Friday, June 28
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; and they announced the continuation of the Sinai covenant. Thus, 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.
Saturday, June 29
Numbers 16: Because of the several recent crises, including God’s judgment that no adults then alive would enter the Promised Land, it is perhaps not surprising that there is ongoing ill will and dissent among the Israelites, the sorts of feelings spawned by despair.
The present chapter records two rebellions combined into a single narrative, a combination perhaps caused by their happening close together. (This is often the case in the history of rebellions.) Close attention to the text, however, permits the reader to distinguish between them.
The rebellion of Korah, a Levite (chiefly verses 1-11,16-24,27,35-43; Jude 11), was apparently directed against Aaron (verses 9-11) and involved the demand that the privileges of the priesthood be extended to all the sons of Levi. The rebellion of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram (1,12-15,25-34), appears to have been aimed more directly at the leadership of Moses.
Both of these rebellions were spawned of a democratic, leveling impulse, impatient of hierarchical authority derived directly from God. This is clearest in the remarks of Korah, who appealed explicitly to “the priesthood of all believers” (Exodus 19:6) as a political principle to deny the ranking authority of the Aaronic priesthood: “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”
To Korah and the rebellious Levites Moses proposes a trial by ordeal, as it were (verses 5-7,16-18), which proved a disaster for the rebels (verse 35). Indeed, the censers used by these rebellious Levites were beaten into a bronze memorial, to warn whoever in the future might be tempted to pursue their example (verses 36-43).
However it was 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 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, in fact, die in the desert (verses 12-14). Their rebellion, however, far from removing their doom, only rendered it immediate (verses 23-34).
This chapter is the only place in Holy Scripture where a sacrifice is said to assuage the “wrath of the Lord.” Indeed, this is the kind of language that the Bible tends strictly to avoid. It often speaks of God’s wrath, and it frequently prescribes the offering of sacrifice, but the Bible uses great restraint to keep the two things separate, lest it ever be thought that the offering of sacrifice has something to do with appeasing the anger of God. This is, most emphatically, NOT a biblical idea. It is very significant, therefore, that in the present text, what “atones” the anger of God is not the shedding of sacrificial blood, but an offering of incense, which is a symbol of prayer (verses 44-50).
Sunday, June 30
Numbers 17: This short chapter covers the aftermath of the recent twofold revolt. The ordeal and miracle of the twelve rods was to determine, in as clear a way as possible, exactly where the authority in Israel was to be recognized. In short there was to be No More Murmuring (verses 5,10)!
The Hebrew word for rod in this chapter is matteh, which in fact means both “staff” and “tribe.” On the rod of Aaron was to be inscribed the name of Aaron himself (verse 3). Aaron’s rod, of course, had the advantage of experience, if the expression be allowed. That is to say, we readers already know the sorts of things that Aaron’s rod can do, such as turn into a snake and eat up the other rods (Exodus 7:9-15). We are not surprised by the outcome of the ordeal. The other rods in this story never stood a chance.
The overnight blossoming of an almond 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).
At least at some periods of Israel’s history, Aaron’s rod was preserved inside of the Ark of the Covenant itself (Hebrews 9:4). As it does in the present chapter, and as the bronze plates do in the previous chapter, the rod would remind future generations of Israelites of the limits of God’s tolerance about challenges to the authority of the altar and those who served thereat.
Now that the primacy of Aaron’s household has been established so clearly, the next chapter will contain more rules for the Aaronic priesthood.
Mark 5:21-43: Clinging desperately to her final chance of deliverance, this bleeding woman resolves even to violate the Law by hiding herself in a crowd. Unnoticed, she inches forward to the point where her extended finger, reaching through the closely packed mass of other bodies, can barely touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, but immediately the bleeding stops. She feels the sudden surge of health rushing into her wasted frame. The trauma of twelve years is over!
Yes, it is over, but something new is just about to begin. This lady is not the only one who felt something when Jesus’ garment was touched. Jesus, also, perceives that power—dynamis—has gone out from him, and he is unwilling to let the matter lie. Turning about, he declares, “Somebody touched me, for I perceived power going out from me.”
Indeed, somebody. For twelve years this woman has thought of herself as a nobody, but to Jesus she is somebody. He will not permit her to be concealed, lost, and absorbed in a crowd. She has an identity. She is somebody! Now healed in body by physical act of touching, she must begin the healing of her spirit by being spoken to and reassured.
Monday, July 1
Numbers 18: God does not often address Aaron directly. Only here and in Leviticus 10:8.
The instructions given in this chapter begin with the solemn charge to Aaron and his sons regarding their full responsibility for the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the worship (verses 2-8). These instructions answer the question about approaching the holy things, the question raised in the final verse of the previous chapter. The answer is perfectly clear here (verse 22).
