Daily Thoughts from Numbers: Discipline and the Divine Presence

The LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. The pasturelands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure, outside the city, on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their cities.

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities that you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. And as for the cities that you shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it inherits, shall give of its cities to the Levites.”   

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there.

“But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. And if he struck him down with a stone tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. Or if he struck him down with a wooden tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death.  And if he pushed him out of hatred or hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

“But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait or used a stone that could cause death, and without seeing him dropped it on him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy and did not seek his harm, then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood.  For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. And these things shall be for a statute and rule for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.

“If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”  (Numbers 35:1-34 ESV)

The Levites do not inherit land in Israel, but instead are given pasture land around the cities designated by Israel, 48 in all.  Six of these cities are cities of refuge where someone who kills another without malice aforethought may flee for protection from the dead person’s relative.  Instead of a police force for such things, the relative of someone murdered was expected to take vengeance on the murderer.  But there had to be at least two witnesses to convict someone of murder and if it was deemed manslaughter instead of first degree murder, the manslayer was to live in the city of refuge until the high priest at the time died.  This was his penalty.

God required the death of a 1st degree murderer, however, in order to atone for the blood spilled in His land.  Only the death of the killer kept the land from being defiled.  Yahweh dwelled in the land among His people and there would be repercussions for defiling the land.

Yahweh dwells among us, His church, as well.  His holy presence requires a reciprocal holiness on our part and a readiness to deal with our failures in regard to holiness.  Paul says we are capable of judging such cases among us (1 Corinthians 6) and applying discipline correctly.  Jesus told us that where two or three agree on any discipline it will be done in heaven (Matthew 18:15ff).

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Daily Thoughts from Numbers: Songs for Battle

And the people of Israel set out and camped in Oboth. And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness that is opposite Moab, toward the sunrise. From there they set out and camped in the Valley of Zered. From there they set out and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that extends from the border of the Amorites, for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the LORD,

   “Waheb in Suphah, and the valleys of the Arnon, and the slope of the valleys that extends to the seat of Ar, and leans to the border of Moab.”

And from there they continued to Beer; that is the well of which the LORD said to Moses, “Gather the people together, so that I may give them water.” Then Israel sang this song:

   “Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!— the well that the princes made, that the nobles of the people dug, with the scepter and with their staffs.”

And from the wilderness they went on to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that looks down on the desert.  (Numbers 21:10-20 ESV)

Whereas Israel, 40 years earlier, had staged the invasion of Canaan at her southern border near Kadesh, now God moves her to the eastern border, across the Jordan River.  Details of the journey and the wars are being kept by Jewish recorders/historians.  They include songs that were sung in joy over such blessings as the provision of water from wells.

By staging them on the east, Israel will have to make a river crossing to enter Canaan, an opportunity for God to do a miracle.  And they will have to fight armies outside of Canaan who feel threatened by them.  There are Canaanites on the east side of the river, the Amorites, and God has determined to judge them through Israel.

How do you prepare for battle?  What memories can you call upon, what songs can you sing, and what history gets you motivated and gives you strength?  God has done amazing things in your life and the lives of others before you and intends for you to lean on the past in this way to give you power for the present as you recall His marvelous deeds done through your predecessors and in your own life.

godpel writer on shoulder of prophetIn the Wikipedia article, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:

The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. This concept has been traced to the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar expression in English is by Isaac Newton in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.”

The attribution to Bernard of Chartres is due to John of Salisbury. In 1159, John wrote in his Metalogicon: “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

The visual image (from Bernard of Chartres) appears in the stained glass of the south transept of Chartres Cathedral. The tall windows under the Rose Window show the four major prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) as gigantic figures, and the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as ordinary-size people sitting on their shoulders. The evangelists, though smaller, “see more” than the huge prophets (since they saw the Messiah about whom the prophets spoke).

Daily Thoughts from Numbers: Power Share

And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.

   Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

   Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it and ground it in handmills or beat it in mortars and boiled it in pots and made cakes of it. And the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell with it.

   Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the LORD blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased.  Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.”

   Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat.  You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

   So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

   Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp.  And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

   Then a wind from the LORD sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground. And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague.  Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.  (Numbers 11:1-35 ESV)

Despite the fact that Yahweh judges the people for their complaining, for their lack of trust in Him, that is, they continue to complain about the food, the Manna.  Even Moses gets caught up in it and complains to God himself.  It is evident that when he comes to God with his complaint it is not judged the way the people’s complaints are.  When we come to God with our complaints we are coming to Him with a measure of trust and looking to Him for an answer instead of blaming others or airing our complaints to others.

God promises meat but so much that it will make the people sick of it.  And when they do start eating it He sends a plague.  At the first plague Moses intercedes for the people and it stops.  There is no such indication at the second plague that he intercedes.  But God does grant his request for help leading the people by giving some of Moses’ spirit to seventy others.  Moses humbly enjoys the fact that others are so gifted, not having, out of arrogant pride, to be the top dog.

What a lesson for us.  Power is not to be hoarded but shared.  Even in families the process of raising children is or should be a gradual sharing of power with our children as they develop and mature.  Our churches should especially be places where power is shared and all of God’s giftings He has given to the congregation are developed and used to benefit the whole.

Daily Thoughts from Numbers: Clean Up

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.  (Numbers 5:1-4 ESV)

There must be ritual purity in the camp where Yahweh dwells.  He is holy so His people must be holy.  Yet when ritual impurity occurs, such as here in the case of some skin disease, some unusual discharge from the body, or through touching a dead body, a designated time must be spent away from the camp until cleansing is accomplished.  This would be a hard law to obey.  Special tents would need to be erected on the outskirts of the camp where people could go to recover from their uncleanness.  This could be a long term stay if the skin ailment or discharge did not resolve.  Moses tells us that the people obeyed Yahweh in this command.

The implication for us is that whatever defiles us or makes us spiritually unclean must be dealt with radically.  Jesus’ statement, that if your eye offends pluck it out, is along this line.  Do whatever it takes to keep from sin.  Being right in the presence of a holy God is the most expedient of priorities.

The other implication is that we must help others deal radically with their uncleanness.  We have to adopt the inconvenience their uncleanness creates and compassionately help them become clean.  This is a priority that we will be tempted to neglect.  That’s their responsibility, we will think, not ours.  But that is not how God sees it.  He wants to dwell in our camp with blessing and calls on us to deal with what defiles.  We are our brother’s keeper, and, we cannot make progress as a community without seeing to the progress of the individuals within our community.

Our cry should be much the same as those who have filled the ranks of our military:  No man left behind!  We will not abandon our wounded.

Daily Thoughts from Numbers: There’s Only One You

But the Levites were not listed along with them by their ancestral tribe. For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 1:47-54 ESV)

Of the 12 tribes of Israel God set Levi apart to be the priestly tribe.  They were not conscripted for war and they were not given land once they reached Canaan.  They were to be supported by the tithe God required of all the tribes.  Their responsibility was to set up and take down the tabernacle and to maintain the holy fire, the fire God sent down on the altar of burnt offering when the tabernacle was originally set up.

Access to the tabernacle was tightly controlled, emphasizing the holiness of God and the prescribed manner in which He was to be approached.  The Levites served as a kind of buffer between the people and God, preventing anyone from accidentally transgressing the boundaries of the tabernacle.  It is here called the tabernacle of the testimony because within the ark of the covenant were the tablets of stone on which were written the ten commandments and it is here God “sat” as on His throne and where atonement was made.  God’s presence was the basis of Israel’s existence.

In our costly discipleship to the Lord we each have our different responsibilities.  To each is given gifts that determine our responsibilities within the Body of Christ.  Each is a sacred responsibility.  Paul says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6).  How would it have helped if the Levites had insisted on going to war?  If each member of the Body does not do its part the Body does not thrive.  God has always had a unique use for each of His unique creatures.  You are unique and so is your benefit to the Body.

