Gleanings from the Bible: Numbers

Numbers deals with the organisation of a fledgling nation and its move towards the Promised Land.

A question for some people concerns the extraordinary size of the numbers quoted, given the small populations of the day. Various explanations have been given suggesting that the word for “thousand” has been mistranslated (in this context) or that the figures are related to astronomy, and that Israel’s population is associated with the heavenly hosts. The latter theory would divide the large numbers by 100 and is quite an attractive proposition, though none of these theories quite explain everything. I don’t think this glitch undermines the authority of Scripture however. It really just points to the fact that our knowledge in translation and interpretation hasn’t turned up a definitive answer yet. Theologically it doesn’t make much difference.

The Nazirites (Chapter 6)

The Nazirites, by their unusual physical appearance and practices, were a symbolic reminder to other Israelites that they were an unusual chosen people, set aside for God’s purposes. Samson and John the Baptist would later become the most famous of these.

It occurs to me that, especially in Evangelical circles, we can overlook the significance and usefulness of symbols and visual reminders out of a fear that they may become objects of worship or spiritual dependence. I remember someone once saying that they thought graveyards were a good thing because they reminded people of their mortality. I have sometimes wondered what impact it might have on a community if all the Christians within it identified themselves with a cross or badge of some sort. It would show that there are more Christians around than people sometimes realise and I reckon that it would generate quite a number of useful conversations. It’s rather like going into a store and seeking out someone in the store’s uniform when you need help. Why not identify yourself and be available, especially if you are a church leader?

The Spirit (Chapter 11)

God’s Spirit seems to have been given either on special occasions or to specially chosen people. Moses’ desire: “I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them” (11:29) is fulfilled (the latter part anyway) through the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

The Nature of God and Punishment of the Children.

I will write something about God’s treatment of the inhabitants of Canaan, when I deal with Deuteronomy. But here I note in 14:17-18 that Moses declares, “The LORD is slow to anger , abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…”. A balanced view, best borne in mind for a balanced understanding of the Old Testament! A more difficult addition immediately follows as a repeat of Exodus 20:5 : “…he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” It appears to contradict a command in Deuteronomy 24:16, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents…” I understand it to mean that the natural results of the sins of parents tend to perpetuate in following generations, who in those days were usually all living under the same roof at the same time. Parents who turn their back on God find that their children often follow suit and bring down the results of sin upon themselves. This can be seen in the period of the Kings of Israel, but in that same period we can see that some broke the mould and turned back to Yahweh. God responds positively to that! Notice too that Exodus 20:5-6 reserves judgement for three to four generations, but promises blessings to those who love God “to a thousand generations.”

The Bronze Snake 21:4-9

This incident is short but especially significant in that Jesus used it as a picture of the healing that he was to bring through his death on the cross (John 3:14-15). Looking at the snake was a response of faith but unfortunately this symbol became an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4). “Ha, you see! The danger of symbols!” you may be thinking. But then you can misuse just about anything, can’t you? (Take Gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament for example). It shouldn’t stop you using symbols in a useful way.

Balaam, the Donkey and the Blessing. 22-24

I sizeable chunk of text is given over to the story of Balaam. We remember the talking donkey part. I have no trouble believing that an almighty God could cause an animal to speak, though I would guess that some people would want to believe that this was Balaam’s mind being opened up out of shame for the way he had treated a faithful beast. In any event the important part of this account is the prophecy or blessing that Balaam is compelled to pronounce in spite of the pressure to curse Israel. The blessing reaffirms the status of Israel in God’s sight and their part in the Covenant promises given to Abraham. It even anticipates the monarchy (24:17-19)

In Conclusion

The book of Numbers is a catalogue of complaints by Israel and judgements against her. It wasn’t just that they were hungry or thirsty or afraid. It is because, having been set free and provided with ample evidence of the presence and power of Yahweh to provide for them, they wanted to go back to Egypt. They wanted to give it all away – the Covenant, the Promises, the future, everything! It serves as a stern warning to the Christian communities of the New Testament and the present day – Do not be like Israel was in the wilderness! (Hebrews 3:7-11, quoting Psalm 95).

