Friday, July 15
Numbers 8: The present chapter, concerned with miscellaneous regulations regarding the Levites, begins with the subject of ritual lamps in the sanctuary (verses 1-4; Exodus 25:31-40; Leviticus 24:2-4), which were maintained by the Levites.
The lampstand—Hebrew menorah—described here (verse 4) has already been mentioned in this book (3:31; 4:9). It had seven lamps and was constructed so as to suggest a sort of tree, with the flames themselves portrayed as fruits springing from flowers.
The original and primary purpose of such lamps was simple illumination in enclosed areas—such as temples—places not readily open to sunlight. As these lamps, nonetheless, were actual fires burning within sacred precincts, it was inevitable that a sacred significance would be attached to them. Shining in the darkness of the Sanctuary, for example, the flames on the menorah came to be likened to the seven eyes—the omniscience—of God (Zechariah 4:1-4; Revelation 1:14; 5:6).
Following the hint given by Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.6.7), more than one religious philosopher has remarked that a lamp or candle is simply the human substitute for the sun. To light a candle is to imitate the sunrise. Consequently, such a flame would naturally assume in the human imagination the mystic symbolisms associated with the sun itself. For this reason, there are probably few religions in the world that forego the use of sacred lamps, and the Christian religion is emphatically not among them (cf. Acts 20:8).
Nor is the religion of heaven itself deprived of this blessing. Indeed, for a correct understanding of the Old Testament’s Tabernacle, it is imperative to remember that it was crafted on the heavenly model that Moses, in mystic vision, beheld when he was on the mountain (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5; 9:23). And the heavenly sanctuary, which Moses beheld on the mountain, most certainly contained (and still contains!) sacred lamps (verse 4). These heavenly lamps, moreover, were among the first things that the Apostle John looked upon when, like Moses, he was privileged to gaze into the heavenly sanctuary (Revelation 1:12; 4:5). Furthermore, the author of Hebrews, in his description of Moses’ Tabernacle, spoke of these lamps before anything else (9:2).
Following the treatment of the menorah come lengthy instructions for the consecration of the Levites (verses 5-22). Four points seem especially worthy of note in this section:
First, the Levites are chosen “from among the children of Israel” (verse 6), meaning that they represent Israel in their special ministry to the worship. The Levites are lifted up as a dedicatory offering (verse 11). This is the reason “the children of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites” (verse 10), just as the Levites lay their hands on the animals sacrificed on their behalf. In both cases there is a substitution: As the offering of the bulls makes atonement for the Levites, so the offering of the Levites makes atonement for Israel.
Second, the dedication of the first-born sons, which figured so prominently in the theology of the paschal lambs, is extended by metaphor to pertain to the Levites. They take the place of Israel’s first-born sons, a substitution indicating the sacrificial nature of their ministry (verses 14-19).
Third, the material of this section invites comparison with the ceremonies of dedication for the priests in Leviticus 8. The two rites are obviously similar—a feature to be expected—but they are also different. A notable point of difference is found in the end results of the dedications themselves: Whereas the priests are initiated into the realm of holiness (qodesh—Leviticus 8:10,11,12,15,30), the Levites are initiated only in the category of the “purification” or “clean-ness” (tihar—verses 7-8). Thus, the Levites are qualified to stand and minister in the holy place, but they may not directly touch those objects that render the place holy.
Fourth, the age limits given here for the service of the Levites—between twenty-five and fifty (verse 24)—are discrepant with the ages given in Numbers 4:3, a discrepancy perhaps best explained as interpreting the latter text as referent to the age for military service, as distinct from sanctuary service. The significance of this difference is clear if we bear in mind that the Levites were especially charged with two tasks: the guarding of the holy place and the bearing of burdens pertaining to the holy place. This latter responsibility was assumed only by those Levites in their prime, whereas those Levites on either side of that prime age shared the duty of guarding the holy place.
It is worth remarking that the Sacred Text itself varies somewhat on the proper limits of that prime age, whether (as in the present text) as beginning at age twenty-five or thirty, or even twenty (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:24; 2 Chronicles 31:17; Ezra 3:8). These differences probably reflect different historical periods and the changes of ministerial needs at various periods.
From the perspective of the sociology of religion, the very existence of the Levites indicates a special development in Israel’s “division of labor.” Holy Scripture does not regard a special class of consecrated men to care for the physical aspects of the worship as something at odds with the principle that all of Israel was a consecrated, priestly people. On the contrary, the particular needs of the worship required that certain individuals should be consecrated in special ways.
This special consecration is found among the People of God at all times. For instance, Clement of Rome, writing near the end of the first century, saw the ministry of the Levites expressed in the Church in the ministry of the deacons. Others in the Church, over the centuries, have been set aside for worship by special rites of consecration. One thinks of the tonsuring of monks and nuns as examples of such consecrations.
Saturday, July 16
Numbers 9: There are two parts to this chapter: First, there is an auxiliary ordinance answering a specific problem that arose in connection with Israel’s second annual celebration of the Passover (verses 1-14). Second, there is an account of the fiery cloud that accompanied Israel’s journey through the desert (verses 15-23).
Israel now celebrates the second Passover. A whole year has elapsed since their escape from Egypt. As in the case of the first Passover, this text conveys certain concerns of ritual. This material, however, is by way of supplement to the ritual material already prescribed in Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23.
