Wrestling with Numbers
Readings: Numbers 21:4-9 & Numbers 15:32-36
The Book of Numbers is the 4th book of the Bible. It tells the story of the 40 years of wandering in the desert and therefore continues the story from the end of the book of Exodus. (The book of Leviticus was a kind of interlude that was meant to indicate to the Israelite's how they could draw close to a God who is Holy.
The book of Numbers begins with the numbering of the people of Israel in a census (hence the title Numbers). The Jewish name for the book is: “Into the Desert” and it more accurately describes the content of the book which tells of the 40 wandering of the Israelite's in the Wilderness before they finally enter the promised land. In those wanderings God leads them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
In the central section of the book we read of the Israelite's challenges, struggles and rebellions not just against Moses but also against God. The first major rebellion comes early on when scouts are sent into the Promised Land and all but two of them say it is too dangerous to enter. In God’s wrath at their lack of courage and faith, he condemns them to 40 years of wandering before the next opportunity to enter the Promised Land and that none of the first generation, including Moses would be able to enter the Promised Land but only those of the second generation would be able to do so.
And that is where the book ends, with another numbering of the people as the second generation from the Exodus now finally prepare to enter the Promised Land.
Again we are left with a number of questions? How historical is the book? Did it all happen just as it is written or is the purpose of the book more than a factual history of events in the past?
Clearly there are many Christians who would read Numbers as literal history, but again, there are some challenges to reading it in this way.
The first major challenge is the numbers of people recorded in the book. As with the book of Exodus, the number of fighting men in the book is recorded as 600 000, which suggests that at a minimum there were around 2 million Israelite's wandering around the Sinai peninsula. When compared to population levels of other parts of the middle east at that time there are many who would suggest that these numbers are almost certainly an exaggeration. Logistically speaking it would also be a little bit like the whole population of Northern Ireland wandering around the island of Ireland for 40 years (In fact the Sinai peninsula is only about 2/3’s the size of the island of Ireland).
Secondly, one is left wondering what kind of a God this is who in chapter 15:32ff orders someone who is found gathering firewood on the Sabbath to be stoned to death. It is an act of terrible brutality, not just condoned by what I would call the God character in the book, but in fact instructed by him. If God gave such instructions to the Israelite's in the past, how could we be sure that it is not God sanctioning the actions of the Taliban the next time they order a law breaker to be stoned to death? If we condemn such acts of brutality today, why do many Christians today not question such acts of brutality in the Bible? As I said last week in the reflection on Leviticus, it is quite inconceivable to me to believe that the God revealed by Jesus would ever order anyone, at any time to be put to death in such a violent and barbaric way. If as Paul writes in Colossians, that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, then this story is perhaps the first sign for me that not everything contained within the book of Numbers is literal history.
This raises wider questions about the nature of God portrayed in the book. The image of God in the book comes across quite often as uppity and cantankerous, being quick to lose patience and quick to strike out in anger and ready to walk out in his relationship with the Israelite's. On a number of occasions, Moses is portrayed as having to plead and intercede on behalf of the people of Israel that God should not abandon them or punish them too harshly, almost like a family member trying to plead with a husband or father who has lost patience with his wife and children and is ready to walk out on them. But in the New Testament, we read that God is Love, and in 1 Cor 13, Paul describes what love is like: that love is patient and kind. It is not easily angered etc… In other words there is a maturity about Love that acts with wisdom and consideration and that doesn’t just throw its toys out the cot when things don’t go it’s way. Again if in the New Testament Jesus says “If you have seen me you have seen the Father”, then either God has changed and matured over the years or the descriptions of God given in the book of Numbers are not necessarily always accurate reflections of the true nature of God as made known by Jesus.
On a similar note, I must confess that I personally don’t believe in a God who condones the mass killing of women and boys as an act of war or the keeping of 32000 virgins as plunder after one’s enemies have been defeated as we read in Numbers 31.
And so for me, when I read the book of Numbers I don’t read it as factual history that is correct in all it’s details.
