Friday, July 10

Acts 14:8-18: In this story, the citizens of the city “raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’” After that, matters got very much out of hand. In the enthusiasm of the moment, “the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.” Because of the language barrier, which apparently required them to speak through an interpreter, it took several minutes for the two apostles to put a stop to the business, but they eventually did so, proceeding then to preach one of the shortest sermons in history (three verses). Even then, says the text, “with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.”

Now the curious point here is that the crowd, persuaded that the gods had just arrived in town, took Barnabas for Zeus. It was somewhat natural, given their premise, that they thought Paul to be Hermes, the messenger god, “because he was the chief speaker.” Indeed, it was Paul who had healed the lame man with a simple command. But why Barnabas as Zeus? It must have had something to do with his appearance. These folks would never have taken an average-looking guy to be Zeus.

Now it happens that we know exactly what sort of fellow those people thought Zeus, should he ever come to visit his temple, would look like, because Zeus is portrayed in dozens of extant old art works and described in scores of ancient texts. This “father of gods and men” was massive in height and powerfully muscular in bulk. His great brow extended broad and serene over clear, far-seeing eyes, and a full majestic beard lay upon his barrel chest. Brother to Poseidon, god of the sea,
Zeus, when he condescended to speak, spoke with the deep rumblings of oceanic authority. Now this . . . this is what the citizens of Lystra saw in Barnabas! No wonder they were impressed.

In fact, they never quite lost their awe in the presence of Barnabas. A few days later, when some Jews from Iconium arrived and stirred up the crowd against the two apostles, it was Paul that they stoned, nearly to death. Nobody dared throw a stone at Barnabas! (14:19–20)

Numbers 18: God does not often address Aaron directly. Only here (verses 1, 20) and 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).

Saturday, July 11

Numbers 19: This chapter is divided between the Rite of the Red Heifer and a set of prescriptions covering ritual purification.

The first is a curious ritual in which someone, not the priest, slays a spotless heifer that has never been yoked (verses 2-3), the priest sprinkling her blood in prescribed places in the Tabernacle. The heifer is then burned, again not by the priest.

All of those associated with this ritual must then be purified (verses 7-10), and because of this impurity the task is not given to Aaron, who must in no wise incur impurity, but his son Eleazar.

The ashes of the heifer are then preserved in a safe place in order to be added later to the lustral water used for purification (verse 9).

It is not clear how this 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).

Numbers 19, after introducing, in connection with the heifer, the lustral water of purification, goes on to speak of the need of such purification in the case of someone who touches a dead body (verses 11-14) or even a grave (verse 16).

All this discussion about water prepares the reader for story about a lack of water in the next chapter.

Sunday 12

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 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).

Monday, July 13

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 casued by their bite.

It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period! The story in 2 Kings 18:4, however, prevents our getting carried away with respect to this archeological find.

Anyway, the true significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained in Wisdom 16:5-10 and John 3:14-16.

Israel, having skirted eastward to avoid the territory of the Edomites (verses 10-11), turn northward again and come to Wadi Zered, which separated Edom from Moab. This wadi, known today as Wadi el-Hesa, meaning “stream of the willow,” flows westward into the Dead Sea. This is the furthest north that the whole people have traveled.

Then, continuing northward but remaining well to the east, in order to avoid the land of the Moabites, Israel eventually arrived at the Arnon River, a westward flowing tributary of the Jordan (verses 12-16). It was very clear, of course, that if they would enter the land of Canaan, they would eventually have to move westward and, inevitably, cross someone else’s land, where their progress would be challenged. This they were not eager to do. Meanwhile, Israel crossed over to the north bank of the Arnon and stopped on the northeastern outskirts of Moab, the capital of which was Ar. Here they abode long enough to dig a well (verses 16-17).

The Arnon, which the Israelites have now crossed, was the northern border of Moab, separating the Moabites from the Amorites on the other side of the river. Israel, having no quarrel with the Amorites, seeks permission to travel westward through their territory (verses 21-22). The Amorite king, Sihon, meets their request with a show of force (verse 23), but Israel defeats him soundly and actually seizes a portion of the territory. Indeed, this victory gives Israel its first piece of real estate, but they are still east of the Jordan (verses 24,31-32).

This territory, thus conquered from the Amorite, had but recently belonged to the Moabites (verses 25-29). Years later the Amorites would demand the return of this land, and Jephthe would be obliged to remind them that it had never really belonged to them anyway (Judges 11:4-27).

