Friday, July 7

Numbers 5: The present chapter has three parts: First, statutes about exclusion (verses 1-4); second, rules for confession and restitution (verses 5-10); third, provisions for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31).

First, then, there are statutes about exclusion. In accordance with this book’s concern with proportion and due order, this section begins with the “cleanliness” of the camp, the marked term referring to both hygienic and religious considerations (verses 2-4). These prescribed expulsions from the camp did not involve a removal of citizenship; those affected by the statutes did not cease to be members of the congregation. Their condition, nonetheless, and a solicitude for the welfare of the congregation, required that they should be treated in a special way that involved a measure of exclusion.

The holiness and wellbeing of God’s People in this world have ever required exclusionary canons of this sort, analogous to the laws of quarantine by which other societies are protected from harm. The notion of “infection” covers a wide application of pathologies, whether moral, psychological, intellectual, or physical (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7-13; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; Revelation 21:27). As long as we are in this world, healthy societies will necessarily resort to censure and exclusion from time to time.

The second part of this chapter (verses 5-10) provides the rules for repentance and restoration that follow those of exclusion (verses 5-10). We observe that such repentance and restoration also involve an open, audible confession of the offense (verse 7), a confession explicit enough to determine the size of the restitution and nature of the sacrifice offered for its atonement. This confession is official, in the sense that it is received by the established priesthood. Even in the Old Testament, therefore, the priest served as a Father Confessor.

In both the Old Testament and the New, the priest represents the qahal, the ekklesia, God’s people in assembly. The priest, in both covenants, is the man designated to receive the repentance of the sinner on behalf of the Church.

Third, and perhaps most bewildering to the modern mind, there is a provision for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31). A certain affinity of symbolism may be the connecting line between the foregoing rules of restitution and these ensuing regulations for trial by ordeal.

Once again the nature of the alleged offense is made known to the priest (verse 15). Indeed, the ritual itself required the use of “holy water” (mayim qedoshim—verse 17), which was mixed with the very dust from the floor of the sanctuary. The sanctuary, as is clear, sanctified everything that it contained, including the dust.

In context, it seems, God Himself was thought to punish the woman who failed this test, evidently by the curse of barrenness (verses 27-28). There is no indication that she was stoned to death, the usual punishment for adultery proven in court (Leviticus 20:10).

There is a sense, I think, in which the present text lies at the very fringes of biblical religion. In the narrative parts of Holy Scripture, there is no evidence that the ritual prescribed here was much in use. It should probably be regarded as having no sustained significance in biblical theology. We are likely correct in lumping it with the early Christian practice of baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29).

Saturday, July 8

Numbers 6: This chapter, the second of two containing regulations pertinent to holiness, is made up of two parts of unequal length. The first part is a collection of laws pertaining to a special consecratory vow (verses 1-21), and the second contains a prayer of priestly blessing (verses 22-27).

This chapter’s consecratory vow created what Israel called a nazir, a person of either sex who was dedicated to the service of God in a special way for a specified length of time. The present chapter is the only place in the Torah where this consecration is mentioned.

The nazir was “consecrated to the Lord,” in the sense that he was set apart from the normal life of men, a separation that meant holiness (qadosh—verses 5,8) and was an illustration of Israel’s own consecration to the Lord as a special People set apart.

A characteristic of the nazir‘s discipline is that, like the priest in the time of his own service at the altar, he refrained from drinking fermented beverages and from handling dead bodies. That is to say, during the period covered by the vow, the nazir lived a life analogous to the priesthood (verses 34,6-7).

As a sign of his consecration, the nazir’s hair was not trimmed during the time covered by the vow (verse 5), a regulation that may have prompted some candidates, prior to the vow, to shave their heads (cf. Acts 21:24).

The priestly prayer of benediction that follows these rubrics is a general blessing, not related to the nazir (verses 22-27). So why does it appear at this place? It closes off a long section of the Torah, a collection of mainly legal material concerning the priesthood, extending from Leviticus 1 through the present chapter. The next chapter (Numbers 7:1) will return to the day when Moses set up the Tabernacle at the end of the Book of Exodus (40:17). Then, the movement of the story will continue for the next few chapters, proceeding from that date, and preparing for the first movement of the camp and the Tabernacle fifty days later (Numbers 10:11).

