Saturday, January 23, 2016

Reading in Numbers This Week #4 (Chapters 20-36)

41Quqi3pMxL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This post brings the discussion on the book of Numbers with the commentary, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness, by Iain M. Duguid to an end. Previous posts on Numbers can be seen here, here, and here. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual, quotes from the commentary are in blue below…

Chapter 20 brings the story to the end of the wilderness wanderings and begins the preparation of the next generation of Israelites to enter the Promised Land. It will start with the death of the older generation with Miriam going first. The ongoing complaining of the older generation made them unfit to enter the land and brought this condemnation even on to Moses. Instead of trusting God, they exaggerated their difficulties and blamed God for their bad choices. Moses, also loses it and, instead of interceding for the people, he disobeys God's instructions and pours his own condemnation on the people. In a way, instead of speaking to God to provide, Moses assaults God with a stick and paints himself as judge and provider. In the end, Moses has become just as much a rebel (he does receive forgiveness and passes on the mission to the next generation) as the people and Moses, Aaron and Miriam are part of the 1st generation who die in the wilderness.

It is worth noticing that in Numbers 20, even though the people were clearly at fault in their complaining, the Lord viewed the sin of Moses and Aaron in judging them as a far more serious infraction. In other words, even when the sheep are simply being stubborn and recalcitrant in not following our leadership, we are not called to beat and berate them, even in our own minds. Instead, we are to love them and keep on urging them forward, gently and persistently pointing them to the cross. In truth, much of our frustration in ministry comes from the fact that we have begun to see ourselves as the functional saviors of ourselves and our people. Remembering that it is the sovereign Lord who is saving and sanctifying us, and not we ourselves, will deliver us from much of our frustration. Numbers 20, 254

Numbers 21 marks the transition from focus on the old dying generation of the unfaithful to the faithful new generation as it begins with the first victory over the Canaanites. The fiery serpents teach the nation to quit grumbling about returning to Egypt (the serpent nation) and learn to look to God in faith for healing and victory. They experience victory over the kings of the Amorites and praise God in song as he leads them through the wilderness.

Faith is the stuff of life in the wilderness, unleashing the power of God by which Satan is overcome...those who live by faith sing songs of praise. The gospel transforms us from sinners to singers. To be sure, that is often a gradual process. Throughout our lives, we will continue to be simul cantor et peccator (“at the same time a singer and a sinner,” to paraphrase Luther’s famous expression). Numbers 21, 265-266

The transfixed serpent on the standard thus demonstrated in visual terms the defeat of Israel’s mortal enemies, Egypt and Satan, overcome by the power of the Lord. When the people felt afresh the bitter pain of their sinful rebellion, they were given a sign to show them the life-giving power of the Lord that was constantly available to heal them. Numbers 21, 263

Numbers 22-24 describe the attempt by Balak king of Moab to hire Balaam, an international wizard who had the power to curse whole nations, to curse Israel. This sets up a huge spiritual battle between God's desire to bless Israel and the power of Balaam to curse them. In chapter 22, despite Balaam's greedy desire to get rooms full of gold and silver, God humbles him and forces him to bless Israel. No one can turn away the Abrahamic promise to bless. Balaam tried multiple times to do the "correct ritual" to bend God toward his desire but God would not change his desire to bless Israel. Finally, when Balaam realizes that God will not change his desire to bless, he makes the great prophecy in chapter 24 of what will be the history of their region and that, though the nations will disappear, Israel will survive because a "star will rise out of Jacob" and bring in God's kingdom for God's people.

It is almost invariably the case that our actions expose the real truth about our hearts. Our actions make plain what else we must have apart from the Lord to make our lives meaningful and significant...No matter how orthodox and impressive our words are, they are not worth the breath expended in uttering them if there is no congruence between them and our deeds. Numbers 22, 274–275

The central lesson behind the story of Balaam is the Lord’s determination to bless his people. No hotshot prophet will be permitted to curse God’s people, no matter how much he wants to, because the Lord has declared them blessed. Instead, his very attempt to curse Israel will itself be turned into another blessing. Numbers 22, 277

These oracles of Balaam, which declare not merely positive present realities but a glorious future yet to come, are most certainly true because the Lord’s sovereign power extends beyond the present into the future. What man cannot predict—what the future holds—the Lord is able to declare, because he himself holds the future in his hands. Even sickness, disease, and the schemes of evil men are not exempt from his sovereign will to bless his people. Numbers 23, 285