The situation described in verses 6-8 introduces a good example of case law. This law, too, is not ascribed to the jurisprudence of Moses, but to divine revelation. This is true case law, because it applies, not only to the immediate context, but to all analogous situations in the future (verse 10). Those whose contact with dead bodies precluded their participation in the Passover Seder are accorded permission to celebrate that feast a month later.
This particular case law addresses two concerns: the need for a compassionate flexibility for the Israelite who was ritually contaminated, and the need to reaffirm the requirement of ritual purity.
The concession made for such persons is extended to those on a journey among unbelievers (verse 10). One recalls the reluctance of Jesus’ enemies to enter the house of Pilate and so defile themselves from sharing the Passover (John 18:28).
Failure to observe these rules meant that a person was “cut off” from the community of Israel. Whether or not this expression meant capital punishment, it certainly meant excommunication, so that the offender was no longer part of the congregation of the saved. To be separated from the congregation of the saved is, after all, far worse than simply to be killed. The person “cut off” from Israel was on his own; he was no longer part of salvation history.
Especially, such a one must “bear his own sin”—nishsha’ ‘avon. He is no longer part of the covenant, in which is found the remission of sins. He is like Cain, who must wander the earth as a stranger. This teaching remains a point of principle throughout the Bible: Remission of sins is provided within the covenant community. One finds salvation by his incorporation into that covenant communion. Otherwise, he is really on his own and must bear his own sins.
Resident aliens were permitted to observe this and other liturgical feasts of Israel, since they were also obliged to observe Israel’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath, and Israel’s annual day of fasting, the Day of Atonement (verse 14).
In the second part of this chapter (verses 15-23), there is a description of the cloud and pillar of fire.
During all its time in the desert, Israel was guided by the pillar of cloud and fire, which was now settled over the Tabernacle (verses 15-16). These two verses evoke the imagery of Exodus 40:2,34-38, emphasizing God’s presence in Israel. The Hebrew verbs here are in the imperfect tense, denoting continued or repeated action. They convey the sense that the cloud/pillar presence became normal for Israel. Now, however, that image is associated with the Tabernacle, not the mountain. Indeed, God is soon to move His people away from the mountain.
In verses 17-23 the message shifts to a concern about complete obedience to God’s guidance. The Lord’s People were led, not only by the fixed, firm, unchanging strictures of the Torah, but also by the immediate, mysterious, and applied guidance of the God who was beyond all discernible law. Both forms of guidance were integral to the life of Israel. Both pertained to the “command of the Lord” (‘al pi Adonai—five times in verses 18,20,23).
Israel recognized no possibility of conflict between God’s will fixed in the Torah and the more fluid guidance He provided in the cloud and pillar. The divine guidance in the lives of the faithful is ever thus. At no point is God’s revealed will in conflict with the fixed and determined order by which men are ever to be governed, but also at no time is a man justified simply by observing those fixed and permanent norms of the Law. God always guides His people in these two ways.
God’s governance of His people is both horizontal and vertical. His horizontal governance means the written Law transmitted down through time. His vertical guidance is the immediate direction given by His Spirit, symbolized in the cloud and pillar. We may think of these two realities as Word and Spirit.
Sunday, July 17
Numbers 10: After celebrating its second Passover at the base of Mount Sinai, and having received guidance by the movement of the fiery cloud, Israel prepared to leave for the long trek through the desert. Before making its departure, nonetheless, the Chosen People received one more directive—to fashion two silver trumpets, these to be sounded whenever the whole camp was to receive specific instructions relative to the variations in its march.
The first part of this chapter (verses 1-10) prescribes how the trumpets will be used during the march through the wilderness. They were to be sounded for general assemblies (verse 3), as well as special meetings of the elders (verse 4). In short, all manner of directions could be conveyed by the various blasts and blowing of the trumpets. These included military directions (verse 9), even liturgical use (verse 10). The trumpeters were the priests (verse 8).
According to Josephus (The Antiquities of the Jews 3.12.6), the trumpets were less than a cubit in length—perhaps twenty inches. Crafted of beaten silver, they are not to be confused with the ram’s horn, or shophar.
Two further considerations pertain to these silver trumpets:
First, employed to direct the movement of Israel through the desert, the trumpets assisted and supplemented the general guidance provided by the fiery cloud (9:15-23). Thus, Israel benefited from two complementary forms of guidance: the fiery cloud, which came directly from God, and the trumpets, which came through human mediation. The Bible perceives no conflict between the two. Perhaps the fiery cloud can be called “charismatic,” inasmuch at its guidance is immediately divine, and the trumpets may be thought of as “institutional,” because their construction is fixed, permanent, and subject to human decision.
Second, these trumpets, which will play such significant roles in the future life of Israel long after the wandering through the wilderness—even being assumed into the liturgical rites of the Temple—were derived from a technology not originally intended for God’s service. Originally crafted by a descendant of Cain (cf. Genesis 4:21), musical instruments did not look very promising when first we learned of them.
Moreover, there has often been something a bit problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music” (Daniel 3:5) for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God.
Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the Tabernacle and the Temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp.
As an added irony, furthermore, instrumental music is limited so exclusively to heaven that the damned are forever deprived of it! The sinful descendants of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again, inasmuch as the “sound of harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore” (Revelation 18:22). These things are now reserved for the blessed.
