Sat, 24 May 2008
Numbers clearly shows how terror strikes when the people of God will not maintain sustained worship of the God who is in their midst; in the absence of disciplined devotion, they simply lost hold of Him and turned to murmuring and to other gods. Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers all center on the holiness of God and what it means to be a people consecrated to Him. Christians are consecrated to God through the blood of Jesus Christ and the sacraments; to profane Christ and His covenant is to bring an even greater wrath upon yourself than that which befell the unfaithful Israelites.
Beginning in Numbers Chapter 13, twelve tribal leaders, one from each tribe, are selected by Moses himself to scout out the whole of the promised land in a 40-day reconnaissance mission. Meeting in Kadesh after the 40-days, Caleb urges Moses to attack the land, but vast majority of the other men say "we cannot attack these people; they are too strong for us," describing the giants or "nephilim" that inhabit some of the land and inciting the people to agree with them. Although God asked them to make a stand for the faith, they psyche themselves out saying "we felt like mere grasshoppers and so we must have seemed to them" (13:32ff).
At the sound of the majority's account, the people complain about what God has done for them and speak of a mutiny against Moses, moving to select another leader to take them back to Egypt. When Caleb and Joshua try to quell the rebellion they are nearly stoned to death. God then says, "How long will this people spurn me? How long will they refuse to believe in me, despite all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them with pestilence and wipe them out. Then I will make of you [Moses] a nation greater and mightier than they."
A true leader and living martyr, Moses intercedes for the people by saying that the nations know that God is in the midst of this people. If He were to kill them all here, people would say that "The Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them; that is why he slaughtered them in the desert" (14:15). Moses knows that God will not clean the slate of those guilty who will not give up their guilt and their sinful ways. Instead, he admits the guilt of the people and appeals to the steadfastness of God's love; by no means is this an appeal to God's "softness," but rather a testament of His unspeakable love for the people and willingness to provide the graces of repentance.
Answering Moses' intercession in the midst of His wrath, God swears by Himself and His glory that He will pardon the people but not one of those who have already spurned Him ten times will see the promised land. He then fates the people to wander for forty years for their supreme lack of devotion, "forty days you spend in scouting the land, forty years shall you suffer for your crimes: one year for each day. Thus you will realize what it means to oppose me" (14:34).
Immediately after God's sentencing, in Chapter 15, He provides hope by saying "When you have entered the land that I will give you..." and setting up regulations for proper worship and devotion. To establish the need for a holy Sabbath day, the Lord commands Moses to put a man who gathers wood on the sabbath to death (15:32-36). Mindful of how easily distracted and forgetful the people are, God then commands the Israelites to put tassels on the corners of their garments as a reminder; whenever they see the tassels they are to remember and keep all the commandments of the Lord. It is written, "Thus will you remember to keep all my commandments and be holy to your God. I, the Lord, am your God who, as God, brought you out of Egypt that I, the Lord, may be your God" (15:40).
While the Israelites may seem to be the most stupid, weak and unfaithful people on the face of the Earth, we realize that we are among their company. Miracles will do nothing for those who have no faith and are quickly forgotten, given the short attention span of human nature. Let us be ever-reminded of the need to be faithful and of God's indescribable steadfast love.
Music: Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Overture" performed by the Skidmore College Orchestra. www.musopen.com
Sat, 17 May 2008
The initial three chapters of the Book of Numbers showcase that the whole people belongs to God, the Tabernacle has a central place amidst the people, and that the Levites have a unique and extremely important duties. Throughout this time of encampment, the Levites punctiliously guard and maintain the Tabernacle, guard people against the wrath of God, and are continuously pastoring the people.
Then God commands Moses to number the all the Levites that are at least one month old. This is the first of a number of preparations God commands His people to make in order that they might survive the journey He has for them. These preparations establish norms for dealing with such issues as the unclean, suspected adulteresses and even Nazirites, those who take solemn vows of dedication to the Lord and abstain from all strong drink and fruits of the vine.
As they sojourn, the people begin to complain. Chapter 11 describes how God reacts to this obstinacy by sending the fire of the Lord to burn among them and consume the outskirts of the camp. We can see both an obvious and subtle lesson from verses 16-30. God distributes gifts to seventy elders, extending Moses' authority on those Godly men who are able to orchestrate, instruct and build the community. One man cannot build a community; the people themselves must all put their hands to the plow and make a community their own.
Although God provided for His people with a wind that "drove in quail from the sea and brought them down over the camp site," the people become greedy (11:31-34). Their ingratitude causes the Lord's wrath to flare up against the people and He strikes them with a very great plague. Throughout the 40 years in the desert the people take God's continuous miracles for granted and are punished for their actions.
Jealous of the seventy elders, the Lord reprimands Aaron and Miriam for murmuring against the Lord's anointed. Miriam herself is struck white with leprosy and banished from the camp for seven days.
Prerequisite in the formation of a community of God, the people must tremble before their Lord. Because the people will not reverence God, He expresses His justice through a form of severe mercy, cutting out that which is cancerous from among them.
Modern Christians may marvel at the responsibilities God placed on His people, but the Book of Hebrews relates that God has raised the bar even higher for the people under His new covenant. God is merciful, but when we refuse to accept God the way He is, we remove ourselves from this mercy. God is patient with us, but He requires us to prepare for the pilgrimage He has for us.
Music: Mozart's "Sonata No. 14 In C Minor" performed by Vadim Chaimovich. www.musopen.com
Sat, 10 May 2008
The modern Christian may be somewhat unfamiliar with the specifics of Israel's 40-year desert experience. Their sojourn begins in Exodus and the early sections of the Book of Numbers, ever guided by the teachings of Leviticus.
