The daughters’ request: Numbers 27

9884245355_31b39899c6_n Today’s reading: Numbers 26-27.

The daughters of a dead man named Zelophehad have a request. In a male-dominated society where only the men can inherit property, they want an exception. Their father had no sons. The share of the Promised Land their father’s family would have received will go to another family – unless God intervenes. So they say, “why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” And God agrees. Perhaps he agrees because he is a promise-keeping God who had guaranteed this family a share in the Promised Land. Perhaps it’s because he cares for women as well as men. Perhaps he has other reasons.

God’s ruling gets clarified a little later. In order for the women to inherit the land, they must marry men from their own tribe. This will keep their tribe’s allotment of land from being passed to another tribe and thereby diluted. But more is at stake here than land. Remember the daughters’ desire that their father’s name not disappear? In a way the men who marry these women become the adopted sons of the dead father, carrying on his name.

Now fast forward some 1300 years to the time of Jesus’ birth. Joseph, of the tribe of Judah, is Jesus’ legal though not physical father. Joseph’s genealogy (in Matthew 1) contains a kink, however. Descended from King David through Solomon, one of Joseph’s ancestors was Jeconiah (also called Jehoiachin), and God cursed Jeconiah because of his disobedience as king.

Is this man Jehoiachin a despised, broken pot, an object no one wants? Why will he and his children be hurled out, cast into a land they do not know? O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the LORD says: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.”  Jeremiah 22:28-30

Jeconiah’s curse looks like a barrier to Jesus inheriting his forefather David’s throne. But Luke’s gospel contains another geneology, one that many consider to be Mary’s geneology with Joseph as the adopted son of Mary’s father.

And Jesus himself was beginning about the age of thirty years: being (as it was supposed) the son of Joseph, who was of Heli, who was of Mathat, …  Luke 3:23

In this geneology, Jesus descends not through Jeconiah, but through David’s son Nathan. Remember those brotherless daughters of Zelophehad? Mary appears to have been in the same situation (picture Jesus telling Mary, as he died on the cross, that John would be taking care of her from now on). She also qualified for the female inheritance since she was marrying Joseph who was from her same tribe.

No doubt there is a little speculation here, but is looks like God’s provision for a family without sons paved the way for Jesus to avoid a curse and inherit David’s throne. One more reference for those who think this only applied to property. In the book of Ruth, the namesake character becomes a widow when her Jewish husband dies. Though a foreigner, she moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law and soon becomes engaged to Boaz, her family’s kinsman-redeemer. Listen to what Boaz says as he redeems Ruth:

Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off  from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day. Ruth 4:10

Jesus would see the dead name of his mother’s family raised up, and thereby become heir to the throne of David. Jesus would see much more than a dead name raised up, as he himself rose from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. And so we see another example of how even small, obscure details play an important part in God’s plan.

Image by janwillemsen on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

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The rest of the story: Numbers 23-25

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Today’s reading: Numbers 23-25.

After watching the prophet Balaam ride off into the sunset, you wonder whose side he was really on. Numbers presents some conflicting information about the man with the power to bless or curse. Did God want him to visit Balak or not? Did he care about truth or only about money? Did he believe in the Lord? It’s hard to answer these questions as Balaam leaves in Numbers 24. But rather than giving up, we should remember an important Biblical truth: Christians need to know “the whole counsel of God” before making a decision. And it turns out, as is often true, that the Bible has a lot more to say about Balaam.

Before Balaam arrives in Moab, he has the famous run-in with his talking donkey. That story reinforces the point that God can put words in the mouths of anyone, including Balaam.

Then Balaam uttered his oracle: “Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.’ How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced? From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!” Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!” He answered, “Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” Numbers 23:7-12

Though it seems Balaam is on the side of Israel, his words may not come from his heart. After he returns home (Numbers 24:25), the men of Israel soon commit sexual immorality and idol worship with the Midianite women. No connection between these events is immediately apparent, but in Numbers 31 we read that the Israelites waged war on the Midianites in revenge, and that Balaam is one of those killed by the Israelites. Moses goes on to say that Balaam’s advice was the means of turning the people of Israel away from the Lord. What advice did he give? The answer doesn’t come until the very last book of the Bible, but we read more about Balaam in several passages along the way. Deuteronomy 23 says that Moab “hired Balaam … to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you.” 2 Peter 2 says that Balaam loved the wages of wickedness. Jude 1 says that men have rushed “for profit” into Balaam’s error. Finally, in Revelation 2 we read that Balaam “taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.”

