Numbers 18

Responsibility.
That’s the word that comes to mind in Numbers 18. In fact, the word occurs more in Numbers than any other book of the Bible. Everyone in Israel is held responsible. They are responsible to God and one another for the way they act. Each person is responsible for the way others act. And the community is responsible for enforcing standards of conduct.
I heard of a private boarding school recently that adheres to a strict standard of responsibility. Students are paired by the administration – two to a dorm room. Unless one leaves school, that pairing lasts for the whole time they are in school. Whatever differences or disagreements they have, they must work them out. They are responsible to one another and for one another. If one makes a bad grade, they both make a bad grade. If one gets in trouble, the other gets in trouble. If one succeeds, they both succeed. This standard produces adults who learn to work with others, who learn to work as a team, and who learn to value others as they value themselves.
The Priests of Israel were responsible for the Tabernacle, it’s worship ordinances, and sacrifices. They were responsible for making sure no unauthorized person came into those precincts. They were responsible that Israel behave correctly, and failure reflected on them – with all its attendant punishments.
In applying this text, we must take care not to confine the application to the responsibility of church leaders. We are, as Christians, all called to be priests. We are responsible for one another. We are responsible to one another. And most of all, God holds us accountable for one another. The responsibility make us accountable to God and responsibility is a characteristic of the Christian faith.

Saturday, February 15. Numbers 31 – 34

It is difficult to know what is going on in chapter 32. On the surface, it would appear the Rubenites and the Gadites were rejecting the land promise of God in favor of what they considered land better suited to them. But we must be careful. While the land promise certainly focused on the land east of the Jordan from Zoar to Dan (Deuteronomy 34:1-4), the area we usually think about when we thing of Israel, the promise actually extended from the wadi of Egypt in the south and west, all the way to the Euphrates in the east. In the north, it extended from the Euphrates to Lebanon (see Joshua 1:4).

Though the promised land of Canaan was a land “flowing with milk and honey,” and though it was a present the Lord was giving Israel, The tribes and Reuben and Gad said: “No thanks.” After all, they weren’t farmers, but cattlemen. They asked if they might have land outside Canaan, east of the Jordan.

This didn’t mean that the land of promise was not suitable for flocks and herds. It only meant the Reubenites and Gadites were satisfied with where they were. Rather than take a chance the Lord’s blessings would be better, they were willing to settle for what they knew and what they could see. In addition, their requested land was already conquered and therein lay the real problem.

Moses saw their request for what it was: a deliberate attempt to go their own way, looking after themselves rather than being united with the community of the Lord. He rebuked them in such blunt language that the two tribes came back with an alternative proposal: they would enter the land and help to conquer it, but they didn’t want it for themselves.

The divisive spirit of Reuben and Gad was infectious. No sooner are their demands met than the half-tribe of Manasseh asks for a share of land outside Canaan too.

Today in the Church there are always those who want to go their own way rather than keep company with the community of Faith. They always have what seems to be good reasons – at least to them – but they are always divisive. Eventually, they end up like these tribes, cut off from the people of God and absorbed into the world. I’ve heard Christians say: “I’d rather not go to church than go to one I disagreed with.” Then, they do. And the next thing you know, they are not a part of the Church at all except in name and claim.

Thursday, February 13. Numbers 25 – 27

The previous three chapters of Numbers tells us of the attempt to destroy Israel by outward means. Perhaps the implication is that there is a bit of magic involved in that Balaam is supposed to influence God to turn on Israel. In any case, all that happens is that Israel is blessed.

Of course, Israel doesn’t know what is going on, just as she didn’t know what was going on with God and Moses at Sinai. Just as the giving of the law was followed by Israel’s idolatry, so the blessing of Israel by Balaam is followed by this event of idolatry and immorality.

Though Satan is unmentioned in chapter 25, his presence is obviously there. If Israel cannot be hurt through outside forces, Satan will use earthly ones against her. The Moabites invited the Israelites to join them in worship to Baal and a part of this worship involved sexual acts. Israel made herself giddy over this practice, which violated two of the ten commandments: not to commit adultery, and not to worship other Gods.

Moses was commanded to kill the leaders of Israel for these sins, but this was not so easily done and apparently Moses watered down the command to include only those guilty of the sin. Perhaps Moses’ disobedience brought on Israel the plague mentioned in verse 9.

In total disdain for the law of God, a son of one of Israel’s leaders brought in a woman in the sight of all and took her into a tent, intending to have sex with her. Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, put them to death mid-act.

This is an important story. Israel, as a nation, knew the sinful were among them. They knew God’s decree. But other than to bewail their circumstance, no one was willing to do anything. This is what made Phinehas’ actions so admirable.

The story makes clear that not everyone in Israel was guilty of idolatry and promiscuity, but because the guilty were so blatant and unrepentant in their sin, and because the innocent seemed unwilling to do anything about it, God held them all responsible.

The Church, as the People of God, will never be without sin. Part of our work however is to be aware of sin, aware of its presence among us, and active in helping and encouraging one another to live Holy lives. Sometimes, when there is recalcitrance, surgery must be performed and the sinful excised. The alternative is for the many to be held responsible for the sins of the few, and especially will this be true of the leaders of the People of God.

