“2014 in review”

So WordPress.com stats have prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 580 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 10 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report. It lists my top 5 posts of the year, top referrers and country with the most visitors. Shalom and shanah tovah~

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Hiatus

Hey everyone, so sorry for the long silence… it’s been a rather busy time and initially, I was working on the next portion of Deuteronomy to get it posted, but about 3 weeks ago something unexpected happened, and I’ve had to shift gears.

My husband and I have been invited to teach the Bible to the youth of a little church. It’s the first time such a door has ever been opened to us, and we’re very happy and honoured to be given an opportunity to help feed God’s lambs. … It’s a day of small beginnings in every sense of the phrase, but we’re taking the responsibility quite seriously so for the last fortnight, part of our week has been spent preparing materials and curriculum, and what with the usual preoccupation with life, work and chores already going, I’ve decided with some reluctance that I should put Household Scribe on hold for now.

It wasn’t easy for me to come to that conclusion… I wanted very much to complete a full Torah cycle on my first year here at least (in fact, it’s a little hard not to take this as a sort of defeat, as silly as that might seem), but I guess God had other plans, and I’m embracing this development with hope and happiness all the same, and with all the optimism and enthusiasm my rather battered little soul is capable of mustering.

Of course, those of you who know me will know that I have a bit of a struggle with confidence sometimes, so pray for me if you don’t mind… pray for us, and pray for this fledgling ministry we’re embarking on. We want to help strengthen and establish these young hearts that’ve been entrusted to us in the truth of the word – we want them to come out of this loving and knowing God more deeply than they did before – and if that’s not the harvest we reap… well, then there doesn’t seem to me to be much point.

I’ll still be writing back at the Journey, though I don’t know when I’ll resume blogging here again… but if you’re signed on to follow me, you’ll be the first to know when I do. :) In the meantime, I hope the entries I’ve managed to do so far have been helpful/informative/edifying in some way to you lovely folks; please feel free to share any posts that you think others might be interested in, and I’ll see you when I see you, next time I see you.

… Thank you so much for all the times you’ve dropped by, and my love to you and yours. Shalom and blessings all~

Last things

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So we come at last to the final book of the Torah. And like it, the first portion (Deuteronomy 1-3:22) is called Devarim in Hebrew, meaning “words.”

Deuteronomy is the compilation of Moses’ farewell addresses to the nation of Israel as they were poised to enter Canaan. According to Deuteronomy 1:3-5 and Numbers 33:48-49, he began speaking to the people on the first day of the 11th month of the 40th year of the Exodus, as they camped on the east side of the Jordan across from Jericho in the plains of Moab, after the defeat of Sihon and Og.

According to Joshua 4:19, Israel officially crossed the Jordan on the 10th of the first month (Nisan) the following year, upon which they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. There they circumcised the second generation of Israelite men who’d been born in the wilderness, and kept Passover on the 14th. Then they ate the produce of the land the following day, upon which the manna ceased, and the settling of Canaan promptly began with the conquest of Jericho.

This tells us that things happened very quickly once Israel entered the land – literally in a matter of days – and Deuteronomy covers a period of less than 2 months (that is, if you exclude the events of chapter 34, which tells of Moses’ death and Israel’s 30-day mourning period); the Jewish sages say, in fact, that it was just slightly over 5 weeks, since they believe Moses died on the 7th of the 12th month.

Accordingly, Deuteronomy is packed with exhortation and warning, and characterised by a sense of momentousness and gravity. The English name of the book comes from the Greek word deuteronomion, meaning “second law,” and the sages refer to it as Mishneh Torah (מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרָה), meaning “repetition/review/explanation of the Torah.” Because Moses couldn’t enter the land with the rest of the nation, he knew that this was his last chance to exert any influence on Israel’s ability to safeguard its future there. So he spent it reviewing the history of the people’s relationship with God over the course of the Exodus; expounded on the law again (the sages note that of the 200 laws listed in the book, more than 70 are new); stressed what would happen to the people if they didn’t love and obey God once they were living in the land; and prophesied doom and redemption to them, because he knew that inevitably… they wouldn’t.

Ultimately, Deuteronomy is such an important book that it’s quoted over 80 times in the New Testament. And throughout its pages, one can hear the strain in Moses’ voice as he earnestly tried to impress on Israel the weight of his final concerns and wishes for them. When he spoke, it was in tones that modulated between love, encouragement, tenderness, rebuke, remonstrance, heartache… even bitterness and regret, because on the one hand, he knew that this was what he had laboured 40 years to bring his people to – the threshold of the fulfilment of all the faithful, abundant promises that God had for them – and he burned with anticipation for their sake; but on the other, this was a future he could have no share in, no matter how personally invested he was in it… and he knew, as a prophet, that this bright and precious destiny would eventually crumble at the hands of a disobedient, stiff-necked people, strive and warn them against it as he might.

So in a nutshell, Deuteronomy is the final testament and manifesto of a faithful, sold-out shepherd of God to the children of his people… who loved, cared, hoped and sorrowed for his flock to the end. The first 3 chapters are basically a repetition of things we already know from Numbers, so I don’t have much of a commentary to make on them; but I thought I’d link to a couple of devotional articles from Hebrew for Christians that I felt were really good, pertinent reads before going to the second portion:

Judging “righteous” judgement – on judging well and with love
Harden not your heart – what it means to have a hard heart

Up next: Moses dives into his first discourse in earnest.

The cities of refuge

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This next portion is called Mas’ei (Numbers 33-36), meaning “travels of.” And as a supplement of sorts to my last post, I’d like to focus on the cities of refuge in Numbers 35.

In the last entry, I established from Scripture that far from being bloodthirsty, God is actually concerned with human life and welfare. When the need arises, He does execute judgement, but only under specific conditions and with the explicit goal of punishing deliberate, excessive sin. Apart from that, His laws are geared toward the preservation of individual and societal wellbeing, both materially and spiritually; He doesn’t cause nor desire suffering for its own sake, and the cities of refuge are an excellent example of this.

… I remember, in fact, marvelling at this particular segment of Scripture when I first read it as a young believer, thinking how incredible it was that God would institute this kind of legislation for the sake of those who commit manslaughter. The morality that so clearly underpinned it amazed me, for here was a God who understood mercy… who didn’t advocate retribution or even the use of prisons for those who took a life by accident (unlike even the supposedly civilised Western societies of today).

In fact, if you look at the law as a whole, justice in God’s nation was supposed to be commensurate, yet considered… the process relational, even communal… its execution open and prompt, and the goal cleansing/restorative.

This is apparent in practically every piece of criminal legislation in the Torah. If someone committed pre-meditated murder, they had to pay for it with their own life; if they stole, they had to pay it back with interest; if someone got into serious debt, they worked it off and were released every 7 years (if not sooner); if they caused other kinds of harm, the closest suitable penalty/reparation was calculated and exacted. In ancient Israel, there were no gaols or life sentences, no interminable periods of labour/incarceration. Justice was sought, meted out, and matters had an end – in line with the character of a God who both judges sin to the full, and puts it behind Him.

So to explore the subject at hand, there were 6 cities of refuge in total. 3 were designated by Moses and located east of the Jordan (according to Deuteronomy 4:43, they were Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau for the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites); while the other 3 were west of the Jordan and appointed during the time of Joshua (Kedesh in Galilee in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba, or Hebron, in the mountains of Judah – Joshua 20:7).

To get an idea of their distribution, click on the map below once, then click again for a full-size view:

cities of refuge

As you can see, the cities were very evenly distributed throughout the land, so anyone guilty of manslaughter stood a good chance of reaching one of them in time if they were pursued. In fact, Deuteronomy 19:3-6 explicitly says, “You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, that any manslayer may flee there … lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and kill him” – meaning God wanted the Israelites to locate the cities of refuge as strategically as possible, and build roads to make them accessible.

Deuteronomy 19:8-10 even says,

Now if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers, and if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to walk always in His ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

This indicates that in God’s eyes, a manslayer was considered innocent rather than guilty, and worthy of protection from any grieving avengers who might seek to kill them for the death of a loved one. Thus if Israel’s territory expanded, additional havens were to be prepared so these individuals could make their escape. And when they arrived at one of these cities, this was to be their method of reception:

And when he flees to one of those cities, and stands at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declares his case in the hearing of the elders of that city, they shall take him into the city as one of them, and give him a place, that he may dwell among them. Then if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not deliver the slayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, but did not hate him beforehand. And he shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, and until the death of the one who is high priest in those days. Then the slayer may return and come to his own city and his own house, to the city from which he fled. (Joshua 20:4-6)

Now, the notable thing about this law was the fact God didn’t prohibit an avenger from pursuing or killing a manslayer. He didn’t declare that if a manslayer was judged innocent, then he could leave his city of refuge, go home, and the avenger was no longer allowed to seek revenge. Rather, the manslayer was to enter a city of refuge as soon as he could, seek the protection of the elders of that city until a trial for him was held, and if he was found truly innocent of murder, then he had to return to the city of refuge and live there until the reigning High Priest died.