Although the Israelites gained physical freedom after crossing the Red Sea, they ceaselessly complained and rebelled throughout their journey despite witnessing many miracles. These texts clearly affirm that miracles do not create believers. Throughout the Book of Exodus, Moses is a Christ-like mediator between God and his people, who is unceasingly devoted to their welfare. The problems Moses has leading and uniting his community mirror the problems of the Catholic Church in America; we would do well to follow Moses' example and unite as many capable volunteers as possible in one mission for the glory of God.
Although God intended their journey to be a period of preparation for the people of His Kingdom, Israel, a slave mentality of dependence and passivity mark these 40 years (actually 38 years and 10 months). The people are not gracious for His gifts and repeatedly allow the trivial pleasures of slavery (leeks, onions, melons, etc.) to trump their new life of freedom and the bread from heaven; they are simply unwilling to undergo the suffering that following God brings upon them. To illustrate, this appetitive people would rather have died in Egypt with full stomachs than have received their freedom (Ex 16:3).
Though all Israel is a holy nation of priests, the tribe of the Levites are particularly chosen to offer the sacrifice of the altar. God's favor is not exclusive to any one tribe, however, for Joshua the Ephraimite succeeds Moses and later David of Judah becomes Israel's great king. Throughout the Book of Leviticus, the overarching principle is a call to be holy as God is holy. This does not apply only to the Levites, but to all of Israel.
The idolatrous worshiping of the Golden Calf directly follows the revelation at Sinai and prompts Moses' shattering of the first set of the tablets. Because of the weakness of their character, the people need strong, hero-like leaders and a visible tabernacle in order that they will not turn to idolatry.
In the first chapter of the Book of Numbers, we see a military census enrolling all capable men over the age of 20 (excluding the Levites), totaling over 600,000. The census prepares the people for the battles that God will have them fight, knowing that they can only gain victory by His hand. The military formation of Israel places the Levites in charge of the tabernacle so they might be a bridge to God but also a barrier between God's wrath and the people.
God's special plan for the Levites is a great gift that comes with great responsibility. The official mediators between God and Israel, those Levites who do not adhere to their duties (like Aaron's two sons) receive great punishment. In the Book of Malachi, God expounds on the responsibilities of priests and his great wrath ("I will strew dung in your faces...") toward those priests who are not faithful (2:1 ff). As the responsibilities of our Catholic priests are even greater, God's just anger will fall even more upon unholy priests of His new covenant.
Sat, 3 May 2008
Returning to our study in Exodus 3:4-22, the call of Moses on at Sinai showcases a veritable theology of God. The God of the Hebrews is not a mere tribal God, for He is "I Am Who Am."
Egypt is the classical Biblical metaphor for oppression and worldliness. In our modern context, we, too, need to escape from the "bondage of Egypt." Christ has broken the shackles of our slavery to sin, the world, the flesh and the devil; we can further "despoil Egypt" if we adopt its wisdom for God's mission (cf. Ex 3:22).
In Chapter 4, Moses questions his credentials to be God's deliverer for Israel. To empower him on his mission, God gives him the power to show signs: the ability to turn his staff into a serpent, to spread and heal leprosy and to turn water into blood on dry land (4:2-9). When he protests that he speaks with a stutter, God permits Aaron to be Moses' spokesman in a concession.
On his way to Egypt, Exodus 4:24-26 describes how God's anger wells up towards Moses who has been putting off circumcising of his sons. Neither Moses nor his wife Zipporah were thrilled with the idea of their sons' suffering, but the Midianite matron ends up circumcising her sons to honor God's covenant (cf. Gen 17:1-14). This passage is an object lesson in not procrastinating and not taking God's commands lightly.
Chapters 5-11 highlight Pharaoh and the plagues of Egypt. In some instances Pharaoh hardens his heart against God and in other instances God Himself hardens the Pharaoh's heart. The plagues upon Egypt are symbolic reminders that juxtapose the Egyptians with the people of God, set apart and bought for a price.
In Exodus 12, God describes the Passover to Moses. Although the Passover meal has evolved over time, Catholics would do well to understand the Biblical depth of the Eucharist, which has many profound roots in the Passover.
As the Israelites depart from Egypt and approach the Red Sea, the theme of deliverance begins in full-throttle. A testament to the hearts of the people, almost immediately after the river pulls back the people begin to doubt and complain. All the strong men of Israel would die before entering the Promised Land.
In Chapter 19, the Israelites reach Sinai where they receive the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, Modern Jews and Christians tend to group these commands in different ways, sometimes out of a desire to highlight certain of theological principles. St. Augustine's writings frame the current Catholic compilation which tends to group the 'first' and 'second' Commandments. A traditional Protestant enumeration would be a brief first commandment and a long second commandment that expounds on the decrees against worshiping graven images.
Regardless of the enumeration, we must strive never to take the Lord's name, breaking any habits we may have adopted. It is also crucial not to work or pursue our own vain pleasures on Sundays (cf. Is 56, 58). Paramount is honoring our father and mother, for although they are not without error, we must respect those who represent the authority of God to a young child. If we keep this proper order, bowing before God and His Commands, we will be greatly blessed. Our study seeks only to open doors of the text, as it would take dozens of sessions to unwrap the treasures God gives His people at the end of Exodus and the ways we can learn from them.
The goal of the Law is Jesus Christ. God gave these Ten Commandments are to prepare man to receive God and for God to embrace us. They frame our morality and keep us from making concessions. Mindful of the fact that we are not Jews living under the Old Covenant, the Law and God's regulations for Tabernacle worship are of great benefit in keeping a Christian steadfast to Christ on his journey out of Egypt into the Kingdom of God.