If we stopped reading about Balaam in Numbers 24, we might conclude that he was a somewhat godly man who blessed Israel. But by reading everything the Bible says about him, and considering the whole counsel of God, we can make a much more accurate conclusion. Balaam was a profit-seeking prophet-for-hire. When God foiled his initial plans, he found a backdoor way to curse Israel by enticing them to commit sexual sins and idolatry.

On many occasions people have tried to prove a point by quoting only part of God’s word. Don’t be misled in that way. Look at everything the Bible has to say and then make your conclusion. Make sure you know the rest of the story.

Balaam was a terrible character; he was a man of two things, a man who went all the way with two things to a very great extent. I know the Scripture says, “No man can serve two masters.” Now this is often misunderstood. Some read it, “No man can serve two masters.” Yes he can; he can serve three or four. The way to read it is this: “No man can serve two masters,” They cannot both be masters. He can serve two, but they cannot both be his master. A man can serve two who are not his masters, or twenty; he may live for twenty different purposes, but he cannot live for more than one master purpose—there can only be one master purpose in his soul. But Balaam laboured to serve two; it was like the people of whom it was said, “They feared the Lord, and served other gods,” 2 Kings 17:33. Charles Spurgeon

There are many who desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavour to live the life of the righteous. Gladly would they have their end like theirs, but not their way. They would be saints in heaven, but not saints on earth. Matthew Henry

A man may be a false prophet and yet speak the truth. Richard Sibbes

Image by Palestine Exploration Fund on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Snakebitten: Numbers 21

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Today’s reading: Numbers 21-22.

Something is bugging you. Would you rather get a treatment to ease the problem, or get rid of the problem itself? No question that you’d vote for eliminating the problem, but sometimes that isn’t an option.

As the Israelites make their first forays into enemy territory they win a battle, but once again fail to win the fight against their own ingratitude and discontent. God disciplines them by sending poisonous snakes into their camp.

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Numbers 21:4-9

This episode foreshadows Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus made the comparison himself. Anyone, anywhere, with any severity of poisonous bite/sin can look to the snake/Jesus and by faith receive healing/forgiveness/life.

But as I read the story today, what strikes me most is this: God did not take away the snakes. The snakes are still loose in the camp. God could have destroyed them, but he didn’t. The people prayed that God would take them away, but he didn’t. The snakes continue to slither and strike even though the people admitted their sin. I don’t know how long the snakebites continued; the Bible doesn’t say. But it does say that the bronze snake was still around in King Hezekiah’s reign, some 600 years later. I suspect that the snakes plagued the Israelites far longer than the few verses in Numbers suggest.

And so it goes with sin. “Sin will take you further than you want to go; cost you more than you want to pay; and keep you longer than you want to stay.” We may stop sinning, but the consequences continue. God taught the Israelites a lesson about the results of sin by leaving the snakes in the camp. We need to keep learning the same lesson. Some people say live and learn. I say, learn and live. Learn to keep the snakes away by not sinning in the first place.

You’re probably thinking, “easier said than done.” You’d be right. Jesus wouldn’t have gone to the cross if there was an easy solution for sin. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The Old Covenant with its laws didn’t solve the problem. The New Covenant put the desire to obey God in our hearts, and finally there is a possibility that we can keep the snakes at bay. As for me, I’m glad Jesus let himself be lifted up so that I could look to him, believe in him, and receive the cure for my snakebitten soul.

”Young man, you look very miserable” (said the preacher).
Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued,
”and you always will be miserable–miserable in life, and miserable in death,–if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.”
Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do,
”Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said,–I did not take much notice of it — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, ”Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, ”Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.” Spurgeon’s salvation testimony

Image by Lawrence OP on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Broken against the rock: Numbers 20

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Today’s reading: Numbers 18-20.

Moses’ signal shortcoming tells us more about God than about Israel’s leader. Moses isn’t defined by this one moment: he is still the friend of God, the man of God, the most humble man, obedient, and a man of great faith. Even after the failing at Kadesh he remains true to his calling to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

It’s the beginning of the fortieth year of the wilderness journey, thirty-eight years after the people failed to invade Canaan because of their fear. They are back at Kadesh, and once again complaining. One thing has changed, however. The older generation is dying out. Numbers tells us that Miriam dies as a way of reminding us that all those that rejected God are passing away.