So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood, because he should have remained 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. (Numbers 35:25-28)

So on the one hand, the Israelites were commanded to protect those among them who were guilty of manslaughter. But on the other, it wasn’t a prison sentence – the manslayer was supposed to stay within the walls of his city of refuge, but apart from that, he was free to live a normal life. And he could try to leave if he really wanted to… though if he did, he was liable for his own life, for if he was caught by an avenger of the person he killed, he himself could be killed with no penalty to the avenger.

This tells us that God, though merciful, is not a God who just sweeps bloodshed under the carpet… even accidental bloodshed. In fact, He made His feelings on the matter very clear in Genesis 9:5-6,

Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.

“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.”

It’s a law established from the beginning of creation that when the blood of a human being is spilled, the earth is polluted and the blood cries out for justice (Genesis 4:10-11), because man came from the earth and is made in the image of God, and the destruction of this living image is an extremely serious thing. … Even animals, who don’t have the same kind of moral culpability before God as human beings do, are considered guilty if they take the life of a person. This is why under normal circumstances, anyone who kills another human being must pay with their own life. It is the only form of atonement that suffices for the sin of murder, for in the eyes of God, it’s not a matter of deterrence (as the argument so often goes whenever the death penalty is discussed in recent times) – but justice. He makes this very clear in Numbers 35:16-21,

But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.

The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

Human life is sacred, and because of this, murder is one of the most serious sins a person can commit. If one is found guilty of it, one must pay the ultimate price. There is no arguing/reasoning/pleading/bribing your way out of it. According to the law, the courts had to judge carefully, and be absolutely certain that a person was indeed guilty of murder since his life hung in the balance – but if he was indeed tried and convicted, then he had to be handed over for execution, even if he fled to a city of refuge.

But if anyone hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises against him and strikes him mortally, so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you. (Deuteronomy 19:11-13)

God is both serious about preserving life, and taking it away when it is forfeit. This is why He established the law of the cities of refuge. On the one hand, He recognised that a manslayer is not guilty of murder because he didn’t take a life intentionally; but on the other, unintentional sin is still sin, and accidental bloodshed still entails certain consequences. Thus He didn’t enact a law preventing avengers of blood from pursuing or killing manslayers, because He recognised the legitimacy of their grief and the validity of their cause, since atonement is still required for the loss of a life.

So God couldn’t completely let a manslayer off the hook – but because such a person also deserved mercy, the way out was not to exact some kind of injury on him (which would be fundamentally unjust), but to provide protection for him, and an atonement which God Himself would deem acceptable. And since a life can only be atoned for with another life, someone else’s death was necessary to cover over the sin of manslaughter. And in a prophetic allusion to Yeshua, God therefore mandated in the Torah that manslayers could only walk free when the High Priest died.

… His death – the death of a holy, anointed, God-appointed individual – would atone for the bloodguilt of many. And if these people ventured to leave the city which God provided for their protection before that death occurred, then they were responsible for their own lives if they happened to fall into the hands of an avenger of blood: just as any Israelite who was caught outside of his house, away from the covering of the Passover lamb’s blood on the night Egypt’s firstborn were struck, was culpable for his own life… and just as any member of Rahab’s family who was found outside of her home, away from the protection of the scarlet cord, was guilty for his own neck when Israel swept through Jericho to conquer it.

This is how God solved the problem of accidental bloodshed in His nation equitably, without denying the iron necessity for atonement in the objective law of His creation, or the moral imperative to show mercy in an act of personal fairness to the individual. And He was adamant that these laws be observed strictly, so that justice would indeed be upheld in all quarters – for those suspected of murder, for the murdered, for the manslayer, and for the avenger of blood:

Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take 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 priest.

So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:30-34)

Thus the death penalty was God’s prescription for just atonement so the land wouldn’t be polluted by the violence of murder; and the cities of refuge, in turn, were instruments of mercy and containment so that the sin of accidental bloodshed, though unintended, would not be allowed to freely contaminate the land.

All this reveals a God whose character and principles are entirely self-consistent, and whose law is a study in that internal consistency – which, moreover, points us forward to the promise of Christ in self-referential, self-reinforcing patterns… in this case, the following passage in Galatians 3:

[The law] was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made … the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed.

When I read this, I can’t help seeing a picture of the cities of refuge in my mind… those appointed sites of legal mediation and safety where the occupants were confined by law because of their sins, and kept watchful and waiting for the promise of freedom which would be theirs when the High Priest died… living illustrations of the condition of the human race itself, subjected to corruption and futility through no direct fault of its own, but waiting for the redemption and liberation that would come when the Messiah Himself gave up His life for the world… a real-life rehearsal of the hope of creation, acted out even through the inadvertent transgressions of God’s own chosen nation.

… Truly His law is a tutor unto Christ, and redemptive in its purpose and message even in the smallest details. It’s quite amazing to contemplate, really.

Next week, we belatedly begin the book of Deuteronomy.

Midian’s end

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Hey all, sorry for the silence these last few weeks… it’s been a busy time and I had to put off blogging to take care of some things. I was quite sorry to have to miss the official beginning of Deuteronomy as a result, but I’m back to having a little more time on my hands again, so I’ll try to catch up with the backlog over the next little while.

 

This next portion is called Mattoth (Numbers 30-32), meaning “tribes.” And I’ve decided to focus on the events of Numbers 31: the destruction and plundering of the Midianites by Israel.

This chapter is another one of those that cause outrage and offence when people read the Bible. They say it proves that God is a homicidal, genocidal, brutal and bloodthirsty god, most likely dreamed up as a justification for the atrocities that a vengeful, avaricious Israel committed against their enemies – proof that history is written from the vantage point of the victor, if you will.

Of course, as mentioned at the end of the last post, it’s an eerie coincidence that a ground war should’ve started between Israel and Gaza during the week when Mattoth was the prescribed Torah portion. What’s more, the things many people are saying about present-day Israel as a result are pretty much the same things they’ve been saying about the Israel of the Bible for a long time – that they’re invading conquerors out to murder, oppress and rob their neighbours.

… I guess there really is nothing new under the sun.

But I’m writing this, first and foremost, because there’s no denying that this is a disturbing part of the Bible (I’ll talk about Gaza later). It’s disturbing to read about men, women and children being killed or taken captive, while their homes are burned and their animals and belongings are plundered by their conquerors. It’s extremely alarming that it should all have been done at God’s command, with His full approval and explicit instruction. … It goes against everything that we instinctively feel should be true about a loving God and how He wants His people to deal with outsiders.

But in past entries, I’ve dealt with controversial topics like slavery and misogyny (see The curse of Canaan, A defence of Biblical slaveryHow to read the Bible: an introduction, and Of ritual impurity and women) – and proven from the Scriptures themselves that the Bible isn’t as vulgar, immoral or unreasonable as superficial readings might at first suggest. So I guess this is the next logical entry in that vein. … And in my opinion, the primary question one needs to bear in mind when reading Numbers 31 is this: how does God feel about people who stumble His children?

Because this is a chapter which makes no bones about the fact that God was very much involved in the awful fate which befell the Midianites. It challenges us head-on, really, to look at Him in a way that comprehends His character without twisting or blaspheming it – and that’s something very few people make the time and effort to do. Nevertheless, Jesus gave us a very clear picture when He said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

Just before in Numbers 23:21, God had made His feelings about Israel clear when Balaam prophesied, “He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel.” As I wrote in The pagan personality,

In our relationship with God, our wrongs are between us and Him: once our sins are forgiven, they are also forgotten, and He will justify His own to non-believers in the clearest and most unequivocal terms, brooking no accusation or harmful intent against them.

So at this point, Israel was in right relationship with God – the 40-year exile was over; a new generation had reached maturity; the people had just defeated the Amorites; and they were now getting ready to enter Canaan. … To have come so far, and be so close to inheriting the promises of God for them, therefore, and to blow it all by committing idolatry and fornicating with pagan women – to hazard destruction by sinning so badly against Him now, so that His will for Abraham’s progeny would yet again go unfulfilled – was a very, VERY big deal.

