Friday, July 17
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).
Saturday, July 18
Numbers 19: This chapter is divided between the rite of the Red Heifer and a set of prescriptions covering ritual purification.
The first is a curious ritual in which someone, not the priest, slays a spotless heifer that has never been yoked (verses 2-3), the priest sprinkling her blood in prescribed places in the Tabernacle. The heifer is then burned, again not by the priest.
All of those associated with this ritual must then be purified (verses 7-10), and because of this impurity the task is not given to Aaron, who must in no wise incur impurity, but his son Eleazar.
The ashes of the heifer are then preserved in a safe place in order to be added later to the lustral water used for purification (verse 9).
It is not clear how this unusual ritual was fitted into Israel's sacrificial system, and it sits here in Numbers without connection to the rest of that system. There is a brief reference to rite in Hebrews 9:13, where it is mentioned solely to contrast it with the redemptive efficacy of the Blood of Christ.
Other Christians, even from earliest times, have explored the symbolic possibilities of the Red Heifer. The earliest extant of these, an anonymous writer from the early second century, who assumed the name of St. Barnabas. He compared the Red Heifer to the red cord hung from the window of Rahab at Jericho and the scarlet wool used by the High Priest. He wrote:
“And what do you suppose is the type involved here, in that He ordered Israel those men in whom sins are rendered perfect should offer a heifer. And when they had killed it, to burn it, and that then the children should take its ashes and put them in a container, and that scarlet wool should be wrapped around a piece of wood—Observe the type of the Cross again, and the scarlet wool and the hyssop—and thus the children should sprinkle each person to cleanse them of sins? Understand what is said with such simplicity. The calf is Jesus. Those sinful men who offered it are those who presented Him for slaughter. These men are no more. No more the glory of sinners! Those who sprinkle are children, the very ones who preach to us forgiveness of sins and purification of the heart. To them He entrusted the proclamation of the Gospel. They are twelve in number, representing the tribes” (Pseudo-Barnabas 8.1-3).
Sunday, July 19
The opening verse is somewhat repetitious of Numbers 13:26. Did Israel actually go to Kadesh twice? While this is possible, it does not seem likely. More probable, it would appear, is the suggestion that the events of the previous few chapters took place during the early years at Kadesh, whereas the events now about to be recorded happened toward the end of the lengthy time.
It was at Kadesh that Miriam died.
This new drought provokes more murmuring and a rebellious spirit (verses 2-5). If, as we have supposed, these events took place toward the end of Israel's stay at Kadesh, the people have been gone from Egypt nearly forty years. Still, it is the same old complaint: Why did Moses insist on taking everybody out of that lovely, wonderful land, Egypt, and bringing them out here in the desert to die of thirst? The whole fault is Moses and his brother Aaron.
Once again the prayer of these brothers (verse 6) is answered by God's instruction for remedying the problem (verses 7-8). The “rod” is not identified, but the proximity of this story to that in chapter 17 prompts us to identify it as the miraculous rod of Aaron. The “his” describing it can refer to either man.
Ancient Hebrew legend identified the “rock” in this passage with the rock in Exodus 17, a stone that actually traveled along with the people through the desert. The Apostle Paul identified that rock for us, remarking that “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
The Lord's sudden wrath against Moses and Aaron (verse 12) apparently responds to their lack of faith (“because you did not believe Me”), perhaps indicated by Moses' striking the rock twice (verse 11). In fact, the text does not even say that Moses was to strike the rock at all; he was to take the rod and “speak” to the rock. The text remains, anyway, a bit obscure, prompting various speculations from earliest times.
Having incurred the Lord's wrath, neither Moses nor Aaron will be with the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan (verse 24). The site of this incident gave it the name Meriba, meaning “strife.”
It is worth remarking that Moses does not complain about the Lord’s judgment on his own ministry. He does not murmur at not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. Moses accepts the judgment of God, rather, and continues on his way, evidently aware of himself only as an unworthy servant.