The multitude, now mostly of the younger generation, need water. At the beginning of their journey the people received water from a rock. Then God told Moses to strike the rock, and he obeyed. Now, God tells Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock. But Moses, tired of putting up with endless complaints, breaks down in anger.

So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” Numbers 20:9-12

Look how the shortcoming of one person leads to problems for another. The people are complaining. Moses gets caught up in their emotion and fails to obey God. Moses’ failure in turn draws in Aaron who, almost as a bystander, follows Moses and ends up dishonoring God. Here’s how the Psalm writer saw it:

By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD, and trouble came to Moses because of them; for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. Psalm 106:32-33

So what did God see in Moses’ actions that displeased him so much that he decided he could not lead the people all the way into the Promised Land?

  • He failed to give God the glory for releasing the water, instead claiming that he and Aaron were giving it.
  • He spoke angrily to the people, when God expressed no anger towards them.
  • He disobeyed God, not releasing the water by the word of his mouth but by striking the rock.

I think Moses was experiencing caregiver burnout, and God mercifully prepared for his retirement. Even so, God could not overlook Moses’ failure to honor him and obey his word. God places a very high premium on these actions in those who are closest to him.

Paul had something to say about the rock that broke Moses:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. I Corinthians 10:1-4

Jesus Christ is the living water. He is the cornerstone. He is also the stumbling stone upon which we must all be broken (Matthew 21:44) and over which we will all fall if we depend upon our own actions rather than our faith (Romans 9:32). Moses acted in his own strength and stumbled. To his credit, he picked himself up and once again followed the LORD.

Image by John Spooner on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Between life and death: Numbers 16

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Today’s reading: Numbers 16-17.

Aaron’s life in the exodus and the wilderness journey passes through many ups and downs, but today it reaches a high water mark. Instead of the repetitive and mostly routine services in the tabernacle, he finds himself in a life and death struggle for the children of Israel. By standing in the gap for them, he turns God’s judgement to mercy in a very Christ-like fashion.

His heroic intervention resulted from another foolish and prideful rebellion by a faction of dissatisfied Levites. Led by Korah, 250 Levites challenged Moses’ leadership and demanded change. They probably felt they should be given priestly duties along with Aaron’s family. God proved they were wrong to rebel by destroying Korah and his 250 followers with fire, then swallowed their families in a giant hole in the ground. At this point, you would expect the people of Israel to run from further confrontation. Instead they complained about what happened (sound familiar?) and caused God to send a deadly plague against them. If someone didn’t act quickly to avert God’s wrath, the entire nation of Israel would die.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. Numbers 16:46-48

I’m not sure the words do justice to Aaron’s heroism. He was rushing into the midst of the most deadly and rapid plague ever seen. Over 14,000 people died in moments. His offering for atonement was no proven recipe; it was a spur-of-the-moment see-if-it-works hope-Moses-is-right effort. Death and the plague were in front of him, the target of God’s wrath was behind him. He stood between the living and the dead, and death turned away. He became more like Christ in that moment than during any of his prescribed priestly sacrifices.

Why did God have mercy on Aaron? I don’t think it was because of the coals and incense in the censer, though I could be wrong. I think it was because Aaron, as High Priest, was doing exactly what God had raised him up to do, to stand between God and man, bringing offering for guilt from man, and bringing forgiveness from God.

But those good men have taught us here by their example not to be sullen towards those that are peevish with us, nor to take the advantage which men give us by their provoking language to deny them any real kindness which it is in the power of our hands to do them. We must render good for evil…Compare the censer of Aaron here with the censers of those sinners against their own souls. Those provoked God’s anger, this pacified it; those destroyed men’s lives, this saved them; no room therefore is left to doubt of Aaron’s call to the priesthood…Aaron was a type of Christ, who came into the world to make an atonement for sin and to turn away the wrath of God from us, and who, by his mediation and intercession, stands between the living and the dead, to secure his chosen Israel to himself, and save them out of the midst of a world infected with sin and the curse. Matthew Henry

 

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16

Image by Jaci XIII on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

Faithless: Numbers 14

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Today’s reading: Numbers 14-15.

Twelve men make a secret exploration of the Promised Land, and return with glowing reports of its fruitfulness. At the same time, ten of the twelve are convinced that they cannot invade the land because of the strength and fortifications of its people. Only Joshua and Caleb press the case for entering Canaan. They are soon shouted down, and threatened with death, by the fearful and faithless Israelites.

