this chapter begin with the solemn charge to Aaron and his sons regarding their full responsibility for the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the worship (verses 2-8). These instructions answer the question about approaching the holy things, the question raised in the final verse of the previous chapter. The answer is perfectly clear here (verse 22).

Worship in the Bible is never really “safe.” The atmosphere of the Burning Bush tends to prevail, and biblical history records later incidents in which a needed reminder was given on the point (for instance 2 Samuel 6:6-7).
Of the various offerings reserved to the priestly family, some could be eaten by all ritually pure members of the family (verses 11-13), while some were reserved to the male members of the family (verses 9-10).

The metaphor “covenant of salt” (berith melah-verse 19) perhaps invokes the preservative qualities of salt, implying that the covenant is perpetual.

As all Israel was obliged to tithe to the tribe of Levi, the latter was to tithe to the Aaronic family (verses 26-28).