Israel now seeks permission to travel through the territory of Edom, using the royal highway (verses 14-17), a traditional caravan road running north from Israel's present position. Edom declines the request, thus discounting its ancient blood ties to Israel (verses 18-21).
Israel then moves to Mount Hor, now commonly identified as Jebel el Madra (verse 22). It is on top of that mountain that Aaron, handing the priestly succession to his son Eleazar, dies and is buried. The people see Eleazar, clad in the robes of the high priest, descend from the mountain with Moses (verses 23-29).
Monday, July 20
Numbers 21: As we saw in the previous chapter, Israel is running out of choices. If they are ever to enter the Promised Land, it will be necessary to pass through someone's territory. Their neighbors also realize this, and they are becoming understandably anxious. Tensions are on the rise.
These tensions are especially acute toward the south of Canaan, the area adjacent to Israel's current encampment. A local leader in the area, “King Arad of Canaan,” decided to hit Israel with a peremptory strike, in order to discourage the newcomers from any thought of entering the Holy Land by the southern route (verses 1-2). Israel's counterattack was entirely successful (verse 3), but they still did not pursue that route. Arad's name is still borne by a large mound (or tell) in that region, east of Beersheba.
Continuing their journey, the Israelites move further east to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites (verse 4). Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the Brazen Serpent (verses 5-9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word “Seraphim,” by the way) serpents are so called by reason of the painful inflammation caused by their bite.
It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period! The story in 2 Kings 18:4, however, prevents our getting carried away with respect to this archeological find.
Anyway, the true significance of the Brazen Serpent is
explained in Wisdom 16:5-10 and John 3:14-16.
Israel, having skirted eastward to avoid the territory of the Edomites (verses 10-11), turn northward again and come to Wadi Zered, which separated Edom from Moab. This wadi, known today as Wadi el-Hesa, meaning “stream of the willow,” flows westward into the Dead Sea. This is the furthest north that the whole people have traveled.
Then, continuing northward but remaining well to the east, in order to avoid the land of the Moabites, Israel eventually arrived at the Arnon River, a westward flowing tributary of the Jordan (verses 12-16). It was very clear, of course, that if they would enter the land of Canaan, they would eventually have to move westward and, inevitably, cross someone else's land, where their progress would be challenged. This they were not eager to do. Meanwhile, Israel crossed over to the north bank of the Arnon and stopped on the northeastern outskirts of Moab, the capital of which was Ar. Here they abode long enough to dig a well (verses 16-17).
The Arnon, which the Israelites have now crossed, was the northern border of Moab, separating the Moabites from the Amorites on the other side of the river. Israel, having no quarrel with the Amorites, seeks permission to travel westward through their territory (verses 21-22). The Amorite king, Sihon, meets their request with a show of force (verse 23), but Israel defeats him soundly and actually seizes a portion of the territory. Indeed, this victory gives Israel its first piece of real estate, but they are still east of the Jordan (verses 24,31-32).
This territory, thus conquered from the Amorite, had but recently belonged to the Moabites (verses 25-29). Years later the Amorites would demand the return of this land, and Jephthe would be obliged to remind them that it had never really belonged to them anyway (Judges 11:4-27).
Having conquered part of the Amorite kingdom, Israel continued its northward march, proceeding parallel to the Jordan River, always looking for a westward passage across the Jordan into Canaan. Thus they arrived at the land of Bashan, a mountainous region east of the Jordan and extending up to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. At the southern extremity of the land of Bashan stood Mount Nebo. Here the Israelites arrive and settle for a while (verses 33-35). They have already conquered some land east of the Jordan, which they will in due course annex to the Promised Land.
Tuesday, July 21
Numbers 22: Israel's hosts now encamp on “the plains of Moab,” that Moabite territory north of the Arnon, territory that Israel had recently seized from the Amorites.
From this position, looking directly west, they have before them a wide and impressive vista. On their immediate right are the brown hills of Bashan, slightly to the left of which the viewers are able to trace the long, serpentine, green valley of the Jordan, on the opposite bank of which, but slightly to the right, stands the city of Jericho.
