Friday, July 22
Numbers 15: More legislation relative to sacrifice interrupts the narrative flow of Numbers once again. Since the rules in this chapter (verses 1-12) were applicable only to those who would actually live in the Holy Land, and since the previous chapter made it clear that none of the current generation would do so, the context of the material bears a heavy weight of irony.
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 Promised 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? Yet, at this point 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 Israel’s future.
Indeed, this sustained promise of the Land, a promise now applicable solely to Israel's next generation, 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: a concern for the generation that would follow them.
These rules, then, which pertained to a later time and had no current relevance, were a reaffirmation of Israel’s hope. The insertion of these regulations into the narrative confirmed the constancy of the Lord; they were an implied declaration that nothing in Him had changed. They announced the continuation of the Sinai covenant. They indirectly indicated the future wealth and well being of the Lord’s people.
With respect to the agricultural basis of this future prosperity, our text speaks of grain, wine, and oil (verses 4-12). These three elements pertain to the three-fold cycle of harvests in the Holy Land: grains in May and June, grapes in August and September, and olives in October.
In addition, there is a provision that these rules would also apply to guests and sojourners who were to live in the midst of Israel (verses 13-16). Thus, this chapter subtly indicates—though in germinal form—an interest in non-Israelites, those who would join themselves to the Chosen People. This reference serves as a faint suggestion of a larger and later history.
Israel had only recently been a sojourning people in Egypt, where they had been taken in so that they might not starve. It is expected that they will show a similar hospitality to strangers who may with to live among them, and the provisions of this chapter explicitly pertain to such sojourners.
This very quiet, unassuming provision may be regarded as the initial seed, a small germ, as it were, of Israel’s later service to the nations. It should be viewed as part of a larger narrative—the story of the Lord’s concern for all humanity. Although Israel, at this point in the story, does not yet perceive its massive place in human history, that place is already indicated in the opening chapter of Genesis, Israel’s account of the origins of the world. Adam was no Jew. Eve was no Israelite; nor were Enoch and Noah. Yet, prior to the calling of Abraham and the covenant with Moses, God had manifested His redemptive concern for those more ancient representatives of humanity.
That redemptive concern was an underlying presupposition for the rest of the biblical story, a layer lying just below the surface of salvation history. It rose to the surface from time to time, as it did in the case of Melchizedek. In the present chapter of Numbers it again shows itself in the provision for those Gentiles who shared—as sojourners—in the life of Israel.
In addition to the fruit of the land, Israel’s sacrificial system also had a place for the fruits of human labor, specifically the dough and baked goods (verses 17-21).
The present chapter further 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).
Sins of ignorance and inadvertence (verses 22-29), since they do not involve deliberate malice, are dealt with more easily, but they are not completely ignored. It is good that provision is made for their atonement, because they apparently outnumber the more deliberate sins.
Since man lives in the presence of the all holy God, there are doubtless myriad ways in which he daily falls short: He makes decisions, even important decisions, without appealing to the divine wisdom. He assumes burdens with seeking divine strength. He forgets to trust in the God in whose presence his entire life is lived. Indeed, he often walks unmindful of that presence. Thus, he grows accustomed to the pretense that his life is his own. It slips his mind that all that he has comes from God. He neglects thanksgiving. The burdens and responsibilities of life distract him from its purpose or cause him to disregard the divine glory that surrounds him. He walks about, oblivious oftentimes of who he is, where he came from, or to whom he is responsible.
These are the common sins of ignorance and inadvertence. They easily pass into other semi-deliberate offenses: The ears linger too long at gossip. The eyes dally for a bit at shameful immodesty. The tongue slips at the precipice separating truth from lies. Although none of these sins may involve malice, they are all unworthy of those made in God’s image and destined to behold His glory.
To acknowledge such offenses in worship—to beg for their forgiveness—at least serves to remind man that there is more to his life than he commonly imagines. Indeed, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The sins of inadvertence are contrasted with malicious or intentional sins, which are described as committed “with high hand” (beyad rama). Such sins are characterized by grave matter (“broke His commandment”), sufficient reflection (“disdained the Word of the Lord”), and full consent (“reviles the Lord”). Later theologians would call them “mortal” sins (from the Latin mors, meaning “death”), because they bring death to the soul (cf. 1 John 5:16-17).
There immediately follows a story which exemplifies such a sin, the account of a man who deliberately and resolutely violated the Sabbath (verses 32-36). Inasmuch as the observance of the Sabbath was the distinguishing and identifying mark of the people of Israel, this man’s offense effectively “cut him off” (karat) from the society of God’s people. The choice was his. It was a high-handed sin, for which the penalty was death.
