The wind is roaring outside this morning. I love the drama of March weather–sometimes winter, sometimes spring. It’s mostly still cold where I am in the north Georgia mountains, but some days breakthrough to warm. It was wild rain and wind, tornadoes and school closings last week, and it was a balmy day planting pots on the back porch yesterday.
High and low. Unpredictable. Exciting.
Each fair day feels like an unexpected gift, like a smile from a grumpy grandboy after his nap, like a taste of chocolate in trail mix.
This is what today’s post is like. There’s been a lot of madness, a lot of rough weather in Numbers so far. It’s been downright dreary, so disappointing, in fact, that I haven’t posted anything from this book in 11 days because I just couldn’t bear it [and also because my knee has gotten wind of its replacement and is giving me fits in its final days].
But today, looking at Numbers as a whole, I see how the dreariness actually makes way for the breakthrough to brightness in the end. God doesn’t just show up and smile.
Numbers 36-Deuteronomy 1
The Israelites are on the move.
The children of those who refused to enter the promised land are now grown and getting ready to do what their parents wouldn’t do: take over the land God’s given them. Before they actually get there, they’ve had some training in battles along the way as they’ve traveled through the desert. They’ve defeated Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, king of Bashan, as well as the Midianites who seduced them, Nu 21:21-26, 31-35; 31.
Sadly, the kids aren’t altogether unlike their parents. They were distracted by the wild women of Midian and succumbed to them, and they suffered a plague afterward, losing 24,000 men, Nu 25. But at least they didn’t tell Moses that it’s God’s fault when they sin as their fathers had.
When this last chapter of Numbers opens, the family heads of Manasseh, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, come to Moses to settle a problem with Zelophehad’s daughters, their relatives who were given their father’s land since he had no sons. The issue is that if these daughters marry men from another tribe, their father’s land will be owned by that tribe, diminishing Manasseh’s total land allotment, something disturbing for them, Nu 36:1-4.
God tells Moses these leaders are right, that Zelo’s daughters must marry within their family clan so that their land stays within their tribe. The total land allotment for the tribes doesn’t just matter to the people. It also matters to God. Zelo’s daughters agree and marry men from Manasseh, safeguarding the ongoing inheritance of their tribe, Nu 36:5-12.
In overview, the book of Numbers starts out dully, with an impersonal census of the people from each of the 12 tribes in the desert of Mount Sinai. There are also detailed instructions about leaving and marching and camping arrangements along with how the Levites are to be organized. The offerings made by the 12 tribal leaders at the dedication of the tabernacle are also recorded in tedious detail, Nu ch 1-4 and 7.
From these eye-glazing pieces of impersonal information, we get to laws about purity for the people, Nu ch 5-10. And then comes the skinny on a lot of disappointing personal matters. In fact, most of the rest of the book of Numbers is taken up by these disturbing accounts:
The people whine about the food on the way to Kadesh, the place they’ll camp outside the promised land, and they suffer the meat they ask for so much they puke. Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ own siblings, complain and rebel against him. Once they reach Kadesh, the spies they send in to check out the promised land give a bad report, and the people refuse to enter in, Nu ch 10-12.
What’s more, Korah leads a rebellion along with 250 other men against Moses and Aaron, because they suspect they’re not telling them everything God’s said. God’s response is to open the ground beneath them and swallow or burn them alive, Nu 16 (for that story see March 11–Spies and Other Blind Eyes).
As if enough hasn’t happened, the people complain the very next day that Moses and Aaron are to blame for the deaths of “the Lord’s people,” their name for the rebels. God’s answer again is simple: he sends a plague and 14,700 are killed before Aaron saves the day with incense, Nu 16:47-49.
After they’re attacked, they win a battle to get back some of their captured people, but the Israelites then complain that God’s deserted them, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” God’s miraculously fed and watered them ever since leaving Egypt, and he’s just won decisively for them against the king of Arad in the Negev, but their memory is short lived. They’re disciplined with biting snakes in the desert, Nu 21:4-9.
And there’s more.
Balak, king of Bashan, tries to hire a prophet to curse God’s people, but he can only bless them, try as he might to curse instead. But he comes up with another plan to please the king–send in Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men to worship their Baal god. And it works for a time, though thousands lose their lives in the plague God sends, Nu ch 22-25.
At this point in the book, I’m expecting God to say, “I’m done. These kids are as hopeless as their parents!” Because there’s really not a bright spot in the whole book people-wise, except for Aaron, who stops the first plague with incense, and Phinehas, his grandson, who stops the second one by spearing the fornicating couple right in the act in front of everyone, Nu 16:46-48; 25:6-8.