The regulations regarding the trumpets (verses 1-10) bring to a close the first major section of Numbers, covering the year that Israel encamped in the valley below Mount Sinai. The second part of this chapter (verses 11-28) begins the next large section of Numbers: the journey to Kadesh-barnea (10:11—12:16). This section covers two subjects: the departure from Sinai (verses 11-28) and a story concerning Moses’ in-laws (verses 29-36).
Instructed by the cloud, the Israelites depart from Mount Sinai eleven months after their arrival there and almost fourteen months after the crossing of the Red Sea. Nineteen days have elapsed since the census with which this book began.
The Chosen People move to Paran, to the north of Sinai, a desert region somewhat south of Kadesh. The cloud, we are told, settles at Paran (verse 2), but the journey to Paran is not described until the following two chapters.
One-by-one, the various tribal standards of the Israelites are lifted, signaling each tribe to break camp and fall in place in the march (verses 14-28).
We have observed the care taken in this book to portray the Israelites—even as they wandered through a trackless wilderness—as a tightly organized group. The entire populace, marched as one, tribe by tribe, everyone aware if his responsibilities and his place in the formation. It was like a military expedition. Israel, that is to say, thought of itself as an “organized religion.”
Indeed, this picture indicates an important point of ecclesiology: the Almighty does not favor a haphazard, disorganized style for His people. In both the Old Testament and the New, the Church is described as a living organism, not a shapeless mass of individuals.
From the perspective of its immediate context, we recognize that such discipline was necessary to the people’s survival in the desert. As we shall see in the ensuing chapters, this organization was crucial, because the Israelites tended to be scofflaws. Through the next two chapters we will find no fewer than three crises of authority, each connected with a site along the way. Rebellious Israel, we may well believe, might not have survived in the wilderness without the sustained discipline of its organized life.
The third part of this chapter (verses 29-32) tells of the Midianite in-laws of Moses. Since they were more familiar with the desert, Moses pleaded with them to remain in the company of Israel. From the reference in Judges 1:16, it appears that they acceded to Moses’ request.
With respect to this incident, we observe that Moses wanted to benefit from his in-laws’ greater familiarity with the geography of the region. This is significant: Since Israel, as we know, was to be guided by the fiery cloud, one might have concluded that recourse to human guidance through the desert would be superfluous. Indeed, even some of the Israelites may have thought so. In every age, after all, there have been those who regarded human knowledge and guidance with suspicion when divine knowledge and guidance were at hand.
It is instructive, therefore, to observe that Moses did not share that view. Even as Israel was to be led by the divine cloud, Moses did not disregard the merely human guidance derived of an advanced knowledge of geography. He did not regard recourse to such knowledge as a challenge to—or rival of—divine help.
In this respect we recall an incident in which Reuel (Jethro), the father of Hobab, provided Moses an important practical lesson in delegation and time-management (Exodus 18).
These two examples indicate a more general principle—namely, that the legitimacy of human knowledge is not vitiated by the availability of divine knowledge. Just as Moses learned geography and time management from his wife’s family, the people of God should not hesitate to benefit from merely human knowledge. It is legitimate to mention such human resources as medicine and astronomy. Just as prayer for the sick does not preclude recourse to the modern arts of healing, so the liturgical calendar of the Church should not fail take advantage of the modern world’s more accurate knowledge of astronomy.
In this chapter’s final section (verses 33-36), the fiery cloud is said to be “over” (‘al) the people, as distinct from going “before” (lifne) them. This change of expression indicates that the cloud is not only a guide but also a protection for Israel. His presence with the people shelters them as well as leads them. According to the psalmist, God is “in the midst of Israel” and also guides Israel (Psalm 47 :9,14; cf. 22 :2-4). Therefore, he says to the Lord, “I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel” (72 :23-24). Both guidance and protection are included in the Lord’s pledge to His Church: “lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).
The chapter closes with the acclamations of Moses whenever the Ark was lifted for the march and set down again at the end of it. These acclamations, which frame the journey, were later adapted, modified, and assumed into the Psalter, to be sung during Israel’s liturgical processions (cf. Psalms 68 : 1; 132 :8).
Monday, July 18
Numbers 11: Although it is tightly crafted as a coherent and complex narrative, this chapter is usefully broken into four parts for the purpose of analysis: The first part (verses 1-9) describes the people’s discontent as they wander in the desert. The object of the complaint, once again (cf. Exodus 16), is the food available in the desert. The second part (verses 10-23) tells of Moses’ complaint and the Lord’s response. The third part (verses 24-30) gives an account of the Spirit poured out on the appointed elders, and the fourth (verses 31-35) narrates how the Lord dealt with the people’s discontent in the beginning of the chapter.
Throughout this chapter, the reader senses—beyond the incidents themselves—that something more radical is amiss with the Israelites in the desert, as though the author were preparing him for worse developments yet to come. As soon as the people start out on their journey, a kind of rebellion sets in, the first of several which will test the divine patience over the next forty years.
It would appear that some of the Israelites, having spent the previous eleven months encamped in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, were ready for a change of scenery when the time came to move. When, at the end of the previous chapter, they found themselves at Paran, a place arguably worse than where they had been before, these hopes were dashed. The ensuing “murmuring” that forced itself on the ears of both the Lord and Moses introduces the narrative in the present chapter.