Even without the death penalty, however, such a person was already “cut off” from the congregation of God’s people. He was no longer part of the society of salvation. The practical consequence of this separation is that such a one “bears the guilt.” That is to say, he no longer partakes of the covenant, whereby God deals with sin. Such a man is “on his own.” He does not partake of the reconciliation which the Lord of the covenant provides for His people. God’s wrath no longer bypasses these sins (9:13), nor does His mercy cover them over. Such a sinner is entirely on his own, with no means of dealing with his guilt.
The full context of this chapter—its sequence after the previous two chapters—indicates the gravity of Israel’s refusal to enter the Promised Land: De facto, all of Israel was cut off from Israel! The adults among them, with few exceptions, had forfeited the blessings of the covenant, foreswearing the land promised to Abraham. Theirs was a high-handed sin.
Thus, the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath became the first of that unfaithful generation that perished in the wilderness.
The final section of this chapter (verses 37-41) concerns the special tassels and ribbons at the corners of the four-sided outer cloak (begged) worn by the Israelites (cf. Matthew 9:20).
It would seem that God's People always need tangible, visible reminders of their duty, and these tassels serve as such reminders: “that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord . . . . that you may remember and do all My commandments.”
There are four considerations to be made about these tassels:
First, their general biblical context as reminders of the covenant. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, the Lord Himself declared His reliance on reminders of this sort: “The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh on the earth”(Genesis 9:16).
The provision in the present chapter finds a parallel in Deuteronomy 22:12—“You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself.”
Second, their immediate and specific context in the present chapter. Just as attention was drawn to Israel’s sins of inadvertence (verses 25-29), by way of avoiding the more grievous sin of apostasy (verses 31-36), so the present prescription encourages a constant vigilance against even sins of inadvertence. The mandate of wearing these tassels, then, pertains to the entire context of Israel’s recent infidelity, for which the people would be punished for the next forty years.
Third, the moral and psychological effort involved in this prescription. The reminding evoked by these tassels was to be the antidote to following one’s own spontaneous impulses and distractions—“so that you do not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined.” Since the eyes may lead to distractions in the heart, the reminders prescribed in this chapter are to be visual. They would assist in the sustained moral effort of mindfulness and deliberate intentionality.
Fourth, the theological symbolism of the blue color of these tassels: Blue, the natural symbol of heaven, was the color most associated with Israel’s worship. It was the color of the loops holding up the curtains in front of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:4; 36:11) and several parts of the adornment of the high priest (28:21,28,31; 29:22; 39:31). Blue cloth also covered the Ark, the table of the showbread, the lamp stand, the altar of incense, and other appointments of the sanctuary (Numbers 4:4-7,9,11-12).
That is to say, the color blue, adorning the garment of the Israelites, served to remind them who they were—namely, a holy people, a nation of priests (verse 40; Exodus 19:6; Leviticus 11:44).
As St. Augustine designated the sundry sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic Law as “Old Testament sacraments,” perhaps these tassels may be said to have served as “Old Testament sacramentals.” This means that God used them rather much as He uses holy water and icons in the Christian Church, to influence the mind, imagination, and behavior of His People.
Saturday, July 23
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.
As the executive leadership of Moses had been challenged previously, the present chapter describes a challenge to the priestly leadership of Aaron. It 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; Psalms 105 :16-18), appears to have been aimed more directly at the leadership of Moses.
The joining of these two rebellions is readily explained by the fact that the Reubenites (including Dathan and Abiram) marched and camped adjacent to the Koathites (including Korah), on the south side of the army (2:10-11, 27-29). This arrangement provided the opportunity for the two groups to share the grievances about the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Clearly, both groups felt diminished by that leadership.
Reuben was, after all, the eldest of Jacob’s sons, so why (in the minds of the Reubenites) were they treated as second class? As for the Koathites, who shared with Moses and Aaron the distinction of being children of Levi, they wondered why these two enjoyed an exclusive ascendancy in Israel. That is to say, some bad chemistry evidently developed as these two groups talked with one another in camp.
These two stories were early joined, doubtless because of their common theme: Both 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?" After all, had not the previous chapter indicated that all Israelites are holy? (15:40; Exodus 19:6)
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.
To Korah and the rebellious Levites Moses proposes a “trial by incense,” as it were (verses 5-7,16-18), which will prove a disaster for the rebels (verse 35). Indeed, the censers used by these rebellious Levites were afterwards to be beaten into a bronze memorial, to warn whoever in the future might be tempted to pursue their example (verses 36-43).
This “trial by incense” readily puts the reader in mind of the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-17. The similarities between these two stories are several: First, the word used for “censer,” mahta, refers to a personal censer, not to a furnishing of the Tabernacle. Second, the incense offering is rejected in both cases.