The prize would be the Promised Land — eventually a place of completeness and rest.

“Rest” is one of the great Bible themes, linked to Sabbath. A generation of Israel would miss out on it because of unbelief. For Christians there is a “rest” in Christ which finds its fulfilment on the Last Day. Like the readers of Hebrews and Revelation, we are exhorted to hang in there. To continue in the Faith until the end.

Gleanings from the Bible: Leviticus

Leviticus isn’t a book that most people rush to read first. I have rarely heard it preached because I think many people believe it to be irrelevant. So I came to it again expecting to have a struggle concentrating. In fact, on the contrary I found it quite fascinating and enlightening.

For a start, its main theme is holiness, which isn’t a popular subject these days but is most certainly a great challenge – one to sort out the men from the boys and the women from the girls! Much of it has ritual and symbolic value which was to constantly remind Israel, in every part of their daily lives, of God’s holiness and their holiness as a nation. It was particularly concerned with worship, the way in which Israel could relate to God through the Levitical priesthood.

Here, holiness embraces various related concepts. God is holy because he is righteous, pure, just separate from and above the “gods” of the other nations, and so on. Israel is holy because she has been chosen by God as his own people for the special purpose of witnessing to the world about him and being a blessing to others (11:44-45). Holiness is reflected in what might be termed normal and by “normal” I mean, “as God intended things to be”. Thus everything associated with worship had to be as perfect as possible, whether the sacrifices or the priests who carried them out. In the text it gives rise to the expressions “clean” and “unclean”.   This “separating out” of a holy people, Israel, and the selection of whole and perfect things becomes an expression of God’s Kingdom, and it is ratified through the Covenant (with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then at Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments).

So the Law is instituted to keep this special relationship in focus by ritual and by behaviour – by ceremonial and by moral law.

Despite its unpopularity  I have come across references to Leviticus more recently in the debates by atheists and with relation to homosexuality. The first lampoon the book because of its draconian punishments and incomprehensible instructions (in the sense that they find it hard to discover the reasoning behind many of them). With regard to the expressions of homosexuality, Levitical proof texts have been used by those both for and against its normalisation.

Draconian laws?

I have mentioned this topic already. Israel is at a fragile time in her formation and there is a great deal at stake. She is surrounded by nations whose religious practices were absolutely abhorrent. They were hard times and the discipline reflected that.

I am reminded of an occasion in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 19) where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not the way from the beginning.” Jesus gets to the purpose of the law and promotes the next step.

Incomprehensible laws?

It takes some reading to understand the relevance of some of the laws, even as they applied back then. This is where it’s important to distinguish between those that had ceremonial or ritual significance and those that affected God and human relationships. The fact that they are often written up side by side shouldn’t make the distinction too difficult. For example chapter 19 gives a list of various laws. Respecting father and mother relates to stable families. Do not steal, lie and deceive establishes a stable society, as do respecting the disabled and elderly, loving one’s neighbour and practising justice and honesty. “Do not wear clothing of two kinds of material” obviously has to do with a symbolic expression of purity, to remind the wearer that he or she is set aside for one God – Yahweh! Australia has State of Origin rugby matches between Queensland (maroon) and New South Wales (blue). The supporters show who they belong to by wearing the colours of one or the other – but not both!

Laws against homosexuality?

There is no doubt that chapter 18:22 states, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” One argument goes that this is not relevant because other laws such as the clothes woven of two types of material are no longer directly binding, and they all come as a package – take it or leave it. But it should be noted that the law about homosexuality is part of a chapter that also deals with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice and, as I have already mentioned, I believe that we can discriminate between a ritual and a moral law.

On the other hand it is not quite the knockdown argument against all homosexuality that some Christians claim it to be. In the first instance it addresses homosexual practice, not the condition of being homosexual. But also many argue that what is on view here is homosexual excess, temple prostitution and the like, especially with reference to 18:24 where the debased practices of the nations are on view.

There are other arguments associated with these verses and indeed other verses in the Bible which deal with this extensive subject and there is not space to deal with them properly here.

