Friday, January 29, 2010

Deuteronomy 27-34: A Big Decrescendo before the Climax

So here we are, the Law has been reiterated, Moses is about to die, and the Israelites are about to go into the Promised Land under the direction of Joshua.  Everything builds up, and then there's this major let-down before the ending.

First of all, Moses tells the people that when they get to the Promised Land they are to go up to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim (which are conveniently right next to each other) and write down all the blessings of God on Gerazim and the curses of God on Ebal.  Then there's a list of all the curses - e.g. ";Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'"

In chapter 28 we read the blessings that will be written on Mount Gerazim, which are the blessings for obeying God.  It's pretty thorough.  Then to counter that, we read all the curses that will happen if the people do not obey God; it's the reverse of every one of the blessings, plus some more elaboration.

In chapters 29-30, Moses makes a covenant with Israel to obey God, and he tells them again what will happen to the people who disobey God - and then tells them that they are going to disobey God as a nation pretty soon, but that when they turn back to Him, He will restore them from all the curses they're going to bring on themselves.  He beseeches them to "choose life in order that [they] may live."

So here comes the let-down.  In chapter 31, God tells Moses that the people are totally going to turn away from Him and that He is going to be angry with them and bring all those curses He promised on them, and He tells Moses to teach the people a song as a witness to them.  He also has Moses write the words of the Law down at this point.

Chapter 32 is the song of Moses, which basically states the greatness of God and everything He did for His people Israel, and how they turned from Him and as a result, He removed His blessing from them, and how He avenges all of His enemies.  At the end of that, God tells Moses to go up to Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land before he dies, and reminds him that he's not going in because of his own stubbornness and disobedience.  Major bummer to be reminded of that right before you die, right?

So that's the low point.  In spite of all the hype, God totally knows that Israel is not going to remain faithful.  And Moses, being the smart cookie that he is, knows it too.  The good thing is, God promises redemption and restoration; He's not going to turn His back on Israel forever.

In chapter 33, Moses blesses Israel tribe by tribe.  Some of the tribes, like Levi and Joseph, get long blessings, and some of them, like Reuben and Dan, get really short two-liners.  But each blessing is personal to that particular tribe, and it reminds me of when Jacob blessed his sons one at a time before he died.

So then Moses climbs Mount Nebo and God shows him the land he promised to Abraham.  I have to think that this was a really incredible, beautiful sight to Moses.  Imagine pouring more than forty years of your life into a goal, and finally being able to see it, even if you can't touch it.

What's really weird is what happens next.  Moses dies up on the mountain, but it appears that God is the one who buries him - it just says "He buried him," and nobody else is mentioned as having gone up with Moses, and furthermore, it says that nobody knows where Moses' grave is.

A lot of people say that Joshua or somebody wrote this last part of Deuteronomy, but I don't really think so, because it's written as if it's been a long time since Moses died.  Listen to this:  "Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses."  Doesn't it seem like there would have been a lot of prophets between Moses and the writing of this epilogue?  I don't know, maybe Joshua wrote it when he was really old.

Anyway, remember how I thought Abraham and Aaron got good epigrams?  Moses' is the best.  Check this out:

"So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.  And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.  Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated.  So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end. [. . .]

"Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Etypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel."

Wow!  That is a lot to be said about somebody, especially by God - since God inspired the Bible, including these words here.  You know, Moses was kind of a screwy person sometimes.  He didn't want the job God called him to do, and he fought and kicked against it; he appears to have had marital problems, and he had a bad temper that led him to disobey God once or twice.  But you know, that stuff can be said about anybody.  Moses was a great man not because he was a man without fault, but because he was a man God used.  Face it, we all screw up.  We all have personal problems and family problems and whatever other kinds of problems, but that doesn't mean that God can't use us.  I guess what I've learned from the story of Moses is that when God decides to do something, He goes all the way.  Just go with it.  If God wants to use you for something, don't fight Him about it.  You may not think you're qualified - and you may be right - but I don't think God particular cares what we're qualified for.  Whatever holes we have in our resume, He is perfectly capable of filling.  If we are on God's side, then even a problematic human like you or me or Moses can do extraordinary things.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Deuteronomy 20-26: Laws You Probably Didn't Know About

In chapters 20-27, the oddly-organized explanation of laws continues.  Here is the overview:

  • 20:1-20 Laws about war
  • 21:1-9 What to do if you find a dead person and don't know who killed him
  • 21:10-17 Laws about wives
  • 21:18-21 What to do with a rebellious son
  • 21:22-23 Laws about hangings
  • 22:1-4 Laws about your neighbor's animals
  • 22:5-12 almost every verse has a different law that doesn't seem related to any of the others
  • 22:13-30 Laws about marriage relations and marital abuse
  • 23:1-8 Laws about who can't enter the assembly of the Lord
  • 23:9-14 Laws about cleanliness whe away at war
  • 23:15-125 every two verses is about something different
  • 24:1-5 Laws about marriage and divorce
  • 24:6-9 more one-liners
  • 24:10-22 Laws about treating poor people well
  • 25:1-3 Laws about court sentencing
  • 25:4-10 Laws about widows remarrying
  • 25:12-16 Laws about having fair weights
  • 25:17-19 Get rid of the Amalekites
  • 26:1-19 Laws about offering firstfruits
Reading these, I came across many very interesting laws that I didn't remember ever reading before.  Here are my favorites:

1.  The only people that the Hebrews were supposed to wipe out completely were the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (the people living in the promised land, because of their immorality).  Any other nation that they went to war against, they were first to offer them a peace treaty; if they didn't surrender and accept the terms, the people were to kill all the men (that is, the army) but none of the women, children, or animals.

2. When the people were besieging a city for a long time, they were not allowed to chop down trees to make siege weapons unless they knew for certain they weren't fruit trees.  I even love what it says here - "For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?"  Some people forget that God has more respect for nature than people do, being its creator and all.  He wants us to take care of it and treat it with respect.