Third, both stories end badly for the presumptuous parties. In the case of Nadab and Abihu we read, “So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2). In the case of Korah’s company, we are told, “And a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense” (Numbers 16:35).
The sin of Korah—his rebellion against the priesthood of Aaron—was founded on a false concept of that priesthood. To Korah’s way of thinking, the priesthood appeared as a social and political advantage; it provided a status of honor, respect, and power. Within that frame of value and reference, Korah concluded that Aaron was not worthier than he of such a status.
Korah’s aspiration, therefore, was ambitious in its motive. In effect, he assessed the things of God according to worldly and selfish standards, regarding the priesthood in terms of prestige and power. Korah was unmindful of the most elementary truth about the priesthood: “And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, like Aaron” (Hebrews 5:4).
His sin was essentially that of Simon Magus, who attempted to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-19). Both Korah and Simon Magus treated the spiritual gift as a kind of commodity, evaluating it on a worldly scale. This sin is what made them unworthy of it.
The punishment of Korah’s sin demonstrates its gravity. He and his associates misunderstood the ways of God in a truly radical fashion. Indeed, their punishment is a symbol of damnation itself: They are so radically different from God that they are cast away from His presence. Satan subjected even Jesus to the temptation of using His special status for individual and worldly advantage: “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down’” (Matthew 4:5-6). In rejecting this temptation, Jesus modeled the correct response to any Gospel minister tempted to regard his ministry in terms of or power, prestige, or personal advantage.
The moral warning contained in this story has always served to guide the pastoral ministry of the Christian Church, which has from time to time been afflicted with such democratizing rebellions against priestly authority derived from the Apostles. 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).
The final section of this chapter (verses 41-50; in the Hebrew text, 17:6-15) describes Aaron’s atonement for the rebellion of the people. Although the bronze plates covering the altar—beaten plates made from the censers of the rebellious Levites—were placed there to remind the Israelites of the gravity of rebellion, they seem to have missed the message. Those plates reminded them solely of the loss of their friends, for which they blamed Moses and Aaron.
Although they had just witnessed the severe penalty suffered on account of rebellious murmuring, they resolved to give murmuring one more try! What could account for their obtuseness? Despair, I suspect. At this lowest stage of their desert wandering, the Israelites were a truly desperate lot. It was as though the entire people, finally realizing that none of them would ever leave the desert alive, were seized by an impulse to end it all. In other words, this latest rebellion bears the marks of a kind of suicide pact.
At this point, the cloud of the divine glory once again appeared—the final time it will be mentioned in this book—covering the Tabernacle (verse 42), and the Lord’s voice threatened the people with full destruction. Moses and Aaron immediately began to intercede for them (verse 45), and Aaron offered incense on their behalf (verse 46; cf. Leviticus 15:12).
This 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. God’s Word often speaks of His wrath, and it frequently prescribes the offering of sacrifice, but the Bible is careful 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 most significant, therefore, that in the present text, what “atones” the anger of God is not the shedding of sacrificial blood, but the offering of incense, which is a symbol of prayer (verses 44-50; Psalm 140 :2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4).
Aaron’s intervention on behalf of the people was only partly effective, as a plague had already been unleashed on the offenders (verses 47-48).
Three further comments are in order with respect to this action of Aaron: First, there is portrayed a clear contrast between this offering of incense and the incense offered by the rebellious Kohathites.
Second, the prompt action of Aaron, taking his place between the living and dead, stands in strong contrast with what he did, and failed to do, in the earlier incident of the golden calf.
Third, with respect to their concepts of the priesthood, Aaron and Korah are clearly distinguished. For Korah, the priesthood was something that distinguished the chosen ones from the others; it held a status of power and prestige. For Aaron, on the other hand, the priesthood was a ministry of service to the people in their sin. Aaron did not separate himself from the rebels; he went among them to save them from their self-inflicted punishment. In other words, Korah stressed that every priest is chosen from among men, whereas in the mind of Aaron such a one was to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Hebrews 5:1).
At the beginning of this chapter, the premise of the rebellion was the thesis that all Israel was holy—not just the priests. As the chapter has progressed, however, the Israelites have shown themselves to be anything but holy. They claimed holiness as a status, whereas it is more properly regarded as a calling and a challenge. “You are holy” must not be separated from “Be holy!”
Sunday, July 24
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 “incense test” is followed by the “rod test.” Whereas the former vindication of Aaron’s priesthood began with rebellion on the part of its challengers, this one comes entirely from a divine initiative.
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 rod had, of course, 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 could 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 present ordeal. The other rods in this story never had a chance.