And here’s the thing: God excuses no one. He plays no favourites. If His people sin against Him, He punishes them, and as a result of the Peor debacle, 24,000 Israelites died in a plague before any Midianites had to lose a hair on the battlefield (judgement begins, after all, at the house of God). But afterwards – anyone who’s guilty of stumbling and tempting God’s children to destruction will feel His fury, as the fury of a father whose kids have died of a drug overdose, and the blood of their dealer is now forfeit.

This is why, in Numbers 25:16-18, God said to Moses, Harass the Midianites, and attack them; for they harassed you with their schemes by which they seduced you in the matter of Peor.” There are 2 components to that command. In Hebrew, the word that’s translated “harass”, צָרוֹר (tzaror), is written in the infinitive absolute form. This implies that the Israelites were to hold a permanent, enduring attitude of enmity toward the Midianites that would result in an active, ongoing pursuit of their distress and vexation, as opposed to a once-off conflict. And secondly, they were to attack them in an actual conflict (which took place after the plague subsided).

Now, one might think that the latter would’ve been enough to punish the Midianites. After all, their population was decimated in that war, their cities burned, and their belongings plundered. Why should God have ordered that His people hold an attitude of perpetual enmity toward them as well? … Shouldn’t forgiveness have been the order of the day once the necessary requital of bloodshed was carried out?

… Well, the answer lies with the fact that Midian’s injury of Israel was not a temporary one – unlike a war. If we go to Joshua 22:17, we see the Israelites saying to each other, “Is the iniquity of Peor not enough for us, from which we are not cleansed till this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord?” And in Hosea 9:10, centuries later, God says in His denouncing of Israel’s corruption, 

I found Israel
Like grapes in the wilderness;
I saw your fathers
As the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season.
But they went to Baal Peor,
And separated themselves to that shame;
They became an abomination like the thing they loved.

Considering the testimony of these verses, if we recall the fact that God is just and punishes measure for measure, then it becomes clear why a once-off war with Midian was not enough – it was because Midian’s offence was actually permanent. For because of them, a lasting stumbling block had been introduced into Israel. Thereafter, the lust for the idolatry and immorality of Peor would plague the nation, never being totally removed, but emerging in fits and pockets throughout its history – which is probably why Numbers 25:3 says that Israel became joined, or yoked, to Baal Peor at Acacia Grove. It’s a fit description of what happened when Israel sinned, and a logical explanation for why God’s anger was so fierce.

This is why He said, “Harass the Midianites … for they harassed you.” According to Or ha-Chaim, a prominent 18th century Moroccan rabbi, the purpose of God’s two-fold command was not merely simple revenge. Rather, the desire for immoral pleasure and pagan worship, once experienced, is very hard to eradicate. That desire is constantly in danger of reasserting itself, and the way to deal with such a danger is by making people understand that what they think is a tempting pleasure is really an enemy, a threat to their very existence. Israel therefore had to become convinced that Midian had nothing to offer them… and the way to cultivate that conviction was by seeing and treating the Midianites, ever after, as a hateful and despised people.

Of course, one can try to accuse God of being unduly harsh because of this, but that’s only if one persists in not seeing Peor worship (or any kind of idolatry, for that matter) as the abominable, destructive thing that it was. … To revisit the drug-taking analogy, anyone who’s ever had a loved one struggle with addiction will know that drugs and junkies and dealers – any sordid thing or person connected with the addict’s old life, basically – are to be recognised as inimical to their loved one’s rehabilitation, and not given any quarter whatsoever. As well, they will know the anger and consuming desire to see the destruction of every den and needle and poppy field in existence… which is about the closest comparison I can think of to illustrate how God must’ve felt, and why He would’ve sanctioned the widespread destruction of Midian which He did.

In fact, if we read Numbers 22, we see that Moab felt “exceedingly afraid” and “sick with dread” when it came to Israel. So the king consulted with Midian as to what they should do, and Midianite elders accompanied the Moabites to see Balaam. Afterwards, Numbers 25:15 states that Cozbi, the woman who successfully seduced Zimri, a head of Simeon, was the daughter of a Midianite leader. These subtle but well-placed brushstrokes of detail indicate that Moab acted primarily out of fear for their own survival, whereas Midian was far more brazen about things – not even hesitating to offer up one of their own princesses to do the dirty work of corrupting Israel… to the point where an Israelite chief completely forgot himself, and had the temerity to openly present her to his brethren in front of Moses and the entire camp. Coupled with the fact that God did not pronounce the same kind of fate on Moab which He did Midian, this indicates that Midian had the greater share of blame for what happened in Israel.

So for those who insist on seeing Numbers 31 as an indictment of God’s supposedly genocidal tendencies, their case fails (as it does in the matter of the Canaanites) if one only deigns to look at the Scriptures and consider what they actually say, rather than what an ill-informed, superficial reading might at first suggest. … God wasn’t ordering the dismantling of Midian for its own sake, as if He were some callous, capricious, vicious despot, but because Midian had purposely, remorselessly committed a grave and irreversible evil to His children – and that evil could not be allowed to go unpunished.

But to complete our examination of the matter, we also have to deal with the second and equally, if not more, troubling part of Israel’s war with Midian: the taking of plunder and captives. … How is God’s role in that respect to be justified?

Well, we start with the fact that God, as Creator, has authority and ownership over everything there is. As Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein.” It is within His purview, therefore, to give portions of that fullness to whom He wishes, and the Scriptures tell us how He tends to like going about it in verses like Proverbs 13:22, which says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” and Job 27:13-17:

This is the portion of a wicked man with God,
And the heritage of oppressors, received from the Almighty:
If his children are multiplied, it is for the sword;
And his offspring shall not be satisfied with bread.
Those who survive him shall be buried in death,
And their widows shall not weep,
Though he heaps up silver like dust,
And piles up clothing like clay
He may pile it up, but the just will wear it,
And the innocent will divide the silver.

This had already happened at the commencement of the Exodus, when Israel escaped their slave-masters (“Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians” – Exodus 12:35-36); and it will happen again when the Lord returns, as described in passages like Zechariah 14:14 (“Judah also will fight at Jerusalem. And the wealth of all the surrounding nations shall be gathered together: gold, silver, and apparel in great abundance”) and Isaiah 60:

Then you shall see and become radiant,
And your heart shall swell with joy;
Because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you.

Therefore your gates shall be open continually;
They shall not be shut day or night,
That men may bring to you the wealth of the Gentiles,
And their kings in procession.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated,
So that no one went through you,
I will make you an eternal excellence,
A joy of many generations.
You shall drink the milk of the Gentiles,
And milk the breast of kings;
You shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior
And your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Instead of bronze I will bring gold,
Instead of iron I will bring silver,
Instead of wood, bronze,
And instead of stones, iron.
I will also make your officers peace,
And your magistrates righteousness.
Violence shall no longer be heard in your land,
Neither wasting nor destruction within your borders;
But you shall call your walls Salvation,
And your gates Praise.

From such sections laid out in the Bible, we know that God allows men to live and work and act as they will up to a certain point in time; He has determined that people should be free to choose who they want to be and how they want to conduct their affairs… but He will also address their sins and injustices when their cup is full. So even though He allowed the Egyptians to enslave the Hebrews, He also liberated the latter in the end, and transferred the Egyptians’ accumulated wealth into their hands. He was going to do the same with the Canaanites (see The curse of Canaan for more) and He was doing this now in the case of Midian. Likewise, He will do it when Jesus returns – upon which the peoples will face a reckoning, a total reversal of national fortunes and the old world order, the like of which has never been seen, or ever will be again.

… The fact is, God is able, and free, to bless, benefit and enrich His people even (or especially) when He is judging someone’s sin. It is an exercise of His discretion and act of kindness, even as He fulfils the imperative in His divine character to administer justice. One may try to say that this is unfair, as well, but grace by nature is not about fairness in the sense that it goes beyond what is simply just. For example: Jesus was judged, but the whole world was saved as a result through the transference of His righteousness and justification. … How much more should the wealth of a wicked nation, then, pass into the hands of the innocent/righteous when they are judged – because God has grace, and is redemptive in His justice?

Though in saying all this, does it mean that believers are supposed to be brutal, greedy people attacking others for profit so long as they purport to do it in His name? … Can we honestly conclude that Numbers 31 presents just such a case, and is therefore liable to be used for justifying that kind of behaviour?

The answer is a resounding no – because if we consult the whole counsel of the word, we know that vengeance belongs to God. If He decides to use His people as instruments of judgement, as He did with Israel on the Canaanites and Midianites, then yes… it is incumbent on them to obey and act. But the crucial point of the matter is that it does hinge on Him giving the explicit command to act. Killing and plundering wantonly – before God has deemed it time or meet to punish someone in such a terrible way – is not judgement, but robbery and murder. And utterly abhorrent to Him.