3.  If somebody found a nest of clean birds (acceptable to eat), they could take the eggs or young birds but not the mother bird.  If I remember right, this is a law that exists today for falconers who are allowed to possess endangered birds.

4.  These aren't laws that surprised me, but I wanted to comment on them anyway.  There are three weird laws about mixing things - don't sow your field with two kinds of seed, don't plow with an ox and a donkey together, don't wear clothes made of two kinds of fabric, etc.  And those three are right together.  I am wondering if the purpose of these laws was to symbolize the separateness of Israel from the other nations, how they weren't supposed to mix in with the others but be holy (cut off or separate).

5.  If a slave runs away and enters a person's house, that person is not allowed to return the slave to his master; instead, the person is supposed to let him pick a house in town to live in and the person is not allowed to mistreat him.  I think this is really interesting.

6. When people entered a neighbor's field or vineyard, they could eat whatever they wanted in it, as long as they didn't try to carry any of the stuff back home with them.  This explains to me what Jesus and his disciples were doing in Matthew 12.

7.  When a person took out a loan from another person, they were to give them their cloak as collateral.  Here it says that if the guy taking the loan is poor, the guy he gets a loan from can't keep the cloak overnight - he has to return it to him so that he has something to keep him warm when he's sleeping.  Also, an employer has to give the day's wages to his poor employees before sunset instead of making him wait till the next day.

8.  This is great.  So if a man died and his wife had no children, the man's brother (or nearest of kin) had to marry the woman, and her firstborn son would take the name of the late husband so that he would have an inheritance.  Well, some brothers wouldn't want to do this.  If the brother refused to marry the widow, she was to go in front of the elders of the city and have them talk to him.  If he still won't do it, then in the sight of all the elders the woman was to take his sandal off and spit in his face, and then the whole country would refer to him as "the house of him whose sandal is removed."  This explains what happened in Ruth 4.  I was always told that giving your sandal to somebody was a symbol of an oath, but sandal-removing is never mentioned where the Law talks about oaths.  Instead, here it seems to be a sort of humiliation.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Deuteronomy 11-19: You'd Think These Laws Would Be Organized Better

I'm behind in my blogging again, so I'm going to lump several chapters together again.  Deuteronomy turns out to be really interesting.  The majority of the information has already been given in Exodus through Numbers, but there is stuff in here that I don't remember reading before (but then again, I don't even remember reading it from the last time I read Deuteronomy, so it could very well be in one of the other books and I just can't remember that far back).

Here's an overview of what goes on here:

  • 11:1-32 Rewards for obedience
  • 12:1-27 Instructions on where to offer sacrifices
  • 12:28-32 Don't follow the religion of the other nations
  • 13:1-18 Idolatry is punishable by death
  • 14:1-22 Clean and unclean animals
  • 14:23-29 Tithes
  • 15:1-19 Slavery and the Sabbatic Year
  • 15:20-23 Firstborn animals
  • 16:1-17 Holidays
  • 16:18-22 Appointing Judges
  • 17:1-7 Punishing idolatry again
  • 17:8-13 Difficult cases to be judged by Levites
  • 17:14-20 Laws for appointing a king
  • 18:1-8 Providing for the Levites
  • 18:9-14 Sorcery, spiritism, witchcraft, etc forbidden
  • 18:15-22 Prophets, true and false
  • 19:1-13 Cities of refuge; manslaughter versus murder
  • 19:14-21 False Witnesses
 As you can see, those are a lot of different topics, and it really kind of jumps around a lot.  There are a couple of one-sentence laws tucked in there too that I didn't list.  As something of an organization freak, this sort of drives me crazy, and I wonder if there's a reason for ordering it all like this, or if Moses is just speaking as he remembers something, or what.

So here are some things that I find interesting:

1.  Location of offering sacrifices.  Burnt offerings, it appears, could not be offered just anywhere; the people would have to go to a designated location.  Judging by the context, it seems that the purpose of this was to prevent people from using the pagan places of worship (and we'll find out why later on).  They were supposed to completely destroy every pagan altar and votive and object of worship so they wouldn't be tempted to start using those things.

2.  I think tithing, as it is described in the Bible, has been really misunderstood.  In chapter 14 it says that the tithe is a portion of a person's harvest, which that person is supposed to take to the designated place of worship and eat, or if they couldn't carry it all, they could exchange the crops for money or oxen or wine or anything they wanted and take that to the designated place of worship and eat it there.  Then every three years they were to take that tithe and give it to the Levites in their town for them to eat.  That sounds very different to me from the 10% of our income given to the church every month that I've heard about all my life.  I'm not saying it's bad to give money to the church - I think it's very important - I just don't think it's the same thing as a tithe.

3.  Slavery.  Slavery in ancient Israel, at least according to the Law, was really different from modern slavery like what we practiced before the abolition.  Slavery among Hebrews was a temporary state; ever seven years, the slaves were to be set free - and more than that, their owners were supposed to load them with money and livestock so they wouldn't have to start over with nothing.  Every time the Law mentions slaves and the poor and orphans and stuff like that, it says, "remember that you were slaves in Egypt."  I think maybe God let Israel be in slavery so long so that they would learn to have compassion on the poor once they became rich.  I don't know if it worked out that way, but that was the idea.

4.  God knew that Israel was going to want to have a king eventually, so He even made provisions for that.  He said the king wasn't supposed to accumulate wealth or possessions or wives or anything that would turn his heart away from God or make him think he was better than his countrymen.  Yeah, none of those rules were kept.  It also says that the king was supposed to have the Law written on a scroll to be kept next to him so he could read it every day his whole life - now if that rule had been followed, maybe the Hebrew monarchy would have turned out better than it did.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Deuteronomy 1-10: Let's Review

Hurray, we made it through another book!  Now we are in Deuteronomy, which means "second law."  It's called that not because there is a second law, but because this is the book where Moses gives the Israelites the Law for the second time.  So pretty much everything in this book will be stuff we've already heard before, and hopefully that reinforces it in our minds better.  And actually, this book repeats some parts of Israel's history more than once.