What’s Good about Leviticus?      

Where do you start? Chapter 19 (already mentioned) is full of good and relevant commandments. But here’s another: “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner”

“Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” (24:17-22 – it included the foreigner) sounds as if it’s advocating revenge but actually, for that time, limited it, in a world where vengeance usually escalated out of control. However Jesus would later refine it further.

Allowing the land to rest (25) was to ensure that soil could regenerate and/or as reminder of the Sabbath principle, while the Year of Jubilee meant that families would not be permanently dispossessed.

In summary

It has been said that the direct relevance of Old Testament laws for Christians is determined by whether they are reaffirmed in the New Testament.  However the principles behind the ritual laws do still apply. Christians are still called to be a holy people in the sense that we are to live for God’s Kingdom and reflect the moral character of God in what we say and do. These are not a once-on-Sunday phenomenon but everyday expressions in the way we live and relate to God and to others.

Gleanings from the Bible: Exodus

The greatest leaders in the Bible were those who were chosen by God and  they were often reluctant starters. They contrast with those, past and present, who trample on the bodies of others in their scramble to the top.

Moses takes a lot of persuading to confront the Pharaoh and lead the Hebrew slaves to freedom. “Slow of speech and tongue,” by his own confession, he’s not slow with excuses! And yet he emerges as a nation-maker in God’s hands and it is said of him that Yahweh (the LORD) would “speak to him face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11). No bypassing the conscious mind required there!

It is stories like that which prompted me to state last year, at an Anglican high school prize-giving evening,  that you cannot always be what you want to be, but you can be anything that God wants you to be. It seems to be abundantly true in my own experience of life as well!

I notice that through Exodus the Covenant promises to Abraham are still on show (2:24, 3:15, 6:8, 19:5 and so on). The book another step in the continued outworking (particularly with the Law given at Sinai) of those promises and the establishment of Israel asa she was to relate to Yahweh and the world.

The book also begins to touch on things that we may find difficult to stomach in our relatively stable and peaceful Western culture:-

1 The death of the firstborn at the Passover, the final Plague, can only be understood in the light of the continued stubbornness and arrogance of the Pharaoh, standing in the way of God. The Plagues assert that Yahweh is greater than any Egyptian god but the Pharaoh fails to be convinced. Yes, I know that it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but (briefly) this can be seen as part of a recurring theme, where human responsibility meets God’s firming of people’s choices, turning their evil intent to his own will and purposes. God is ultimately in control as he weaves his pattern from circumscribed human free will.

2 Sacrifice was common amongst the nations of those days but in Israel’s case it was not a matter of God needing human praise but rather a provision by which people could be alleviated of the guilt of their sins. It was a constant reminder that Yahweh was not to be manipulated or devalued in any way. God would always be God, but Israel needed to know that God is great for her own spiritual health and because it was only when they acknowledged that fact in word and deed (by giving of the best and consecrating the firstborn) that they could take their proper place in the world as an example and instrument of salvation for the whole world. When sacrifice is understood along with the idea of redemption (13:11-13) we begin to see the significance of Christ’s, the “firstborn’s,” death and the talk of redemption in the New Testament.

3 An appreciation of the enormity of the plan for Israel and for the salvation of the World may also help us to somewhat understand the severity of the penalties for stepping out of line. The laws were given to Moses at a time when Israel’s future was precarious. We see a lot of people living day to day in the wilderness, having left the secure (if enslaved) existence in Egypt, led by God, whom they could not clearly see, but mediated through Moses, threatened by enemies and scrounging for food and water. It was a recipe for rebellion and it jeopardised the whole future of Israel and the reason for her existence. Any deviation at this stage had to be dealt with decisively, and it was! If the death penalty seems severe then bear in mind that there were no prisons in the wilderness. Harsh measures for harsh times! Notice, too, that this was not a dictatorship imposed on Israel against her will. Exodus 24:7 shows that Israel clearly agreed to the terms of the Covenant.