Interestingly, the bad-to-worse action stops here. God requires another census to find out how many are left after the second plague (for the purpose of land distribution later), but unlike the first one taken of their parents’ generation, this one isn’t impersonal. In fact, it’s a much longer account because there are so many names. Why does God bother with listing names? And there’s also the personal story of Zelophehad’s daughters, who ask for their father’s land in order to keep his name alive in his clan, which they’re granted, Nu 26; 27:1-11.
And then God gives laws about offerings, festivals, and vows. God tells them how to celebrate? It’s not the first time I’ve disapproved of God’s parenting style. His people have complained against him, blamed him, disbelieved and completely disobeyed him, and I don’t hear anything more about punishing or, at the least, reprimanding them and giving them the cold shoulder, but only plans for giving them the land they don’t deserve and for teaching them how to enjoy their relationship with him. What kind of parenting is this? God doesn’t parent—he sparents, Nu ch 28-30.
Next, they go to war to avenge themselves against Midian and win, killing every single Midianite and losing not even one Israelite, obviously God’s blessing on them. The soldiers initiate their own freewill offering to God for bringing each one of them back alive, giving him the gold they won as plunder. This offering was given to God after he had instructed Moses and Eleazar about how to divide up what was taken, including giving his portion to the Levites. This means that the soldiers tithed more than God suggested, Nu 31. This feels like a balmy breeze in an otherwise desolate “March.”
The book of Numbers wraps up with what the NIV Study Bible calls “appendixes”–a map-worthy summary of their travels from Egypt to the plain across from Jericho where they’re ready to go in; a geography of the boundaries of the promised land as a whole; and instructions about where to go for protection in case of accidentally murdering someone, Nu ch 33-35.
And then there’s this last chapter of the book—what the tribal leaders have to say about who Zelophehad’s daughters marry. This dreary book of endless numbers and a compendium of miseries ends with the concerns of land-hungry men trying to boss women, and I think, welp, at least that’s consistent with the rest of the book, Nu 36.
But then I realize, if the daughters were truly asking for their father’s land in order to preserve his name in his tribal clan, then these men were acting in their best interest. They weren’t oppressing them; they were looking out for them. Because of how property was passed down to the next generation, they foresaw how the daughters might lose their father’s land and his name by marrying men from other clans.
In order to protect their desire to honor their father, the leaders point out what needs to be addressed: who they will marry. Of course, it also happens to concern the men’s interest as well, since tribal land is at stake, but the daughters brought it up to Moses in the first place. It’s their issue, Nu 27:1-11.
Their willingness to abide by God’s command to Moses and to marry within their own tribe is refreshing after so much straight up rebellion and disobedience by so many in this book, Nu 36:10-12. And when I think of how alien such an attitude is for our culture today, I’m moved to tears by the beauty and bravery of it. It takes courage to trust that God’s words are what is best. And it’s beautiful to believe what he says, rather than to take matters into one’s own hands.
It’s an ending I wasn’t expecting, and I want to stand up and cheer for the relief it gives after slugging through this disagreeable book, for the social relevance it is for us, and for the relational advice of it, “Yes, this is how the sexes should care for one another!”
This is an extraordinarily kind and validating way for God to end a book about men and women who haven’t offered much thus far to emulate. But I shouldn’t be surprised about that. God is the upbeat, high-minded, grace-giving, happily-ever-after God, the God who parents poorly and gives away unearned land and his undeserved companionship.
I still can’t get over God’s laws about festivals and offerings and keeping vows coming along so soon after the incident with the Midianite women, after countless times when they’ve grumbled and complained, after habitual faithlessness and disdain. God wants to talk about celebrating and being in relationship with them then? After all they’d done against him? Why does he care like this?
And who could possibly turn out well with that much love and grace and goodness, thrown right in their face?
If God were only concerned with life after death and our eternal inheritance with him, then Zelo’s land and who his daughters marry would be a moot point. But it’s not, because God weighs in on it. He even makes a command about it, Nu 36:10.
His concern charges this event with meaning and importance, and it reminds me that all of life on earth has meaning and importance because God Almighty cares about it. His commandments prove it. And so does his requiring the listing of every person’s name in the census. He’s concerned about animals that fall in ditches, about children being seen and heard, about women being brave, and about men being kind, among a whole lot of other things, Ex 21:33; Mt 14:14, 19:14; Mk 7:24-30; Lk 6:35-36.
All of life matters to God.
If it didn’t, he would sweep us all into heaven or hell and be done with the March-madness-and-drama-of-us. But he doesn’t. He tunes in. He watches. He stays up and keeps track and checks in and helps out, Ps 121:5, 127:1, 144:5-8; Pr 15:3.