People may come and go: some will let us down and hurt us, while others, no matter how faithful, will ultimately die and leave us on our own. But God will still be there. Fortunes may be made and lost, houses may burn, stock markets may crash, and cars will inevitably rust. Yet in Christ, we have an inheritance that no misfortune can touch. At the end of the day, only God remains, and those upon whom his blessing rests. Numbers 24, 289

Despite God's blessing in the Balaam affair, the people reject God's blessing by engaging with the Midianites in their immoral religious practices. When God asks the older leaders to discipline the people they do not take action. Finally, one of the younger leaders, Phinehas, performs the task that the Levites were to do, defend the honor of God, and kills the Israeli man and Midianite woman who were flaunting their rebellion before the entire nation. God himself, then disciplines the nation with a plague. This kind of idolatry continued to plague Israel throughout its history. Phinehas stopped the plague by piercing through the sinners, but the plague of idolatry is not truly dealt with until Jesus Christ allowed himself to be pierced.

Sin is never a private matter: our sin affects other people, directly and indirectly. Having said that, though, we also need to be clear that the primary issue in this story is not sex but idolatry...Israel’s abandonment of the true and living God was the crime that merited their death.  Numbers 25, 294–295

The census in chapter 26 shows that the old unfaithful generation has died off and the new generation are poised to inherit God's promises. The census total number is pretty much the same as the previous census, showing the continuity of the promise from one generation to the other. However, Israel is also reminded that they must trust God's promises and move forward in faith if they are to inherit the promises. Chapter 27 shows that, though Israel still was a sinful nation and subject to discipline, God's grace operates and overcomes the effects of sin. Zelophahad's daughters receive an inheitance in the land even though their male heirs died in the wilderness. Moses prays for a king which God will grant through Joshua, then David and ultimately in Jesus Christ.

When faced with trials, unbelief doubts that God can really fulfill his promises and draws away the glory that is his due by leaving us in a state of frantic worry and despair. When we fear the future, God’s glory is not on our lips and in our hearts. Likewise, when we encounter success, unbelief thinks that our triumphs are the result of our own gifts and efforts, not God’s work. Once again, unbelief siphons off glory that ought to go to God alone. Unbelief is thus a great sin because it is robbing God of some of the glory that is due his name. God takes the honoring of his name very seriously indeed, and unbelief dishonors it. Numbers 26, 304

Yet when the older generation has failed to provide the proper lead, there is a challenge here to the younger generation to learn from Zelophehad’s daughters to step forward in faith to fill in the failings of those who have gone before. Numbers 27, 306

Numbers 28-29 detail the close fellowship that the new generation of Israel was to have with God. The regular sacrifices symbolized the daily, weekly and special times of fellowship that God wanted with his people. They also symbolized the need for total (the animal gave its life) and costly commitment that was required for fellowship with God. They recognized that everything they had was from God, but at the same time that God was very generous and wanted to share these things with them. The festivals and sacrifices also oriented them to living by God's calendar. Many of God's laws in the OT were designed to teach people how to live in a way that was in tune with the way he created the universe and with God's mission for humankind.

Communion with God is never cheap. It demands everything we have and everything we are.  Numbers 28, 311

There is also a distinct pattern in the way the various sacrifices were to be offered that forms a pattern for our own communion with God, a pattern that was intended to remind Israel constantly to orient their lives according to God’s calendar. Numbers 28-29, 313

We need to learn the same lessons they did. We need to be constant in our daily devotion and regular in our weekly fellowship with God’s people. We need to be faithful in all of the passing seasons of life to give thanks for our redemption accomplished in Christ and for his ongoing care for us day by day. Above all, we are to be forward-looking believers, neither overly elated nor unduly cast down by the twists and turns of life’s fortunes, instead keeping our eyes constantly fixed on Christ, who is our heavenly inheritance. Numbers 28-29, 319

Numbers 30 talks about the binding nature of vows to God especially in regards to how they are handled with women in their society. Vows were to be taken seriously because people are to reflect the faithfulness of God within their own speeach and actions. Women's vows were taken seriously, unlike most of other cultures of that day, but limits were placed on them to maintain order in the society.