Further observations in Exodus include instructions for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, which would in turn provide a blueprint for the Temple. The intermediary role of the priesthood is also outlined and each of these provide a rich background against which the reader can appreciate the New Testament references to Christ as both High Priest and Temple.

Gleanings from the Bible: Genesis 37-50

Joseph is one of those people who makes a bad start but matures into someone profoundly godly and wise.

Telling your parents and brothers that they are all going to bow to you one day is not the way to get your family onside, even if it is revealed in a dream given by God. And yet we can see that even this indiscretion and Jacob’s poor parenting (rather obviously singling out Joseph as his favourite) set in motion events which will bring about the purposes of God and preserve the future of Israel. It’s a lesson that our failures are not necessarily fatal when they are handed over to God. God can bring great good out of them, even though we must bear responsibility for what we do. It’s a lesson that is repeated through Scripture. We have seen it with Jacob and we see it again with David and Bathsheba, amongst others.

The deviousness of Jacob and his mother Rachel seem to have rubbed off on his children who, jealous of Joseph, sell him into slavery and fool their father into thinking that his son is dead (Jacob’s sins revisiting him!).

Joseph however goes against the family grain. He is morally upright and flees the advances of Potiphar’s wife (another lesson too frequently overlooked these days?). He is aware that God is with him, even when imprisoned and apparently forgotten (39:20-23). He firmly gives God the credit for the insights and interpretations he brings to the Pharaoh (40:8, 41:16).

As a result, Joseph is elevated to a position where his wisdom is used to deliver Egypt and the surrounding countries from the worst effects of a seven-year drought. This includes, of course, his own family. Through years of hardship, when it would have been so hard to see the hand of God at work, he was in fact working out a plan to bring Israel (Jacob) and his children to the comparative safety of Egypt, where they could grow into the nation, promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (45:5-8, 50:19). As we know in hindsight, this was just one step in an even greater plan for the world! (49:10)

Joseph stands then as a shining example of one who learns humility, who exercises grace and forgiveness and who recognises the hand of God in his life for the future of the Hebrews (The Children of Israel). But in the end it is God, working through the frailties and circumstances of human existence, who is the hero!

[A note about dreams:  They figure at intervals through Scripture as a way in which God reveals things to people. It would seem that most of the time dreams involve the subconscious putting together stories from fragments of experience.

I speculate here, but it occurs to me that God sometimes uses our subconscious to get through to us because our conscious mind is too actively engaged with everything that is going on. It is when we are quiet, or even asleep that we have a chance to “hear” God more clearly.

I hesitate to suggest that we experience God by perfecting some technique, but perhaps we do need to discipline ourselves to turn off the distractions, read God’s Scriptures written for our benefit, meditate on them and pray for insight. As we converse in this way we may find ourselves drawing closer to the One who is Spirit. At one level this is nothing new. It’s what Christians have proposed and done through the ages, but it’s an aspect of prayer that is surprisingly often neglected. We may complain that we don’t experience God, but perhaps we become so physically distracted (and so lacking in the expectation that God will speak to us) that we fail to be attuned to the Spirit and our Christian experience becomes mechanical and sterile.]

Gleanings from the Bible: Genesis 24-36

If ever you wanted confirmation that God can use anyone for his purposes then the stories of Isaac and Jacob should suffice.

Isaac seems bland compared to Abraham. He repeats his father’s failure in passing his own wife off as his sister but otherwise there is very little to report. Rebekah is something of a schemer and it obviously rubs off on Jacob, famous for his wiliness and deception. Mind you, you don’t get the impression that it would take much to fool his father Isaac and brother Esau.

It reminds me of an offer I received by post to buy the shares that had been given to me by the NRMA motoring organisation for loyal membership. The offer went something like this: “Your shares are worth $5.50 each and we are offering you $4 per share if you will sell them now.” I don’t have to spell out my response do I?  Now just consider Jacob’s offer to Esau: “Our father’s blessing to you, as the elder, is for you to be a part of God’s blessing to the whole world — but I will offer you a bowl of soup for it.” And Esau thinks it’s a good deal! What’s more, when Jacob comes to claim the blessing by pretending to be Esau, their father, Isaac, blind though he is, can’t tell them apart!

