Friday, July 14

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).

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.

Saturday, July 15

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).

Sunday, July 16

Acts 13:42-52: In this scene, we discern the context of certain impulses that produced agitation in the early Christian mission. Judaism itself already had an extensive mission in the Greco-Roman world (cf. Matthew 23:15). As synagogues were established in the major cities, serious pagans were impressed by what they saw, because the life of the synagogue stood in stark contrast to the cultural and moral decay of the surrounding world, where despair was common. In the pagan world some of the major cultural institutions, particularly marriage and the family, were in serious trouble. Sex had become increasingly separated from marriage and from child-bearing, and there was some sense that this separation was related to various forms of polytheism.

What the pagans beheld in the local synagogues, however, were communities of great strength and hope, solid marriages and the joys of family life, a strict moral code in which all of life was integrated and filled with purpose, a firm emphasis on simple labor as the basis of economic existence, a rich inherited literature that imaginatively interpreted the life of the community, and the regularly scheduled, disciplined worship of a single, no-nonsense God. All of this proved to be very attractive to those serious pagans who felt distress and discomfort at the popular culture.

Some of these pagans accepted circumcision and the observance of the Law, thus becoming full-fledged Jews; these were known as proselytes (Acts 2:10; 6:5). Other pagans were unwilling to go so far, because such a decision obviously tended to cut them off from their own families and friends.

This second group simply attached themselves to the synagogues as best they could, bringing certain structures of Jewish piety into their lives, such as regular prayer and fasting and the study of the Scriptures; these were known as “fearers of God,” of which we have already seen examples in Cornelius and his friends. Thus, there were two groups of Gentiles who in varying degrees joined themselves to the local synagogues in the larger cities of the Roman Empire. Now both these groups felt a spontaneous attraction to the Gospel when they heard it proclaimed in the synagogue by Paul and his companions. In the Gospel they saw a form of religion with all the advantages of Judaism, but with none of the social disadvantages, such as circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law.

In the present reading, we observe that these people invite their other Gentile friends to come with them to the synagogue on the following Sabbath (13:44). Now, of a sudden, the Jews find their own synagogue over-run with all sorts of “undesirables.” They perceive Paul and his companions simply to be “taking over” the synagogue, preaching a doctrine that they themselves cannot control, and, from their perspective, things are getting entirely out of hand. The local Jews react with jealousy and animosity (13:45,50). After all, the Jewish religion had survived pure and intact by preserving those very disciplines that Paul and his friends seem to want to overthrow.

The Gospel, then, they experience as chaos. The very “popularity” of the Gospel becomes a reason for the stricter Jew to feel uncomfortable about it. Trouble breaks out. This sequence of events, repeated over and over again in the synagogues of the larger cities, causes the Christian Church to grow among the Gentiles, who are finally obliged to establish their own local congregations apart from the local synagogues (14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4,6,19; 19:8; 28:28).

Monday, July 17

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.

Tuesday, July 18

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 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).

Wednesday, July 19

Acts 14:19-28: The apostolic activity in Derbe, some sixty miles east of Lystra, is now described in detail. On their return to the churches that they had earlier evangelized, the apostles endeavor to strengthen the faith of the believers, reminding them in particular that the life of the Gospel involves the mystery of the Cross.

In each place the apostles establish a local hierarchy (literally “sacred order”) to pastor the new congregations. This is the burden of the expression “appointing elders” (presbyteroi , the Greek root of the English word “priests”). We note that these men derive their pastoral authority, not from their congregations, but from the apostles themselves, who act for the Holy Spirit (cf. 20:17; cf. Titus 1:5). Having done this, the apostles reverse their steps back to Antioch in Syria, the church that had sent them out on mission (13:3).

Thus ends Paul’s “first missionary journey” in the year 48. In Antioch the apostles give their report, using the analogy of the “open door” to describe their apostolic opportunity. It was an expression that Paul liked (1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12). The final verse of this chapter suggests some passage of time prior to the summoning of the council in Acts 15.

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.

Thursday, July 20

Acts 15:1-11: The time has come to address the question that has been nagging the Christian Church since the conversion of Cornelius in Chapter 10: Are Gentile Christians obliged to observe the Mosaic Law? Or, put another way, must one become a Jew in order to become a Christian? This is a question of great moment for those many Jewish Christians who gladly accept the Gospel as the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, but who find in the Gospel itself no warrant for the abrogation of the Law.

It is the Law, after all, that separates God’s chosen people from the other peoples of the earth. It is the observance of the Law that makes Israel a holy people. If the Gospel involves the dissolution of the Law, then does it not simply subvert the notion of a chosen people? This is a very serious question for Jews who believe in Jesus. Are they now simply to be like everyone else in the world? Of course not, they know, but how is this distinctiveness and consecration of a chosen people to be reconciled with holding communion with Gentiles who do not observe the Law?

It is to address this dilemma in a practical way that this first “council” of the Christian Church is convened halfway through the Book of Acts. It is at this council that the Church takes a first official, formal step toward becoming an institution recognizably distinct from Judaism. In his description of this council, Luke mentions Peter and the original apostles for the last time. The council’s final voice will be that of James, “the brother of the Lord,” who pastors the Church at Jerusalem.

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).

Friday, July 21

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.