In chapter 1-4 Moses recounts what happened in Numbers - how the people left Mt. Sinai and came close to Canaan but chickened out from going in, and then had to wander around for 40 years.  Then in chapter 5, he backs up and tells them about the commands God gave him on Mt. Sinai, starting with the Ten Commandments, and reviews the incident with the golden calf and Moses' breaking the stone tablets and having to get new ones.

In the middle of that story, in chapters 6-9, he goes into a bunch of warnings and admonitions.  This is where the Shema, the most important commandment, is found: "Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."  Moses tells the people to keep God's words so close to them that they talk about them all the time, that they write them down and tie them to their door frames and even to their hands and foreheads - and later on they actually will literally do that.  He warns Israel against intermarrying with any of the foreign people because they would lead them away from God.  Now, as a clarification, a foreigner could join the Jews, be circumcised if he was a male, and become a sort of naturalized citizen, and then I think it was okay to intermarry (we'll see that later on).  But no Jew could marry a foreigner while they were still a worshiper of other gods and did not follow the Law.

Moses tells the Israelites not to be afraid of going into Canaan because God has promised to drive the people out before them, and if they just follow Him wholeheartedly, they will have a really good life.  Listen to these promises: "He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock . . .You shall be blessed above all peoples; there will be no male or female barren among you or among your cattle.  The LORD will remove from you all sickness; and He will not put on you any of the harmful diseases of Egypt which you have known."  Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.  But in order to get this deal they have to completely remove all temptation.  They have to destroy the altars to pagan gods and not even use the gold and silver the idols are made with.

Moses reminds the people of how God has provided for them over the last 40 years.  I think it's great that he makes a point of saying that for all these years, their clothes and shoes haven't even worn out.  That's something I would have wondered about.

Then Moses turns back to the story of the Ten Commandments, and about the golden calf and all of that.  And Moses' point here seems to be that God didn't choose Israel because they were a great nation or because they were a good nation - in fact, Moses says they've been rebellious for as long as he's known them, and that's certainly the truth.  But God is blessing them anyway, because He loves them and because He made a covenant with Abraham that He will always keep.  God doesn't go back on His word, and He also doesn't bestow favor on us conditionally - that is, based on how good or great we are.

I think one of the main points in recounting Israel's history this way is to impress upon them what God has already done for them, so they will have courage and trust in what He is about to do for them.  The people might still have some fear about going into Canaan - except for Midian, this is the first time that they have been the ones going out on an offensive war, and the people they're going against are giants who live in fortified cities.  Moses wants them to have faith in God and be confident that if God could do everything He did over the last 40 years, taking Canaan will be cake for Him.

Another main reason for saying all this again is that some of the people are actually hearing it for the first time.  Keep in mind that this is the second generation: the person here, other than Moses and Caleb and Joshua, can be no older than 59.  These people were children, teenagers, or not even born yet when God first brought Israel out of Egypt.  A lot of them don't remember what it was like to be slaves, so God makes special rules for treating slaves and foreign visitors well, saying "remember that you were aliens and strangers in Egypt."  They don't remember how God miraculously delivered them from Pharaoh, so Moses is reminding them.  They may have been too young to pay attention to what was happening on Mt. Sinai, so Moses is telling them the whole story.  But some of them do remember, and Moses' goal is to make sure they don't forget like their parents consistently did.

Finally, I think Moses is telling Israel all these things to inspire love and devotion to God, as well as to keep them humble.  He says to remember what God has done so that later on they don't think it was their power or strength that make them rich.  Moses says, "You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth."  Everything we have is a gift of God - even the things we make for ourselves, we can only make because God gives us the ability to do so.  I think it's important to remember that it is only by God's grace that we have whatever it is we have, so that we are always filled with gratitude and so that we appreciate what we have, instead of becoming prideful and greedy.  Well, we'll see how the Israelites do with these lessons later on.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Numbers 33-36: Getting Ready to Go In

We're going to finish Numbers today!  I'm so excited.  And tomorrow I think I'll get caught up to where I am in my reading.  Yay.

So these final chapters are kind of a summary of what's already happened, along with a few final instructions on what to do with Canaan once the people get there.  Chapter 33 is basically a roadmap - it tells where the Israelites traveled, where they camped, and to some extent when they were there.  I would really love to see how many of these locations we know about for sure.  Many Bibles (especially Zondervan Bibles like mine) have maps in the back, one of which shows a possible route from Exodus to Sinai to the conquest of Canaan; the only problem with this map is that we don't know where Mt. Sinai is.  Many locations - I'm talking 30 or so - have been suggested at one point or another, and our current "traditional" location (Jebel Musa), the one that has a monastery on it and everything, we only consider to be Mt. Sinai because somebody claimed on their deathbed that it was, or something like that.  It most likely is not Mt. Sinai because the physical description of the mountain and surrounding area in the Bible don't match up with it.  Anyway, I've only read up on one other theoretical Mt. Sinai, Jebel al Lawz, in a very interesting book called In Search of the Mountain of God.  I don't kno for sure if I think that is the real Mt. Sinai, but it is a very interesting book and the findings in that book, if it's all true, are very promising.

At the end of chapter 33, God gives the people a warning to drive out the Canaanites from the land when they go in, or else later on those people will get them in trouble and pull them away from God, and then God says that what He plans to do to them, He'll do to Israel if they don't obey this command.  In the words of the immortal Strong Bad: "One, two, three, foreshadowing!"

So then we get into the rules for what they have to do when they get into Canaan.  First of all God gives them the boundaries of their country so they know exactly how much land they have, which is probably a really helpful thing.  Then he appoints leaders for each tribe, who will give out land to the people in their tribes once those borders are set.