This English word “murmur,” the mere pronunciation of which forces the mouth and throat to imitate the very sound of the thing, signifies a hopeless, powerless discontent that we correctly associate with the selfishness of childhood. It is an extension of a baby’s indistinct cry for the relief of its undefined needs, but in the present case it contains one further element beyond the cry of the infant. It conveys a general note of blame. The murmurer is not only complaining; he is implicitly blaming somebody for his discontent. Worse still, the act of murmuring does not quite find its way to explicit words, much less clear ideas. As the sound itself indicates, there is something frustratingly inarticulate about murmuring. It is extremely difficult to get a “handle” on the thing.
Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (verse 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, will soon be felt by Israel. Only the prayer of Moses, once again acting as Israel’s intercessor, was able to spare the Chosen People (verses 2-3).
Whereas the people’s first complaint about food, in Exodus 16, brought them the blessing of the manna, in the present case the manna itself is the occasion for the murmuring! In other words, the people show themselves ungrateful for the divine (and miraculous!) provision. Hence, the present chapter will end badly for the Israelites.
The people’s complaint, which brings forth the two responses that hold our chapter together, had to do with their unvarying diet of manna, the miraculous food that had sustained them at every meal, everyday, for a full eleven months. Some of the folks hankered after a more varied fare (verse 5).
When the people complain to Moses, Moses complains to God (verses 11-15). His prayer is truly desperate: He would rather die than continue to carry the burden of 600,000 souls! Moses feels squeezed from all directions, because everything seems to depend on him. No matter what goes wrong, it immediately becomes his problem. Using an ironical metaphor he speaks of “nursing” the people, as though he were responsible for feeding 600,000 screaming infants.
There are two problems in this chapter: the people’s problem and Moses’ problem. The Lord will deal with Moses’ problem first, by instituting the ministry of the Judges (verses 16-17). These seventy are drawn from the recognized elders of Israel and will participate in the same Spirit that fills Moses.
This new ministry is not identical with the administrative service found in Exodus 18:25-26. It is true charismatic leadership, pertaining to spiritual matters. Bearing the people’s burdens with Moses, these men become the antecedents of those charismatic Judges who will appear in the book called by that name.
Once Moses’ problem is addressed, the Lord turns to the people’s problem (verses 18-23). They will eat fresh meat everyday for a whole month, until it starts come out of their noses (verses 19-20). They will begin to hate this diet! Moses can hardly believe his ears at this prediction (verses 21-22), but the Lord warns him, “You’ll see!” (verse 23)
The third section of this chapter (verses 24-30) describes the outpouring of the Spirit on the seventy appointed elders. The presence of the Spirit on these men is apparently discerned in their ecstatic behavior, designated here as “prophesying.” It is difficult to identify this behavior more accurately, nor does this matter form a concern for the author. It suffices to say that the Israelites were able to perceive in these men some quality that enabled them to speak for God. The qualifying phenomenon is described as temporary (verse 25), but the status of the chosen elders is permanent.
The outpouring of the Spirit was not limited to the men actually assembled at the Tabernacle. Two others, though designated to be included in that group, failed to appear in the assembly as appointed. It happened, however, that this failure made no difference to their participation in the Spirit (verse 26).
This extended participation in the Spirit to young Joshua, the understudy of Moses (verse 28), who perhaps feared that things were rather getting out of hand—individuals were off somewhere else in the camp, engaged in ecstatic phenomena.
Throughout the Bible’s treatment of him, Joshua is invariably portrayed as a man of consummate devotion, earnestness, and zeal. It may be the case that some perceived lack of attention to proper “form” in the present context—the failure of Eldad and Medad to be where they were supposed to be—represented for Joshua a kind of structural failure, the sort of thing that suggests disorder and chaos. He expected the Spirit to be conferred in the proper contextual setting, not haphazardly, as it were, and outside of divinely established protocol. He was uncomfortable in a situation not governed by recognizable form.
We note that the Bible does not criticize Joshua for this concern, inasmuch as it represented a godly caution and proper respect for appointed structures.
Moses, however, took Joshua’s reaction as overly cautious in the present case. In the view of Moses, there simply could not be an excess in God’s gift of the Spirit (verse 29). He wished that all God’s people were so richly endowed. Christian theology regards this wish of Moses as fulfilled on Pentecost morning, when all those gathered in the upper room were filled with the Holy Spirit.
This response of Moses to the concern of Joshua should be understood as an insistence that no leader of God’s people must be jealous of those with whom the Lord deigns to share the Holy Spirit.
The fourth and closing part of this chapter (verses 31-35) describes the miraculous catch of quail, the Lord’s answer to the people’s complaint about their excessively bland diet.
Several points should be made about these five verses:
First, the recurrence of the word ruah, translated here as “wind.” When this chapter began, there were two problems, we recall: a problem about food and a problem about leadership. Now we see that the Lord has dealt with both problems the same way—namely, through the ruah. In the first case, the problem of leadership, the Lord sent the ruah on the seventy elders (verses 17,25,26,29). Now the ruah brings in the birds to satisfy the people’s craving (verse 31). Because we are obliged to translate the word ruah very differently in the two places, it would be easy not to notice that the same word is used in each instance. Indeed, in both cases, the ruah is ascribed to “the Lord.”