The truth is, when people have been doing terrible things for a long time, or have severely wronged God’s children, they forfeit the right (in some cases even the right of their offspring) to continue living and thriving under His auspices. Whether in His own house or among the nations, God must judge sin, and that judgement can come in the form of destruction, loss of freedom, and/or removal of wealth. Moreover, the severity of said judgement depends on the level of sin: depending on how serious and protracted the wrongdoing is and/or how much harm it’s brought to God’s people, it could engender total destruction with no survivors, or certain relatively innocent segments of the population may be spared, instead of dying with the rest of their brethren; and the wealth of said people might pass on to more worthy successors, or be condemned along with their owners because of how badly tainted and repugnant by association they’ve become.

But the bottomline is, bloodshed and booty are never an end in themselves for the Lord, nor are they to be pursued for their own sake by His people. We know this because on the one hand, there were communities that were allowed to continue in Israel’s settling of Canaan (like the Kenites), and others that were to be utterly destroyed without a single coin or cow taken (like Jericho in the time of Joshua, or the Amalekites during the reign of Saul). And whenever God’s desire in this regard was not obeyed, the guilty parties were punished (e.g. the stoning of Achan in Joshua 7, or God’s rejection of Saul from being king over Israel in 1 Samuel 15).

So really, it’s always up to God to decide what kind of end should befall a nation and their belongings – the decision was never left to Israel, nor were they ever given free rein to do just what they wanted. … There were always consequences if they fell short of doing exactly what He asked, or if they went beyond what He sanctioned. Thus in the end, the final responsibility always came back to Him, and was all about Him.

In fact, when we read the Bible, it’s a curious but apparent trait of the Israelites that they hardly ever did just what God told them to. Characteristically, they tended to stop short and were never, as a rule, as thorough or obedient about things as He wanted them to be. Examples of this abound in Joshua, Kings and the prophets, e.g. they didn’t drive out all the Canaanites when they inherited the land; didn’t fully observe the Torah for most of their history; and in the case of Midian, they didn’t kill any of the women even though a good number had participated in the seduction of Peor, thereby causing a grievous plague in their own camp. … So really, more often than not, Israel couldn’t rightly be accused of being ruthless, warring conquerors so much as reluctant, even half-hearted executors of His commands.

And on the rare occasion when Israel did cross the line (e.g. with Saul and the Gibeonites), it was His own people whom God judged (3 years of famine, no less, in that particular case – see 2 Samuel 21). And this is notable because the Gibeonites were actually Hivite and Amorite descendants… part of the 7 tribes Israel was supposed to purge from Canaan (see Deuteronomy 7:1-5). One would think, therefore, that if Saul killed them, it would’ve been counted as obedience to God. However, Joshua 9 tells us that Israel made a covenant with this particular group of Canaanites never to attack them – and despite the fact the covenant had been a mistake, God remembered it even though Saul didn’t. So when he violated it, God called him bloodthirsty, and David had to atone for it with the lives of Saul’s own descendants, after which God then heeded prayer for the land.

This same spirit of integrity, likewise, is seen in the fact that when Israel took plunder from her enemies, it had to be handled in a manner that was submitted to His law and character before all else. There were no shortcuts, exceptions or loopholes. If God considered certain items irredeemably contaminated, they had to be destroyed; and if not, they had to go through a process of ritual purification before entering the camp. Then a portion was tithed to God first, before being distributed among His people last of all. And the sanctificatory nature of the order in this procedure, I believe, was intended to imprint in the minds of the Israelites that whatever they possessed from their enemies was a blessing from God – it was theirs only because He had allowed it, so it was not to be mishandled or treated flippantly… and it certainly couldn’t serve as an excuse for them to stoke their own bloodlust or greed.

Additionally, if we pay proper attention to the Torah, we see that any prisoners captured by Israel were to be treated with a level of dignity which people often fail to mention where the Bible is concerned, as well. And this, too, was testament to God’s character… for just as judgement matters to Him, so does mercy (it’s just that in His justice, mercy cannot come before the imperative to judge). This can be seen in the law concerning the treatment of slaves (see A defence of Biblical slavery), and in Deuteronomy 21:10-14, on the treatment of any captive women whom Israelites might desire to be more than slaves:

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.

Nowhere in the Bible are the people of God ever allowed to simply use or abuse women, sexually or otherwise – not even prisoners of war. Instead, if an Israelite wanted to cohabit with a captured female, he had to make her his wife/concubine (which automatically gave her rights and protection). Not only that, he had to bring her into his home, provide for her needs while she put off her old life (as signified by the head shaving, nail trimming and change of clothes) and allow her a month-long mourning period. Then she was to live and be treated as a proper woman of the house, and if the man changed his mind about her, he had to set her free – he was not allowed to sell her or treat her as a slave because of everything she’d already been through. In fact, the Hebrew of that last injunction is extremely adamant:

וְהָיָה אִם־לֹא חָפַצְתָּ בָּהּ וְשִׁלַּחְתָּהּ לְנַפְשָׁהּ וּמָכֹר לֹא־תִמְכְּרֶנָּה בַּכָּסֶף לֹא־תִתְעַמֵּר בָּהּ תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר עִנִּיתָהּ

“And it shall be, if you do not delight in her, then you will let her go as she wishes, and selling you shall not sell her for silver; you shall not make a commodity of her seeing as you have afflicted her.

The Hebrew phrase וּמָכֹר לֹא־תִמְכְּרֶנָּה (“and selling you shall not sell her”) is very emphatic language – in English, it’d typically be translated more like, “most assuredly you shall not sell her” – and is written in the absolute infinitive form, indicating that this was something that was never, EVER to be done. … What’s more, the thing that really reaches out and grabs you when you read this verse in the Hebrew, is just how strongly God insists on the welfare of the captive woman. The language betrays great empathy and compassion, completely opposite to what many people would imagine in such a situation. … Thus even in Israel’s destruction of Midian’s males and mature women – those who, if left alive, posed the greatest threat to the nation (though a number obviously survived because the race grew strong enough again to cause Israel further grief in the book of Judges) – some comfort can at least be derived from the knowledge that once the terrible judgement was completed, those who remained were not allowed to be mistreated by their captors.

… And lest we forget, most importantly of all: none of these things had to befall the Midianites in the first place. The only reason it did, was because they participated in an intentional campaign to entice and destroy Israel through sin. If they hadn’t, they quite likely would’ve been left alone because they were not among the 7 tribes appointed to destruction by God. … And in an eerie parallel to current events, the same could be said of the war with Gaza: so many people are talking about the disproportionality of the conflict and how the women, children and innocent civilians of Gaza are suffering, but the fact is, it’s the Gazans themselves who voted Hamas into power – Hamas, who, bent on Israel’s annihilation, fired thousands of rockets across the border, eliciting Operation Protective Edge. … Without the incitement of that unrelenting and intolerable threat, Israel would have had no reason or desire to initiate any kind of military operation; but like the Bible’s critics of old, the world is blind to the one-sidedness of their interpretation of the situation.

And interestingly, the parallel doesn’t end there. Apart from Numbers 31, the Midianites are featured mainly in 2 other places in the Bible: the sale of Joseph, and the story of Gideon. And it’s my opinion that these passages paint a prophetic picture of what will happen to Israel especially in the end times… so I’d like to close this very long post, at last, with an analysis of what that might be.

Judges 6 says:

Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian for seven years, and the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel. Because of the Midianites, the children of Israel made for themselves the dens, the caves, and the strongholds which are in the mountains. So it was, whenever Israel had sown, Midianites would come up; also Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. Then they would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep nor ox nor donkey. For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, coming in as numerous as locusts; both they and their camels were without number; and they would enter the land to destroy it. So Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.

And it came to pass, when the children of Israel cried out to the Lord because of the Midianites, that the Lord sent a prophet to the children of Israel, who said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I brought you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage; and I delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. Also I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; do not fear the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell.” But you have not obeyed My voice.’”

In my view, the Midianites are representative of the enemies of Israel whom God will judge in the last day. The name Midian, in fact, is thought to mean “strife” from the noun מָדוֹן (madhon), or “place of judgement” from the root דִין (deen) – both of which are applicable to Midian’s role and place in Scripture. And in the opening paragraphs of the story of Gideon, one indeed sees shadows of many last-day details as set out in the word, e.g. the 7 years which the Antichrist will confirm, in his power, with Israel (Daniel 9:27); those in Judea hiding in the mountains when they see the abomination of desolation (Matthew 24:15-16); an Antichrist army of innumerable confederate multitudes descending on the land of Israel to plunder and destroy it (Ezekiel 38:10-16); and God-appointed prophets admonishing Israel during her time of suffering (Malachi 4:5, Revelation 11:3).