The next chapter is about cities.  Since the Levites didn't get their own chunk of land, and since they were the priests for the whole nation, they were supposed to get a few cities in each tribe in which to live, and a few of those cities were also to be cities of refuge.  Now, I don't remember if these were described earlier.  Cities of refuge were places where a guy could go if he had killed somebody accidentally - manslaughter - and be safe.  The law was that if you murdered somebody, then you would be killed, and you could be killed by a relative of the person you murdered.  If you killed somebody accidentally, the person's relatives might still want you dead, but if it was manslaughter, you could go to one of the conveniently spread out cities of refuge and as long as you stayed there, you were safe.  If you left the city, the relative of the dead person could still kill you and not be prosecuted, so you had to stay there until the current high priest died, and then your term was up, so to speak, and you could go home and nobody could kill you.  I have always thought this was a really interesting law.  I think it works.

I have to say, I really like how this book ends.  Remember Z's daughters?  They're back.  They know they're going to get a portion of land that would have belonged to their father, but now their problem is that when they get married, if they marry outside their tribe, their land will be absorbed into the other tribe.  So they ask Moses what to do, and he asks God what to do, and he says that people in this situation just have to marry within their tribe, so that's what they do, and that way their inheritance stays within the family.  I like that the book ends with a chapter about women.  I also like that Z's daughters are an example of how the rest of Israel should have behaved when they had a complaint.  Israel has spent the last forty years whining and griping about this and that, and it's gotten them plagues and snakes and the ground eating them up and not getting to go into the Promised Land.  These girls had complaints, but they went to Moses to get his advice and propose their own solution, rather than saying "Woe is us, we are going to lose our father's inheritance! We should have died!"  So the moral of this story is, don't be a drama queen when there is something wrong.  Try to think of a solution, ask somebody else for help, and it will probably turn out that there is a way to fix your problem.  Learn from Z's daughters.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Numbers 30-32: So This Is Weird

I'm putting these three chapters together because they're all a little, well, unusual, especially at first glance.  In fact I had to do some research on chapter 31 to understand what was going on better.

Chapter 30 is about making vows.  Basically, if you say you're going to do something, if you make an oath, you have to keep it.  What's interesting though is that if you're a girl and you make a vow, and your father (if you're unmarried) or husband (if you're married) tells you that's a dumb vow, you don't have to keep it.  If the father or husband either doesn't say anything against the vow or, presumably, doesn't hear it, it's binding, but a woman could be released from a stupid vow by her father or husband.  I wish that men could be released form stupid vows by their wives, but then again I suppose wives are always trying to get their husbands to keep their promises, so it's probably just as well.

Chapter 31 is the really weird one.  God tells the Israelites to go kill the Midianites, so they fight them and kill all the men, but then Moses tells them to kill the women and the boys too, but not the children who are girls.  There's also a mention of Balaam being killed - remember him?  And then the rest of the chapter is about splitting up the spoils of war.  So when I first read this, it really didn't sit well with me.  I did some research and went over some of the text again and found out that there's a key verse in the middle of this chapter, verse 16, which tells us that Balaam - the guy who Balak hired to curse Israel - had incited these women to try to destroy Israel through immorality and idolatry back in chapter 25 - remember Phinehas?  Apparently, when the Moabites and Midianites saw the Israelites coming and realized God was on their side in war, they put their heads together and tried to get God off Israel's side, and that's when Balak the king of Moab hired Balaam. When that didn't work, the Midianite and Moabite women went over to Israel to tempt them sexually and also invite them to start worshipping their gods, and it worked, or at least it came really close to working.

But if you're like me, you're wondering, where does Balaam fit into the story?  At the end of chapter 24, it looks like he's headed home, which is to the northeast near the Euphrates River.  But apparently he stuck around with the Midianites for a while, and that's where he was when Israel attacked.  Now, Balaam confuses me.  Here's a guy who seemed to have some kind of relationship with God - that is, he could hear God's voice and prophecy accurately, at least in Israel's case, although he and God don't seem to be on the best terms.  But now he's going and plotting against them.

I still think it's sad that a lot of people died - I mean, I think dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was really sad - but now I see that it didn't just come out of nowhere.

Also, to clear up another common misunderstanding, the girls who weren't killed were not kept as wives.  It was still illegal for Jews to marry non-Jews, so prisoners of war were kept as slaves.

Another interesting note is that not all the Midianites died here.  We'll meet them again in Judges.

Finally, chapter 32.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad decide they want to stay on the east side of the Jordan River instead of crossing into the Promised Land, because it's good pasture for their livestock.  At first Moses isn't too keen on this, but they promise to help with the conquest and not to return to their new homes until after all the other tribes are settled in.  So those two tribes, as well as some of the Manasseh people, end up building permanent settlements over on the east side of the Jordan but leaving their wives and kids there while conquering the land of Canaan.  I guess they keep their promise to help out, because my map has their land marked as being right where it says they wanted to stay.  So I suppose that's a good example of keeping vows, as written in chapter 30.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Numbers 26-29: A New Generation

I'm kind of behind in my blogging so I'll try to lump several chapters together.

When we get to chapter 26, the forty years of wandering have now passed (I guess it's assumed that the last few chapters took place during those 40 years).  So it starts out with a census of the new generation.  The population of the Hebrews has grown by just about 1000, which is not very much.  Upon closer inspection of the numbers, we find that some tribes have actually decreased considerably in size, while others have grown considerably.  Check out this before and after:

Tribe------------Before -------------After

Now, these numbers represent every male of fighting age - that is, 20 or older - not every person in each tribe.  The Levites didn't fight and didn't have an inheritance in the promised land (a section of land allotted to them), so they weren't numbered in with the rest, but in this passage we find out that there are 23,000 males a month old and older.  So they must be a much smaller tribe all around.

I think it's interesting that so many of the tribes shrunk in number.  I wonder if it's that they just had a lot of old people and not a lot of kids, or that they had more girls than boys, or that a lot of them died in the plagues and things.  This is supposed to be the new generation, though, so most of these people were either kids or not born yet when their parents were dying of plagues and things.  But I guess a lot of people died in plagues who would have still had children, and by that means the number of births dropped.