The overnight blossoming of an almond tree 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). Since the desert narrative records no further challenges to the Aaronic priesthood, we infer that the present vindication of it was completely effective. It was henceforth understood that God alone could choose who would approach Him (Hebrews 5:4).
All of the rods were symbols of authority, for such is a normal meaning of the rod in Holy Scripture. Only the priestly rod, however—the symbol of priestly authority—was the bearer of beauty and nourishment: “the rod of Aaron, of the house of Levi, had sprouted and put forth buds, had produced blossoms and yielded ripe almonds” (verse 8). Unlike the other rods, which symbolized only authority, the rod of Aaron actually brought forth goodness and life. It was the work of the priesthood to conduct Israel in the pursuit of beauty and life; it was a budding rod, a fruitful and benevolent authority. Aaron’s rod was not intended to beat Israel into submission, but to beautify and to feed them. Now that the primacy of Aaron's household has been established so clearly, the next chapter will contain more rules for the Aaronic priesthood.
Monday, July 25
Numbers 18: God does not often address Aaron directly—only here (verses 1,20) and in Leviticus 10:8.
Two subjects are covered in this chapter: the task of standing guard over the holy place (verses 1-7) and the offerings particularly pertinent to the Levitical and priestly families (verses 8-32).
The instructions conveyed 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 1-7). These instructions answer the question about approaching the holy things, the very serious question posed in the final verse of the previous chapter: “Is anybody safe in the presence of Israel’s God?” The answer is given in the present chapter.
The priests and Levites “stand guard” over the Tabernacle, its appointments, and the sacred vessels used in the worship. This custody, however, is intended less to defend the holy things than to safeguard the other Israelites, who may thoughtlessly approach where they shouldn’t (verses 3-5). The priests and Levites stand sentinel for the protection of Israel. The previous chapter, in which thousands of Israelites perished, demonstrated the need for that protection.
Worship in the Bible is never really “safe.” The atmosphere of the Burning Bush tends to prevail throughout, and biblical history records later incidents in which a needed reminder was given on the point (for instance, 2 Samuel 6:6-7).
The provisions in verses 1-7 served two purposes:
First, the Israelites could safely approach the Lord in His sanctuary, without fear that they would perish. Only the priests and Levites were in danger.
Second, these provisions reminded the priests and Levites that theirs was a true ministry, a work of service, for the benefit of God’s people. They were to stand between the Lord and the sinners, as Aaron did in the previous chapter. They were the servants, not the lords, of Israel.
We recognize in these provisions several important lessons for the people of God at all times:
First, the ministers of the Church are governed by the purpose given here in Numbers. Paul described them, when he wrote: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). It is significant that he enunciated this thesis specifically to the Church at Corinth.
Second, Christians should be cautious about the dangers of assuming responsibilities for which they are not suited. Thus, they are told, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Teachers in the Church are also “stewards of the mysteries of God.” The teaching vocation in the Church is full of spiritual dangers for the teacher.
Third, Christians are summoned to regard highly the service of their teachers and other ministers especially appointed to serve them. In the New Testament it is not difficult to discern that certain Corinthians in particular were deficient in this respect. Indeed, the sins of the Corinthian Christians should be compared with the offenses of the Israelites recorded here in Numbers: jealousy, arrogance, and presumption. It is no wonder that Paul, when he reprimanded them for such attitudes, drew their attention to the sins of Israel in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10).
Fourth, the provisions in Numbers 18 were directed to the proper structure and order of Israel’s worship. In his exhortation to the Christians at Corinth, Paul reminds them of the need for such order: “Let all things be done decently and in order”—euschemonos kai kata taxsin (1 Corinthians 14:40). Of the various offerings reserved for the priestly family, some could be eaten by all ritually pure members of the family (verses 11-13), while some were reserved for 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 obliged to tithe to the Aaronic family (verses 26-28).
Tuesday, July 26
Numbers 19: Since Israel’s original adult population is condemned to die in the wilderness, deaths would be occurring pretty often over the forty years of the desert wandering. There would be deaths every day and a constant digging of graves. In chapter 17 alone, nearly 15,000 people died from earthquake and plague. Since ritual contamination ensued on any contact with a corpse, we realize that a large number of Israelites—on any given day—was ritually unclean (Leviticus 5:2; 11:8,24-25; 21:1-4; Numbers 5:2; 6:6-12; 9:6-7,10-11) and in need of purification.
The present chapter, which addresses the problem, provides a simple process for purification. The material falls into two parts: the rite of the red heifer (verses 1-10) and the application of the “water of impurity” (verse 11-22).