If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:17-20, ESV)

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Leaders

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Hebrews 13:17-19, ESV)

It would seem that the leaders of the Hebrews congregation were in agreement with the author of this epistle and faithful adherents to the true gospel.  They were also urging their congregation to abandon this idea of abandoning Jesus and returning to their former practice of Judaism.  As those charged with keeping watch over the souls of these believers they had no doubt spent many a night groaning in prayer for them.

How much better that our pastors/shepherds should watch over us with joy.  And how important that we pray for them.  Our author asks for prayer that he might continue to act honorably in all things.  Perhaps he is experiencing persecution as well and wants to keep a brave testimony.  He wants to be restored to this congregation, also, and we cannot fault him for asking prayer to survive whatever trial he is going through.

But what if their leaders were not faithful to the gospel?  Should they obey and submit to them then?  As much as we need leaders, true followership must not abdicate responsibility for maintaining the gospel’s purity to leaders.  We are all responsible.  That is why this letter was addressed to the congregation, not to the leaders.  All of us must wrestle with the arguments, with the Scriptures, and with our own consciences.  I won’t be able to make a case on judgment day that I listened to a bad leader and so I plead “not guilty.”

The apostles Peter and John refused to obey their spiritual leaders, the Sanhedrin, when this court required them to quit preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:27-32).  They said, “We must obey God rather than men.”  A leader’s authority is God-given but therefore always God-subservient.  A leader’s authority with people will necessarily be located in his or her example of godliness and faithfulness to the gospel (1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 20:28-35).  The apostle John commended Gaius  who helped traveling evangelists who arrived at his church in contradiction to Diotrephes, who “liked to put himself first,” rather than telling Gaius to submit to Diotrephes.

Still, the general requirement is for church leaders to be obeyed.  And we should pray for them.

PERHAPS the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others. [David Cooper, Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry]

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Access

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25, ESV)

What would it be like to be told by the most powerful person in the world that you would always be welcome at his or her office, never have to make an appointment, and always listened to with utmost attention?  That is akin to what the author of Hebrews is describing as the believer’s privilege.

This privilege was made possible by Jesus entering the heavenly holy place to offer his own blood as a permanent sacrifice and taking over the role as high priest forever in God’s tabernacle.  As a result of that he encourages the Hebrews and us to do three things:

  1. Draw near to God.  And don’t do it tentatively but with full assurance that you are cleansed and in full fellowship with the God who made and redeemed you.  You can enter the King’s court whenever you desire and He longs to meet with you.  He has always said, “I will be your God, you will be My people, and I will dwell with you.”
  2. Don’t waver in your faith.  God not only made this way for you and me but He made a promise that He will always keep that this access is ours because of what Jesus did.  Wavering is tantamount to calling Him a liar.
  3. Meet together for encouragement.  You can’t maintain your faith on your own.  The fellowship of believers you meet with will be doing what it is called to do when it encourages you to love each other and do good works that reflect His coming kingdom.

God designed church to be the place where our most important identity formation occurs, among other people. We become more like Christ as we participate in the life of the church and form relationships there. But too often we think we must have our spiritual house in order before we can fully participate. Or, by contrast, we see the church as a place of performance, instead of a place where we are developed into more fully authentic—that is, more Christlike—humans.

Further, our Christian subculture is marked by church hopping. We stay put as long as it suits us, until we are offended or decide we’re not being “fed.” So, wanting to quietly validate our own identities, we tend to silo ourselves into churches where everyone looks like us, talks like us, likes the same movies, and won’t embarrass us in public. But what if we took a cue from popular culture’s push for diversity and realized that surrounding ourselves with our duplicates only makes us more self-centered?

Christianity Today article by Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for CT and assistant professor of English and Humanities at The King’s College, and author of the book How to Survive the Apocalypse. (Jan/Feb 2016, vol. 60, No. 1, page 48, “The Year We Searched for Ourselves”)