This is the second time that the people have been fed in the desert from a large flock of quail (cf. Exodus 16:13).
This quail is apparently the coturnix vulgaris known to ornithology. This bird migrates from eastern Europe and western Asia to north Africa for the warmer climate, but against a southerly wind it quickly grows weary and is blown off-course to fall in the desert.
This phenomenon, known even today, was described by Aristotle. He observed that some birds
migrate in August, some in September. They are always fatter when they migrate from cold countries, as the quail [ortychs] is fatter in the autumn than in the spring . . . The quails, when the begin their flight, if the weather is fine and the wind from the north, go in pairs and have a successful flight. If the wind is from the south, it goes very hard with them, and their flight is slow, for this wind is very moist and heavy. . . . They fly badly, on account of their weight, for their body is large. They therefore make a noise as they fly, because it is laborious for them (Aristotle, De Historia Animalium 8.14.4-5).
This is what we find here in Numbers. The very exhausted quails, who have flown south from Greece and Asia Minor, are described as flying at an altitude of only two cubits, between six and seven feet off the ground. They are easily caught in nets or even by hand.
A single person is said to catch 10 homers of them—about 38 bushels—in just two days. That is a lot of meat, enough to satisfy the Lord’s prediction that they would eat meat for a whole month.
The Israelites spread the carcasses of the birds on the sand, to be dried out by the sun. The birds were eaten raw, not cooked—a sort of quail jerky. Herodotus describes this practice in Egypt: “Quails and ducks and small birds are salted and eaten raw” (Herodotus 2.77).
As it happened, however, many Israelites became sick. The reference to a “plague” may indicate food poisoning. Whatever the cause, many of the people died, so that they named the place Kibroth Hattaavah, “graves of craving.” As is the case so often in the desert, the place has never been identified by archeologists.
The very name of the place, however, indicates Israel’s interpretation of the event: They saw this plague as punishment for their own cravings and the murmuring with which they complained to God. God gave them, in fact, exactly what they asked for. It was yet another example of those “answered prayers,” as they were called by St. Teresa of Avila and Truman Capote: Prayers we should not have made, because they were made without regard to God’s will; we receive things that are bad for us! Such are prayers made in selfishness and the impulse to use God for our own ends. It is no blessing when God answers such prayers.
As we shall see in the next chapter, murmuring, besides being unbearable, is contagious! After a year or so in the desert, Israel’s psychological state was already becoming critical.
Tuesday, July 19
Numbers 12: This chapter concludes the first travel narrative in Numbers. It also continues, from the previous chapter, the theme of challenges against Israel’s established leadership, this time portraying Aaron and Miriam as conspirators against Moses.
The material breaks in half, distributing two subjects: first, the challenge of Aaron and Miriam (verses 1-8); second, the Lord’s response to that challenge (verses 9-16).
First, the challenge: Supported by her brother, Miriam conceives a dislike for their Ethiopian (Aithiopissa in the LXX) sister-in-law, Zipporah (Midian=Cushan in Habakkuk 3:7). The two of them vent their displeasure on Moses himself.
It is interesting to speculate on the source of the problem. For example, we know that Moses was very much under the counsel of Reul (or Hobab), his father-in-law and the father of Zipporah, and perhaps jealousies arose in that respect. Whatever the initial point of contention, however, it is clear that the grievance of Aaron and Miriam was directed at Moses.
Specifically the two began to wonder our loud whether they weren’t at least as important as Moses himself (verse 2). Aaron, after all, not Moses, was the high priest, and Miriam was a recognized prophetess (Exodus 20:15), so why should Moses have all the authority?
Moses, being a meek man (verse 3; Exodus 3:11; 4:10-13), was disposed to overlook the affront, but the Lord was not. For the pair of complainers He had a thing or two to say relative to the special position and authority of Moses as the chosen intimate of the divine counsels (verses 6-8).
We especially observe Moses’ designation as the Lord’s “servant.” The Hebrew term, ’eved, was rendered therapon in Greek and, among the early Christians, became virtually a proper term designating Moses. Our earliest example is Hebrews 3:5: “Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant [therapon]. For the early Christians, Moses remained a permanent minister in God’s house.
This is an important assertion of the role of Moses in the Church. He is the therapon, the servant of the temple, and from the beginning this is how Christians regarded Moses. Near the end of the first century, Clement of Rome wrote to the rebellious congregation at Corinth: “Envy brought down Dathan and Abiram alive to Hades, through the sedition which they excited against God’s servant Moses [pros ton theraponta tou Theou Mousen]” (4.12).
Quoting our text here in Numbers 12:7-8, Clement later speaks of “the blessed Moses, “a faithful servant in all his house”—ho makarios pistos therapon en holo to oiko Mouses (43.1). Clement uses this noun three other times to refer to Moses (51.3,5; 53.5). It refers to Moses also in Pseudo-Barnabas 14.4. Thus, we find the word used seven times in Christian literature prior to about A.D. 110, and each time it refers to Moses.
Even as the author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus and Moses, he is careful not to permit this contrast to reflect badly on Moses. He is called a “faithful minister” (pistos therapon). This expression, used also by Clement, comes directly from the LXX of Numbers 12:7.