Life will always and forever be like the month of March, wild and windy with sunshine occasionally peeking through. But God is the one who holds weather and storms and balmy days right along with the smiles of little ones and our own trembling hands and the chocolate he drops in the mix of our trials as we trudge our ways.
The One who upholds sky and seas, tides and winds, is as near as thought and breath.
This is the one who holds us up.
[The outline for Numbers in the NIV Study Bible was an invaluable resource.]
The Pharisees have four run-ins with Jesus:
–They ask Jesus’ disciples why they eat and drink with the outcasts and riff-raff. Jesus answers that he’s not come to call the good people or the cool ones, but the despised and marginalized sinners to repent, Lk 5:32.
–They point out that Jesus’ disciples don’t fast and pray like other disciples do. Jesus says the friends of a bridegroom don’t miss him when he’s with them. It’s when he leaves that they grieve.
Jesus goes on to say that new wine has to be put in new wine skins, because it will burst old ones. Jesus’ teaching is like “new wine” that must be put in new skins—new hearts of repentance and faith. The old skins of the Pharisees can’t hold it, unless they become new with repentance, too.
–When they see Jesus’ disciples harvesting and eating grain as they walk through a field, the Pharisees ask why they do what’s unlawful on the Sabbath. Jesus says he’s Lord of the Sabbath and that feeding one’s self isn’t breaking God’s law.
–They “watch him closely” in the synagogue to see if he will heal a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath. Jesus stands the man up in front and asks, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” And he heals the man’s hand, displaying his choice. But the Pharisees? They’re “furious” and discuss what to do next to stop him, Lk 6:9-11.
They object to how Jesus and his posse eat and drink and who they socialize with. They object that they don’t do religious things like fasting or keeping the law like the nit pickers the Pharisees are. They’re offended by their freedom and the “new wine” of Jesus’ way.
Jesus’ message to them is that something new has come, and it takes new skin to contain it. The Pharisees don’t approve of him and ironically want to do evil and destroy him, thereby answering what he asks and breaking every rule in their own book. Their eyes are wide shut.
Jesus makes me mad sometimes, too. I want to prove my goodness without him, as if I don’t really need a Savior like everybody else does. But I can’t because I do. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that I’m a sinner on purpose, not just an “oops! my bad” sort of sinner, and that I need a Savior who loves me anyway. I hate it, in fact, until I remember that it puts me in the camp with the Furious Pharisees, a place I don’t want to be.
Lord Jesus of the Sabbath, of Celebrating, and of Sinners, thank you for redeeming Pharisees like me.
[As often happens, the psalm for today segues with the New Testament reading in the One Year Bible plan: after what Jesus has done for me, what is there to do but celebrate?]
The psalmist celebrates with shouting, singing, and saying that God has done awesome things, v 1-5…
–He turned the sea into dry land, v 6.
–He rules forever by his power, v 7.
–His eyes watch the nations, v 7.
–He preserves our lives, v 9.
–He keeps our feet from slipping, v 9.
–He tests and refines us, v 10…
*by letting us be imprisoned, v 11,
*by laying “burdens on our backs,” v 11,
*by letting men rule over us so that we go “through fire and water,” v 12.
–He brings us to “a place of abundance,” v 12.
[Note to self: God brings hard times of testing and then brings us to an abundant place.]
The psalmist responds to God by making offerings, keeping his promises [marriage promises come to mind], v 14-16, and telling others what God’s done for him…
“Come and listen, all you who fear God;
let me tell you what he has done for me.
I cried out to him with my mouth;
his praise was on may tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened,
but God has surely listened
and heard my voice in prayer.
Praise be to God,
who has not rejected my prayer
or withheld his love from me,”
He cried out. He praised. He repented. And he told. These are ways he sought God and shared him with others. God responded by hearing his prayer and not withholding his love.
Who doesn’t want Unlimited, Listening Love?
My take away today is praise for God’s soul seeking love that reaches down through centuries of his people and seeks me and teaches me, turning me from enemy-sinner into beloved-daughter.
He shows me his love in a book I’d more or less written off (Numbers). He shows me his love by teaching me what love isn’t (Luke). He shows me his love by listening to me go on and on and never looking at his watch or asking me to wrap it up (Psalms).
God’s love comes between dark and dawn and wakes me but doesn’t mention how long it takes me to get up. He doesn’t fit me in between phone calls or get bored and wander off. God’s love doesn’t accuse or demand. And when I can’t write about what I read, he gives me lots of days off.
God’s love befriends, and it never ends,
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever,”