Sunday, February 27, 2011

Strength in Numbers

The title of this post is meant as more than just a pun on the title of the Bible's fourth book. It is meant to convey what I think is the key theme of Numbers: a test of strength. The book starts with a census of all military eligible men among the Israelites. It proceeds to continue the narrative begun in Exodus, with the Israelites heading out from Sinai and moving toward the promised land so that they can move in and conquer it. Just as the Israelites are about to enter, the central crisis of the book unfolds. They send spies to scope out the land, and all the spies but Caleb and Joshua come back with an unfavorable report about the gigantic Anakites. Thus the people doubt God's mission for them to enter the land of Canaan, and many try to escape back to Egypt. It is at this moment that God desires to be rid of all the Israelites and start over with Moses, and Moses responds with this plea:
"Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you will this people all one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 'It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.' And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
'The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.'
Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now."

To me, this is the most important passage in Numbers, and one of the most crucial passages in all of the Pentateuch. This is the crisis. This is the test of God's strength. Can God bring his people into the promised land, or not? God's enemies turn out not to be just the Egyptians, or just the Canaanites, but they turn out to be his own people whom he is trying to lead to victory. The allegorical implications of this story are abundant.

What follows this crisis is a story of wandering in the wilderness. Although God does forgive as Moses asks, he will not allow the present generation to enter the promised land; that is saved for the next generation led by Joshua. The rest of the narrative is full of great stories, such as the classic story of Balaam and his talking ass--er, donkey--not to mention stories about Israelites getting killed by snakes and plagues, people getting consumed by fire or swallowed up into the earth, or traitors getting run through with spears. This is definitely a rated 'R' narrative, topped off with a bloody war against the Midianites.

This narrative is interspersed with a lot of lists, regulations, and various commandments which don't really interest me here. I'm more concerned with the story being told. It is at once an exhilarating and deeply troubling story. Is this really how God works in the world? The God who became man in order to die for the sins of the world--is this the same God who enacts horrific violence not only on other tribes but even on his own people? In practice I find that most Christians don't really believe that God is like this; they only believe it in principle out of reverence for Scripture. For me, personally, I cannot feel myself bound to the words of Scripture in such a way as to embrace moral relativism. If God one day tells us to pray for our enemies, how can it be that he also once told his people to stone a man to death for moving sticks on the Sabbath? I do not accept that both can really be the commandments of God. Perhaps such a comment warrants a discussion of biblical authority, yet such discussions have become completely meaningless to me.

(My friend has suggested that I would prefer to read Numbers the way Origen would, interpreting it strictly as allegory. I think that's probably right. Israel's unwillingness to fight the Canaanites is a symbol for our unwillingness to mortify the flesh, and God's brutality against sin in Numbers suggests the seriousness of moral purity. These things I completely accept allegorically, but as literal commands from God? Absolutely not. Note that I do not deny the possibility that these horrible things happened in history; I simply find it impossible to believe that the true God could have actually sanctioned them.)

Moses comes off as the real hero in this story. He is the intercessor between God and man, and before both of them he appears in the right. God threatens to wipe out Israel, and Moses appeals to his covenant to persuade God otherwise. The people rebel against Moses and against God, and time and again Moses falls on his face begging the people to see reason. His attitude toward authority shows humility, yet firm resolve. For instance, when Joshua complains on Moses' behalf that there are people in the congregation prophesying, Moses responds, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" And yet when Aaron and Miriam complain against Moses, God intervenes to make clear to everyone that he has set Moses apart from the rest. Prophets may hear God's voice in riddles, but to Moses God speaks plainly. Throughout the whole narrative, Moses is always pleading with God to be more merciful, and pleading with the people to be more righteous. Indeed, it almost seems absurd that God would prevent him from entering the promised land--one lousy scene in which he hits the rock instead of speaking to it! (Commentators apparently cannot even agree on what makes God so angry!)

And yet, Numbers is ultimately about God, who dwells with Israel in the cloud. Its focus is not on the God who has a special purpose for your life and can help you when you feel overwhelmed by life. It is not concerned with your personal relationship with God. It is not trying to answer all of our questions about the meaning of life, or about the afterlife. It is mainly concerned, as I've said, with the question, how strong is God? The answer is clear: he is terrifyingly strong. Why else would the Israelites even bother? There's no way they're going to win against the giant Anakites, unless a powerful God fights for them. Yet God's strength has implications for Israel, as well: it means their disobedience has consequences. Thus the chaotic forces of the world around them are connected to morals, and long-term survival of the nation will require righteousness (as opposed to mere good fortune).