In addition to being reprimanded, Miriam was struck with leprosy, which perhaps suggests that she had been the original instigator of the problem (verse 10). From this affliction she was delivered through the intercession of Moses (verses 13-15).
We may observe two points of irony here: First, the skin of Miriam, who complained about her dark-skinned sister-in-law, becomes as white as snow! Second, there is Aaron’s plea with Moses to intercede for their sister, Miriam. He thereby acknowledges the special ministry and service of Moses.
Wednesday, July 20
Numbers 13: Although these next two chapters, which begin the third part of Numbers, moves the story to a different place—Kadesh-barnea—they maintain the same theme as the previous two chapters: Rebellion! Indeed, the culminating rebellion recorded here changes the direction of the story as a whole.
The story has now reached the point at which Israel should begin its invasion of the land of Canaan. The military census taken at the book’s beginning was preparatory to such a campaign. It was for this decisive hour that the Lord had prepared His people. It was the very reason He brought them out of Egypt.
At this critical time, nonetheless, the faith of the Israelites is found deficient. Their spies, returning from reconnoitering the Promised Land, paint such a bleak picture of Israel’s military prospects that the people decide not to invade!
For the author of Numbers, this is the ultimate and decisive rebellion. The people had complained in chapter 11, and his brother and sister rebelled against Moses in chapter 12. In these next two chapters, however, the spirit of rebellion is taken to its limit, when the people and their leaders conspire to abandon God’s plan and to return to Egypt! They must suffer the fate of the man who puts his hand to the plow but then turns back (Luke 9:62). Plows are not designed to go backwards.
Since the people refuse to enter Canaan, and the Lord will not countenance a return to Egypt, the entire sinful generation is condemned to die in the desert.
The first part of chapter 13 is a list of the spies sent to reconnoiter the land (verses 1-16). We observe that these twelve men are designated as “leaders,” nasi’im. The word as used here does not, as in earlier chapters, mean the ruling heads of the tribes. On the contrary, these are younger, more agile, men with skills specific to their purpose. Since theirs was an especially important service, the failure of ten of them is all the more deplorable. In fact, they will be the first to die, as a kind of down payment on the punishment that awaits the rest of the people.
The Bible, in recording their names, brings their memory into an everlasting shame.
The story continues with an account of the journey of the spies (verses 17-24). The forty days of their trip (a number we suspect to be symbolic) probably embraced all of July (verses 20, 25).
Moses, in his instructions to the group, makes little reference to topography, mentioning only the land immediately adjacent: the Negev Desert and the hill country. It is not surprising that Moses demonstrates no clear picture of the “lay of the land.” Indeed, this is the reason for sending the spies.
Such reconnoitering is essentially a military exercise, to determine the strengths, assets, and positions of those forces which an invading army must face (verses 18-19).
As in so many examples of martial reconnoitering, however, Israel’s spies are instructed to bring back information beyond that of purely military interest (verse 20). This, too, was normal. One recalls that Alexander the Great, on his vast expedition to the east, took with him a large retinue of botanists, zoologists, cartologists, and other scientists, so that none of his acquired information would be lost to posterity. (Readers of Patrick O’Brien’s marvelous adventure stories will recall that Stephen Maturin performed an identical service when he traveled in the campaigns of Jack Aubrey.)
Going out during the summer grape harvest, the spies went over the desert of Zin, southwest of the Dead Sea. They traveled all the way north to the Beqa’ Valley in the region of Phoenicia (verse 21). Along that way, they came to Hebron, some twenty miles south of Jerusalem (verse 22). The author refers to the construction of this ancient city in the late 18th century BC.
Unfortunately, the spies are overly impressed with the size of some of the city walls. In their report, they will refer to the gigantic Anakim whom history had long associated with the place and who had created considerable problems even for Egypt at an earlier period (verse 28). They also listed other peoples who would resist invasion (verse 29), thoroughly discouraging the Israelites from attempting it (verses 31-33; Deuteronomy 2:11,20; 3:11; 1 Samuel 17:11).
The obvious exaggerations about the physical size of the Canaanites undoubtedly came from the height of their walled cities, which the spies could only imagine as having been constructed by giants. Modern archeology has shown that some of these city walls were, in fact, up to fifty feet high and fifteen feet thick, posing obstacles that would be formidable to an untrained force inexperienced in siege works. (The presumption that high walls mean tall inhabitants was also made by the Greeks, referring to the walls of the Cyclops.)
We come next to the report of the spies (verses 25-33), including the “minority report” of Joshua and Caleb.
Part of this espionage report consisted of the impressive grapes and other fruits representative of the land’s notable fertility (verses 23-27). This part of their report was very positive.
The spies’ assessment of the military situation, nonetheless, was downright dismal. The only bright spot was the minority report of Caleb (verse 30).
The sin recorded in these two chapters is that of rebellious disobedience: The spies had been sent out to make an assessment of the task which the Lord had laid on the people. It was not their place to veto what God had commanded. In questioning the divine commandment itself, these spies were repeating the ancient error of Eve, who dallied with temptation, even when God’s will had been clearly expressed.
In particular, these spies were afraid of the “giants”—the Anakim—inhabiting the land. Caleb, one of the two who gave a “minority report” about Canaan, was especially distressed on this point. Indeed, the sight of those giants had simply inspired him to become a giant-slayer.