Anyway, a cool thing happens in chapter 27.  This guy named Zelophehad (hereafter Z) has died, although he wasn't one of Korah's rebels from chapter 16, and he has no sons - only five daughters, all of whom are unmarried at this point.  They ask Moses to give them their father's inheritance (land in the promised land) to keep in his name.  I am going to assume this was unheard of in these days.  Even in modern times, land usually passed to the next direct male rather than the next direct person.  That's the initial conflict in Pride and Prejudice, which takes place around 1810 - the Bennetts' estate Longbourn is entailed by default on heirs male, so their five daughters are going to get nothing when Mr. Bennett dies.  Not every estate was handled this way (Miss Anne de Bourgh, only child of Sir Lewis and Lady Catherine, inherits all of Rosings Park), but it was common.  But God tells Moses, when he asks him, that Z's daughters are right in saying they should have an inheritance, and makes a law that any man who dies with no male heir should give his property to his daughters, and if there are no children it goes to his brother and so forth.  It's still primarily keeping the land to the male heirs, but I think it's really progressive and decent not to take a guy's land away from his family just because he doesn't have a son.

Then we find out that Joshua, Moses' assistant, is going to be the next Moses, and there's a ceremony for the transfer of power - kind of like what they did with Aaron and Eleazar, only in the sight of the whole congregation.  I wonder why they didn't go up on a mountain.  Maybe because Aaron went up the mountain to die and Moses wasn't going to die yet, or maybe because the people needed to see God put His stamp of approval on Joshua so they'd listen to him better than they listened to Moses.  I don't know.

The next two chapters are laws again.  In chapter 28, it sure sounds like there are a lot of sacrifices.  It sounds like they had to sacrifice two male lambs every day as a burnt offering - a continual offering.  Then every Sabbath there was an additional sacrifice of two lambs, and another burnt offering at the first of each month, and then the Passover lamb, and the sacrifices during the Feast of Weeks, and of course each of those had a drink offering and grain offerings to go along with the burnt offering.  Additionally, there was a seven-day holiday during the seventh month, in which there were sacrifices to be offered every day, grain offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings and so forth.  That's a lot of stuff!  I suppose God had to bless them just so they'd have enough sheep to sacrifice every day.  I suppose the reason for all this was, again, to point out the people's constant need for God.  I think the idea behind the continual burnt offerings was to tell people that  they were never in a state of perfect harmony with God - there was always a barrier between them and Him, and they always needed something to go between them and God.  We're not just separated from God by our sinful actions; we're separated from God by our nature, because He is holy and we are not.  God is not one of us, even though we are made in His likeness.  I suppose in order to remove the need for those offerings - in order for man and God to have a direct relationship with nothing in the way, God would have to become one of us.  But now I'm getting ahead of myself.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Numbers 21-25: Divide and Conquer

There's a lot of stuff in these five chapters so I'm going to try to say as much as I can in as few words as I can.  First, very quick summary.

  • Chapter 21: we see the Hebrews conquer their first city, Arad.  The people get sick of walking around Edom (big country I guess) so they complain.  God sends fiery snakes that bite the people, and then as a cure Moses has to make a statue of the snake that the people look at and then they don't die.  Then we have two more military victories against the Amorites and Bashan.
  • Chapter 22: the king of Moab gets scared of Israel, so he sends for a prophet named Balaam to come put a curse on Israel so that he can beat them.  On his way there, God puts an angel in Balaam's path that his donkey sees, but he doesn't see it.  The donkey freaks out and Balaam doesn't know so he beats the donkey until suddenly it starts talking to him.  After a heartfelt conversation with said donkey, Balaam decides that he'll tell the king whatever God says rather than whatever the king wants to hear.
  • Chapters 23-24: much to the Moabite king's dismay, all Balaam can do is bless Israel - three times.  The king gets mad and fires him, and he goes home.
  • Once the Israelites start moving in on the Canaanite territory, they begin to adopt Canaanite religion.  God gets really ticked off and there's a big meeting where Moses tells the people to kill the people who are not worshiping God.  Then some guy crashes the meeting by walking through the tent with a Canaanite girl, on their way to, um, talk . . . and a guy named Phinehas (son of Eleazar, grandson of Aaron) kills them.  Then God says nobody else has to die, and also there was a plague on the people, but it stops now because of Phinehas.
 So here are my thoughts.  First of all, the conquest of Canaan doesn't really start out like much of a conquest.  In fact, with Arad, it's their king who decides to pre-emptively strike on them as they're coming through.  Then with the Amorites, the Israelites send the same message to them that they sent to Edom: please let us pass through, we won't touch anything, we'll stay on the highway, we won't even stop for a drink break.  The king says no way and goes out to war against them.  And even after they were defeated, the king of Bashan decided to go attack the Israelites too.  So far, they haven't even been the ones making the first move, because this part of the land is not the Promised Land.  They're just trying to get through it to the other side.

Secondly, I love the story of Balaam.  I just think it would be so funny to have your donkey all of a sudden start talking to you - well, maybe not funny at the time, but it's funny to read because Balaam talks back to his donkey!  Now, I don't know if the text leaves out some details, like Balaam freaking out at his donkey talking to him, or if maybe this was something that he had experienced before, but it just makes me laugh to read that the donkey says to Balaamm, "What did I do to make you hit me?" and Balaam says right back "You're making me look stupid, that's what!" and she (the donkey is specifically a girl) says "Come on man, don't you trust me?  Have I ever freaked out like this before?" and he says "no," and then God lets him see the angel standing in the way.  And to top it off, God says to him, "why were you hitting the donkey?  Dude, if she hadn't tried to turn the other way when she saw me, I would have killed you and not her."

Anyway, I do find it interesting that Balaam, who is not an Israelite, seems to know the true God.  He even refers to Him as "the LORD [YHWH] my God."  God speaks to Balaam and Balaam prophesies accurately - that is, he says exactly what God tells him to say.  Now the third time he speaks, it almost seems like he's about to speak presumptuously, because it says that Balaam sees that it pleases the LORD to bless Israel, so the third time he doesn't go consult the LORD before speaking, as he did the first two times.  So I am not sure if that was the right thing to do.  But then it says that the Spirit of God came on him when he spoke, so I think his prophesy there was still real.  Go figure.