The heifer is slaughtered outside the camp (verse 3), like other offerings for purification (Leviticus 14:1-9,49-53). Also like other offerings for purification, the victim is entirely consumed by fire (verse 4; Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:11; 8:17; 16:27). To the fire is added a cedar stick, hyssop, and scarlet cloth (verse 6), the same elements associated with the cleansing of lepers (Leviticus 14:4,6,49,51-52).
As though to suggest that the ritual of the red heifer will serve for Israel’s future generations (verse 10), it is first assigned to Aaron’s successor, (verse 4). Aaron, in any case, must in no wise incur impurity.
In texts like the present chapter, death is understood to convey contamination, because of its close association with Adam’s rebellion against the Lord. It was through sin that death entered man’s experience.
It is not wrong, therefore, to inquire whether the final and definitive remedy for sin—the sacrificial death of Christ—may be adumbrated in the ritual of the red heifer. Initial points of comparison would include the killing of the heifer outside the camp. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, consequently, refers to the rite of the red heifer, comparing it to the sacrifice of Christ: “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14; cf. 13:11-13)
Other Christians, even from earliest times, have explored the symbolic possibilities of the red heifer. The earliest extant of these, an anonymous writer who assumed the name of St. Barnabas, 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. All these he understood to symbolize the sacrificial blood of Christ. This author 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 wool——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 heifer 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).
After introducing, in connection with the heifer, the lustral water, Numbers 19 goes on to speak of the need of such purification in the case of someone who touches a dead body (verses 11-14) or even a grave (verse 16).
This discussion about water prepares the reader for the story about a lack of water in the next chapter.
Wednesday, July 27
Numbers 20: This chapter divides into three recognizable parts. The first (verses 1-13) narrates the incident of the water at Meribah, prefaced by the people’s arrival at Kadesh-Barnea and the death of Miriam. The second tells of the confrontation with the Edomites (verses 14-21), and the third narrates the death of Aaron (verses 22-29).
As the first verse provides neither the year nor day of the story’s context, the chronology must be conjectural. It is reasonable to suppose the events in this chapter took place during the fortieth year of Israel’s desert wanderings. The deaths of Miriam and Aaron indicate that the original pilgrims of the Exodus are disappearing from the scene.
The people find themselves in the desert of Zin, a region sparsely inhabited by wandering nomadic tribes. It formed the southern border to the land of Edom, just south of Canaan (Numbers 34:3; Joshua 15:1), and included the Negev.
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 lies with Moses and his brother Aaron.
It is instructive to reflect that Israel, so severely punished for the rebellions recorded in chapters 16-18, has learned precious little of the perils of murmuring and rebellion. Indeed, the present uprising is described in terms identical to those describing the incidents of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1) and Korah (16:3,19,42). The people “contend,” exactly in the account of the water at Rephidim (Exodus 17:2; cf. Genesis 26:20).
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 emphasis added).
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.
Our earliest comment on the point is Psalms 106 :33—“They were provocative at the waters of Meribah / So it went ill with Moses on account of them; / Because they rebelled against His Spirit, / So that he spoke rashly with his lips.”
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 Meribah, 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.
This story overflows with irony. For example, having refused to enter the Holy Land, which abounded with various fruits (13:23-24), the people now complain of not finding these fruits in the desert (verse 5). Another point of irony is the fact that the Lord does not punish their rebellion in the present instance. They are already condemned to die in the wilderness, so why lay a further burden on them? (cf. Psalms 78:38)
In the second part of this chapter, Israel 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 at Kadesh. Edom declines the request, thus discounting its ancient blood ties to Israel (verses 18-21).
In his request to the Edomites, Moses advances two lines of persuasion:
First, he appeals to the fraternity between Edom and Israel (verse 14), who are the respective descendents of Esau and Jacob. A good brother, Moses reasons, would want to aid his kinsman in the hour of distress (verses 15-16). This line of argument is especially persuasive in those societies where ties of blood are stronger than those of geography.
Second, Moses restricts his request solely to the use of the regular caravan route, the same road to which traders between Damascus and the Gulf of Aquaba normally had access. Edom, Moses argues, would not be inconvenienced.
Edom’s rejection of this diplomatic request—made twice—is accompanied by an open military threat. Having no divine mandate to fight the Edomites, Israel backs down and seeks another route to Canaan (verse 21).
This was not Edom’s last offense against Israel. According to the Prophet Amos in the eighth century the Edomites, having “cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11), were involved in international slave trade (1:6, 9).
Edom’s most memorable offenses, however, occurred when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587. At that time they rejoiced at the city’s downfall (Lamentations 4:21), exploiting its misfortune in a vengeful way (Ezekiel 25:12). Most serious of all was the vile complicity of the Edomites in the demolition of Solomon’s temple, an outrage for which they are explicitly blamed in 1 Esdras 4:45.