These Anakim, a Semitic tribe of unusually tall people, lived in the southern portion of the land of Canaan and were very familiar to its disgruntled neighbors. The Egyptians, for example, who knew all about the Anakim, certainly did not like them; they left us our earliest reference to these giants on an execration text from the dawn of the second millennium BC. Such texts are inscriptions on shard pieces containing the names of Egypt’s adversaries; those shards are fragments of pottery, originally inscribed with appropriate curses against enemies. Thus adorned, the pottery was ritually broken, to exorcise and annul, as it were, the military might of the foe.
On one of those Egyptian shards there is a curse against “the ruler of Iy-‘anaq” and his confederates. These Anakim were the descendants of Arba, the father of Anak (Joshua 15:13). Arba is described as “the greatest man among the Anakim” (14:15). For this reason, their major city was named “the city of Arba,” Kirjath-Arba (21:11). Although that same place was known to the Israelites as Hebron, to this day the Arabic name for it, Deir el-Arba‘in, recalls the earlier Canaanite tradition.
For many years, Caleb resented the bitter experience narrated in the present chapter of Numbers. A full generation later, when Joshua assumed command of the Israelites and accomplished what the Lord had commanded in the first place. Caleb was given the task of attacking and conquering the three sons of Anak: Ahinam, Sheshai, and Talmai (Joshua 15:14; Judges 1:10). These were the very tribes that had earlier struck such fear into the hearts of his companions (Numbers 13:22). To his family was given the city of Kirjath-Arba, renamed Hebron. One suspects that Caleb insisted on this arrangement. He had long had a score to settle with those giants.
Caleb thus became the first example of a giant-slayer, and we speculate that David thought of him when, a few centuries later, he advanced to meet Goliath.
Thursday, July 21
Numbers 14: The theme of rebellion continues. Starting with the murmuring in chapter 11 and the defiance of Aaron and Miriam in chapter 12, rebellion now reaches a definitive high point in the present chapter, when the Israelites determine to be guided by the “majority report” of the spies in chapter 12. They vote not to enter the Holy Land!
The response of the people to the report of the spies is rather what we might expect, given the continuous spirit of rebellion and murmuring, which we have seen in the narrative up till now.
We recall that Israel undertook their flight from Egypt, not for the purpose of wandering in the wilderness, but in order to migrate to the Land of Promise. In this refusal to enter the Promised Land, therefore, the Israelites were thwarting the intent of the Exodus itself.
To this murmuring, the people add a kind of “death wish”: “if only we had died in this wilderness!” (verse 2) We are often told to be careful what we wish for, and the present instance is such a case. It is the supreme irony of this chapter that the Lord gives the people exactly what they want: “‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness’” (verses 28-29). Israel’s entire current generation of adults, save for Joshua and Caleb (verses 6,24,30), will never see the Promised Land. They will all die and be interred in the desert.
Their big mistake, of course, was to vote on the matter. When the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, He gave no directives respecting a popular vote. God did not intend the experience of deliverance to be an exercise in democratic government. The Lord cares no more for rule by majority vote than he does for any other expression of sinful disobedience.
The rebellion in the present chapter, therefore, is open and general, involving “the whole congregation.” It marks Israel’s major and definitive apostasy.
This rebellion is also expressed in the discussion about electing a new ruler, who will return the people to the house of bondage (verse 4). In this aspiration, the Israelites choose an extreme form of “congregationalism.” Abandoning the leadership that God chose for them, they want someone who will facilitate what they want to do. Their example remains a permanent warning to the people of God: “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Near the end of the first Christian century, Clement of Rome would cite this example of rebellion in his argument to the church at Corinth, where the congregation had deposed their authorized leaders in order to pick pastors more sympathetic to their preferences.
This chapter records to two responses to the rebellion of the people:
First, Moses and Aaron prostrate before them—a gesture of humility and intercession, a gesture appropriate to the gravity of the situation (verse 5). The author does not elaborate or explain.
Second, Joshua and Caleb rip their clothing (verse 6), a mark of extreme distress. The situation is charged with physical danger (verse 10).
Only the intercession of Moses restrains the Lord from destroying all of them immediately and on the spot (verses 11-20).
The gravity of the offense here is linked to Israel’s experience of God’s power up till now. If, after so many “signs,” so many manifestations of His might and His mercy, Israel still remains unbelieving, then the offense is simply too much, and a chance for repentance is denied (verses 11,22-23,40-45; Hebrews 6:3-6).
In an apparition of His glory, the Lord responds to the people’s rebellious murmuring (verses 10b-25). According to Exodus 24:17, the glory of the Lord is “like a devouring fire” (cf. Hebrews 12:29). This experience is identical to that of Aaron and Miriam in their own rebellion (Numbers 12:5).
The Lord’s reprimand is directed at Israel’s lack of faith, in spite of the numerous “signs” of power that the people had witnessed (verse 11). Twice the Lord asks, “How long?” The people’s continued murmuring amounts to rebellion against the Sinai covenant (verse 4).
Israel’s unbelief, in spite of the “signs,” manifests hardness of heart. The gospels give us a significant parallel to this story: “But although [Jesus] had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him” (John 12:37).