But more telling than that is the way the story ends, as set out in Judges 8:

Then Gideon went up by the road of those who dwell in tents on the east of Nobah and Jogbehah; and he attacked the army while the camp felt secureWhen Zebah and Zalmunna fled, he pursued them; and he took the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and routed the whole army. …

And he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?” So they answered, “As you are, so were they; each one resembled the son of a king.” Then he said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if you had let them live, I would not kill you.” … So Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments that were on their camels’ necks. …

Then Gideon said to [the men of Israel], “I would like to make a request of you, that each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder.” For they had golden earrings, because they were IshmaelitesSo they answered, “We will gladly give them.” And they spread out a garment, and each man threw into it the earrings from his plunder. Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the chains that were around their camels’ necks. …

Thus Midian was subdued before the children of Israel, so that they lifted their heads no more.

As a God-appointed judge of humble beginnings who later accomplished great victory over Israel’s enemies, Gideon was a type for the Messiah. And these closing paragraphs contain shadows, as well, of what will happen in the last days – specifically, what Christ will do when He returns at the time of Israel’s great distress, e.g. He’ll come upon the Antichrist army when they’re not expecting it and defeat them; He’ll take the deaths of His brethren very personally and avenge their blood; He’ll kill the army’s 2 principal leaders (the Antichrist and the false prophet); gather the riches of His enemies; and decisively destroy those enemies so they never rise to power again. … But the most notable detail in the story, to my mind, is the fact the princes of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, are recorded as wearing crescent ornaments.

The crescent is of course a symbol of the religion of Islam, and when you think about the fact that Israel is now surrounded by Muslim neighbours who call for her destruction (including the Palestinians), the story becomes extremely pointed, prophetically. Link that to Psalm 83, which talks about an end-time confederacy of nations coming to wipe out Israel, and the message is positively lanceolate:

Deal with them as with Midian
Make their nobles like Oreb and like Zeeb,
Yes, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna,
Who said, “Let us take for ourselves
The pastures of God for a possession.”

O my God, make them like the whirling dust,
Like the chaff before the wind!
As the fire burns the woods,
And as the flame sets the mountains on fire,
So pursue them with Your tempest,
And frighten them with Your storm.
Fill their faces with shame,
That they may seek Your name, O Lord.
Let them be confounded and dismayed forever;
Yes, let them be put to shame and perish,
That they may know that You, whose name alone is the Lord,
Are the Most High over all the earth.

This tells us that it’s no accident there’s a war going on between Israel and Gaza right now. It’s a war rooted in ancient spiritual enmity between the God of Israel and the god of the nations that surround Israel – a war that goes beyond mere geo-politics or tribal feudalism, which will culminate in an invasion of nations (including Gaza/Palestine) against Israel that will precipitate the Lord’s return (see Zechariah 14) – an invasion whose leaders will be wearing as their symbol, like the Midianite princes of old, the crescent moon.

And what’s even more revealing, is the fact the Midianites are referred to as Ishmaelites in the story of Gideon. Midian was not a descendant of Ishmael, of course, but his half-brother (both were born to the secondary wives of Abraham, Hagar and Keturah), but I believe this is at least partly a reference to the fact that Israel’s enemies will be of the same spirit as Ishmael (jealousy/enmity) and under his spiritual leadership (Islam was founded by Ishmaelite descendants). And this association, interestingly, occurs only 1 other time in Scripture: in the sale of Joseph.

Now we know that Joseph was yet another type for the Messiah (see the opening paragraphs of this post for more), and Genesis 37:28 tells us that he was sold by his brothers into the hands of Midianites, who took him to Egypt (where he eventually rose to prominence and power). … Parallel this to Yeshua’s life, and we see that He was likewise sold by His brethren into the hands of the Romans, who crucified Him (and facilitated the means by which His name would later be spread to all nations). So in a nutshell, Yeshua was given into the hands of the people who would eventually afflict Israel with a great destruction; and when we consult the historical records of Josephus and Tacitus, it’s revealed that the 4 Roman legions that were under Titus during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 were recruited from the eastern portion of the Roman empire, with the general breakdown of their nationalities being as follows:

  • Legio X Fretensis: Turkey, Syria
  • Legio XV Apollinaris: Syria
  • Legio XII Fulminata: eastern Turkey, Syria
  • Legio V Macedonica: Serbia, Bulgaria

The legion, in particular, that went through the city’s wall breach and set fire to the Temple was known as X Fretensis (the Tenth Legion). They were the ones who actually pulled down the Temple and made the Temple Mount its new base. And when we examine the smaller units, or cohorts, that made up this particular legion, we find that they in turn came from these more specific locations and populations:

  • Thracum: Syria (Syrians)
  • IV Cohort Thracia: Bulgaria and Turkey (Turks)
  • Syria Ulpia Petraeorum: Petra in Edom (Nabatean Arabs)
  • IV Cohort Arabia (Arabs)

Thus while the people who destroyed the Temple were Roman citizens, they were not primarily of European descent – they actually came from the ethnic groups living in the region around Israel during the first century (for more on this, please see Walid Shoebat’s book, God’s War on Terror, pages 349-353). And not surprisingly, these people are, today, overwhelmingly Muslim.

It’s extremely interesting therefore that Genesis would mention, even in passing, a Midianite/Ishmaelite connection in the sale of Joseph… as if the text was giving us a furtive peek at who would primarily be involved with Israel, again, during the period of Joseph’s antitype in the first century AD – an eerie testament to the highly patterned nature of prophetic history, if you will. And it explains why, in Daniel 9:26, it says, “The people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary”; the prince who is to come is of course the Antichrist, and the Scriptures are telling us that it was going to be his people – people who shared his ethnic/spiritual lineage – who would destroy the Temple during the time of Christ. … And it is these same people who will surround Israel, again, for the final battle just before He returns.

In my opinion, none of this is a coincidence. In my view, these 3 parts of the Bible contain unmistakable hints as to what was going to happen at Christ’s first coming, what is happening to Israel now in His absence, and what will happen when He returns. The pieces fit: it all hinges on the question of who the Midianites are, and what their end is supposed to be in the eyes of God – and the Scriptures themselves tell us the answer.

… Of course, I must make the usual disclaimer that none of this is guaranteed to be absolutely correct before the confirmation of real-life fulfillment, but the way it all fits is highly interesting, right?

So that’s it for this entry. … Phew. Next up: the final portion of Numbers.

An overview of the prophetic

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This next portion is Pinehas (Numbers 25:10-29), and the part that interests me most about it is the last 2 chapters, which list the daily and additional offerings of the sacrificial system.

Numbers 28-29 present all manner of tantalising questions to a student of the sacrifices (which I admittedly am) and I’d like nothing more than to plumb its mysteries and write about it… but at present, it’s beyond the power of my understanding. Fortunately, I’ve run up against walls like this many times, and it’s been my experience that when I have question marks concerning certain mysteries in the word, by the grace of God, sooner or later, a glimmer will come to me, and I’ll begin to get an inkling of the import of what I’m reading. So maybe it’ll happen with this part of the Torah, sometime, in a future cycle (it’s certainly my hope). And then I’ll come back to it.

But for now, I’ll write about what I can understand. Or in the case of this entry, link to it. In Numbers 27:18-23, God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as a leader after him:

And the Lord said to Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation, and inaugurate him in their sight. And you shall give some of your authority to him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may be obedient. He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire before the Lord for him by the judgment of the Urim. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, he and all the children of Israel with him—all the congregation.”

So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation. And he laid his hands on him and inaugurated him, just as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses.

This made me think back to a series I did a while ago about the function of the prophetic (anointing and imparting spiritual authority being the 12th). It ranges far beyond the context of the current Torah portion, but I thought it was a thematic fit:

The function of the prophetic: introduction
The function of the prophetic: part I
The function of the prophetic: part II
The character of the prophetic: part I
The character of the prophetic: part II

And there’s a small mention of the relevance of the Urim and Thummim to the understanding of a later passage in the Bible, here (second question):

A Christmas Q&A: #10

Next portion: the Midianites pay for their corruption of Israel (… which, considering the ground offensive going on in Gaza this weekend, seems eerily appropriate). Shalom.

The pagan personality

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So this next portion is titled Balaq (Numbers 22:2-25:9). And the thing that stood out to me to write about, was the insight which people like Balaam and Balak give us into how a pagan thinks.

