Friday, June 21
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).
Saturday, June 22
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 (verses 1-14). 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 also 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.
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).
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, June 23
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).
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.
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.
Monday, June 24
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, is 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, every day, for a full eleven months. Some of the folks hankered after a more varied fare (verse 5).
The quail in this chapter is apparently the coturnix vulgaris known to ornithology. This bird migrates annually 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. 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.
Tuesday, June 25
Numbers 12: Aaron and Miriam 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, June 26
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.
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 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.)
Thursday, June 27
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 the Israelites 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 Israel’s 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.
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.