Having conquered part of the Amorite kingdom, Israel continued its northward march, proceeding parallel to the Jordan River, always looking for a westward passage across the Jordan into Canaan. Thus they arrived at the land of Bashan, a mountainous region east of the Jordan and extending up to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. At the southern extremity of the land of Bashan stood Mount Nebo. Here the Israelites arrive and settle for a while (verses 33-35). They have already conquered some land east of the Jordan, which they will in due course annex to the Promised Land.

Tuesday, July 14

Acts 15:22-35: Acts 15:22-35: Since the letter to be sent to the churches represents the mind of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, two envoys from Jerusalem are commissioned to carry it. These will now join Paul and Barnabas, who are returning to Antioch. One of them, Silas, determines to remain in that city.

With respect to the letter itself, it is important to observe its pastoral intent and the fairly restricted application of its mandates. It was not a document intended to be universally applied in the Christian mission at all times and in every place. The letter was addressed only to the “mixed” congregations of Syria and Cilicia that had been evangelized by the “mixed” congregation at Antioch. Although the document upheld the principle that Gentile converts are not subject to the Mosaic Law, it determined nothing definitive regarding the Church’s relationship to that Law in general. (Paul would theologically work out this question a few years later in connection with the Galatian crisis.)

Neither should the letter’s four-fold restriction on Christian freedom be understood as Holy Scripture’s definitive word on the subject. For instance, notwithstanding the prohibition against eating meats sacrificed to idols, Paul’s own treatment of the question will be considerably more nuanced (cf. 1 Corinthians 8). (Similarly, it would be a distortion to understand that apostolic letter as containing a permanent and universal prohibition against consuming blood, and, in fact, some Christians over the centuries have become quite expert in the production of excellent blood-sausages!)

The letter itself manifests another aspect of its apostolic authority: It appeals to the Holy Spirit as revealing His will in the apostolic action itself. This body of men was clearly aware of itself as possessed of authority to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit (verse 28). This principle of the conciliar authority of the Church to determine matters not only of discipline, but also of the content of the Christian faith, was to become one of the defining characteristics of the Church that wrote the Creed and determined the canon of the New Testament.

Wednesday, July 15

Numbers 23: These next two chapters contain four oracles of Balaam relative to Israel, each of which is set in a liturgical context, complete with the offering of sacrifice. The words of the oracles come from the Lord Himself (verses 5,16).

The first oracle (verses 8-10), called a “parable” (mashal—verse 7), testifies to the futility of defying God, even by religious means, such as blessing and cursing. In mystic vision Balaam see that there is more going on than meets the eye in Israel’s sudden appearance in this time and place. There is more happening than human force can control or explain. Even this pagan and unworthy prophet can discern that God’s secret purposes are at work, such as only a fool would undertake to resist. Israel, says Balaam, is not like other nations (verse 9).

Needless to say, this is not what Balak had in mind to hear (verse 11), and the Moabite king, evidently of the opinion that a change of view might be helpful to his cause, takes Balaam up to a higher place and asks him to give it a go from a new angle, as it were, a fresher approach to the situation (verse 14).

From Balak’s perspective, this new angle is no help at all. Indeed, it simply amplifies the former message, insisting that on the inevitability of God’s purpose respecting Israel (verses 18-24).

Completely frustrated, Balak wants to cancel the whole performance (verse 25), but the show must go on, says Balaam (verse 26). It is too late to stop. All right, answers Balak, let’s try to find a third angle from which to view the thing. So everyone prepared to go through the whole complicated process once again (verses 27-30).

We behold Balak’s bewilderment, as he continues to imagine that the gist of prophecy consists in changing one’s perspective and looking at things from a different angle. This frustrating exercise is also part of the Lord’s plan, so He permits the charade to continue. This next message will be of a piece with the other two.

Thursday, July 16

Numbers 24: Unlike Balak, Balaam has the situation figured out. He knows that it is hopeless; Israel cannot be cursed. He turns his back, therefore, and stares into the wilderness; he will not look at Israel (verse 1). Even there, however, and apparently in mystic trance (verse 4), he beholds the hosts of the Israelites, and the Holy Spirit of prophecy descends upon him.