Worship in the Bible is never really “safe.” The atmosphere of the Burning Bush tends to prevail, and biblical history records later incidents in which a needed reminder was given on the point (for instance 2 Samuel 6:6-7).
Of the various offerings reserved to the priestly family, some could be eaten by all ritually pure members of the family (verses 11-13), while some were reserved to the male members of the family (verses 9-10)
The metaphor “covenant of salt” (berith melah—verse 19) perhaps invokes the preservative qualities of salt, implying that the covenant is perpetual.
As all Israel was obliged to tithe to the tribe of Levi, the latter was to tithe to the Aaronic family (verses 26-28).
The provisions in verses 1-7 served two purposes:
First, the Israelites could safely approach the Lord in His sanctuary, without fear 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 important lessons for the people of God at all times.
Tuesday, July 2
Numbers 19: This chapter is divided between the Rite of the Red Heifer and a set of prescriptions covering ritual purification.
The first is a curious ritual in which someone, not the priest, slays a spotless heifer that has never been yoked (verses 2-3), the priest sprinkling her blood in prescribed places in the Tabernacle. The heifer is then burned, again not by the priest.
All of those associated with this ritual must then be purified (verses 7-10), and because of this impurity the task is not given to Aaron, who must in no wise incur impurity, but to his son Eleazar.
The ashes of the heifer are then preserved in a safe place in order to be added later to the lustral water used for purification (verse 9).
It is not clear how this strange ritual was fitted into Israel’s sacrificial system, and it sits here in Numbers without connection to the rest of that system. There is a brief reference to rite in Hebrews 9:13, where it is mentioned solely to contrast it with the redemptive efficacy of the Blood of Christ.
Other Christians, even from earliest times, have explored the symbolic possibilities of the Red Heifer. The earliest extant of these, an anonymous writer 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. He wrote:
And what do you suppose is the type involved here, in that He ordered Israel those men in whom sins are rendered perfect should offer a heifer. And when they had killed it, to burn it, and that then the children should take its ashes and put them in a container, and that scarlet wool should be wrapped around a piece of wood—Observe the type of the Cross again, and the scarlet wool and the hyssop—and thus the children should sprinkle each person to cleanse them of sins? Understand what is said with such simplicity. The calf is Jesus. Those sinful men who offered it are those who presented Him for slaughter. These men are no more. No more the glory of sinners! Those who sprinkle are children, the very ones who preach to us forgiveness of sins and purification of the heart. To them He entrusted the proclamation of the Gospel. They are Twelve in number, representing the tribes” (Pseudo-Barnabas 8.1-3).
Wednesday, July 3
Numbers 20: This story of the drought parallels that in Exodus 17:1-7. This parallel is one of several that serve to frame the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The opening verse is somewhat repetitious of Numbers 13:26. Did Israel actually go to Kadesh twice? While this is possible, it does not seem likely. More probable, it would appear, is the suggestion that the events of the previous few chapters took place during the early years at Kadesh, whereas the events now about to be recorded happened toward the end of the lengthy time.
It was at Kadesh that Miriam died.
The desert of Zin, sparsely inhabited by wandering nomadic tribes, formed the southern border to the land of Edom, just south of Canaan (Numbers 34:3; Joshua 15:1). It 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 is that of Moses and his brother Aaron.
Once again the prayer of these brothers (verse 6) is answered by God’s instruction for remedying the problem (verses 7-8). The “rod” is not identified, but the proximity of this story to that in chapter 17 prompts us to identify it as the miraculous rod of Aaron. The “his” describing it can refer to either man.
Ancient legend identified the “rock” in this passage with the rock in Exodus 17, a rock that actually traveled along with the people through the desert. The Apostle Paul identified that rock for us, remarking that “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
The Lord’s sudden wrath against Moses and Aaron (verse 12) apparently responds to their lack of faith (“because you did not believe Me”), perhaps indicated by Moses’ striking the rock twice (verse 11). In fact, the text does not even say that Moses was to strike the rock at all; he was to take the rod and “speak” to the rock. The text remains, anyway, a bit obscure, prompting various speculations from earliest times.
Having incurred the Lord’s wrath, neither Moses nor Aaron will be with the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan (verse 24). The site of this incident gave it the name Meriba, meaning “strife.”
Israel now seeks permission to travel through the territory of Edom, using the royal highway (verses 14-17), a traditional caravan road running north from Israel’s present position. Edom declines the request, thus discounting its ancient blood ties to Israel (verses 18-21).
Israel then moves to Mount Hor, now commonly identified as Jebel el Madra (verse 22). It is on top of that mountain that Aaron, handing the priestly succession to his son Eleazar, dies and is buried. The people see Eleazar, clad in the robes of the high priest, descend from the mountain with Moses (verses 23-29).