It’s a subject that interests me a lot because I used to be one, myself. Reading about Balaam and Balak reminds me of what it’s like to look at God through a non-believer’s lens, and even though I don’t believe in plumbing the depths of how such people think, I do think it’s instructive, at the same time, to consider the outlines of it in comparison with the actual truth. Learning the difference between Biblical and pagan thinking has served to help me develop my discernment, and a much fuller sense of the big picture when it comes to spiritual truth over the years, and this is something that Scripture actually allows and enables us to do.

For example: Balaam’s strangely misleading and perverse relationship with God. The Torah portion records him addressing God as “the Lord my God,” and saying things like, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more,” and “Have I any power at all to say anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak,” and then to the Angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back.”

It seems, from these things, that Balaam knew God, and believed in obeying Him. It even sounds, on occasion, like he was anxious to please God and quick to respond when he knew how He felt. But on the other hand, one also reads in the text that God was aroused in anger against him, and the Angel of the Lord stood in the way to kill him. Moreover, from the overall witness of Scripture, we’re given these details about who Balaam was and what he was like:

  1. He was a sorcerer (Joshua 13:22)
  2. He loved the wages of unrighteousness (2 Peter 2:15)
  3. He had a tendency to greed and profit (Jude 1:11)
  4. He communicated with God to curse Israel (but God didn’t listen to him) (Numbers 22:10-12, Deuteronomy 23:5, Joshua 24:10)
  5. He advised Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality (Numbers 31:16, Revelation 2:14)

When you put all these things together, a telling picture emerges. It helps make sense of why, on the second night of His visitation, God told Balaam that he could go to Balak (Numbers 22:20). God wasn’t saying that it was all right for him to go, after all; He’d already made His wishes clear the night before, when He said, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Rather, God was giving Balaam the opportunity to choose what was uppermost in his heart… and he chose to go against the Lord’s express command, hence God’s anger when Balaam went with the princes of Moab.

Moreover, on the way, Balaam couldn’t see the Angel of the Lord standing before him even though He blocked his path 3 times. He was oblivious – blind, literally, to the will of God. And when his eyes were finally opened, he had the audacity to say to the Angel that if his going displeased Him, then he would turn back – whereas the truth was if he’d been listening, he would already have known that God was displeased. … Instead, he took God’s injunction to speak only what he was told IF he went to Balak, as permission that he could go; and he understood it as such because that’s what he secretly wanted to hear, despite his professed desire to obey God… which is probably why the Angel said Balaam’s way was perverse before Him.

This perversity is further highlighted by the fact that this man, supposedly well versed in divination and sorcery, and famed for his power to bless and curse, had less spiritual perception than a mere donkey. Furthermore, his talking animal could’ve been taken as a sign that the power of speech came from God, and so he was only going to be able to speak what God wanted him to say – but he was oblivious to this as well, and repeatedly tried to curse Israel at Balak’s behest. According to Numbers 24:1, he only accepted that it pleased God to bless Israel, in fact, after 2 thwarted attempts; then he stopped trying to use sorcery, and the Spirit of God came upon him. And then he called himself “the man whose eyes are opened … him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down with eyes wide open” during his prophecy.

But the irony is that Balaam’s eyes weren’t really open at all… for his experiences of God did nothing to affect or alter his character. In fact, when he realised that he couldn’t curse Israel, he did the next best thing: he got Israel to curse themselves, as it were, by tempting them to sin so they would incur God’s wrath and judgement. … It’s as if he knew God just well enough to exploit the just nature of His character so he could accomplish his wicked mission, but not enough that he might develop a holy fear of God, and repent. In this, we can see that he harboured malice, pride, irreverence and callousness in his character, and in the end, he was killed by the children of Israel alongside the Midianites (Numbers 31:8, Joshua 13:22).

All this tells us that Balaam was not a real worshipper of God. In fact, I think he had no proper idea of who God was at all. He knew about God, and this impersonal knowledge gave him enough confidence to think that he knew Him, but it made him look at, speak of and relate to God in ways that were ultimately contradictory, insincere, and completely inappropriate. … In a sense, Balaam thought he could use/manipulate God, and the sad tragedy is that regardless of what he could’ve learned from the things God tried to show him, he didn’t.

The New Testament records a similar character in the form of Simon the sorcerer. In Acts 8:9-24, he wielded the same kind of power and reputation among the Samaritans as Balaam did among the nations in his day; and when he heard Philip’s preaching, he believed and was baptised, but turned out to be unregenerate, still, when he tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. This betrayed a proud, power-hungry character liable to miss the point, and Peter rebuked him, saying, “You thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God.” 

This was the kind of base attitude that Balaam had in approaching God, as well, and the similarity between the 2 is further highlighted by Peter’s description of Simon as being poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity. In Deuteronomy 29:18-19, bitterness is associated with those who practise idolatry – the person who “blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, even though I follow the dictates of my heart’—as though the drunkard could be included with the sober.” Likewise, Balaam thought he could do what he wanted as long as he toed an imaginary line of token subservience to God, just as Simon probably thought he was saved because he’d been baptised; but the truth is, both men were bound by iniquity and only purported to obey God because they were afraid of His judgement. This is why Balaam tried to backpedal with the Angel of the Lord, and Simon asked Peter to pray for him – theirs was a fear borne of self-preservation rather than the awe of God, and it was not a saving fear. Both men were still blinded… ignorant of their condition because they were “drunk”, as it were, on disobedience.

This sort of blindness characterised Balak, as well, and the Syrians of 1 Kings 20, who believed that “the Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys.” Balak thought God might change His mind about cursing Israel if he appealed to Him from different locations, just as the Syrians thought they could defeat Israel if they just fought at a different battlefield; they believed that YHWH was a God who could be switched around/manipulated by superficial changes in natural circumstances – that He was a God who can go back on what He says and not mean it, even when He’s said it emphatically. … Essentially, they thought He was like their other gods – capricious, appeasable, and beholden to the dictates of superstitious actions.

This kind of attitude, in turn, is not unlike that of other non-believing individuals like Nebuchadnezzar (please see the discussion in the comments section below for more), Cyrus, and Belshazzar’s wife etc. In the Bible, they were recorded as calling God, “the God of gods, the Lord of kings,” “the Most High God,” and “the Holy God.” They also confessed things like, “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation,” “There is no other God who can deliver like this,” and “the Lord God of Israel, He is God.” And yet despite all this, these same people remained, as far as can be determined from both history and Scripture, polytheists.

So this, in my view, is what it means to be pagan: it’s confessing with the mouth, even assenting with the mind, to the greatness, holiness, power and supremacy of God, but having the heart remain untouched, and unrenewed, by that knowledge. It is, basically, a state of spiritual lip service, where God may be acknowledged as the ultimate ruler of many forces, but also seen as one whose will can, at the same time, be supposedly challenged by other forces (or someone who knows how to wield them).

… On a personal note, this is precisely the sort of thinking that underpins my own father’s religious beliefs, and the great tragedy of such religion is that it’s typically characterised by blindness, self-contradiction and hypocrisy – because it allows the non-believer to “believe” in God while still worshipping other gods, and to fully indulge in the trappings of spirituality without the necessary, redeeming grace of repentance. … It is not the cold, dead, utter unbelief of atheism, but the lukewarm, non-committal, partial belief of spiritual promiscuity – so distasteful to God because it knows neither truth nor fidelity, yet claims to do precisely that.

The pagan personality, therefore, serves as a caution against a certain kind of folly… that is, the folly of thinking you can carry on exactly as you wish and in service to other things apart from God, so long as you pay some kind of (superficial) tribute to Him. It is a lie. … Perhaps the greatest lie.

And the troubling thing is, there’re many Christians today who live and act in just this way. They profess belief, yet behave as Balaam did: selfishly, greedily, carnally. … Such elements have always existed in the body, as attested by the Lord’s message to the church in Pergamos in Revelation 2 – the church is described as dwelling where Satan’s throne is, and even though I believe there’s a historical context to this, I think it’s also indicative, at the same time, of the fact that those who live double-minded and compromised are like Balaam, and that they are, essentially, sitting at the feet of the enemy – they continue to commit idolatry in its various forms (materialism being a major one of the modern age) and, like the Nicolaitans, pursue sexual immorality (for more on this, please see the end of this post). And the numbers of such people in the body have grown at an exponential rate in recent times.

To my mind, it’s no wonder that Jesus addressed Himself to the people of the Pergamon church as “He who has the sharp two-edged sword,” and that the stated judgement for them would be His coming to “fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” The Angel of the Lord stood against Balaam with a sword in His hand, and this seems to be the only thing that has any effect on the pagan character – fear of God’s retribution, rather than reasoning or love, because the carnal and idolatrous mind, due to its all-consuming focus on its own interests and desires, doesn’t respond to anything less.