Afterwards, when Jacob runs away to his Uncle Laban’s he finds that conniving and deception run in the family. It’s just that Jacob turns out to be better at it.

And yet, in it all, God is working out his purposes. The affirmation of his Covenant promises are woven throughout the narrative and Jacob, who has recognised their value, seems to be brought to the end of himself in a wrestling match, as he calls on God to bless him.

Esau is blessed and his family line in mentioned, but it is Jacob who becomes know as Israel and his children are, well, the Children of Israel.

You see, we don’t have to be perfect, but recognising the value of God’s blessings towards us makes all the difference!

 

Gleanings From the Bible: Genesis 12-25

The story of Abraham marks a turning point in Genesis. Chapters 1-11 have introduced us to a scattered world, badly in need of help. God’s dealings with Abraham are the beginning of the answer to that need. We may also notice the shift from the broad brushstrokes of pre-history to a more detailed story of the unfolding of the history of Israel.

Abraham’s journey starts in 11:27 with his father Terah taking the family from Ur, aiming to reach Canaan, but settling for Harran. You can’t help wondering if he should have continued, but it is left to Abraham (or Abram as he was know then) to complete the trip, motivated by a word from God.

I don’t know how that word came to him, but it seems clear that the writer intends that we understand it as more than simply a feeling of being called by God. Here we have an extremely important specific set of promises which we recognise as a Covenant. Perhaps the closest we get to this these days is in a marriage service where (supposedly) binding promises are made, with consequences when they are broken. Unlike the marriage covenant, God’s covenant with Abram was more along the lines of a Suzerainty  Treaty where the powerful ruler sets out the promises and the conditions. So what were they?

1 I will make you a great nation
2 I will bless you
3 I will make your name great
4 You will be a blessing
5 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you
6 All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you

The condition or command was to leave Harran and go to Canaan, living a nomadic life.

In the following chapters God adds the Land of Canaan to the list of promises, which is why, unsurprisingly, it becomes known as The Promised Land, or simply, The Land. So the seventh promise is…

7 The Promised Land

These promises would be reinforced over and over for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, notably in the ancient Covenant Cutting ceremony of Genesis 15.

Promises 1, 2, 4 and 6 particularly find fulfilment in the people of God of every age, where the ‘great nation’ is the people of God’s Kingdom, who are blessed by God in order to transmit the blessing of Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ, to the world. They stand as an assurance and a challenge!

THE STRENGTHS OF ABRAM and THE PROBLEM OF SACRIFICE

Abram’s first great strong-point is that he is obedient!

He goes to the Land and carries out God’s instructions, even to the extent of being willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac (born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age). To the present-day reader this may seem unspeakably barbaric (as many do when they think of God sacrificing his Son, Jesus, on the cross, for which this story has a number of parallels) but a few things have to be taken into account…

One: In the first instance God did not intend that Abraham should carry out the task. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says that when Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, he reasoned that God could even raise the dead (Heb 11:19). In the second instance God intended that Jesus should indeed rise from the dead.
Two: Both were willing victims.
Three: The Hebrew Scriptures make it clear that child sacrifice was abhorrent to God, emphasising that this was an extreme test of utmost obedience. In the case of Christ’s sacrifice the New Testament letter of Hebrews (7:27) tells us that Christ offered himself as sacrifice. The idea of God sacrificing his Son can only be really understood in the rather complicated context of the nature of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together as one – so much different from our human notion of one person sacrificing another!

Abram’s second great strong-point is his faith.

It gives me some hope to notice that this towering man of faith, alongside Sarah (also commended by the writer of Hebrews for her faith) were both quite fallible human beings and that the writer doesn’t try to whitewash the fact!

  • These heroes have their doubts about the promises and need reassuring on several occasions.
  • Abram practices polygamy which, while not explicitly condemned in that setting at that time, is too often fraught with problems throughout the Hebrew writings.
  • Abram doesn’t seem to be trusting God when he tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, to save his own skin.