This final offense likewise inspired a line of Psalm 136 (137), a lament composed in captivity “by the rivers of Babylon” (v. 1) where the exiles sat and wept, remembering Zion. Reflecting on the holy city’s recent, ruthless destruction, the psalmist bitterly recalled Edom’s share in the matter: “Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom / The day of Jerusalem, / Who said, ‘Raze it, raze it, / To its very foundation!’” (v. 7)
There is one book of the Old Testament devoted entirely to the moral shortcomings of the Edomites: the Prophecy of Obadiah.
With all this “bad press” against them, the Edomites were fortunate to benefit from an injunction addressed to Israel in Deuteronomy: “You shall not abhor the Edomite, for he is your brother” (23:7).
The final section of this chapter (verses 22-29) speaks of the death of Aaron and the transmission of the priesthood to his son, Eleazar. These events took place at Mount Hor, identified by Josephus (Antiquities 4.4.7) as “the mount of the prophet Aaron,” Jebel Nebi Harun in Arabic.
By his death prior to the entrance into the Holy Land, Aaron pays the price for the “rebellion” spoken of earlier in this chapter (verses 10, 24). His eldest surviving son, Eleazar, succeeds him, receiving the ministry by the transfer of the sacred Aaronic vestments (cf. Exodus 29:29-30; Leviticus 8:7-9).
This death takes place on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Exodus, when Aaron is 123 years old (Numbers 33:38-39; cf. Exodus 7:7). There is no mention of his burial on Mount Hor, but Israel laments Aaron’s passing for a whole month.
Israel, seeing Eleazar clothed in the priestly vestments, knows that Aaron has died. It was the first of many such deaths, because “there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing” (Hebrews 7:23). At the same time, the transferal of the priesthood to Eleazar is a sign of hope, indicating the Lord’s fidelity to the covenant.
Thursday, July 28
Numbers 21: Four subjects fill this chapter: the Second Battle of Hormah (verses 1-3), the brazen serpent (verses 4-9), the journey to Moab (verses 10-20), and the war against Sihon and Og (verses 21-35).
As we saw in the previous chapter, Israel is running out of choices with respect to its journey. If they are ever to enter the Promised Land, it will be necessary to pass through somebody'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.
Thirty-eight years earlier, after the Lord condemned the Israelites to perish in the wilderness (14:10-38), they had rebelliously attempted to invade Canaan, contrary to the divine command. The Canaanites defeated them at a place (or perhaps a more extensive region) they called Hormah, “destruction” (14:39-45). Now, nearly four decades later, a local Canaanite leader in Arad decides to hit Israel with a preemptive strike, in order to discourage the newcomers from any thought of entering the Holy Land by the southern route (verses 1-2).
Although Israel's counterattack was entirely successful (verse 3), the place would be troublesome for Israel in the future (cf. Joshua 12:14; Judges 1:16-17). Arad's name is still borne by a large mound (or tell) in the region east of Beersheba.
Clearly a turning point has been reached in this Second Battle of Hormah. A whole generation has passed, and this is Israel’s first military victory over the Canaanites.
We should observe that this change in Israel’s fortunes follows on the death of Aaron (cf. 33:38-40). This is largely a new generation, eager not to repeat the errors of their parents. Indeed, Israel’s rededication to the Lord, indicated by the vow taken just prior to the conflict (verses 2-3), stands in contrast to the rebellion embodied in the earlier battle. Israel is starting to become a new people.
The second part of this chapter (verses 4-9) begins when the Israelites move further east and south to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites. 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 the effects of their bite, whether a fever or a painful inflammation.
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!
In due course, King Hezekiah was obliged to destroy this copper image, because the Israelites of the 8th century had started to treat it like an idol (2 Kings 18:4).
The true significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained in two later biblical passages.
The first is Wisdom 16:5-1:
For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these, they were destroyed with the biting of crooked serpents. But thy wrath endured not for ever, but they were troubled for a short time for their correction, having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned to it, was not healed by that which he saw, but by thee the Savior of all.
The great irony of the serpent is this: The serpent was our tempter. The serpent, then, symbolizes man’s fall. God, as the “Savior of all,” assumes an image associated with sin itself. The brazen serpent, then, became a type or prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God’s Son assumed the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to redeem us. The Jews, then, in looking at the serpent in faith, were in fact, looking forward to Christ, who was symbolized in that image.
The second text is John 3:14-16:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
The expression “be lifted up,” used by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus, is repeated halfway through John’s Gospel, again with reference to the crucifixion: “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (12:32–33).