… Of course, the sword of His mouth is ultimately a metaphor for the word of God, and it is by the word of God that we will all be judged; so it also seems to be the most direct remedy for the compromised believer to start studying the Scriptures, so that godly fear, wisdom, and truth might begin to infect them with a realisation of their own condition, and, over time, bring about repentance and change. And there will lie the crucial difference between believers and non-believers: they know and believe the opposite to what pagans do, in that, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.” If He says He will do something, He will do it; if He speaks, He will make it good – and a God who is beholden to nothing but the dictums of His own character and word is to be respected and feared.

To non-believers, this is a dismay, but for believers, it is an encouragement. Because if we go back now to the story of Balaam, we’ll see that when he prophesied according to God’s will, he said:

He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, Nor has He seen wickedness in Israel.

… How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, Like gardens by the riverside, Like aloes planted by the Lord, Like cedars beside the waters.

If you think about it, this is actually astounding. Because up to this point, Scripture has been telling us that Israel was extremely stiff-necked and disobedient. They tested God 10 times, incurred His wrath to the point that He almost destroyed them twice, had just gone through 40 years’ wandering in the desert for their faithlessness – and yet when an outsider tried to curse them, He stood up for them and averred that He saw no iniquity or wickedness in them. … This tells us that in our relationship with God, our wrongs are between us and Him: once our sins are forgiven, they are also forgotten, and He will justify His own to non-believers in the clearest and most unequivocal terms, brooking no accusation or harmful intent against them.

… He rejects and condemns the perverse, but fully embraces the penitent. And that is such a comfort.

Next week, we look at more of the law.

Bringing the clean out of the unclean

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This week’s portion is Huqqath (Numbers 19-22:1), meaning “the statute/ordinance of” (for more on what a statute/ordinance is, see The ordinances of God). It’s a very eventful portion, and took me a bit of thinking to narrow down what to write about; but a survey of the text revealed an angle that, to me, seemed worth exploring.

Job 14:4 says, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!” And yet this Torah portion documents 2 separate occasions on which that precise thing was accomplished: first with the ashes of the red heifer, then the bronze serpent.

In Of ritual impurity and women, I noted that ritual impurity can be caused by the following conditions:

  1. Exposure to, or direct contact with, a human corpse
  2. Contact with the carcasses of unclean animals, or clean animals which did not die by ritual slaughter
  3. Male and female emissions
  4. Giving birth
  5. Contracting צָרַעַת (tzara’ath, typically translated “leprosy”)
  6. Contact with people/objects that’ve been contaminated by the above

Interestingly, all these incurrences of ritual impurity required the unclean person to bring offerings to God as part of the cleansing process, with 2 exceptions: contamination via secondary contact, and contact with death. In the case of the former, washing and waiting till the evening was, quite understandably, sufficient; while with the latter, the person had to undergo a cleansing period of 7 days, during which they had to be sprinkled with running water mixed with the red heifer’s ashes on the third and seventh days, then bathe and launder their clothes.

This is very interesting because death is the most potent source of ritual contamination in the Mosaic system – yet a personal sacrifice is not required on the part of the contaminated in order for them to be cleansed. Instead, they are purified through an offering that was made quite apart from them, and once for all (that is, so to speak, since the ashes of a single heifer, though ample, would eventually run out, upon which another animal was then sacrificed; in Jewish tradition, it’s taught in fact that throughout Israel’s history, a total of 9 red heifers were burned for this purpose).

The weightiness of this offering can be seen if one compares it to similar offerings. Unlike ordinary sacrifices, which were slaughtered at the entrance of the tent of meeting, the red heifer was slaughtered outside the camp like the Yom Kippur scapegoat, the atonement cow for unsolved murders (Deuteronomy 21), and the purification bird for a healed metzora or leper – indicating remission for a significant level of sin, which required the sacrifice to be taken outside the camp. At the same time, Numbers 19:9 explicitly says in the Hebrew that the red heifer’s ashes are a hattath – the offering which is made for unintentional sin (see The sacrifices of God: part II for more).

All of which, in my opinion, tell us that death is the one thing no man can help or do anything about. It comes to all, is an implacable foe, and carries with it the highest level of spiritual uncleanness to be found in creation, since it is the direct violation of God’s first and ultimate will for us. There is no offering that we can make which is sufficient to cleanse us from its stain, or powerful enough to release us from its grip… that is, apart from the sacrifice which God has set out Himself, first in the ashes of the red heifer for Israel, then the perfect sacrifice of Yeshua, His appointed Messiah, for the entire human race.

And notably, everyone who was involved in preparing and using the ashes was rendered unclean in the process – from the priest in whose presence the heifer was slaughtered and burned, to the person responsible for burning it, to the one who gathered up its ashes, to the people sprinkling/carrying the water of purification into which the ashes were mixed. Ironically, the only people who were not rendered unclean upon contact with the ash water were those who needed to be purified by it; so the red heifer’s ashes had the strange effect of rendering unclean those who were clean, and clean those who were not.

The exact explanation for this is unknown, which is why the law of the red heifer is called a statute/ordinance (again, see The ordinances of God). But I do have a thought on the matter. … It’s only a theory, so I’d caution anyone against considering it definitive. But continuing along the line of thought that’s been articulated so far, perhaps this peculiar trait of the red heifer’s ashes is supposed to be a reinforcement of the message that it is solely on the strength of God’s decree – His grace in the provision of a sacrifice which He alone judges is satisfactory – that we are made clean, and nothing else. … In the same way Romans 9:16 says, “It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy,” it is not of him who slaughters/burns/gathers, nor of him who sprinkles, but of God who makes clean – and so we are pointed forward to the truth that we are saved from death through the sacrifice of Christ alone, and not the work/mediation of any man (certainly not our own).

… Or perhaps, now that I think of it, this peculiarity of the ashes is an indication of the innocence of the blood that’s been shed. For interestingly, no one lays hands on the heifer when it’s slaughtered, which means it isn’t identified with any single person or group in particular. In that sense, it doesn’t embody sin like the other sacrifices, and is a pure offering before God… and it is the shedding of innocent blood which defiles. Perhaps this is why all who have a hand in the sacrifice and handling of the red heifer’s remains become unclean, just as all are guilty in the death of Yeshua – though conversely, just as the ashes of the animal were powerful to both render unclean and purify, so is the blood of Christ all-sufficient in its ability to condemn, and cleanse people of sin. … Before the innocent blood of Yeshua, all are judged and found wanting; but on whom it is sprinkled in faith, they are granted new life and purified from death – or as John 11:25-26 puts it: “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die”. 

Whatever the case, it’s a great mystery and truth that through something ostensibly exceedingly unclean, God willed to bring about the greatest purification for His people.

Similarly, in Numbers 21, we’re told that God sent fiery serpents into the camp to bite and kill many people when the children of Israel complained terribly against Moses and the manna. Then God instructed Moses to make an image of a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, so that anyone who’d been bitten could look upon it and recover. So ironically, the thing which was a torment and misery to Israel, an embodiment of the judgement of God, was the same thing that served to heal them.

So just as the red heifer presented an appearance of exceeding sinfulness, being completely red (red being the colour of sin as per Isaiah 1:18), and yet bore no actual sin, so the bronze serpent, being made in the image of a terrible judgement, offered the very means by which that judgement could be averted – and both were prophetic symbols of the way in which Yeshua would be offered up… maligned, slandered, and deemed cursed by all who saw Him, yet bringing about the purification and healing of many through that very act of being lifted up in sacrifice.

In my opinion, these accounts highlight a couple of things. The first, as has already been articulated, is the importance of faith and where one places it – that is, not in any man but in God. The second is the peculiar principle that God does things measure for measure, so it takes death to remove death, and judgement to remove judgement.

One sees this, for example, in studying the red heifer ritual and the purification ritual of a healed leper (the only 2 occasions when a combination of cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop was involved in the purification process, which indicates Scriptural comparability). In the case of the leper, the cedar, crimson and hyssop were mixed with the blood of a bird, whereas with the red heifer, they were added to the animal’s ashes as it was burning. In my opinion, this is because the leper’s purification involved the removal of iniquity (see Understanding Biblical leprosy for more), which required the use of blood. But in the case of the heifer, death itself is not a sin, but a consequence of sin, so it could only be atoned for by another death (and that through judgement, fire being a symbol thereof) – hence the use of ashes.