Overall they still believed that God would fulfill the seven promises. It’s just that they seemed to think that he needed a hand at times!

So flawed characters can still be used in the purposes of God to achieve great things. A fact reinforced in the tales of Isaac and Jacob which are next.

 

Gleanings From the Bible: Genesis 3-11

Whether you believe in in a literal talking snake, a tree that conveys a sense of guilt and another that allows you to live for ever, the point of the story of The Fall is to confirm that humankind at some early stage stepped out from under God’s rule and deliberately and knowingly decided to go its own way. The Hebrew writer is less concerned about whether God could see it coming, how the “snake” got to be evil in the first place, and why God allowed it all to happen, than he is to graphically illustrate what is wrong with the world.

Of course we can philosophise about such questions, which is fine, as long as we don’t lose sight of the proposition that when we step away from our intended purpose and place under God, things rapidly fall apart.

For Adam and Eve it involved guilt and fear (3:7-10), blame (3:12-13), alienation from the Creator (3:10), pain (3:16), damage to the environment (3:18) and loss of Eternal Life (3:24, which I take to mean the rich quality of life lived in harmony with God which goes on for ever.) We don’t have to look far to see that this has been the human condition for every age and race ever since.

The clue that God would do something about it is found in the last part of 3:15 as God addresses the snake. An offspring of a woman would crush its head, which we take in retrospect to be a reference to what Jesus Christ achieved in his death and resurrection.

What follows chapter three is the spread of evil.

I recently played the rather addictive video game, Candy Crush. Yes, trivial I know but it’s light entertainment rather like completing a puzzle, but more colourful. At one level there are squares occupied by chocolate. Each time you fail to eliminate a chocolate square, it increases its occupation by one square. The result can be that the whole screen becomes gradually and insidiously occupied by chocolate, swallowing up all hope of completing the level and moving on to the next. You have to start the level again. Now I like chocolate, but not in this game!

As I read the chapters up to the flood, that’s what it seems like, only absolutely miserable and deadly. Cain and Abel, the vengeful Lamech, and the statement of 6:5 “…and every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time”  lay out the insidious occupation of evil over the minds of humankind.

Even then God has not entirely abandoned people. Enoch is a brief bright spot (5:21-24) and the genealogies placed through the chapters serve to show that God blesses humanity with children. But it is not without The Flood.

Once again we could argue about whether this terrible story is to be taken as a literal world-wide flood, or a more local devastation (hyperbole – exaggeration is not unknown either in the Bible or in everyday speech, there are millions of examples!). The point is that evil could not be allowed to prevail or there would be no hope for a humanity finding its way back to its intended relationship to God the Creator.

That last point cannot be over-emphasised, but is often lost in the cutesy renderings of Noah’s Ark with giraffes heads sticking out of windows in the roof. It is an horrific disaster laying out the fatal and pervading results of evil, and yet holding out the mercy of  God for those who avail themselves of the way of escape.

In that story the future of God’s Kingdom for humanity was enclosed and preserved in that floating space and the Covenant of Creation (the conditions laid down by God for the first people) was refreshed and renewed with Noah, and signed off with a rainbow.

Again the genealogies show the blessings of God, in the subsequent multiplication of people, but have they changed? No, they have not! The Knowledge of Good and Evil was carried in the Ark by the eight people who are said to have repopulated the earth, leading us to the Tower of Babel (Chapter 11).

I often wondered, even in my more Fundamentalist days, whether this story might have been a representation of the loss of something like a telepathic ability to communicate, the remnants of which are said to exist amongst some indigenous people. It’s a speculation that has some problems in trying to marry it to this story. The underlying message, however, seems similar to Genesis 3. When people disobey God (here, by failing to fill the earth and stopping in one place) then the result is scattering and disunity.

Chapters 1-11 of Genesis outline pre-history. Despite the genealogies, it is hard to know the length of time involved, because we don’t know whether they are complete – that was not the purpose of their inclusion. The chapters do establish a warning and a foundation introducing us to the need of someone to save us, since humanity is obviously unable to save itself!

And that is where Abraham comes into the picture.