Thus, the priestly blessing prescribed in the present verses completes the ritual prescribed for the priesthood, much as the blessing itself seems to have served as a final blessing—both in Judaism and among some Christians—at the end of liturgical services (cf. Leviticus 9:22).

According to these verses, it is the duty of the priest to pronounce God’s benediction over God’s people. The work of the priest is to bless. When priests bless God’s people, God also blesses His people (verse 27).

The wording of the blessing itself is theologically rich. It is significant that the Torah, which strictly insists that no one can see God’s face and live, nonetheless asks that the light of the divine face should shine on His servants. At the end of every liturgical service the Old Testament, over the span of many centuries, it was the responsibility of the priest to beseech over Israel the light of God’s countenance.

This was, in fact, a prayer for the Incarnation, in which “the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts unto the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). This was the blessing that accompanied every sacrifice offered by the hands of the Aaronic priesthood.

Thus, the entire priestly ministry of the Old Testament—every oblation, every holocaust, every peace offering, every prayer, every hymn—was pointed to the light of the Incarnation, in which the divine glory is revealed in the face of Christ. Every time that benediction was pronounced over Israel, it was a pleading for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us, that we might see His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Sunday, July 9

Numbers 7: This chapter returns to the narrative sequence broken off at the end of the Book of Exodus. The reader finds himself at the scene of the dedication of the Tabernacle, described in Exodus 40:1-32. The Tabernacle, with its altar, has been consecrated by the outpouring of God’s presence and is ready to receive Israel’s first offerings.

One of the longest in Holy Scripture (89 verses), this chapter covers the offerings made on behalf of Israel’s “princes,” meaning the tribal leaders (nasi’im, the very word translated as “captains” in chapter 2). This word, an ancient and generic name for any leader of a tribal people, especially has reference to the kind of leadership exercised in the setting of the desert. Thus we find it used to designate the leaders of those who lived in the Negev Desert, such as the Midianites (Numbers 25; Joshua 13:21) and the Arabs (Genesis 17:20 [where the number is also twelve!]). The title corresponds rather exactly to the later Arabic sheik.

These nasi’im brought the first offerings to be sacrificed after the construction of the Tabernacle was completed (verse 1), and their number—twelve—shows that the nasi’im served as representatives of the respected tribes (verses 2-3). It is instructive that the theological (and now—since Moses—political) unity of God’s People does not destroy their tribal character. Indeed, the preservation of a “tribal” identity is in some sense eternal (cf. Revelation 5:9).

These tribal offerings, made over twelve consecutive days, began with the tribe of Judah (verse 12), which, as we have had occasion to remark, already enjoyed the primacy prophesied and promised by Jacob (Genesis 49:8-12).

The names of the nasi’im in this chapter correspond exactly to those in chapters 1 and 2. The order here, however, corresponds to the martial list in chapter 2 rather than the patriarchal ranking in chapter 1. Thus, Issachar follows Judah, and so on.

Once again, we observe in this chapter’s list the same care for numerical precision that we have seen all along in this book. We note especially its sustained recourse to the shekel, the standard unit of weight for metals (passim, but see especially verses 84-86).

Since the offering of every tribe was identical to the others, it is reasonable to inquire why the Sacred Text goes into such repeated detail when each offering is listed. Three ideas suggest themselves in this respect: First, this is an official record, much like the list of gifts recorded in the archives of a parish church; it required exactness. Second, this attention to detail is a way of emphasizing the integrity (and, apparently, equality, for all the gifts are equal) of every tribe.

Third, this detailed listing gives the reader the leisure to enjoy the procession as each unit, with considerable solemnity, presents itself. The literary style follows a liturgical and military manner, as it were, giving the reader the impression of being present at the event. The style resembles a military muster, in the course of which each unit leader says exactly the same words as the others (“All present or accounted for, sir!”). The author is obviously not in a hurry to get through this list, nor should the reader be.

Much the same sense of a liturgical procession is conveyed in the Book of Revelation, which contains a detailed accounting of the twelve tribes in the scene where they are all sealed on their foreheads. Exactly the same refrain appears for each of the tribes, so the effect is a kind of litany (Revelation 7:1-8). In both passages—Numbers and Revelation—there is the pronounced feeling of a liturgical procession.