In addition to being a reference to the Crucifixion, the expression “lifted up” also alludes to a prophecy of God’s Suffering Servant: “Behold, My Servant will prosper; He shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly” (Isaiah 52:13, LXX). As this text makes clear, the Lord’s lifting up refers not only to His crucifixion but also to His exaltation in glory.
The third section of this chapter (verses 10-20) describes the further journey of the Israelites around the territory of Edom and their turn northwest to the land of the Moabites. This section, in fact, gets a bit ahead the story. That is to say, the events in the next section (the battles with Sihon and Og) presumably took place after verse 13. Evidently, the author wanted to describe, in one piece, the entire journey of Israel to the Plains of Moab, before backtracking to tell of the opposition of the Amorites and Bashanites.
The Israelites, having skirted southeastward to avoid the territory of the Edomites, turned northward again and arrived at 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. (The narrative of verses 21-35 fits in chronologically at this point.)
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, which flows westward into the Dead Sea (verses 12-16). Although the valley floor of the Arnon is only about 120 feet wide, its surface is two miles wide. The use of the plural—“wadis of the Arnon”—indicates that this river is really a larger water system, consisting of extensive tributaries and a fourfold mouth of entrance into the Dead Sea.
In any case, Israel then 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).
In connection with this well the author includes snatches of two ancient songs about wells. It is instructive that the Israelites are now starting to sing, because the days of their wanderings are nearly over. The old generation is nearly gone. Indeed, Israel’s next moral problem—dalliances with Moabite girls—will involve the newer generation, not the old timers.
The crossing of the Arnon introduces the fourth part of this chapter (verses 21-35). Israel, having no quarrel with the Amorites, seeks permission to travel westward through their territory. The Amorite king, from his capital at Heshbon, ruled over the territory east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley, in a land extending from the Arnon in the south to the Jabbok in the north. He meets Israel’s request with a show of force but is easily defeated. Indeed, Israel actually seizes a portion of the territory. This victory gives Israel its first piece of real estate, but they are still east of the Jordan.
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).
The defeat of Sihon is celebrated in song, specifically Psalms 134 :11 and 135 :19. Numerous other biblical texts refer to his downfall (Deuteronomy 1:4; 2:24; 3:2; 4:46; 31:4; Joshua 2:10; 9:10; 12:2; 13:10,21,27; Judges 11:19; Jeremiah 48:45).
Having conquered part of the Amorite kingdom, Israel continues its northward march, proceeding parallel to the Jordan River, always looking for a westward passage across the Jordan into Canaan. Thus they arrive 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 stands Mount Nebo. Here the Israelites arrive and settle for a while. They have already conquered some land east of the Jordan, which they will in due course annex to the Promised Land.
From this point on, Moses no longer asks permission to cross anyone’s territory. He moves, rather, to a policy of conquest, one of his earlier victims being Og, the king of Bashan (verses 31-35). Given the mammoth dimensions of Og’s sarcophagus—9 cubits by 4 cubits (Deuteronomy 3:11)—he was, apparently, an opponent of frightening size. It is no wonder that Moses needed reassurance (verse 34)!
In biblical memory, Sihon and Og are often mentioned together. Indeed, their inclusion in the Church’s weekly recitation of the Psalter has had the effect of making them two of the most famous men in history!
In biblical imagery, Sihon and Og represent whatever impedes the soul from entering the Promised Land. Understood in this way, all believers do daily battle with them.
Friday, July 29
Numbers 22: The present chapter inaugurates a new section of Numbers, chapters 22-24. Israel's hosts now encamp on “the plains of Moab,” that Moabite territory north of the Arnon (verse 1). This is the site for the rest of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy.
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—will still precede that great event.
The first of these trials comes from the Moabites, whose settled territory sits to Israel's immediate south, exactly ninety degrees to the left of those gazing over the Jordan.
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). Balaam will be the more notable character in chapters 22-24.
Although it was long supposed that the material in the Balaam stories came to the Bible from without, only since 1967 has this hypothesis been strengthened by concrete evidence. That was the year archeologists discovered a relevant text at Tell Deir ‘Alla (the biblical Sukkoth), on the Jordan’s east bank, near its confluence with the River Jabbok.
The Deir text, painted on (now fragmented) walls plastered with lime, appears to have been composed sometime during the 9th to 8th centuries B.C. It describes how Balaam, Son of Beor, received a nocturnal message from the gods, who expressed their displeasure. On the next morning he delivered that message to the people.
The Deir text demonstrates that: (1) Balaam was known as a prophet in exactly that locale where the Bible places him, and (2) he received a divine message at night and delivered it in the morning. These features bear a striking resemblance to the biblical picture of Balaam.
In the biblical narrative Balak, the Moabite king, must be introduced first, since he is the one who summons Balaam. Recently set free from the dominance of Sihon and the Amorites, Balak is afraid of falling victim to the obviously superior Israel.