The same viewers, turning a bit to their left but still looking ahead, gaze on the northern fringe of the Dead Sea, the lowest geological point on the earth. It is at this point that the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. A few degrees further right, on a clear day they can behold outlines of Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, everything would seem ready for Israel's crossing of the Jordan, but other trials and an entire book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, sill precede that great event.
The first of these trials comes from the Moabites, whose settled territory Israel has assiduously refrained from entering. Moab sits to Israel's immediate south, exactly ninety degrees to the left of those gazing over the Jordan (verse 1).
The Moabites, having recently been defeated by the Amorites, are rather impressed by Israel, the newcomer now victorious over those same Amorites (verses 2-3). Balak, the Moabite king, eager for a bit of help from on high, seeks the spiritual assistance of Balaam, evidently a well-known diviner, urging him to come and curse Israel (verse 6). He had to send some distance to summons Balaam, who lived far, far north at Pethor (called “Pitru” in Assyrian records), a city on the west bank of the Euphrates, some twelve miles south of Carchemish (verse 5).
Balaam, divinely instructed on the point, declines the summons to come and curse Israel (verses 7-14). The second invitation, however, Balaam accepts, again at divine instruction (verses 15-21). Nonetheless, the Lord may have sensed some inner infidelity in Balaam, because He becomes angry and sends an angel with a sword to convey one last warning message to Balaam (verse 22). There ensues one of the most humorous stories in Holy Scripture, the encounter of the angel with Balaam's donkey, which seems to be the only talking animal in the Old Testament (verses 23-35). (When I first read this story to my little children many years ago, they immediately remarked on this fact, mentioning that the feature was something they more readily associated with fairy tales. Their remarks, I thought, showed considerable skill at literary criticism.)
Duly chastened by the encounter with the angel, and having acquired a new respect for his donkey, Balaam eventually arrives at Moab and is taken to a height from which he can gaze down on the assembled hosts of Israel (verses 36-41).
Wednesday, July 22
Numbers 23: These next two chapters contain four oracles of Balaam relative to Israel, each of which is set in a liturgical context, complete with the offering of sacrifice. The words of the oracles come from the Lord Himself (verses 5,16).
The first oracle (verses 8-10), called a “parable” (mashal—-verse 7), testifies to the futility of defying God, even by religious means, such as blessing and cursing. In mystic vision Balaam see that there is more going on than meets the eye in Israel's sudden appearance in this time and place. There is more happening than human force can control or explain. Even this pagan and unworthy prophet can discern that God's secret purposes are at work, such as only a fool would undertake to resist. Israel, says Balaam, is not like other nations (verse 9).
Needless to say, this is not what Balak had in mind to hear (verse 11), and the Moabite king, evidently of the opinion that a change of view might be helpful to his cause, takes Balaam up to a higher place and asks him to give it a go from a new angle, as it were, a fresher approach to the situation (verse 14).
From Balak's perspective, this new angle is no help at all. Indeed, it simply amplifies the former message, insisting that on the inevitability of God's purpose respecting Israel (verses 18-24).
Completely frustrated, Balak wants to cancel the whole performance (verse 25), but the show must go on, says Balaam (verse 26). It is too late to stop. All right, answers Balak, let's try to find a third angle from which to view the thing. So everyone prepared to go through the whole complicated process once again (verses 27-30).
We behold Balak's bewilderment, as he continues to imagine that the gist of prophecy consists in changing one's perspective and looking at things from a different angle. This frustrating exercise is also part of the Lord's plan, so He permits the charade to continue. This next message will be of a piece with the other two.
Thursday, July 23
Numbers 24: Unlike Balak, Balaam has the situation figured out. He knows that it is hopeless; Israel cannot be cursed. Balaam turns his back, therefore, and stares into the wilderness; he will not look at Israel (verse 1). Even there, however, and apparently in mystic trance (verse 4), he beholds the hosts of the Israelites, and the Holy Spirit of prophecy descends upon him.
This new “parable” (mashal—verse 3), the most solemn hitherto (verses 5-9), invokes the lion symbolism that Jacob had used of Judah (verse 9; Genesis 49:9) and the imagery of the water and trees of Paradise (verse 6; Genesis 2:9-10).