All of which, in turn, point to what happened at the cross, and the plan of God from the beginning to deal with both sin and death through substitutionary atonement and judgement (… you could almost say that, like Caesar, the twin tyrants of sin and death needed to be rendered their own, hence the Biblical pattern of blood for blood and ashes to ashes).

So the greater part of Huqqath seems to be telling us that it is really only by the grace of God that we can get anywhere. … It’s by His grace alone that we have our sins forgiven and covered over, and it’s by His grace alone that we are purified and healed, and brought to the finish line of His plan for us. For it’s only God who can, in His wisdom and mercy, satisfy the demands of His justice without ending us entirely; by ourselves, we’re wont to court it in our propensity to sin. And almost as if to prove the point, the narrative jumps ahead about 38 years right after Numbers 19, to when Israel is approaching the time of entering Canaan again; and it’s at this juncture that Moses and Aaron sin, and get barred from entering the Promised Land.

… The 2 people whom one would think stood the greatest chance of entering Canaan did not, because men – even the best of men – fail. Likewise, the text tells us that the Edomites, whom one might think would have some sympathy for their Israelite cousins and let them pass through their land, did not. And then finally, and very regretfully, Aaron passes away. … Thus any belief one might have in the capacities of men are demonstrated, in Scripture, to be uncertain in the end.

Now it’s only after these events that Israel is recorded as beginning to defeat her enemies at last, and approach the very border of Canaan in Numbers 21. So arguably, there’s actually a third instance in this Torah portion of God bringing something clean out of what was unclean. For just as He wrought purity out of impurity with the red heifer, and healing out of affliction in the matter of the bronze serpent, God was now bringing a new nation out of the old: the former generation of Israel had passed away, and out of that exceedingly stiff-necked, rebellious and doomed people, He was raising a new generation that would inherit the promises which, just 40 years earlier, had seemed so decidedly thwarted. He had not forsaken Israel, but was still faithful to carry out His will concerning her.

… So in the end, in the face of all this, one can really only come to one conclusion: the Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever. And thank God for that.

Next week – the antics of Balaam.

Biblical botany 101: almond

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This next portion is titled Qorah (Numbers 16-18). It chiefly covers Korah’s rebellion and its aftermath, and I thought I’d look at the miracle of Aaron’s rod, specifically as it relates to the symbolism of the almond in Scripture.

The Hebrew word for almond is שָׁקֵד (pronounced “shaqeidh”) from the verb שָׁקַד (shaqadh), which means to be awake, watchful, on guard, vigilant. The name is descriptive of the fact that the almond tree is among the first to bloom in late winter/early spring, before the leaves appear. It is, as it were, awake before the other trees, and a watchman of the time and season. And it’s highlighted in 3 places in the Bible: the design of the menorah in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25 and 37), Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17), and Jeremiah’s first ever prophetic vision (Jeremiah 1).

Unsurprisingly, the wordplay of the almond’s name features prominently in all 3 instances. Where the menorah is concerned, 22 almond blossoms adorned its appearance: 3 on each of the 6 branches, and 4 on the central trunk. The lamps were commanded to be cared for by the priesthood perpetually – cleaned, trimmed and lit with pure olive oil everyday (Exodus 27) – and, taken in conjunction with Revelation 1:20, 11:3-4 and Zechariah 4, which identify lampstands with individuals and churches, one gets the idea that the menorah essentially symbolises the people of God, who are to be a perpetual and vigilant light (just as Yeshua indicated in the parable of the light under the basket) – maintained daily and in faithful service.

In Aaron’s case, the budding and fruiting of his rod to produce almonds was a sign that God had chosen him (and the sons of his house after him), above all the other heads and tribes of Israel, to be the High Priest. And this was fitting because it would be the duty of the priesthood to distinguish between the holy and unholy, unclean and clean, and to teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord had spoken to them by the hand of Moses (Leviticus 10:10-11). Thus the almond was a sign that Aaron and his sons were to be vigilant for the people, and to the people, concerning their priestly duties and the law of God; it was not only a symbol of their chosen status, but a message that they were to conduct themselves with constancy and exemplify watchful obedience.

And finally, in Jeremiah’s inaugural vision, he saw a branch of an almond tree, in response to which God said, “You have seen well, for I am ready to perform My word” – or in Hebrew:

הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת כִּי־שֹׁקֵד אֲנִי עַל־דְּבָרִי לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ

“You have seen well, for I am watchful upon my word to do it.”

This means that God Himself is watchful, just as He commands His servants and worshippers to be watchful. Psalm 138:2 further says that He magnifies His word above all His name, so He’s jealous and faithful concerning His word to carry out judgement and fulfill its promises (hence Jeremiah’s next vision of the boiling pot). Job even called God a watcher of men (Job 7:20), so we can see that, in the use of the almond as a prophetic symbol, God was impressing on His people the necessity and virtue of being awake and aware, even as we are exhorted to imitate Him.

In the New Testament, we are instructed over and over concerning this as well. Jesus said to His disciples:

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.  Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:36-44)

Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch! (Mark 13:33-37)

Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. (Luke 12:35-38)

Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. … But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:29-36)

Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame. (Revelation 16:15)

Paul also warned:

Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)

Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strongLet all that you do be done with love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. … For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. (1 Thessalonians 5:5-10)

Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry(2 Timothy 4:2-5)

One almost gets a sense, with all this, that when Isaiah likened those who were mourning in Zion to trees of righteousness that’re planted by the Lord (61:3), that there’re orchards of spiritual almonds among His people that’re constantly before His eyes, as it were… gnarled with the weight of trying storms, but still managing to keep watch and bloom, in season and out of season. Verdant, vibrant, vigilant. A private delight to Him. And it reminds me of Isaiah 27:6, which says,

Those who come He shall cause to take root in Jacob;
Israel shall blossom and bud,
And fill the face of the world with fruit.

Jacob said in Genesis 43:11 that almonds were some of the best fruit of the land. And when one thinks of the beauty of the tree itself… its green leaves, snowy pink blossom-drifts and velvet drupes, it’s not surprising that He chose this particular plant as a motif for the candelabra in His sanctuary. It’s poetic… meaningful… and it fits.

Next portion: Israel continues in its wanderings.

The perennial choice

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This week, the portion is called Shelah Lekha (Numbers 13-15), which means “send for yourself.” The main thoughts that I have concerning it were already written down some time ago, in this post: Thou preparest a table, so this isn’t going to be a very long entry.

I wanted to recommend a few devotional pieces, as well, that I think are excellent in fleshing out the lessons one can learn from the story of the rebellious spies, from Hebrew for Christians:

Spying Eyes – on following by sight rather than faith
The Crowd and its Spies – on the dangers of crowd mentality when it comes to truth and wrongdoing
Emunah and Bittachon – an exposition of the Hebraic concepts of faith and trust/confidence
Small in our Eyes – on the importance of seeing ourselves through God’s eyes

The thoughts in all these articles are important to take to heart, in my view, because history will repeat itself yet a third time as the age of human agency draws to a close (especially where God’s people are concerned).

The first time this happened was at the borders of Canaan, when Israel had a choice of entering the Promised Land and obtaining the rest which God offered her, or being turned back to the desert to wander until a whole generation of her people expired. The second time was when Yeshua came to Jerusalem, and her inhabitants had the option of welcoming and confessing Him as their Messiah, or crucifying Him and incurring a 2000-year exile. And the third time is now – today – before He returns to judge the nations, whereupon many will yet again be cast outside the borders of His kingdom, to perish and know God’s rejection… and this time, permanently.

Humanity will not get another chance; for as the Father was refused by Israel and the Son rejected by Jerusalem, and the judgement in each case was increasingly, exponentially severe, it remains for us to heed the Spirit and respond to its work now before it’s too late – for it is those who continually resist and blaspheme the Spirit who will never be forgiven.

In that day, just as Esau found no place for repentance though he sought it diligently with tears (Hebrews 12:17; also see A mess of pottage); just as the Israelites confessed too late on the border of Canaan, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised, for we have sinned!” (Numbers 14:40) and just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44), so in the last day there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when the faithless will see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, with many coming “from the east and the west, from the north and the south” to sit down with them, while they themselves are thrust out (Luke 13:28-29).

This is the ultimate lesson to which Paran points, and the eternally consequential choice which faces the human race. … The thought of it at times fills me with awed dread, that just as God would condescend to such an incredible degree as to choose Israel and dwell among her tents, He would also hand down such a terrible sentence of wrath as to condemn myriads to a homeless, frightful end. And it’s something that I think we should bear in mind, for as the writer of Hebrews said, “our God is a consuming fire.”

Next week: Korah’s rebellion.