Next, the Phinehas thing.  So God has made it clear to the Israelites (see Exodus 20) that they are not supposed to worship any other gods, and that is exactly what they're doing for the first time since the golden calf.  This is very serious - again, Israel was not supposed to be a model government, but an example to the world (and to future generations like us) of how to obtain a relationship with the one true God.  Israel can't offer any kind of hope, any kind of message, to other nations if it is just like them.  So anyway, while Moses is discussing this with the people, this couple walks by, and the next thing we see is Phinehas ramming a spear through them.  Now, I always thought this was really harsh until my youth pastor asked this question:  how do you kill two people with one spear at the same time?  Answer: this couple is having sex right at this moment.  They've just walked right past all these guys talking about the severity of Israel's sin against God - everybody sees them - and they apparently have the audacity to go do this in apparently the middle of the day, not even attempting to hide it.  That is outright rebellion, the kind of sin described earlier in chapter 15 where we learned about unintentional sins versus sins of defiance.  And even though I wish these two guys didn't die, it actually kept a bunch more people from dying.

I want to talk about snakes last, so let's back up.  Now, these "snakes" may have been any of the various poisonous reptiles that inhabited these parts (or something supernatural); if so, we haven't heard a word about them until now, which means God was probably protecting the camp from them, and now He has obviously removed that protection.  Once again, this was a punishment for whining.  Now, you may wonder what is so bad about the gripe fest.  I mean, it wasn't Israel's fault that they had to go around Edom; and I'm sure it wasn't pleasant to be always on the move.  That's totally understandable to me.  But what's not so cool is when the people say this: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food."  That tells me that one, they have totally forgotten their distress in Egypt and how desperate they were to get out; two, they are totally ungrateful for all the miraculous ways God has provided for them; three, they are not acknowledging their own responsibility for being in the wilderness right now in the first place - they were the ones who decided they couldn't get into the Promised Land and would rather die in the wilderness than try - if they had just had faith in the first place, they would've been there by now instead of traveling around in a circle; and four, they would rather be slaves, with their sons all being murdered and being forced to work all day, in a land that they can never own, than trust that God was taking them somewhere.  Ouch.

So about the bronze snake that Moses makes.  That seems really weird, almost like he's making an idol - and in fact later on, we see that some of the Israelites start worshiping the snake statue.  But the symbolism and meaning behind this odd method of healing is really profound, and I don't have time to do it justice - I'll direct you to the third paragraph of this commentary for a really good and thorough explanation.  But basically, this serpent was a metaphor for Christ.  Jesus Himself tells us in John 3 that "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life" (vs. 14-15).  The image Moses made was of a serpent, in the likeness of the thing that was destroying the people, because Jesus came to earth in the likeness of sinful man.  Anybody who looked at the snake would live and not die from the bites, just as anybody who turns to Jesus receives forgiveness of sins and, rather than death, everlasting life.  I think this is really awesome.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Numbers 18-20: Who Will Mourn You?

I'm going to focus on two very small parts of these three chapters, but here are my notes/thoughts on the whole passage.

  • Chapter 18 is about duties of the Levites.  It says that they will "bear the guilt in connection with the sanctuary."  Does anybody know what that means?  I may have to look it up.
  • This is interesting.  In chapter 19 the priests have to slaughter a heifer in the presence of Eleazar (Aaron's son, the next high priest), and then burn it and place its ashes outside the camp.  Those ashes would be used when somebody was unclean, to cleanse them.  I'm not sure if they placed the ashes in water, or if the ashes somehow represent water, because it says they're kept "as water to remove impurity" and speaks about people washing in it.  Anyway, this is what Hebrews 9:13 is talking about when it mentions "the ashes of a heifer" cleansing people outwardly.  I always wondered what that was talking about.
  • Then it talks about people who are in contact with a dead person being unclean for 7 days.  If a person died in their tent, everyone in the tent was unclean too, and any jar or anything that didn't have a lid on it was unclean.  I think this must have been one of those sanitation things.  People didn't know about germs until the 1800s so they didn't know why people would get sick from being around someone else who was sick, and they also didn't know how long germs could live or anything like that.  So this was a way of keeping disease from spreading, I think.
  • At the beginning of chapter 20, Miriam dies.  The heading "Death of Miriam" is over the first seven verses in my Bible, but the only part that's actually about her is verse 1.
  • Then we have another water incident.  This is the part where God tells Moses to speak to a rock and it'll bring forth water, so what does Moses do?  He hits the rock, because that's the method that worked before.  And for this, God tells him he will not enter the promised land, because he didn't trust God to provide - he fell back on something that had worked earlier, maybe because he thought the power was in his staff or how hard he struck the rock and not in God who doesn't really need Moses to do anything in order to make water come from a rock.
  • The people reach Edom - if that name sounds familiar, it's the other name for Esau, and it's now the name of the land where his descendants are living.  The Israelites send a message asking to travel peacefully through the land and promise to stay on the highway - they won't even touch the wells to get a drink - and Edom says "no way, get out of here."  I think this shows that the old sibling rivalry is still very much alive and well.  I'm proud of what Israel does, though. Instead of getting mad and attacking Edom, they travel all the way around the country to get where they're going next.
  • At the end of the chapter, Aaron dies.  He gets seven verses.  What happens is he goes up to a mountain and his priest uniform gets put on his son Eleazar, and then Aaron dies.
As you have probably guessed, I'm focusing this post on comparing the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  This is what the text says about Miriam's death:  "Now Miriam died there and was buried there."  She doesn't even get a full verse because the first part of the verse just says that they arrived in the wilderness of Zin and the people stayed at Kadesh.

This is what the text says about Aaron's death:
"Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah.  Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up to Mount Hor; and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar.  So Aaron will be gathered to his people, and will die there."  So Moses di just as the LORD had commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.  After Moses had stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar, Aaron died there on the mountain top.  Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain.  When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days."