Barak, naturally quite exasperated by now (verse 10), orders Balaam to leave at once (verse 11). The latter, however, after defending himself (verses 12-14), has one more parable “for the road,” as it were, this one not sought by Balak. Indeed, this final prophecy is a multiple parable (mashal—verses 15,20,21,23), a proph
ecy in parts, in which Balaam announces what Moab and its neighbors may expect of the Israelites in the years to come.
The star rising from Jacob (verse 17) is, of course, the Star of David and refers to the Messianic line of David's sons. Just as it was the pagan prophet Balaam who first saw this star in mystic vision, it was the pagan sages that beheld its coming with their own eyes (Matthew 2:2,7,9,10).
The Christian interpretation of this star was recognized early: “And that He should rise as a star from the see of Abraham, Moses demonstrated ahead of time when he said, 'A star shall arise from Jacob, and a leader from Israel'; and another Scripture says, 'Behold a Man, the East is His name.' Accordingly, when a star arose in heaven at the time of His birth, as is recorded in the memoirs of the Apostles, the Magi from Arabia, recognizing the sign by this, came and adored Him” (Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho 106).
And again: “Therefore there is one and the same God, who was proclaimed by the prophets and announced by the Gospel; and His Son, who was of the fruit of David's body, that is, of the Virgin descended from David, and Emmanuel; whose star Balaam also prophesied, 'A star shall arise out of Jacob, and a leader shall arise in Israel.' But Matthew says that the Magi, coming from the east, exclaimed, 'For we have seen His star in the east and are come to adore Him”; and having been led by the star into the house of Jacob, to Emmanuel, they showed by the gifts that they offered Him just whom they were adoring” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.9.2).
Friday, July 24
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 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” (also from de-cido, “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 25
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 Judah eventually absorbed this tribe. 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).
Eventually 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 26
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 presented 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 267
Numbers 28: Outside 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 same 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 and unnatural 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. The lunar cycle is literally a “menstrual” cycle (from mensis, the Latin for “month”). For instance, we observe this association in the ancient statuary of the Ephesian Diana with her twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar month.
Tuesday, July 28
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 two seasons become, as it were, a kind of annual Matins and Vespers.
The autumnal “seventh month” (Tishri) is the correspondent to our own word “September” (from the Latin septem, meaning “seven.”) In fact, the ancient month Tishri overlaps our 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 be 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 29
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 30
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 th
an 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. The Bible’s report of this event 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 involves 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, our correct moral disapprobation is not the last word on the subject.
Even when our moral judgment is correct, it is still inadequate to deal with the holiness and righteous judgments of God. In the execution of the Midianites we touch on the holiness of God. The holiness and righteousness of God so transcends the moral sense of man that its activity, as exemplified here, may strike man's moral sense in offensive ways. It is imperative that we ever bear in mind that 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 and righteousness of God is infinitely more.
All killing of human beings, even when blood is justly shed in combat, defiles and requires cleansing (verses 19-20). This does not mean that the shedding of blood in these circumstances is morally wrong. On the contrary, the shedding of blood in a just war is morally correct and may even qualify as an act of charity.
(What else but genuine charity for our countrymen, including our own families and immediate neighbors, would prompt us, at the extreme risk to our own lives, to kill enemies in combat? This perception explains why the Christian Church has always provided blessings and other prayers for the armed forces of our nations.)
Still, such bloodshed falls infinitely short of the purity necessary for entering into God's presence in worship. This is the reason why a prescribed purification process is necessary. Indeed, this is another example in which the holiness of God stands infinitely above even the highest morality of man.
(The Christian Church, therefore, has always placed certain canonical, sacramental restraints on those who take the enemy’s life in warfare, not because such shedding of blood is morally wrong, but because it does not adequately reflect the holiness and righteousness of God’s house.)
Following this narrative comes the rules for the disposition of persons and booty captured in war (verses 22-40). A percentage of these spoils was 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 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 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.