The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” Numbers 14:11

As a result of their faithlessness, God condemns all the adult Israelites except Joshua and Caleb to wander in the desert until they die. Their faithless wandering is a major theme of the book. It will take 38 years until their generation is gone, and only then will their children be ready to claim the promised inheritance.

Look at the reasons for the Israelites lack of faith:

  • they focused on the visible (appearance of their adversaries) rather than the spiritual
  • they listened to tradition (stories of Anak and the Nephilim) rather than God’s word
  • they gave more weight to their own (lack of) power rather than God’s power
  • they gave in to what others said rather than thinking for themselves
  • they magnified their fears and diminished God’s promise

Joshua and Caleb provided the counterpoint:

  • they knew that obedience and faith are necessary to please God
  • they saw the spiritual reality that God had disarmed their enemies
  • they had no fear since the LORD was with them

We all face giants, whether real or imagined. When in their country we must not fix our eyes on the giants but on the LORD who towers over all, and who has promised, “fear not, I am with you wherever you go.”

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

True faith bids eternal truth to become present reality. Manley Beasley

Faith is acting as if it is so, when it isn’t so, in order for it to be so, because God says it is so. Manley Beasley

Image by Robert Körner on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

The Crisis of Belief: Numbers 13-14

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Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes–all the time! It must be that way, for God’s glory and kingdom. If we function according to our ability alone, we get the glory; if we function according to the power of the Spirit within us, God gets the glory. He wants to reveal Himself to a watching world.
― Henry T. Blackaby, Experiencing the Spirit: The Power of Pentecost Every Day

“What should I do when I doubt God?”

Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God powerfully pinpoints the spiritual struggles that accompany our walk with God. One of the key decision points in Blackaby’s framework is called the Crisis of Belief, a moment when we understand what God wants us to do and decide whether or not we will do it. There are steps that lead up to that moment, including accepting God’s invitation to work with him, and observing where God is at a work, but the Crisis of Belief is pivotal. It’s a go or no-go, in or out, fish or cut bait moment.

A crisis is a dangerous unsettled time. Unsettled because choices must be made. The status quo is no longer an option. The choices are not obvious or easy. Dangerous because bad outcomes are possible or likely. But as speech makers like to say, the dangers are accompanied by opportunities.

When the twelve spies returned from Canaan to report to Moses, their recommendations prompted a Crisis of Belief of national proportions. Blackaby points to Moses’ decision at the burning bush as a typical crisis, but the one which occurred when the spies returned was like that one multiplied a million times.

Then Caleb quieted the people in the presence of Moses and said, “We must go up and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!” But the men who had gone up with him responded, “We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are!” Numbers 13:30-31

Only Caleb and Joshua (and presumably Moses) faced the crisis and chose to believe God. Everyone else among the Israelites failed the test. The Israelites looked at their own weaknesses. Caleb and Joshua focused on God’s strength. The Israelites looked at what they could do. Caleb and Joshua saw what God would do. The adult Israelites who did not believe died in the wilderness. Caleb and Joshua believed and entered the Promised Land.

Blackaby wrote about several characteristics of the crisis:

  • It will involve a task that is beyond your own ability, a “God-sized” task
  • It requires faith in God
  • It will require action
  • It will require an adjustment to your plans as you follow God’s plan

Crises are risky times because of the dangers that accompany them. Like the Israelites, we tend to magnify worldly dangers and downplay the hazards of disobeying God. Instead we need to act like Caleb and Joshua, who magnified the reward God offered them and downplayed the worldly threat.

God doesn’t want people to do what they think is best: he wants them to do what he knows is best, and no amount of reasoning and intellectualizing will discover that. God himself must reveal it.
― Henry T. Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership

So, my Brothers and Sisters, let us strip our discouragements and murmuring of all their disguises and see them in their true character and they will appear in their own naked deformity as discrediting God. It is true the difficulty before us may appear great, but it cannot be great to the Lord who has promised to make us more than conquerors. It is true the circumstances may appear unusually perplexing, but they cannot perplex Him who has promised to guide us with His counsel! And since we are well aware of this, it is clear that the true reason why we are so dismayed is not to be found in the difficulties and the circumstances, but in our misgivings of God. – Charles Spurgeon

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