Quite a bit of difference, isn't there?  We don't even know how Miriam died or whether people mourned for her.  With Aaron we get a whole story - that's more than what we got with Abraham, if you can remember back that far.  And we find that people mourned him thirty days.  Remember when Ronald Reagan died, and Bush commanded that all flags be raised to half-mast for thirty days?  That's not what this was like.  Mourning was something very important to ancient people - in fact, some people could do it professionally.  It involved sackcloth and fasting and wailing and all that sort of thing - it was a big deal, and it did usually last for a few days as far as I can recall.  But this was hardcore.

What I find really great about this passage is that it happens right after the waters of Meribah incident, where God tells Moses and Aaron that because of their lack of trust, they won't enter the promised land.  The last significant event in Aaron's life was a screw-up.  And still he gets to go up to a mountain to die in peace next to his brother and his son, and he gets a celebrity funeral.  I think it goes to show, you don't have to have lived a perfect life to die a good death.  But in contrast with Miriam's death, I think it also shows that you're not going to get an epigram like that unless there's a good reason for it.  Aaron may have been number two to Moses for most of his life, and he may have griped and complained about it, and he was even the one who made the golden calf back in Exodus, but he was the high priest of Israel, handpicked by God for a divine purpose.  And the people may have whined about God playing favorites with Moses and Aaron, but when one of their leaders died, they felt it so deeply that they showed him tremendous honor in his death.

I guess it's just something to think about.  Who would mourn you for thirty days when you die?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Numbers 15-17: More Rebellion (Surprised?) and the Sabbath

I'm going to do a lot of blogs really close together from now on because I'm reading every night and I want to be able to talk about each passage as much as I feel like I need to.

So here's the breakdown of chapters 15-17:

  • God tells Moses that when they enter Canaan, they are supposed to present offerings to God, and there are intsructions about how to do that.
  • God explains that Israel is to have the same laws for native Hebrews as they have for foreigners who join them (whether temporarily or permanently).
  • Then it goes into the difference between unintentional sins and defiant sins.  Even though Israel was supposed to be an example of holiness to the other nations, God knew they would mess up even if they had the best intentions, so He specifically gives instructions for how to present a sacrifice to atone for those sins when they happen.  However, sins that are "defiant" are a different matter.  A person who deliberately broke one of God's laws to blaspheme Him or show blatant disrespect for Him was to be cut off from the congregation.
  • Somebody is caught gathering wood on the Sabbath, and God says to stone him.
  • A bunch of leaders decide to rebel against Moses because they don't think he should be the head honcho.  So Moses says God should decide, and the ground opens up and literally swallows the guys who rebelled.
  • Then a bunch of other people blame Moses for the people above dying.  God tells Moses again that He'll just kill all the people, Moses says don't, God ends up putting a plague on the ones who are grumbling against Moses.
  • To quell any further doubts, God asks Moses to collect the rods of twelve leaders (one from each tribe) including Aaron, and write their names on their rods, and then He'll show which man is chosen for the priesthood.  The next day, Aaron's rod has buds, flowers, and ripe almonds on it, so God has Moses save it (it was later placed in the Ark of the Covenant) as a testimony.
About the guy who got killed for working on the Sabbath.  In a discussion about the Sabbath, a friend of mine said the following:

"[The author of Hebrews] contrasts the rebellion many Israelites had toward the Sabbath in the wilderness with the rebellion many people in general have toward Grace in the Eternal Now. Those who do not accept God's grace and refuse to take part in the Sabbath rest of Christ will surely perish and be denied God's rest just as the rebellious Israelites were.
Those who reject the grace of God make themselves exempt from it, as God swears they shall never know rest, which is the Sabbath, which is His grace."

Note my friend's word choice - "refuse to take part in the Sabbath rest."  You see, the command to keep the Sabbath wasn't given as a burdensome obligation, another check box on the list of do's and don'ts.  It was given to man as a gift, a way to commune with God in joy and peace, without distractions.  Not participating in the Sabbath is essentially refusing that communion.

I think there was more going on in this story than a guy picking up sticks.  The Bible says that the things that happened to Israel in the Old Testament as examples and warnings for us today (1 Corinthians 10:11).  I think maybe this event happened as a warning to us today of what happens when we say "no" to the Sabbath, which to us today is a relationship with Christ (read Hebrews 4).

I think I'm going to start taking the spirit of the Sabbath more seriously from now on.  By that I mean, I think I really should take one day each week to focus on God and rest.  But I also mean that I think I can access that Sabbath rest at all times.  Hebrews says that there "remains" a Sabbath rest for us, so I think it's something that is always available, and it should be taken advantage of.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Numbers 11-14: I Take That Back

In the very last few chapters, we saw Israel as a group of devoted followers of the LORD who were just ready and raring to go wherever He led them, right? Well, not anymore. That's right - the very next thing we read is that the people start complaining. And this time it's contagious - meaning, they're not the only whiners in this bunch. Let's see who all is guilty of it this time around:

1. The people - they complain that they don't have meat and they're sick of manna. They say, "we had it soooo great in Egypt - fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic - we had it all! Now our soul is dried up."

2. Moses - that's right, the big guy complains to God that God's been picking on him, putting him in charge of all these people so that he has to baby-sit them all the time, and he doesn't have any help at all. So he says, "God, can you just kill me?"

3. Miriam and Aaron - Moses' support system, the dynamic duo get jealous of Moses (the guy who hates his job because he's all alone, remember?) and think they need more fame and glory for the work they do.

4. Ten spies - Moses handpicks twelve leaders from among the tribes, people that everybody looks up to and respects, guys that he thinks he can trust, and sends them into the Promised Land to check it out. When they come back, all but two of them have their tails between their legs because the Canaanites are tall. Dude, news flash: everyone is tall compared to Hebrews. Okay, so these happen to be legitimate giants maybe, but the spies conveniently forget that this guy called God Almighty has recently rescued them from the most powerful empire on the planet, and maybe He's got a plan for getting them into the land He promised them.