Throughout this narrative, we observe two facts about Balak:
First, he recognizes the political value of religion. For Balak, the divine is a politically useful force, and he is prompt to exploit its blessings. He tells Balaam, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (verse 6). This is an eerie paraphrase of God’s promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you,? and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). In the case of Abraham, this was a promise to be met with faith. Balak, however, is not a man of faith. He makes use of religious forces for political purposes, but he is not the least disposed to follow the obedience of faith.
Second, this political pursuit shows Balak to be uncommonly stubborn; already in the present chapter we see him unwilling to take no for an answer. Throughout this story of Balaam, we will find him extremely persistent, as though imagining reality was malleable to the force of his will. This persistence will prove his undoing.
Balak is obliged to send a considerable distance to summon 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).
Divinely instructed to do so, Balaam declines the summons to come and curse Israel (verses 7-14). At this point he seems not to have been a bad man, and it is interesting to observe his knowledge of Israel and even the name of Israel’s God. He recognizes that this God is not one to trifle with. It is unfortunate for him that he does not persevere with that recognition.
Persistent Balak determines to summon Balaam a second time, enhancing the quality of his delegation (verses 15-17). The prophet, by divine instruction, accepts his second summons and prepares to make the journey south to the Plains of Moab.
Nonetheless, the Lord may already 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). At this point Holy Scripture introduces the arguably most interesting character in the whole Balaam story—the donkey, who is able to see reality a great deal better than this professional “seer”!
Between the story of Balaam and his donkey and the account of Balaam and Balak, there are significant parallels; what the donkey is to Balaam, Balaam is to Balak. Balaam’s triple urging of the donkey (verses 23-27) finds its parallel in Balak’s threefold urging of Balaam (verse 41; 23:13,27). In each case there is a movement to a different location, as though such a move would solve the problem. The prophet’s exasperation with the donkey (verse 29) corresponds to Balak’s exasperation with the prophet (24:1-11). The spiritual blindness of Balaam prepares for the spiritual blindness of Balak.
By the time the donkey speaks to Balaam, the latter has become so angry that he apparently fails to notice the incongruity of his being addressed by an animal! As it happens, the donkey is the truly sensible character in the story. She does not explain to Balaam the reasons for her unusual behavior; she simply asks him to consult his experience of her service over many years. Only when he answers the donkey sensibly are the eyes of Balaam open, to see what had been perfectly visible to the donkey all along. And when he sees what the donkey saw, Balaam adopts the donkey’s posture: prostration (verses 27,31).
When he proceeds with his southward journey, Balaam’s encounter with the donkey puts this prophet on guard against deception. It prepares him for the much greater visions he is soon to receive.
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.
The initial encounter between Balaam and Balak establishes a contrast between the two. Although the king is eager for the soothsayer to get started speaking sooth, he takes the time to remonstrate with him about delaying his trip to Moab. Balaam, for his part, is still dubious about the whole venture. Although the king of Moab is eager to seek and pay for his services, the soothsayer is not so confident His Majesty will be pleased with the product.
Balaam has all along been of divided mind about putting himself at the service of his host. Indeed, he would never have come to Moab except by divine guidance; his reason certainly did not recommend it. Consequently, at each stage of his dealings with Balak, Balaam feels it necessary to mention his misgivings about the project.
In contrast to Balaam’s caution stands Balak’s enthusiasm. Difficult to discourage, the king pays no attention to the doubts of his seer. He is so confident of the outcome that he refuses to consider the possibility of failure. Balak combines boundless assurance and a fixed idea—a dangerous mixture if not diluted with a heavy dose of objective counsel. In his fixed idea, Balak is like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick. In the irrationality of his unfounded confidence, he resembles Somerset Maugham’s “Hairless Mexican.”
It is arguable that no man is so dangerous as someone who places irrational confidence in a fixed idea. It is worse if the man is a king. Our Teacher gives a warning in this respect: “Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:31
In this story of Balaam and Balak, nevertheless, this conflict between reasonable caution and irrational confidence is more than a moral parable. It forms the moral setting for the author’s theological and historical thesis: The true director of this is drama is the Lord, who guides Balaam to accept the summons of Balak. The author is not content with a moral warning. His message asserts, in addition, that the Lord of history uses men like Balak to accomplish His purposes.
Balak becomes, as it were, a new Pharaoh and a new Esau, to whose well-deserved disadvantage the Lord proceeds to manifest His wonders. In the fulfillment of what he plans, God is prepared to take such stumbling blocks as Barak and use them as stepping-stones. Balak becomes what St. Paul calls a vessel of wrath made for destruction (Romans 9:22).