The gifts of Israel’s tribal leaders are borne two-by-two on six wagons, each of which is drawn by two oxen (verse 3). Pairings of this sort are not surprising if we bear in mind, once again, the image of a liturgical procession, in which it has long been common to march two-by-two. Memory reverts to the animals walking by pairs into Noah’s Ark. One thinks also of the sending forth of the Apostles two-by-two.

Monday, July 10

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).

Following the treatment of the menorah come lengthy instructions for the consecration of the Levites (verses 5-22).

Tuesday, July 11
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. 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 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.

Especially, such a one must “bear his own sin”—nishsha’ ‘avon. He is no longer part of the covenant, in which is found the remission of sins. He is like Cain, who must wander the earth as a stranger. This teaching remains a point of principle throughout the Bible: Remission of sins is provided within the covenant community. One finds salvation by his incorporation into that covenant communion. Otherwise, he is really on his own and must bear his own sins.

Resident aliens were permitted to observe this and other liturgical feasts of Israel, since they were also obliged to observe Israel’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath, and Israel’s annual day of fasting, the Day of Atonement (verse 14).

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). These two verses evoke the imagery of Exodus 40:2,34-38, emphasizing God’s presence in Israel. The Hebrew verbs here are in the imperfect tense, denoting continued or repeated action. They convey the sense that the cloud/pillar presence became normal for Israel. Now, however, that image is associated with the Tabernacle, not the mountain. Indeed, God is soon to move His people away from the mountain.

Wednesday, July 12

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 assembly (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).

According to Josephus (3.12.6), the trumpets were less than a cubit in length—perhaps twenty inches. Crafted of beaten silver, they are not to be confused with the ram’s horn, or shophar.

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.

The regulations regarding the trumpets (verses 1-10) bring to a close the first major section of Numbers, covering the year that Israel encamped in the valley below Mount Sinai. The second part of this chapter (verses 11-28) begins the next large section of Numbers: the journey to Kadesh-barnea (10:11—12:16). This section covers two subjects: the departure from Sinai (verses 11-28) and a story concerning Moses’ in-laws (verses 29-36).

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.

The Chosen People move to Paran, to the north of Sinai, a desert region somewhat south of Kadesh. The cloud, we are told, settles at Paran (verse 2), but the journey to Paran is not described until the following two chapters.

The third part of this chapter (verses 29-32) tells of the Midianite in-laws of Moses. Since they were more familiar with the desert, Moses pleaded with them to remain in the company of Israel. From the reference in Judges 1:16, it appears that they acceded to Moses’ request.

With respect to this incident, we observe that Moses wanted to benefit from his in-laws’ greater familiarity with the geography of the region. This is significant: Since Israel, as we know, was to be guided by the fiery cloud, one might have concluded that recourse to human guidance through the desert would be superfluous. Indeed, even some of the Israelites may have thought so. In every age, after all, there have been those who regarded human knowledge and guidance with suspicion when divine knowledge and guidance were at hand.

It is instructive, therefore, to observe that Moses did not share that view. Even as Israel was to be led by the divine cloud, Moses did not disregard the merely human guidance derived of an advanced knowledge of geography. He did not regard recourse to such knowledge as a challenge to—or rival of—divine help.

Thursday, July 13

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.

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).

Once Moses’ problem is addressed, the Lord turns to the people’s problem (verses 18-23). They will eat fresh meat everyday for a whole month, until it starts come out of their noses (verses 19-20). They will begin to hate this diet! Moses can hardly believe his ears at this prediction (verses 21-22), but the Lord warns him, “You’ll see!” (verse 23)

The third section of this chapter (verses 24-30) describes the outpouring of the Spirit on the seventy appointed elders. The presence of the Spirit on these men is apparently discerned in their ecstatic behavior, designated here as “prophesying.” It is difficult to identify this behavior more accurately, nor does this matter form a concern for the author. It suffices to say that the Israelites were able to perceive in these men some quality that enabled them to speak for God. The qualifying phenomenon is described as temporary (verse 25), but the status of the chosen elders is permanent.

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.