5. All the congregation, all the sons of Israel - I love that it makes a point now of saying "all," as opposed to just "the people" who were complaining earlier. They say "I wish we would have died in Egypt, or that we could just die here in the wilderness (which is what we were complaining would happen earlier) because God's leading us straight into a deathtrap!" Boo hoo.

So finally, God says to Moses, "How dense are these people? I have half a mind to do just what they want and make them all die in the wilderness." You know, whenever God says this stuff, I always wonder if He really means it, or if He's just saying it to Moses as a test or something. You know, like, "Hey Moses, you said you were sick of leading these people, so here's your chance to get off the hook. . . ." Maybe? I don't know.

So what happens with all these complaints?

1. God throws a fireball at the outskirts of camp (I guess as a warning shot), but then He gives them quail. But some of the people are so greedy that God puts a plague on them.

2. God tells Moses to get seventy elders from the people to help him out. This is, presumably, in addition to all the people Moses already appointed as judges at the advice of his father-in-law Jethro way back in Exodus 18 (see, he's not alone after all).

3. God gives Miriam and Aaron what-for, and then he gives Miriam leprosy. Moses pleads with God on her behalf, and God says fine, she'll only remain unclean for seven days (which is how long a person remained unclean for anything, as we saw in Leviticus), and then she'll be fine.

4. Caleb and Joshua say "Whatever, we can take this land because God is with us! Check out these grapes. If we lived here, maybe we'd become giants too!" (Okay, so they didn't say that last part.)

5. Moses reminds God of His promise to deliver Israel into the promised land, and says that if He doesn't, all the rest of the world will never believe that the LORD is God (which was kind of the point of doing all this stuff - so that they would all know).

6. So God decides to give the people their wish - sort of. The people who griped and complained and wished to die in the wilderness will never get to see the Promised Land; instead they're going to have to wander in the desert for 40 years until they're all dead, and their children will get to go in and take the land.

Then guess what happens? The people say, "Omgosh! We're sorry! Let's go take over Canaan right now!" So they try, and they get beaten pretty badly. No surprise.

So what can we learn from this? I think the pretty obvious lesson is, dude, just do what God says, because sin and disobedience have serious consequences. But I think there's another lesson when we compare this passage to the passage we just discussed, and that is this: when everything is going well, and everything's cool between us and God, don't get complacent. Don't just assume that because you're doing a pretty good job of following God right now, that you're always going to feel like doing what He says. Don't slack off and start wandering - you might start going in the wrong direction. That's what happened to these people.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Numbers 5-10: We're Following the Leader

I'm back! After a long hiatus, I decided to pick up right where I left off and finish the Bible - and this blog - by the end of the year. So, let's get started.

When we last left off, Moses had counted all the men of Israel by tribes and God had explained the duties of the priests. We pick up with more ceremonial and religious duties in chapters 5-6.

Now, there's a part in the middle of chapter 5 that I don't really get: it's the test for adultery. If a husband got suspicious that his wife was having an affair, but he didn't have any witnesses, the process of finding out if it was true was to take her to the temple with an offering, and the priest would take a bowl of water and put some dust in it and make the woman drink it. If she got sick, she was guilty; if she didn't, she was innocent. What the heck? Well, apparently tests for unchastity were common - even universal - in ancient times. The thing is, as weird as it sounds, this test provided the suspected wife with some protection. Without witnesses, it would be the husband's word against the wife's, and in that culture, the man always won the argument. By requiring him to put her to some kind of trial, the husband was prevented from just acting on his suspicion and divorcing his wife (or something else). The manner of trial also clearly took the power out of the hands of man. The husband couldn't manipulate the judge to pronounce his wife guilty, because the judge was God. I wonder how well this trial system worked out.

Chapter 6 talks about the vows of Nazirites. I'm not going to go into that, but it's kind of neat to read.

In chapter 7, the tabernacle is anointed and consecrated, and at the same time, each of the twelve tribes presents and offering to the tabernacle, one tribe each day, presented by a leader of that tribe. The offering is exactly the same for each tribe: "one silver dish whose weight was one hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one gold pan of ten shekels, full of incense, one bull, one ram, one male lamb one year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, five male lambs one year old." That's a lot of stuff, and it says that twelve times, along with who gave the offering, who their father was, what tribe they were from, and which day they presented their offering. That's the whole chapter. Now, several years ago when I read the Bible before, this is exactly the sort of thing that I would skip over. But I made sure to read every word this time. Why? I don't know, I think it's important. I'm not sure if there's any special reason for listing each tribe separately even though they all gave the same thing; maybe it's just an affirmation of the distinctness of each group in spite of their unity under God. I'm not sure.

Chapter 8 is about cleansing the Levites and the terms of their service (they got to retire at 50!).

In chapter 9, God tells the Israelites to observe Passover again, but a few people ask Moses what they should do if they're ceremonially unclean during that time. What I find very interesting here is that instead of just answering right off the bat, Moses says, "Wait, and I will listen to what the LORD will command concerning you." And the Bible actually makes a point of saying that. I think this is very important, and it ties into the next thing that happens. It talks about the cloud that settled over the tabernacle - the presence of the LORD - and how the people followed it. It says that when the cloud lifted, the people set out and followed the cloud, and when the cloud settled on the tabernacle, the people made camp and stayed there as long as the cloud stayed. The text makes this point about four or five times:

"At the command of the LORD the sons of Israel would set out, and at the command of the LORD they would make camp. . . . the sons of Israel woul dkeep the LORD's charge. . . according to the command of the LORD they remained camped. Then according to the command of the LORD they set out. . . . At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out; they kept the LORD's charge, according to the command of the LORD through Moses."

In chapter 10, that is exactly what happens: the cloud lifts and the people start to move. It tells you in what order the tribes are lined up, and it looks like everybody is just revved up about following their God wherever he leads them.

If I could come up with a theme for these six chapters, it is this: wait for God to judge, wait for God to speak, wait for God to move. And for a brief moment in history, we see it actually happening with the Israelites. Don't get too comfortable though; next time I post things are going to be different.