One key aspect of that reflection of the Lord’s character is to be shown in our faithfulness to do what we have promised, no matter what the cost. When we fail to keep our vows, we undermine people’s confidence not only in our own faithfulness but also in the faithfulness of the God whose name we bear. Numbers 30,  322–323

Oaths of abstinence were not made because abstinence was a better, higher way of life. It was simply an expression of the present absence of joy in one’s life for the purpose of repentance or consecration for a particular task. After that period was over, the person who had made the oath would return to normal life. Numbers 30, 324

Joined to Christ by faith, we have become part of God’s family, heirs in Christ to all of the promises of God. Our inheritance rests on his faithfulness, not our own. God is the Promise Keeper to whom we look. What is more, our faithful husband, Jesus Christ, has even paid the penalty for our broken vows.  Numbers 30, 327

In chapter 31 we see God using Israel to judge the nation of Midian for their opposition to God and his plan for Israel. Balaam incited them to try to lose God's blessing through unfaithfulness and God acted to protect His people. Even in judgment the sanctity of live was upheld as the soldiers had to go through 7 days of cleansing from blood before they could be received back into the community. In many ways this chapter is a picture of how God's judgment works.

This conflict between Israel and Midian is no ordinary human war. Nor is it an act of ethnic cleansing on Israel’s part, with the Israelites seeking to wipe out every trace of a rival ethnic group, the Midianites. There is, in fact, nothing ethnic about this conflict, for this war is part of God’s larger war on sin and evil. It is simply the continuation and completion of God’s judgment on those who were involved in the sins of Numbers 25. Numbers 31, 329–330

The next section (32-33) reflects on the faithfulness of God throughout the wilderness journey. God was so faithful that 2 1/2 tribes decided to remain on the East side of the Jordan River. Even though they are faithful to continue on to help their brothers in the conquest of Canaan, this decision to not enter the Land will cause problems for Israel throughout its history. These 2 1/2 tribes will be the first to go into exile in Assyria. Chapter 33 is a list of 42 camps along Israel's journey. The breaks in the list describe God's acts of faithfulness and blessing while the places of judgment are mentioned but not expounded upon. Duguid suggests that these 42 represent the 6 creation days (6 X 7) in which Israel works in anticipation of entering the land of 7th day rest.

Seeing in the Bible is definitely not believing. On the contrary, sight is often the exact opposite of faith. Seeing is frequently the prelude to bad decisions because our eyes tend to make superficial judgments...Choosing with our eyes often leads us into spiritually dangerous places—places that may then be hard to leave because our possessions weigh us down and hold us there. Wherever our possessions are, there our heart is also. Numbers 32, 338

We too need to be reminded regularly of God’s faithfulness to us along the way. We need to take time to reflect on all the ways in which that faithfulness has been evidenced in our lives. Numbers 33, 346

Chapter 34 begins the conclusion of the book by changing the perspective from looking at the past to planning for the future. It lays out the anticipated borders of the Promised land to remind the Israelites of their goal and God's promise. Chapter 35 provides a great example of how God's faithfulness overcomes the curse of the past. It lays out the cities for the Levites which are scattered through the land so that the Levites can minister to the people. It also provides for cities of refuge where a killer can receive a fair trial. God had turned the Genesis curse (34, 49) into a blessing and a murdering tribe into the tribe that defended life in the land. Finally, chapter 36 coompletes the story of Zelophehad's daughters who "live happily ever after" in an orderly and blessed inheritance given to them by God.

So take the time to look back on your journey and to give thanks for the Lord’s faithfulness to you thus far. Be alert to the compromises that the world presses in on you, and resist its insistence that you live at peace with its standards. Be “peculiar,” different from those around you who do not serve the Lord. Yet above all else, look forward to the end of the journey, the seventh seven of rest that God has prepared for you in Christ. Numbers 34, 353

The church is a community of forgiven sinners and should therefore provide a warm welcome for all who come seeking a refuge from their sins. It should be a community of forgiven sinners who are also a community of forgiving sinners.  Numbers 35, 362

The end of the book of Numbers is certainly not a whimper but rather a quiet and confident affirmation of faith in God as the people of God look forward to the future...The legislation concerning the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters accomplishes the same two purposes: it concludes what precedes, while inviting us at the same time to look ahead to what is yet to come. Numbers 36, 363

We know that Israel as a nation most often lived like the unfaithful generation that died in the wilderness, and thus, the nation ended in exile. We stand much like that generation, as the resurrection of Jesus has brought us out of the slavery of sin, death and separation, waiting for the full implementation of the promise at His return. Like them the issue for our blessing and the blessing of those around us is our faithfulness to him.

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