This new parable (mashal—verse 3), the most solemn hitherto (verses 5-9), invokes the lion symbolism that Jacob had used of Judah (verse 9; Genesis 49:9) and the imagery of the water and trees of Paradise (verse 6; Genesis 2:9-10).

Barak, naturally quite exasperated by now (verse 10), orders Balaam to leave at once (verse 11). The latter, however, after defending himself (verses 12-14), has one more parable “for the road,” as it were, this one not sought by Balak. Indeed, this final prophecy is a multiple parable (mashal—verses 15,20,21,23), a prophecy in parts, in which Balaam announces what Moab and its neighbors may expect of the Israelites in the years to come.

The star rising from Jacob (verse 17) is, of course, the Star of David and refers to the Messianic line of David’s sons. Just as it was the pagan prophet Balaam who first saw this star in mystic vision, it was the pagan sages that beheld its coming with their own eyes (Matthew 2:2,7,9,10).

The Christian interpretation of this star was recognized early: “And that He should rise as a star from the see of Abraham, Moses demonstrated ahead of time when he said, ‘A star shall arise from Jacob, and a leader from Israel’; and another Scripture says, ‘Behold a Man, the East is His name.’ Accordingly, when a star arose in heaven at the time of His birth, as is recorded in the memoirs of the Apostles, the Magi from Arabia, recognizing the sign by this, came and adored Him” (Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho 106).

And again: “Therefore there is one and the same God, who was proclaimed by the prophets and announced by the Gospel; and His Son, who was of the fruit of David’s body, that is, of the Virgin descended from David, and Emmanuel; whose star Balaam also prophesied, ‘A star shall arise out of Jacob, and a leader shall arise in Israel.’ But Matthew says that the Magi, coming from the east, exclaimed, ‘For we have seen His star in the east and are come to adore Him”; and having been led by the star into the house of Jacob, to Emmanuel, they showed by the gifts that they offered Him just whom they were adoring” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.9.2).

Friday, July 17

Numbers 25: After the previous three chapters about Balaam, and especially in view of the latter’s enthusiastic prophecies regarding Israel’s great expectations, we may have anticipated immediate success for the Chosen People.

Alas, however, a serious moral lapse is going to delay even further Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. More sadly this lapse seems to have befallen the younger people, the very ones who were to replace the generation that perished in the wilderness.

The incident in this chapter took place at Shittim, the Hebrew for “acacia groves,” a wooded area east of the Jordan. It was from there that Joshua would in due time send the spies to investigate the Holy Land (Joshua 2:1).

This moral lapse, following so suddenly on the oracles of Balaam and narrated immediately after his departure, is not related to Balaam in this text, but Balaam is certainly blamed for it a few chapters later: “Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (21:16). This moral depravity of Balaam is really the only context in which he is remembered in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:5; Revelation 2:14).

Israel’s failing in the present circumstance began as fornication with Moabite women and proceeded to idolatry with Moabite gods (verses 1-2). Indeed, in popular religion in this part of the world, the two were sometimes hard to keep separate.

The Lord’s reaction, to the surprise of no one who had been reflecting on recent events, was not favorable (Verse 3). Since the idol worship and sexual immorality of the Moabites were typical of the atmosphere into which Israel would soon be immersed, it was important that the problem be dealt with decisively. “Decisively,” in fact, is exactly the adverb we want here. Coming from the Latin de-cido, meaning “to cut off,” generally refers to the cutting off of discussion. Sometimes, nonetheless, cutting off discussion is more rapidly reached by cutting off the heads of those who continue the discussion. This was the approach adopted in the present instance (verses 4-5).

The pursuit of righteousness in this matter was exemplified by Phineas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron. He was certainly a decisive sort of priest, with a pronounced tendency to executive decisions (a word also derived from de-cido, meaning “to cut off” (verses 7-8). Phineas reacted in response the sinful activity of a particularly flagrant nature (verse 6), undertaken by a couple who evidently thought that, because their families were well placed and well connected, they were exempt from the common discipline, the universal moral law, and the authority of the priesthood. Phineas decided (from de-cido, meaning “to cut off”) to clarify the situation for them (verses 14-15).

This reasonable and highly commendable action of Phineas determined that Israel’s priestly succession would pass to and through his own sons (verses 10-13); 1 Chronicles 5:30-34); Psalms 106 [105]:30; Sirach 45:23-26; 1 Maccabees 2:26,54).