From my perspective, the book of Numbers firstly represents an ancient and often primitive people reflecting back over their past and asking the question ‘How did we make it through that period in our history?’ And in response to that question they told stories, (I would say) many centuries later about quails in the desert, pillars of cloud and fire, and water coming from a rock to communicate their conviction that if it were not for God’s providential hand they would never have survived.
That is a common human experience. Many of us have experiences of looking back and wondering ‘How did I get through that time in my life?’ often with a deep sense that somehow if it were not for a greater guiding and sustaining presence in our lives, sometimes with inexplicable co-incidences that happened on the way, we couldn’t have made it through alone.
Apart from this, the purpose of the book of Numbers, I believe, was intended to be for the Jewish descendants of the ancient Israelite's, a kind of extended parable meant to communicate certain moral or archetypal lessons to them rather than simply to record literal history.
What might some of these moral or perhaps archetypal lessons that might still be relevant to us today?
Firstly, the book suggests that living with a constant rebellious spirit and a lack of courage in life, can delay the attainment of our greater goals in life. According to the story, soon after of leaving Mount Sinai, the Israelite's are given their first opportunity to enter the Promised Land. Their courage fails. They don’t have faith that God will be with them. They rebel against Moses and attempt to replace him with a new leader who will lead them back to Egypt. The long and short of it, is that they are condemned to wandering the desert for another 40 years, (which is the ancient Hebrew way of saying that they ended up wandering in the desert a lot longer than they should have.) And so their progress is hindered by their rebellious and uncooperative spirit. I wonder how often that might be true also for us? How often do we become stumbling blocks to our own progress in life?
Secondly, it suggests that sometimes we can look back to the past with rose-coloured glasses. In the story the people grumble and complain and they long to go back to what they remember as the comfort and security of Egypt when in actual fact it had been a place of abuse and oppression. Do we live with rose coloured glasses trying to escape back to an idealised past or do we seek to live with courage and determination in the reality of the present, the only moment in which we can truly live.
Thirdly, I wonder if there is a lesson that suggests that failing to make time for rest will bring on an early death. If we go back to that barbaric and brutal story in chapter 15 when the God character in the story condemns a man to death by stoning when he is found gathering firewood on the Sabbath and begin to read it symbolically and metaphorically rather than literally is it possible that this story might become for us a kind of parable that suggests that life without rest brings a kind of a death in our lives. Many people today who work for long hours without a day off or a proper weekend face huge stress and health risks. In some ways it is the danger and the downside of what is sometimes referred to as the Protestant work ethic. If it becomes a badge of honour that we wear too proudly and is not balanced by rest, it begins to bear its own destructive consequences.
And that brings us to a fourth lesson, that our actions in life have consequences. And for me that is what those stories about God’s wrath and punishments were seeking to communicate. In life, all of our actions have consequences and part of our growth to becoming whole and responsible human beings is considering the consequences of our actions. I personally do not believe believe in a God literally sends a plague venomous snakes to punish and kill people as we read in Numbers 21, but I do believe that metaphorically speaking, we can often feel afflicted by what feel like metaphorical fiery snakes which are the consequences of actions that have come back to bite us. And that if we wish to be healed from our suffering, it needs to become an object of our contemplation like looking upon that Bronze snake which Moses lifts on a pole. We need to take time to ponder and look deeply into the causes of our suffering before we can be healed from it.
In closing, for many Christians from the earliest times, this image of the Bronze Snake being lifted on a pole by Moses, has been used as an early metaphor to interpret the death of Jesus, as we would find in John 3, suggesting that Jesus’ crucifixion is like that bronze serpent that has been lifted up and that somehow inexplicably the death of Jesus has the ability to bring healing and life to those who take the time to look upon it and meditate deeply upon it. When we take time to reflect deeply on Christ’s act of selfless, sacrificial love it has the power to transform and break open the hardness of our hearts. As we often sing: Love so amazing, so Divine demands my soul, my life, my all.
These are a few thoughts on the book of Numbers. They are certainly not a final word on the book. They are just my own reflections as I have wrestled with the book seeking to make sense of it in light of my own faith as one seeking to be a follower of Jesus. Other interpreters might bring forth other rich interpretations of it’s potential meaning and relevance for us today Amen.
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