Thursday, July 4
Numbers 21: As we saw in the previous chapter, Israel is running out of choices. If they are ever to enter the Promised Land, it will be necessary to pass through someone’s territory. Their neighbors also realize this, and they are becoming understandably anxious. Tensions are on the rise.
These tensions are especially acute toward the south of Canaan, the area adjacent to Israel’s current encampment. A local leader in the area, “King Arad of Canaan,” decided to hit Israel with a peremptory strike, in order to discourage the newcomers from any thought of entering the Holy Land by the southern route (verses 1-2). Israel’s counterattack was entirely successful (verse 3), but they still did not pursue that route. Arad’s name is still borne by a large mound (or tell) in that region, east of Beersheba.
Continuing their journey, the Israelites move further east to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites (verse 4). Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the Brazen Serpent (verses 5-9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word Seraphim, by the way) serpents are so called by reason of the painful inflammation caused by their bite.
It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period! The story in 2 Kings 18:4, however, prevents our getting carried away with respect to this archeological find.
Anyway, the true significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained in Wisdom 16:5-10 and John 3:14-16.
Israel, having skirted eastward to avoid the territory of the Edomites (verses 10-11), turns northward again and comes to Wadi Zered, which separated Edom from Moab. This wadi, known today as Wadi el-Hesa, meaning “stream of the willow,” flows westward into the Dead Sea. This is the furthest north that the whole people have traveled.
Then, continuing northward but remaining well to the east, in order to avoid the land of the Moabites, Israel eventually arrived at the Arnon River, a westward flowing tributary of the Jordan (verses 12-16). It was very clear, of course, that if they would enter the land of Canaan, they would eventually have to move westward and, inevitably, cross someone else’s land, where their progress would be challenged. This they were not eager to do. Meanwhile, Israel crossed over to the north bank of the Arnon and stopped on the northeastern outskirts of Moab, the capital of which was Ar. Here they abode long enough to dig a well (verses 16-17).
The Arnon, which the Israelites have now crossed, was the northern border of Moab, separating the Moabites from the Amorites on the other side of the river. Israel, having no quarrel with the Amorites, seeks permission to travel westward through their territory (verses 21-22). The Amorite king, Sihon, meets their request with a show of force (verse 23), but Israel defeats him soundly and actually seizes a portion of the territory. Indeed, this victory gives Israel its first piece of real estate, but they are still east of the Jordan (verses 24,31-32).
Friday, July 5
Numbers 22: Israel’s hosts now encamp on “the plains of Moab,” that Moabite territory north of the Arnon, territory which Israel had recently seized from the Amorites.
From this position, looking directly west, they have before them a wide and impressive vista. On their immediate right are the brown hills of Bashan, slightly to the left of which the viewers are able to trace the long, serpentine, green valley of the Jordan, on the opposite bank of which, but slightly to the right, stands the city of Jericho.
The same viewers, turning a bit to their left but still looking ahead, gaze on the northern fringe of the Dead Sea, the lowest geological point on the earth. It is at this point that the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. A few degrees further right, on a clear day they can behold outlines of Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, everything would seem ready for Israel’s crossing of the Jordan, but other trials and an entire book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, still precede that great event.
The first of these trials comes from the Moabites, whose settled territory Israel has assiduously refrained from entering. Moab sits to Israel’s immediate south, exactly ninety degrees to the left of those gazing over the Jordan (verse 1).
The Moabites, having recently been defeated by the Amorites, are rather impressed by Israel, the newcomer now victorious over those same Amorites (verses 2-3). Balak, the Moabite king, eager for a bit of help from on high, seeks the spiritual assistance of Balaam, evidently a well-known diviner, urging him to come and curse Israel (verse 6). He had to send some distance to summons Balaam, who lived far, far north at Pethor (called Pitru in Assyrian records), a city on the west bank of the Euphrates, some twelve miles south of Carchemish (verse 5).
Balaam, divinely instructed on the point, declines the summons to come and curse Israel (verses 7-14). The second invitation, however, Balaam accepts, again at divine instruction (verses 15-21). Nonetheless, the Lord may have sensed some inner infidelity in Balaam, because He becomes angry and sends an angel with a sword to convey one last warning message to Balaam (verse 22). There ensues one of the most humorous stories in Holy Scripture, the encounter of the angel with Balaam’s donkey, which seems to be the only talking animal in the Old Testament (verses 23-35). (When I first read this story to my little children many years ago, they immediately remarked on this fact, mentioning that the feature was something they more readily associated with fairy tales. Their remarks, I thought, showed considerable skill at literary criticism.)
Duly chastened by the encounter with the angel, and having acquired a new respect for his donkey, Balaam eventually arrives at Moab and is taken to a height from which he can gaze down on the assembled hosts of Israel (verses 36-41).