Friday, July 3

Numbers 11: 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 bleaker 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 provides the context for 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 it does contain 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.

Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (verse 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, is now 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).

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).

The Lord’s response was twofold.

First, this crisis made it clear that Moses needed extra help in the governance of Israel. He was beginning to feel burnout. As the people complained to Moses, Moses complained to God, asking if the Lord had somehow made him the father of all these people. Translated more literally, verse 12 should read, “Was it I that . . .? (he’anoki).” It is instructive that Moses refers to the Israelites here as children, because murmuring is, in fact, an immature response to a problem.

In response to Moses’ complaint, the Lord instructs him to choose seventy mature men to help him deal with the immature Israelites (verses 16-17). These men would receive the special gift of prophetic leadership by the grace of the Holy Spirit (verses 24-25), thus joining that group of charismatic leaders that will, in due course, be called the “Judges.” We observe that the grace of their calling was conferred even on two chosen men who had failed to be present as directed (verses 26-30).

Second, in response to Israel’s complaint about their excessively bland diet, the Lord sent another flock of quail, enough to feed them for a month. The phenomenon portrayed in verse 31 is not unknown even today, when thousands of quail, flying south from Europe to the warmer climate of Africa, fall exhausted in the desert, wearied from their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.

Saturday, July 4

Numbers 12: Besides unbearable, murmuring is also contagious. After a year or so in the desert, Israel’s psychological state was already becoming critical.

The problem for Moses this time is more domestic. His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, conceived a dislike for their African sister-in-law, Zipporah the Midianite (verse 1), and they vented 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 himself.

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).

Miriam, in addition, 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).

This entire scene—in which the Lord vindicates His righteous servant, putting to confusion those who unjustly blame him, and restoring the accusers themselves through the intercession of the righteous man—puts the reader in mind of the very similar story in the Book of Job.

Sunday, July 5

Numbers 13: Having advanced in the direction of the Promised Land, Israel is now ready to inspect that area and assess its prospects. Such reconnoitering is essentially a military exercise, to determine the strengths, assets, and positions of those forces that an invading army must face (verses 18-19). As in so many examples of martial reconnoitering, however, Israel’s spies returned with a great deal of information beyond that of purely military interest (verse 20). (One recalls that Alexander the Great took with him, on his vast expedition to the east, a large retinue of botanists, zoologists, cartologists, and other scientists, so that none of his acquired information would be lost to posterity.)

This list of the twelve spies, one from each tribe (verses 4-15), calls them nasi’im, but 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.

These skills did not, alas, include godly wisdom in any great measure, and because of the unsound counsel given by this group, the list of their names is not exactly one of honor. The two exceptions are Joshua of Ephraim and Caleb of Judah.

Going out during the summer grape harvest (verse 20), 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 (verse22). The author refers to the construction of this ancient city in the late 18th century BC.

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. They referred 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.)

The only bright spot was the minority report of Caleb (verse 30).

Monday, July 6

Numbers 14: The theme o f 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!

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.

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. The Exodus He did not intend 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 decisive. It marks Israel’s major and definitive apostasy. Israel’s entire current generation of adults, save on Joshua and Caleb (verses 6,24,30), will never see the Promised Land. They will all die and be interred in the desert. Indeed, only the intercession of Moses restrains the Lord from destroying all of them immediately and on the spot (verses 111-20).

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).

Up to this point Israel has marched with a purpose. No more. From now on they will simply march, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until death has blamed its proper and appointed toll (verses 29,35,38). This will require forty years, until the entire current generation has perished (verse 33).

The ten men responsible for the espionage “majority report” die immediately (verses 36-37).

Tuesday, July 7

Numbers 15: More legislation relative to sacrifice interrupts the narrative flow of Numbers once again. Since the rules in this chapter seem applicable only to those who will actually live in the Holy Land (verse 2), and since the previous chapter made it clear that none of the current generation will do so, this comment places an irony in the context of the material.

Perhaps 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 Promise 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? At this point, however, the serene vice o fGod announces, “When you come into the land . . . which I will give you . . .” That is to say, the Promised Land still lies infallibly in your future.

Indeed, this sustained promise of the Land, a promise now applicable solely to Israel’s next generation, must have 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.

The laws given here contain material on animal sacrifice, grain sacrifice, and the libation of wine (verses 3-21). These regulations are complementary to the material in Leviticus 1-3.

This chapter clearly 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).

The wearing of special tassels and ribbons on the clothing served to remind the Israelites of God’s Law (verses 38-40; Matthew 9:20). It would seem that God’s People always need tangible, visible reminders of their duty.

Wednesday, July 8

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).

Such a warning was needed, even if it has not always been heeded. The Christian Church has often been afflicted with such democratizing rebellions against priestly authority. A rather early example occurred in the church at Corinth toward the end of the first century, when the local congregation arose and attempted to depose the ministers that the Apostles had set over them. The congregation was addressed by Clement, the third bishop of Rome, in a letter that the early Christians were careful to preserve. It reads, in part: “Surely it is well for a man to confess his sins rather than harden his heart as the hearts of those who were hardened who rebelled against Moses the servant of God. Their condemnation was made plain. For they went down to Hell alive, and death was their shepherd” (Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 51.3-4).

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 (verses23-34).

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).

Thursday, July 9

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 is, 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 tress 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.

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).