Wednesday, February 12. Numbers 22 – 24

The story of Balaam is one of the longest single accounts we have of a confrontation between Israel and her enemies. It is interesting for a several reasons.

First, there is Balaam. He lives five hundred miles away to the north near ancient Haran. How did they know about him? He has a reputation as a great wizard. Balaam knows, and has a relationship with, the God of Israel, whom he calls “the Lord my God.” Why is this guy? He’s an example of God working among and through a people other than Israel, but their stories are not told, because Israel is God’s chosen.

Second, there is no interaction between Balaam and Israel. Balaam is not a part of Israel’s experience and Israel would not have known this story had Moses not revealed it in this book. The whole event takes place “behind the scenes” where God is at work protecting His people.

Balak, king of the Moabites is determined to destroy Israel. He avails himself of a great wizard who is not only a powerful sorcerer, but who also has a relationship with the Lord. But all these efforts fail. Meanwhile, Israel is being destroyed by her relationship with the common people of Moab. The message, for them and us, seems plain. All the power of God is not enough to prevent us from evil if we decide to give ourselves over to it. Our attachment to the things of this world, our own desires, and the influences of worldly people can destroy us. The only way to security is to intentionally rid ourselves of worldly influences and hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Friday, February 7. Numbers 5 – 7

Why would anyone want to be a Nazirite (Numbers 6)?

Though this special vow could be undertaken by men or women, there is no place in the Bible where such a vow is commanded.

And it was, quite frankly, a burden.

In the first place, it was restrictive. The priests were not allowed to drink wine before going on duty in the tabernacle, but Nazirites were to have nothing to do with wine or grapes or anything associated with wine-making for the entire period of their commitment. In the second place, it was separative. The long hair (or, baldness after the vow) made a distinction between them and their brethren. The inability to “weep with those who weep,” or have anything to do with a dead body or even be around one made the Nazirites distinctive among a people where community was prized (even by God). In the third place, it was grueling. Because this was a vow, and because any vow was special to the Lord and had to be performed, once made, there was no way out. If you messed up, it wasn’t like not keeping a New Year’s resolution; you had to start all over from scratch until the vow was fulfilled.

Finally, the vow was expensive. Fail at completing the vow and the offering required a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a guilt offering – and you had to start all over. If you completed the vow, you offered the same offerings as were made when the High Priest was consecrated. This is not a vow to be entered into lightly.

So why do it?

The Bible is not plain. There are other vows in the Bible, but this one was special. It bound a person to God in a special way for a period of time (no one was able to keep it as a life-long commitment).

The Nazirite vow regulations are found only in Numbers 6 and come at the end of the section dealing with the lives of the priests. Perhaps the Nazarite vow was a way to become “like” a priest, even if you weren’t a part of the priestly family. After all, God called Israel to be a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). Here was an opportunity for everyone to participate – if not in the ritual, then in the life.

And why participate? To understand what it truly meant to be “holy to the Lord.” Vows in the ancient world were primarily made in order to get the gods to do something for the supplicant. But there is no evidence that the Nazirite vow was made for that reason. It was wholly about holiness.

Friday, March 1. Numbers 36 – Deuteronomy 2

The book of Numbers ends with another look at Zelophahad’s daughters, which seems like an odd way to end this book.

On the other hand, remember that the real name for the book of Numbers is “In the Desert.” Yet, from 33:50 to the end of the book, The Lord (through Moses) isn’t talking about the desert. He is talking about entering the Promised Land. The promise of God and the expectation of this book is that now, Israel will enter Canaan (see the repeat of this assurance in 33:51; 34:2; and 35:10). The final laws given in Numbers all have to do with the apportionment of the land and their behavior in the land. The story of Zelophahad’s daughters (first addressed in Numbers 27) speak once again to that assurance.

The land is to be divided up into sections of different sizes. The tribes of Israel were to receive their allotment of land according to their size, but also “by lot,” that is, there was a bit of chance in what land they would actually receive.

Why the “game of chance”? The “drawing” would not be dependent on “chance,” but the divine guidance of God (not your role of the dice, but God’s guidance of the dice). That way, no one in Israel should complain about the amount or quality of land they received. It was a gift from God. Additionally, the gift was forever. The land could not be sold forever. The “year of jubilee” too care of that. Nor could the land pass from one tribe to another through marriage. This way, the gifts and promises of God could be seen as eternal.

The book ends with the expectation that Israel will cross the Jordan and receive the land. But before they do, Moses has some things to say and for those things, we now turn to Deuteronomy.

Thursday, February 28, Numbers 33 – 35

It’s difficult to make much of the wilderness travel narrative in Numbers 33 without a map. But even a map is only moderately helpful since most of the sites mentioned are unknown to us today (you can find this map online at (http://www.bible-history.com/maps/route_exodus.html).

The long list of forty-two places can be divided into three parts.