The Lord’s initial impulse—if the expression be permitted—is to destroy the mass of the people at once (verse 12; cf. Exodus 32:9-10). Moses responds, however, “Lord, this would not look good down in Egypt (verse 13; cf. Deuteronomy 32:26-27). To those “outside,” the Lord’s sudden destruction of His people would be hard to reconcile with what they had heard of His omnipotence (verses 15-16) and mercy (verse 18). That is to say, Israel’s abrupt destruction would publish a false message. It would discredit the Lord Himself.
In short, Moses is inspired here by the desire that whatever God does should be understood as Self-revelation. Moses, thus, regards this entire history as significant, not only to Israel, but to the rest of the world. This is an important consideration in the theology of the Exodus: Right from the beginning—even as it was taking place—Moses understood the Exodus and the Covenant to be universally significant, bearing a message for all mankind.
We observe that it is on this basis that Moses pleads for mercy (verses 17-19): Let mercy prevail over anger, because mercy is at the heart of the mystery of the Exodus (cf. Exodus 34:6-7).
Moses prayer is efficacious, inasmuch as the entire people will not be destroyed at once. They will live out their natural span of life, but the adults, with two exceptions, will not enter the Promised Land (verses 22-23). Thus, Israel, as an historical people, is preserved. Even as He punishes Israel, the Lord maintains His covenanted fidelity. This is the pattern of punishment and promise under which we live in this world, even to the present day.
The “ten times” of verse 22 is understood in the Talmud to refer to ten occasions on which Israel tested the Lord in the wilderness: at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:11-12); at Marah (15:23); in the wilderness of Zin (16:2); twice a Kadesh (16:20,27); at Rephidim (17:2-7); at Sinai (chapter 32); at Taberah (Numbers 11:1); at Kibroth-hattaavah (11:4-15); and here in Numbers 13—14.
This chapter contains a second version of the Lord’s response to the people’s rebellion (verses 26-38). This section is substantially repetitious of the preceding (verses 20-25), but we discern some new elements, which take up particular items in that rebellion itself:
First, attention is drawn to the irony that the people’s earlier wish—to perish in the wilderness (verse 2)—will be granted (verses 28-29). The Lord declares that He was paying attention when the people spoke: “I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel” (verse 27).
Second, the punishment pronounced on the people is expressed as a matter of prophecy: ne’um Adonai—“oracle of the Lord” (verse 28). This formula is common in the prophets (cf. Isaiah 3:15; 14:22,23; 17:3,6; 19:4; 22:25; 30:1; 31:9; 37:34; 41:14; 32:10,12; 49:18; 52:52; 54:17; 55:8; 56:8; 59:20; 66:2,17,22).
This prophetic formula is especially favored in the Book of Jeremiah, where it is found 162 times. Indeed, there is a striking historical parallel between the narrative in the chapter and the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction. In each case Israel was facing the loss of an entire generation—a period of forty years (verses 34-35). The time in the desert will find a correspondence in the time Israel spends in captivity. As the “next generation” of wandering Israelites will enter the Promised Land, so the following generation of exiled Israelites will return to the Promised Land.
Third, attention is drawn to another irony: Just as the Israelites, facing the prospect of invasion, feared for the fate of their children (verse 3), so now it is promised that these same children will invade and take possession of the Promised Land (verse 31).
Fourth, this section ends with the fate of the ten men responsible for the espionage “majority report.” They are to die immediately (verses 36-37).
The final part of this chapter (verses 39-45) tells how the Israelites managed to exploit their tragic situation to make it yield yet one more catastrophe. Having disobeyed the Lord’s command to enter the Promised Land, they next refused His judgment that they should stay out of the Promised Land. Failing to act on His promise, they then proceed to act without His promise. Presumption is joined to disobedience.
This presumption essentially consists in Israel’s refusal to accept the divine judgment. Endeavoring to accomplish without divine help what they had refused to accomplish with divine help, the people compounded their failure by a silly attempt at self-justification. It is as though Israel refuses to leave unexplored even the slightest possibility of rebellion.
This story reminds the reader that salvation is time-sensitive. It is always a matter of “today.” This aspect of the people’s experience in the desert is asserted by Psalm 94 (95), which is devoted to this period of Israel’s history: “Today, if you will hear His voice.” Israel’s sin in the final section of this chapter is the presumption that a “yesterday” is still good enough. History, however, had passed on, and a new “today” brought new responsibilities. There could be no going back.
With respect to the motive of the people in this final story, it appears that they suffered from the mistaken belief that the simple confession of their sinfulness (verse 40) was an adequate atonement for their sins. In fact, however, an adequate atonement for those sins was quite beyond their power to make. They imagined that salvation was within their own determination. They fancied they could somehow undo the evil they had done, thereby escaping God’s judgment on that evil and His resolve that the evildoers would be punished for it. In fact, their frustrated attempt to enter the Promised Land—in spite of God’s determination that they should not—served only to compound their predicament. It proved they were very far from repentance. God was not with them, because they were not with God (verses 42-42).
Archeologists are not in accord about the place of Hormah (verse 45). However, the meaning of the name—“place of the ban”—adequately indicates its theological significance. As the site of Israel’s destruction, it foreshadows the rest of the book.
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 any guests and sojourners who were to live in the midst of Israel (verses 13-16). Thus, this chapter subtly indicates–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 a 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 comes 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 the purpose 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.