Is the God of Numbers a loving God? It certainly seems difficult to us to imagine so. Yet it was not so difficult for Moses; he still calls this God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, even when many of us would say just the opposite about him. This certainly puts a careful mind in a quandary: is it our standards which ought to change and conform, or ought we simply dismiss such crude ideas about God? I refuse to answer such questions. It will be better here to simply create space in the mind for such questions, and to allow inspiration to flow as more knowledge is gained. One thing is crystal clear from the books of the law thus far: God is totally committed to his covenant with Abraham, and even as God of the universe he has made his home among a fledging nation wandering in the wilderness, all for the sake of defeating their enemies and bringing them to a land of his choosing. Divine grace is here; it just doesn't look as pristine as we would expect.


  1. You're really trying to rile me up with the bit about not accepting that both "love your enemies" and "keep the Sabbath holy, on pain of death" can be commandments of the same God, aren't you?

    The preemptive dismissal of discussions of Biblical authority is a bit irritating, too. You're obviously reading this thing for a reason; it seems to me that what that reason actually is will depend wholly on whether you consider what you're reading to faithfully represent the acts in history of the God you're seeking to know, and especially whether you believe it to contain an authoritative interpretation of those acts.

    I don't mean to be overly harsh (though perhaps I am) - I just wish you'd think through the assumptions you bring to the table when you make these denials. I won't dismiss Origen out of hand here; there are certainly worse things you could do than apply Numbers to your life via allegorizing God's commands in history into principles about personal and institutional sin.

    But the questions you quite astutely note are more pressing for Moses and the Israelites can't be answered coherently by a truly allegorical reading of the text. Was God stronger than the gods of the nations surrounding His people? Can God be trusted? If God didn't enable the conquest the narrative describes in real history, in space and time - and if He didn't enact the punishments the narrative records on His own people - then those questions are simply not answered, and the historical text loses all value as a record of God demonstrating His strength and holiness.

    I think "loving" and "safe" are too easily confused for us, reading so long after the fact, and I think our desire to flatten out redemptive history into a set of fables, each with its own moral about "what God is like" or "how we ought to act," gets in the way of asking ourselves why we object so strongly to God acting or speaking in certain ways.

  2. First of all, no, I didn't write any of this to try to rile you up. You aren't the only one who reads this, and you aren't the only one who would be perturbed by my reading of the text.

    Second, I simply do not know with certainty what the value of this text is. But it seems one might want to endeavor to experience it firsthand, before making such a judgment. The issue of biblical authority is simply too large and complex to deal with before I start diving into the texts themselves. Suffice it to say, no, I'm not coming at it as an inerrantist.

    I think I've been fairly straightforward about my assumptions here. I'm too much of a moral absolutist not to complain about inconsistency here. I fail to see what difference reading "so long after the fact" should make. It is wrong for Arab terrorists to blow up buildings in the name of Allah, and it was wrong for zealous Israelites to go wiping out whole tribes in the name of God (though, mysteriously, these tribes kept showing up later). It seems to me often that the way strict inerrantists approach these texts is nothing short of moral relativism--God doesn't work like that anymore, but it was okay back then. I am fine with admitting that the moral framework I'm using is an assumption, but I am still ready to use it unapologetically.

    Does all of this mean the text has nothing to teach us about God's work in history? I think we're prone to jump to conclusions too quickly, here. Whatever else these texts are, they are interpretations of historical events. We can still learn from ancient Israel's interpretation of their own history, even if we disagree with it! No matter how you look at it, Christianity is a complete reinterpretation of the history of Israel. Our questions are similar to Israel's, but they take on a completely different scope.

    I am not confusing "loving" and "safe." Christ sacrificing himself for humanity: that's love. God punishing Israel with plagues every time they grumble: that's not. There's certainly nothing "safe" about the crucifixion. There's certainly nothing "safe" about living a life of extreme poverty and spending every day devoted to feeding the poor. There's nothing "safe" about standing up against at the risk of one's own life, yet refusing to be violent toward others. But that's love. Going to war and even slaughtering women and children is not love, no matter what millennium you live in. Have I clarified all my assumptions?


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