Verses 3-18 list cities covered in the account of Exodus 12 – Numbers 12.  The places in verses 18 – 36 are not mentioned anywhere else in Moses’ account except perhaps Deuteronomy 10:6-7 where verses 31-33 are echoed.  The third part of the list parallels the material in Numbers 20-22.

Why do we have this list when no one knows where most of these places were?  Because at one point, people did know where these places were.  The account of the Exodus is a true account because an ancient source was meticulous in writing down (note verse 2) the itinerary.  Bible writers expected their accounts would be questioned, that’s why they did not write in generalities of historical events, but rather, recorded them in excruciating detail.

Wednesday, February 27, Numbers 30 – 32

The elimination of the Midianites causes us a little confusion.

Numbers 31 says that it was the “Midianites” who enticed Israel into immorality at Peor. But Numbers 25 says it was “Moabite” women. To add to the confusion, Midian was a son of Abraham and Keturah, but the Old Testament also refers to “Midianites” as descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. Moses’ father-in-law lived in Midian and was a Midianite priest, but he is called a “Kenite.”

Confused yet?

It’s probably best to identify the Midianites as a subset of a variety of peoples, perhaps distinguished from others by some facet (unknown to us) of their lives (dress, morality, religion, government or perhaps a combination of these). In any case, they were an identifiable people to the Israelites.

The Midianites were not exterminated. They do live on in Old Testament history (oppressing Israel during the time of the Judges – see Judges 7-8).

Christians usually have a tough time with the story of Numbers 25. But we ought to remember that the Midianites attempted to turn God against His own people by leading them into sin God found abominable. It was an attempt to use God’s own law against God Himself and it did result in the death of thousands of Israelites. The punishment of the Midianites should remind us of the seriousness of sin, and particularly life-threatening hazard of trying to “play” God.

Tuesday, February 26, Numbers 27 – 29

Chapter twenty-seven reveals at least two things about the laws of the Old Testament.

First, those laws are often at variance with the cultures around Israel. It is true that the laws of the Old Testament many times mirror neighboring cultures, but that should not lead us to the notion that Israel took those laws from those cultures, appropriated them for themselves, and said they got them from God. This view will not allow for the great differences between Israelite law and that of other ancient societies.

In Mesopotamian law, daughters did not inherit property from their fathers; only sons inherited. This was also generally true in Israel. Zelophehad, however, a descendant of Joseph, had no sons. This meant that the daughters would receive no inheritance in the “promised land.” This, they believed, was unjust. Why should their father’s family lose the promise of God just because he did not father sons?

It was unfair, and God agreed, making this part of inheritance law different from other cultures.

That brings us to the second point: how laws appeared in the Old Testament. Though laws were handed down from God to Moses at Sinai, these laws would not address every issue that would arise. Cases, like that of Zelophad’s daughters, would arise and require amendments to existing laws, and development of additional laws. In no case should the specific law of God be overturned, but new laws based on old ones could be formed.

The Bible does not address every issue. It does, however, contain enough of the thinking of God that if we give it our attention, and make the will of God the will of our heart, we will begin to think like God and know how to address matters God didn’t specifically address.

Was this story just about being fair to the girls?

I don’t think so. In fact, the girls do not ask for this judgment for their own benefit. It is simply about the promise of God. Should a person lose his divinely promised inheritance through no fault of his own? “No,” is the answer. The promises of God are sure, and you can depend on them.

Monday, February 25, Numbers 24 – 26

The oracles of Balaam are an important part of the Balaam story. It is not that they are simply blessings on Israel, but rather that they offer insight to Israel’s relationship with God as well as her future.

In the first two pronouncements, Israel is presented as the admirable people of God’s preference. Though Balaam is not an Israelite, he would like to be one and he wishes his future – even his death – could be like theirs (23:10). Once God has made up His mind about something (in this case, the election of Israel), that mind cannot be changed. Because God has shown preference for Israel, no people, power or god can stand against this God’s chosen ones (23:23-24). God’s blessing radiates from them so powerfully that those not of Israel will be blessed simply because they showed Israel favor (24:9).

I think it is important to notice the great partiality God has for His people. The Moabites were not God’s people. Neither were the people of Amalek or Assur or Eber. Israel was His people, and he preferred them above all others. That great preference has not diminished in the mind of God. The oracles of Balaam underscore for Christians today how important they are above all other people.

And why are we important?

Because we are so very numerous?

Because we are so very powerful and well connected?
Because we live such holy lives?

No, no, no to them all. It is for only one reason. He prefers us because we, through Jesus, belong to Him.

Verse 17 of chapter twenty-four foresees the coming of a king from Israel. It is a distant vision. Balaam says: “I see him but not now; I behold him but not near.” Who is this king? Perhaps the writer is speaking of David. Perhaps he is speaking of Christ. Israel, of course, would not, at this time, understand either interpretation but it would lead her to hopeful expectation of a super king whose ascension would usher in the fulfillment of the promises of God’s preference. Balaam describes the king as a rising star. The coming great king is a theme that will be repeated in the Old Testament and find fulfillment in Jesus whose star appeared in the east (Matthew 2:2) and who is himself, after all, the “bright and morning star” (Revelation 22:16).